Friday, February 27, 2009

'John Adams'

27 February 2009

I’ve been catching up with the wonderful HBO drama series ‘John Adams’. Having heard much praise for this tale of the early years of American independence I had high expectations and was a little disappointed at first to find it a fairly conventional historical drama. As the series progressed, however, I began to appreciate how well done it was. The acting was intelligent and subtle – particularly the central relationship between Paul Giamatti’s Adams and his wife Abigail, played by Laura Linney. The gradual character development over a period of more than 20 years was engaging and believable. There were key roles for a number of British actors including Tom Hollander (a brilliant cameo as King George III), Rufus Sewell, Stephen Dillane and a show-stealing turn by Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin. With hindsight it was very clever to show us some of the key events of the period through the eyes of the ever-present, but often peripheral, Adams rather than focussing more obviously on George Washington. It has certainly improved my knowledge of the history of the period – and the scenes in the pre-revolution French court were a hoot. 

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Friday, February 20, 2009

'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour' by Tom Stoppard and André Previn

20 February 2009

In 1974 André Previn told Tom Stoppard that if he ever wanted to write something that needed a symphony orchestra, well he had one (the LSO). After some discussion they agreed to create a play involving an orchestra as one of the characters. ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ received its debut – a one-off performance at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Previn – in July 1977. The play is set in a Russian psychiatric hospital and tells the story of two men – one a political dissident incarcerated in the hospital, the other a real psychiatric patient who believes he has his own orchestra with him in the room. This leads to the juxtaposition of a serious condemnation of the abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union with a farce of misunderstanding and talking at crossed purposes. And, of course, we the audience can see the imaginary orchestra in the room performing Previn’s score – with the deluded patient playing the triangle (which in turn allows for a very Stoppardian dissection of Euclidian geometry!). I first came across this understandably rarely performed work nearly 20 years ago when I was working for the Royal National Institute for the Blind and we were asked to record the text for a visually impaired student. So I was familiar with the brilliant dialogue (the triangle player continually asks the political prisoner what instrument he plays, assuming he must have come to join the orchestra: at one point, after a few seconds thought, he asks “if I were to strike you over the head with your instrument, would you need a welder, a carpenter or a brain surgeon?”). But I had never seen the piece performed so I leapt at the chance to see the revival directed by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris currently playing at the National Theatre. Using the massive Olivier stage, Barrett and Morris have made ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ more theatrical and less of a concert hall piece. In this production the players of the Southbank Sinfonia are integrated into the action in a range of inventive and surprising ways. Toby Jones and Joseph Millson are great as the two patients but this is an ‘ensemble’ work in every sense of the word, with a cast of around 60 people. It only lasts just over an hour, without an interval, but it was one of the most exciting, entertaining and though-provoking theatrical experiences I’ve had for a long time. My understanding and enjoyment was enhanced by attending a pre-show talk: on most occasions when you go to the pre-show talk you find yourself amongst a handful of people sitting at the front of a large auditorium but on this occasion the enormous Olivier theatre was packed, with people standing at the back, to hear Tom Stoppard himself talking about the writing of ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’. Stoppard is a thoughtful, careful speaker – self deprecating without false modesty – and it was fascinating to hear his insights into the creative process.

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Bellowhead at the South Bank Centre

20 February 2009

On Saturday we were at the South Bank Centre in London to hear everyone’s favourite folk big band, Bellowhead (reviewed here in October 2006 and July 2008), performing as part of the ‘Imagine’ children’s literature festival. This free performance in the huge Clore Ballroom space was great fun, slightly hampered by the fact that the set of bookshelves framing the stage meant that most of us couldn’t actually see the band. That didn’t stop us dancing while we craned our necks to see the Bellowhead heads appear above the bookshelves as the band themselves bounced up and down in time to the music – you can’t beat a band that dances to its own tunes. In a sort of English folk music ‘Mamma Mia’ a storyteller wove a fantastical tale to incorporate most of Bellowhead’s repertoire – with occasional vital contributions from the children in the audience (which resulted, for example, in the scary giant having purple hair and black fingers but wearing a ‘I love New York’ t-shirt!). An uplifting, inspiring performance from one of the best live acts of the moment – even when you can’t see them!

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ by Lily Allen

12 February 2009

One of the benefits of using Spotify is that, even when you’re snowed in, you can try out the latest musical releases free of charge and completely legally. This week I’ve been listening to ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’, the new album by Lily Allen, which was released on Monday. And it’s actually rather good. Extremely catchy electronic pop tunes which have been playing continuously in my head. Witty and playful lyrics – though often quite crude (definitely post-watershed). On ‘Him’, an irreverent  speculation on the nature of God, she sings: “I don’t imagine He’s ever been suicidal. His favourite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival.” – great lyric. Lily Allen sings in a cool, quiet, laid-back semi-spoken style. It took me a while to work out what this reminded me of but I finally traced the sound back to the Pet Shop Boys, particularly their wonderful 2002 album ‘Release’. 

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Friday, February 06, 2009

'The Eyre Affair' by Jasper Fforde

6 February 2009

Regular readers will remember that I have been paying homage to the surreal complexities of Jasper Fforde’s ‘Thursday Next’ novels by reading the series in reverse order. I have now reached the end/beginning: ‘The Eyre Affair’ introduces us to literary detective (LiteraTec) Thursday Next. But my expectation that this first novel would be a simpler tale, from which the confusing later books developed, was unfounded. ‘The Eyre Affair’ throws in a large, five-star hotel’s worth of kitchen sinks – time travel, cloning, dodos, Neanderthals, fictional characters coming to life and much, much more. And it’s all set in a parallel reality where the Crimean War has lasted a hundred years and Wales is an independent socialist republic (tourist board slogan: “not always raining”!). It’s inventive and very funny and Fforde cleverly plants seemingly insignificant characters and plot devices in the early chapters that reliably return to play key roles in the climax. But I still think the bizarre comic style Fforde plays with through the Thursday Next novels finds a more complete home in his ‘Nursery Crime’ series – where a more conventional whodunit plot drives the surreal nonsense on with more pace. If you haven’t tried Jasper Fforde yet start with ‘The Big Over Easy’ (reviewed here in April 2007).