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Posts Tagged ‘Trevor Nunn’

I’ve always thought Britain didn’t produce 20th century dramatists to equal the three great Americans – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neil. After The Dance at the NT last year was a nudge in the ribs, but here’s a poke in the stomach; by the end of this centenary year, I may have to bury such thoughts for good.

In Flare Path, we’re at a hotel next to an airbase at wartime where aircrew are staying – Teddy, a seemingly gung-ho Flight Lieutenant whose inner insecurities are revealed as the play progresses, down-to-earth bomber Dusty doing his bit and trying to stay alive and a Polish Count set on revenge and a heroic death. Teddy’s married to a glamorous actress and can’t quite believe his luck, Dusty’s equally down-to-earth wife is a bit of a nag but clearly worships him and the Count has swept a barmaid off her feet despite their inability to communicate in English. We stay with the wives waiting for the return of their men from bombing raids and live the tension, relief and celebrations before, during and after the missions. The arrival of Teddy’s wife’s old flame – a Hollywood matinée idol – provides an additional tension to be resolved.

You can tell that Rattigan, a Second World War airman himself, knew exactly what these people were going through and it results in a set of characterisations of great depth. In any other play / production, Sheridan Smith – fresh from her wonderful Olivier Award winning musical comedy turn in Legally Blonde – would steal the show. She moves from chirpy ex-barmaid and social catalyst to tragic wife on the turn of her face and her real tears triggered real tears in the audience. The day after bagging the Olivier for a musical, she must already be on the list for another in a play……but there are nine other exceptional performances – yes, nine! – so casting Director Maggie Lunn must get a mention.

It must be much harder to play an unsympathetic character than a sympathetic one (or a downright baddie) but James Purefoy manages it superbly – every inch the Hollywood heart-throb who eventually exposes his inner emotional core. Harry Hadden-Paton and Sienna Miller grow into the roles of Teddy and his wife as the play progresses and the depths of their characters are revealed, but for some reason Miller’s appearance is the only one that doesn’t quite seem 1940’s. We empathise easily with Mark Dexter’s tongue-tied defiant Polish Count, as we do with Joe Armstrong as wartime everyman Dusty and Emma Handy as his wife visiting for just one night. There are lovely cameos from Sarah Crowden as the battle-axe hotelier, Matthew Tennyson (still at drama school!) as her barman son and Clive Wood’s archetypal Squadron Leader, determined to keep up the spirit and morale of the boys.

Trevor Nunn’s detailed and subtle production grips you for every minute of its 150 minute running time. Stephen Brimson Lewis has created another of those period sets that simply take you to the location and the period, and the projections and sound used to convey the take-offs are excellent.

If this were the only revival for the Rattigan centenary, it would do him proud; but there’s a lot more to come yet. My withdrawal symptoms following After the Dance have been temporarily sated, but I’m now even more excited about what’s to come, but if I have a more satisfying evening in the theatre this year, I shall be a very lucky boy indeed. By now, you should be on the web or the phone because you just cannot give this a miss.

 

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Sondheim’s 80th celebrations continued with a concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 UK premiere cast. I have fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of his most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too.

Earlier in the month I attended the ceremony to confer an Honorary Doctorate on Sondheim at the Royal Academy of Music. There was a terrific brass fanfare and a procession of men in robes which included a bearded man in sports jacket, yellow shirt and chinos looking uncomfortable in his. I don’t know whether he wrote it himself, but John Suchet’s citation was wonderful and an emotional Sondheim clearly appreciated the honour. It was followed by a 30-minute performance by students and recent graduates which was an unusual selection and a little hampered by failing amplification, but the chorus numbers were fabulous. Julia Mackenzie, Trevor Nunn, Simon Callow and Lesley Garrett were also in the audience to honour the great man. It’s proving a great 80th celebration and we aren’t finished yet!

Contemporary Music

At his Cadogan Hall concert, Nils Lofgren reminded us of his first UK visit in 1973 as part of Neil Young’s band on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour ‘when we played all this new stuff and pissed everyone off’. I can still hear the hissing but refuse to believe it was 37 years ago. Anyway, this concert was by far his best acoustic outing, with just one other person on keyboards / trumpet / guitar & rock tap dancing! It was mostly old stuff, but he’s a great guitar player and has a distinctive voice; add in terrific sound and a lovely atmosphere and you have a treat. 

Classical Music

The Houston Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets beneath a giant screen showing footage of the planets themselves was an intriguing prospect and proved to be a unique experience. In truth though, I was more impressed by the orchestra’s playing that the projections, possibly because the darkness and visuals heightened the aural experience where every sound was crisp and clear. I also loved the Barber and Stravinsky symphonic suits which preceded the main event.

Tenor Ian Bostridge has a Cecilia Bartoli-style project called ‘The Three Tenors’ which focuses on three early 18th century singers and the pieces that were composed for them by contemporary composers. It’s an album and tour with baroque ensemble Europa Galante and in concert it was very much one of two halves – the first a distinctly underpowered and underwhelming affair and a much better second half when a clearly unwell Bostridge rose to the exciting heights the ensemble had achieved throughout. I’m not sure the repertoire really suited this sweetest of sweet tenors, though the Handel pieces certainly did. The animated ensemble, which stands to play, were often thrilling.

There was a lovely Sunday afternoon affair at the Royal Academy of Music examining the relationship between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten & Lennox Berkley, both of whom set his poems to music. It took the form of an informative discussion / readings followed by afternoon tea (with homemade cakes!) followed by a recital / reading by college students followed by wine – and all for a tenner! Katie Bray stole the show with spirited renditions of Britten’s Cabaret Songs.

Opera

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing 18th century composer Thomas Arne wrote was Rule Britannia. Apparently, the main reason we don’t know much more is that most of his manuscripts were burnt in a fire. Fortunately, most of the masque / opera Alfred survives and it was given a rare and very welcome outing by The Classical Opera Company at Kings Place. It’s similar to, and stands up well against, Handel’s work of the same type and period –a patriotic tale of invasion by and repulsion of the Danes populated by the king, queen & prince, a shepherd & shepherdess, a war widow and a spirit! The small orchestra was terrific, the young company of seven singers excellent and actor Michael Moloney’s tongue-in-cheek narration was an added bonus. Another treat!

I wish I could say the same for the first in our autumn pairing at WNO, Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a lovely opera, but it was given a dull, drab and inert production – clumsily staged and full of old-fashioned mannered movement. The director also designed and did the lighting, so I suspect that the lack of a creative team meant one man’s perspective and no challenge. Dennis O’Neill still has a lovely tone to his tenor voice but it was Clive Bayley’s Rocco who shone. The chorus and orchestra were again the real stars, though. It’s one of those evenings when you wished it had been one of those concert performances, or you had closed your eyes during the gorgeous overture and opened them again for the uplifting final chorus.

Fortunately, things picked up for the second opera – Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos – which had a sparkling production and twelve (yes, twelve!) first class and well matched singers, led by Sarah Connolly in the trouser role of The Composer. Though I’d seen the opera a couple of times before, I only realised this time how Wagnerian the second act is – and it also suffers from Wagner’s penchant for the overlong; if it had been 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a lot better. Another treat nonetheless.

Alexander Goehr’s Promised End is an opera based on King Lear. The libretto is entirely Shakespeare’s words and given it’s half the length of the play, it’s surprising how much of the story is told. It’s well directed and designed and the performances are uniformly good. The trouble is the music is just dull – it’s like they were about to do the play, when someone suggested they sing the lines instead of speaking them and improvised it on the spot. If the addition of music doesn’t do anything, it all seems rather pointless.

L’Isola Disabitatia is a short & silly Haydn opera with lovely music about two girls abandoned on a desert island. The musical standards of the Jette Parker Young Artists production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio were very high with excellent singing from Elizabeth Meister, Anna Devlin, Steven Ebel & Daniel Grice and lovely playing from the Southbank Sinfonia under Volker Krafft. Unfortunately, Rodula Gaitanou’s decision to set it in a post-apocalypse world was preposterous and ugly; it detracts from your enjoyment significantly – again, it would be much better with your eyes closed. With a 75-minute running time, the interval was misguided and did nothing except increase the bar profits.

Film

I haven’t been to the cinema for five months, mostly because I just haven’t fancied anything. It took a British film covering a slice of social history like Made in Dagenham to draw me back and I loved it. They’ve taken liberties with the history, compressing it somewhat, but it’s still a great story and with hindsight a much more important one than I remembered. The who’s who of British acting included fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Geraldine James and Miranda Richardson.

I was also impressed by The Kids Are Alright, which takes very contemporary subjects – gay parenting and sperm donation – and produces a charming film which moves seamlessly from funny to thoughtful with an excellent script, sensitive direction and five fine performances. When one child reaches adulthood, she asserts her right to find the sperm donor on behalf of her younger brother and their world is turn upside down when he enters all four of their lives. Very intelligent, clever, modern and grown-up. 

Art

I’d seen a small exhibition of Art by Offenders in Edinburgh, but the one in the Royal Festival Hall is more extensive and so much better exhibited. There is an extraordinary amount of talent here; you can’t like everything, but you can admire it and cheer the good work being done in using art as therapy and rehabilitation.

The V&A has three great exhibitions at the same time. The first we saw was the Raphael cartoons with the tapestries from which they are designed. It was fascinating to see them side-by-side; in one case a threesome with a century younger tapestry copy as well. I was bowled over by how good the Diaghilev & Ballets Russes exhibition was, proving conclusively how much impact they had on art and design of the period. It included lots of costume and set drawings & models as well as actual costumes and front cloths plus much more. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed so contemporary. The best was left until last though, with Shadow Catchers, showcasing five artists who make cameraless photography – their photograms were simply gorgeous.

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, there are four pieces by Anish Kapoor and walking to and between them, watching them change and grow, was a delight. The large disc on the opposite side of the Serpentine with reflections in the disc and in the water and ducks and swans passing in front was the highlight. There were no highlights in Klara Liden’s pointless installations and videos in the Serpentine Gallery I’m afraid – dreadful! 

Gaugin is one of those ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that lives up to the hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking he just painted semi-naked Tahitian women; well, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dispel that myth and see the whole range of his work. There are carvings and woodcuts as well as paintings. The oils are so soft they look like watercolours. The colours are a feast for the eyes. By the time I got to the Turbine Hall downstairs, you weren’t allowed to walk on the millions of tiny porcelain pellets that ARE the installation which makes the whole thing pointlessly expensive.

I’m not sure I got much out of Damian Ortega’s Barbican Curve installation inspired by a month of news stories, but it was original and intriguing; I think I need to go back with more time to do it justice. I’ve really got to love popping into this space before a show or concert.

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RAM seems to be the only one of our major music / drama colleges joining in with the celebrations of the great man’s 80th, but boy did they do it in style.

I’ve always found A Little Night Music one of Sondheim’s least satisfying shows. The story is very conventional (for Sondheim) and the music – virtually all waltz – a little twee for my taste. The Menier started to change my mind last year with Trevor Nunn’s terrific production, but it was this one which was the real revelation. It really brought out the humour but contrasted it with more poignancy. I’ve heard Hermione Gingold, Judi Dench & Hannah Waddingham sing Send in the Clowns on stage, but only Alex Young in this production moved me to tears. Sarah Covey’s interpretation of The Millers Son was positively uplifting and there were fine performances from Becky Moult, Matthew Crowe, Daniel Cane and Michael Storrs. On a simple set, it was left to the gorgeous period costumes to provide appropriate style. Overall, the singing was better than the acting and the orchestra played the score like it’s never been played before, so a  musical triumph I think.

Assassins didn’t live up to my memories of earlier productions. It’s a highly original show – linking the assassinations / attempted assassinations of eight US presidents – but a hard one to pull off. This production seemed a lot darker, sometimes burying the black humour completely. It was staged well, but this time the acting bettered the singing and the band was too loud, losing a lot of the subtley in the music.

In between the shows, there was a wonderful cabaret of lyricists Comden & Green songs. They wrote the lyrics to more shows that any other Broadway writers, working with Leonard Bernstein, Jules Styne and Cy Coleman. The twelve singers & pianist more than did justice to their brilliantly funny songs and it was more treat than filler.

This musical theatre feast followed Saturday’s theatrical feast; the lack of aircon made the day more challenging, but a feast just the same.

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