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I caught the world premiere of Jake Brunger & Pippa Cleary’s musical adaptation of the late Sue Townsend’s book in it’s home town of Leicester just over two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/the-secret-diary-of-adrian-mole-aged-13-34-the-musical) so it’s good to report that I liked this London premiere even more. In a smaller space, trimmed by 20 minutes, with what seemed like a more unrestrained production and more energetic, infectious performances, it was a lot more fun.

Tom Rogers’ set is an extraordinary use of space, changing quickly from kitchen to bedroom to school and other locations, props turning up from all over the place. Luke Sheppard’s staging seems much more sprightly and the pace never lets up. A year in Adrian’s young life speeds by, through parental separations and reunions, falling in love with Pandora, being bullied by Barry, writing the school nativity play and the Royal Wedding. This is 1981, of course.

Benjamin Lewis is sensational as Adrian; a perfect characterisation with deadpan delivery and superb comic timing. Dean Chisnall has hot-footed it over from Working at Southwark Playhouse and makes a terrific dad, with Kelly Price excellent as mum. John Hopkins turns in a great cameo as neighbour Mr Lucas (and makes a hilarious schoolgirl with gymslip, pigtails and moustache!) and there’s a delightful pair of seniors in Gay Soper’s grandma and Barry James’ Bert Baxter. The whole ensemble seem to be having the time of their lives and it’s infectious.

I will be astonished if this doesn’t transfer, but I hope it isn’t scaled back up too much as it’s simply perfect as it is.

Catch it at the Menier if you can.

 

When I saw, and loved, this National Theatre of Scotland show at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh fringe two years ago, I would never have predicted I’d be seeing it in a West End theatre; it might be the most unlikely transfer ever. If anything, Lee Hall’s anarchic play with music is better second time around.

Our Ladies are the choir of a catholic school of the same name, from a back-of-beyond part of Scotland, who go to Edinburgh for a singing competition which turns into a bender of epic proportions, involving copious amounts of alcohol, underage sex and a riot of fun. The individual stories of the six girls are interwoven with the illicit hedonistic pleasures of the group.

It starts with some heavenly a cappella choral singing before they burst into the songs of ELO accompanied by an excellent three-piece band; ladies, obviously. These continue throughout, with choral pieces returning occasionally. It’s raucous, anarchic, rude and funny, yet the personal coming of age stories are often very moving and you get to empathise with and love these girls. The accents are sometimes impenetrable, which somehow adds to the authenticity. The six actresses, who appear to be the original cast, are all terrific, maturing in their roles.

It might be an unlikely West End hit, but it’s a breath of fresh air and I was so pleased I returned to see it again. A great curtain-raiser for my return to Edfringe on Friday.

This was one of those early 60’s US TV comedy shows, along with The Munsters the first foray into gothic-comedy-horror, that became a regular feature of the TV viewing of my youth, though I was surprised to find that they only made 64 episodes over 2-3 years (mind you, thats five times as many as Fawlty Towers!). A brief movie franchise came along in the early 90’s. What I hadn’t realised was that it all started with cartoons in The New Yorker in the 30’s. This musical adaptation originated in 2010. I saw an amateur production at the Edinburgh Fringe two years ago, but it’s taken until now to get a professional production in the UK. I caught it at the WMC in Cardiff.

It’s very faithful to the TV series, with family members Gonez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Grandma and butler Lurch all featuring. The story revolves around Wednesday’s attraction to, and possible engagement with, the rather more normal Lucas Beineke, son of Mal and Alice. A group of dead ancestors – Viking, Roman, Tudor, Warrior, Matador, Geisha, Madam, Ballerina, Jester and Ringmaster – complete the cast of characters. It’s fairly predictable oddballs-meet-normals stuff, though the book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice (responsible for the rather different Jersey Boys) is often funny. Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics are OK but not particularly memorable.

Diego Pitarch’s designs precisely recreate the family home, and family, most know very well. Matthew White’s staging was functional, but didn’t sparkle. The star of the show for me was Cameron Blakely’s Gomez, with great comic timing, lithe movement and a glint in his eye. Carrie Hope Fletcher is excellent as Wednesday, though her vocals become a bit X-Factor at times. Dickon Gough plays Lurch perfectly straight until his delicious exit at the curatin call.

It’s a big gig for the ever enterprising producers Aria Entertainment, it was good to catch it, but I doubt the tour will make it back to London.

It’s good to welcome the First Lady of Broadway to these shores, in a proper show too, albeit a one-woman one. We’ve only seen her before in concert, and only once in recent years. This show seeks to recreate a Billy Holiday concert before a tiny audience in a Philadelphia nightclub shortly before her death and its a virtuoso performance by Audra McDonald. 

Wyndham’s Theatre has had a makeover, with cabaret seating onstage and in the front stalls. Interspersed with the fifteen songs, accompanied by an onstage piano bass & drums jazz trio, an intoxicated Billy tells us things about her life, including her mother’s dalliance with the oldest profession, her dad’s desertion, sexual abuse, the men in her life, prison and her Carnegie Hall triumph. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable as you watch her breaking down before your very eyes, though when she sings it’s heavenly.

Even though its only 100 unbroken minutes, I felt it outstayed its welcome a bit and left me feeling somewhat depressed at the tragic life, but that takes nothing away from an extraordinary performance which had you on the edge of her seat willing Billy, forgetting you were watching a characterisation rather than a real person.

It has to be seen, but I’d like to welcome her back again with something more uplifting.

The Rest of July

Opera

La Voix Humaine is a rarely staged 50-minute one-woman opera by Poulenc, one of only three he wrote, and Opera Up Close are to be congratulated on an accessible, high quality production at Kings Place starring Sarah Minns with the score played on piano by Richard Black. Captivating.

A French double-bill at the Royal College of Music proved to be a delight. Chabrier’s Une Education Manquee, about a couple who didn’t know what to do on their wedding night, and Poulenc’s rather surreal cross-dressing boob-expanding Les Mamelles de Tiresias worked brilliantly together and the singing and playing was divine.

I saw the rarely performed Leoncavallo opera Zaza in concert a couple of years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing it staged. Sadly, the staging and design were so incompetent and inconsiderate (sightlines and audibility) that I wished I was hearing it in concert again! The final straw was a downpour soon after the second half started, where the noise of the rain on the canvas roof virtually drowned out the singers – but that wasn’t Opera Holland Park’s fault.

The Arcola‘s enterprising Grimeborn (geddit?) opera festival staged a musical-opera hybrid called The Marriage of Kim K which was a great idea, very ambitious and had its moments, but didn’t entirely work. It alternated between the story of Kim Kardashian’s short marriage to Kris Humphries, Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro and a British couple (him composer, her lawyer) on a couch fighting over the remote and switching between the two. It was this middle section which let it down by being rather dull and underperformed (and often out of tune). Gold star for trying, though, and hopefully we’ll see it again re-worked and improved.

Classical Music

I don’t think I’ve ever reacted so differently to two halves of the same concert as I did at Simon Keenlyside’s recital at Wigmore Hall. I adored the first half of Vaughn Williams, Finzi and Sibelius, but didn’t care for the more frivolous selections of Poulenc and Mahler in the second half, despite the obvious skills of the performers. A matter of taste, I guess.

The BBC Singers / Eric Whitacre concert at GSMD’s Milton Court was an absolute gem. An eclectic programme of ten pieces by living composers from five countries, including four world premieres and one UK premiere, with all composers present, with Whitacre’s first and latest compositions included. To cap it all, an encore of favourite Laura Mvula’s own arrangement of her song Sing to the Moon. Wonderful stuff.

Andrew Norman’s children’s opera A Trip to the Moon, based on the 1902 French silent movie of the same title, was paired with Sibelius 2nd Symphony in a terrific LSO Discovery concert in the Barbican Hall that saw the former involve local communities and both involve GSMD students, under Simon Rattle. Watching the white-shirted post-grad students sitting alongside the black-shirted LSO players provided a great sense of current musicians nurturing the next generation, which really moved me – and they sounded bloody great together too.

Soprano Sophie Bevan & tenor Allan Clayton gave a lovely recital of 28 Shakespeare songs by 20 different composers at Wigmore Hall, a very diverse and sometimes unpredictable selection. The acoustic was unkind to the soprano as it was to Simon Keenlyside’s baritone last week, which is a bit odd.

Contemporary Music

My first Prom this year was a late night celebration of Scott Walker‘s late 60’s solo albums, songs that have never been played live by anyone let alone Jarvis Cocker, John Grant, Suzanne Sundfor & Richard Hawley, with small choir and big orchestra! I didn’t think Cocker’s voice suited Walker’s songs, but the other three were terrific. I’m not a huge fan, but it was well worth the punt.

Film

Seeing Baby Driver broke a two-month film famine. It wasn’t the sort of film I usually go to – glorifying violence in a Tarantinoesque way – but it was exciting and brilliantly made, though let down by the implausibility of the ending.

Dunkirk is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary event. It was tense for the whole 100 minutes, but deeply moving too. Unmissable.

Dance

The Barbican gave over their Art Gallery for four weeks of performance art, well dance really, created by Trajal Harrall. There were lots of short works in different places, so I planned my visit to see as many as possible. Sadly, they weren’t as organised as me so I ended up having to go with the flow a bit, but that proved to be fun. I managed to sample about twelve pieces over a couple of hours and left feeling rather pleased with myself.

Art

A lot to catch up on…..

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition was great this year, though I missed all those architectural models I’m so fond of. Still, the biggest selling exhibition of them all had a lot I would have bought if I bought art!

If I wasn’t a Friend, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Sargent watercolours exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which would have left a gaping hole in my life because I loved it! Portraits, city scenes and landscapes, they were all wonderful.

A visit to Whitechapel Gallery en route to a concert proved disappointing as Benedict Drew’s The Trickle-Down Syndrome was slight, A Handful of Dust was a bit pointless and the ISelf Collection underwhelming!

White Cube Bermondsey is such a big gallery that trying to fill it with women surrealists was bound to lead to variable quality, but fortunately there was enough good stuff to make Dreamers Awake worthwhile.

You don’t expect to see Picasso in a private gallery, let alone 111 paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries & ceramics of Minotaurs and Matadors, all bar one from private collections! It wasn’t a selling exhibition and entrance was free, so I’m not sure how the Gagosian funds it, but I’m glad they do.

Gregory Crewdson‘s heavily staged and artificially lit photos are like stills from an indie movie or paintings by Edward Hopper, which appear to tell a story but tantalisingly don’t, quite. His Cathedral of the Pines exhibition at the Photographers Gallery puts nudes in white clapperboard houses in snowy landscapes. Weird but a little bit wonderful.

A lovely double-dip at the NPG en route to the theatre, starting with the excellent class of 2017 at the BP Portrait Award, followed by The Encounter, featuring drawings from the 15th to 17th centuries, mostly culled from private collections including fifteen, a third of them, from the Queen! Another treat.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern took me by surprise. Covering just 20 years of Black American art from the outset of the 1960’s civil rights movement, it contained some powerful, bold political statements alongside some terrific abstract pictures.

Though low lighting and overcrowding made Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum a bit of a challenge, it was great to see his complete range of gorgeous, finely detailed work. I shall now pour through the catalogue to see them properly!

The month ended on a real art high with Alma-Tadema at Leighton House, an artist I’d never heard of whose very comprehensive retrospective was absolutely fabulous.

This play with music places songs by Bob Dylan into a story set in his home town in 1934, seven years before he was born. The title comes from Dylan’s version of Scarborough Fair, but here the north country is Duluth, Minnesota and 1934 was in the middle of the Great Depression. It’s bleak and beautiful.

Nick runs a boarding house, up to his eyeballs in debt. His wife Elizabeth has dementia, his son Gene is an unemployed wannabe writer with a drink problem and his adopted daughter Marianne (a black baby abandoned at the boarding house) is pregnant. All of his guests are down on their luck. Widow Mrs Neilson is waiting for her inheritance, having an affair with Nick while she waits. Mr & Mrs Burke are waiting for money they’re owed; they have an adult son Elias with severe learning difficulties. Bible seller Rev Marlowe and boxer Joe Scott turn up late one night. They might not be who they say they are. Joe takes a shine to Marianne, though Nick has other plans for her. Then there’s the doctor, who acts as our narrator.

It’s great storytelling, as we’ve come to expect from Conor McPherson, and somehow the songs, written 30 to 60 years later, fit the time, place and characters like a glove, though they aren’t sung in character or even by one character; they’re not there to propel the narrative, more for atmosphere. McPherson directs too, and for a playwright he makes a mighty fine director, unusual in my experience! The arrangements and orchestrations by Simon Hale have a period feel and they are are beautiful, breathing new life into the songs. The band wrap around the outstanding vocals, always accompanying, never drowning. The staging, and Rae Smith’s design, reminded me of the musical Once – simple but atmospheric, particularly the photographic panels that come and go.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances; it is such a superb ensemble, benefiting I think for limited musical theatre experience and bad habits! Perhaps I should start with Karl Queensborough, an understudy playing Joe, who really was excellent. Ciaran Hinds has great presence as Nick and towers over diminutive Shirley Henderson as his wife, who is unpredictable and edgy and has the most sensational voice which I’m not sure has ever been heard on stage before. Sam Reid is great too as Gene, delivering I Want You so well a woman in the front stalls said out loud a perhaps unintended ‘wonderful’. Sheila Atim, also in fine voice, is ever so good as Marianne and Stanley Townsend, Bronagh Gallagher and Jack Shalloo give a fine trio of performances as the Burkes. Probably the most experienced musical theatre performer, the great Debbie Kurup, delivers Dylan’s songs beautifully.

Some may call it a musical, some the now derogatory term juke-box musical, for me its a play with music and its it’s own thing, something unique, and I loved it.

 

Nassim

If you’re interested in theatre, how can you resist an evening where the playwright presents his play to an actor, who has never seen it before, then stays around while the actor performs it, well actually participates in it? The actor changes nightly and I felt privileged to get Hattie Morahan – and Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpoor, of course. The trouble is, how can I possibly write about it…….

The play is fed rather than given to the actor, and its very playful. In just seventy minutes we learn about the playwright, his family and his homeland. We learn some Farsi; Hattie learns rather a lot of Farsi. We learn a bit about the actor. We learn something about ourselves. It’s a masterclass in communication and friendship. It’s funny and moving. It’s clever and surprising. It’s hi-tech and lo-tech. Above all it’s a captivating, heart-warming evening you could only ever have in the theatre.

I can say no more except urge you to catch it if you can.