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Posts Tagged ‘Julian Ovenden’

This is one of the most anticipated West End openings this year. A stage adaptation of the iconic 1950 film of the same name, with Gillian Anderson taking Bette Davies’ role and Lily James playing Eve, and the much sought after director Ivo van Hove at the helm. Could it possibly live up to the hype?

Margot is a successful stage actress, surrounded by an entourage that includes the writer, director and producer of her current play, her best friend Karen and companion / maid Birdie. Eve enters her life, a fan who says she attends every performance, brought from outside the stage door by Karen. In no time at all, she’s working for Margot, becomes indispensable, putting Birdie’s nose out of joint but virtually everyone else under her spell. Soon she’s understudying Margot, getting to perform after some tricks and deception, inviting a critic also under her spell to ensure her career takes off.

Such a theatrical story makes an excellent transfer from screen to stage, and at the same time suits Ivo van Hove’s cinematic house style. All of his usual ingredients are here, with live video footage the most significant. The three walls of the multi-purpose room set rise to reveal the real theatre walls painted silver, enclosed bathroom and kitchen, from which we have scenes projected onto the set’s back wall, props, costumes and photos of the star. It feels like both backstage and film set and works brilliantly. There are some real theatrical coup’s, notably Margot ageing before our eyes as she looks in her dressing room mirror, and the photos turned around as Eve’s career progresses.

Gillian Anderson plays Margot with great subtlety, and looks simply stunning. Lily James navigates her manipulative road well, with restraint but steely determination too. It’s a fantastic supporting cast, including a brilliant performance from Monica Dolan as Karen and Stanley Townsend outstanding as the acerbic critic Addison DeWitt, a manipulative match for Eve. Rashan Stone is excellent as playwright Lloyd Richards, Karen’s husband, as is Julian Ovenden as director Bill Sampson, Margot’s boyfriend. There’s a lovely cameo at the end from Tsion Habte as Phoebe, who completes the circle of a deliciously rounded story.

It’s a while before it takes hold of you, but then it doesn’t let go. It resonates in our celebrity obsessed age as much, if not more, than it must have done 69 years ago. The story, the staging & design and the performances come together to ensure it does live up to the hype. In a life-imitates-art moment, the lovely Canadian lady sitting next to me, an avid Gillian Anderson fan, told me before the start she was seeing in three more times during her eight day stay!

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I wish I’d had a blog 20 years ago so that I could compare what I thought about this then with what I think about it now. In the absence of a blog, I have my less reliable memory, which tells me that I thought it was a good, very funny play, though the post-AIDS promiscuity and unprotected sex was a bit shocking. It seemed to me to be a play of its time and I wasn’t sure it would have the same impact today. As it turns out, it passes the test of time and proves to be more great than good. Sadly, writer Kevin Elyot didn’t get to see this first major revival himself, dying days before rehearsals began.

We don’t meet Reg, though the play revolves around him. His partner Daniel is one of three thirty-something university friends who we join at the flat-warming of another, conservative home-maker Guy, virtually celibate with unrequited love for the third, rich boy John, who has been absent squandering his inheritance and sleeping around. They are joined by newer friends from the pub – Bernie & Benny. Decorative decorator young Eric, also from the pub, is just finishing painting the conservatory. As the play progresses, we attend two wakes and learn why everything revolves around Reg, as Eric joins this circle of friends.

American playwrights responded to AIDS with angry, political plays like The Normal Heart and Angels in America. This was British theatre’s first response – a comedy about friendship, love and sex with two deaths! It has some of the sharpest, funniest dialogue you’ll ever hear and it is truly funny – it won both the Olivier and Standard Best Comedy Awards (also a peculiarly British response) – but it has much more depth than that. The characterisations are superb and there isn’t a wasted moment or an unnecessary word; it really is brilliantly written. This was the third of only six original stage plays Elyot wrote (there were also three adaptations) over a period of 22 years. Later ones, like Mouth to Mouth in 2001 and Forty Winks in 2004 were also good plays, but this was his masterpiece.

The Donmar have done him proud with this fine revival. The space is bigger than the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs where it started, but it’s just as intimate. This is director Robert Hastie’s first ‘big’ high profile show and he more than rises to the challenge with impeccable staging. The casting is faultless. I haven’t seen much of Jonathan Broadbent’s work, but he steps into David Bamber’s shoes and makes Guy his own. Geoffrey Streathfield sweeps in and commands the stage as a charismatic Daniel. I think I’ve only seen Julian Ovenden in musicals and he’s a revelation here as complex John, a character who makes the biggest transition. Richard Cant and Matt Bardock are excellent as the unlikely couple Bernie & Benny. Lewis Reeves, in only his second West End role, is a very impressive Eric (originally played by Joe Duttine, now Sally’s boyfriend in Coronation Street!).

This exceeded my exceptions in so many ways and it was wonderful to see it revealed as a modern classic. A clear favourite for 2014’s Best Revival.

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Well, the highlight of the month was undoubtedly my trip to the rehearsal of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. We didn’t get the whole lot (sadly not the winged bicyclists, but thankfully not the never-ending entrance of the teams!) but we got most of it and it was truly spectacular. My front row seat may not have been the best, but I was privileged to be there and it was an experience I will never forget. You know the rest, but here are some photos!

Another unexpected treat was getting tickets to one of Eddie Izzard‘s work-in-progess shows in the cabaret space at Soho Theatre. A late Monday night (after dinner and drinks) was a challenge, but it was fun. He really is a one-off.

Opera-wise, it was Cape Town Opera‘s visit with Porgy & Bess, which proved itself to be more of an opera than a musical in this excellent production. Moving it to a South African township worked, though the highlights were all vocal – the soloists and chorus were thrilling.

I’m not sure I know how to categorise Desdemona, a collaboration between poet Toni Morrison, director Peter Sellers and favourite Malian singer Rokia Traore, but given it was Rokia that largely drew me to it and was the best thing about it, I’ve decided it’s music. Her songs were lovely, but the narrative that accompanied it was never-ending and somewhat pretentious. It would have made a great concert!

I never made it to Bryn Terfel’s festival in his back yard in North Wales (though we had tickets for the last one, which was cancelled!) so well done Southbank Centre for bringing Bryn Fest to me! The evening of songs from the Golden Age of Broadway featured a quartet of favourites – Julian Ovenden, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham and Emma Williams – as well as the man himself, and it was full of highlights. You rarely hear these songs with a full orchestra and that was a huge bonus. It was lovely to see Bryn & Clive’s take on Brush Up Your Shakespeare. I expected Clive to be word-perfect given he’s currently playing it in Chichester, but Bryn was too – no mean feat with all those Shakespeare references.

Though I had a ticket, I missed the opera evening because I had a better offer (a freebie return to the wonderful Sweeney Todd!) and I caught only half of pianist Huw Warren‘s free foyer concert, which featured a trumpeter and a jazz version of a Welsh hymn, but was glad I caught what I caught. The Wales Choir of the World event was another treat, featuring choirs from 11 countries on 5 continents. The highlights were the South African choir, the Cory Band and the massed choir & brass band rendition of the world premiere of a Karl Jenkins The Hero’s Journey. As I left the RFH, a large audience on the riverside were being taught to sing in Welsh for Bryn’s Big Sing which was a fitting end to this mini-festival.

Four Proms this month, starting with the much criticised populist opening night. Well, I enjoyed it; what’s wrong with a bit of populist patriotism?! More Bryn (the 5th time in 17 days!) in Delius’ lovely Sea Drift, a quartet of premiere league soloists for Elgar’s full Coronation Ode and orchestral pieces from Tippett and Elgar again – oh and a Mark Anthony Turnage world premiere, just in case you were feeling a bit too nostalgic! Six days later, Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus was given a rare but enjoyable outing by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Age of Enlightenment with another quartet of fine soloists. This was followed three days later by a concert version of Berlioz The Trojans – long but lovely! Again, some great solo turns from Bryan Hymel, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Anna Caterina Antonacci, this time with the superb orchestra and chorus of the ROH under Antonio Pappano. So to the night of the opening of the Olympics where an early start for Beethoven’s 9th meant we (and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who later carried in the Olympic flag!) wouldn’t miss Danny Boyle’s spectacular on TV. Barenboim’s West-East Divan Orchestra, made up of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was right for the occasion but also played brilliantly and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, also right for the occasion, were stunning. What a prologue for the evening that followed!

It was time to catch up with some art this month and I started at the De Morgan Centre where the work of ceramicist William and his painter wife Evelyn is showcased in a small but superb collection; eye-poppingly beautiful (if you’re into Arts & Crafts and / or the pre-Raphaelites) .  Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain was a brilliantly curated show putting Picasso alongside those he influenced, including Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland & David Hockney. I was less enamoured by Migrations – Journeys into British Art at the same place, more because of the quality of the work than the idea of the exhibition, which was a good one.

My annual trip to the Serpentine Gallery to see their Pavilion (an excellent, largely below ground, collaboration between Ai Wei Wei and Herzog & De Meuron, the team that did the Beijing birds nest Olympic stadium) was extended to see Yoko Ono‘s show which was more interesting, and a lot less pretentiously avant-garde, than I was expecting.

Finally, during a weekend in Bath, I popped into their newly renovated Holburne Art Museum for a lovely small portrait sculpture exhibition and stayed for What Are You Like (based on the Victorian parlour game, where people draw their favourite things) and their permanent collection. This is now one of the best regional art galleries; well worth a visit.

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In addition to a staged production of Passion and a couple of talks and discussions, the Donmar Warehouse Sondheim at 80 celebrations includes a couple of concert performances of former productions. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too!

The first concert was Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 London premiere cast. This is the show which runs backwards to the time its protagonists first meet. I have very fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of Sondheim’s most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved.

I turned up at the second one – Company – thinking ‘they can’t match that’ and it wasn’t long before my inner voice was saying ‘they will!’ This one was staged at the Donmar in 1995 and they managed to get nine of the original 14 back. In the first half, Anna Francolini brought the house down with Another Hundred People (she’s doing eight performances a week as Maria Callas in Onassis and came here on two of her Sundays off!), as did Sophie Thompson with the incredibly difficult Getting Married Today . In the second half, Haydn Gwynne inhabited rather than just singing Ladies Who Lunch, taking the role originally played by the now sadly departed Sheila Gish, then leading man Adrian Lester put so much emotion and passion into Being Alive that his voice began to break and tears began to flow in the audience; how could this come alive like this in concert?! The band continued after the encore so the audience sang Side By Side again without the cast. Another standing ovation, another unforgettable night.

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Sondheim’s 80th celebrations continued with a concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 UK premiere cast. I have fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of his most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too.

Earlier in the month I attended the ceremony to confer an Honorary Doctorate on Sondheim at the Royal Academy of Music. There was a terrific brass fanfare and a procession of men in robes which included a bearded man in sports jacket, yellow shirt and chinos looking uncomfortable in his. I don’t know whether he wrote it himself, but John Suchet’s citation was wonderful and an emotional Sondheim clearly appreciated the honour. It was followed by a 30-minute performance by students and recent graduates which was an unusual selection and a little hampered by failing amplification, but the chorus numbers were fabulous. Julia Mackenzie, Trevor Nunn, Simon Callow and Lesley Garrett were also in the audience to honour the great man. It’s proving a great 80th celebration and we aren’t finished yet!

Contemporary Music

At his Cadogan Hall concert, Nils Lofgren reminded us of his first UK visit in 1973 as part of Neil Young’s band on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour ‘when we played all this new stuff and pissed everyone off’. I can still hear the hissing but refuse to believe it was 37 years ago. Anyway, this concert was by far his best acoustic outing, with just one other person on keyboards / trumpet / guitar & rock tap dancing! It was mostly old stuff, but he’s a great guitar player and has a distinctive voice; add in terrific sound and a lovely atmosphere and you have a treat. 

Classical Music

The Houston Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets beneath a giant screen showing footage of the planets themselves was an intriguing prospect and proved to be a unique experience. In truth though, I was more impressed by the orchestra’s playing that the projections, possibly because the darkness and visuals heightened the aural experience where every sound was crisp and clear. I also loved the Barber and Stravinsky symphonic suits which preceded the main event.

Tenor Ian Bostridge has a Cecilia Bartoli-style project called ‘The Three Tenors’ which focuses on three early 18th century singers and the pieces that were composed for them by contemporary composers. It’s an album and tour with baroque ensemble Europa Galante and in concert it was very much one of two halves – the first a distinctly underpowered and underwhelming affair and a much better second half when a clearly unwell Bostridge rose to the exciting heights the ensemble had achieved throughout. I’m not sure the repertoire really suited this sweetest of sweet tenors, though the Handel pieces certainly did. The animated ensemble, which stands to play, were often thrilling.

There was a lovely Sunday afternoon affair at the Royal Academy of Music examining the relationship between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten & Lennox Berkley, both of whom set his poems to music. It took the form of an informative discussion / readings followed by afternoon tea (with homemade cakes!) followed by a recital / reading by college students followed by wine – and all for a tenner! Katie Bray stole the show with spirited renditions of Britten’s Cabaret Songs.

Opera

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing 18th century composer Thomas Arne wrote was Rule Britannia. Apparently, the main reason we don’t know much more is that most of his manuscripts were burnt in a fire. Fortunately, most of the masque / opera Alfred survives and it was given a rare and very welcome outing by The Classical Opera Company at Kings Place. It’s similar to, and stands up well against, Handel’s work of the same type and period –a patriotic tale of invasion by and repulsion of the Danes populated by the king, queen & prince, a shepherd & shepherdess, a war widow and a spirit! The small orchestra was terrific, the young company of seven singers excellent and actor Michael Moloney’s tongue-in-cheek narration was an added bonus. Another treat!

I wish I could say the same for the first in our autumn pairing at WNO, Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a lovely opera, but it was given a dull, drab and inert production – clumsily staged and full of old-fashioned mannered movement. The director also designed and did the lighting, so I suspect that the lack of a creative team meant one man’s perspective and no challenge. Dennis O’Neill still has a lovely tone to his tenor voice but it was Clive Bayley’s Rocco who shone. The chorus and orchestra were again the real stars, though. It’s one of those evenings when you wished it had been one of those concert performances, or you had closed your eyes during the gorgeous overture and opened them again for the uplifting final chorus.

Fortunately, things picked up for the second opera – Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos – which had a sparkling production and twelve (yes, twelve!) first class and well matched singers, led by Sarah Connolly in the trouser role of The Composer. Though I’d seen the opera a couple of times before, I only realised this time how Wagnerian the second act is – and it also suffers from Wagner’s penchant for the overlong; if it had been 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a lot better. Another treat nonetheless.

Alexander Goehr’s Promised End is an opera based on King Lear. The libretto is entirely Shakespeare’s words and given it’s half the length of the play, it’s surprising how much of the story is told. It’s well directed and designed and the performances are uniformly good. The trouble is the music is just dull – it’s like they were about to do the play, when someone suggested they sing the lines instead of speaking them and improvised it on the spot. If the addition of music doesn’t do anything, it all seems rather pointless.

L’Isola Disabitatia is a short & silly Haydn opera with lovely music about two girls abandoned on a desert island. The musical standards of the Jette Parker Young Artists production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio were very high with excellent singing from Elizabeth Meister, Anna Devlin, Steven Ebel & Daniel Grice and lovely playing from the Southbank Sinfonia under Volker Krafft. Unfortunately, Rodula Gaitanou’s decision to set it in a post-apocalypse world was preposterous and ugly; it detracts from your enjoyment significantly – again, it would be much better with your eyes closed. With a 75-minute running time, the interval was misguided and did nothing except increase the bar profits.

Film

I haven’t been to the cinema for five months, mostly because I just haven’t fancied anything. It took a British film covering a slice of social history like Made in Dagenham to draw me back and I loved it. They’ve taken liberties with the history, compressing it somewhat, but it’s still a great story and with hindsight a much more important one than I remembered. The who’s who of British acting included fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Geraldine James and Miranda Richardson.

I was also impressed by The Kids Are Alright, which takes very contemporary subjects – gay parenting and sperm donation – and produces a charming film which moves seamlessly from funny to thoughtful with an excellent script, sensitive direction and five fine performances. When one child reaches adulthood, she asserts her right to find the sperm donor on behalf of her younger brother and their world is turn upside down when he enters all four of their lives. Very intelligent, clever, modern and grown-up. 

Art

I’d seen a small exhibition of Art by Offenders in Edinburgh, but the one in the Royal Festival Hall is more extensive and so much better exhibited. There is an extraordinary amount of talent here; you can’t like everything, but you can admire it and cheer the good work being done in using art as therapy and rehabilitation.

The V&A has three great exhibitions at the same time. The first we saw was the Raphael cartoons with the tapestries from which they are designed. It was fascinating to see them side-by-side; in one case a threesome with a century younger tapestry copy as well. I was bowled over by how good the Diaghilev & Ballets Russes exhibition was, proving conclusively how much impact they had on art and design of the period. It included lots of costume and set drawings & models as well as actual costumes and front cloths plus much more. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed so contemporary. The best was left until last though, with Shadow Catchers, showcasing five artists who make cameraless photography – their photograms were simply gorgeous.

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, there are four pieces by Anish Kapoor and walking to and between them, watching them change and grow, was a delight. The large disc on the opposite side of the Serpentine with reflections in the disc and in the water and ducks and swans passing in front was the highlight. There were no highlights in Klara Liden’s pointless installations and videos in the Serpentine Gallery I’m afraid – dreadful! 

Gaugin is one of those ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that lives up to the hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking he just painted semi-naked Tahitian women; well, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dispel that myth and see the whole range of his work. There are carvings and woodcuts as well as paintings. The oils are so soft they look like watercolours. The colours are a feast for the eyes. By the time I got to the Turbine Hall downstairs, you weren’t allowed to walk on the millions of tiny porcelain pellets that ARE the installation which makes the whole thing pointlessly expensive.

I’m not sure I got much out of Damian Ortega’s Barbican Curve installation inspired by a month of news stories, but it was original and intriguing; I think I need to go back with more time to do it justice. I’ve really got to love popping into this space before a show or concert.

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