Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Dancing at Blackpool Tower Ballroom

18 October 2017

On Saturday we made our third annual visit to Blackpool to dance in the Tower Ballroom. Once again, a group of us from Milton Keynes Dance Centre joined more than 500 dancers at the Wembley Stadium of ballroom dancing for an evening organised by Philip Hurst. I have enjoyed these dances more each year – familiarity helping us to know how to pace ourselves through five hours of dancing. Trying to get into Blackpool on a Saturday evening while the Illuminations are on is a major challenge but there is nothing quite like dancing in the ridiculous grandeur of the Tower Ballroom.


Friday, October 13, 2017

'Madness is Better Than Defeat' by Ned Beauman

13 October 2017

Ned Beauman's novel 'The Teleportation Accident' (reviewed here in July 2013) was the best book I read in 2013 (indeed it was my overall cultural Pick of the Year). His new novel, ‘Madness is Better Than Defeat’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Eric Meyers) is definitely in the running for a similar accolade at the end of 2017. After setting his previous novel, ‘Glow’ (reviewed here in June 2014), in contemporary London, ‘Madness is Better Than Defeat’ returns Beauman to the kind of historical 20th century setting that seems to suit him best. It tells the tale of two ill-fated American expeditions which arrive simultaneously at a recently discovered Mayan temple in the jungle of Spanish Honduras in 1938 – one party intent on dismantling the temple and transporting it back to New York, while the other had planned to use the temple as the backdrop for a Hollywood film, ‘Hearts of Darkness’. A stand-off in the jungle ensues – and lasts for the next 20 years! But, of course with a Ned Beaman novel, it’s much more complicated than that. He presents at least four explanations for the bizarre events in the jungle, constructing an incredibly complex nest of narratives and never quite explaining who or what we are expected to believe. Like each of his previous books, ‘Madness is Better Than Defeat’ is clever, surprising, baffling, hilarious, and completely bonkers. Beauman writes beautifully witty similes and metaphors: “overhead there flew a macau with prismatic feathers, like an advance scout for a rainbow”. The plot is deliberately confusing but what this book is really about is the process of narrative. ‘Madness is Better Than Defeat’ takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to new extremes (even offering a rational explanation, of sorts, for the presence of an omniscient third-person narrator). This a jigsaw puzzle tale, told by someone who wasn’t present at most of the events that are recounted. And the timeframe jumps backwards and forwards between 1938 and 1959, only very gradually (and partially) filling in huge gaps in the story. Many of the characters have plenty to say about way you should construct a story – creating a meta narrative about the way the book itself is built. If that sounds perplexing, it is – but in a very entertaining way. This is ‘Citizen Kane’ plus ‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘Treasure Island’ reimagined by Graham Greene. I loved it.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Tom Robinson

12 October 2017

Regular readers will know I am a big fan of Tom Robinson who we saw perform many times across the country in the 1990s. After twelve years of ‘retirement’ from touring, it was wonderful to witness his return with a one-off gig at the Jazz Cafe (reviewed here in August 2014). Following a tour to promote a new album in 2015 (reviewed here in November 2015), Tom Robinson is now touring again to mark the 40th anniversary of his first hit single ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’. With a new band, featuring Adam Phillips, Andy Treacey and Jim Simmons, he is performing the whole of the first Tom Robinson Band album ‘Power in the Darkness’ which was released in 1978 (including some songs the Tom Robinson Band never performed live because they were too difficult!). We were at The Stables in Milton Keynes on Wednesday for the second date in the tour and it was a fantastic evening. Tom Robinson has such a big back catalogue that his concerts usually provide a richly varied mix of musical styles, but this performance of songs from a single album (plus the EP that immediately followed it) strangely felt more satisfying, giving a coherence and consistency to the music. And there are some great songs on ‘Power in the Darkness’ which opens with a brilliant rock number in ‘Up Against the Wall’ and closes with the title track – here updated to comment on the crazy politics of 2017. Tom Robinson was on great form: now 67 years old he needed a little more recovery time between songs but showed no lack of energy in performance. And the band were incredibly impressive. With support from the wonderful Lee Forsyth Griffiths – who we first saw supporting Tom Robinson at The Stables in 2001 – and a rapturous reception from a sold-out audience, it was a magnificent gig.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

'Promise and Promiscuity' by Penny Ashton

11 October 2017

‘Promise and Promiscuity’ is “a new musical by Jane Austen and New Zealand’s Penny Ashton” which we saw at the Stantonbury Theatre in Milton Keynes on Tuesday. In this one-woman fringe show, Penny Ashton creates a mock Jane Austen tale, combining elements from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with contemporary references and some songs. It’s a very entertaining performance and Ashton is an excellent performer. Her physical movement is particularly impressive and helps her to switch rapidly between multiple characters without the need for props or costumes. In her wordless curtain calls as the main characters we instantly knew who each was meant to be. ‘Promise and Promiscuity’ is clearly a labour of love and demonstrates Penny Ashton’s affection for Jane Austen’s novels, while gently poking fun at them. At times I felt it fell somewhere between satirising Austen and simply re-creating an Austen story – not as cheekily postmodern as the improvised  ‘Austentatious’ (reviewed here in August 2012) but not quite straight Jane Austen either. Nevertheless it was great fun and Penny Ashton is a very likeable performer.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

'Searching for Dr Branovic' by David Tristram

3 October 2017

We first encountered the blissfully silly plays of David Tristram at the TADS Theatre in Toddington in 2009 when the TADS Theatre Group presented his surreal murder mystery ‘Inspector Drake and the Black Widow’ (reviewed here in April 2009). We returned to TADS to see the other two Inspector Drake plays (reviewed here in July 2010 and April 2011) and thoroughly enjoyed them. So it was a treat to discover a new David Tristram play at TADS last Saturday. ‘Searching for Doctor Branovic’ is a very clever farce which is set in a more realistic universe than Inspector Drake but still has some of the same ridiculous but consistent internal logic and a good line in running jokes. The cast in David Sachon’s production were all great but David Hillman as the exasperated Detective Inspector Munroe stood out and Chloe White stole the show as the bewildered widow whose husband appears to be less dead than initially thought.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

'Nocturnes' by imitating the dog

27 September 2017

On Tuesday we were at the Stantonbury Theatre in Milton Keynes to see ‘Nocturnes’ - a new play by ‘imitating the dog’ which is on tour following a run at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Written and directed by Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, ‘Nocturnes’ is an exploration of the relationship between film and stage. A black & white film noir – a spy story set in Berlin in 1956 – is shown on a large screen, beneath which three actors stand at microphones on the stage, speaking the lines of dialogue for the film. Initially this appears just to be a very impressive gimmick: the lip-synching with the film is spot-on and it’s difficult for the audience to know whether to watch the film or the live actors. But gradually you realise something more clever is going on. As the two lead actors attempt to deviate from the written script with the occasional improvisation, the third person on the stage forces them back onto the proper text. Meanwhile the film begins to jump and distort in response to the disruptions on the stage. And the audience begins to realise that every line of dialogue can be taken either as part of the filmed story or as a comment on what is happening on stage. This ambiguity is strangely unsettling. Indeed the whole performance is a very strange experience. Like Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’, the characters Harry and Amy (played on stage and screen by Laura Atherton and Matt Prendergast) are aware they are trapped in a drama and become desperate to escape. ‘Nocturnes’ is an unusual and compelling theatrical experience.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble concert

26 September 2017

Performing a large chamber work with the Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble has become an annual treat, with last Saturday’s ‘Monumental Chamber Music’ concert, at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church in Northampton, marking my fourth appearance with the ensemble. After playing the 'Sonatina no. 2 for 16 Winds' by Richard Strauss ('From the Happy Workshop') last year (reviewed here in April 2016) I was really looking forward to tackling the Strauss ‘Sonatine no. 1 (‘From an Invalid’s Workshop’)’. It’s a similarly entertaining work with another incredibly challenging first horn part – brilliantly played by Meghan McCrimmon. The concert also included the ‘Divertissment’ for wind dectet by the French composer Emile Bernard, conducted by Catherine Rose, which featured a beautiful unaccompanied bassoon solo by Frank Jordan at the opening of the slow movement. But, for me, the highlight of the evening was a performance of Aaron Copland’s ballet suite ‘Appalachian Spring’ in its original scoring for flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, double string quartet and double bass. Copland is one of a small number of composers whose style is so distinct you can identify a piece as one of his from hearing the merest fragment of a bar. ‘Appalachian Spring’ is peak Copland, creating an eerie, sparse beauty. Conducted by Stephen Bell (who also led the Strauss) the Heliotrope performance was delicate and haunting with particularly beautiful playing by Mara Griffiths (flute) and Michelle Yates (clarinet). It was another great Heliotrope chamber concert.

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