Monday, October 26, 2009

'The Pitmen Painters' by Lee Hall

26 October 2009

On Saturday we were at the Milton Keynes Theatre to see 'The Pitmen Painters' by Lee Hall. This is the inspiring story of a group of miners who started attending a WEA art appreciation class in Ashington, Northumberland in 1934, where their tutor decided the best way to help them understand art was to get them to try creating their own pictures. The Ashington Group - many of whom had left school at the age of 10 to start working in the mine - became nationally recognised and collected and were friends with some of the most famous artists of their day. When I met the new Chief Executive of Northumberland County Council recently he proudly pointed out an Ashington Group painting he had bought for the wall of his office. Lee Hall's play is wonderful - entertaining, thought-provoking, moving and extremely funny. The group's meetings in a YMCA hall, an old army hut, seemed reminiscent of 'Dad's Army' - with a similar cast of characters. Their pictures are projected across the back of the stage enabling us to follow their critical discussions in detail. The actors in this National Theatre/Live Theatre touring co-production are the original cast from the premiere at the Live Theatre, Newcastle, in September 2007. It's a great night in the theatre but it also carries a very important message. Writing in the programme Lee Hall points out "the idea that art is somehow a commodity, that culture is something one consumes rather than takes part in, is, of course, a very modern notion. The idea that an artist is someone who makes things to be bought and sold is part of this ideological shift and it is important to remind ourselves that art might indeed mean something more than this". I urge you to see 'The Pitmen Painters' if you get the chance.

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'Spring Storm' by Tennessee Williams

26 October 2009

'Spring Storm' was Tennessee Williams' first play, written in 1937 but only now receiving its European premiere at the Royal Theatre in Northampton. It's an interesting early work with some rough edges but hints of the greater plays that were to follow. Laurie Sansom's production features a wonderful ramshackle set - a pile of driftwood thrown together by the Mississippi from which the actors construct the essential elements for each scene. There are a couple of great set-piece scenes towards the end of the play and there's some fantastic acting throughout, particularly from Liz White as Heavenly Critchfield and Jacqueline King as her mother.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

'Home Time' by Emma Fryer and Neil Redmond

23 October 2009

I've been completely hooked on 'Home Time' the BBC2 sitcom by Emma Fryer and Neil Redmond which ended its first series last night. At the age of 17 Gaynor ran away to London leaving her childhood behind in Coventry: 12 years later she returns sheepishly to her family home where her parents and best friends pick up where they left off, treating her as if she is still a teenager. As she revisits her childhood haunts an embarrassed Gaynor continually bumps into people from her past (as she walks down the street in the opening episode, both the burglar emerging from a window and the police officer who then apprehends him pause to look up and say "Hi Gaynor - you back then?"). Dark, poignant and very funny, the series is incredibly well-written (I liked the line "at our age we still have the rest of our lives in front of us"). The characters are great, particularly the star of the show, 'Cov' itself. You can still watch all 6 episodes on BBC iplayer - catch it while you can.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

‘Keepsakes’ by Sam Carter

16 October 2009

I’ve been enjoying ‘Keepsakes’, the debut solo album by Sam Carter – one of the members of the folk big band Bellowhead (reviewed here in October 2006). As with fellow Bellowheader Benji Kirkpatrick (reviewed here in April 2009) it’s great to hear Sam Carter’s virtuoso playing in the spotlight. His delicate finger-picking guitar playing accompanies a series of gentle, contemplative self-penned songs. I particularly like the wistful, haunting melody of ‘Captain’ – a song about driving through the night between gigs which captures beautifully a feeling of being exhausted but happy.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

'The Salmon of Doubt' by Douglas Adams

8 October 2009

This seems the right time to be returning to Douglas Adams: Stephen Fry and Mark Cawardine are currently retracing the steps Douglas and Mark took 20 years ago in 'Last Chance to See' (Sundays on BBC1), a third 'Dirk Gently' radio series is in production (following the wonderful radio versions of 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency', reviewed here in October 2007, and 'The Long, Dark, Tea Time of the Soul', reviewed here in October 2008) and we are approaching celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the original radio broadcast of 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (which is to be marked by the publication of an authorised Hitch Hiker sequel by Eoin Colfer). I've been reading 'The Salmon of Doubt', a collection of unpublished writings, short stories, newspaper columns and speeches rescued from the hard drive of Douglas Adams' Mac after his untimely death in 2001. It's been wonderful to 'hear his voice' again – like rediscovering a long lost friend. This odd collection of pieces acts as an extremely entertaining, randomly constructed autobiography, demonstrating Adams' growing fascination with computers, evolution, conservation etc. and how his fiction gradually incorporated each of these themes. The real gem here is eleven chapters of his final, unfinished, Dirk Gently novel which are great. Somehow the fact that the convoluted plot and mysterious happenings they introduce may never be resolved doesn’t seem to matter – wonderful stuff. And there’s also a very funny story about a packet of biscuits that will be familiar to anyone who was at the opening of the NALGAO conference in Swindon yesterday …


Friday, October 02, 2009

‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ by The Very Best

2 October 2009

I’m really enjoying ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ – the debut album by a group modestly calling itself The Very Best. The Very Best are the Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and two producers from France and Sweden who met in a second-hand shop in London where one of them had gone to buy a bicycle. The music they have created is varied, catchy, extremely hard-to-describe, like nothing you have heard before but also strangely familiar. Blending electronic dance music, African influences and much more the album features Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend and British rapper MIA. Read Charlie Gillett’s review for The Observer here: and listen to the album for free on Spotify.

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