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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Thomas’

Well, I’m now on the Isle of Bute, a short way off the West coast of Scotland, recuperating after 23 shows and 11 exhibitions in just under 7 days. I’ve lost track of how many years I’ve been heading North of the border for this most addictive of festivals, the world’s largest. Here’s a round-up of this year:

The Traverse Theatre has long been my second home, with an unrivalled reputation for both its own productions and first class, innovative visitors and this year was a good one. Based on my trust in them, we’d booked eight shows here before we’d arrived and added the other two following the buzz and the reviews. The hit rate was 80%, with Iseult Golden & David Horan‘s Class and David Ireland‘s Ulster American (whose Cyprus Avenue wowed me recently at the Royal Court) leading the way – both Irish, both three-handers, but from different sides of the border and very different plays. The very thought-provoking Class examines the relationships between teacher and parents, between parents as ex’s and between both and the child. In black comedy Ulster American, a movie star dabbles with fringe theatre on terms unacceptable to the writer. Both had great writing and fine performances in an intimate space.

The onward march of the one-person play saw Corrie’s Julie Hesmondhalgh tell her husband Ian Kershaw’s delightful story in the modestly titled The Greatest Play in the History of the World very engagingly, with people represented by shoes. You know a story works when you can picture its characters. At other times in the same space, Irene Allan was very compelling in David Leddy’s very different one-person thriller Coriolanus Vanishes, with striking lighting adding edginess. Finally, On the Exhale, also in Traverse Two, looked at American gun control through the story of one woman who’s son was a casualty. Both the writing, and Poly Frame‘s performance, we’re very powerful.

Biographical plays were also a feature this year, and the Traverse had two contributions. In What Girls are Made of, Cora Bissett told the story of her short teenage pop career, with rock concert aesthetics. This was also gig theatre – another 2018 feature – and the true story and the form went well together. Nigel Slater’s Toast was just as effective, a lovely growing-up story with food! Sam Newton as the young Nigel was terrific. Biographical work popped up elsewhere, with Grid Iron’s South Bend – OK, but lacking the usual Grid Iron sparkle – and Song of Lunch, a two-hander which should have been a monologue (the actress was wasted) and in a smaller space. Robert Bathurst seemed to be attracting Downton Abbey fans whilst ignoring his more prominent role in Cold Feet in his quirky self-penned programme biography. There was also more gig theatre at the Pleasance with Songlines, a delightful love story with folk music.

Back at the Traverse, Mark Thomas, who has come a long way from stand-up, gave Check Up: Our NHS at 70; factual (rather than verbatim) theatre. I love his passion, even if he is probably preaching to the converted. The other two Traverse offerings were disappointments. Underground Railroad Game was a somewhat heavy-handed piece about slavery which attempted to shock in what felt like a dated away, and for me came over as rather tiresome. Meek was in Handmaid’s Tale territory and I found it rather dull, I’m afraid. It failed to hold my attention at all. Behind the EICC, in the open air, Polish theatre innovators Theatr Biuro Podrozy brought Silence, a show about refugees I saw in an earlier version during LIFT in London, and it’s grown in impact. The freezing wind added atmosphere, as only Edinburgh can. That was my only international theatre and My Left / Right Foot was my only musical. It’s a very un-PC take on the treatment of disability which was way more effective in making the point than a PC one would have been. Performed with great gusto, it was a hoot and a treat.

I saw Showstopper, an improvised musical, a long while ago and it appears to have become a big thing, in the Pleasance’s biggest space, where a full house seemed to lap it up. I’m afraid I found it very stale and overblown. A year for impressionists, with both Rory Bremner & Jan Ravens and Jon Culshaw delivering the laughs. I liked the way Culshaw’s show was structured as an interview by his producer Bill Dare, but it was Jan Raven’s lovely tribute to Victoria Wood which stole both shows. I only saw one stand-up this year, Malawian Daliso Chaponda, but he was excellent, with terrific audience engagement.

The main festival started well with a CBSO concert of rare works by Stravinsky & Ravel, but the highlight was a thrilling interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto by young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who appeared to live the work. An attempt at updating John Gay’s The Beggars Opera fell a bit flat, but it had its moments, including the playing of Les Arts Florissants, in costume, and a clever carboard box design. Good fun, but you expect better from Peter Brook‘s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Robert Carsen and William Christie. Midsummer was an updated version of David Greig‘s fringe play with songs about a wild weekend. I have fond memories of seeing the original twice, but it didn’t work quite so well in a bigger space with the addition of the older selves. The final offering was the worst, I’m afraid, with Peter Brook’s The Prisoner, a very slight 70 min piece which left me hungry. Brook’s minimalist pieces are normally adapted from other forms, but this was original, and I suspect that’s the issue. Good performances and design couldn’t make up for weak material.

It looked like it wasn’t going to be a good year for art, and indeed the big Rembrandt show at the SNG was a disappointment – just 15 paintings and a lot of drawings and work by those he influenced. At the SNGMA, though, there were three treats – an excellent Emil Nolde retrospective, the fascinating Reinventing the Old Masters by Raqib Shaw and NOW, an interesting mixed show by six artists. At the City Art Centre, there was a fascinating show by lost artist Edwin G Lucas, who appears to have been buried by the art establishment. At the SNPG, though, the biggest treat of all was the discovery of portraitist Victoria Crowe who also had a lovely non-portrait selling show at the Scottish Gallery. Tacita Dean seems to be everywhere, so it wasn’t a surprise to see her at the Fruitmarket Gallery in a show that was a touch better than those at the NPG and RA in London. It wasn’t such a good year for photography, with mediocre shows at CAC and SNPG, and the annual Edinburgh International Photographic Exhibition finally lost me by putting image manipulation above the eye and skill of the photographer.

It seemed more exhausting writing about it than seeing it all! Until next time……

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Opera

There was much to like about Coraline, the Royal Opera at the Barbican Theatre, but I’m not sure the adaptation and production served both Neil Gaiman’s story and Mark Anthony Turnage’s music well as neither were dark enough. Good to see a family friendly opera at accessible prices though.

I didn’t go and see the Royal Opera’s 4.48 Psychosis first time round in 2016 because I didn’t like the Sarah Kane play from which it is adapted. The reviews and awards propelled me to this early revival, again at the Lyric Hammersmith, and I’m glad they did. Philip Venables work makes sense of Kane’s play, a bleak but brilliant exposition of depression and in particular the treatment journey in the eyes of the sufferer. Words are spoken and projected as well as sung and there is recorded music, muzak and sound effects. The artistry of the six singers and twelve-piece ensemble was outstanding. Not easy, but unmissable.

Classical Music

The new Bridge Theatre put on a lunchtime concert of Southbank Sinfonia playing Schumann’s 3rd Symphony, which was a delight, particularly as they unexpectedly blended in poems read by actors. I only wish I’d booked seats within the orchestra, as that would have been a rather unique experience; let’s hope they do it again.

At Wigmore Hall, a young Stockholm-based chamber ensemble called O/Modernt gave a recital spanning almost 400 years of English music from Gibbons to Taverner with an emphasis on Purcell & Britten. They were assisted by a mezzo, a theorbo and vocal ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick. There was even a quirky improvisation on a theme by Purcell. It all sounded very fresh, though there was a randomness about it.

At the Barbican, a delightful double-dip started with a concert of Elgar choral works by the BBC Singers at St Giles Cripplegate. I particularly loved the fact the Radio 3 introductions were made by members of the ensemble. Then at Barbican Hall the BBC SO & Chorus under Andrew Davies gave a wonderful WWI themed concert bookended by Elgar pieces and featuring the London Premiere of a contemporary song cycle and a lost orchestral tone-poem, the highlight of which was an Elgar piece this Elgar fan had never heard, the deeply moving but thoroughly uplifting The Spirit of England, so good I will forgive the ‘England’ that should be ‘Britain’.

Another LSO rehearsal at the Barbican, this time with their new Chief Conductor Simon Rattle, a man who knows what he wants, if ever I saw one; Mahler’s 9th and a new work. It proved to be a fascinating contrast with Mark Elder’s less directive rehearsal method. Again, I wanted to book for the concert.

London Welsh Chorale did a good job with Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus at St Giles’ Cripplegate. It’s one of the first oratorio’s I ever heard (my mother was in Caerphilly Ladies Choir!). They were accompanied by a small orchestra and had four fine young soloists.

I actually went to the LSO Tippett / Mahler Barbican concert to hear Tippet’s Rose Lake again (I was at its world premiere) and as much as I enjoyed it, it was Mahler’s unfinished 10th which blew me away. A highlight in a lifetime of concert-going.

The British Museum reopened the fabulous Reading Room for some concerts and I went to the quirkiest, obviously, for Lygeti’s Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. They were all set off at the same time, but ended individually, with the fifth from the left on the back row hanging in there the longest for its solo finale followed by a minute’s silence. Strangely mesmerising.

Dance

The Royal Ballet’s Bernstein Mixed Bill was a lovely addition to his Centenary. The first piece, danced to the Chichester Psalms, was wonderful, and the last, to the Violin Serenade, was a delight. Though I love the 2nd Symphony, which provided the music for the middle piece, it was a bit dim and distant to wow me as the others had.

The Viviana Durante Company’s short programme of early Kenneth Macmillan ballet’s, Steps Back in Time, benefitted from the intimacy of Barbican Pit, but could have done with programme synopses so that we could understand the narrative, better recorded sound for the two works that had it, and on the day I went some aircon! Lovely dancing, though.

Comedy

Mark Thomas’ latest show tells the story of running a comedy workshop in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, two Palestinian comedians with him on stage and four more showcased on film. In addition to a good laugh, you learn a lot about life in occupied Palestine. The post-show Q&A at Stratford East was a real bonus. Important and entertaining.

Film

Love, Simon is as wholesome and sentimental as only American films can be, but its heart was in the right place and it was often very funny.

The action was a bit relentless in Ready Player One, and the ending a touch sentimental, but it’s a technical marvel and proves Spielberg can still cut it, now with mostly British actors it seems.

Funny Cow was my sort of film – gritty, British, late 20th Century – with some fine performances and some really funny stand-up. Maxine Peak was terrific.

I enjoyed The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, though it was a bit slow to get off the ground. Particularly lovely to see Tom Courtney at the top of his game.

Art

A bumper catch-up month!

I was impressed by Andreas Gursky’s monumental photographs of the modern world (ports, factories, stock exchanges…) at the Hayward Gallery. Much has been said about the gallery’s refurbishment, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference!

I’m not sure I understand the point of an exhibition about performance art events that have taken place, so Joan Jonas at Tate Modern was an odd affair; intriguing but not entirely satisfying. However, Picasso 1932, also at Tate Modern, was astonishing – work from just one year that most artists would be happy of in a lifetime, with an extraordinarily diverse range of media, subjects and styles. Wonderful.

I love discovering artists and Canadian David Milne at Dulwich Picture Gallery was no exception, his Modern Painting exhibition is a beautiful collection of landscapes, with one room of early city scenes, all very soft and colourful.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican Art Gallery brought together some world class, cutting edge photographers, but it was all rather depressing. The quality of photography was excellent, but all those prostitutes, addicts, homeless people…..Agadir by Yto Barrada downstairs in the Curve didn’t do much for me and the wicker seats you sat in to listen to the audio aspects of the installation were excruciatingly uncomfortable.

At the NPG, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography consisted entirely of portraits, mostly from the mid-19th Century, by four photographers. They were surprisingly natural and technically accomplished, but I’m not sure it was the ‘art photography’ it said on the can. At the same gallery Tacita Dean: Portrait consisted mostly of short films of people with loud projector sound as accompaniment and it did nothing for me.

At the RA, a small but exquisite display of Pre-Raphaelite book illustrations by the likes of Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt. A little gem, but oh for a much bigger one.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A was a brilliantly presented exhibition which conveyed the glitz and glamour but also covered the wonders of the engineering and the historical significance of the mode of travel. Unmissable.

At the Photographers Gallery the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize Exhibition had a real political bite this year with swipes at Monsanto, the US justice system and former Soviet and East European states. Downstairs Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers was difficult to take in as it was a load of standard size snaps found in flea markets and car boot sales, but the accompanying display of Grayson Perry’s Photograph Album covering the early days of his alter ego Clare was fascinating.

The content of the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition at Somerset House was better than ever and it was much better displayed, though it made me feel like a rubbish photographer again. In the courtyard, there were five geodesic domes, ‘Pollution Pods’, replicating the pollution in five world cities with live readings. New Delhi and Beijing come off particularly badly but London wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It really made you think.

All Too Human at Tate Britain was another of those exhibitions where the premise was a bit questionable, but there were enough great paintings to forgive that. Wonderful Lucien Freud and Bacon pictures and a lot of 20th century British artists new to me. In the Duveen Hall, Anthea Hamilton has created a quirky swimming pool like space with sculptures and a performer moving around all day. Called The Squash, it was momentarily diverting.

Rodin & the art of ancient Greece places his sculptures alongside some of the British Museum’s collection of Greek pieces and it works brilliantly. Rodin apparently took inspiration from The Parthenon sculptures and was a regular visitor and lover of the BM. Wonderful.

The Travel Photographer of the Year Award exhibition moved completely outdoors and to City Hall this year, but the standard was as good as ever. The young photographer entries were particularly stunning.

I was overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of Monet & Architecture at the National Gallery. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see 78 pictures together, a quarter of which come from private collections, a third from public collections scattered all over North America, and only 10% in the UK, half in the NG’s collection. Going at 10am on a Monday was also a good idea, seeing them with a handful of people instead of the crowds there when I left. While there I took in Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell, thirty lovely works, but as always with pervy Degas all young women and girls, Murillo: The Self Portraits, which isn’t really my thing, and Tacita Dean: Still Life, which I enjoyed marginally more than her NPG show!

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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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Contemporary Music

It was obvious from the second number that Elvis Costello had a problem with his vocal chords, but he didn’t acknowledge it until two-thirds of the way through the main set. It’s a pity because the set for this London Palladium concert was new stuff and less obvious things from the back catalogue (only four or five crowd pleasers) which for me at least was very welcome. He was upstaged I’m afraid by two sisters from Atlanta going by the name of Larkin Poe who’s 30 min set as support was terrific. The evening partially redeemed itself by another 30 min set of Costello with the girls and a couple of crowd-pleasing solo encores, but in truth he should have postponed. There’s nothing sadder than seeing a hero die on stage.

Opera

How can you resist an opera set in a gay club with the toilet attendant played by Lesley Garrett?! As it turned out, Mark Simpson’s 70min 4-hander Pleasure at the Lyric Hammersmith proved rather good, and a hugely impressive operatic debut for this prodigious 28-year-old. The music suited a very dramatic story and the tension built well.

Many years ago I went to a shed in East London to see a bunch of mad Catalans perform a show in which they raced around wheeling supermarket trollies full of dead babies, throwing real liver around. That same company, La Fura Del Baus, are now at Covent Garden staging the UK premiere of Romanian composer Enescu’s only opera Oedipe, one of three 20th century operas based on the Oedipus myth and the most epic, telling the whole story from birth to death. Such is the world of opera in the 21st century. As it turns out, it’s a stunning production of a superb opera which was played and sung brilliantly. Why on earth has it taken 80 years to get here?!

Dance

I loved everything about the Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein. Liam Scarlett’s staging and choreography is excellent, there’s a great dramatic score from Lowell Lieberman and John Macfarlane’s designs and costumes are terrific. Pity the critics were so down on it. Why?

Film

Midnight Special is one of the best SciFi films of recent years. I was gripped throughout. The young actor playing the eight-year-old boy was extraordinary.

Eye in the Sky was another cinematic treat which I almost missed by reading the crits. Its edge of the seat stuff, but very objective in its examination of the ethics around drone attacks. One of Alan Rickman’s last roles, and he was great.

I have fond memories of Peter Quilter’s play Glorious, where Maureen Lipman played Florence Foster Jenkins, now played brilliantly by Meryl Streep in a film that is more poignant though also at times hilarious. A lovely film where even Corrie’s Mavis gets a bit part as a New York socialite!

The Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light was a good rather than great film, but it was well worth catching. Tom Hiddleston is excellent and I understand he does the singing himself, which makes it an even bigger achievement, as the segments when he’s onstage at the Grand Ole Oprey are particularly good.

Our Kind of Traitor is another good rather than great film, different from the normal spy movie, let down by an ending that was a bit too low key.

I went to see Everybody Wants Some!! on the strength of the director’s last film Boyhood and rave reviews for this. I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly Porky’s 8, but it wasn’t far enough away from it.

Though its ending is somewhat implausible, Sing Street is a delightful Irish coming of age story, real feel-good stuff, with terrific performances from its young cast.

Art

Sicily: Culture & Conquests at the British Museum is a lovely presentation of the history of an island almost everyone visited, but most particularly the Greeks and Normans. It made me want to go back to Syracuse post haste.

I didn’t know much about the work of American photographer Paul Strand until the Strange & Familiar exhibition at the Barbican. In his retrospective at the V&A I loved his B&W portraits and films but the abstracts and B&W flora & fauna did nothing for me. Lots to like, though. Across the road at the Science Museum they look at the birth of photography with an exhibition featuring William Fox Talbot, who just about invented it. The thing that grabs you most is how much the art / science moved forward in its first decade; the difference between the 1834 pictures and the 1845 ones is extraordinary.

Other Worlds at the Natural History Museum was a spectacular exhibition of photographs of the planets taken from satellites and spacecraft then touched up in a real meeting of science and art. Across the road at the V&A again there was a hugely clever exhibition called Botticelli Reimagined which showed the influence of this 15th century artist on 20th & 21st century design, then on late 19th / early 20th century artists like the Pre-Raphaelites before leading you into the biggest collection of Botticelli ever seen in the UK. In this last section, I overdosed on Madonna’s and other religious subjects, but it was a highly original exhibition nonetheless.

Other

Trespass is the latest in the series of passionate, funny, campaigning shows from one-man opposition Mark Thomas. This one, visiting the Tricycle Theatre, looks at the erosion of our rights to roam this green and pleasant land. He was his own support, with different material. Great stuff. If only the real opposition could pack such a punch, as entertaining as they are!

 

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Mark Thomas broke new ground with his last show, Bravo Figaro, about his relationship with his dad and his dad’s love of opera. He continues to develop a unique form and voice with this second show, Cuckooed, about his arms trade activism and in particular how he was spied upon by a friend. It weaves together a personal story with a political message which is sometimes funny and surprisingly moving.

I first became aware of his work to expose the immoral practices of the arms trade through his Channel 4 show, in which he created a fictitious PR company which coached foreign governments in spin and screened their clumsy cover-up rehearsals. It went on to include the exposure of companies flouting the law by supplying torture items to foreign lands and the book ‘As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade’. Mark’s friend Martin was spying on him, allegedly for BAE Systems, whilst being the most enthusiastic of activists, but Mark has been unable to get him to explain, so his motivation is a mystery and closure has not been obtained. This still clearly hurts, with visible emotions on display.

Like Bravo Figaro this is staged, and on this occasion includes exceptionally well synchronised dialogue with the testimonies of others involved on TV screens that emerge from filing cabinets and on a back screen, other subjects of spying. Towards the end it very effectively broadens the issue to spying in general, touching on police spies who went as far as fully fledged relationships with women and the worst of all, spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence. I thought the combination of the story of personal betrayal and public campaigning against spying was seamless and the humour, disappointment, hurt and anger a powerful cocktail.

In the shorter first half, Thomas is his own warm-up act, mostly telling tales of his brilliant 10 Acts of Dissent initiative, in his more usual (former?) stand-up mode. Together they form a very entertaining but thought-provoking evening that defies categorisation. How lucky we are to still have campainging comedians like Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Mark Thomas to prick consciences and expose unfairness and worse; long may they reign.

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I very much admire this initiative. Theatre Uncut commissions short political plays by largely established writers, makes them available for anyone to produce anywhere in the world and stages them itself with professional actors who only get a day’s rehearsal time.

The evening is made up of six plays, so you’d expect it to be a touch uneven. The best is Mark Thomas’ Church Forced to Close After Font Used as Wash Basin by Migrants, a spot-on vicious swipe at an odious newspaper baron not unlike some of the real ones. The most famous playwright is Neil LaBute, but I found his Pick One, about three American power brokers discussing large-scale ethnic cleansing, hard to swallow. As often with LaBute, he tries too hard to shock and in doing so realism goes out of the window and impact is lost.

Rachel Chavin’s Recipe gets a different theatre group each night; Dumbshow put together their highly inventive production of it in just four hours, but their staging was outstanding. Clara Brennan’s The Wing featured a fine performance from David Hounslow as an English Defence League bigot clashing with his liberal daughter; he was also chilling in LaBute’s play. James Hillier also shone as Mark Thomas’ press baron and one of LaBute’s power brokers.

It’s great to see theatre that’s edgy and experimental, more concerned with confronting current issues than providing slick entertainment and directors Emma Callander & Hannah Price are to be congratulated. Support it.

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Contemporary Music

Nashville band The Silver Seas have been personal favourites for a while and I found it astonishing that the London showcase for their new album was a room above a pub in Islington! It could have been a touch quieter and the mix could have brought the keyboard more to the fore, but it was a tight 75 min set (with lots of songs from the new album) and the atmosphere was great.

Anthony (&the Johnsons) Hegarty has always been unconventional, a true original, but his Swanlights show at the Royal Opera House elevated him to high art indeed. A 90-min best of, with songs re-arranged for piano & orchestra (the wonderful Britten Sinfonia), it was so so beautiful. This was played within an installation lit by lasers which changed shape and colour from green to blue to white to red to pink, so it was a visual feast too, and overall way beyond expectations.

Classical Music

The First Night of the Proms was an eclectic and thrilling affair. It started with a short but intriguing choral word premiere by Julian Anderson and continued with personal favourite Britten’s Sea Interludes, ending the first half with (for me) a premiere hearing of Rachmaninov’s Paganini rhapsody paired with Lutoslawski’s Paganini variations. As if this wasn’t enough, in the second half 500 musicians and singers took the roof off with Vaughan Williams’ brilliant Sea Symphony. Better than any Last Night by a mile.

Opera

Bampton Opera is the antidote to grand country house opera – on a small scale, in a back garden, picnic yes, dressing up no. They always showcase something rare, sometimes never seen before, and this year it was 12-year old Mozart’s La Finta Semplice. It was apparently his 4th opera, so it enabled me to ask my 13- year-old godson, who came, when we were getting his first opera! It’s an astonishingly accomplished piece and the production did it full justice. Not only was it played and sung beautifully, but it had a superb Magritte inspired design….and for once, the sunny warm evening was perfect!

Art

A visit to Tate Modern proved to be an eclectic global art feast with exhibitions from Lebanese, Somalian, African-American & Beninois artists which were about as varied as it’s possible to be. African-American Ellen Gallagher‘s exhibition proved to be the most rewarding & diverse (and quirky) with paintings, collages, double-sided pictures, film, animation and sculpture, much with a playfulness that made me smile. In Somalian Ibrahim El-Salahi‘s work, abstract meets Islam to produce something very original. Lebanese Saloua Raouda Choucair‘s exhibition was smaller yet just as varied, but more hit-and-miss; I’d have loved to have seen more of her portraits and fewer sculptures. The Museum of Contemporary African Art is an extraordinary multi-room installation created by Meschac Gaba that includes a library and shop. I thought it was fascinating and fun, with hands-on, play-with and sit-in elements that engaged the visitors. Phew!

A couple of nice freebies at the NT. The River, a whole load of paintings of The Thames by Dale Inglis which were rather lovely and The Press Photographer’s Year, rich pickings this year with some great Olympic shots and some really funny ones – David Cameron in dinner suit with shirt buttons undone and Peter Capaldi taking the piss out of his Thick Of It character’s role model Alistair Campbell.

A trio of exhibitions provided an eclectic afternoon between two work commitments. At the NPG, unknown (to me) 20th artist Laura Knight‘s portraits were hugely impressive. Her subjects ranged from circus folk to gypsies to poor black Americans to people at war and her naturalistic / realistic style brought them alive. At the ICA, things were somewhat racier with a show of drawings about war, race, censorship & politics, but mostly sex (!), with the tongue-in-cheek title Keep Your Timber Limber! Though technically accomplished, they were somewhat angry. The Hayward Gallery had another of their quirky shows, this one called The Alternative Guide to the Universe, which showcases ‘self-taught artists, fringe physicists and inventors’ who re-imagine the world as painted megalopolis’, number sequences & detailed models. Obsessive, sometimes disturbing, occasionally playful, it’s an eccentric show which does provide a unique experience but left me a bit unsettled, as if I’d been peering into some troubled souls. The small accompanying exhibition, The Museum of Everything, was much lighter fare and rather fun.

The Royal Academy‘s Summer Exhibition was the usual crowded hotchpotch, lighter on architecture, more photography and as much art & sculpture as usual. This year’s highlight was Grayson Perry’s series of six finely detailed, funny tapestries a la Rakes Progress called ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’. So good, I bought the book! Mexico: A Revolution in Art 1910-40 upstairs covered a short time period but was too broad, including artists visiting as well as from Mexico plus a lot of photos taking up too much of the limited space. Mexico’s most famous artist couple – Frida Khalo & Diego Riveria – were under-represented and there were only a few ‘wow’ pictures.

Comedy

A preview of Mark Thomas‘ Edinburgh show a mile away?! I’d never even heard of the Balham Comedy Festival! The latest idea of this passionate, campaigning yet always funny comedian,  so soon after his biographical Bravo Figaro and Manifesto (based on audience suggestion)  is 100 acts of dissent over 12 months. I loved it when they turned the Apple Store into a little bit of Ireland to make the tax-dodgers feel at home and can’t wait for the rest to unfold. I have fond memories of the stunts he pulled when he had a Channel 4 programme and these, smaller scale without a TV budget, look like providing more. A really funny hour.

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