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Posts Tagged ‘Guildhall School of Music and Drama’

I think this was Stiles & Drew’s first show. It’s first production at the Tricycle Theatre, twenty years ago, was directed by Mike Ockrent no less and Cameron Macintosh was its godfather. I loved it, and amongst my fond memories is the appearance of a young Clive Rowe who’d impressed me in the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s end-of-year musical Girl Crazy – it may even have been his professional debut.

It still strikes me as an impressive debut musical, with catchy tunes from Stiles and witty lyrics from Drew. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, it’s more about the characterisation of the animals than it is about the simple story.

In this production, it is mostly well sung, though the small band feels as if it’s in the room next door – well, it almost is, sitting behind a screen on a ‘shelf’ to the left of the stage. The performances too are mostly good – particularly by the three leads. Lee Greenaway is cute and charming as Elephant’s Child, Ian Knauer an authoritative presence as The Eldest Magician and I loved Lisa Baird’s feisty Glaswegian Kolokolo Bird.

The Tabard is a small stage for 11 actors; unfortunately designer Christopher Hone has made it even more difficult for them by over-designing a two-tier set which restricts movement and adds little. In addition, the costumes, though clever, fail to create the magical animal world.

So, a good show well performed but let down by the design and staging I’m afraid…..but worth a second look twenty years on.

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Contemporary Music

Another gem at the lovely Union Chapel – The Carolina Chocolate Drops – absolute joy! Since I first saw them at Bush Hall a couple of years ago they’ve grown – and so has their audience. They play an eclectic mix of bluegrass, country, blues and jazz on fiddle, banjo, kazoo and percussion (including bones and jugs!). The between song chat between and by Dom and Rhiannon is charming and you feel you’ve got to know them as well as their music. Thoroughly uplifting.

Gem followed gem with John Hiatt delivering a glorious set at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire one week later. The new band is great, though it did seem to limit his song choices meaning there was less light & shade than we’re used to from Hiatt. That said, it was a terrific 2-hour rock / blues set with the second encore – Riding with the King – a magical five minutes in a lifetime of concert going.

Opera

ENO’s Radamisto was a musical treat with six well-matched performances (though Ailish Tynan almost stole the show) and the orchestra sounding lovely. The production / design, however, was often baffling. The first half had giant walls covered in black and red flock wallpaper and Prince Tigrane was played for laughs by the aforementioned Ailish Tynan in padded suit, false moustache and fez. Why? A rare lapse in intelligence from director David Alden.

Another lapse at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, I’m afraid. Spinalba is a rarely performed early 18th century opera by an obscure Portuguese composer with Italian influences. Stephen Metcalf has set it in a contemporary old people’s home where the residents are rehearsing the opera. It’s a similar story to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and this production idea makes it virtually impossible to follow. To be honest, most of the time I didn’t know who was who or what on earth was going on in the opera within the rehearsal – I accept its innovation and cleverness, but at the expense of a complete loss of a story and characters? The music was pleasant if undistinguished and there was some good singing and particularly good playing, but it was all lost in ‘the big idea’ and I’m afraid I couldn’t drag myself back after the first 100-minute half.

Film

I found Social Network a fascinating insight into the extraordinary story of Facebook. It unfolds like a thriller, draws you in and keeps hold of you for the duration. Free of gimmicks, it’s beautifully filmed and edited with great performances. It’s great to see a young British actor (the excellent Andrew Garfield) get a Hollywood lead (playing an American too!), no doubt thanks to executive producer & honorary Brit Kevin Spacey CBE

Mike Leigh’s Another Year is charming and poignant, and a lot better than his last film Happy Go Lucky, but I still think he does edgy better than wistful! A study of loss and loneliness, each character is well developed and each performance is beautifully judged; Lesley Manville is simply terrific.

Filming the last part of Harry Potter was always going to be difficult but I’m not sure splitting into two, with the first half merely a long set up for the conclusion, was wise. Much of it is desperately slow, there aren’t enough ‘wow’ moments and the absence of scenes in Hogwarts and other iconic locations leaves you feeling a bit cheated. Of course, I’ll have to see the final part – let’s hope it’s a hell of a lot better. 

Art

I adored the Glasgow Boys exhibition at the Royal Academy, Unknown to me (and I suspect many others) these late 19th century artists stand up well against their contemporaries, the impressionists and post-impressionists. Their style is sort of Pre-Raphaelites meets Arts & Crafts and I loved it.

I learnt more from the British Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition than I did in two weeks in Egypt! It’s brilliantly curated; looking at lovely objects and learning about the practices of a great civilisation are given equal prominence and are equally rewarding – possibly the best of their big Reading Room exhibitions. 

Those wonderful people at Artangel have done it again with Surround Me, a song cycle for the City of London by Susan Philipsz which consists of pieces of appropriate early music broadcast at six locations across the city. Walking between them when The City is empty on a Sunday added to the pleasure. I sincerely hope she wins the Turner Prize, because the other three at the Tate Britain exhibition are dire! 

I’m afraid Treasures from Budapest at the Royal Academy was too full of things I don’t like – Madonna’s, Christ’s, still life’s and dimly lit drawings – to be at all enjoyable. With hindsight, I should have raced to the last three rooms and given the rest a miss.

James Turrell’s exhibition at the Gagosian includes a light installation for one person at a time. You enter it laying down on a sliding ‘tray’ and stay in there for 15 minutes. I’m not sure if I could have coped with that, but all the ‘slots’ are booked anyway, so I didn’t have to decide! Fortunately, the other two pieces – particularly the elevated ‘room’ you walk into where colours change and your perceptions are manipulated – are well worth the visit without it.

Kings Place is becoming completely indispensible and when I went this month there were no less than four exhibitions, plus interesting sculpture all around the atrium and outside. Developments in Modern British Art was a small but fascinating selling exhibition which included Sickert, Hodgkin and Riley amongst others. Face to Face was a captivating selection of c.60 British self-portraits from Ruth Borchard’s extraordinary collection. Jazz Legends was a superb selection of Sefton Samuels B&W prints of musicians from the 50’s through the 90’s. Norman Adams paintings had been hidden away so you had to hunt for them, but when you found them they proved to be a pleasant surprise. Amongst the sculpture, there was a terrific revolving water screw feature on the canal side. I didn’t go to either of the two concert halls on this occasion, but all the exhibitions are free and we had a great lunch in their restaurant. As I said, indispensible.

Visits

A visit to Sands Film Studios in Rotherhithe with the V&A Friends proved to be absolutely fascinating. It is an extraordinary place (think Dennis Severs House) over three floors of a former warehouse housing film stages, scenery costume and prop stores & workshops, a unique screening room / cinema and a picture research library. It’s run by two characters – Christina & Olivier – whose respective families also live there. Their most famous production is probably the brilliant 2-part 6-hour Little Dorritt made in the mid-80’s; the entire film was shot in 9 months inside these studios (no external filming) with every set, prop and costume handmade here too. There can be nowhere else like it and I feel privileged to have visited it as I suspect it won’t be able to survive this modern world; today they spend most of their time and effort making and hiring out period costumes – if you catch the forthcoming Treasure Island on Sky (I won’t!), it will be their craftsmanship behind the costumes.

I visited the new Supreme Court, again with the V&A Friends, and as much as I loved the building and found briefly sitting in on proceedings interesting, I could have done it all a lot cheaper and at my own pace by just turning up and moving between the three public galleries and wandering around the building; the guide added little. It’s a lovely restoration of the Middlesex Guildhall with original ceramics and woodwork alongside Peter Blake carpets and modern drapes and glass. In Court Two there were 5 judges, 13 barristers, 2 solicitors and 5 clerks hearing a case about knitting factory noise in the 70’s and 80’s – all that expense from my taxes rather wound me up!

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This was Kander & Ebb’s (Cabaret, Chicago…..) last show; in fact, Ebb ebbed away and died during (but not because of) it! It was nominated for eight Tony’s when it was produced on Broadway in 2007, and won David Hyde Pierce his Tony – rather spookily he was across town making his UK debut in La Bete on the same evening! I think this Guildhall School of Music & Drama production might be its UK premiere.

It’s a comedy whodunnit which takes place on stage and backstage at an out-of-town opening of a Broadway-bound musical in Boston. The inspector who calls turns out to be a musicals fan and there are three murders to solve and a show to put on.

It’s not a great show, but it’s fun. The book and music are just OK but the lyrics are good and it gets a spirited production by Martin Connor. It’s not the best GSMD cast I’ve seen, but there are excellent performances from Fred Lancaster as the cop, Paloma Oakenfold as the producer and Patrick Osborne as the British director.

Well worth catching if you’re interested in musical theatre and guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

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CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

I booked to see Elvis Costello in Oxford before his London Meltdown date was announced, so off to Oxford I went 3 days after his appearance here. His choices for this solo show were unpredictable and refreshing and he seemed very relaxed and confident. There was something that prevented it being a classic, but I can’t put my finger on what (though it might have been the man sitting next to me who sang along – albeit quietly – for most of the show!). Still, it was great to see him again, great to see him solo again and just great really!

CLASSICAL MUSIC

The Spitalfields Festival’s concert of Handel’s beautiful oratorio Saul in Christ Church was glorious. You will find more experienced, and no doubt better, singers and players than those of the Royal Academy of Music, but I doubt you’d get a more spirited and thrilling performance. Laurence Cummings conducted with brio and the soloists – Laurence Meikle, Clare Lloyd, Aoife Miskelly, Stuart Jackson and Roderick Morris – all sang with passion. The orchestra & chorus were so uplifting in the lovely Church acoustic.

OPERA

Albert Herring was Britten’s’ only comic opera and, as far as I know, the only British comic opera to enter the international repertoire. I’ve seen it before and liked it but it took the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s production for me to realise how much of a masterpiece it really is. It’s a simple story of village life, where a May king is crowned as there aren’t any worthy queens, but he too ultimately upsets the moralistic conservative village elders. It’s the way the music (orchestral playing as well as singing) conveys the humour that is so clever. The musical standards were as good as always at GSMD and the production values better than ever. Lucina-Mirikata Deacon turned Lady Billows into a brilliant (and appropriate) Mary Whitehouse clone and her busy bee housekeeper was excellently played and sung by Amy J Payne. The quartet of local worthies – Leonel Pinheiro’s mayor, Matthew Stiff’s policeman, Eva Ganizate’s teacher and Gary Griffiths’ vicar – was all superb. It was a great idea for butcher’s apprentice Sid (a terrific Matthew Sprange) and baker’s assistant Nancy (equally terrific Maire Flavin) to be played as punks! It was hard to believe Sylvie Bedouelle was a student, so believable was she as Albert’s mum. The children were played with gusto by Sophie Junker, Lucy Hall and Ciara O’Connor and Thomas Herford was a perfectly naïve Albert. My only negative would be that a dialect coach should have been employed to help the non-native English speakers – well, if you do it with Italian and German, you should do it with English! Another wonderful night at the Guildhall.

Mozart never finished his early opera Zaide (why?) so Ian Page decided to do so 230 years later (why?)! Instead of writing new music, he requisitioned other Mozart pieces, but with new English sung text from poet Michael Symmons Roberts and spoken text (of which there is too much) from dramaturge Ben Power and director Melly Still. What results in a cohesive finished product which somehow doesn’t come alive. The singing and playing is good rather than great, the acting is significantly better than opera’s norm and the staging is exceptional. A worthy effort, but one has to question whether it was worth all the trouble.

ART

Another catch-up month and a veritable art fe(a)st!

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto has taken over the upper galleries and all three outdoor rooftop sculpture courts of the Hayward Gallery for a playful installation which includes a ‘nylon’ labyrinth (which you can walk in and behind and view from above) and an outdoor swimming pool you can take a dip in. It was fun (and would be particularly good for kids) but as it’s made of thin fabric and plywood, I’m glad I was there on the first day as I’m not convinced it will survive 11 weeks! On the ground floor, The New Décor is a bizarre interior design exhibition where everyday items are subverted in terms of both appearance and display. I can’t really describe it, can’t say it caught my imagination but wouldn’t say ‘don’t go’. I think that might mean indifference.

The Saatchi Gallery’s new exhibition of contemporary British art isn’t going to make the impact previous ones like Sensation have – I’m not sure there are any Damien Hirst’s or Tracy Emin’s here (that could be interpreted as a relief!). Somehow it all seems a bit tame and derivative.

My friend Amanda’s twin brother Paul Rennie has an exhibition of 20th century posters at Black Dog Gallery to coincide with the publication of his new book. I’ve seen so many 20th century posters (Shell, London Transport, British Rail….) that I was pleasantly surprised to find much that was new to me. Small – just 60 or so prints – but perfectly formed.

The Beauty of Maps exhibition at the British Library is terrific. I loved the way it was curated, grouping by the locations they would have been first seen in – audience rooms, galleries, bedrooms etc. – and there are some wonderful items on view. I am going to have to go back as there’s just so much to see.

A day trip to Oxford provided an unexpected bonus as Modern Art Oxford had a Howard Hodgkin exhibition; he’s one of my favourites, but most of his work is in private collections. It’s a great space that the 25 pictures didn’t really fill, but there were a handful of gorgeous ones I’d never seem before.

Tate Modern has been a bit hit-and-miss of late, but their current pairing provides for an intriguing visit. I’d only seen one work by Belgian artist Francis Alys before (a room full of paintings of the same subject, St. Fabiola, which he picked up in flea markets and junk shops!). This comprehensive retrospective, A Story of Deception,  includes a lot more work, including footage of his walk through Jerusalem with a dripping can of green paint to recreate the 1948 Green Line (through checkpoints without being stopped!) and the re-creation of a gunman walking through Mexico City (until the police arrested him, but after an unnervingly long time!). The other exhibition, Exposed, links photographs from more than 100 years which are voyeuristic, clandestine or surveillance. It sounds tacky, but it wasn’t really (well, most of it!) and the older photos were fascinating – photos of people are much more interesting when they don’t know they’re being taken.

For a lover of the surreal, I was rather underwhelmed by The Surreal House at the Barbican. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble (and expense) to find connections and links to make it hang together as an exhibition that they rather bury some terrific pictures from Dali, Magritte et al…..but I loved the grand piano hanging upside down from the roof which explodes every two minutes and then implodes two minutes later!

I remember coming to London 30 years ago and going to see an exhibition of American artist Andrew Wyeth’s paintings at the Royal Academy. I was compelled to visit it after seeing a couple of images in a newspaper or magazine. It was sensational. I’ve been hunting Wyeth’s ever since, but most are in private collections. I was amazed to find none in public collections in New York, then thrilled when I discovered a gallery devoted to him in Pennsylvania where I also visited his studio and was introduced to the work of his father NC and son Jamie. So, imagine how excited I was when a Wyeth Family exhibition turned up on my doorstep at Dulwich Picture Gallery! Only 10 of the 55 completed pictures are Andrew’s but they are lovely and include a handful from his 80’s, the last decade of his life. There are some terrific pictures by dad NC who illustrated many iconic books including Treasure Island and Rip van Winkle but Jamie’s are not as good as the ones I saw in Brandywine. We’re also introduced to Andrew’s sister Henriette with four nice pictures. I’d have loved more of Andrew’s but there’s more in Dulwich than New York, so it’s hard to complain!

FOOD & WINE

When we arrived at Taste London this year it was obvious that the numbers had gone up and the show had gone down market. There seemed to be fewer Restaurants (which is the point of the show) and more bars and exhibitors. In the end, I did enjoy it but I suspect it’s another of those things you go to regularly and enjoy – until the world finds out, when you leave them to it.

OTHER

Only Connect is a theatre group who work with prisoners, ex-offenders and those at risk of offending and I’ve admired and supported their work for a couple of years, as a result of which I was invited to a workshop of scenes from the first act of a new musical called The Realness at their atmospheric Kings Cross base, a former chapel. The performances were astonishingly good, including a terrific one by male lead Mensah Bedlako, who took over at just 5 days notice! The show itself is very promising and I can’t wait to see the finished work. Support them on www.oclondon.org

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March was a ‘lull before the storm’ work-wise, so it was action packed otherwise! In addition to 12 theatre outings…….

MUSIC

Performing your classic album live in its entirety has become fashionable with old rockers, so it was no surprise when John Cale decided to do it with Paris 1919, accompanied by an orchestra. It didn’t really take off until the third song, not every song worked well and given that it’s little over 30 minutes that doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying experience on its own. Fortunately, he followed this with four cracking numbers with his terrific three-piece band and another two with the orchestra – and a brilliant encore (which we had to earn!), so the evening (though still not much more than 80 minutes) was redeemed.

There’s a straight line from The Kinks through Squeeze, Madness and Blur to Lily Allen representing a modern soundtrack of London. ‘Songs in the Key of London’ was another one of those compilation shows which sort-of tried to do this (and included songs from all but the latter), put together by Squeeze’ Chris Difford. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed as well as other shows of its kind, largely because it was under-rehearsed and the sound was inexcusably bad. Other former Squeezers Jools Holland & Glen Tilbrook and Chas and Suggs from Madness took part, together with an eclectic selection of the less well known. It had its moments and the surprise appearance of Elvis Costello at the end to sing Hoover Factory and My Brilliant Parade was a treat, if only to see him on home soil again.

Cara Dillon’s St. Patrick’s Day concert in Canary Wharf was lovely, if a little short and in a somewhat incongruous venue. A guest appearance from Seth Lakeman was a real bonus and whetted my appetite for a long awaited opportunity to see a full set from him (now booked for the Open Air Theatre in September!).

Whilst most young musicians seem to spend their lives repeating the formula that made them successful, a 60-year old called Peter Gabriel who has spent his life reinventing and innovating is still at it! His concert at the O2 showcased the new album of ‘covers’ (re-interpretations, I’d say) with a full orchestra and no band; it worked surprisingly well live in such a big space. The second half was an unpredictable selection of old songs re-arranged for orchestra including great versions of San Jacinto and Solisbury Hill. Old men showing the way; who’d have thought it!

I hadn’t clocked that it was Mothers Day when I booked an afternoon concert of Rogers & Hammerstein songs at the Barbican with two of my favourite musical performers – Maria Friedman and Daniel Evans – so it was a bit cheesy & populist for my taste. Though it was great to hear these songs played by a full orchestra and the singing was good, the song choice was a bit predictable and safe and the amplification (for the second time this week at the Barbican!) was poor.

Showstopper! is an improvised musical put together on the spot, partly from audience suggestion. In fact, it’s the same formula as Impropera (which I saw in December), the Scat Pack’s improv movies and others. They are as good as the inspiration at the time and this wasn’t a classic, but it was worth the trip. We ended up with Blood on the Heather – the story of the Glencoe massacre where the McDonalds and the Campbells fought each other – with songs in the style of Cabaret, Annie, Rent, Abba and Sondheim!

More classically, I went to another mezzo soprano recital of English song at Wigmore Hall, this time Sarah Connelly with a lunchtime programme of Purcell, Howells, Gurney, Warlock, Bridge, Britten and songs by her accompanist Eugene Asti. It was a lovely selection and she sang beautifully.

Purcell’s Dioclesian is a rarely performed ‘semi-opera’ about the Roman emperor of the same name (who I got rather interested when I went to Split in Croatia where the city centre is built within the ruins of his retirement home!). The Royal College of Music paired with an ‘early dance’ group turned it into a delightful evening. It’s not up there with his classics like The Fairy Queen, but it was good to catch it. The amount of musical talent on show in their Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir (most of whom also took the solos) was breathtaking. 

Britten’s War Requiem is one of my favourite choral pieces and it got a wonderful outing at the Barbican on the 50th anniversary of the London Concert Choir. The soloists – Janice Watson, Adrian Thompson and Roderick Williams – were fantastic and the Southbank Sinfonia made a terrific sound. It’s the greatest anti-war music ever written and still relevant and moving.

OPERA

Its 17 years since I was last in Wandsworth Prison (!), for Pimlico Opera’s Guys & Dolls. This month I returned for the same company’s Carmen. It worked well almost halved to under 90 minutes (it makes you wonder how many operas would benefit from similar editing!) losing none of the story and none of the best music. The cast of 11 professionals (including four excellent principals) and 13 prisoners gave it their all and though it’s a sad story, it was an uplifting experience. When you look at the faces of the performing prisoners at the curtain call, they tell you everything about the importance of this experience for them; if it changes only one of them forever, it will have been worthwhile…..and as you start the long walk out, the funny comments shouted from the cells remind you how many other lost souls weren’t performing. On this occasion, I was struck by the fact that half of the prisoner cast were recent immigrants to the UK and I’m still puzzled as to why…

The Guildhall School have been on a roll of late, so perhaps it was inevitable that there’d be a blip, and Cherubin doesn’t really live up to recent form. Massenet’s opera picks up where Mozart left off in The Marriage of Figaro and follows the exploits of Cherubin as he enlists. It’s a much neglected piece – it took 89 years to get a UK premiere in 1994, and that was its last outing here! The chorus is very good, but there were fewer outstanding leads (except the gorgeous soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg again!) and the set was rather ugly.

The London Handel Festival puts on a fully stage opera every year (and there are c.45 to choose from!) and this year was the best I’ve seen, in fact one of the best Handel operas I’ve ever seen.  Il Pastor Fido is a ‘pastoral’ (you know…..gods and shepherds, everyone loving someone who doesn’t love them, but it all ends happily!) with a dance-opera prologue and dances to end each act. What made this stand out was the most faultless and beautiful playing and singing, aided by the Britten Theatre’s terrific acoustic. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen eight pitch perfect and perfectly matched performances; it was 190 minutes of gloriously uplifting music and it flew by.

Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos has created an opera from Tony Kushner’s extraordinary epic play Angels in America and very good it is too. It was given a semi-staged performance at the Barbican with the BBCSO and an excellent, mostly American, cast. He’s managed to distil it from over 6 hours to just over two without losing the essence of the play. I really hope it gets a staging here soon, as it has in France, Germany, The Netherlands and the US.

Katya Kabanova at ENO was a musical treat with superb singing and playing. The minimalist set (you know chipboard, no colour, jagged angles and shadows) somehow heightened the drama, but I’m afraid I didn’t engage with it emotionally. Still, it sounded gorgeous.

DANCE

Sutra is an extraordinary multi-cultural collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbe Cherkaoui, sculptor Anthony Gormley, musician Szymon Brozoska and the Shaolin Monks from China! Its contemporary dance meets martial arts, though less athletic than I was expecting. The use of 21 coffin-like boxes is brilliant and I liked the score, played live by a 5-piece ensemble including the composer. In the end though, I’m not sure it’s the classic the critics have hailed it, though I was glad to have caught it. We smiled at the incongruity of a large group of the monks getting on the bus back to the tube after the show!

FILM

I can’t put my finger on why I’m indifferent about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The 3D as quite good, but nothing like Avatar at the IMAX, and there are some lovely characterisations in both acting (Helena Bonham-Carter in particular) and voice (Alan Rickman stands out). It just wasn’t magical and other-worldly enough!

I loved Crazy Heart, a film about a burned out alcoholic Country star for which Jeff Bridges won a well-deserved Oscar. For an American film on a subject like this, it was surprisingly unsentimental and all the better for it. T Bone Burnett’s music was excellent.

I’m not keen on war films – relentlessly depressing – but I felt I should catch The Hurt Locker given all those awards, and was very glad I did. It’s an extremely well-made film which manages to drive home the point that these wars are pointless and impossible to win than any news or documentary I’ve seen. Still relentlessly depressing though!

ART

Though I’m glad I went to see it, the Paul Nash retrospective at Dulwich Gallery doesn’t really satisfy. There are eight great pictures amongst a selection of work which seems to me to show a restless man who kept changing, not in an inventive way, but in an ongoing search for his own style.

You think you’ve never heard of Paul Sandby until you set eyes on the iconic 18th Century watercolours, sketches and maps at his exhibition in the Royal Academy and realise you’ve seen many as prints. It’s a very comprehensive collection and you get a real feel for how a man like this made his living more than 200 years ago. I was particularly taken with a picture of Cardiff with the original west gate and wall; I never knew Cardiff had a wall and it’s 10 miles from where I spent the first 18 years of my life!

Irving Penn’s Portraits is one of two fine exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. The originality of his B&W images rests on a complete lack of distracting décor and the fact that he often places his subjects into restricted spaces or limits the portrait to less than the whole of his subject. I liked them a lot more than I thought I’d like Vogue photos! In contrast, the second exhibition of Indian Portraits spans 300 years from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century and it’s rich with colour and detail and includes fascinating scenes of life.

There’s a really quirky installation at the Barbican’s Curve gallery from eccentric Frenchman Celeste Boursier-Mougenot . After walking through a dark space on decking with projections of guitarists playing but a soundtrack of birdsong, you get to a bright space with islands of sand containing guitars and cymbals being ‘played’ by zebra finches landing on them as they fly around the space. Just when you thought you’d seen it all…..

Until now, the work I’ve seen by Chris Ofili has left with a ‘so what’ feeling. I felt the same at the beginning of his retrospective at Tate Britain – his obsession with elephant dung, afro hairstyles and black women all seem rather childish, though I did like the colours and the titles ( including ‘7 bitches tossing their pussies before the divine dung’, ‘7 brides for 7 bros’ and ‘Albinos and bros with fros’!) made me smile. An extraordinary amount of money has been spent on a housing for his 13-painting series The Upper Room which I’m not sure it deserves. There’s a fun room of rather different series pictures, some a clear homage to Japanese woodcuts, a less successful room of obscure dark blue paintings and a final room of very different new work. In the end, it rather grew on me and walking back through it a couple of times, I stopped thinking and just enjoyed the colourfulness and playfulness of it all.

Tate Modern’s poster for its Arshile Gorky exhibition totally misrepresents it and drags people in under false pretences; if I’d paid, I’d be demanding my money back! The lovely poster picture is one of a handful in one room out of eleven rooms; the rest is shit (and if you change the ‘i’ to ‘o’ in his first name that would seem appropriate!). Their other current exhibition is a bit more interesting (only a bit mind), covering the impact in the 1920’s of magazine / movement De Stijl led by Theo van Doesburg. Painting wise it’s a lot of Mondrianesque red, black, white, blue and yellow boxes; I found the impact on design and graphics more interesting.

Visiting the Ron Arad exhibition at the Barbican was less of a must and more of filler; I was in the building with time to kill! Maybe that’s why I was so bowled over by it. I knew him as a man who designed interesting chairs, which he does, but he’s so much more – a designer-artist-sculptor-architect. The architecture was astonishing and completely new to me, and there were other objects like bookcases, vases and lamps. I loved Lolita the chandelier – you could text a message to her and it appeared as a scroll on Lolita! The exhibition design was terrific (he designed it himself) adding much to the pleasure of the experience.

Finally (anyone still there?) the Horace Walpole / Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A was interesting, though rather dull in presentation. A fascinating man with a great eye for art, design and style who ‘collected’ much more than the gothic he is best known for.

Phew; time to go on holiday for a rest……

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As you walk into The Pit Theatre in the Barbican Centre, the cast of 19 and 2 musicians begin a 20-minute medley of Coward songs as a curtain raiser to this 3-play evening; what a lovely way to start.

I don’t often go to the Guildhall School plays (though I regularly go to their operas and musicals) but the opportunity to see these rarely performed pieces was too good to miss.

Coward originally wrote 10 short plays, which were performed in a rolling programme of threesomes (though one was only performed once). One of these three – Still Life – went on to become the film Brief Encounter.

The first shown here was Hands Across the Sea, a drawing-room high comedy that sends up socialites of the time (Lord Mountbatten allegedly believed it was based on him and his wife). It was beautifully staged with some fine performances from young people acting old believably.

The Astonished Heart was a much darker tragedy / melodrama with a very believable jump from the apartment balcony! I found this more difficult to get into.

Still Life is a bittersweet romance with added comedy from the station staff who often seem to be in a different play. The passing trains were created by sound and smoke, including highly effective offstage crockery rattling!

These plays show Coward’s range – much more than comedy, music and musical comedy. The last Coward I saw at GSMD – Peace in Our Time – was also fascinating, showing an occupied Britain after the second world war had turned out differently. Why are these so neglected whilst we’re subjected to endless revivals of the safer Hay Fever and Private Lives?

The production values are beyond fringe and the company is extremely strong; a treat for less than the price of a cinema ticket!

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