Friday, April 20, 2018

BBC Young Musician podcast

20 April 2018

Regular readers will be familiar with my enthusiasm for the biennial BBC Young Musician competition which I have written extensively about here since 2006. I am really enjoying watching the category finals of the 2018 competition (currently being shown on Friday evenings on BBC4) and I will share my thoughts after the concerto final on 13 May. I am also really enjoying the new BBC Young Musician weekly podcast which accompanies this year’s competition. Hosted by 2016 BBC Young Musician finalist, saxophonist Jess Gillam, it’s a really engaging discussion about what it is like to learn an instrument, practice, perform in public and develop a musical career. Each week Jess and her friends discuss their own experiences and interview former BBC Young Musician winners. Jess Gillam – who performed twice with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra last year (reviewed here in March 2017 and July 2017) – is a natural presenter: open, engaging and enthusiastic. The podcasts, which have so far covered topics including stage fright, practice and getting into music, are interesting and amusing. There don’t refer directly to this year’s BBC Young Musician competition so there are no spoilers. Well worth a listen. See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p062pf6x/episodes/downloads

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Friday, April 13, 2018

'The Likeness' by Tana French

13 April 2018

Regular readers may remember that I have been working my way through the six Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French. As each novel features a different lead detective I have been able to read them out of order. I have now completed the set by reading novel 2: ‘The Likeness’ (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Grainne Gillis). This is a sequel, of sorts, to ‘In the Woods’ (reviewed here in May 2017) in that its narrator is Detective Cassie Maddox, who was partner to the previous novel’s narrator Detective Rob Ryan, and the events of ‘The Likeness’ take place against the backdrop of the fallout from their previous case. But each novel stands alone as a murder mystery and ‘The Likeness’ is grippingly plotted. I found the premise that an undercover detective could pass herself off as the murder victim, resuming her life amongst her closest friends, a little too far-fetched – even if she happens to be a doppelgänger for the dead woman. But once you go with it, this premise sets up a thrilling undercover investigation to try to work out exactly what happened and who committed the murder. ‘The Likeness’ also introduces Detective Frank Mackey – a recurring character through several of the other Murder Squad novels. Now I’m waiting for the seventh novel in the series to be published.

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Friday, April 06, 2018

'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

6 April 2018

I really enjoyed reading Karen Joy Fowler’s 2013 novel ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’, particularly because I had heard nothing about it and didn’t know what to expect – so I will try to be careful not to give too much away here! Rosemary Cooke was a very talkative child: her parents encouraged her to limit her constant chatter by starting to tell stories from the middle, and only saying out loud one of each three things she wanted to say. So Rosemary’s first-person narration of this novel starts in the middle of her story and the reader only gradually pieces together the full dramatic picture. The book opens with a brilliantly attention-grabbing scene but this holds no clues to the unexpected direction the narrative takes. (Or rather there are some very small clues but they only become apparent in hindsight.) ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ has a very cleverly constructed plot and is witty, funny and surprisingly fascinating. But I don’t want to say any more in case I spoil it for you ...

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Monmouthshire

4 April 2018

We had a lovely holiday in Monmouthshire last week, staying at a cottage in a small village near Usk, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons national park. We had some great weather and enjoyed dramatic walks up Sugar Loaf mountain and Blorenge. We visited the spectacular castles at Raglan and Chepstow and the towns of Monmouth, Abergavenny and Brecon.

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'Julius Caesar' by William Shakespeare

4 April 2018

We really enjoyed the live screening of Nicholas Hytner’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’ at the new Bridge Theatre in London, which we watched at the Odeon in Milton Keynes a couple of weeks ago. The original reviews of this promenade production, where the audience form the Roman mob, were mixed but I thought it worked stunningly well as a live broadcast. Hand-held cameras gave you the feeling of being right in the middle of the crowd without missing any of the action. And the marshalling of the crowd was incredibly impressive, with discreetly positioned stewards making sure the mass of people parted at exactly the right moment to let the actors through. The cast were great, particularly David Calder as a Trumpian Caesar (complete with ‘Let’s Make Rome Great Again’ baseball cap), David Morrissey as Mark Antony (whose “And Brutus is an honourable man” speech was a political spin masterclass), Michelle Fairley as Cassius and the wonderful Ben Wishaw as Brutus. The modern dress production, which starts with a rock band entertaining the crowd at a political rally, is chillingly believable: the merciless slaughter of Cinna the Poet by the mob was genuinely horrifying. If you get an opportunity to see an ‘encore’ screening I would recommend it.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

'Macbeth' by William Shakespeare

21 March 2018

We last saw Christopher Eccleston on stage (alongside Jodie Whittaker) in Polly Findlay’s production of ‘Antigone’ at the National Theatre in London (reviewed here in June 2012). As I wrote here, Eccleston was excellent as King Creon, giving a subtle and clever performance, turning his mood on a sixpence and discovering moments of humour amongst the angst of classical Greek tragedy, without resorting to sending it up. So I was fascinated to see what he made of another classical king, working with the same director on the new Royal Shakespeare Company production of ‘Macbeth’ which we saw in Stratford-upon-Avon on Tuesday. Christopher Eccleston was impressive again – a mixture of steely intensity and capricious mood swings, conveying much about the character’s inner turmoil through his movement and body shape. There was some great acting but otherwise I found Polly Findlay’s production strangely flat. The three young girls playing the witches were great – their synchronised speech perfectly co-ordinated – but cute rather than sinister. The idea of the witches reminding the Macbeths of their lost children was clever but its realisation wasn’t scary enough. Michael Hodgson’s ever-present Porter – a seedy janitor keeping an eye on the events of the play and chalking a body-count tally on the wall – was amusing but slightly out of kilter with the rest of the production. But Edward Bennett stood out as an excellent Macduff – an exasperated rational grown-up stranded amid a group of over-reacting adolescents. And Niamh Cusack stole the show as Lady Macbeth, giving a brilliantly physical performance with every muscle of her body betraying her thought processes.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase' by Dirk Maggs

16 March 2018

Long time readers with good memories may recall me writing here in October 2009 about the 30th anniversary of the original radio broadcast of Douglas Adams’ 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (which was to be marked by the publication of an authorised Hitch Hiker sequel by Eoin Colfer). Now, nearly nine years later, the BBC is marking the 40th anniversary (well time is a funny thing!) with a new series on BBC Radio 4. 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase' (broadcast on Thursdays at 6.30 pm) is written and directed by Dirk Maggs and based on ‘And Another Thing...’ by Eoin Colfer – the sixth book in the famous Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy – with additional unpublished material by Douglas Adams. It’s a real treat for us HHGG fans, with the remaining members of the original cast reunited for another surreal journey through space and time. But for the uninitiated this is probably not the best place to start. 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' has become increasingly self-reverential: although a convoluted explanation is provided for why there are now two Trillians, it is no secret that this is merely an excuse for involving both Susan Sheridan and Sandra Dickinson who respectively played Trillian in the original radio series and the 1981 TV adaptation. There are also some poignant tributes to those actors who are no longer available to reprise their roles: in the first episode of the new series we hear The Book explaining the concept of the Babel Fish in the voices of Peter Jones (from the original radio series), Stephen Fry (from the film) and John Lloyd (who co-wrote some of the original series with Douglas Adams). Jim Broadbent does a good job of filling the aching aluminium feet of Stephen Moore’s Marvin the Paranoid Android. And there is an added poignancy now to the appearance of the late Stephen Hawking as The Guide Mark II. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09th4hf

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Thursday, March 08, 2018

'Mum' by Stefan Golaszewski

8 March 2018

I am delighted to have belatedly discovered Stefan Golaszewski’s brilliant BBC Two sitcom, ‘Mum’. The second series is currently being broadcast but series one is still available to watch on BBC iPlayer, see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/b09sykkn. ‘Mum’ is a beautifully written, wonderfully acted, painfully poignant, incredibly funny show. Lesley Manville plays Cathy, recently widowed and surrounded by friends and family ostensibly trying to support her through her grief but clearly more in need of her support themselves. Peter Mullan is Michael – the old family friend who is desperately in love with Cathy but achingly unable to make the first move. Cathy and Michael are surrounded by a cast of ridiculously self-centred and annoying characters who Stefan Golaszewski somehow manages to make sympathetic. Lisa McGrillis is wonderful as Kelly – Cathy’s son’s dim but well-meaning girlfriend. And I loved Cathy’s foul-mouthed aged in-laws, played by Karl Johnson and Marlene Sidaway. ‘Mum’ is quite an old-fashioned sitcom: the action never moves away from Cathy’s house and garden. It has a similar gentle subtlety to Mackenzie Crook’s ‘Detectorists’ as well as the sad smiling feel of a Mike Leigh film. Highly recommended.

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