Friday, January 23, 2015

'Contigo' by Marta Gómez

23 January 2015

I've been listening this week to 'Contigo' – the new album by the Colombian singer-songwriter Marta Gómez. This is a substantial collection of original songs that vary from gentle pop ballads to traditional call and response (backed by percussion and handclaps) to Brazilian bossa nova (sounding very like the Brazilian singer Monica Vasconcelos). The album is subtitled 'Songs with Latin American Soul' and you can hear a range of different Latin American styles in the songs. Marta Gómez has a great voice and creates cheerful, uplifting songs. It's beautiful music, careful, precise and laid-back but never boring.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Moriarty' by Anthony Horowitz

13 January 2015

I really enjoyed 'The House of Silk' – the Sherlock Holmes novel written by Anthony Horowitz (reviewed here in January 2012) so I was looking forward to his second foray into the Holmesian world. 'Moriarty' (which I have just read as an unabridged audio book narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt – with a short coda narrated by Derek Jocobi) sees Horowitz take a less conventional approach. The story begins immediately after Holmes and Moriarty have plunged to apparent death over the Reichenbach Falls. Initially it seems an odd choice to have written what is, in effect, an imitation Sherlock Holmes tale – with Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard and Frederick Chase (a Pinkerton agent from New York) forming a surrogate Holmes and Watson. Jones and Chase meet in Switzerland and combine forces to try to bring to justice a vicious American criminal gang which has established itself in London. If you have any interest in Sherlock Holmes I would urge you to read 'Moriarty' before you hear any more about it. Without creating any spoilers I can tell you there is a twist. I was expecting a twist, I was looking out for a twist, I was looking forward to a twist – but the twist still caught me by surprise, leaping out and slapping me in the face. 'Moriarty' is a very clever novel – dark, intriguing, shocking and very satisfying.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

'King Charles III' by Mike Bartlett

7 January 2015

It's a bold move to open a West End play with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, but Mike Bartlett's 'King Charles III' is a clever and playful piece. Tim Pigott-Smith plays Charles in a modern Shakespearean history play, written entirely in blank verse. At first the Almeida Theatre production, directed by Rupert Goold (which we saw at Wyndham's Theatre in London), feels like a Shakespeare parody with a pantomimic quality to the initial appearances of Camilla, Prince Harry and, particularly, the ghost of Diana. But there is a serious purpose at the heart of Bartlett's play. When the uncrowned King refuses to give royal assent to a bill to restrict press freedom, creating a constitutional crisis, the dilemma of a principled man trying to do the right thing is incredibly believable. William and Kate are approached by the Prime Minister to intervene and the play becomes a political drama reminiscent of 'Number 10' (the BBC Radio 4 drama series by Jonathan Myerson), 'To Play The King' ( part of the House of Cards trilogy by Michael Dobbs) or 'A Very British Coup' (by Chris Mullin). It was also interesting to compare this take on the Shakespearean history play with Rona Munro's 'James I' (reviewed here in August 2014). I really enjoyed Mike Bartlett's last play, 'An Intervention' (reviewed here in April 2014) and his adaptation of 'Medea' (reviewed here in November 2012). 'King Charles III' confirms his status as one of our most interesting contemporary playwrights.

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'Funny Girl' by Nick Hornby

7 January 2015

'Funny Girl', the latest novel by Nick Hornby (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Emma Fielding) is his first period piece. Set in the 1960s it tells the story of Barbara, a teenager from Blackpool, who dreams of becoming the British Lucille Ball. When Barbara lands the lead in a new TV sitcom, the development of her fictional character echoes the real lives of each of the production team. Nick Hornby conjures up a convincing swinging London and the novel is warm and funny. While it was interesting to see the situation through the eyes of each of the main protagonists, I felt the sudden switches of perspective didn't always work. But Nick Hornby is always entertaining and readable, whilst smuggling some serious themes beneath the humour.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

15 December 2014

During the Northampton Symphony Orchestra's 2014-15 season we are working with a different conductor for each of our concerts, before appointing a new regular conductor next summer. So far I am really enjoying experiencing a series of different conducting styles and I think the orchestra is playing better because of the concentration required to get used to someone new on the podium each time. For the traditional NSO Christmas Cracker Concert at Spinney Hill Theatre in Northampton on Sunday, the baton was wielded by Lee Dunleavy, who has been Musical Director of the Northampton Bach Choir since 2007. We were also joined by the Choirs of All Saints' Church, Northampton, (who Lee conducted until earlier this year) and their new conductor, Peter Foggitt. And we welcomed back, for an eighth time, the wonderful Graham Padden as our compere and narrator. This year the concert had an animals theme, featuring an arrangement of 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer', 'Disney's The Lion King Orchestral Suite' by Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer, and the 'Theme from Jurassic Park' by John Williams. The choirs introduced us to some great contemporary American carols, including a wonderfully over-the-top arrangement of 'O Come All Ye Faithful' by Dan Forrest (you can find a couple of recordings of this on YouTube ヨ well worth seeking out). The NSO Christmas Cracker Concert always features a narrated piece: this year it was 'The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant', originally written for piano by the French composer Francis Poulenc. While the story is decidedly odd (possibly losing something in translation) and fairly grim, Poulenc's music is fascinating. The tiny movements between each paragraph of narration are beautiful musical miniatures, somewhere between Debussy and the musical theatre works of Shostakovitch. As a serious orchestral work with narration for children 'The Story of Babar' bears comparison with Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf'. And Poulenc writes some gorgeous lines for the tuba ヨ at times 'Babar' might almost have been a tuba concerto ヨ exquisitely played on Sunday by the NSO's Nick Tollervey. Guest conductor Lee Dunleavy guided us through an excellent performance and it was noticeable that even our perennial Christmas Cracker Concert theme tune, Leroy Anderson's 'Sleigh Ride', seemed to sound crisper and fresher under his direction.

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'Calamity Jon' by Lea Pryer

15 December 2014

It's always a pleasure to return to the TADS Theatre in Toddington to see an original pantomime written and directed by the excellent Lea Pryer. Following 'The Pirate Princess' (reviewed here in December 2010) and 'Rapunzel' (reviewed here in December 2012), last Saturday we were in the Wild West of Bedfordshire for 'Calamity Jon'. This was a delightful mash-up of half-remembered Westerns, with all the usual pantomime components including a remarkably well-spoken pantomime horse (played by Judy Palmer). Once again Rachel Price's facial expressions stole the show – here playing the hero, Jonathon B Goode. TADS newcomer Nadia McMahon-Wilson impressed as Dusty Rhodes – subverting the principal boy role and maintaining the most consistent cowboy accent of the evening. While not quite hitting the heights of those earlier Lea Pryer pantomimes, and hampered by a disappointingly small audience, 'Calamity Jon' had some beautiful little comic touches. I particularly enjoyed Kevin Birkett's undertaker (Phil de Grave) who had barely a line of dialogue but was extremely funny as he sized up each potential gunfight victim with a tape-measure and a deadpan expression. And I loved the extremely talented Lea Pryer's original song 'No one loves a tomboy' – yee hah!

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

'The Christmas Truce' by Phil Porter

11 December 2014

On Tuesday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the RSC's Christmas show. 'The Christmas Truce' is a new play by Phil Porter, directed by RSC Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman, which explores the 1914 truce between British and German troops. The story is told through the eyes of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, focussing on some real life characters with connections to Stratford. It is informed in particular by the journals of the cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, who served as a machine-gunner in the regiment (and was also involved in installing the first electric lighting rig in the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford). It's a lovely, thoughtful, moving and inspiring show – avoiding (with a family audience in mind) anything too gruesome, but never shying away from the painful reality of war. The horror of going 'over the top' is realised with some amazing lighting effects. And the moment when the first British soldier makes his nervous, tentative steps into no man's land to greet his German counterpart in cautious friendship is beautifully done. The legendary football match is portrayed with humour and passion, but the abiding analogy here is cricket, with each fallen soldier bowling himself off the stage and an ever-present cricket scoreboard ominously recording the regiment's dead as wickets lost.

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Marcus Brigstocke

11 December 2014

On Monday we were at The Stables in Wavendon to see the comedian Marcus Brigstocke. I was familiar with Marcus Brigstocke from his various appearances on BBC Radio 4 but I had never seen him live before. I understand that his stand-up is normally very political, but this show was a much more personal story, exploring some dark areas including his teenage eating disorder. He is a very impressive performer, creating a seamless performance without the safety net of any props or obvious framework. He was playing off the audience from the start, coping well with the unpredictability, even when an audience member managed to get the biggest laugh. Marcus Brigstocke is a very intelligent stand-up, constantly self analytical – even deconstructing his own ad libs. He is (as he admits himself) somewhat over reliant on public-school-induced scatalogical humour, but he is a very likeable personality and the show built to a wonderful and unexpected finale.

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Friday, December 05, 2014

'The Paying Guests' by Sarah Waters

5 December 2014

A new novel by Sarah Waters is always a treat to look forward to. I've just finished reading 'The Paying Guests' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Juliet Stevenson). Like its predecessors, 'The Night Watch' (reviewed here in January 2008) and 'The Little Stranger' (reviewed here in June 2010), this is a long (576 pages), historical novel set in the first half of the twentieth century. 'The Paying Guests' begins in 1922 in a London still feeling the effects of the First World War. Frances Wray lost both her brothers in the war and, following the death of her father, she and her mother, having dispensed with their servants, can only afford to stay in the family home by taking in lodgers. The story is told in the third person but through the eyes of Frances. Waters is a brilliant writer and she conjures up the world of 1922 in minute detail so that you feel exactly what it would have been like to have been there. Her writing never betrays any knowing historical hindsight and feels extensively researched and completely true to the period. You could believe it was a contemporary novel of the time, if it were not for a level of sexually explicit content that would not have been acceptable in a literary novel in 1922. The tension between the middle-class Wrays and their lower-class lodgers, the Barbers, is subtly drawn but palpable. This is a world in which social standing is indicated by the wearing of hats. The first half of the novel is slow, careful and very bleak, portraying the humdrum existence of everyday life. The second half feels like a different book – a tense, dramatic thriller that grips the reader, giving little away about where the plot may take us. But the melodramatic latter section is all the more effective for building on the painstaking detail of the early chapters and showing us that, amid the intricate descriptions of the characters' daily lives there were tiny clues whose importance is only revealed much later as the plot takes hold and violently shakes these lives until everything falls out. 'The Paying Guests' is a fairly grim tale, with little humour to light the bleakness of post-war London, but it's beautifully written, expertly crafted and builds to a thrilling finale.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Blockheads

27 November 2014

On Saturday we were at The Castle in Wellingborough to see The Blockheads (previously reviewed here in July 2007 and December 2012). The Blockheads always look like they are enjoying themselves. They are all excellent musicians and their energy level is immense. On Saturday they were joined by the amazing jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon – an incredibly talented musician who showed humility and respect for the band, taking a back seat apart from a few stand-out solos. The Blockheads are never less than outstanding but the scale and acoustics of the auditorium in Wellingborough, and a less-than-packed audience, made this a less exciting gig than the last time we saw them, in the more intimate surroundings of the Astor Community Theatre in Deal (in 2012). Nevertheless, it's always a pleasure to revisit their extensive back catalogue and you can't help but leave a Blockheads concert with a smile on your face.

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