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Posts Tagged ‘Improbable’

Another evening, another alternative Christmas show. Actually, not really a Christmas show at all. It might be Beauty & the Beast and it is (sort of) based on the 18th century French fairy tale, but it’s about as far from traditional adaptations as it’s possible to be. Forget the Cocteau film and the Disney musical, this is completely original and simply extraordinary. Oh, and don’t take the kids!

Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz are husband and wife performance artists. She’s Beauty and he’s the Beast, and he’s disabled. They intertwine aspects of their real lives and relationship with the iconic story; it even starts with introductions out of character and costume. They are aided by a pair of (virtually puppetless) ‘puppeteers’, Jonny Dixon & Jess Jones, who start with cut-out projections and move on to create flowers and birds with paper, arms for Beast and by the end of the show are as naked as Beauty and The Beast are. It’s captivating, intriguing, funny, moving and ultimately exhilarating. but it’s awfully hard to explain why.

At first, the stepping in and out of character irritates, but then you get used to it, then you actually like it. The scenes are played out in front of and on a stage, elevated wings and inside a small proscenium at the back. The period costumes are gradually shed. There is a hysterical (imaginary) sex scene involving a lot of fruit and it ends with one without the fruit. With a little prompting, the audience become dogs with a diversity of barks and surprising volume. It twists and turns yet somehow feels cohesive by the end; Phelim McDermott’s direction is full of surprises.

I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to leave an Improbable show (though this is a co-production with the couples own company, Oneofus), swept away by the imagination and ingenuity. A unique evening you should not miss.

 

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Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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It’s been a long time since I had an Improbable fix. This might be a minor Improbable, but minor Improbable is better than no Improbable. This one is effectively a long adults-only Punch & Judy Show.

There’s an oversized booth with lots of ‘holes’ of various sizes, some big enough for people and some just big enough for heads, with the traditional Punch & Judy size curtained aperture at the centre. It’s a mixture of live, somewhat gothic, characters including historical puppet masters Harvey & Havey, and puppets including a whole litter of piglets!

From a typical Punch & Judy starting point, we move on to Mr Punch’s trial for murder, his meeting with the hangman and his descent into hell. It’s all very macabre, but also often funny, and there are a couple of lovely songs for good measure. Other pleasures include a group of bell ringers – just the hands and bells popping out of various apertures in the booth!

It’s overstays its welcome a bit at 100 minutes, but it’s inventive and fun. Julian Crouch’s imagination hasn’t diminished, even if he is showcasing it on a smaller scale.

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Whoever had the idea of asking Graham Linehan to write, and Sean Foley to direct, this new version of a classic Ealing comedy was inspired. They bring a touch of absurdity, a sprinkling of surrealism and a cartoon-like quality, add lots of physical comedy and create a homage to the film rather than a film-to-stage transfer. Think Patrick Barlow’s 39 Steps meets Improbable’s Theatre of Blood and you’re getting warm.

It’s still set in 1956 and it’s faithful to the story, but freshly written. Designer Michael Taylor’s has created an enormous higgledy-piggledy multi-level house, with a nod to Heath Robinson, which moves to provide exterior locations and itself  ‘performs’, aided by terrific (and largely appropriately low-tech) special effects by Scott Penrose.

‘Professor’ Marcus has put together a team for a heist at Kings Cross and hires a room in Mrs Wilberforce’s house where, under the guise of rehearsing his string quintet, they plan their robbery. The successful (off-stage) robbery is cleverly staged, and the spoils brought to the house. Most of the play, however, revolves around their ‘getaway’.

It’s cast to perfection. Peter Capaldi is excellent as a gangling manic Professor, increasingly desperate in his attempts to keep it all together. James Fleet is perfect as a military con (gentle)man who seems a little fond of dresses. Stephen Wight is brilliant at the physical comedy required of his pill-popping cockney kleptomaniac (I just don’t understand why he isn’t covered in bruises – I winced a lot!). Clive Rowe is a wonderful big clumsy intellectually challenged bruiser with foot forever in mouth. Ben Miller is a delicious foreign Mafioso with a penchant for knives and a phobia of old ladies. Harry Peacock’s cameo as the tolerant local bobby is lovely. Then there’s Marcia Warren. What can I say? She’s so perfect as the post-war eccentric old dear who invented neighbourhood watch and quite how she keeps a straight face on stage all evening whilst all the chaos is going on is beyond me.

The original story apparently came fully formed in the dream of original screen writer William Rose and there’s a dreamlike quality to this version and this production. I found it delightfully charming; a smile never left my face and I laughed out loud often. It’s a big theatre to fill, but I do hope it finds its audience because it’s a very welcome, beautifully crafted evening.

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This is an 85 minute gem!

Two performers went out and asked the public what they should produce a play about and then asked them to create the story as a sort of ‘chain play’. The resulting piece tells the story of the process and stages the ideas and the play.

It’s really hard to describe the result; all I can say is that it’s original, inventive and very funny. I smiled for almost all of the 80 minutes running time and at the end I felt uplifted. It does ask you to examine attitudes to disability but does it so cleverly that it makes you think without ever becoming an ‘issue’ play.

It feels like an Improbable show so I’m sure Lee Simpson’s direction has played its part in creating something that is so consistently entertaining and thought-provoking, with just a handful of props, but the personalities and friendship of performers Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence is crucial to the piece and their charm and their chemistry is the key to its success.

Don’t try to categorise it, just go and enjoy it for what it is.

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