Madame Rubinstein at the Park Theatre review ****


Madame Rubinstein

Park Theatre, 4th May 2017

Jez Bond and his team at the Park Theatre (with the help and goodwill of assorted North London luvvies I think) are doing an ever more successful job in my view in staging new plays and productions that people want, or should want, to see. Which is ultimately the whole point. If no-one sees a play it is a shame, if people see it but don’t really enjoy it (ponderous Shakespeare or clobber you over the head issue plays spring to mind) then it has similarly failed to deliver.

I am signed up for Twitstorm, Rabbits, Loot, What Shadows, The Retreat and Daisy Pulls it Off in forthcoming seasons here and, in contrast to some of the stuff I get to, have found it a relatively easy task of dragging along a willing chum to many of these. Whether it is the subject, the writer or the cast there is normally a clear hook to make me part with the cash. There is also a nice buzz about the place.

And so it was with Madame Rubinstein. A comedy based on the life of cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein, with Miriam Margoyles in the lead, was enough to persuade the SO, BUD and KCK to schlep up to Finsbury Park mid-week. And I think we were all glad we did.

Now it would be pretty easy to knock this play (many of the proper reviews have done just that), written by Australian John Misto and which MM herself was instrumental in bringing to this theatre. There is a sense that Mr Misto has tried to cram all the key events of Ms Rubinstein’s life, biopic style, into a couple of hours to the detriment of any real insight into her character. This also means the messages such as they are –  the barriers that stood in the way of Ms Rubinstein and her rival and nemesis, Elizabeth Arden, their need to re-invent their own pasts in order to sell their dreams to their consumers, the part that cosmetics played in the emancipation or otherwise of women in 1950s America – end up being diluted. And this in turn is not helped by the unrelenting focus on keeping up the gag quotient.

But when it is this funny and entertaining who cares. It is hard to imagine anyone else but Miriam Margoyles delivering the stream of one-liners that she was gifted with. But Frances Barber as Elizabeth Arden and Jonathan Forbes as long suffering assistant, Patrick “Irish’ O’Higgins, gave as good as they got. Yes the jokes are often on the obvious side of stereotypical and yes there is a campiness about the whole affair that some might not welcome. And the multiple scene changes (mostly just shifting of desk and chairs) are distracting. But we laughed. A lot. As did everyone else there.

So a top night out for all. Apparently this is sold out now but if it pops up somewhere else take a look and, as I say, if anything else piques your interest in what is coming up at the Park I think it is worth taking a punt.

David Hockney at Tate Britain review ****


David Hockney

Tate Britain, 2nd May 2017

OK so this is embarrassing so I will get it out of the way. I didn’t really know David Hockey’s works beyond a cursory glance at a handful of works in permanent collections and some mixed exhibitions and didn’t really know what all the fuss was about (this remember is about as popular an exhibition as TB has ever staged I gather). The idea that his fascination with new “ways of seeing” was somehow interesting or insightful felt like a bit of hype to me. I went it to this therefore expecting to be underwhelmed and finally to be able to write a review that wasn’t sycophantly gushing as is my wont.

Well I was wrong. When he wants to be this fella’s a marvel (though by no means consistently). So if there is anyone out there who didn’t know that (or was I the only one), I recommend you get along to this in the next three weeks before it closes.

So what turned me on? Well not all the scruffy early stuff though I can see its provocations. Not the first phase of LA swimming pool stuff – this is great yes (especially the buildings) but closer exposure didn’t bring to that WTF moment I look for in art. And not the IPad musings at the end. But the so flat, still, alienating double portraits, the room of amazing drawings, a few of the collaged photos and then the Wolds paintings, those paintings, and I was bowled over. I didn’t leave anything like enough time for those Wolds multiple canvasses so I will have to go back. It is like Van Gogh suddenly got serious with colour and that you are racing towards the vanishing point. So new ways of seeing – I get it now. And acrylic paint – no room for error – and the pure skill of the simplest drawings. There is still some pointless nonsense but this can be forgiven.






Steve Reich’s Drumming and Tehillim at the Royal Festival Hall review *****


The Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals

Royal Festival Hall, 5th May 2017

  • Steve Reich – Tehillim 1981
  • Steve Reich – Drumming 1971

There are a handful of sacred founding texts when it comes to the world of US minimalist music. Terry Riley’s In C certainly, John Adams’s Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Philip Glass’s Glassworks, early operas and Music in Twelve Parts and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Drumming. There are plenty of other works I would want to add from these, and other composers, to capture the full glory of the genre, and I have plenty more to explore, but, so far, my stand out favourite is Drumming.

And this performance from what is now Reich’s own favourite interpreter, Colin Currie, and his colleagues, was, jaw droppingly, brilliant.

Now I went along to the performance of Music in Twelve Parts at the Barbican Hall on 1st May. No review as I only managed the first six parts. No reflection on the music or the performance; only because I misjudged the timing so had to scoot off. It was a fine rendition of this seminal Glass work, although at times, it did end up in that one-dimensional cul-de-sac that Glass’s music can be prone to. The effect of layer upon layer of the tiny cells of music is obviously hypnotic and trance-like but, to me, still fascinating, as is hearing the shifts between “movements” within the parts. This is the most minimalist of minimalism to my ears – no narrative, no resolution, chords slowly emerging, taking repetition to its ultimate conclusion. And when it hits the points of apparent stasis despite all the instruments (and voice) feverishly playing it is mind-blowing. But sometimes, and this was the case here, if that apparent stasis is not perfectly delivered it can be a bit wearing.

In contrast this performance of Drumming was, I think, unbeatable. You see, for me, whilst this is still firmly minimalist in terms of the overall effect, the methods that Reich employs here add up to so much more. The use of phasing, where one musician takes a phrase and then others repeat the phrase but with changes to the tempo so that gradually they step out of sync, is Reich’s signature. In this piece however, there is greater alternation in the phrases of beats and rests, which creates much greater rhythmic drama. The three sections, before for the finale where everything comes together, offer a spine tingling variation in timbre and register, as the tuned bongo drums of the canonic first section (mostly obviously indebted to Reich’s visit to Ghana ahead of the composition), is followed by the marimbas and the three female voices, and then the shift to the very different world of the glockenspiels (augmented by the whistling !! and the shrill piccolo). Put all this together and you have a real musical narrative, which I think is in contrast say to the Glass piece above. And all this from just one repeated rhythm – that is its genius.

To make it really work you need an ensemble which is both experienced but also fearless. Like most larger scale minimalist works it requires immense concentration (though the repeats here were kept to a minimum which is wise I think) but to really let go all the musicians have to trust their colleagues. There is nowhere to hide (unlike large scale Romantic works say). There was nothing tentative here and that is what made this performance truly stand out. The same ensemble was superb this time last year with it Reich programme topped by Music for 18 Musicians but this surpassed that. The audience (which is getting bigger and more diverse I think for these works – brilliant stuff) was up on its feet immediately the piece concluded and deservedly so.

Tehillim which proceeded Drumming was also very well performed (especially the extraordinary singing of Synergy Vocals the experts in this field) but, as this is a newish addition to Colin Currie’ Reich repertoire, it was not as overwhelming. Here the combination of four female voices (singing Hebrew psalms) with the six percussion instruments and a small chamber orchestra means the melodic lines are more prevalent and the use of phasing here is more redolent of canons from Medieval Western music (readers will know that is a good thing in my book). The rhythmic drive of Reich’s percussion led pieces gives way to the illusion of harmony and counterpoint. This is why he is such a clever fellow.

Anyway I think you can tell that I loved it. Please seek out Drumming even if you hate “classical music” – the key recording is still Reich’s own. You won’t regret it. We have had a couple of good years for minimalist music in London, what with the various anniversaries of its leading lights, but I will keep my eyes peeled for future dates.