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Posts Tagged ‘Judi Dench’

Opera

Scottish Opera visited Hackney Empire with new operatic thriller Anthropocene, which was multi-layered, brilliantly dramatic and superbly sung and played. It’s the first of the four Stuart MacRae / Louise Welsh operas I’ve seen and has whetted my appetite for more. Exciting stuff.

The Monstrous Child at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was terrific. The story of Norse Goddess Hel was brilliantly staged with gothic punk sensibilities and the music was strikingly original. They called it their first opera ‘for teenage audiences’ but there didn’t appear to be any in the lovely recently renovated space!

My winter opera visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff paired a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with another look at their fourteen-year-old Magic Flute. The musical standards were as high as ever, with Ballo a thrilling gothic creation, taking its inspiration from the love of theatre of the real life king upon whose life / death the opera was originally based, and Zauberflöte a revival of the Magritte inspired Dominic Cook staging, with terrific designs from Julian Crouch. Loved them both.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy SO was on blistering form again under Sir Mark Elder with a thrilling if melancholic lunchtime programme of Britten, Bax & Sibelius. Magic.

I’m very fond of baritone Roderick Williams, whom I’ve seen as an oratorio soloist and in opera, but never in recital. In Milton Court he sang beautifully, but the largely 18th Century German programme (Brahms and Schuman) isn’t really to my taste and the three British song groupings were lovely but not enough for a satisfying evening, for me anyway.

Film

Another great month leading up to and during the awards season, beginning with If Beale Street Could Talk, a superbly filmed and beautifully performed adaptation of a James Baldwin novel; the first, I think.

Boy Erased was a chilling true story of amateur gay aversion therapy in the name of god, which fortunately ended with the reconciliation of parents and son. Young actor Lucas Hedges impresses for the third time in recent years.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is another true story, beautifully told, with delightful performances from Melisa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. A bit of a slow burn, but ultimately satisfying.

I loved Green Book, a great comedy with heart, beautifully performed, anchored in a shameful period of American history, just 60 years ago.

All Is True looked gorgeous, but seemed slight and somewhat melancholic. Judi Dench was of course incandescent, Kenneth Branagh virtually unrecognisable and if you blinked you might miss Ian McKellen, the third person on the poster, suggesting a leading role.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery have discovered another Scandinavian artist, Harald Sohlberg, whose gorgeous landscapes I found enthralling. I was completely captivated by the colourful beauty of Painting Norway.

Don McCullin is a hugely important photographer who’s documented conflicts and their consequences worldwide for many years. His B&W pictures are stunning, but twelve rooms of Tate Britain is a lot to take in and it becomes relentlessly depressing, I’m afraid.

I like Bill Viola’s video works, which for some reason almost always feature people under water, but I’m not sure their juxtaposition with works by Michelangelo in Life Death Rebirth at the Royal Academy made much sense to me. It seemed like a curatorial conceit to elevate the dominant modern component and / or sell tickets.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory at Tate Modern was beautiful. This underrated contemporary of Monet, Matisse et al filled all thirteen rooms with a riot of colour; his landscapes in particular, many taken through windows, doors and from balconies, were stunning.

At White Cube Bermondsey, Tracey Emin’s A Fortnight of Tears consisted of three giant crude bronze sculptures, a room full of big photos of her in bed and a whole load of childish paintings which wouldn’t be selected for a primary school exhibition. As you can see, I loved it. Not.

The problem with Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire at the Saatchi Gallery is that it’s often not at all clear what its satirising! Better than some exhibitions there, though. The little Georgll Uvs exhibition of ultraviolet paintings Full Circle: The Beauty of Inevitability was lovely though.

Daria Martin’s installation Tonight the World in the Barbican Curve Gallery was based on her Jewish grandmother’s dream diary and featured the apartment where she lived before she left Brno to avoid the Nazis. In the first part, the apartment is the centre of a video game she has created and in the final part, film recreates some of the dreams there. In between we see pages of the dream book, too far away to read. Interesting enough to see in passing, but maybe not the Time Out 4* experience!

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Playwright Hugh Whitemore, who died this year, was better known as a TV writer, but between 1977 and 1987 he wrote four outstanding plays, all factually based, of which this was the second. The original West End production 35 years ago starred Judi Dench and her husband Michael Williams and ran for almost a year. This first major London revival at the Menier sees their daughter Finty Williams take on her mother’s role.

It’s set in 1960 in the Ruislip home of the Jackson family, a model of suburban ordinariness. Their best friends and neighbours the Krogers are apparently Canadians; the two families are very fond of each another. One day a man called Stewart enters the Jacksons’ lives and persuades them to allow surveillance from their upstairs bedroom. As the surveillance period is lengthened, Stewart feels obliged to feed them information about the reasons for it, until they discover it’s their best friends who are being watched. The highly-strung wife Barbara struggles to reconcile the reality of the warm friendship with the likelihood the Krogers are spies.

The period feel is extraordinary, from Paul Farnsworth’s brilliantly detailed design – the depth of a suburban house the width of the theatre, furniture, fittings and everyday items spot on – to the pitch perfect performances, with behaviour very much of the time. Chris Larkin and Finty Williams play the empathetic Jackson’s, the heart of the play, beautifully and Macy Nyman is terrific as their daughter Julie. Jasper Britton navigates the role of Stewart from gently persuasive to assertively determined extremely well. Tracy-Ann Oberman is excellent as brassy but loving Helen Kroger.

The attention to period detail and suspense does slow the pace, but I felt it just about sustained its length. In many ways its an old-fashioned evening, but Hannah Chissick’s impeccable production brings out all the psychological and emotional impact of this true story and makes it a very worthwhile revival.

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Terry Johnson’s idea to turn this into a musical is as good as the late Bob Hoskins idea to put it on screen. It’s one of the best screen-to-stage transitions and a must-see in its final two months.

The Windmill was an iconic institution. It brought revue to London. It brought nudity to the stage. It was the only theatre still open in the blitz. It was the heart of Soho. It’s a great story for the stage and for a musical and Terry Johnson’s adaptation, book and staging are outstanding. It tells the story from the meeting of unlikely business partners Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damm through their unsuccessful first shows, their negotiations with the government’s censor, the Lord Chamberlain, the successful nude tableaux shows to performing for soldiers during the second world war. The personal story of Maureen, from tea lady to star, her love (or not) for Eddie and her unwanted pregnancy is woven through it.

George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain are more used to producing film and TV music and their score is somewhat old-fashioned, but it suits the period being presented and it’s got some great tunes. Don Black’s excellent lyrics benefit from his significant musical theatre experience. I very much liked Tim Shorthall’s design, moving us successfully from backstage to onstage (and on the roof) with a couple of quick visits to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and Paul Wills’ costumes are delightful. I loved Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in comic numbers like the Lord Chamberlain’s song – and his fan dance is masterly!

It’s exceptionally well cast, led by Tracie Bennett, yet again inhabiting a musical theatre role, and in this case banishing the memory of Judi Dench. I don’t think of Ian Bartholomew as a musical theatre man but when I read his biog in the programme I realised I’d seen him in a handful of musical theatre roles and he’s excellent here (and in fine voice) as Van Damm. Emma Williams delivers yet again and is sensational in her big Act II number If Mountains Were Easy to Climb (one day she’ll be in a commercial hit again!). In a very strong supporting case, I was particularly impressed by Samuel Holmes as Bertie and Robert Hands as the Lord Chamberlain.

This lovely show doesn’t deserve its early bath and I strongly recommend you catch it in its final two months.

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Opera

Verdi’s Les Vepres Siciliennes is rarely performed and after almost four hours standing at the back of the Royal Opera House’s stalls circle it was easy to see why. There’s not a lot of story for four hours and Verdi’s music is nowhere near his usual standard. The singing wasn’t particularly distinguished, but I liked the production (which most don’t seem to!).

The GSMD excelled itself again with an unlikely double-bill of Debussy’s earnest but beautiful L’enfant prodigue and Donizetti’s comic one-acter Francesca di Foix. The Donizetti, in particular, was a little gem and an absolute hoot, given an inspired staging in modern settings (a smart clothing shop and a tennis court) but with period clothes. Beautifully played and sung, Anna Gillingham in the title role and Joshua Owen Mills (Welsh!) as the Duke were terrific.

In the BBC SO‘s semi-staged Albert Herring at the Barbican, this comic opera proved to be a minor masterpiece. Britten’s friend Steuart Bedford led a wonderful small ensemble and a first class cast, led by Andrew Staples as Albert, without a weak link in it. You could hear every nuance of every instrument and every sung word. A real highlight of the centenary.

The Early Opera Company’s concert performance of Handel’s Acis & Galatea at Wigmore Hall was a delight. The 13-piece ensemble under Christain Curnyn played the score beautifully and there were fine performances from Robert Murray and Sophie Bevan in the title roles. Matthew Rose was a stand-in as the giant Polyphemus but his powerful baritone nearly blew the roof off. Minor Handel maybe, but gorgeous nonetheless.

Dance

I’m not very fond of full-length ballets that are excuses for showcasing ‘turns’ by dancers in various combinations rather than telling the story (think The Nutcracker) and I haven’t enjoyed previous productions of Don Quixote that much, but I rather liked Carlos Acosta’s for the Royal Ballet. With handsome designs by Tim Hatley and fresh choreography, it often sparkled. The leading lady was injured during Act One and Marinela Nunez (who originated the role with Acosta as partner) took over and this somehow added even more sparkle. Sadly, Acosta didn’t come on as sub in Act Two or Three!

Another dance contribution to the Britten centenary from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Barbican, with four short pieces (including two world premieres), each set to a chamber piece, three of them vocal. In Phaedra, the soloist interacted with the dancers, which I loved (and which reminded me of Seven Deadly Sins at Covent Garden a few years back), but Illuminations was the most uplifting. Poor time management meant interval overuns so it took 130 minutes to stage 65 minutes of dance!

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui takes a really fresh look at tango with m!longa at Sadler’s Wells and it comes out as a sexy display of virtuosity, relationships silently played out by intricate movements. The five couples – four kosher tango ones and one contemporary dance duo – were all terrific, and the five-piece band were sensational.

The Stuttgart Ballet‘s Taming of the Shrew to a mash-up of Scarlatti at Sadler’s Wells was a bit of a punt that turned into a major treat. Though over 40 years old, apart from the sets, it felt fresh. I’m not sure I’ve seen a comic ballet before and I have to say, the form was perfect for Shakespeare’s comedy, the dancing was terrific and we laughed aloud a lot. There were beautiful romantic moments too and it all added up to a thoroughly enjoyable surprise.

It’s a while since I had a fix of favourite choreographer Mark Morris, so I went to both programmes at Sadler’s Wells on consecutive nights for a feast of seven works. With one exception, they were accompanied by live music – a small ensemble and three singers – which is key to Morris’ success. The best of the first programme was Socrates, set to music by Erik Satie for tenor and piano, which looked like Greek statues come to life. In the second programme, Festival Dance, to a wonderful piano trio by Hummel (who?!) led by stunning piano from Colin Fowler, was thrilling, and as close to Morris’ undoubted masterpiece Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato as he’s got since. The one piece to recorded music was In A Wooden Tree. Only Morris would use the songs of Ivor Cutler and it was a delight; quirky even by Morris standards.

Classical Music

The rarely performed song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, sung by Ian Bostridge, was the centerpiece of The Britten Sinfonia‘s namesake’s centenary concert at the Barbican, but it wasn’t the highlight. It’s possibly the quirkiest song cycle I’ve ever heard, but the orchestration is brilliant. The real treats were the orchestral pieces played by a chamber orchestra that seems to me to be absolutely at the top of its game.

The Royal Albert Hall is the perfect venue for Britten’s War Requiem and Remembrance Sunday the perfect day to hear it in this centenary year. The BBC SO under Semyon Bychkov did it full justice, with the boys choir sounding beautiful up in the gallery and the male soloists, Roderick Williams & Allan Clayton, on fine form. The ‘amen’ was extraordinarily moving, hopeful and uplifting; I felt like my body was rising in my seat.

St Cecilia’s day (the patron saint of music). The 100th birthday of my favourite composer. My favourite music venue. The Sixteen‘s recital of Britten choral works – mostly unaccompanied – at Union Chapel was an absolute joy. The acoustic was perfect, the selection eclectic and the voices beyond wonderful. As you can gather, I liked it!

Film

The big film catch-up continued with One Chance, the story of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts. Apart from some puzzling accents (parents Welsh, Potts West Country) and a touch of resentment that Welsh characters weren’t played by Welsh actors, I rather enjoyed it. Undemanding, feel-good stuff – a touch too sentimental, but very heart-warming and funny.

The Selfish Giant is one of those gritty British films I thought we’d forgotten how to make; even the master, Ken Loach, seemed to have gone a bit soft. It’s not an easy ride watching hopelessness, but its a superb piece of film-making full of stunning performances from people you usually see on TV in things like Shameless, and the two leading boys are simply extraordinary.

I can’t begin to put into words how good a film Philomena is. I’m glad I hadn’t read the book as it surprised and confounded me. Judi Dench is sensational and Steve Coogan a revelation in a straight role. Perfect in every respect, but tissues necessary. The things that have been done in the name of god!

Gravity reminded me of Duncan Jones’ Moon, though it’s (virtually) two people in space rather than one. The 3D is (mostly) brilliant, for once very realistic, and the story is gripping, but I’m not sure it quite lives up to the hype – I’m glad I went, though. 

Art

My second visit to the George Watts Gallery near Guildford was to see the Frank Holl exhibition. It was a bit small and a bit sad and may not be worth the trip on its own, but with another chance to see Watts’ own pictures and combined with opera in Woking and lunch at the retro Withies Inn in Compton it proved worthwhile!

Daniel Silver’s DIG seems to be an archaeological site in a building site where statues have been uncovered and laid out in various states of restoration for you to view (but most oddly pristine white). I’m not sure what point he’s making, but it was quirkily intriguing.

Masterpieces from China at the V&A had some stunning paintings covering 1200 years. The Tang Dynasty seemed underrepresented and it was a struggle to absorb it all with the necessarily low lighting and difficulty getting up close, so I might well have to go again.

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I’m one of the few people who took against John Logan’s last play, Red, about Mark Rothko. The first hour was a rant by the artist, by the end of which I had lost the will to live. This play is a whole lot better.

Peter was one of five Llewelyn Davies boys who were befriended by J M Barrie and the source of his famous character, Peter Pan. Rev. Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll wrote his first Alice story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for Alice Liddell, having first told her the story on an outing. This is the fame they live with and share. In the play they meet on the centenary of Dodgson’s birth when they are 35 and 80 respectively. Davies, now a publisher, uses the opportunity to encourage Liddell, now Hargreaves, to write her memoirs, which sends us on a journey to meet the respective writers and their characters.

It’s a multi-layered play which tells the stories of these real people, whose lives were both touched by the tragedy of loss – Alice of two sons and Peter of two brothers – but also of their relationships with both the writers and their characters and the impact of their somewhat unusual fame. This opens the play up as we flash back in time and meet Carroll & Barrie plus the fictitious Peter & Alice. The writing isn’t entirely even – it does lag at times, despite the short 90 minute length, and Alice has all the best lines – but it’s an inspired idea and unfolds intriguingly.

One of the chief pleasures of Michael Grandage’s production is seeing Judi Dench, as captivating as ever, and Ben Whishaw, who has grown into such a fine actor. The age difference between the actors is almost the same as their characters. There’s excellent support from Nicholas Farrell as Dodgson / Carroll and Derek Riddell as Barrie. Olly Alexander & Ruby Bentall bring the fictional characters alive impressively. Grandage’s regular designer Christopher Oram has created a superb transformative design.

Alice is a role worthy of Dench’s talent (her last West End outing was the dreadful Madame de Sade!) and Peter is a role worthy of Whishaw’s first proper West End showcase. It’s great to see a new play open in the West End, with the real buzz of full house signs and autograph hunters crowding the stage door; most start life in the subsidised sector these days. It’s also the only new play in Grandage’s five-play first season, so success might help get us more new work next time.

In a delicious twist, both works of fiction were staged in this very theatre. Another fact new to me was that Logan also wrote Skyfall, in which both Dench & Whishaw of course acted. Adele didn’t do the music, though!

If you can get in, you should.

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Contemporary Music

On the eve of my birthday with a 0, I went to see a role model who is 2 years and 15 days older, growing old gracefully and still seriously cool – Nick Lowe. A nice small venue, very attentive audience and great sound contributed to what was a brilliant experience all round. His keyboard player, Geraint Watkins, who hails from my village Abertridwr and went to school with my brother, also played support. An uplifting evening.

Opera

Miss Fortune is the fourth Judith Weir opera I’ve seen, but sad to say nowhere near as good as the other three. It’s a slight tale of a girl who becomes destitute after a financial crash and seeks to make a living from sweatshop to kebab van to laundry, stalked by Fate and his posse of break dancers. For a small show it gets a BIG production which it just doesn’t deserve. There’s a lot of talent on stage and a lot of talent behind the scenes, but it left me largely indifferent – with the exception of seeing an excellent break-dance group on the Covent Garden stage (and all credit to the ROH audience; they got the biggest cheers!).

Classical Music

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Shakespeare themed concert at the Barbican was an unusual affair as the audience was almost entirely there for the second half – the UK premiere of the orchestral versions of Rufus Wainwright’s five settings of Shakespeare sonnets, sung by him and spoken by actress Sian Phillips. The first half was a very accessible combination of Korngold’s Much Ado suite and Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet suite (plus a John Adams opener), the Prokofiev a favourite of mine. The sonnets were lush, lovely and moving – beautifully spoken, sung and played – but I enjoyed the evening as a whole because the theme of inspiration by the bard really came through.

It’s a long time since I saw Elijah; an oratorio I like very much. The Britten Sinfonia & Voices under William Carne (new to me) gave a simply brilliant performance at the Barbican, helped by four wonderful British soloists – Andrew Kennedy, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Lucy Crowe and most importantly the incomparable Simon Keenlyside as Elijah. An exhilarating end to an otherwise shitty day!

Art

I enjoyed Jeremy Deller’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery much more than I thought I would. He’s a complete original, a real one-off, and I found the playful work, and description, videos and records of past work, absolutely enthralling.

Film

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a lot better than some of the reviews. It’s one of those feel good films (well, for people of a certain age – like me!) with a set of fine performances by wonderful actors also of a certain (but older!) age like Judi Dench and Penelope Wilton. Dev Patel rather over-egged the clumsy but lovable young Indian entrepreneur, but hey it was harmless fun.

 

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RAM seems to be the only one of our major music / drama colleges joining in with the celebrations of the great man’s 80th, but boy did they do it in style.

I’ve always found A Little Night Music one of Sondheim’s least satisfying shows. The story is very conventional (for Sondheim) and the music – virtually all waltz – a little twee for my taste. The Menier started to change my mind last year with Trevor Nunn’s terrific production, but it was this one which was the real revelation. It really brought out the humour but contrasted it with more poignancy. I’ve heard Hermione Gingold, Judi Dench & Hannah Waddingham sing Send in the Clowns on stage, but only Alex Young in this production moved me to tears. Sarah Covey’s interpretation of The Millers Son was positively uplifting and there were fine performances from Becky Moult, Matthew Crowe, Daniel Cane and Michael Storrs. On a simple set, it was left to the gorgeous period costumes to provide appropriate style. Overall, the singing was better than the acting and the orchestra played the score like it’s never been played before, so a  musical triumph I think.

Assassins didn’t live up to my memories of earlier productions. It’s a highly original show – linking the assassinations / attempted assassinations of eight US presidents – but a hard one to pull off. This production seemed a lot darker, sometimes burying the black humour completely. It was staged well, but this time the acting bettered the singing and the band was too loud, losing a lot of the subtley in the music.

In between the shows, there was a wonderful cabaret of lyricists Comden & Green songs. They wrote the lyrics to more shows that any other Broadway writers, working with Leonard Bernstein, Jules Styne and Cy Coleman. The twelve singers & pianist more than did justice to their brilliantly funny songs and it was more treat than filler.

This musical theatre feast followed Saturday’s theatrical feast; the lack of aircon made the day more challenging, but a feast just the same.

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