The Unknown Island at the Gate Theatre review ***

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The Unknown Island

The Gate Theatre, 23rd September 2017

Saturday matinees at the Gate Theatre  represent an astonishing bargain by “that London” standards (as do Wednesday matinees though they are limited to us economically unproductive types).

So I could traipse up to Wembley to watch Spurs stuff Bournemouth for just £30 in a couple of weeks. But I would be a mile away from the action, there would be all the hassle of getting there and there would be extra trimmings to be paid for. For just a tenner at the Gate though I get to see epic theatre of the highest quality from around the world right up close (this is, along with the Finborough, the most intimate of the “quality” fringe venues). This formula has been perfected over years, but took a step up under the stewardship of Christopher Haydon, and, on the basis of this offering, should continue now that Ellen MacDougall has taken the helm (she directed Chris Urch’s Rolling STone at the Orange Tree, one of the finest new plays of the last couple of years).

I am not going to pretend that this adaption by Ms MacDougall and dramaturg Claire Slater of a short story by Portuguese writer Jose Saramango was the finest work of theatre I have seen in recent months, but there was more than enough nourishment. And I don’t just mean the olives, bread and wine on offer as the cast fittingly broke character halfway through proceedings. This is a slippery, childlike but not childish, parable with multiple interpretations which was presented very well by the four strong cast of Jon Foster, Hannah Ringham, Thalissa Teixeira and Zubin Varla.

A man comes to the court of a King and will not leave until he is granted a ship to set out to discover the “unknown” island. The aloof King is reluctant at first but the persistent man’s wish is eventually granted and, in the absence of a crew and sufficient provisions, he sets off with the cleaning woman from the Court. They don’t get “there” but the man has a whacky dream along the way. That’s about it.

Except that within the tale are all manner of allusions to the structure of society, individual agency, the power of the imagination and ultimately what really matters in life. I spent the first half wrestling with the idea that there was some long arc of allegory here relating to the history of Portugal and the nature of revolution. Then it seemed to become more of a plea for the value of “self-discovery” but not in the way of the arse-hole, narcissistic blogger (for the avoidance of doubt I am aware of the irony here), but in a more humanistic, reflective way. Anyway wherever Mr Saramango was trying to take us there was value in the journey.

The set design by Rosie Elnile is striking, walls, floor and the benches around the entire space are bathed in a (practical as it turns out) turquoise, rubbery material and the actors are dressed head to toe in crimson. There is a striking red model boat and some comic balloons put in an appearance. The actors switch characters and often overlap. And at the end, in a nod to the end of our story, a window is opened to take us back into the real world of gullible tourists filtering down to the Portobello Road to buy tat.

I suspect that those who prefer their entertainment to be of a more literal or mimetic persuasion may come out feeling a little diddled, but if you are a bit more elastic in your tastes this could be for you. Of the rest of the season Suzy Storck looks most interesting though I have no real notion as to why. Still for the price of a couple of pints in the Prince Albert downstairs I will happily test that notion.

 

 

Fretwork at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Joanna Levine, Sam Stadlen, Emily Ashton, Richard Boothby)

Wigmore Hall, 18th September 2017

JS Bach – The Art of Fugue – Contrapunctus I-XI, XIV

Fretwork are one of those marvellous groups of dedicated adventurers who have brought Early, Renaissance and Baroque music back to life. There was a time when vast swathes of this music was forgotten, unperformed and left to rot. But just as the Modern swept away all that dreadful artistic junk from the Late C18 and C19 (Western art music was a bit more fortunate thanks to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) so an ever increasing band of scholars and, from the middle of the last century, performers (first amateur and then professional), revived and extended our knowledge of this music. And at the same time the beat came back.

In fact it seems to me that there are two types of Western classical music listener: those who revel in the bombastic pretensions of the Romantics , where a wall is erected between listener and performers, and those of us who prefer to get our pleasures from “simpler” structures, music with discernible rhythm and pulse.

We are now probably three generations into the rise of Early Music and “period performance”, which has a healthy following in the concert hall and in recordings. All this love and scholarship has also changed the way music is performed and understood across the “classical” spectrum. In contrast to jazz, blues and modern “popular” music, composition and performance are separated in “classical” music. Context and history matter. The how, what, why and when of performance and composition matter. The renaissance of the musical Renaissance has generated a vital third strand in “classical” music, alongside the veneration of the sacred Romantic texts performed by “gifted” performers and the challenge to the layman of “in yer face” contemporary classical.

So thanks to all those who devote their education and lives to bringing this joy and passing it on to the next generation, rather than selling their skills to an investment bank. And to those composers who are writing for these ensembles.

Fretwork is a viol consort founded in 1985 and, as I understand it, only Richard Boothby remains of the original line-up. Their focus is normally on music of a somewhat earlier vintage than JSB (though they will and do extend the viol sound into unexpected places). Indeed JSB didn’t stop tinkering with the Art of Fugue until just before he departed this world. For those that don’t know it, JSB takes a fairly straightforward (but eminently adaptable) theme in D Minor and then sets off counterpointing the bejesus out of it. Fugue, contrapunctus, counterpoint – it all means the same thing. Take the tune in one place, then get everyone else to pick it up whilst messing around with it, then mesh it all together into a satisfying whole. For some Bach’s music is incredibly fiddly, like the architecture of the High Baroque which leaves me cold. But, whilst I hear the fiddly, I also hear the rhythmic whole. And I think lots of other people do. Simple and complex simultaneously. That’s the genius.

Now the Art of Fugue can be played in any number of ways by any number of instruments (though a single harpsichord I gather is the most likely inspiration). Clever old JSB. Never seen or heard modern strings or a modern piano but wrote perfectly for them. By the time it was written the viol was on the way out superseded by the precursors of the stringed family we see today. So it is unlikely the old fella would have expected it to be played by this combination. Flat backs, sloped shoulders, different shaped holes, more strings, different bowing techniques and, importantly frets (hence the band’s name), all conjure up a very different sound-world to a modern string quartet say.

I loved it. Turns out this is a revelatory way to follow all the counterpoint. The viols create alternatively 3 or 4, and occasionally 5 lines, which can all be followed but without detracting from the overall architecture. Whilst maybe less transcendent than a single keyboard version, (played say by Glen Gould, grunts and all), it was probably superior to the string quartet interpretations I have heard. Best of all was the final unfinished fugue, No XIV, with its musical BACH signature. There is a lot of debate apparently around why the old boy didn’t finish it (he started it well before the onset of blindness and anyway could have had an assistant complete it). So usually once the three themes that make it up, including the BACH theme, are introduced and developed it just stops and trails off as written. Here Mr Boothby has, with the ideas of a clearly very bright scholar, finished it off. Whilst I have no idea of the theory that backs it up it made for a very satisfactory ending to an excellent recital.

Fretwork. Check ’em out.

The Limehouse Golem film review ****

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The Limehouse Golem, 15th September 2017

Now I love a well told Victorian Gothic melodrama and by and large this is what you get here. It is based on the novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by the prolific (if occasionally wayward) author, Peter Ackroyd, though the screenplay by Jane Goldman has a few nips and tucks. It has taken a fair few years for the book (written in 1994) to find its way to the big screen, which is surprising given its obvious cinematic feel and structure.

The laconic Bill Nighy plays Kildare from the Yard who is, we are given to understand, a brilliant detective but whose career has been stymied by his sexuality. The whole world seems to be on his shoulders. He is ably assisted by Daniel Mays as reliable sidekick, George Flood. A gruesome case comes their way, (which superiors want nothing to do with), which is a copycat of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, from forty odd years earlier, and which formed the inspiration for a novel by Thomas de Quincey. Some-one is using the copy of this book in the British Library reading room to scribble macabre details of the murder. Suspicion falls first on the enigmatic playwright John Cree (played by Sam Reid who is currently treading the boards in Girl From the North Country at the Old Vic) as one of the occupants of the reading room at the time of the scrawling. But Cree is dead, and his wife Elizabeth (the elfin Olivia Cooke) stands accused of poisoning him.

From here Kildare enters the world of the Music Hall where our Lizzie has become a big star and where Cree wooed her. A number of larger than life characters, some of whom meet with a grisly end, are paraded, as we delve deeper into the world of deception, artifice and ambiguous sexuality. A pretty clumsy metaphor but it works. And just for good measure we get to meet novelist George Gissing, the mighty Karl Marx and a languid Dan Leno (the excellent Douglas Booth – on this performance he should be snaffled up for a lead on the stage), also a darling of the music hall, and Lizzie’s mentor, all of whom were with Cree  in the reading room.

Now I will be honest you are probably going to work out whodunnit way before Kildare, given the discernible feminist sub-text, but no matter. This is a visual feast (with Yorkshire doubling up handsomely for the East End augmented by technology) which, with told largely through flashbacks, has enough momentum to engage and performances (notably Eddie Marsan as Uncle alongside Ms Cooke, Mr Booth and Mr Nighy) that get under the skin of the characters. I can see that if you are expecting a complex, twisting plot you might get frustrated at the nocturnal atmospherics and the exploration of theatricality, but for me, (particularly the beautifully shot Music Hall scenes), this is what makes the film interesting  Hats off to cinematographer Simon Dennis as well as director Juan Carlos Medina.

PS. If this does float your boat the book is well worth a read as are Mr Ackroyd’s musings on this great city (London of course!) though I am particularly partial to Hawksmoor and Chatterton. More peripherally if you have never read Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter, put it in your suitcase now for the next holiday. It is an amazing novel full of layers and with a bravura structure. If you like that Wise Children is even better.

 

 

Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court review *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime

This is Rattle, Milton Court Hall, 20th September 2017

  • Purcell – Fantasia Upon One Note
  • Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthews – A Purcell Garland
  • Helen Grime – Into the Faded Air
  • Oliver Knussen – Cantata
  • Helen Grime – A Cold Spring
  • Thomas Ades – Court Studies from “The Tempest”
  • Benjamin Britten – Sinfonietta
  • Igor Stravinsky – Dumbarton Oaks Concerto

Composer Helen Grime must be in seventh heaven having been chosen by Sir Simon Rattle to curate this concert and to open his first concert as Music Director of the LSO with her Fanfare. I had not heard any of her works before but on the strength of these two pieces, particularly the string sextet, Into the Faded Air, Sir Simon’s faith in her is more than justified. The other curators, Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades, drew their programmes from a similar creative wellspring, though Sir Harrison’s was suitably idiosyncratic, but Ms Grime’s offering held the most interest for me. The four composers span the decades of contemporary British classical music and show clear influences, one upon another. I note Helen Grime is also the resident composer at the Wigmore Hall.

The Purcell is, unsurprisingly, an imaginative piece, with one of the 5 parts held in middle C throughout (hello Terry Riley), allegedly so that Charles II could join in. A Purcell Garland was commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival in 1995 for his tercentenary, with three British masters arranging and invigorating Purcell fantasias for a mixed chamber group. Oliver Knussen’s fantasia directly echoes Purcell’s as the note playfully shifts around the ensemble, George Benjamin’s piece uses a celeste alongside clarinet and the two strings to create haunting textures and Colin Matthews takes an unfinished fantasia and extends it, mixing modern and baroque to great effect (this was my favourite sequence, Mr Matthews being especially adept with this instrumental combination).

We then had Helen Grime’s string sextet Into the Faded Air from 2007, made up of a short pair of opposing trios in the first movement, followed by a slow viola duet, a spiky, pizzicato driven third movement and a mournful chorale to conclude. Shades of Stravinsky certainly and Bartok for me. I really liked this piece.

I was less persuaded by Knussen’s “cantata” for solo oboe which has ten very short linked episodes searching for the high C resolution. Helen Grime’s A Cold Spring is another immediately appealing piece with a dance for a pair of clarinets, followed by an introspective horn “concerto”, and ending with a Stravinskian climax for the whole group. The Thomas Ades Studies take from material from his opera The Tempest and are scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. In just 8 minutes it sketches out the four shipwrecked aristos from the play and is brimful of energy and contrasts. Now I love Thomas Ades work as composer and performer and this was no exception.

Britten’s Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra from 1932 was his first numbered work, composed in just 3 weeks when he was a student at the RCM. I had forgotten just how clever this was – like a who’s who of composers from the previous three decades – but still recognisably his work. Whilst the first two movements have a pastoral, English feel about them to my ears, the final movement Tarantello bears the closest resemblance to Stravinsky. And Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat is where we ended. This was commissioned in 1939, just before Stravinsky fled to the US, for a certain Mrs Bliss, and blissful she must have been on receiving this. It takes Brandenburg 3 as a jumping off point and then frankly matches the genius of Bach. Igor Stravinsky. What a clever fellow. Still casting a long shadow over all art music today.

As usual the Britten Sinfonia, under their remarkable leader Jacqueline Shave, were on top form. They are utterly compelling under Thomas Ades in his ongoing Beethoven cycle (please try to see/hear this), but it is in contemporary music where they are without peers in this country. It is not easy to make this music immediately accessible, even to those of us laypeople that want to hear it, but the Britten Sinfonia do so effortlessly. Bravo.

Stravinsky from Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican review *****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle

Barbican Hall, 24th September 2017

  • Igor Stravinsky – The Firebird (original ballet)
  • Igor Stravinsky – Petrushka (1947 version)
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

So here is is. The second coming. Sir Simon Rattle kicks off his tenure at the helm of the LSO. I missed the opening concert of British composers (annoying) and the Damnation of Faust (no interest) but this was always going to be a must see so I booked as soon as it opened.

Now it has been perfectly possible to see Sir Simon in London with the LSO, (for example, a Mahler 6 and the Ligeti Grande Macabre earlier this year), and other bands, (a Haydn Seasons and the late Mozart symphonies both with the OAE stick in the memory), but this was the first opportunity to gauge what will be possible for orchestra and conductor to achieve now they have quality together.

So it was an expectant mood in the hall as the Scouse Gandalf took to the podium (no need for scores – it is all in his head), after a few words with a clearly pleased as punch Lord Mayor. And then all hell broke loose. This was simply breathtaking. For long periods I was sitting stock still (and I am a terrible fidgeter) either open-mouthed in astonishment or grinning to myself like the proverbial cat from Cheshire.

Now I like the boy Stravinsky. And the more I get to grips with his compositions the more pleasure (and intellectual stimulation) I get. But it is hard to beat these three ballet scores.

Sir Simon chose to deliver the complete Firebird ballet. This means there is more of the still late Romantic colouration and chromaticism before we get to the Kashchei mad disco bits which presage The Rite of Spring. This means the debt to mentor Rimsky-Korsakov and the stench of Imperial Russia (give ’em fairy tales instead of food) hangs heavy in the air. Tchaikovsky and the rest of the Five are also on show. As usual Sir Simon was not interested in galloping through the first half of the exotic first tableau, to make sure every ounce of orchestral magic was received and understood by the audience. Which meant that by the time we got to the stunning apotheosis we were begging for release. Oooh. You just knew Igor, after this first lucky break, was going to take this to the next level.

Which is what he did. For Petrushka we got the 1947 streamlining though this is the standard nowadays. Here we start to get the big repeated rhythms and motifs which are what took the world of Western classical music by the scruff of the neck and turned it into a new direction. The late C19 structure is sort of still visible but in a kind of ironic way. The thrust towards Modernism and the age of machines is starting to take over though with rapid changes of direction, repetitions, major keys piled up and loads of banging tunes. And at the centre was the LSO’s own pianist master, Philip Moore.

A well earned break and we got to Sir Simon’s Rite of Spring. What a racket. In a brilliant way. The orchestra throughout was using every available inch of the Barbican stage with 60 odd strings on show and more brass than Yorkshire. And in the giant rhythmic climaxes they all got a look in. My ears were pounding and I was at the back of the circle. Heaven knows what it must have been like for the captives at the front of the stage. I have heard some marvellous Rite of Springs, (in my view, I cannot vouch for the ear of the professional), but this topped the lot. You can see why everyone got so enervated at the first performance in 1913. I was tempted to jump out of my seat at the end of Dance of the Earth and yell “go on my son”.

Now the LSO is top notch. We know that. Best in the world. Maybe. Best in my world. Definitely. But I have never heard them sound like this. Under Valery Gergiev, sometimes with interpretations that seem to be dialled in a couple of hours before a concert, they looked, and sounded, frustrated. Not here. They were having a blast. I have never seen an orchestra looking so happy. Every single section sounded faultless to me bar a couple of overly-enthusiastic brass fanfares. Yet is was the woodwind which stood out. And when the strings where belting out as one, like some giant single instrument, or capturing a pianissimo so quiet time was suspended, it just felt good to be alive.

So all in all a genuinely memorable evening. I cannot wait for the next from this marriage made in musical heaven. Unfortunately a fair slice of Sir Simon’s standard repertoire is not entirely to my taste but there should be enough from the C20 and contemporary commissions and from Classical masters. Indeed in January he will take the LSO back to the Baroque in part (Handel and Rameau) alongside Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder (with the lady wife singing – his, not mine) and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. There is also a very attractive C20 programme with Janacek, Carter, Berg’s Violin Concerto, with the marvellous Isabelle Faust, and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. And there is plenty of Mahler, as well as Tippet, Bernstein and Strauss for those attuned to that sort of thing. Bring it on.

My pick of forthcoming London culture

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I am told by friends (and enemies) that I have a tendency to drone on. And I am like the proverbial kid in the sweet shop when it comes to London culture.

So the below is an attempt to distil the best of what is on now and what is coming up in the world of theatre and art. Nothing too obscure and largely big venues with plenty of tickets.

Theatre

1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. There are only a couple more weeks until the new cast takes over but the play is bullet proof so it shouldn’t matter too much. Just see it.

2. Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Sold out at the National but transferring to the Harold Pinter. This shouldn’t work – a straight narrative of the negotiations that led to the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO – but it does and is bloody magnificent.

3. Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse. There are a few tickets left for the remainder of the run. A sparse exploration of language and knowledge in Medieval England. Modern classic.

4. The End of Hope at the Soho Theatre. I saw this at the Orange Tree. A two hander which set in Northern Ireland by David Ireland and directed by a student amazingly. Just 60 mins and cheap as chips. It is hilarious and cutting. Highly recommended.

5. Network at the National. High expectations but should be justified.

6. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. The Bridge’s first offering. I have banged on about this before but I am v. excited.

7. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. Mike Bartlett’s (he who wrote the lines that have you shouting at the telly when Dr Foster is on) latest offering. A state of the nation promise.

8. Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre. Mamet’s shouty modern classic with a stellar cast and Sam Yates given the director’s chair.

9. The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Pinter’s guest house to avoid with a fascinating cast and Ian Rickson directing.

10. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I pretty much book anything that looks even vaguely interesting at the Royal Court, Orange Tree, Arcola and Young Vic. This is a guaranteed way to see stunning theatre without paying fancy West End prices for a seat only fit for hobbits. I can’t tell you why Gundog is on this list. I just have a feeling.

Exhibitions

1. Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. 50 Cezanne Portraits. There is nothing in art that could top this. Other than 50 Cezanne still lifes. Or 50 Cezanne landscapes. From 26th October.

2. Opera Passion, Power and Politics at the V&A. Story of opera through 7 premieres across 400 years from the V and A curators who are shit hot right now. From 30th September.

3. Monochrome: Paintings in Black and White at the National Gallery. Where will they go with this then? could and should be brilliant. From 30th October.

4. Impressionists in London at Tate Britain. Expect big crowds for some of the big names. From 2nd November.

5. Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy. I haven’t been yet but looking forward to seeing the retrospective of one of the big daddies of US C20 modern art. On now.

 

 

Girl From the North Country review ****

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Girl From the North Country

The Old Vic, 20th September 2017

(Girl From the North Country is transferring to the Noel Coward Theatre from 29th Dec 2017 through to 24th Mar 2018)

I am afraid there is a bit of a rant coming. If the Old Vic is going to fill matinee performances with teenage schoolkids can it please find a way to get them to shut up during the performance. I can just about deal with the Old Vic’s kettle-ing of the audience into the tiny foyer, the toilet squeezes (and I am a bloke – the ladies queue looks worse), the sometimes loose productions let down by under-rehearsal, the leg-room in parts of the Lilian Baylis Circle, the sound quality in parts of the stalls and the occasionally grasping approach to interval scheduling. Why? Because it is the Old Vic, a commercial theatre with no subsidy that does its level best to bring together the best creatives with classic plays and important new works. And it is a big space to fill. And, to be fair, they are doing something about the layout.

Now pitching up at matinees here and at the Young Vic is going to mean schoolkids. And by and large that is a brilliant thing. Watching some young-uns relax into the Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Midsummer Night Dream earlier in the year was a joy to behold. A bit of cacophony before the curtain rise, some fidgeting, the odd screen flicker, maybe even one or two whispers is normally a fair exchange for the audible gasps or whoops when something really exciting happens on stage. But what I could not stomach here was a trio of show-offs pointedly stage-whispering throughout. Too loud and frequent to ignore. Couldn’t find a teacher/TA to gently vent fury so ended up seething.

And thus my journey to grumpy old man is complete.

Anyway it meant that my enjoyment of Girl From the North Country was compromised. Which is a shame. Because as the remaining full houses and official and audience reviews suggest, it is very very good. I went with the SO as a replacement for BUD, who I had attempted to rope in, knowing full well that he would be enmeshed instead in a world of finance. Now the SO is famed in our house for her dislike of “musical theatre” and for eschewing any information in advance about what she will be seeing in the theatre. So having failed to gauge any reaction during the first half from her usual Sphinx-like gaze (and having myself been focused on the stage itself whilst trying to zone out the offending youths) I waited with bated breath for her verdict. “It is good – I am enjoying it”. I was tempted to insert the word “really” before “good” or “enjoying” in the previous sentence but that would imply a level of rapture that the SO rarely attains. in fact in the last 5 years of theatre going only The Ferryman, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet and Hytner’s NT Othello claimed a “really” good accolade.

Anyway the point is that this play with music really works. It is no surprise that writer Conor McPherson’s text is a delight. This is the man who delights in story-telling from a theatrical culture that does likewise. The setting, a guest house in Duluth, Minnesota (the birth-place of Bob Dylan) in 1934 as the US is emerging from the Great Depression, lends itself perfectly to this tableau of interweaving narratives. The characters are one rung up from the completely dispossessed, and the Crash and the ensuing credit collapse and failed harvests are swinging into the rear view mirror, but these characters still have next to nothing and are scraping around for the means to live.

Sorry another aside. If you ever get a chance read the novel Duluth by Gore Vidal which uses the city as a starting point for a brilliantly structured flight of fancy with layers of meaning and sharp satire. As usual Mr Vidal was decades ahead of the zeitgeist. And now I see there is a revival of his play, The Best Man, about to tour. I hope the production does it justice as the text (and film adaptation with Henry Fonda in the lead) shows a play with real relevance to US politics today, (though at the time of writing Vidal’s acerbic wit was aimed at Nixon, the Kennedys and McCarthy). That nice Martin Shaw will take the lead role and Simon Evans will direct (a wise choice given his recent Arturo Ui at the Donmar). I would definitely gives this a viewing.

Anyway back to the matter in hand. Now there is a big Bob Dylan shaped whole in my life. I have tried half-heartedly to fill it but have never really been persuaded. Seeing and hearing this might have changed my mind, but if it eventually doesn’t that is no judgement on the 20 songs here. For in the context of the production the music and lyrics were a perfect fit. There is no particular attempt to make lyrics echo plot or vice versa. This is a play with songs (some partial, some reprised and most realised with standing microphones) and not a musical. No jazz hands, fisting clenching or “woe is me” ballads. Just a procession of interludes where one or more of the characters plunder Mr Dylan’s back catalogue (across the decades so not just the obvious early folk-y/bluegrass-y stuff) accompanied by a band playing only instruments of the Depression years period. (Hats off to musicians, Alan Berry, Charlie Brown, Pete Callard and Don Richardson). The arrangements from Simon Hale are very satisfying, the lyrics are self-evidently beautiful and the performances pitch perfect (emotionally I mean – obviously some of the cast are better singers than others). Particular favourites for me were Slow Train, Jokerman, Hurricane, You Ain’t Going Nowhere and Make You Feel My Love. And the diminutive Shirley Henderson belting out Like a Rolling Stone.

Mr McPherson, who directs here as well, an eminently sensible decision given the structure of the work, lets the characters emerge with a sparse but emotionally affecting text. The whole play is only just over a couple of hours. Strip out the music and maybe there is 90 minutes of drama. Yet there are 13 named characters. We get to know all of them and their stories though. That alone is a remarkable achievement.

Ciaran Hinds plays the owner of the guesthouse Nick Laine. A big man whose dreams were crushed a long time ago. Last time we saw Mr Hinds he was a curiously lifeless Claudius in the Cumberbatch Hamlet. Here though he is what he should be. Wife Elizabeth has long since retreated into her own world but her delusions do not stop her seeing the essence of what is going on around her. Shirley Henderson (whom I adore) is maybe a tiny bit over the top but her unravelled self works as metaphor for America in these years. Son Gene, played by telly star, Sam Reid yearns to write but likes the whisky a bit much. Again a stock character, true, but not a stereotype. Adopted daughter Marianne, played by Sheila Atim, is black and hugs the guest-house for fear of attack. Nick would like to marry her off to elderly shop-owner Mr Perry (Jim Norton) but she resists, fearing a life of unhappiness and frustration. Katherine Draper (the excellent Claudia Jolly) is passing through and has hopes of an inheritance which will let her set up a business with Nick with whom she is having an affair. Yet Nick will never leave Elizabeth and, anyway, Katherine’s financial salvation vanishes into thin air.

A couple of cons then crash the guesthouse, Joe Scott (Arinze Kene who I need to keep tabs on) a good man, an ex-boxer, who woos Marianne, and “Reverend” Meadows, (a suitably sly Michael Schaeffer), a self-styled preacher and bible seller, who is up to no good. We are also joined by the bankrupt and broken Burke family (moving performances from Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) whose son Elias (Jack Shalloo) has an intellectual disability. And to top it off we have the mighty Ron Cook as Dr Walker, who acts as narrator to add context, Mrs Nielsen (Debbie Kurup) and a fine ensemble (Kirsty Malpass, Tome Peters, Karl Queensborough) to add depth to the chorus. Overall all then a busy stage but the scene changes were deftly handled.

Now if I had a small misgiving, (aside from the babbling youth), it would be that the structure and length of the play constrains any real plot development. As I say we get to “know” these characters and understand their dreams and frustrations but, all up, only a few things actually happen. No matter given the sublime spell that the dialogue, music and lyrics help to create, but I think this could actually have done with being a little longer (a rare request from the Tourist) to expand the stories of the Laine and Burke families in particular, and maybe heighten the drama. I also think that when this is revived, (the rest of the run is sold out I think), as it surely will be, an outdoor setting, on a summer’s evening, might turn it into magic.

Anyway,whilst maybe not quite up there with Mr McPherson’s The Weir on the theatrical bucket list, this is a play with music that should be seen. Even, or maybe especially, if you are not a Dylan devotee. Remember it was the recalcitrant Nobel Prize winner who approached Mr McPherson and attached no strings to the project. Clearly he knew that justice would be done to his poetry (though it seems the old curmudgeon hasn’t seen it yet).