Sunday, 31 January 2016

'Billy Elliot the Musical' at Victoria Palace

Last week I finally saw 'Billy Elliot the Musical' at the Victoria Palace, a theatre I walk past most week days on my way to Victoria Station. It's been on there forever and it's quite surprising that I've never been in there - when I say forever I mean 11 years. All of the buildings around the theatre have been knocked down for a new development but it's still standing there, alone. The show continues in April when it finally closes so it's a case of see it or miss it.

Billy is growing up in Easington in County Durham, a small pit village during the miners strike in 1984 and his dad and older brother are both out on strike. Billy's mam has died but his grandma lives with them. He goes to boxing lessons in the village hall every Saturday morning but he'd rather be doing something else and then he accidentally gets involved in the ballet class that happens after the boxing and he gets hooked on dancing. That becomes his way out of his humdrum life with a future of going down the mines like the rest of the men in his family.

His dancing teacher gets him an audition on Newcastle for the Royal Ballet School but he misses his appointment when his family find out about it and he's banned from dancing. But he can't help it, he's a dancer so he must dance. His dad relents and even breaks the strike to get the money to take Billy to London for the audition and there's an emotional scene when his brother persuades his dad not to break the strike since they'll find the money another way. They go to London and Billy auditions, both him and his dad feeling very out of place. Back home they wait for the letter and Billy gets in just as the miners lose the strike and have to return to work. But Billy packs his case to head off to a new life as a dancer. And then there's the grand finale with the whole cast doing an elaborate dance number wearing tutus.

If you've seen the film then all of that will familiar. Where the musical differs is with all the new scenes such as the big song and dance number when the grandma reminisces about her youth with her long-dead husband or the dream where the young Billy dances with his older self. It's also a bit more political than the film with references to communitues dying if the mines close and a Christmas sequence during the strike with a giant Maggie Thatcher puppet a la Spitting Images with Michael Heseltine in a box. There's enough familiar territory to feel comfortable but the new scenes help to make it work as a stage musical.

The adult leads were Ruthie Henshall as the dance teacher and Deka Walmsley as the dad but neither really impressed. The sound wasn't too good and they were sometimes almost drowned out by the music. It felt like going through the numbers rather than inspired acting bringing characters to life. The real star of the show is the lad who plays Billy and when we were there that was Euan Garrett putting his all into the dance and the drama and deservedly got a big round of applause at the end. The energy and stamina needed for the Billy role is incredible and it was nice to see from the programme that some of the past Billy's over the last 11 years have gone on to bigger things.

I really loved the show and am very pleased to have finally seen it - there's enough of the film in there to make it familiar but sufficient new scenes to keep you guessing. There's the whole nostalgia bit with the 80s and the miners strike and the miners lodge banners but the hope and dreams shine through and make it look to the future. The kids in it - especially Euan - were great and deserve all the credit they get. We don't see Billy go on to become the Swan but I can live with that. It's going on tour so if you get the chance to see it then do so for a great night out - you might've seen the film but you haven't seen this show.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

'Cymbeline' at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe

Some of the lovely things about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the little indoors theatre within The Globe is that it's small, it's covered in shiny wood and it's candle-lit. That makes for a great atmosphere, especially when it puts on unusual productions and that's where I saw 'Cymbeline' last week, a Shakespeare play that I've never seen live. I have now.

King Cymbeline's daughter Innogen has married Posthumus, the man she loves, rather than Cloten, the man Cymbeline's chosen (who just happens to be the son of his new wife). This is a bad thing so Posthumus has to flee the kingdom to live in Rome. While there he brags about his wife and her gentility and fidelity to him and generally, the superiority of British women. One of the young Romans, Iachimo (boo hiss) challenges Posthumus to a bet that he can seduce his wife and the foolish Briton accepts. The die is cast for tragedy aplenty, misunderstandings and international travel in the blink of an eye. So yes, Iachimo (boo hiss) meets Innogen and by trickery gets into her bed chamber while she sleeps and he's generally cad-like but Innogen's honour is intact. 

When Posthumus is gulled into believing Iachimo (boo hiss) he instructs his servant who is conveniently now working for Innogen to kill her but he can't do it. He tells Innogen the truth and she dresses as a boy to head off to Rome to see her beloved husband and put things right. And that's where the play starts branching out all over the place. Cymbeline had two sons who were stolen away as babies and we meet them as young men in the wilds of Cambria (ie Wales) with a banished general of Cymbeline's who they think is their father. Somehow Innogen meets her unknown brothers and becomes great friends when suddenly she seems to die and they go off to fight the Romans. They trash the Romans and save Cymbeline's kingdom and then come the big reveals. There are so many things to reveal that it goes on and on and nothing is straighforward. There's also a  great dream sequence in which Posthumus is visited by his dead family and by Jupiter ("sorry Jupiter!").

I won't go into the twists and turns of the plot bacause you should see it with an open mind - other than for Iachimo (boo hiss). This is a great, fun production that brings Shakespeare to life in a way that rarely happens. There's blood on that stage and boldness and fearlessness in a way not often seen. As I said immediately I was outside, that if that was the first play you'd ever seen you'd be hooked on Shakespeare and the theatre for life! Or you might run away and join a troupe of travelling players and perform it yourself. It's a mighty production that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible! 

Before the play began Trevor Fox (who seems to be the Globe's resildent Geordie actor) came on to mention that one of the actors had broken his foot the night before and because the Globe keeps it real and doesn't have understudies, he would attempt to play his part on crutches. But, we shouldn't be surprised if someone else comes on to read his lines from the script if he couldn't continue. He didn't say who the actor was or which role but it turned out to be Eugene O'Hare as the cad Iachimo (boo hiss) and he did very well indeed, making the audience wince every now and then, especially when he worked without his crutches in one scene. Well done Eugene - hope you're walking better by now! (but I still boo hiss Iachimo, obvs).

The star of the show for me was Emily Barber as a surprisingly modern Innogen, never meek or mild, but a strong central character (far more so than Cymbeline himself). I was very impressed with her, whether as princess or as a boy, her central character retained it's strength and power. Good on ya Emily!

I wasn't so sure about Jonjo O'Neill as her erstwhile husband Posthumus but that might have been because it looked like he was wearing jogging bottoms underneath his doublet. He seemed stronger to me in his British scenes with the Roman scenes being a bit stereotyped. I loved Pauline McLynn as the evil queen and stepmother with her asides to the audience - o yes, we're in on your plan all right queenie even if you've duped your husband and the court. I thought she was great fun.

I thought this was a great production that brought Shakespeare to life and makes you think he was having fun with this play - let's throw in every plot device imaginable and it still works! Now that's great writing and it's a great director that brings it all to life. Thank you Sam Yates. Yes, I loved it!

Buffy Sainte-Marie on 'Saturday Live' on Radio 4

This morning Buffy was a guest on the Saturday morning magazine BBC Radio 4 show, 'Saturday Live' presented by Rev Richard Coles and Aasmah Mir. She was in the pre-recorded guest spot about 'inheritance tracks', in other words, a song you inherited from someone and a song you'd leave behind as your legacy.  The songs are played with snippets of the guests talking about them and things related to them. It's a nice segment and they get guests from all over in that slot. Today the guest was Buffy.

Buffy chose 'If You Love Me, Really Love Me' by Edith Piaf, a song she sang as a child but has never sung it publicly. She said she loved Piaf's voice and it reassured her about the vibrato in her own singing voice. She spoke about learning to play the piano in her adoptive parents' house and how she is musically dyslexic despite being able to write for orchestras.

The song she'd leave behind is 'Carry It On' from her latest album, 'Power In The Blood'. She said she'd been very lucky to be able to travel all over the world and meet so many varied people over the years. She mentioned that she'd toured with Morrissey in 2015, how she sold the rights to 'Universal Soldier' for $1 and didn't fall for that again when Elvis recorded 'Until It's Time To Go'. She ended by mentioning her family, that she has a public life and a very private life and that she lives on a farm (and, as we all know, Buffy loves her farm and her goats).

Buffy was introduced with the usual 'native American... sung in Greenwich Village... Universal Soldier... Oscar winner...'. It would be nice to hear a more original introduction one day but it was a lovely surprise to hear Buffy on the radio on a Saturday morning. Well done to 'Saturday Live' for including her. Next time, get her on as a proper guest please - you know it makes sense. Oh, and learn how to pronounce her name as well. But thanks anyway!

'Celts: Art & Identity' at the British Museum

After work I scampered along to the bus stop to jump on the 24 bus up to Tottenham Court Road and the British Museum to see the exhibition about Celtic art that finishes this weekend. I'm a member of the British Museum so why am I waiting until the last weekend to see an exhibition? Answers on a postcard...

As the signs rather insistently tell you, Celts are not a homogenous group unified by a particular DNA trait, rather it's a form of identity that different groups have held at different times. The first use of the word was by the Greeks 2,500 years ago when they referred to the 'keltoi' as the people north and west of their civilisation, so it started as a way of saying 'non-Greek'. Celts lived in what is now Germany and France and up into Scandanavia but increasingly we, on our little island, treated Celts as being west and north of England, the Celtic nations of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. And who, exactly decided this? The Romantics and the Victorians - is there anything those Victorians aren't responsible for?

The exhibition moves chronologically through the years with artefacts and notes to explain what's happening and when. We see all sorts of stuff, from early sculptures, metalwork like helmets and work implements and swords, to things made from animal horns. There's all sorts of stuff and increasingly it turns from plain to incredibly intricate and detailed. We see the influence of the Romans as the Empire spreads across Europe (but never subdued the Celts on the fringes of the Empire) and then the influence of Christianity as time moves on. 

We see display cabinets full of torcs, bracelets and anklets - those Celts loved adornment and complex patterns - all in different styles signifying different tribes and times, but spread across the Celtic nations showing good trade routes and shared cultures. There were some giant standing stones and crosses (some were reproductions from the orgininals) and a lovely series of cloak pins/broaches that I'd happily wear on my jackets today.

I think my favourite piece was the Gundestrup Cauldron from Denmark with its intricate sides, inside and out, and it drew the crowds. Faces of ancient gods whose names we no longer know but can guess their attributes from the images surrounding them. When did these gods awake and when did they go to sleep? Did they go hunting through the ancient dark forests of the north or did they wait to be worshipped? What were their rituals and how did they welcome their worshippers into the after-life? We'll never know since there's nothing written about them but the cauldron is lovely. I want it but I'm not sure I'd want it in my home... who would come with it? The deep and dark past of the Celts is alluring and pulls you into the glamour and magik.

The exhibition moved into more modern times with John Grey's epic poem of 'The Bard', telling the story of the last bard in Wales being hunted down by troops of the English king Edward II, with the words on the wall:

"With joy I see
The different dooms our Fates assign.
Be thine Despair, and sceptred Care;
To triumph, and to die, are mine.
He spoke, and headlong from the mountain's height
Deep in the roaring tide he plunged to endless night"

'To triumph and to die' is such an evocative phrase and inspired paintings and other art works over the years - my favourite is a panoramic scene by John Martin in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle with the bard about to leap to his triumphant end. It would've been fab if that painting was included in this exhibition rather than the lesser paintings on display.

The exhibition wound on to the Victorians and their discovery of the designs for broaches and clothes, images of  heroic Celts like Caractacus and the influences on the arts in general There were a few paintings of imaginery druids in ancient ceremonies we can't imagine and a lovely painting of the Sidhe riding out to war (in a very Pre-Raphaelite style). It closed with a video wall showing peoples from the Celtic nations around Europe in tartans and playing pipes, demonstrating that the Celts are alive and well today since peoples still identify with their heritage.

It's a fascinating exhibition that takes you time travelling through the ages as the Celts evolve and grow but keep their spirit alive. The mystery of the Celts, our lack of real knowledge of the peoples and their ways, made this quite an intriguing exhibition with the selection of exhibits and the story it tries to tell.  It's only on for a couple more days so make your way there quickly otherwise you'll miss it.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

'Mr Wonderful' at Sadler's Wells

Jonathan Ollivier died last summer on his way to his last performance in Matthew Bourne's 'The Car Man' at Sadler's Wells. Monday evening saw the gala performance of his friends and colleagues to celebrate his life and raise funds for a trust fund for his children. 'Mr Wonderful - A Celebration of Jonathan Ollivier's Life In Dance' was held at Sadler's Wells and hosted by Sir Matthew Bourne. I hope his wife and children were there since it was a great night and a great tribute to him.

It was hosted by New Adventures and Northern Ballet with Sadler's Wells so we were treated to scenes from various productions, some of which Jonathan had danced in. The title of the show - 'Mr Wonderful ' - came from a short piece that Matthew Bourne choreographed 25 years ago ( and danced in) to the song of the same name sung by Peggy Lee. Out of the six dancers, four were former Princes from 'Swan Lake' and one was the Swan - that's a great ensemble in anyone's book! It was great fun to see it, funny and precise, and it should be seen often.

There were scenes from some of Matthew Bourne's shows including 'Sleeping Beauty', 'Play Without Words' and 'The Car Man' with a film of Jonathan in 'Spitfire', Rambert did two brilliant pieces 'Hidden' and 'Gypsy Souls', Marcelo Gomes danced to the thrilling violin playing of Charles Yang in 'Paganini' and Northern Ballet gave us the terribly romantic 'Wuthering Heights' and a scene from 'Saphire'. A great piece from the Michael Clark Company was the edgy 'come, been and gone' to 'The Jean Genie' by David Bowie with Mick Ronson's guitar shrieking at the walls as the dancers strode around the stage. There was a lot more and we even had the Temptations from the new show 'Motown' singing 'My Girl'.

The evening ended, of course, with 'Swan Lake', with the Swan and the Prince, the daft swans dancing to the Sugar-Plum Fairy sequence and getting great laughs and applause and it was lovely to see those excerpts from a great work. It ended with the swans all sitting on the stage with their backs to the audience and we saw Jonathan dance on the screen at the back of the stage, ending with his triumph. How touching. And when the swans started clapping and giving their tribute, so we all stood for a standing ovation as the other dancers joined them on stage and it went on and on.

Sir Matthew Bourne had mentioned earlier in the evening that tickets sales had already raised £65,000 to set up a trust fund for Jonathan's sons and invited us to text donations and you can donate at

Monday, 18 January 2016

'Showboat' at The Crucible, Sheffield

I've never seen 'Showboat' before, either on stage or the films and even though I know one song from the show (let's face it, we *all* know that song) I've never quite grasped the connotations. It's Daniel Evans' last season at The Crucible - and he directed this production - so it was worth hopping on a train and heading to wintry Sheffield for the matinee performance full of oldies and groups of women on a girls' afternoon out.

I didn't really know what to expect but I was sort of expecting Hollywood and Broadway glamour and glitz and, while that's exactly what we got, we also got racism, alcoholism, gambling addiction, an inter-generational story and sacrifice. The business that is show doesn't live in it's own safe little world, it's part of the world we all live in with smiles plastered on the faces.

The show moves along at a good pace, never dwelling on anything for too long. It opens on the docks with bales of cotton being moved before the show boat arrives and we meet the cast of the show in all their teasing glamour, performing scraps of the play to entice in paying customers. We get a glorious version of 'Old Man River' with the stevedore's loading cargo, and, in the end, helping each other, which was quite touching. We then learn from a jealous lover who reports her to the sheriff, that Julie, the star of the show boat is considered black since her mother was black. Her husband cuts her hand and drinks her blood so that he now has 'black blood' in him. This gives Magnolia, the daughter of the captain and Julie's great friend, her big chance to be a riverboat star.  By a strange coincidence, her leading man turns out to be the gambler she'd met earlier on the docks and they fall in love and get married.

The second half moves the story along so that Magnolia and Gaylord (yes, that's his name) are now in Chicago where Gay's gambling and drinking are becoming a problem but they still send their daughter to the convent school. Gaylord leaves and one of the turns from the show boat, Ellie and Frank, turn up to view an apartment that Magnolia is having to leave and they get her an audition at the theatre where Julie works. She's down on her luck, husband long gone and seeking happiness in the bottom of a glass. She hears Magnolia sing and leaves recommending that Magnolia is given the star role. Again, Julie's sacrifice is good for Magnolia without her knowing. Years pass and we're back on the boat again  when Gay turns up, is reunited with Magnolia and sees his grown up daughter. Is it happy ever after? Who knows...

I was very surprised at the power of this musical, it direct confrontation with racism and the dangers of drink and gambling. I've only ever heard 'Old Man River' on variety shows in the 70s, never seen it in context and it's an incredibly powerful song with the men carrying bales of cotton, collapsing with the weight of the bales and sheer weariness while the river keep on flowing. It was a great performance from Emmanuel Kojo as Joe, leading the other lads in a powerful rendition of the song. It got - and deserved - a great ovation from the audience.

Two other performances deserve mention, firstly Rebecca Trehearn as Julie who can pass as white and does so until she's unmasked. She gave a lovely performance as Magnolia's great friend in the first half and a powerful performance as the drunken lush singer in the second half. She has a great voice, clear and powerful but very well controlled. I saw her a couple of years ago in 'City of Angels' at the Donmar and, if anything, her voice is even better.

In the same Donmar production I also saw Sandra Marvin who played Queenie, Joe's wife. I also saw her as singer/dancer in Kate Bush's 'Before The Dawn' show at Hammersmith a couple of years ago. She was great as the queen of the boat, feeding and controlling the men and capturing Joe as her husband. It was lovely to see them, after the passing of the years, still together at the end of the show, keeping things real and giving us the message about what's important in life. Sandra has a powerful voice and a commanding stage presence and I want to see more of her.

The stars of the show are Gina Beck as Magnolia and Michael Xavier as Gaylord. Gina has a great voice and was great as our heroine, easily getting the audience on her side and wanting her marriage to work. She gets some great songs which is more than Michael got. It's an odd role for the male lead - he gets one song near the start and all the others are either duets or ensemble pieces. Michael is a singer and has a great voice but this show doesn't really let him rip. I've seen him in 'Into The Woods' and 'The Pyjama Game' and know he can sing the socks off almost anything.

All in all, this was a great production that does all the cast proud. Colourful, fast-paced and well acted and sung - with some really good voices. I don't know if there any plans for it to go on tour or transfer to London but it should do - people should see this production. I'm pleased I did.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

'Le Corsaire' at The Coliseum

Pirates and ballet? What's not to like? So, when I saw that the English National Ballet was putting on 'Le Corsaire' at The Coliseum I had to get tickets. It's based on a poem by Lord Byron that I haven't read (but I will) so it's obviously going to be romantic and virile. I am very remiss in my reading of Byron (and the other romantic poets to be honest) so I need to put that right. Soon.

The performance opens in the slave market of old Constantinople with it's shimmering minarets and traders from all over the globe. We see slave girls and courtesans, pirates and slavers, traders and palace guards all strolling round, having minor dance-offs and giving the girls ample chances to show their moves in the hopes of being bought by the Pasha or a wealthy patron. Conrad, our pirate captain is seeking his beloved Medora and needs to save her from the slave markets. He finds her and rescues her as she is being sold. He whisks her off to his pirate cave and stronghold but has to face down rebellion in the ranks and spirit Medora away through shipwreck and disaster but true love conquers all. Obv.

This was a very spectacular and colourful production with some excellent dancing. My gradual learning about ballet also tells me that this is an 'old' ballet in which the women lead and the men are largely there to carry the women around and perform astonishing acrobatic - which they do. How on earth can they jump so high and not be in the Olympics? Except the paunchy Pasha, of course, who waddled round the stage in sparkly robes.

A cast of thousands (sort of), great costumes, scenery and lighting, very exotic and romantic and a great spectacle. As is usual, there are a few principals who take turns dancing the leads and men were Laurretta Summerscales as Medora and Brooklyn Mack who did great jumps and leaps. C'mon guy, get your application form in for Rio 2016 and you'll win Olympic Gold easily!

It was a delightful production only let down by the absence of pirate grog and grog-flavoured ice-cream at the half times.

Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie - The Starman

Like everybody else in the known universe I was stunned by the news this morning that David Bowie had died. He turned 69 on Friday and released his 'Blackstar' album, and then died of cancer on Sunday and we are told on Monday morning. Three years ago I heard 'Where Are We Now', the single that signalled Bowie's return dropped out of nowhere via the 'Today' programme on Radio 4 and that's how I heard of his passing this morning. Once again, the lead story at 7am. And then the news was full of tributes, of shock, and so was Twitter and Facebook. The news drowned out everything else. And rightly so. His passing was noticed.

I first met David Bowie in 1972 with his magical appearance on 'Top of the Pops' singing 'Starman' with his Spiders from Mars. I'd heard that odd song before but never seen the singer and suddenly there he was. There wasn't much else for a 12 year old to do in 1972 other than the Thursday ritual of 'Top of the Pops'. And this strange creature, this alien, was singing about aliens. But where was his long hair and flares? He had relatively short spiky hair and skintight trousers - as everyone knows pop stars had long hair and flares in those days so what was going on? And what was that weird, colourful costume all about? That's not how pop stars dressed. Then he pointed straight into the camera and sang, 'So I picked on you' and he was pointing straight at me. At me! And at a million other youngsters gawping at this new life form.

The strange thing was that almost overnight the weird kids at school, the loners and misfits suddenly had an icon, a something and someone to look up to and emulate. They could look across the school playground and increasingly start to see likeminded individuals as haircuts and clothes changed. And eventually became cool. He introduced new ideas and alien thoughts - what was 'Queen Bitch' and her bippity-boppity hat all about let alone knitting underwear from hair, where did that come from? The first wave of punks almost universally were Bowie fans and look what they did.

Of course, all that the newspapers noticed was that David put his arm around Mick Ronson's shoulders and now that's in the cultural history books. I never really noticed that at all - didn't we all do that in the school playground every day and haven't footballers done it forever? But that's what was picked up and outraged people. Aren't grown ups funny things really?

Another moment was in 1984 or '85 when I was getting the coach from London to Newcastle for the Christmas break and the bloke sitting beside me had one of those new-fangled Sony Walkmen things. It's a long drive to Newcastle and he asked if I'd like to listen to an album and put on 'Let's Dance ' and gave it to me. I hadn't heard the album before, just the singles, so it was magical to listen to a whole album without DJs interrupting or anything. You could now carry your own music around with you wherever you go. That's when I decided I wanted my own music machine, no, not wanted, *needed*. So I bought one after Christmas and I've carried music around with me ever since.

I didn't buy all of his albums by any means. I think the last was 'Scary Monsters' and then I seemed to like the lead singles from subsequent albums but not enough to buy the albums. It was 'Earthling' in the late '90s that got me to buy an album again. It might have even been an appearance on 'Top of the Pops' that made sure I was aware that there even was a new album and I liked the driving sound of the music. I got subsequent records following that and started exploring the unknown back-catalogue of nearly two decades. It was lovely to see the Union Jack coat that Bowie wore of the cover of 'Earthling' and on stage at the 'David Bowie Is' exhibition.

The next moment was the 'David Bowie Is' exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2013 and it subsequently toured the world. From David's own collection, here were things from across his life such as the Ziggy costume he wore when he pointed at me through the telly, the keys to his Berlin flat, handwritten lyrics and costumes from the 90s tours amongst a range of stuff. It was oddly exciting to be there surrounded by all his stuff  - who keeps old flat keys for 30-odd years?

And suddenly he's gone. And the world noticed.

Twitter and Facebook were flooded with 'RIP' messages this morning, wall to wall coverage on the TV and radio and tomorrow it'll be the newspapers with obituaries and memory articles. Tonight there's a big celebration in Brixton, just up the road from me, where Bowie was born and grew up (photo courtesy of James Clark who was there). There will be other celebrations of his life and work but will any capture the full extent of his influence? I doubt it.

It was nice to see the personal tributes to Bowie appear throughout the day, from all sorts of people. One of the first I saw was from Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols tweeting a mid-70s photo of his hero, Alison Moyet, Boy George's heart-breaking tweet, Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, Kim Wilde, Eddie Izzard and a host of others. The Arch-Bishop of Canterbury was one of the first to be asked for a reaction on the 'Today' programme this morning and he said he'd grown up listening to Bowie (didn't we all?). Even Siouxsie broke her silence with a message of thanks to 'the one and only Starman'. There are thousands of others, like Pet Shop Boys saying we are all his children, and many, many heartfelt messages from fans. Like me.

He created some fab choons, talked about gender and sexuality 40 years ago, wore clothes that men weren't supposed to wear and pushed at boundaries, opened doors for so many who came after him and always, but always moved forward. Who knows the full extent of his influence? In the rush of instant interviews this morning someone commented that Bowie was often referred to as a 'chameleon' but that was the last thing he was since a chameleon changes to blend in and Bowie never blended in. He led from the front. He was more than a pop star, he was a visionary and an artist.

Bowie summoned me in 1972 and, while I may have lapsed from the true faith on occasion, 'The Next Day' brought me back into the light.

Tony Visconti posted a very touching message this morning. He said: "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life - a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it's appropriate to cry." And that's what I did this morning, for someone I've never met but who was a big part of my life.

Namaste Mr Bowie. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

'Grey Gardens' at Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse is developing a nice habit of putting on plays and shows that you wouldn't find elsewhere, including UK premieres of America shows like 'Titanic', 'Casa Valentina' and 'Xanadu'. It's done it again with 'Grey Gardens', a Broadway hit a few years ago based on the 70s documentary about the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onasis living in squalor in their Long Island home.

It's an odd show to say the least and I don't quite understand it's apparent immense popularity when it's so very American but it's obviously got it's own following. Unless it's the leads that have pulled in the punters - the excellent Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock. They totally dominate the show, particularly Jenna who can let rip with her comic timing and singing as Young Edie.

It's a play in two parts, with the first half being set in 1941 before the young Edie's engagement party to Joe Kennedy and the second half set in 1973 when the house in in such disrepair that the local authority issues improvement notices to the reclusive mother and daughter that result in national publicity. In the first half Jenna Russell plays the part of the mother and Rachel Anne Rayham plays Young Edie and in the second half Janne plays the role of Young Edie to Sheila Hancock's elderly mother. This means that Jenna is on stage for almost the whole time, playing the glamourous 40s mother or the down at heel 70s middle aged daughter.

I'm not entirely sure what the play is meant to be about. Is it about mother-daughter relationships, a tale of how the mighty can fall or is is trying to shine a light on a particular part of American history? I don't know. The second half was better than the first half, probably because it allowed Jenna to bring out the humour in the piece whereas the first half was a bit poe faced and serious. If it hadn't been for Jenna and Sheila I was considering leaving at half time since I wasn't enjoying the rather cramped production and the smoke from the incessant herbal cigarettes was getting annoying (as well as the band being too loud to hear the words of the songs) but I persevered. And I'm pleased I did.

Jenna lit up the second half with her portrayal of the distinctly odd Young Edie in her middle aged years in her scarves and odd costumes and naive optimism despite the fleas and decrepit house. What's true and what's made up in her world doesn't really matter, it's true when she says or sings it. Sheila was also great as the aged and needy mother and there's a great scene between them at the end when Edie is finally leaving to go back to New York when the mother screams her name and Edie, after a pause, replies, 'Yes mother dear …' and the cycle starts again in the mother -daughter relationship. There is no satisfactory ending, it just goes on.

It was great to see Sheila Hancock on stage again - I wonder what made her take this role? And it's always lovely to see Jenna Russell - I saw her twice last year in 'Di and Viv and Rose' and in the musical 'Songs for a New World' as well as seeing her on Broadway a few years ago in Sondheim's 'Sunday in the Park with George' - and she milks every scene for the comedy element. I wasn't terribly keen on the rather cluttered stage (that you have to walk through to get to the seats) and the band sometimes drowned out the songs (the mics taped to foreheads looked a bit odd too). This is only the first week of the show so I expect they'll be learning lessons as they go along.

I've been to Southwark Playhouse quite a few times in the past few years and particularly enjoyed 'Grand Hotel' and 'Xanadu' last year, both excellent productions, but I can't say I've enjoyed visiting the venue. It seems to pride itself on being amateur and 'real' but a bit of professionalism doesn't hurt. Other venues manage to change the layout of the staging/seating but still have numbered seats so why is that so difficult for the Playhouse? It would save all the queuing and people getting in the way of walking round the front of house. And why does it take so long to pick up tickets or get a drink at the bar? That ought to be basic stuff but seems to be a problem. You put on good shows but the experience is marred by the lack of getting the basics right...