Monday, September 29, 2008

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' by Muriel Spark, adapted for the stage by Jay Presson Allan

29 September 2008

Another trip to the Royal Theatre in Northampton last Saturday to see another excellent in-house production. I had seen clips of the celebrated 1961 film of 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' but had never watched it in full, nor read the original novel by Muriel Spark. Nevertheless it felt quite familiar so it was exciting to discover, through the stage adaptation by Jay Presson Allan, that the story was much darker and more complex than I had expected. I was surprised to discover how much Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys' owes to 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' - and, in a neat reciprocation, how much Laurie Sansom's Royal & Derngate production was indebted to Nicholas Hytner's staging of the Alan Bennett play. I loved the set - apparently constructed entirely from blackboards covered in the chalked memories of earlier lessons. And it was fantastic to see Sansom once again integrating local amateur performers into the cast (as he did in Follies - reviewed here in November 2006 - and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - reviewed here in February 2008). This time the senior chamber choir of Northampton School for Girls, 'Madrigalis', was used to populate Miss Brodie's class and provide musical interludes. Anna Francolini was great as Brodie - confident, charismatic, quirky, inspirational yet strangely naive: truly the crème de la crème.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

'Ivanov' by Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Tom Stoppard

24 September 2008

On Saturday we were in London to see Kenneth Branagh in ‘Ivanov’ – Chekhov’s first play in a new version by Tom Stoppard. It was an impressive production with a starry cast and it was wonderful to see this rare appearance on the London stage by Branagh. His naturalistic performance subtly gripped rather than punching you between the eyes – resisting the temptation to wear his technique on his sleeve – and you had to look closely to see the small mannerisms betraying his character’s developing depression. It was very much an ensemble piece with a show-stealing comic performance from Kevin McNally and excellent contributions from the wonderful Gina McKee and the Andrea Riseborough as young Sasha. I’m not sure I was convinced by the play – I found the tone uneven and the allusions to Hamlet a bit laboured – but there were some stunning moments and it was often very funny.

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‘The Well of Lost Plots’ by Jasper Fforde

24 September 2008

If you’ve been swept along by my enthusiasm for the bizarre comic crime novels of Jasper Fforde you’ll love ‘The Well of Lost Plots’, but if you’ve not developed the taste you’re probably getting fed up with me going on about him. (I’d still recommend starting by reading ‘The Big Over Easy’.) ‘The Well of Lost Plots’ is the third novel in the ‘Thursday Next’ series and I feel it is completely appropriate to Fforde’s surreal time-travelling narrative to be reading the books out or order. Having already read the book which follows it (‘Something Rotten’ – reviewed here in August 2008) ‘The Well of Lost Plots’ made much more sense and it was great fun following certain storylines with the benefit of hindsight. This novel involves Thursday Next trying to keep order within works of fiction – counselling the characters in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and trying to prevent them from changing the ending. There are quite a few gags which you might miss if you are not familiar with the relevant books but the humour is enjoyably corny rather than pretentious. As always, Fforde plants a few ideas early on which return satisfyingly at crucial moments, just when you had forgotten them. And it was wonderful to see the emerging explanation of a link between the Thursday Next stories and Fforde’s Nursery Crime series of novels. Incredibly silly fun.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Warsaw Village Band

16 September 2008

The Warsaw Village Band were one of my highlights of the 2007 WOMAD Festival (reviewed here in August 2007) so I jumped at the chance to see them closer to home at The Stables last Sunday. WVB are six young, classically-trained musicians on a mission to seek out and learn traditional, rural, Polish folk music and re-interpret it for a generation raised on rock 'n' roll. Seriously authentic and reverent to their sources they manage to create a nonetheless modern and distinctive sound. Traditional acoustic instruments (violins, 'cello, cimbalom and a variety of percussion), amplified with plenty of echo, create rapid, repetitive, pulsing textures. Sudden shifts of rhythm and time signature add interest and uncertainty. The three female voices are strong and piercing, their jarring harmonies placing them, geographically and musically, between the distinctive Bulgarian choral sound and the Finnish folk vocals of groups like Värttinä (reviewed here in August 2006). The contrasting timbres of the three vocalists add interest as they take turns with the melody and create an effect of harmony even when they are in unison. WVB are very musically slick, bringing precision to the rough folk sound without losing any of its edginess. They are very exciting to watch - though sometimes a little overly serious: it would be nice to see a bit more interaction with the audience and the occasional smile! I particularly enjoyed some of the tracks from their new album, 'Infinity', which used pizzicato violin and 'cello to conjure up beautifully hypnotic music - an entrancing contrast to their usual excitingly frantic whirl. ‘Uprooting’ (2004) was the album that brought them to international attention but, after listening to it this week, I think ‘Infinity’ is even better.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

‘Keep Your Silver Shined' by Devon Sproule

11 September 2008

I didn’t manage to see Canadian-born singer songwriter Devon Sproule at WOMAD but I have been listening to her album, ‘Keep Your Silver Shined’. It’s a lovely acoustic blend of country-flavoured swing – featuring Sproule’s gentle, whispered vocals over delicately picked guitar, pedal steel guitar, brushed snare drum, bass and occasional fiddle or clarinet. At times it sounds a lot like Fairground Attraction – but with a Virginia accent rather than a Scottish one. A consistently slick album, though I would have liked more of the exuberance of its stand-out track ‘Old Virginia Block’.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

‘The Invention of Everything Else’ by Samantha Hunt

5 September 2008

Five years ago we saw a great show at the Edinburgh Fringe called ‘Brilliant! The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla’ by The Electric Company Theatre. This told the amazing story of the life of Serbian physicist, inventor, and electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla – the inventor of alternating current. Largely forgotten now, Tesla’s brilliance and vision was hampered by a combination of his altruistic attitude to wanting share his inventions with mankind and the more capitalist and self-serving approach of his rivals, particularly Thomas Edison. Tesla was a fascinatingly eccentric character with few close human relationships but a particular passion for pigeons. I’ve just been reading ‘The Invention of Everything Else’, a new novel by Samantha Hunt which fictionalises Tesla’s final days and tells the remarkable story of his life. It’s a wonderfully ‘inventive’ novel, eschewing linear narrative and piecing together Tesla’s story like a jigsaw puzzle. Hunt also creates a number of fictional characters whose lives overlap with the 86-year old Tesla at the Hotel New Yorker in 1943. These characters’ own stories echo the main themes of Tesla’s life and (unknowingly) visit various places that were significant to him. It’s great fun – a really enjoyable and unpredictable read. My only criticism was that, knowing a little about Tesla from the play, mixing his biography with fictional elements might lead you to believe Hunt has made it all up. But the true story of Nikola Tesla is truly incredible: in this case truth is stranger than fiction.