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Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

Here we are again, for the 30-something year. This time we started with food & wine at Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year, http://www.timberyard.co, where the food was lovely, the wine list too much of a tome and the staff doing cool a touch too much aloof. Still, it’s the food that matters most and here it excelled. On to the first cultural highlight with the Philhamonia and the wonderful Edinburgh Festival Chorus under Peter Pan conductor Andrew Davies for a rare outing of Elgar’s oratorio King Olaf. Unfathomable narrative, but musically exhilarating, with three good soloists to boot. The Usher Hall crowd were a bit too restrained; they should think themselves very lucky indeed.

Our fringe started with a little gem called Jess & Joe at TraverseTwo, a growing up story with a difference, told by the characters acting out what has already happened to them. Lovely writing, beautiful performances and unpredictable. I left welled up, with a warm glow. The first art was Beyond Caravaggio at the Scottish National Gallery which I missed, intentionally because of their dreadful gallery space, at the NG in London. Here in a proper gallery, the handful of Caravaggios are wonderful, but served to show up the rest, those he influenced. On to the Book Fest for a Q&A with Dominic Dromgoole, responsible for two of the most inspirational theatrical events of my lifetime, both in the last five years – Globe to Globe, every Shakespeare play in a different language, and the Hamlet World Tour to every country in the world. Insightful, with some great anecdotes and excellent audience engagement. I queued up to get my book signed and he was just as friendly and engaging one-to-one. More art with True to Life, realistic art from the twenties and thirties, including usual suspects like Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights, but lots new to me. Worth the schlep out to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a place Lothian Transport seems determined to wipe off the map. Then our first comedy, Ed Byrne at Assembly George Square Theatre, who I’ve been drawn to since his recent TV travel programmes with Dara O’Briain but have never seen. Very funny, very engaging, a bit of a lag in the middle, but a treat nonetheless. Late night supper at the delightfully named http://www.angelswithbagpipes.co.uk. where excellent food combined with friendly service to great effect. A lovely first full day.

Sunday started early with something more appropriate for a late night slot, Wild Bore at TraverseOne, which the critics seem to have taken against, unsurprisingly given that they loom large. It’s three women talking out of their, well, arses, mostly quoting vitriolic reviews of their shows and others, but it evolves and changes rather a lot, and I loved the combination of subversiveness, surprise, anarchy and humour. The next show over at Stand Six couldn’t be more of a contrast – that’s the fringe for you – with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading her work, and multi-brass-and woodwind-instrumentalist John Sampson chipping in. A sombre start with First World War poems, the tone lightened and it became funny and cheeky; a rarger charming hour. I rested before the day’s main event, back at the Usher Hall. Edward Gardner brought his new band, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, along with a cast of soloists to die for led by Stuart Skelton, and they took us all hostage with an extraordinary interpretation of Britten’s operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes. The usually reserved Usher Hall crowd justifiably erupted. I doubt I’ll ever hear it that good again; a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. Emotionally drained, I needed a drink before I joined the others at http://www.mumbaimansionedinburgh.co.uk where the food was a delicious new spin on Indian cuisine, but the staff rushed and harassed us too much.

With such an extraordinary start, things had to take a bit of a dip and so it was in (full) Day Three. It started well at that Edinburgh institution, the International Photographic Exhibition, though there were a few too many contrived, overly posed shots for my taste. The day’s first theatre saw the normally reliable Paines Plough deliver a mediocre and rather pointless piece called Black Mountain in their mobile Roundabout theatre at Summerhall, about a couple seeking to rescue their relationship when his ex turns up, or does she? A mildly thrilling atmospheric thriller with cardboard performances. As my companion said, it would have been better on the radio. From here, stand-up Dominic Holland at the Voodoo Rooms lifted things significantly with the brilliantly observational, autobiographical humour of a 50–year-old who’s career has been eclipsed by his 21-year-old son. Then back to Summerhall for Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies, a somewhat slight piece about renewing an old friendship, and Skelmersdale!, which never rose to the giddy heights of their Solid Life of Sugar Water in 2015. We ended on a high with another terrific meal at http://www.lovagerestaurant.co.uk Food & wine eclipsed culture on Day Three, but there are three more full days to go……..

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There’s nothing like a bit of nostalgia to liven up a dull January. Co-incidentally, I’d recently been listening to some of the 147 episodes of this 1962-77 radio comedy on BBC 4 Extra and had been struck by how funny it still was 40-55 years on. It pre-dates Yes Minister, which didn’t appear until three years after it ended, and may well be the first satire on the civil service. It even led to Finnish, Swedish and South African versions (where it was also made into a film)!

The same team that so successfully brought us Round the Horne Revisited have now taken two classic scripts (neither if which I’d heard) of this other radio show from a similar period and recreated the studio recordings, script in hand, sound affects stage right, in the same fashion. The General Assistance Department helps out other ministries when they’re overloaded. In the first episode, Lennox-Brown (Number One) and Lamb (Number Two) end up orbiting the earth in a US spacecraft having been asked to help the Americans but instead stifling them with bureaucracy. It’s delightfully barmy. In the second they are helping the Ministry of Defence when a pile of old junk gets confused for a new weapon, is copied by the Russians and becomes the focus of a disarmament deal. Just as barmy, but also very funny.

Stephen Critchlow and Robin Sebastian are great as One and Two respectively, with Sydney Stevenson an absolute delight as their secretary Mildred. Looming over them all is their boss Sir Gregory Pitkin, a terrific turn from Jon Glover. Harold Wilson makes a couple of appearances, created by the excellent David Benson, who also plays a number of other roles, and brilliantly authentic announcer Charles Armstrong also provides a few cameos. There are some fluffs, asides and ad libs which add to the live recording feel. Brian Cooke has adapted the scripts he wrote with the series creator Edward Taylor and Jonnie Mortimer and Michael Kingsbury directs, as he did the earlier show. 

I suspect this too will be a success and transfer. It’s perfect for those of us of a certain age, but there were lots in the audience who can’t have been around to hear it on the radio first time round, and they appeared to be having as much of a ball as I was.

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Contemporary Music

It was obvious from the second number that Elvis Costello had a problem with his vocal chords, but he didn’t acknowledge it until two-thirds of the way through the main set. It’s a pity because the set for this London Palladium concert was new stuff and less obvious things from the back catalogue (only four or five crowd pleasers) which for me at least was very welcome. He was upstaged I’m afraid by two sisters from Atlanta going by the name of Larkin Poe who’s 30 min set as support was terrific. The evening partially redeemed itself by another 30 min set of Costello with the girls and a couple of crowd-pleasing solo encores, but in truth he should have postponed. There’s nothing sadder than seeing a hero die on stage.

Opera

How can you resist an opera set in a gay club with the toilet attendant played by Lesley Garrett?! As it turned out, Mark Simpson’s 70min 4-hander Pleasure at the Lyric Hammersmith proved rather good, and a hugely impressive operatic debut for this prodigious 28-year-old. The music suited a very dramatic story and the tension built well.

Many years ago I went to a shed in East London to see a bunch of mad Catalans perform a show in which they raced around wheeling supermarket trollies full of dead babies, throwing real liver around. That same company, La Fura Del Baus, are now at Covent Garden staging the UK premiere of Romanian composer Enescu’s only opera Oedipe, one of three 20th century operas based on the Oedipus myth and the most epic, telling the whole story from birth to death. Such is the world of opera in the 21st century. As it turns out, it’s a stunning production of a superb opera which was played and sung brilliantly. Why on earth has it taken 80 years to get here?!

Dance

I loved everything about the Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein. Liam Scarlett’s staging and choreography is excellent, there’s a great dramatic score from Lowell Lieberman and John Macfarlane’s designs and costumes are terrific. Pity the critics were so down on it. Why?

Film

Midnight Special is one of the best SciFi films of recent years. I was gripped throughout. The young actor playing the eight-year-old boy was extraordinary.

Eye in the Sky was another cinematic treat which I almost missed by reading the crits. Its edge of the seat stuff, but very objective in its examination of the ethics around drone attacks. One of Alan Rickman’s last roles, and he was great.

I have fond memories of Peter Quilter’s play Glorious, where Maureen Lipman played Florence Foster Jenkins, now played brilliantly by Meryl Streep in a film that is more poignant though also at times hilarious. A lovely film where even Corrie’s Mavis gets a bit part as a New York socialite!

The Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light was a good rather than great film, but it was well worth catching. Tom Hiddleston is excellent and I understand he does the singing himself, which makes it an even bigger achievement, as the segments when he’s onstage at the Grand Ole Oprey are particularly good.

Our Kind of Traitor is another good rather than great film, different from the normal spy movie, let down by an ending that was a bit too low key.

I went to see Everybody Wants Some!! on the strength of the director’s last film Boyhood and rave reviews for this. I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly Porky’s 8, but it wasn’t far enough away from it.

Though its ending is somewhat implausible, Sing Street is a delightful Irish coming of age story, real feel-good stuff, with terrific performances from its young cast.

Art

Sicily: Culture & Conquests at the British Museum is a lovely presentation of the history of an island almost everyone visited, but most particularly the Greeks and Normans. It made me want to go back to Syracuse post haste.

I didn’t know much about the work of American photographer Paul Strand until the Strange & Familiar exhibition at the Barbican. In his retrospective at the V&A I loved his B&W portraits and films but the abstracts and B&W flora & fauna did nothing for me. Lots to like, though. Across the road at the Science Museum they look at the birth of photography with an exhibition featuring William Fox Talbot, who just about invented it. The thing that grabs you most is how much the art / science moved forward in its first decade; the difference between the 1834 pictures and the 1845 ones is extraordinary.

Other Worlds at the Natural History Museum was a spectacular exhibition of photographs of the planets taken from satellites and spacecraft then touched up in a real meeting of science and art. Across the road at the V&A again there was a hugely clever exhibition called Botticelli Reimagined which showed the influence of this 15th century artist on 20th & 21st century design, then on late 19th / early 20th century artists like the Pre-Raphaelites before leading you into the biggest collection of Botticelli ever seen in the UK. In this last section, I overdosed on Madonna’s and other religious subjects, but it was a highly original exhibition nonetheless.

Other

Trespass is the latest in the series of passionate, funny, campaigning shows from one-man opposition Mark Thomas. This one, visiting the Tricycle Theatre, looks at the erosion of our rights to roam this green and pleasant land. He was his own support, with different material. Great stuff. If only the real opposition could pack such a punch, as entertaining as they are!

 

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Contemporary Music

The Sessions at Abbey Road in the Royal Albert Hall was either going to be a very good or very bad idea. It’s really only a tribute show, but probably the ultimate in tribute shows, recreating 60 songs recorded in the iconic studio in a replica of that studio with a cast of 45 and the most stunning projections, sometimes onto a scrim and sometimes onto gauze screens on all sides. A truly amazing experience.

Show of Hands aren’t a band, well a folk duo, I know well, but I fancied seeing them in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and it was an absolute gem. Unamplified and by candlelight, with really funny (but brief) banter between songs. A delight from start to finish.

Opera

Pia De’ Tolomei is a rare Donizetti given it’s UK premiere (?) by English Touring Opera. I caught it at the Cambridge Arts Theatre while I was working up there. Though I wasn’t mad keen on the production or design, it was musically very good and I did wonder why it isn’t in the repertoire of opera companies.

Dance

It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting dance pieces than the pairing by Pontus Lidberg and Javier de Frutos that make up Ballet Boyz Life at Sadler’s Wells. Both were terrific and the dancing of the ten athletic young men was thrilling. Long may they continue to produce innovative exciting contemporary dance like this.

Film

Eddie the Eagle was another film that was way better than the critics would have you believe, but perhaps that’s because British feel-good movies are my favourite genre. So glad I followed a friend’s recommendation than reviews again.

Other

 I’m not sure how to categorise either Jonny & the Baptists ‘The End is Nigh’ at the Orange Tree Theatre or Little Bulb’s ‘Wail’ at Battersea Arts Centre. The former is part stand-up, part concert and part theatre about climate change – energetic, infectious fun. The latter is part lecture, part concert, part theatre about whales – quirky, eccentric and charming fun!

 

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….and 1st March!

Opera

Seven operas in nine days, starting with the Guildhall School’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, as good as any I’ve seen (and that includes Glyndebourne and Covent Garden). I particularly liked the design in a re-configured Silk Street Theatre, with the audience on three sides, and the singing was terrific.

Chabrier’s L’Etoile is more operetta than opera and has a preposterous plot, but I did enjoy it. The playful production at The Royal Opera House had a few too many cheap gimmicks, but it was fun overall. Vocal honours belonged to Kate Lindsey and Helene Guilmette.

WNO’s themed season of three operas that feature Figaro as a character, in chronological order, was a triumph. I’m not a big fan of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, but this production was frothy and fun. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was one of the best I’ve ever seen (probably helped by my intentional rest from Mozart operas) and Elena Langer’s new piece, Figaro Gets a Divorce, was one of the best modern operas of the many I’ve experienced. It was great to see veteran design team Ralph Koltai and Sue Blane at the top of their game with beautiful sets and costumes respectively, and the playing and singing in all three (with Rhian Lois a terrific cover for Susanna in the Mozart) was outstanding…..and all of this for less than £100 in the best seats in the house!

Back at the Royal Opera House, it was great to see Puccini’s triple-bill Il Trittico as it was intended. I’d seen this Gianni Schicchi paired with a Ravel opera, but not the others. The diversity proves to be its strength – a revenge tragedy, a spiritual piece and a comedy! – and Richard Jones’ use of three different designers proved a clever way of emphasising their individuality. One of the best evenings at this venue in a while.

Perhaps the best was saved until last (at least, musically) with the English Concert’s concert version of Handel’s Orlando at the Barbican Hall. Five superb, and brilliantly matched, soloists, led by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, complimented the crisp clean playing of the small orchestra and made the sort of heavenly uplifting sounds that Handel operas can make. A musical feast.

Comedy

Stand-up’s Elis James and John Robbins took a huge risk with their show at Cardiff’s Glee Club. Sitting at a table with microphones and two rows of their chosen beers, the less well-known Robbins read from his self-published autobiography while James listened and commented between chapters, and both got slowly drunk – for almost 2.5 hours. It sounds like an unlikely hoot, but it was very funny indeed!

Art

The Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House was a real treat. Lots of colourful tableau along a walking route through the gardens. I think this was a first, but hope it’s a regular feature.

Big Bang Data at Somerset House was an interesting exhibition, but maybe a touch over-ambitious. It tried to cover so much ground, it felt like little of it was in enough depth. Some interesting, thought-provoking facts, though.

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Even though I live in a big city, arriving in Melbourne after a week in sleepy Tasi was a bit of a shock to the system. I was concious of behaving just like those London tourists I ‘tut tut’ at all the time.

After an afternoon taking in the inner suburbs by car, we walked into Her Majesty’s Theatre and I knew instantly I was going to have a good time – the seats had been covered in gold, silver, turquoise and pink lurex. From then on, it was a riot of colour and the smile hardly left my face. True to his own 1992 film Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrman’s stage musical was warm-hearted, quirky and funny (and very colourful!). Little did he know its title would inspire a TV franchise that would lead to a resurgance in the dancing to which it is a homage. It was a great start to this second leg of the trip.

The following morning, I set off with my friends Gordon & Liz for Apollo Bay, taking it slowly along the Great Ocean Road, stopping occasionally, to their ocean-side home with 180 degree views of the said ocean, home cooking, too much wine (not a complaint) and a 4-day chill-out. Trips to Cape Otway and its lighthouse and resident koalas, the extraordinary Twelve Apostles rock formations at the ocean’s edge and a treetop walk in the temperate rainforst distraced us from the food and wine. Briefly. Four days later I was back in Melbourne.

When I revisit cities and find them better, I often wonder whether they have actually improved or whether I’m just a better traveller and get more out of them. Melbourne is a case in point; in truth probably a bit of both. It has certainly grown in the last 15 years, pretty free of the economic woes of other cities. Suffice to say I thoroughly enjoyed my revisit. I wandered the new Docklands, the expanded Southbank and the central core, uncovering architectural gems missed before like the shopping arcades and the bold new Federation Square next to Flinders St Station, now the heart of the city. The art bowled me over, both at the Ian Potter Centre for Australian Art and at the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) International. Great permanent collections and some terrific temporary exhibitions, I was in my element.

A tour of the Victoria Parliament, spookily like our own, was both informative and funny and a visit to James Cook’s parents cottage relocated from Yorkshire 80 years ago somewhat surreal. The city has many new buildings, chief amongst them the Eureka Building on Southbank which provided terrific 360 degree views from its 88th floor, which I quickly followed by views up from a Yarra river cruise. I was lucky enough to catch up with three people from a former client over a dinner and a lunch and to catch favourite comedian Adam Hills stand-up show for the first time as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, which was very much the Edinburgh Fringe with just the comedy.

I’ve always thought of Melbourne as second best to Sydney, now I’m not so sure. In 10 days time I’ll be able to compare afresh. Before that, it’s time for a doubling of temperature, a huge increase in humidity and five days in the outback. More of that to come…..

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Potted Panto and Potted Potter were such big seasonal hits with old and young that booking this was a bit of a no-brainer (even though the same gang already had another Christmas treat in the diary). Though there is much to enjoy in this third outing of the formula, it didn’t really live up to the other two and left me wondering if the Potted franchise is running out of steam.

On this occasion they attempt all 60 Arthur Conan Doyle stories in 80 minutes (plus a completely unnecessary interval, no doubt inserted by Nimax Theatres for reasons of a profiteering nature). This means that some are relegated to lines in a song or brief mentions and others given the normal Potted treatment, particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles, which spanned the somewhat intrusive interval. This is much less satisfying that the ‘miniatures’ that the previous show contained.

There is no doubting the charm and engagement Dan & Jeff create, but this year they’ve added a third performer, Lizzie Wort, and though she is perfectly capable, and has good chemistry with the boys, this somehow changes the dynamic without really adding much value. There are fewer characters than usual, which provides less opportunity for comic characterisation, and the set and props seemed less inventive. The biggest impression it left was that it was still work-in-progress rather than a fully developed show.

We had fun – and in all fairness the godson (AKA target audience) was laughing aloud a lot – but not as much as we expected. On this form, the godfather (AKA the grumpy old man, me) probably wouldn’t do a 4th. Methinks those Mischief Theatre boys & girls might have eclipsed Dan & Jeff with their ‘…..goes wrong’ series, but they haven’t got to three yet!

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