Monday, December 15, 2014

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

15 December 2014

During the Northampton Symphony Orchestra's 2014-15 season we are working with a different conductor for each of our concerts, before appointing a new regular conductor next summer. So far I am really enjoying experiencing a series of different conducting styles and I think the orchestra is playing better because of the concentration required to get used to someone new on the podium each time. For the traditional NSO Christmas Cracker Concert at Spinney Hill Theatre in Northampton on Sunday, the baton was wielded by Lee Dunleavy, who has been Musical Director of the Northampton Bach Choir since 2007. We were also joined by the Choirs of All Saints' Church, Northampton, (who Lee conducted until earlier this year) and their new conductor, Peter Foggitt. And we welcomed back, for an eighth time, the wonderful Graham Padden as our compere and narrator. This year the concert had an animals theme, featuring an arrangement of 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer', 'Disney's The Lion King Orchestral Suite' by Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer, and the 'Theme from Jurassic Park' by John Williams. The choirs introduced us to some great contemporary American carols, including a wonderfully over-the-top arrangement of 'O Come All Ye Faithful' by Dan Forrest (you can find a couple of recordings of this on YouTube ヨ well worth seeking out). The NSO Christmas Cracker Concert always features a narrated piece: this year it was 'The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant', originally written for piano by the French composer Francis Poulenc. While the story is decidedly odd (possibly losing something in translation) and fairly grim, Poulenc's music is fascinating. The tiny movements between each paragraph of narration are beautiful musical miniatures, somewhere between Debussy and the musical theatre works of Shostakovitch. As a serious orchestral work with narration for children 'The Story of Babar' bears comparison with Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf'. And Poulenc writes some gorgeous lines for the tuba ヨ at times 'Babar' might almost have been a tuba concerto ヨ exquisitely played on Sunday by the NSO's Nick Tollervey. Guest conductor Lee Dunleavy guided us through an excellent performance and it was noticeable that even our perennial Christmas Cracker Concert theme tune, Leroy Anderson's 'Sleigh Ride', seemed to sound crisper and fresher under his direction.

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'Calamity Jon' by Lea Pryer

15 December 2014

It's always a pleasure to return to the TADS Theatre in Toddington to see an original pantomime written and directed by the excellent Lea Pryer. Following 'The Pirate Princess' (reviewed here in December 2010) and 'Rapunzel' (reviewed here in December 2012), last Saturday we were in the Wild West of Bedfordshire for 'Calamity Jon'. This was a delightful mash-up of half-remembered Westerns, with all the usual pantomime components including a remarkably well-spoken pantomime horse (played by Judy Palmer). Once again Rachel Price's facial expressions stole the show – here playing the hero, Jonathon B Goode. TADS newcomer Nadia McMahon-Wilson impressed as Dusty Rhodes – subverting the principal boy role and maintaining the most consistent cowboy accent of the evening. While not quite hitting the heights of those earlier Lea Pryer pantomimes, and hampered by a disappointingly small audience, 'Calamity Jon' had some beautiful little comic touches. I particularly enjoyed Kevin Birkett's undertaker (Phil de Grave) who had barely a line of dialogue but was extremely funny as he sized up each potential gunfight victim with a tape-measure and a deadpan expression. And I loved the extremely talented Lea Pryer's original song 'No one loves a tomboy' – yee hah!

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

'The Christmas Truce' by Phil Porter

11 December 2014

On Tuesday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the RSC's Christmas show. 'The Christmas Truce' is a new play by Phil Porter, directed by RSC Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman, which explores the 1914 truce between British and German troops. The story is told through the eyes of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, focussing on some real life characters with connections to Stratford. It is informed in particular by the journals of the cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, who served as a machine-gunner in the regiment (and was also involved in installing the first electric lighting rig in the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford). It's a lovely, thoughtful, moving and inspiring show – avoiding (with a family audience in mind) anything too gruesome, but never shying away from the painful reality of war. The horror of going 'over the top' is realised with some amazing lighting effects. And the moment when the first British soldier makes his nervous, tentative steps into no man's land to greet his German counterpart in cautious friendship is beautifully done. The legendary football match is portrayed with humour and passion, but the abiding analogy here is cricket, with each fallen soldier bowling himself off the stage and an ever-present cricket scoreboard ominously recording the regiment's dead as wickets lost.

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Marcus Brigstocke

11 December 2014

On Monday we were at The Stables in Wavendon to see the comedian Marcus Brigstocke. I was familiar with Marcus Brigstocke from his various appearances on BBC Radio 4 but I had never seen him live before. I understand that his stand-up is normally very political, but this show was a much more personal story, exploring some dark areas including his teenage eating disorder. He is a very impressive performer, creating a seamless performance without the safety net of any props or obvious framework. He was playing off the audience from the start, coping well with the unpredictability, even when an audience member managed to get the biggest laugh. Marcus Brigstocke is a very intelligent stand-up, constantly self analytical – even deconstructing his own ad libs. He is (as he admits himself) somewhat over reliant on public-school-induced scatalogical humour, but he is a very likeable personality and the show built to a wonderful and unexpected finale.

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Friday, December 05, 2014

'The Paying Guests' by Sarah Waters

5 December 2014

A new novel by Sarah Waters is always a treat to look forward to. I've just finished reading 'The Paying Guests' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Juliet Stevenson). Like its predecessors, 'The Night Watch' (reviewed here in January 2008) and 'The Little Stranger' (reviewed here in June 2010), this is a long (576 pages), historical novel set in the first half of the twentieth century. 'The Paying Guests' begins in 1922 in a London still feeling the effects of the First World War. Frances Wray lost both her brothers in the war and, following the death of her father, she and her mother, having dispensed with their servants, can only afford to stay in the family home by taking in lodgers. The story is told in the third person but through the eyes of Frances. Waters is a brilliant writer and she conjures up the world of 1922 in minute detail so that you feel exactly what it would have been like to have been there. Her writing never betrays any knowing historical hindsight and feels extensively researched and completely true to the period. You could believe it was a contemporary novel of the time, if it were not for a level of sexually explicit content that would not have been acceptable in a literary novel in 1922. The tension between the middle-class Wrays and their lower-class lodgers, the Barbers, is subtly drawn but palpable. This is a world in which social standing is indicated by the wearing of hats. The first half of the novel is slow, careful and very bleak, portraying the humdrum existence of everyday life. The second half feels like a different book – a tense, dramatic thriller that grips the reader, giving little away about where the plot may take us. But the melodramatic latter section is all the more effective for building on the painstaking detail of the early chapters and showing us that, amid the intricate descriptions of the characters' daily lives there were tiny clues whose importance is only revealed much later as the plot takes hold and violently shakes these lives until everything falls out. 'The Paying Guests' is a fairly grim tale, with little humour to light the bleakness of post-war London, but it's beautifully written, expertly crafted and builds to a thrilling finale.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Blockheads

27 November 2014

On Saturday we were at The Castle in Wellingborough to see The Blockheads (previously reviewed here in July 2007 and December 2012). The Blockheads always look like they are enjoying themselves. They are all excellent musicians and their energy level is immense. On Saturday they were joined by the amazing jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon – an incredibly talented musician who showed humility and respect for the band, taking a back seat apart from a few stand-out solos. The Blockheads are never less than outstanding but the scale and acoustics of the auditorium in Wellingborough, and a less-than-packed audience, made this a less exciting gig than the last time we saw them, in the more intimate surroundings of the Astor Community Theatre in Deal (in 2012). Nevertheless, it's always a pleasure to revisit their extensive back catalogue and you can't help but leave a Blockheads concert with a smile on your face.

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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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