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Posts Tagged ‘Stewart Lee’

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

When she walks onto the stage, she looks like she’s just left the set of Desperate Housewives or come straight from a meeting on Wall Street, but when Laura Cantrell strums her guitar and opens her mouth, you’re in the presence of one of the greatest modern country singers. She’s not been here for 6 years and with the release of her Kitty Wells tribute album, I wasn’t expecting such a varied set – the best of her back catalogue, some covers, some new songs and a few of the Kitty Wells songs. The two guitars (one sometimes pedal steel) / mandolin line up proved perfect for every song in a brilliant selection and ninety minutes later we were on our feet in appreciation. The Union Chapel proved yet again – despite the bum- numbing pews! – that it’s the perfect venue for this sort of concert.

Staff Benda Bilili are a bunch of homeless (well they were!) street musicians from Kinshasa, DR Congo, most of whom are paraplegic. They were the subject of a documentary that went on to raves at Cannes and a cinema and DVD release, part of which included making an album and making live appearances. Their Roundhouse show was as uplifting as the film, though in 75 minutes the pace doesn’t let up and this old man found it exhausting! Young Roger, who plays a one-string instrument of his own invention and manufacture, became a bit over-excited, but who can blame him given his journey. Great stuff.

A Sunday afternoon at the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year (plus the Stiles & Drew Best New Song Prize) – phew! what a title – proved a real pleasure. The standard was very high (I’m glad I wasn’t judging) which is what I find in my regular visits to our best drama / music colleges. Future musical theatre talent is secure, though how all of these will get work I don’t know. None of my personal top 4 made it, but I was happy with winner Taron Egerton (not just because he’s Welsh!) though less keen on the runner-up.

I don’t normally go to those benefit evening any more as they’re rarely satisfying because they cram so much in. Fortunately, Survivors UK at Cadogan Hall concentrated on a few excellent artists, including Lesley Garrett, Leanne Jones, Ian Shaw, Meow Meow and Hannah Waddingham, which made it a lovely musical evening. I was given a free ticket, which made me feel like a shit, so I made a donation higher than the cost of the ticket!

The Incredible String Band is part of the soundtrack of my life. I was surprised to see one of its founders, Mike Heron, on a bill with newbie’s Trembling Bells as part of Stewart Lee’s Austerity Binge mini-festival at the Southbank Centre, but couldn’t really resist. I certainly didn’t expect a magical hour of (mostly) early Incredibles’ songs. With help from Mike Hastings of Trembling Bells (and later the whole band), multi-instrumentalist Nick Pynn (who had opened the show with a virtuoso set) and someone called Georgia, he delivered these 35-40 year old songs so beautifully that Sleepers Awaken and A Very Cellular Song brought me to tears. Trembling Bells made the mistake of following him; however good they were, they were never going to live up to something so unexpectedly stunning.

Opera & Classical Music

Having been indifferent to James MacMillan’s last chamber opera, Parthogenesis, my expectations for Clemency weren’t high, which may be part of the reason I enjoyed it so much! It’s the story of three strangers who are befriended by Abraham and Sarah en route to reeking vengeance on twin cities full of sin. They prophesy a post-menopausal pregnancy for Sarah whilst the couple seek to persuade them to abandon their plan. I liked the triptych framing of the design and Janis Kelly and Grant Doyle were both excellent in the lead roles whilst the ‘triplets’ of Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall & Andrew Tortise sounded great singing in unison. The music is easily accessible, though yet again a lack of surtitles means you miss a lot of the (English!) libretto.

Ariodante in concert at the Barbican was an absolute joy. I’m a bit puzzled that I haven’t seen Baroque group Il Complesso Barocca and their conductor Alan Curtis before; the musicianship was exceptional and the assembled cast first class. After a shaky start, I warmed to Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s thoroughly dramatic performance as baddie Polinenesso. Karina Gauvin sang Ginevra beautifully and sounded great when dueting with Joyce DiDonato’s stunning Ariodante. Sabina Puertolas and Nicholas Phan sang Dalinda and Lurcanio respectively with great style. When he was asked to stand in as Odorardo, RAM student Sam Furness probably couldn’t believe his luck. He acquitted himself very well in such an outstanding cast, but so good was this evening he may have to come to terms with the fact it’s all downhill from here! It was DiDonato’s evening though – after only two concerts, I’ve fallen head over heals for this American mezzo. 

John Mark Ainsley’s lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall was a treat – Britten, Purcell & Poulenc – right up my street! We’re so lucky to have so many good tenors whose voices suit English song; just one week later I was back there for an evening recital by another – Ian Bostridge – whose programme was a very original affair, though very dark. It started with Purcell’s beautiful Music For A While and stayed light-ish in the first half with some rare Bach and Haydn pieces. After the interval, though, it was a funeral lament, bleak tales of violence pain and death of children and the American Civil War. It was all a bit challenging, but fortunately he encored with the opening Purcell to lift our gloom before we left!

Comedy

I love people who use their talent for good and top of this list is comedian Mark Thomas who combines humour and passion in equal measure so effectively. In his new ‘show’, Extreme Rambling, he tells the story of walking the wall between Israel and Palestine, the people he met and the things he learnt. It’s a rare thing to go home having learned a lot while being entertained (but not preached at) and the Tricycle Theatre is the perfect venue for this.

Film

I couldn’t believe Hanna was directed by the man who gave us Pride & Prejudice and Atonement – talk about change of direction! I loved the quirky cocktail of fantasy, action adventure and humour which was often unpredictable, never dull, but sometimes too violent (how on earth did it get a 12 rating?!). The Chemical Brothers soundtrack added much to the action sequences and the performances were all outstanding.

Attack the Block is another very good small scale British film, though I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so scary (it’s amazing how you can make giant cuddly toys terrify people!). It’s a very assured directorial debut but what distinguishes it most is a superb cast of (mostly) young actors. There was a certain frisson seeing it in Clapham, just a few miles from where it is set.

Art

A lovely afternoon of photographic exhibitions paired the RGS Travel Photography Prize with the Sony World Photography Awards at Somerset House. The former was right up my street but gave me a severe dose of wanderlust. The latter was much more extensive than I was expecting, including a retrospective of US photographer Bruce Davidson, such that it was too much to take in; but it was very varied and included some terrific stuff.

At the Whitechapel Gallery, there’s an excellent exhibition of the documentary photos, in nine series, by Paul Graham covering a journey up the A1 amongst other subjects! They also have a room with two terrific installations by Fred Sandbach made simply of string; for some reason I found then beautiful!

I suppose going to see an exhibition of someone whose work you have never liked seems perverse. Well, I wouldn’t have paid to see it, but as a Southbank Centre member, I decided to make this major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery one last chance to see if there really was anything to Tracey Emin’s soul baring autobiographical work. You will not be surprised to hear then that my conclusion is that there isn’t…..but I admire her immensely for convincing the art establishment that there is and in doing so make a shitload of money. This collection of drawings, ‘sculptures’, blankets and memorabilia may make for an interesting diary, but art it ain’t.

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