Wednesday, 30 July 2014

'Anthony and Cleopatra' at The Globe

I have a bit of history with Shakespeare's 'Anthony & Cleopatra', not that I've ever seen it on stage. I 'did' the play at university but the most abiding memory is getting the bus past the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the mid-80s and seeing the posters for Vanessa Redgrave as Cleopatra and thinking 'I must see that'. And then one evening going past on the bus and seeing posters for another play - I'd missed it. It's been performed since then, obviously, but I'd never seen it until last night when I saw it in the open-air warmth of The Globe after a day wandering round both sides of the river Thames hunting for literary benches. Shakespeare's bench is, naturally, outside The Globe under a tree and (usually) covered in tourists (and bench-hunters).

What I like about 'Anthony & Cleopatra' is the carefree love and playfulness of two mature people who each have countries to rule and responsibilities beyond the lovers bed. The jealousies we see from both characters help to make their love believable and say to us that the loves of emperors and queens are the same as ours but have greater consequences when they fail. Their golden period is closing when we first meet Anthony and Cleopatra, when Anthony hears of the death of his wife and must go back to Rome from Alexandria. He is part of the ruling triumvirate after the death of Julius Caesar and his duties call him back to the intrigue and factions of Rome where he marries Octavian's sister to keep the peace. But, naturally, he longs to return to Egypt and Cleopatra. The rest is inevitable, with Octavian becoming Augustus Caesar and emperor over the deaths of Anthony and Cleopatra.

This is an excellent production and (with one exception) all I could've wished for in my first viewing of the play on stage. Eve Best and Clive Wood were excellent as our lovers with great and touching scenes of passion and playfulness, jealousies and lusts and people around them that understood their passions. Phil Daniels was great fun as Anthony's captain Enobarus for most of the play, serious and cutting and comedic by turns, who defects to Octavian and regrets leaving his master. I'd also pick out Sirine Saba as Charmian, Cleopatra's main servant and confidant and Peter Bankole as Cleopatra's messenger and Anthony's man, Eros, both of whom were excellent and got great laughs as well as pathos.

My exception? Well, it was Cleopatra's final speech which Eve delivered with determination and great intent. But I wanted passion and fire, I wanted anger and power and disdain - the anger of a queen at the death of her lover - not quiet determination. I can fully see why it was delivered like that in the context of the play but it's not what I wanted. Cry to the heavens in anger and joy at joining your lover, Cleopatra, this is not just a political act, it is an act of love.

The lines I have remembered for over 30 years are:

"Give me my robe, put on my crown
I have immortal longings in me...
I am fire and air, my other elements
I give to a baser life..."

I want the heavens to open on those lines, for lightning to fork in the skies as the gods rebel against any concept of natural order, and Cleopatra, standing tall and proud, railing against the fates and sending her soul to seek Anthony in a world beyond this one. That's what I wanted but I'm happy with what we were given.

This is a great production - we were even given envelopes full of gold paper to shake down on the union of Anthony and Cleopatra at the end of the first half to join in the celebration of their love. It's on until the end of August so make sure you see it. It'll stay with me for a long time.

Malevich at Tate Modern

I didn't know much about Kazimir Malevich other than he worked at the start of the 20th century in Russia and pushed abstraction as far as it could go and that's about it. When I saw that the Tate Modern planned a summer exhibition of his work then I decided to go to find out more about the man and his work. I made an unplanned visit yesterday since I was in the area and needed to get out of the sun for bit (yes, London is sunny at the moment). Not the best reason for going but it got me through the gallery door and I'm pleased I did.

The exhibition is on the floor above the current Matisse exhibition and, possibly, suffers because of that. There were quite a few people browsing his paintings but nothing like the hoards that seem to inhabit Matisse's Cut-Outs exhibition. That was a good thing from my point of view. The twelve rooms take us chronologically - and intellectually - through Malevich's career, from his early, largely figurative paintings through his extreme Suprematist abstractions and back to a figurative form in the 1930s. Politics is never far from Malevich and his work wasn't always welcomed by those in power and soon disappeared from view shortly after his death in 1935 when Stalin decided that socialist realism was the way forward.

There are lots of labels in this exhibition, and just just the names of the paintings. We see how the Russian painters absorbed cubism from Paris and futurism from Italy and developed their own 'cubo-futurism' style. One of my favourites in this style is 'Morning In The Village After The Snowstorm' where we see planes and curves of snow drifting and covering the houses and trees. Later, after the Russian revolution, Malevich led the new artistic and intellectual discipline of 'suprematism'. He wrote, 'The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature' and, 'Suprematism is the beginning of a new culture...'. 

Malevich holds a rather unique position in the history of art, living through not only the First World War but also the Russian revolution and staying in Russia. Perhaps that's why we see such radical changes in his art, not just the inevitable growth and development you would expect between someone's early and later works, but Malevich seems to push any conceivable boundaries to their extreme limits. And then worry that he can't push them any further. We see his early figurative work give way to flat and curved planes of colour before moving into more pure abstraction and then, when he reaches the limit of that, starts painting white on white pictures before falling silent. He then recovers and starts painting intensely colourful figurative paintings before re-discovering his own version of realism in the last years of his life. 

The one word that screams at me throughout this exhibition is 'intellectual' - no doubt their is passion in there as well but it's the intellectual foundations of his works that overpower. That's what makes him a bit different from his contemporaries and what makes this exhibition rather special.

After going through his extreme experimentation with art he returned to figurative painting in his later years and I like this painting of his wife in 1935, the year of his death. That makes it rather poignant. The lasting impression of the exhibition is the painting that helped him to develop suprematism, his 'Black Square', a black square with a white border. It's an iconic and challenging symbol of revolution and change and he signed his later paintings with a small black square rather than with his name. The exhibition booklet tells us that, at his funeral, his mourners held flags with black squares. What a profound gesture of respect.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Phyllida Barlow at Tate Modern

When I went to the Tate Modern to explore its Folk Art exhibition I stumbled across the enormous installations by Phyllida Barlow. They're difficult to miss since they are on a huge scale and fill that old and venerable Victorian space with its faux Greek columns with planks of wood, colourful tape on brown cardboard boxes and traffic cones stuck here and there. The culture clash is quite obvious and I walked under and through the installations with a puzzled expression - every so often with the nagging worry of, 'what it all collapses now, on me?'.

It didn't, of course, but one of the installations was built with the appearance of something big collapsing, of everything crashing down together and making a new piece of art in doing so. It was really quite strange and I couldn't help wonder which was the piece of the art, the pre-collapse or the collapsed work and, of course, it's the latter since the pre-collapsed version was never built. It was an odd puzzle but it kept me engaged for a few minutes. It did seem to be the most popular of the works with the photographers in the gallery this afternoon.

It was rather strange exploring these enormous works in the sterile confines of the Tate Britain, giving no clue what to expect or how to interpret them. And I think that's the right approach to something like this. Just place these incongruous structures in the available space and leave the rest to us, the audience.

I have no real idea about what I saw today. I saw lots of planks of wood stacked in different ways, but, collectively, what did I see? I don't know, and that, in itself, is quite intriguing. Was it so different, so unclassifiable that I couldn't engage with it on any level? No, I wouldn't say that, I certainly engaged, but the overwhelming feeling was of curiosity and of wonder, of wondering what it would be like to clamber over the installations, to climb up the planks of wood and see what was at the top and whether it was finished or rough.  To see whether it is really as strong and robust as it looks or if removing one nail somewhere would bring it crashing down. Jumping around, from one installation to the next with a sword exposed during a swashbuckling exercise sprang to mind more than once. I resisted the temptation, obviously!

So, OK, the installations didn't come crashing down on me and I didn't clamber around them. So what are they and what are they for? I still have no idea but take your wonder and awe with you and see them for yourself, walk amongst and under them and see what you think. You'll almost certainly see something I missed. Enjoy!

Monday, 28 July 2014

New John Lydon Book

I didn't realise that John Lydon had a new autobiography coming out in October but he does - 'Anger Is An Energy - My Life Uncensored'. His previous memoir, 'No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs' came out quite a while ago so it'll be interesting to see what's different in this new book (given the 'uncensored' in the title) as well as the re-creation of Public Image Ltd and new music a couple of years ago.

'Anger is an energy' is a great title for the book since John is almost perpetually angry about something (except when he's not, of course). It'll tell us about his 'I'm a Celebrity' scrapes, his wildlife documentaries and butter adverts as well as Sex Pistols reunions and getting PiL back together to tour and record. It should be a good read and I'm looking forward to it.

The title is the chorus from the 1986 song 'Rise' from 'Album' (or 'Cassette' or 'Compact Disc' depending on which version you bought). John will always be the young Rotten in the 'destroy' tee shirt but he's also Lydon who's still challenging and creative. They're both great heroes.

British Folk Art at Tate Britain

'Folk Art' is a rather odd term and those people at the Tate Britain have put on a collection of it to demonstrate how diverse and difficult to catalogue it is. It seems to encompass virtually anything and everything that isn't 'fine art' or traditionally accepted art, often anonymously produced at any point over the last four hundred years and is still around. The cockerel in the poster for the exhibition is a good example, having been made of cast-off bones by a French soldier who was a prisoner of war during the Napoleonic wars. His name isn't known but his handiwork survives.

There's all sorts of stuff in the exhibition, including embroideries, quilt covers, paintings, leather Toby jugs, 'needle paintings' (ie sewn reproductions of masters from the late 1700s  to mid 1800s), paintings, shop signs and figureheads from ships. You name it, it's in there somewhere.

When you go in you face a bright yellow wall with shelves to hold old shop signs with the three hanging balls for a pawn shop, a giant top hat for a hat-maker, big boot for a shoe shop and a giant key and a lock. I didn't notice what the bear was there for (second column from the right in the photo). It was a shame that most people seemed to glance at them and then move to look at the paintings on the right in the room rather then lingering to look at them properly - I thought they were great fun!

My favourite room was painted blue and held lots of carved figures, from statues of Scotsmen wearing rather short kilts to stand outside tobacco shops to draw the custom in, to figureheads of all shapes and sizes for ships. My favourite was the massive Indian carved out of hardwood and wearing a red turban, blue coat and with a glorious moustache. He was the figurehead for HMS Calcutta built in 1831. He's been fully restored and looks marvellous. I think he lives in a sailing museum in Portsmouth these days.

I nearly burst out laughing when I walked into and took in the room - laughing with wonder and joy that these things actually existed and were so shiny and colourful and so big! There were wistful looking ladies in colourful frocks and acres of bosom who would've sat at the prow of boats a couple of centuries ago, steering the jack tars of old out on an adventure and then home again. There was a lovely, snarling unicorn figurehead next to what I think was meant to be a yellow lion, equally snarling and both were magnificent. When I become a pirate I shall have a figurehead on my ship!

There were also paintings, usually what would usually be called naive and mainly anonymous. One of the most striking was a painting in oils on a wooden panel from 1850 called 'The Four Alls' by DJ Williams. It shows Queen Victoria saying 'I govern all', a priest saying 'I pray for all', a soldier saying 'I fight for all' and a working man holding out his purse saying 'I pay for all'. A bit of early political satire there! It's not a terribly well executed painting but it doesn't need to be - the message is clear and, what's more, it's fun!

Another painting that took my fancy was 'Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day' by Walter Greaves from 1862. It's a riot of colour and people flooding over the bridge and sitting on the cables holding it together. Part of me was surprised that Hammersmith Bridge is that old but there it is in the painting. It's the detail in the melange of colours and shapes that draws you in - the minstrel troupe to the left, the adverts on the horse-drawn double-decker buses, the gentlemen in their top hats and beefeaters in their red tunics and furry hats. All of London is there and determined to have fun. And the rowers in the boat below wearing hats, as is right and proper, of course. It's a lovely painting and I'm delighted to have seen it.

It's quite a small exhibition with only five or six rooms but is well laid out, well lit and full of lovely and unexpected stuff. Did I mention the delicate and detailed quilt made by recuperating soldiers in the Crimea War? Very colourful and full of stars. Or the 'Goosewoman' by George Smart from 1840 made from paper and bits of cloth? No? Well, here she is:

It's a lovely little exhibition so, if you can delight in seeing the unexpected then go and see it - it's on until the end of August so there's still time.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Zoe Smith wins GOLD

Do you remember Zoe Smith from the London 2012 Olympics? I do! She broke the British weightlifting record and came 12th at the Olympics and I blogged about her back then. Today, she won GOLD at the Commonwealth Games, was wreathed in smiles when she lifted, held it and dropped the bar and then celebrated with a backflip! Well done Zoe, so proud of you!

Shut Up And Follow

I got on the tube yesterday morning, on the Victoria Line, and sat there with my fellow morning commuters. I'm not in the middle of a book at the moment so I did the 'looking at the adverts' thing and then I noticed one that was just words and perked up - a new Poems on the Underground poster! This one featured 'Small Brown Job' by Gwyneth Lewis and reads:

May you be lead on all your walks
By an unidentified bird
Flitting ahead, at least one branch,
The tease, between you
And it. Is that an eye-
Stripe? Epaulette? Your desire
For a name grows stronger.
Chaffinch? Warbler? This is spinning
Gold from straw. You're in good hands.
Shut up and follow.

This latest series of poems is in celebration of the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas, that mad Welsh bard who liked a tipple. I visited his house at Laugharne many years ago.

OK small brown, I'll shut up and follow.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Four Book Rockaria Part 2 - Don and Tracey

The third rock book I read was the new book about Don Powell, drummer with SLADE. I first saw Don in 1973 at my first ever gig (when SLADE were supported by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band) - I had tried to get a ticket to their 1972 tour (with Thin Lizzy and Suzy Quatro) but they'd sold out by the time I'd heard they were playing. The last time I saw Don with original SLADE was on the 1980 or 1981 tour but, more recently, at the Koko gig that was filmed for the DVD ('SLADE: Live at Koko' in 2011). Don is, of course, a god. Anyway...

The book is called 'Look Wot I Dun: Don Powell, My Life in SLADE' and has a photo of him in Noddy's mirrored top hat on the front. It's credited to both Lise Lyng Falkenberg and Don, probably because a lot os it is narrated in the first person by Don in a series of quotes. I like that approach since it gives an immediacy to the book that could be lost so easily. So, it's not an autobiography or a biography, it's something in-between (so appropriate since the band used to be called the 'N-Betweens).

As a rabid fan from back in the day then I don't think I learned much about the early years but I lost touch with SLADE from the late '70s so that's what really attracted me in the book, the years I don't really know about. The womanising, the marriages, the drink and drugs, the endless touring and then the silence when Don seriously considered being in another band (I was shocked at that part!). Then the reinvention of Slade II and new tours and his falling in love and moving to Denmark. And, of course, he's still touring.

I loved the quotes from old friends from back in the day and from people like Gene Simmons of KISS acknowledging the power of SLADE and Don's drumming. My favourite quote is from Dave Hill near the end of the book (on page 305 to be precise) when Dave says, "Because that's what Don does - he plays the drums..." yeah? really Dave? That had me chortling!

Thanks Lise and Don for a great read!

The final Book of Four belongs to Tracey Thorn, called 'Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Popstar'. I went to see Tracey do a reading and talk about the book last year and, astonishingly, I've just got around to reading it. And what a good read it is too!

Tracey is two years younger than me so I recognise a lot of what she writes about - I nearly typed 'talks about' just then since that's how the book comes across, Tracey having a chat to you through the narrative of the book. And I like that. I loved the references to people like Patrik Fitzgerald and ordering his records through the back pages of the NME since they weren't stocked by the local record shop. All of that chimed with me. As did maintaining the punk ethos into the '80s and increasingly becoming marginalised. I suspect that's why my memories of the '80s are quite sparse because the world moved on and I didn't. And that's something I really like about this book - yes, it's a narrative of 'I did this then I did that' but it also creates the situation that makes you think about it and question it.

Tracey has the rather odd distinction of being half of an idie band, having huge hits and fallow periods over two decades, being remixed into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and still being with her boyfriend and band-comrade from 30 years ago. How strange is that? And she's still releasing solo records. I loved the short paragraph of pushing her baby son around in the supermarket when one of her old records came on the PA and he points to the loud speaker and to his Mum - the same voice, but how could that be? It must be really strange to be one of their kids!

I loved reading this book and will do so again when I've listened to more Everything But The Girl records to get myself into the right space. I hope we hear more from Tracey.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Four Book Rockaria Part 1 - Viv and Buffy

I've been on a bit of a rock book treadmill for the last month or so reading books I've collected over the last year about rock and pop stars and great heroes. They've lain in a pile in my living room waiting to be opened and the impetus was Viv Albertine's memoir. After that I devoured the others. Reading on the tube and train isn't terribly satisfying so I inevitably started reading during the week on the tube and then curled up on the sofa at the weekend and finished all in a single reading. And I do mean all.

Viv Albertine's book, 'Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys' is named after a phrase her mother uttered to the teenage Viv about all she was interested in. Although the book is dedicated to Viv's daughter the title is from her Mum who died the evening of the book launch show in London. That's rather poignant. I was at the book launch and blogged about it here. I hope there will be more promotional events for the book in London and I'll be there.

Every review of the book you'll see talks about its brutal honesty, the pints of blood she's lost over the years and the punk years. But this is a memoir of a woman in the late 20th century who has, in a sense, several lives and Viv talks about them very candidly. It's almost like listening to Viv chat over a cup of tea, talking in the present tense and then quipping about 'well, I'd learn about what that was about later'. It's a very immediate style of writing and very powerful.

Viv was one of the first punks who saw the Sex Pistols in their early days and, using Johnny Rotten as her model, decided she could be in a band as well. And she formed the Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious before he threw her out of the band (and that led to her letting Johnny Thunder inject her with heroin). All the name-dropping you could possibly want is in this book from the early 70s when Viv was a music fan and followed Marc Bolan and T.Rex to being at the centre of the punk revolution - Viv was at the centre of so much. And she pulls no punches.

The Slits, of course, feature large in the book, telling the tale of getting together, going on tour with the Clash, making records and touring. There's a lovely chapter about making 'Cut' with Dennis Bovell and how they didn't really know what they were doing but were passionate about what the outcome should be. Viv comes across as being passionate about everything she does even though she's not terribly confident.

The book is in two parts - Side 1 takes us up to the implosion of the Slits and Side 2 takes us from the early 80s to last year. Viv grows up, she lives a full life, she marries and goes through IVF to have a baby and then has cancer. A slow recovery in the wilds of Hastings leads to Viv rediscovering her art and her need to create, the marriage collapsing and Viv going forward with her daughter alone. Throughout the book - and her life - the problem is confidence and men. Even last year while she was writing the book her manager calls her to tell her he's found the perfect ghost writer for her and when she says she wants to write it herself his response is 'so what's my role then?'. Exactly.

This is an excellent book, not just for old punks to relive the glory days but to understand what it was like being in that scene and what happened afterwards. Who would have thought of Viv as an aerobics teacher? or a film director? or as a housewife in Hastings. Viv is all those and so much more. This is an excellent read and I'd recommend the book to anyone, whether you want the punk tales or simply read about the life of a woman in the latter part of the 20th century.

I can't help but think about the later lines from Viv's song, 'Confessions of a MILF' which go:

'I chose being an artist over being a wife, now I'm going to lead a very lonely life
I chose being an artist over being a wife, now I'm going to lead a very lovely life'

You are a very brave woman, Viv, so thank you for sharing and I hope your life is as lovely as it can be.

One of Viv's favourite songs in the late '60s when she was in the Woodcraft Folk was 'Welcome Welcome Emigrante' by Buffy Sainte-Marie so I had to read the biography of Buffy by Blaire Stonechild that I got on import from Canada. Oddly, 'Buffy Sainte-Marie: It's my Way' is the only book about Buffy which I always think is rather strange given her influence on music (and, of course 'It's My Way' is the title of her first album).

The Buffy book is as far away from Viv's book as it's possible to get. It's rather dry and academic with every quote footnoted and referenced, almost like a thesis without the full academic rigour. Indeed, the 'acknowledgements' section thanks the Canada Council of the Arts for a writing grant and other bodies for helping with 'research expenses'. That doesn't mean it's a bad book by any means, it just means it's in a different place to Viv's book.

It's a fascinating read, from Buffy's early years in New England to discovering her roots as part of the Cree nation, travelling the world singing her songs of love and compassion, her hits and songs being recorded by everyone you can name, having too much money so starting an educational charity. It's all there. And Buffy comes across as being a lovely and politically committed person despite making mistakes along the way.

My only problem with this book is that it seems to be based on existing articles and interviews so little of it is new. It's a collection of Buffy statements over the years so it's good to have them in one place but it doesn't offer any real enlightenment about Buffy or her songs. That was a bit disappointing but I'm pleased to have the book that pulls everything together.

Now, I'm just waiting for Buffy's next album. According to twitter and Facebook she's auditioning producers at the moment so it's almost there. Maybe next year?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

'Amadeus' at Chichester Festival Theatre

Yesterday we got the train down to Chichester in rural West Sussex to the shiny new Chichester Festival Theatre for the matinee performance of 'Amadeus' with Rupert Everett in the lead as Salieri. I've never seen the play or the film so I didn't know what to expect but I was hit quite forcefully by Rupert's tireless performance and his rage at God.

'Amadeus' is the tale of Mozart's period of living in Vienna as an adult after touring Europe as a child prodigy. Mozart escapes the authority of his father and marries for love in Vienna while continuing to seduce as many women as possible. Salieri rules the music scene in Vienna as the court composer who is driven to distraction by the perfection of Mozart's music and plots his downfall.

The story is told in flashback with Salieri an old man in a wheelchair who transforms into his younger self with a smudge of paint on his eyebrows, a dark wig and throwing off his dressing gown. He is transformed into the upright Salieri of his youth encountering Mozart for the first time and having to run from the salon because of the sheer beauty of Mozart's playing. Salieri had previously made a pact with God that he would become a great composer but, somehow, God has undermined this pact by throwing Mozart into the mix and Salieri comes to see this as a war against God who uses Mozart as his weapon.

In typical Faustian manner, as Salieri's star rises Mozart descends into drunkenness and poverty, eventually dying. But years later it's Mozart's music that is played everywhere and not Salieri's so his last throw of the dice is to claim that he killed Mozart so his name will live forever linked to his hated Mozart. It seems to have worked.

Rupert Everett is the star of the show, on stage the whole time in what must be an exhausting performance. He is haughty, charming, feeble when old and vigorous when in his prime. His is a commanding presence on that stylishly baroque stage with minimal scenery or props, a piano on stage much of the time, a few chairs, chandeliers in the air and glass sliding doors all delivering an impression of opulence and grandeur fit for the Austro-Hungarian Emperor in the 1780s.

We have the potty-mouthed, childish Mozart as the enfant-terrible and genius of music stamping round the stage talking about shit and spanking, bringing challenge to the musical establishment of the court and city of Vienna, so wanting to please but continually failing. Joshua McGuire is the grotesque of Mozart for most the play before he becomes a figure of pity in the final scenes, desperate to please but never able to do so. Jessie Buckley plays Mozart's long-suffering wife and very good she is too, clearly the more adult of the two lovers but also capable of descending into lewdness.  She plays a nice line between long-suffering wife and harlot and in the final scene we see her selling Mozart's scores by the note.

I thought the whole cast were great, with the twin chorus gentlemen in grey appearing and disappearing in a blink with news about Mozart, repeating what they say and swirling round in frock coats. Simon Jones was great as the Emperor, not engaged and avoiding any and all arguments or need to make a decision (I missed his dressing gown though).

I hope this production transfers to the West End soon. It's a short run at Chichester and is only on for another two weeks and is definitely worth seeing.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

'Carousel' at the Arcola Theatre

I've never seen the Rogers and Hammerstein musical 'Carousel' either on stage or the film so the Arcola Theatre revival was the perfect opportunity to put that right. Like everybody else, I'm very familiar with 'You'll Never Walk Alone' as a song (but not the dramatic context) and I know 'Mr Snow' from hearing Barbara Cook sing it and 'What's the Use of Wonderin'' from Amanda Palmer's first solo record. The rest of the score is a mystery.

'Carousel' is, of course, a classic American musical following the smash hit of 'Oklahoma!' and before 'South Pacific' and it suffers slightly by coming between those two shows. Still, it has a great following (which I don't quite understand) and is revered by musical theatre people.

The Arcola puts on a great tribute to the show, a big production in a rather small space that made me worried the dancers would bounce into me (I was sitting in the front row) when they were being energetic and thrown around.

The story opens with the funfair in a small New England town and Carrie and Julie getting free tickets for an evening out. Julie falls for Billy, the fairground barker, and both lose their jobs but end up marrying. Julie realises she's pregnant around the same time as he hits her and, when he knows he's going to be a dad, agrees to rob the local bigwig. It all goes wrong (obviously) and he dies, only to look down from heaven (or wherever) and realises he can help his lost daughter who has just turned 15. This is where it really lost me, when Billy meets his daughter and slaps her hand but she tells her Mum that he slapped it so hard that it doesn't hurt and is that possible Momma? To which Julie replies, 'yes'. Stupid person. You've lost me entirely at this point. The book needs a re-write... badly. What kind of messages has it been promulgating for the last 60 years or whatever?

I thought the cast were great, the play was (largely) fast paced, the songs vigorous and life-affirming. Billy was played by Tim Rogers with lots of energy compared to Julie who was played by Gemma Sutton as a calm centre of the storm. I didn't believe in their relationship as much as I did that of Carrie (Vicki Lee Taylor) and Mr Snow (Joel Montague). I was quite delighted to be introduced to Enoch Snow after listening to Barbara Cook singing about him for years now. I could've done without seeing him in his rather tight underpants but hey, that adds an element of reality I suppose. Both Vicki and Joel had good voices and solid presences and that added to the play.

I liked the recurring circus theme that kept emerging throughout following the introductory 'ballet' - I suppose it plays to the little kid in me that yearns to run off and join a circus. Even when we are taken to the gates of heaven it's the circu characters that greet Billy as (rather stupid) angels and allow him to revisit his family. I worried about the two main circus performers hanging upside down from ladders for so long, Katrina Dix and Joseph Connor, who were consistent throughout. Well done people and to Charlotte Gale for her fire breathing as well.

Much as I hate to dismiss the writers of the magnificent 'South Pacific', 'South Pacific' this ain't. My dissatisfaction with the play isn't really about the production or the actors, it's the play I find fault with. Wife-beating and the bad boy doing what he wants isn't really a story I want to see and I just found it distasteful and its messages worrying. If you've seen any of my previous reviews of plays then it'll be clear that I respond at an emotional level to what I see and if the male lead is a wife-beater then that's all I need to know. Quite frankly, I don't care if it's been a hit all over the world, Julie should slap Billy around the chops and get a divorce.

It's not the production I didn't like, it's the book. And the extended dancing pieces in lieu of songs. Sorry 'Carousel' fans, but it didn't work for me. Possibly it was the bloke behind me that at one point kept banging his foot against the back of my seat that distracted me from the art (until I reached back and vigorously shoved his foot away)? Possibly it was the ridiculous heat and the abstract queue at the under-staffed bar? Possibly it was the interruption by the fire brigade at half time?

I really lost any involvement when we see wife-beater and capitalist-stabber Billy on the borders of heaven complaining about his life. My response was to tell him to shut the fuck up but no, God's (rather stupid) angels decide to give him a second chance and send him back to Earth 15 years after he left it so he can get angry at his daughter and slap her hand. Violence is always his response, it seems. Of course, it could be argued that this is behaviour he's learned from his own father and it's not really his fault, etc etc etc. Well, I don't care, I don't like Billy Bigalow.

My reading of the book probably isn't the same as fans of the musical and that's probably because I'm not a fan. How could I be? I'll honour Rogers and Hammerstein for 'South Pacific' (which confronts the inherent racism of island life) but not for this musical. I probably won't be seeing it again.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Buffy in 'Catch The Dream'

Here's a trailer for the Buffy Sainte-Marie episode of a new series showing in Canada about First Nations artists. I don't quite understand the focus on Buffy's platform mocassins but enjoy anyway!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

'Pretty Vacant'

I've been listening to 'The Best Punk Album In The World Ever', a CD full of the records of my youth and one I haven't listened to in a while. It has all those great punk songs from 1976 - 1978, songs I grew up with and bought the 7" vinyl singles back in the day. Or maybe I taped some off the John Peel show on Radio 1. I like the CD because it's just like an old tape with loads of different sounds one after the other from the Sex Pistols, Undertones, Stranglers, Buzzcocks, Skids, Ruts, XTC, Jam, Damned, Rezillos and so many others.

Whenever I hear 'Pretty Vacant' part of me whizzes back to the summer of 1977 and hearing it for the first time. It's a very distinct memory for me, sitting in the kitchen eating cornflakes and hearing it on Kid Jensen's Saturday morning show, my mother washing up the breakfast dishes and me insisting on having the radio on. It was a road to Damascus type of thing. I'd bought punk singles before and loved The Adverts but hearing 'Pretty Vacant' touched me in a place that hadn't been touched before and awoke something in me that needed to be woken.

I'd not heard the Pistols before. I'd read about them in the NME and Sounds, obviously, but I'd never heard them. No-one I knew had 'Anarchy in the UK' or 'God Save The Queen' so hearing 'Pretty Vacant' on the Kid Jensen show was an ear opener for me and something I'll always be grateful for. I heard 'Pretty Vacant', finished my bowl of cornflakes, grabbed my pocket money and got the bus into Newcastle and headed for the small Virgin record shop behind the City Hall since I knew the Pistols were signed to Virgin and assumed they'd have the record. My memory tells me the shop was small, a bit gloomy and smelling of patchouli but that might be an over-active memory. Whatever. It reinvented me that day.

Has a record ever changed your life?

'Grand Hotel' at the Silk Street Theatre, Barbican

Every year the final year students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama put on a summer show and this year they've chosen to revive 'Grand Hotel'. I saw 'Grand Hotel' in its last production at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004 and fell in love with it. It's a very literate and intelligent show, quite densely packed with half a dozen lead characters all with their own inter-twining lives and plots. There are no real goodies or baddies in this show, it depicts the consequences of choices. It's a very clever show but I engage with it at an emotional rather than an intellectual level.

I generally have the memory of a butterfly flittering here and there but this musical has stayed with me over the years. I saw it twice in 2004 at the Donmar, one a programmed performance and the other a midnight HIV/AIDs benefit show. The Donmar production featured Daniel Evans as the dying Mr Kringelein, Mary Elizabeth Mastranatonio as the ballerina and Julian Ovenden as the Baron. The show made the tears well and roll down my cheeks at various places.

Right. So that's my history with the show and I've started off with the personal history to signal that it's an important show for me and I won't tolerate any laziness or mistakes in a production. So, Guildhall students, you have a high legacy to live up to and you certainly won't get an easy ride from me. Did the production work? Damn right it did!

As soon as I walked in to take my seat my expectations were raised by the art deco set of black and white marble floor and gilt trimmings, a versatile set that turns from the foyer, to a bedroom to the hotel bar. Then the music starts and the grand parade as people start milling in th foyer and we meet the lead characters: the Baron ('dangerous games and a carefree existence'), the Prima Ballerina and her Maid, the Book-keeper, the Typist ('I want to got to Hollywood') and the Businessman. We meet the front of house staff at the reception desk and the back room staff ('some have, some have not'), the gangsters who want money from the Baron and the impresarios who need to make money out of the Ballerina. There are a lot of intertwined relationships and themes in this musical.

It's quite fast-paced and we learn a lot about the characters in very short time, like the basic decency of the Baron by helping Mr Kringelein get a room in the hotel when he was about to be thrown out for being jewish and the Typist Flaemmchen being happy to dance with him as soon as she hears he's dying. So, yes, the Baron might be a thief (in the last resort as he says) and the Typist might want money to escape her dreary life but they're basically nice people.

The Baron tries to steal a diamond necklace from Grushinskaya, the Ballerina, but falls in love with her and she with him and this leads to two great songs, the Baron's 'Love Can't Happen' and Grushinskaya's 'Bonjour Amour' the following morning. Finally they have found love and all will be well, she will dance again and he will be her inspiration. On the other hand, we have Flaemmchen selling herself to the Businessman for one thousand marks to take her to America and it is when the Businessman attempts to rape her that the Baron appears in the room to save her. He was in the Businessman's room next door to steal his wallet and he gets shot in the struggle.

The Baron then appears singing 'Roses At The Station' with his last moments of life when he sings about being at the station with roses for his beloved Ballerina as he promised. We learn more about his life in this song, that he has been waiting for love,  "All my life I wanted to be here, all my life I waited to appear at the station with these roses..." and his privileged life,

"I spent my childhood in the fields
My boyhood on horseback
I was a soldier in the war
The bullets whizzed past my ear
And not one came near me till now..."

That's a big show-stopper of a song and the only way the song can be followed is by a couple of dancers coming on to dance a bolero as the Baron lies dead.

We then skip to the next day with police coming to investigate the murder and the Businessman is arrested, Flaemmchen leaving and Mr Kringelein checking out to go to Paris. Who will tell Grushinskaya that her lover is dead? No-one, they'll let her think he's deserted her like all the others, even her faithful Maid Rafaela who loves her mistress. Life goes on however, when Eric the receptionist becomes a father at last (singing a song that echoes one of the Baron's vocal themes) and Mr Kringelein and Flaemmchen leave together to head for Paris to raise her baby. One man dies and lives are wrecked but life goes on. It's a marvellous play with marvellous songs.

The cast were great and so was the music. The acting was good throughout and so was the dancing, it was the voices that drew a line between some of the actors. Best voices belonged to Rebecca Collingwood as Flaemmchen, Ceri-lyn Cissone as Grushinskaya and Emily Laing as Rafaela, all with nice, clear and strong singing voices. Kudos to Ceri-lyn for sustaining the believable Russian accent throughout. Sadly there are no photos of the production available but here's one of Rebecca as Flaemmchen.

The lads were good too, particularly Jay Saighal as the Baron, Joey Phillips as Kringelein, Ben Hall as Businessman Preysing and Jordan Renzo as Eric at the reception desk. Jay has a good voice but the ideal Baron remains with Julian Ovenden with his more powerful and versatile voice. I liked Ben's slowly corrupted Business man who starts off with honour and ends in shame and Jordan had a lovely voice when he sang of his new baby.

All in all it was a great production. It did, however, point to a few drawbacks. Age for one thing. The actors were all in their early 20s and sometimes it's just a relief to see actors of different ages and shapes on stage, not uniformly young and slim. Some of the lads seemed just too skinny for their clothes since they haven't bulked up yet. And where were the black actors? The two Jimmy's song is meant to be sung by black lads but where were they? A note for Simon Haines as the Doctor - great limp but, if you really do have a gammy-leg and a limp then most people learn to compensate for it in different ways - learn to do that and your future limps will be so much more realistic.

But, who am I to be churlish? You were all great and gave me a great night's entertainment seeing one of my favourite and rare musicals and I thank you. You made me cry as well, damn you! I hope to see some of you in the West End in the near future - well done people and good luck for the future!

'Forbidden Broadway' at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Last week we went to see 'Forbidden Broadway' at the Choccy Factory, a show I've meant to see a few times but never managed to catch it before, either here or in New York. Its basically an extended piss-take on current and past shows and personalities and seems to be revived every few years since the original production back in the '80s. Each revival sees old skits deleted and new ones added for the latest hit shows.

This latest production featured Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis, three of whom I've seen in previous Choccy Factory (and other) productions. All have great voices and great energy, dashing round the stage with quick costume changes and incessantly changing the height of the microphone which is pointless since they're all mic'd up anyway. The set is simple to avoid cluttering the stage, just strips of silver shiny creating a back wall and a couple of steps to a slightly raised level at the back of the stage for a grand entrance. And a grand piano.

The skits covered most of the current crop of West End shows including 'Jersey Boys', 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', 'Wicked', 'The Pajama Game', 'Spamalot', 'Once', 'Mamma Mia', 'Les Miserables' and 'The Book of Mormon'. Of course, some of these have been in the show for ages because they've been around for ages whereas some are relatively new.There were also piss-takes of individual performers like Liza Minelli, Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, Indina Menzel and Angela Lansbury (in her 'Blithe Spirit' persona to ensure it's current).

It was great fun and it's nice to be given permission to laugh at some of the quirkier aspects of some of these shows and performers. The four performers were great and very energetic, keeping it fast-paced and moving forward but I couldn't help feeling every now and then that is was playing it safe or becoming almost a cliche of itself. Maybe this is more about the older skits? What has Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin got to do with musical theatre in London today (and yes, I saw Mandy at the Choocy Factory a few years ago in the poor 'Paradise Found')? And Liza Minelli is just too easy a target for a cheap laugh. Or maybe I'm missing the point.

The audience thoroughly enjoyed the show with lots of guffaws and braying out loud a little too quickly after the punchline as if to say 'I got the joke there and I got it before the rest of you'. It's not a competition and neither is it ok for you to explain the joke to the person sitting next to you in a too-loud voice. Anyway, it's on until 16 August so go and judge for yourself.