Friday, April 27, 2018

'The Last Ship' by Sting

27 April 2018

On Thursday we were at the Derngate in Northampton to see 'The Last Ship' - Sting's musical about the fight to prevent closure of a Wallsend shipyard in the 1980s. Originally produced on Broadway in 2014, this completely revised version, with a new book by Lorne Campbell (who also directs), has been getting great reviews. Its tale of a working community pulling together to oppose the forces of capitalism has been compared to 'The Full Monty' and 'Brassed Off' but 'The Last Ship' is a bleaker show. A little slow to get started, the second half of the musical increases the narrative pace and builds to a powerful emotional climax. Sting's music very effectively blends North East folk styles with pop, alluding in places to the clog tradition (though I would have loved to see a proper clog dancing number in the show). Joe McGann leads an impressive cast in this touring Northern Stage production, with particularly fine singing from Frances McNamee  and Richard Fleeshman (you could imagine Sting himself signing some of Fleeshman's ballads). The ensemble choral singing was very strong, making the most of the distinctive North East accents. But the real star of the show was the amazing set and design by 59 Productions which makes very effective use of projection to create the massive scale of the shipyard on the large Derngate stage. The visual effects, blending live action and the physical set with video and lighting, were stunning.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

24 April 2018

There seems to be an increasing trend for football players missing games because they get injured in the warm-up but this sort of thing is still thankfully rare amongst orchestral musicians. So it was a shock when the start of our Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday was delayed after one of our oboe players was stung on the lip by a wasp while the orchestra was tuning-up. Sadly she was unable to play in the concert – as was our principal ‘cellist who had been taken ill a few days before. Nevertheless, the orchestra managed a fine performance of a challenging programme with Philip Luck’s ‘cello solos proving a particularly impressive highlight. Continuing our season of music inspired by the visual arts, for this concert NSO conductor John Gibbons had selected a series of pieces evoking the sea. ‘The Garden of Fand’ by Arnold Bax is based on an Irish mythical figure, Fand, the daughter of the Lord of the Ocean. It is an ethereal piece underpinned by the constant swelling of the waves. Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem ‘Sadko’ also draws inspiration from legend, being based on an epic Russian poem in which the hero Sadko is transported to the realm of the Sea King. The best known piece in the programme was ‘La Mer’ by Claude Debussy – a three-movement impressionist picture of the sea that requires a mixture of concentration, delicacy and power from the orchestra. There was fine playing from all sections of the NSO, particularly the woodwind and Nick Bunker’s excellent trumpet solos. But the highlight of the concert was undoubtedly Richard Peaslee’s trombone concerto ‘Arrows of Time’, magnificently played by Carol Jarvis. ‘Arrows of Time’ is an accessibly tuneful modern piece with playful syncopated rhythms. Carol Jarvis gave a virtuoso performance, demonstrating an amazing dexterity in the fast passages and a beautiful tone in the slow movement.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

BBC Young Musician podcast

20 April 2018

Regular readers will be familiar with my enthusiasm for the biennial BBC Young Musician competition which I have written extensively about here since 2006. I am really enjoying watching the category finals of the 2018 competition (currently being shown on Friday evenings on BBC4) and I will share my thoughts after the concerto final on 13 May. I am also really enjoying the new BBC Young Musician weekly podcast which accompanies this year’s competition. Hosted by 2016 BBC Young Musician finalist, saxophonist Jess Gillam, it’s a really engaging discussion about what it is like to learn an instrument, practice, perform in public and develop a musical career. Each week Jess and her friends discuss their own experiences and interview former BBC Young Musician winners. Jess Gillam – who performed twice with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra last year (reviewed here in March 2017 and July 2017) – is a natural presenter: open, engaging and enthusiastic. The podcasts, which have so far covered topics including stage fright, practice and getting into music, are interesting and amusing. There don’t refer directly to this year’s BBC Young Musician competition so there are no spoilers. Well worth a listen. See:

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Friday, April 13, 2018

'The Likeness' by Tana French

13 April 2018

Regular readers may remember that I have been working my way through the six Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French. As each novel features a different lead detective I have been able to read them out of order. I have now completed the set by reading novel 2: ‘The Likeness’ (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Grainne Gillis). This is a sequel, of sorts, to ‘In the Woods’ (reviewed here in May 2017) in that its narrator is Detective Cassie Maddox, who was partner to the previous novel’s narrator Detective Rob Ryan, and the events of ‘The Likeness’ take place against the backdrop of the fallout from their previous case. But each novel stands alone as a murder mystery and ‘The Likeness’ is grippingly plotted. I found the premise that an undercover detective could pass herself off as the murder victim, resuming her life amongst her closest friends, a little too far-fetched – even if she happens to be a doppelgänger for the dead woman. But once you go with it, this premise sets up a thrilling undercover investigation to try to work out exactly what happened and who committed the murder. ‘The Likeness’ also introduces Detective Frank Mackey – a recurring character through several of the other Murder Squad novels. Now I’m waiting for the seventh novel in the series to be published.


Friday, April 06, 2018

'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

6 April 2018

I really enjoyed reading Karen Joy Fowler’s 2013 novel ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’, particularly because I had heard nothing about it and didn’t know what to expect – so I will try to be careful not to give too much away here! Rosemary Cooke was a very talkative child: her parents encouraged her to limit her constant chatter by starting to tell stories from the middle, and only saying out loud one of each three things she wanted to say. So Rosemary’s first-person narration of this novel starts in the middle of her story and the reader only gradually pieces together the full dramatic picture. The book opens with a brilliantly attention-grabbing scene but this holds no clues to the unexpected direction the narrative takes. (Or rather there are some very small clues but they only become apparent in hindsight.) ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ has a very cleverly constructed plot and is witty, funny and surprisingly fascinating. But I don’t want to say any more in case I spoil it for you ...


Wednesday, April 04, 2018


4 April 2018

We had a lovely holiday in Monmouthshire last week, staying at a cottage in a small village near Usk, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons national park. We had some great weather and enjoyed dramatic walks up Sugar Loaf mountain and Blorenge. We visited the spectacular castles at Raglan and Chepstow and the towns of Monmouth, Abergavenny and Brecon.


'Julius Caesar' by William Shakespeare

4 April 2018

We really enjoyed the live screening of Nicholas Hytner’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’ at the new Bridge Theatre in London, which we watched at the Odeon in Milton Keynes a couple of weeks ago. The original reviews of this promenade production, where the audience form the Roman mob, were mixed but I thought it worked stunningly well as a live broadcast. Hand-held cameras gave you the feeling of being right in the middle of the crowd without missing any of the action. And the marshalling of the crowd was incredibly impressive, with discreetly positioned stewards making sure the mass of people parted at exactly the right moment to let the actors through. The cast were great, particularly David Calder as a Trumpian Caesar (complete with ‘Let’s Make Rome Great Again’ baseball cap), David Morrissey as Mark Antony (whose “And Brutus is an honourable man” speech was a political spin masterclass), Michelle Fairley as Cassius and the wonderful Ben Wishaw as Brutus. The modern dress production, which starts with a rock band entertaining the crowd at a political rally, is chillingly believable: the merciless slaughter of Cinna the Poet by the mob was genuinely horrifying. If you get an opportunity to see an ‘encore’ screening I would recommend it.

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