Friday, August 19, 2016

'Guilt Trip' by Katherine Jakeways, Felicity Montagu and Olivia Nixon

19 August 2016

‘Guilt Trip’ is a great example of the kind of gentle, funny, clever and moving comedy drama that BBC Radio 4 does so well. This four-part series, which finished this week, stars Felicity Montagu and her real-life daughter Olivia Nixon as mother and daughter Ros and Laura who are walking the Thames path, from the source of the river to Tower Bridge, to raise money for charity in memory of Laura’s father (Ros’s ex-husband) who has recently passed away. Thrown together for two weeks of strenuous physical exercise, the pair make a great odd-couple and their episodic encounters with a range of characters along the river path are reminiscent of the meandering stories of ‘Three Men in a Boat’. ‘Guilt Trip’ is written by Katherine Jakeways (who also appears as Laura’s stepmother, Ruth) with Felicity Montagu and Olivia Nixon. All four episodes are still available to listen to for the next seven days at:

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Friday, August 12, 2016

'Stranger Things' by The Duffer Brothers

12 August 2016

I’m a recent convert to Netflix, joining the online streaming service just in time to watch the gripping new sci-fi/horror serial ‘Stranger Things’. This eight-part drama, written and directed by the Duffer Brothers and starring Winona Ryder, is a homage to 1980s films such as ‘E.T.’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Stand By Me’. It is set in 1983 in a small town in Indiana and starts with the disappearance of a local boy near a mysterious government research establishment. Flickering lights herald the arrival of a monster from an alternative dimension, a child with telekinetic powers and masses of armed suits in transit vans. The focus on a gang of kids on bikes trying to outwit the authorities recalls some of those children’s films, but ‘Stranger Things’ is quite an adult drama. It builds to a truly thrilling climax and, unlike so many modern TV series, actually draws the story to a conclusion – merely hinting at the possibility of a second series, which would be most welcome.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

'Scorched' by Lisle Turner

11 August 2016

‘Scorched’, written by Lisle Turner, produced by Open Sky and playing at Zoo Southside as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is a play with one actor which deals with themes of ageing, reminiscence and play. We encounter an elderly man watching TV in his living room. As he remembers key incidents from his life he acts them out, using the domestic furniture to represent vehicles and buildings in the same way children often do – emphasising the idea of a ‘second childhood’ in older age. It’s a very impressive physical performance which demonstrates some incredibly inventive stagecraft, including projection, puppetry and animation. I loved the moment when Jack is sitting in his armchair thinking about his time in the army fighting Rommel in the Sahara and remembering having a tattoo on his arm – at which point a projected image appears on his bare upper arm, looking convincingly like a tattoo until it starts to move as an animated cartoon. I also enjoyed the beautiful sculpture created in front of our eyes from sand, sugar and shortbread. But I felt the need for a little more narrative thread to hold the audience’s attention for an hour. And it was a shame that what was clearly a very creative sound design, mixing the soundtrack of the TV programmes Jack is watching with sound effects and voices from his past, was often obscured by the noisy dance show going on in the venue upstairs. Nevertheless ‘Scorched’ is a high quality show which presents an interesting take on ageing and is available, in abridged version, for performance in care homes with associated workshops for residents.

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Friday, August 05, 2016

WOMAD 2016

5 August 2016

I had a lovely weekend at the WOMAD Festival at Charlton Park near Malmesbury in Wiltshire. After the rain and mud of 2015, this year’s festival was blessed with almost perfect weather. Although it rained just before I arrived at the festival site on Friday it then stayed dry until I left on Sunday, with a mixture of extremely hot sunshine and some welcome cloud cover. I saw 22 performances from almost every corner of the world. It was great finally to see the Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans (who I wrote about here in January 2013) live on stage: from the moment they opened their set with a high tempo version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’ I knew we were in for a treat. I also enjoyed seeing the charming young Brazilian singer-songwriter/cellist Dom La Nena (“the bossa nova Joanna Newson”), Scottish fiddle and harp duo Twelfth Day with their mixture of traditional and contemporary folk and classical, and Hollie Stephenson – an 18-year-old soul singer from North London with a powerful Amy Winehouse voice.

Long-time readers with good memories may recall my trip to the mountain village of Bitti in Sardinia in 2007, home to the famous singing shepherds, Tenores de Bitti. As I wrote here in June 2007: “the Sardinian canto a tenore tradition is an amazing sound. For centuries shepherds have gathered in mountain huts at the end of the working day to sing to each other (and drink!) through the night. Standing in a circle facing each other, this is very much participatory music – not designed for an audience. The four-part unaccompanied close-harmony singing imitates natural sounds: the bass (‘bassu’) is the sound of a cow, the ‘contra’ is the sound of a sheep and the ‘mesu ‘oche’ is the sound of the wind. Above these the soloist (‘voche’ – the human voice) leads the song and carries the text. The result is harmonically scrunchy, with a very low growlly bass – hypnotically repetitive and remarkably catchy.” It was a great pleasure, therefore, to get my first opportunity to see the tenore tradition live at the WOMAD Festival on Sunday. Cuncordu e Tenore de Orosei is a group that performs both secular tenore songs and the cuncordu religious vocal tradition.   The five male singers make a spectacular deep polyphonic sound. They were also just about the least audience-friendly act I have ever seen at WOMAD! True to the traditional Sardinian style they stood in a close circle facing each other, around a single microphone, some way back from the front of the stage. At the end of each song they came out of their circle and stood briefly facing the audience to acknowledge the applause – but with very little attempt to engage the crowd, mostly staring straight ahead with hands in pockets or arms folded. This kind of behaviour only tends to provoke a WOMAD audience into even more vociferously enthusiastic reaction – enjoying the challenge of winning over such seriously unresponsive performers. Sure enough, as the performance progressed, the whooping and cheering of a huge crowd packed in between the trees of the arboretum at Charlton Park, began to elicit a few smiles and bows from the Sardinian singers.

It is hard to pick out a single highlight from a long weekend of live music but I especially liked the remarkable Indo-Scottish MC, Soom T, who really seemed to be enjoying herself on the stage of the Big Red Tent. And I loved the acoustic Canadian folk trio from Prince Edward Island, The East Pointers, whose music was slick, fast, catchy and extremely danceable and reminded me a lot of another Canadian group, The Bills (reviewed here in May 2006).

You can see a selection of my photos from the WOMAD Festival at:

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

'Moving' by Jenny Eclair

28 July 2016

We first saw the comedian Jenny Eclair at the South Holland Centre in Spalding about a year before she became the first female solo winner of the Edinburgh Fringe Perrier Comedy Award in 1995. We saw her stand-up show a few times over the next few years and have since enjoyed her appearances on radio and television but, until now, I hadn’t read any of her books. Her latest novel, ‘Moving’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Judith Boyd, Clare Willie and Andrew Wincott), is a surprisingly melancholy family tale in three parts. The first section of the book focuses on Edwina who is about to sell the house she has lived in for more than 50 years. As she shows the estate agent each room she is reminded of episodes from her family life, gradually building up a jigsaw-puzzle narrative of Edwina’s marriages and children. Moving from room to room with a series of flashback stories provides an intriguing structure but feels more like an extended Radio 4 Afternoon Play than a novel. The middle section of the book plunges the reader into the more straightforward story of a student at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre in the early 1980s (clearly drawing on Jenny Eclair’s own experience). But the fact that the protagonist here is not one of Edwina’s children but someone more obliquely connected to her family makes the novel much more interesting as the reader tries to work out how the events and characters are going to connect. Some apparently far-fetched coincidences turn out to have more believable connections that were subtly planted in the early chapters. The final section of the novel shifts to another previously peripheral character’s perspective and brings the narrative back to the present day. Echoing the structure of the novel’s first section, photographs in an album prompt memories that fill in another angle to many of the events covered in the first two parts of the book. Jenny Eclair cleverly makes us care about a previously unsympathetic character by showing us the story through his eyes. ‘Moving’ is an impressive and intriguing novel – carefully plotted and a sadder, more serious story than I had expected.


Friday, July 22, 2016

'Sense and Sensibility' by Jane Austen, adapted by Laura Turner

22 July 2016

On Wednesday we took advantage of the hot weather to watch an open-air theatre performance at Wrest House in Silsoe. It was a beautiful setting for Chapterhouse Theatre's production of 'Sense and Sensibility', adapted by Laura Turner. We had actually seen this production before (reviewed here in September 2011) but it was still very enjoyable second time round – with a fresh and enthusiastic young cast and a packed audience on the tiered lawns beside the Orangery. When Marianne Dashwood was caught in a thunderstorm (leading to her development of a 'putrid fever') there was a moment when we all wondered whether the recorded thunder sound effect was the actual weather finally breaking but fortunately we stayed dry as the sun sank behind the trees.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

20 July 2016

The annual Northampton Symphony Orchestra Friends' Concert is an opportunity for us to say thank you to the Friends of the NSO for their support over the past year. It is also a chance for the orchestra to play a variety of shorter, lighter pieces that wouldn't necessarily fit into our main concerts. This year's Friends' Concert – the first with our new conductor John Gibbons – featured waltzes by Johann Strauss and Aram Khachaturian, 'Entry Of The Gladiators' by Julius Fucik and two pieces by Eric Coates ('London Suite' and the 'Dambusters March'). We also played a suite of music by Nigel Hess written for the 2004 film 'Ladies in Lavender' with NSO leader Stephen Hague – who actually appeared in the film – playing the solo violin part. Our concert programme also included 'On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring' by Delius and Dvořák's 'Slavonic Dance No 1'. It was a lovely concert – followed by a wonderful buffet!

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