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Cyrano de Bergerac

When I first saw this 1897 Edmund Rostand play 35 years ago, in a version by Anthony Burgess for the RSC, it was Derek Jacobi with a prosthetic nose swashbuckling around the Barbican stage with his sword. Last night there were no prosthetics or swords, it was staged in a plywood box with a few of those orange plastic chairs and some microphone stands and everyone was dressed in contemporary clothes. It’s certainly radical, but it works because its a play about words and poetry and we heard and absorbed them all.

Martin Crimp’s version uses modern language, with slang and expletives, spoken by the actors in their natural voices, all amplified, but it’s still in verse. From the outset you hear someone beatboxing over sacred music and then someone rapping, which is maybe what Cyrano would be doing today. Once the surprise wears off, you find yourself listening intently, more so than you would natural dialogue. It’s faithful to the original story; the only change I could detect was in the opening scene in the theatre where they are putting on Hamlet instead of Clorise. Some actions and interactions are implied or mimed, and it sometimes feels like a rehearsed reading.

In addition to emphasising the verse, some scenes become even more dramatic by being less dramatised. The best example is the balcony scene where Cyrano is feeding lines to Christian as he woos Roxanne. There’s no balcony, and they sit on chairs, but it’s brilliant, and the final scene, where Roxanne hears the truth from Cyrano, is very moving. There were other times like this when I was thinking ‘why is this working?’ while it was, well, working.

It’s the most diverse cast you may ever see on a West End stage, all superb. led of course by James McAvoy, who combines a breathtaking physicality with a visceral, passionate emotionality. He brings the same extraordinary conviction that he did to Macbeth. He’s surrounded by fine performances, though, including Eben Figueiredo as a besotted Christian and Anita-Joy Uwajeh as a somewhat demanding Roxanne. Tom Edden as De Guiche is the man you love to hate.

I wasn’t convinced by director Jamie Lloyd’s similar treatment of Evita as I felt it didn’t serve the story, but here a play which is really about the power of words, poetry and language brings those very much to the fore. I was surrounded by rapt young people, a lot there to see a film star, who having experienced something like this may well become lifetime theatregoers.

Joel Horwood’s stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel, inspired by his own childhood, proves to be enthralling storytelling, inventively staged and beautifully performed, and much darker than I was expecting.

It’s a complex story which starts at a funeral, where a mysterious old woman reminisces with a man, before we are taken back to his childhood home where he lived with his widowed father and younger sister. The family, particularly the boy, is shattered when their lodger commits suicide. He befriends Lettie, a neighbour who lives with her mum and grandma, all who seem to have special powers. Lettie and the boy take an adventure into the woods, which contains all sorts of weird creatures, and the boy gets bitten when he wanders off. Back at home, he finds that they have a new lodger, the very controlling Ursula, who he takes an instant dislike to. From here, the conflict between them escalates and he asks Lettie’s family to help him find a solution. Ursula is vey sinister, the creatures in the wood scary and it’s a very dark tale.

Samuel Blenkin is simply extraordinary as the boy, on stage virtually throughout, in a role that is both physically and emotionally challenging. Jade Groot as his feisty younger sister and Marli Siu as Lettie are both terrific too, all three totally believable as young kids. In fact, the whole cast are excellent, including an ensemble dressed in black who make scene changes captivating, brilliantly choreographed by Steven Hoggett; they even move people around the apron stage, which itself gives an intimacy to the storytelling. Fly Davies and the rest of the design team weave their magic with relatively simple but creative components that spark your imagination. I’m not familiar with the work of director Katy Rudd, but I was greatly impressed by her staging.

A great addition to the NT repertoire, which I think is going to be a big hit.

 

Kneehigh may just have the best party in town this season. The combination of storytelling, creative immersive staging and willing participation is irresistible.

They’ve set it on an election night when the sitting president gets a second term, but Ubu and Mrs Ubu turn up, stage a coup and the tyranny begins. When the Ubu’s fall out over his oppression, war ensues, then revolution. Written by Carl Grouse, co-directed by him and his fellow Kneehigh AD Mike Shepherd, and based on Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play, it’s all accompanied by a great selection of pop and rock songs, played by a superb live band, whose lyrics contribute to the story.

The participation isn’t in the slightest bit enforced or uncomfortable, partly because a party atmosphere is created as you arrive, and partly because of their ingenious ways of engaging the audience. We sing along like crowd karaoke, with surtitles to help us, there are games and battles and some audience members get inflatable animals to create a zoo! Host Jeremy Wardle, brilliantly played by Niall Ashdown, keeps it all on track, and Katy Owen and Mike Shepherd are terrific as Ubu and Mrs Ubu respectively.

The design aesthetic spares us Kneehigh’s trademark white Y-fronts, but instead we get collar & tie on white vests with braces. Mrs Ubu only needs her hat to come alive. There’s a giant loo which is put to great use, and we fall in love with the magic bear. It’s very funny, but with a bit of a satirical bite and an underlying message, and of course rather timely, but above all its huge good-hearted fun and another tonic to divert us from the madness. Don’t miss it !

Fairview

I’m pleased I saw this before I saw any reviews, though its going to be interesting reading them. It’s difficult to say much withouts spoilers, but I’ll try. Whatever you think of Jackie Sibbles Drury’s Pulitzer prizewinning play, it will certainly generate a debate.

Her subject is the perceptions, preconceptions and attitudes white people have of black people and the stereotypes that result. In the first part we’re watching a black middle class family in what feels like an American TV sitcom. They’re about to celebrate grandma’s birthday. I can best describe the second part as ‘gogglebox, sound only’ as the first part is repeated and extended. The table is laid, and some, and grandma and the remaining guests arrive. I would describe the third part as ‘invasion of the sitcom’. In the fourth part the audience are set a challenge, take some time to rise to it, and the first part characters leave the stage.

She has some good points to make, but they lose their impact under the weight of its heavy-handedness. The first part gets a bit dull, as you’re waiting to see where its going, the second part is way too long, the third is surreal and OTT and the fourth somewhat manipulative and preachy. I’m afraid she lost my engagement with the message by metaphorically hitting me on the head for 100 minutes. It’s clever, it’s original, its brave, it’s well performed, and Tom Scutt’s design is brilliant, but it’s too forthright and angry and this becomes counter-productive.

The Boy Friend

Oh, what a tonic. Sandy Wilson’s pastiche of the 1920’s, written in the 1950’s, sparkles in the 21st Century.

Set in a finishing school in Nice run by Madame Dubonnet, its the tale of Polly and her chums as they prepare for a ball, choosing their costumes, all looking for love. Polly falls for delivery boy Tony when he brings her costume to the school. It seems like a hopeless match, rich girl and poor boy, but they meet on the corniche and agree to go to the ball together as Pierette and Pierrot. Polly’s dad arrives to find that Madame Dubonnet is an old flame. Tony’s parents arrive and we find out he isn’t who he seems. At the ball no less than six couples become engaged.

It’s pure escapist fun with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Bill Deamer’s period choreography is simply fabulous, as light as air, totally uplifting. Paul Farnsworth’s design is gorgeous, particularly his costumes, which are beyond sumptuous in the Act Three ball – from where we were sitting in the front row, you could clearly see the astonishing craftsmanship. MD Simon Beck’s band sound fantastic. Director Matthew White has squeezed every ounce of humour out of this 66-year-old show and made it as fresh and funny as you could wish for. The smile never left my face for the duration.

It’s brilliantly cast, with Amara Okereke & Dylan Mason making a delightful young couple and Janine Dee & Robert Portal a charming older one. Tiffany Graves wows again as Hortense and both Adrian Edmondson & Issy Van Randwyck give great comic cameos, the former not exactly known for musicals. The casting is in fact faultless, and their joy becomes your joy.

An antidote for election blues, but it’s not the sort of production you can only see once, so I’ve already booked to go again as a tonic for my post-election blues.

The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

I saw her several times with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but her concert at the Anvil Basingstoke was the first time I saw Rhiannon Giddens without them, but with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. It was an eclectic selection, consummate musicianship and great sound / acoustics. She also engages with her audience, so it becomes an evening with her.

Opera

The rarely staged Haydn opera La Fedelta Premiata was given a brilliant production at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was a touch long but it was an absolute hoot, and the standard of singing and playing, and the production values, were sky high. As good as anything I’ve seen in an opera house recently, and better than most.

Having fallen out of love with ENO I didn’t go to see Akhenaten, so I went to the Met Live relay of the same production, which was brilliant. I ‘got’ the music better than when I first saw it decades ago, when I didn’t even realise there were no violins in the orchestra! The juggling synchronised with the music was inspired and the costumes were extraordinary, though I did find two long intervals (with Joyce DiDonato’s overly sycophantic interviews) spoilt the dramatic flow, but producer Phelim McDermott is a magician nonetheless.

Like the proverbial bus, two Haydn operas came along this month at two different ‘conservatoires’, with the second one – Il Mondo Della Luna – at the Royal College of Music was another absolute hoot. Brilliantly designed and choreographed, they got every ounce of comedy out of it, and more, and both the singing and playing was glorious; perhaps the best I’ve heard from the RCM Orchestra

The best staged performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes I’ve seen was on the beach in Aldeburgh during his centenary year, but the best musically was the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner, with Stuart Skelton as  Grimes, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, so I pounced when I heard they were going to reprise it at the Royal Festival Hall and it was just as wonderful. The orchestra, four choruses and another eleven fine soloists delivered musical perfection and the RFH audience erupted as the Usher Hall one had.

Classical Music

Another fine lunchtime concert with the Royal Academy SO under Robert Trevino. I enjoyed Igor Stravinsky’s fascinating dance music Agon, which was new to me, but it was a stunning performance of the much heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations that blew me away. The talent is extraordinary and Trevino is clearly very nurturing.

The Philharmonia Orchestra played William Walton’s complete score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V synchronised with a screening of a restored print at the Royal Festival Hall, helped by Crouch End Festival Chorus, and it was brilliant. Its ages since I saw a film with live music and I’d forgotten how good it can be.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas chose Berlioz monumental Romeo & Juliet choral symphony for the 50th anniversary of his first concert with them and the LSO and LSC rose to the occasion, filling the Barbican Hall with a glorious sound.

Tilson Thomas’ celebrations continued at the Barbican with one of the LSO’s ‘Half Six Fix’ series, one hour early evening concerts with digital programmes and illustrated introductions by the conductor. This was insightful, and Prokofiev’s 5th was thrillingly played.

A revisit to Beloved Clara, one of Lucy Parham’s ‘composer portraits’, at Milton Court proved very rewarding. The fifteen piano pieces are interspersed with readings from the letters of Robert & Clara Schumann and their friend Johannes Brahms, by Dame Harriet Walter and Simon Russell Beale no less. Civilised entertainment, and ultimately very moving.

I love single composer evenings and it was great to hear the very animated Doric String Quartet give all three of Britten’s quartets together. The third references his opera Death in Venice which I will be seeing next month (and visiting the city for Christmas and seeing the play in April!). These are challenging works, but their musicianship was extraordinary and the usually reserved Wigmore Hall audience cheered. One of the best chamber recitals I’ve ever been to.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, where my classical month stared, Mark Elder conducted their Symphony Orchestra in a Berlioz programme which included two rarities. They sounded great, as ever, and it was good to see personal favourite Elder again after two concerts he was too unwell to conduct.

Film

Ken Loach brought shame on our benefits system so effectively in I, Daniel Blake, and now he does the same to the gig economy in Sorry We Missed You, more specifically parcel delivery and care in the home. These are hard films to watch, but they have to be seen. Campaigning film-making at its best.

I enjoyed The Good Liar, though with all its twists and turns it oddly left me wishing I’d read the book. In many ways it’s an old-fashioned film, but there’s nothing wrong with that and it does have two national treasures, though Ian McKellen playing a man pretending to be someone else resulted in something a bit odd.

Art

I became an instant fan of Lisa Brice when I saw her small exhibition at Tate Britain last year, and this was confirmed by her selling exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery. Again, it’s mostly semi-clad women smoking (!) but the work is extraordinarily original and mesmerising. Up the road at Sadie Coles HQ, I was less enamoured with Dutch artist Co Westerik’s body and landscape. It was clearly technically accomplished, but I found a lot of it a bit disturbing.

Though there were some lovely pictures and objects, the British Museum’s Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art was one of those exhibitions where they took a chunk of their collection, added a few loan items, and made it into something you pay to see. In the print gallery upstairs there was a better (free) show of drawings by 20th century German artist Kathe Kollwitz, who I’d never heard of but whose work in Portrait of the artist bowled me over.

I was a bit surprised that The House of Illustration was five years old as I’d never heard of it, but Made in Cuba: Cold War Graphic Art is an excellent exhibition that puts it on the map for me. They also had a lovely small display of Quentin Blake work-in-progress to add a lighter touch.

One of my gallery wanders brought rich rewards, starting with Peter Doig, back on form at Michael Werner after a disappointing selection at the same gallery a while back, continuing with Grayson Perry’s brilliant new work on a theme of inequality at Victoria Miro, on to the Photographer’s Gallery for the excellent Shot in Soho and the quirky Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography and ending with three stunning light, video and sound installations Other Places at 180 The Strand. I am so lucky to live in this city. All of this cost £2.50!

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, they’d assembled an eclectic selection of paintings of London spanning 500 or more years for Architecture of London. From Canaletto to contemporary works, from cityscapes to back gardens, I loved it.

I didn’t think the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibition at the NPG was as good this year, the selection seeming more pointed and quirky. While I was there, though, I caught the rest of Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits that they’d hung with the Tudors, Stuarts, Elizabethans and Victorians, which was a brilliant idea, and another twenty excellent works to see by this great new find (for me).

The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibitions are not always as good as Into the Night: Cabarets & Clubs in Modern Art. It featured cabarets & clubs spanning eighty years in twelve cities in Europe, Latin America, Africa, USA and the Middle East and included four recreations as well as pictures, photographs and objects. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. In the Curve Gallery downstairs, Trevor Paglen has covered the walls with 30,000 photographs drawn from the ImageNet database of many millions by word searching, often resulting in surprising images. It’s called From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ and I thought it was also fascinating.

The National Gallery was also at its best with the Gaugin Portraits exhibition, really well curated and lit with an excellent accompanying film. The interpretation of ‘Portraits’ was sometimes a bit loose, but justified. A real one-off.

Revisiting the Sir John Soane Museum reminded me how wonderous it is, though I was there specifically to see Hogarth: Place & Progress which brings all of his series paintings and engravings together for the first time. I loved it, though after I’d left I realised that, in the maze that the building is, I missed two rooms, so I’ll have to go back!

The Wind of Heaven

The Finborough Theatre has a knack of rediscovering forgotten plays and this is a particularly fascinating one, not seen here for seventy-five years, which gets as fine a production as you could wish for.

Emlyn Williams was writing in the second world war about events ninety years earlier, at the time of the Crimean War. It’s set in a mountain village in North Wales where Dilys has been widowed by that war, whilst her niece Menna has found love with someone returning from it. The other members of her household are her servant Bet and Bet’s teenage son Gwyn. Village teacher Ambrose, who left and made a new life as a circus proprietor in Birmingham, has returned in search of an attraction for his shows, following his assistant Pitter, who is researching his book on this village, where a disaster left it without children and faith. There’s an outbreak of cholera at the military hospital that threatens the life of Menna’s new man, and young Gwyn displays spiritual powers. The village seems to have found faith once more, Ambrose born again and there is an influx of followers.

It seems to be a parable about war and healing, a fascinating, intriguing period piece which may not appeal to everyone in a contemporary audience, but whatever you think of it, Will Maynard’s production is simply superb, having to convey as much offstage as on. He’s given it a traverse staging, complemented by an excellent set and costumes from Ceci Calf & Isobel Pellow respectively. A hugely atmospheric soundscape and music by Justin Starr & Rhiannon Drake adds much. A uniformly fine cast is led by Rhiannon Neads as Dilys, with newcomer Kristy Philipps very impressive as Menna. Benedict Barker’s role as Gwyn is mute but he does a great job of conveying its mystery and spirituality.

The Finborough punching above its weight again. A must see.