Sunday, 29 June 2014

My Big List of Gigs

I blogged about lists a couple of weeks ago and promised you a big list of the bands wot I have seen. It's not complete and I keep thinking of others, but here it is (in no particular order):

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, SLADE, 10cc, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, The Who, The Clash, Lene Lovich, Rachel Sweet, Wreckless Eric, Jona Lewie, The Ramones, Gary Glitter, Lindisfarne, Marianne Faithfull, The Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex/Poly Styrene, Siouxsie, Brenda Holloway, Chris Clark, Mabel John, Sandie Shaw, Lynsey de Paul, T.Rexstacy, Glen Matlock, The Human League, ABC, Heaven 17, Alison Moyet, Boy George, The B-52's, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Maximo Park, Art Brut, Theoretical Girl, Mystery Jets, Pete & The Pirates, Viv Albertine, Lulu, Shelby Lynne, Suzanne Vega, Petula Clark, Madonna,

Bananrama, Scissor Sisters, New York Dolls, The Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer, Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, Evelyn Evelyn, Jason Webley, Christian Silva, Sandi Thom, The Simple Pleasure, Sinead O'Connor, Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, Patti Smith, Eliza Carthy, The Imagined Village, Ronnie Spector, Carole King, Donovan, Roger Cook, Jessie Malin, Richard Thompson, Ray Davies, Uncle Monk, Public Image Ltd, Sugababes,

Prince, Dr & The Medics, Buzzcocks, Pet Shop Boys, Tom Tom Club, Victor Romero Evans and Chris Tummings, Janet Kay, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dennis Bovell, The Unthanks, Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, Jimmy Cliff, Jean Binta Breeze, Thea Gilmore, John Cooper Clarke, Suzi Quatro, P!nk, Our Lady J, Justin Vivian Bond, Gavin Creel, Angie Stone, Linda Lewis, Belnda Carlisle, Novice Theory/Geo Wyeth, Ojos de Brujo, Morrissey, The Mummers, Michelle Shocked, Mary J Blige, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas,

Marc Almond, Kiki Dee, Mammas Gun, Steeleye Span, Macy Gray, Liza Minelli, Ladyhawke, Laura Marling, Kim Wilde, Kim Weston, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Indigo Girls, Alela Diane, Grace Jones, Goldblade, Gladys Knight, Gabrielle, Anastacia, Bad Lieutenant, Barbara Cook, Beverley Knight,

Carl Barat, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Blood Red Shoes, Carroll Thompson, Cerys Matthews, Estelle, Blondie, Emily Barker, David McAlmont, McAlmont & Butler, Comanechi, Cher, Chaka Khan, Bitter Ruin, Fascinating Aida, The Tourists, Alphabeat, Anita Harris, Alan Price, The Funk Brothers, Mary Wilson, Madeleine Bell, Alvin Stardust, Shakin' Stevens, Gregory Porter, Thelma Houston...

... and probably lots more bands from the late 70s and early 80s.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Stanley Spencer Gallery at Cookham

Today was bright and sunny and what better way to celebrate summer than to head out to Cookham in Berkshire to the Stanley Spencer Gallery just down the road from Mr Spencer's family house. The current exhibition is titled 'Paradise Regained: Stanley Spencer in the Aftermath of the First World War', presumably to tie-in with the centenary of the war. I've seen a few of the paintings before, at the 'Crisis of Brilliance' exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery last year, and it was nice to see them again.

The Gallery is based in a small, converted chapel at the end of the High Street with the main paintings on the ground floor and some paintings and drawings on the wall by the stairs up to a small mezzanine. This area holds archive materials you can browse through, books, more drawings and an iPad with an interactive display of the main painting on the wall opposite, the unfinished and huge 'Christ Preaching at Cookham Regata' (on the left of the interior photo above). Someone has clearly put a lot of thought into making this small space work both as a gallery and as an interactive experience, so well done.

One of the more striking paintings in the exhibition is 'The Last Supper' with Jesus and the disciples squashed into a small room for their last meal together and, for some reason, the disciples have their bare feet sticking out from under the table cloth. I was pondering this on the train back to London and can't think of any reason why that particular pose should be remotely meaningful - the catalogue suggests it might allude to Christ washing the feet of his disciples but what an odd way of alluding to it. What I want to know is who is the disciple to the left of Jesus who seems to be merrily scoffing food and shoving it into his mouth. I suspect Judas.

Just as so many of Spencer's painting hark back to Cookham, he sets 'Christ Carrying The Cross' on the High Street outside his family home. You don't actually see Christ, it's everyone else in the parade you see, with people milling around and leaning out of windows to see what all the fuss was about. The direction of travel heads towards the chapel that would later become a gallery to Spencer's memory. He seemed to like painting crowds and there are lots of crowds in his paintings - the trick is to look carefully at them and see what isn't obvious, what he might have hidden away in a corner or behind a more prominent figure. Never take what is obvious for granted in his paintings and drawings.

One of the more poignant paintings in the exhibition is 'Unveiling Cookham War Memorial' from 1922 (which was exhibited as part of the 'Crisis of Brilliance' show last year). I say poignant because it was obviously important to him and his older brother's name is inscribed on the base of the cross as someone who lost his life in the war. There are no soldiers in uniform present and no grieving, this is a celebration with everyone there in their best clothes, lounging around seeing who's there and being seen. The only thing that seems slightly out of place is the Union flag in the bottom right-hand corner and it's this splash of colour that suggests something other than a small town fayre is going on. You walk past the memorial on the way from the station to the gallery so you can't help but see it. On the way back to the station I took a photo from roughly the same place as Spencer's view-point. I'll post that when I download it.

Of course, there's a lot more to Spencer than religious paintings and the war, he was also a delicate and beautiful landscape painter and there are three paintings of Englefield House from different angles covered in wisteria, lilacs and clematis as well as tress and whatever else. I think my favourite was 'Lilac and Clematis at Englefield' that has the simple and raw geometric shape of the building overgrown and tangled by the plants. I like the brickwork, with the different shades of brick bathed in the sun - I suspect that took ages to get right.

It's only a little gallery and doesn't take long to look round but it's obviously well thought out and dedicated to the memory of Spencer. The number of books available, the wall of postcards (how often I bemoan the lack of postcards at exhibitions) and the lovely little catalogue with good reproductions and thorough text all demonstrate that whoever's in charge of the gallery knows what they're doing and knows what punters want. Well done! I got the catalogue and postcards to browse through later.

Beside the door as you go in there's a self-portrait of Spencer, his first in oils when he was 23 years old. The simplicity and the direct gaze say so much about the artist he was to become, battered by war and struggling to find his own peace afterwards in his little country town. There's something terribly English about his paintings, about his crowds and subjects. He painted what he saw around him and even placed his religious paintings in Cookham. He was bringing the immortal to the end of his street, to outside his own house, to make it real to his viewers and, in my view, he succeeded.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

'The Pajama Game' at the Shaftesbury Theatre

I went to a socialist rally tonight to hear dialectic Marxism and workers' rights and solidarity with the brothers and sisters and what did I get? Songs! And dancing! But, luckily, the striking workers won the argument and capitalism was shown to be corrupt and selfish *fist in the air*.

I went to see 'The Pajama Game' at the Shaftesbury Theatre. I've never seen it before (or the film) so I was coming to it fresh. It's the story of a dispute over wages at the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory embodied by the management and union leads falling in love and singing lovey-dovey songs while industrial relations fail around them.

There isn't much of a plot, really - boy (management) meets girl (union) they argue and fight then declare love at a works picnic then boy sacks girl and the union goes on strike over a 7.5 cent pay increase. Boy settles the strike by getting hold of the boss's secret accounts that shows he's been fiddling the books and pocketing the money and forces the company to give the workers the pay increase and then boy and girl can get back together. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that (but not much). There's a shedful of casual 1950s sexism in the text that, no matter how it's played, still comes through loud and clear. The politics is also quite odd for 1954, so close to the McCarthy show trials and portraying the little lady as the political one in the play (the union leader is clearly just out to have sex with as many union members as possible).

The play opens with the cast coming in from the floor of the theatre as if they're appearing at the gates at work in the morning. Then we have Gary Wilmot (yes, that Gary Wilmot) as the time and motion expert welcoming us to the factory before the stage is again invaded by the workers pushing their sewing machine tables and chairs on stage for the first big scene. The scenes mainly blur between the factory floor and the factory office with an outing to the local park for the annual works picnic, and, in the second half, with 'Hernando's Hideaway' nightclub. As well as the casual sexism there's also casual racism against native Americans with Gary Wilmot dressing as a 'red indian' for his knife throwing act and scalping lines in a later song. It really quite jarred with me.

Every now and then the stage exploded into colour but, in the main, I thought it was a bit drab. A factory is hardly the right setting for an explosion of colour but it's about pyjamas and they're all colours so it can be done. The colour all seemed to come later in the second half of the show. Oh, and our heroine never wears the yellow dress shown in the publicity posters. On the other hand, there's enough movement and vitality to make up for it, with never a dull moment on the stage.

I really liked the leads. It was great to see Gary Wilmot again - the first time in a couple of decades, I think - and he was great fun with great timing. I also really liked Michael Xavier as our hero Sid (who calls a hero Sid?). He has a great voice and it's a delight to see him again - I saw him as one of the princes in 'Into The Woods' at Regent Park a few years ago so it's nice to see his career progressing so that he's now playing the lead in a big West End show. I also liked Joanna Riding as Babe, the union rep who falls in love. She brought a nice feistiness to the part but didn't quite quash the casual sexism.

The sound wasn't terribly good and sometimes the cast were drowned out by the orchestra (maybe someone new was on the sound-desk for that performance?). Despite the sound and the occasional drabness of the stage, there was something about the production that kept a smile on my face for most of the performance. I don't know what it was but I was conscious that I was smiling. And not just for the daft 'Hernando's Hideaway' section.

It's on for another couple of months so see it if you can - it's not the best musical ever and there are some problems with it but it was great fun and a lovely way to spend a few hours. Solidarity!

PS: Pyjamas are spelled with a 'y' in British English. A minor annoyance having that rogue 'a' in the word on the poster...

Sunday, 15 June 2014

A List Is Just A List

I'm a bit of a lister, me. I write lists. I don't mean shopping lists (other than at Christmas), my lists are far more interesting. I wrote a list of plays by Christopher Marlowe so I could cross them off as I saw each play. I write set lists after gigs for no particular reason other than I make lists. I make lists at work, not so much things I need to do but a list of what I'm not doing so, if or when something goes wrong I know I need to put it right. I have a list of every hug I've ever had from Amanda Palmer. Yes, I am that geeky.

I make my lists in a pocket sized black Moleskine notebook that travels most places with me. It's full of lists and notes and the occasional drawing and every now and then I'll open it randomly and see what I find. I've just opened it randomly roughly in the middle to find my notes of visiting the London Paralympics in 2012 and seeing swashbuckling. I've just opened it about three quarters of the way through to find a random quote from the George Bellows exhibition I went to at the Royal Academy in May 2013 and, on the opposite page, is the setlist from Yoko Ono's gig that opened her Meltdown series on the Southbank in June 2013.

There's all sorts in this little notebook. It's not a diary - this blog is probably more of a diary of my daily doings and visitings and seeings - but it is full of lists in chronological order. The last entry is a note about Viv Albertine' book launch at the Lexington on 3 June 2014. The next entry will be a list.

This weekend has been a bit of a remembrance one, remembering people and things and events from years ago. I've no idea why. I started thinking of all the bands and solo artists I've seen over the years and realised I only remember a fraction of them. So I'm going to start a list. I know I saw quite a few bands in the mid-70s and again in the early 80s but I can't remember that many (probably because I didn't keep a list).

I know I saw a lot of bands in 1981 because I was involved in the students union and helped out on gig nights but can't really remember that many. I remember seeing SLADE and Dave Hill offering me a cigarette (a Benson & Hedges), I remember seeing The Tourists and Annie Lennox's voice, I remember the Ramones, I remember Gary Glitter on his motorbike, I remember Lene Lovich and Wreckless Eric and Rachel Sweet and I remember The Clash. But who don't I remember?

I shall start a list of those I remember and then go through my record and cassette collection to see if any jog my memory, and then start on CDs and digital stuff. I know I never saw Siouxsie & The Banshees (I have no idea how I missed them despite buying all the albums) but I've seen Siouxsie several times in the last decade. Some people I didn't see back in the day but have made up for it more recently, like Poly Styrene, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Viv Albertine and, of course, the Sex Pistols.

So, watch this space for an epic blog in the form of a list...

... what else can I make a list of?

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Sid Vicious - My Way

I've been reading Viv Albertine's book, 'Clothes, Music, Boys' and Sid Vicious features in Side One of the book as a friend and fellow band mate of Viv's (they were in the Flowers of Romance together, named by Johnny Rotten). Miraculously this song popped up on my iPod tonight on my way home so I thought I'd share it.

Sid had a short life and it doesn't seem to have been terribly pleasant but this was his moment and he took it. I, like everyone else, sneered at the post-Rotten Sex Pistols and the Swindle, until I saw this video and thought 'wow'. Sid is clearly just mimicking John Lydon's vocal mannerisms but he's great nonetheless. This was the moment when he could say I am Sid Vicious and I am great. And he was. 

Do you remember seeing this for the first time? I do. 

Monday, 9 June 2014

Rik Mayall

I was sad to see that Rik Mayall has died today. I found out when I was surfing Twitter on the train home after work. Rik was only a couple of years older than me and that brings mortality close but I never thought I was in the same generation as Rik - he was up there on telly being irreverent and doing things. I was a student watching him on telly. It seemed as if punk had worked it's way out of music and into another art form and 'alternative comedy' was born.

I didn't watch the Comic Strip stuff but I do remember Kevin Turvey, one of his earlier creations. And I loved 'The Young Ones' - he was the character I most identified with, annoying as he was (and I suspect I was too). I never really got into 'The New Statesman' and didn't like 'Bottom' but that's not the point. The point is that Rik did these things and somehow managed to be on mainstream channels doing ridiculous, lampooning and anarchic stuff. How on earth did he get away with it?

I think my favourite images of Rik after 'The Young Ones' are when he turned up in  'Blackadder' as Lord Flashheart, always over the top and saving the day, making Blackadder's life a dreary misery. And I saw him in 'Jonathan Creek' last year, whizzing around in a wheelchair solving the puzzle.

But I'm not going all #NameOfChoiceRIP on him. I never understand that, people just posting the name and RIP. I suspect that anyone I feel sufficiently strongly about to say 'rest in peace' would tell me to fuck off since resting in peace is the last thing they want to do. They'll want to rage rather than meekly give up. It reminds me of the song 'In My Mind' by Amanda Palmer that has the lines, 'And when they put me in the ground I'll start pounding the lid, Saying I haven't finished yet...'

In my mind Rik won't go 'oops, that's it then...' and go along quietly. He'll find a giant frying pan to bash down on someone's head, swear loudly and expect Adrian Edmondson to join in. The internet is awash with tributes but my favourite is Ade's:

"There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing. They were some of the most carefree stupid days I ever had, and I feel privileged to have shared them with him.

"And now he's died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard."

Friday, 6 June 2014

'Titus Andronicus' at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

The production of 'Titus Andronicus' currently playing to packed houses at the Globe has a reputation for blood and guts. And that's what's delivered but it's a bit more than just a gore-fest. I've never seen it performed before and I haven't read it so I came fresh to the plot and its tale of power and corruption and, yes, killing people in imaginative ways. Titus isn't a very loveable character, not warm and fluffy at all, but he is at the centre of the play along with his enemy, Tamora, Queen of the Goths. It's the interaction between them, directly and, more often, indirectly, that carries the play forward.

The play opens with a triumphal procession in Rome through the pit (where the audience stands) with Goth slaves pulling Titus's chariot with two of his sons in coffins and Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in chains at his feet. The slaves turn out to be her three sons and her lover. Before burying his sons Titus decides to kill her eldest son as a sacrifice and this is the spark that drives the rest of the play, the revenge and counter-revenge that ultimately decimates the two proud families. One little error of judgement and the world changes. It's compounded when Titus refuses the accolade of becoming emperor and chooses the last emperor's eldest son for that position. Error number two. This all takes place in the first 15 minutes or so and that seals his fate that we explore in the rest of the play.

The new emperor, Saturinus, chooses Tamora as his new wife and empress, elevating her from captive slave to senior, at least in influence, over Titus who has just waged war on the Goths and lost two sons. Titus loses another son who he kills in defence of the rights of the emperor to whom he is loyal beyond reason. The emperor's brother runs off with Titus's daughter and is then slain and two of Titus's sons are blamed and killed for his murder and his daughter raped and mutilated. Yes, there is a lot of violence and blood.

Titus starts to lose it and becomes mad without realising that it's Tamora and her lover Aaron behind all his misfortunes. Aaron is found out when Tamora gives birth to his son (he's a Moor, you see) and Titus kills her remaining two sons and serves them to her to eat as a nice slice of pie. More blood, more death and a new emperor in the form of his youngest son, Lucius. Phew!

Yes, people did faint at the violence and gore - it's not just hype, it happened and I was aware of three fainters but there might've been more. I've never experienced that before - it's a play and it's actors that come on at the end to take a bow so why faint? I shall ponder on that.

Despite the violence and blood I really enjoyed this production. A plain stage with even the pillars blacked out and no scenery, just a few props and platforms on wheels to take the action out into the pit amongst the audience. The cast weren't terribly polite about moving people out of the way to trundle the platforms around - I suppose they can't be since they've got to move from X to Y in Z seconds to keep the play flowing. Luckily I was sitting in the balcony so could enjoy the sight of people being herded this way and that from my place of safety.

There was so much movement in the production that it was almost dizzying with no static scenes at all. I can easily see some of the scenes as being static in other productions, with actors trading lines and word-play but in this production they paced, they ran, they jumped, never being still, always some movement of the actors on stage or the actors in the audience. No wonder that they're all lean and mean (other than the lovely figure of Bacchus who kept spilling his wine, poor thing). They even wore platform shoes.

William Houston as Titus and Indira Varma as Tamora were both excellent, trading blows with words and smiles when they were together and sufficient viciousness when apart to make me join the Tamora fan club. Revenge is sweet. Obi Amili was excellent as Aaron, the threatening and scheming Moor, and I liked Matthew Needham as Saturinus, the rather vapid and useless emperor.

As Chris commented, it's almost as if Mr Shakespeare relished this play for what crude and merciless torture or death he could inject next. It's not a play I would want to see regularly but this production is excellent and well worth seeing (but I'd recommend the balcony seats rather than the pit).

I had a momentary pang when they talked about Goths and no-one on stage was wearing black mascara or had big black hair. I yearned for Siouxsie to be Tamora and then I came to my senses - Siouxsie would never have lost the war with Titus in the first place or allowed herself to be captured. Obvs.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Viv Albertine at The Lexington

This evening was the long awaited launch of Viv Albertine's autobiography, 'Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys' which is a quote from her Mum when she was a teenager expressing all that she was interested in. I had an advance reading from the book - the chapter about the White Riot tour with the Clash - in January 2013 when I saw Viv at the 12Bar Club. Tonight was billed as a reading from Viv followed by an interview on stage by John Robb (punkster, punk journo, and Poly Styrene collaborator).

The evening was hosted at The Lexington at Angel and was part of the Faber Social series, Faber being the book publisher. Also on the bill were performance artists Anat Ben-David and Bryony Kimmings and DJing by Tessa Pollitt (of The Slits) with some heavy reggae beats to skank along to. I preferred Bryony because she was very rude and great fun although she did destroy a perfectly good bunch of flowers.

We got to the Lexington pub early to have some food and a drink before heading upstairs for the main event. While studying the menu the Faber people came in and so did John Robb, followed a few minutes later by Viv. She was sitting at the table behind me but I restrained my fanboy instincts and left her in peace before her big book launch.

Handing in the tickets, getting hands stamped for re-entry, books and badges collected, we headed upstairs for beer and collecting the various promotional postcards scattered around and waited for the show to begin. And waited. Both acts were late to the stage and everything seemed very laid back while I looked at my watch thinking Viv should be on by now...

Then the stage was set with four chairs and four microphones - why? Surely two chairs and mics are enough? Then John Robb got on stage to explain that Viv's Mum who is 95 is in a critical condition and Viv had left to be with her. She'd hoped to get back after visiting her Mum but that wasn't going to happen so they'd prepared an alternative for us. That explained the delays, trying to give Viv time to get to the nursing home and back but time had run out. Instead we were getting a panel of people who knew Viv to talk about their memories of her, interviewed by John. Tessa was there (of course), a friend of Viv's from school, Dennis Bovell and Viv's first boyfriend. It was lovely hearing Tessa talk about the early days with the Slits as well as Dennis who produced 'Cut' and played on Viv's album, 'The Vermillion Border'. Don Letts was expected on stage to say a few words but he didn't appear - I saw him in the bar earlier so he was there.

Despite the circumstances it was great fun to hear people who knew her talking about Viv. Tessa commented that The Slits always thought of Viv as 'the pretty one' in the band. She also bemoaned how people class The Slits as post-punk but they were there at the start of it all. Dennis had many stories of The Slits back in the day and how he added percussion to 'New Town' on the first album, percussion being a spoon, and ash tray and a box of matches. And how Ari Up carved her name into the new mixing desk at Jon Anderson's recording studio. Sometimes it's the details that matter.

The improvised panel discussion worked very well and they did Viv proud. John Robb did say that details of how to claim refunds and/or get books signed would be posted tomorrow but I think anyone who claims a refund is being churlish. We didn't have Viv but we had a damn good show anyway.

I do feel for Viv, though. This was her big night, little Viv from North London launching her book and she misses it at the last minute for the best of reasons. There'll be another day and another opportunity to big up the book. There was obviously a lot of love for Viv in the room and there was definitely an age thing going on with the majority of people being in their 50s, ie. the right age to know The Slits. That's where I originally know Viv from, taping the John Peel session and playing 'Newtown' and 'Shoplifting' to scare people. Then she reappeared a few years ago with a crowd funder appeal to make an album. I vaguely thought 'I know that name from somewhere' and, when it dawned on me who she was, I had to support her appeal. And everything else since. She's earned that loyalty.

Viv tweeted this evening to apologise for missing the launch and explained that her Mum was critically ill. She cares but she made the right decision. It's excellent reception will mean that there'll be another day for the book. In the meantime I'll read it!

Monday, 2 June 2014

'Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be' at Stratford East

Last week I headed east to Stratford, the site of the Olympic Stadium and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, to see the revival of 'Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be'. 'Fings' is another Joan Littlewood creation and, along with 'Oh What A Lovely War' that I saw a few months back, was created by Joan's company in that theatre. Both help celebrate her 100th anniversary and there's a lovely quote from her about 'Fings' on one of the posters, that it's 'like Guys & Dolls but with its flies undone'.

I saw a previous revival of the show at the Union Theatre three years ago and, to my surprise really liked it. It was also nice to see Suzie Chard again, playing the same role in both productions of head tart with a heart who ends up going straight along with the copper. The Union Theatre is teeny compared to Stratford so this production had the scope to do far more with the show and it did.

It's the end of the '50s in deepest, darkest Soho with dining establishments, illegal gambling, ladies of the night with their pimp, bent coppers and gangsters down on their luck. The cockerney-speak is laid on thick with underworld lingo and some polari thrown in for good measure by the gay interior decorator.

It takes place over two days and one night, opening in the dour and out of date drinking joint that doubles as a brothel with people bemoaning the good old days and then the gangster wins on the horses, upgrades his establishment and comes into conflict with Meatface, a bitter rival we never see. Over-night there's a turf war with much blood spilt off-stage and when our hero returns he ends up getting married to his lover and partner in crime of 20 years. Yes, happy endings really do happen.

Jessie Wallace played Lil opposite Mark Arden's gangster Fred, with Gary Kemp as the bent cop taking his fee and Suzie Chard as lead 'brass', Betty. It was great casting in the four main roles and they bounced off each other nicely as the plot thickened. It was nice to see Jessie do something on the stage rather than the interminable 'Eastenders' and Gary Kemp was great fun as the bent copper, always in movement and in good voice. Suzie Chard really ought to be offered more roles - and not just of the buxom variety. Christopher Ryan was also good fun as the habitual criminal but he is always fixed in my minds as one of 'The Young Ones'.

The set and costumes were great and I liked the use of video on the 'ceiling' to show people walking over the glass roof of the club and, later, blood splattering it during the knife fight between Fred and Meatface. It was also a nice surprise for confetti to rain down at the wedding at the end. It's often the little touches that mean the most.

It would be good news for this production to transfer to the West End  but there doesn't seem to be any signs of that, which is a shame. So go and see it while you can at Stratford - you can even buy a reproduction copy of the original 1959 programme!

Shakespeare's Sonnets at the Royal Festival Hall

This evening I went to a rather unique event at the Royal Festival Hall, a reading of all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets, one after another in order. The sonnets were read by a group of actors, six of whom I've seen on stage and four of whom I've seen in Shakespeare productions (sometimes more than once):

Simon Russell Beale
Maureen Beattie
Deborah Findlay
Oliver Ford Davies
Victoria Hamilton
David Harewood
Paterson Joseph
Guy Paul
Juliet Stevenson
Harriet Walter

The evening was split into two halves. The first started at 5:00pm with readings of sonnets 1-77 and the second half started at 7:15 with sonnets 78-154. The stage was bare except for stools, tables for water and microphones for the readers. I don't think I've ever seen that stage so bare. I booked tickets for this months ago when the only name involved was Simon Russell Beale so it was nice to see the readers expanded. Simon is still doing his 'King Lear' at the National Theatre so was in his severe Lear haircut and beard.

The readers took turns reading out a sonnet, sometimes a single sonnet, other times two or three that were linked in some way, starting with sonnet one and working up. They each had a folder with the sonnets printed inside. Simon Russell Beale read the first and last poems. Each of the readers brought something different to the sonnets, their interpretation of those 14 lines, and it was interesting to see how they presented the poems. Some presented directly to us in the audience, others seemed to just read from the folders.

I particularly liked Juliet Stevenson with her fresh approach to reading the sonnets - almost like cleansing the palette after something stodgy - and Paterson Jospeh who virtually acted out the poems and treated it as a performance, putting on a show for us. Both of their voices really worked in making me listen to the words, to the rhymes, to the pace, to what the words weren't saying as much as what they were. Both were very clear and unambiguous and Paterson, in particular, brought an element of fun to the poems he was given to read.

Not all of the sonnets worked. Sometimes I felt I was sitting there with random words flying by while others drew me in and made me want to know what comes next. It was interesting to see quite a few people in the audience with books open on their lap following the readings - not quite sure why, but I assume they enjoyed it.

The readers were projected onto a big screen at the back of the stage and I'm not sure this was a good idea. I found it quite distracting. I tried to watch the reader on stage, how they stood and moved, their gestures, rather than the close-up of their head and shoulders on the screen. The screen didn't really work for those who seemed to just look down at the text and read the poems. I sometimes just closed my eyes and listened.

I really enjoyed this event. I drifted off a few times and, with some of the sonnets, couldn't help wonder what on earth it was about, but I'm pleased I was there. I assume the feat of reading all the sonnets has been done before but not that I know about so it was good to be there for the event itself. I'd estimate that at least half of the audience was older than me - and some were rather old Shakespeare fans - and it was good to hear people talking about the poems and the readers at half time. We all respond differently to things like this.

There's one of the sonnets that virtually everyone will know, or at least the first line, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'. That is sort of the big hit of the pack. So, while Simon opened the event and read sonnet one, the hit of sonnet 18 was given to Harriet Walter to read. And here it is...

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.