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Opera

Porgy & Bess was probably my best Met Live experience. It was the same production as that at ENO last year, but with a largely black American cast telling a quintessentially American story, it seemed to be where it should be. The orchestra and chorus were stunning and every soloist shone.

My visit to WNO at WMC in Cardiff was for only one opera this time, but it was a rare outing for Verdi’s underrated Les vepres siciliennes where the orchestra and chorus were brilliant yet again, a handful of international soloists from Korea, Armenia, Italy and Poland were introduced to us and David Pountney’s production fused period costumes with timeless settings. Well worth the trip.

Little did I know that Met Live was about to reach another level with a simply stunning production of Handel’s Agrippina. The acting of Joyce DiDonato, Iestyn Davies, Kate Lindsey, Brenda Rae and Matthew Rose matched their superb singing, rare in opera in my experience. David McVicar’s staging and John Macfarlane’s design were brilliant. This was a highlight in a lifetime of opera-going, which a third of a million people could see at a reasonable price, unlike the few thousand who paid ten times the price to see it in Covent Garden last year.

Classical Music

Crouch End Festival Chorus was hugely ambitious and very enterprising with their concert of Glass, Stravinsky and Ives at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These were difficult works and you could see the concentration on their faces, and those in the London Orchestra da Camera, but they pulled it off with aplomb. A fascinating afternoon.

The LSO’s pairing of Prokofiev & Shostakovich works at the Barbican proved to be fascinating, with the orchestra’s leader given a moment to shine as a soloist in the former’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and the whole orchestra played superbly under Gianandrea Noseda in symphonies from both composers and a prelude from that other Russian, Mussorgsky.

The LSO’s Half Six Fix series at the Barbican reached its pinnacle with a thrilling Beethoven’s 9th conducted by Simon Rattle. The second movement never sounded better, the LSC were on fine form and there were four well matched soloists, but above all it was the orchestra who rose to the occasion, as they always seem to do under Rattle.

Contemporary music

The Musical Box are a Quebecois Genesis tribute band who have gone global, to the point where they get to perform at the London Palladium. I’m not really a tribute band man, but there was a buzz about this lot which I couldn’t resist, though by the interval I was wishing I had. It was post-Gabriel Genesis, instrumentally strong but vocally relatively weak and the visuals were patchy. About fifteen minutes into the second half though it took off on a wave of nostalgia. Now we were in MY Genesis period. It culminated with a spectacular encore of Supper’s Ready from Foxtrot. All 25 minutes of it. I went home happy.

Film

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a quirky film but I rather enjoyed its other-worldliness and its message. Why Tom Hanks performance is ‘supporting’ is beyond me; the film revolves around his character.

The Gentlemen was another film I put off until the last minute unconvinced it was for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the sort of violence I keep saying I don’t like. It’s very cleverly plotted and benefits from great performances against type by both Hugh Grant and Michelle Dockery.

I’m also one who avoids foreign language films because, as a slow reader who absorbs every word, I find that by reading subtitles I’m missing the visual, but I made an exception for Korean film Parasite after all the awards buzz and again I was right to do so. Highly original and completely enthralling.

Greed is a coruscating, thinly veiled, well deserved satirical swipe at the odious Philip Green, linking the exploitation of workers in the developing world with the fashion industry. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and it has an extraordinary cast of talented British actors.

Art

Picasso and Paper at the Royal Academy is a huge and astonishing exhibition. He is so prolific and, though I’d don’t like everything (cubism in particular), it’s littered with gems. I was overwhelmed by it all.

British Baroque: Power & Illusion, late Stuart paintings from 1660-1714, at Tate Britain wasn’t really my thing, more of academic than aesthetic interest. Also there, I caught Steve McQueen’s Year 3: a Portrait of London which was not really about looking at the 3128 classic pose class photos of 76,000 7-8-year-olds in 1504 schools, it was about engagement and citizenship and I admired it for that. The latest Spotlight one-artist room was devoted to British Zanzibar artist Lubaina Himid whose work of women with women was very striking.

Whilst in Cardiff, I visited the National Museum of Wales where there were three photographic exhibitions, the highlight of which was Martin Marr in Wales – loud, brash and colourful documentary photos. I’d seen and admired a small selection of August Sander’s portraits of 20th century Germans in a private gallery in London, but the bigger selection here didn’t really add much; it became a bit monotonous. Bernd & Hilla Becher’s Industrial Visions was what it said on the can – lots of photos of mines, water towers, factories etc. but it did contain one of the mine where my father worked all of his life, and others in South Wales, contrasting with ones in Germany and the US.

The combined running time of all the films and videos in the Steve McQueen retrospective at Tate Modern is an hour more than their opening time. Add in waiting and queuing time and you need to allow at least 1.5 days! I ‘sampled’ it, which was enough for me I’m afraid.

Blitz!

I’ve waited almost thirty years to see this Lionel Bart show again. The last time it was in London it was staged by the National Youth Theatre in the West End with a sensational performance from Jessica Hynes (then Stephenson) in the leading role. It’s the third of only five British musicals Bart wrote, coming immediately after Oliver! which was still running in the West End at the time. It now seems at home in a 70-seat theatre under the railway arches near Waterloo.

When it was first produced in 1962, the Second World War was far enough, but near enough for the spirit of the blitz to provide a nostalgic setting for the story of two families, the Blitztein’s and the Locke’s, whose lives become intertwined. Mrs Blitztein and Mr Locke are both market traders in Petticoat Lane, but they can’t stand each other, Locke being somewhat anti-semitic. Despite this, Locke’s son George and Blitztein’s daughter Carol are in love, a love that survives George’s war injuries and Carol’s blindness by bombing. Their parents’ melt and marry and there’s even a frisson between the grandparents. Three generations, two cultures, love conquers all. I love the populism of Bart’s work, and this is as packed full of great tunes as his other shows are.

Phil Wilmott’s staging turns the small space to an advantage, given that most of the show is set in the underground shelters. The choruses are fantastic and there are a whole load of excellent performances, with Jessica Martin terrific as Mrs Blitztein, Michael Martin as Locke and Caitlin Anderson, Conner Carson and Robbie McArtney as Carol, George & Harry respectively are great, with a lovely cameo from James Horne as grandad Locke.

Lovely to see it again.

A Number

This is the fourth Caryl Churchill play I’ve seen in the last twelve months – three revivals (two of which I’d seen before) and one new play(s). I first saw this seventeen years ago at the Royal Court with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig. Cloning was a hot topic at the time. Eight years later there was a certain frisson seeing a real father and son – Timothy & Sam West – playing it at the Menier, something that was tried again at the Young Vic in 2015 with John & Rex Shrapnel. So this is my third exposure and I’m still confused. That’s Caryl Churchill for you.

It’s set in the home of Salter, where he is visited by someone who turns out to be a clone of his son, who was sent to some sort of home by his father when he was struggling after the suicide of his wife. Salter realises the doctors have created more than one clone and is preoccupied with suing them. His actual son then visits, furious with his father about the cloning. Salter now says he was just trying to have a second chance to bring up a son properly. The first clone returns, knowing the truth, now hating Salter. After another visit from his real son, now very troubled, Salter invites another of the clones, Michael, who proves to be very normal and unfazed by it all.

Polly Findlay’s excellent staging plays out in five scenes over sixty minutes, superbly performed by Colin Morgan as all of the boys and Roger Allam as Salter. In Lizzie Clachan’s clever set we’re in the same room, but from a different perspective in each scene, miraculously transforming in the darkness between them. It’s a much more realistic setting than previous productions, and Morgan is much better at creating different personalities than his predecessors. The nature versus nurture debate is interesting, but I was left wanting to understand more about Salter and the doctor’s motivations, and the extent of and reasons for the cloning.

Though Noel Coward wrote around forty plays, this is one of only a handful that are regularly produced today. This production originated in Bath and after a short tour is heading to the West End, which the last production left only five years ago. That was a star vehicle for the return to London of Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati. Now its Jenifer Saunders’ turn.

Writer Charles Condomine decides to hold a seance at his home as part of the research for his next book. He invites local medium Madame Arcati to conduct it, and friends Dr and Mrs Bradman as guests to join him and his second wife Ruth. On the night, the ghost of Charles’ first wife Elvira appears. Only Charles can see and hear her, but others can sense her. She hangs around and becomes a disruptive force in the household. When tragedy strikes, we acquire another ghost and disruption becomes war.

It’s an enjoyable concoction, well staged by Richard Eyre, and well performed, not just by the highly impressive Saunders, but by six other fine actors led by Geoffrey Streatfield – even Anthony Ward’s excellent set gets to perform – but it left me a bit cold. Perhaps this was because it came a couple of days after more substantial fare like Albion and Death of England, though I can’t help comparing it with the Old Vic’s Present Laughter, where they breathed new life into the piece. This seemed dated, somewhat conservative and perhaps overly reverential.

It’s a Coward play I hadn’t seen before and for this reason, plus Saunders in fine comic form, it was worth the visit, at suburban rather than West End prices!

Death of England

No other art form could tell this story so well. It would have nowhere near the same impact on screen, big or small, or on the page. Clint Dyer & Roy Williams’ one-man monologue takes you hostage at close quarters, and Rafe Spall inhabits his character Michael in a towering performance of energy, passion and playfulness.

Michael is a lovable Londoner. He loves his mum, but worships his dad, who has a flower stall in the market. He’s a bit contemptuous of his sister. His best friend Delroy is black. Football is his game and the family team are Leyton Orient – and England, obviously. These are open, warm-hearted people, salt of the earth. We see the best of them. Then they are confronted by a political choice and a resurgent England head for the World Cup and for some patriotism becomes nationalism and racism and we see the worst of them.

Rafe Spall prowls the cross-shaped platforms, with almost every member of the audience in touching distance, making eye contact with virtually all of them. There’s no set as such, but the design team cleverly integrate the enclosed space with lighting and sound, with objects left all over the auditorium that Michael uses to illustrate his story. His character engages with us, banters, cheekily. It’s funny and charming, until Michael has a meltdown at a funeral when it becomes angry and passionate and incredibly powerful. These people have been used by other more powerful people, which has made some of them ugly.

I’ve long admired Roy Williams’ writing and here, with co-writer Clint Dyer, his ear for natural dialogue shines once more. Dyer directs too, and his visceral staging, and Spall’s extraordinary performance, create this testosterone-fuelled world, bringing alive the unseen characters and propelling the personal story and its socio-political parallels. I was enthralled and captivated for 100 minutes.

It was a co-incidence that I had returned to see Mike Bartlett’s Albion the night before and I was struck by how much they seemed like companion pieces. Michael and Albion’s Audrey couldn’t be more different, but they are affected and infected by the same thing. Two state of the nation plays, poles apart but resonating in the same world. Theatre doing what it does best, putting up a mirror to help us see and understand the world in which we live.

Absolutely unmissable.

Far Away

Playwrights often produce minimalist work later in their career – Beckett & Pinter, to name but two – and I sometimes wonder whether its because they’ve learnt to make their point more succinctly, or if it’s a drying up posing as profundity. This Caryl Churchill miniature was first staged nineteen years ago Upstairs at the Royal Court. She’s still writing; last year she gave us four short plays Downstairs at the Royal Court, a satisfying though not exactly profound evening.

There’s no denying the dramatic impact of this 40-minute piece, superbly designed by Lizzie Clachan and deftly directed by Lyndsey Turner. In a series of short scenes we move between a country home and a hat-making business. We know they are some fifteen years apart because Joan is a child in one and an adult in the other. As a child she witnesses strange nighttime goings on outside the home where she is staying with her aunt and uncle. He appears to be involved in torture and death. Adult Joan is a novice milliner, making elaborate hats for parades. In one short, chilling scene we witness a grotesque ‘parade’ of people wearing these hats. Finally, adult Joan is back at the farm reporting on even stranger events happening in this dystopian world. Fear is the word.

It’s brilliantly staged and the performances are excellent, particularly from the actress playing young Joan, but for me the play is too obtuse for it’s own good, and at £1 a minute I left the theatre feeling cheated, both theatrically and financially. I’m afraid the cynic in me favoured the drying up theory tonight. They should have paired it with another Churchill miniature – there are enough of them to choose from – or reduced their usual seat prices to reflect the significantly lower value – as it is, it represents about the same VFM as Londons most expensive shows. Think Hamilton.

It looks like the Bridge Theatre will be pulling the same stunt on me next week when another minimalist Churchill play gets a revival. I’d better wear my ‘I’m A Mug’ t-shirt.

The Welkin

After contemporary works about China – US relations, a nuclear incident and a sibling relationship as experimental physics, playwright Lucy Kirkwood has turned her hand to something set 260 years ago, women’s place in society at that time, in particular the legal and political worlds. I thought it was a fascinating play, with a superb ensemble of fine actors and a stunning design by Bunny Christie.

We start by briefly watching these women carrying out their daily chores, underlining their limited roles in the world. After a crime is committed and a young girl, Sally Poppy, arrested and tried, a ‘jury of matrons’ is formed to establish if she is pregnant, as she says she is. If she is, her execution will be postponed or she may be transported instead. The jury of matrons for this specific purpose provides the only role women can have in legal affairs at the time; they cannot be jurors who convict.

The final person to join this group of twelve women is midwife Elizabeth Luke, who is sympathetic to Sally. She proves Sally is pregnant, but not all of the others will accept this. As their deliberations progress, conflicts of interest and prejudices emerge. They are offered a (male) doctor to examine Sally and they accept this, but even this doesn’t break the impasse. It twists and turns in ways that surprise you and when they do reach a conclusion, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be implemented.

Bunny Christie has created a brilliant design whose jury room fills the Lyttleton stage, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, with Carolyn Downing’s sound design letting us know there’s an angry lynch mob just outside. The costumes establish the period and the accents the location as East Anglia. The ensemble, led by Maxine Peake in the best role I’ve seen her in, contains fine actors like Cecilia Noble, June Watson, Jenny Galloway and Haydn Gwynne. Ria Zmitrowicz is superb as feisty Poppy. James Macdonald’s staging is masterly.

Good to see another Lucy Kirkwood play, a bit of a departure, of a fascinating subject I’m not sure anyone has tackled before.