Saturday, 29 August 2015

Noosha Fox

If you watched 'Top of the Pops' in the mid-70s when Queen started to emerge along with Cockney Rebel and bands like Sailor and Fox then you can't have failed to notice Noosha Fox in her silks and shawls before Stevie Nicks got hip to the floaty stuff. Noosha was the lead singer with Fox that had a series of great hit singles in the mid-70s and then promptly vanished from sight before punk decimated the pop charts. The band was led by Kenny Young who knows how to write a hit single.

Noosha Fox (aka Susan Traynor) had a very distinctive voice and look for the time, part 20s flapper and part proto-punk. The band were a load of old hippies trying to stay trendy but she had the style, the voice and the presence. She made it all work. And she's the one that amassed the fans, including me.

Fox's first single 'Only You Can' was a big hit and that launched Noosha and Fox as pop stars. If you were 14 back then then you almost certainly knew about Fox, if only because they were on Top of the Pops. Their first album 'Fox' was - and is - excellent and I still listen to it today (apart from 'Love Letters', a song I've never liked). I duly got their second album 'Tales of Illusion' which I should have loved but the blokes in the band decided they should do some of the vocals meaning it didn't really sound like Fox at all. It also seemed a bit dangerously old man hippy at a time when music and society was changing. The third album, 'Blue Hotel' passed me by in the punk wars of 77. I caught up with it a few years ago when it was released by Cherry Red and, while there are some nice songs, it was too late and doesn't have the magic of rediscovering old friends.

Noosha had a solo hit single in 1977 with 'Georgina Bailey' about a girl who falls in love with her gay French uncle. It's odd to think she performed on Top of the Pops in a black gym-slip singing that song all those years ago. The only other obviously "gay" song I can think of before that was 'The Killing of Georgie' by Rod Stewart who was in a  different league. Noosha made a few more singles - and you see and hear some of them on YouTube, including 'The Heat Is On' that was later a hit for Agnetha Faltskog - and Fox got together again but the moment had gone. The 15 minutes was over.

I just found out the other day that Cherry Red had released a double CD of Fox last year called 'Images '74-'84' so I had to look into it. I was delighted to see it had eight songs I'd never heard of so listened to samples and then downloaded them and they're an odd but interesting bunch. Some were B sides from the early singles so have a similar sound (which is a good thing), some new wavey electronica like 'Dancing With An Alien' and then there's an odd, almost ravey, version of 'Captain of your Ship' which Kenny Young wrote in the '60s for Reparata and was a hit back then. I don't mind odditity at all. But, what an awful cover! Big black block with a black and white photo which is reminiscent of the photo used on the cover of the first album. Such a lack of imagination.

Wouldn't it be great is someone put together a collection of Noosha's solo works? I suppose it'll be difficult tracking down the original master tapes and rights but that would be a great quest for someone and would, I'm sure bring joy to many people. Are you listening Cherry Red? In the meantime, I have eight new songs to get to know and enjoy and will wait patiently.

I wonder what Noosha is doing these days?

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

'Grand Hotel' - It's All About The Women

We went back to see 'Grand Hotel' at Southwark Playhouse again this evening - it's such a good show I needed a refresher. And it was excellent, better I think than the first time a few weeks ago, probably because the cast have lived in the characters for longer. The actors gel in the way a tight cast do, more relaxed because they've proved they can do it umpteen times and the complicated stage routines were more fluent and less studied. It all made for a thoroughly enjoyable evening with a great cast, great songs and great music.

But tonight, I thought, it was all about the women. I think of the Baron and Kringelein when I think of 'Grand Hotel' but no longer. The Baron is suave and sophistocated, confident of his place in the universe and playing it to the full. As the Doctor says, 'There is nothing more useless in the world than a nobleman with no money'. But he is brought down by two women, by his love for Grushinskaya and he needs money to go with her to Vienna and by his innate nobility that means he must intervene to save Flaemmschen from rape. And so he dies and the women carry on.

We see the unspoken love of Raffaela for her mistress and for 22 years she has saved every penny against the day that Grushinskaya has no-one to turn to and she can buy a villa on a hill and they can live quietly together. She is brave and strong and has protected her mistress all these years and, in the end, can't bring herself to tell her mistress about the Baron since it would break her heart. Her own stoicism is heartbreaking. And that's due to the performance of Valerie Cutko who brings her elegantly to life, a quiet love never spoken.

Raffaela's mistress is Elizaveta Grushinskaya, a renowned prima ballerina who is now on her 8th farewell tour because she needs the money. A once-great dancer in decline and hating that she is no longer the dancer she was but must continue. She finds the Baron in her room attempting to steal a necklace when he tries to talk his way out if by feigning love for her when suddenly he realises he is in love, a feeling he's never experienced before. The next day after the Baron has left, we get Grushinskaya's great song of love and joy, 'Bonjour Amour', and it was almost as if someone flipped a switch and joy poured around the theatre from Christine Grimandi as Grushinskaya. That was a marvellous performance and I'm pleased we don't see her reaction to the loss of the Baron. That would be desolate indeed.

And, of course, we have our young heroine, Flaemmschen, a typist for hire who wants to go to Hollywood. Victoria Serra has really grown into this role and makes Flaemmschen a lovable character, flawed of course, but I'd like her as a friend. Her hopes and dreams, her honesty, her coquettishness and fatalism are very attractive and it's Victoria that brings those qualities to life. Fearing she is pregnant and needing money for an abortion she agrees to go to America with a crooked businessman and, on their first night together realises she's not that kind of girl and the Baron saves her from being raped at the cost of his life. Her basic decency is clear from the final scene when Kringelein asks her to come to Paris with him and she tells him she's pregnant - she could've just said yes and spent all his money but that's not her at all. What a lovely creation. I liked Victoria in 'Titanic' and I like her even more as my Flaemmschen.

Flaemmschen never meets Raffaela or Grushinskaya but I assume she meets Madame Peepee at some point. Peepee is a member of staff at the hotel and has multiple functions - in other words is part of the supporting cast but I really noticed her tonight. Never one to cower before her 'betters' her facial expressions say it all.I couldn't find a production photo of Rhiannon Howys so here's the photo from the programme. It says she's had an extended career break but is now back in the harness so it'll be interesting to see what she does next. Solidarity with Madame Peepee!

I can't really blog about 'Grand Hotel' and not sing a song of praise to the Baron, one of my favourite theatrical creations even though this is about the women. Just as the other actors have grown into their characters so has Scott Garnham as the Baron and he was in full-on show-off mode tonight with a gloriously extended final note to 'Love Can't Happen' - that was sheer show off territory! But marvellous to hear as he kept the note going on and on and on...

Well done people and well done to Southwark Playhouse for bringing 'Grand Hotel' to life. Can I fit in another viewing...?

Monday, 24 August 2015

'Richard II' at Shakespeare's Globe

Last week we went to see 'Richard II' at The Globe and luckily the rain held off but there was still the inevitable helicopter sweeping low and drowning out some of the speeches. I've not seen 'Richard II' before so it was nice to finally see it and see it at The Globe.

It opens with priests coming on stage as the audience is still arriving, swinging incense and lighting candles ready for the coronoation of the boy-king Richard who soon leaves the stage to be replaced by the man-king. Richard is the annointed of God, the rightful heir and ruler of England. He doesn't have to fight for the throne, it's his by right, and that's how he rules. He gets whatever he wants and that turns him into a spoilt brat and not a very nice person. He has his sycophants that crawl around him and he has his ardent followers. Two of these, Mowbray and Bolingbroke accuse each other of treason and seek their king's permission to duel and bare the proof of their accusations on their bodies. The king refuses and exiles both of them.

Shortly afterwards, John of Gaunt, one of the king's advisers and uncles (and Bolingbroke's father) falls ill and dies, and the king takes all his lands and possessions to fund a new campaign against those pesky Irish. As the king leaves so does Bolingbroke re-appear demanding his inheritance and birth-right and gathers the nobles to his cause and against the king and so the king is overthrown and Bolingbroke takes the crown and becomes Henry IV. Richard is imprisoned and, hearing Henry say he wishes his problems would go away, he is slain in prison in a final fight. Henry rebukes the lords who did this but the scene is set for his own tragedy.

It's quite fast paced and zips along from scene to scene and the narrative is easy to follow as we see Richard come to more fervently believe in his own divine right to rule and his decisions becoming more erratic and hurtful to those he should love so that even the uncle of his queen sides with Bolingbroke. He floats round the stage in his long, flowing white and golden robes marking him out a s creature distinct from the soldiers and courtiers and towards the end his robes become greyer and less graceful. We're witnessing the downfall of a king. He's pragmatic enough - and not at all stupid - to be able to see the end coming but doesn't know what to do. How do you fend off a rebellion when you have no army?

It's a really good production of the kind I've come to expect from the Globe and once again the stage has been changed to make it unique to this production. I loved the burnished gold of the walls and columns, all very regal and other worldly. The costumes were great and I loved the minimalist brass band that came on every now and then for a quick blast. Charles Edwards was great as Richard, careless and carefree and knowing his every whim will be catered to until the end.David Sturzaker was arresting as Bolingbroke, grabbing every eye when he was on stage, just as he did with his charm in 'Merchant of Venice' earlier this year. I will also give a shout out to William Gaunt as John of Gaunt - William used to a Champion in the 1960s and still retains his mesmerising powers. He gets the most beautiful speech when, on his deathbed, he prophesies the end to the dream of the glories of Olde England when he talks about:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

It fair brings a lump to the throat - that wily old poet knew what he was doing with those words.

There is some lovely poetry in this play but, for me, some of it was missed by the over-long speeches, particularly by Richard. Sometimes less is more. But it's a grand production so go along and see it if you can.

'Hamlet' at The Barbican starring Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet was announced over a year ago and tickets went on sale a year ago and finally there we were, in the front row of the Barbican Theatre waiting for 'Hamlet' to begin last week. I've seen quite a few Hamlet's over the years and my first was Derek Jacobi in 1978 while he rode the wave of the success of 'I Clavdivs'. More recently I've seen Jude Law and Rory Kinnear play the role as well as Michael Sheen in an awful production at the Young Vic. And now it's Benedict's turn.

What is it about 'Hamlet' that makes playing the role mandatory for an actor of any stature once he reaches a certain age? You can't play it as an older man so I suppose you need to play it when you're in your 30s or early 40s at the latest - any later would just be silly. But it does seem to have become a star turn for actors when they reach a certain level and I'm not sure that's good for the play. It draws in the crowds (and Benedict did the other night) but do new audiences for stars go away having learned anything?

We follow the psychological trauma and drama of the young prince of Denmark whose father has recently died and his mother married his uncle for the sake of the realm. But is that all that's happened? Soldiers see the ghost of Hamlet's father on the battlements of Elsinore, young Fortinbrass of Norway is threatening war, Laertes goes back to university while Hamlet remains at home and Ophelia is ripe to go mad. So much is going on in this play but you know the story - can anyone looking at this blog not know the story? The question is how well is it re-told in this new star vehicle and it is re-told very well indeed.

I half expected not to like it since it is clearly a star turn rather than a more 'standard' production (if you see what I mean).  It could so easily have been a one-man show with a few minor supporting characters to allow the star to bounce off them but it wasn't like that at all. While not quite an ensemble piece, it wasn't that far off really. And I'd mention the set as an astounding piece of work that helped the action to flow. The first half was set in a baroque banqueting hall with staircases and balconies that could transform into the castle ramparts with a slight change in lighting. In the second half it's a scene of desolation and destruction with the action taking place in what seems to be rubble of the once grand castle. I winced when Gertrude came on barefoot but later realised the craggy rubble was really cork. I loved the set in the first half and would happily live there.

Anastasia Hille and Ciaran Hinds as Gertrude and Claudius were very effective as the king and queen, bringing some sympathy to the characters. I also liked Jim Norton as Polonius, a difficult role to get just right but he managed it as did his son Laertes, played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (although I was less keen when he pulled out a gun). I wasn't keen on Leo Bill as Horatio who didn't quite get the role of Hamlet's one true friend right and didn't get the 'flights of angels' speech right either. Very workmanlike but not entirely convincing. And Sian Brooke as Ophelia... I liked giving her a camera to play at amateur photographer but the motif didn't last very long and was soon forgotten. I've no idea why she was given a small trunk to drag down the staircase in her final scene. And then, of course, there's Mr Cumberbatch.

I thought Benedict was excellent and brought real believability to the character he was playing. We could feel sympathy for this poor lost soul not knowing what to do for the best, and the changes in mood and pace were well judged as were the interactions with the other characters. I saw him in 'Frankenstein' at the National Theatre a few years ago and he's a class act. But I didn't like him playing with his toy castle or wearing a hoodie for the graveyard scene - I mean, c'mon... But it must be very strange for him to be dishing out serious poetry with deadly connotations and have his fans laugh in the wrong places which they did with annoying frequency. Someone has just been killed - it's not funny and it's not meant to be. One could argue the laughter was to ease the tension but I doubt it.

All in all the production gets the thumbs up from me. I'd say go and see it but tickets sold out a year ago although it's always worth looking out for returns. I've no idea why they've cast children in the roles for the poster and the front of the programme - sorry, souvenir brochure - but I think it's silly. I was also surprised to see a merch stand selling souvenir mugs and stuff. You know there's a star around somewhere when you get a merch stand in a theatre!

Goodnight sweet prince...

'The Bakkhai' at The Almeida Theatre

Two weeks ago we went to see 'The Bakkhai' by Euripedes at the Almeida Theatre as part of its Greeks Season. I'm not entirely sure why it has a Greek season at the moment but it's a good opportunity to see one of the earliest plays that gave us theatre as we know it today. It's a play written to be performed at the ancient festival of Dionysius to demonstrate the superiority of the god and his worshippers, with minimal characters but big chorus.

A stranger appears and says he is going to Athens to teach the lord Pentheus a lesson for denying Dionyius is the son of Zeus. The women vanish into the hills to practice strange rites as the stranger appears before Pentheus to debate the rights and wongs of the women having lives of their own. He persuades Pentheus to don women's clothing to spy on the women in the hills which is a trick by the god to humiliate Pantheus. He is killed by the women - by his own mother who dosn't recognise him - and his body taken back to Athen in bits to celebrate the superiority of women. But then the god appears to dispense justice and no-one comes out of it smelling of roses - except the god.

It's a powerful play and one of the earliest Greek plays to survive the passage of time. It's deeply allegorical but still holds messages for us today. It stars Ben Whishaw as the stranger/god and Bertie Carvell as Pentheus and his mother who kills him. It was part mesmerising and part annoying, particularly the long pauses given to the chorus to chant and sing, but the overall power of the piece was never lost. In some sense, it's just as valid today.

Why is dressing in women's clothing meant to be demeaning? Iggy Pop posted a photo of him in a dress a few years ago to say he didn't think it was shameful to wear women's clothes since it wasn't shameful to be a woman and that's still relevant. Dionysius appears wearing a dress for most of the play and persuades Pentheus to dress as a woman to shame and ridicule him but, in the final scene, Dionysius appears wearing horns as an angry and revengeful god. You can probably read a lot into that.

'Splendour' at the Donmar Warehouse

Last week we went to see the new production of 'Splendour' at the Donmar. I hadn't heard of the play before so it was nice to come to it cold and with no idea where it would go.

It's set in some Eastern European country with a dictatorship or at least a one party state and is set in the reception room of the presidential palace on the eve of revolution. We meet the characters - the photographer who's been invited to take a portrait of the current president, her translator and the wife of the president who keeps them going in terms of conversation and vodka while waiting for him to arrive, and then her long-term friend arrives for moral support. It's a stragely simplistic introduction to the play.

We learn about the four characters as the play progresses, as it restarts and emphasises different aspects of the characters. The translator isn't a terribly good translator but rather from rebel territory escaping her past, the photographer just wants to leave and photograph the revolution rather than stay for a possible portrait, the friend isn't really a friend to the wife of the president, she simply carries on to protect her children, and the wife of the president? Well, she intends to stay the wife of the president come hell or high water, and will stay in the palace whatever happens.

It's quite a strong play and we learn about the characters as it progresses. No-one is quite what they seem to be but they must keep up the charade because that is who they are. The play takes place in the reception room of the presidential palace, with enormous windows that can't keep out the sound of revolution but they all ignore it until the end. The grand chandeleir sputters and goes out, only to shine brightly again for each new scene as the play starts again and again only with a different emphasis each time and eventually we learn more about the characters and their circumstances. We learn that the husband of the friend didn't really commit suicide and why the friend doesn't see her grown up children any more, why the photographer buys bed linen after every asignmnent and why the translator steals.

The play is set within a ring of broken glass (not really glass, but supposed to represent the shattered chandelier after the palace is stormed, I assume) and begins and begins again until the final time when the sordid truth emerges.

I liked the play and liked it's telling and development, Sinead Cusack was the president's wife with Michelle Fairley as her long suffering friend, and Genenieve O'Reilley as the photographer and Zawe Ashton as the translator. I thought they were all excellent but the photographer was a bit one-dimensional and didn't really grow as much as the other characters. I've seen Sinead on stage before and she was, as ever, excellent, but I really liked Michelle Fairley, a very different character to her 'Game of Thrones' persona as Lady Stark, and Zawe as the translator, sly and snide but ultimate fearful except where shoes are concerned. Not a great play but certainly one to make you think.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Buffy Sainte-Marie at Brooklyn Bowl

Buffy was in London a week or so ago to promote 'Power In The Blood', her latest album. She was featured in a great interview on 'Woman's Hour' on BBC Radio 4 (in which she said she didn't like her singing on her first few albums) and played live at the Brooklyn Bowl, one of the newer venues at the O2 in Greenwich. It's an odd venue to choose, part bar, part gig venue and part bowling alley but it had a nice feel to it and great lights for Buffy to take advantage of. It's all standing of course, apart from a few bar seats in the bar area, but that's worth it for Buffy. It also had big video screens around the hall so I'm hoping some video of the show from the venue appears at some point.

On strode Buffy in her black and red tassled jacket, feather ear-rings and choker with black jeans and grabbed her guitar. Michele Bruyere is still drumming for Buffy (and has been for 7 years or so and plays on some of the tracks on the new record) along with Mark Olexon on bass and Anthony King on guitar, both of seemed to be having great fun. Buffy alternated guitar with keyboards as usual.

As with her last gig in London (at The Tabernacle), the majority of the songs Buffy sang were from the last two albums with some of the old favourites thrown in for good measure. Even some of the older songs were played as new versions as performed on the new records. I like the way that Buffy's not afraid to play with her own back catalogue and re-write and re-interpret  some of the songs.

We were given:

It's My Way
Piney Wood Hills
Power In The Blood
We Are Circling
Not The Lovin' Kind
Love Charms
Farm In The Middle Of Nowhere
Carry It On
No No Keshagesh
Cho Cho Fire
Little Wheel Spin And Spin
Blue Sunday
Darling Don't Cry
Up Where We Belong
Until It's Time For You To Go
Universal Soldier
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
Starwalker (encore)

Buffy was in her element and clearly having fun up on that stage with the lights flashing, excellent sound mix and a load of adoring fans (including some obviously recruited from her shows with Morrissey earlier this year). Her band also seemed to be having a great time up there, with Anthony helping out on guitar-tech duties and Michele wearing an 'Elder Brothers' teeshirt (a print of one of Buffy's digital paintings).

I loved all the songs we were graced with but particular favourites on the night were 'Darling Don't Cry' which always takes me back to the first time I saw Buffy in Belleville, Ontario, ten years ago and the audience erupting into pow wow singing (amazing experience). 'Power In The Blood' was stunning and 'We Are Circling' was lovely and very hypnotic. 'Generation' is always a joy to hear ("I just want to dance with the Rosebud Sioux this summer") and 'Cho Cho Fire' gets the feet moving (I'm running for the drum with that song). 'Until It's Time For You To Go' is always lovely to hear and it wouldn't be a Buffy gig without 'Universal Soldier'. It would've been nice to hear 'Sing Our Own Song' from the last record but maybe next time.

The encore was 'Starwalker' and the light show went psychedlic as a backdrop for that powerful song for all our generations and all the generations yet to come. I first heard that song in 1976 on the 'Sweet America' record that I bought on import - the record sleeve (and I still have the 12" vinyl and the sleeve) notes that it's dedicated to the American Indian Movement but these days Buffy dedicates it to everyone. "Starwalker, he's a friend of mine...".

And then Michele came out from behind his drumkit and started his pow wow dancing across the stage as the band bowed to the applause and slowly left the stage. That's such a great way to end, and leaves the audience wanting more - we always want more Buffy so please come back and see us soon.

I haven't seen any of the Brooklyn Bowls video yet but I found this clip of Buffy singing 'Power In The Blood' and this should give you an idea of what it was like on the night. With thanks to KrisLW for uploading the video, enjoy!

Watts Gallery, with Richard Dadd, Evelyn De Morgan and Watts Memorial Chapel

Last Sunday we had a trip out into rural Surrey, to Watts Gallery in Compton, a village just past Guidford. Very pretty countryside and very tame. But it was to a gallery dedicated to the work of the Victorian painter George Frederick Watts we went, small but in a very interesting building on a slight hill.

As a painter, Watts couldn't really make his mind up what he wanted to be, what style should be his. During his life there were lots of styles so it's understandable that his own work should develop but he seemed to jump around all over the place. There were lots of standard Victorian portraits, one wall full of them placed closely together so he certainly could paint. But there were lots of allegorical and symbolist paintings with grandiose titles like 'Time, Death and Judgement' (to the right), other paintings that seemed very Blakean and others that were very Pre-Raphaelite. He was all over the shop in terms of styles, some better than others.

He had a short 'social commentary' period around 1848-1850 and two paintings are represented here - 'Under A Dry Arch' shows a woman crouching down to keep warm and dry under an arch, and 'The Irish Famine' showing an obviously starved and starving family, desolate and without hope. Both are painted in very drab colours for emphasis. It stood out for me because of the famine and the influx of Irish people into Britain and the USA that resulted from it. I instantly thought, 'the influence of Dickens' but I may be wrong. It's interesting that he went down this route at all, even for a short period while still making his living with middle class portraiture.

There were also some giant molds for his statuary and I particularly liked the mold for his commemorative statue for his friend, Lord Tennyson. I sometimes go through a Tennyson phase so I gravitated to it. He's shown as an old man with a long baggy coat and baggy trousers with his faithful dog sitting as his feet. I liked it and might hunt out my complete Tennyson to browse through again.

Also in the Gallery at the moment is an exhibition of the works of Richard Dadd in a small exhibition called 'The Art of Bedlam' which is where many of his works were painted while an inmate/patient there. You may well have seen his 'fairy' paintings without knowing they were by him. His most famous is probably 'The Fairy Feller's Master' and that has pride of place in the exhibition. It's not very big but is incredibly detailed and populated by all sorts of fay folk. I like the prominence given to the daisies to give an indication of the size of the tiny people. Imagine any clump of weeds in your garden or tangle of vines and wonder what might be living in there, a separate world of wonder and mystery. Very hippy, of course, as was mentioned in the plaque beside the painting commenting on it! There were projections of the detail of the painting on the wall, changing every so often to show different details. What I would have really liked is a large magnifying glass and the time to look at it properly.

There are also some interesting paintings and sketches of his travels round the East before his illness struck. There's a lovely painting of Victorian gentlemen in Arabian dress with their beards all nice and bushy like hipsters today with fancy hats. And there's a lovely colourful painting titled 'Portrait of a Young Man' which is thought to be of the doctor in Bedlam that encouraged him to paint. It's in a very different style to his 'fairy' paintings, and reminded me a bit of Rousseau in his use of colour and the imagination that generated the garden scene (that isn't real and is entirely made up since there was no such garden at Bedlam). It's quite a striking painting when you see it in the flesh, with vibrant colours and the sombre young man looking out at you.

As if that wasn't enough, there's also a room dedicated to the works of William and Evelyn De Morgan, eminent Victorian ceramicist and his wife, a Pre-Raphaelite painter. A few of Evelyn's paintings were on the walls and William's ceramics in glass cases. I think I preferred the ceramics over the paintings but this one caught my eye, 'The Storm Spirits'. It couldn't be more identifiable as a Pre-Raphaelite painting if it tried. But it's quite dramatic and impressive in its own way.

After a browse in the shop and a tea and scone in the cafe, a 200 yards walk down a lane past a stud farm with horses wandering round takes you to Compton cemetary and the Watts Memorial Chapel designed and built by Mary Watts, Watts wife. It's like walking into and being part of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, surrounded by sombre colours with Celtic knots and Gothic styles. It was quite a surprise coming across a small, round chapel like that in a rural cemetary in the commuter (and retirement) belt of Surrey. I didn't quite know what to make of it but it's most impressive and demonstrates Mary's own artistic flair.

'Many A Mile' by Buffy Sainte-Marie

'Many A Mile' is Buffy's second album, originally released in 1965 on Vanguard. Although all of Buffy's other albums on Vanguard have been released on CD, for some reason 'Many A Mile' hasn't been until now.  I can only assume it was a rights issue for one of the cover songs on the album. I tracked down a CD version of the album in the 2000s on eBay and imported it from Italy. It came with a square gatefold version of the original album cover with the original 12" vinyl liner notes printed inside.

Some of the songs from the album are well known from being included in compilations over the years, particularly 'Until It's Time For You To Go' which was covered by virtually everyone in the '60s and '70s. There's also 'The Piney Wood Hills' which was a staple of Buffy's live sets for years and 'Los Pescadores' with it's sweeping and soaring vocals. But 'Many A Mile' includes some other gems like the deep blues of 'Fixin' To Die' and the traditional spiritual 'Lazarus', performed with voice and a handclap to produce a haunting, astonishing sound. 'Lazarus' was sampled years ago by Kanye West for a song by Cam'ron ('Dead or Alive'). There's also the gentle 'Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies' with Buffy playing mouthbow.

The two CDs sound very similar but the vocals on the new version sound warmer and richer, or at least they do to me.I'm pleased it's finally released as part of the suite of Buffy's Vanguard records.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

'Our Country's Good' at the National Theatre

On Friday we went to see the new production of 'Our Country's Good' at the National Theatre, a tale of the first convict community established in Australia in 1788. The first performance was on Wednesday and it's still in preview but I don't care, I liked it! There's probably some trimming still to be done but, if anything, that only makes me want to go back and see it again. It also has music by Cerys Matthews in her first theatrical venture and that worked really well.

The play opens with an Aboriginal sitting on the stage painting himself in ritual patterns and then shifts to the transport ship full of convicts. And this is where I must mention the staging as another character. The stage is round and moves round, with half rising or lowering and, at the start, the whole thing rises up and up and up to reveal the convicts in the cramped holds of the ship, pushed together and swaying with the sea. The stage changes for every scene and works really well. As does the big projection on the back wall which looks very Aboriginal and the colours shift and change depending on the time of day in the play - it was very effective and atmospheric.

It's a hard tale of the transportation of those early people who built what is now Australia who were sent there through a corrupt legal system for stealing a biscuit or being accused of a random crime and having no representation as well as hard and fast pick-pockets and criminals. But they all bear the same brand. They're all criminals and this play really brings that out with debates about the nature of crime and its consequences, about rehabilitation and the soul of humanity. Can art and culture help to 'civilise' the convicts and make them productive members of society? Will putting on a play change anything? And, of course, the ever present Aborigine watching as the settlement grows and starts to take over with, at the end, the realisation that they've been given smallpox from the settlers.

There are some very interesting arguments going on in this play and it's span is very broad, covering a lot of ground. There are discussions between the characters of the women selling themselves for food, the casual violence between the convicts and the soldiers, and the soldiers feeling they're being punished for losing the wars in the Americas. And there's also consideration of the nature of love and lust, of the innate humanity (or lack of) we all have. And, wrapped around all of this is another play, the play put on by the convicts.

The play within the play is 'The Recruiting Officer' by George Farquhar (and, coincidentally, Farquhar's 'The Beaux' Stratagem' is also being performed on the same stage at the National). Leuitenant Clark volunteers to put on a play and starts recruiting a range of unlikely convicts as his actors, some wild and violent, others devious or meek. They learn their lines and learn to act as life in the colony goes on and some are accused of stealing food, are beaten and nearly hanged. The colony's reluctant hang-man is also one of the actors who measures one of his fellow actors, the wild and feared  Liz Morden, to be hanged. Initially refusing to speak at her trial she eventually does so to deny the theft for the sake of the play and her new-found friends and is reprieved.

It all sounds terribly serious and grim but it's not. Alongside the seriousness are some great big belly laughs (yes, even I laughed out loud) as the convicts talk about how to be actors - actors acting as actors talking about actors is a conundrum. It's made doubly interesting since most (if not all?) of the characters were real people who travelled on those first transport ships to the upside down world that became Australia. How on earth they survived for eight months at sea in those appalling conditions is a miracle and very topical with migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea today in flimsy boats for a better life in Europe.

I thoroughly enjoyed this production, from the hate-filled Major (Peter Forbes) spitting his lines to meek Mary Brenham (Caoilfhionn Dunne) who grows in confidence and the over-the-top acting of the pick-pocket Robert Sideway (Lee Ross) to the intellectual Governor Phillips (Cyril Nri).

There were some really good performances and I particulary liked the comedy and pathos of Jodie McNee as Liz Morden and the quick wit of Ashley McGuire (who I saw as an excellent Falstaff in 'Henry IV' last year) as Dabby Bryant who yearns to go back to Cornwall. The play also featured Paul Kaye as the midshipman who years for his love Duckling Smith (Shalisha James-Davis), one of the convicts, and Cyril Nri as the progressive Governor who is pragmatic but aims for rehabilitation. I'd also single out Gary Wood as the Aborigine, present almost continually but seemingly invisible to the settlers. Jason Hughes pays Leuitenant Clark who pulls his random convicts together and I liked the final scene with the convicts finally out of their rags and in costume for their rols as the play is about to start.

It's in that final scene where the title of the play makes sense - 'Our Country's Good'. Why on earth would the convicts think their country is 'good' when it's sent them to the other side of the world? When you add 'for' at the start of the phrase it makes sense - they've been transported for their country's good.

The music and songs by Cerys Mathhews were a nice touch to bring another level to the production. They're not intrusive - and this certainly isn't a musical version of the play - but they add emphasis. The songs aren't full three minute pop songs, more like snatches and phrases, a verse here and a chorus there and worked really well. One song sounded very Cerys and a recorded version would be good to promote the play. Good stuff Cerys!

I fully intend seeing this production again when it's settled into it's run. The writer, Timberlake Wertenbaker, was there last night sitting in the back row, and so was Lynda Baron who I saw earlier this year in 'Stevie' at Hampstead.

I also like the fact that these characters were largely real people with books about them and their circumstances. I really liked Dabby Bryant and in random Googling around the internet found her page on Wiki and was delighted to see that she did, indeed, make it back to her beloved Cornwall. Not for long, but she did it and became famous in so doing. Well done Mary!

Friday, 21 August 2015

'The Champions'

Do you  remember 'The Champions'? It was a telly series from the late 60s about a team of super spies with special powers that saved the world every week. Alexandra Bastedo was blonde with the beehive with super-strength and ESP and William Gaunt and Stuart Damon (the mandatory American) were her side-kicks that did a lot of fighting and stuff. And 'The Champions' popped into my head tonight when I saw William Gaunt play John O'Gaunt in Shakespeare's 'Richard II' at The Globe. He didn't use his superpowers though.

He's still recogniseable despite the white hair and beard and his voice is just the same. He delivered a magnificent death-bed speech that threw me back to 'The Champions'. I didn't realise he was in this production since I booked the tickets ages ago but it was lovely to see him again, and this time in the flesh.