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The Rest of November

Opera

Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote 28 operas, but we hardly ever see them here, so GSMD’s The Consul was a great opportunity to see an opera I’ve only seen once, zonks ago in Stockholm, and a great job they made of it too (though I wish they’d lost the final scene!). The only Menotti I’ve seen in the UK was a double-bill of short works in a tiny room at the Edinburgh fringe, also ages ago. The audience was small, but one of them stood to take a bow; Menotti was now living in Scotland!

I’m very partial to Handel operas, and Rodelinda’s a good one. ENO assembled a superb cast, in which Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead and Neal Davies positively shone. Though I liked the relocation to fascist Italy, I thought some of the black comedy in Richard Jones’ production jarred, with laughter sometimes drowning out the beautiful singing. Still, musically exceptional.

Classical Music

The LSO’s celebration of Bernstein’s centenary at the Barbican started two months early with his first and third (last) symphonies. I don’t normally like narration but the latter had acting royalty Clare Bloom which helped. It was well paired with Bernstein’s flute concerto Halil and the adagio from Mahler’s (unfinished) 10th but in the second concert Mahler’s twice-as-long 1st, as much as I loved it, hijacked Bernstein’s bash by swamping his 1st.

Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin at Sadler’s Wells looked gorgeous and I loved the score, but the choreography seemed somewhat uninventive and I didn’t really engage with the story, I’m afraid.

Film

Call Me By Your Name is a quintessentially ‘continental’ film that’s (mostly) in English and I thought it was delightful, living up to its 5* reviews for once, and a brilliant advert for visiting Italy.

Paddington 2 is as charming as it gets, a delightfully funny film with a British who’s-who cast.

I loved Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and was surprised, at the end, to find it was based on a true story. That’s what happens when you don’t read the blurb and the reviews!

Beach Rats was a bit slow, inconsequential and overrated, I’m afraid. Another case of reviews leading me astray.

I can’t recall the real events depicted in Battle of the Sexes, but they made for a very good film, with Emma Stone impressive as Billie Jean King.

Art

I surprised myself by how captivated I was at Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Art Gallery. An untrained Haitian-American who started as a graffiti artist, this year one picture sold for £80m! Given he only lived 28 years, his influence is extraordinary. In the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, there was a climate change installation by John Akomfrah featuring a one-hour six screen film, two triptych’s and hanging containers, all of which I found rather powerful in making its point.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library was an excellent 20th anniversary celebration of the phenomenon, illustrating J K Rowling’s take on magic with real historical writings and objects, with handwritten drafts of the stories and book illustrations thrown in as a bonus, including very good ones by the author herself. Well worth a visit for potterheads!

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Contractions

A nine-year-old Mike Bartlett play that appears to have passed me by, revived by Deafinitely Theatre in a bi-lingual English / BSL production in the atrium of a corporate office, apparently once a trading floor!

There are four floors of hexagonal glass walls, behind which there are offices, a few still occupied, some being cleaned as we sit. We’re peering in to The Manager’s office, behind which we can see another (shared) office through glass. In a series of scenes spanning more than a year, The Manager meets one employee, Emma.

At first she’s checking her understanding of the corporate policy on relationships between employees, then questioning her on a possible relationship with her colleague Darren. As it unfolds, a relationship is confirmed, Darren is relocated, Emma becomes pregnant, Darren is transferred to another country and the company is effectively running their lives.

The Manager communicates entirely in BSL, most of which is repeated by Emma as if she were checking her understanding. She writes and draws on the glass behind and uses a projector as another tongue-in-cheek visual aid. Emma speaks and signs. Occasionally, something is said but not signed and vice versa, to simulate a deaf persons real experience. It’s extraordinary how much of the BSL the hearing can understand.

The corporate setting adds much to the authenticity and atmosphere of this satire on big brother corporations. Fifi Garfield is brilliantly deadpan and ice cold as The Manager, her expressions and movements speaking volumes in themselves. Abigail Poulton navigates Emma’s deeply emotional journey superbly. It’s sharply staged by Paula Garfield, and Paul Burgess’ design sits perfectly in the site-specific space.

Though I hadn’t seen it before, it seemed to me this deaf-led theatre company brings another dimension to another of Bartlett’s powerful miniatures.

Privates on Parade

It’s hard to believe that it’s the 40th anniversary of this Peter Nichols play (with songs by Dennis King), inspired by his own period in forces entertainment in the CSEU, and what a superb revival it is.

Set in the Malayan peninsula after the Second World War, when Britain was having a spot of bother with Chinese commies, SADUSEA entertains what’s left of the troops in Singapore before embarking on a Malayan tour to perform for an altogether different audience. The military leader is god-fearing Major Flank (brilliantly played by Callum Coates), assisted by corrupt Sergeant Major Drummond (Matt Beveridge, excellent), but the entertainment is led by Captain Dennis, outrageously camp and openly gay at a time when he would no doubt have been imprisoned back home. His entertainment troop includes a brummie, a cockney, a posh boy, a mixed race (Welsh-Indian) woman and newcomer Flowers. Their lives and loves are interspersed with rehearsals and performances. It starts as light and frothy but gets very dark indeed, though it’s often hilarious. I enjoyed Dennis King’s songs much more in this small-scale production, because they felt more authentic.

Mike Lees superb design and Kirk Jameson’s staging serve the play very well. Simon Green is outstanding as Captain Terri Dennis, with terrific turns as Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward and Carmen Miranda. I’ve been lucky enough to see the late Dennis Quilley in the original production, Roger Allam’s Olivier Award winning turn in 2001 and Simon Russell Beale just five years ago and Green is a match for all of them. There’s a most auspicious professional debut by Martha Pothen and a fine ensemble, most of which were new to me – Samuel Curry, Paul Sloss, Tom Pearce, Matt Hayden, Tom Bowen and Mikey Howe as the mute native help.

Well worth catching, whether you’ve seen it before or not.

Goats

When I saw King Lear With Sheep (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/king-lear-with-sheep), they peed and pooed just after it started. At the Royal Court, the goats took almost 2.5 hours, just before the end, and even then it was only No. 2’s.

The play is set in a Syrian village. The sons of most of the families are in the Syrian army. Some, like the local party official, believe they are willing conscripts fighting for the honour of their country. Others, like the school teacher, believe they are modern day cannon fodder and bait for the terrorists, who have been enlisted against their will. This divides families, the village, and probably the country.

We start at the martyrs ceremony, where the families of the dead soldiers are each given a goat as a tribute. Revelations unfold and feed the divisions, the most dramatic of which is the knowledge that when soldiers are captured, they are forced to call their parents, telling them they themselves have captured a terrorist and asking them what they should do to them. Whatever the parent’s response is, that’s what happens to the soldier, making the parents complicit in their plight.

It’s still in preview and a bit messy and rambling in both design and staging, though in some ways that suits the chaos that is Syria, but it drives home its points, that the government and the terrorists are as evil as one another, and the divisions they create destroy communities and families, perhaps irreparably.

Not everyone will stomach the realities of such a tragic war, particularly as a satire, but I thought it was an effective way of helping us understand the situation in Syria, and it’s the sort of play only the Royal Court or Young Vic can do.

We normally go to the Hackney Empire panto nearer to, or between, Christmas and New Year, but Christmas has come early and here we were in November.

There’s not a lot you can do to a story as iconic as this one, and they haven’t. There are, of course, local references and some current political snipes; Brexit and Trump, obviously. We also get a mini Strictly. Other than that, it’s a ‘vanilla’ Cinderella in the Hackney way, which means excellent production values, including Lotte Colette’s brash and colourful designs, returning regulars, both on stage and in the audience, and a largely new book and new score by Steven Edis (though with more known songs than usual, too many for me).

Writer & director Susie McKenna takes the baddie role as Countess Anastasia, Cinderella’s step-mother. Hackney regulars Kat B and Tony Whittle make a terrific pair of Ugly Sisters. Another regular, Darren Hart, charms the pants off us as Buttons. Stephane Anelli is a welcome newcomer as a very Italian Dandini (cue Brexit jokes) with great dancing, and hot on the heels (literally) of his Acid Queen at nearby Stratford East’s Tommy, it’s great to see Peter Straker’s returning to the Hackney panto as Baron Hardup.

Amongst this years highlights, we have pantomime horse Clapton, a pair of mice, another of those lovely luminous scenes and a flying horse pulling the carriage! One of the best lines came from the audience, whose participation was as enthusiastic as ever. MD Mark Dickman leads a fine quintet in the pit.

It’s not vintage Hackney, more to do with the choice of show I suspect, but any Hackney is a seasonal treat and the standards remain high and the spirits even higher. My posse were positive and we’re already looking forward to 2018.

Quite a few years ago GSMD introduced me to a Noel Coward play called Peace in Our Time, set in an occupied London at the end of the Second World War; the Nazis had won. Now they are introducing me to another rare Coward, an anti-war play set during and after the First World War. It’s a fascinating piece and it’s given a stunning production.

Coward wrote it in 1930, after being deeply affected by performing in R C Sheriff’s Journey’s End, another First World War play. He published it but decided it was too bitter to stage. It’s first performance took place in a PoW camp in Austria in 1944, where the prisoners included four professional actors. It was first seen here in 1968, on TV, and not until 1992 on stage, when it had its first production at the Kings Head Theatre. That was 25 years ago and its baffling that no-one has staged it since. Coward is known for comedy and songs, so in a blind test you probably wouldn’t guess correctly, though the dialogue does have his voice.

We start in the trenches with five very different officers. Cavan swaps watch with Robbins and is killed. At that moment, he becomes a ghostly presence back home where thirteen years have passed. He visits his mother, his former girlfriend, his newspaper baron father (a thinly disguised snipe at the Daily Mail) and his former army colleagues. The war has made nothing better and some things worse. When his time is up, we return to the trenches as he’s stretchered away. There’s one final moving moment at a war memorial.

William Dudley’s projection tunnel is extraordinary, enabling them to move to seven very different locations in two time periods, which helps Lucy Bailey’s staging flow so beautifully. Tom Glenister is excellent as Cavan, on stage throughout, and there’s a particularly fine performance from Nicholas Armfield as tortured Lomas, who writes a book after the war which Cavan’s dad’s newspaper riles against. In fact, the whole ensemble of twenty-five is outstanding.

Well worth reviving, in a matchless production. Only three more days.

This is the third new play by the prolific James Graham in four months, the other two (Ink & Labour of Love) still running in the West End, perhaps soon to become a trio with this. He’s cornered the market with recent history plays and what I love most about his work is that he recalls history you’ve lived through, illuminates and educates, but never forgets to entertain.

This has stylistic similarities with his underrated Monster Raving Loony, where he used British comedy shows to tell the story of that indispensable political party led by Screaming Lord Sutch. Here, the focus is on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire cheating scandal through the history of quiz shows, with examinations of the psychology of, and motivation for, participation and that very British obsession with fairness and equality along the way. It’s got the same playfulness (an audience quiz, with prizes, voting and even participation) and sense of fun, enhancing the storytelling and guaranteeing the entertainment.

We move from the creation of ITV, it’s earlier game shows and the pitch for this one to the entry and preparation by a network of very determined and thorough individuals to the show itself and the court case which followed, which itself became a bit of an entertainment in a life-imitates-art sort of way. It was fascinating on so many levels and always entertaining. Robert Jones’ terrific set takes you right into the TV studio, but also becomes the court and other locations. Lights, music, live projection and recorded video all add to the authenticity.

Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street are excellent as the Ingram’s, the couple at the centre of the storm that became an (untelevised) courtroom drama and international media circus. Nine other actors play over forty roles between them, from three to seven each. Keir Charles gets to be Chris Tarrant, Des O’Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Bruce Forsyth in quick succession; five terrific turns! We even get a Corrie cameo to illustrate a question, with Sarah Woodward and Nadia Albina bringing the house down as Hilda Ogden & Elsie Tanner respectively. The audience voted on their guilt twice and the verdict changed from one to the other, as it had in the vast majority of previous shows (but not me!)

Daniel Evans’ production zips along, captivates and entertains, but you also get an intriguing story within a frame of recent social history, this time popular culture. The return trip to Chichester was twice as long as the play, but it was well worth it.