Wednesday, November 29, 2017

'Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz' by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman

29 November 2017

Some time in 2001 I heard someone on the radio talking about a novel that was going to tell the story of the childhood of the Wicked Witch of the West from L Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’. Even though the book had not yet been published in the UK, I was hooked by the concept. During a trip to Seattle in 2002 I bought a copy of 'Wicked' by Gregory Maguire at the wonderful Elliot Bay Book Company store and I loved it. It has since become a bestseller and spawned a Broadway musical, which has now been running at the Apollo Victoria in London for 11 years. Last Saturday I finally got around to going to see it. I think I had been put off by the initial critical reviews and worried that the show wouldn’t live up to Gregory Maguire’s novel – an incredibly complex tale which is both an exercise in magical realism and (strangely) believably realistic. (As is his other novel 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister', reviewed here in March 2008.) ‘Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz’, directed by Joe Mantello, is great fun: an impressive spectacle with an amazing set (by Eugene Lee), stunning lighting (by Kenneth Posner) and a huge cast. It’s a rock musical with solid music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. But it’s really worth seeing for three reasons: 1. it is rare to see a mainstream musical with two strong female leads (it would definitely pass the Bechdel test) – Alice Fearn as Elphaba and Sophie Evans as Glinda are the stars of the show; 2. the book by Winnie Holzman is brilliant – incredibly witty, quickly pricking any emerging pomposity, with some beautifully hidden references to lines from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and many laugh-out-loud quips; and 3. anyone who grew up watching the 1939 MGM film will love this reverential ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ alternative viewpoint on some of the key events in the original story.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

'La Belle Sauvage' by Philip Pullman

23 November 2017

Searching back through my blog, I was pleased to discover that when I wrote here about Susanna Clarke’s brilliant novel ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ (reviewed here in April 2008) I noted the similarity between Clarke’s parallel universe and those of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' novels. While ‘His Dark Materials’ was inspired by Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Philip Pullman’s new trilogy of young adult novels, ‘The Book of Dust’, take Spenser's ‘The Faerie Queene’ as its underlying theme. And in the first of these new novels, ‘La Belle Sauvage’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Michael Sheen), Pullman’s characters’ initial encounters with the fairy world are very reminiscent of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’. It was great to return to Philip Pullman’s alternative Oxford – a contemporary world that feels strangely old-fashioned, where familiar places are populated by people with animal daemons. ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is a prequel to ‘Northern Lights’ – the first ‘His Dark Materials’ novel – and shows us that novel’s hero Lyra Belacqua as a baby, given sanctuary in Godstow Priory to hide her from the Magisterium. This tale is told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, Malcolm Polstead, who lives with his parents at the Trout Inn, across the river Thames from the Priory. It’s more than 15 years since I read the ‘His Dark Materials’ novels and reading ‘La Belle Sauvage’ was like re-encountering an old friend. I had forgotten how good Philip Pullman’s writing is and how genuinely thrilling he makes his stories. ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is incredibly scary and exciting (particularly with Michael Sheen’s dramatic narration). These novels are aimed at children but deal with some very serious themes. Ultimately they seem to be very well observed, sometimes funny, sometimes painful, reflections on the process of growing up. This new Philip Pullman novel was a real treat and I can’t wait for the next two books in the series.


Friday, November 17, 2017

'Follies' by Stephen Sondheim

17 November 2017

Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical ‘Follies’ is rarely performed, largely because it requires an enormous cast. Laurie Sansom’s splendid 2006 production at the Northampton Royal & Derngate (reviewed here in November 2006) cast local amateurs as the ageing Follies girls, with a professional cast playing the leads and the ‘ghosts’ of their younger selves. Dominic Cooke’s new production at the National Theatre (which we saw as a NTLive broadcast at the Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium on Thursday) uses a cast of 37, plus a 21-strong orchestra. It’s a stunning production with Vicki Mortimer’s massive set showing the crumbling carcass of a condemned theatre constantly rotating on the huge stage of the Olivier. ‘Follies’ is a bitter-sweet show, full of set-piece songs in which the older women each reprise the hits of their youth. Sondheim’s songs are pastiches of the style of those early 20th century Follies shows, but with more knowing poignancy. Dominic Cooke’s production is of the highest quality with great music and dancing. The singing, in particular, is excellent – from the operatic contributions of Josephine Barstow and Bruce Graham, to musical standards by Di Botcher (‘Broadway Baby’) and Tracie Bennett (‘I’m Still Here’), to brilliant song and dance numbers by Dawn Hope (‘Who’s That Woman? (Mirror Mirror)’) and the wonderful Janie Dee (‘The story of Lucy and Jessie’). And it felt impossible not to cry at Imelda Staunton’s heartbreakingly beautiful performance of ‘Losing My Mind’ – the melancholic climax of the evening. The nature of the show, with its roll call of solos by each of the characters, invites audience adulation throughout and the reaction of the audience at the National Theatre on Thursday seemed to grow more exuberant with each number. It’s always a slightly-detached experience sitting in a cinema watching the relay of a live show, but on this occasion the final curtain prompted spontaneous applause from everyone at the Odeon Milton Keynes – and, on screen in the Olivier auditorium, the audience were all on their feet for the most enthusiastic standing ovation I have seen for years. This was a brilliant production of ‘Follies’ and it is amazing for it to be playing in London at the same time as Christopher Wheeldon’s production of ‘An American in Paris’ (reviewed here in April 2017) and Mark Bramble’s production of ‘42nd Street’ (reviewed here in August 2017). All three could make a strong case for being the best musical you will ever see: we are so lucky to have seen them all this year.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 November 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra’s 2017-18 season features music inspired by the visual arts. The opening concert, at Spinney Theatre in Northampton last Saturday, included William Walton’s overture ‘Portsmouth Point’, inspired by Thomas Rowlandson’s 1872 satirical print of the same name. Rhythmically, it’s a fiendishly difficult piece to play with constant changes of time signature and syncopated figures which create an exciting depiction of the bustling port. ‘The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca’ by Bohuslav Martinu presents similar challenges to the orchestra, with few downbeats coming where you expect them. It’s a lovely three-movement work which creates a shimmering sound-world capturing the atmosphere of Piero della Francesca’s paintings. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Job: A Masque for Dancing’ is a rarely performed one act ballet, loosely based on William Blake’s ‘Illustrations to The Book of Job’. I'm still finding it hard to believe it is more than 32 years since I last played ‘Job’ – in a series of 3 staged performances by the Manchester Youth Orchestra at the Royal Northern College of Music in January 1985. When we started rehearsing the piece for this NSO concert memories came flooding back of that seminal musical experience and I was amazed how well I remembered the detail of the horn parts. Our performance on Saturday featured wonderful solos by Stephen Hague (violin), Sarah Mourant (oboe), Naomi Muller (clarinet) and Graham Tear and Helen Taylor (flutes). I don’t think anyone would dispute, however, that the concert was dominated by Dinara Klinton’s amazing performance of the ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’ by Maurice Ravel. Written for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during the First World War – by Ravel who had been an ambulance driver on the other side in the war – it was a poignant piece to play on 11 November. The concerto is a dark, brooding work which opens with a menacingly deep contrabassoon solo – beautifully played by Frank Jordan. Listening to a recording it seems impossible that the piano is being played with only one hand. It was fascinating to see the young Ukrainian pianist Dinara Klinton making the seemingly impossible not only possible but musically stunning. I can confidently say that no-one who was at the concert will ever forget her performance. Dinara Klinton gave herself the luxury of using both hands for her encore – one of Liszt’s ‘Transcendental Studies’ (the full set of which she recorded for Genuin Classics in 2016: you can watch her playing them at: The NSO negotiated these four unfamiliar and challenging pieces very impressively (though with much furrowed brow concentration!) to present an intriguing and unusual concert which was a tribute to Music Director John Gibbons’ inventive programming and effective conducting.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

'Twelfth Night' by William Shakespeare

10 November 2017

“What country, friends, is this?” It is Illyria and we’ve been here before. I think I have seen ‘Twelfth Night’ more times than any other Shakespeare play. I’ve seen the play interpreted in many different ways but it always seems to work. On Thursday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see Christopher Luscombe’s new RSC production of ‘Twelfth Night’. Luscombe’s 2014 RSC production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (reviewed here in November) felt like a cosy, crowd-pleasing version but had some subtle, serious touches (such as Dogberry’s shellshock). His ‘Twelfth Night’ has a similar feel. It’s a play famous for its songs but, in this production, composer Nigel Hess creates additional songs based on fleeting references in the text, making it feel almost like ‘Twelfth Night: The Musical’. Luscombe sets the play in the 1890s, bringing a late Victorian decadence with hints of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. There’s a beautifully lavish set by Simon Higlett and steam trains, music hall and top hats. Though he is far from being the main character of the play, it is traditionally Malvolio who gets the top billing and Adrian Edmondson gave an impressively restrained and touching performance, managing to be both obnoxious and sympathetic with a charming twinkle in his eye. (I last saw Adrian Edmondson on stage 25 years ago, when he starred with Rik Mayall in ‘Waiting for Godot’ at the Queen’s Theatre in London.) But unusually for Shakespeare, ‘Twelfth Night’ gives two female actors the lead roles: Dinita Gohil’s Viola and Kara Tointon’s Olivia were both excellent as the emotional heart of the play.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2017

'Stranger Things 2' by The Duffer Brothers

8 November 2017

The essential viewing this week was clearly ‘Stranger Things 2’. Released on Netflix just in time for Halloween, the second series of the Duffer Brothers’ homage to 1980s sci-fi/horror is a darker, more violent sequel to last summer’s big hit (reviewed here in August 2016). Set one year on from the events of the first series, ‘Stranger Things 2’ returns to Hawkins, Indiana, where a growing sense of dread suggests that everything is by no means back to normal. Once again the kids are the stars of the show, forming a brilliant ensemble cast whose interactions are touching, believable and very funny. There is a knowing, meta-textual feel to the sequel which answers some of the puzzling questions, loose ends and ‘deliberate mistakes’ from the first series, almost as if the characters have all now watched ‘Stranger Things’. There is also some great 1980s period detail and music and plenty of reverential nods to 1980s films. We devoured all nine episodes within a week: it’s really enjoyable, thrilling and genuinely scary.

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Friday, November 03, 2017

'Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine' by Gail Honeyman

3 November 2017

I’ve just finished reading Gail Honeyman’s novel ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Cathleen McCarron). It’s an intriguing and inspiring tale which demonstrates the too often overlooked joy of normality. Eleanor Oliphant is an intelligent, capable 30-year-old who works in an office but seems to have minimal social skills. Through Eleanor’s precise, unemotional first-person narration we gradually piece together traumatic childhood events which have left her scarred (physically and emotionally) and suppressed memories that are preventing her from leading a normal life. Her naive, literal, narration – from which the reader is left to deduce things that Eleanor herself doesn’t fully understand – reminded me of Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’. Eleanor’s gradual emergence from the protective shell of her lonely routine existence is genuinely heart-warming.