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Posts Tagged ‘Sandi Toksvig’

Well it wasn’t a vintage year, but there was enough to make the trip worthwhile.

The highlight of the Fringe was Mark Thomas’ solo show (and a departure in form) Bravo Figaro at the Traverse Theatre. He’s one of my favourite comedians and completely unique, but this is no stand-up show. He tells the story of his relationship with his dad and his dad’s love of opera. It is often very funny, with his trademark swipes at all things unfair and unjust, but on this occasion the tears of laughter were accompanied by the other sort of tears at the end of what was a deeply moving and satisfying hour. The second highlight was also a solo show (well, apart from the pianist) and also autobiographical, but very different indeed. I’m not a real Madness fan, though I do quite like their music. I’m not sure how Suggs got to be a national treasure, but he is and on this form you can see why. It was an illuminating and funny whizz through an interesting life. He’s a sort of everyman / normal bloke and I think that’s where his charm lies; you’d just love to meet him in a pub for a few beers and a good old chinwag! 

I saw four other shows at my favourite venue the Traverse Theatre, but none came near to Bravo Figaro. And No More Shall We Part, a play about assisted suicide, was well staged and beautifully acted, but with a clumsy structure and an unsatisfying ambiguity – and it was deeply depressing! The hugely prolific Simon Stephens play Morning was an hour of teenage angst that made me want to shout ‘grow up’ at the stage. Again well acted, but not enough to banish my regret of booking for it. Others enjoyed Monkey Bars more than I did. It’s one of those verbatim pieces – this time with the words of children spoken by adult actors. I didn’t dislike it, but found it a bit slight. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve overdone verbatim…..The final Traverse offering coupled The Letter of Last Resort, a play about the letter a prime minister has to write on their first day in office giving instructions to the commanders of our nuclear submarines, with another play called Good With People set where they are based. The link between them was nebulous. I enjoyed the former less out of the context of the ten-play cycle The Bomb at the Tricycle Theatre back in March and found the latter a bit dull and pointless. Is the Traverse going off the boil or is it just a fluke year?

You couldn’t find two comics further apart than Stewart Lee and Tim Vine, but I have to say I enjoyed both. The normally edgy Lee has a more subtle edge this time around with a show based on the premise that now he’s a hands-on dad he doesn’t have any material for a show, and continually referencing the reasons for its structure and our reactions. Clever stuff, but not everyone in a Saturday evening big venue audience agreed. Tim Vine is an old-fashioned charming corny gag merchant, but you can’t help loving him. It’s refreshing to see someone whose humour is clean and who has absolutely no edge and no agenda other than to make you laugh; someone you can take the kids or grannie to – the audience contained some of both. I’m not sure using members of the audience as chat show guests really worked, but it was a fun hour nonetheless. I’m not sure how to categorise Sandi Toksvig‘s show – part stand-up, part autobiography, part anecdotes, part book plugging! She does have a natural engaging charm and it was an enjoyable hour in her company. Mark Watson’s Eurolympics was a bonkers late night slot where three guest comedians compete in events including wearing as many of the audience’s clothes as you can, balancing books on your head, writing a limerick etc. Silly but fun.

Elsewhere in fringe theatre, Allotment wasn’t just a quirky site specific show (actually sitting on stools surrounding an allotment!) but a funny and moving story of the lives of two sisters for whom the allotment is their escape from the real world. Starting with tea and scones was an inspired bonus! Communicado‘s staging of Rabbie Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter was very good, with excellent music, but the dialect was often impenetrable for non Scots like me which marred an otherwise enjoyable affair. Planet Lem, an open air Sci Fi show in the University courtyard by the Polish company that brought us Carmen Funebre on stilts in a school playground and Macbeth also here in the courtyard, was a bit flat. The small amount of dialogue it contained was recorded and in English, yet it was still hard to comprehend. Technically well executed in b-movie fashion, it didn’t live up to their previous offerings. The other theatrical highlight was The Two Most Perfect Things, a biographical review of the lives of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello. After five minutes, I was wondering why I’d added this just that morning as it seemed a bit like being in a moving talking singing museum. It soon won me over though, with the stories of these fascinating theatrical icons interspersed with their songs beautifully sung. Lovely.

For an unusual diversion, I went to see Scotland’s national poet Liz Lockhead read some of her lovely poems. It wasn’t as good without Michael Marra’s songs in between as on a previous occasion, but something to further the eclecticism of this year’s selection. More poetry from Phil Jupitus on the free fringe, recreating his first incarnation as Porky the Poet, with a guest appearance from another comedian-turned-poet-turned-comedian Owen O’Neil (with a book to plug!). A nice hour and the closest to the spirit of the fringe I came this year.

The fringe musical highlight was The Francis Bacon Opera, based on his interview with Melvyn Bragg where they both got famously drunk on camera and ended up dancing. A hugely original piece with superbly funny characterisations and clever musical touches including the musical representation of painters – Jackson Pollock was a hoot! Scotland in Song was an impulsive thoroughly enjoyable hour of traditional song interspersed with a bit of history; I particularly liked its objectivity and balance. Our final show, as guest of the BBC, was a live broadcast of Radio 3’s Late Junction with an eclectic mix of Scottish folkie Dick Gaughan, Irish chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan, modern classical specialists The Hebrides Ensemble and an extraordinary group of singers and musicians from Azerbaijan. I do love it when you put together something as diverse as this and create a delicious cocktail.

After no main festival shows last year, we had five this year, starting with a Polish Macbeth (my 4th!) in a giant hanger like space where they had created a two-story house in a middle eastern war zone. The relocation worked well and the play got to the heart of the Macbeth’s madness. The staging was spectacular, with fighting, absailing and gruesome murders; the creation of the ‘other’ ghostly world was particularly effective. What is it with the Poles and Macbeth?! French company Theatre du Soleil haven’t been here since they did four Greek tragedies over a weekend in a carpet factory in Bradford some 20 years ago (I was there!). This time they have created Les Nufrages du Fol Espoir, a show which takes place in the giant attic of a restaurant just as World War I is about to start. A bunch of left-wing idealists are making a silent movie that travels from Sarajevo to Patagonia via Cardiff and Windsor! The stagecraft is extraordinarily inventive (in a low tech sense) and the music was brilliant. It was overlong at 4 hours, but I will forgive them for the stage images that will remain for a long long time. This outstanding company and their director Ariane Mnouchkine are up there with Robert Lepage as creators of theatrical magic. The third theatrical offering was more disappointing – Gulliver’s Travels from Roumania. Again, the staging was low tech inventive, but this time the structure and narrative made for a bit of a confusing muddle and it didn’t really hang together, despite some stunning scenes.

I’m not sure Charpentier ever meant David et Jonathas to be staged as an opera and I do wish it had been a concert. Musically beautiful, the staging was simply distracting, with endless short scenes played out in a wooden box which got bigger and smaller depending on the scene. Better with eyes close, I suspect. My heart sank when I discovered favourite soprano Rebecca Evans had been replaced by unknown Christiane Karg for her Queens Hall recital, but it was one of those occasions when you see an emerging star and forget completely that she’s standing in. A very diverse programme showed off both her versatility and her vocal talent to great effect and the smile on accompanist Martin Martineau‘s face told you he too though she was something special. 

Not a lot of art this year, but what there was was special. Van Gogh to Kandinsky has only a pair from each, but fortunately a lot more wonderful work from many other artists (most of whom I’d never heard of!) under its subtitle Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 which made for a very beautiful collection; very cohesive and satisfying. Downstairs at the National Gallery, they featured an unknown Italian called Giovanni Battista Lusardi whose Italian landscapes and cityscapes rival Canaletto in their detail and technical mastery; a real find. Celebrity art was represented by Harry Hill whose pictures probably wouldn’t be seen if he wasnt Harry Hill, but they were funny and provided a diverting 20 minutes (once you’ve got your breath back from the climb to the top floor of the store where they were shown!). The annual International Photography exhibition was its usual stunning self which brought on the now equally usual feeling of total photographic inadequacy!

Now I’ve written this, it seems a lot more action packed and a lot better than it seemed at the time;  Mmmm……

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Contemporary Music

Some of the best things I’ve been to were on impulse. The impulse to see Mari Wilson with jazz vocalist / pianist Ian Shaw came a few days before. In truth, I’d never heard of Shaw, but Mari has been a favourite for almost 30 years and I’ve recently re-connected with her through new albums and concerts with her own band. After a couple of solo songs from Shaw, Mari marched on looking as glamorous as ever carrying a decorated Christmas tree, put it on a small table and announced ‘£12.74 from Neasden IKEA’ and from this moment on we were treated to a light-hearted but virtuoso display of well known songs in interesting arrangements – a ‘mash-up’ of The Ronettes ‘Be My Baby’ and The Righteous Brothers ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ was a particular highlight. Shaw brought on X Factor audition reject John Wilding whose interpretation of Radiohead’s Creep brought tears to my eyes (it had been massacred on that very programme the previous week by tone-deaf Wagner!). Even though The X Factor is one of my guilty pleasures, sitting listening to these brilliant musicians whilst most of the country was watching it on TV did put things in perspective somewhat; when I got home and watched the recording, I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I usually do!

I’m not sure how to categorise Richard Thompson’s latest project, but I’m putting it here in Contemporary Music! Nutmeg & Ginger is a lovely title for his collaboration with Philip Pickett & the Musicians of the Globe singing spicy ballads from Shakespeare’s time. He’s had a renaissance guitar made and is accompanied by bass viol, violin, lute, bandore and recorder in 10 songs plus eight dance tunes. Cadogan Hall was the perfect venue and after a nervous start where he seemed to be finding it difficult to get all the words sung at the pace of the music, he soon started smiling and it settled into a delightful evening. Few rock / folk musicians would have the necessary musicianship – or sheer balls! – to attempt a project like this, but like his 1000 Years of Music project, it’s both fascinating and rewarding. Keep your eyes open for the album he hinted at (but wouldn’t commit to).

I was thrilled when I heard The Unthanks had chosen the songs of Robert Wyatt and Anthony & The Johnsons as a project as I like all three. At their concert in the Union Chapel, they did a 40 minute set of Anthony songs followed by a 60 minute set of Wyatt. I enjoyed them both greatly, but the second set worked better – the songs were more challenging and complex and they rose brilliantly to the challenge. The final song about the neglect of gypsy holocaust victims in the Czech republic was deeply moving and it was impossible to follow with an encore.

There’s a direct line from The Kinks through Squeeze to Madness and Lily Allen which represents a soundtrack of London. It’s a very long time since I last saw Squeeze but an attack of nostalgiaitis prompted me to book for one of their run of London gigs; sad to report that it didn’t really live up to expectations. Support Lightening Seeds set them up well, and when they were good they were good, but there was lot of padding in their 90 minute set, a little too many self-indulgent solos and sound which was often turned up at the expense of clarity to distortion levels.

Opera

The music of A Dog’s Heart by Raskatov is difficult to penetrate on first hearing, but Complicite’s Simon McBurney’s production is an extraordinary theatrical feast of terrific performances, clever puppetry from Blind Summit and brilliant projections & inventive design from Michael Levine. It’s a satire based on Bulgokov’s banned satirical novel about a dog that is turned into a man and back again. The dog has two voices brilliantly sung by Andrew Watts and Elena Vassilieva (who also double up as the Vyasemskaya and The Cook), there is a wonderful turn as The Maid from Nancy Allen Mundy, Peter Hoare is fantastic as the man (dog) and Steven Page is terrific as the professor at the heart of the story with Leigh Melrose also great as his assistant. I think you would have to hear it a fair few times to get into the music, but the production was a treat.

Classical Music

Handel and Cecilia Bartoli is a partnership made in heaven. Backed by the brilliant Basle Chamber Orchestra with fine second half support from young (though he doesn’t look it!) Argentinean counter-tenor Franco Fagioli, this was a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. There were the vocal fireworks and beaming smiles you always get at her concerts but, on this occasion, the match with the composer (OK, so he’s a fave of mine) meant she reached new heights and delivered pure joy. Given the ovation, it wasn’t just me!

Art

The Hayward Gallery has cornered the market in quirky exhibitions you can’t really call art and Move – Choreographing You is another one of them. It didn’t do a lot for me, I’m afraid, but maybe I didn’t ‘play’ enough. Fortunately, the South Bank offered two photographic gems to make the journey worthwhile. At The RFH, the annual World Press Photo exhibition lived up to its exceptionally high standard; though this year there was a series of photos of a man being stoned in Somalia which was hard to look at. At the RNT, things were less harrowing at the Landscape Photography exhibition; there were so many beautiful images, it made me feel like a completely inadequate photographer.

I really enjoyed the GSK Contemporary exhibition at the Royal Academy annexe this year, a sort of art meets fashion meets politics. There was one video of men posing in shirts with chest holes or flaps you could open which became chilling when it was followed by its inspiration; men opening their shirts in Palestine to prove they were not suicide bombers.

The Photographic Prize Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was as good as ever – another photography exhibition to make me feel an inadequate photographer.

Another impulsive treat was popping in to the Courtauld Gallery when passing by with time to kill to see the Cezanne Card Players exhibition where they’ve put together 14 preparatory paintings and drawings with three of the Card Players paintings themselves. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get them from 6 countries but it’s absolutely worthwhile. I’ve avoided these in-depth exhibitions before but won’t do again.

Finally, and somewhat appropriately for year end and courtesy of Whinger Andrew I went to the recording of the News Quiz of the Year (three weeks before its broadcast) with Sandi Toksvig and (in my view) the best of the panellists – Andy Hamilton, Francis Wheen, Sue Perkins and Jeremy Hardy. The 90 minutes recorded will be edited down and you knew exactly where are there were some very rude bits! It was a bit of a palaver to get in but it was worth it.

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