Friday, 25 November 2011

'The Last of the Duchess' at Hampstead Theatre

Last week we went to see 'The Last of the Duchess' at the Hampstead Theatre at Swiss Cottage. This was the first time I'd been to that theatre and I was surprisingly impressed with the place, only built a few years ago so there's lots of space, restaurant and bar areas and nice comfy seats. They do lovely wedges (ie fat chips).

It's a short play about the last days of the Duchess of Windsor in her mansion in Paris. We don't see the Duchess, but we do see her lawyer, a mature woman who considers herself to be the protector of the Duchess and a younger journalist whose job is to get an interview with the Duchess. It's based on the true story of the journalist going to Paris in the 80s to interview the Duchess but ends up interviewing the lawyer and arranging for Lord Snowdon to photograph her. For some light relief we have Lady Mosley, also an exile in Paris, who visits the Duchess and who knows Lady Caroline, the journalist, and they have an oddly endearing chat.

I wasn't sure what to expect at all but I most impressed by the construction of the play, the simple set and the great acting by the three leading ladies. We had Sheila Hancock as Mme Blum, the fierce French lawyer and Anna Chancellor as the journalist with the drink problem, plus Angela Thorne as the gossipy Lady Diana Mosley. All three ladies were excellent, fully convincing and appalling and endearing by turns. It was one of those rare plays that I wanted to go on for just a little bit longer so I could learn some more about the characters.

Go and see it if you can - and have the chips!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Poly Styrene - Somali Refugee Appeal Single

Poly Styrene's team have been running a remix competition for people to remix 'No Rockefeller' from 'Generation Indigo' for charity. Poly's site says:


We are pleased to announce the winning remix of No Rockefeller, chosen by the record’s producer Youth, is the Wass n Burls by Miles Highson.

Celebrating Poly’s mix race background, the remix will be released on December 4th as part of a digital only single, in aid of the Somali refugee appeal with all proceeds being donated to UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency to help directly with their Somali campaign.

More than 1.4 million people are internally displaced in Somalia and over 600,000 Somalis live as refugees in neighbouring countries. After Afghanistan and Iraq, Somalia is the third largest refugee-producing country in the world.

Also included in the EP will be Poly’s Black Christmas, a non-album track originally released last November when Poly announced her return, along with a brilliant remix of this song from Kahn, a fast rising new Bristol blood.

Click here to preorder the EP from iTunes now!


Poly was half Somalian, so this is a worthy charity. I'm looking forward to hearing the remix. I loved Poly's 'Black Christmas' last year and am intrigued to know that there is now a remix by Khan - should be interesting. I'll be downloading the single and I hope you will too.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Carter USM at Brixton

On Saturday night I went to see Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine at Brixton Academy. Such a simple sentence and such fun! I was wreathed in smiles from when the lights went down and the chants of 'You fat bastard' started, to when the show closed. It's one of the funnest gigs I've been to in ages. And the brightest. And the loudest.

When I walked in it was obvious that this was a lads gig. I'd guess that 90% of the people there were men, probably aged between 30-45 and probably a bit worse for wear. The talk in the bar queues was about getting a 'late pass from the missus'. The smart hair-do's let some of them down, despite the jeans and tee shirts, clearly with nice middle class jobs during the week and this was their chance to let their hair down. And they did. Jim Bob tweeted the next day that they'd broken the record for the sale of beer at the gig (not sure whether that was a record for Carter USM or for the venue) but it felt comfortable with blokes just wanting to have fun, none of the aura of violence you can get at boozy gigs.

As the lights dimmed they played 'Two Little Boys' by Rolf Harris before the two lads appeared with the power chords of 'Surfin' USM' and the blinding white lights shone from the stage into the audience. We were off and running with Jim Bob and Fruitbat, aka Carter USM! I love the various photos that have appeared on Twitter of the heads of the audience blinded by the light from the stage.

They played for around two hours, blasting out a host of fabulous songs including '24 Minutes From Tulse Hill' (more like 10 minutes these days), 'Lean On Me I Won't Fall Over', and the fabulous series of 'Glam Rock Cops', 'Do Re Me So Far So Good', 'Blood Sports For All' and 'Only Living Boy In New Cross'. The encore included 'Down In The Tube Station At Midnight' and, of course, 'Sheriff Fatman'.

And that's it, Jim Bob, Fruitbat and the tape machine playing loud n proud for two hours, lights blinding the audience and everyone singing along to the choruses. Everyone slightly tipsy (or more) and having the time of their lives. I loved it.

Where is the thrash today? where is the risk and danger? where is the threat to the establishment? Come back Carter, we need you.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Beverley Knight at The Royal Albert Hall 2011

Last week we went to see Beverley Knight at the Royal Albert Hall for the third time. Bev's last three gigs in London have all been at the RAH and, much as I enjoy Bev's gigs, it's getting a bit tired in a venue that holds no soul for a soul gig and no balls for a rock gig. It's prestige venue and that's about it.

Beverley is promoting her latest record, 'Soul UK', which is a collection of British soul songs from the 80s and 90s that either Bev likes or influenced her. While I can appreciate her devotion to the genre, I was slightly puzzled by the enormous Union Jack flag that unfurled behind her later in the gig. Her band was augmented with a three-man brass section adding a different sound to some of the songs.

I've seen Bev lots of times in different venues and have to say that the least favourite are when she's at the RAH. It's a soul-less venue, too big and with a totally ambient-less stage. Bev stalks the stage like a big cat hunting, back and forth and challenging us in the audience but even she can't fill that stages' emptiness. I hope her next London gig is somewhere else. I loved her a couple of years ago at the sweatbox that is the ICA on The Strand, an intimate gig that introduced us to the '100%' album. And , on that note, where were all the songs from that album?

Bev had four costume changes as she prowled the stage, alternately singing her own hits and those featured on the latest record. She made me tired with her energy. I preferred the older songs, particularly 'Come As You Are' (with a brass section), 'Gold' (a beautiful song by anyone's reckoning), 'Made It Back' (because she did) and 'Queen Of Starting Over'.

This tour will be a success - it can't be anything other with Bev's boundless energy and commitment. But can I please make a plea for another London venue? There's lots to choose from and you don't have to go for the prestige venue every time.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Fra Angelico at the Musee Jacquemart-Andree

Last weekend we went to see the first exhibition of the works of Fra Angelico in ages. I am very partial to Brother Giovanni and nothing would prevent me from boarding the Eurostar train to Paris to see his paintings. The exhibition, 'Fra Angelico et les Maitres de la Lumiere', is at the lovely Musee Jacquemart-Andree on Boulevard Hausmann (the other end of the road to the big department stores). The museum is based in a grand old mansion house and has a lovely cafe that sells the most delicious pastries, but more about that another day.

The exhibition is a smash hit judging from the posters all over town and the queues outside for tickets. We'd booked tickets in advance but still had to take our place in the slow-moving queue as people were slowly let into the crowded exhibition. All was worth it to stand in a room and be surrounded on all sides by the magnificent works of Fra Angelico.

I first became aware of Fra Angelico when I was 16 and doing history of art at school. I loved the early Renaissance painters from around Europe but Fra Angelico was one of many. It wasn't until I saw his frescoes in San Marco in Florence that I saw his true greatness. It's important to see original paintings whenever you can - reproductions lose much of the colour and intensity of paintings and are a poor substitute for the originals. That's why I went to Paris.

The exhibition is a mix of the paintings of Fra Angelico and those artists who influenced him and those he influenced. I counted 23 paintings by the Angelic One and a glory they were to behold, most of which I've never seen before. Out of these I shall pick three highlights:

The Virgin and Child that is the face of the poster advertising the exhibition, glorious blues and golds with the fully realised faces of the Virgin and the child. It is the centrepiece of a small room with other depictions of the Virgin and Child but this is the one that caught me, with the child gazing out peacefully at the viewer. To be surrounded by Fra Angelico paintings is special feeling.

The triptych of 'The Ascension, The Last Judgement and Pentecost' with its bold and gorgeous colours, protected over the years in the vaults of the Vatican. The colours are unbelievably deep and rich and this photo doesn't give any hint as to how rich the painting really is. It has to be seen to be believed.

The 'Coronation of the Virigin; is from the Uffizi in Florence and I blogged about it earlier this year when I first saw it. It's on loan for this exhibition along with the 'Theabaed' from the Uffizi. This painting is gorgeous, dripping with gold and belief as Christ enthrones his mother in heaven with the choirs of angels and the great and good watching. I like Fra Angelico's crowds of people because they all look different, they look at each other and out of painting at you, they're you and me in the court of Heaven. This is a magnificent painting and you must, if you get the chance, see it in the flesh.

Fra Angelico was not a rigid stylist. He experimented with perspective, with foreshortening his characters to display different bodily movements and add reality to his paintings. At the same time he painted Heaven. He painted his sincere beliefs, his vision, his hopes and dreams and, as far as I'm concerned, he succeeded. I glimpse a tiny part of his vision when I see his paintings. He makes me share a small portion of his belief which reaches out to Heaven. He makes his belief real for me and that's the power of his paintings. That's what makes my sight blur with tears.

The exhibition runs until 16 January 2012 so there's plenty of time for you to order tickets. The catalogue is entirely in French with no English translation but it's full of glorious paintings. It also weighs a tonne. But a tonne is good when it's made up of Fra Angelico.

Amanda Palmer - 'The World Turned Upside Down'

Amanda's recorded the protest song, 'The World Turned Upside Down', in support of the Occupy movement in America. The video is a montage of photographs from the various Occupy sites.

She's also posted a long blog about her thoughts and experiences of visiting and performing at Occupy sites over the last few weeks. Read it here.

She says,
" i feel excited and sad for my generation, for the world, for my country. excited because i am so happy to see people mobilizing. trying.
waking up and going out and doing.
sad because it’s also underlined how jaded and difficult we are."

'Jerusalem' at the Apollo Theatre

A couple of weeks ago we went to see 'Jerusalem' at the Apollo Theatre in London's glamorous West End but found ourselves in small town Wiltshire instead. I missed this play on its first run at the Royal Court and at the Apollo, and missed it on Broadway, so it was a must see when it re-opened for a short run. And I'm so pleased I saw it.

It's the tale of Johnny Byron who lives in a caravan in the woods at the edge of town, with new housing developments coming ever closer. He's drunk and high throughout the play, the local source of whiz and other stimulants, gets banned from all the local pubs and is the centre of attention for the local yoof (and not so yoof) for his drugs.

For all that, his is a traditional role, the mischief-maker, the pied piper and the teller of tales and what tales he spouts! He tells his hangers on about the Byron Boys, his ancestors who are all buried in and around the woods with their eyes open and about meeting the giant who built Stone Henge (when asked how tall the giant was he replied that he couldn't tell because he was sitting down) and who gave him an earring as big as a drum to beat if he was ever in trouble. At the end of the rambling and delicious story of the giant I decided I believed him. Johnny Byron has, indeed, met a giant and is one himself (albeit of limited growth).

Mark Rylance gave a magnificent performance as our bumbling and drunken hero (I have great sympathy for his understudy if he ever needs to go on) who draws us into his little world in Little England where anything beyond the borders of Wiltshire is foreign. One of the young hangers on is heading off to Australia the next day and the big part of the journey is getting the bus to Chippenham, not the flight to Oz. Mark's main side-kick is Mackenzie Crook who plays Ginger, one of Johnny's former hangers on who hasn't managed to break away as he grows up. They make a fine and believable pair of rogues and Johnny casts him off at the end.

Johnny's way of life is coming to an end with his eviction from the land his caravan sits on and a raid by the police for his drugs activities. He's beaten up by locals who used to hang with him but grew away as the police start to arrive at the woods. A beaten and bleeding Johnny grabs the giant's drum and starts beating it, howling for his Byron Boys to rise up and for the giant to appear to help him in his hour of need. It's a harrowing scene and the play closes with the sound of giant footsteps approaching... I believe.

This is a marvellous play and production with some lovely, poetic lines (particularly form the Professor) and a gloriously messy set with chickens under the caravan and trees covering the stage. If you get the chance, go and see it while you can.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Let It Grow/Beard Love - 'Hair'

The version of 'Aquarius' by The 5th Dimension popped up on my iTune shuffle this evening and that created a yearning to hear the real version by the cast of 'Hair' so I played it. And I am now listening to the whole cast recording. As is right and proper.

I saw 'Hair' on my birthday on Broadway in 2009 on the eve of snowmaggedon. I wanted to see it because Alex Harvey played in the Hairband in London in the late 60s. I was stunned by it, great fun, great messages and great love. I was at a be-in and got a love flower all without leaving my seat. My one regret is not getting up on stage to join in the love-in at the end of the show. When it transferred to London with most of the Broadway cast I made a point of seeing it and dancing on stage as often as I could. At one performance when I'd joined the cast on stage Woof said that he liked my beard which was a truly great compliment.

I saw Gavin Creel (who played Claude) at the Jazz Cafe last year doing a show of his own songs. Caissie Levy is currently playing the lead in 'Ghost' in the West End and is well worth a visit. Some of the original cast are still touring the show in America. I can't help but think it'll be a sad day when the show finally closes. We all need some optimism in our lives, some hope and joy. And some hair!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Amanda Palmer - 'Science Fiction/Double Feature'

The most lovely Amanda Palmer appeared on Craig Ferguson's 'Late Late Show' on Hallowe'en to sing 'Science Fiction/Double Feature' from The Rocky Horror Show'. She was supported by Moby (yes, Moby), Stephen Merrit and Mr Neil Gainam (aka Mr Amanda Palmer). A new supergroup?


Thursday, 3 November 2011

Viv Albertine on Pledgemusic

Viv Albertine. Do you know who she is? For shame if you don't, for she was a Slit and will always be a founder member of The Slits in the late 70s. Viv shone bright and then vanished for years, only to reappear a couple of years ago and start a Pledgemusic campaign to raise funding for her to record and release some new music, a solo album. I, obviously, pledged.

Viv has the Pledgemusic ethos at her core. She sends us updates every few weeks about what she's doing, what she's writing and who she's working with. Today she sent a lengthy email about recording with Jack Bruce - yes, *that* Jack Bruce. It read like an excited fan having met a hero and having that hero exceed every expectation. That's what I like about Viv - she's real. She emails about a tee shirt she got from Johnny Thunder and about a particularly good gig the night before. That's important. She involves us pledgers in her life and being a fan means we get a little bit of her even though it's at a distance.

Viv released a four-track EP last year called 'Flesh'. My favourite song from the EP is 'Never Come' that has the classic line, 'And I loved Marc Bolan because of all his curls'. I defy you to make a more generation-defining statement than that. We all loved Marc's corkskrew hair.

I am really looking forward to Viv's album. I'm also looking forward to seeing her play live some day. I keep missing her London shows but I will see her. And I will clap loudly. I might not pogo like in the olden days, but I'm sure she'll understand.

Make a pledge for Viv here - what do you have to lose?

'Sweeney Todd' At Chichester

On Saturday we left dear old London behind to journey back in time to the London of the 1930's to see many, many murders and much madness. Or rather, we went to Chichester to see a fine production of Sondheim's 'Sweeney Todd' as part of the arts festival. This production stars Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball in the leading roles of Mrs Lovett and Mr Todd, a good partnership.

The last time I saw 'Sweeney Todd' on stage was a few years ago in the dire production when the actors filled and emptied endless buckets of blood. Why? Who knows. It certainly didn't work for me. Of course, since then we've had the film with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter so 'Sweeney' is a bit more mainstream and you all probably know the tale by now. The tale of Sweeney returning to London to wreak revenge on the judge who split up his family and sent him to overseas to a penal colony. Of course, revenge is a strange dish and strange things can happen on the way.

Any production needs to get the right actors to play Sweeney and Mrs Lovett, one is dark and brooding and the other brings some light and shade and no little much-needed humour. I've never seen Michael Ball before but can appreciate his voice and abilities now that I've seen him as Sweeney Todd. Imelda Staunton is the perfect foil, never ending talking, perfect comic timing and just the right hint of repressed sexuality wanting Mr Todd. Imelda is the pink-on-pink teacher in the 'Harry Potter' films so you've probably seen her before, and I saw her on stage a few years ago as the repressed middle age woman in 'Entertaining Mr Sloane' (including seeing her virtually naked in a see-through nighty).

The set has been moved forward from Victorian London to the London of the 1930s, mainly signalled by the length of the frocks and the cute little van used for the shaving competition. Sweeney's barbershop was a detached piece of the set that came forward across the stage with sufficient space underneath for the dead bodies to accumulate.

This is quite a harrowing show. There's a bit of everything in there, from old loves to new love, evil and revenge, hope and despair, and some of the scenes of throat slashing and blood spurting got a few odd laughs from the audience but I suspect that was more about relieving the tension than any comedic effect. I thought it was an excellent production and was happy to join in the standing ovation at the end - they've earned it!

As a postscript, I've never been to Chichester before but it seems to be a nice little town near the Sussex coast with a nice cathedral, about 1.5 hours from London. It's built with roads very descriptively and geographically named North Street, East Street, etc, just like a compass. The audience was rather odd but then again it was a matinee and matinees the world over seem to comprise older people in their best theatre-going garb. I don't know if the show was sold out but it was certainly very full, and that's encouraging.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Queen Boudica

The other morning I took a leisurely route to work by getting the bus. My bus goes over Westminster Bridge and, because I sat on a different side of the bus than I usually sat on, then I had a different view of the Thames and the statues on either side of the river. I passed the statue of the mighty Queen Boudica (or Bodiecea) with her arms raised high in anger and pride and might and her horses charged into war. And my heart swelled.

Boudica, a mere provincial queen, took on the might of the Roman Empire and came so close to winning. A woman to inspire Victoria and Empire. Should we be ashamed of the pure nationalism of the statue on the north bank of the river? I say no. Two thousand years ago Boudica was my queen.

Boudica was queen of the Iceni and, when her husband died, the kingdom was annexed under Roman rule, she was flogged and her daughters raped. Is it any surprise that a queen would seek revenge and a return of pride?  Stupid Romans.  Boudica raised an army and destroyed the then capital of Roman Britain, Colchester, before heading to London and then north to fight the usurping Romans. She ultimately failed but she was a bright light in ancient Britain.

We know very little about Queen Boudica but I choose to believe the legends. If you get down to the river then look out for her.  You'll hear her charriot racing towards Parliament as a modern day rebel.


I've been having a look behind the scenes of this blog of mine and wondering whether I should change the address to make it more of a plastic bag. It's thrown up some interesting facts:
  • the busiest month so far was April 2011 with 3635 visits and 5417 page views;
  • as of today, I'm averaging 95 visits per day with a visit length of 1:39 minutes;
  • most people find my blog through a google search;
  • the most viewed post is the one about my para-umbilical hernia from January 2010.

What does this mean?  I'm not sure really.  It's quite nice that people seem to read my inane ramblings and stay around to read a post or two rather than leaving straight away. 

This blog has been going since 2005 and I think it's time for a makeover, a bit of a re-fresh and maybe make it even more plastic.  Watch this space...