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Posts Tagged ‘Theatre Royal Stratford East’

Opera

The Royal College of Music put on a cracking opera double-bill of Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. The stories of British toffs’ post-war ‘poverty’ and unhappy 50’s American suburbia somehow worked well together and they were both staged and performed brilliantly.

It was good to catch Britten’s rarely produced children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde, in a co-production between ENO and Stratford East, involving two schools, young musicians from two local boroughs, a community choir and students of the Royal College of Music. It was a very charming and heart-warming experience.

Cilea’s L’arlesiana is one of Opera Holland Park’s best rediscoveries. It’s a ‘small’ opera for such a big space, but the surprisingly lush and romantic score was beautifully sung and played. Lovely.

My first opera in the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn season was one I’m not really keen on – Die Fledermaus – but a friend wanted to go and it turned out to be a hoot. It was shortened to 50 minutes, updated to the present day and played and sung brilliantly by Baseless Fabric Theatre.

I could hardly believe my ears at our second visit to Grimeborn for Wagner’s Das Rheingold; the 100 minute adaptation by Graham Vick & John Dove, The singing was astonishingly good, the orchestra brilliant and the simple staging highly effective. I never thought you could pull off Wagner with these resources in a small space, but it was more thrilling than any production I’ve seen in an opera house.

Classical Music

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s The Planets at the Royal Albert Hall was an afterthought brought on by some friends coming to London to see it. It was accompanied by extraordinary NASA footage on a big screen. It peaked in the first movement when the power of Mars was accompanied by NASA‘s best images. As we went into less well known movements and more distant planets, it was less thrilling, but still worth a visit. The first half included superb renditions of Also Sprach Zarathustra and John Williams’ Star Wars suite. Populist stuff, but high quality populist stuff.

I’ve seen the London Welsh Chorale a few times, but their concert of rarely performed and new pieces by Welsh composers was on another level altogether, both in scale – orchestra, children’s choir, three soloists, organ and narrator – and quality. They sounded gorgeous in St. Giles Cripplegate.

My first Prom this year was a Sunday morning one with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA under Antonio Pappano and the incomparable mezzo Joyce DiDonato in a programme that included Berlioz’ Les nuits d’ete song cycle, which sounded heavenly, and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, which was thrilling. It opened with the European premiere of an excellent short work by a 19-year-old orchestra member! Joyce, of course, forever stylish, colour-coded her frock with the orchestra’s bold red and black outfits. When they encored with Elgar I felt I was in an internationalist haven far away from the nationalism of everyday life these days. These young people were clearly from a diverse range of backgrounds playing music by French, German, British and American composers. A wave of emotion overcame me as the music was saying more about a special relationship than any politician ever could, and the warmth of their reception at the Royal Albert Hall was uplifting.

Back at the Royal Albert Hall for my one and only evening Prom this year, for Handel’s oratorio Jephtha, which was very well played and sung by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Chorus under Richard Egarr, with a fine set of soloists. The cuts were a bit controversial, but they didn’t bother me and it was a bit of a novelty to be at a concert which came in at 30 minutes less than the published time.

Dance

At Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, contemporary dance piece 10,000 Gestures delivered what it said, not that I was counting, as the dancers were, out loud, some of the time. The pace was mostly frenetic, Mozart’s Requiem was background rather than choreographed and it got a bit edgy when the 21 dancers moved into the audience, some members of which moved onto the playing area. Boris Charmatz’ work was strangely compelling and somewhat exhausting.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Hobson’s Choice may be thirty years old, but it’s as fresh as they come, and a comic delight. Ballet can often be very earnest, and this is the antidote. An excellent score, period set & costumes and sprightly choreography with terrific characterisations come together to make a lovely full evening show at Sadler’s Wells.

I’ve seen and enjoyed everything Matthew Bourne has done, but what was special about Romeo & Juliet at Sadler’s Wells was his use of young dancers and artistic associates. It was inspired, mesmerising, exhilarating, thrilling……and exhausting! The musical adaptation, the design and the choreography all combined to produce something so fresh and exciting, but also very moving, and the performances were uniformly stunning. I can’t wait to see it again.

Film

I liked Late Night, a film with more depth than it seemed at first, and I was hugely impressed by Emma Thomson, an actress I don’t always take to, for the second time in less than twelve months.

I like Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis films, Rom Coms and British feel-good movies. Add the soundtrack of my teens and I was in heaven seeing Yesterday.

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s best film since Bend It Like Beckham 17 years ago, another heart-warming and hopeful British Asian story, this time based on a real one.

I’m not a Quentin Tarantino fan because of his glorification of violence but I was led to believe Once Upon A Time in Hollywood was different. Well, it was for the first 2h20m and I loved the late 60s retro aesthetic and accompanying soundtrack, though it was a bit slow, sometimes dull and overlong, but then he grossed out for the last 20m and I had to look away.

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August Wilson was one of the greats of 20th century American drama, though he’s not as well known or as produced internationally as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. His great achievement was a cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, all in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was brought up, with characters in some plays being referenced in others, documenting 100 years of the African American experience. We’ve seen all bar one here, though revivals after their UK premiere’s have been rare. Seventeen years after it was first seen at the Tricycle, this ninth play (in period, rather than writing), set in the Reagan’s America in the 80’s, gets a superb revival at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

King Hedley II is home from prison, where he served seven years. He lives at home with his mum Ruby, with whom he has a fractious relationship, and his wife Tonya. He has a seventeen-year-old daughter whom he hardly ever sees. He’s struggling to navigate life as an ex-con, selling knocked-off fridges with his best friend Mister to raise money to set up a video store. They try to speed up the fund-raising with a bigger crime. He’s keen to have a child with Tonya, but she doesn’t like the world it would be born into. Ruby’s old flame, smooth hustler Elmore, walks back into their lives and ghosts from the past emerge, propelling the play to its tragic conclusion. Peter McKintosh has built two full-size houses, evocative of the poor Hill District neighbourhood, whilst providing an intimate playing area in the back yards of the houses.

I was impressed by newcomer Aaron Pierre in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe last year, but his performance as King Hedley is on another level altogether; deeply emotional and passionate with an extraordinary charismatic presence. Martina Laird is terrific as Ruby, a nuanced characterisation that conveys the complexity of her relationships with her son and Elmore. This is Lenny Henry’s fifth role since his late career extension into stage acting, and he continues to impress. Elmore brings a lightness to what is one of the darker plays of the cycle, and Henry is well suited to this. Dexter Flanders as Mister and Cherrelle Skeete as Tonya both make excellent contributions, and the cast is completed by a fine performance from Leo Wringer as the eccentric neighbour Stool Pigeon, who hoards newspapers to record history and makes prophetic contributions like a Greek chorus.

It’s a bit too long at 3.5 hours, but Wilson’s dialogue and a set of riveting performances just about keep you in their grip in Nadia Fall’s superb production. It’s such a timeless piece, covering issues just as relevant and urgent today, and Stratford East is a great home for a work like this – an auspicious contribution to kick off the next phase in the life of ‘the people’s theatre’. As I left, I looked up at Joan Littlewood’s statue and she seemed to have a smile of approval on her face!

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Peter Shaffer’s play was 27 years old when I first saw it; for once I’d seen the film first. I enjoyed my second look in 2007 even more, when it featured a brave Daniel Ratcliffe with his screen uncle, the late Richard Griffiths. Here we are another twelve years on, when mental health is thankfully more talked about, with the premiere of a more radical ETT / Stratford East touring co-production which makes you realise how groundbreaking it must have been in 1973.

Seventeen year old Alan Strang is brought to child psychiatrist Martin Dysart by his magistrate friend when he appears before her for blinding six horses. His sessions with Dysart are interwoven with discussions with his parents (religious mother, atheist father), and flashbacks to events with them, his employer at the stables and Jill, the girl he’s taken a shine to. Dysart finds Strang elusive and challenging, playing games with him, but he eventually reciprocates and begins to reap rewards in his understanding of the case. The crucial moments of his interaction with the horses are played out in hugely dramatic scenes where other actors play the horses, culminating in the shocking event which led to his hospitalisation and treatment by Dysart.

It’s a gripping psychological thriller which needs a kind of electrical charge between the two main protagonists, and it certainly gets that here. I’ve been following Zubin Varla’s career since GSMD and this is one of the best things he’s done (even if he is looking and sounding more lie David Suchet these days!) and Ethan Kai is outstanding as Alan, highly strung, edgy, vulnerable, dangerous. There’s a fine supporting cast, with Ira Mandela Siobhan a particularly impressive horse. Though I liked the incidental chamber music there was maybe a little too much of it, occasionally too loud, competing with the dialogue. Otherwise Ned Bennett’s simple staging with white curtains on three sides, is effective in telling this complex story, and comes thrillingly alive in the memory scenes.

Great to see it again, and particularly good that a new generation can get to see it in these hopefully more enlightened times.

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I’m always up for a Frantic Assembly show, forever inventive, each show unique. I’m well into double figures now. This one has arrived at Stratford East and it was a great pleasure to sit in a mostly teenage audience and hear their silence, the best tribute I can pay to this work about those returning home from conflicts.

It interweaves the stories of George returning from the First World War in 1918, Frankie from Afghanistan in 2013 and Nat from a camp for British refugees in Norway in 2026. having fled some sort of civil war at home. George comes home a hero to his loving wife Rose, eager to start a family, but shellshocked and struggling to shake off the horrors of his experience. Frank comes home in disgrace, accused of an act of vengeance, spurned by his parents, hounded by the press. Nat comes home to scenes of devastation and destruction, looking for his younger brother caught up in one of the rebel groups.

It’s got extraordinary pace and energy, set within, outside and on top of a revolving container designed by Andrzej Goulding, with a loud soundtrack and dramatic lighting creating the atmosphere. At first I thought the scenes too short to develop the three stories, but then you realise how enthralling Anna Jordan’s play was becoming as they unfolded in this way. I felt the future story was less well developed than the other two, and the 2013 one the most dramatic and compelling, but the evening as a whole was gripping and thought-provoking, sometimes harrowing. I found myself both in disgust of, and sympathetic to, Frankie’s story in particular.

Frantic Assembly’s house style movement and physicality lends itself well to these stories, which are thrillingly staged by Neil Bettles, with the help of four excellent performances from Jared Garfield, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan and Kieton Saunders-Browne, who play many other characters as well as the three protagonists.

The full house of young people cheered their approval; this is the sort of work that makes theatregoers for life. Whether you’re new to this company or not, you should catch it. It was a pleasure to bring up the average age. A lot.

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Within minutes of it starting, I knew travelling to Stratford (upon Avon) to see this was a good idea. I’m a big fan of Joan Littlewood, even though I never saw any of her work. When my Tardis arrives, one of my first journeys will be back to the late 50’s / early 60’s to visit her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (East London). She revolutionised British theatre as much as people like Peter’s Brook and Hall, but isn’t recognised as much, though she does now have a statue outside Stratford East.

Writer Sam Kenyon uses seven Joan’s to tell her story, with the wonderful Clare Burt as Joan the narrator, encouraging and instructing the others to pass the baton, her trademark cap, to the next as she ages. It briefly covers her arrival in the world, school, an early trip to Paris and RADA, before political theatre in the North West, where she meets and marries future folk royalty Ewan MacColl (then Jimmie Miller). The whole of the second half covers the Theatre Workshop period in Stratford East, using the development of productions like A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oh What A Lovely War to propel the story forward.

It’s warts and all, so though it’s a homage, it shows the negative too. Along the way we meet Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Shelagh Delaney, Lionel Bart, Hal Prince (that collaboration was new to me!), Murray Melvin (whose insight Kenyon benefited from, and who was in the audience at this performance) and John Gielgud playing Macbeth! All of these are played by the ensemble regardless of age, sex or race. Her reciprocal love of Gerry Raffles shines through.

Designer Tom Piper has put a gold proscenium arch and red velvet curtains at the back of the apron stage, much like Stratford East, above which there’s a strip of screen on which projections signpost places and productions, with the band in the gallery above that. There’s an anarchic, playful quality to Erica Whyman’s production which seems entirely in keeping with the story. It feels like it’s being created as we watch, in the same way Joan’s shows were developed. It isn’t perfect, but for the first production of someone’s second musical, it’s impressive.

In addition to Clare Burt as Joan and Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles, an ensemble of ten play the other five Joan’s and more than thirty other roles. Sophie Nomvete and Emily Johnstone give great turns as Avis Bunnage and Barbara Windsor respectively. They also play two of the Joan’s, receiving / passing the baton (cap) from / to Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope, all excellent. I felt for Tam Williams, playing Murray Melvin with the man himself just feet away; he also gets give us Gielgud’s Macbeth!

Well worth the trip to Stratford, hopefully to have a life beyond The Swan.

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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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I’ve had a big soft spot for this show since its first outing at my then local theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, in 1990 (local boy Dudley Moore was in that night!). It got the quickest West End transfer ever when Cameron Mackintosh came, was blown away by the first half and sealed the deal in the interval. I followed it ‘up west’, unexpectedly caught the international tour in Germany and then saw a new production at the Edinburgh fringe seven years ago. Now here it is in a rather luxurious tent in the middle of the Marble Arch roundabout, and it’s still huge fun – the ultimate party show.

Clarke Peters’ homage to influential jazz legend Louis Jordan uses the story of Nomax to link together Jordan’s characterful songs, sending five Moe’s out of the radio to straighten him out after his woman’s gone and he’s turned to drink. Peters may well have invented the modern-day juke-box musical – a whole nine years before Mamma Mia. They are terrific songs that tell stories, often funny, sometimes poignant, always a joy to hear, with some of the funniest and cheekiest titles ever – I Like ‘Em Fat Like That. Messy Bessy, Pettin’ And Pokin’, Saturday Night Fish Fry, What’s The Use Of Getting Sober and Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens!

This new production by Peters himself sits well in the big circular luxury tent, with a revolving stage around the central seating, the band coming forward on its moving platform for the club scene and New Orleans brilliantly evoked on the walls in the second half. All six performers, which included an alternate Big Moe and Four-Eyed Moe on the night I went, were excellent at singing, dancing and engaging with the audience and there’s a cracking six-piece band which does full justice to the music. The second half packs more punches than the first, but it’s well paced overall, with maybe a touch too much time devoted to audience participation for my liking.

Though it probably won’t match its original five year West End run, I suspect it will be revived regularly in the future, keeping this infectious music alive for future generations.

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