Friday, February 29, 2008

'There Will Be Blood'

29 February 2008

Paul Thomas Anderson's film 'There Will Be Blood' has received rave reviews - particularly for its tour-de-force performance by Daniel Day Lewis - with some daring to compare it with 'Citizen Kane'. It therefore had a lot to live up to when I went to see it yesterday and, while it didn't entirely succeed, it is a very impressive work. From the start it has the feel of an epic with wide open landscapes, long silences and a gritty visceral portrayal of the realities of digging for oil at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. There is some great cinematography - you really need to see it on a big screen for those scenes where the camera fixes on a long view of the countryside in which something important is happening between two tiny figures in the bottom left hand corner. The plot is intriguingly unpredictable whilst, paradoxically, almost everything that happens seems to have been telegraphed by a casual comment much earlier in the film. And while we clearly spend much of the film rooting for Daniel Day Lewis's character, Daniel Plainview, - particularly in his battles with the extremely creepy preacher played by Paul Dano - we never really like him. Is he a monster? - or just an ordinary man trying to achieve his goals? Is he lonely? - or just manipulative? An impressive film that generates more questions than it answers - and probably needs to be seen several times.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

'Vampire Weekend' by Vampire Weekend

27 February 2008

My new favourite band is Vampire Weekend. Their eponymous debut CD combines the cocky swagger of Arctic Monkeys (reviewed here in February 2006 and April 2007) with the American indie sound of bands like Tilly and the Wall (reviewed here in March 2007), a liberal use of strings and harpsichord and South African and West African guitar sounds - a unique and infectious concoction.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' adapted by Lisa Evans

25 February 2008

Having read Mary Shelley's original novel for the first time last year (reviewed here in May 2007), I was particularly looking forward to the new stage version of 'Frankenstein' adapted by Lisa Evans for the Northampton Royal & Derngate and Frantic Assembly. Laurie Sansom's ambitious production awakened memories of Rupert Goold's stagings of 'Faust', 'Paradise Lost' and 'Hamlet' which built the Royal Theatre's reputation for innovation. 'Frankenstein' was another impressive show with much to admire. Victor Frankenstein's story was set within a modern tale in which a woman visits her sister, Mary, in a secure psychiatric hospital where she is being held following her conviction for murdering her baby. This invites consideration of the term 'monster' and echoes Mary Shelley's themes of birth, creation and death. In her hospital room Mary is reading 'Frankenstein' and it is a magical moment when she first opens up the book and the characters explode through a trap door onto the stage to play out the drama in front of her. The links between Mary's story and the book are subtly strengthened as she takes on some of the roles in Frankenstein's narrative. But the main coup-de-theatre is the decision to cast the dancer Richard Winsor as the monster. Winsor has been one of the principal dancers in Matthew Bourne's company (playing the title role in 'Edward Scissorhands', reviewed here in January 2006) and gives an amazing physical performance as the monster: the scene in which he comes to life is truly incredible. He is compelling throughout, commanding the stage and acrobatically cantering up and down the set. Having said that, I'm not sure he was quite scary enough: I don't think his physical appearance would have created such a strong instant reaction from everyone he encountered and there were times when the tension was punctured by the audience seeing too much of the monster too soon. I also thought the framing device of Mary's story wasn't quite substantial enough: given that 'Frankenstein' is already a series of 'nested narratives', I think we needed something more unpredictable to draw us into the framing story. Perhaps it was because I had read the book quite recently but this very faithful adaptation lacked some elements of surprise and shock. Nevertheless there were some great moments and much food for thought - and it was wonderful to see Laurie Sansom continuing the practice of using a 'community cast' of local amateurs in the supporting roles (as he did in 'Follies' reviewed here in November 2006).

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Friday, February 22, 2008

'One Good Turn' by Kate Atkinson

22 February 2008

Reading the blurb at the front of Kate Atkinson's latest novel, 'One Good Turn', I realised that I have read all her published books. While this obviously suggests that I like her writing, I think what has kept me reading is her exploration of a variety of styles - from the wonderful family saga of 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' to the comedy thriller ('Emotionally Weird'), dalliances with magic realism (in 'Human Croquet' and the short story collection 'Not the End of the World') and an innovative take on the detective novel ('Case Histories'). Jackson Brodie, the hero of 'Case Histories', gets a second outing in 'One Good Turn' which is subtitled 'A Jolly Murder Mystery' but I found it quite a different book with a complex but subtle structure. The story is told in the third person but the point of view rotates, chapter by chapter, through at least half a dozen main characters. In many cases the switch of viewpoint at the start of the chapter allows the author to skip back a few minutes and replay the latest action from a different perspective. This creates a gradual unveiling of what has happened. As with many of Atkinson's books, clever twists are sufficiently signposted for the reader to guess them just before the characters do - making for an extremely satisfying and enjoyable read. Intriguing, gripping, not too demanding but cleverer than it first appears. There is a running theme about Russian dolls and you gradually realise that the stories of each of the main characters do not just overlap but actually seem to fit inside each other. While the resolution of numerous loose ends is deftly achieved, the plot does seem to rest on a few enormously unlikely coincidences but, as long you don't take it too seriously, it's lots of fun. And, having seen Kate Atkinson at the Edinburgh Book Festival some years ago, it was particularly interesting to find her writing a scene about an author appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival ...


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Matthew Bourne's 'Nutcracker'

19 February 2008

On Saturday we were at Milton Keynes Theatre to see Matthew Bourne's 'Nutcracker' - a modern dance realisation of the Tchaikowsky ballet. Colourful, witty, playful and larger than life this was more like a dance version of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' than Victorian whimsy. Very much like Bourne’s dance version of 'Edward Scissorhands' (reviewed here in January 2006), I would have preferred more direct connection with the music but it was lots of fun and enthusiastically received by a packed house. I particularly liked the liquorice allsorts and a stunning leap onto the oversized pillow at the back of the set.

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Monday, February 11, 2008


11 February 2008

I used to love watching 'Hill Street Blues' but it usually took me up to the first ad-break to tune into what they were saying - I found the fast, cross-talking, American accents extremely hard to follow. I felt a bit the same on Sunday watching 'Juno' - the new Canadian comedy film directed by Jason Reitman. The universal language of the North American teenager with its rapid mumbling appears, like, totally incomprehensible, dude. But it was well worth sticking with it and tuning into the dialogue because the script, by Diablo Cody, is one of the wittiest I've come across in a long time. Juno is a 16-year old schoolgirl - a bravura performance by Ellen Page - who decides to see through her accidental pregnancy and to allow her baby to be adopted by a childless couple. Not to be confused with other lesser recent films on the unwanted pregnancy theme, 'Juno' is charming, quirky, witty and strangely beautiful. All the main characters are well-drawn, well-acted and sympathetic. It's an extremely funny and poignant film. 'Juno' has been much praised and received several five star reviews (maybe slightly over generous but it's definitely worth at least four stars) so we were surprised to find that, just two days after it was released, we had the whole cinema to ourselves at the early evening showing on Sunday - though perhaps this says more about the Odeon in Milton Keynes than the film. At least the audience was remarkably well-behaved!


'The Clean House' by Sarah Ruhl

11 February 2008

On Saturday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see their production of 'The Clean House' by Sarah Ruhl. This is a quirky comedy reflecting on the therapeutic powers of housework and comedy. Lane is a successful doctor with no time to clean her own house. Her young Brazilian cleaning lady, Matilde, hates housework and dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. Lane's sister, Virginia, fills her empty life with cleaning. It's an unusual play with nice touches of surrealism and you're never quite sure where it's going. It's quite short and I worried that it might end too suddenly, proving more slight and inconsequential than it promised - but in the end there is resolution - an enjoyable, thought-provoking, funny, refreshingly different evening at the theatre. Patricia Hodge and Eleanor Bron are dependably strong but I really enjoyed Natalia Tena as Matilde (she was Tonks in the latest Harry Potter film - a name to watch). 'The Clean House' is now touring - well worth catching.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

'Threads' by Ruth Notman

7 February 2008

I am very grateful to Steve Heap for alerting me to the wonderful debut album by 18-year-old folk singer Ruth Notman, 'Threads' is released on Steve's own label, Mrs Casey Music, and he is rightly proud of it. Ruth is from Nottingham and her Northern vowels give her more than a passing resemblance to Kate Rusby (reviewed here in June 2006) but her amazing vibrato gives her voice a distinctive quiver. 'Threads' is an engaging and interestingly varied collection of songs and got a four star review from Robin Denselow in The Guardian (see,,2215420,00.html). Some of the original songs reminded me of Karine Polwart (reviewed here in November 2005 and April 2006) and I particularly liked the jaunty piano-backed waltz 'Limbo' which sounded a lot like Nerina Pallot (reviewed here in May 2006). You can listen to a couple of tracks from 'Threads' at Do have a listen - then buy the CD and support this rising young star.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2008

6 February 2008

On Monday evening I was the guest of Steve Heap and Folk Arts England at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2008 in London. It was brilliant! I could tell it was going to be an exciting occasion from the moment I walked into the reception at The Brewery. Scanning the crowd for someone I knew I came face to face with a very familiar figure: just before I started to say "where do I know you from" I realised it was Bob Hoskins! The room was full of famous people (and me!) - from the aristocracy of the folk world (including the likes of Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior and Shirley Collins) to Jennifer Saunders, Adrian Edmondson, Aled Jones, Alexei Sayle and Romeo Stodart from The Magic Numbers (reviewed here in July 2007). At one point I was standing between Kate Rusby (reviewed here in June 2006) and Eliza Carthy. Just as I was thinking I knew everyone but no-one knew me I was approached by someone who recognised me from the recent VAN Trustees event in Birmingham. When the show started the A-list celebrity count continued to escalate with awards being presented by Sean Bean, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Steve Harley, Graham Coxon from Blur, Brenda Blethyn and Phil Collins. But the fun of celebrity-spotting was quite properly eclipsed by the music. Steve Heap was delighted to see family friend (and no relation) Martin Simpson pick up the awards for best original song and album of the year and Martin's performance (with Kate Rusby on backing vocals) was a highlight. There were also performances by The Imagined Village (who I saw at WOMAD - reviewed here in August 2007), Seth Lakeman (reviewed here in April 2006 and August 2007), Rachel Unthank and The Winterset and John Martyn who received the lifetime achievement award. But my favourites were the electrifying Lau who brought the house down (and won the best group award) and the completely gorgeous Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis (reviewed here in February 2006 and April 2007) who was named folk singer of the year. It was wonderful to hear John Spiers (collecting the best live act award on behalf of Bellowhead - reviewed here in October 2006) using his acceptance speech to stress that the best thing about folk music is that anyone can do it and encouraging everyone to have a go. The show was very slickly compered by Mike Harding. You can find more details, video clips and listen again to the Radio 2 broadcast at I had a wonderful time - many thanks Steve.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'

1 February 2008

Watching the dark, gritty BBC TV serialisation of 'Oliver Twist' just before Christmas, it seemed the most bizarre subject to have been made into a musical. Lionel Bart's 'Oliver!' is a grim, gruesome thriller turned twee. To see what it could have been you need to watch Tim Burton's new film of the Stephen Sondheim musical 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' which I saw this week. Strange, then, that the film features Johnny Depp channelling Anthony Newley - though Depp's Sweeney Todd is Bill Sikes rather than the Artful Dodger - an older, more world-weary and surly Edward Scissorhands. Burton's film is a stunning, mostly monochrome vision of Victorian London. He pulls off a rare trick in creating a musical that is truly scary. There is just about enough plot to carry us through but the pace is a bit variable: at times it feels like this gloriously designed film is stopping to gaze at itself. But once we got to the Viennese waltz of the pie song it hooked us into an increasingly frantic dance of death. From the opening deafeningly sinister chords of the Rugby School Chapel organ, the music is wonderful - a rare occasion to welcome the excessive volume that most modern cinemas seem to favour. And Helena Bonham-Carter is grotesquely, gothically gorgeous as Mrs Lovett: the quintessential Corpse Bride. I also loved the chair - straight out of Wallace and Gromit! 'Sweeney Todd' is definitely not for the squeamish but it's not really 'horror' - more a Shakespearean tragedy - with oodles of blood and tray upon tray of meat pies.

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