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Opera

I managed to catch an opera during a visit to Brno in the Czech Republic, a rarely performed Dvorak work called The Devil & Kate. They consider it a children’s show there, so it was an early start and was full of (well behaved) kids. I liked the music, but the story was a bit weak and the performers didn’t seem to have their heart in it. Still, £11 for the best seat in the house!

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Massenet’s Cherubin was terrific, with sky high musical standards – some stunning soloists and a great chorus and orchestra. Any opera house would be proud to have a production this good in their repertoire, yet here it was at a conservatoire!.

Classical Music

The LSO invited American conductor Andre Thomas and his pianist, soprano & baritone to lead a Gospel evening which included a Mass he composed, with traditional spirituals on either side. With 450 singers, 90% of them in community choirs, overflowing into the front third of the Barbican Hall stalls, it was rousing, but it had its gentle moments too, notably a beautiful unaccompanied soprano solo of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Great to see one of the world’s top orchestras extending itself in this way.

Another lunchtime concert at RAM, this time their Chamber Orchestra conducted by Trevor Pinnock in a lovely combination of Ravel and Mozart. I so love these little gems.

Trying to rescue an afternoon after a cancelled theatre matinee, we decided on a wander along the south bank of the Thames, starting by popping in to Southwark Cathedral where we caught the last half of a delightful concert by Wake Forest University Concert Choir. Our half seemed to be the more interesting selection, five secular works. Lovely.

The LSO were on fine form at the Barbican yet again, with a pairing of Britten’s Violin Concerto, superbly played by Norwegian Vilde Frang, which I was hearing for the first time, and Vaughan Williams uncharacteristically dark 6th Symphony, which I have heard before but it felt like the first time. The curtain-raiser of VW’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis completed a superb programme brilliantly played. Antonio Pappano thanked us for coming to support them, acknowledging the many seats clearly vacant due to Coronavirus fears. This had somehow added an air of foreboding and melancholy. It turned out to be my last dose of culture, excluding art, before lockdown.

Dance

We’ve been inundated with juke box musicals, but the dancical, which followed at the beginning of this century with Contact and Moving Out, never really took off. Well, Message in a Bottle, hip hop dance to the music of Sting at the Peacock Theatre certainly did. The twenty-six songs, many re-recorded by him with the help of Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire, sounded great. The refugee narrative worked well, thanks to playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s dramaturgy. Kate Prince’s choreography was thrilling, often taking your breath away. Now to see the man again in six months’ time…..hopefully.

Film

I enjoyed Military Wives, even though I blubbed through a lot of it! I was however puzzled and a bit upset by the fact they wiped Gareth Malone and The Choir documentary series out of the story altogether. It felt like changing history to me.

I like and admire films that expose injustice and Dark Water was a fine one, though embarrassingly close to home for someone who once worked in the chemical industry. A lack of law suits against the film suggest its story is true, so shame on you DuPont.

Art

Masculinities: liberation through photography at the Barbican Art Gallery had some interesting photos, but I’m not sure what the point of it was. It was vast and varied, but it was one of those exhibitions you go to because it’s free for members; if you’d paid, you’d be even less satisfied.

At Borough Market, I popped in to see Picturing Britain, an exhibition of photographs about the poor and those working with them. It was a bit small and the space didn’t really do them justice, I’m afraid.

On a visit to Oxford I went to the Ashmolean Museum to see Young Rembrandt, which focused mostly on pictures from his late teens / early twenties, much of it drawings. It was a stunning body of work and a way more satisfying exhibition than the recent Rembrandt’s Light at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

On the day before the lockdown, I decided to do an art binge of exhibitions I didn’t want to miss, starting with Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain which was brilliant, and an astonishing body of work by a man who only lived until he was 25. It was easier to get social distance in the gallery than any shop, workplace or school so I continued by travelling on the Tate to Tate boat (at one point the only passenger) to see Andy Warhol at Tate Modern. I’ve seen a lot of his work, including visiting his museum in Pittsburgh, but there were still things new to me. Next stop was the Royal Academy of Arts to be introduced to a new artist once again, Belgian Leon Spilliaert, whose exhibition was particularly diverse and well worth catching. The final stop was a double-dip at the NPG, staring with David Hockney’s Portraits. Again, I’m glad I caught them, but there were only really three or four subjects in addition to a lot of self-portraits which made it a touch monotonous, though his diverse styles were indeed fascinating. Finally, a retro treat in Cecil Beaton’s photographs, most from the golden age of the mid-20th century, mostly black and white. I was exhausted but satisfied. It’ll be a long time before I see a fraction of what I saw on that day.

Be More Chill

This American cult musical by Joe Iconis & Joe Tracz, based on the 2008 novel by Ned Vizzini, has had an interesting history. It was first produced in a regional theatre in New Jersey in 2015. Though a success, it never went anywhere else and disappeared for three years, though they had made a cast album. The music went viral on social media, which created enough buzz for a successful two-month off-Broadway run and a transfer to Broadway last year for six months and this UK premiere. Soon after it started I was asking myself the question ‘what am I doing here?’; I’m not the audience for this. I still felt that at the end, but there was enough to enjoy to stop me regretting going.

We’ve heard of the term ‘take a chill pill’, well this one is a Japanese micro-computer that makes you cool, and nerdy teenager Jeremy buys one to try and gain social inclusion, and in particular to get Christine, but the price he has to pay is high, risking pre-existing friendships and relationships. The show’s themes are all about teenage angst and everything they have to go through growing up – hence ‘its not for me’. It’s very American and I wondered if anglicising it might have helped, but the rest of the, mostly very young, audience didn’t seem to be bothered. It was too cheesy for my taste, though, and with the exception of a couple of songs, I thought the score was bland and the story a book-by-numbers.

What I did like was the bright, colourful design, with excellent projections by Alex Basco Koch and terrific costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, and a fine ensemble led by Scott Folan as Jeremy and Blake Patrick Anderson as his best friend Michael. The voice of the ‘pill’ in Jeremy’s head, the Squip, comes alive in an excellent characterisation by Stewart Clarke, who gets some particularly good costumes. So don’t let me put you off, it’s not for me. Maybe they should have an upper age limit?!

It’s taken me over a year to catch up with this, deterred by mixed reviews and West End prices, propelled now by the return of co-creator Paul Whitehouse to the cast and a decent midweek deal. It’s extraordinarily faithful to the TV sitcom, a true homage which offers no surprises, but the familiarity, nostalgia and excellent execution made it a real fun night out.

It’s obviously an amalgam of episodes / series during which Del Boy meets Raquel, Rodney marries Cassandra and Boycie and Marlene’s attempts to conceive succeed. All of the other characters, including deadpan Trigger, are there in Peckham as we move between the flat, the pub, the cafe and the market. There’s a lot of attention to detail in recreating things like mannerisms and voices, and they’ve even created the iconic visual gags involving a bar that’s not there and a chandelier. Oh, and the yellow Reliant Robin comes onstage a couple of times. The music, mostly by Paul Whitehouse and Jim Sullivan (creator John Sullivan’s son) and Chas & Dave, and the original John Sullivan theme tune recurring, suits the show, though I found the addition of songs by Simply Red and Bill Withers, and part of Carmina Burana as a curtain-raiser, a bit baffling. When Whitehouse as Grandad morphed into Uncle Albert, continuity went right out of the window.

It’s well designed by Liz Ascroft, with the pub building and block of flats as backdrop to a playing area that transforms between locations. The Theatre Royal is a bit plush for Peckham, but director Caroline Jay Ranger’s delivers a surprisingly intimate staging. Tom Bennett is great as Del Boy, the archetypal lovable rogue that the show revolves around, excellently partnered by Ryan Hutton as younger brother Rodney; there was more warmth to the relationship as surrogate father / son, I thought. There’s excellent support from Ashleigh Grey as Raquel, Jeff Nicholson as Boycie, Samantha Seager as Marlene and the understudy playing Cassandra, who was very good. Paul Whitehouse was delightful as Grandad, more playful when he surprised us as Uncle Albert. The ensemble numbers were particularly well staged and sung.

I’m really glad I went. It was nice to be in a very un-West End audience for what is populist fare, but quality populist fare, and I enjoyed the warm nostalgia of sharing memories of one of British TV’s greatest sitcoms. Gavin & Stacey – the Musical anyone?

I can’t think of a better way of marking International Women’s Day than visiting a women’s prison to see sixteen of their residents perform in Hairspray, with musical theatre professionals as creatives, musicians and in some of the lead roes. This is the sixth time I’ve witnessed Pimlico Opera’s therapeutic, rehabilitative work, in five different prisons, and each time the standard gets higher. I’ve had a soft spot for this particular show since I saw the original production in preview on Broadway eighteen years ago. I saw it in the West End three times and a new production in Leicester six years ago, but I can honestly say none were as uplifting as Sunday in HMP Bronzefield.

As the prison director reminded us, this year’s International Women’s Day theme is equality, so what better than a show about a feisty teenage girl fighting fat shaming, racism and segregation. Tracy Turnblad is obsessed with the Corney Collins Show, a TV dance programme featuring local teenagers, and infatuated with its lead dancer Link Larkin. When a vacancy arises for the show ensemble, she’s turned down because of her size. She meets up with Seaweed J Stubbs, a black boy whose mom runs a record shop, and becomes friends with his. Black kids aren’t allowed on the show, but are given an occasional ‘negro day’. Tracy is determined to get on the show, to get it integrated, and to get Link, a journey that involves protest and prison.

It’s such a feel-good show, its tongue firmly in its cheek, often hilarious, with great moral messages and so many catchy tunes and clever lyrics and lines, you hardly stop grinning. Nikki Woollaston’s terrific production has bags of energy and a superb sense of fun; her nifty choreography is a particular high. Alex Parker is as fine an MD as you can get and his 12-piece band sounds fantastic. Alex Doige-Green’s set makes great use of the space, on two levels, and Bek Palmer’s costumes are a period delight. Chloe Hart played Tracy in the West End for the last part of its run, before she’d even graduated, and she shines again here with particularly gorgeous vocals. Christopher Howell as mom Edna and Darren Bennett as dad Wilbur are pitch perfect and make a superb double-act. Amongst the rest of the professionals, Andre Fabien Francis and Sam Murphy impress as Seaweed and Corney respectively.

There is much talent amongst the sixteen resident performers. Dhonna Campbell-Grant brought the house down with I Know Where I’ve Been; if she’d been on The Voice, all four chairs would have turned! Mandy Webb played baddie Velma Van Tussle with great confidence, Christine Callaghan was very assured and appropriately bitchy as her daughter Amber and Tiffany Smart was so good as Tracy’s friend Penny I thought she was one of the pros. These are big roles and these women rose to the occasion with great aplomb. If this were a fully professional show, we’d have still been standing and cheering; by any standards, a joyous and uplifting evening.

On until Sunday 15th March. Catch it if you can.

Pass Over

This highly original play by American Antoinette Nwandu packs one hell of a punch and gets a thrilling production by Indhu Rubasingham, with a trio of fine performances.

Moses and Kitch live on the streets of an American city. They are bound together by games and rituals that keep them occupied, and sane. They often reference slavery and sometimes god. They have a private language, more personal than street talk, constantly referring to each other using the ‘n’ word. It’s sometimes impenetrable and often uncomfortable, but adds a visceral quality. They live in fear of the police.

They first encounter a naive young man on the way to see his mom, with a picnic, who seems to have lost his way. Though initially reluctant, they take up his offer to eat and drink, suspicious but grateful. Moses is more cautious than Kitch in what is a rather surreal scene. Soon after he has left, a cop pays a call for some routine intimidation; they are immediately on edge as they know full well how this could play out. They descend into more existential thoughts before a second visit from the cop, and another from the young man.

At times it appears to be repeating itself and there is an other-wordiness about the scene with the young man, but I think the comparisons with Waiting for Godot are a bit overdone. It’s very effective in addressing ‘black lives matter’ and drawing parallels with slavery, without being heavy-handed or preachy. Designer Robert Jones has brilliantly transformed the Kiln into an in-the-round space, with just a sidewalk, lamp and some signs, superbly lit by Oliver Fenwick. The production has extraordinary energy and edginess.

Paapa Essiedu has wowed me three times before, not least his Hamlet, and here he extends his range again as Moses. Gershwyn Eustache Jnr has also impressed me in the past and again he excels here as Kitch. These are stunning individual performances, but they are superb sparring with one another, verbally and physically, too. There’s great support from Alexander Eliot in two very different roles, the doubling up making a point in itself.

Don’t miss!

Frantic Assembly have been a hugely influential theatre company for the last twenty-five years. Their groundbreaking style integrates movement and music with narrative. Over some thirty shows, most of which I’ve seen, they have grown and evolved, and this anniversary show sees them on fine form, with guest writer Sally Abbott and guest co-director Kathy Burke joining AD Scott Graham.

It explores themes of loneliness and loss through six characters. Josie has lost her dad and her dog and her son Manny has gone to university. Clare has lost her man and is fast losing her mind and maybe her job. Ange works in a hospice, estranged from her sister and haunted by memories of abuse as a child. Bex, wife and mother of two young boys, is dying of cancer, and is a patient there. Graham, a black cab driver, is newly widowed. Connections between them emerge as the story unfolds. Despite the themes of abuse, mental health, bereavement and loneliness, there is much humour.

It’s beautifully written, with strong character development and a compelling narrative drive. I felt too many scenes were monologues, particularly in the first half, which made it a touch static at times, and the movement of translucent rectangular boxes between scenes was a bit overdone. That said, it held you in its storytelling grip throughout, and all six performers shine – Chizzy Akudolu, Caleb Roberts, Polly Frame, Charlotte Bate, Simone Saunders and Andrew Turner.

Some of their work is, well, frantic, but some is gently moving, as is this. May they continue to be the theatrical powerhouse they have become for many more years. Happy Anniversary!

The Visit

Though it’s still set in the 50’s, but relocated to the US, the moral message of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play seem very now. Though it’s a long evening, I really enjoyed it.

The North Eastern US town of Slurry is down on its luck. Factories have closed, jobs are hard to get and no-one has money to spend, but the world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, is about to return home, and expectations are high. She has a track record of philanthropy, traveling the world scattering money as she goes. She also seems to collects husbands along the way. Trains no longer stop at Slurry, but she makes sure hers does.

It isn’t long before she offers an extraordinary sum – one billion dollars – to the town and its people, but there are conditions. People start spending, running up credit with willing retailers, and the town makes expensive plans. There’s a sense of anticipation, even though the price would be very high indeed, particularly for her old flame Alfred. Finally a meeting is called where the residents will vote on whether to accept the money, and therefore accept and implement her demands. Claire looks on, in control, vengeance on her mind.

Director Jeremy Herrin has resources only the NT could provide – a cast of twenty-eight, five musicians, a choir, children and supernumeraries. Designer Vicki Mortimer conjures up a railway station, town hall, shops, homes and a forest, with excellent period costumes by Moritz Junge and superb lighting from Paule Constable. Paul Englishby’s jazz infused score adds much to the period feel and atmosphere.

Hugo Weaving is superb as Alfred, with a huge physical presence and a pitch perfect vocal tone and accent. Lesley Manville plays Claire brilliantly, ice cool, determined, vindictive and unforgiving. They are surrounded by a terrific ensemble that includes luxury casting like Nicholas Woodeson as the Mayor, Sara Kestelman as the school principal and Joseph Mydell as the church minister.

They seem to have cut it considerably during previews, but it’s still too long at 3.5 hours, albeit with two intervals. That said, it’s a wonderful production which in my view has to be seen. The story of a town that sells its soul to the devil in a Faustian pact with the richest woman in the world proves timeless. As it is, was and forever will be, there’s nothing people won’t do for money.