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Posts Tagged ‘Alex Jennings’

Contemporary Music

I couldn’t resist the two seventy-something Celtic Knights as part of BluesFest. Van the Man and Jones the Voice at the O2 Arena both proved to be at the top of their vocal game. They each played great one-hour sets with their respective bands and seven songs together, three at the end of Van’s set and four at the end of Tom’s. These collaborations were under-rehearsed, rather random and disorganised affairs but they came out charming. The contrast between Tom’s extrovert showmanship and Van’s introverted cool was extraordinary. A real one-off treat we’re unlikely to see again.

Blood & Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl at the Barbican was another of those themed compilation shows which proved to be a delightful evening featuring his wife Peggy Seeger, folk royalty like the Carthy’s, Unthanks and Seth Lakeman and a whole load of MacColl’s. I have to confess I knew few of his songs, so much of it was a bit of a revelation, particularly The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face. When his son read out the names of those who’d covered this, you realised the family was probably still living off the royalties!

Billy Bragg’s concert at Union Chapel was by and large a return to the solo electric style of his early years, with much of the material coming from this period, though there was a pedal steel guitarist for part of the show. It was lovely, helped by being in my favourite concert venue and the attentive audience. He included his anti-Sun protest song which made me realise he’s about the only protest songster left!

I’m not sure what I was expecting of Lulu – Murder Ballad at the Linbury Studio, but what I got was a Tiger Lillies concert; a song cycle with superb projections and a dancer, but it didn’t add up to good storytelling and was actually rather dull, so much so that I left at the interval.

Opera

A concert performance of Handel’s opera Tamerlano at the Barbican by new (and young!) kids on the block Il Pomo d’Oro got off to a tentative start but soon found it’s form. Just twenty-five singers and musicians making a beautiful noise.

Morgen und Abend was more of a soundscape than an opera. A very impressionistic piece with an entirely off-white design and an off-the-wall sound. I’m not sure it sustained its 90 minute length and I think I’ll probably forget it fairly quickly, but is was original and something refreshingly less conservative at Covent Garden.

The first act of Opera Rara’s Zaza was a bit of a mess. There was so much going on and the comedy sat uncomfotrably with the love story. The remaining three acts were musically glorious, with a stupendous performance from Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho in the title role and terrific turns from Riccardo Massi and Stephen Gaertnern as her love interest. An impulsive outing to the Barbican which turned into a treat.

Art

The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern was rather a disappointment. It set out to show Pop Art wasn’t just a US / UK phenomenon. The trouble is, most it was second or third rate stuff and made you feel it probably was a US / UK phenomenon!

The Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the Royal Academy is one of the best contemporary art exhibitions I have ever visited. The combination of imagination, craftsmanship and the political statements being made is simply overwhelming. Wonderful.

Eddie Peake’s The Forever Loop was one of the most pointless and dull installations to grace Barbican’s Curve Gallery. Not even two naked dancers could liven it up!

Film

The transition of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van from stage to screen is a huge success. Maggie Smith is sensational, Alex Jennings is superb as Alan Bennett and it’s great to see almost the entire History Boys cast in supporting roles.

Spectre was generic Bond, though with a return to the tongue-in-cheek humour that has been lost in the last couple. The set pieces were superb and it sustained its 2.5 hour length. It’s also a Who’s Who of great British actors, with Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear and Ben Wishaw in supporting roles.

I was surprised that Steve Jobs only covered 14 years or so, but I learnt so much about what made him tick and I was captivated by it. Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet were both superb.

Brooklyn was a gorgeous piece of film-making. I loved everything about this tale of Irish emigration to New York set in the year I was born, and I blubbed!

Carol was a beautifully made film, the 50s again looking gorgeous, and the performances superb, though it was a bit slow for me, particularly in the first 30 minutes or so.

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Contemporary Music

West End Recast was an impulsive last-minute punt which proved a treat. The idea is that musical theatre performers sing songs they would never normally get to sing, because they’re the wrong sex, colour, age etc. It was slow to take off, until Nathan Amzi gave us Cassie’s Music & the Mirror from A Chorus Line! This was followed by a stunning Being Alive from Company by Cynthia Erivo (quite possible the best it’s ever been sung), then a brilliant Rose’s Turn (Gypsy) from Nick Holder to end the first half. The second didn’t reach these heights, but there was much to enjoy.

I’ve always thought Damon Albarn was the best (pop) thing to come out of the 90’s and has become someone, like Elvis Costello and David Byrne, who continually reinvents himself and is always open to collaboration and experimentation. Though his Royal Albert Hall show was built around his excellent new solo album, it dipped into other incarnations and included guest appearances from Blur’s Graham Coxon, musicians from Mali, US hip-hop outfit De La Soul, rapper Kano and virtual recluse Brian Eno! Albarn is clearly in a very happy place and this was a very happy concert.

As her brother heads for the middle of the road, Martha Wainwright continues to do concerts that combine eccentricity, fun and beauty, showcasing her extraordinary voice and ability to inhabit her (and others) songs. This Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was good as the Union Chapel outing last August, though this time her son on stage outstayed his welcome. As one of my companions said, it’s hard to concentrate on a song about a man dying of cancer when you’re petrified a 5-year old might be about to electrocute himself!

I was hugely disappointed by John Grant at the Roundhouse earlier in the year, but had hoped that with an orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall he would be a lot better. Well the sound engineer was having none of that. With bass levels at painful vomit-inducing levels and the orchestra often buried in the mush of the mix, this was another disappointment. There were snatches of greatness (when the man at the back with the machines wasn’t producing his electro shit) but on the whole it was great musicianship ruined by a seemingly deaf arsehole.

Opera

My first (of two) concerts in the short Mariinsky Opera residency at the Barbican Hall was the original version of Boris Gudunov. It was good but lacked the sparkle of Gergiev’s work with the LSO. They seemed to be wheeling out a Mariinsky staple for the Nth time and going through the motions.

The contrast provided by the following night’s OAE / Opera Rara concert version of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall couldn’t have been bigger. An orchestra, chorus and six soloists under Sir Mark Elder, all at the the top of their game, polishing a rarely heard opera and producing a musical jewel that shone brighter than Donizetti’s more popular operas. A spontaneous standing ovation is rare at such events, but not for this. Wonderful.

You can always rely on GSMD to give us a rare opera, but you don’t think of Dvorak as rare – productions of his operas are, though. We only ever see one of the eleven he wrote (Rusalka) so it was good to catch his comedy, The Cunning Peasant, in an English translation relocating it to Hardy’s Wessex. It’s a bit derivative of Mozart’s comedies and the first half didn’t grab me, but the second half was great. As always at GSMD, the production values and the performances were excellent.

The ever inventive Les Arts Florissants’ latest project is two short rarely performed Rameau opera-ballets, Daphnis et Egle & La naissance d’Osiris. The seven dancers, six singers and chorus of ten, all costumed, shared the bare Barbican Hall stage in front of the period ensemble, staging them as they would have been staged when they were first performed for the French Court in the eighteenth century. The stories are slight but it sounded gorgeous and this type of performance fascinating.

Glare at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio Theatre was a SciFi opera which I saw less than an hour after the SciFi film Interstellar (below) and it was less than half its length. I admired it more than I enjoyed it, but as modern opera goes, it’s better than most. All four singers trained at GSMD and one, Sky Ingram, blew me away here as she had there.

Dance

It’s been a privilege following the final chapter of Sylvie Guillem‘s career, as she transitioned from classical ballet to contemporary dance and this fourth show (for me) with Akram Khan, Sacred Monsters, at Sadler’s Wells had a biographical twist. The dialogue was a surprise and the shows playfulness was both surprising and delightful. The music was great and the dancing of both mesmerising. In almost exactly six months it’s the farewell show as she retires, wisely, at 50. Real class.

Classical Music

A second outing to the Mariinsky Opera Chorus, but this time on their own, unaccompanied, at GSMD’s new Milton Court Concert Hall for a programme of secular music and folk songs. The acoustic was a bit harsh when they were at full throttle, but the singing was gorgeous and the standard of solos exceptional. If only they smiled more.

The following day, at a lunchtime concert at St. John’s Smith Square, a small group of 10 singers, also unaccompanied, all young enough to be the children of the Mariinsky Chorus (!) made an equally gorgeous sound with music from both ends of a 500-year range. The Erebus Ensemble are an exciting new early music group who also tackle 20th century equivalents like Tavener and Part. Lovely.

Looking at a couple of hundred late teens / early twenties performing Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on Remembrance Sunday was deeply moving. 100 years ago, many of them would have been heading to the trenches and likely death. This added a poignancy to a beautifully sung and played requiem. The standards of the RAM orchestras and the National Youth Choir were astonishing and the three young soloists – a British tenor, a German Baritone & a Moldovan (former USSR) soprano, as Britten intended – were terrific. Not forgetting the excellent children’s choir assembled especially for the occasion. Conductor Marin Alsop’s command of it all was extraordinary.

The Chapel in the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a lovely venue for a choral concert and Rutter’s Mass of the Children and Britten’s St. Nicholas was a great pairing. Interval drinks in Wren’s beautiful refectory and Chelsea Pensioners in their bright red uniforms greeting all adds to the occasion.

A visit to Handel House with the LSO Friends included a short recital in the room where Handel himself held them, with his composition room just next door. The soprano and harpsichordist sounded lovely and it was great to hear music in this historic room.

The fourth and last of the Composers in Love series at St. John’s Concert Hall was Nocturne, a portrait of Chopin. Given the lack of letters left by him and his family, it was biographically sketchier than the others, but musically it was extraordinary and Lucy Parham converted me to Chopin, who hasn’t really been on my musical radar up until now. The readers this time were Alex Jennings and Harriet Walter (subbing for Juliet Stevenson). What a lovely series this has been.

Cabaret

I didn’t quite know what to expect from national treasure Anne Reid in cabaret (with Stefan Bednarczyk) at St. James Studio and I was delighted when it turned out to be the music of unsung musical theatre heroes Comden & Green, interspersed with the story of, and anecdotes from, their lives. Delightful & charming.

Film

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has the most incredible cast, a who’s who of British acting minus the ‘stars’ which would be guaranteed to win BAFTA’s Best Ensemble award (if there was one). Turner’s story is a fascinating one and Leigh’s attention to detail is extraordinary. A towering achievement.

I liked Set Fire to the Stars, about Dylan Thomas’ first US tour, when its American organiser had his work cut out to keep him under control. The US in the 50’s looked great in B&W and the performances, particularly Celyn Jones as Dylan, were very good, but I thought the focus was too much on the US organiser and not enough on Thomas, no doubt because of the star casting of Ethan Hawke.

The Imitation Game is an even better film than I thought it would be. It moves between Alan Turing’s childhood, wartime work and tragic final days and really does illuminate his story. In a terrific cast, Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary.

Even though I go to plays more than three hours long, films of similar length rarely hold my attention and I don’t really know why. Interstellar comes in just under three hours but I was captivated throughout. So so much better than last year’s Galaxy, maybe a touch too sentimental but an absolute must see.

Art

I’ve seen Anselm Keifer works in galleries all over the world, but seeing them all together in the Royal Academy’s retrospective exhibition was a bit overwhelming as they are virtually all dark and depressing with his brown-to-black palette. Many (but not all) are great as individual works, but together it’s a different experience. His books were a revelation, but displayed in cases open at one page seemed like a lost curatorial opportunity to me.

Waled Besthty’s installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery is more impressive for its execution than its visual appeal. It’s a whole year’s worth of images created using the cyanotype printing process covering the whole curved wall. You have to take in the overall impact rather than the detail (unless you’ve got a day or two to spare). It’s not the best the Curve has offered, but this space is still indispensable for innovative big scale works.

I’m afraid Mirror City at the Hayward Gallery went right over my head. Apparently, the artists are seeking ‘to address the challenges, conditions and consequences of living in one of the world’s busiest cities in the digital age’. Yeh…..back in the real world next door in the RFH, the annual World Press Photo Exhibition shows us what it’s really like living in cities, countries, the world; a reminder of last year’s events, mostly sad ones this year.

The Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain is a riot of gorgeous colour and a great companion for Mike Leigh’s film (above). It’s a brilliant example of how a man in his 60’s and 70’s can be bursting with creativity and originality. Upstairs in the Turner Prize exhibition there isn’t a painting in sight – it’s all film, slides & photos – I wonder what Turner would think. I hated it. In the Turner Galleries themselves, one room has been given over to Olafur Eliasson’s colour experiments where he tries to create the late Turner palette. The room contains giant circles each with their own colour range. Interesting.

Catching Dreams was the title of this year’s Koestler Trust exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees at the Royal Festival Hall and it was as intriguing and inspirational as ever. This must be excellent therapy and great that their work is seen and sold in this way.

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It’s sixteen years since my last visit to the Buxton Festival and twenty years since my first, and boy has it grown. Then there were two operas, now there are eight. It has dropped ‘Opera’ from its title and added recitals, lots of spoken word and more. It has grown a fringe that, like Edinburgh, has got bigger (though maybe not better – yet!) than its parent. Fortunately, it hasn’t succumbed to dressing up and other poshness, though the average age seems to have gone up (same audience getting older?) enabling me to feel good about bringing it down!

The first opera was Vivaldi’s first. He apparently wrote 50, but we rarely see any. By the interval I thought I understood why – mediocre music, perfunctorily performed here – but he saved his best tunes until the second half and the cast responded by raising their game significantly. Ottone in Villa is one of those silly love quadrangles with trouser roles and implausible disguises, but when the music was good, it didn’t matter – though three stifling hours on the hottest day of the year was a challenge!

The same first half / second half contrast occurred in the double-bill, with the first opera, Saint-Saens’ La Princesse Jaune, creaking somewhat, despite a clever set and good singing. It has been relocated to Paris and set in an attic where Lena is pursuing her cousin Kornelis who has an opium-induced fantasy about an oriental woman! A bit slight and a rather dated feel to it. The second, Gounod’s La Colombe, made up for it though; a delightful comedy about how a parrot gets killed for love! Beautifully sung, with Jonathan Best’s Maitre Jean a masterclass in comic opera performance. Les Brotherston’s clever set relocated this in the apartment below the attic of the first opera, which was still in view, as the top of the apartment had (just) been in the first opera without giving the game away.

I’d failed to get tickets for Britten’s Church Parables in Aldeburgh, but managed to get them for the same productions here, and what a treat they were. Written at two-year intervals over four years in the mid-60’s and performed in the same four-day period in June, they are now rarely staged (I’d only seen them once, in a concert hall). Though each lasts just 70 minutes or so, they have huge atmosphere when staged in a church, weaving an extraordinary spell. Singers process as monks to a high stage where they play out the parables – a woman’s search for her lost son in Curlew River, a father’s unconditional love in The Prodigal Son and Nebuchadnezzar’s killing of three Israelites in The Burning Fiery Furnace. Director Frederic Wake-Walker has infused them with Japanese, Middle-Eastern and Balinese influences respectively and it works. A big feather in Mahogany Opera’s cap and yet another treat for the Britten centenary.

The unexpected highlight was Literary Britten, which interspersed two Britten song cycles, beautifully sung by tenor Andrew Kennedy, with poems and letters to Britten by WH Auden read by Alex Jennings no less. There was a bonus too – a world premiere of Tim Watts’ excellent new song cycle. It was a perfectly formed 70 minutes and I was a bit surprised the audience weren’t cheering loudly – I think this might have been the inclusion of Auden’s more racy letters; it’s a conservative crowd here!

Add in a talk by former Labour MP and writer Chris Mullin and a walking tour of the town and you have as fine a festival weekend as you could wish for – despite the fact it wasn’t really the weekend to spend indoors! It was good to return and I hope (and suspect) it won’t be another 16 years before my next visit.

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These two short Alan Bennett ‘plays’ have been sceduled to run for a limited number of performances concurrent with his new play People on the NT’s Lyttleton stage.  Seen separately, I don’t think either would have made for a particularly satisfying evening, but together they do add up to an entertaining, funny slice of biography.

Hymn tells the story of Bennett’s relationship with music in his early years, when his dad played violin and he attended his first concerts. It’s a slight piece, but as a monologue accompanied by a string quartet it’s rather charming and Alex Jennings impersonation of Bennett is as delightful as it is uncanny.

Cocktail Sticks belongs firmly in Talking Heads territory, though it isn’t quite a monologue as other (real life) characters step forward briefly (which for the stage, and following Hymn, was a good thing). Mam looms large (beautifully played by Gabrielle Lloyd, though without the programme I’d have been convinced it was Marcia Warren) and Dad comes back from the dead to add a droll line or two. Alex Jennings is again terrific as Bennett. This one has more depth than it first seems and you do feel as if you’ve peeped into Bennett’s life, albeit briefly.

Clearly not major Bennett, but to be honest I think I enjoyed them more than People.

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When they first read the play, I would imagine the reaction was ‘how are we going to stage this?’, such is the cinematic quality of the writing – not surprising given the playwright seems to have only ever done screenplays before. Well, I suppose if anyone was going to pull it off, it would be Nicholas Hytner (with help from Bob Crowley’s clever set with four entrances – and what seems like a lot of dangerous angles).

The starting point is of course true. Stalin liked Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard (brilliantly staged at the National just last year) which led to him being asked (?) to write something about Stalin. Beyond this, much is speculation and fantasy in John Hodge’s play. Stalin ends up writing most of the play about his early life while Bulgakov runs the country, benefiting from Stalin’s patronage to a point where it is almost Faustain.

This is all surprisingly entertaining and often funny (though it gets darker in the second half) with lots of short scenes interrupted by flash forward rehearsal scenes of the play what they are writing. Of course, when you have Alex Jennings as Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale as Stalin, two of our best actors at the height of their powers, you’ve got a head start and both deliver the goods bigtime. Mark Addy is also outstanding as a secret service officer / intermediary and there’s excellent support from Nick Sampson as a doctor, William Postlethwaite (the late great Peter’s son)  as idealistic young writer Grigory and Pierce Reid as Sergei, who inhabits the Bulgakov’s kitchen cupboard in true Bulgakov fashion!

It’s a fascinating picture of the mechanics of a tyranny and in particular Stalin’s. He only has to think of something and its done. There are acts of extraordinary generosity as well as vile deeds – everything, of course, for a reason. There is much depth to the characterisations of Bulgakov and Stalin and their mutually dependent relationship is intriguing.

At last a new play at the National worthy of the venue’s stature.

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