Thursday, September 13, 2018

‘Tidens Ekko’ by Vingefang

13 September 2018

I’ve been enjoying the debut album by Danish folk duo Vingefang, which uses distinctive Scandinavian female vocal harmonies to explore music from France, Denmark, Sweden and Brazil. ‘Tidens Ekko’ is an entertainingly varied album from Miriam Ariana (voice and strings) and Lene Høst (voice, guitar and percussion). Their singing reminded me of the Finnish groups Tuuletaar (reviewed here in January 2017 and July 2018) and Värttinä (reviewed here in August 2017). Gentle, acoustic folk with a particularly Scandinavian flavour.

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Friday, September 07, 2018

'Julie' by Polly Stenham

7 September 2018

On Thursday we were at the Odeon in Milton Keynes to watch the NT Live broadcast of ‘Julie’ - Polly Stenham’s contemporary updating of ‘Miss Julie’ by August Strindberg, live from the National Theatre in London. I haven’t seen the original play so I’m not sure how closely this version follows Strindberg but Polly Stenham had definitely created a believable modern setting for this tale of class, power and sex. All three actors – Vanessa Kirby, Eric Kofi Abrefa and Thalissa Teixeira – were magnificent, and the NT Live camera close-ups made for an often uncomfortably intimate examination of their emotional journeys. Vanessa Kirby – best known for playing Princess Margaret in ‘The Crown’ – made Julie more than the simple, spoiled rich woman who has never grown up that she first appears. And Stenham’s script found much humour and wit amongst the bleakness of the characters’ lives. I enjoyed the way each of the characters constantly undercut our expectations of them, demonstrating a greater awareness and understanding than we had assumed. ‘Julie’ is a fairly bleak drama but it’s a powerful and intriguing production with some very impressive acting.

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Edinburgh Festivals 2018

30 August 2018

We had a wonderful time at the Edinburgh Festivals last week, seeing 26 shows including theatre, music, comedy and poetry. We enjoyed catching up with some old favourites such as the comedians Simon Munnery (recounting his experience of working as a cleaner in a Bedfordshire chicken factory) and Owen O’Neill (with ‘Ten Songs to Die For’ - another beautifully constructed and brilliantly performed piece of theatrical storytelling). It was also good to see another play by the impressive young duo Roxy Dunn and Alys Metcalf, whose previous work ‘In Tents and Purposes’ we really enjoyed at the Edinburgh Fringe two years ago. Their new show, ‘You Only Live Forever’, featured the same comic meta-dissection of the writing process and squabbling between the performers, bearing some resemblance to the marvellous National Theatre of Brent. Our musical highlight was an incredibly exciting Edinburgh International Festival debut by the Colbourn Orchestra – a youth orchestra from the Colbourn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. Conductor Stéphane Denève drew a thrilling performance from the young musicians, starting with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s highly entertaining ‘Nyx’. The orchestra were joined by fellow Colbourn student Simone Porter for the gorgeous ‘Violin Concerto’ by Samuel Barber, galloping through the seemingly impossible final movement with ease. Rachmaninov’s ‘Symphonic Dances’ had audience and orchestra on the edge of their seats and an encore of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Overture to Candide’ provided a stunning finish to a wonderful concert. Our theatrical highlights included Lily Bevan’s new two-hander ‘Zoo’ - a funny and poignant story of a cross-Atlantic friendship, natural disaster and bats. We really enjoyed Alison Skilbeck’s one-woman play 'Are There More of You' – only realising afterwards that we had seen her perform it before at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008 (reviewed here in August 2008)! We also liked Mark O’Rowe’s triptych cycle of friendship and estrangement in contemporary Dublin, ‘The Approach’, and the descent into farce in Brian Parks’ play ‘The House’ had us laughing uncontrollably. But our best discovery was the young actor Kizzy Dunn who was performing two Shakespearean adaptations by Nick Hennegan. At the end of ‘Hamlet’ the dying prince says “Oh God, Horatio, what a damaged reputation I’m leaving behind me, as no one knows the truth. If you ever loved me, then please postpone the sweet relief of death awhile, and stay in this harsh world long enough to tell my story.” In ‘Hamlet: Horatio’s Tale’ Kizzy Dunn played Horatio recounting the tragedy of his friend, in effect giving us a one-woman rendition of ‘Hamlet’ in an hour. It was a stunning performance which made us immediately book tickets for her other show, ‘Henry V: Lion of England’. Kizzy Dunn’s performance of ‘Henry V’ (again in one hour) was even more impressive: it’s the first time the St Crispin’s Day speech has actually made me cry. She is definitely a name to watch and these solo shows in a small venue where everyone is close to the action demonstrated the very best of fringe theatre.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

'The Long Earth' by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

17 August 2018

I am a relatively recent convert to the books of Terry Pratchett and have enjoyed starting to plough through his catalogue of gloriously silly Discworld novels. ‘The Long Earth’ is a very different Terry Pratchett book. Written with Stephen Baxter, this is more serious science fiction rather than fantasy. The premise is that there are millions of parallel Earths, each of which has evolved in slightly different ways, and suddenly mankind discovers the ability to ‘step’ between these alternative worlds at will. It’s a great thought experiment, showing different ways in which the history of our planet might have developed as a result of countless ‘sliding doors’ moments. The alternative evolutionary paths for humans reminded me of HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’  – not surprising perhaps as Stephen Baxter is clearly a student of Wells, having previously written the meticulously crafted homage/sequel to ‘The War of the Worlds’, 'The Massacre of Mankind' (reviewed here in February 2017). The thought experiment also explores how mankind would make use of this sudden availability of endless alternative Earths, reminding me of other science fiction about pioneers settling new worlds – such as ‘The Martian Chronicles’ by Ray Bradbury and Harry Harrison’s ‘To The Stars’ trilogy. ‘The Long Earth’ is an enthralling concept but I felt the novel needed a stronger driving narrative. It is, however, the first in a 5-book series by Pratchett and Baxter so maybe this was the necessary set-up for what follows. I look forward to finding out.

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Friday, August 10, 2018

'The Darkness' by Ragnar Jónasson

10 August 2018

Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for all things Icelandic and this led me to a new crime novel by Ragnar Jónasson. I have just finished reading ‘The Darkness’, translated by Victoria Cribb, as an unabridged audio book narrated by Amanda Redman. ‘The Darkness’ introduces Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir, a 64-year old police officer who is about to retire but determined to solve one final case before she hands in her badge. It is a cleverly plotted mystery and I recognised many of the places involved, from our two visits to Iceland in 2015. But it’s a very grim tale, without much light relief. Hulda has endured personal tragedy and is worried about the loneliness of retirement, and she is investigating the death of a Russian asylum seeker that is a sad and distressing tale.

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Thursday, August 02, 2018

‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott, adapted by Laura Turner

2 August 2018

I haven’t read ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott, and had somehow previously managed to avoid its many adaptations, so I came completely fresh to the story as I watched Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s open-air production, adapted by Laura Turner, in the beautiful gardens of Wrest Park, Silsoe, on Tuesday. We saw the same Chapterhouse cast perform ‘Sense & Sensibility’ at Claydon House near Buckingham a few weeks ago and it was interesting to see the parallels between Jane Austen and ‘Little Women’. It was also nice to have that ‘repertory company’ experience of recognising the actors, with Alexandra Lansdale and Hannah Lawrence stealing the show in the two plays as the youngest siblings (Amy in ‘Little Women’ and Margaret Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’). ‘Little Women’ was an enjoyable and moving story, clearly bringing out the different personalities of the four March sisters. And it was refreshing to see an open-air theatre production of something other than Shakespeare or Austen – and not to know in advance how it was going to end!

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Monday, July 30, 2018

WOMAD 2018

30 July 2018

This year’s WOMAD Festival at Charlton Park in Wiltshire had mixed weather but the threatened torrential downpours failed to materialise and we only had a little light rain on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. The music was eclectic as ever. My personal highlights, from the 17 full performances I saw, included gentle acoustic songs from Estonian singer Mari Kalkun, the pan-American female quartet LADAMA (from Columbia, Brazil, Venezuela and the USA) and a long-overdue opportunity to see the wonderful Amparo Sanchez and her band Amparanoia. This was a WOMAD for catching up with artists I have enjoyed listening to for years but never before had the chance to see perform live. French vocal gymnast Camille (reviewed here in May 2008) proved as impressive, bizarre and compelling as I had hoped, with a stunning show on the main Open Air Stage on Saturday evening, featuring some great dancing. And the young, female, a cappella, Finnish folk hop quartet Tuuletar (reviewed here in January 2017 when I compared them to Camille) were stunning live performers as well as being hilarious and charming in their appearance at the Taste the World stage (where they demonstrated how to make traditional Karelian pie). But my favourite performance of WOMAD 2018 was the Bollywood Brass Band with the South Indian violinist Jyotsna Srikanth. I loved Sarha Moore and Kay Charlton’s new soundtrack for the finale of the amazing 1948 film 'Chandralekha’ which the band performed live with the film on Saturday afternoon. It starts with the epic scene where 400 dancers perform on top of enormous drums: suddenly the drums open up to reveal armies of soldiers who attack the stronghold – it’s an incredible spectacle. Then the Bollywood Brass Band played their new four-movement  ‘Carnatic Suite: A Day In Bangalore’, composed with Jyotsna Srikanth and featuring the amazing South Indian percussionist and vocalist RN Prakash. It was a great performance from a really enjoyable festival. You can see a selection of my photos from WOMAD 2018 at: https://culturaloutlook.blogspot.com/search/label/WOMAD2018

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