Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mark Steel

19 November 2014

This Monday was the third time we have seen the comedian Mark Steel at The Stables in Wavendon – and I think he has got better and better (I previously reviewed him here in June 2006 and May 2009). This week's performance was 'Mark Steel's Back in Town', building on the BBC Radio 4 series (reviewed here in January 2014) in which he constructs shows about the towns in which he is performing. The live version of the show exploited the growing body of stories he is amassing about the various towns he has visited – a sort of 'Mark Steel's in Town' greatest hits, featuring tales from Abergavenny, Aldershot, Hackney, Wigan and more. Then in the second half his focus was squarely on Milton Keynes. He does extensive research into each town and spends some time there before the show. On Monday he visited the museum at Bletchley Park, the Grand Union Canal and numerous roundabouts and was genuinely shocked to discover that the National Hockey Stadium is now the headquarters of Network Rail. His gentle ridiculing of a place and its people has much in common with Bill Bryson's travelogues – but Mark Steel is brave enough to mock a town in front of an audience of locals. He gets away with this by mixing criticism with wonder, enthusiasm and humility, helping us to celebrate, as well as laugh at, our locality. He has become a very accomplished performer, drawing on his research without interrupting the flow of a stand-up performance and conjuring scenes and characters with an impressive range of accents and physical acting. He's also incredibly funny. If Mark Steel's in your town, don't miss him!

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Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

19 November 2014

Last Saturday the Northampton Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to David Lack in a memorial concert at Christchurch in Northampton. Dave, who died in January, was the Principal Horn player in the NSO for many years. When I inherited that seat, at the start of Dave's illness, I always felt I was just keeping it warm for him. It still feels strange playing NSO concerts without him. Our programme on Saturday was one that Dave would have enjoyed playing. We started with the meaty 'Academic Festival Overture' by Brahms before playing the 'Horn Concerto No 1' by Richard Strauss with Katrina Lauder. Katrina was one of Dave's pupils and I know he was immensely proud of her as she developed a professional career as a horn player. Katrina's beautiful tone sounded wonderful in the cavernous acoustic of Christchurch, particularly in the haunting slow movement, and she nailed the fiendishly difficult finale at a breathtaking speed. I was also captivated by the rapid rippling arpeggios passed between the two flutes in the last movement – a beautiful moment exquisitely played by Mara Griffiths and Andrea Patis. The concert finished with Tchaikowsky's 'Symphony No 4', an exciting and exhausting work. Our conductor, John Gibbons, steered us to a thrilling performance, ending what was an emotional occasion with a feeling of triumph and joy. I think we did Dave proud and I know he would have enjoyed it.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

'The Missing Hancocks' by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson

13 November 2014

I've always had a fascination with the work of Tony Hancock since discovering  that he died the day before I was born (my Mum remembers hearing the shocking news of Hancock's suicide while she was in the hospital maternity unit). I have listened to and watched many recordings of 'Hancock's Half Hour' and read several biographies of the man. For a time I even belonged to the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society (THAS). So I was particularly interested to hear that BBC Radio 4 was producing new versions of five of the episodes of 'Hancock's Half Hour' for which the original recordings were lost. 'The Missing Hancocks' have been produced by the actor Neil Pearson who discovered copies of the scripts by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in his secondary career as an antiquarian book dealer. The new recordings are being broadcast on Friday mornings on Radio 4 to mark the 60th anniversary of 'Hancock's Half Hour'. Kevin McNally plays 'the lad himself', capturing Hancock's mannerisms perfectly but managing to create a properly comic performance, rather than a mere impersonation. These are early radio Half Hours (the first two dating from 1955 and 1956), which conjure up surreal situations with the full Hancock repertory company. The humour is not as sophisticated as the later pared-down classic TV episodes, but Galton and Simpson's writing is very polished – beautifully constructed 30 minute sitcom plots from an era when this format was relatively new. Some of the period references seem dated now but the characters are still great fun. Kevin Eldon plays the late lamented Bill Kerr (from a period before his character become a childlike simpleton) and Robin Sebastian is great as Kenneth Williams playing all the bit parts. I found Simon Greenall's Sid James a bit less successful but the show is a very faithful reproduction (complete with new recordings by the BBC Concert Orchestra of Wally Stott's original music) and fascinating to hear.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

'Much Ado About Nothing or Love's Labour's Won' by William Shakespeare

7 November 2014

A few weeks ago we were at Charlecote, the Elizabethan manor house near Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, which is a now a National Trust property. On Thursday we were in Stratford to see Charlecote recreated on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for Christopher Luscombe's Royal Shakespeare Company production of 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Simon Higlett's amazing set makes impressive use of the unique capacity of the RST to replicate the exterior of Charlecote, a drawing room, billiards room and chapel. The play is billed as 'Much Ado About Nothing or Love's Labour's Won', suggesting that Shakespeare's famous 'lost' play, 'Love's Labour's Won', might have just been an alternative title for the work we now know as 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Luscombe has used this idea to see 'Much Ado About Nothing' as a sequel to 'Love's Labour's Lost', producing the two plays as companion pieces using the same cast and set. He has placed 'Love's Labour's Lost' in a country estate on the eve of the First World War. That play ends with the young men departing to endure a period of hardship, separated from their lovers. 'Much Ado About Nothing', here set on the same estate in December 1918, opens with the soldiers returning from the Great War. It's an effective setting for a stylish production with lovely period costumes and the troubadour Balthasar becoming an Ivor Novello figure. 'Much Ado About Nothing' treads a fine line between comedy and tragedy but this production focussed on the comic. Beatrice imploring Benedick to “Kill Claudio” is often the moment that chilling reality pierces the jolly mood of the play but on Thursday this line got a laugh. Having decided to play it for laughs, the production was genuinely very funny. Michelle Terry as Beatrice and Edward Bennett as Benedick were excellent and their verbal jousting was perfectly timed. David Horovitch as Leonato and Thomas Wheatley as his brother Antonio looked uncannily like Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson from 'Dad's Army'. The Dogberry scenes in 'Much Ado About Nothing' are notoriously difficult to pull off. Clearly written as comic interludes they rarely seem funny to modern audiences. Dogberry's 'malapropisms' seem too well disguised for us to work out what word it was he really meant to say. But this production managed to make these scenes work in a way I haven't seen before. The constable and his deputy, in period police uniforms, suggested the surreal world of Flann O'Brien's 'The Third Policeman' (reviewed here in April 2007) – complete with bicycle. And the use of some great physical comedy effectively distracted from any verbal gags missing their targets. Most of all, the subtle suggestion of First World War shellshock hand tremors made Nick Haverson's Dogberry a surprisingly sympathetic character.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Elvis Costello/Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames

30 October 2014

Growing up in Manchester, Leigh-born Georgie Fame was a local musical hero, frequently appearing as a guest soloist with some of the local youth bands and orchestras. Last time I saw Georgie Fame, he was playing in Van Morrison's band at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall some years ago. This week he was again accompanying Van Morrison at the Albert Hall on Tuesday but I saw him there on Wednesday, with his band The Blue Flames, as part of the London Blues Fest, sharing the bill with Elvis Costello. Georgie Fame's band included Alec Dankworth on bass (who I performed with many years ago – but that's another story) and the excellent Guy Barker on trumpet. Georgie Fame is now 71 years old but his distinctive voice is still fantastic – a mellow vocal trumpet.

I'm a big fan of Elvis Costello but this was the first time I had seen him live. Rock stars who have been around for decades typically face the dilemma, in their concerts, of whether to play the old familiar favourites or to try out their new material. Too often, these days, technology allows bands to reproduce the precise sound of their recordings in live performance, leaving you wondering why you didn't just stay at home and listen to the album. Refreshingly, in his live performances, Elvis Costello explores his extensive back catalogue, including his biggest hits, in new ways, never sounding like the original recording. This was a mostly solo performance, Elvis accompanying himself on guitar but being joined by his long-time collaborator Steve Nieve on the grand piano for some almost classical re-workings of songs including 'Accidents Will Happen' and 'Pills and Soap'. Elvis Costello was an enthusiastic performer, an entertaining raconteur and a dapper figure in dark grey three-piece suit, white trilby and pointed purple shoes. He said he had intended to choose a programme on the themes of love, lies, deceit and infidelity but then realised he had written more than 400 songs about love, lies, deceit and infidelity so that hadn't helped to narrow down his choice! It was fascinating to hear Elvis singing songs he originally wrote for other people, such as 'Almost Bue' (written for Chet Baker) and 'The Comedians' (for Roy Orbison). And to hear his interpretations of other people's songs, including 'She' (by Charles Aznavour and Herbert Kretzmer), 'Walking My Baby Back Home' (written in 1930 by Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert) and a Mose Allison song (for which he was joined on stage by Georgie Fame). It says something about the depth of his repertoire that Elvis Costello could perform for almost two hours and still manage to save for the encore 'Shipbuilding', 'Oliver's Army' and '(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding'. He finished the evening with the microphones switched off for an unamplified performance of 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4', a beautifully haunting song from his 1991 album 'Mighty Like a Rose' (which Costello and Richard Harvey adapted for Alan Bleasdale's epic TV drama serial 'GBH'). It was a brilliant concert and a real privilege to be there.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

'The Bone Clocks' by David Mitchell

27 October 2014

A new novel by David Mitchell always feels like an event and 'The Bone Clocks' (which I've just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jessica Ball, Leon Williams, Colin Mace, Steven Crossley, Laurel Lefkow and Anna Bentinck) did not disappoint. Mitchell is one of my favourite contemporary novelists and I have read all six of his novels. His last work 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ (reviewed here in August 2011) felt like an epic, but 'The Bone Clocks' is even longer (the audio version lasting 24.5 hours). Having lived in Japan, David Mitchell is a big admirer of Huraki Murakami and it seems too much of a coincidence not to suppose that 'The Bone Clocks' might have been influenced by Murakami's recent mammoth novel '1Q84' (reviewed here in April 2012). '1Q84' opens with a young woman climbing down the emergency stairs from a Tokyo expressway and entering a surreal parallel world, while in 'The Bone Clocks' a teenage girl runs into an underpass beneath a dual carriageway in Kent and observes a gateway opening to another world. The fact that this happens in 1984 is surely not a coincidence. 'The Bone Clocks' is David Mitchell's most 'Cloud Atlas'-like book since 'Cloud Atlas. Both have an episodic structure with sudden leaps from one section to the next, each with a different first-person narrator (the different points of view being very effectively emphasised in the audio version by use of a new reader for each section). Both books span centuries and extend into the future, entering science fiction territory. But 'The Bone Clocks' is more of a single story, compared to the loosely linked narratives of 'Cloud Atlas'. And that story is the tale of Holly Sykes, a teenager living in Gravesend when we first encounter her in 1984, whose life will become inextricably linked with the survival of the planet. Like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell creates a meticulously believable real-world narrative into which he inserts aspects of magical realism. But, unlike Murakami, Mitchell tends to tie-up the loose ends and 'The Bone Clocks' very satisfyingly explains and resolves its fantastical elements. David Mitchell is also a very playful author – his novels all contain disguised references to each other and 'The Bone Clocks' continues this tradition as well as incorporating a major character from 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’. Mitchell even goes so far as to make one his characters a writer so that he can quote a review of one of that writer's novels which says “The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look ... What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?”. This is very entertaining meta-fiction (though David Mitchell has had to deny rumours that his fictional author Crispin Hershey is supposed to be Martin Amis). 'The Bone Clocks' is a state of the world novel, dealing with Iraq, climate change and the perils of our dependence on declining reserves of fossil fuels. It is also a fantasy novel, featuring pre-cognition, telepathy and battles between warring factions of immortal 'superheroes'. It's a complicated, enthralling, hugely entertaining epic novel – highly recommended.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

'Love is Strange' by Ira Sachs

23 October 2014

On Thursday evening I was at the Glasgow Film Theatre for a screening of Ira Sachs' new film 'Love is Strange', presented as part of both the Luminate Festival and Glasgay! Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George and Ben, an elderly gay couple who have lived very happily together in New York for 39 years. But when they decide to get married, their world begins to fall apart. George loses his job teaching in a Catholic school and they can no longer afford their apartment. While they search for an affordable alternative they have to sleep on the sofas and bunk beds of friends and family. The pain of living apart from each other after so many years together is evident. And the strain of living in other people's homes is cleverly depicted. 'Love is Strange' is a delicate, subtle, intelligent film. Much is said without the need for words, with numerous close-ups of unspeaking faces telling you much more about the characters' feelings than the dialogue does. The film is beautifully shot, with the trees, streets and skyline of Manhattan becoming part of the cast of characters. There's also a lot of Chopin – sometimes deliberately obscuring the dialogue (though it was very distracting to have two scenes where different characters were shown playing a piano they clearly weren't playing – why bother showing the hands in that case?). One beautiful scene sums up the best aspects of the film: Ben's nephew's wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) is trying to write a novel in her living room while Ben is innocently chatting to her, oblivious to the fact he is constantly interrupting her work. Kate grows more and more frustrated – we can observe the strain growing on her face (unseen by Ben) and we are waiting for the point at which she is clearly going to snap at him. But before this comes Ben's chatter turns into a moan about how annoying it is when Kate's son Joey thoughtlessly interrupts Ben while he is trying to complete a painting. Kate's frustration dissolves into a smile without a word. As Ben says: “When you live with people, you know them better than you care to”. 'Love is Strange' is gentle but powerful, incredibly sad but ultimately uplifting. It will be on general release from February 2015.

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'Every Picture Tells My Story' by Hugh Campbell

23 October 2014

On Thursday afternoon I was at the Haining Centre – a nursing home in Falkirk – for 'Every Picture Tells My Story' – a Luminate Festival event. Haining resident Hugh Campbell had created a noticeboard depicting the story of his life through text and photos, and talked us through some of the key episodes. Hugh was an entertaining raconteur and it was fascinating to piece together the personal history of the man sitting in front of us. We learned about Hugh's childhood: he was brought up by his grandmother and aunt as his parents couldn't cope with rearing six children. He saw active service in the Second World War and, after an apprenticeship in a local foundry, Hugh went on to enjoy a 30-year career as a bus conductor, getting to know his regular passengers well, including the young midwife who he went on marry. He told us about his love of ballroom dancing, the music of Daniel O'Donnell and Mediterranean cruises. In telling his story, apart from an occasional lapse of memory, Hugh was very sharp and I was genuinely amazed to discover that he is 95 years old: he seems at least ten years younger. He clearly still has an eye for the ladies and took a lively interest in one young woman in the audience who was a mere 65 years his junior! At the end of the session she had her photo taken with Hugh to provide another addition to his notice board. Hugh's key message was that he doesn't feel old, he feels like he is getting younger rather than older, and he's not finished his story yet.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'Love Me Do' by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

21 October 2014

On Saturday evening we were at Watford Palace Theatre to see 'Love Me Do', a new play by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. Set in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the play focuses on a young American woman stranded in London, wondering whether she will ever see her husband and children again. Making playful use of physical theatre techniques, and with a cast of five actors creating a host of colourful characters, Co-Directors Brigid Larmour and Shona Morris evoked early 1960s London as an entertaining and slightly sinister foreign country. Marks and Gran cleverly avoided the period drama trap of giving the characters knowing hindsight from a contemporary perspective by using two Americans adrift in London to point out the outdated idiosyncrasies of English life (eg "Yellow Pages?" - "they don't have them here yet"). But, for me, there wasn't quite enough plot and a few ideas seemed under-developed. Calling the main character, who is desperate to get back to Kansas, Dorothy might have had more impact if the 'Wizard of Oz' reference hadn't been blatantly pointed out by one of the characters early in the play. Nevertheless Sara Topham and Robert Curtis made a believable odd-couple thrust together in a crisis - in the manner of a classic Hollywood screwball comedy.

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Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

21 October 2014

In 1982 the Scottish trumpeter, John Wallace, gave the premiere performance of Malcolm Arnold's 'Trumpet Concerto' at the Royal Albert Hall in London. John Wallace's 1984 recording with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta is still the only time this short but fiendishly difficult concerto has been recorded. So it was very exciting, last Saturday, to have the opportunity to perform Arnold's 'Trumpet Concerto' at the Derngate in Northampton with John Wallace. The Northampton Symphony Orchestra, conducted for the first time by John Gibbons, had been invited to open the ninth Malcolm Arnold Festival with a morning concert of works by Arnold and other 20th century English composers. As well as the 'Trumpet Concerto' we played Arnold's 'A Flourish for Orchestra' and his mighty 'Peterloo Overture' (which was commissioned by the Trades Union Congress to mark its centenary in 1968). Our programme also included the beautiful 'Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad' by George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'March Past of the Kitchen Utensils' from 'The Wasps', and the wonderful suite from the 1936 film 'Things To Come' by Sir Arthur Bliss. Between these pieces young musicians from the Malcolm Arnold Academy performed the movements of Arnold's rarely heard ‘Miniature Suite'. But the highlight of the morning was undoubtedly John Wallace's brilliant performance of the 'Trumpet Concerto', accompanied by the Northampton Symphony Orchestra (in which Malcolm Arnold himself played the trumpet in his youth) and finishing with a glorious, stratospheric major third between the soloist and NSO's Principal Trumpet, Nick Bunker.

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