Wednesday, August 21, 2019

'Yesterday' by Danny Boyle

21 August 2019

On Tuesday we were at the Odeon in Milton Keynes to see Danny Boyle’s film ‘Yesterday’, written by Richard Curtis and Jack Barth. It’s a charming romcom, silly and ridiculous but completely loveable. Himesh Patel plays Jack, a struggling singer songwriter involved in traffic accident, who comes round to discover he is now in a world where nobody has heard of The Beatles, except him. Jack struggles to remember the lyrics to as many Beatles songs as he can and soon becomes feted as the greatest ever songwriter. But fame and fortune takes him away from his childhood friend/fan/manager/driver Ellie, adorably played by Lily James who was so brilliant in Ivo van Hove’s 'All About Eve' (reviewed here in April 2019). The real stars of the show, however, are those classic Beatles songs. You don’t need to know anything about The Beatles to enjoy ‘Yesterday’ but by presenting 17 of their best songs as fresh compositions it reminds us what all the fuss was about.

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Friday, August 16, 2019

'The Book of Traps and Lessons' by Kate Tempest

16 August 2019

Writing here in October 2014 I said “Kate Tempest is a name to watch.” Since then the South London poet/rapper/playwright/novelist has continued to impress, with an eclectic track record that has been consistently brilliant. Her new album ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’ feels more reflective and less angry than its predecessor ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ (reviewed here in October 2016). The beats have been stripped back (by producer Rick Rubin) to leave Kate Tempest’s distinctive voice revealed more obviously as poetry backed by music, rather than rap. The wordplay is incredibly clever, full of double meanings that turn the sense of a phrase on a single word. Each track reveals more each time you listen to it. Tempest hasn’t lost her anger, suggesting the UK is a nation living “in the mouth of a breaking storm”. She says “I’m a child of the gimme more nation” and “our leaders aren’t even pretending not to be demons”. But the scale of our looming crises now require more than anger and there is optimism in ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’ in its celebration of love and dancing. Listen to the track ‘People’s Faces’ (and read the lyrics) at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRULtXn6W0s

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Friday, August 09, 2019

'The Lehman Trilogy' by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power

9 August 2019

The defining moment of the 2008 banking crisis was the fall of Lehman Brothers Bank. The iconic image of traders leaving its skyscraper headquarters in New York carrying their personal effects in cardboard boxes summed up a grim period in our recent history. Sam Mendes’ National Theatre production of ‘The Lehman Trilogy’, which we saw in a NTLive encore screening at the Quarry Theatre in Bedford on Thursday, tells the story of Lehman Brothers – from the arrival in America of the three immigrant brothers from Bavaria in the 1840s to the collapse of the bank eleven years ago. ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ is an adaptation by Ben Power of Stefano Massini’s nine hour long Italian radio play. Although Power has trimmed the play considerably it still lasts three and a half hours, in three acts with two intervals. But it’s an amazing theatrical performance. Three actors – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley – play the Lehman brothers, their sons, grandsons, wives and a host of other characters in an acting masterclass. There are no costume changes and hardly any props, but the switches between characters are clear from small changes in facial expressions and posture. The play is mostly narration rather than dialogue, with the three actors taking turns to provide the narrative voice like a Greek chorus. This might have made for a dull play but the story is gripping and the script is playful and poetic, full of recurring phrases and repetitive episodes. The staging (by Es Devlin) is simple but inventive, with the three actors enclosed in a giant rotating transparent box through which we see constantly changing back projections (by Luke Halls). Apart from a boardroom table and chairs, the only furniture is a pile of the infamous cardboard boxes, which are used to construct each scene in this epic family saga. The actors are accompanied by Nick Powell’s sparse music, performed on a single piano in front of the stage by Candida Caldicot. It’s an unusual but incredibly effective theatrical experience. The focus is on the history of Lehman Brothers and the development of Western capitalism: there isn’t much detail about the causes of the 2008 crash. But it’s a fascinating story, brilliantly acted.

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Monday, August 05, 2019

'Things in Jars' by Jess Kidd

5 August 2019

We seem to be living in a golden age for detective/fantasy/science fiction novels set in Victorian England. I’ve written here recently about the ‘Newbury and Hobbes’ series by George Mann (‘The Affinity Bridge’, reviewed here in June 2019) and I’ve just finished reading ‘Things in Jars’ by Jess Kidd (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jacqueline Milne). ‘Things in Jars’ is a much more literary work, each sentence beautifully crafted in the manner of a poet. The mystery centres on a missing child but takes us into a world of collectors of scientific curios, weird creatures and circuses. It reminded me of another recent novel of Victoriana, 'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry (reviewed here in September 2016) but ‘Things in Jars’ has the driving plot I longed for in my review of Sarah Perry’s novel. The almost incidental appearance of a ghost assisting the detective also made me think of 'Rivers of London' by Ben Aaronovitch (reviewed here in June 2018). ‘Things in Jars’ is an unusual, compelling thriller and, in Bridie Devine – the flame haired, pipe smoking Irish detective with the ugly hat, Jess Kidd has created a wonderful lead character that deserves a series of novels.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

'Big Sky' by Kate Atkinson

30 July 2019

What a treat to return to the world of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels after so many years. The fifth novel in the series, ‘Big Sky’, belatedly follows ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ (reviewed here in April 2011). Jackson Brodie (and several other returning characters) have moved on since then but ‘Big Sky’ is a familiarly multi-stranded mystery, most of which Brodie the private investigator seems unaware of until it bumps into him. The subject matter is particularly grim this time, with a story of child sexual abuse and modern slavery. But Atkinson manages to find humour in dark corners. I love the way each character’s interior thoughts are frequently answered by someone else (in a kind of flashback to when they had previously discussed the same points). And it was lovely to read ‘Big Sky’ as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jason Isaacs, who played Jackson Brodie in the TV adaptations of the earlier novels.

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WOMAD 2019

30 July 2019

My annual visit to the WOMAD Festival, in Charlton Park near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, was slightly shorter than usual this year as we were attending a wedding in Lancashire last Friday. But I made it to WOMAD for Saturday and Sunday and experienced near perfect weather – dry and warm, not too hot and not a drop of rain. The music was pretty good too. I saw 14 full performances from across the globe. My highlights included the other worldly ethereal sounds of South Saami singer Marja Mortensson from Norway joiking accompanied by electronics, percussion and tuba. The former child soldier turned rapper Emmanuel Jal from South Sudan is a brilliant showman, performing here with his sister Nyaruach from whom he was separated for 20 years. I enjoyed the exuberant set by Balkan brass/klezmer band Lemon Bucket Orkestra from Toronto. And it was great to see ‘Kraftwerk Re:Werk’ - a  symphonic reworking of the classic 1977 Kraftwerk album ‘Trans-Europe Express’ by composers Charlotte Harding and Lloyd Coleman. The performance of this 40-minute, 6-movement piece by Army of Generals and the British Paraorchestra (the orchestra of professional disabled musicians originally formed for the London 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony) conducted by Charles Hazlewood was stunning. I also really enjoyed seeing Orquesta Akokan – a gloriously old-fashioned band from Cuba playing traditional mambo and swing from the 1940s and 1950s. But my pick of the festival was the six piece vocal group San Salvador, from the Massif Central in southern France, who sing in Occitan, mostly a capella but with occasional drums and other percussion. Their scrunchy vocal harmonies (sung by three men and three women) reminded me of my favourite Finnish folk/rock band Värttinä (reviewed here in August 2006) and of the famous Sardinian singing shepherds, Tenores de Bitti (reviewed here in June 2007). I loved how theatrical each of San Salvador’s long and varied songs were, while being performed with a serious intensity. There was no imploring the audience to clap along nor any need to whoop up the crowd – just a hypnotic performance of vocal drones, rapid fire chanting (sounding at times like the auctioneer in a livestock sale) and complex accelerating rhythms. And the massive crowd in the Siam Tent responded with the most genuine and prolonged wave of adulation of the weekend. Take a look at San Salvador performing at Womex 2018 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgUhP9qQYBw And you can see a selection of my photos from WOMAD 2019 at: https://culturaloutlook.blogspot.com/search/label/WOMAD2019

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Anniversary Games 2019

24 July 2019

On Saturday we made our first return, seven years after London 2012, to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London to watch the Anniversary Games IAAF Diamond League Athletics meeting in the Olympic Stadium. It was great to be back, and wonderful to see some high quality, competitive international athletics. Athletics competitions always seem to be meticulously choreographed, slickly alternating between track races and field events so there is always something to watch. Some of the highlights for me from Saturday were watching a magnificent Laura Muir win an impressive 1500, seeing one of the stars of the 2012 Paralympics, Jonnie Peacock, back to winning ways, Norwegian Karsten Warholm setting a new European record in the 400m hurdles, and the Jamaican sprinter Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce running a storming final leg to dip ahead of the Great Britain team in the 4x100m relay. You can see a selection of my photos from the Anniversary Games at: https://culturaloutlook.blogspot.com/search/label/AnniversaryGames2019

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Thursday, July 18, 2019

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' by William Shakespeare

18 July 2019

We last saw the Lord Chamberlain’s Men when they performed ‘Twelfth Night’ in the gardens of Woburn Abbey in 2009 (reviewed here in August 2009). This all male outdoor theatre company, a re-creation of Shakespeare’s original troupe of travelling players, specialises in traditional performances of Shakespeare plays. There are no modern references, props or gimmicks, just a group of excellent actors in full Elizabethan costume – with all the female parts played by men. On Wednesday we were back at Woburn Abbey to see the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in Peter Stickney’s excellent production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. It was another high quality performance that really gives you an idea of what it might have been like to see the play in Shakespeare’s time. Unlike many of the touring outdoor theatre companies, there is no breaking of the fourth wall, ad-libbing with the audience or pinching food from people’s picnics – just good acting which takes you into the imaginary world of the play and reminds you how good it is, and how funny.

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