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Small Change

Peter Gill plays are very literary, very poetic, and as such they stand out today. They don’t make ’em like this any more. It struck me on seeing this one again how difficult it must be to both stage and perform, but new company Both Barrels Theatre pull it off.

Set in East Cardiff in the 50’s and the 70’s, it concerns friends and neighbours Gerard and Vincent and their respective mothers, their fathers mentioned but unseen. In the 50’s they all live in a working class neighbourhood, just about making things meet. Neighbourliness is the norm and they are forever popping in next door.

By the 70’s Gerard has left home but is back to see his mam. Vincent has been to sea, married and fathered a child, but hasn’t really left home. Both mams have their problems and insecurities but are devoted to their sons, as are they to their mothers. The boys look back from the 70’s and realise how much their relationship in the 50’s has impacted their lives.

It’s a non-linear narrative and you have to concentrate and keep your wits about you. The many short scenes switch quickly between times and characters and its best to approach it as a whole, rather than look for the literal meaning of dialogue or scenes. That way it rewards you, like looking at a painting rather than reading a book.

Staged in what looks like a Richard Serra sculpture that they reconfigure occasionally, it’s beautifully performed by Andy Rush and Toby Gordon as Gerard and Vincent respectively, Sioned Jones as Gerard’s mam & Tameka Mortimer as Vincent’s mam. George Richmond-Scott’s staging is very much is in harmony with the ‘staccato’ nature of the material.

This was my first visit to the Omnibus Theatre, the nearest to my home, but with work of this quality there’s little doubt I’ll be back.

NW Trilogy

I was expecting three separate plays set in the local area, but it’s three stories that flow organically from one to the other, representing three waves of immigration and three sets of newcomers to the area. Irish, West Indian and Ugandan Asian, all blending, making friends and relationships between their cultures. It’s a deeply satisfying, heart-warming experience.

We start with Moira Buffini’s story of two Irish cleaners in a dancehall, one here long enough to have a West Indian husband and teenage child, the other newly arrived, naïve and vulnerable. In Roy Williams’ Life of Riley we meet a mixed race girl, brought up by her single mother, seeking to reconnect with her father, once a renowned reggae musician, stalwart of Trojan Records, herself an aspiring singer.

Finally, in the late 70’s, when punk rules the (air)waves, Suhayla El_bushra introduces us to another newly arrived family, this time Ugandan Asians whose teenage daughter’s best friend is Irish. Anjali (beautifully played by Natasha Jayetileke) works at Grunwick and is forced to break the strike as hers is the only wage after her proud husband’s unexpected redundancy.

We see the cultures they carry with them, or seek to lose – Aoife’s strict Catholicism, Riley’s independent spirit and Deepak’s masculine pride – as we see them become Londoners. The direction, by Susie McKenna and Taio Lawson, serves the stories well, It seems to me to be very timely. A lovely evening.

Indecent

This extraordinary play by Paula Vogel is given an even more extraordinary production by Rebecca Taichman. What begins as the story of the life of a controversial early 20th Century play ends up being much more of a history of a culture and a people.

The ‘lost’ play at its centre is God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, written in Warsaw at the beginning of the last century. It had its first reading in 1907 and despite the negative reaction from the godfather of Yiddish literature, gets produced in St Petersburg and across Europe. The controversy comes from the fact its central characters are a lesbian couple and it’s partly set in a brothel.

Fifteen years on from that reading, the play is translated into English and gets produced in New York, though by the time it gets to Broadway it has been cut. Despite this the cast and producer are arrested during a performance and prosecuted for obscenity, though this is eventually overturned. The next time we see the play is in performance in the Lod ghetto in Poland during the Second World War.

That’s one of the clever things about Indecent. In addition to the story of the life of God of Vengeance, it seems to be the story of a people and a culture too, aided here by an onstage Klezmer band and Jewish clothing, traditions & references, which clearly meant more to those in the audience of shared heritage, but placed the play in context nonetheless.

The staging is masterly, from the first coup d’theatre, as the actors are introduced, shaking off the dust, to the final one, where we get to see the most controversial scene of God of Vengeance at last. It would be invidious to single out any one of its exceptional cast of ten actors and musicians; for once the term fine ensemble seems spot on.

Great to be back in the Menier, to see something which is well worth the wait

Rockets & Blue Lights

I love plays which make connections between people, periods, places and events to present a bigger picture. Winsome Pinnock’s new play places Turner’s painting ‘Slaver’s Throwing Overboard the Dead & Dying – Typhoon Coming On’, more commonly known as ‘The Slave Ship’, at the centre, from which we move back and forth unravelling the connections.

We see black school-kids and their teacher studying the painting in a gallery and an actress researching and filming something inspired by the painting, to the period and events it depicts. Characters like a schoolboy and the actress are deeply affected by what they have viewed. The play’s key point, the impact of these historical events on descendants living today, is made explicitly clear at the end.

Pulling off such an audacious piece of theatre requires clarity in the staging, but I didn’t feel that was the case here. I’m afraid I thought Miranda Cromwell’s production was more confusing than clear, and difficult scenes like a historical ballroom dance and dancing at a contemporary party happening simultaneously don’t get the deft staging they need to work.

Most of the talented cast play two or more roles, which works perfectly well. On the night I went, Paul Bradley was indisposed and Lloyd Hutchinson (not an understudy) played the roles of Turner / Roy, script in hand, remarkably well. The staging in-the-round facilitated speedy changes of scene, with some remarkably speedy changes in costume!

I thought it was well written, making an interesting point that people like me may not have hitherto understood and may need to hear, but its impact was marred by the production, which may have benefitted from a more experienced director.

Is God Is

Take a Greek tragedy, sprinkle it with some Martin McDonough and Quentin Tarantino, set it all in the South and West of the USA and you have this neo-gothic revenge tale, a black comedy with a horror comic book feel. Aleshea Harris’ play is derivative, but the concoction is also original. The production seems to revel in its lack of realism, every aspect exaggerated or amplified to add a level of absurdism / surrealism.

Young adult twins Racine and Anaia get a letter from the mother they thought was dead. They visit her to hear the story of how their father attempted to burn them all to death; her final wish is revenge, as a result of which they embark on a journey west where they mete out justice to their father’s new family, his wife and twin boys. When their father arrives things really get out of hand.

Everything about it – the performances, make-up, the sets, the violence – are pushed beyond the limit of realism, but there are still moments which make you squirm or turn your head. In a fine set of performances, Tamara Lawrence and Adelayo Adedayo as the twins, on stage virtually throughout, impress. It held my attention but it didn’t really satisfy me. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to make a point and if so what it was. I left feeling the play wasn’t good enough to be on the Royal Court main stage.

BBC Proms 2021

It was wonderful to be back at The Proms after two years, and by my seventh and final concert it felt like life was back to normal; all of my summer traditions – Shakespeare’s Globe, Open Air Theatre and The Proms – had returned.

It started (for me) with Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson, whose residency on the daily BBC Radio 4 arts programme Front Row rekindled my interest in the solo piano and ignited my interest in his artistry. His two beautifully played piano concertos – Bach & Mozart – were bookended by Prokofiev and Shostakovich symphonies from the Philharmonia Orchestra, but this didn’t stop him doing a few solo encores in the middle of the second half, during which you couldn’t hear a pin drop. A great programme and a great showcase for this young man whose international career is clearly taking off.

I’d never heard of South African cellist Abel Selaocoe, but I fancied a bit of fusion, this year promoted from late night proms to evening proms. He’s a real force of nature, the blending of classical music with African rhythms was a great success and the party atmosphere was infectious. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Clark Rundell were having a ball, moving from the baroque pieces of Rameau to orchestral arrangements of contemporary pieces based on African traditions. Selaocoe’s trio Chesaba provided the rhythmic foundation for most of them, Moroccan Londoners Gnawa and the Bantu singers adding colour. A punt that paid off.

The BBC singers concert was another experimental success. This time it was the Renaissance meets the present day with contemporary composers like Nico Muhly and Roderick Williams contributing a response to the older pieces by composers such as Hildegard von Bingen and Byrd. With no gaps between each piece it flowed beautifully under the direction of Sofi Jeannin, who has gone from strength to strength since becoming their chief conductor. One of the responses was ‘played’ on turntables and electronics from the centre of the prom area, which was rather surreal to watch as well as listen to.

The LSO and Simon Rattle are Stravinsky experts and it showed in a brilliant programme of three of his less well known ‘symphonies’. It was lovely to see the wind section shine in the Symphony of Wind Instruments, and you could hear each one clearly in this vast hall. I was more familiar with the Symphony in C, though I’ve never heard it sound this good. The Symphony in Three Movements showed the cinematic direction his work had taken on moving to the US and it proved fascinating.

Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde was this year’s contribution from Glyndebourne Opera. It was semi-staged, though I rather wish they hadn’t bothered as moving up, down and around a few steps doesn’t really add anything. A concert version would suffice. The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Robin Ticciati sounded wonderful and the soloists were fine indeed, though Simon O’Neill seemed to be struggling in Act II. We found out why just before Act III began when it was announced that Neal Cooper (hitherto Melot) would sing Tristan from the side while O’Neil acted the role. This added an extra layer of drama, with Cooper shining brightly (without score, though he had understudied and sung the role in Melbourne). All’s well, as they say.

This was followed a day later by a gorgeous choral programme by the Monteverdi Choir with the Baroque Soloists under John Elliott Gardiner. A Handel sandwich with Bach filling, the highlight was the joyful Dixit Dominus to end, with a couple of encores of the final movements. The vocal soloists all stepped out of the choir, such is the standard of this brilliant group. A treat.

My proms ended with Bach’s mighty St. Matthew Passion, given by Jonathan Cohen’s Arcangelo musicians and chorus with a superb set of six British soloists. I’d forgotten how demanding the part of the Evangelist is, and Stuart Jackson did a fine job. Iestyn Davies was particularly good and Roderick Williams’ contribution grew as the evening proceeded. I hadn’t heard the piece for some time, so it was good to be reminded of its quality with this fine reading by all.

Good to be back.

Balsam – GDIF

Well, it may not be theatre as you categorise it, but its one of the most theatrical evenings I’ve ever had. This Flemish company bring a show to the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival which combines music with alchemy, providing a feast for the senses with things you taste and smell as you are mesmerised by the beauty of the music.

As we enter, we’re given a covered petri dish containing what appears to be food items. We’re told to wait until instructed before we consume them. We sit in a pentagonal formation surrounding a sort of laboratory / kitchen. In between each segment there are five musicians and a singer and ‘on stage’ three alchemists with small video screens above so that we can see what they’re concocting.

Over the next seventy-five minutes, we’re treated to sublime music from the 12th Century to the present day, including traditional music from Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Greece, played on a collection of exotic instruments, whilst the alchemists conjure up nine unusual things to taste, with smells occasionally introduced to the space by spray or incense. Some are in our petri dish, but most are served to us individually in a ‘here’s-one-I-made-earlier’ way.

The whole thing was spellbinding. I was drawn in instantly and captivated throughout. I was even given a recipe book as I left. One of the most original shows I’ve ever experienced.

Four years ago, also as part of the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, Flemish theatre company de Roovers staged Arthur Miller’s A View From A Bridge in the open air on Greenwich Peninsula with the Docklands skyline as a backdrop, substituting for New York. It was brilliant. Now here they are on Thamesmead Waterfront with Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills.

I last saw this play at the NT 25 years ago. Then the cast of children played by adults included Steve Coogan & Robert Glenister and it was directed by Patrick Marber, midway between his hit NT plays Dealer’s Choice and Closer. It was the stage adaptation of a 1979 BBC Play for Today which itself starred Helen Mirren and Colin Welland. Quite a pedigree.

We had to take a special coach (included) from Abbey Wood station as it’s a secret, secure site, 1.5 miles of Thames waterfront, its history alone making the visit worthwhile. A wartime arsenal, abandoned hazardous land, forbidden playground, temporary adventure park and soon to be new development. A perfect location for a story about children playing and growing up. Two hills behind, one with a small derelict building on it, undergrowth all around and a playing area in front. Flights leaving Heathrow standing in for war planes.

The children play as children do, sometimes kind, sometimes cruel. Boys don’t really like girls, and vice versa, but they’re open to a bit of experimentation. They imagine, invent, lie and do deals. One gets bullied a lot. It ends tragically, playing with fire, but no-one accepts any blame, a bit like today’s adults, though they expect retribution. I wasn’t sure about some of the casting and clothing choices – no clean shaven faces and short trousers for the boys here – and the difficult Gloucester dialect when channelled through English spoken with a Flemish accent was sometimes a bit surreal, but they captured the essence of childhood and the Englishness of it all and it was a captivating ninety minutes.

GDIF are to be congratulated on the logistical feat of pulling off a show like this, and the many others in the festival. Transport, security, stewards, lighting, sound, seating…it’s quite something. Well done!

Of all the countries impacted by the Second World War, I suspect less is known about the Tunisian experience than most others, which makes Josh Azouz’’s play very welcome. It was a short occupation – 6 months – but the Nazi strategy involved dividing the hitherto relatively friendly Muslim majority and Jewish minority in return for the promise of freedom for the Tunisian Muslim majority from the French colonialists, whilst perpetuating outrages on the Jews, as it was elsewhere.

The occupying forces are described by a Nazi character in the play as animals, less disciplined, more unpredictable and viscous. As the play opens one Jew is buried up to his neck with his Muslim friend as his guard. Despite the anti-Semitic example of the French colonists, these men and their wives have hitherto been good friends and in many ways the bigger story is told through the twists and turns of their relationships during the occupation. So we see the geopolitical and military picture through the personal story, the Nazi’s represented by one officer and one aide.

It’s a touch overlong and it needs a bit more pace, and perhaps a bit more of the big picture, but it’s a fascinating story nonetheless, with surprising flashes of absurdity and humour in what is a grim situation. I liked Max Johns’ design of plywood boxes, some of which reveal sets within the set, and it’s uniformly well performed by a small cast of six, probably too small to open up the story. It was good to see Adrian Edmundson make a rare stage appearance as the Nazi officer nicknamed Grandma and he, and the actors playing the two couples – Laura Hanna, Ethan Kai, Pierro Niel-Mee and Yasmin Paige – were all excellent.

It’s better than the reviews and I’m glad I went.

Grimeborn 2021

This festival has become essential for opera lovers who don’t like the elitism of the one its name parodies, and the many like it, though it didn’t get off to a good start when the number of seats for single households for Die Walkure at Hackney Empire were virtually non-existent. However, they did appear to listen to feedback and released more, so it was all systems go, and this opener proved to be a real treat, equalling if not exceeding 2019’s Das Rheingold. The orchestra of just 18 and the 9 singers filled this big theatre and provided a thrilling start to the 2021 festival. As good as, or better than, any opera house is likely to deliver.

Things went downhill after this, though not because of the operas or the talented musicians and singers, when it moved to its usual home of the Arcola Theatre, not inside but to its new Outside space, a fine venue for many things, except opera, which struggled to compete with the traffic noise and street revellers, some creating intentional disruption, presumably because it was opera (ironic given its the antidote to Glyndeborne et al).

The first of three visits there was to see Handel’s Alcina, gorgeous music with a bonkers story. I didn’t care for the modern production, though I accept that whatever the staging it’s likely to come out daft. The five-piece Ensemble OrQuesta sounded lovely, with the lead violin of Edmund Taylor particularly stunning, and it was beautifully sung by a cast of seven, but oh to be inside.

Back for a short opera called Hopes & Fears created from two Debussy pieces – the cantata La Demoiselle Elue and the ‘lyric scene’ L’Enfant Prodigue. The new libretto told the story of two women living with cancer and their relationships with their partner / family. I struggled to understand all of the libretto and much of the recorded voices and I failed to engage with it emotionally, but again the singing was wonderful and I loved the orchestration for piano, cello and flute. The intrusion of the outside world wasn’t quite as bad, but this time the hard wooden seats had me fidgeting!

Finally an unlikely double-bill of Gluck’s Orfeo Ed Euridice and a rare Mascagni miniature, Zanetto, and this time I took a cushion! Even though they were stylistically very different, their respective stories made them good companions. It proved to be the highlight of the three at the Arcola, with two singers – Emma Roberts & Lizzie Holmes – playing the leads in both with singing so good it took your breathe away. A shout out too to MD Lesley-Anne Sammons on electric piano and bass player Lucy Mulgan, glammed up and gamely playing both scores with great gusto, and the designs of Bettina John, which had a lovely Brazilian street theatre aesthetic. Even the noise outside seemed to tone itself down.

Hopefully we’ll be back inside next year, maybe with the ring cycle continuing with Siegfried. I do hope so.