Thursday, August 24, 2017

'42nd Street' by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble with songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin

24 August 2017

‘42nd Street’ was a 1933 film directed by Lloyd Bacon with songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and choreography by the inimitable Busby Berkeley. It was the classic feelgood backstage musical about the chorus girl who steps in for an indisposed leading lady and becomes a star – designed to cheer up depression-era America. ‘42nd Street’ didn’t become a stage musical until 1980 when the producer David Merrick commissioned a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble and added more Warren & Dubin songs (originally written for other films). The show was a hit and the subsequent London West End production, in 1984, is famous for life imitating art as the teenaged Catherine Zeta-Jones actually had to stand in when both the actor playing Peggy Sawyer and her understudy were taken ill, and was then cast permanently in the role, launching her professional career. I saw that West End production when it toured to the Opera House in Manchester in the late 1980s and I can remember being bowled over from the start of the show when the current rises to reveal row upon row of people tap dancing to the title song. So I was looking forward to seeing whether the show was as good as I remembered when we went to see the latest West End revival, directed by the show’s author Mark Bramble, with choreography by Randy Skinner, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, last Saturday. It was brilliant! Even that opening moment didn’t disappoint as the curtain rose a few tentative inches and paused to show forty pairs of tap dancing feet, before completing its ascent to reveal the whole massive stage of the Theatre Royal. ‘42nd Street’ is a delightfully old-fashioned musical: there is very little plot but the dialogue is snappy, the songs are wonderful and the dance numbers are truly amazing. This production has a cast of 55 people on stage (plus 19 musicians in the pit) and provides an endless supply of big dance numbers, including a typical Busby Berkeley circle of dancers lying on the stage with a huge overhead mirror to show the audience the kaleidoscopic patterns they create. The star name in the cast is Sheena Easton as awkward diva Dorothy Brock: I was particularly impressed by her singing in the challenging chromatic intervals of ‘About a Quarter To Nine’. But the show definitely belongs to the dancers: Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer and Stuart Neal as Billy Lawlor were both incredible. With tap dancing there really is nowhere to hide – it’s audibly obvious if you put a foot wrong. And the increasingly ambitious tap routines create a thrilling, breath-holding fascination before delivering beautifully every time. By the final spectacular ensemble dances I had tears in my eyes from the sheer joy of this stunning live entertainment. ‘42nd Street’ is still a feelgood show for depressing times – go see it.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'Golden Hill' by Francis Spufford

15 August 2017

I last encountered the historical writer Francis Spufford through his excellent BBC Radio 4 mini-series about HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘Following the Martian Invasion’ (reviewed here in March 2017). Spufford brings an historian’s touch to his first novel ‘Golden Hill’, which I have just finished reading (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Sarah Borges). ‘Golden Hill’ is a brilliant tour de force. Set in Manhattan in 1746, when New York City has a population of 7,000 and feels like a frontier town, ‘Golden Hill’ is written in the style of novels of that period – a ‘Joseph Andrews’ for the New World. As a contemporary novel written in an historical style, it reminded me of Jo Baker's 'Longbourn' (reviewed here in April 2014), 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell (reviewed here in August 2011) and 'The Luminaries' by Eleanor Catton (reviewed here in December 2013). ‘Golden Hill’ grips from the start as a mysterious young man arrives on a ship from London with a bill of exchange for an unbelievable amount of money. The novel is beautifully written, historically fascinating with wonderfully drawn characters and a mesmeric plot. It manages to be a very funny comic novel without reducing its protagonists to caricatures. And there is a final satisfying twist which is achieved without any damage to the believability of the story. ‘Golden Hill’ is one of the best novels I’ve read in years – very highly recommended.


County Wicklow

15 August 2017

Earlier this year my brother and his wife moved to the Republic of Ireland and last week we visited them in their new home in the beautiful Wicklow Mountains, South of Dublin. We had a lovely week exploring County Wicklow – walking part of the Wicklow Way with stunning views of the Great Sugar Loaf mountain, walking the spectacular coastal path from Bray to Greystones and looking down on the dramatic valley of the two lakes, Glendalough. We visited the stately homes of Castletown and Powerscourt and enjoyed a brilliant concert by the Chamber Philharmonia Cologne in Wicklow Town. We also visited the mediaeval town of Kilkenny on the opening day of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. And we were very lucky with the weather – hardly any rain and plenty of glorious sunshine. You can see a selection of my photos of Wicklow at:


Tuesday, August 01, 2017

WOMAD 2017

1 August 2017

I have been writing here about my annual visit to the WOMAD Festival every year since 2006, so regular readers will be expecting a list of my key highlights, a boast about how many bands I saw and some comments on the weather – and I don’t plan to disappoint you! This year it was good to get the chance to see again some old favourites as well as some great new discoveries. It was WOMAD 2009 when I last saw the great Wassalou singer from Mali, Oumou Sangaré (reviewed here in July 2009 and March 2009), and it was wonderful to see her on great form again on the Open Air Stage this weekend. I wrote here in January 2016 about ‘Junun’ – the wonderfully hard-to-categorise album of music by the Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, recorded with a troupe of Sufi qawwali musicians and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood – and it was great to get the chance to see this music performed live by Shye Ben Tzur & Rajasthan Express on Friday. One of the most bizarre moments of the weekend was watching Dorit Chrysler and Charlie Draper from the New York Theremin Society performing a mixture of classical, jazz and contemporary music on the original electronic instrument – I want a theremin! Talking of bizarre, it was a joy to discover the brilliant Spooky Men’s Chorale from the Blue Mountains of Australia. As their own publicity says “Men. Singing Songs. Some of them are funny.” Their idiosyncratic mixture of dead-pan comedy, pathos and beautiful harmonies felt like a combination of the amazing Chumbawamba performance at WOMAD 2010 (reviewed here in July 2010) and the legendary Flying Pickets. Here’s a flavour of the Spooky Men’s Chorale: And another standout moment in an increasingly bizarre weekend was watching a 28-piece brass band playing Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’. Tubular Brass, arranged and conducted by Sandy Smith, also accompanied the young electronic music experimentalist Hannah Peel in her new work ‘Mary Casio’. But my favourite performances from WOMAD 2017 were all from the Baltic. Estonian fiddler Maarja Nuut and the Estonia folk trio Trad.Attack! both create very modern music from traditional folk sources. It has been eleven years since I last saw one of my favourite bands, the great Finnish folk/rock band Värttinä, live (reviewed here at WOMAD in August 2006) and it was fantastic to see their three female vocalists performing as Värttinä Vocal Trio on Saturday. They were joined by the English folk star Eliza Carthy for a wonderful English/Finnish version of ‘Three Drunken Maidens’. But my favourite song was the beautiful ‘Emoton’ which you can hear at: For the record I beat last year’s tally of 22 bands, seeing 23 performances in total last weekend. And the weather was a mixed bag this year – hot, sunny, cold, wet, windy and very muddy by the end of the weekend. You can see a selection of my WOMAD 2017 photos at:

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