Tuesday, 28 November 2017

'Network' at the National Theatre

We went to see 'Network' at the National Theatre a couple of weeks ago at a preview performance to give it the once over and afraid it'll remain once with me. I saw the film decades ago and haven't really given it much thought since then. I suppose it's quite topical at the moment with the power of the media being used to distort reality than than report it - fake news and all that, media companies trying to manipulate audiences and a USA president that lives on Twitter - and that alone can justify a play like this. But a play based on a film? I don't know, where are the original ideas?

I'm obviously out of the loop here, but since when did one third of the Lyttelton stage become a restaurant with the kitchen at the back of the stage? Am I missing something here? And why are so many people wearing black wandering round the stage with lots of cameras and mics? The set is meant to be a TV news studio - that much I get - but what about the rest? And the huge video screen at the back of the stage to show off-stage scenes and close-ups of action on the stage - I was there to see a theatrical production not a semi-cinema thing. Honest folks, sometimes less is more.

So. The basic story is that a veteran news broadcaster has a breakdown on screen and that creates a whole new audience for him that the network wants to exploit, His catchphrase - I'm mad as hell and won't take it anymore - becomes the theme of the show and we see how things spiral out of control. Something I really didn't like was the cast treating us like a pants audience, getting us to shout out the catchphrase at various points in the play. Um, no thank you. And please get that bloody on-stage camera-man out of the way of the acton please!

No. I didn't enjoy it. If I want to watch a screen I'll go to a cinema thank you. It's all too clever by half. It seems to be doing well but I won't be returning for a second look.

'42nd Street' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

I have history with '42nd Street'. It's the first show I saw on Broadway way back when and I saw it on (wait for it) a theatre on 42nd Street itself.  That might've been the reason I booked to see it but I can't remember. And here it is, back in London at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane where it first ran back in 1984. Things come full circle. As you'd expect, it's the glitziest, sassiest, biggest show in town at the moment and can outshine the sun in pure wattage from the costumes alone... This is show biz writ large!

The story's been done a thousand times in different ways, of out-of-town girl arriving on Broadway to make it big and she does. In this case, we have Peggy Sawyer who can sing and tap like nobodies business managing to get a job in a show, accidentally knocks over the star who breaks her ankle and can't perform. Peggy is fired of course but, when the cast realise the show will close before it's even opened, they all want Peggy to play the lead to keep the show going and make her a star. And that's what happens. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work that out.

I think that's the strength of the show, really. It's not about complex plotting and characterisation, it's about spectacle and having a good time, an escapist fantasy with some great songs and some astonishing dancing, particularly the ensemble tap dancing scenes. There's a cast of thousands in the brightest, sparkliest costumes imaginable. And, if you're reading this blog, you probably know about half of the songs already. Honest.

The star name on the bill is Sheena Easton - yes, *that* Sheena Easton - as the has-been star who breaks her ankle. Initially it took me a while to work out who she was since I wasn't there to see Sheena, but every now and then her voice reverted to her true voice that niggled at a memory and then there she was, Sheena Easton on stage. It's was her slow version of 'I Only Have Eyes For You' that made me sit up and realise who I was seeing on stage. The real star, however, was Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer, tapping and singing her way to becoming a real name on the West End stage. She was an impressive sight indeed.

The real star of the show, however, was the ensembled chorus that danced and sang their way through the show, quick costume changes and ever-more sparkle. They were step perfect in all their dances - with so many dancers on the stage at the same time you'd think it would be easier to hide a mis-step but it actually stands out like a sore thumb and this cast didn't put a step wrong when I saw them. Most impressive indeed! How on earth did they manage the rehearsals with so  many on stage at once?

If you want a feel-good show that doesn't engage too much brain power but is full-on show biz then I've no hesitation in recommending '42nd Street'. Turn up expecting to be entertained and you will be. I guarantee!

'Young Marx' at the Bridge Theatre

'Young Marx' is a new play being performed in a new theatre so we had to go, obviously. The Bridge Theatre is right beside Tower Bridge (City Hall side), hence the name. It has a nice big open foyer and cafe/bar, lots of bare wood and, for a change, lots of toilets. The auditorium has good sight lines and feels comfortable, with the seats on the sides angled towards the stage. It'll be interesting to go back and see it all settled down - it has a 'new' feel to it with everyone settling in and on best behaviour so it'll be good to go back when it's properly relaxed into itself.

The play itself is great fun, telling a tale of Marx's early years before he'd settled down to being the great political thinker he became. He's in London, living with his family in Soho, penniless but still managing the odd pint here and there, surrounded by spies and rivals, but also surrounded by admirers and his good friend Engels. Money is a problem, keeping his family together is a problem, hiding in cupboards from his creditors is a daily occurrence but, we don't see him climbing up a lamppost as shown in the poster. After the madness of his life I liked the final scene where he finally buckles down to begin to write his first great work.

It's a knock-about comedy about Marx and there's nothing wrong with that. I really liked the set which was on a revolve on the stage, moving round to give us a different setting for each scene - a pawn shop, a meeting room above a pub, Marx's living room and the setting for a dual for the honour of his wife. All sorts going on here.

I really liked Rory Kinnear as Marx - he's really becoming one of our must see actors despite the supporting roles in James Bond films and elsewhere. He worked the floppy wig really well and was suitable manic and serious by turns, giving a great performance as a man of goodwill down on his luck with no idea how to turn his life around. Nancy Carroll was fine as his wife, the calm centre that keeps the family and his life together and I liked Oliver Chris as Engels, Marx's chief cheer-leader who gets frustrated that his hero refuses to prove what a great thinker he is and prefers booze to ink.

I liked this play and the performances and it's a worthy early play for a new theatre. It's going to be broadcast through NTLive on 7 December so you will be able to see it all over the place. I'm going back to the Bridge Theatre in the new year to see 'Julius Caesar' and I'm looking forward to that.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Fra Angelico 11/12

In a change to the theme of my monthly blogs about works by Fra Angelico that I've actually seen, this month I'm going to mention a work that I haven't seen but which I hope to see next year.

'Heaven and Earth' is the name of a new exhibition of Fra Angelico's works to be held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, USA. A press release is linked to from here: http://www.rsa.org/news/374260/Fra-Angelico-Heaven-on-Earth-Exhibition-at-the-Isabella-Stewart-Gardner-Museum.htm

It's not everyday that a new Fra Angelico exhibition is announced so this is definitely newsworthy. There's nothing on the museum's website yet but the catalogue is available to pre-order on Amazon. I'll post more details when they're available.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

'Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World'

Last week I went to see the documentary film, 'Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World' at the Curzon Soho as part of the Doc'n'Roll Film Festival. I'd heard a lot about it and wanted to see it.

It tells the story of the influence of Native Americans and their music on blues, jazz and rock music and virtually all modern music. It was fascinating to hear about the old bluesmen and jazz women who were Native American or of part native heritage and how their styles were reminiscent of the tribal music of their heritage. I can't remember who said it but someone mentioned that in some states in the south of America Native Americans weren't allowed drums to stop them communicating but they played guitars using the same beats and timing as they would for a drum. Pure Fe played an old jazz record and talked us through the 'native' elements.

It was also nice to see Buffy Sainte-Marie indirectly weaved through the film, seeing the Neville Brothers (who she's sung with), Ulali (who have provided backing vocals for Buffy) and Buffy's old friend Taj Mahal as well as others. There's a nice interview with Buffy with her sitting in front of one of her digital paintings ('Elder Brother'). There was also a lot of talk about Jesse Ed Davis who played guitar for so many bands, including on one of Buffy's albums.

The title of the film comes from Link Wray's classic song 'Rumble' and features contributions from all sorts of people. It was lovely to hear Redbone again and see a clip of them on an American TV show in full regalia. The trailer is below to give to an idea.

The final song in the film before the credits belongs to Buffy Sainte-Marie with some footage of her singing 'Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee' at a gig spliced with film of the current Standing Rock protests. 

I'm really pleased that I've finally seen this film, it really is fascinating and I learned so much. There are many worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

'Jim Lea - For One Night Only' DVD by Jim Lea

Jim Lea, also known as Jimmy Lea and James Whild Lea, was the bass player and multi-instrumentalist in SLADE and co-wrote the songs including all those hits in the '70s and early '80s. The SLADE wires on social media were buzzing last week after Jim hosted a special screening of his new DVD at the Robin 2, took part in a Q&A and then brought on his guitar and played four songs to send the crowd away happy. I wasn't there but I have his DVD and it's wonderful to see Jim on stage again after all these years - I last saw him on stage in 1981.

Since leaving SLADE Jim has only performed one proper live gig and that's the subject of this DVD. He did a one-off gig at the Robin 2 in Bilston in 2002 and the 'launch' screening of the DVD was also at the Robin 2. The DVD wasn't professionally filmed but some really good fan footage came to light and that's what this DVD is based on, with additional shots of Jim talking about each of the songs earlier this year. The live music is very familiar since the live albums first released as a download only a decade ago and then again last year as part of the re-release of Jim's album 'Therapy'. The live album is excellent, full of energy and is best played loud.

The gig footage in the DVD is new and has never been seen before. It's a bit rough and ready, a bit wobbly in places since it's fan video, but I think that actually enhances it. This isn't a professional gig - the two band members only met the afternoon of the gig - but the raw energy brings it all to life and is a great credit to Jim, the 'non-showman' in the band who puts on a great show that is thoroughly enjoyable. I had a huge grin of happiness on my face throughout this gig.

The excitement and video footage following the 'launch' last week made me want to see this DVD *now*. It was on my Christmas list for Santa but I decided I needed to see it *now* and I'm so pleased I did. Jim is still fighting off cancer and didn't want to promise to play live if he did't feel up to it so it was a great surprise that he played at all last week. Let's send best wishes to Jim Lea and hope for a full recovery... and then some gigs please!

Once a Lord of Noize always a Lord of Noize!

Thursday, 26 October 2017

'Medicine Songs' by Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie's new record, 'Medicine Songs' will be released on 10 November and is available to pre-order - pre-order on iTunes and download the first song now. The new song was  written in the late '60s for a film but not recorded and is here newly recorded with Tanya Tagaq, 'You Got To Run (Spirit of the Wind)'.

The CD includes 13 songs and the download has another six bonus tracks.

On her website Buffy says,

This is a collection of front line songs about unity and resistance – some brand new and some classics – and I want to put them to work. These are songs I’ve been writing for over fifty years, and what troubles people today are still the same damn issues from 30-40-50 years ago: war, oppression, inequity, violence, rankism of all kinds, the pecking order, bullying, racketeering and systemic greed. Some of these songs come from the other side of that: positivity, common sense, romance, equity and enthusiasm for life.
I’ve found that a song can be more effective than a 400-page textbook. It’s immediate and replicable, portable and efficient, easy to understand – and sometimes you can dance to it. 
Buffy is in righteous mood!

The track listing is:

Medicine Songs Tracklisting:
1. You Got To Run (Spirit of the Wind) ft Tanya Tagaq
2. The War Racket
3. Star Walker
4. My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying
5. America the Beautiful
6. Carry It On
7. Little Wheel Spin and Spin
8. No No Keshagesh
9. Soldier Blue
10. The Priests of the Golden Bull
11. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
12. Universal Soldier
13. Power in the Blood
Digital version includes:
14. Disinformation
15. Fallen Angels
16. Now That The Buffalo’s Gone
17. Generation
18. Working For The Government
19. The War Racket (Unplugged)
Take a listen to 'You Got To Run' below. As Buffy sings in 'Starwalker', 'Pray up your medicine song!'

'The Last da Vinci Exhibition' at Christie's

Christie's, the auction house, has put on a short, three-day exhibition showing the last painting by Leonardo da Vinci to still be in private hands before it's auctioned in New York. The painting is called 'Salvator Mundi' (Saviour of the World) and shows Christ with one hand raised in blessing and a crystal orb in his other hand. The painting has already been on show in Hong Kong and San Francisco and heads off to New York on Saturday to go on show before being auctioned. The estimated price is $100m so I don't think I'll put in a bid.

It's only recently been authenticated as a Leonardo painting, one of only 20 known paintings by him rather than by his workshop or pupils. It was 'rediscovered' in 2005 and, after six years of research, was unveiled as a Leonardo in 2011 at the National Gallery, London.

That painting will have been x-rayed, studied in infrared, paint samples tested to check the chemical composition matches the paint made around 1500 when it was painted, brush techniques will have been examined and lots of paper records will have been examined to find written, historical provinence. According to Christie's, the earliest reference to it was being in the Royal Collection of Charles I and hung in the private chambers of his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, in her palace at Greenwich.

 It's only on show in London for three days so I made it along to Christie's in St James's on the last day. Inevitably, there was a queue out the door and around the corner - the lady in the black suit (all employees seemed to be in black suits) said the waiting time was about 30 minutes. In the end, it was probably only 20 minutes. Let in in small groups there was a very orderly British queue through a doorway into one room, then into another, and then, round another corner, there it was on the wall with a single spotlight and two guards either side. Surprisingly, we were allowed to take photos without flash so I did.

The painting's not very big, probably about life-sized of head and shoulders, and there's a definite touch of the 'Mona Lisa' in the face. The painting is delicate and precise, with Christ's hair in ringlets and he seems to be wearing some kind of tunic rather the robes he's usually painted in.

We weren't allowed to stand in front of the painting for very long - almost close enough to touch - before being asked to move on so others could have their 30 seconds. I used some of my time to look at the frame which reminded me of the frame for the Fra Angelico 'Virgin & Child' in the Rijksmuseum in Amersterdam - it's obviously a different colour, shape and design but I couldn't shake the lingering memory.

I'm pleased I saw it since I'll probably never have the opportunity to see it again. I hope it goes into a public collection somewhere and not just some rich person's bank vault. Thanks for the show Christie's.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Fra Angelico 10/12

On the 18th of each month I'm posting a painting by Fra Angelico that I've seen to celebrate his feast day. For October I've chosen 'The Last Judgement' altarpiece from the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin that I saw a month or so ago for the first time.

It would benefit from a cleaning which would make it sparkle and gleam like the version in Rome but it's still an astonishing sight just as it is. In particular, I liked the ranks of angels in the painting.

The middle panel of the altarpiece shows Christ in judgement while the panels on either side show angels escorting the blessed to Heaven and, on the other, sinners in various punishments in hell. I'm quite partial to the angels in the left-hand panel performing a stately dance with the blessed friars and monks being danced towards Heaven.

The Dominicans dominate in terms of numbers in the painting, as they would with the good Fra being a Dominican himself, as they move through paradise towards the golden Heaven above. The angels' robes are gorgeous  and their wings are multicoloured (as are all angel wings, as the Fra would know). They also brighten up the rather dull robes of the friars and monks.

I'd love to know enough about the flora at the time to know which flowers are shown in paradise - they will be real flowers and will, no doubt, have a meaning like purity or wisdom or something.

The other group of angels I particularly like are those at the bottom left of the main panel, greeting the blessed and the saved and leading them towards the angels dancing to Heaven. I like the intimacy of these angels with their arms around the saved, cuddling them, escorting them almost as equals towards Heaven.  I think this is lovely and something I've not seen in paintings by other artists.

The Fra was inventing new ways to depict traditional subjects that had been painted loads of times - and he will have seen loads of versions of the Last Judgement in Florence - and trying to come up with a new way of showing them, a human way to better engage the viewer. On that final day I wouldn't want to stand aghast at the sight of angels, I'd want them to welcome me with open arms and that's what the Fra is doing here.

It really is an astonishing paint8ing when you start looking at the details and start wondering about it. If you ever get to Berlin then you could do a lot worse than go to the Gemaldegalerie and see this glorious altarpiece and the other amazing works in the gallery.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

'Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits' at the British Film Institute

On Saturday night I went to see 'Here To Be Heard', a new documentary about The Slits, as part of the London Film Festival at the BFI on the Southbank. It's not only new, it was the world premiere.

I go way back with The Slits, to the first John Peel session when he played these weird and challenging songs with this odd lead singer. I taped it. Hearing 'New Town' or 'Shoplifting' whiz me back to my teenage years even now. Sadly I never saw them play live and didn't even see the Clash tour when they were one of the support bands (how did that happen?).

But I bought 'Cut' and, when the new version of The Slits got together in the '00s I bought 'Trapped Animal'. When I heard that Viv Albertine was back I supported her crowd-funder and contributed to her promo gig at the 12 Bar Club in January 2013 (sending a cheque to her home at the time). Then we had Viv's first album and book, with another book on the way. I even supported the original crowd-funder for this film on Kickstarter back in 2015. People need to know about The Slits.

The documentary takes as it's core a scrapbook kept by Tessa Pollitt as she leafs through the pages and provides a narrative, showing film clips from the time, photos and, of course, the music. There are some great clips from their early gigs - the sound isn't too good but that doesn't matter, it's astonishing that there's actually any film material at all. It's lovely to hear Tessa telling The Slits story, along with interviews with Viv and Paloma (Palmolive) thinking back to those younger days and their experiences. And Ari, of course, is never far from their memories.

Fast forward to the mid-00s and Ari and Tessa got a new version of The Slits together to tour and then release a new album. Ari wanted their last tour of America filmed so there's footage from this and then, of course, there's the news of Ari's illness and her death and the end of The Slits.

It was great to see some of the interviews with people like Paul Cook, Don Letts, Dennis Bovell and even with Budgie harking back to those wild days. It's a shame we didn't hear anything from Nora Lydon, Ari's mum, but you can't have everything.

After the screening there was an impromptu Q&A with the director and producer who then invited Tessa and Paloma onto the stage to great applause. Cue the usual 'it's all about me' questions and comments from the audience. It was livened up a bit by Dennis Bovell who was also in the audience (and, later, behind me in the queue for the toilet) - Dennis, of course, produced 'Cut' and I saw him play with Linton Kwesi Johnson a few years back at the Barbican. Sadly, Spizz was also there (sitting behind me for the screening) who did his usual 'it's all about me' thing and told everyone that Paloma was the drummer in his first band - I wanted to tell him to shut up and stop trying to steal their big moment.

I'm really pleased I got to see this film - and I'm pleased that it was finally made and released. There are many stories and angles to punk and music in the '70s and the story of The Slits needs to be included. It was also lovely to see Tessa and Paloma on the stage. The film should get a theatrical release in early 2018 and DVDs will be available in 2018. If you'd like to pre-order the DVD then go here: https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/the-slits-here-to-be-heard. I'm looking forward to seeing it again.