Tuesday, 30 April 2013

'Sleeping Beauty' at the New Wimbledon Theatre

On Saturday I experienced the joy of seeing Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty' again, this time as part of the national tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre. I saw it at Sadler's Wells in December as a Christmas treat and it was a delight to see it again. How it didn't win any Olivier Awards this year is a great puzzlement - great storytelling and dancing, great costumes and great sets.

My previous bloggie about the production says it all really, gorgeous, sumptuous and lush are apt words to describe it. And, dare I say it, but a second viewing makes it even better. It is a masterpiece of storytelling and I loved hearing the gasps at the end of the first half when the faerie prince prepares to bite the neck of the young lover to make sure he's still alive 100 years later to rescue the princess.

It is a war of good and evil fought by dance, with the good faeries protecting our princess. They all have their own personalities and dances, frisking round the stage and dancing their gifts to the princess as a baby. The only non-sensible thing about it is calling the faerie prince 'Count Lilac' - a daft name in anybody's book, he is a prince of great power and skill, obviously.

The UK tour is coming to an end but will continue across America. According to the New Adventures site it's being filmed this week in Bristol for a TV viewing over Christmas 2013 and for a subsequent DVD. I'll be there in front of the telly ready to be stunned again. That's definitely something to watch out for.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

'The Audience' at the Gielgud Theatre

On the evening that Helen Mirren picks up another 'best actress' award at the Olivier Award ceremony I thought I'd tell you about seeing 'The Audience' a couple of weeks ago. Yes, Helen reprises her role as Queen Elizabeth II but this time night after night on the stage. She does it remarkably well.

The play is a sequence of vignettes into the regular meetings between the Queen and the Prime Minister of the day, we see the Queen have a chat with Winston Churchill, John Major, Harold Wilson and the current PM, David Cameron. Naturally, she also has a difficult meeting with Margaret Thatcher. I saw it just a few days before the funeral and it was good to see the script changed to reflect that when she's speaking with David Cameron.

Helen Mirren was superb as the Queen, moving at the drop of a hat between being in her 20s to her 80s and it's not just the costumes that changed (the set didn't), it's the voice and the posture as well as the padding.

Haydn Gwynne was excellent - and quite brave - as a hectoring Maggie Thatcher browbeating poor little Queenie over an article in The Sunday Times back in the 90s. Hers was a great performance but I'd single out Richard McCabe for special mention - who also won an Olivier Award tonight for best supporting actor - as Harold Wilson. He came on for three scenes, firstly as a burly new PM, then experienced and comfortable PM and finally as an exiting PM who tells the Queen he has alzheimers and needs to retire. He gives a really touching and enduring performance. Well done.

It's not playing for very long but if you have the chance I'd recommend you go and see it - it's not factually accurate history but it's a great performance and very entertaining.

Three Alan Bennett Plays

I've been to see three plays by Alan Bennett in less than a week, firstly 'Untold Stories' at the Duchess Theatre and 'People' at the National Theatre. 'Untold Stories' is made up of two short plays, 'Hymn' and 'Cocktail Sticks', and started out at the National Theatre before transferring to the Duchess.

'Hymn' is a short, half hour, remembrance of music from when Alan was a boy and roughly half the time is given over to a string quartet. Far more interesting is 'Cocktail Sticks' at about 1:10 hours and an autobiographical piece about his memories of his parents and their relationship with him. Both are brought alive by Alex Jennings who plays Bennett and who looks and sounds like him - until he smiles during the bows at the end and his face becomes his own again.

I preferred 'Cocktail Sticks' which is a gentle joy. It takes its name from a small pack of cocktail sticks Bennett finds at the back of his mother's kitchen cupboard when he's clearing out after her death. She always wanted to host a cocktail party and never did - she was aspirational that way and she'd bought the sticks just in case. I liked the portrayal of Bennett's parents by Jeff Rawle and Gabrielle Lloyd, his butcher father who is happy with his lot and his aspiring mother who didn't really know what to aspire to. But proud parents, both. It was quite touching in many ways.

''People' is Bennett's new play at the National Theatre with the marvellous Frances de la Tour in the lead role as the former model now living in her decrepit ancestral home in the Yorkshire countryside near Sheffield. The place is falling down around her but she resists selling it to the National Trust  preferring to use it as the site for porn films, but eventually loses out to her younger sister, an arch-deacon in the Church of England.

I enjoyed the play but, in hindsight, it seems a bit formulaic: the National Trust wants the property so lets make it a porn set; let's make the CofE sister support the National Trust; let's have the older sister know the porn producer from years ago when they were lovers; let's make the former model in the 50s the tramp-dressed recluse of today; let's bring her out of her shell and dress the tramp in couture dresses; and so on and so forth. It was even a bit formulaic to have the older 'companion' turn out to be a half sister. Yes, of course. I can't quite decide what the play is meant to be about. Mind you, other friends report that they were in fits of laughter throughout so it depends on individuals, I suppose.

Frances de la Tour is, of course, excellent throughout and it's great to see her in full flow with caustic dialogue in her distinctive voice. The play is worth seeing for Frances alone.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Poly Styrene - Two Years On

Two years ago tonight Marianne Elliot Said - Poly Styrene - left us for a higher plane. Pop stars come and go but Poly's death was significant to me, personally. I never met her but she was an enormous influence on my younger self and I was delighted when she released her album, 'Generation Indigo', full of magnificent three minute pop songs, only for her to leave us a matter of weeks later. This is what I blogged when I heard the sad news. Strangely, I can still get upset when I think about her. Some artists touch you.

I was delighted to read a post from Brian Viglione on Facebook this evening announcing a tribute concert for Poly in aid of War Child in New York in June. Good on you Brian! He said:

X-ReSpects - Poly Styrene Tribute Concert! I'm proud to announce today which marks the 2 year passing of legendary vocalist, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, a tribute concert charity event I've put together with David Siffert for JUNE 30th at the Webster Hall Studio! Our band is features:

Holly Brewer - ( The Folks Below, HUMANWINE) - Vocals
Amy Klein (Titus Andronicus) - Guitar
Hailey Wojcik (Wojcik) - Guitar
Aileen Brophy ( The Space Merchants ) - Bass
Carrie Anne Murphy (Bad Credit No Credit) - Saxophone
Brian Viglione (The Dresden Dolls) - Drums
Proceeds from this event will go to the War Child Foundation, a charity close to Poly's heart. War Child International is a family of independent humanitarian organizations which work together to help children and young people affected by armed conflict.
More official news and support bands TBA. Tickets will be $12-15 and it's a 16+ show. So help spread the word! 
Brian is half of the most wonderful Dresden Dolls with Amanda Fucking Palmer, purveyors of the punk cabaret. I can't help but think that Poly would approve. 

Much as I rejoiced at the idea of a tribute concert and wished I could be there on the night, a small part of me thought, 'so what are we doing?'. Last year there was a tribute album from America, 'Permanent Wave - Rebel On The Underground' and this year is the tribute concert in New York. What are we doing here in London? Two years on and nothing has happened it seems.

I can't help but make the comparison with the passing of Kirsty MacColl in 2000 (and if you don't know who she was then shame on you). Kirsty's fans arranged for a bench to be placed in Soho Square in 2002 in remembrance of her and of one of her songs and have got together on her birthday every year since then (I've been a few times). The event has got onto the TV news now and then. An anniversary concert two years ago has even been released on CD. 

That makes me feel guilty. What are we doing to keep Poly's memory and art alive?

Can it be that difficult to arrange a tribute concert? or get her previous albums remastered and re-released? I've no idea but maybe we should find out?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective - The Tate Modern

I went to see the Lichtenstein retrospective at the Tate Modern the other day, a good sized exhibition, nicely spaced out and not over-crowded. It was nice to wander round the spacious rooms with almost universally big paintings on the wall, the majority in his distinctive style.

The paintings (and a few stand-alone works) were from the late-50s to mid-90s so we were given the full range of his works from early abstracts, through his stylised dot cartoons to his later Chinese (dotted) landscapes. We're soon introduced to his most recognisable works with his 'cartoon' panels of romance and war, with his 'Oh Jeff' painting used as the poster for the exhibition. Some of these works have a vibrancy and a humour that make them unique and can be viewed (and, in some cases, read) in different ways.

His 'WHAAM' is a big painting of an anonymous fighter pilot smashing an enemy in the vast sky while 'Why, Brad darling' is almost claustrophobic. Brad is named in a couple of paintings (including one in which his girlfriend is drowning). He doesn't look particularly happy in this painting (with a different girlfriend).

Some of his later 'cartoons' left me a bit cold. The penultimate room had a series of paintings of nudes that didn't work for me, they felt lifeless and a bit pointless. Maybe he'd taken this form as far as he could?

Some of his non-'cartoon' paintings on display were far more enjoyable, his versions of Picasso and Matisse paintings, his art deco paintings and some very strange landscapes, including the Chinese landscapes in the final room.

It's well worth going to see this exhibition and see how his work evolved and changed at different periods. It's fun as well as art. Luckily, there weren't too many people using the audio-guide things so it was easy to wander around without people congregating in front of particular paintings and just standing there. The main irritant for the me was the redundant comma in the phrase, "Oh Jeff, I love you, too... but...". Still, can't have it all!

Buffy Sainte-Marie and Richie Havens

Richie Havens has died at the age of 72 of a heart attack. I'm not a fan of his but anyone who is a friend of Buffy Sainte-Marie's should be noted. I think they first met in the folkie coffee shops of Greenwich Village in the early '60s when both played against the grain. I don't know much about Richie but he's one of those names that, if you're interested in music, you've probably come across at some stage. He opened Woodstock apart from anything else.

He fell into my radar a few years ago when he featured in a photo by Annie Liebovitz with Buffy in 'Vanity Fair' (2007). I like the way that they're holding hands, that Buffy looks into the camera and that it's outdoors. It all seems so right.

Of course, it's not the first time they've been photographed together. This photo is from the Longest Walk concert in 1978 (courtesy of the We Are All One Facebook page) that shows Mohammed Ali sitting next to Buffy along with Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman, Stevie Wonder and, a few places along, Richie Havens. And yes, that is Marlon Brando in the middle.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

David Bowie is - The Victoria & Albert Museum

I went to see the 'David Bowie is' exhibition at the V&A yesterday and am jolly pleased I did. Anyone around my age will remember Mr Bowie from the early '70s, that alien life-form that appeared on Top of the Pops as Ziggy Stardust in 1972 singing about the 'Starman' who thought he'd blow our minds. Too late, Ziggy, you did and they stayed blown. And what a thrill it was to see your Ziggy suit in the flesh (so to speak) on a mannequin point out of the glass case at me.

The V&A exhibition is based on David's archives, his costumes and clothes over the last 40 years, hand-written lyrics, videos and memorabilia like his coke spoon and Berlin flat keys. It's a multimedia experience with touch and smell being the only senses denied. a giant video screen fills the wall of the penultimate room and that plays the 'lost' extended recording of 'The Jean Genie' from Top of the Pops all those years ago, David 100 feet tall and glorious in his electric power.

You don't get a ticket to the show, you get a sound recording to hang around your neck and earphones to listen to it all. I can see it, a sound n vision experience, I have a loathing for the audio-guide things so hung it round my neck and ignored it. I don't care what some anonymous voice is going to tell me, I want to see David's stuff. So I skipped the queue waiting to look in the peep holes at the start of the exhibition and threw myself into it properly.

It opens with David in the late '60s, his first attempts to be a pop star, the scene setting covers of books and records, most of which I by-passed and headed straight into the '70s and things I could recognise and that meant something to me. And there he was, Ziggy suit on a mannequin pointing at me, just as he'd done on Top of the Pops when he sang, 'So I picked on you-ou-ou' and pointed into the camera.  That's when the alien landed and he wasn't going to leave us alone. Ever.

Photographs, mannequins in costumes, hand-written lyrics with crossings out and replacement words, video screens, notes about recording sessions, photos I've never seen, notes from others to David (such as a note from Jim Henson about the early script for 'Labyrinth') and a wonderful host of other things. Different versions of the cover for the latest album, 'The Next Day' including one based on the 'Aladdin Sane' album cover. Stage sets for various tours, tour costumes and suits worn off stage.

Favourites were his Ziggy suit (of course), his distressed 'Earthling' Union Jack coat and his brocade McQueen frock coats, the lyrics to 'Starman', the contact sheet for the 'Diamond Dogs' photoshoot, his pierrot costume for 'Ashes To Ashes', the Berlin room and the enormous video wall. The astonishing thing is the attention to detail for everything over the last 40 years. Such a mind that could encompass it all, understand it all and link it all. And make it reality.

It's an excellent exhibition and I'd encourage everyone to go to it. Bowie has been in our lives forever and influenced virtually everybody in one way or another. The only downside to the exhibition is that the first series of rooms are so small that they get terribly crowded, particularly with people queueing to look through the peepholes (I didn't bother). The lighting could also be set to brighter in a few places. But, on the whole, it's an exciting experience and you'd do well to see it while you can.

Y'know what? David Bowie is.

'A Chorus Line' at The London Palladium

I went to see 'A Chorus Line' at the London Palladium and had front row seats in the Royal Circle so had a perfect view. I've never seen it before and have never been able to watch the film all the way through so I was in for an interesting night when I would finally learn what happens in this story and who wins in the end.

You know the story, of course, the tale of a day of auditions for dancers for the chorus line of a new Broadway show. We have new hopefuls and jaded dancers from a dozen other chorus lines, dancers who want to dance and dancers who need the money it'll bring. As the play unfolds we get to learn something about their lives, their hopes, dreams and fears, as they work their way through the audition process. We see them dancing, singing and talking, telling jokes and becoming 'real' people in front of us, people who, in some cases, we start to care about.

It's set in 1975 so the costumes are less than glamorous and feature a lot of brown/tan shades but we're spared the worst excesses of flares. The set is an empty theatre stage with a white stripe across the floor and a set of mirrors that turn round every now and then to become a matt black wall. The only costume change is when the dancers get hats to practice the big number with - and then we get the glitzy big number at the end with everyone in gold lame suits looking every inch the Broadway chorus line.

Some of the tales told by the dancers were fun and others heartbreaking, from the girls remembering when they escaped their home lives to go to the fantasy world that is the ballet, to the dancer who can't sing whose husband completes each sentence for her and the man who just needs money to feed his children. We hear of the ugly ducking who had work done to give her tits and ass (which really ought to be the title of the song rather than 'Dancing: Ten, Looks: Three'), of the girl who couldn't get on with her drama teacher and could feel nothing, of the lad whose first job was in a drag show and who was terrified of telling his parents and, when they find out, his father tells the producer to look after his son, the first time the boy has heard his dad call him 'son'. Some of the tales are touching and others are fun. All life is here.

There are no leads as such, it's a great ensemble piece with everyone stepping forward into the limelight now and then as well as taking their part in making up the backing troupe. The closest we get to leads are in the shape of Zach (the director) and Cassie (his former lover who tried to become an actress in Hollywood but is now back for a chorus job). She had extended dance sequence when she tries to prove herself to him, prove that she that she deserves a place in the chorus line despite him thinking she is too good. he pushes her hard for the rest of the play. Zach is played by John Partridge who you might know from 'Eastenders' but I know from playing the genocide peroxided Marilyn in the original cast of 'Taboo' ten years ago. Cassie is played by Scarlett Strallen who I last saw in 'Passion' at The Donmar Warehouse and as Truly Scrumptious in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' on the same Palladium stage.

I didn't really know what to expect but I thoroughly enjoyed the production and intend to go back to see it again. It's incredibly polished and professional, as you'd expect. I particularly like Leigh Zimmerman as the ageing Sheila who's done it all, sassy and knowing, and lets the mask slip when she wonders if she could open a dance studio when she can no longer dance professionally. I liked Scarlett as Cassie who utters the line, 'God, I'm a dancer and dancers dance!' before launching into an extended solo performance. Harry Francis was great as young Mark who wants his first Broadway job and Gary Wood was excellent telling the story of his hurtful past and realising that his father loved him but had never said so. I'd also single out Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Puerto Rican Diana wanting her first Broadway job but not wanting to be the first to speak. Victoria was great and has a really powerful voice, definitely someone to watch out for.

If you get the chance then do go and see it. It's a tremendous production that deserves to run for some time and stick in the memory of everyone who sees it. I'll remember it.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Yoko Ono's Meltdown 2013

If you've looked at this blog before then you're probably familiar with the annual Meltdown festival on the Southbank in London. Every year someone is chosen to curate a festival of art and music. Past curators have been David Bowie, Morrissey, Patti Smith and Ray Davies. This year it's the turn of Yoko Ono.

I've seen Yoko at past Meltdown festivals, as part of the ensemble at Patti Smith's Meltdown and full (and quite astonishing) Plastic Ono Band gig as part of Ornette Coleman's Meltdown. I went to see a retrospective of Yoko's work at the Serpentine Gallery last year. As soon as she was announced as the 2013 curator I knew we were in for a treat.

I'm a member of the Southbank to hear about and buy tickets to events before they go on general sale. The pre-sale for members was on Tuesday and the tickets go on general sale tomorrow, Thursday. I was lucky enough to get tickets to see Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band open the festival at the Royal Festival Hall, Siouxsie playing her first gig in five years, Patti Smith doing an evening of words and music in the intimate Purcell Room, and Marianne Faithfull and Boy George at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. 

That haul alone justifies the cost of my membership. I'm still mulling over trying for tickets to see Iggy & The Stooges and, of course, more events are still to be announced. I quite like the idea of seeing the film 'Battleship Potemkin' with the Pet Shops Boys soundtrack at the British Film Institute. No doubt, more will be announced in the next few weeks.

Thank you Yoko, I'm looking forward to this. I hope we get another Onochord at your gig!

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Heroines 1980

Here's a great photo I've nicked from Facebook. It was taken in 1980 and features Debbie Harry, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie, Chrissy Hynde, Poly Styrene and Pauline Black. Has there ever been a photo of such a talented group of artists together at one time? I've seen them all live.

Debbie is still gigging with Blondie and released 'Panic of Girls' two years ago. Viv released her first solo album (the excellent 'The Vermillion Border') last year and I saw her play live in January. Siouxsie has been quiet for a few years but will feature in Yoko Ono's Meltdown festival in June 2013. Chrissie has been quiet for a while. Poly released her last, most excellent, album in 2011 ('Generation Indigo') before she left us. Pauline is still around but not releasing music. The only icon missing from the photo is Gaye Advert.

You can't keep them punks down!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

AFP & GTO - The Make Up Tour

Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra has announced some long-awaited UK dates on the Make Up Tour which, as Amanda says, is "as in re-scheduled, not face-painty-makeup, but there will be that and glitter too." Tickets go on pre-sale on 4 April so snap them up while you can:

Fri 11 Jul | The Ritz | Manchester
Sat 12 Jul | The Roundhouse | London
Sun 13 Jul | The Concorde | Brighton
Tue 15 Jul | The Academy | Bristol
Wed 16 Jul | The Institute | Birmingham
Thu 17 Jul | The Picture House | Edinburgh
Fri 18 Jul | The Academy | Dublin, Ireland

Amanda and the band are also playing Glastonbury and (gulp) the Newport Folk Festival in America and has promised to plug in her electric ukelele.

You need to see the force of nature that is Amanda Fucking Palmer!