Friday, June 28, 2019

'Small Island' based on the novel by Andrea Levy, adapted by Helen Edmundson

28 June 2019

I have written here before about Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’ – one of my favourite novels of recent years – a moving tale of Caribbean immigrants to the UK after the Second World War which manages to show you events through the eyes of each of the main protagonists so that you amazingly find yourself simultaneously sympathising with both sides of the racial prejudice at the heart of the story. It’s a brilliant novel and I had some trepidation about going to see the NTLive screening of Rufus Norris’s National Theatre production of Helen Edmundson’s stage adaptation of ‘Small Island’ at the Odeon in Milton Keynes on Thursday. Much as I knew I would enjoy revisiting Andrea Levy’s rich characters, I worried that the theatrical version would have to reduce a long and complex book so much that the best aspects might be lost. I need not have worried. Helen Edmundson has created a very inventive play of two halves which works extremely well. Whereas the novel starts with the arrival in post-war London, from Jamaica, of Hortense and Gilbert and then fills in the back story of each of the main characters through lengthy flashbacks, the stage version uses the flashbacks to create a linear, chronological first half. Rufus Norris uses the vast stage of the Olivier Theatre to create an epic, cinematic story, spanning decades and continents. After the interval the second half of the play starts with Hortense and Gilbert arriving in London and tells their ‘present day’ story as a more straightforward play-within-the-play, claustrophobically focussed on two rooms in Queenie’s house. By the time we get to this main story of West Indian immigrants coping with the harsh realities of 1940s London, we already know each character well. It’s an incredibly emotional story – funny, moving and shocking. It was great to be in a packed cinema to experience the collective gasps of the audience at some of the viciously racist language. And the acting was excellent, with the two female leads – Leah Harvey as Hortense and Aisling Loftus as Queenie – both outstanding. My only slight disappointment was with the portrayal of Queenie’s husband, Bernard. I think Andrea Levy’s greatest achievement in the novel was to allow the reader despise this most horribly racist bully, before filling in his backstory (particularly his experiences in the RAF in Burma and India) and making us shocked to find we can begin to find some sympathy for Bernard. In the play I felt the actor playing Bernard was too young: in the early scenes he came across as a socially awkward young man who was slightly too likeable. And because Bernard’s wartime experiences are cut from the play, and only briefly referred to in passing, we don’t really get the chance to see events from his point of view, making him seem jarringly unredeemed at the end. But apart from this slightly missed opportunity, the National Theatre production of ‘Small Island’ was truly excellent and it was wonderful to see it attracting a truly diverse audience – both in the theatre and the cinema.

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Fever-Tree Tennis Championships 2019 at Queen's Club, London

21 June 2019

On Thursday we made a first-ever visit to the Queen’s Club in West London to see the pre-Wimbledon Fever-Tree Championships. After most of the matches scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday were postponed by rain, we were extremely lucky to see more than nine hours of uninterrupted tennis on Centre Court. The Argentinian clay-court specialist Diego Schwartzman played brilliantly to beat reigning champion Marin Čilić in straight sets. We saw two extremely close matches decided by final set tie breaks, with Nicolas Mahut triumphing over Stan Wawrinka (in the best match of the day) and the top seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, finally beating Jérémy Chardy of France after both men had succumbed to nerves when serving for the match. Finally we were thrilled to see the return to competitive tennis of Andy Murray, playing doubles with Feliciano López. Murray got an incredible reception from the Centre Court crowd and he and Lopez won a thrilling match against the top seeds Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah at the end of a wonderful day of tennis at Queen’s.


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

18 June 2019

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra held its first rehearsal on 24 October 1893 with 21 members and gave its first concert in a crowded Northampton Town Hall on 20 January 1894, having grown to 40 players. The programme consisted of a large number of short ‘light’ pieces, including songs. The orchestra’s second concert the following November was a ‘grand success’ and the £10 surplus from the concert was used to buy 31 music stands and a cupboard to keep them in. In the following 125 years the Northampton Symphony Orchestra has gone through many changes but, in celebrating this momentous anniversary with a gala concert at the Derngate in Northampton last Saturday, I think we showed that the orchestra is arguably the biggest and best it has ever been. We had assembled a mammoth orchestra (116 players) for a mammoth programme.

The concert opened with a new piece commissioned by NSO to mark its 125th anniversary. ‘Overture: From the Heart of the Rose’ by the young composer Alga Mau, paints a picture of Northampton and the surrounding countryside from the bustling Victorian town of 1893 to the present day. It is, in part, a deliberate homage to the music of Eric Coates, whose ‘London Suite’ Alga Mau remembers playing during his time in the Northamptonshire County Training Orchestra. The overture is a tuneful, jolly piece which deserves many more performances. It was followed by a rousing performance of William Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’, written for the coronation of King George VI in 1937, perhaps the best known piece on the programme.

The climax of the first half of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concerto No 2’ played by Peter Donohoe, who has been one of the UK’s best known pianists since winning the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1982. I have fond memories of performing the Grieg Piano Concerto with Peter Donohoe in a youth orchestra concert in Manchester when I was still at school and it was amazing to see him again so many years later with the same virtuoso technique, thrilling style and showmanship. Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto is a huge and fascinating work but is much less often performed than its more famous predecessor. The first movement lasts more than twenty minutes and feels almost like a complete work in itself: applause from our audience in the Derngate felt natural and deserved, and was smilingly acknowledged by Peter Donohoe. The second movement of the concerto is a beautiful and surprising triple concerto for violin, ‘cello and piano. In Saturday’s concert the orchestra’s Leader, Stephen Hague, and Principal ‘Cellist, Corinne Malitskie, played the solo parts stunningly. It was a mesmerising performance which transfixed the large Derngate audience – a real highpoint of the evening. The final movement of the concerto was a frenetic romp with Peter Donohoe racing the orchestra to a thrilling finish. He then treated us to an encore, playing the teasingly contemplative ‘Dumka’ by Tchaikovsky.

In the second half of the concert we played ‘An Alpine Symphony’ by Richard Strauss – a piece most French horn players dream of playing but rarely have the opportunity. The symphony is scored for 20 horns – 8 horns on stage (including 4 also playing Wagner tubas) and 12 offstage horns (4 playing each of 3 parts). Given that most orchestras usually have 4 horn players it is a major challenge to amass sufficient forces. We managed to bring together 17 horn players (from orchestras in Northampton, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Luton and Windsor & Maidenhead) which allowed us to cover all the parts and sounded fantastic. ‘An Alpine Symphony’ was one of the first pieces I played with NSO – in a one-day workshop with members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2000 – and it was amazing to finally get the chance to perform the symphony in a concert 19 years later, as part of this massive horn section.

Richard Strauss’s programmatic symphony tells the story, in 22 short movements, of a mountain climb in the Alps. The trek begins before dawn, witnesses sunrise before embarking on the main ascent, travels through woods, by a brook and past a waterfall. It continues through flowering meadows, past cattle grazing on high pasture, emerging into bright sunlight on the glacier then reaching the summit. In the descent the party are caught in a furious storm before the symphony finishes back at the foot of the mountain with sunset and a return to night.

One of the most memorable moments of the symphony is the sound of a hunt in the distance, created by an offstage brass section. This offstage section only lasts about 40 seconds, and happens about 6 minutes after the start of this long symphony, so I am particularly grateful to everyone who joined us on Saturday just to create this brief but vital musical moment. I think the offstage section went even better in performance than it had in rehearsal, perfectly co-ordinated with the orchestra on stage, and it sounded fantastic.

The Alpine Symphony was a considerable challenge for the orchestra but I think our performance was really special. NSO conductor John Gibbons, who was deservedly awarded a British Empire Medal, for services to music, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last week, managed to create a moving, disciplined and powerful performance from the mass of performers on and off stage. There were so many highlights it would be impossible to mention them all but I particularly loved our brilliant percussion section who created a terrifying storm, and the brass section were outstanding with amazingly piercing high notes from the trumpets. For me, however, there was nothing better than that magical moment, at the summit of the mountain, when the 12 onstage horns all played together for the first time. It was incredible to be part of this huge team effort, and it was a wonderful way to celebrate 125 years of the Northampton Symphony Orchestra.

[Many thanks to Graham Tear's excellent programme notes from which I have blatantly pinched!]

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Friday, June 14, 2019

'The Pope' by Anthony McCarten

14 June 2019

The Royal Theatre in Northampton is on an impressive run of form. The last three home-grown productions we have seen there have all been excellent ('Ghosts' by Henrik Ibsen, reviewed here in April 2019, 'The Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro, reviewed here in March 2019, and 'Our Lady of Kibeho' by Katori Hall, reviewed here in January 2019). Royal and Derngate Artistic Director James Dacre’s production of Anthony McCarten’s new play ‘The Pope’, which we saw at the Royal Theatre on Thursday, maintains this glowing track record. Anthony McCarten is an award-winning screenwriter and film producer whose credits include ‘The Theory of Everything’, ‘Darkest Hour’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – all fictionalised versions of relatively recent events. ‘The Pope’ is an even more contemporary tale, looking at the decision  in 2013 of Pope Benedict XVI to resign – the first Pope to do so for more than 700 years. Anton Lesser plays Pope Benedict with Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis). The play has a simple and very effective structure, with mirrored scenes in the first half in which both men explain their intentions to female confidantes before the two of them come together for an extended dialogue to attempt to resolve their impasse. The script is remarkably witty – very funny without ever being disrespectful – and the play focuses on the contrasting characters of two men with a common purpose. Anton Lesser and Nicholas Woodeson are wonderful – it’s a great two-hander.

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Friday, June 07, 2019

‘Mum’ by Stefan Golaszewski

7 June 2019

I’ve written here before about ‘Mum’, Stefan Golaszewski’s brilliantly bittersweet TV sitcom starring Lesley Manville (reviewed here in March 2018). As the third and final series comes to an end on BBC2, I have to reinforce my earlier praise. Over the three short series, every one of the seemingly ridiculous characters becomes completely sympathetic, without ever losing their obnoxious traits. It is beautifully written and wonderfully acted drama. All the actors are fantastic but Karl Johnson and Marlene Sidaway’s foul-mouthed grandparents deserve a series of their own! In this golden age of television, ‘Mum’ is one of the most precious gems.

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‘The Affinity Bridge’ by George Mann

7 June 2019

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Affinity Bridge’ by George Mann (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Simon Taylor) – the first book in the ‘Newbury and Hobbes’ series of Victorian detective/fantasy/science fiction novels. Despite being set in a strange parallel universe where the streets of Victorian London are dominated by steampunk vehicles and giant airships and the fog hides armies of zombie ‘revenants’, ‘The Affinity Bridge’ is a surprisingly believable period piece (including the attitudes to gender, race and class). Sir Maurice Newbury and his assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes are unfailingly politely spoken, even in the most harrowing encounters with the forces of evil. And the amount of Earl Grey tea they manage to drink beggars belief! The book reminded me of 'Rivers of London' by Ben Aaronovitch (reviewed here in June 2018), ‘The House of Silk’ – Anthony Horowitz’s Sherlock Holmes novel (reviewed here in January 2012) and 'The Massacre of Mankind' – Stephen Baxter’s sequel to ‘The War of the Worlds’ (reviewed here in February 2017). ‘The Affinity Bridge’ is a very stiff-upper-lip, jolly-hockey-sticks tale, and its a ripping yarn.