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Posts Tagged ‘Brighton Festival’

The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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Contemporary Music

Maria Friedman’s Bernstein / Sondheim cabaret at Brasserie Zedel, with her terrific pianist Jason Carr, was lovely. In addition to a great selection of songs, there were some great anecdotes. It was a new venue for me, which might well become a regular one.

The collaboration of favourite Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate and some Flamenco group I’ve never heard of was another of those punts at the Barbican Hall that paid back in abundance. They had no way of communicating with each other, no common language, but the skill was extraordinary and the sound uplifting and joyful.

Opera

Thomas Ades’ new opera Exterminating Angel at Covent Garden was musically challenging (as most modern operas are) but I got into it after a while. The orchestration was extraordinary and the ensemble of singers absolutely premier league. It’s based on a surrealist film by Louis Bunuel and it was, well, surreal, including live sheep on stage, who had done their business before it even started!

Ravi Shankar’s unfinished opera Sukanya, based on a section of the epic tale Mahabharata, got its world premiere on a short UK tour which I caught at the Royal Festival Hall. A real east meets west affair with the London Philharmonic & opera singers and Indian musicians & dancers, I rather liked it. It was the second of three occasions in six days that I saw the projection work of 59 Productions. It was lovely to be in a minority, with a largely Asian audience you never see at opera, though some of their behaviour was challenging!

Classical Music

The English Concert’s Ariodante at the Barbican Hall had lost two of its singers before the event, including personal favourite and star turn Joyce DiDonato. Despite this, it was a treat and Alice Coote rose to the challenge of replacing DiDonato in the title role.

On a visit to Iceland, I had the opportunity to attend a concert at their spectacular new(ish) Reykjavik concert hall Harpa, in which the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra played Brahms Violin Concerto, with Alina Ibragimova, and Shostakovich 5th Symphony, and jolly good it was too. The BA fiasco at Terminal 5, however, meant I returned too late for the LSO / Haitink concert of Bruckner’s Te Deum & 9th Symphony.

I like the originality, populism, informality and showmanship of Eric Whiteacre and his concert with the RPO was another good example of this. Mostly choral, with the terrific City of London Choir, they filled the RAH with sound (though sadly not the seats).

Dance

Northern Ballet‘s Casanova packed in a bit too much story for a dance piece to handle, but it looked gorgeous and I warmed to the film-style score. You could tell it was the choreographer’s first full length ballet, and the composer’s, and the scenario writer’s…..but an original dance theatre piece nonetheless, and another enjoyable visit to Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Film

I was in the mood for escapist fun, and I thought Mindhorn was a hoot, with a fine British cast, an original story and some great views of the Isle of Man!

Woody Harrelson’s Lost in London is the first ever ‘live’ film and it’s a rather impressive achievement, though I didn’t see it live. It’s also impressive that he was prepared to tell a 15-year-old true story that doesn’t exactly make him look good!

Art

The annual Deutshe Borse Photography Prize at the Photographers Gallery breaks new ground again with brilliant B&W portraits, a story of death in photographs and items, stunning silver gelatine B&W landscapes and a room of both film and slide shows. Downstairs, there are fantastic 50’s / 60’s street life B&W photos by Roger Mayne and a five-screen slideshow of the British at play. What a treat!

A wonderful, contrasting pair of exhibitions at the NPG. Howard Hodgkin Absent Friends was great once you stopped thinking of it as a portrait exhibition. They are abstractions based on his own feelings and memories of the subjects so they mean nothing to anyone else, but they are colourful and often beautiful. The pairing of photographs, mostly self-portraits, by contemporary artist Gillian Wearing and early 20th century French artist Claude Cahun was inspired. Though the latter’s B&W pictures were small and a strain on the eyes, the former’s were big and often spooky. Wearing’s family album and future portrait speculations were stunning.

I visited and much admired the controversial Eric Gill The Body exhibition at Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft. I’m not sure allegations of paedophilia since his death should mean we avoid the art he made in life, however distasteful his actions might have been. It was my first visit to this lovely little museum and the lovely Sussex Downs village in which it sits.

After abandoning one visit because of the weather, I eventually made it to For the Birds as part of Brighton Festival. It’s a highly original night-time walk through sound and light installations in the woods on Sussex Downs, all of which are about birds. A bit exhausting at the end of a long day, but worth the effort.

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We used to see a lot of US playwright Richard Nelson’s work; he wrote or co-wrote eight plays in eight years between 1989 and 1997 for the RSC. Of late he has been working with the Public Theatre New York, with the four-play Apple family cycle and now the three-play Gabriel family cycle, a fictional family in his real home town of Rhinebeck, New York. The plays cover eight months in 2016, ending two hours before polls closed at the presidential election.

Each play takes place in real time, in the kitchen of the Gabriel family home, with the same six characters, each time preparing a meal. In the first play they are gathered to scatter the ashes of Thomas Gabriel, husband of Mary, son of Patricia and brother of George and Joyce. His first wife Karen is in attendance, as is George’s wife Hannah. Patricia now lives in a home. It’s the day after Mary’s birthday in the second play, as the extent of the mother’s debts becomes clear, they try and work out how to deal with them and Thomas’ first wife Karen has moved into the house with third wife and widow Mary. Mother now has to share a room in the home. By the third play, the house is on the market and everyone is making plans to move on. It’s election day, but we end before polls close and the result is known. As a family of liberals, they wish for and hope for the right result, though not 100% confident in their chosen candidate.

The political situation only creeps onto the last third of each play; until then it’s a gentle Chekhovian family drama. They aren’t political plays as such; the election is a backdrop, though the issues of our times are in the foreground. Staged virtually in-the-round, you feel very connected to the characters. It’s one of the most naturalistic things I’ve ever seen. It’s a slow burn at first, but it draws you in and by the third play I was impatient for it to start. The six actors have been with it for over a year and they appear to have by now inhabited their characters. Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Jay O Sanders, Maryann Plunkett and Amy Warren are all wonderful.

After a hesitant start, I became captivated in the Gabriel family story. Great theatre.

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You can always rely on an arts festival for a quirky off-the-wall experience or three, and Brighton has a good track record in recent years. Last year I was communing with Shakespeare in an allotment, then going undercover for the police. 

This year was meant to start aboard a boat in Shoreham, but unpredictable tides meant it was relocated to Brighton Marina, an architectural eyesore if ever I saw one, which didn’t really feel like the right home for such a festival event. From here we cruised / bobbed around the English channel close to the harbour, with a trombone fanfare as we left and returned. It was meant to be in silence but my six fellow passengers knew better of course. Five Short Blasts Shoreham was effectively a soundtrack of the sea which included the people of Shoreham talking about their relationship with it, but we weren’t in Shoreham any more. As well as chatty, it was choppy, and I couldn’t help thinking how much better it would be without the relocation and without my fellow passengers.

I took in two multi-screen video installations en route to the next event, one called Virgin Territory, dance pieces by Vincent Dance Theatre exploring the downside of children’s obsession with their phones and social media, and the other talking heads telling their stories as outsiders in Turkish society, They/Onlar by Ipek Duben – both very good. Then it was Collisions by Lynette Wallworth, my first Virtual Reality experience – a twenty-minute film of an indigenous community in the Australian outback and their history and experience of nuclear tests. Without specs it was a bit blurry, with them it was steamed-up, but an interesting though somewhat disorientating experience nonetheless.

The final show was an illuminated walk in the woods with sounds, called For the Birds. By the time I got there it was raining fairly heavily. The thought of shuttle buses there & back, 80 mins walking in the rain, and then facing the closure if the M23 on the way home, with the consequential diversions, overwhelmed me and I abandoned it, though I’m hoping to catch it when I’m there again in 10 days time.

I’ve had better festival days…..

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For this second Brighton Festival site-specific, immersive show, I was texted with the location just twenty-four hours in advance It soon became obvious that nine of the others at the same place were there for the same reason. We were soon texted another location around the corner. This was the Ops Room where we were given our instructions to go under cover on a mission to infiltrate a domestic extremist group and get information about individuals within it. We were split into smaller groups and given directions to our next location, a nearby pub where a party was in full swing, band playing and bar serving drinks.

I mingled, approached and talked to people and eventually found my ‘target’, who after much persuasion introduced me to someone else who recruited me. After a while we were instructed to leave and meet our handler for a debrief. What was clever about the piece is the choice of a group unlikely to appeal to people attending such an event, so you didn’t automatically sympathise with them. Though I was a bit nervous during the briefing, I found myself adopting my chosen persona and getting drawn in to both the group, saying some shitty stuff that would never normally pass my lips, and the mission itself. When we were thanked for the info. we obtained, I felt strangely proud of my undercover skills!

It was a rather sociable experience as you worked in small teams and spent a lot of time talking to people, albeit most in character, though it wasn’t at all clear who were ‘audience’ and who were the 30 or so real ‘actors’. Like the brilliant BBC series Undercover, it certainly made me think about the whole issue.

 

 

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My insatiable appetite for site-specific and immersive theatre took me to Brighton on a sunny May day for two shows. This was the first.

It started on a bus fueled by used cooking oil. The man in tweed was handing out winner’s rosettes. I was third in the onion over 250g class. When we arrived at our destination we learned it was where eccentric 19th century Shakespeare scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (HP) used to live in a warren of mock tudor huts. From here we walked along the edge of some woods to a mini-lecture by an expert on HP, Charles Nichol. Along the way, we encountered a mute HP and glimpsed strange creatures who looked like trees.

The main event was a sort of treasure hunt through the lovely and very much active Roedale Allotments, in a small valley descending from what must be Brighton’s highest spot. We went individually in search of twelve allotment huts, each representing a different month, each with a plant referred to by Shakespeare growing in a pot with an accompanying postcard to add to our collection, a quote from the respective play written on a mirror and a knitted Shakespearean character. It ended with tea and cake and our final encounter with HP and the creatures, before the bus took us home.

It wasn’t until the end that I realised its deviser, Marc Rees, was the man behind NTW’s wonderful celebration of Dylan Thomas in Laugharne in his centenary year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/raw-material-llareggub-revisited). Both were delightfully quirky and eccentric events. This connection of a Shakespeare scholar and his home with Shakespeare’s plays and his enjoyment of growing was charming and a unique celebration of Shakespeare 400.

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By the time Ivor Cutler crossed my radar in the early 70’s, he’d been performing for a couple of decades but was now reaching people half his age thanks to the late, great John Peel singing his praises. Though he amused and fascinated me, I can’t say I ever became fan, more of a curious onlooker, but he stays with me in his contribution to Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom album, his performance as the bus driver in Magical Mystery Tour and, more recently, some Mark Morris dances set to his words and music.

It’s almost impossible to describe his oeuvre. He was a poet, humorist, singer (of sorts) and musician (with his trademark harmonium). He spoke in a deadpan mild Glaswegian accent, though he lived from his 30’s to 80’s in London. This Vanishing Point / National Theatre of Scotland co-production perfectly captures the essence of his eccentric, absurd, somewhat surreal uniqueness.

They talked to Cutler’s partner as part of their research and the first meeting provides the show with its starting point, Phyllis King becoming a character. What follows is a series of biographical scenes, taking us from his childhood (he tried to kill his baby brother when he was three!) to dementia in his final years, interspersed with songs, poems and other writings. Sandy Grierson’s Cutler and Elicia Daly’s King are joined on-stage by five multi-instrumentalists who provide sounds and voices as well as music. It’s a very charming homage, as quirky as the man himself.

The show visited Brighton as part of the festival and it’s perfect festival fare, attracting a very healthy audience for a Sunday matinee, accessibly priced. It has now become England’s biggest festival covering the whole month of May, with 750 shows (though still only a third of Edinburgh in 10 days less). Work like this suggests it’s time I gave it as much attention as the other one.

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