Friday, April 28, 2017

'Zanaka' by Jain

28 April 2017

If you want to cheer yourself up I would recommend listening to ‘Zanaka’ – the debut album by young French singer/songwriter Jain. 25-year-old Jeanne Galice has French and Madagascan parents and grew up in the United Arab Emirates and the Republic of Congo. Her songs are bright, cheerful pop incorporating a wide range of Arabic and African influences. The result is incredibly cool and funky. Though musically quite different, her sense of style and beautifully choreographed performances have a lot in common with that other young French talent, Christine and the Queens. Take a look at Jain’s tribute to the late great South African singer Miriam Makeba (‘Mama Africa’) at: and the wonderfully upbeat song ‘Come’ at:

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

'South of the River' by Blake Morrison

20 April 2017

Blake Morrison is a poet who received great acclaim for his candid and moving memoirs of his parents – ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ (1993) and ‘Things My Mother Never Told Me’ (2002) – both of which I read and enjoyed some years ago. In 2007 he published his second novel, ‘South of the River’ which I have just finished reading. Reviews praised this as a state-of-the-nation novel – a British Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth – but it felt to me much more like a David Lodge novel, with the same deceptively accessible prose disguising an incredibly clever structure and serious themes. ‘South of the River’ follows five interlinked individuals through the years immediately following the 1997 general election with each chapter written from the point of view of one of these five main characters. Although it doesn’t have the set-piece comic scenes of a David Lodge book, Blake Morrison demonstrates a similar lightness of touch and subtle planting of plot points that return later in the story. It’s a compelling set of stories that resists the temptation to neatly tie up all its loose ends. Unsurprisingly Blake Morrison shows a poet’s attention for words and word-play but what most impressed me was his ability to make us sympathise with each of the five main characters, even when their views were in opposition with each other. In this respect ‘South of the River’ did remind me of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’ but also of ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy. ‘South of the River’ is a really enjoyable novel covering an interesting period of our recent history through a series of connected personal stories. By the end I had become attached to these characters and really wanted to know what happened to them next.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'An American in Paris' by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and Craig Lucas

19 April 2017

George Gershwin wrote ‘An American in Paris’ in 1928 as a symphonic poem suggesting the experience of a first-time visitor falling in love with the French capital (complete with its car horns!). The piece has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire: I played it with Northampton Symphony Orchestra in 2010 (reviewed here in April 2010). In 1951 Vincente Minnelli took the music (and its title) and combined it with some popular Gershwin songs and a script by Alan Jay Lerner to create the famous film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The climax of the film is a 17-minute ballet sequence using the original Gershwin orchestral work. In 2015 the English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon created a stage musical version of ‘An American in Paris’ (with book by Craig Lucas) which played to great acclaim on Broadway. That original Broadway production, choreographed and directed by Christopher Wheeldon, is now at the Dominion Theatre in London where we saw it last Friday. It is a truly wonderful show – beautiful, uplifting and charmingly old-fashioned. To call it a musical is slightly misleading – the show is more a ballet interspersed with songs. It draws on Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’ and a range of his other orchestral compositions to create the score for a succession of big ensemble dance pieces. I spotted music from Gershwin's 'Cuban Overture' which I played with Northampton Symphony Orchestra last year (reviewed here in June 2016). But the show also includes some of Gershwin’s best-known songs including ‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘'S Wonderful’ and ‘But Not For Me’. The dancing was amazing: both the leads are star ballet dancers – Robert Fairchild was a Principal Dancer with the New York City Ballet and Leanne Cope gave up her position as First Artist with the Royal Ballet to take this role. All the cast danced beautifully but Robert Fairchild was particularly compelling – his movement, even in the acted scenes, was wonderfully fluid with the elasticity of a cartoon character. And these dancers are also impressive singers. The set by Bob Crowley, lighting by Natasha Katz and projections by 59 Productions created a stunning and dynamic theatrical landscape. The plot might have been a bit thin but this was an outstanding evening in the theatre. And the climax was, of course, an extended ballet duet featuring the original ‘An American in Paris’ music in full. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

'Faithful Place' by Tana French

18 April 2017

I’ve been continuing my journey through the Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French. Having read her latest book ‘The Trespasser’ (reviewed here in January 2017) I went back to an earlier novel, ‘Faithful Place’, which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Gerry O’Brien. ‘Faithful Place’ is told through the eyes of Detective Frank Mackey: in my backwards reading of the series I first encountered Frank Mackey in ‘The Secret Place’ (reviewed here in December 2016) in which Frank’s 16-year-old daughter Holly alerts Detective Stephen Moran to information about a murder at her boarding school. In ‘Faithful Place’ Holly is 9 years old and witness to a murder mystery involving her father’s family. This novel is slightly different to the others in the series in that the narrator is not a member of the Dublin Murder Squad (Frank is an Undercover Detective) and the crime at the centre of the story, which was committed 22 years ago, involves him and his family directly. ‘Faithful Place’ is another intriguing mystery but I found Frank Mackey a fairly unsympathetic protagonist. This book was more enjoyable as a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of novels created by Tana French. It was interesting to see Detective Scorcher Kennedy – the narrator of ‘Broken Harbour’ (reviewed here in May 2016) through the eyes of one of his colleagues. And it was satisfying to understand the beginning of the relationship between Frank Mackey and Stephen Moran which plays an important part in ‘The Secret Place’.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Caro Emerald

12 April 2017

Four years ago, in April 2013, I turned on the TV, which happened to be tuned to the BBC Red Button channel, and stumbled upon a looped recording of a concert in the BBC Radio Theatre which immediately grabbed my attention. Completely forgetting whatever it was I had actually been switching on to watch, I found myself sitting through the entire concert, waiting for it to restart and watching back up to the point where I came in. This mesmerising performance was a session for BBC Radio 2 by the Dutch singer Caro Emerald. Her old-fashioned big band swing, updated by a modern four-to-the-floor dance beat, reminded me of the wonderful French group Caravan Palace who play the gypsy jazz swing of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli to pounding high-tempo electronic beats (reviewed here in July 2009). The use of samples from vintage recordings also brought to mind the Greek group Imam Baildi (reviewed here in May 2009) and the electronic tango of Gotan Project. Inspired by the Radio 2 concert I became a fan of Caro Emerald and would particularly recommend her 2013 album ‘The Shocking Miss Emerald’. So it was very exciting to get the chance to see her live this Tuesday at Milton Keynes Theatre. The 1400-seat theatre was completely sold out – I bought my ticket in November last year. Support was provided by the Israeli singer Irit whose lovely debut album ‘Hello’ is a summery feel-good collection of songs with a real international feel. Caro Emerald was stunning: trained as a jazz singer, her voice is strong and precise. Though her music draws on big band jazz it has more of a pop feel: there are no vocal hystrionics and the seven-piece band is very slick and polished. They use less electronics and sampling than Caravan Palace, Imam Baildi or Gotan Project – you could imagine them as a dance band transplanted from the 1940s to 2017. Indeed it was interesting to note how many of the songs are built on traditional ballroom and Latin rhythms (including tango, waltz, charleston, samba and cha cha cha). Regular readers will know that I love a band that dances to its own tunes and Caro Emerald and her band looked like they were having a great time – so was I. “Could you ever dream it - I have never dreamed, dreamed a night like this”.

You can take a look at footage of that 2013 Caro Emerald BBC Radio 2 session on YouTube – start with:

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Monday, April 10, 2017

‘I Capture The Castle’ by Teresa Howard and Steven Edis, based on the novel by Dodie Smith

10 April 2017

On Saturday we were at Watford Palace Theatre to see ‘I Capture The Castle’ – a new stage musical by Teresa Howard and Steven Edis, based on the novel by Dodie Smith. This premiere production is a collaboration between Watford Palace Theatre and Bolton Octagon, directed by Brigid Larmour. It’s a lovely show – charming, quirky, moving and not taking itself too seriously. The music, by Steven Edis and Sona Morris’s choreography play on the 1930s setting, including a foxtrot, waltz and tango. Teresa Howard’s book and lyrics are witty and playful, capturing the mood of this classic coming-of-age novel. ‘I Capture the Castle’ feels like a mixture of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ – not an easy trick to pull off. The cast were excellent, including two young leads at the very start of their careers – Lowri Izzard as Cassandra and Theo Boyce as Simon. And Ti Green’s set cleverly recreated the eccentric dilapidation of the castle that forms the family home. ‘I Capture The Castle’ is a beautiful miniature musical which reminded me of David Wood and Richard Taylor’s musical adaptation of ‘The Go-Between’ by L P Hartley (reviewed here in November 2001).

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Friday, April 07, 2017

'Twelfth Night' by William Shakespeare

7 April 2017

Regular readers may remember I am a fan of the theatre director Simon Godwin, having really enjoyed his productions of 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' (reviewed here in July 2014), 'Man and Superman' (reviewed here in May 2015), 'The Beaux' Stratagem' (reviewed here in September 2015) and ‘Hamlet’ (reviewed here in April 2016). You may also have noticed that ‘Twelfth Night’ is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – I’ve reviewed productions of ‘Twelfth Night’ here four times (in February 2007, August 2009, November 2009 and March 2012). So I was nervous about the incredibly raised expectations I was bringing to Simon Godwin’s National Theatre production of ‘Twelfth Night’ which we saw via the NT Live cinema screening on Thursday evening. For this we made a first visit to the beautiful new Quarry Theatre in Bedford – a converted church, owned and run by Bedford School. I needn’t have worried: Simon Godwin’s ‘Twelfth Night’ was a delight. The production, noted for casting Tamsin Greig as a female Malvolio (Malvolia), was not the most subtle I have seen. The comedy was broad and exaggerated, with plenty of mugging and glances at the audience. But it was very very funny. I enjoyed the more serious comedy moments, such as the tender scenes between Tamara Lawrance’s Cesario and Phoebe Fox’s Olivia (who were both excellent), better than the pantomimic performances of the more ridiculous characters. Even so, you couldn’t fail to laugh at Daniel Rigby’s nervously physical Andrew Aguecheek and Tim McMullan (who we last saw almost stealing the show as Mendoza and The Devil in that production of 'Man and Superman') playing Sir Toby Belch in the style of Bill Nighy. And Tamsin Greig gave a compelling performance as Malvolia, her body and face twitching to reveal each growing understanding of her predicament.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2017


4 April 2017

We had a lovely holiday last week in a cottage near Tregaron in Ceredigion, West Wales. We got some wonderful weather, particularly in the first half of the week, and did a lot of walking – in the Cambrian Mountains, along the Ceredigion Coast Path and in the wooded valley along the River Mynach near Devil’s Bridge. We visited the towns of Aberystwyth, Aberaeron and Rhayader and took part in ballroom dancing sessions in Aberaeron and Llwyncelyn. But I think the highlight of the week was driving across the tiny, steep mountain road from Beulah to Tregaron – a stunning drive through spectacular scenery in beautiful weather.