Saturday, July 23, 2011

'Betty Blue Eyes' by Ron Cowen, Daniel Lipman, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

23 July 2011

Last Thursday we went to London to see an animatronic pig - and it's not often you can say that! We were at the Novello Theatre to see 'Betty Blue Eyes', a new musical based on the 1984 film 'A Private Function. The film, written by Alan Bennett and starring Michael Palin and Maggie Smith, has been reimagined for the stage by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman with music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe. Set in a small town in Yorkshire in 1947, much is made of the contemporary resonances of Royal Wedding celebrations amid Austerity Britain. As people struggle with the harsh realities of rationing, an unlicensed pig is being illegally prepared to feed local dignitaries at a private function to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten. But local chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers, and his wife Joyce, steal the pig and start a three-way tussle between themselves, the town council and the meat inspector. Reece Shearsmith and Sarah Lancashire are excellent as the leads. There are some great song and dance numbers, choreographed by Stephen Mear. It was lovely to see a West End musical comedy that was actually very funny. 'Betty Blue Eyes' feels like an old-fashioned musical - tuneful, witty (with plenty of pig puns!) and moving. The pig doesn't quite steal the show but you certainly come out smiling.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bedford Festival Fringe

21 July 2011

We're not going to the Edinburgh Festivals this year: we generally go every other year, but as August approaches and withdrawal symptoms start to appear it's been a pleasant surprise to discover the opportunity to see several Edinburgh Fringe-bound shows a little closer to home. This was our first visit to the Bedford Festival Fringe and our first visit to The Place Theatre in Bedford where we saw two 'bedfringe' shows. Simon Munnery is a veteran of many Edinburgh Fringes and I am familiar with his work from numerous glowing reviews but I had never seen him perform. Many years ago he was better known as 'Alan Parker Urban Warrior' and, later, as 'The League Against Tedium'. For this year's Edinburgh Fringe he is working on "a one man musical about the R101 airship disaster of 1930" but, when we saw him in Bedford, this was still very much a work in progress. A couple of songs from the planned musical made up a tiny proportion of his set, which also included monologues, musical jokes and comic observations. It was all a bit rambling and unplanned but Munnery carried it off with charm: he is clearly a very experienced and confident performer. His comedy mixes the absurd with the logically pedantic. He is a very clever comedian and whatever shape his show ends up taking in Edinburgh it will undoubtedly be well worth the price of admission. 'Spitfire Solo' was a very different kind of show. This one-man drama, excellently performed by Nicholas Collett (and devised by Nicholas Collett with Gavin Robertson) tells the story of the Battle of Britain through the reminiscences of a RAF fighter pilot in a retirement home. Playing both the elderly veteran and his younger self (as well as a host of other characters) Collett gives a wonderful evocation of what it was like to be a Spitfire pilot - and re-enacts the entire Battle of Britain using only a couple of sauce bottles and a few slices of bread! 'Spitfire Solo' is a poignant and moving play, lightened by some gentle humour - an excellent fringe show.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

'A Visit from the Goon Squad' by Jennifer Egan

18 July 2011

Writing in The Guardian this week about 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2', Peter Bradshaw said that part of the colossal achievement of the Harry Potter movies was that they "brought home to me how terribly brief childhood is". As Douglas Adams said "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so." Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'A Visit from the Goon Squad', which I've just finished reading, is a fascinating reflection on time and the brevity and connectedness of human lives. It is a structurally amazing book, a jigsaw puzzle that only reveals itself fully at the very end. Set in and around the music business in New York, the opening chapter of 'A Visit from the Good Squad' focuses on Sasha, the kleptomaniac assistant to a record label boss, showing us the world through her eyes. But the second chapter shifts the focus to a different character (who had been mentioned in passing in chapter one) at a different time. A peripheral character in this chapter becomes the main protagonist in the next, and so on. Each of the book's thirteen chapters has a different subject, taking us backwards and forwards in time (from the late 1970s to the near future) and to different locations across the world. But all the characters are connected to each other in some way. This is social networking as narrative structure: apart from a brief namecheck of Facebook there is little mention of online social networks but Jennifer Egan uses the haphazard nature of 'friends' or 'friends' to construct a complex web of relationships. One review likened the book to David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas' and, while the timespan of 'A Visit from the Good Squad' is within one human lifetime rather than spread across several centuries, Jennifer Egan teases the reader, much like David Mitchell, before revealing the connections between her main characters. 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' is compelling, funny, clever and incredibly sad - a remarkable achievement.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rhythms of the World Festival

14 July 2011

On Sunday we made a first visit to the Rhythms of the World Festival in Hitchin. Rhythms of the World is celebrating its 20th anniversary and has grown from a free event in the town centre to a substantial world music festival, now located in the lovely gardens of Hitchin Priory. I was amazed by the scale of the event which included more than 130 bands on 7 stages over 2 days - with full price tickets only £7 per day! We only managed to see 5 bands during our brief visit but they were all very impressive - from the excellent three-piece rockabilly band The Zipheads to the delicate songs of Glasgow group The Recovery Club to the rhythmic fusion of The Tabla Rhythmix. The highlight of our day was a performance on the main stage by the young English folk superstar Jim Moray (reviewed here in August 2008). I've been a fan of Jim Moray since his 2003 debut album, 'Sweet England', but I hadn't seen him live before. He put on a good show to a packed crowd - proving there is still life in the electric guitar/hurdy gurdy combination! Jim Moray takes traditional folk songs and reworks them with a rock feel, incorporating varied influences including electronic beats and rap. He looks every inch the rock star and it was great to see him approach the microphone in his leather jacket, with his electric guitar slung over his shoulder, to say "here's another murder ballad".

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

'The Long Song' by Andrea Levy

5 July 2011

Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’ is one of my favourite novels of recent years – a moving tale of Caribbean immigrants to the UK after the Second World War which manages to show you events through the eyes of each of the main protagonists so that you amazingly find yourself simultaneously sympathising with both sides of the racial prejudice at the heart of the story. Levy’s latest novel, ‘The Long Song’, also deals with Caribbean history but is set much earlier, showing us the final days of slavery in Jamaica in the mid 19th century. The narrative style is more straightforward than in ‘Small Island’ with a single narrator, the elderly ‘Miss July’, recounting the events of her childhood and early adult life. It’s an often grim tale of slaves being treated as sub-human by their white masters. But Levy makes the history lesson compelling and entertaining by telling the story of one individual’s life: the wider political events are mostly peripheral to the narrative. And Miss July is a slightly naïve narrator, allowing us to read between the lines to deduce what was really going on. The story is interrupted by some comic arguments between Miss July and her grown-up son who is encouraging her to write her book. As we approach the end of the tale the son enters Miss July’s story himself and these entertaining interludes reveal themselves to be more significant than they first appeared. ‘The Long Song’ is an impressive and fascinating novel but I found it a little difficult to get into: in order to demonstrate the impact of the ending of slavery, Andrea Levy has to devote the first 100 pages or so to establishing how bleak the situation was before and this makes for some understandably uncomfortable reading. But it was certainly worth persevering with.