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Posts Tagged ‘Janis Kelly’

Picking up steam now; my first four-show day, though it started with a couple of small exhibitions. At the National Library of Scotland, Enduring Eye featured new prints from the original negatives of the photographer in Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctica expedition, and they are extraordinary. They bring to life this amazing adventure on the other end of the Earth whilst World War One is taking place. At the University of Edinburgh Library, Highlands to Hindustan brings together items from their collection given by people returning from India; a small but fascinating collection of pictures, sculptures, books and even some video and sound footage.

Enterprise was a show I added when it got a Fringe First Award and I’m glad I did. At Assembly Studio Two, it’s a satire on corporate behaviour, featuring four men in suits in various permutations in a series of short scenes which added up to a rather accurate and very funny expose of corporate greed and ruthlessness. Back at the Traverse One, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Adam was the fascinating true story of an Egyptian refugee girl’s journey to Glasgow and to manhood, with Adam telling the story himself, with the help of another actor. The closing scene, where video clips of hundreds of people with similar stories from around the world singing ‘I am Adam’ was deeply moving. The Last Queen of Scotland overcame the handicap of being in one of the fringe’s worst venues – Underbelly, a damp, caverness, airless space without natural light – and proved to be a very original story of a Ugandan Asian woman’s childhood flight from Kampala to Dundee in 1972 when Idi Amin, himself bizarrely obsessed with Scotland, expelled them. The Dundee accent was sometimes impenetrable and the superb actor playing her was young and white, but the true story of her return to her home country and the Kent refugee camp shone through. Only time for a solo pasta today as we were all in different places with busy days, before ending with comedy – Mark Steel at Assembly Hall. Steel’s recent divorce loomed large and my companions thought him bitter, which he was, but I thought he was also bloody funny, with insightful views of what’s happening in our society to go with the personal story. One of my favourite comedians with an excellent, very personal show.

Wednesday started well back at Traverse One with a proper play called The Whip Hand – living room set, five characters, dense plotting, multi-layered – which was a touch melodramatic, but unpredictable, pleasingly inconclusive, covering a lot of personal and geo-political ground. Very satisfying. An unscheduled interlude at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery enabled me to revel in the beauty of the recently renovated main hall once more, to see their latest hanging of an extraordinary collection of contemporary portraits, to catch an interesting exhibition called Looking Good / The Male Gaze, spanning five centuries, and a more depressing one of Graham MacIndoe’s photos of his own addiction in Coming Clean. Across the road at Stand One Mark Watson gave us some work in progress, partly created from audience pre-show input. A touch lazy, a bit rambling, but it’s hard not to like his anarchic charm, an antidote to the slicker comedians. A lazy afternoon with a light lunch, a glass of wine or two and a view of the castle in the fourth floor restaurant at Harvey Nick’s was followed by more comedy, favourite Mark Thomas with his new show at Summerhall. It re-cycles two ideas, with a new spin on Manifesto (more audience pre-show input) and the biographical Bravo Figaro, but his passion and audience engagement is unrivalled, so you do leave thinking you’ve spent 70 mins with an old mate having a bit of a rant. Dinner at http://www.fieldrestaurant.co.uk was a welcome return to their simple seasonal and local food; but I struggle to understand how they survive with twenty-six covers, of which we comprised a fifth! At the international festival’s The Hub, a late night ‘cabaret’ proved a disappointment, though views amongst the group differed, with me the most negative. Meow Meow’s would have been better if she’d dropped the Little Mermaid concept / ‘show’ and delivered her normal edgy burlesque cabaret, rather than a contrived piece which was good when she sang but fell flat on it’s flipper with the embarrassing sequences in-between. It was intensely uncomfortable, physically and intellectually, and I would have walked if you could have done so quietly. The main festival trying to be as cool as the fringe and failing.

The final day was the sort of eclectic one you can probably only get in Edinburgh. It started with my 10th production of an old favourite, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, staged and performed in the Assembly Hall by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I very much enjoy my outings to London’s conservatoires and I enjoyed watching future talent here just as much, in an excellent production. Odd to be at a full length fringe show after a week of pieces under 90 minutes, though. At the Fruitmarket Gallery, I rather took to Brazilian Jac Leirner‘s obsessive collection and presentation of all sorts of items – wire, rulers, spirit levels, cigarette papers – part of a very limited presentation of contemporary art this year. Cathy at Pleasance Dome was campaigning theatre, urgent and important as well as being good theatre itself. It was a new play effectively updating Ken Loach’s iconic TV play on it’s 50th anniversary, staged by Cardboard Citizens on their 25th. Like Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake, it puts up a mirror to modern society and in particular our approach to housing and benefits and shames us. Down in Leith, Volcano presented a riff on / deconstruction of Chekhov’s The Seagull called Seagulls in an extraordinarily atmospheric disused church. Full of surprises and, surprisingly, laughs, it was captivating if sometimes puzzling, but after processing it I realised it was quite faithful to the original, albeit with only five of the ten main characters – and a lot more entertaining! After a shaky start, seeming under rehearsed with poor sound, The Music of the Incredible String Band at the Playhouse Theatre, weaved it’s magic, bringing waves of nostalgia for 50-year-old music that is a key part of the soundtrack of my life. Eight soloists, including Mike Heron himself,  beaming in wonder, and a surprising but delightful triumvirate of ladies, opera singer Janis Kelly, folkie Karine Polwart and Barbara Dickson(!), were accompanied by seven musicians, including Heron’s daughter, a member of the McColl folk dynasty and Danny Thompson, who played on many of the original recordings. A lovely conclusion to the week.

Perhaps not up to 2015’s vintage year, but a particularly diverse one. Disappointing for art, but great for music, the Traverse on fine form and excellent food. Until 2018………

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Opera companies are attracted to Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece and it’s easy to see why, though it’s been to mixed success. I’ve seen it done by Opera North and at Covent Garden. This year, ENO imported a New York production, though more of a concert, and with only one kosher opera singer. Now it’s Welsh National Opera’s turn. I’ve also seen ten productions by theatre companies (two of them four times each) so you could say I’m familiar with and fond of the piece! WNO is also my ‘opera home’.

The production is an import from the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s a sort of industrial building with two double-height containers for the barber’s shop and Joanna’s bedroom. The chorus are the inhabitants of Bedlam. The setting isn’t Victorian, but more recent, with hints of the 50s / 60s in some of the props and costumes. One of its best ideas is fake barber / faux Italian Pirelli’s use of a Reliant Robin. The stage seemed much further away than it has when I’ve sat in similar seats for the opera on many occasions here before.

One of the chief pleasures of opera company productions is the musical standards and here the orchestra shine. Even though I’ve seen it work perfectly well with little more than a piano, the full orchestra brings out every nuance of the score. Using opera singers is sometimes less successful, though Janis Kelly is a fine Mrs Lovett and Steven Page an excellent Judge Turpin, neither falling into the opera singer trap of putting vocal perfection above lyrical clarity. Kelly is a good actress, with good comic timing too, and Page is suitably intimidating, with great presence. I also liked Paul Charles Clarke’s Pirelli. Soraya Mafi was less successful as Joanna, with a voice that was too high and too operatic. During God, That’s Good the chorus chewed the lyrics as opera choruses sometimes do.

Three roles are cast by musical theatre performers, with London fringe favourite Jamie Muscato a particularly good Anthony and George Ure delivering as Tobias, particularly in his duet with Mrs Lovett, Not While I’m Around. The weak link, I’m afraid, is David Amsperger’s Sweeney, with an inappropriate mannered performance style and nowhere near enough menace (though I have been spoilt by having Jeremy Secomb staring me in the face and scaring the pants off me on four occasions in the past thirteen months in Tooting Arts Club’s Pie Shop Sweeney). He also lost a few too many lyrics when it mattered, notably in A Little Priest.

Good to see (at a fraction of the price of ENO’s unstaged American import), but overall both the Twickenham and Tooting Sweeney’s of the last year or so have delivered more. Perhaps its time for opera companies to stick to opera?

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Opera

The Royal College of Music put on Britten in their Britten Theatre and did him proud with a delightful production of his comic masterpiece Albert Herring. It succeeded in every department – staging & design, playing & singing – and it was lovely to see Janis Kelly guesting at her old college where she’s now teaching.

Classical Music

The LSO‘s end of season concert at the Barbican was also a tantalising taster of things to come when Simon Rattle takes over in 2017. The first half was a lovely opera for children by Jonathan Dove based on the Minotaur myth with literally hundreds of community performers and the LSO and GSMD SO together. In the second half, the combined orchestras raised the roof with Walton’s 1st symphony. Exciting stuff, and wonderful to see the students side-by-side with the pros from one of the world’s great orchestras, which I sense it about to become even greater under Rattle.

The first Prom of 2015 was a cracker, with the Proms debut(!) of Vaughan Williams huge choral piece Sancta Civitas coupled with Elgar’s 1st Symphony and a bit of Debussy to kick off. Sir Mark Elder marshalled his Halle Orchestra and four choirs brilliantly. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters.

Dance

INALA, at Sadler’s Wells, the collaboration between choreographer Mark Baldwin, composer Ella Spira and South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo was simply extraordinary, a brilliant fusion of dance and music, Africa and Europe, beautiful and breath-taking. It had no narrative, yet it somehow managed to convey the essence of Africa. Gorgeous.

Film

Seeing Brian Wilson in concert in recent years has been so wonderful, a true survivor and genius returning to make the glorious music he began so long ago and the bio-drama Love + Mercy about his ‘lost years’ is an outstanding film. It’s a fascinating story of survival told beautifully and delicately. Not to be missed.

Art

The Carsten Holler ‘exhibition’ at the Hayward Gallery was a bit of a disappointment. The twin entrances – long pitch black tunnels which twisted and turned – were scary and disorientating, but very clever. From then it was really rather tame, though I didn’t take the aerial ride (which seemed very slow) or the slide down and out!

The Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust exhibition at the Royal Academy was fascinating. His box collages are eccentric and a bit obsessive but always interesting and intriguing. Downstairs was the best Summer Exhibition in years, thanks in part to the curation of Michael Craig-Martin, who’d painted three rooms (well, not personally!) in bright colours before hanging the works, and the courtyard sculpture and brightly painted stairs within.

At the NPG, the BP Portrait Award exhibition contained some brilliant pictures; the standard seems to get higher every year. An excellent institution. Elsewhere in the building, Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon added some glamour. Is there a more classically beautiful woman?

I’m not a huge fan of Barbara Hepworth‘s abstract sculptures, but I very much enjoyed her retrospective at Tate Britain, partly because it included excellent early figurative work and partly because you learned a lot about the woman herself.

The Barbican Curve Gallery was back on form with an installation where you walked on salt following a light, with a soundtrack, through the gallery! Intriguing.

A day trip to Margate for Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk exhibition at Turner Contemporary was well worth it. He’s the most interesting living British artist and his eclectic collection of pots (more than I’ve ever seen in one place) and tapestries was fascinating. It was supplemented by early films, paintings, drawings and other items. A treat.

Soundscapes at the National Gallery was a great idea and by and large a good experience, though at £1.33 per picture, perhaps not the best value in town! The paintings chosen weren’t predictable and the music which the six composers had written for each painting were diverse and fitting, but the atmosphere was occasionally destroyed by gallery attendants talking (I had to bollock one!).

The art month ended on the top floor of the Brewer Street car park in Soho for Carsten Nicolai’s light and colour installations. The best of them, unicolour, was an extraordinary projection of infinite coloured light changing frequently and mesmerising the viewer. Brilliant.

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Contemporary Music

When she walks onto the stage, she looks like she’s just left the set of Desperate Housewives or come straight from a meeting on Wall Street, but when Laura Cantrell strums her guitar and opens her mouth, you’re in the presence of one of the greatest modern country singers. She’s not been here for 6 years and with the release of her Kitty Wells tribute album, I wasn’t expecting such a varied set – the best of her back catalogue, some covers, some new songs and a few of the Kitty Wells songs. The two guitars (one sometimes pedal steel) / mandolin line up proved perfect for every song in a brilliant selection and ninety minutes later we were on our feet in appreciation. The Union Chapel proved yet again – despite the bum- numbing pews! – that it’s the perfect venue for this sort of concert.

Staff Benda Bilili are a bunch of homeless (well they were!) street musicians from Kinshasa, DR Congo, most of whom are paraplegic. They were the subject of a documentary that went on to raves at Cannes and a cinema and DVD release, part of which included making an album and making live appearances. Their Roundhouse show was as uplifting as the film, though in 75 minutes the pace doesn’t let up and this old man found it exhausting! Young Roger, who plays a one-string instrument of his own invention and manufacture, became a bit over-excited, but who can blame him given his journey. Great stuff.

A Sunday afternoon at the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year (plus the Stiles & Drew Best New Song Prize) – phew! what a title – proved a real pleasure. The standard was very high (I’m glad I wasn’t judging) which is what I find in my regular visits to our best drama / music colleges. Future musical theatre talent is secure, though how all of these will get work I don’t know. None of my personal top 4 made it, but I was happy with winner Taron Egerton (not just because he’s Welsh!) though less keen on the runner-up.

I don’t normally go to those benefit evening any more as they’re rarely satisfying because they cram so much in. Fortunately, Survivors UK at Cadogan Hall concentrated on a few excellent artists, including Lesley Garrett, Leanne Jones, Ian Shaw, Meow Meow and Hannah Waddingham, which made it a lovely musical evening. I was given a free ticket, which made me feel like a shit, so I made a donation higher than the cost of the ticket!

The Incredible String Band is part of the soundtrack of my life. I was surprised to see one of its founders, Mike Heron, on a bill with newbie’s Trembling Bells as part of Stewart Lee’s Austerity Binge mini-festival at the Southbank Centre, but couldn’t really resist. I certainly didn’t expect a magical hour of (mostly) early Incredibles’ songs. With help from Mike Hastings of Trembling Bells (and later the whole band), multi-instrumentalist Nick Pynn (who had opened the show with a virtuoso set) and someone called Georgia, he delivered these 35-40 year old songs so beautifully that Sleepers Awaken and A Very Cellular Song brought me to tears. Trembling Bells made the mistake of following him; however good they were, they were never going to live up to something so unexpectedly stunning.

Opera & Classical Music

Having been indifferent to James MacMillan’s last chamber opera, Parthogenesis, my expectations for Clemency weren’t high, which may be part of the reason I enjoyed it so much! It’s the story of three strangers who are befriended by Abraham and Sarah en route to reeking vengeance on twin cities full of sin. They prophesy a post-menopausal pregnancy for Sarah whilst the couple seek to persuade them to abandon their plan. I liked the triptych framing of the design and Janis Kelly and Grant Doyle were both excellent in the lead roles whilst the ‘triplets’ of Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall & Andrew Tortise sounded great singing in unison. The music is easily accessible, though yet again a lack of surtitles means you miss a lot of the (English!) libretto.

Ariodante in concert at the Barbican was an absolute joy. I’m a bit puzzled that I haven’t seen Baroque group Il Complesso Barocca and their conductor Alan Curtis before; the musicianship was exceptional and the assembled cast first class. After a shaky start, I warmed to Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s thoroughly dramatic performance as baddie Polinenesso. Karina Gauvin sang Ginevra beautifully and sounded great when dueting with Joyce DiDonato’s stunning Ariodante. Sabina Puertolas and Nicholas Phan sang Dalinda and Lurcanio respectively with great style. When he was asked to stand in as Odorardo, RAM student Sam Furness probably couldn’t believe his luck. He acquitted himself very well in such an outstanding cast, but so good was this evening he may have to come to terms with the fact it’s all downhill from here! It was DiDonato’s evening though – after only two concerts, I’ve fallen head over heals for this American mezzo. 

John Mark Ainsley’s lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall was a treat – Britten, Purcell & Poulenc – right up my street! We’re so lucky to have so many good tenors whose voices suit English song; just one week later I was back there for an evening recital by another – Ian Bostridge – whose programme was a very original affair, though very dark. It started with Purcell’s beautiful Music For A While and stayed light-ish in the first half with some rare Bach and Haydn pieces. After the interval, though, it was a funeral lament, bleak tales of violence pain and death of children and the American Civil War. It was all a bit challenging, but fortunately he encored with the opening Purcell to lift our gloom before we left!

Comedy

I love people who use their talent for good and top of this list is comedian Mark Thomas who combines humour and passion in equal measure so effectively. In his new ‘show’, Extreme Rambling, he tells the story of walking the wall between Israel and Palestine, the people he met and the things he learnt. It’s a rare thing to go home having learned a lot while being entertained (but not preached at) and the Tricycle Theatre is the perfect venue for this.

Film

I couldn’t believe Hanna was directed by the man who gave us Pride & Prejudice and Atonement – talk about change of direction! I loved the quirky cocktail of fantasy, action adventure and humour which was often unpredictable, never dull, but sometimes too violent (how on earth did it get a 12 rating?!). The Chemical Brothers soundtrack added much to the action sequences and the performances were all outstanding.

Attack the Block is another very good small scale British film, though I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so scary (it’s amazing how you can make giant cuddly toys terrify people!). It’s a very assured directorial debut but what distinguishes it most is a superb cast of (mostly) young actors. There was a certain frisson seeing it in Clapham, just a few miles from where it is set.

Art

A lovely afternoon of photographic exhibitions paired the RGS Travel Photography Prize with the Sony World Photography Awards at Somerset House. The former was right up my street but gave me a severe dose of wanderlust. The latter was much more extensive than I was expecting, including a retrospective of US photographer Bruce Davidson, such that it was too much to take in; but it was very varied and included some terrific stuff.

At the Whitechapel Gallery, there’s an excellent exhibition of the documentary photos, in nine series, by Paul Graham covering a journey up the A1 amongst other subjects! They also have a room with two terrific installations by Fred Sandbach made simply of string; for some reason I found then beautiful!

I suppose going to see an exhibition of someone whose work you have never liked seems perverse. Well, I wouldn’t have paid to see it, but as a Southbank Centre member, I decided to make this major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery one last chance to see if there really was anything to Tracey Emin’s soul baring autobiographical work. You will not be surprised to hear then that my conclusion is that there isn’t…..but I admire her immensely for convincing the art establishment that there is and in doing so make a shitload of money. This collection of drawings, ‘sculptures’, blankets and memorabilia may make for an interesting diary, but art it ain’t.

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MUSIC

Rufus Wainwright’s solo show at Sadler’s Wells took place on the stage of his opera, which opened there the night before. In the first half we were asked not to applaud as he walked on, during the set and as he walked off. He entered bedecked in a cloak with a train longer than the stage, walking as if leading a funeral procession. What followed was effectively a requiem for his recently deceased mother – the whole of the new album played in near darkness against a backdrop of giant projections of his eyes covered in black make-up. The voice still extraordinary, the piano playing with the power of an orchestra, this staging was deeply moving, very sad but musically stunning. In the second half he was back to his charming knowingness playing a real ‘best of’ set chosen by fans voting on his web site. He ended with his mother’s ‘Walking Song’ but couldn’t complete it without a tear – and some of us who loved his mother’s music shared it. He forgot his words or notes rather more than was acceptable, but in the end you only remember the wonderful songs, gorgeous baritone voice and rich piano accompaniment. Surreal but sublime.

At the Royal Court, they sometimes showcase work-in-progress and I went to Ten Plague Songs (actually, I think there were 16), a song cycle about the 17th century London plague by young musicals composer Connor Mitchell and playwright Mark Ravenhill. The singers included 80’s pop star Marc Almond, modern opera favourite Omar Ebrahim and musical’s veteran Nigel Richards and it was staged by opera director Stewart Laing, but I’m afraid it did little for me. The music was rather inaccessible and the lyrics not particularly striking. The last song (before the epilogue) was terrific, but by then it was a bit late.

Paul Brady’s London concert was his first in what seems like ages. What I remember most about the last one was how he annoyed much of the audience by banging on about how Irish immigrants were treated by the UK; on this occasion he prefaced the same song, Nothing But The Same Old Story,  with a rather defensive ‘this could be any country….’! This is one of his best songs; unfortunately, it showed up almost everything else as bland MOR music, a transition to which has been going on for years but now seems complete. He’s certainly lost his edge and I suspect I won’t be seeing him again. Judging by his inability to fill that many seats at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire (they closed the second and third levels completely) I suspect I’m not on my own.

OPERA

I Saw Rufus Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna, at the Manchester International Festival last summer (see July 2009 archive) and thought it was an impressive debut. This new production at Sadler’s Wells improves on that staging but if anything it’s slipped back musically, particularly in the first act. The new tenor isn’t good enough for the part, and Rebecca Bottone is again sometimes shrill and sometimes inaudible over the overloud orchestra which the new conductor fails to deal with. The second act though is masterly, there’s some gorgeous music, Janis Kelly is even better than before and the ending is now terrific. For his second opera, lets see something just as romantic but also more dramatic; there’s not a lot of story here for 130 minutes playing time.

DANCE

I’ve seen Mark Morris’ masterpiece L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato three times in the last 15 years but the last was 10 years ago, so withdrawal symptoms had set it. Despite the fact that he created this 22 years ago, it’s still the most uplifting show – a gorgeous Handel oratorio, beautifully played and sung, with designs in primary colours and costumes in pastel chiffon and dancing that is flowing, funny and bright. Bring on No 5…..

Pictures from an Exhibition is a hybrid theatre / dance piece given a couple of nights at Sadler’s Wells following a longer run at the much smaller Young Vic last year. Based on and featuring Mussorgsky’s music, with the composer as a central character in what appears to be a biographical piece, it’s rather hit-and-miss. There are some great moments, but there are lots of almost silent interludes too and it just doesn’t flow. It seemed like work-in-progress to me and a rather slight 60 minutes.

 OTHER

A visit with the RA friends to Skinner’s Hall was a rare opportunity to see Frank Brangwyn’s murals. I got really interested in this Welsh artist when I went to a museum in Bruges devoted to him – he left much of his work to his adopted city rather than his home city of Swansea, which seems to me to be a shame as I’m not sure many people ever go to see it! Anyway, they were fascinating and the rest of the hall and the history of this livery company were bonuses.

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