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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Hannon’

Well, I’ve got seriously behind with my blog, so instead of individual play reviews, I’m adding them to the customary monthly round-up, which given I only spent 12 days of April in the UK, wasn’t much to round-up!

The highlight was undoubtedly the ballet – Scottish Ballet’s new working of A Streetcar Named Desire at Sadler’s Wells. I felt just like I did the first time I really ‘got’ ballet as dance drama, when I saw Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet. This wordless form was more dramatic than any production of the play I’d seen – and both operas adapted from it. Starting with Blanche’s back story (way before her arrival in New Orleans when the play starts) was inspired. The drama unfolded chronologically from her childhood to her incarceration in an asylum by her sister Stella & husband Stanley. The fingerprints of director Nancy Meckler were all over it and the choreography of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa matched it seamlessly. Graeme Virtue’s jazz influenced score was hugely atmospheric, played beautifully by a small 13-piece orchestra. Niki Turner’s designs were elegant, evocative and simply beautiful. You got every bit of the play’s intensity, the longing, the sadness, the testosterone, the fragility….this is a masterpiece I can’t wait to see again.

The opera was ROH 2’s Opera Shots in the Linbury Studionew operas by those new to opera. Graham Fitkin’s Home wasn’t really an opera but a dance drama with music! Nice music though, and lovely flowing movement. What it was about is another matter; don’t ask me. Neil (the Divine Comedy) Hannon’s Sebastopol was more substantial, but still felt more like a staged song cycle than an opera. Again, nice music – though lots of missed words with opera singers singing the way they do i.e often unintelligibly!

I first saw Filumena in the West End in 1977 in a Zeffirelli production starring Joan Plowright – though I didn’t really know who Zeffirelli and Plowright were! Samantha Spiro at the Almeida makes a great Filumena and Clive Wood is an excellent Domenico. Robert Jones’ vast set is so realistic it looks fake (all those artificial plants!). Somehow though the play doesn’t seem that good now. There’s an implausibility to the story of a prostitute who ‘goes native’ but never manages to bag her man, even using the parentage of her sons as bait. A good production, but I’m not sure the play has stood the test of time.

I was recalling my first trip to NYC in my recent travel blog and in particular that one of the plays I saw in that 1980 visit was a preview of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock (which closed soon after opening, but got an NT production some years later). The co-incidence was that I’d booked to see it at the Finborough two days after my return – and very glad I was that I had. Director Phil Wilmott’s idea of framing the play with scenes at a present day exhibition of great depression photos was inspired and heightened even further the parallels between 1929 and today. Given the number of scenes, the production has to be simple and it was, and the acting was the usual high standard we’ve got used to at the Finborough – but what grabs you is the uncanniness of the contemporary relevance of Miller writing 30 years ago about something that happened 80 years ago. Spooky!

Big & Small’s big draw is its movie star lead – Cate Blanchette – and she is an extraordinarily good stage actor. Sadly, her vehicle here is a load of pretentious bollocks about a woman searching for meaning in her life. I will allow the director’s quotes in the programme to sum it up as I can’t – ‘It alludes simultaneously to the spiritual and political dimensions of life; macro / micro, cosmos / cell, state / individual, history / present, eternity / now. The expansion and contraction of being…..the seemingly fragmented de-centred dramatrugy…..the slow-motion detonation of character and narrative…..the existential puzzle…..the play offers a radical perspective on society. Lotte’s odyssey confronts us with the limits of rational order. She is a stranger in her own culture. A fool and a saint dancing on the rim of the abyss. As I said, bollocks.

Making Noise Quietly gets a gentle loving production from Peter Gill and the three playlets are finely acted. Again the problem is the material, Robert Holman’s 27-year old piece, now apparently an ‘A’ level text! Loosely connected by the second world war and the Falklands war, I didn’t really find them satisfying, particularly the last (title) play which I found unbelievable; I just couldn’t buy in to the characters and situation. Not the Donmar at its best.

Babes in Arms wasn’t the Union at its best either. Hampered by a weak book, this musical just didn’t sparkle as it could and has. The musical standards weren’t up to the Union’s usual high, though the choreography of Lizzi Gee was outstanding so all was well in the dancing department. Overall, a disappointment though.

I’ve lost track of the number of Alan Ayckbourn shows I’ve seen – maybe half of his 75? – but of late the new ones have seemed dated and the old ones like veritable museum pieces. Neighbourhood Watch at the Tricycle (what’s it doing here?) was no different. The one location and setting was dull and restrictive and the whole thing was just a bit predictable and dull. The premise was fine and it was nicely acted, but it didn’t sustain its 130 minute length and left me thinking ‘so what?’

Not the greatest eight days in theatre, then…..

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Six days in and we already have the first treat of 2012, back at the Vaudeville where Potted Panto, the last treat of 2011, was. This Bristol Old Vic production by Tom Morris is about as far as you can get from the big show values of Shrek & Matilda and the traditionality that is panto. The Walker children go off on their own by boat to an island in the lake to play. Here they fight the pirates of the Blackett sisters, who they eventually become real chums with. Even the adults, Walker mother and Blackett uncle are caught up in this imaginary world of play.

Arthur Ransom’s early 20th century story is adapted well by Helen Edmundson and given a somewhat appropriate homespun production on a simple stage where the props are assembled from everyday objects (the parrot is a tri-colour feather duster and pliers!) and the sound effects created live on stage. There’s a charming score from Neil Hannon (aka The Divine Comedy) played by on-stage musicians doubling up as actors in what has now become a familiar style. The children are played by adults.

It takes a while for your imagination to engage and your inner child to emerge, but by the end you really wish you could go back to that den in the bushes with your bestest friend and play. For it is imagination that is the essence of this show, and it completely captures what happens (well, used to happen) when children occupy themselves for hours on end in worlds they create in their heads. 32-year old actor Stewart Wright really is youngest brother Roger, those ribbons waving are a lake and the feather duster and pliers that talk really is a parrot. There is a beautiful sequence at the end where the audience join in with the ‘play’ to assist the boats on their journey.

Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akita Henry and Stewart Walker are terrific as the Walker children, with great chemistry between them. Celia Adams and Sophie Walker are lovely as the Blackett sisters. Seven other actors play all other roles, every instrument, sing and create the sound effects. They look like they’re having as much fun as you are and it’s all very infectious.

It was the quietest family audience I’ve been in for some time, which might have something to do with their ages and backgrounds, but in my opinion has more to do with the fact that they, like me, were lost in this imaginary world, oblivious to all around them. I remember the moment when 1100 people gasped in the Olivier Theatre as a puppet horse was about to be shot, and you get the same feeling here – theatre really is magic.

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Meltdown is an annual 10-day music festival at London’s Southbank Centre with a guest artistic director and no rules. Previous AD’s have included Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and David Bowie. This year’s is godfather of folk-rock Richard Thompson

It got off to a disappointing start with Thompson’s 80 minute ‘folkatorio’ Cabaret of Souls. It’s a great idea and there is some very good music, but hearing it for the first time and not being able to hear all the words and therefore engage with the concept, it seemed like a lost opportunity. There were lots of linking pieces making a total of c.30 sections and the applause between almost every one became irritating. I’d love to hear a recording a few times then go see an uninterrupted 80 minutes – I suspect it could be something special in those circumstances.

You’d never use the word ‘disappointed’ in connection with A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle. It was so hyped up (‘sold out in 11 minutes’ etc.) and I was seriously over-excited, but it exceeded my wildest dreams and more. The first Kate & Anna McGarrigle album is part of the soundtrack of my life and this show consisted entirely of songs she wrote or co-wrote. There were five Thompsons and at least seven from the Wainwright-McGarrigle-Lanken families, including a third sister Jane who I never knew existed. Kate’s good friend Emmylou Harris & Jenni Muldaur came over (producer Joe Boyd explained that Jenni’s mum Maria introduced him to the McGarrigles music); Emmy sang with Anna like she was another sister. Seemingly incongruous guests Nick Cave and Neil Tennent made surprisingly welcome contributions. Newcomers Lisa Hannigan and Krystle Warren both brought the house down. There was even a reading from author Michael Ondaatje. Richard & Linda Thompson re-united for a devastatingly beautiful Go Leave and ended with an embrace. Teddy Thompson and Rufus & Martha Wainwright all sang extraordinarily beautiful interpretations of Kate’s songs. Rufus, Martha and Anna all broke down which set off a lot of us in the audience too! It was sad, but ultimately uplifting and exhilarating and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Apart from her contribution the day before, I’d only seen Krystle Warren once, at a Nick Drake tribute show, and she impressed me then too. However, nothing could prepare me for the extraordinary concert she put on at the Purcell Room. She writes terrific original songs and has a unique voice, but above all it’s her ability to inhabit them that is so compelling. Teddy Thompson joined her for a couple of numbers and they sounded great together (future collaboration?). If she isn’t in the Rufus Wainwright league fairly soon, I’ll be very surprised. Support Jim Moray gave a lovely set of folk tunes with clever use of pedals and loops – I want to see more of him.

If the Kate McGarrigle tribute was the hottest ticket, An Evening of Political Songs was probably the ‘coldest’ judging by the empty seats. The title hardly excites, does it! Like all things political, it was somewhat long-winded, but it was an intriguing and eclectic collection which had its moments. The highlight was without question Norma Waterson who brought the house down, and brought tears to my eyes, with an unaccompanied song about the miners strike. Tom Robinson, instead of relying on his own 70’s politics (though he did do Glad to be Gay in the second half) gave us an excellent version of John Walker Blues by Steve Earle (who should really have been there as he’s about the only political songwriter left) and a brave crack (for a recently 60-year-old!) at angry hip-hop. Canadian Chaim Tennenbaum took the self-satisfied nationalism out of God Bless America, Emily Smith sang beautifully and RT himself turned up unannounced for a couple of excellent songs including a bitter one from the perspective of a soldier in Iraq. Then there was Neil Hannon, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Jez Lowe, Boris Grebenshikov, Camille O’Sullivan and poetic contributions from Lemn Sissay and Caribel Alegria. MC Harry Shearer did a good job, as well as a vicious but appropriate up-to-date satirical song about paedophile priests, and MD Kate St John yet again held one of these complex compilations together undeniably well (and for once got flowers and a hug from a grateful RT).

The two-for-the-price-of-one pairing of Richard Thompson & Loudon Wainwright provided 65 minute sets by each plus 30 minutes together. Thompson’s song writing and guitar playing outshine Wainwright’s, but the latter is a great communicator and it’s his humour and connection with the audience which impresses. Separately they are contrasting but together they are complimentary – the voices work well in harmony and Thompson’s intricate guitar work sounds even better on top of Wainwright’s strumming. I could have done with a lot more than the six songs they sang together, but it was still a feast of music by two greats of folk-rock.

This was the best Meltdown since Elvis Costello’s in 1995 and a real vindication of the idea that one person can put together a varied and eclectic programme which hangs together because it’s an expression of their taste & ideas and above all presents high quality music in an age of manufactured recycled mediocrity.

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