Monday, January 15, 2018

'A Passage to India' by E.M. Forster, adapted by Simon Dormandy

15 January 2018

On Saturday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see a new adaptation, by Simon Dormandy, of E.M. Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ in a joint production by the Royal & Derngate and simple8, directed by Sebastian Armesto and Simon Dormandy. I have fond memories of a very good stage version of ‘A Passage to India’ by Shared Experience at Milton Keynes Theatre in 2002 and this new version was similarly impressive. With a minimal set, the focus was very much on the actors and this was a strong ensemble piece, with a large cast collectively becoming a carriage, a train, an elephant and the Marabar Caves. Original music by Kuljit Bhamra was performed live on the stage, with the combination of ‘cello and tabla emphasising the Anglo/Indian confrontations in the story. The cast were all very strong with particularly impressive performances by Asif Khan as Dr Aziz, Liz Crowther as Mrs Moore and Richard Goulding (who we last saw as Prince Harry in Mike Bartlett’s 'King Charles III', reviewed here in January 2015) as Fielding.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

‘Angstrom: The Man Who Wasn't Dead’ by Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley

12 January 2018

This week I stumbled across the first episode of an excellent new radio comedy series. ‘Angstrom: The Man Who Wasn't Dead’ (on BBC Radio 4 at 6.30 pm on Wednesdays) is a very silly parody of Scandi-crime TV series, written by Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley. Matthew Holness plays Knut Ångström – a brooding, alcoholic, maverick Swedish detective from the tough streets of Oslo. The absence of a body, or any evidence that anyone has been killed, doesn’t stop Angstrom treating every incident he encounters as a potential murder. It’s a loving pastiche of ‘The Killing’ (reviewed here in December 2011), ‘The Bridge’ (reviewed here in January 2014), ‘Wallander’ etc. Wonderfully childish and very funny – I’m really looking forward to Episode 2. You can listen to ‘Angstrom’ at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09l0ds8

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Friday, January 05, 2018

'Reservoir 13' by Jon McGregor

5 January 2018

One of my favourite episodes of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is ‘The Missing Page’ (written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in 1960). Tony Hancock is reading a salacious murder mystery (‘Lady, Don't Fall Backwards’ by Darcy Sarto) but when he gets to the end the last page has been torn out, depriving him of the identity of the killer. Desperate to know whodunnit, Hancock sets out on a quest to find the missing page. The idea of a crime novel without a solution feels inherently frustrating but Jon McGregor’s wonderful new novel ‘Reservoir 13’ very effectively subverts the genre. ‘Reservoir 13’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Matt Bates) starts with the disappearance of a 13 year-old girl, Rebecca Shaw, who has been staying with her parents in a holiday cottage in a small Derbyshire village over the New Year. “When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body warmer, black jeans and canvas shoes. She was five feet tall, with straight, dark-blond, shoulder-length hair.” This description of the missing girl is one of several phrases that are repeated so often through the novel they become poetic mantras. As the villagers join forces to search the moors and the police investigation begins to probe into all aspects of village life, Jon McGregor plays with our expectations, suggesting all the familiar tropes of a crime novel. But soon it becomes clear that the disappearance of “Rebecca or Becky or Bex” is really just a hook for a beautifully drawn portrait of life in a small rural community. The seasons pass, and then the years, and we get to know many of the villagers, following the interlocking network of their personal stories in an elegant and completely believable soap opera. McGregor writes in short, simple sentences which have a poetic quality that reminded me of that other literary picture of a village and its inhabitants, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’. McGregor’s omniscient third-person narrative makes no judgements, merely reporting events as they happen in a flat, matter-of-fact tone which seems to make them strangely more poignant. Events are also presented with the assumption that we already know the protagonists: there is no backstory and time moves relentlessly forward throughout the novel. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to reveal that we never find out what happened to Becky Shaw (though there are plenty of hints about a range of possible explanations). But this doesn’t make ‘Reservoir 13’ a frustrating read: it is an unusual and compelling novel and I didn’t want to finish it. It was very exciting, therefore, to discover the companion podcast series ‘The Reservoir Tapes’, being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and available to download as free podcasts. In the 15 episodes of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ Jon McGregor has written individual perspectives (‘Charlotte’s Story’, ‘Vicky’s Story’, ‘Deepak’s Story’ etc) which cast light on events before and after Becky Shaw’s disappearance. The podcasts introduce some new characters that don’t appear in the novel and many of them relate to a period before the start of the novel. But they completely integrate with what we know from the novel, forming an elaborate jigsaw puzzle in which everything starts to become clear – apart from the one thing we really want to know: what happened to Becky Shaw? See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b097n5h3 or search for ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ in your podcast app.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

'Dark' by Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar

19 December 2017

I’ve just finished watching ‘Dark’ – the first German language commission from Netflix. This 10-part TV serial is a science-fiction thriller set in a small town in southern Germany. Superficially it has a lot in common with that other Netflix hit ‘Stranger Things’ (reviewed here in August 2016 and November 2017) but ‘Dark’ is much, well, darker. ‘Dark’ is written by Jantje Friese and directed by Baran bo Odar. It soon becomes clear that this is a time travel tale with an incredibly complex plot. To follow it you need to piece together a jigsaw involving three family trees over at least three generations, as you encounter many of the family members at several points in their lives – but not in the order you would expect. This family saga aspect, set in a small German town, reminded me of Edgar Reitz’s epic ‘Heimat’ films. ‘Dark’ also has elements of ‘Back to the Future’ and Steven Moffat’s brilliant 2007 Doctor Who episode, ‘Blink’ (starring Carey Mulligan). I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to unpick the complicated plot and it was terribly satisfying to work out some of the connections and twists just before they were revealed. The acting is great and the casting of the younger and older versions of each character is amazing. Highly recommended, with two caveats: don’t be tempted to binge-watch – you will need time between episodes to process what on earth is going on!; and make sure you select the original German-language version with subtitles rather than suffering the dubbed American voices.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'Antony & Cleopatra' by William Shakespeare

13 December 2017

On Tuesday I was at the Barbican in London to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production of ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ starring Antony Byrne and Josette Simon. Incredibly, I last saw Josette Simon on stage in 1995 as Katherina in Mihai Maniutiu’s brilliant production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at Leicester Haymarket. 22 years later, she is still a striking, mercurial performer, playing a capricious Cleopatra with a childlike playfulness and petulance. I had never previously seen ‘Antony & Cleopatra’. It’s one of those Shakespeare plays that relies on people immediately and unquestioningly believing the word of a messenger who arrives to tell them someone has died – without any evidence of the veracity of the message. But the central relationship between Mark Anthony and the Queen of Egypt is very believable and well played in Iqbal Khan’s production. I also liked Ben Allen who plays Octavius Caesar as a public schoolboy who feels upset and disappointed when his opponents won’t play fair. The original music, composed by Laura Mvula, is an interesting mix of rock, folk and classical which uses a worldless female singer (Zara McFarlane) to create a mystical, ancient world feel.

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Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

13 December 2017

There was much disappointment last Sunday when the annual Northampton Symphony Orchestra Christmas Cracker concert had to be cancelled because of the snow. It’s the first time in the 17 years I have played in the orchestra that we have cancelled a concert. A great shame for everyone who had been looking forward to dressing up as their favourite hero or villain (the members of the orchestra as much as the children in the audience!) Fortunately the snow arrived on Sunday morning and didn’t affect the Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert which I was playing in on Saturday evening. I made one of my occasional appearances with Milton Keynes Sinfonia in a popular programme which included the Sibelius Violin Concerto, played by the exciting young soloist Charlotte Moseley, and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony No 5’. I was ‘bumping’ the 1st horn part to allow the Principal Horn player, Kate Knight, to concentrate on a beautiful performance of the big horn solo in the slow movement of the symphony. Tchaikovsky 5 is a very exciting piece to play but must be one of the most exhausting works in the repertoire: by the end of the last movement I was relying on Kate to support me as my stamina waned. It was a lovely concert and it was great to see a packed audience at the Church of Christ the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

'Symphony No 4' by Sergei Taneyev

7 December 2017

I am grateful to Lee Dunleavy for recommending, on FaceBook, the 4th Symphony by Sergei Taneyev which I have been listening to this week (in the Naxos recording by the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling). I must admit I had never heard of Taneyev, a Russian composer born in 1856 who died in 1915. He he studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory with Rubinstein and composition with Tchaikovsky, who became a close friend. Taneyev later taught at the Conservatory himself, where his pupils included Rachmaninov. He wrote four symphonies, although the first three were not published until long after his death. Symphony No 4 was published in 1901 (as No 1) is a powerful, romantic work which shows the influence of Tchaikovsky and also reminded me of another Russian work, ‘Symphony No 5 (The Heroic)’ by Alexander Glazunov which I played with Northampton Symphony Orchestra earlier this year (reviewed here in March 2017). I am definitely going to listen to more Taneyev.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

'Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz' by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman

29 November 2017

Some time in 2001 I heard someone on the radio talking about a novel that was going to tell the story of the childhood of the Wicked Witch of the West from L Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’. Even though the book had not yet been published in the UK, I was hooked by the concept. During a trip to Seattle in 2002 I bought a copy of 'Wicked' by Gregory Maguire at the wonderful Elliot Bay Book Company store and I loved it. It has since become a bestseller and spawned a Broadway musical, which has now been running at the Apollo Victoria in London for 11 years. Last Saturday I finally got around to going to see it. I think I had been put off by the initial critical reviews and worried that the show wouldn’t live up to Gregory Maguire’s novel – an incredibly complex tale which is both an exercise in magical realism and (strangely) believably realistic. (As is his other novel 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister', reviewed here in March 2008.) ‘Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz’, directed by Joe Mantello, is great fun: an impressive spectacle with an amazing set (by Eugene Lee), stunning lighting (by Kenneth Posner) and a huge cast. It’s a rock musical with solid music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. But it’s really worth seeing for three reasons: 1. it is rare to see a mainstream musical with two strong female leads (it would definitely pass the Bechdel test) – Alice Fearn as Elphaba and Sophie Evans as Glinda are the stars of the show; 2. the book by Winnie Holzman is brilliant – incredibly witty, quickly pricking any emerging pomposity, with some beautifully hidden references to lines from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and many laugh-out-loud quips; and 3. anyone who grew up watching the 1939 MGM film will love this reverential ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ alternative viewpoint on some of the key events in the original story.

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