Wednesday, 26 April 2017

'Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity' at the National Maritime Museum

The exhibition about Emma, Lady Hamilton, has now closed at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich but I wanted to record it anyway in the Plastic Bag. Not so much as it was a great exhibition of art but that it shone a light on the life and character of Emma Hamilton, beloved of Horatio Nelson and resident just a couple of miles away from me in her later years.

It was a strange exhibition in some ways, full of bits of paper in glass cases, paintings, books opened at certain pages, a few sculptures and a video film recreating her dancing, a bit of this and that, all trying to tell the story of Emma Hamilton. For me there were a few too many statements like 'we don't know this happened but it's likely to have happened to a girl of her class' type of statements that we're supposed to accept at the curator's say so. Assuming I do accept these statements then that sort of makes her a more remarkable woman given that she ended up living with Britain's hero after the Napoleonic Wars.

It was the story of Emma that was fascinating rather than the exhibits, really. The exhibits helped illustrate her life but I would've preferred more fact and less speculation. There was a roomful of paintings of Emma by George Romney that were, to all intents, pretty bog standard paintings of a woman in various poses and costumes with very little remarkable about them other than they were of Emma. The only one that really caught my eye was 'Emma as Circe' which at least has a dramatic pose. I didn't think the other Romney paintings were terribly good as paintings, let alone helping to tell Emma's story.

We get the tale of a country girl who goes into service in London and who may or may not have been a prostitute, who goes on to come the kept mistress of a rich bloke who trades her to his uncle in Naples who just happens to be a diplomat and who subsequently marries her. She becomes the toast of Naples and meets Nelson and they fall in love but he cant's divorce (because it wasn't the done thing) so they live together. After his death she's no longer flavour of the month and goes into decline, dying in poverty in France. That's a potted version of her story but also a pretty damned grand affair for a little country girl. And very sad.

The best painting was of 'Emma as a Reclining Bacchante' by Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun. Vigee Le Brun was an exquisite portraitist and was at the top of her game when she went to Naples on her European travels keeping away from republican France, and she did several portraits of Lady Emma Hamilton. I saw two of her other portraits at an exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris a few years ago so it was nice to see this one 'in the flesh' to add to my collection of Vigee Le Brun portraits. She also writes about Emma in her diaries.

All in all, it was a very interesting exhibition that I'm pleased I managed to see. It was strangely busy as well, which was nice to see. Who knew that Emma Hamilton had so many fans?

'An American In Paris' at The Dominion Theatre

One of the big new shows in London at the moment is 'An American In Paris' at the Dominion so we strolled along to see it. I must admit that I've never seen the Gene Kelly film all the way though. I normally give up half way through the film but, now that I'm a ballet fan, then maybe I'll see something different? Peut etre? Well, mebbes...

Despite not having seen the full film before, it looked very much like a faithful reconstruction of the main scenes and, I think, that made it look a bit dated. I've seen lots of old musicals but they don't have to feel dated and of their time but this one did. Perhaps it was the scenes projected onto the back of the stage of the end of the war and American soldiers returning home - or not in the case of our hero? There was a great flash of the French Tricolour fluttering in the breeze and that's almost guaranteed to raise the spirits as it comes at the end of the war.

So, OK, we have a couple of American soldiers who happen to meet and their Parisian chum at the end of the Second World War and Paris starts to get back to normal, but only starts. One wants to be a great artist, another a musician and the other a cabaret star. And they meet a young dancer who wants to be ballerina and who, unbeknownst to the Americans is to become the finance of the Parisian chum and they fall in love with her. It's actually a rather bog-standard old Hollywood-type story and that's possibly the nub of the problem I had with the show.

For all the hype and ticket prices I think I expected something more lavish, more staging and props - and certainly more glamour - to fill up the huge Dominion stage but I didn't feel that we got that other than the cabaret 'dream sequence' in the second half. I thought the singing and dancing was good, it's the story that lets it down really and I didn't particularly care about the characters. It's a bit unsatisfactory and that's quite probably why I've never seen the film all the way through despite it being a Sunday afternoon staple years ago. I always assumed it was the dancing that put me off but I now think it's the story and the rather drab, stereotypical characters.

I hate to be negative about Christopher Wheeldon who directed and choreographed the show (he works with the Royal Ballet, after all) but I wasn't blown away by the show. Maybe my expectations were blown up by the hype about the show? I didn't dislike the show but it's not on my list of things to see again if I can. I liked the two leads of Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope who are both ballet dancers (former New York City Ballet and Royal Ballet respectively) and I thought Robert had a great signing voice. It just wasn't my cup of tea.

Quite a high portion of the audience seemed to be old enough to have seen the film on release in 1951 so I suspect the show will have a good run, bolstered by people wanting to know what the fuss is about. I wish it well.

'The Glass Menagerie' at the Duke of York's Theatre

The last time I was at the Duke of York's was to see the dire version of 'Dr Faustus' with Kit Harrington so I didn't have high hopes for my return to see 'The Glass Menagerie'. Some things linger.

I don't have a good track record with 'The Glass Menagerie'. My first viewing was in 2006 in Toronto, the evening I arrived in Canada and having front row seats and falling asleep in front of the table with the menagerie on stage. A cold beer at half time and walk in the snowy courtyard helped to wake me up and I stayed awake during the second half. Then there was the awful version at the Young Vic a few years ago  that tried to be daring and just failed. And now this version... OK, I can take it.... And I did.

I've only heard good things about this production but that's not enough to reassure me (the critics liked that awful 'Dr Faustus' after all).  So I quizzed Chris about what he actually liked about the play, what made him want to go back and see a new production. He said it was (partially) the poetry in the writing. Poetry? Where? What have I missed? Mmmm I thought, this time I'll listen out for any poetry and see what I hear. I will try not to get drawn into the story and remain a dispassionate observer.  I even had nice strong black coffee before the performance to make sure I don't snooze off.

It's the tale of Tom, a young man working in a factory in St Louis and his frustrating relationship with his mother and sister, his father having fled the family home many years ago. He works to keep the family home together but he'd much rather travel the world and become a writer. His mother is a southern belle who remembers the old days and ways and thinks she is still a lady despite their poverty. His sister is disabled and terribly shy but not as disabled as she thinks and I was pleased to see that in this production her limp was there but not overly-pronounced. It's her shyness that's her real problem. Tom says right up front that these are his memories, he's not trying to be objective and that's part of the power of the piece.

The family has it's ups and downs, mainly downs, and, on the critical night of the play, a 'gentleman caller' arrives who stirs things up for the family and leads to the argument between Tom and his mother that leads him to leave. And years later, as we learn, he still feels guilt about that night and his fleeing the family home leaving them to who knows what future. I can understand that but, I'd have left that home years earlier from sheer frustration with the mother.

Despite having a poor record with this play, can I admit that ... I quite liked it. This production seems to have brought the play to life in ways earlier productions have failed. I liked that the daughter's limp wasn't pronounced, liked that Tom was actually quite naturalistic with both mother and sister, liked the gradual opening up of the sister with her gentleman caller and her bravery in giving him the broken unicorn... actually, I liked quite a lot. I still have a problem with the 'southern belle' act of the mother - that alone would have made me leave much sooner!

The set was simple and relatively sparse and I loved the theatricality of Tom pulling his sister through the couch (into which she vanishes at the end). It was well acted, well directed, staged and lit and the sounds by Nico Mulhy all fit together nicely. All four actors deserve to be mentioned: Cherry Jones as the awful mother and Michael Esper as son Tom, with Kate O'Flynne and Brian J Smith. They meshed together well and convincingly. I'm not saying I liked it but, well, I didn't dislike it either.

And the poetry? I think I heard some but maybe I have to have another viewing of this play to really start to absorb it? We'll see...

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

'Queer British Art 1861 - 1967' at Tate Britain

I popped into the Tate and headed to the new 'Queer British Art' exhibition, not really knowing what I'd find there. The dates for the exhibition are quite specific since 1861 was when the death penalty was repealed for sodomy and 1967 was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. I was a bit surprised to walk into the first room that was full of Victorian and pre-Raphael-lite paintings in big frames and a statue by Frederick Leighton RA. It was also the start of my confusion about what the exhibition was about. Perhaps the important thing is that it made me think?

Is this an exhibition about queer artists and their work (queer and otherwise in theme)? pictures of queer artists across the arts? Or... something else? There's the portrait of Lytton Strachey with his long fingers by Dora Carrington, a lovely and loving portrait of a gay man by a sometimes bisexual woman who loved him but why is it in this exhibition? There's nothing sexual in any way about the portrait other than the artist and subject are both sort of gay. But I don't see this as a 'gay' painting, I see it as a great portrait and as a letter of love between the artist and the sitter.

Then there are Duncan Grant's definite and defiantly sexual drawings of men together - he was gay and the subject is gay so they qualify, right? Then we have Leighton's naked young men in classical poses that are described as homoerotic but they looked like any other Victorian 'classical' stuff to me. It was fashionable and sold well so why does that make Leighton a 'queer' artist, particularly when he was known to be keeping his main female models in comfort? Or is the theory now that they his 'beards'? I suspect that Leighton's contemporary Alma-Tadema did more male nudes but he's not included in the exhibition.

A further room is the 'theatrical' room full of early photos and drawings of theatrical types from the Victorian and Edwardian eras up to a lovely photo of Danny La Rue. This, again, seems to suggest that the exhibition is about LGBT people rather than anything else. And the tempo changes again an in the 'Bloomsbury room'. I think I need to go back to see this exhibition again and see it with fresh eyes. What am I supposed to be seeing here and does it matter? Perhaps I'm over-thinking this and should see this as a exhibition about social change rather than an investigation into how 'queer art' might be different to 'straight' art.

I think my favourite paintings were the portraits such as Carrington's portrait of Lytton Strachey and William Strang's portrait of Vita Sackville-West called Lady With A Red Hat'. I've seen reproductions of this painting before but never seen the real thing in all it's rich gorgeousness of colour.  It's a really striking image fun of primary colours with Vita holding a pose. The red of the hat reflected in the red of the book and her green jacket and yellow skirt. The plain background really pulls the eye to her face, trapped between jacket and hat.  She's clearly going out to lunch and wants to read some of the poems in the book to her friends but has just stopped by for a quick portrait. Posing hasn't become a bore just yet but it soon will and the eyes will become steely.

I also really liked the portrait of Dame Edith Sitwell by Alvaro Guevara, full of colours with the rugs and her rich dress. It's a bit of an odd portrait that made me take a second glance.

I also liked the portrait of Joe Orton by Lewis Morley after his Christine Keeler photos. So, here we have a gay man imitating the pose of a women and what does this tell us about queer art? Is Orton just saying 'look at me, I'm as pretty as Keeler in my own way'? or is he just having a bit of fun. I suspect the latter.

I think one of the most 'queer' works on display (other than Duncan Grant's erotic drawings) was this painting by Henry Scott Tuke. At one level it's just a couple of young men chatting on a beach while their friend, or possibly a stranger, swims in the bay. Lovely sun-dappled skin and sea, a shingle beach and the lads full of life. One is naked so has possibly just come back from swimming or is about to plunge in. And then you notice the title is 'The Critics' and thats a train of other thoughts. What are they criticising? They're both looking at their possible friend in the sea so it seems like they're judging him in some way, maybe assessing their chances of a liaison with him and whether he'd be up for it? There were other paintings in similar vein by Tuke but I think this was my favourite.

It's an interesting exhibition despite confusing me as to what it was meant to be about. The main thing is that it made me think and that's a good thing.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

'Jewels' at the Royal Opera House

A couple of weeks ago we went to see the 32nd performance of 'Jewels' by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Choreography is by George Balanchine based around the jewels of emeralds, rubies and diamonds. It was also broadcast live to cinemas a few days later.  I like the triple bills the Royal Opera House puts on, where you can see three very different - or similar - ballets in one programme. In 'Jewels', rubies for passion won hands down for me.

First up was 'Emeralds' in which the ballerinas wore green bodices and the lads didn't. Why didn't the male dancers wear green doublets? That's something that bothered me throughout the whole sequence of dances. And it shouldn't have. It was distracting. It was all very stately and pretty but wasn't very exciting. It almost felt like going through the motions - slowly. I want fire and ice, I want passion, and that's what was missing from this ballet. I suspect part of the reason was the music by Gabriel Faure which was very poised and measured and lacking any real dynamism. However, there was lots of tippy work so that was a good thing.

Next was 'Rubies', a far more dynamic ballet that never stopped or slowed down. This had music by Stravinsky so was very dramatic and encouraged dramatic and speedy dance moves. This was gorgeous and gives the show it's poster with Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb pulling some signature moves. Both were excellent in this short ballet, never silent and never still, ramping up the movement and passion as the ballet progressed. The really impressive thing is that it didn't look practiced and pristine, it looked like it was natural to them, it's just what they do. And they do it so well. It's only a 20 minutes show and, given the energy on that stage, that's probably just as well to keep the dancers from flagging. I was exhausted at the end of it.

My favourite section was when Steven runs and leaps round the stage followed by the other lads and then he nods his head as if to say 'keep up lads' and then launches into a set of twirls round and round, faster and faster as he crosses the stage and into the wings at ridiculous speed. Wow, it was exhausting to watch and I hope there was a pile of mattresses in the wings for him to collapse into. That was really impressive and effortless from a dancer at the top of his game.

The final ballet was 'Diamonds' with the dancers dressed in white with lots of sparkly stuff on them.  It was a return to the stateliness of the first ballet but with more speed and far more dancers on stage, at one point there were 34 of them (I counted). This had a lot of energy going for it and I much preferred the ensemble dances to the more delicate solo dances. There's something about a stage of dancers all doing the same thing at the same time that is very watchable.

I think this is why I really enjoyed the final section with all 32 dancers of the Royal Ballet on stage with the two Principals all doing the same moves, synchronised perfectly with the music again and again, turn and stretch, move and leg left then leg right. It was almost mesmerising. The Principals here were Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares who led their company with great style and grace.

It's a great triple bill and it's great fun to see so  many different dancers doing their different thing to different styles of dance and music but my favourite has to be 'Rubies'. Steven and Sarah made a great partnership and Steven's big show off moves at the end embody all that is exciting in ballet. Go on you other Principals of the Royal Ballet, follow that!

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Fra Angelico 4/12

On the 18th day of each month this year I'm posting a painting of Fra Angelico's that I've seen and want to share to celebrate his feast day on 18 February. This month I've chosen a painting from one of the cells at San Marco in Florence that Fra Angelico painted when he was a friar there.

Christ is risen in his glory and his disciples cower on the ground in shock and awe. He also places St Dominic in the picture, honouring the founder of the Dominican order.

Whenever I see this painting I wonder how the friars responded to it. Can you imagine sleeping in that cell and waking up in the morning so the first thing you see is your god in all his glory and power, defeating death and bringing a message of eternal life. What must that have felt like? 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

'Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche' - The Documentary

A crowdfunding campaign has launched to make a documentary about the life of Poly Styrene. To be clear where my allegiance lies, this blog is named after one of Poly's songs from 1977, 'Plastic Bag'. Poly was never a cliche but the title, 'I Am A Cliche' comes from a song that was the 'B' side of her first single with X-Ray Spex, the classic 'Oh Bondage, Up Yours'. The documentary is being made with Poly's daughter, Celeste Bell, at the the helm so we can trust it to be an accurate view of Poly. I'm very much looking forward to seeing it.

My first X-Ray Spex record was on a punk compilation album, a 10" sampler vinyl record that also included Penetration and Linton Kwei Johnson ('Guillotine'). Following that I got their first single, 'Oh Bondage. Up Yours!' backed with 'I Am A Cliche'. I wish I'd seen them back in the day but I didn't. But I could enjoy their records and I did. All the singles and the amazing 'Germ Free Adolescents' album. I went so far as to hunt out the day-glo socks they wore on the record sleeve and wore them until they wore out. I still have and treasure two X-Ray Spex badges from 1978. Some things are important.

The years passed and 'Germ Free Adolescents' was released on CD and I bought it. It was then re-released as an expanded 'record+greatest hits+' and I got it. I still have my original vinyl version and, although the edges of the sleeve are worn, that's from love not misuse. The internet allowed me to buy other records from Poly Styrene, including her album 'Flower Aeroplane' direct from her house in St Leonards that she described as 'mantra with muscle'. 

Out of the blue a gig was announced at the Roundhouse in 2008 and I was there, finally seeing Poly on stage. I was due to go into hospital for an operation the next day but that wasn't going to stop me turning day-glo for the night.

And then in 2010 the news of a new album due for release in 2011 sadly followed by news that Poly had cancer. She died a few weeks after the album was released in 2011, still doing interviews to spread her messages. That was so sad, but it was also lovely to see the outpouring of grief on social media from a huge range of people - her passing was noticed.

I attended the first Polyfest gig in Putney, London, in 2013 to commemorate her passing and met Celeste Bell after she sang 'Warrior In Woolworths'. I subsequently bought the record of the performances that evening. And now a documentary and a book about Poly, and an opportunity to support it. And I have. My name will be in the credits of the documentary and that's a great honour. If you want to support it then please click here:

'The Human Seasons'/'After The Rain'/'Flight Pattern' at the Royal Opera House

I love going to triple bill performances at the Royal Opera House because you never really know what you're going to see, which styles might be performed and which stories might be told. Provided you haven't seen them before, of course, and, because I'm new to ballet, the chances are that I haven't. You can also get brand new ballets that haven't been performed before.

A few weeks ago we went to see a triple bill of 'The Human Seasons' by David Dawson, 'After The Rain' by Christopher Wheeldon and 'Flight Pattern' by Crystal Pite, a new ballet created for this bill. I'd seen 'After The Rain' before in another triple bill performance but the other two ballets were new to me.

First up was 'The Human Seasons', supposedly based on a poem by Keats about the ages of man and this was its 11th performance by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. It used very interesting projections on the stage that didn't distract from the dancing which was occasionally quite athletic and heroic but it didn't grab me. It was nice enough and it's always lovely to see that stage full of dancers for the ensemble moments but it ultimately left me a bit dry.

Far more engrossing was 'After The Rain' which is precisely that. This was the 13th performance by the Royal Ballet and I'd previously seen the 5th performance in February last year. This is a different kettle of fish altogether with those artists on stage dancing rain falling and puddles on stage and, I swear, I saw leaves swirling in those puddles last time. This time i didn't, I saw a light spring rain as leaves burst out new and fresh. How odd, I thought, a spring rain whereas last time it was an Autumnal rain? And then the sun comes out and the world turns bright and languorous as the sun dries up all the rain and we get the gorgeous pas de deux featuring Zinaida Yanowsky and Reece Clarke.

The final ballet was the new one by Crystal Pite, 'Flight Path' and this was only it's 6th performance by the Royal Ballet. It was also the glory of the evening.

'Flight Path' is a huge ensemble piece with 36 dancers huddled together on the stage with three groups moving in individual unison creating a great swaying movement of people all inexorably moving forward at a snails pace with, every now and then, someone ora group breaking free only to joined the huddled masses again. It was an incredible sight. Dark and gloomy with atmospheric lighting, the drudge kept on and on - how on earth do dancers learn to do something as complex as this?

It's the unrelenting story of our time with refugees heading west and some making it and others lost along the way. I also saw the signs of a Brexit movement towards disaster with some seeing sense and escaping only to be pulled back into the horde. Eventually we see a gap in the scenery and snow falling as the dancers reach their promised land and escape their torure of endless travel except for a lonely couple at the end, as one descends into madness. It's an astonishing piece and I would love to see it again.

How can dance do that to you? How can it tell an invisible story and make you part of it. Humans have been doing this for eons, telling our stories and making us think and that's what the greatest ballets do - they touch you and make you think or make you part of them, part of the story. If you ever get the opportunity to see 'Flight Path' then do it without hesitation. I will.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

'Michaelangelo and Sebastiano' at the National Gallery

The current blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery is about Michelangelo and Sebastiano and their friendship and collaborations. You know who Michelangelo is but you might not know about Sebastiano del Piombo, one of Michelangelo's friends and collaborators in Rome and beyond. Sebastiano was from Venice so was trained in that style but came to Rome at just the right time to support Michelangelo in his challenges with Raphael and that seems to have been the start of a long friendship.

The exhibition is in the North Wing of the National Gallery rather than the Sainsbury Wing which makes a nice change and the Gallery has done a good job of adapting the rooms to create a good space for this exhibition. It includes paintings, reproductions, sketches, letters and some statues to demonstrate the range of work. I particularly liked some of the letters, such as a moaning later from Michelangelo about the lack of rain that means the barges with his marbles can't come down the Arno to Florence from Pisa.

I was already familiar with the Michelangelo paintings in the exhibition since they're part of the National Gallery collection. Even so, it's good to see them in context and with supporting sketches and letters. He didn't always finish his paintings and I do like this one were you see the layers of paint being worked up from the gesso base. He started on the right and didn't get to paint the angels on the left. We see Jesus and John the Baptist as toddlers with Mary and angels. I like that one of the unpainted angels has its hand resting on the shoulder of its friend, a very naturalistic pose.

There were no sketches of this painting which is a shame since it would be good to see what Michelangelo's vision for this painting really was. We see more with Sebastiano.

The painting I was excited to see was Sebastiano's 'Raising of Lazarus' in which Jesus raises the dead Lazarus from the grave.  This is part of the National Gallery collection so you've probably seen it but not presented like this, in its new frame. I attended a lecture about it last year, about how the painting was moved and how a new frame was built for it based on fragments from where it originally stood in the church. Those foolish old French people scraped off the wooden panels it was painted on and then glued it to a canvas backing. That makes it unstable so it's now been placed into a metal base to hold the painting and the new wooden frame was added around it. The new frame incorporates fragments of the original frame and the rest has been reconstructed. It looks fab.

There's so much going on in that painting and I wonder how often viewers notice this. I'd always focused on the foreground and the figures of Christ and Lazarus until I actually looked and saw so much more. Lazarus's sisters are front and centre - Mary and Martha - with one praising Jesus and one turned away due to the smell of a dead body. Other women are covering their noses and turning away. There are groups of men pointing in astonishment and the gossip that something's happens spreads way back to travellers on the river banks - 'what is it?' 'I don't know, it happened over there' and points. It's an astonishing painting and some of the sketches nearby show that Michelangelo offered poses for the figure of Lazarus.

Another set of sketches by Michelangelo were offered to Sebastiano for his figure of Mary clasping her hands and looking to the skies in the 'Pieta'. Michelangelo used a male model to get the figure just right and Sebastiano seems to have retained the masculinity of those drawings as he converted them to a painting. It's a night scene but there's still quite a lot of detail in the landscape background. Better, I think, is the body of Christ lying dead on the ground at Mary's feet, very realistic and limp.

This painting is also displayed so you can see the wooden panels at the back of the painting and the sketches and graffiti that have been added. It's so rare to see the back of a painting - it's one thing knowing it's painted on a series of wooden panels held together and it's quite another to actually see them.

It's well worth visiting this exhibition to find out about this friendship and the collaborations it spawned, as well as seeing some astonishing paintings and sketches. It's such a shame that the pair grew apart in their older years but that happens.

Friday, 14 April 2017

'The Life' at Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse continues its current penchant for putting on musicals that are either little performed or haven't been performed in London before by giving 'This Life' its European premier. This is the latest in a line of shows it's put on over the past couple of years that keeps making us trek over to the unrelenting drabness of Elephant & Castle.

The show is a bit of an oddity really, written in the '90s and set supposedly in the '80s but shrieked '70s at me, with some great tunes but then others that hark back to the song and dance shows of the '50s (particularly the incongruity of the pimp, the stripper and the pornographer linking arms to dance and high kick at the prospect of yet more money). But, the book held it together, telling a tale that kept me engaged and interested and wanting to see what happens next. I didn't guess the ending at all, so well done on that!

It's a tale of pimps and prostitutes, violence and drugs set in seedy New York before it was cleaned up for tourists. We're introduced to a group of prostitutes and various pimps but the main characters are Queenie and Fleetwood, young lovers living on the street to get the money together to move away, and of Sonja and Memphis, an older prostitute and her pimp, all brought together by wannabe hustler Jojo. Sonja is the only one who has any time for Queenie and her lover Fleetwood just uses her to fund his drug habit.

The troupe of prostitutes were actually quite nice folks and the men were unrelenting bastards so it's a bit one-sided but struck me as true having seen all those '70s cop shows based in New York.  Did Fleetwood ever love Queenie or was she always just a meal ticket? Who knows? Does anyone have any real friends in that world where no-one seems to trust anyone once they're out of their sight apart from Sonja and Queenie?  What is clear is that Memphis in his pimp leather coat has no feelings for anyone but himself  and he's a really chilling character. You don't want to mess with Memphis.

There are lots of songs in this show, a song for every couple of minutes of dialogue, and that keeps the pace moving forward. One of the joys is the start of the second half and the Hookers Ball where they all come dressed to the nines in fantastic and glittery frocks, especially when Sonja appears with Memphis and poses, followed by Queenie in her golden shiny frock who takes her place behind Memphis. And then it all goes wrong. But you need to see the show to find out what's gone wrong.

I was very impressed - as ever - by Sharon D Clarke as Sonja, the prostitute who's about had enough of the streets and is tired and feels ill. She utters the only '80s-type words when she comments that she feels ill and maybe it's something new, alluding possibly to HIV and AIDS. She's a convincing matriarch to our little group, been there and done that so many times she's lost count. And what a great voice! Sharon never lets you down. 

The pleasant discovery of the show was T'Shan Williams as Queenie. She only graduated from acting school a couple of years ago so isn't that experienced but was terribly impressive playing the vulnerable Queenie. Plus she has a great voice and duets with Sharon and holds her own. T'Shan is definitely someone worth watching for in future. An actress of power, turning the mood on a word and a great singer. Shame about the strangely shaped wig she was wearing.

Something I'm noticing more and more is that the great female performances I see aren't matched by the male performances. I don't really understand that at all, but it does seem to be a trend at the moment. The lead men aren't really a patch on the women except for Cornell S John as Memphis who is as menacing a villain as you could want. He'd be a good Iago, I think, deeply nasty beneath the surface but can make you believe whatever he wants. Single-minded and focused and he deserves everything he gets. But you need to see the show to find out what that is.

All in all, I loved this show, faults included. It's always nice to see Sharon and it was lovely to discover T'Shan, but the whole show worked for me. I'm tempted to see it again...

'Madama Butterfly' at the Royal Opera House

The latest operatic blockbuster at the Royal Opera House is the revival of Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly', an opera that he was inspired to write after seeing the original play on which it's based  performed at the Duke of York's Theatre on St Martin's Lane, half a mile away from Covent Garden. I'm still easing my way slowly into opera so am sticking to the 'biggies' of the genre and you don't get much bigger than 'Butterfly'. The closest I've ever come to it is Malcolm McLaren's record 'Fans' so I had little idea of what to expect and everything to learn. I saw the 408th performance at the Royal Opera House and this evening it was broadcast to cinemas around the world.

It's the tale of Cio-Cio-San's marriage to Lieutenant Pinkerton in Japan in the 19th Century and what happens next. Cio-Cio San is affectionately known as Butterfly, a young woman of 15 years old who has fallen on hard times due to the suicide of her father. She believes her marriage to the American Pinkerton to be a love-match but he sees it as a contract that can be terminated at a word. She gives up everything for him and even converse to Christianity for him, to better fit in with her idea of what an American would do and is. When her family finds out that she has converted she is cast out and alone in the world with her love of Pinkerton and her loyal handmaid, Suzuki.

The second half opens with Butterfly having been abandoned by Pinkerton after a few months and three years have passed since he sailed away. She trusts to his promises to return when the robins nest but Suzuki is less sure and the marriage-broker is already trying to have her wed a rich Japanese man. Butterfly will have none of it since she believes love is true and Pinkerton will return to meet their blond-haired son. Poor Butterfly is, of course, deluded, since Pinkerton is bringing his white, American wife and has ho intention of rejoining Butterfly. When he finds out about his son he is full of remorse and wants to take him back to America but can't see Butterfly so leaves that to his wife. Butterfly agrees that it'll be best for her son and then takes the ritual knife she inherited from her father and ends it all at the age of 18.  Poor Butterfly.

The entire opera takes place in one large room in Japanese style, with sliding doors to show gardens and roads but essentially everything happens in the same room. The lighting subtly changes the mood and moves from morning night and back to morning, particularly as Butterfly waits for Pinkerton. The music is lush and carries you away but, as usual, I get carried along by the characters. Pinkerton is a cad who should be horse-whipped and his friend, the Consul who he entrusts with important messages, is weak. Once again, it is the women who are strong in opera. Cio-Cio-San kills herself for love with a dagger through her heart and loyal Suzuki stays with her to the end while the anonymous Kate Pinkerton is left by her coward of a husband to pick up the pieces at the end. Men are such shits aren't we?

Cowardly Pinkerton was played by Marcelo Puente and the weak consul was played by Scott Hendricks. Ermonela Jaho played Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly and Elizabeth Deshong played Suzuki (who had, I thought, a tremendous voice and great delivery). Well done all and I heartily approved of the faint boos that greeted Puente/Pinkerton when he came on for his bows at the end.

I can't help but think that the brave Tosca would've killed Pinkerton herself before committing suicide. Butterfly, please take note for next time.