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Archive for March, 2010

March was a ‘lull before the storm’ work-wise, so it was action packed otherwise! In addition to 12 theatre outings…….

MUSIC

Performing your classic album live in its entirety has become fashionable with old rockers, so it was no surprise when John Cale decided to do it with Paris 1919, accompanied by an orchestra. It didn’t really take off until the third song, not every song worked well and given that it’s little over 30 minutes that doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying experience on its own. Fortunately, he followed this with four cracking numbers with his terrific three-piece band and another two with the orchestra – and a brilliant encore (which we had to earn!), so the evening (though still not much more than 80 minutes) was redeemed.

There’s a straight line from The Kinks through Squeeze, Madness and Blur to Lily Allen representing a modern soundtrack of London. ‘Songs in the Key of London’ was another one of those compilation shows which sort-of tried to do this (and included songs from all but the latter), put together by Squeeze’ Chris Difford. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed as well as other shows of its kind, largely because it was under-rehearsed and the sound was inexcusably bad. Other former Squeezers Jools Holland & Glen Tilbrook and Chas and Suggs from Madness took part, together with an eclectic selection of the less well known. It had its moments and the surprise appearance of Elvis Costello at the end to sing Hoover Factory and My Brilliant Parade was a treat, if only to see him on home soil again.

Cara Dillon’s St. Patrick’s Day concert in Canary Wharf was lovely, if a little short and in a somewhat incongruous venue. A guest appearance from Seth Lakeman was a real bonus and whetted my appetite for a long awaited opportunity to see a full set from him (now booked for the Open Air Theatre in September!).

Whilst most young musicians seem to spend their lives repeating the formula that made them successful, a 60-year old called Peter Gabriel who has spent his life reinventing and innovating is still at it! His concert at the O2 showcased the new album of ‘covers’ (re-interpretations, I’d say) with a full orchestra and no band; it worked surprisingly well live in such a big space. The second half was an unpredictable selection of old songs re-arranged for orchestra including great versions of San Jacinto and Solisbury Hill. Old men showing the way; who’d have thought it!

I hadn’t clocked that it was Mothers Day when I booked an afternoon concert of Rogers & Hammerstein songs at the Barbican with two of my favourite musical performers – Maria Friedman and Daniel Evans – so it was a bit cheesy & populist for my taste. Though it was great to hear these songs played by a full orchestra and the singing was good, the song choice was a bit predictable and safe and the amplification (for the second time this week at the Barbican!) was poor.

Showstopper! is an improvised musical put together on the spot, partly from audience suggestion. In fact, it’s the same formula as Impropera (which I saw in December), the Scat Pack’s improv movies and others. They are as good as the inspiration at the time and this wasn’t a classic, but it was worth the trip. We ended up with Blood on the Heather – the story of the Glencoe massacre where the McDonalds and the Campbells fought each other – with songs in the style of Cabaret, Annie, Rent, Abba and Sondheim!

More classically, I went to another mezzo soprano recital of English song at Wigmore Hall, this time Sarah Connelly with a lunchtime programme of Purcell, Howells, Gurney, Warlock, Bridge, Britten and songs by her accompanist Eugene Asti. It was a lovely selection and she sang beautifully.

Purcell’s Dioclesian is a rarely performed ‘semi-opera’ about the Roman emperor of the same name (who I got rather interested when I went to Split in Croatia where the city centre is built within the ruins of his retirement home!). The Royal College of Music paired with an ‘early dance’ group turned it into a delightful evening. It’s not up there with his classics like The Fairy Queen, but it was good to catch it. The amount of musical talent on show in their Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir (most of whom also took the solos) was breathtaking. 

Britten’s War Requiem is one of my favourite choral pieces and it got a wonderful outing at the Barbican on the 50th anniversary of the London Concert Choir. The soloists – Janice Watson, Adrian Thompson and Roderick Williams – were fantastic and the Southbank Sinfonia made a terrific sound. It’s the greatest anti-war music ever written and still relevant and moving.

OPERA

Its 17 years since I was last in Wandsworth Prison (!), for Pimlico Opera’s Guys & Dolls. This month I returned for the same company’s Carmen. It worked well almost halved to under 90 minutes (it makes you wonder how many operas would benefit from similar editing!) losing none of the story and none of the best music. The cast of 11 professionals (including four excellent principals) and 13 prisoners gave it their all and though it’s a sad story, it was an uplifting experience. When you look at the faces of the performing prisoners at the curtain call, they tell you everything about the importance of this experience for them; if it changes only one of them forever, it will have been worthwhile…..and as you start the long walk out, the funny comments shouted from the cells remind you how many other lost souls weren’t performing. On this occasion, I was struck by the fact that half of the prisoner cast were recent immigrants to the UK and I’m still puzzled as to why…

The Guildhall School have been on a roll of late, so perhaps it was inevitable that there’d be a blip, and Cherubin doesn’t really live up to recent form. Massenet’s opera picks up where Mozart left off in The Marriage of Figaro and follows the exploits of Cherubin as he enlists. It’s a much neglected piece – it took 89 years to get a UK premiere in 1994, and that was its last outing here! The chorus is very good, but there were fewer outstanding leads (except the gorgeous soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg again!) and the set was rather ugly.

The London Handel Festival puts on a fully stage opera every year (and there are c.45 to choose from!) and this year was the best I’ve seen, in fact one of the best Handel operas I’ve ever seen.  Il Pastor Fido is a ‘pastoral’ (you know…..gods and shepherds, everyone loving someone who doesn’t love them, but it all ends happily!) with a dance-opera prologue and dances to end each act. What made this stand out was the most faultless and beautiful playing and singing, aided by the Britten Theatre’s terrific acoustic. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen eight pitch perfect and perfectly matched performances; it was 190 minutes of gloriously uplifting music and it flew by.

Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos has created an opera from Tony Kushner’s extraordinary epic play Angels in America and very good it is too. It was given a semi-staged performance at the Barbican with the BBCSO and an excellent, mostly American, cast. He’s managed to distil it from over 6 hours to just over two without losing the essence of the play. I really hope it gets a staging here soon, as it has in France, Germany, The Netherlands and the US.

Katya Kabanova at ENO was a musical treat with superb singing and playing. The minimalist set (you know chipboard, no colour, jagged angles and shadows) somehow heightened the drama, but I’m afraid I didn’t engage with it emotionally. Still, it sounded gorgeous.

DANCE

Sutra is an extraordinary multi-cultural collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbe Cherkaoui, sculptor Anthony Gormley, musician Szymon Brozoska and the Shaolin Monks from China! Its contemporary dance meets martial arts, though less athletic than I was expecting. The use of 21 coffin-like boxes is brilliant and I liked the score, played live by a 5-piece ensemble including the composer. In the end though, I’m not sure it’s the classic the critics have hailed it, though I was glad to have caught it. We smiled at the incongruity of a large group of the monks getting on the bus back to the tube after the show!

FILM

I can’t put my finger on why I’m indifferent about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The 3D as quite good, but nothing like Avatar at the IMAX, and there are some lovely characterisations in both acting (Helena Bonham-Carter in particular) and voice (Alan Rickman stands out). It just wasn’t magical and other-worldly enough!

I loved Crazy Heart, a film about a burned out alcoholic Country star for which Jeff Bridges won a well-deserved Oscar. For an American film on a subject like this, it was surprisingly unsentimental and all the better for it. T Bone Burnett’s music was excellent.

I’m not keen on war films – relentlessly depressing – but I felt I should catch The Hurt Locker given all those awards, and was very glad I did. It’s an extremely well-made film which manages to drive home the point that these wars are pointless and impossible to win than any news or documentary I’ve seen. Still relentlessly depressing though!

ART

Though I’m glad I went to see it, the Paul Nash retrospective at Dulwich Gallery doesn’t really satisfy. There are eight great pictures amongst a selection of work which seems to me to show a restless man who kept changing, not in an inventive way, but in an ongoing search for his own style.

You think you’ve never heard of Paul Sandby until you set eyes on the iconic 18th Century watercolours, sketches and maps at his exhibition in the Royal Academy and realise you’ve seen many as prints. It’s a very comprehensive collection and you get a real feel for how a man like this made his living more than 200 years ago. I was particularly taken with a picture of Cardiff with the original west gate and wall; I never knew Cardiff had a wall and it’s 10 miles from where I spent the first 18 years of my life!

Irving Penn’s Portraits is one of two fine exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. The originality of his B&W images rests on a complete lack of distracting décor and the fact that he often places his subjects into restricted spaces or limits the portrait to less than the whole of his subject. I liked them a lot more than I thought I’d like Vogue photos! In contrast, the second exhibition of Indian Portraits spans 300 years from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century and it’s rich with colour and detail and includes fascinating scenes of life.

There’s a really quirky installation at the Barbican’s Curve gallery from eccentric Frenchman Celeste Boursier-Mougenot . After walking through a dark space on decking with projections of guitarists playing but a soundtrack of birdsong, you get to a bright space with islands of sand containing guitars and cymbals being ‘played’ by zebra finches landing on them as they fly around the space. Just when you thought you’d seen it all…..

Until now, the work I’ve seen by Chris Ofili has left with a ‘so what’ feeling. I felt the same at the beginning of his retrospective at Tate Britain – his obsession with elephant dung, afro hairstyles and black women all seem rather childish, though I did like the colours and the titles ( including ‘7 bitches tossing their pussies before the divine dung’, ‘7 brides for 7 bros’ and ‘Albinos and bros with fros’!) made me smile. An extraordinary amount of money has been spent on a housing for his 13-painting series The Upper Room which I’m not sure it deserves. There’s a fun room of rather different series pictures, some a clear homage to Japanese woodcuts, a less successful room of obscure dark blue paintings and a final room of very different new work. In the end, it rather grew on me and walking back through it a couple of times, I stopped thinking and just enjoyed the colourfulness and playfulness of it all.

Tate Modern’s poster for its Arshile Gorky exhibition totally misrepresents it and drags people in under false pretences; if I’d paid, I’d be demanding my money back! The lovely poster picture is one of a handful in one room out of eleven rooms; the rest is shit (and if you change the ‘i’ to ‘o’ in his first name that would seem appropriate!). Their other current exhibition is a bit more interesting (only a bit mind), covering the impact in the 1920’s of magazine / movement De Stijl led by Theo van Doesburg. Painting wise it’s a lot of Mondrianesque red, black, white, blue and yellow boxes; I found the impact on design and graphics more interesting.

Visiting the Ron Arad exhibition at the Barbican was less of a must and more of filler; I was in the building with time to kill! Maybe that’s why I was so bowled over by it. I knew him as a man who designed interesting chairs, which he does, but he’s so much more – a designer-artist-sculptor-architect. The architecture was astonishing and completely new to me, and there were other objects like bookcases, vases and lamps. I loved Lolita the chandelier – you could text a message to her and it appeared as a scroll on Lolita! The exhibition design was terrific (he designed it himself) adding much to the pleasure of the experience.

Finally (anyone still there?) the Horace Walpole / Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A was interesting, though rather dull in presentation. A fascinating man with a great eye for art, design and style who ‘collected’ much more than the gothic he is best known for.

Phew; time to go on holiday for a rest……

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Chronicles of Long Kesh

A play set in and about the infamous Northern Ireland internment camp in the 1970’s, with pop songs sung a capella. Mmm…..

Well, it’s good to report that it works. There’s no set as such, just an ensemble of six terrific actors , five of whom play multiple roles. It moves from angry to sad to funny to poignant on the turn of an actor from one role to another. The pace is fast, the precision is astonishing and the ‘gallows humour’ is delicious.

At the time it was on my TV and in my newspaper almost daily, yet when I read the programme before it started I realised how much I’d forgotten. Though it doesn’t take sides, there is a risk (particularly for those who weren’t even alive then) that it will bury the evil many of these people were responsible for and even glamourise  them as ‘lovable rogues’; this made me feel a little uneasy and would be my only reservation for what is otherwise an original idea executed with real panache.

The Q&A with the cast afterwards explained why it was so slick – these people have extraordinary chemistry with each other and seemed like lifelong friends rather than acting colleagues.

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As you walk into The Pit Theatre in the Barbican Centre, the cast of 19 and 2 musicians begin a 20-minute medley of Coward songs as a curtain raiser to this 3-play evening; what a lovely way to start.

I don’t often go to the Guildhall School plays (though I regularly go to their operas and musicals) but the opportunity to see these rarely performed pieces was too good to miss.

Coward originally wrote 10 short plays, which were performed in a rolling programme of threesomes (though one was only performed once). One of these three – Still Life – went on to become the film Brief Encounter.

The first shown here was Hands Across the Sea, a drawing-room high comedy that sends up socialites of the time (Lord Mountbatten allegedly believed it was based on him and his wife). It was beautifully staged with some fine performances from young people acting old believably.

The Astonished Heart was a much darker tragedy / melodrama with a very believable jump from the apartment balcony! I found this more difficult to get into.

Still Life is a bittersweet romance with added comedy from the station staff who often seem to be in a different play. The passing trains were created by sound and smoke, including highly effective offstage crockery rattling!

These plays show Coward’s range – much more than comedy, music and musical comedy. The last Coward I saw at GSMD – Peace in Our Time – was also fascinating, showing an occupied Britain after the second world war had turned out differently. Why are these so neglected whilst we’re subjected to endless revivals of the safer Hay Fever and Private Lives?

The production values are beyond fringe and the company is extremely strong; a treat for less than the price of a cinema ticket!

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This is the inaugural production (if you don’t count Punchdrunk’s secret and impossible to get into Tunnel 228) in the Old Vic Tunnels under Waterloo Station. The space is extraordinarily and makes the London Bridge equivalent seem like a plush theatre! If you go there, however many layers of clothing you plan to wear add another one or two; it’s very damp and seems colder than it is outside.

It’s a promenade production and for once you don’t feel herded by marshalls destroying the effect. Twelve people are detained for reasons we (and they) don’t really understand. Supplies had been sent down but have now dried up. There is no way out. Two factions have learned to co-exist until they clash over a seemingly useless answer phone.

Though overlong at 1 hour 45 mins, it held my attention and even though the story is not explicit, that didn’t seem to matter. I’m not sure it always worked when it steered into ‘movement’ accompanied by music though. There is a sound scape, in addition to the relentless thunder of trains above your head which make the tunnels themselves vibrate, which is key to the production. There are some fine performances, particularly from Christopher Tajah.

If you prepare for the discomfort, the atmosphere of the venue adds much to the experience. This is a very welcome space for experimental work and a very creditable first shot. Well done Delirium and well done Old Vic!

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Let me first confess that Shaw is one of my three problem playwrights (the others being Chekov and Pinter) who I’ve always considered to be a bit of a windbag. A revival needs to be timely, revelatory or well crafted for it to be worth(my)while.

This play was clearly rather shocking in its day and though some aspects of Shaw’s moralistic treatment of prostitution still ring true (hypocrisy in particular) it isn’t a particularly timely revival, so it fails that test.

It’s a rather old-fashioned and conventional production which doesn’t say anything new or say anything in a new way, so I’m afraid it fails the revelatory test.

The design is simple, clearly made for a play with four settings that’s touring. There are some good performances – Felicity Kendal is always watchable (and here seems to have morphed into a miniature Joan Plowright), David Yelland always gives an intelligent reading and the youngsters (Lucy Briggs-Owen and Max Bennett)  show much promise. I’m not sure what the point of the character Praed is (unless it’s to have at least one non-judgemental person) so it’s hard for Mark Tandy to impress. The production seems to me to be straight off the revive-a-classic-with-someone-off-the-telly production line and fails the craftsmanship test.

I can’t say I was bored, but I can’t say I was gripped. Indifference probably best sums up my view and I suspect, like Ghosts, it’s in for an ‘early bath’ in 4-6 weeks time; there’s no room for mediocre revivals in the West End at £60 a pop top price.

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The Young Vic has pulled off another coup by getting Swiss director Luc Bondy again; he’s a world-class figure whose productions people in most European countries would be queuing up for; not London, of course!

This is an excellent adaptation of an Arthur Schnitzler play by David Harrower, whose Blackbird was a huge success in both London and Edinburgh a few years back. Two soldiers party with two girls when they are interrupted by a man who challenges one of the soldiers to a duel as he’s discovered his wife has been having an affair with him. In the second half we move to the life of the offending soldiers’ girlfriend, her father, friend and neighbour before and after the duel.

It isn’t the play itself that engages you as much as it’s unpredictability, brooding atmosphere and sexual tension. There’s a terrific physicality which draws you in like a voyeur and keeps you intrigued by the characters. The performances are uniformly fine, with a brilliant cameo from Hayley Carmichael as the busybody neighbour. 

I wasn’t sure I understood the point of all of the design / staging choices (which might mean they were seemless and effective!). High black back panels have been added to the Young Vic seats. There is a revolve, but it’s so slow it doesn’t complete one revolution in each half. There is a pit which is a kitchen in the first half and an orchestra pit in the second. In one short scene, the house lights are turned on. 

In the end, though, I was gripped by the intrigue, the sexual chemistry and the relationships. I almost gave it a miss – it was a visit I only planned at short notice – but I was very glad I didn’t.

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I’m used to low Audience:Performer ratios at the Union Theatre, but this one is 2:1 with a full house – and they’re all so young, I actually aged several years in two hours.

Phil Wilmott’s musical is a love story set in that (in)famous Liverpool hotel which switches (rather confusingly and a bit clumsily, I thought) between the 20’s / 30’s and now. It’s a simple tale with some Adelphi myths woven in – cowboy Roy Rodgers and his horse on the hotel roof and a trainee Nazi in the kitchens! I’m sure I’m being scouse-ist, but it reminded me of Blood Brothers, with musical themes recurring and the old Alice looking rather like Mrs Johnstone.

The positioning of the band between the two banks of seats meant they drowned out (well, at least from where I was sitting) a lot of the solo vocals, though the chorus singing was excellent. The fact that the entire cast seemed teenagers meant you had to suspend belief even more than usual with a musical. The design coup was the back of an illuminated HOLLYWOOD-like hotel sign, though this did restrict the already restricted playing area; apart from that they seem to have spent the rest (plus most of their salaries, I’d say) on a huge number of costumes.

It’s not a great show, but it’s one of that endangered species, a NEW MUSICAL, and it’s in a lovely theatre, so you have to go!

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Well, the Rose Theatre at Kingston is full at last – but it took a Dame to do it. I hope this has given the good people of Kingston and environs a theatre-going habit, because their excellent new theatre won’t survive relying on us Londoners risking our street credibility to venture into the suburbs. 

This isn’t a particularly revelatory production, but it stands out in two ways – uniformly well acted and beautifully spoken. I particularly liked the physicality of the lovers scene in the forest and though the rude mechanicals were rather too subdued at first, they came into their own when they got to put on their play.

In the acting department, there’ a lot more than a Dame, including Rachel Stirling’s passionate Helena, Oliver Chris’ very funny Bottom and a fine regal pair in Charles Edwards and Julian Wadham. As for Her Highness, well you have to take any opportunity these days to be in the presence of her greatness and she’s as great as ever.

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Sondheim does Brecht & Weill !

This early (36-year old) Sondheim show was only his third. It would be another six years before he’d produce his first great musical, Company (though the earlier A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was fun, I wouldn’t call it great).

He seemed to be finding his way, trying out things which would later become part of his unique style. It is clearly derivative of Brecht & Weill’s ‘political’  musicals with what seems to be tongue-in-cheek sniping at the then generic Broadway style.

It’s the story of a town mayor who ‘creates’ a miracle in an attempt to breathe life into the local economy. What follows is exploitation, corruption and oppression. There is a charming naivety to it, but in terms of plotting and story-telling, it’s all a bit clumsy. There’s little of the lyrical inventiveness or musical originality which Sondheim was soon to deliver.

Tom Littler’s production makes the best of the material and the cast of 14 double up as musicians in the John Doyle way. I was particularly impressed by Roslaie Craig as the nurse, but felt that Issy van Randwyck was too doll-like as the Mayoress.

It’s an excellent contribution to Sondheim’s 80th year, as a rare opportunity for fans / completists / collectors like me to see the development of someone who was to become the greatest writer of musicals, rather than as a great musical itself.

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The impact today of 19th century comedies like this depends more on the production and acting than the play (I remember a very mediocre London Assurance in 1989 transferred from Chichester and directed by a very young Sam Mendes). Well, here’s a terrific example of how you can breathe new life into something that’s 170 years old; I doubt it was that funny then!

Nicholas Hytner’s company get every laugh in the play, and a lot more that aren’t in it. Simon Russell Beale has extraordinary range as an actor, and comedy is one of his best hands – he’s the only person I know who can convey a reaction, emotion or opinion with just his eyes and cause a riot merely by striking an outrageously funny pose – and this is one of his best performances. He’s joined here by Fiona Shaw’s larger-than-life Lady Gay Spanker (!), comic genius Richard Briers in a wonderful cameo as her husband and a fine ensemble who appear to be having as much of a ball as the audience.

When Russell Beale and Shaw are struggling to suppress their own laughs (and at times, I wonder how it’s possible to play against SRB without corpsing) it adds rather than detracts from the fun.

Mark Thompson has built a terrific country house which fills the Olivier stage to great effect and created costumes that convey the characters perfectly.

This is an absolute gem and one of the best things to grace the Olivier stage in 30 years

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