Friday, June 08, 2018

'Orchestral Music, Volume One’ by William Wordsworth

8 June 2018

It’s been a good day for Northampton Symphony Orchestra conductor John Gibbons. A tireless champion of under-rated British composers, John has programmed Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘Symphony No 6’ for our NSO concert next Saturday, 16 June, at St Matthews Church in Northampton. Remarkably, it appears this may be the first public performance of this lovely symphony for more than 100 years. It’s a really enjoyable piece – reminiscent of Glazunov’s ‘Symphony No 5 (The Heroic)’ which we played with NSO last year (reviewed here in March 2017) and with elements of Richard Strauss. It has been great to get to know the symphony over the last few weeks, even though I am not able to play in the concert (the first NSO concert I have missed for some years). This morning Petroc Trelawny played the first movement of Stanford ‘Symphony No 6’ on BBC Radio 3 and gave the NSO concert a plug. Coincidentally John Gibbons’ new CD with the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra was favourably reviewed by Andrew Clements in today’s Guardian, see: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/07/william-wordsworth-orchestral-music-volume-i-cd-review-forgotten-voice-of-quiet-assurance. ‘William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music, Volume One’ is the first in a new series of recordings from Toccata Classics. This William Wordsworth (1908-88) was the great-great-grandson of the poet’s brother Christopher. John’s CD features Wordsworth’s 4th and 8th symphonies together with his ‘Divertimento in D Major’ and the playful ‘Variations on a Scottish Theme’. Wordsworth’s music is tuneful and romantic – easy to listen to but with enough complexity and depth to be worth getting to know. Sounds like it would be fun to play ...

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Friday, June 01, 2018

‘Education, Education, Education’ by The Wardrobe Ensemble

1 June 2018

On Tuesday we were at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton to see ‘Education, Education, Education’ by The Wardrobe Ensemble. This play takes place in a comprehensive school on the day after Labour’s landslide general election win in May 1997. Looking forward to the prospect of massive new funding for schools, it highlights the state of education at the time and enjoys its 1990s pop-culture references. With a cast of seven playing both the teachers and the pupils, often talking directly to the audience, it reminded me of John Godber’s ‘Teechers’ (reviewed here in September 2010). The adults playing children was also similar to 'Blue Remembered Hills' by Dennis Potter (reviewed here in June 2013). While the script of ‘Education, Education, Education’ wasn’t as sophisticated as either of those other plays, The Wardrobe Ensemble’s physical movement was excellent. It was a really slick ensemble performance with brilliant timing. In the end it felt more like a fairly conventional school story, rather than having much to save about the politics of education funding, but it was really enjoyable and drew a ratpurous reception from the Royal Theatre audience.

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'Nigel Slater's Toast' by Henry Filloux-Bennett

1 June 2018

On Saturday we were at The Lowry in Salford for Week 53 – The Lowry’s ‘Festival for the Compulsively Curious’ which focuses on using the building in unusual ways and giving the audience access to areas that are normally out of bounds. We were there to see Henry Filloux-Bennett’s new adaptation of Nigel Slater’s ‘Toast’ – the chef’s ever-popular childhood memoir, told through a series of short food-based episodes (reviewed here in November 2009). This fringe-scale drama was being performed in the main Lyric Theatre but with the auditorium closed off and both audience and actors on the stage (much like the Royal Theatre Northampton production of ‘Private Fears in Public Places’ by Alan Ayckbourn, reviewed here in July 2009). Unfortunately technical problems delayed the start of the performance for more than an hour, testing the patience of the audience. This late start, combined with the interval taking place in a pop-up bar in the theatre’s scene dock which meant a visit to the toilets required a long walk out of The Lowry, along the quay and back into a deserted part of the building – made for a bizarre evening at the theatre. Fortunately Jonnie Riordan’s production of ‘Toast’ brilliantly won us over – not least by feeding the audience with a constant supply of sweets and cakes (all carefully chosen to relate to particular moments in Nigel Slater’s story). The energetic cast of five playing multiple parts really brought this evocation of childhood to life. The cartoon kitchen set (by Libby Watson) added to the dreamlike recollections from the perspective of the nine-year old Nigel (excellently played by Sam Newton). And the mixture of humour and poignancy was nicely judged, with the actors occasionally breaking the fourth wall but not over-using this device. This was a very physical production with some beautifully choreographed movement. ‘Toast’ is a charming, sad, funny book and the stage adaptation really did it justice.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

'Sandra' by Kevin Moffett and Matthew Derby

25 May 2018

I’ve just finished listening to ‘Sandra’ – the new audio drama from the American podcast powerhouse Gimlet Media. Written by Kevin Moffett and Matthew Derby and directed by Sebastian Silva, ‘Sandra’ is a comedy-drama about an Alexa/Siri-type digital assistant that is actually operated by an army of real human beings in a call centre. It stars Kristen Wiig as Sandra and Alia Shawkat as Helen who hopes to transform her life after she lands a new job with the company that makes Sandra. Through seven half-hour podcasts, it addresses very current issues of privacy, artificial intelligence and loneliness. But it’s also very funny, with some great characters. I particularly liked Delia, Helen’s cranky, quirky mother-in-law, played by Madonna Cacciatore. You can listen to all seven episodes now, see: https://www.gimletmedia.com/sandra

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Friday, May 18, 2018

BBC Young Musician 2018

18 May 2018

2018 is the 40th anniversary of the BBC Young Musician competition, making me feel very old as I can remember the first one in 1978 (and most of the subsequent biennial competitions). I have written here about the past six finals (see: http://culturaldessert.blogspot.com/search/label/BBCYoungMusician) and I think the 2016 Concerto Final (reviewed here in May 2016) may have been the best ever. It was always going to be difficult for this year’s Concerto Final, at Symphony Hall in Birmingham last Sunday, to match the level of its predecessor but it did feature another astounding winner. Most of my writing about BBC Young Musician seems to relate to my own degree of success in predicting the winners. This time I must admit I initially misjudged the eventual winner Lauren Zhang. She didn’t even feature in my top three of the five competitors in the keyboards category final as I mistook her shyness and intensity for a lack of musical personality. By the time I had seen her perform again in the semi-final last Friday I realised my mistake and became convinced she would emerge as the overall winner of this year’s competition. Her performance in Sunday’s final of Prokofiev’s ‘Piano Concerto No 2’ was astounding: I think she could have won on the basis of the remarkable first movement cadenza alone. It was a good example of how the competition often seems to unearth someone really special. After a few years in the wilderness the BBC has now got its coverage of Young Musician just about perfect – restrained, respectful and very focussed on the music. So it was a real shame to end the final by pointing a microphone at Lauren Zhang at her moment of triumph to ask her “how do you feel?” – just don’t do that. But otherwise it was a lovely final with excellent performances by ‘cellist Maxim Calver and saxophone player Rob Burton before Lauren Zhang’s Prokofiev took us to a different level.

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Jeremy Hardy

18 May 2018

I have written here before of my admiration for Jeremy Hardy (in March 2007 and October 2013), but seeing him at The Stables in Milton Keynes last Saturday confirmed to me that he really is a comedian at the top of his game. His apparently casual, stream-of-consciousness delivery is actually incredibly cleverly constructed. He didn’t spend quite as long on stage as Danny Baker (who we saw the week before at Warwick Arts Centre) but Jeremy Hardy similarly barely paused for breath and talked through the many laughs rather than attempting to milk them. As usual there was a lot of politics and he didn’t shy away from uncomfortable subjects including Syria, Brexit, the Skripal poisoning and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. But Jeremy Hardy always manages to cover such heavy topics with a lightness of touch, and also found time for plenty of middle class anxiety (not realising that the National Trust and English Heritage are separate organisations) and middle-aged frustration (being mistaken for someone taking a selfie when he was just holding his phone at arm’s length to read a text message without his reading glasses).

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Friday, May 11, 2018

‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ by Tennessee Williams

11 May 2018

We last saw ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ by Tennessee Williams at the Novello Theatre in London’s West End in 2010 (reviewed here in February 2010) – a production memorable for James Earl Jones’ show-stealing performance as Big Daddy. On Tuesday we were at the Quarry Theatre in Bedford to see an encore screening of the NT Live broadcast of the Young Vic production of the play directed by Benedict Andrews. It was a gripping and powerfully acted performance with Sienna Miller very impressive as Maggie and Jack O’Connell a weary, muscular, ever-present Brick. Colm Meaney was great as Big Daddy – his expressive face betraying his constant frustration with his family and demonstrating a comic double-take that Oliver Hardy would have been proud of. Seeing the broadcast on a hot stuffy day in Bedford only helped to emphasise the stifling feel of the play.

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Danny Baker

11 May 2018

I have written here before of my admiration for the writer and broadcaster Danny Baker (reviewing the first two volumes of his autobiography here in July 2013 and April 2016). On Saturday we had the privilege of seeing him live at Warwick Arts Centre, on his second tour of anecdotes and reminiscences. Danny Baker is a brilliant storyteller – completely engaging and incredibly funny. He has a manic energy and an obsessive need to cram in as much as possible. Constantly pacing up and down and maintaining a rapid fire delivery with hardly a pause for breath, he came on stage at 7.30 pm and finished just after 11.00 pm, having failed to get through most of what he had planned to say. This was partly because he felt obliged to fill in most of the backstory of his childhood for the benefit of anyone who had missed his first tour a year ago (saying, with hindsight, “I should have done an early show at 5 pm for those of you who need to catch up”). He eventually got to ‘the rock ‘n’ roll years’ – recounting his experiences of working as a journalist at the NME and getting his break as a television presenter. But there is clearly much still left to tell and I can’t wait for the next instalment.

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Thursday, May 03, 2018

'Romeo and Juliet' by William Shakespeare

3 May 2018

The last play I saw directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Deputy Artistic Director, Erica Whyman, was ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation’ (reviewed here in May 2016) which featured local actors from amateur theatre companies playing the rude mechanicals alongside a professional RSC cast, with children from local schools playing Titania's fairies. So it was fascinating to see Erica Whyman building on this experience in her new production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ which we saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on Tuesday. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a play about young people but I don’t think I have ever seen it performed with such a young cast: a host of excellent early career professionals made the lead parts incredibly believable while young people from schools across the UK added to the ensemble on stage. Juliet is supposed to be 13 years-old at the start of the play and, while she is a few years older than that, the young Scottish actor Karen Fishwick – who we had previously seen as one of the schoolgirls in Lee Hall’s ‘Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour’ (reviewed here in May 2017) – did seem very young. Bally Gill as Romeo had a streetwise bravado coupled with youthful naivety that helped to explain his character’s rapid lurches between passion and violence. Setting this young cast in a very contemporary world made the knife fights between the rival young gangs feel frighteningly realistic. But the emphasis on youth strangely helped to show that the often disastrous actions of the young characters in the play are entirely understandable reactions to the situations in which they find themselves. It is the adults in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ whose actions are less excusable: it is their rush to support or condemn the youngsters that leads to tragedy. Erica Whyman interestingly also cast the adult parts with age-appropriate actors: it’s the first production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ I have seen where both Montague and Capulet were younger than me! And this is a production that celebrates diversity in many ways, gender-swapping several characters and exploring sexuality and ethnicity. It was a confident, funny and thrilling production which felt completely gripping and it was wonderful to experience the reactions of the many young people in an enthralled audience.

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Friday, April 27, 2018

'The Last Ship' by Sting

27 April 2018

On Thursday we were at the Derngate in Northampton to see 'The Last Ship' - Sting's musical about the fight to prevent closure of a Wallsend shipyard in the 1980s. Originally produced on Broadway in 2014, this completely revised version, with a new book by Lorne Campbell (who also directs), has been getting great reviews. Its tale of a working community pulling together to oppose the forces of capitalism has been compared to 'The Full Monty' and 'Brassed Off' but 'The Last Ship' is a bleaker show. A little slow to get started, the second half of the musical increases the narrative pace and builds to a powerful emotional climax. Sting's music very effectively blends North East folk styles with pop, alluding in places to the clog tradition (though I would have loved to see a proper clog dancing number in the show). Joe McGann leads an impressive cast in this touring Northern Stage production, with particularly fine singing from Frances McNamee  and Richard Fleeshman (you could imagine Sting himself signing some of Fleeshman's ballads). The ensemble choral singing was very strong, making the most of the distinctive North East accents. But the real star of the show was the amazing set and design by 59 Productions which makes very effective use of projection to create the massive scale of the shipyard on the large Derngate stage. The visual effects, blending live action and the physical set with video and lighting, were stunning.

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