Thursday, July 25, 2013

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

25 July 2013

On Sunday I played in the annual Northampton Symphony Orchestra Friends Concert – the final performance in our concert season and our opportunity to thank the Friends of the Orchestra for their support throughout the year. This year our programme had a Hungarian theme, including two Slavonic Dances by Dvorak and two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. We also played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the excellent young soloist Darren Moore who seemed to hit every note perfectly throughout the performance and all the rehearsals. We finished the concert with the exciting ‘Dances of Galanta’ by Zoltan Kodaly – an infectious romp with some devilishly difficult clarinet solos which were magnificently mastered by Christine Hunt. The orchestra now takes its summer break before we turn our attention to the mighty ‘Symphony No 7’ by Shostakovich this autumn.

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'Macbeth' by William Shakespeare

25 July 2013

Having heard nothing but good reports about the National Theatre's NT Live screenings of stage shows in cinemas, I thought it was about time I tried the experience myself. The Manchester International Festival production of Macbeth, starring and co-directed by Kenneth Branagh (with Rob Ashford) was such a hot ticket the entire run sold out within nine minutes of going on sale. So the only way I was going to see it was via the NT Live screening last Saturday, when the final performance in Manchester was broadcast to cinemas across the country. It was magnificent – both the production and the experience of watching it live on the big screen. The show was expertly captured with multiple camera angles (including Busby Berkley overhead shots) making it feel almost like being there, but with a much better view and excellent sound that meant you didn't miss a syllable of the text. It was irritating that there were some problems with the synchronisation of the sound and pictures (at least where we saw it at Cineworld in Milton Keynes) but otherwise the screening was technically excellent. Macbeth was performed in a deconsecrated church in Ancoats - a customised theatre space with a long, thin central performance area running the length of the church and faced on both sides by an audience boxed in raked pews enclosed by wooden boards which made them look more like the spectators at a Quidditch match! The floor was rough and muddy, particularly after the opening battle scene had taken place in driving rain – the increasingly dirty hem of Lady Macbeth’s long dress emphasising the gritty reality of the play. This was a brutal, visceral Macbeth – with believably violent swordfights and plenty of Kensington Gore. Kenneth Branagh managed to make Macbeth a real and sympathetic character, while demonstrating a delicacy and precision in the language of the play. Alex Kingston was a powerful Lady Macbeth and the scene in which Ray Fearon’s Macduff learned of the slaughter of his wife and children was achingly poignant. The whole cast were very strong – with Alexander Vlahos particularly standing out as Malcolm.

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'Going to Sea in a Sieve' by Danny Baker

25 July 2013

Usually when you read an autobiography, you might find the first few chapters interesting in seeing how the person's childhood and early career led them to do whatever it is you know them for, but it's the inside story of their successful years that you are really looking forward to reading about. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to warn you that ‘Going to Sea in a Sieve’, the autobiography of writer and broadcaster Danny Baker, finishes in 1982, well before I had come across him. Nevertheless, as a keen listener to Danny Baker's Saturday morning show on BBC Radio Five Live, many of the stories of his childhood were quite familiar to me. Like John Peel's autobiography ('Margrave of the Marshes' by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft, reviewed here in November 2006), you can really hear the author's voice while you are reading. Danny Baker is a consummate storyteller and his self deprecating wide-eyed wonder makes for a likeable and often hilarious tale. The great potato robbery is the first of many laugh-out-loud incidents in this first volume of the Danny Baker story. 


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

'The Teleportation Accident' by Ned Beauman

17 July 2013

I was drawn to Ned Beauman's novel 'The Teleportation Accident' by glowing reviews and by the intriguing premise of a theatre set designer in Berlin in the 1930s working to recreate the famous Teleportation Device ("An Extraordinary Mechanism for the Almost Instantaneous Transport of Persons from Place to Place") devised for a Paris theatre in 1679 by the great Renaissance stage designer Adriano Lavicini. The opening chapters made me think I had made a mistake - almost every character we were introduced to seemed unlikeable and the main protagonist, set designer Egon Loeser, is a very unsympathetic anti-hero - cynical, contemptuous and selfish. Also the thrilling notion of the Teleportation Device - where art meets science to create magic - seems quickly forgotten as the story becomes obsessed with parties, sex and drugs. I persevered with the novel (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Dudley Hinton) and began to appreciate the writing - Loseser's cynical railings against the harsh hand that life keeps dealing him are very funny and there are some beautifully witty metaphors with a Raymond Chandleresque swagger which made me laugh out loud. (He had "the sort of moustache that could beat you in an arm-wrestling contest". "The lenses of his glasses were so thick that, like an astronomer observing Neptune, he was probably seeing several minutes into the past".) Also the plot built towards some wonderful set-piece farcical scenes that could have come from Tom Sharpe (the monkey gland episode for example). And as the story moved to Paris and then to Los Angeles, I realised how clever and intricate the plotting was. Like Loeser I had missed or dismissed many references, characters and clues that were to return as elegant explanations for seemingly supernatural puzzles much later in the book. As 'The Teleportation Accident' grew and grew on me I came to appreciate that it is a rather brilliant novel - a very dark comedy spanning centuries with a complex web of themes. It's an entertainingly innovative novel to rank alongside 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' by Jennifer Egan (reviewed here in July 2011). Egon Loeser hates politics, physics and historical literature so it is his supreme misfortune to find himself the main character in a novel about politics, physics and historical literature (though his obsession with public transport does provide him with an interest in another of the book's recurring themes). He thinks himself an intellectual who is having a particularly unfair run of bad luck - but he comes across as a surprisingly naive loser, blundering through major events without appreciating their significance. The Teleportation Device itself has echoes of Christopher Nolan's 2006 film 'The Prestige' in which two rival magicians battle each other to achieve the ultimate illusion, drawing on the seemingly magical physics of Nikola Tesla (himself the subject of  Samantha Hunt's wonderful novel ‘The Invention of Everything Else’, reviewed here in September 2008). But above all 'The Teleportation Accident' is an incredibly funny, terribly clever and extremely enjoyable novel that I look forward to reading again and again - just make sure you pay attention to those opening chapters!


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Wimbledon 2013

11 July 2013

As regular readers will remember, we have been extremely lucky in getting tickets in the Wimbledon ballot over recent years. 2012 was the first time in 10 years that we didn't get to the Championships, but we were back this year, with Centre Court tickets for the Ladies' Singles Final last Saturday. It was a glorious day and we were pleased to be sitting far enough back to be in the shade. The final was a little disappointing as Sabine Lisicki failed to find the form that had helped her beat Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwańska, but it was great to see Marion Bartoli win and, even though the match was a bit one-sided, there was some great tennis from both players. The Men's Doubles Final was more closely contested with the Bryan brothers coming from a set down to defeat Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo. But the most entertaining match of the day was undoubtedly the Ladies' Doubles Final in which Taiwan's Su-Wei Hsieh and China's Peng Shuai beat the Australians Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua. Hsieh and Peng have a most unconventional approach to doubles – rather than taking responsibility for different areas of the court they both seem to follow the ball (and each other) - more like a four-legged singles player! At least three times in the final they clashed racquets as they both tried to hit the ball at the same time. Nevertheless this odd system seemed to work, giving them two opportunities to reach each difficult return (despite leaving large areas of the court uncovered). It was fascinating to watch and a great way to end a fabulous day at Wimbledon. It would have been amazing to have been there the following day to see Andy Murray triumph but, knowing how nervous I got on behalf of Sabine Lisicki, I think the tension might have been unbearable. Watching the Men's Singles Final on the television the day after our visit to Centre Court felt as close as you could get to being there. You can see a selection of my Wimbledon photos at:


Monday, July 01, 2013

'The Taming of The Shrew' by William Shakespeare

1 July 2013

The blatant misogyny of Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of The Shrew’ makes it an uncomfortable play for modern audiences. The last production I saw was directed by Lucy Bailey for the Royal Shakespeare Company (reviewed here in March 2012) – a female director who chose to emphasise the framing of the story as Christopher Sly’s dream by situating all the action upon (or within!) an enormous bed. So it was very interesting to see the current Shakespeare’s Globe On Tour open air production of ‘The Taming of The Shrew’ at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts last week. Here the challenges of the play were tackled head-on by neatly reversing Elizabethan conventions and using an entirely female cast. Joe Murphy’s production was well-acted, entertaining, inventive and very funny but the most fascinating aspect was the way in which the gender relationships were explored. When we saw ‘Twelfth Night’ performed by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men with an all-male cast (reviewed here in August 2009), seeing the female parts played by men strangely seemed to make more sense of the conceit of girl dressed as boy. In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ Petruchio’s final triumph in ‘taming’ Kate was very cleverly undermined by his clear discomfort at what he had created, made all the more obvious by the fact that he was being played by a woman. The cast were universally strong but special mention must go to Kate Lamb’s Katherina, Petruchio played by Leah Whitaker and Remy Beasley's constantly smirking, Welsh-accented, Tranio.

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