The Best Man at Richmond Theatre review ****

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The Best Man

Richmond Theatre, 2nd October 2017

Gore Vidal is very near the top of my list of invitees for that perfect dinner party. Winston Churchill, Karl Marx, Socrates, David Hume, John Rawls, Alfred the Great, Charlemagne and Nelson Mandela would be there too. (Note this is the politics bash – music, art, drama would follow in subsequent weeks if the caterers were free). He is the quintessential liberal who would be both horrified and amused, and not at all surprised for this is what he expected, by the America of today, as he was by the America of his lifetime.

In my humble opinion he is one of the greatest novelists of the second half of the C20. Whether it be his novels examining the nature of sexuality, The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckenridge or Myron, the fantastical satires of Messiah, Kalki or Duluth, the ancient histories such as Creation and Julian or the American histories of Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, Washington DC and The Golden Age, there is stunning prose and visible erudition on show on every page. Best of all though these are page-turning stories, whether “fact”, fiction or a mixture of the two, with utterly believable characters. (real or imagined). Indeed I would say that the fact that his novels are overflowing with plot is one of the reasons why he is not as highly regarded as he should be – they are just not as hard work as the US cultural elite of the 1950s and 1960s would have liked. Moreover GV himself was the very antithesis of the macho artistic and literary culture of that era. He also chose to p*ss off most of the literary, artistic and political establishment in his native US with his barbed epigrams and constant feuding. Here was a man who thought he was better than everyone around him, because he was better than everyone around him.

Being the very clever fellow he was he turned his hand to screenplays as well as novels and brilliant essays, with one of his best works for film being the re-write of Ben-Hur, in which he mugged off Charlton Heston who seemingly failed to grasp the homosexual sub-text of the movie. He also wrote a handful of very fine plays which reflect the concerns of his novels. The Best Man which premiered in 1960, and was made into a film in 1964, is the most often revived I believe.

So, as you might imagine, I was very pleased when I heard about this latest production since I don’t think this has ever graced a major London (I know, technically Surrey) stage. A very strong cast has been assembled by impresario Bill Kenwright with Simon Evans entrusted with directorial duties after his smashing Arturo Ui at the Donmar (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse review ****), Alligators at the Hampstead and the exceptional trilogy of miserabilism, Bug, The Dazzle and Fool for Love, at the now defunct Found 111. The liberal, middle classes masses of Windsor, Brighton, Bath and Cambridge have had, or will have, a chance to see The Best Man before, I assume, a West End run.

And you should see it. Every word of every line is as fresh as the day GV wrote it. It is, I admit, locked in its time and place, two hotel rooms at an imagined Democratic convention in the early 1960’s, but this does not mean the issues that GV raises about political culture are not as relevant today as they were then. Simon Evans and designer Michael Taylor have very wisely stuck exactly to the period of the play’s action, and use simple devices to switch between the two rooms.

Martin Shaw, commanding as ever with his gravelly voice and still demeanour, plays Secretary of State William Russell. His rival for the nomination is Senator Joseph Cantwell, a remarkablly bullish performance from Hollywood veteran Jeff Fahey. These two legends of the screen have a bit of form together having played good guy/bad guy before in the London stage version of 12 Angry Men a few years ago. Then, as now, they are perfectly cast as dualistic political opposites. Russell is the archetypal “good’ liberal politician who believes there are limits to what can, and should be done, on the road to power. Cantwell believes nothing should get in his way and is prepared to abandon truth in order to get want he wants. As I think Russell observes in the play there is very little idealogical difference between the two (GV despaired of the lack of real choice in American politics). It is the how, not the what, that distinguishes the political complexion of these two men.

Russell is a philanderer but his wife Alice, another fine performance from Glynis Barber, is prepared to stand by him in public on the road to Democratic nomination and potentially the White House. Mabel Cantwell, played by Honeysuckle Weeks with a little too much of the Southern Belle which made a few lines difficult to follow, is a more “old-fashioned” wife. It would be nice to think that, near 60 years on, these characters would look archaically sexist. Unfortunately I am not so sure they do.

We then have the mighty Jack Shepherd as the Trumanesque Art Hockstader, the outgoing President, whose homespun country boy public persona is matched by ruthless scheming behind the scenes. You may well know Mr Shepherd as Wycliffe off the telly but he can still command a stage, and caper about, even in his late70s. Our cast is completed by Gemma Jones as Mrs Gamadge, the harridan of the Democrat ladies, Anthony Howell and Jim Creighton as respective advisors and Emma Campbell-Jones, Simon Hepworth, Ian Houghton, Craig Pinder and David Tarkenter as the press, various senators and delegates and a pair of accessories for when the fight between our two nominees gets really dirty.

I will refrain from delving into the detail of the plot: suffice to say there was enough of a twisting narrative to keep the pensioners of Richmond on the edge of their seats as we moved through the various paybacks in the second half. As I say GV couldn’t help but write great stories, and he was, after all, a Democrat insider. The characters here are not particularly well hidden proxies for the 1960 Democratic nominees, with Russell as Adlai Stevenson who GV supported, and the Cantwells as the Kennedys, who were oft the subject of GV’s barbs. GV also uses thinly veiled episodes from the life of Joseph McCarthy to inform Joe Cantwell. Subtle it ain’t.

Whilst some of the historic specificity might be lost on a contemporary GB audience the moral arguments which flow from GV’s caustic wit will not. The play is very funny (OK maybe I laughed a bit more than some) but this does not mask the seriousness of the messages about political culture. There were a couple of timing issues at the performance I attended (with the SO who has stamped her approval on the endeavour) and a brisker pace might have paid dividends in the second half of Act 1, but all in all, this is a very fine production, with a very fine cast, of a very fine play by a very fine writer.

Highly recommended. And make sure you read some GV thereafter.

 

 

Doubt, A Parable at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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Doubt, A Parable

Southwark Playhouse, 26th September 2017

Once again a review of a play whose run is over. Apologies. This revival of Doubt, A Parable, by US playwright JP Shanley, was efficiently directed by Che Walker, but turned out to be a little slighter in form and content than I had expected. Its original premiere on Broadway in 2005 led to 4 Tony Awards in that year and the award of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. A film version from 2008, which I had not seen, sported the combined talents of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davies.

So I had expected big things. And, whilst this is a taut and intelligent exploration of a vital story, which offers scope for fine performances, I was a little disappointed at the strict naturalism of the play, its basic structure and its lack of multiple perspectives. The play is set in St Nicholas Church School in the Bronx in 1964. Father Brendan Flynn played by Jonathan Chambers is an apparently caring and popular progressive parish priest. Arch conservative Sister Aloysius, a suitably flinty Stella Gonet, is the school principal and is concerned that Father Flynn may be abusing his position. She invocates the younger Sister James (a wide eyed Clare Latham) to assist her in confirming her suspicions. They confront Flynn. His denial prompts Aloysius to turn to the mother of Donald Muller, the supposed victim, but she chooses to look the other way. Sister Aloysius refuses to relent and engineers a ruse which eventually pushes Father Flynn out, but through promotion to another school.

We never know whether or not Father Flynn is guilty of the abuse and JP Shanley’s text is meticulous in the way it creates doubt in our minds, as well as the four characters, throughout the 90 minute piece. The confrontations, between the two Sisters, Father Flynn and the Sisters, individually and together, between Sister Aloysius and Mrs Muller, and very well constructed and the language rings true. The sermons that Flynn delivers, on doubt at the outset, and later on gossip, are also sound theatrical devices to advance argument.

Yet it still all felt just a little predictable with characters that were just a little stilted. The tone of the play, exacerbated, by PJ McEvoy’s dark, shadowy set which imagines the space between the school and church buildings, is appropriately stifling but this does make the whole production a little one-paced. Mind you the performances of all four actors were admirable especially Stella Gonet who powerfully rendered Sister Aloysius’s external certainty and internal doubt and Jo Martin (last seen by me in the excellent Rolling Stone at The Orange Tree) who persuaded us why Mrs Muller might be prepared to overlook the possible abuse of her son, who is the only African-American in the school, “in his own interests”.

This a play that is definitely worth seeing as it adroitly explores the issue of abuse within the Catholic Church and it is a fine text, which, as all good theatre should do, embraces ambiguity and interpretation. By leaving us guessing however, to up the dramatic ante, it leaves rather too many loose ends to be truly great I think.

The Judas Passion at St John’s Smith Square review ***

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Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Nicholas McGegan, Brenden Gunnell, Roderick Williams, Mary Bevan, Choir of the OAE

St John’s Smith Square, 25th September 2017

The Judas Passion is a new work commissioned by the OAE and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra San Francisco, and was composed by Sally Beamish with a libretto by David Harsent. Now I had not heard any of Ms Beamish’s works before, though she is an eminent modern British composer, but this felt like an “event”, so I decided that my presence lurking in the back was required. The convenience of an hour long piece starting at 7pm was also an attraction.

Now new Passions to match the heights reached by JS Bach are few on the ground. Commissions of liturgal works are perforce limited and few composers are likely to have the desire or the belief to engage in such an exercise. Which is a shame because when they do, as with Penderecki’s St Luke Passion or, better still, Part’s Passio, it can bring forth transcendent music. And this from a committed atheist.

The Judas Passion was doubly interesting because of the way librettist David Harsent (a poet who has written libretto’s for Sir Harrison Birtwhistle’s major operas) chose to set out the Passion story. It is told from Judas’s perspective and shows him not as the customary dastardly villain but as a man who is chosen, and forgiven, by Christ to act as he did. The simple, but very affecting libretto, explores this idea with single parts for Judas (American tenor Brendan Gunnell), Jesus (baritone Roderick WIlliams) and Mary Magdalene (soprano Mary Bevan) who acts as a sort of narrator. The disciples create the chorus as well as a part for an interchangeable God/Devil to emphasise the duality of Judas’s motives.

All round the singing was very fine, but I was particularly struck by Mary Bevan who lent a melancholy to her lines which was fitting. She is playing the lead in Coraline, Mark-Antony Turnage’s new opera, which is on my to see list. The score is terse which fits the drama and largely taken at a moderate pace with a couple of more energetic episodes. The tone is deliberately Baroque (with harpsichord and lute alongside strings, flutes, natural horns and occasional trumpets) with many canonic and fugal nods to JS Bach and a barrage of more or less interesting percussive effects. The singers were lightly choreographed by stage director Peter Thomson (with not a lot of stage to play with) which definitely heightened the performance for me.

I am not sure how the score would stand up as a recording or in a large concert hall. However, as a chamber “opera”, redolent of Britten’s Church Parables, with costume and movement, I think it would be extremely effective. Words, music and action together tell an involving story, with a bold perspective which draws on more than just the Biblical gospels. A true Passion I suppose.

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain review *****

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Rachel Whiteread

Tate Britain, 25th September 2017

If you take even a passing interest in contemporary British art you are probably aware of Rachel Whiteread, and you may well have seen some of her work. Even if you are not interested, or are firmly in the nihilistic, hater camp that thinks this is all bollocks (a diminishing minority I am pleased to say), you will have heard of her. In the early 1990’s the “popular” press got it another one of their pathetic lathers about her work House, in East London, which helped her win the Turner Prize. The “controversy” was then comically ratcheted up as Tower Hamlets council proceeded to knock it down, thereby getting us arty-farty, liberal types in a tizz. Thus proving the whole point of public art – engagement.

You might also remember her project Monument for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, a resin cast of the very plinth on which it is set. A perfect transparent mirror image. I seem to recall it was one of the more loved of the commissions in this most public of locations, but that might just be me.

You are also likely then to be aware of her making process which generally involves complex casting in a wealth of materials at a range of scales. Her chosen subjects are normally mundane, sinks, bog rolls, windows, doors, even rooms and buildings, but what she achieves is mesmerising.

For me this exhibition is a must see. It encompasses some her earliest work from the years following the Slade through to the exhilarating resin casts of doors and windows from the last few years. I gather she started as a painter but shifted to sculpture thanks to Richard Wilson. Thank goodness for that. Mr Wilson is concerned with with the nature of architectural space, and with creating striking ways of seeing this space, and it is pretty straightforward to read the thread through to Ms Whiteread. If you ever get a chance go see 20:50, Richard Wilson’s installation of sump oil. It will take your breath away. Or if you turn up early for some gig or other entertainment at the 02 walk east along the river until you see a bit of ship otherwise know as Slice of Reality. Or look out for Square the Block at the bottom of Kingsway or stop for a moment to admire the giant “wing”, Slipstream, before you enter the purgatory of Heathrow’s Terminal 2.

Sorry back to RW. I think Closet is the earliest work in the room (the gallery has been opened up to encompass all the works in the exhibition). This is a plaster cast of the interior of a wardrobe encased in felt. No immediate aesthetic attraction for me but it opens up the possibilities that RW has subsequently mined from the idea of “negative space”. That is the space around and, more importantly, inside the subject. Often explored in two dimensional images through the Modern age but less so in sculpture (though Bruce Naumann and other US minimalists/conceptualists had kicked off the exploration). Obviously casting is a fundamental part of the sculptural process but as a means to an end not usually the end. And this is what makes RW so important and interesting, especially when compared to other British artists of her generation who are a little more “shouty” and a little less insightful than RW in more opinion.

Next door to Closet is a plaster cast of a dressing table which is more interesting, as not only does the material itself have more appeal to me, the stimulus to eyes and brain as you try to unravel the “reversal” of the space gives far more pleasure. This carries through to the rest of the early works” sinks, baths, beds and furniture. They both are, and are not, what they purport to be.

Around the corner is a vitrine of 9 hot water bottles (and similarly shaped objects like enema bags!), another common subject for RW, and here we see the dimension that the variation in materials brings, resin, plaster, aluminium, wax, concrete and rubber. These are termed Torsos. A seemingly obvious process, with seemingly obvious subjects and seemingly obvious materials is transmuted into an homage to classical sculpture and the Renaissance masters who worshipped their forebears. There is also something of the womb about them. So we see the “concept’ become the subject and finally the object. Absolutely thrilling. Trust me.

In Room 101 and the floorboards cast in resin next to it further dimensions of RW’s art are revealed. Room 101 is a plasticised plaster cast of a room in BBC Broadcasting House where George Orwell worked and which was allegedly the inspiration for the eponymous space in 1984. So lots to chew on there in addition to the effect of the reversal of the space on a much larger scale than other subjects in the exhibition. Whilst there is a cast, Chicken Shed, in the garden in front of the Tate, and we have materials relating to the planning of RW’s more monumental outdoor works (definitely read up on these) ,we can only imagine what they look like but Room 101 helps. Next door the light falling on the resin floorboards emphasises the grain of the wood with every mark, scratch and knot evidence of time passing.

Nearby there is another fascinating large scale work in a cast of some library bookshelves. The detail of the pages from the books is intriguing as the spines are positioned inwards on shelves. So the shelves turn the knowledge inwards but we are not shut out. Imagine this on a much larger scale. That would be a sight to behold. And that is why I want to see the Holocaust Memorial or Nameless Library in Vienna which is exactly that.

The coloured objects and boxes along the back wall and far corner (relative to the entrance) of the exhibition room are less successful in my view, (along with the papier mache architectural fragments where are definition and detail is lost). Turning toilet roll cardboard tubes into things of rare chalky beauty is a masterly achievement, but, overall, the “fact” of the process, and any beauty in the form and function of the object (in contrast to the architectural subjects), is less visible to me. These pieces were produced after RW had completed Embankment for the Tate Modern Turbine Hall which had a mixed public and critical response I understand. I never saw it so can’t comment but the photographic record, conjuring up an ice palace, looks pretty groovy to me.

In contrast the mighty cast Untitled (Stairs) is exactly that, mighty. Like the floors on show the wear and tear of use sing out, but the reversal of the space is somehow less interesting, or maybe too familiar from the works of Escher and others. This is not true though of the wall of doors and windows, the most recent works, and for me the very best of RW’s work on show here. There are just beautiful. Especially the coloured resin casts. Seeing “through” the windows echoes their purpose. I couldn’t take my eyes off the resin doors, especially the two “antique” subjects from the C17 and C18 century, with the light casting shadows and reflections through on to the wall behind them. Mind you I do like old doors.

So when you finally tear yourself from these works, pass through the room of works by other artists curated by RW, which show the association with other British conceptual sculptors of an earlier vintage who also weren’t prepared to sacrifice aesthetic appeal in their work. RW has followed a clear and identifiable artistic journey but the link bank to the first generation of US minimalists and US/UK conceptualists is strong.

Then make sure to see Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) in the solemn Duveen Gallery. 100 coloured resin casts of the “internal” space of little side tables arranged in, I think, random order. Like tiny sentinels, ice cubes, soaps, sweets or children’s toys. A “terracotta army” of plastic. A New York panorama. The pastel colours echo the use of plastic in modern consumer goods. Yet the colours are faded, the opacity compromised, creating an air of melancholy. Sad, baby tables. Or rather the insides of sad, baby tables. I think I better stop there.

The exhibition goes on to 21st January next year. If a quick glance at pictures of her work leaves you cold then maybe you are excused (though I still think you are missing out) but if you have even the vaguest interest please check this out. The best exhibition in London this year (so far)? For me yes. If you crave colour, emotion, passion then this may not cut it. If you like simplicity, volume. form, function, detail – if you are in touch with your inner ascetic – then pop on your sharpest threads (all black was a favoured look on my visit) and get down to Millbank.

PS. I note on Wiki that Ms Whiteread spent a little time working at Highgate Cemetery fixing lids on time damaged coffins. I cannot think of work that would have bettered informed her art.

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.