Friday, August 31, 2012

Edinburgh Festivals 2012

31 August 2012

Last week we were in Edinburgh for our biennial visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We’ve been regular festival-goers since our first trip to Edinburgh in 1994 but I think this was one of our best weeks. We relaxed our pace a little, only seeing 22 shows this time, but either the standard is improving or we are getting better at picking things to see. We averaged 4.1 on our own personal 5-star rating system, and only saw 2 shows all week that we rated lower than 4 stars. I think we also managed a greater mix of artforms than ever before: we saw drama, stand-up comedy, improvisation, poetry, spoken word, orchestral music, folk music, opera and two BBC Radio 4 shows.

There were many highlights but I think our favourite show was ‘The Boat Factory’, a play by Dan Gordon, produced by Happenstance Theatre Company at Hill Street Theatre, which looked at the history of the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast. This two-hander told the story of an apprentice starting work at the shipyard in the 1950s. It was funny, moving and fascinating with both actors, Dan Gordon and Michael Condron, giving stunning performances as a range of characters.

We also really enjoyed ‘Dr Quimpugh's Compendium of Peculiar Afflictions’ – a delightfully silly new chamber opera by Martin Ward and Phil Porter, produced by Petersham Playhouse, which we saw at Summerhall. Three singers, accompanied by three musicians, portrayed an ageing doctor looking back at his long career and remembering the many surreal, bizarre medical conditions he had encountered and documented – like an operatic version of Oliver Sacks’ ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’.

We saw an amazing performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s ‘Piano Concerto’ by Garrick Ohlsson with the European Union Youth Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, at the Usher Hall (as part of the Edinburgh International Festival). This mammoth, five movement concerto, composed in 1904, lasts 70 minutes and finishes with a male voice choir singing a poem praising Allah. It’s a wonderfully over-the-top piece of music and it was fascinating to witness this rare performance with Ohlsson demonstrating outstanding technique and stamina and the glorious sound of the men of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus creating a brilliant climax.

The most bizarre moment of the week happened during ‘Austentatious’, an improvised comedy show which re-enacts the ‘lost novels’ of Jane Austen. We were part of a full-house packed into a room above a pub watching the actors creating the story of ‘Vanity and Virtue’ when a live pigeon emerged from behind a curtain and flew in a panic above our heads before flying into an unsuspecting musician who screamed and bolted from his position at the side of the stage. Shocked by this sudden intrusion, in a split second I think we all moved through a range of emotions – from surprise to terror to hysterical laughter – as we tried to work out whether this was part of the act. The funniest thing was the immobility of the male members of the cast as the women took control of the situation, threw a shawl over the bird and carried it outside. At the end of the show one of the actors said “every performance of Austentatious is different but we’ve truly never had that happen before!”.

This narrowly pipped our experience at ‘Midnight at the Board’s Head’ in which Fine Chisel Theatre combined the pub scenes from ‘Henry IV Parts One and Two’ with a host of other extracts from Shakespeare plays to create a show in the cabaret bar at Zoo Southside which ended with the entire audience on its feet, re-enacting the Battle of Agincourt with balloons and party poppers!

As well as all this we enjoyed the excellent folk trio Bellevue Rendezvous, the play ‘Wojtek the Bear’, the remarkable life story of Hervé Goffings, the excellent Martin Oldfield as ‘Pierrepoint’, the last hangman, Liz Lochhead reading her own poetry, Mark Lawson interviewing Ian McEwan and the brilliant Jasper Fforde speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde

31 August 2012

It’s many years since I saw a production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (apart from the spoof ‘Spyski or The Importance of Being Honest’ by Peepolykus, reviewed here in April 2009) but, attending an outdoor performance of the play by The Pantaloons at Woburn Abbey the weekend before last, I discovered that I still knew most of Oscar Wilde’s text off by heart. Wilde’s knowing sarcasm worked well in the necessarily exaggerated delivery that an open air production requires. The Pantaloons gave a charmingly silly performance with a few very funny additions to the original – Jack and Algernon’s journeys from the town to the country in the form of a musical montage, a wonderful cinematic re-cap at the beginning of the second half (“previously on Earnest …”) and an interval ‘Bracknell Factor’ competition (looking for the best enunciation of “a handbag?”) which led to a wonderful pay-off at the end of the play. All the cast were very funny but there was some great added humour with Producer Mark Hayward having to deputise at the last minute for the indisposed Helen Taylor as Gwendolen and Miss Prism.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

'The Testimony' by James Smythe

13 August 2012

It’s not often I have a book recommended to me by the writer’s father but I was delighted to discover that the son of Voluntary Arts Board member, John Smythe, is a very accomplished novelist. ‘The Testimony’ by James Smythe is set a few years in the future when people across the world simultaneously hear a voice in their heads. Is this the voice of God, some kind of radio interference, a terrorist plot, a sinister government weapon or the work of aliens? The story unfolds in a series of very short first person accounts which alternate between 26 characters in a variety of situations around the world – as if they are being interviewed by a reporter and this is their testimony. It’s a very clever jigsaw: at first you feel there are too many characters and it is hard to keep track of them all but gradually their individual personalities shine through and you find yourself rooting for your favourites as they seek to survive the global crisis. Although the setting seems like science fiction – and the worldwide catastrophe that ensues reminded me of two recent TV series (‘FlashForward’ and ‘Torchwood: Miracle Day’) and is very much in the tradition of ‘The Day of the Triffids’ or ‘The War of the Worlds’ – most of the jeopardy comes from the behaviour of crowds, governments and individual people reacting to ‘The Broadcast’ rather than any direct effect of whatever lay behind it. This reminds you how close to chaos our ‘civilised’ society always is – a lesson demonstrated by last summer’s riots. Ultimately ‘The Testimony’ is a story about people rather than gods or aliens, and a genuinely touching humanity emerges from the disaster movie it describes.


Monday, August 06, 2012

'Emma' by Jane Austen, adapted by Laura Turner

6 August 2012

Two years ago we made the short journey to the gardens of Woburn Abbey to see an outdoor performance of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Chapterhouse Theatre Company (reviewed here in July 2010). Last year we returned to Woburn Abbey to see Chapterhouse’s adaptation of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (reviewed here in September 2011). And on Saturday we completed our hat-trick of Chapterhouse Jane Austen dramatisations at Woburn with ‘Emma’. Once again this production was adapted by Laura Turner and I think this this show was the best of the three. It was certainly the funniest. Clara Edmonds was an excellent Emma and Grace Scott’s Harriet Smith displayed a wonderfully entertaining range of facial expressions and double-takes but Liam Webster and Vicky Album stole the show in their gloriously over-the-top portrayals of Mr Elton and Miss Bates.

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Friday, August 03, 2012

‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

3 August 2012

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by David Pittu). I very much enjoyed Eugenides’ previous novel ‘Middlesex’ (2002) – an unusual, ambitious, clever and gripping tale of gender, family history and inheritance. ‘The Marriage Plot’ is a more conventional novel: the plot concerns the three members of a love triangle who meet at university in the 1980s. It’s not really a campus novel: the book opens on graduation day and although the story of their university years is told in flashback (from each of the three perspectives) we are more concerned with what happens to the main characters after they leave university. Madeleine has been studying 18th and 19th century fiction and is fascinated by whether ‘the marriage plot’ – resolving a novel by having the two main protagonists marry, a mainstay of Jane Austen – is no longer viable in an age of divorce and remarriage, where the wedding is no longer necessarily the end of the story. Inevitably Madeleine’s own story plays with ‘the marriage plot’ and keeps us guessing about her romantic future. Eugenides also looks sensitively and achingly at manic depression and way it affects the lives of the sufferer and all the people around them.


WOMAD 2012

3 August 2012

This year the WOMAD Festival was celebrating its 30th anniversary. It was a glorious weekend at Charlton Park in Wiltshire and there was plenty of fantastic music and more than a little wonderful dance (the ‘D’ in WOMAD). I saw 27 bands including 15 complete sessions – slightly fewer than last year because I left early on Friday to watch the Olympics Opening Ceremony. The highlights for me were:

  •  the amazing young Azerbaijani mugham singer Nazaket Teymurova – haunting classical music from Central Asia (listen at:;
  • the excellent young Cape Breton fiddler Chrissy Crowley;
  • the Alaev Family – a Jewish family from Tajikistan, now resident in Israel who play the music of Tajikistan and the Bukharan region of neighbouring Uzbekistan with enormous exuberance and three generations together on stage, including their 80-year old grandfather;
  • the polyphonic multilingual harmonies of Chet Nuneta, featuring three female vocalists from France, Spain and Italy whose sound reminded me of my favourite Finnish group Värttinä (reviewed here in August 2006);
  • the engaging songs of ‘the Norwegian Kate Bush’, Ane Brun;
  • the Peatbog Faeries – high energy dance beats with Scottish fiddle and bagpipes;
  • and the South African rock group Hot Water, whose breezy guitar-based music would sound familiar to anyone who knows Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album.

But the best gig of the festival was definitely The Correspondents: WOMAD doesn’t feature many British groups and those who make it onto the programme are usually something special. The Correspondents mix swing-era big band records with contemporary electronic beats. The result is cool, serious and ridiculous. Their sound reminded me a lot of the French group Caravan Palace (reviewed here in July 2009) who play the gypsy jazz swing of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli to pounding high-tempo electronic beats and the Greek duo Imam Baildi (reviewed here in May 2009) who take old Greek tunes from the 40's, 50's and 60's (from their father's collection of 78s) and add modern instruments and beats. The Correspondents gave an incredible performance with some of the most energetic and eccentric dancing I have ever seen (try to imagine Doctor Who impersonating Michael Jackson). Frontman Mr Bruce is a fascinating and slightly disturbing performer – see – and his set included the first crowd-surfing I can remember seeing at WOMAD, an experience he recovered from by having a nice cup of tea!

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