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