The Rest of February


My winter pairing at WNO at the WMC in Cardiff was Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, a hugely underrated opera, and Puccini’s regularly revived Tosca. The former was an excellent new production and the latter a 26-year-old one which has stood the test of time. Both were beautifully sung and conductor Carlo Rizzi has real feel for the Italian repertoire, so the orchestra sounded gorgeous.

Jake Heggie & Terrence McNally’s opera Dead Man Walking has taken eighteen years to make it to the UK and even then only semi-staged by the BBC SO. Why on earth haven’t ENO or the Royal Opera staged this modern masterpiece? Anyway, at the Barbican Hall it was an absolute triumph with a sensational cast led by Joyce DiDonato, Michael Mayes, Maria Zifchak and Measha Brueggergosman and students from GSMD in smaller roles. I left emotionally drained but privileged to have attended something so special.

Classical Music

The LSO and LSC gave one of the best performances of Mahler II I’ve ever heard at the Barbican Hall. It’s a big work that’s often more suited to bigger venues like the Royal Albert Hall, but here it was uplifting and thrilling.

Attending an LSO rehearsal in the Barbican Hall proved fascinating. Most movements were played right through before revisiting sections at the request of the conductor, soloist or players. Elgar’s 1st Symphony sounded so good I almost returned for the concert, and the rehearsal introduced me to new pieces by Janacek and Bartok.

Another of those delightful Royal Academy of Music lunchtime concerts saw their Symphony Orchestra virtually on fire under the baton of Jac van Steen in a beautiful Sibelius programme. I so love these lunchtime RAM treats.

The Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra’s programme of more obscure Stravinsky pieces from the first ten years of his exile was more enticing on paper than it turned out in performance, though the eight visiting singers from Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatoire were excellent, and their enthusiasm infectious.


Phantom Thread looked gorgeous and the performances were outstanding, but I couldn’t engage with the rather flimsy and inconsequential story at all, I’m afraid.

I adored Lady Bird, a delightful coming of age film told through the relationship of a mother and daughter. It feels like an Inde film but its nominated for BAFTA’s and Oscars.

I try and see all the Oscar and BAFTA nominated films and only one or two normally disappoint. This year, in addition to Phantom Thread, it was The Shape of Water. There was a lot to enjoy, but it seemed a bit slight and overlong. A case of too much hype, I suspect.

Finding Your Feet is my sort of film, a quintessentially British cocktail of humour & romance within a well observed account of growing old. Laughter and tears. Loved it.

I, Tonya is the most extraordinary true story made into a brilliant film which is ultimately sympathetic to its subject in the same way Molly’s Game was sympathetic to its subject. Two great contemporary true stories in one year.


A disappointing afternoon of art started with Peter Doig at the Michael Werner Gallery, where so many seemed sketches or unfinished works, and much smaller than his usual giant canvases. At the Serpentine Gallery, Wade Guyon’s digital paintings did nothing for me while up the road at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Rose Wylie’s child-like pictures did a bit more, but not a lot. On to the National Gallery, where I fared much better with Monochrome, an exhibition of black & white, grey and one colour art throughout history, ending with Olafur Eliasson’s yellow room. Fascinating.

Whilst visiting Cardiff, I popped in to the National Museum of Wales to see Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection. This Welsh photographer did just that – swapped photos with other photographers he met, including global figures like Cartier Bresson, which he has now given to the museum – a brilliant idea and a fascinating collection. Another exhibition called Bacon to Doig showed 30 items on loan from a major private collection of modern art; a real quality selection it was too. Finally, in a room containing a decorative organ they have removed the art and someone plays and sings a piece by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson called The Sky in the Room continuously – beautiful!

The Royal Academy’s exhibition Charles I: King & Collector doesn’t really contain my sort of art, but I admired much of the artistry, the significance of the collection and was hugely impressed by the extraordinary achievement of getting all of these pictures from all over the world into one exhibition.



I wasn’t planning to see Terry Johnson’s loving, funny & moving homage to his friend Ken Campbell. I wasn’t a Campbell fan (loved the eccentricity, struggled with the self-indulgent excess), so I didn’t think it was for me. On its last day, impulse propelled me to the Bunker Theatre for the matinee and now I feel I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

The last time I was instantly captivated by a design was upstairs at the Menier when I gasped as I walked into What’s It All About?, the Bert Bacharach homage. Tim Shortall has created an immersive carpeted environment with seating on three sides and three levels, populated by settees and chairs, lamps and plants, pouffes and cushions. Johnson himself spends most of the 90 minutes at a lectern telling us about his personal experiences in Campbell’s orbit. Jeremy Stockwell as Campbell turns up all over the place, mostly in the audience, illustrating Johnson’s memoir. A lot of it involves the ten-part 24-hour play The Warp staged in a disused cinema at the Edinburgh fringe almost forty years ago, but we also hear of the misguided disaster that was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the Rainbow Theatre, Campbell’s spectacular prank on the RSC (publicising it’s transformation into the RDC shortly after Nicholas Nickelby) and other shorter stories.

It’s beautifully written and inventively staged by Lisa Spirling and I was enthralled. It left me wanting to to travel back in time and live life all over again, this time as a Ken Campbell fan.

Juliet and Romeo

I’ve decided this charming, highly original dance-theatre piece – subtitled A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage – is more theatre than dance, so I’m going to write about it.

Juliet and Romeo are a modern couple, who survived because Romeo didn’t take the poison. They emigrated to Paris, married and had a child. The marriage is troubled and they’ve tried all sorts of therapeutic solutions before they get to this one – re-enacting episodes from their lives, chosen individually, in front of an audience. It sounds ridiculous as I write, but it was really rather captivating and it was surprising how much story you can pack into eighty minutes, a lot of which is occupied by dance / movement. You really engage with these lives and their stories.

There’s an eclectic soundtrack, from Prokofiev (obviously) through The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel to John Cage to accompany the often quirky movement which Ben Duke and Solene Weinachter perform. For dancers, they make very good actors, as the sections without movement were just as compelling.

A unexpected delight. Now finished at BAC, but heading for The Place.


It’s 40 years since punk, and the film on which this is based. Johnny Rotten’s now advertising butter and Vivienne Westwood’s a Dame making posh frocks. Toyah Wilcox is the one link between the film and stage adaptation, and she’s been promoted to Queen Elizabeth I. They haven’t kept it in its period, it’s now. It’s as much of a mess as the film (Jarman’s view just 11 years later) but there is something compelling about the theatricality of Chris Goode’s adaptation and I wasn’t bored, but don’t expect an explanation.

It appears to link the two Elizabethan times. Elizabeth I, accompanied by her court astrologer John Dee and Shakespeare’s Ariel is peering in on the present Elizabethan time, populated by a cross-dressing ‘historian’, a lesbian pyromaniac, two brothers who are also lovers and spend most of the evening naked, a performance artist, an exploitative impresario, a budding rap singer and others. It sets out to shock, but ironically doesn’t shock as much today. There’s sex, violence and dancing, but ‘historian’ Amyl Nitrate’s monologues are some of the best bits.

They’ve put temporary (and much more uncomfortable) seating on top of the stalls and on both sides of the stage to create a more in-yer-face environment. Chloe Lamford’s design looks like she’s recycled some of her Royal Court Grimly Handsome work. An appropriately anarchic feel pervades Goode’s production and Toyah as Queen Bess gets to sing her hit I Wanna Be Free at the end. It’s a very brave cast, who seem to rather enjoy being right in the middle of the mess.

Intriguing, sometimes fascinating, occasionally riveting, intermittently funny, but overall I was an uninvolved onlooker / voyeur and rather indifferent to it, and at 2.5 hours, for too long and uncomfortable.

Carmen 1808

Opera directors regularly take liberties with the work of dead composers, but this isn’t Carmen the opera, and Phil Willmott won’t be the first person to rob Bizet’s grave – Oscar Hammerstein did it for his musical Carmen Jones and Matthew Bourne for his dance piece Car Man. What Willmott has done is create a largely new story, set some 12 years before Prosper Merimee’s novella, on which the book for the opera was based, when Napoleon’s army had taken Spain. It’s inspired by a Goya painting, which appears to have dramatically changed his life. In two highly effective coup d’theatre, they create a tableau of this painting and dramatise the effect on Goya, who is the narrator.

There are elements of Merimee’s  story – the cigarette factory and Carmen herself, now a resistance spy  – but not a bullfight in sight. In essence, it’s the story of a fight for independence, though it sometimes can’t make its mind up if it’s Spain or Catalonia, in recognition of recent events. He’s placed Bizet’s tunes into this story, arranged by Teddy Clements, with new lyrics and book by himself. The recycling of the tunes works well.

Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s design is excellent, as are the costumes of Penn O’Gara and the lighting of Ben Jacobs, and it’s a great use of the Union’s space. There are some thrilling dances choreographed by Adam Haigh, where recordings of Bizet’s orchestral score are used to rousing effect. Otherwise, it was played on piano, with occasional guitar. Rachel Lea-Gray was very good indeed as Carmen, supported by an enthusiastic and passionate cast of sixteen.

I’m not entirely sure what the point is, but there’s much to enjoy here.

Cabaret at LAMDA

Given that it’s such a milestone in musical theatre, I haven’t seen this Kander & Ebb show anywhere near enough times. I first saw it in Sam Mendes extraordinary Donmar production twenty-five years ago, when they turned the theatre into the Kit Kat club, and last saw it in Rufus Norris’ chilling West End revival 12 years ago. This is the 50th anniversary of its London premiere, in the brand new LAMDA theatre. It’s a tough call for a drama school, particularly one like LAMDA, better known for drama than musical theatre. The result is a bit uneven, but worth seeing.

Writing a show about the rise of the Nazi’s revolving around a decadent Berlin nightclub would be brave now let alone fifty years ago and in Joanna Read’s production they’ve made it dark virtually throughout. For some reason, on this occasion, it struck me that apart from the handful of well-known songs, there are a lot of mediocre ones. Philip Engleheart’s design gives the Kit Kat Club an excellent, original aesthetic. The ending is absolutely chilling, but brilliant. It’s better acted than it is sung, but there’s an excellent five-piece band under Jonathan Williams.

It’s tough for drama school students to play a lot older, but here I thought Helena Antoniou and Scott Gordon did well as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. I liked Dylan La Rocque’s take on the MC, just about the right amount of camp. James Trent was an excellent Clifford and Harry McMullen and Milly Roberts impressed as Ernst Ludwig and Fraulien Kost.

Good to see it again.

The Birthday Party

I keep breaking my ‘no more Pinter revivals’ rule, lured by the cast and / or creatives, in this case both, though maybe it’s a subconscious desire to one day understand his plays. This team certainly don’t disappoint, but I’m no further forward on the understanding front.

It’s the play’s 60th anniversary. If you’d told those that attended the eight performances of its premiere production that it would be selling out in the West end today, they’d probably laugh. The audience was in single numbers when it was pulled prematurely. Pinter’s comedy with menace / theatre of the absurd must have baffled then as it still does, with its cocktail of ambiguity, confusion, contradictions and political symbolism. I’m still not convinced even Pinter knew what it was about, or whether it being about anything is the point. Despite the bafflement, it’s still compelling.

Ian Rickson’s staging and the Quay Brothers design are as good as any. Zoe Wanamaker and Peter Wight are perfect as the couple running the seaside boarding house, her rather batty and him a beacon of ordinariness. The part of Stanley, the prime victim, really suits Toby Jones. Goldberg is unlike any other role I’ve seen Stephen Mangham play, so he was a bit of a revelation, doing menacing very well indeed, as does his sidekick Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as McCann. Lulu is a small part but Pearl Mackie acquits herself well.

My plea to producers would be to use creatives and actors I don’t like so that I don’t feel compelled to break my own rules, though rule-breaking can sometimes be rewarding…..