Alexander Melnikov and the Latvian Radio Choir at Cadogan Hall review ****

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Alexander Melnikov (piano), Latvian Radio Choir, Sigvards Klava

Proms Chamber Music No 5, Cadogan Hall, 14th August 2017

  • Dimitri Shostakovich – Preludes and Fugues Op 87 – Nos 1, 2, 3, 4, 7. 8
  • Dimitri Shostakovich – Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op 88 – Nos 5,6,7,8,9

Previous posts will have revealed my passion for Shostakovich’s music despite, or maybe because of, its sometimes disturbing crassness. So what better way than this to spend a birthday. Off I toddled for this lunchtime chamber Prom of which there have been a few this year at Cadogan Hall. An excellent innovation. Oh, and before I get down to business, don’t worry birthday boy’s day turned more social thanks to a welcome surprise from the SO, BD and LD.

Now these pieces are interesting because of their chronology, in the middle of his oeuvre, but still in the uncertain (for DSCH) period before Stalin popped his clogs, and also because of their form. The Ten Poems are a capella for choir, though DSCH makes sure there are proper tunes to be heard, which is a form he used sparingly. He also produced some other weighty piano compositions, notably the Op 34 Preludes and the Sonata No 2 Op 61, but the rest of the piano works are more lightweight (though still interesting). The Op 87 Preludes and Fugues are a full blooded exploration of the piano’s range across 3 hours or so. The recorded version I have is by dedicatee Tatiana Nikolayeva and is an old favourite. Alexander Melnikov’s recording is judged by some as better so I was looking forward to this.

Since the Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets are exactly that it is tricky to cast around for the usual DSCH subtext here. These poems are straight up and down descriptions of the suffering of the people at the hands of the Tsarist authorities at the time of the first failed 1905 Revolution. Similarly the structured format of the Preludes and Fugues also precludes too much navel gazing about the “meaning” of the works. So we can just concentrate on the sounds. Now I don’t know the Poem settings as well as I should but this seemed to me a very well crafted performance by the Latvian Radio Choir under director Sigvards Klava (who had been in town primarily to deliver a Rachmaninov Vespers the night before). The five settings on show only run to a few minutes each and the syllabical structures are very straightforward but the delivery was as crisp as you like and sung across the board with real fervour. The programme notes a similarity to Mussorgsky’s operatic choruses: I get it.

However Mr Melnikov was even more convincing. The six Preludes and Fugues he played were very convincing and performed with real authority. In particular those Fugues with fortissimo passages really struck home. I was dead impressed. I think this work is somewhere near the top of the best piano music ever written. I reckon Mr Melnikov agrees. Time to add his version to the collection.

Happy birthday to me then.

Bodies at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

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Bodies

Royal Court Theatre, 10th August 2017

Bodies is my first exposure to the writing of Vivienne Franzmann and I hope it will not be my last. A few quibbles aside this is overall a thoughtful play which sympathetically explores the issues that it chooses to highlight.

Here’s the set up. Clem (Justine Mitchell) and Josh (Brian Ferguson) cannot have children naturally and have chosen to pay for a surrogate, Lakshmi (Salma Hoque), in India to carry “their” child (via eggs from a ‘mother” in Russia). Clem’s father, David (Philip Goldacre), has motor neurone and requires constant care delivered by Oni (Lorna Brown).

Clem’s desperation to have a child is manifest in the conversations she has with an imagined teenage Daughter (Hannah Rae). Justine Mitchell’s performance as Clem is finely drawn and never histrionic. I found the scenes with a confident Hannah Rae as the Daughter very effective, a pointed device to externalise Clem’s fears and wishes. Clem is determined to navigate her way with compassion through the moral maze she has constructed but slowly the threads unravel. Her proud father, very convincingly delivered by Philip Goldacre, is a union man, and thinks what she is doing is plain wrong. Josh the husband, whilst never admitting it to his liberal self, has a more acute sense of the transactional entitlement in their course of action. Oni, whose husband and child are back home, serves to wryly puncture the couple’s bubble and to remind Clem of her obligations to her father. Whilst the couple do initially travel to India to meet Lakshmi, (Selma Hoque’s lines are few and weighted to the end but powerfully conveyed) their “relationship” is mediated at long distance by the clinic’s head Dr Sharma (the voice of Manjinder Virk) which means the couple can accept a convenient pretence about Lakshmi’s situation.

Ms Franzmann is careful to offer a sympathetic take on each character’s actions whilst still very clearly revealing the human costs of “fertility tourism”. Indeed I see from a quick skim through the text that the more overt exposition from some characters has been cut which I think fits the tone of careful examination more effectively The play is an already economic 90 minutes or so but might even have been tighter given the intelligent construction of the scenes. It sometimes felt as if Ms Franzmann needed to underline her already effectively constructed dilemmas. There is no need – the delicate dialogue is consistently revealing. The set is also occasionally ungainly and there are some avian based metaphors which seem a little superfluous.

But these are such minor objections I feel impolite to mention them. This is very rewarding piece of theatre with fine performances and direction from Jude Christian, which is made more powerful in my view by its low-key tone. In fact it is turning into one of those plays which gently gnaws away in my conscience. Examining exploitation, at any scale, whilst still allowing sympathy, is an awkward undertaking. This is more than up to the task.

Grayson Perry at the Serpentine Gallery review ****

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Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!

Serpentine Gallery, 8th August 2017

Grayson Perry has set himself up as an “astute commentator on contemporary society” as the blurb for his current exhibition would have it. And very good at it he is too. If you haven’t seen any of his Channel 4 documentaries which explore individual and collective identity then you should. He and his films are full of surprises.

These subjects are explored in this exhibition, together with the nature of “popular” contemporary art. Whilst I admire the man, the few pieces of his art that I had seenup to now (a couple of the pots and some drawings) have underwhelmed. Not here though. Context clearly is all.

The first room has a few good laughs with its ceramics exploring the role of the contemporary artist. In particular “Puff Piece” which contains quotes that Mr P has attributed to art critics about his work tickled me. But this is hardly ground-breaking. Though the fact that Mr P is way more visible than most contemporary artists, and chooses to engage with many different people and record the results, makes his art more stimulating in my book. I was a little less interested in the room of works which were produced in conjunction with a recent TV series, All Man, which explores masculinity in contemporary Britain. The documentaries are fascinating but the objects, a skateboard, bicycle, motorbike, shrine, which have been “feminised” and “infantilised”, don’t really do much for me. There is some admiration in the craft and they have a charm but that’s it for me.

The main gallery however is way more interesting. Here we have the pair of pots that Mr P produced for another recent documentary, Divided Britain, which pictorialise social media comments and images from groups of ardent Leave (from Boston, Lincs) and Remain (Hackney) voters in last year’s Referendum. As Mr P observes what is striking is the commonality not the differences. The two tapestries in this room, Battle of Britain and Red Carpet, are marvellous. Battle of Britain, with its allusions to Paul Nash, takes an imagined landscape in his native Essex and overlays symbols of contemporary Britain. Red Carpet uses an imagined map of Britain to relate key social media words and phrases around a theme of Us and Them.

Further on we see another beautifully crated tapestry, Death of a Working Hero, redolent of the trade union banners paraded at the annual Durham Miners Gala ,full again of striking details. Animal Spirit is a fine wood-cut depicting a bear of sorts and other symbols derived from financial markets. I would also point out the folk art “bronzes” King of Nowhere and Our Mother in the larger rooms.

Now to be fair none of this is new territory for Mr P, nor is any of this particularly subtle. And the criterati love having a pop at Mr P on exactly these grounds. It seems his artistic output is sullied in their eyes precisely because he courts recognition and uses this as the platform to explore his chosen. I say good on him. And judging by the attention being devoted to the works by a range of visitors it works. My favourite arse about face argument was in the Telegraph review of this exhibition which argued that Mr P’s TV stints have no “real bearing on Perry’s value as an artist”!! Of course it does. This daft statement lays bare the dilemma of the “proper” artist and the symbiotic critic since the dawn of Modernism. I don’t want the uncultured hoi-polloi to know what I am doing or why I am doing it but I get really wound up if I am completely ignored and can’t sell.

Britain does appear to be fractured by a cultural schism between the “outward-looking, university educated, metropolitan, liberal, tolerant” half (maybe a little less) and the “rooted, inward-looking, threatened, conservative” half (maybe a little more). Or is this complete b*llocks and just lazy stereotyping? Are our politicians pandering to these stereotypes? How best to facilitate the debate around issues of national and personal identity? These seem to me to be vital questions for an artist to explore, and Mr P, albeit that he sometimes uses tools that do not go far beyond the novelty however well made, should be commended for the playful and intelligent way he sets about his task. And he is sufficiently self-aware not to be in any danger of disappearing up his own arsehole in the manner of much contemporary art whose “social criticism” is either desperately banal or so well hidden as to be meaningless.

This exhibition runs through until 10th September before shooting off to the Arnolfini in Bristol. Ignore the critics. Take a look. Plenty of other people are. Turns out as contemporary art goes (and I mean contemporary not the canonic art sanctioned in artistic old age or posthumously) it is pretty popular.

Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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Dessert

Southwark Playhouse, 5th August

Dessert is the first play I have seen from actor/playwright Oliver Cotton and I have to say that overall I enjoyed it. Subtle it ain’t but it makes its points with a deal of humour, and occasionally, an enlightening punch. The title gives an insight: it’s a dinner party, dessert is coming, until a turn of events forces characters and audience to contemplate whether what they get in life is fair: whether they get their “just desserts”.

Hugh Fennell (played with amoral certainty by Michael Simkins) is a very rich self made man, who seems to have made his money buying and selling public companies. (As usual with dramatic accounts of “people in finance” Mr Cotton exhibits a pretty shaking understanding of how modern, neo-liberal mixed economies work which irks me immensely, but, no matter, we have our demon). He and his underwritten wife, Gill, (Alexandra Gilbreath) are entertaining American friends, slimey Wesley Barnes (Stuart Milligan) and Meredith (Teresa Banham). Dinner is served by Roger (a fine Graham Turner), the Fennells’ “man” who from the off shows signs of mental instability. The dinner party sets up a quick debate around provenance in art, price and value via Hugh’s newly acquired “maybe” Giorgione.

Cue the arrival of Eddie Williams (a splendid performance littered with malevolent sarcasm from Stephen Hagan). Now I would hesitate to call the “elite class dinner party interrupted by a stranger (real or imagined) with malicious intent” hackneyed but it is hardly untested. No matter. It works. Eddie is a soldier, leg damaged in Afghanistan, whose newsagent Dad invested life savings (lesson: always diversify your assets) into one of Hugh’s “companies”. It went belly up though Hugh somehow secured a whopping pension as a result. We then have an accident with the aforementioned painting and heated arguments over whether the Fennells and Barnes’s “deserve” their wealth. Some of this is perfunctory but some is insightful and there are a couple of speeches from Eddie which Stephen Hagan invests with real passion. No dumb squaddie cliche here. And the twist by which Eddie plans to exact revenge is sweet.

Under Trevor Nunn’s direction the play trips along and nothing is left uncovered. It is laugh at loud at points. But it is simplistic. That is not to say we need some even-handed defence extolling the virtues of capitalism. Far from it. But once its main point is made the play doesn’t really move on. Still full house at the SP who clearly loved it.

Pink Floyd exhibition at the V&A review ***

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Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains

V and A, 4th August 2017

Now I have always been slightly suspicious of Pink Floyd. I was only a nipper for the first few “psychedelic” albums pre and post Sid and whilst the classic trio of Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals, could and should have featured in the musical palette of me and my friends in the mid to late 1970’s, they just didn’t really. That is not to say we didn’t have diverse musical tastes with, I seem to remember, champions of Genesis, Yes, Hawkwind, Kiss, ELP, Rory Gallagher, Todd Rundgren, and even, through my mate Sparky who always exhibited the most developed musical taste, Krautrock. but the thing that held us together was heavy rock, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple (and the various offshoots) and, best of all, Led Zeppelin. No namby pamby pop or disco for us, or any of that suspicious androgynous stuff like Bowie, and certainly nothing bang-on cool like the Velvets.

As for me, well I was even more devoid of taste. Lank, long greasy hair, velvet loons, cheesecloth shirts and a penchant for the likes of Rush, the Eagles, Barclay James Harvest and Wishbone Ash, with the only saving grace a bit of reggae and soul. Now, of course, in the late 1970’s our salvation came along in the form of Punk and Peel and I was able to selectively erase this woeful past and successfully complete a course of cultural re-education. So, whilst I can’t pretend that some of the 1970s excesses haven’t found their way back into the CD collection, (yes kids, I know, CDs – what are you thinking granddad), I have also filled all the canonic gaps from first time around. Which includes those three classic Floyd albums.

Yet I still don’t really listen to them, nor do I particularly like them. Which is strange as I have a moderate passion for the likes of Porcupine Tree whose architect Steven Wilson has drawn on Floyd in the past, a developing interest in psychedelia from the late 60s and I get fairly excited when I play Genesis (obviously avec Gabriel not the novelty outfit they became after he left) who I couldn’t bear first time around. But Floyd, no, not really.

One more anecdote before some comments on this exhibition. It is August 1980. I seem to remember it was pretty warm. Me and some of the aforementioned mates have come up to London from our lairs in Yokeland. I think by now I am sporting a passable haircut and have ditched the flares but I might still be guilty of re-writing history to hide my shame. Anyway, we have been to a giant record shop (only vinyl kids though obviously you know all about that now). I have purchased two albums, Joy Division’s Closer and Echo and the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles. These will literally change my life. I cling to the bag all through the afternoon and into the evening. As we go to ….. would you believe it, Earl’s Court to see Pink Floyd as part of the Wall Tour. I probably enjoyed it, though the footage from this very exhibition of the start of these very gigs suggest it was all a bit daft what with the inflatables and the like. But I know that the future is in the carrier bag and not the old hippies droning on on the stage.

Please Tourist, enough of the cut price Salinger and tell us about the exhibition. Well it follows the well-tested V&A formula used in the marvellous David Bowie Is from 2013 and the You Say You Want A Revolution which ended earlier this year. Slip on the headphones, hear the music, listen to the interviews and then soak up a wealth of material, posters, album covers, artworks and the like. And in this case an awful lot of instruments and technology and, as the pomposity ramped up, a lot of stuff explaining how the certifiably over the top live performances were created.

Things are, unsurprisingly arranged in rigid chronology and tied to the official albums, studio and live. Now I have to say the first seven albums, the poppy, psychedelic stuff, was of most interest, firstly because I don’t really know it, and secondly because the mythology of Syd Barrett is just so powerful. The period of the three classic albums along with The Wall is given all due ceremony though it does all feel a bit grandiose. The last few albums are as dire as I thought they were so I upped the pace here. It is a mystery to me why progressive rock groups, who were at the forefront of electronic music technology in the 1970s, with Pink Floyd right in the vanguard, then went on to balls it up in so spectacular a fashion when this very technology became more mainstream in the 1980s. Think Genesis, Yes, even Rush as well as Floyd. Especially surprising in their case as, unlike many of their peers, they disdained shifting units (though they certainly possessed that knack. TDSOTM still sells several thousand copies a week even now).

Now to be fair my chum TMBOAD who came with me put in a lot more effort, as is his wont given his intellectual curiosity, but he formed broadly the same opinion with the first part holding his attention more than the rest. There is no doubt that this exhibition gives a comprehensive view of what, when and how PF produced their music though there is a little less insight into the why. And they do come across as anally retentive and sententious as received wisdom demands. If there is one thing I love about all these ancient old bands, it is their ability to hold a grudge. It’s just work lads. You will fall out. Lighten up eh.

Right I can see that sarcasm has got the better of me. Despite my snarkiness there is no doubt you should get along to this if you have any interest in the band or indeed the history of popular music. There is much excellent material to digest and the curation is off the scale superb. It is bloody crowded though, as the other similar exhibitions have been, which can be frustrating. We tried the early evening Friday slot but that didn’t seem to help. I personally think the aforementioned Bowie exhibition (GRHS) was better because he was a way more interesting bloke, as too was the Say You Want A Revolution just because they was way more social and political context to chew than here. Music and performance alone, which is what was being documented here, can only go so far in terms of enlightenment.

One day I am sure the V&A will get round to something major on Punk and its descendants (I don’t think this has happened yet). Then I suspect I really will wet myself with excitement. I note there were a couple of twats jigging around to the music here and generally getting in the way. It would get a bit tasty if we had some “silent disco” pogoists at any future punk retrospective !!

My Top 10 progressive rock albums

Just for a bit of fun and in the spirit of the exhibition I thought I would list my favourites from the genre. Not sure there is anything here (with one exception) that should surprise. This is ranked but only one entry per band/artist. See what you think. If anything.

1. Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

There was a time when when I wouldn’t have been caught dead saying this, but it turns out that Genesis are my favourite progressive rock band. Well at least the Genesis that genuinely were a prog band. Which means Messrs Gabriel and Hackett still alongside Collins, Banks and Rutherford. And The Lamb is Gabriel at his bonkers best with its “conceptual” story of Raul in NYC, plainly made up as Gabriel went along. No matter. Everything about this is terrific, with some tight arrangements, banging tunes, and the minimum of meandering, the classic tic of prog rockers everyone.

2. Rush – A Farewell to Kings

I was terribly keen on Rush when I was a nipper. No one else I knew was. Never fashionable but never properly unfashionable, and one of those outfits labelled “the world’s biggest cult band” of which there are now thousands. They have matured into grand old rockers and ambassadors for Canada and I own, but don’t really care for, quite a lot of the 1980s and 1990s stuff when the synths got too involved. For me though the quartet of 2112, A Farewell To Kings, Hemispheres and Permanent Waves, represent the sine qua non of the boy’s oeuvre with Farewell the best. Obviously Geddy Lee’s squeaky voice takes a bit of getting used to and Neil Peart’s lyrics are very, very dodgy, (all those Ayn Rand references), but his drumming and Alex Lifeson’s guitar playing are about as good as it gets. I know all this muso stuff about just how technically proficient they are is another prog rock tic but it still amazes me just how much sound three badly dressed, dodgy haircutted Canadians can rustle up.

3. Supertramp – Crime of the Century

It would seem I am determined to embarrass myself further for Supertramp, like Rush, were a big favourite before Punk came along and set me on the path to righteousness. It took many years before I allowed them back into my ears and heart but I am glad I did for, at their best, when Rick Davies and Rodger Hodgson weren’t at each others throats (another prog rock tic – the personality clash – true of other pop/rock genres but prog turns it up to 11), they were wonderful. Probably not definitively prog. In fact dangerously close to pop. No matter, just great songs. Once again the mid/late 1970s quartet of this album, Crisis What Crisis, Even in the Quietest Moments, and, just about, Breakfast in America, mark the high point. After that they really did balls it up.

4. Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet

Most middle aged blokes with poor dress sense and questionable grooming habits will be all over Porcupine Tree and the brains behind it all, Steven Wilson. Self taught, genius, carrying the British flag for prog for more than three decades with PT and other projects and now his solo work, he is hugely important but largely unknown outside his field. And all kicked off by his listening to Dark Side of the Moon in his bedroom. If you happen to read this because you went to the Floyd exhibition, and are not up to speed on PT, please seek out Fear of a Blank Planet. I guarantee you will love it.

5. Soft Machine – Third

Now I don’t really know what all those bearded, Shoreditch hipster types listen to. But if they really want to impress their mates they should learn to fall in love with Soft Machine. At first all the alarming shifts in texture and doodling around, with the permanent threat or actuality of some jazz jamming, takes a bit of getting used to. You might even be tempted to laugh. It is well hippy. But it will get under your skin and I warn you that repeated listening will eventually lead to a permanent love-in. And it will make you feel so cool. Third is normally taken to be the best of the bunch but there is something in most everything they recorded. Now there have been multiple line-up changes and the latest line is soldiering on but the reality is that Soft Machine proper needs the mighty Robert Wyatt in the band to be the real deal.

6. Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom

Robert Wyatt is just about the only rock/pop performer I will see live these days. Most music is just too loud so its classical for me now all the way. I don’t believe in God but Robert Wyatt is the closest thing to what I imagine people who do believe think God is. He lies right at the beating heart of prog. Though frankly his music is entirely his own. Just try it. It may take a few listens but once you get it you will never look back.

7. King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King

The granddaddys of prog. No list would be complete without this. Still going, still experimenting. Robert Fripp is probably the cleverest man in the history of popular music since the 1950s.

8. Can – Future Days

I saw this in a list of progressive rock best of albums. Obviously it isn’t prog. But I am taking some dodgy punter’s opinion on the web as qualification, so here it is. Without Can and Kraftwerk most modern popular music would be even worse than it is. Simples.

9. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

See above. I am still not entirely persuaded but it would be extremely churlish not to include this. And generally I am not churlish. Rude, misanthropic, curmudgeonly, opinionated, yes. But churlish, no.

10. Yes – Close to the Edge

So the final piece of the jigsaw. Once again this appears more because of Yes’s reputation than any real passion on my part. Don’t get me wrong, there are passages of Yes that are wonderful (from the first few albums up to Relayer – after that you take your chances), but equally there is some grim stuff with all those overworked time signature changes. Still it would be churlish once again not to see them on this list and this is my fave of their albums.

 

 

 

Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

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Queen Anne

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 3rd August 2017

Tricky customers history plays. How to introduce the characters and explain events without slackening the dramatic pace. It’s OK if your Will Shakespeare. He wrote the history. Or at least someone before him wrote something, which he then purloined and turned it into a great work of art with those words, oh those beautiful words. And ever since people have half-believed his stories were based on solid facts. Mind you historical “facts” are a slippery business anyway. Always shaped by the narrator. I’m with the master of wry Alan Bennett: “History is just one f*cking thing after another”. A quote he stole in any event from a distinguished academic, though no-one seems sure which prof. said it first. See what I mean.

Anyway the writer of Queen Anne, Helen Edmundson opts for the direct approach to exposition with characters bluntly announcing their identity and, when necessary, the unfolding key events. This ensures that we the audience can follow the action without the need for intensive background reading but it does mean the first third of the play feels a little disjointed. However once the dramatis personae are established and the various themes laid out we then get a fine story simply told under the direction of Natalie Abrahami.

The focus of the play is the relationship between Queen Anne (Emma Cunniffe) and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). Anne accedes to the throne on the death of her childless brother in law William III (played in barking king mode by Dave Fishley). You know he was the Dutch fella we invited over with wife Mary to keep the Catholics off the throne. He landed at Brixham, also famous as the birthplace of the Tourist. Hurrah. Here he is. Unusually without a seagull crapping on his head.

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Anyway Anne is a Stuart but the right sort as a Protestant. She is also childless despite seventeen pregnancies, a very sorry state of affairs. Her husband, Prince George of Denmark (Hywel Morgan) is a full on booby. Anne is, initially at least, physically and temperamentally, not really up to the job, so her childhood friend Lady Sarah and her circle of Whigs do their best to manipulate her to their own ends. Our Lady Sarah just happens to be the wife of John Churchill, whose rise to become leader of the Protestant forces across Europe in the War of the Spanish Succession against mighty France and Spain, (after a few false starts), brings recognition, wealth and prestige. This was a turbulent time in English (and with the Act of Union in 1707, British) politics and the play does an excellent job in drawing this out, as Anne seeks to make her mark and shifts allegiances towards the Tories led by Speaker Robert Harley (very well played by James Garnon). This was the era when Britain moved into the first division of European powers (though war proved an expensive business) as the Catholic powers were faced down and as capital was accumulated largely on the back of the slave trade (yes all you proud Brexiteers, these are the foundations your glorious country is built upon).

The tempestuous Lady Sarah gets the hump as her influence on Anne dissipates and gets properly jealous of Abigail Hill (played by Beth Park) another scheming ingenue who comes from nothing to become the Queen’s new bosom buddy. Sarah leaks some salacious correspondence but this backfires and she, her husband and her circle are debilitated (though the family has seemed to rub along ever since down the centuries – go see Bleinhem Palace is you don’t believe me).

These events are interspersed with some entertaining song and dance routines. This was after all the period which saw the rise of the popular press, in the form of pamphlets, and the emergence of political satire. The great British public, OK the emergent newly rich grasping oligarch Whigs (land alone no longer being the route to power), had put the monarchy back in its box and weren’t above any ruse to slap down the Tories, high Church and sniff out any whiff of Jacobitism.

So a fascinating time, an important monarch who ruled at a pivotal period in England’s history, and a well realised portrait of an intense relationship. Emma Cunniffe and Romola Garai both give very credible performances as Anne and Sarah and there is real passion in parts of the second half. But this is no Mary Stuart and there were times when I was hoping for a few more twists and turns. On the other hand if this is the sort of thing that floats your boat, and on balance I would say it should, then I see there are plenty of tickets left at very attractive prices, so give it a whirl.

Angels in America at the National Theatre review *****

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Angels in America: Part One Millennium Approaches and Part Two Perestroika

National Theatre, 29th July 2017

That Tony Kushner is an ambitious playwright. This will comes as no surprise to you experienced theatre lovers but, having seen this and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Hampstead Theatre last year, this has come as a revelation to this newbie.

Ostensibly Angels in America is a play about the impact of HIV/AIDS on a handful of characters beginning in mid 1980s New York and the denials that dominate their lives. Into this Mr Kushner weaves an examination of religion (specifically Mormonism and Judaism) and personal salvation, the rise of economic neo-liberalism and fall of communism, national, personal and sexual identity, the nature of responsibility and even the march of history itself – fin de siecle anyone?. The characters generally don’t do much in the way of small talk, yet all the exposition is punctured by genuinely funny humour. These people do not lack self awareness, that’s for sure.

Part One generally remains within the bounds of the naturalistic, Part Two goes into metaphysical overdrive as the curiously ineffectual angels (who themselves have been deserted by God) start to pile up. If I am honest it is all a bit nuts at times but the points that Mr Kushner wants to make more than justify the formal experimentation. And he does make a lot of points as I said. Sometimes repeatedly and with no let up in the erudition.

Now you might think the thick end of 8 hours of this, for those of us who opted for the one day experience, might turn into too much of a good thing. I have to say though that, with the exception of a few longueurs, you would be wrong. Mr Kushner’s writing creates, in me at least, a kind of heightened perception of the themes he is exploring, whilst still delivering a story, or stories more precisely, with forward momentum, and characters that you can love (or hate) despite, or perhaps because of, their intensity. As with all very. very clever people, Mr Kushner is maybe occasionally guilty of mislaying the “less is more” filter but this is a small price to pay to be dazzled on this scale. And whilst the direct impact of HIV/AIDS may have changed in public discourse in the last three decades or so, the questions the play poses directly and indirectly are still painfully relevant.

As for the production, well it is brilliant. Marianne Elliot’s direction is faultless. Meticulous precision has been applied to the combination of Ian McNeil’s set, lighting, sound, and yes, even the angels, which means the rhythm of the play is never impeded. And the cast. OMG. I don’t think I have ever seen as many high level performances as in this production. Andrew Garfield is astonishing as Prior Walter whose campness turns to courage. If anything Nathan Lane is even better as Roy Cohn, whose denial of his illness is as aggressive as his delusional politics. This two performances alone would be enough to justify the ticket price but then you have James McArdle chiming in with an impeccable portrayal of Louis Ironson, Prior’s lover who is riddled with guilt and hypocrisy. And then you have Russell Tovey as Mormon Joseph Pitt whose sexual denial has to crack, and, maybe most memorably for me, Denise Gough, who takes the part of Harper Pitt. Joseph’s pained wife and turns it into triumphant release. On and then you have Susan Brown, Amanda Lawrence and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, lighting up the stage as they cover most of the remaining parts. Collectively this is acting of the highest order.

So you can see I liked it. A lot. Like I said it does sprawl a bit, and the brain did need a few minutes of time out across the hours, but this is what theatre is all about. So if you are a theatre luvvie stick it on your bucket list. If you are a philistine run a mile.