Thursday, 29 December 2011

Christmas Entertainments

I enjoyed four entertainments either side of Christmas, two before and two after the Big Day.

First up was 'The Comedy of Errors' at the National Theatre starring Lenny Henry, a play and a performer I've never seen before but which I wanted to see. It's the tale of twins separated shortly after birth along with their twin servants (as normally happens, of course) and the confusion and hi-jinks that occur when they're finally in the same city at the same time and get mistaken for each other (as you do). With a dramatic set and clever lighting, I was looking forward to this play. Unfortunately, that's where I went wrong.

I liked what I saw, I just couldn't follow the dialogue. The actors were attempting to speak Shakespeare's verse in different accents and that just threw my ear for most of the first half and I found it very difficult to follow the plot. Why were the leading ladies acting and speaking like Essex girls when no-one else in the play was? Even Lenny used his basic west African accent for some reason (which I could follow since he's used it so often on telly). By the second half I was getting used to the accents but I'd still missed - and guessed at - setting up the plot in the first half.

The first half was also marred by some of the scenery not moving when the scene changed, leading to someone coming out on stage to say they'd start the scene again when the scenery could be moved. The second half had some odd Keystone Kops moments, with silly chases round buildings, people jumping out and surprising others, police arresting the wrong twin, everything you'd expect. But it didn't gel for me, it didn't work. Throw all the ingredients into the pot and stir briskly but something was missing...

In recent years my annual Christmas treat has been the latest Matthew Bourne production at Sadlers Wells and this year was the turn of 'Nutcracker'. I last saw this production in 2007 (see here) and it was a great thrill to see it again. It starts off in a grim orphanage and moves into Sweetieland before the final surprise but I'll leave that for you to find out for yourself.

Matthew Bourne's productions are a joy to watch as the story unfolds and the dancers do their stuff, each with a character of their own irrespective of their role in the performance, as much actors as dancers. The temporary happiness and ongoing wretchedness of the orphanage was summed up by throwing the spindly Christmas Tree out of the window at the end of that scene, such a tiny yet poignant statement. And then the Nutcracker appears and wrecks the orphanage, showing the children the road to ice skating, snow and then to Sweetieland where everyone is made out of sweets. Yum.

Sweetieland is a mass of colour and tastes (judging from all the licking that goes on) with bonbons, Mr Nickerbockerglory, the gobstopper lads, Battenburg cake and everything else. And, of course, a giant cake. Yum again.

The dancing and characterisation were all excellent, taking us all on a trip to wonderland, eyes sparkling and hearts pounding and we want our heroine to get her heart's desire. I got mine and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially being just a couple of days before Christmas.

Just after Christmas was the ideal time for 'Slava's Snowshow' at the Royal Festival Hall, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and a bounce in your step. I saw Slava at Wimbledon Theatre four years ago and it was a joy to see him and his colleagues again - I had a silly grin all over my face from start to finish. Clowns aren't my favourite form of entertainment but Slava goes so far beyond that word with the beauty and simplicity of his show that it is thoroughly inadequate. Rather than the faux violence of slapstick, Slava's show is gentle and warm. And very daft indeed.

The first half ended by being covered in a giant cobweb as we passed it back, back, overhead and yet further back in the audience as it went on and on and on. I was picking bits of webbing off my and out of my beard throughout the interval. When we got back to our seats the People in Green Coats were playing with the audience, running over the tops of seats, spraying bottles of water accidentally over people and generally making a fuss - and they were lovely.

The finale is, of course, the most magnificent scene, with snow falling, clouds of dry ice forming on stage and then, suddenly, a blinding white light and a wind machine blasting the snow out into the audience and I loved it. I was giggling like a loon as I was covered in snow. And as the snow stopped, the balls started, giant bouncing balls being boinged around the auditorium by the audience as more balls of all sizes arrived to be thrown around. There were lots of kids in the audience but it became full of kids as us adults regressed into big kids to bounce the balls all over. I loved it! Miss it at your peril!

My final entertainment - and final entertainment of the year - was Ken Russell's film of 'The Boy Friend' at the British Film Institute (or National Film Theatre if you prefer). I've never seen it before so it was with an open mind I took my seat, expecting Twiggy to introduce it (as noted in the handout) but the film started Twiggy-less.

I assume this was the full, original version of the film, lasting for over two hours with some very lengthy dream sequences that I assume were edited for the cinema release back in the early 70s. It's a simple love story in which Twiggy is the assistant stage manager in a provincial theatre who has to take the lead role in a truly awful musical when the leading lady (a rather glam Glenda Jackson) breaks her ankle. Twiggy is in love with the leading man and, guess what? It seems he loves her too...

Much as it's fun to see Twiggy in her film debut after all these years, the secret joy for me was seeing Georgina Hale as one of the vampish chorus girls and Barbara Windsor playing the less-than-servile servant. It was lovely to see Barbara in something other than a Carry On film but as soon as I realised I was watching Georgina my mind fled back to the early 70s and the series 'Budgie' with Adam Faith in the title role.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Carter USM - 'Christmas Shoppers' Paradise'

A Christmas present form those Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine lads. Jimbob (@MrJimBob) tweeted the link to this on Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Viv Albertine - 'It's A Christmas, Single'

Here's the great new Christmas single from Viv Albertine, 'It's A Christmas, Single'. Naturally, it's not quite what you expect but give it a listen and then fall in love with it. Go for it Viv!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Pet Shop Boys - 'It Doesn't Often Snow At Christmas'

Here's one of my favourite Christmas songs, 'It Doesn't Often Snow At Christmas' by the Pet Shop Boys. The great thing was that this gig was a few days before Christmas in 2009 and there was a load of snow on the ground. It was very important to sing along to the "Bing Crosby" line and then appeared the daft Christmas Trees. It was a lovely moment.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Slade at Koko

Last week I saw 75% of original SLADE live on stage. I saw Sir Noddy Holder at Union Chapel narrating a fun, new version of 'A Christmas Carol' and last night I saw Dave Hill and Don Powell as part of their version of Slade at Koko. Now all I need to do is bump into Jim Lea and that'll be all four of the Lords of Noize.

The gig at Koko was a benefit for The Lords Taverners and was filmed for a DVD release next year. Mike Read introduced Slade who bounded on and roared into 'We'll Bring The House Down'. Then followed a set lasting about 90 minutes alternating between hits from the 70s and hits from the 80s. It's easy to forget that SLADE had two bites at the cherry with a string of mega-hits in the first half of the 70s and then again in the early 80s. How many bands have managed that kind of longevity?

They were in fine form last night, Don pounding away on his drums virtually without stop, finishing one song and starting straight in on the next, and Dave doing what he does best, posing with his guitar and getting us doing anything he wanted. Back in the day Dave said that Nod and Jim would write the songs and he'd sell 'em through his costumes, his antics and his show biz. He sold them back then by the million and he's still doing it now. It was a pleasure to see him running across the stage, pose during a solo, jump on the riser to be seen above the crowd, run back to the mic for his vocals, still full of energy, humour and cheeky smiles.

It was a show of the hits - that's all we heard, hit after hit after hit, so many great songs and all the audience knew them. And it was a funny audience - I sort of expected the audience to be largely blokes in their 50s (and there were lots of them) but there was a healthy sprinkling of women and young people, some seemed to be with the oldies (presumably their parents?) but there was a goodly load of youngsters with each other, which is a good thing with a new audience for Slade.

It must be strange for John Berry and Mal McNulty to be part of the band but not the part we want to see - we want Nod and Jim. They were more than happy to name check Dave and Don but I don't think they were named at all through the gig. That's a shame really, since, without them, we wouldn't be seeing Dave and Don. I couldn't help but think a couple of times, that, although this wasn't SLADE, that was the original guitar and the original drums to all those songs I grew up with and loved. There in front of me were two of the heroes of my youth and yes, they ended with a rousing version of 'Merry Christmas Everybody' with them all in Santa hats.

I shall still believe that a proper reunion of SLADE is possible but until then I'll be happy with what I can get. And, of course, I can't wait for the DVD!

Friday, 16 December 2011

'Pippin' at The Menier Chocolate Factory

Last night we went to see 'Pippin' at the Choccy Factory. Don't be surprised if you've never heard of it before - I hadn't - but it's an early work from the bloke who wrote 'Wicked' so that gives you an idea of what to expect.

This is a new production updated to the internet age and a set that reminded me of the film, 'Tron' from the 80s. You walk through Pippin's bedroom to get into the theatre and then through a lazer display and that really sets the scene. The play is structured by the different levels of a computer game and geek Pippin needs to advance through the levels in his alter ego as th son of Charlemagne in the middle ages. Pippin goes on a personal journey (as they say on the talent shows) to find himself and instead he's saved by the woman he loves... at a price...

I loved this production with lazers and lights all over, people crawling through walls all over the set, Bob Fosse poses and dancing, revealing costumes and Charlemagne's annoying dreadlocks. I loved the loud rawk guitar in a few of the songs in the first half and they could've built on this in the second half but didn't.

The star of the show in more ways than just playing the lead character was Harry Hepple as Pippin. Harry has a lovely voice and his speaking voice occasionally has the added charm of belying his North Eastern roots. I saw Harry in the 'Spelling Bee' at the Donmar earlier this yearbut much preferred this production. His voice has lovely tone and expression and I look forward to following his career.

If you get the chance, go and see this production - it's great fun! I quite fancy paying a repeat visit myself.

Noddy Holder in 'A Christmas Carol Unplugged'

On Wednesday we went to Union Chapel to see Sir Noddy Holder as the Narrator in a new version of 'A Christmas Carol' at Union Chapel. It was a great thrill to see Noddy mount the steps into the pulpit to narrate his tale of Eddie Scrooge and the record biz.

Eddie Scrooge is a record company executive who releases any old pap to make money. His PA, Roberta Cratchet, lives in Tooting, the Ghost of Christmas Past is a sullen 70s punk and he meets the Ghost of Christmas Present in CBGBs in New York. The core of the Dickens' tale is all there, just transported to 2011 and set in the music industry. The narration of the tale was supplemented by renditions of modern Christmas songs such as 'Stop The Cavalry' (Jona Lewie), 'Fairytale of New York' (The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl), 'I Believe In Father Christmas' (Greg Lake) and the mighty 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday' (Wizzard). There were 14 songs in all plus an encore of 'Do They Know It's Christmas' (Band Aid).

The event was designed with Christmas in mind. When we went in we were given programmes like Christmas cards, the chapel had a big Christmas tree all lit up and tinsel wound around the mic stands. The band and singers came on stage and then Noddy climbed the stairs into the pulpit in a red tartan coat and Dickens top hat with a red ribbon (everyone wore a mix of red and black). And then he started reading the story, putting on voices and accents for the different characters, ad libbing about Rod Stewart never buying him a drink, and every now and then stopping for a song. Sadly, Nod didn't sing, but he was there on stage in front of me, for the first time in 30 years and that's enough for me.

This was the first time they'd performed the show and it showed but, irrespective of that, it was a very enjoyable night out. Nod was great fun as the Narrator, we had some great songs and performances and it was all in the spirit of Christmas present. Knox from the Vibrators sang a few songs, my favourite being The Kinks' 'Father Christmas' (it seemed appropriate somehow). The best voice of the evening was Marc Atkinson who has a smooth, clear voice and his version of 'I Believe In Father Christmas' was lovely.

At the end of the show, someone was introduced over the speakers as 'Norman' and on came a middle aged bloke to sing 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday'. According to the programme he's Norman Baker, a LibDem MP and a junior Transport Minister. He didn't sound too hot to me.

Noddy came down from the pulpit and stood at the back of the stage clapping along to Wizzard's hit (which was kept off the top spot by SLADE's magnificent 'Merry Christmas Everybody' in 1973). When it was time for the encore of 'Do They Know It's Christmas' Nod came to the front of the stage to clap along to the song and sing although he wasn't standing close to a mic and I couldn't hear him at all - bet he was just mouthing the words! I don't care, he was there and he shouted 'Merry Christmas' at me (well, at us all, I suppose, but in my mind it was for me).

The performance was filmed but I don't know if it'll be released or whether the aim is to use it as the basis for another show next Christmas. I'd love to see it again. I'm very familiar with the tale of 'A Christmas Carol' and read the story most years in the run up to Christmas but Nod brought it to life in a new way. I'd love to see it again!

Monday, 12 December 2011

'The Ladykillers' at The Geilgud Theatre

Last week we went to see 'The Ladykillers', a stage version of the old film with Alec Guinness. It's a grand old British thriller comedy with a little old lady at the centre being taken in by a group of thieves who rob a train at Kings Cross. The comedy comes from hiding their real natures and purpose from the little old lady, nick-named Mrs Lopsided by one of the thieves because she lives n a lopsided house near Kings Cross that is affected by subsidence. One by one they try to kill her and one by one they fail. Of course.

This is a great, fun and ever so slightly daft play with a great cast and set and some lovely self-knowing jokes. The main set is Mrs Lopsided's house with every door and wall at an odd angle to reflect the subsidence and the house turns round a few times so we see outside. My favourite outside view was for the daring robbery enacted by toy cars on the wall of the house, very unexpected and very daft.

Marcia Warren plays Mrs Wilberforce (aka Mrs Lopsided) with great aplomb, a moral and principled lady born in the Victorian era and living through two World Wars with the sad quality of trusting people she doesn't really know. Peter Capaldi plays Professor Marcus, the Alec Guinness character, who rents a room in Mrs Wilberforce's lopsided house as the perfect cover for the perfect crime. He plays the role to a T, beguiling and smiling, wrapped round with a huge scarf and relentlessly taking advantage of his victim. James Fleet plays the posh criminal with a penchant for wearing lady's dresses and Clive Rowe is excellent as One-Round who creates the name Mrs Lopsided and is the muscle in the gang. I also liked Stephen Wright as the likely lad either too up on blues or too down on reds and who likes cleaning furniture.

This is one of those rare plays that makes me smile throughout and every now and then break into a broad grin and a chuckle. I enjoyed it. Immensely. If you have a few hours spare and happen to be on Shaftesbury Avenue then this is the place to spend them.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

'Hamlet' at The Young Vic

Last week we went to see the new production of 'Hamlet' with Michael Sheen in the lead role at The Young Vic. 'Hamlet' seems to be an annual event these days, with Jude Law taking the role in 2009 and Rory Kinnear in 2010. It's always interesting to see a new take on the play and we certainly got that.

I was quite intrigued by what I'd heard about the production being set in a hospital, with the audience walking through hospital corridors to get to their seats, people wandering round in hospital uniforms and suchlike. Claudius was king and head doctor handing out prescriptions and tablets, doors were locked at night to keep the patients inside and Polonius was a psychiatrist with a dictaphone to record his interviews. The concept didn't quite work for me and seemed over-laboured, like Ophelia handing out tablets instead of flowers in her final scene. That seemed too contrived.

It also failed for me in the characterisation of Hamlet. I'm in two minds about this since I thought Michael Sheen was excellent in the role and he was clearly giving his all to his impressive performance. Two things in particular didn't work for me: Hamlet seemingly being possessed by the ghost of his father rather than having a separate ghost; and Hamlet was clearly on speed or whiz from the performance whereas if he was in an asylum of some kind he'd be on downers. Any doctor seeing his manic performance would get the prescription pad out and prescribe something more calming. It's not the performances I criticise, it's the concept and delivery. It didn't ring true to me. It reeked of 'student'.

Michael Sheen was excellent, if a bit too manic, as Hamlet. The part I was impressed by was Horatio, played (unusually by a woman) by Hayley Carmichael. She played it very downbeat, very much the old friend - the only friend really - is with Hamlet when he dies and seems to mean it when he says, "Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." That touching moment was spoiled by arrogant Fortinbras kicking Hamlet's body into the sand-pit rather that the usual speech of honour.

It was an interesting and worthy experiment but it didn't work for me. Some of the performances were excellent while others seemed to be from student theatre. The concept was interesting but didn't follow through with a solid production. Too much unlikely running about, too many pills, too many bits that didn't ring true. Having said that, I'm pleased I've seen it, another version to add to the collection. 'Hamlet' is a great play with some beautiful poetry and deserves to be on every year. It would be boring if every production was the same...

Gavin Creel - "NOISE" An Anthem for Equality

Gavin Creel is a singer-actor who will, forever for me, be Claude from 'Hair', the conflicted hippy from Manchester England, England. Since seeing the show in New York and then in the West End I've watched out for Gavin and saw him in concert at the Jazz Cafe last year. He's active in gay rights and raises money for Broadway Impact. His latest venture is the single 'Noise' to raise some money and encourage people to make some noise about equality. Watch the video and then download the song from Amazon or iTunes.

Go on, get loud and make some noise!

Christmas Miracle #1 - SLADE!

I've had my own small Christmas miracle today. Next week I'm seeing 75% of original SLADE, sadly, not all together on the same stage, but I don't mind, at least I'm seeing three of 'em!

SLADE were my first heroes. They bestrode the world of pop music like mighty gods of yore in the early '70s, brash and loud, in your face and great fun. Noddy and Jim wrote the songs, Dave provided the spectacle and Don pounded away at the back of the stage. They kept going until 1991 and since then Dave and Don have continued to tour as Slade, mainly in Europe, with new band members, Noddy has done acting and presenting and Jim has surfaced a few times with new music, most recently under his real name of James Whild Lea. I've seen Dave and Don play live a couple of times in the last few years and I've seen Nod on telly but not in real life, and not seen Jim at all.

The last time I saw SLADE was in 1980 or 1981 at the students union in Cardiff. The abiding memory from that gig was afterwards, when I helped the roadies load the kit onto the lorry, and Dave offered me a cigarette - a Benson & Hedges - and I nervously said 'no thanks'. How on earth could I accept a tab from a god? I would've self-combusted when I lit it. I didn't meet Noddy though.

So, next week I have tickets to see Noddy Holder - sorry, *Sir* Noddy Holder as he should be - at Union Chapel on 14 December when he takes the part of the narrator to a new version of 'A Christmas Carol' updated and set in the world of the music business. It sounds like fun and will be filled with Christmas songs so I'll be happy. I doubt that Noddy will sing, but who knows?

Then at the weekend I'm seeing Dave and Don's Slade at Koko on 18 December. I'm looking forward to that and to singing along to 'Merry Christmas Everybody' mere days before the big event itself.

Now all I need is to somehow get Jim Lea back onto a stage before Christmas ...

Miracles *can* happen. Believe, people, believe.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

'Punk and Beyond' at The Signal Gallery

This afternoon we went to see the 'Punk and Beyond' exhibition at the Signal Gallery. It's an exhibition of artworks by (former) punks curated by Gaye (Advert) Black and includes some works in tribute to Poly Styrene so I had to see it.

The Signal Gallery isn't very big but it crams a lot in there without being overwhelming. There was no-one there when we arrived but three people joined us so that's not bad for a Tuesday afternoon. There are six portraits of Poly plus two large black and white photos and Gaye Black has a half dozen works on show. There was a self-portrait by Marco Peroni from 1976 on some tattered brown paper and it's nice to know that someone cherished it enough to keep it in such good condition. I think my favourite was a small painting by Paul Simonon of an autumn scene looking out of his window at a dog in the road.

The most surprising exhibit was a photograph of The Adverts on stage at the Rainbow supporting Iggy Pop on his 1977 'Lust for Life' tour. The reason for the surprise is that Chris mentioned earlier that he'd seen The Adverts at that very gig, so to find a large photo of them in the exhibition made us smile (and become teenagers again).

It's a nice exhibition and I'm pleased I got round to going. I'm slightly proud that the old punks are still being creative in their own way and in different media. They're still doing something that I'm not and good on 'em!

The exhibition is open until 17 December so pop along if you can.

'Carole King & Friends at Christmas' at Stoke Newington Town Hall

This evening we went to Stoke Newington Town Hall to see a recording of a BBC Christmas programme called 'Carole King & Friends at Christmas' starring (you've guessed it) Carole King. I kept thinking, 'Carole King? in Stoke Newington? who would've thought it?'. But it's true.

The friends in question were Richard Hawley, The Puppini Sisters, The Mummers and Gregory Porter. With Carole King, of course. The Puppini's were great fun (I will have to look out for their Christmas record), The Mummers were definitely interesting and I will have to explore their work, Gregory Porter was a great find with a lovely smooth voice and again, I need to explore his work. Richard Hawley was, I'm afraid, a bit dreary and monotone (anyone that starts with a dirge-like 'Silent Night' needs to re-think the set). And Carole was amazing, sitting at a white grand piano. She only sang three songs and I won't spoil the surprise by saying what they were - watch the programme!

The BBC had made an effort to make the place look Christmasy, with Christmas trees and lights everywhere, Chinese lanterns hanging above the stage and an enormous glitterball in the middle of the ceiling. The room was set out cabaret style and all the tables had black table cloths with glitter sprinkled on them and candles to add atmosphere (I'll probably find bits of glitter on my coat for weeks to come). As ever at these things, they didn't tell us what was happening until the show began so I sat there bored for ages, taking photographs of my glass of wine (see below) and of the glitterball.

Anyway, the main thing is that I have finally seen the elusive Carole King play live. That's a good thing. Watch the programme on BBC4 on 22 December and watch out for me twirling my ever-lengthening Christmas beard in the audience.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Poly Styrene - 'Black Christmas' and 'City Of Christmas Ghosts'

It is now December so I'm allowed to listen to Christmas songs in the run up to Christmas. The first song I listened to was 'Black Christmas' by the marvellous Poly Styrene that was released last year as a teaser for the new album. I love it.

I listened to a lot of my favourites on the way to work and coming home tonight, and then up popped 'City of Christmas Ghosts' by Goldblade featuring Poly Styrene. This was Poly's first new song in ages and came out in December 2008, a few months after her glorious X-Ray Spex gig at the Roundhouse at which Goldblade was the support band.

I loved this song when it was released (and still do) for getting Poly recording again, for its energy and its punk simplicity. It includes the line, "Raise a toast to the ghosts of the friends we lost last year" and that made me pause. We lost Poly this year. I won't stop listening to it and I'll think of her smiling and singing and bouncing along to the song.

I shall raise a glass and sing "La la la-la Christmas Ghost" most loudly!