My top ten theatre productions of 2019

Even this is a month too late. Hopeless. Anywhere here is my take on the best theatre of 2019.

There were a lot of really good productions in 2019. But these were the ones which pinned me to my seat. Where I was wowed by just what theatre can do. With the writer always at the beating heart.

More or less in order.

  1. Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse. Lynn Nottage’s document of de-industrialised America wore its research lightly and didn’t forget to be a gripping personal drama.
  2. All My Sons at the Old Vic. Jeremy Herrin and A list cast knew exactly how to ratchet up Miller’s didactic tragedy ….
  3. Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. ….. and Marianne Elliott got right inside Willy’s wretched head.
  4. Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads at the Spiegeltent Chichester. Immersed in Roy Williams’s vital examination of race and nationhood.
  5. Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Pants on Fire at the Vaults Festival. Just hilarious Greek myth sketch collection transposed on a shoestring to WWII Britain.
  6. The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Laura Wade’s brilliant riff on authorship drawn from Jane Austen’s unfinished novel.
  7. Shook at the Southwark Playhouse. Samuel Bailey’s oh so alive Papatango winning debut play. (See it at Trafalgar Studios from April).
  8. Shipwreck at the Almeida Theatre. Anne Washburn’s extraordinary liberal guilt, state of the nation debate fantasia.
  9. Medea from International Theater Amsterdam at the Barbican. The world’s greatest theatre company update one of the world’s greatest ever stories.
  10. Small Island at the National Theatre. Andrea Levy’s mesmerising story gloriously brought to life on the Olivier stage.

Ten best ever songs – cover versions

I confess I got a bit bored trying to catch up with all the high culture I have enjoyed and still intend to document.

Robert Wyatt (there he is) then popped up on the playlist (I’m A Believer) and I thought a diversion was in order. So ten brilliant cover versions from the Tourist’s collection. No particular order, No details. No film-flam.

Who knows I might go further down this Twitter-y track in future Much to your collective relief.

Guess the original?

  • Blancmange – The Day Before You Came
  • The Fall – Lost In Music
  • Grace Jones – Love Is The Drug
  • Isaac Hayes – Walk On By
  • The Kane Gang – Respect Yourself
  • Magazine – Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
  • Nina Simone – Feeling Good
  • Otis Redding – Try A Little Tenderness
  • Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U
  • Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding

Blood Wedding at the Young Vic review ****

Blood Wedding

Young Vic, 11th October 2019

I got a bit nervous going into this. For those who don’t know, South African director Yael Farber has a certain style, an aesthetic, and approach to interpretation of classic plays, which isn’t too everyone’s taste. For me it works. Mies Julie, Knives in Hens, Les Blancs, even the much derided Salome at the NT, all drew me in. Very satisfying. We have her take on Hamlet also at the Young Vic to look forward to next year and newbie, the Boulevard Theatre, has lined her up to direct her compatriot, Athol Fugard’s, Hello and Goodbye.

For Blood Wedding though I had roped in the SO, a more forbidding critic, who is not, as most chums rightly are, as tolerant as the Tourist of, shall we say directorial longueurs. And this was near 2 hours straight through. On the benches of the Young Vic main space. And with her back playing up.

As it turned out I had nothing to fear. Lorca’s play, (his day job was poet after all), has a mythic and elegiac quality perfectly suited to Ms Farber’s ethereal approach, though this tale of forbidden love and revenge is not without drama and lends itself to a clear feminist interpretation. All this and more was on show at the Young Vic. A barely there, in the round, set design from Susan Hilferty, with occasional visual declamation via doors on one side, some artful cascades and a rope and harness which permitted muscular bad boy Leonardo (Gavin Drea) and absconding (nameless) Bride (Aoife Duffin) the striking means to pretend gallop. The intervention of the symbolic Moon (Thalissa Teixera), who can now add superb flamenco singing to her acting flair, and woodcutters (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva and Faaiz Mbelizi) made perfect, just about, sense. The bold lighting of Natasha Chivers, the score of Isobel Waller-Bridge, the spectral hum of Emma Laxton’s sound design, the balletic movement of Imogen Knight, witness the closing fight (overseen by Kate Waters) and subsequent requiem.

Most of all though Marina Carr’s beautiful translation. By shifting the setting of Lorca’s revenge tragedy to rural Ireland, though never quite leaving 1930’s Andalusia behind, Ms Faber allowed Ms Carr the opportunity to conjure an English language translation which was sympathetic to the poetry, metaphor and idiom of the Spanish original. A colonised Irish interior, suppressed by Church and State, bears obvious similarities to the paralysed, benighted Spain that Lorca delineated, critiqued and celebrated in his rural trilogy (Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba as well as BW). The hybrid setting also allowed the natural casting of the magnificent Olwen Fouere as the grizzled, austere Mother and the equally magnificent Brid Brennan as the Weaver. If I tell you that Annie Firbank as the Housekeeper and Steffan Rhodri as the outraged Father also graced the stage, along with relative newcomers Scarlett Brookes, (watch her closely in future) as Leonardo’s spurned wife and David Walmsley as the equally wronged Groom, then you can see that this was a grade A cast top to toe.

Lorca’s story is straightforward. Mother reminds son (the Groom) that his Dad and Bro were killed by the men of the Felix family next door. A dispute over land. Leonardo Felix and the Bride are still in love. Mrs Leonardo knows. The Mother finds out as well but decides to visit the Bride and her Dad. The wedding goes ahead by Leonardo turns up and steals the Bride. Outrage. Vengeance. Fight. Deaths. Sacrifice. It is very heady stuff but its chimerical qualities mean it is a long way from melodrama or even Greek tragedy. Closer to fable.

Anyway Yael Farber and Marina Carr have done a little nip and tuck with the plot but all the primitive elements are still there. That this is a traditional, brutally patriarchal society is never in doubt, as much but what the older women say, as the men, and yet there is still a sense of agency in the striking performances of Aoife Duffin and Scarlett Brooks. There is intentional comedy in the vernacular passages and there is no unintentional comedy in the brutal and fantastical scenes, (though once or twice it skirts close near the end – it is the women who mop up the blood). The cumulative effect is undeniably powerful even when the pace edges towards the, shall we say, Largo. In fact there is something of the minor key symphonic in Yael Farber’s reading.

I am not sure I would recommend this to fans of the Lion King or indeed anyway unfamiliar with this deliberately stylised auteur approach to theatre. On reflection I shouldn’t really have worried about the SO’s reaction. She reads books. Proper books. Lots of them. We are drowning in theme. Imagination, to augment the visual abstraction, is therefore no limitation for her.

Barber Shop Chronicles at the Oxford Playhouse review *****

Barber Shop Chronicles

Oxford Playhouse, 10th October 2019

My regular reader is likely on the verge of giving up on the grounds that otiose attitude, (a sign of which is that I am running out of synonyms for lazy in these preamble apologies), means most of these comments take so long to appear on the page that the associated entertainment has invariably come on and gone.

But even by the Tourist’s shocking standards this takes some beating. Barber Shop Chronicles, which catapulted the careers of writer Inua Ellams and director, Bijan Sheibani, first appeared at the NT in 2017. Since then it has embarked on two national tours and returned to the South Bank. In this tour it will finally visit Leeds Playhouse before crossing the pond for a week at Brooklyn Academy of Music. New Yorkers, do not miss it.

So you can see it took the Tourist an inordinately long time to get round to seeing it, having initially assumed that it wasn’t for him, what with all that modern dance music, then that it wasn’t convenient and then having got slightly antsy at all the people telling him he must see it. Finally, and somewhat shamefacedly, he snuck off to Oxford to take a peek at the ever delightful Playhouse. Where fortunately a bunch of students were lapping up the on stage pre-show that frames the play sparing us boomers from any embarrassment.

I don’t need to add to the reviews and word of mouth approval. This is as good as they say it is. Inventive, exciting, uplifting. All true. But what most impressed me was the ability of Inua Ellams to shine a light on what it means to be a “strong, black man”, a father, a son, a friend, a colleague, in Africa today. And he does this without apology or faint-heartedness. There isn’t really a plot as such, we switch between 6 barber shops/shacks in Africa and in London on the day in April 2012 when Chelsea take on, and beat, Barcelona in the Champions League semi. However, as the men talk football, politics, language, race, disapora, relationships, fatherhood, in argument, confession and in jest (they all share the same, tired, joke), the stories mesh together to reveal their shared hopes, fears and frustration. Actually when I say there isn’t a plot, that isn’t quite true as in London we learn the truth about Samuel’s (Mohammed Mansaray) father and his father’s friend Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), which turns into an epiphany for this angry young man. These two share their shop with the nonchalant Jamaican Winston (Micah Balfour), generally bemused by the Afrocan customers, and help support the acting dreams of new customer Ethan (Elmi Rashid Elmi).

Music and dance punctuate the rapid scene changes as chairs, tables, towels and razors are shifted into place, courtesy of Aline David’ s sublime choreography, across Rae Smith’s rough and ready set, spinning globe and posters signing location. Peckham, Lagos, Harare, Kampala, Johannesburg, Accra, may differ in terms of accent and fashion, (there are some very sharp threads on show), but these men share their masculinity, and, it is true, their misogyny, though generally in a humorous, not ugly, way. The 12 strong touring cast, (Okorie Chukwu, Maynard Eziashi, Adee Dee Haastrup, Emmanuel Ighodaro, Demmy Lapido, Tom Moutchi, Eric Shango, David Webber, in addition to the four above), effortlessly shift between the various characters, moving from cocky to compassionate in the blink of an eye. Maybe, at times, it might have been interesting to linger longer in each of the locations, though we do get to reflect on unsettling political truths in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Uganda, but, on balance, I can see why Inua Ellams, who spent six weeks interviewing and observing in Africa, whittling down 60 hours of recording to just two, wanted to cram so much of this vibrant dialogue in. After all his day job is a poet. Though with The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln and his forthcoming take on Three Sisters back at the National it is his stage work which is in the ascendant.

Exhilarating, joyful thoughtful theatre. Ordinary lives rendered extraordinary. A must see. And a reminder to me that a) I am quite dull and b) that I am too awkward for anything but 10 minutes and a couple of grunted pleasantries in the Turkish barbers down the road. Never mind.

PS I also have learnt what a WHAM supervisor, here Andrew Whiteoak. Wigs, Hair and Make-up. Obviously pretty important in BSC And not, unsurprisingly, the DJ at Club Tropicana.

Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre review ***

Blues in the Night

Kiln Theatre, 31st July 2019

Right. I’ll cut to the chase. Blues in the Night isn’t really a work of drama. Or really musical theatre. It is a nostalgic revue purporting to tell the story of three women, the Lady (Sharon D Clarke), the Woman (Debbie Kurup) and the Girl (Gemma Sutton), who have been variously misused by men in their lives, holed up in a cheap, seedy hotel in pre-war Chicago. They are joined by the spivish Man (Clive Rowe), who they have all encountered, a couple of hustler/bartender types (Aston New and Joseph Poulton) and, surprise, surprise, an on-stage band. With minimal spoken narrative, barely any characterisation and no real story to speak of, these archetypes proceed to sing and dance their way, in various combinations, through 25 mostly torch, blues and jazz standards over the course of a couple of hours.

To be fair I doubt that African-American director Sheldon Epps intended any more than this when he first dreamt this up in 1980. This is a vehicle to showcase the music and, to a lesser extent, and less successfully, highlight the plight of the three women it portrays. It first appeared in London at the Donmar in 1987, to some acclaim, but this is its first revival for 30 years. 

So, providing you bear all that in mind, and don’t go expecting much in the way of interaction between the characters, or much insight into their inner lives beyond mooching about their lost “loves”, drowning their sorrows in whiskey and fags or boasting about their conquests, then you are in for a treat. Or you would have been if you had seen it before the run ended. The set design of Robert Jones, which foregrounds the “bedrooms” of the three women where many of the songs are performed (with a fully stocked bar at the back!), the on-stage band of Shaney Forbes (drums), Stuart Brooks (trumpet), Horace Cardew (sax, clarinet, flute), Rachel Espeute (double bass, led by Mark Dickman on piano, and the sprightly direction of Susie McKenna, are all excellent. Lotte Collett’s costumes also hit the mark. 

Gemma Sutton’s voice is a little underpowered compared to Debbie Kurup’s, though the tiresome stereotype of the Girl did her no favours. Clive Rowe though can swing and manages somehow to conjure up the bumptious cockiness of the Man from next to no material, with a fine voice especially in lower registers. 

But let’s be honest. The main (only?) reason to see this was Sharon D Clarke. She doesn’t have much opportunity to display her formidable acting skills but who cares given that voice. The stand out is when she gets to sing Wasted Life Blues. “Wonder what will become of poor me”. Close your eyes and Bessie Smith (above) could be in the house. OK so this isn’t really close to her extraordinary performance in Caroline, Or Change, or in the title role in NT’s revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or even as Linda Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman, (my theatrical highlight of this or any other year is hearing her rebuke Biff and Happy when they mock Willy), but it is still tremendous stuff. Go see her outshine the rest of the cast and blow the roof off in a West End musical potboiler or watch her define “hidden depths” on the telly for sure, but ideally catch her in something like the above, with a bit more dramatic heft, to see just how she commands the stage, singing or speaking. 

The other songs written by Ms Smith, Baby Doll, Blue, Blue, Dirty No-Gooder Blues, It Makes My Love Come Down, Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out and Reckless Blues, also outshine the contributions of the other composers but it’s still pretty hard not to enjoy the likes of Kitchen Man (Ms Clarke saucing it up), Harold Arden’s eponymous Blues in the Night or Lover Man. 

The SO, who is partial to both Ms Clarke and the Kiln, agreed. Looked good, sounded great, eminently forgettable. 

Latest London theatre recommendations October 2018

leicester_haymarket_theatre_stage

There have been a few new seasons announced in luvvie-world so I thought I would let you know what might be interesting. Remember dear reader I have no axes to grind or mates to support so no biases here. I simply have nothing better to do. So my economic inactivity could be your cultural entertainment gain.

For those who can’t be bothered to wade through the more detailed update below are some top ideas for booking ahead.

  • Top Girls at the National Theatre
  • Stories at the National Theatre
  • Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre
  • Cyprus Avenue at the Royal Court Theatre
  • All My Sons at the Old Vic Theatre
  • A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre
  • All About Eve at the Noel Coward Theatre

Also don’t miss this if you like musicals … though it isn’t your standard jazz hands extravaganza (which is why I loved it).

  • Caroline, or Change at the Playhouse Theatre

On now and which I can very highly recommend.

  • Humans at the Hampstead Theatre – it is sold out but maybe returns are possible- a standard American dysfunctional family at Thanksgiving set up but then it goes a bit off kilter and says a lot out US economy/society in a subtle and funny way.
  • The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre – read and believe the reviews – very sharp and insightful but they are really asking stupid prices across the remainder of the run – first time I saw it £10, second time (yes it is that good) £20 but they are asking £100 a pop for a bench seat. Hmm.

Right then here is the detail of some of the forthcoming seasons at the key venues.

  • National Theatre. The two blockbusters on now The Lehman Trilogy and Antony and Cleopatra are sold out. If the Lehman Trilogy were to pop up again you would be mugs not to see it. Should have listened to me months ago. I still have my eye on Stories a new play by Nina Raine about, I think, late, single, motherhood. She is a sharp and funny writer and her last play Consent got a West End transfer. Of the new season which starts booking in November there is a Tartuffe, an update of the Moliere satire, of which there have been a few recently, but I need to see the cast before recommending and MOST IMPORTANTLY there is a new version of Top Girls. Top Girls is one of the best plays ever written by Caryl Churchill who is the greatest English playwright after Shakespeare IMHO. It kicks off with a chat between various real and fictional women about their lives then tells the story of Marlene in the 1980s. A feminist classic. That probably isn’t selling it very well but I am immensely excited I can see again. And finally for those of a more pretentious bent there is When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other. By a chap called Martin Crimp who isn’t the most direct of writers, it’s based on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a C18 novel which is about as dodgy in terms of sexual politics as it is possible to get. But they will no doubt rework its themes and the big draw is Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane in the leads. And the darling of European style auteur direction Katie Mitchell is in the chair. Mind you her last London outing, which I saw earlier in the week, La Maladie de Mort, complete with on stage nudity, left me baffled.
  • Barbican Theatre. On the subject of knotty, poncey European theatre there is a treat coming up for all you Russian speakers out there. The Moscow Pushkin drama theatre is bringing over its productions of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Brecht’s The Good Person of Sichuan in February next year.
  • Almeida Theatre. Right here are some more promising recommendations. On sale now a The Tragedy of King Richard II, Top Shakespeare charting the downfall of Dickie 2 and rise of Henry 4 and the shift in how monarchy worked, all done in flowery verse. I wouldn’t necessarily start here with the history plays, (Dickie 3 is the go to on that front,) but the draw is Simon Russell Beale in the lead and Joe Hill-Gibbons, who likes to mess about with Shakespeare to normally good effect, as director. Booking from November is a Three Sisters, more Chekhov but this has all the right ingredients so I think is worth a view, and Shipwreck, which sounds like it is going to be some sort of Trump satire, written by Anne Washburn who has conjured up some interesting ideas before at the Almeida even if they don’t always quite work. Then next year there is an adaptation of Danish film thriller The Hunt (google the watch it) and Vassa an adaptation by Mike Bartlett of a Maxim Gorky classic. Mike Bartlett is currently on the telly with his fictional Sun vs Guardian newspaper saga, Press. I think this will be a must see, a one-family-as-metaphor-for-state-of-the-nation thing, which is what he excels at, so except copious reminders from me on this.
  • Royal Court Theatre. Royal Court is bringing back Cyprus Avenue for a limited run. Stephen Rea, (you will know him from the telly), is an Ulster Loyalist who think his grand-daughter is reborn Sinn Fein politico Gerry Adams. Sound odd I know but writer David Ireland scripts are very funny though knowing a bit about Irish politics will help. Obviously v topical and it won loads of awards.
  • Donmar Warehouse. Does Berberian Sound Studio mean anything to anyone? Genuinely bizarre film by a chap called Peter Strickland. I loved it. No idea how they are going to stage this. Could be brilliant or awful.
  • Old Vic. Right. Hollywood royalty in the form of Sally Field and Bill Pullman coming over for a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Good support, fine director. This is a typical US dysfunctional family saga but in Miller’s hands it becomes so much more, the downfall of a man (the Dad) from a past mistake (so a classic Greek tragedy set up). Not a sure fire guaranteed winner but all the ingredients are there so I definitely recommend this.
  • Bridge Theatre. I have been banging on about A Very, Very. Very Dark Matter by Martin McDonagh, (In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Hangmen, Lieutenant of Inishmore) for months. Please book or maybe now you can wait for the reviews at end October and if, as I expect, a string of 5*’s then book straight away. His last play Hangmen is the best new play I have seen in years.
  • Rose Kingston. Maybe only relevant for the South-West Londoners amongst you but my local is going straight for the popular jugular with the latest season now on sale, Stones in My Pockets, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and(via the Open Air Theatre) To Kill A Mockingbird.
  • Noel Coward Theatre. Just on sale All About Eve directed by Ivo van Eve with Gillian Anderson and Lily James. The classic black and white Manckiewicz film with Bette Davies in the lead to be given the full van Hove filmic treatment. Will sell out and pretty expensive seats but will probably be a big hit. He doesn’t always get it right translating film to theatre, but when he does, like Network, it is must see stuff.

Sea Wall at the Old Vic Theatre review

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sea Wall

Old Vic Theatre, 23rd June 2018

I might have told this story before. My memory is failing. A few years ago the SO, BD and LD went to see Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Terrific film and terrific musical. Made more terrific by the presence of Ben Wishaw and Andrew Scott in the audience just in front of us. Topping that LD got a pic of herself with them at the interval thanks to the SO’s no-nonsense lack of star-struckedness. Made our days though I was too scared to talk to them. If I had it might have gone … “I hope your Hamlet Mr Scott is as good as yours Mr Wishaw” or some equally bone-headed guff.

Anyway it turns out that Mr Scott’s Hamlet at the Almeida was even better than Mr Wishaw’s. Some achievement that. Don’t listen to those who say his style was too “conversational” or that he dumb-downed the verse for the hoi-polloi, (aided and abetted by some suspiciously “European auteur” style direction from Robert Icke). Those are the sort of snobs who would keep you all from the exquisite joy that is Shakespeare and have you all bored rigid for four hours with men in doublets and tights at the Globe.

Sea Wall was written especially for Mr Scott by Simon Stephens, who, on his day, is as fine a dramatist as any alive today. It is apparently the favourite of his play. It was commissioned by Josie Rourke in 2008 when she was AD at the Bush and has subsequently popped up in Edinburgh, Dublin and at the NT under the auspices of Paines Plough and the director here, George Perrin. It is only 30 minutes long, that was the brief, and Mr Stephens had only 3 weeks to write it. This left no time for fannying about so, after catching a glimpse of an incident whilst on holiday in France which forms the denouement of the monologue, he just got on with it. Which explains its immediacy and power I suspect.

At first there is just a hint that Mr Scott is showboating here as he breaks down the barrier between actor, character and text. Given the prices some of the audience will have paid, (not this skinflint), and the hype surrounding the play and his performance, there was a faint air of “so what” for the first few minutes. Then somewhere in the story the spell is cast so that by the end Mr Scott had, forgive the cliche, the entire packed Old Vic crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. The monologue, when perfectly realised as here, can be the most perfect form of theatre. It is just story telling after all and in this simple family tragedy Simon Stephens is able to squeeze in all of his favourite themes, science, faith, mortality, twists of fate, compassion, exploration, fatherhood, Chekhov, grief, the possibility of redemption, all in one perfectly tight bundle. Delivered by a man who, for all the world, looks like he is watching the story unfold alongside us, as observer and observed. Other actors have performed the part of Alex but at the end of the day this is Scott’s voice in the text.

There is a short film version and hopefully he will get to play it again. Meanwhile this family at least awaits his next move, TV, film or stage, with bated breath.

 

 

The Flight of the Conchords at the O2 Arena review ****

flight_of_the_conchords

The Flight of the Conchords

The O2 Arena, 20th June 2018

Father and Son
Deana and Ian
The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)
Inner City Pressure
Bowie
Chips and Dips
Albi The Racist Dragon
1353 (Woo a Lady)
The Ballad of Stana
Bus Driver’s Song
Mutha’uckas / Hurt Feelings
The Seagull
Back on the Road
Carol Brown
Shady Rachel
Robots

Dairy products, meat, wood, locations for hobbits and rugby teams. New Zealand’s most valuable exports? Nope. The Flight of the Conchords, surely. Only joking. New Zealand has an extraordinarily rich cultural life from what I can see and landscapes of immense beauty, Sadly I suspect I will never get there.

So for the moment I will have to be content with Bret and Jermaine. Originally we intended to go en famille. BD’s loss, (poncing around at some uni bash), was MS’s gain. LD might not quite have the compulsion of the rest of us but has had enough exposure to the classic tunes to mean that it was pretty easy for her to get into the swing of the evening.

Over the last few years I have been constantly surprised by how few of my friends and acquaintances have caught the Conchords bug and, indeed, how many have never even heard of the boys. Clearly though filling this many large venues, (and the pre-tour at the Soho Theatre), even after the accident to Bret’s hand, suggests there are plenty of fans 10 years after the original HBO show and 15 years after storming the Edinburgh Fringe.

No need to preach to the converted then. You were probably there. On the night we went the boys took their time coming on, and by virtue of my miserliness, and a big of bad luck on the open for the original dates, we were about as far away as it was possible to be in the O2 which, as everyone knows, is A VERY BAD IDEA. But I figured we’d be so happy anyway that it wouldn’t matter too much if we relied on the screen to see the boys.

Of course they were brilliant (including Nigel on cello aka the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). Of course the banter, less knowing and much looser than of old, was hilarious. Of course the classics were a joy even when they ballsed them up (deliberately?). But the best thing about the whole evening were the new songs. Especially the meta The Seagull, piano ballad Father and Son, country rock The Ballad of Stana and the hilarious madrigal 1353 (Woo A Lady). The reviews let us know what was coming but a song that might have been written especially for MS was the highlight of our evening.

There is not much point going on. If you don’t know “the fourth most popular folk parody duo in New Zealand”, or if you’ve had a look and don’t get it, then no matter. Your loss. For some of us this is still about as funny as funny gets.

 

Bryce Dessner and the London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ***

bryce_dessner_2015.jpg

London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists, Galya Bisengalieva (violin), Rakhi Singh (violin), Robert Ames (viola), Oliver Coates (cello) – Bryce Dessner (electric guitar)

Queen Elizabeth Hall. 10th April 2018

  • Bryce Dessner – Aheym for string quartet
  • Mica Levi – You belong to me for string quartet
  • Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar and tape
  • Steve Reich – Different trains for string quartet and tape (with film from Bill Morrison)

I am pretty sure the last time I was in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was with a young BD and LD and the SO to see Slava’s Snow Show as a “Christmas Treat”. The SO booked the entertainment without, as is her wont, looking too closely at the details. Which is a shame as she has an aversion to clowns. Not a full blown psychic horror but enough to engender a vague sense of unease. Which is unfortunate as, for those that don’t know, Slava’s Snow Show involves clowns. A lot of clowns. On a journey. In Russian. Being the supportive family that we are we found the SO’s discomfort funnier that the show. We still do.

This was my first visit to the newly refurbished QEH and I can report an already handsome building is now even better looking. It looks like it will pursue a course of adventurous programming, which is marvellous, though I can’t pretend it is all to my taste.

This concert was though. Arse that I am I hadn’t recorded the details correctly in my foolproof diary system so I hadn’t realised Different Trains was on the menu and had no idea the evening would be graced by the presence of Mr Bryce Dessner. Now I am guessing this was in stark contrast to most of the audience, for whom, I assume, he was the main attraction. I do not know if the punters that can now be counted on to fill a hall showcasing minimalist classics have always been there, or whether they are new to the genre, but it doesn’t matter. The whole of arty. trendy, creative London turns up in droves now, (though not so much at venues without the social media presence of the Southbank)., which leaves me looking and feeling even more conscious of my shocking lack of style.

(Where did it all go wrong? I used to be a contender in the sartorial stakes and could oft be found propping up the bar at cutting edge London venues. Honestly. No longer. Now even the pensioner tribe at midweek theatrical matinees looks down on me. That it should come to this. Mind you, it’s all my fault. This too stolid flesh needs melting).

All this crossing of musical boundaries is immensely energising though, and, in some ways, it was minimalism that first brought together the the “high” art of classical music with the “popular” art of rock and pop. I would also contend that if it hadn’t been for “classical” composers in the 1950s and 1960s exploring what technology and music from other cultures had to offer, dance music would be much the poorer.

Anyway our man Mr Dessner stands astride the divide, as it were, with his well regarded minimal classical works and his day, or night, job as guitarist for The National. Now, as it happens, I like The National. No expert but I have a few of their albums and saw them support that dreadful old rocker Neil Young a few years ago in Hyde Park. Obviously I don’t mean Neil Young is dreadful. he is akin to a god in my eyes. What I can say though is that The National, along with the likes of Beach House, Death Grips, Eels, John Grant, The Knife, Metronomy and TV on the Radio, ensure that the non-classical section of my CD collection, (I know CDs, ho-ho-ho grandad), isn’t entirely made up of artists who are either older than me or dead. I also appreciate that this is hardly evidence of cutting edge musical taste, and is very white, but, I fear, so is your correspondent. And it also doesn’t mean that as far as I am concerned the best music made in the last few years has come from The Fall, (sadly no longer, why are we not still in a period of national mourning?) and Wire. Worse still, whilst writing this I am listening to Soft Machine. Could it be any worse?

Unsurprisingly Mr Dessner was terrific. I listened to Aheym for string quartet a couple of times before this and it is a worthy and apposite work to set alongside Steve Reich’s string quartet masterpiece. Written in 2009, early on in his catalogue, the title is Yiddish for “homeward” and is inspired by his granny’s stories about Eastern Europe and coming to America. There is a five beat jagged chordal rhythm that runs through the piece which is cut up and syncopated in various ways until a short solo cello line, with pizzicato breaks, takes us to a slower, murky fugal passage, above the cello rocking. This is repeated in a different way before the rhythm returns, with col legno bowing, some scratchy stuff, some very high harmonics and a bit of double stopping to round things off. It is not structurally complex but it is very arresting and every string effect on show was “enhanced” by the close microphones. I loved it though I don’t suppose it will pop up at the Wigmore any time soon.

Mica Levi’s work, written in 2016 for this very ensemble, takes the 1950s song of the title and zeroes in on scraps of music within it. There are three sections to be played in any order. Hannah, a kind of set of passacaglia variations with mad trilling, Jumping, sort of fugal with odd chords moving to tremolos over a cello grind, and Sun, with the higher strings sliding up over the cello drone. It is less interesting than it sounds. Again it was over-amplified for my liking.

Ahed of the interval and before the main event Mr Dessner took to the stage with electric guitar for a performance of Electric Counterpoint. No rock’n’roll razzamatazz here. He looked like one of the stage managers despite having taking a bow earlier after Aheym. EC has one live guitar part, obviously, alongside twelve recorded guitar parts, two on bass. There are three movements, without breaks, the first an 8 part canon with the live guitar over the top and harmonic pulse from the other recorded guitars, the slow movement is similar but with 9 parts and, er, a slower theme, and the final part, again a canon, but with more tonal variation and rhythmic change. It is pure Reich and here the QEH acoustic, the amplification and, obviously, our rock god, really delivered.

Different Trains, commissioned, like Aheym, by the Kronos Quartet, and premiered in this very venue in 1988, is way more interesting than it sounds. The live string quartet is backed by three recorded versions of themselves. This creates the opportunity for 16 part counterpoint and, in line with the concept of the piece, means we listen to a “past we did not witness”. The tape line also includes lines of speech, from Reich’s governess and a train porter, as well as Holocaust victims, as well as “train” noises. The idea is to contrast Reich’s train journeys across America as a child with the horrific journeys made by Jewish children in Europe during the war. The accompanying film from Bill Morrison reinforces the contrast and is, at times, disturbing. The first movement is upbeat, the snatches of conversation brief, and the rhythmic patterns clear and harmonics tonal. The second second is slower and darker with frequent sustains, more harmonic dissonance, and with the train ambience increasing. The final movement takes the voices from the first time and melds them into the music.

I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the performance with the recordings sometimes overwhelming the live performers though I was perched right at the back. Oliver Coates’s cello playing was very fine, as I know from previous performances, and Galya Bisengalieva’s first violin sang, but the second violin and viola parts were a bit muddied. On the other hand having the film footage definitely enhanced the powerful meaning behind Steve’s Reich’s music. (I am assuming the age of the footage is what delivered the “blotchy effects”). The performers were standing and split two by two on stage which made for an antiphonal effect, in mind if not ear.

Even with the sound this was still a fine rendition of a modern masterpiece near Reich’s best. More of this at the QEH please. I promise to smarten up next time.

Oh, and no clowns please.

My latest London theatre recommendations

Microcosm_of_London_Plate_027_-_Covent_Garden_Theatre

So here is my latest attempt to distil the best of what is on now and what is coming up in the world of London theatre.

There is a huge bunch of new stuff which has been announced relatively recently so some aggressive sifting has taken place, though it may not look like it given the length of the list. I have also stripped out anything which is pretty much sold out. For the booking ahead portion I have focussed on those I think will book out before they open (with a couple of fringe ideas as well). 

Top ideas – all on now

1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. It has won every award going and you are probably sick of hearing people wax lyrical about it but if you haven’t seen it you must. It’s that simple.

The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

2. Macbeth at the National Theatre. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, our two finest stage actors of that generation, as the mental Lord and Lady. Will be unmissable. It is literally just about to open. Sold out but always a few tickets for the next couple of days as returns come in but don’t arse about waiting.

3. John at the National Theatre. Over 3 hours at a glacial pace but an absolute spooky gripper. About to end and only a handful of tickets left. Sorry.

John at the National Theatre review *****

4. Julius Caesar at the Bridge. I know. More Bloody Shakespeare. But the cast here is to die for and the reviews uniformly good. It has much to say about the world today. Don’t be too worried about picking up the cheaper tickets here as views are good most everywhere. 

5. The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse. Very limited tickets for this marvellous tale of a gay relationship in 1960s Yorkshire. 

6. Girl from the North Country at the Noel Coward Theatre. I don’t like Bob Dylan’s music but was drawn in by this tale of America in the Great Depression which incorporates his songs. Don’t be tempted by cheap seats here. Here’s my review – ignore the rant about the youth. Mrs Tourist liked it a lot which is rare.

Girl From the North Country review ****

Top ideas – booking ahead

1. A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre. I WILL WRITE THIS IN CAPITALS. YOU MUST BOOK THIS. A new play from Martin McDonagh about Hans Christian Anderson (don’t laugh). McDongah’s last play was Hangmen which me and Mrs T think is the best play we have seen in the last 3 years. Mr McDonagh, as you all no doubt know, is about to win Oscars galore for Three Billboards … which you have to see as well. This play feels like it will have something in common with his previous work Pillowman. 

I see Nick Hytner has persuaded his long time collaborator Alan Bennett to switch from the NT to the Bridge for his new play Allelujah. Obviously you have to like AB to take the plunge here.

2. The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre. Written by Stefano Messini, this has gone down well across Europe. I understand that 4 hours charting the history of a rubbish investment bank, (and not even covering its demise), may not be for everyone but a must see in my book. Sam Mendes (The Ferryman) directs, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley play the brothers. Public booking for the new NT season opens 16th March. 

3. An Octoroon at the National Theatre. Transfer from the Orange Tree in Richmond. Amazing play which takes a dodgy C19 racist slave melodrama and reworks it into a meditation on blackness. Meta stuff. Not for everyone but the adventurous should give it a go. Read the reviews and see what you think. 

An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

I would also point you to the revival of Brian Friel’s Translations at the NT, a subtle and rewarding play set in C19 Ireland exploring language and cultural imperialism.

4. Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre. A transfer from Chichester Theatre so check out the reviews. From the pen of James Graham (Ink, Labour of Love, This House) who is incapable of writing an unfunny line. Based on the infamous coughing Major saga on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire a few years ago but examines the nature of truth and media manipulation. 

5. Machinal at the Almeida Theatre. Right this is a full on, Expressionist, feminist power drama classic from the pen of Sophie Treadwell written in 1928 and based on a real life murder case. No cast announced yet but it’s the Almeida so they will wheel in a big name. It won’t have too many laughs.

Ella Hickson’s new play The Writer is also in the new Almeida season. Ms Hickson’s last effort Oil was near genius. This has Romola Garai in the lead but not much else to go on.

6. The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre. One of Martin McDonagh’s earlier Irish plays. Aidan Turner, (the sexy fella out of Poldark), plays a terrorist booted out of the IRA for being too violent who loves his cat. Black comedy just like all of McDonagh’s work. Tickets are steep mind.

7. Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court Theatre. It’s always a bit hit or miss at the Royal Court but writer Thomas Eccleshare’s previous play, Heather, was brilliant. This sounds like it is about genetic manipulation and creating your own child, (this being a current preoccupation on the London stage). The problem with leaving RC productions until they open is they normally sell out so I would give this a whirl though everything in the new season looks interesting to me.

(Notably Pity from the pen of Rory Mullarkey though he misfired a bit with St George and the Dragon at the National Theatre last year). 

8. The Cane at the Royal Court Theatre. Its been many years since the infamous Mar Ravenhill, (best known for Shopping and F*cking), has written a play for the RC. A theatrical event. Sounds like it is about a teacher who gets into a pickle. For the purist only maybe. 

9. The Fall at Southwark Playhouse. No MES (RIP) has not been reincarnated, (sorry if this makes no sense but as a reminder the greatest Briton since Churchill recently died). Instead this is a revival of a play by a fine writer called James Fritz who I like. About the relationship between young and old. If you don’t know it the SP is a bit rough and ready but cheap as chips.

10. Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre. Another rough and ready fringe that churns out marvellous work. New play adapted from Will Self’s novel about a bloke who wakes up to find everyone’s has turned into primates. How mad does that sound. I loved the book. 

11. The Lord of the Flies at the Greenwich Theatre. There have been a few adaptations of Lord of the Flies. This is from Lazarus Theatre company who are brilliant. They are also doing a Midsummer Nights Dream later in the year for kids. They don’t hold back and the casts are straight out of drama school. Greenwich Theatre is a poor tired old dame so she needs your help. Please go.