Friday, November 17, 2017

'Follies' by Stephen Sondheim

17 November 2017

Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical ‘Follies’ is rarely performed, largely because it requires an enormous cast. Laurie Sansom’s splendid 2006 production at the Northampton Royal & Derngate (reviewed here in November 2006) cast local amateurs as the ageing Follies girls, with a professional cast playing the leads and the ‘ghosts’ of their younger selves. Dominic Cooke’s new production at the National Theatre (which we saw as a NTLive broadcast at the Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium on Thursday) uses a cast of 37, plus a 21-strong orchestra. It’s a stunning production with Vicki Mortimer’s massive set showing the crumbling carcass of a condemned theatre constantly rotating on the huge stage of the Olivier. ‘Follies’ is a bitter-sweet show, full of set-piece songs in which the older women each reprise the hits of their youth. Sondheim’s songs are pastiches of the style of those early 20th century Follies shows, but with more knowing poignancy. Dominic Cooke’s production is of the highest quality with great music and dancing. The singing, in particular, is excellent – from the operatic contributions of Josephine Barstow and Bruce Graham, to musical standards by Di Botcher (‘Broadway Baby’) and Tracie Bennett (‘I’m Still Here’), to brilliant song and dance numbers by Dawn Hope (‘Who’s That Woman? (Mirror Mirror)’) and the wonderful Janie Dee (‘The story of Lucy and Jessie’). And it felt impossible not to cry at Imelda Staunton’s heartbreakingly beautiful performance of ‘Losing My Mind’ – the melancholic climax of the evening. The nature of the show, with its roll call of solos by each of the characters, invites audience adulation throughout and the reaction of the audience at the National Theatre on Thursday seemed to grow more exuberant with each number. It’s always a slightly-detached experience sitting in a cinema watching the relay of a live show, but on this occasion the final curtain prompted spontaneous applause from everyone at the Odeon Milton Keynes – and, on screen in the Olivier auditorium, the audience were all on their feet for the most enthusiastic standing ovation I have seen for years. This was a brilliant production of ‘Follies’ and it is amazing for it to be playing in London at the same time as Christopher Wheeldon’s production of ‘An American in Paris’ (reviewed here in April 2017) and Mark Bramble’s production of ‘42nd Street’ (reviewed here in August 2017). All three could make a strong case for being the best musical you will ever see: we are so lucky to have seen them all this year.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 November 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra’s 2017-18 season features music inspired by the visual arts. The opening concert, at Spinney Theatre in Northampton last Saturday, included William Walton’s overture ‘Portsmouth Point’, inspired by Thomas Rowlandson’s 1872 satirical print of the same name. Rhythmically, it’s a fiendishly difficult piece to play with constant changes of time signature and syncopated figures which create an exciting depiction of the bustling port. ‘The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca’ by Bohuslav Martinu presents similar challenges to the orchestra, with few downbeats coming where you expect them. It’s a lovely three-movement work which creates a shimmering sound-world capturing the atmosphere of Piero della Francesca’s paintings. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Job: A Masque for Dancing’ is a rarely performed one act ballet, loosely based on William Blake’s ‘Illustrations to The Book of Job’. I'm still finding it hard to believe it is more than 32 years since I last played ‘Job’ – in a series of 3 staged performances by the Manchester Youth Orchestra at the Royal Northern College of Music in January 1985. When we started rehearsing the piece for this NSO concert memories came flooding back of that seminal musical experience and I was amazed how well I remembered the detail of the horn parts. Our performance on Saturday featured wonderful solos by Stephen Hague (violin), Sarah Mourant (oboe), Naomi Muller (clarinet) and Graham Tear and Helen Taylor (flutes). I don’t think anyone would dispute, however, that the concert was dominated by Dinara Klinton’s amazing performance of the ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’ by Maurice Ravel. Written for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during the First World War – by Ravel who had been an ambulance driver on the other side in the war – it was a poignant piece to play on 11 November. The concerto is a dark, brooding work which opens with a menacingly deep contrabassoon solo – beautifully played by Frank Jordan. Listening to a recording it seems impossible that the piano is being played with only one hand. It was fascinating to see the young Ukrainian pianist Dinara Klinton making the seemingly impossible not only possible but musically stunning. I can confidently say that no-one who was at the concert will ever forget her performance. Dinara Klinton gave herself the luxury of using both hands for her encore – one of Liszt’s ‘Transcendental Studies’ (the full set of which she recorded for Genuin Classics in 2016: you can watch her playing them at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDHZC7b4u4I). The NSO negotiated these four unfamiliar and challenging pieces very impressively (though with much furrowed brow concentration!) to present an intriguing and unusual concert which was a tribute to Music Director John Gibbons’ inventive programming and effective conducting.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

'Twelfth Night' by William Shakespeare

10 November 2017

“What country, friends, is this?” It is Illyria and we’ve been here before. I think I have seen ‘Twelfth Night’ more times than any other Shakespeare play. I’ve seen the play interpreted in many different ways but it always seems to work. On Thursday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see Christopher Luscombe’s new RSC production of ‘Twelfth Night’. Luscombe’s 2014 RSC production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (reviewed here in November) felt like a cosy, crowd-pleasing version but had some subtle, serious touches (such as Dogberry’s shellshock). His ‘Twelfth Night’ has a similar feel. It’s a play famous for its songs but, in this production, composer Nigel Hess creates additional songs based on fleeting references in the text, making it feel almost like ‘Twelfth Night: The Musical’. Luscombe sets the play in the 1890s, bringing a late Victorian decadence with hints of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. There’s a beautifully lavish set by Simon Higlett and steam trains, music hall and top hats. Though he is far from being the main character of the play, it is traditionally Malvolio who gets the top billing and Adrian Edmondson gave an impressively restrained and touching performance, managing to be both obnoxious and sympathetic with a charming twinkle in his eye. (I last saw Adrian Edmondson on stage 25 years ago, when he starred with Rik Mayall in ‘Waiting for Godot’ at the Queen’s Theatre in London.) But unusually for Shakespeare, ‘Twelfth Night’ gives two female actors the lead roles: Dinita Gohil’s Viola and Kara Tointon’s Olivia were both excellent as the emotional heart of the play.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2017

'Stranger Things 2' by The Duffer Brothers

8 November 2017

The essential viewing this week was clearly ‘Stranger Things 2’. Released on Netflix just in time for Halloween, the second series of the Duffer Brothers’ homage to 1980s sci-fi/horror is a darker, more violent sequel to last summer’s big hit (reviewed here in August 2016). Set one year on from the events of the first series, ‘Stranger Things 2’ returns to Hawkins, Indiana, where a growing sense of dread suggests that everything is by no means back to normal. Once again the kids are the stars of the show, forming a brilliant ensemble cast whose interactions are touching, believable and very funny. There is a knowing, meta-textual feel to the sequel which answers some of the puzzling questions, loose ends and ‘deliberate mistakes’ from the first series, almost as if the characters have all now watched ‘Stranger Things’. There is also some great 1980s period detail and music and plenty of reverential nods to 1980s films. We devoured all nine episodes within a week: it’s really enjoyable, thrilling and genuinely scary.

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Friday, November 03, 2017

'Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine' by Gail Honeyman

3 November 2017

I’ve just finished reading Gail Honeyman’s novel ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Cathleen McCarron). It’s an intriguing and inspiring tale which demonstrates the too often overlooked joy of normality. Eleanor Oliphant is an intelligent, capable 30-year-old who works in an office but seems to have minimal social skills. Through Eleanor’s precise, unemotional first-person narration we gradually piece together traumatic childhood events which have left her scarred (physically and emotionally) and suppressed memories that are preventing her from leading a normal life. Her naive, literal, narration – from which the reader is left to deduce things that Eleanor herself doesn’t fully understand – reminded me of Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’. Eleanor’s gradual emergence from the protective shell of her lonely routine existence is genuinely heart-warming.

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Friday, October 27, 2017

'Fargo' by Noah Hawley

27 October 2017

I’ve just finished watching the third season of ‘Fargo’, Noah Hawley’s superlative TV series inspired by the 1996 Coen Brothers film. [Excessive hyperbole warning: readers who feel that my reviews are too often overly enthusiastic may want to look away now.] I love ‘Fargo’: it’s a televisual work of art – gripping, funny, bleak, beautiful, clever and playful. The male characters tend to be weak and foolish while the women are intelligent and strong. In this third series Ewan McGregor is great as both of the warring brothers at the centre of the story and David Thewlis is an incredibly creepy villain, but the female leads – Carrie Coon as Police Chief Gloria Burgle and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as ex-convict and semi-professional bridge player Nikki Swango – are truly magnificent. I appreciate that ‘Fargo’ may not be to everyone’s taste: the plot is deliberately confusing, with occasional surreal digressions and some brutal violence. But it is a beautifully constructed show, visually stunning and with a wonderful use of music. Season 3 has a running musical theme of New Orleans brass bands, featuring tracks by Minor Mishap Marching Band, Rebirth Brass Band, Youngblood Brass Band and Galactic. But then, for no particular reason, one episode uses Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’, musically labelling each of the main characters as Peter, the bird, the cat, the wolf etc. ‘Fargo’ is a very black comedy drama – excruciating, surprising, hilarious, thrilling and terribly satisfying.

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‘Luminate Short Encounters’

27 October 2017

On Wednesday afternoon I was at the WHALE Community Cinema in WHALE Arts Centre, Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, to watch ‘Luminate Short Encounters’ – a series of seven short documentary films dealing with various aspects of ageing. These included one of the excellent 'Directed by North Merchiston' films by Duncan Cowles that were commissioned by Luminate in 2016. Each of the seven films were fascinating in very different ways. I particularly enjoyed ‘Bacon and God’s Wrath’ – a Canadian film by Sol Friedman which shows how a 90-year old Jewish woman, Razie Brownstone, having reached a new chapter in her life, begins to question her religion and decides to take the significant step to eat bacon for the first time. And I was gripped by ‘Nae Pasaran’ – a film by Chilean director Felipe Bustos Sierra which reunites three of the Scottish factory workers who, in 1974, refused to carry out repairs on war planes used in the violent military coup in Chile in an expression of solidarity with the Chilean people. ‘Luminate Short Encounters’ was a surprising and thought-provoking collection of short films and, in common with all the Luminate Festival events I have visited this week, was presented by WHALE Arts with a very warm, friendly welcome and copious amounts of free refreshments.

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‘When We Were Young’

27 October 2017

Also on Wednesday morning I visited the Scottish National Portrait Gallery photography exhibition ‘When We Were Young’ which uses photographs drawn from the National Galleries of Scotland collection to explore various aspects of childhood. It documents the experience and representation of childhood to coincide with Scotland's Year of the Young Person 2018. The exhibition is divided into thematic sections on Family, School, Work and Play and includes some amazing black & white photos from the 1840s through to contemporary digital photography. There are many stunning photos on display but my favourite was the enormous print of Wendy McMurdo’s 199 picture ‘Girl with Bears’, which you can see online at: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/57370/girl-bears-royal-museum-scotland-edinburgh

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‘Step into My Parlour’ by Michelle Burke

27 October 2017

On Wednesday morning I was at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh for ‘Step into My Parlour’ – a dementia-friendly event as part of the Luminate Festival. The singer Michelle Burke and pianist James Ross performed songs celebrating the theme of childhood, linked to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s photography exhibition ‘When We Were Young’. Inspired by photographs and documents found in Michelle’s grandparents’ house in County Cork, it was a lovely show which gently prompted the audience’s own memories of childhood. Michelle sang a mixture of Irish folk songs and singalong standards. She has a beautifully clear voice with a strong Irish accent, and reminded me of my favourite Nottingham folk singer, Ruth Notman (albeit with a different accent). There is a real skill in working with an audience with wide-ranging and inconsistent levels of understanding but Michelle managed to keep everyone enthralled. Most of the songs she performed are on her album ‘Step Into My Parlour’ (which features some impressive musical guests): https://open.spotify.com/album/6JXgn1qDq8aul8DdTBYHSL. You can also see more about the ideas behind ‘Step Into My Parlour’ in this promo film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyoHhBFkYNQ.

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‘Appalachian Autumn’ by Kick the Cat

27 October 2017

On Tuesday evening I was at Dean Bowling Club in the Comely Bank area of Edinburgh to take part in ‘Appalachian Autumn’ – a clog dancing workshop organised as part of the Luminate Festival by Kick the Cat, Scotland's only Appalachian dance group. Kick the Cat meet every Tuesday at the Bowling Club but opened their doors this week for a beginners’ workshop and demonstration. Appalachian dancing is a fascinating missing link between folk dance and tap. Scottish and Irish immigrants brought their clog dancing traditions to the new world and gradually assimilated influences from Native American and African American culture. The clogs were replaced by formal shoes with metal taps on the toes and heels and the dancing became more performance than social, leading to the development of tap dancing. The Appalachian dancing practised by Kick the Cat is a curious hybrid of recognisable tap steps (shuffles, step-ball-changes and heel taps) in a ceilidh format, dancing with a partner and progressing around a circle. Kick the Cat demonstrated some amazing routines and we all then had a go at a sequence of steps, reassuringly titled ‘Dead Easy’. It was great fun in a really friendly and welcoming atmosphere. I’m only sorry I can’t return next Tuesday.

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WeCAN workshops

27 October 2017

On Tuesday afternoon I was in The Studio at Edinburgh Festival Theatre for two WeCAN workshops as part of Luminate 2017 - Scotland's creative ageing festival. WeCAN Edinburgh is made up of a group of organisations who deliver creative activities for people with dementia and their carers. The organisations include: Alzheimer Scotland, Festival Theatre, Art in Healthcare, Hears and Minds, Dance Base and Music in Hospitals. On Tuesday the Festival Theatre hosted two dementia-friendly workshops delivered by Dance Base and Art in Healthcare. I joined a group of about 20 people with dementia and their carers for a session of seated dance moves, which proved to be a surprisingly rigorous workout that was great fun. We then moved to tables in the bar area to explore visual art techniques involving chalks, watercolours and pencils – responding to the inspiration provided by an exhibition of works from the Art in Healthcare collection. It was a lovely afternoon, with lunch and afternoon tea laid on by the Festival Theatre, and it was great to see people getting over their inhibitions and expressing themselves creatively in a variety of ways in a very friendly and supportive environment.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

'The Caretaker' by Harold Pinter

24 October 2017

On Saturday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see Christopher Haydon’s production of ‘The Caretaker’ by Harold Pinter – a joint production by Bristol Old Vic and the Royal & Derngate, Northampton. I had only seen ‘The Caretaker’ once before, many years ago, but the play’s three characters were still very familiar. I was struck by the similarities with Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ which premiered (in English) in 1955, five years before ‘The Caretaker’, and has a similar sense of ennui (and a similar fascination with the importance of a good pair of shoes). Christopher Haydon’s production features an all-black cast, led by Patrice Naiambana as Davies, which lends a particular frisson to that character’s casual racism. The movement of all three actors was particularly impressive, with each adopting a very distinctive physical style. And Oliver Townsend’s wonderful set focuses the action around a circular stage with floorboards emanating outwards from a central point and an array of oddments of furniture and other collected junk hung vertiginously around the space like a frozen explosion in Steptoe & Son’s yard. ‘The Caretaker’ is a strange play, with little plot but a series of fascinating exchanges and a nagging, sinister atmosphere. This was a very impressive production: you can get a brief flavour of it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=69&v=T7MqziZl1Vw

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