Monday, 30 December 2019

The Plastic Bag Awards 2019

It's time for annual awards fest in the Plastic Bag so let's jump right into the Baggies 2019!

Best Shakespeare

There's normally a good selection of productions of Shakespeare plays to choose from but this year I've only seen one play, 'Romeo and Juliet', and then again, it's not even the Shakespeare play, but two dance versions and a film version. The nominees are:

* 'Romeo and Juliet' @ the Royal Opera House
* Matthew Bourne's 'Romeo & Juliet' @ Sadler's Wells
* 'West Side Story' @ British Film Institute

The award must go to Kenneth MacMillan's wonderful choreography and the dancing of the Royal Ballet in 'Romeo and Juliet'. The joyousness of it, the spectacular sword fencing, the leaping and flying of the cast and the Happy Strumpets all make this production a winner.

Best Drama

I saw quite a few plays over the year, many of which were good but lacked that certain something that would put them in the Baggies as nominees. The successful nominees are quite varied in subject matter, from a fantasy full of special effects to a Jamaican wake to life in a northern town and a glitzy West End farce to a one-woman play about a young secretary working for the nazis during the last war. The nominees are:

* 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' @ The Palace Theatre
* 'Rutherford and Son' @ the National Theatre
* 'Nine Night' at the Trafalgar Studios
* 'Present Laughter' @ the Old Vic
* 'A German Life' @ the Bridge Theatre

The Baggie goes to the one-woman powerhouse of Dame Maggie Smith and 'A German Life', a strange tale in which the character has convinced herself that she knew nothing about the Holocaust despite working as a secretary in the nazi high command in Berlin. A powerful performance for a powerful play.

Best Musical

This has been a good year for musicals, with a  wide variety produced over the year. The long list went beyond the five nominations allowed so these are the really stand-out productions. The nominees are:

* 'Blues In The Night' @ Kiln Theatre
* 'Fiddler On The Roof' @ Playhouse Theatre
* 'The Bridges Of Madison County' @ the Menier Chocolate Factory
* 'Come From Away' @ Phoenix Theatre
* 'Girl From The North Country' @ the Gielgud Theatre

None of the nominations are particularly cheerful. A down-at-heel hotel in 'Blues', the oppression and forced migration of 'Fiddler', the chosen migration of 'Bridges', the terrible background to 'Away' and the 'depression of 'Girl' - none are a bundle of laughs. The Baggie goes to 'The Bridges of Madison County' for it's tale of love and loss with the marvellous Janna Russell leading the cast.

Best Entertainment

I classify 'entertainment' as something that happens on a stage (big or small) but isn't necessarily a play, musical or dance. This year there are three nominees:

* Tracey Thorne interview and Q&A to launch her latest book @ Waterstones
* 'A Room of One's Own', a Virginia Woolf reading @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
* Amanda Palmer 'There Will Be No Intermission' @ Union Chapel

It's always a delight to hear Tracey Thorn talk since she's articulate and intelligent and only a couple of years younger than me so we share lots of similar memories. 'A Room of One's Own' was a delight to hear of rate wide-ranging ideas discussed and a reminder of the book I last read decades ago. But the Baggie must go to Amanda Palmer for her nearly four show on her 'There Will Be No Intermission' tour. Amanda would normally go into the 'Gigs' category but this wasn't a gig, it was something else, something powerful in which she shared intimate moments of her life unselfishly to tell us we're not alone. A very brave show on so many levels. Well done Amanda.

Best Gig

Not many gigs this year but I had the joyous madness of The B-52s, the poptastic bouncing of Alphabeat and the soaring voice of the lovely Kelli O'Hara (although hers was definitely a concert rather than a gig).

* B-52s @ Hammersmith Apollo
* Alphabeat @ Hackney
* Kelli O'Hara @ Cadogan Hall

The Baggie can only go to those B-52s, to Fred, Cindy and Kate and their great band for giving me such a fun night out and a chance to relive all those great hits from yesterday that still stand up.

Best Dance

It's been a funny year for dance, with more revivals by the Royal Ballet, a welcome revival by Akram Khan and a new Matthew Bourne. The nominees are:

* Akram Khan's Giselle @ Sadler's Wells
* Matthew Bourne's Romeo & Juliet @ Sadler's Wells
* Emociones @ Teatro Alfil, Madrid
* The Suit/Ingoma by Ballet Black @The Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

The winner is obvious to me and I'm pleased that the judging panel agreed - the flamenco at Teatre Alfil in Madrid! It was a stunning sight, feet pounding the floor a thousand times a second, dramatic shapes, passion and lots of sweat. I want to see more flamenco - no, I need to see more flamenco - and I look forward to the summer season at Sadler's Wells.

Best Performance

Best performance is an award given to someone for doing something that little bit special in acting, singing, reciting, whatever. Interestingly the nominees this year are all women: Jenna Russell as the Italian immigrant to America; Maggie Smith as the German women fooling herself over working for the nazis; Cordelia Braithwaite as a feisty Juliet jumping on Tybalt's back to protect Romeo; and Amanda Palmer telling the truth of her life.

* Jenna Russell in 'The Bridges of Madison County'
* Maggie Smith in 'A German Life'
* Cordelia Braithwaite in 'Romeo and Juliet'
* Amanda Palmer @ Union Chapel

The award goes to Amanda Palmer for her astonishing show 'There Will Be No Intermission' in which she's on stage for just shy of four hours baring her soul and telling us about the most intimate things, about abortions and miscarriages, about first loves and the death of a close friend. There are laughs in the show as well as sadnesses, it's well paced and well constructed, sprinkled with songs but mainly Amanda talking to us. Well done!

Best Exhibition

This has been a bumper year for exhibitions and I could easily add more to the nominations - Bonnard at Tate Modern, Sorolla at the National Gallery, William Blake at Tate Britain - but the nominees were a cut above the rest for different reasons. We have early Renaissance masters, imaginative print-makers, magically weird installations and colourful cartoons with a message.

* 'Florence' @ Alte Pinakothek, Munich
* 'Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking' @ Dulwich Picture Gallery
* Olafur Eliasson @ Tate Modern
* 'Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance' @ the Prado, Madrid
* Keith Haring @ Tate Liverpool

In most years, the Alte Pinakothek exhibition of 15th Century Florentine works would win hands down for the sheer range of works and artists, the recreated altarpieces using available predella panels, the choice of little-seen paintings, large and small. An outstanding and carefully curated exhibition. But it's been pipped at the post by the astonishing Fra Angelico exhibition over the summer at the Prado. There aren't enough superlatives to praise that exhibition which presented little known works from around the world as well as the gloriously restored 'Annunciation' as the centrepiece of the exhibition. Truly astonishing. Well done Prado!

Best Film

I saw more films than usual this year, from the grand expanse and effects of 'Avengers Endgame' to the small but razor sharp documentary about Suzi Quatro, from the old of 'Goodbye Mr Chips' (that I;'m including since I've never seen it before) to the latest Almodovar film.

* 'Avengers Endgame'
* 'Suzi Q' documentary
* 'Pain & Glory'
* 'Goodbye Mr Chips'

The Baggie goes to Almodovar and Banderas for 'Pain & Glory', a marvellous film about an ageing film director with health problems getting his mojo back. Maybe it was the raging thing that touched me but I loved it. I loved the colours, the story telling, the characters, the sunshine and light of Madrid, it all worked for me. Well done!

And there you have it, the peak of culture and art in my world in 2019. I wonder what will happen in 2020? We'll see...

Friday, 27 December 2019

Four December Theatre Blogs: Compendium of Shows

I've seen four productions at the theatre in the last couple of weeks so here's one bloggie to round them all up. They were: 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' at the Bridge Theatre, 'Girl From The North Country' at the Gielgud Theatre, 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' at the National Theatre and 'The Red Shoes' at Sadler's Wells.

'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' at the Bridge Theatre

We all know the story of Narnia, of Aslan's might, the witch and eternal winter (but never Christmas) and the four boys and girls who grow up to become High Kings and High Queens of Narnia. The story is brought faithfully to the stage with lots of physical special effects, such as actors running on stage dressed in white and covering the stage in long diaphanous white sheets to create a snowy landscape. There are probably more sophisticated ways of creating the effects but I quite liked the simplicity and magic of some of them, the energy and speed of the actors and the almost childlike wonder of the thing.

I liked Keziah Joseph as Lucy, Beverley Rudd as Mrs Beaver and Wil Johnson as Aslan and the Professor. Aslan was a giant puppet with Wil walking underneath and emerging as himself for the interactive sections of the play. The production has magic aplenty and I loved it. Have your photo taken with the magic streetlamp that marks the border of Narnia - I did!

'Girl From The North Country' at the Gielgud Theatre

A Bob Dylan musical? Who'd have thought it, but that's what we have here. I didn't see it on it's first run a couple of years ago but caught this production at the Gielgud. Dylan didn't really have anything to do with the play but gave his entire catalogue to Colin McPherson, the writer and director, to use as he saw fit (a very generous thing to do). It's not the cheeriest of plays and I didn't know most of the songs but it's a powerful play and experience. The action takes place in a failing boarding house in small town Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934 and the story tells the sad, little tales of people staying in the boarding house as well as the owners of the place.

The use of Dylan's songs is very clever in places, illustrating aspects of the characters lives and adding additional depth to the characters. I was particularly taken by 'Like A Rolling Stone and 'Forever Young' sung by the mother of the boarding house family and 'Hurricane' sung by a failed boxer. Katie Brayben gave an astonishing performance as the mentally ill mother who lets rip with her great voice to great effect (more effective and painful than whoever sings the role on the cast recording). Highly recommended.

'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' at the Dorfman, National Theatre

This is a new play based on Neil Gaiman's book of the same name, a tale about folklore and the supernatural, loss in childhood and, of course, magic. At the centre of the play are a 12 year old boy who meets three generations of Hempstock women, the crone, the mother and the daughter who start out as eccentric country-women and end as powerful cosmic beings as we learn their story. The boy lost his mother and has a strained relationship with his father and sister and he gradually learns to let go and repair the bonds with is family. It's a heart-warming tale but there are some scary moments and shocks.

The staging and lighting was very clever and I particularly liked the way that doors and props magically shot up from out of the floor every now and then - there must've been lots of practice in where the actors needed to stand for that to work as smoothly as it does. I particularly liked Josie Walker as the aged crone with amazing magical powers who gave just the right mix of world weariness and indomitability when needed. It would be good to see this on a bigger stage one day.

Matthew Bourne's 'The Red Shoes' at Sadler's Wells 

The Christmas show at Sadler's Wells is always a Matthew Bourne production and this year it is 'The Red Shoes', based on the film of the same name. It's the tale of a young girl who wants to become a ballerina, gets her chance and becomes a star only for it all to start going wrong when she loves a composer but the impresario of the ballet loves her. O dear, it won't end well.... and it doesn't. It's a funny thing to say about a dance production but I always think there's more dance in this show than in many others of Matthew's, probably because the show itself is about dancing. There's also lots of different styles of dancing and it's great to see the dancers being so versatile.

Our young ballerina was Cordelia Braithwaite (who I saw earlier this year dancing Juliet) and she was on effortless top form. It was also good to see Adam Cooper as the impresario since he danced the original Swan in Matthew's 'Swan Lake' all those years ago. The staging and lighting was excellent and I loved the light flooding the South of France seaside scenes.  Well done all, another triumph!

And there we have it, a round-up of the latest theatrical productions to get them in the Plastic Bag before the end of the year.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

'Coppelia' at the Royal Opera House

'Coppelia' has replaced 'The Nutcracker' as the Royal Opera House's Christmas ballet this year so we had to go and see it, particularly since we've not seen it before. There's something about ballet that makes it a perfect Christmas entertainment and the Royal Opera House celebrates Christmas  - it was only afterwards that I realised that I hadn't had a mince pie or gingerbread Nutcracker in the interval. Maybe next year.

'Coppelia' isn't a tale to tax the brain cells. It's based on a Hoffman story about an old toymaker who makes mechanical life-sized toys. And that is what Coppelia is, a wind-up toy, but a beautiful toy. Swanilda notices that her fiancé Franz is quite taken with the beautiful young lady sitting in the window of Dr Coppelius's house. When Dr Coppelius drops his keys in the street Swanilda finds them and goes into his house to find out who this girl really is and, by coincidence, Franz is climbing up a ladder into Coppelia's room.

Swanilda finds Dr Coppelius's workshop full of mechanical dolls who can move and dance in their outlandish costumes but then the doctor comes back home and chases the girls out of his house while Swanilda hides in a cupboard with the doll of Coppelia. Franz comes in through the window and Coppelius offers him a drugged drink and he falls asleep. Meanwhile, Swanilda has changed into Coppelia's costume in order to escape and the doctor thinks she's started to come alive. He consults his book of magic and tries to transfer Franz's soul into Coppelia without success and Swanilda and Franz escape. The next scene is a long celebration of the marriage of Swanilda and Franz with lots of dances, solos, duets and group dances. The end.

Not a complex story but that's not the point. It's all about spectacle and costumes, and sets and dancing, always about dancing. There is some fine dancing in this ballet, particularly in the third act which is all about dancing rather than story-telling. We were lucky to have Francesca Hayward as Swanilda and Alexander Campbell as Franz, both top-notch Principal dancers with the Royal Ballet and Gary Avis (who does great cape-twirling in 'The Nutcracker) as Dr Coppelius.

Thank you Royal Ballet, that was lovely!

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

The Christmas Robin

The little robin redbreast had a good start in life, being born into a warm nest at the top of a tree in the big park. His parents weren't rich by any means but they foraged well and provided the robin and his brothers and sisters with enough food to help them grow big and strong - for a robin. When he was young he always admired the bright red breasts of his parents and their beautiful singing voices. He hoped he'd grow up just like them. And he did.

When he was old enough, he flew off one day to find his own place to live and start living independently. On his travels he found a small woodland in one part of the park and found the perfect tree, an old, large holly tree with lots of places for a snug nest and he chose a place on a high bough that would be protected from the winter winds and had a good view. So he moved in.

He got to know his neighbours and happily chatted to them about the world of the park, things he saw as he flew over the park and the strange world beyond the expanse of green that was his home. He got to know the big crows at the best feeding ground on the edge of his little woods and started chatting to them, despite them being a bit scary and very big. He made friends with a young fox cub but always made sure he sat on a branch high up, just in case. And he got to know the squirrel families in the surrounding trees - they were always busy but liked to pass the time of day with the little robin who always had interesting tales to tell.

The summer passed and the autumn arrived, turning the leaves on the trees golden before they floated to the ground in great drifts of colour. But the holly kept it's strong green leaves that protected the robin's nest from the cold winds and the rain. He was a sensible robin and had chosen his home wisely.

The cold frosts started and the robin took out an old muffler his mother had made for him and he wound it round his neck and instantly felt warmer. One day, the snow came. The robin had never seen snow before but instinctively knew what it was and he flew to the edge of his woods to see the green turn to white as the snow lay everywhere. He was astonished and delighted and flew down to the ground to make footprints in the snow, dancing around and singing at the top of his voice in joy and wonder.

As the days wore on and the cold deepened, the days grew shorter and the frost and snow came more often and the robin liked to look at the night sky and count the stars. The ground grew harder and there was less food but the robin knew there would be left-overs at the small cafe in he middle of the park. He landed on the edge of a table with an old man with a beard - the robin knew that old people usually gave him some scraps to eat. Especially if they had old dogs resting their chin on their knees, like this one. The old man was writing on the hard paper that humans gave to each other for some reason. When he finished the little robin hopped closer and saw that on the front was a portrait of his Dad! Tweep, he said, and flew off to find his Dad to tell him he was famous.

One day the robin woke from an afternoon nap to the sound of bells from the big tower at the end of the park. They were very tuneful and the robin sang along. He decided to visit the big tower to see what kind of strange creature was making the beautiful sound and he flew to the edge of the wood and then onward, across the park. He reached the tower and set down on an open window and started singing along to the glorious, uplifting sound, perfectly matching the sound of the bells and then moving into harmonies. Eventually the bells stopped but the robin kept singing. He became aware of a small group of humans looking up at him and he stopped singing to look at them. Then they started clapping. How strange, the robin thought. He was a polite robin so he bowed in thanks and then flew off, back to his warm home and a good night's sleep.

The next morning he was up early to open his present that had appeared miraculously and to see the new covering of snow. He flew to the lake to sit on a park bench to have a chat to his friend, Dad Goose. Dad knew the humans better than the robin and he wanted to find out what the humans had been doing when they put their hands together to make a noise. Dad was at least five years old and so very old and wise indeed and explained to the robin that what he'd seen was clapping and the humans liked his singing. The robin's cheeks flushed as red as his breast at the compliment. As the sky grew brighter on the chilly morning they heard the sound of the bells again, welcoming the new day, and the robin said goodbye to Dad Goose and flew off to the big tower to sing along once more.

The robin flew into the tower and spiralled down, lower, so he could bask in the sound of the bells and perched on the lintel above one of the doors at the bottom of the tower and began to sing. The bells rang out to welcome in Christmas Day and one by one the humans turned to watch the robin as he sang. One of the humans pushed a metal thing closer to the little robin and suddenly he heard himself bigly, singing all over the place very loudly.

He didn't know what was going on but took a deep breath and started singing even louder as the humans watched him. Everyone who heard the bells, the humans and the creatures on the big green, looked up and smiled, wondering at the new sounds the bells were making, not realising it was the little robin singing his heart out. The humans clapped him again and slowly left the bottom of the tower, taking the metal thing with them. Then the robin saw the little plate of scraps left on the doorstep and he flew down to feast on the left-overs. That's when he saw the old man from the cafe again, smiling at him, and then the old man left as well so the robin could enjoy his feast.

The robin flew back to his home in the holly tree and got cosy in his nest, patting his full tum from his feast. What a strange day, he thought, but I liked singing along to the bells, maybe I'll go there again. He sat on a snowy bough and looked up at the sky to see all the stars twinkling and seeming merry and he started singing for the stars. One day, he thought, I'll fly up there and visit the stars and sing for them. But now it's time for bed, and he hopped back into his nest, snuggled down and was soon asleep. And the stars smiled and twinkled.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Virginia Woolf Essays at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Last week we went to a reading of two of Virginia Woolf's most famous essays, 'A Room Of One's Own' and 'Three Guineas', at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare's Globe. The readers were Hattie Morahan and Joan Iyiola. Both essays were abridged so each lasted about 1:30 hours.

I think it's a great idea to hold readings in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse since it's small and intimate, lit by candles and it's a nice, gentle way to spend an evening. I don't think I've ever been read to for one and half hours straight. The readers stood alone on stage, turning the pages and taking gulps of water now and then to keep going. It must take a lot of skill to be able to read aloud like that.

I read both essays many years ago (probably several decades ago) so it was nice to be reintroduced to them this way. It was also good to be reminded of Virginia's massive intellect and incisive vision, roaming around all sorts of idea and theories while never straying from her central themes.

Thank you Sam, I enjoyed the evening very much.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Anthony Gormley at the Royal Academy

Finally got round to seeing the Anthony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts - it's big and it's bold and it's great fun. Gormley is someone I've grown to appreciate slowly over the years and, for me at least, his most famous work is the Angel of the North that stands alone on a hillside in Gateshead that you can see from the train going up to Newcastle. The Angel is even better up close (get the number 21 bus from Newcastle).

The exhibition is spread out over the whole first floor exhibition space, room after room full of metalwork, drawings, sketchbooks, giant conkers hanging from the ceiling, tunnels and naked gentlemen dancing on the ceiling. You never know what you might see next.

It starts off gently enough with a sleeping man-shape in a lightly toasted bread duvet hanging on the wall. I've no idea what that is about but it made me smile. Next door is room full of thick strands of industrial sized bent metal wire, floor to ceiling and wall to wall, that you need to walk round the edges of the room, sometimes ducking to get under it and sometimes stepping over it and into the art itself to walk past. Weird and wonderful at the same time. It was fun hearing a 'clang' sound every now and then as someone mis-stepped and caught the thick metal wires as they stepped into it. I wonder how long it took to construct this work to fit the room?

Further along was a room full of sketches and drawings and cabinets full of Gormley's small sketchbooks. Most were A6 size or smaller, with drawings in pencil, pen and ink of all sorts of things, random ideas he was thinking about at the time. On the walls hung all sorts of works in various media including a couple drawn in his own blood. I dread to think what other body fluids might've been used in other drawings.

There's a room with two giant conkers suspended on sturdy ropes from the ceiling (or rather, something holding them beyond the ceiling) that were swaying slightly. They were metal and probably very heavy. This is part of the joy of the exhibition, not knowing what you might see next and then coming face to face with something you never expected or imagined. And then you find Gormley dancing on the ceiling.

This, I think, was my favourite room with a couple of dozen statues dotted about the place, standing on the floor, on the walls and on the ceiling - I've got no idea how they're suspected from the ceiling and I don't want to know since that'll spoil the magic. I think they're based on casts of Gormley himself and they're about six feet tall so they're pretty solid. What do you do with them? Why are they standing in those specific positions? Are we supposed to interact with them? Hold a conversation? Who knows? I wonder how many people accidentally bump into a statue not expecting it to keep standing there as the crowd moves and shuffles around?

It was very crowded when we visited and I suspect that room feels very different when it's empty, just you surrounded on all sides by these silent statues. Or maybe they're whispering amongst themselves?

The next big thing was an installation that filled another room and you walked through it in pitch blackness apart from a section in the middle with a few shards of light. It was a tunnel that most people had to lean over a bit to get in. I didn't go into that but walked round the outside. I'm a coward like that.

The following room was full of drawings and sketches and paintings and it was nice to see some of art that can hang on an ordinary wall - even my walls can take a nail and hang a painting but they wouldn't survive having one of his statues on them. I really liked some of the drawings and it would be interesting to see what sort of drawings or paintings he'd make if he spent a year doing nothing but paint. That would be an exhibition worth seeing.

All in all it's a great exhibition, lots of works to please everyone, lots of weirdness and lots to make you smile and think. I'm pleased I saw it.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Favourite Paintings: 'Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?)' by Jan van Eyck

One of my favourite paintings is 'Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?)' in the National Gallery in London by the great Jan van Eyck from 1433. It's a portrait of a mature gentleman, obviously well-to-do from the rich clothes and his very fashionable red hat and, because of the inscriptions on the frame (which is original), is thought to be a self-portrait of van Eyck himself. The words on the top of the frame state 'Als Ich Kan' ('as well as I can') and along the bottom says 'Jan van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433'.

The painting is only 10"x7" so is very small but look at the detail van Eyck has managed to get into that face. The taut skin, the bold look, the wrinkles and shadows all say that this is a man who knows what he wants and he knows how to get his own way. Not very much is known about van Eyck and he is first referenced in 1422 and a few years later he became court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. It's not known when he was born but he died on 9 June 1441 in Bruges.

It's an astonishing painting, full of the details of a mature man's face. The composition is quite stark with the face emerging out of that dark background, quite dramatic, and it's clearly the face the viewer is meant to focus on, with no rich adornments or jewellery, props of any kind, other than the trendy hat. On the same wall, a few paintings along, is a portrait by Robert Campin of a man wearing a similar hat from about 1435, so van Eyck was obviously on trend.

I believe it is a self-portrait for no other reason than I want it to be true.

'Hansard' at the National Theatre

'Hansard' is a new play by Simon Woods playing in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre starring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan. It seems to be part of the recent trend for short plays with no interval and this one is only 90 minutes long. It's a double-header between the two main characters but I'm not sure why it's called Hansard - Hansard is the official record of debates in the Houses of Parliament and, other than the male character being an MP I didn't really notice anything that might link the play to the official record.

The play is set in 1988 and the male lead is a junior minister inThatcher's Tory government who arrives at his Cotswolds home after a hard week of interviews and votes in the House. His bored wife still hasn't dressed yet or prepared for his little birthday party and the bickering starts. Snipes here and snipes there, snide language from both in what seems like a regular argument they have each weekend when he arrives home.  

This time the sniping takes a different turn when the wife seems to have discovered that her husband has been away overnight and his secretary thinks he's been away with her. But she spent the night alone in their London flat. O dear, he's not just another lying, cheating politician is he? As it turns out, he's not, and the thing they've managed to not talk about slowly comes out after years of silence. It's quite touching in that respect but I won't say what it is - see it for yourself.

It's an odd play and it wasn't too subtle in signposting the '80s with loads of references to the miners strike, AIDS, clause 28, Thatcher and everything except tucking your jumpa into your jeans and electronic music. What's wrong with electronic music? I did think it was nicely plotted - but possibly over-plotted? - and led to an interesting discussion afterwards.

It was all set in a very large kitchen - I bet that kitchen gets really cold in winter.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Ballet Black at Stratford East

I saw Ballet Black dance at the Linbury Studio in the Royal Opera House and loved their dance, 'Ingoma' so when I saw they were doing it at Stratford East I had to get tickets. They were dancing a title bill and the first piece was a duet called 'Pendulum' followed by two ensemble pieces, 'Click' and 'Ingoma'.

'Pendulum' felt a bit too traditional for my tastes but I loved 'Click' with it's fast pace and dramatic costumes and lighting. Each dancer moving in a world of their own to a snap of the fingers in different coloured suits, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs and other times as an ensemble. I thought it was greta fun and was incredibly effective.

'Ingoma' was a longer piece telling the tale of a miners strike in South Africa in 1946 and the choreography and performances were excellent but it highlighted the narrowness of the Stratford stage for dance pieces - they needed more space for this production. There is high drama in this piece with the bravery of the striking miners, the effect on their families and drawing them into the dispute. Great choreography and music, excellent dancing and lighting and an exhausting piece to watch. How can they keep up that intensity night after night.

I was mightily impressed by Ballet Black - I expected technical proficiency but the selection of dances and the different productions served to underline that they're a force to be reckoned with in dance circles. They're a small ensemble group so it's not really fair to single anyone out but I loved Isabella Coracy as the lead dancer in the yellow suit in 'Click' and Mthuthuzeli November's choreography was spectacular in 'Ingoma'. Someone to watch out for. Well done people! 

Sunday, 17 November 2019

'The Sleeping Beauty' at the Royal Opera House

The autumn season is well underway at the Royal Opera House so it must be time for 'The Sleeping Beauty' which has a special place in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet. It was the production that re-opened the Opera House after the war and has been performed many times. I was lucky enough to see the 910th performance at the Royal Opera House. Like most of the classic ballets, it was choreographed by Marius Petipa and this ballet has music by Tchaikovsky. It also has additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon.

This production is designed to be loved. It has a cast of thousands, loads of pretty period costumes and lots of costume changes, gorgeous music and lovely solo and ensemble dancing. Spectacle from start to finish. What's not to love about it? A story we all know of the princess being cursed and pricking her finger only to be awoken one hundred years later by loves first kiss from her prince and they live happily ever after. There are  adventures aplenty along the way with the evil Carabosse's rat attendants, the fairies and their gifts for the baby princess and, of course, the brave Lilac Fairy who defends our princess from the evil witch.

There are very few slow movements in this ballet, constant movement is the theme and it must be very tough on any ballerina who dances Princess Aurora since she spends so much time on tippy, particularly during the Rose Adagio when she's en pointe for several minutes as four princes try to win her hand. Luckily for us, she meets the right prince 100 years later when he wakes her with a kiss. The princess only appears in Act Two since she's a baby in Act One and the Prince appears in Act Three so it's not too strenuous.

The long third act introduces us to the special guests at the betrothal of our princess and prince, fairytale characters from old stories, like Puss in Boots and Little Red Riding Hood. It may be high end ballet but it's not above having a bit of fun with the production. The amazing leaps of the bluebird, the cat-licking and jumps of the cats and the attacks of the Wolf all add another layer to the ballet, showing it's grounded in deeper, old, folk tales. I admit to loving the felines as they lick themselves and jump and skip every time they take the stage.

If you want to see a classic ballet for the first time then you can do a lot worse than choosing this one. Lasses in tutus and lads in tights, colour and spectacle, everything you think might be in a ballet is in this production. It's gorgeous.

In a late change due to injury our Princess Aurora was the excellent Fumi Kaneko and Prince Florimund was Reece Clarke, the evil Carabosse was Christina Arestis and the heroic Lilac Fairy was danced by Itziar Mendizabal. The licky cats were Leo Dixon and Ashley Dean.  They were all dead fab but it's always good to see Itziar do her stuff, since she is so graceful as well as technically perfect. Well done to Fumi for stepping up with only a couple of days notice, she gave a very impressive performance and is definitely someone to watch.