Friday, November 27, 2009

'Mostly Harmless' by Douglas Adams

27 November 2009

When I was reading the reviews of Eoin Colfer’s official ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ sequel, ‘And Another Thing’, I realised that I had never got around to reading ‘Mostly Harmless’, Douglas Adams’ fifth and final volume in his Hitchhiker ‘trilogy’. I’ve now just finished ‘Mostly Harmless’ and, while it was great fun to re-immerse myself in Adams’ brilliantly witty prose, it’s a bit of a downbeat ending to his wonderful sci-fi saga. As I read it I realised I was already familiar with the plot of ‘Mostly Harmless’ from Dirk Maggs’ radio version. It lacks a lot of the pace and humour of the earlier books, partly I think because he keeps the main characters apart for most of the story. And I understand (from Douglas Adams’ own reflections in ‘The Salmon of Doubt’, reviewed here in October 2009) that he wrote ‘Mostly Harmless’ at a time when he wasn’t at his most cheery – which might explain his compulsion to kill off most of his major characters. Or maybe, perversely, it's the absence of the depressive Marvin the Paranoid Android from this book that actually makes it more depressing? Nevertheless there’s lots of great ideas, set-pieces and carefully planted gags. Now bring on ‘And Another Thing’ …


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Staff Benda Bilili

19 November 2009

Staff Benda Bilili are an amazing band – one of the most exciting live acts I have seen for ages. They are a group of Congolese street musicians who live around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa – where they recorded their debut album in the open air. Four of the musicians use wheelchairs and a fifth appears on crutches but this doesn’t prevent some of the most exuberant dancing you’ll ever see on a stage. The music is upbeat, catchy, funky and infectiously danceable. A fantastic, young drummer plays a kit which appears to be constructed from blocks of wood and tin cans that might have been found in a skip. But the star of the show is eighteen-year-old Roger Landu who plays the ‘satonge’ – an instrument he constructed from a condensed milk tin, coat hanger and a piece of wire, connected to an amplifier to create a soaring electronic sound which is part Stylophone, part theremin, part Jimi Hendrix! It’s quite hard to adequately describe the effect of seeing Staff Benda Bilili – who we saw at the Stables in Wavendon on Sunday. At first you worry that their disabilities and wheelchairs are being exploited as a gimmick but soon their musicianship, raw enthusiasm and zest for life makes you forget the disabilities and see the personalities. It was a truly brilliant performance – the album, ‘Très Très Fort’ is good but nothing like the experience of seeing the band live – do catch them if you have the chance. Take a look at:

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‘Shakers’ by John Godber and Jane Thornton

19 November 2009

On Saturday we made a first visit to the marvellous Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds – the only surviving example of a Regency theatre in the country. The original Georgian building is now supplemented by a modern atrium – in a similar way to the Ashmolean extension. We were there to see the Hull Truck Theatre Company production of ‘Shakers’ by John Godber and Jane Thornton. ‘Shakers’, written in 1985, is a companion piece to Godber’s 1977 hit ‘Bouncers’ with four female actors playing four waitresses in a cocktail bar and all their customers from opening time to closing time. Like a lot of John Godber plays, it’s very funny but also achingly poignant. I first saw ‘Shakers’ many years ago – a great amateur production but at the less architecturally inspiring setting of the South Holland Centre in Spalding (before its Lottery-funded facelift) – quite a contrast from the Regency splendour of the Theatre Royal! This production, directed by John Godber, was excellently acted and enthusiastically received by a sell-out audience.

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The Ashmolean Museum

19 November 2009

It’s been a week for first visits: on Friday I made my first trip to Britain’s oldest museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford which has just reopened after a massive refurbishment. It’s a fascinating building, with the modern extension seamlessly integrated into the classical original. I loved the apparent randomness of the layout: you wander from small, low-ceilinged galleries into vast, cavernous rooms and you can see through glass panels from one gallery to the next, enticing you onwards. Just walking around the building creates a sense of exploration. The thematic grouping of displays – rather than a traditional chronological approach – adds to the feeling of eclectic channel-hopping. I worried a little that I was drawn more to the text and graphics than to the actual objects on display. It was particularly interesting to finish the day by looking at the displays on Ancient Egypt which are the one part of the museum yet to be refurbished and now appear extremely old-fashioned: the display cases are crammed with huge numbers of objects and cards containing masses of very small text and the galleries feel quite cramped and claustrophobic compared to the airy modernity of the rest of the museum. You can easily spend a whole day in the Ashmolean (and entry is free). And if the queues in the basement café are long I can recommend popping across the road to the café in the foyer of the Playhouse Theatre.

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Galliard Ensemble

19 November 2009

Regular readers may have noticed that I don’t go to a lot of chamber music concerts: I’m not sure why, because those few occasions I have been persuaded to attend have always been really enjoyable. Last Thursday I made my first visit to Bedford Music Club to hear the Galliard Ensemble – a wind quintet who came to prominence through the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme. They were brilliant – precise, delicate, impressive and extremely entertaining. Their programme – inadvertently themed around composers called Paul! – was varied and interesting. We were treated to the world premiere of ‘Pealing Out’, a short celebratory piece written by local composer Paul Whitmarsh to mark the fortieth anniversary of Bedford Music Club. And Paul Whitmarsh was one of two composers in the room (both called Paul!) as Paul Patterson introduced his 1972 ‘Comedy for Five Winds’ which closed the concert. I was interested to hear ‘Kleine Kammermusik’, an early work by Paul Hindemith, but I particularly enjoyed Samuel Barber’s ‘Summer Music’. It was a wonderful concert.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

12 November 2009

When I hear any orchestral music on the radio, while I may not be able to identify the piece or the composer, I can almost always tell instantly whether or not I have played it. And, even listening to it on the radio, I still get that nervous pain in my stomach when hearing the few bars that immediately precede a horn solo or an exposed entry that I once agonised over playing. I suspect the closing moments of the first movement of Rachmaninov’s third symphony will now forever conjure up that mixture of excitement and terror after my experience of playing the horn solo at the start of the second movement with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra last Saturday. In a rare excursion into the NSO first horn hot-seat, I faced the daunting prospect of creating the only sound at the quiet opening of the slow movement. To be fair it’s more of a duet with the harp than a solo and I was very grateful for the reassuring presence of our excellent harpist Daniel de Fry. And, between you and me, it’s not a particularly difficult series of notes to play. But the pressure of such an exposed and fleeting moment to get it right or wrong, after many weeks of rehearsal, does make you incredibly nervous. As far as I can remember it went okay, and I did enjoy the experience, but I suspect that the joyous opening of the final movement of the symphony will now always be synonymous for me with a feeling of relief and relaxation. Rachmaninov’s ‘Symphony No 3’ is a subtle, complex and beautiful piece of music – not one that I was previously familiar with and I have enjoyed getting to know it. I think we gave a pretty good performance in a programme which also included ‘Francesca da Rimini’ by Tchaikovsky and Lucy Parham playing Mozart’s ‘Piano Concerto No 24’. There’s nothing better to relieve stress and nerves than to listen to Lucy playing Mozart.

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Friday, November 06, 2009

'Toast' by Nigel Slater

6 November 2009

Years ago someone (was it you?) told me to read 'Toast' by Nigel Slater and it's taken me ages to get around to it: now I wish I'd read it earlier! Slater's childhood memoir, told through a series of short food-based episodes, is entertaining, nostalgic, funny, moving and very sad. Most of the chapters are no more than a couple of pages long and many would stand alone as effective short stories. His delicate descriptions of food from prawn cocktail to jammie dodgers to space dust really bring the tastes and smells to life. And the detached, naïve, voice of his younger self creates a subtle portrait of family life seen through a boy's lonely eyes.


Monday, November 02, 2009

'Twelfth Night' by William Shakespeare

2 November 2009

Although I was looking forward to seeing Gregory Doran's new RSC production of 'Twelfth Night' at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, I was surprised, having seen another production of the play quite recently at Woburn (reviewed here in August 2009), at the extent to which I was completely gripped by the plot. Most of the publicity for this production has centred on Richard Wilson's RSC debut as Malvolio. His was a fine performance but Malvolio is not the main focus of the play and, for me, the two stars were the female leads: Nancy Carroll as Viola and Alexandra Gilbreath as Olivia. I was also impressed by Richard McCabe and James Fleet who I think were the best Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek I have seen. The 'letter scene', dominated by a towering and particularly box-like box tree, was a real highlight. The thrust stage of the Courtyard Theatre brings the actors much closer to the audience, making the live experience particularly exciting and it was wonderful to see such excellent acting so close up.