Friday, October 09, 2015

The Stars From The Commitments

9 October 2015

I'm not a big fan of covers bands or tribute acts but I was tempted to see 'The Stars From The Commitments' at The Stables in Wavendon last Sunday because: 1. the line-up still includes two of the original members, and 2. the original band was fictional. Kenneth McCluskey and Dick Massey played members of Dublin soul band, The Commitments, in Alan Parker's 1991 film of Roddy Doyle's novel and, since 1993, have been touring almost continuously with a version of the band. They put on a great show, recreating classic soul numbers with high-quality musicians and three excellent singers (Myles Hyland, Sandra Hyland and Antoinette Dunleavy). It's a party from the start and the packed audience at The Stables had clearly come to enjoy themselves. The show closed with a fantastic performance of 'Try a Little Tenderness'. It really made me want to see the film again.

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Thursday, October 01, 2015


1 October 2015

When I saw Squeeze at the WOMAD Festival in 2008 (reviewed here in July 2008) Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook had only just started performing together again after years of barely speaking to each other. Seven years later the band is in rude health, about to launch its first new album since 1998, with its new song 'Happy Days' getting played on national radio and selling out large venues around the country on a tour that started this week. The spark for this late-career success has been the music Squeeze wrote for the Danny Baker TV sitcom, 'Cradle to the Grave', which forms the basis of their new album of the same name. We were lucky to get tickets for their show at Milton Keynes Theatre this week and it was a fantastic performance. The visual presentation was very impressive, with an amazing light show and an inventive series of specially commissioned videos projected across the back of the stage set. But the music would have been wonderful anyway. Difford and Tilbrook are brilliant songwriters with an extensive back catalogue, against which their new songs stood up well. You've got to marvel at writing like 'Up the Junction' which must be the catchiest song without a chorus and features one of the great opening lines: “I never thought it would happen / with me and the girl from Clapham”. When you add to that songwriting ability excellent musicianship and Tilbrook and Gifford's incredible singing voices – both of which are particularly distinctive in very contrasting ways – you get something very special. All of which made a supporting slot by the inimitable John Cooper Clarke and a brief guest appearance on backing vocals by Paul Young (on 'Black Coffee in Bed', reprising his role on the original 1981 recording) mere footnotes. It was great to see Squeeze back at the top of their game – as the T-shirts on sale in the foyer said: “I’d forgotten how much I like Squeeze.”

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'Sherlock Holmes' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gillette

1 October 2015

In 1899 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collaborated with William Gillette on a stage play featuring his famous detective. 'Sherlock Holmes' is a four-act play that presents an original Holmes story but uses elements from a number of Conan Doyle's books. Gillette's play introduced the famous curved pipe and the phrase  "Oh, this is elementary, my dear Watson" (which never appeared in Conan Doyle's stories). The play departs from the convention of having Dr Watson recounting the tale, opening with a scene showing the villains rather than starting with Holmes in his consulting room. The result is more of a thriller than a detective story, as there is no puzzle for the audience to try to unravel before Holmes does. It's not a great play but it was interesting and very enjoyable to see our local amateur theatre company, TADS, perform it in Toddington on Saturday. Debut director Chloe White had put together a fine production. Her use of music and changes of lighting to underpin the dramatic end of some scenes gave the play the feel of a television drama. And she had found an excellent lead actor in Anthony Bird who was a very young but extremely cool and confident Holmes.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

'Some Luck' by Jane Smiley

25 September 2015

The American author Jane Smiley is still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'A Thousand Acres', which transplanted the story of 'King Lear' to an American mid-west farming community. I've just finished reading 'Some Luck' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Lorelei King), the first in a planned trilogy of novels by Jane Smiley called 'The Last Hundred Years'. 'Some Luck' is a family saga, set on a farm in Iowa, which begins in 1920 and follows the family of Walter and Rosanna Langdon year by year (with a chapter for each year) through to 1953. It's wonderfully crafted and beautifully written. By avoiding the leaps in time common to many family sagas, the incremental growth of the Langdon family is a realistic and recognisable account of childhood. We get to know the Langdon children, their strengths, interests and characteristics, in detail as they develop, making the reader feel very close to the characters. The book also provides a clever sense of opening out – as the family grows and new branches appear, there are naturally more parts to the story for the narrative to jump between. Also the family spreads geographically – from the farm, which at first seems like their whole world, to their local town, to Chicago, Washington then New York, then to Europe and a more global outlook. This widening of view also reflects the period, as transport and communications develop through the first half of the twentieth century. We see the transition on the farm from horses to tractors, then the increasing affordability of cars and air travel. The remaining books in Jane Smiley's trilogy will take us through the rest of the twentieth century. I'm really looking forward to following the Langdons' progress. This is a 'Heimat' for the American mid-west – highly recommended.


Friday, September 18, 2015


18 September 2015

We had an amazing holiday in Iceland last week. We stayed in the centre of Reykjavik which is a small, pretty, modern town with a wonderful new concert hall ('Harpa') on the waterside. We went to three orchestral concerts there, including two performances by the visiting Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra with the virtuoso 'cellist David Geringas and a concert by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. This gave us the chance to hear some Icelandic classical music – the tuneful piece 'Eldur' composed by Jorunn Vidar in 1950 – alonsgide the Mozart 'Clarinet Concerto' and Schumann's 'Symphony No 1'. We also visited the Bio Paradis cinema in Reykjavik to watch an Icelandic film: 'Rams', directed by Grímur Hákonarson, tells the comic-tragic tale of two brothers, both sheep farmers on neighbouring plots of land in a remote valley, who haven't spoken to each other for 40 years. The film is beautifully shot, making good use of the bleak Icelandic landscape and the fascinating featureless face of the lead actor, Sigurdur Sigurjónsson, which reminded me of Wallace's dog Gromit (you can tell what he is thinking only from his eyes!). We took several trips out of Reykjavik to see some of the incredible Icelandic scenery, visiting the water spouts and bubbling hot springs at Geysir (from which all geysirs take their name), the impressive waterfalls at Gullfoss and the site of the world's first parliament at Thingvellir – lying on the join between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates which are moving apart at a rate of about 2 cm per year. We also set out to do some hiking in the Thorsmork national park (near the foot of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that caused the infamous ash cloud in 2010). We knew that our special giant-wheeled four-wheel-drive bus was designed to tackle rough ground and to drive across rivers but we had envisaged something like a simple ford. As we entered the national park we soon realised that the bus was actually going to drive into the middle of some quite substantial fast-flowing rivers, dipping alarmingly forward into the water before straining to climb out the other side. When we reached the main Krossa river we were told that the conditions were too dangerous for our bus to attempt the crossing. Some of our fellow passengers, who were due to stay overnight in a hut in the national park, made the perilous river crossing crouching in the back on an open-topped truck while we continued to a new destination on the near side of the river. We then encountered another tour bus which had got completely stuck in the middle of a river and had to be towed out by our bus. Our plans for a hike were curtailed by these events but we eventually managed a short walk along a canyon near the river before making the scary journey back out of the national park as the weather worsened. It was an exciting day which took us into what could have been scenes in a science fiction film and emphasised the stunningly beautiful but potentially dangerous nature of the volcanic Icelandic wilderness.

You can see a selection of my photos of Iceland at:

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Friday, September 04, 2015

'The Beaux' Stratagem' by George Farquhar

4 September 2015

I'm fast becoming a fan of the theatre director Simon Godwin. His swashbuckling production of 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' for the Royal Shakespeare Company (reviewed here in July 2014) was a hoot. And his incredibly funny production of George Bernard Shaw's 'Man and Superman' at the National Theatre (reviewed here in May 2015) created a multitude of laugh-out-loud moments. This week we were at Cineworld in Milton Keynes to watch the live screening of Simon Godwin's National Theatre production of George Farquhar’s 1707 restoration comedy, 'The Beaux' Stratagem'. It was a wonderful show with a giant dolls' house set by Lizzie Clachan, original music by Michael Bruce and an excellent cast. The two lead actors were outstanding: the bewitching Susannah Fielding as Mrs Sullen, and Geoffrey Streatfeild as Archer who demonstrated some impressive dance moves. But Pearce Quigley came close to stealing the show as the butler, Scrub, with his deadpan delivery and vacant stare reminding me of Tony Robinson's Baldrick. I look forward to seeing Simon Godwin's next production.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen, adapted by Mark Hayward

27 August 2015

Having really enjoyed the Pantaloons' open air production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' earlier this summer (reviewed here in August 2015), we made our way to the beautiful grounds of Hatfield House on Wednesday to see the company's version of 'Pride and Prejudice', adapted by Mark Hayward. You know what you are getting with the Pantaloons formula – a very energetic performance, plenty breaking of the fourth wall, lots of audience participation (and a significant degree of consumption by the cast of the audience's picnics and alcohol!). This approach succeeds because it is often incredibly funny (particularly some of the ad libs between the performers) but also because it is very well acted. It is genuinely impressive when, amid the tomfoolery and pantomime we discover a delicate moment of real pathos. Telling the story of the five Bennet girls with only five actors requires a lot of versatility (and cross dressing!). It was great fun.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

'The Merchant of Venice' by WIlliam Shakespeare

21 August 2015

On Saturday we were at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse in Northampton to see a repeat screening of the recent live broadcast of Polly Findlay's RSC production of 'The Merchant of Venice' from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Set against a giant brass mirrored wall and floor, designed by Johannes Schutz, this sober production of a difficult play brought the acting to the fore. With a minimal set and restrained stagecraft our focus was solely on the actors – who were visible from multiple angles in the reflections from the mirrored surfaces. Patsy Ferran was fascinating as Portia – impatient, twitchy, amused, intrigued and determined – her mood switching on a sixpence. Her facial expressions appeared to reveal the workings of Portia's brain and the audience was completely on her side. The Israeli/Palestinian actor Makram J Khoury made Shylock both sympathetic and cruel – a very different performance from the usual RSC company of actors which really emphasised Shylock as the outsider. 'The Merchant of Venice' is a dark play but this production was thoughtful and clear, with some impressive acting.

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'A Midsummer Night's Dream' by William Shakespeare

21 August 2015

Last Thursday we were at the Library Theatre in Leighton Buzzard to see a screening of Julie Taymor's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at the Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn, New York, in December 2014. This stunning production included amazing stagecraft, impressive choreography, original music, a massive cast – and the truly remarkable Kathryn Hunter as Puck. An enormous bedsheet covered the thrust stage before being wafted high into the air to form billowing clouds above the action, onto which a variety of magical flowers were projected. The rude mechanicals were a gang of 'New Yoik' working men, armed with power tools. When Bottom (played by Max Casella) gained the head of a donkey, his long snout ended in a very realistic animatronic mouth (complete with Bottom's pencil moustache). The British actor David Harewood played a sinister, muscular, Oberon. And the comic scenes were incredibly funny. An electrifying Shakespearean experience – jump at the chance to see it.

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