Friday, February 05, 2016

'Areas of High Traffic' by Damien O'Kane

5 February 2016

I've been enjoying 'Areas of High Traffic' – the new album from Irish folk singer, banjo player and guitarist Damien O'Kane. This is a collection of mostly traditional Irish songs in contemporary arrangements which sound more like gentle rock music than folk. This approach to reworking traditional folk songs has a lot in common with O'Kane's English contemporary, Jim Moray (reviewed here in August 2008 and July 2011), though based more around a band of musicians than the electronica often used by Moray. Damien O'Kane, who comes from Coleraine, has a gentle singing voice and has created some beautiful arrangements – delicate easy listening with a hint of melancholy. And if you listen carefully you can pick out the distinctive voice of Damien O'Kane's wife Kate Rusby (reviewed here in June 2006) on backing vocals.

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Friday, January 29, 2016

'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' by Christopher Hampton

29 January 2016

I've never been to the Donmar Warehouse in London but the live broadcast of the Donmar production of 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' (which I watched at Cineworld in Milton Keynes yesterday) made it look like the perfect intimate venue for this most intimate of plays. The small Donmar stage was arranged as a candlelit drawing room with the 251 audience seats inches away from the actors on three sides, making you feel you were in the room with Valmont and Merteuil – even from the vantage point of the cinema screen. Christopher Hampton's play, based on the 18th century epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, starts as farce and ends as tragedy. I had not seen the play before and I think I have only seen the famous Stephen Frears film once on television (though I would strongly recommend Milos Forman's 1989 film 'Valmont' – an alternative adaptation of the original novel starring Colin Firth and Annette Benning) but the characters, plot and even the dialogue felt incredibly familiar. It's dark and witty and both Janet McTeer (as La Marquise de Merteuil) and Dominic West (as Le Vicomte de Valmont) were excellent. Janet McTeer has a wonderful way of dropping her voice for each bitingly bitchy aside and manages to be simultaneously charming and deeply sinister. The cinema screening featured a live interval interview with Christopher Hampton and the director Josie Rourke in which Rourke entertainingly got a fit of giggles. Her production has a fin de siècle feel, anticipating the coming French revolution by starting in grandeur and heading towards decay as more and more paintings are removed from the walls and the furniture is covered by dust sheets. But it was the acting that shone and you can sample the delicious vocal performances with a free download of members of the Donmar cast reading some of the letters from the original novel at http://www.audible.co.uk/donmar.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

'Junun' by Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express

22 January 2016

'Junun' is a wonderfully hard-to-categorise album of music by the Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, recorded with a troupe of Sufi qawwali musicians and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood in a 600-year-old Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. I liked it already from that description but the experience of listening to the music didn't disappoint. Harmonium, the vocal qawwali chorus and Indian percussion are joined by a six-piece brass section, guitar, bass, electronics, solo vocalists, the bowed sarangi and kamayacha (lutes). The result is surprisingly gentle, cheerful music with a haunting, mystical quality. Hard to categorise, hard to describe but easy to listen to and very rewarding.

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

'Her Story' by Sam Barlow

14 January 2016

It's taken more than 10 years for me to get round to reviewing a computer game here but this week I have become hooked on 'Her Story' – a narrative game for PC, Mac and iOS, written and directed by Sam Barlow and starring the actor Viva Seifert. Although it is packaged and sold as a game, 'Her Story' feels more like a TV detective serial, albeit with a high level of interactivity as you can watch the story unfolding in an almost infinite number of permutations. You use a 1990s Windows desktop to access a database of short video clips which show a woman answering questions in a police interview room. She has come to the police station to her report her husband as missing but there seems to be much more to her story. The video clips are mostly less than a minute long and rather than watching them in straightforward chronological order you select individual clips by typing terms into a search box. This allows you to piece together what has happened by picking up on particular names or words from a previous answer and investigating them further. You never hear the police questions – just the interviewee's answers. And a timecode indicates that the database seems to contain several different interviews with the same woman over a period of weeks in the summer of 1994. The story is very cleverly constructed: even if you stumble across a vital clue very early on you won't appreciate its significance until much later. It's very satisfying as you begin to make sense of the mystery and test your theories by further word searches. But there is a strong element of ambiguity which I suspect means that you may never clarify every detail of the plot. And just as you think you've got it all worked out you begin to realise that you are playing a specific role in this story yourself. 'Her Story' is a rather brilliant exercise in non-linear narrative – intriguingly addictive.

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Thursday, January 07, 2016

'Number 11' by Jonathan Coe

7 January 2016

It must have been around 1996 when we discovered Jonathan Coe's novel 'What a Carve Up' in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge. Never having heard of the author or the book we were attracted simply by the shiny cover (with its juxtaposition of Yuri Gagarin and Shirley Eaton) and by the price (I think it was just 99p!). We quickly realised what a comic gem we had stumbled upon. Jonathan Coe is now one of my favourite contemporary novelists. His 2001 novel 'The Rotters' Club', its TV adaptation and its sequel 'The Closed Circle' (2004) brought Coe greater public attention. I've enjoyed all his novels and have written here about 'The Rain Before It Falls' (in August 2008), 'The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim' (August 2011) and 'Expo 58' (September 2013). But it is his dark satire on the Thatcherite 1980s, published in 1994, that remains my favourite. It was a real thrill, therefore, to discover that Jonathan Coe has now written a sequel (of sorts – perhaps more of a companion piece) to 'What a Carve Up'. 'Number 11' catalogues Cameron's Coalition Government Britain – with its food banks, reality TV, closing libraries and exploitation of migrant workers. The novel (which I have just read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jessica Hynes and Rory Kinnear) has an episodic structure – a set of short stories that take some time to reveal the links between them. And, though few members of the infamous Winshaw family survived the denouement of the original novel, their ghosts hang heavy over modern Britain as their protégés and disciples seem to hold the reins of power. It's a bleak but very funny tale and Coe is in playful mood. The number 11 appears in a variety of guises (it seems to be the number of every significant house in the story) and there is more than a hint of “turning it up to 11”. We also return to the 1961 British film, 'What a Carve Up' which provided the driving narrative of the original novel – or rather to its successor 'What a Whopper' (more of a companion piece than a sequel). In fact 'Number 11' ends up as a bumper Quality Street tin of themes, motifs and cultural references – and is all the more fun for it. There is a relatively self-contained detective story sandwiched in the middle of the book that is so beautifully constructed and wittily concluded I felt like applauding when it ended. 'Number 11' is inevitably not quite as stunning as its brilliant precursor but its a bravura encore that had me seething with rage at the modern world while simultaneously unable to stop myself beaming with joy.

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 December 2015

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra's annual Christmas Cracker Concert always feels like the start of the festive season. It's a lovely family-friendly Sunday afternoon celebration of Christmas music, which each year seems to feature the orchestra wearing ever more ridiculous attire. The prize this year must go to my fellow horn player Ian Frankland who played the entire second half of the concert dressed as a giant Christmas cracker! Sunday's concert was the first Christmas Cracker for our new regular conductor John Gibbons, who also took on the role of compère. Our theme was 'Christmas in the Toy Box' – a programme including Leon Jessel's 'Parade of the Tin Soldiers' and music by Randy Newman from the film 'Toy Story'. We also played Malcolm Arnold's 'Fantasy on Christmas Carols' and the 'Sleigh Rides' by Frederick Delius and Leroy Anderson (finishing with a pair of braying trumpets to surprise our regular audience). But the main attraction was 'Paddington Bear's First Concert' – one of the best works for orchestra and narrator – in which Herbert Chappell creates an extensive theme and variations from his signature tune for the old BBC TV 'Paddington'. Michael Bond's story is quintessential 'Paddington' and our performance on Sunday was brilliantly brought to life by former NSO conductor Graham Tear whose Paddington, Mrs Bird and Mr Gruber were spot on!

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Friday, December 11, 2015

'Robin Hood: The Arrow in the Oak' by Sue Sachon

11 December 2015

On Saturday we were back at the TADS Theatre in Toddington for the amateur theatre group's annual pantomime. Each year they present a wholly original pantomime, written by a member of the company. This year the show was Sue Sachon's 'Robin Hood: The Arrow in the Oak'. All the usual pantomime elements were incorporated into a story that drew on some lesser known legends of Robin Hood as well as turning the famous archery contest into an X-factor-style talent contest. The cast were great. I particularly enjoyed the performances by Elizabeth Hall and Emily Venn as the Sheriff of Nottingham's henchmen – they looked like they were having a ball! The whole thing was great fun but the best moment was in the kitchen scene where the chef sneezed and a small child in the audience automatically, quietly and very politely said “bless you”.

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'A God in Ruins' by Kate Atkinson

11 December 2015

Kate Atkinson's novel 'Life After Life' (reviewed here in June 2013) was a family saga with a twist, following Ursula Todd through a series of interrupted versions of her life with a Groundhog Day structure. Though Ursula's life, spanning most of the twentieth century, is the focus of the book, it is the love story of her younger brother Teddy and his childhood sweetheart Nancy that forms the emotional heart of the novel. Kate Atkinson has now returned to the Todd family with 'A God in Ruins' – a sequel or companion piece to 'Life After Life' (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Alex Jennings) which tells Teddy's story. Kate Atkinson is an ambitious novelist whose beautifully written prose creates very easily accessible books that play mischievously with the form of the novel. In 'A God in Ruins' she abandons the tricksy stop-start format of 'Life After Life' in favour of painting a picture of Teddy's life which jumps forwards and backwards in time, only gradually filling in the gaps. This jigsaw plot wrong-foots the reader as many of our assumptions and theories are disproved. Atkinson also pulls the rug from under fans of the previous novel by showing Teddy to have had a fairly dull life, his romance with Nancy proving not to have been quite so perfect as Ursula thought it. 'A God in Ruins' is dominated by Teddy's wartime service as a bomber pilot: the descriptions of bombing missions over Germany are detailed and harrowing and this experience colours all of Teddy's later life and relationships. 'A God in Ruins' is a uniformly melancholy book and often feels quite slow (and maybe over long) but I can forgive it much for its ending – do read right to the end for a satisfyingly clever twist. 'A God in Ruins' is sad, slow, frustrating but also rather brilliant.

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