Wednesday, November 21, 2018

'The Madness of George III' by Alan Bennett

21 November 2018

On Tuesday we fought our way through the crowds to the Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium (not having realised that Brazil were playing Cameroon in an international friendly football match at Stadium MK!) to see the live broadcast of Adam Penford’s new production of ‘The Madness of George III’ from Nottingham Playhouse. Alan Bennett’s play was written in 1991 and, although I had seen Nicholas Hytner’s 1994 film ‘The Madness of King George’ starring Nigel Hawthorne, I had not previously seen the original play. It’s a darker, more serious play than I had realised and it’s interesting to consider how our attitudes to mental illness have changed in the 27 years since it was first performed. It is not without humour but Alan Bennett allows this to come from characterisation rather than witty wordplay. The Nottingham Playhouse production has a strong cast, with Adrian Scarborough determined and dour as the unconventional doctor brought in to treat the King. But the play is a star vehicle and Mark Gatiss is superb as George III, showing his descent into mental illness through an incremental accumulation of small tics and mannerisms. He has the ability to turn his mood on a sixpence – even more evident in the close-ups provided by the live screening. His King is simultaneously funny, petulant, intelligent, domineering and incredibly sympathetic.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Horse McDonald

20 November 2018

One of the best ways of seeing the pick of the Edinburgh Fringe is to attend recordings of the BBC Radio Scotland Afternoon Show, which always feature a selection of comedians, actors and musicians who are appearing at the Fringe. At one of the BBC Radio Scotland recordings this August we discovered the Scottish singer/songwriter Horse McDonald who was promoting her Fringe show – a tribute to Dusty Springfield. Horse was clearly well-known to the mostly local audience. We had not previously heard of her at all but were bowled over by her amazing voice – a beautiful, powerful, soulful instrument. Last Saturday we were at The Stables in Milton Keynes to see Horse perform her seminal album ‘God’s Home Movie’ in its entirety. She is touring to celebrate the 25th anniversary of this album and the successful conclusion of her legal battle with the record company to have it reissued. The remastered vinyl and CD should be available in the next few weeks. It was strange being part of an adoring audience who clearly knew all the words to all the tracks on ‘God’s Home Movie’ when we hadn’t heard any of these songs before. But we had a great time. The album encompasses a range of styles, from 1980s rock to soul to gentle ballads. And Horse’s vocal range is incredible. She’s also a very likeable raconteur, speaking about the writing of the songs, her fight with the record company and much more. You can listen to the title track of ‘God’s Home Movie’ at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5c2SUQyRRM

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

12 November 2018

On Saturday we launched the 125th anniversary season of the Northampton Symphony Orchestra with a piece written in 1893 – the year the orchestra was founded: ‘Entry March of the Boyars’ by the Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen. This was followed by the ever-popular ‘Cello Concerto’ by Antonin Dvorak, written soon afterwards and premiered in 1896. Our soloist was the wonderful young Ukrainian ‘cellist Yaroslava Trofymchuk who gave a stunning performance of this incredibly romantic piece. Dvorak wrote the concerto during his stay in America and you can hear the similarities with his ‘New World Symphony’, which we are due to perform in February 2019. We finished Saturday’s concert with Aaron Copland’s ‘Third Symphony’, written to celebrate the end of the Second World War. It’s an optimistic piece which paints a picture of a forward-looking America. The final movement uses Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, written in 1942 to mark America’s entry into the war but reworked here as a poignant reflection. The symphony is full of Copland’s distinctive sparse orchestral sound, with recognisable echoes of ‘Rodeo’ and ‘Appalachian Spring’. It is a considerable test of stamina, particularly for the brass section in the mammoth final movement. I really enjoyed getting to know the symphony and I think our performance was pretty impressive, with brass and percussion excelling in the famous fanfare and some great delicacy from the strings, woodwind, keyboards and harps in the quieter sections.

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Friday, November 09, 2018

'Whorls' by Kittel & Co

9 November 2018

I’ve been enjoying ‘Whorls’, the debut album by Brooklyn-based fiddler Jeremy Kittel’s new string quintet Kittel & Co. The band consists of Kittel’s violin plus mandolin, guitar, ‘cello and hammer-dulcimer. The mostly instrumental tracks are mixture of bluegrass, Celtic folk, jazz and classical. This is gentle, thoughtful music, excellently played – folk chamber music rather than dance music. See this 3-minute video about the making of ‘Whorls’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPttBkXQ5Io

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Friday, November 02, 2018

'The Giant Killers' by Andrew and Eve Pearson-Wright

2 November 2018

On Sunday we were at the Stantonbury Theatre in Milton Keynes to see the Long Lane Theatre Company production of ‘The Giant Killers’ by Andrew and Eve Pearson-Wright. This is the true story of Darwen Football Club, the first working-class team to play in the FA Cup. In 1879 they took on the “poshest team of all” – The Old Etonians. The play is ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ with added football, looking at working conditions in the cotton mills of Lancashire and the clashes between unions and management as well as the early development of Association Football. It’s a fascinating and inspiring story, told with gusto by a cast of four as a kind of dramatised lecture. Some of the language (particularly the swearing) felt a bit too contemporary for 1879 but this didn’t detract from the rousing David vs Goliath narrative which had us all shouting “Darwen, Darwen” by the end.

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Andy Hamilton

2 November 2018

I’ve long been a fan of the comedian and writer Andy Hamilton but had not had the chance to see him perform live until Saturday when we were at the Harpenden Public Halls for ‘An Audience with Andy Hamilton’. It’s a brave move for a comedian to genuinely base a whole performance around answering audience questions but Andy Hamilton is a great raconteur and the slightest of prompts set him off on a multitude of entertaining anecdotes. It helps that he has such a huge back catalogue of comedy successes – from writing for ‘Weekending’ in the 1980s to ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’, ‘Old Harry’s Game’, ‘Revolting People’ and ‘Outnumbered’, as well as regular appearances on ‘The News Quiz’, ‘Have I Got News For You?’ and ‘QI’. Andy Hamilton is a very gentle, likeable comedian and an evening based on audience participation never felt threatening in the way it might in other hands.  

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

'Early Riser' by Jasper Fforde

25 October 2018

Regular readers may remember my enthusiasm for Jasper Fforde’s silly fantasy novels, particularly the Nursery Crimes series (reviewed here in April and October 2007), his Thursday Next literary detective series (reviewed here in August, September and October 2008, February and April 2009 and April 2012) and his 'Dragonslayer' young-adult fantasy novels (‘The Last Dragonslayer’ reviewed here in August 2014). I was less taken with his more serious post-apocalyptic dystopian novel ‘Shades of Grey’ (no, not that one! – reviewed here in April 2011), intended as the first in a series but not yet followed up. Jasper Fforde’s new novel ‘Early Riser’, which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Thomas Hunt, is his first deliberately stand-alone novel. And this feels like a successful blend of what he was trying to achieve with ‘Shades of Grey’ and the comic parallel-world versions of real places from his earlier series. After his bizarre alternative-reality versions of Reading (Nursery Crimes), Swindon (Thursday Next) and Hereford (Dragonslayer), ‘Early Riser’ is set in weirdly recognisable but significantly different Wales. In this reality severe five-month winters (caused by some catastrophic but unexplained climate change) mean the majority of the population have to hibernate in order to survive. Only a few hardy ‘consuls’ stay awake to police the savage winter months. It’s a high concept novel, drawn in intricate detail but with enough reference to the real world to make it relatively easy to follow. I missed the silly humour of Fforde’s earlier novels but I enjoyed the unravelling mystery plot and the cast of eccentric but loveable characters. (You’ve got to love the night-walker zombie Mrs Tiffin, doomed to endlessly play ‘Help Yourself’ by Tom Jones on the bouzouki!). It was lovely to see a reprise (from the Thursday Next novels) of the Wales Tourist Board slogan ‘Wales: not always raining’. And interesting to see the parallel between the parts of the action that take place within fictional books in the Thursday Next series and within dreams in ‘Early Riser’. It was also nice to have a self-contained plot which properly resolves itself rather than just preparing for a sequel – though I will miss Charlie ‘Wonky’ Worthing and his friends. But “we’ll always have the Gower”.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

'Touching the Void' adapted by David Greig from the book by Joe Simpson

24 October 2018

In 1985, while climbing in the Peruvian Andes, Joe Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and broke his leg. His climbing partner Simon Yates attempted to lower him down the mountain but inadvertently lowered Simpson off a cliff. Suddenly the rope tying the two men together threatened both their lives and Yates took the horrible decision to cut the rope to save himself while Simpson plunged to almost certain death. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Simpson didn’t die, as his incredible tale of survival against all the odds became an award-winning book and film. Now playwright David Greig and director Tom Morris have adapted ‘Touching the Void’ for the stage, in a joint production by Bristol Old Vic, Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Royal & Derngate Northampton and Fuel, which we saw in Northampton on Saturday. Their creative approaches to dramatising Joe Simpson’s interior monologue and staging the mountaineering are very innovative and impressive – helped by Ti Green’s amazing set which creates a very theatrical version of the story. The cast of four actors take on some incredibly physical challenges and David Greig’s framing of the tale, beginning with a wake for Simpson in a Scottish climbers’ pub, is very clever. And I liked that the play’s musical soundtrack used tracks chosen by Joe Simpson when he appeared on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 2004. But I felt they missed a trick by ending the play with the ‘revelation’ of Simpson’s survival rather than going on to explore the subsequent relationship between him and Simon Yates and that painful question of whether he should have cut the rope.

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