My pick of London theatre – on now and booking ahead

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Right let me cut to the chase. 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 bunch of new stuff notably at the National Theatre, the Barbican, the Donmar Warehouse, the Hampstead Theatre and in the West End which has been announced since my last round-up which should be investigated. Happy theatre going.

Top 10 – all on now

1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. I know most of you theatre lovers will have already seen it but if you haven’t you must. The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

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

3. Follies at the National. I hate musicals. This is different though. Made me want to cry and punch the air. Pretty much sold out but if it transfers snap it up or watch the cinema transmission next week. Follies at the National Theatre review *****

4. The End of Hope at the Soho Theatre. Go see this this weekend if you have nothing else to do. I saw this at the Orange Tree. A two hander which set in Northern Ireland by David Ireland and directed by a student amazingly. Just 60 mins and cheap as chips. It is hilarious and cutting. Highly recommended. Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review

5. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. The Bridge’s first offering. Not perfect but still v. funny and the new Bridge Theatre is wonderful. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre review ****

6. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. Mike Bartlett’s (he who wrote the lines that have you shouting at the telly when Dr Foster is on) latest offering. A state of the nation thing. I loved it. Looks like it is sold out so you should have paid attention when I recommended it months ago. Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****

7. Beginning at the National Theatre. Two hander on the excruciating pain of dating. Terrific. A few tickets left for the last week. Beginning at the National Theatre review ****

8. Minefield at the Royal Court. Only a couple of dates this weekend. Six veterans from the Falklands War act out their experiences. Really engrossing and moving.

9. Heather at the Bush Theatre. Tiny venue. Gold star from me if you see this. Amazingly clever play about a children’s author who is not what she seems. Only an hour.

10. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre. I went with LD to see this for the second time recently. Terrible West End venue and full of tourists (no offence intended) but it is still the funniest thing on the London stage so an Xmas treat if you haven’t been. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre review ****

Top 12 – booking ahead

1. A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre. I WILL WRITE THIS IN CAPITALS. YOU MUST BOOK THIS. This has just been announced. A new play from Martin McDonagh about Hans Christian Anderson (don’t laugh). McDongah’s last play was Hangmen which me and the SO think is the best play we have seen in the last 3 years. He wrote the classic film In Bruges. It will be caustically funny and gripping. I know it is next year but don’t blame me if you miss out as this won’t transfer since the Bridge is already a commercial theatre.

2. Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. I know. Bloody Shakespeare. But the cast here is to die for. Plenty of tickets.

3. Macbeth at the National. Rory Kinnear and Anne_Marie Duff, our two finest stage actors of their generation, as the Lord and Lady. Will be unmissable. Booking opens next week.

4. John at the National. New Annie Baker play. This will likely sell out in hours as she has a cult following. Booking opens next week. Make sure to look at the “coming soon” part of the National as there is lots of good stuff.

5. Network at the National. High expectations but should be justified. Bryan Cranston as the TV anchor who has a meltdown. Looks like it is pretty much sold out so again should have listened a few months ago.

6. The Encounter at the Barbican. Bear with me on this. It is amazing. Simon McBurney (who is a genius) brings to life a book about a bloke getting lost in the Amazon. They give you fancy headphones and then he takes you on the journey. Booking opens tomorrow.

7. Pericles at the Barbican. From Cheek by Jowl a theatre company I love. A rare(ish) outing for a late(ish) Shakespeare. In French with surtitles so if you are a French speaker this is your time to shine. Booking opens tomorrow

8. The Twilight Zone at the Almeida. Don’t know if this is going to work but it’s the Almeida so I will give them the benefit of the doubt. Based on the 60s sci-fi TV series !! Plenty of tickets.

9. Belleville at the Donmar Warehouse. US transfer. Main draw is that James Norton in the lead who my ladies fancy something rotten. Looks like it may have sold out. Sorry. Elsewhere in the Donmar season is Congreve’s restoration comedy Way of the World which has Linda Bassett in the lead who is a genius actor (only a few tickets left cos us luvvies snap them up) and The York Realist a gay love story set in the 60s. Like the Almeida and the Royal Court the Donmar doesn’t generally do duds.

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

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

12. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I pretty much book anything that looks even vaguely interesting at the Royal Court, Orange Tree, Arcola and Young Vic. This is a guaranteed way to see stunning theatre at bargain prices. (though the RC prices have crept up) I can’t tell you why Gundog is on this list. I just have a feeling.

 

 

Beethoven and Shostakovich: LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andres Orozco-Estrada, Inon Barnatan

Royal Festival Hall, 27th October 2017

  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 5 “Emperor”
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 7 “Leningrad”

Off to the Festival Hall for a couple of big beasts of the repertoire (or at least the repertoire I like). Yet I have to say that, in both cases, the interpretations were a little too polite and not quite the emotional body slams they can and should be.

This was the first time I had heard the LPO under the baton of guest conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada and the first time I had heard soloist Inon Barnatan. There is no point fiddling about in the first movement of the Emperor. Beethoven cuts to the chase pretty quick with a marchy rhythm with a little melodic twist and the two note theme which gets played with in the development. It is all pomp and show and Mr Barnatan with his bright expressive playing had the measure of the beast. The adagio and dancey rondo allegro require a greater connection with the orchestra, notably woodwinds, which was satisfactorily wrought but without real fireworks for me. Still much to admire.

On to the Shostakovich. Now even by DS’s “tombstone” symphony standards this is an absolute monster. You all know the story of its genesis. Written as the Nazi forces encircled the city, with DS pitching in as a fireman, premiered in Kuibyshev in March 1942, score smuggled out for performance in London and then New York, and apparently defiant testament to the heroism of the Soviet people, this is music as history. I know that there is a case for this to be a “requiem” for those who died at the hands of their own Government as well as the invader. But to me it sounds like a straight programmatic account of the war in the East with the ominous drum roll of the first movement giving way to the ghostly dance of the scherzo, the extended despair of the slow movement and the victory march of the finale (albeit tinged with pain for all those lost to the carnage).

Now it does go on a bit. It is easy enough to build tension in the first movement with the trite rat a tat tat of the side drum building to a climactic racket and the scherzo does its stuff as all DS’s scherzos do. But keeping the whole edifice alive through the outer parts of the third movement and first half of the final movement (both clock in at 20 minutes) is tricky and needs a bit of sludge and shaken up tempi I reckon. Percussion, brass and woodwind ticked the boxes but the strings were just a bit too Mahlerian for me.

Overall then I had hoped for a little bit more. Any rendition of the 7th is going to have some, shall we say, opportunities for lapses of concentration, and maybe I needed to try harder, but I have heard better. Mind you the young fella next to me was even more underwhelmed. Having bragged to his mates/colleagues before the piece, and during the inordinately long pause/hubbub after the first movement, he promptly dropped off until the applause kicked in. Maybe not the best choice after a long day at work but hopefully he caught up on his zzzz’s.

 

Follies at the National Theatre review *****

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Follies

National Theatre, 2nd November 2017

I now think I might be mistaken in my general aversion to musical theatre. I think the problem may be that I just haven’t seen enough Sondheim. You can see from all the proper reviews and audience feedback just how well this production has gone down. Believe it. This is outstanding. Worth the thirty year wait And this from someone who is never happier than when he is locked up with 20 other punters above a pub seeing some obscure piece of European metaphysical miserabilism. So you can trust me on this.

There are a handful of tickets left. Or you can go with the Friday Rush or Day Tickets approach. If you can bear to do this, it will be worth it. This obviously cost a bomb to stage, so who knows if it will transfer, though patently it deserves too. If all else fails get to the cinema on 16th November when the performance will be screened live. Anyway, with a bit of luck, you are not a pompous, prejudiced berk like me and you will have already seen it.

Why so gushing? Design yes, courtesy of the gifted Vicki Mortimer, with her half=demolished theatre come to life on stage. The Olivier stage works best when the revolve is gainfully employed and when there is a hulking piece of stuff in the middle playing its part, as it does here. Direction yes. As others have remarked it is hard to believe this is Dominic Cooke’s first musical. Mind you, most everything he has done before, notably at the Royal Court, has turned to gold. This catapults him right to the top of the directorial league. The 21 piece orchestra, conducted by Nigel Lilley, the musical supervision of Nicholas Skilbeck, the orchestration of Jonathan Tunick and Josh Clayton and the outstanding choreography of Bill Deamer, especially in the tap routines; all combine seamlessly. Lighting and costumes are also to die for. Neon, washes, spotlights, feathers, sequins, heels, frocks, wigs, dickie bows, acres of face slap. Glam and glitz all present, correct and suitably superficial as the tale demands.

The 37 strong cast (bigger than a Premiership squad) is uniformly marvellous. The four leads garner most of the plaudits. Watching Imelda Staunton’s Sally, her girlish excitement as she is reunited with paramour Ben turning to bitter disappointment as reality bites, is about as good as acting gets. This is Imelda Staunton though so expect no less. Her rendition of “Losing My Mind” is spine tinglingly raw. Janie Dee as Phyllis, all disdainful bitterness, matches her. A trail of bile follows her round the stage. It all comes flooding out in the contemptuous “Could I Leave You”. Philip Quast is the big male beast of proper musical theatre and his Ben Stone is, to use another cliche, commanding. Watching him finally fall to pieces in the “Live, Laugh, Love” is as moving as theatre gets. Poor old Ben; money and status can’t buy you love or happiness. In my book, Buddy is the trickiest character to pull off, but not for Peter Forbes, who nails Buddy’s solipsistic refusal to take responsibility, preferring to play the fool, as he does in the “God Why Don’t You Love Me Blues”.

The younger ghostly doppelgangers (Fred Haig, Zizi Strallen, Alex Young and Adam Rhys-Charles) are perfectly matched, to each other and their mature selfs, and move effortlessly round the set. Who else? Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta, as she belts out “I’m Still Here”, even though no-one is listening, makes you want to punch the air. Operatic soprano Josephine Barstow’s duet with her younger Heidi self, play by Alison Langer, is another highlight. As, unsurprisingly, is Di Botcher as besuited Hattie in “Broadway Baby”. There are some other mind-blowing set pieces. The routine where the ladies intertwine with their sequinned and head-dressed younger selves is a highlight, as are the entrances early on down the fire escape stairs. The pastiche/parody routines are jaw dropping, camply serious, not seriously camp.

Here’s the thing though. All this stuff wouldn’t work for me if there weren’t real characters inside all the song and dance stuff and if the text and lyrics didn’t illuminate the characters. I can see that, at its heart, the story of a reunion of the showgirl cast and creator of an interwar Follies review is pretty flimsy. And that the idea of regret over lives lived and not lived, is hardly ground-breaking dramatic material. And bugger all happens. But I cared so much for these people.

And I think that even in the absence of a more upbeat ending as was apparently the case in the 1987 revival, this is still perversely an uplifting piece of theatre. And not just because of the tunes, though the way Sondheim’s music wraps its way around his lyrics, particularly into and out of the big songs, is a wonder to the ears. He just seems to perfectly capture not just the cadence of the words but also the emotions of the characters. No, the reason I came out all puffed up after this is because I think Sondheim, and writer James Goldman, tell us that all of this agonising over what might have been, which is basically what our four leads spend 2 hours bemoaning, is ultimately pointless. You only have one life. It will be full of disappointment and missed opportunities. But you might as well try and be happy with what you have. I appreciate this homily is f*ck all use if you don’t have the basics, or if your relationship threatens your physical or mental well being, but I can only describe what I think I saw and heard. There are plenty of other bright sparks, starting with that Buddha chap, who would agree that the best thing to do is ditch the constant yearning for something better. Dump the act: be yourself.

So there you have it. Redemption for Rufus Norris, AD at the NT, after the string of misses, (not as bad as some think in my book), on the Olivier stage this season. A triumphant revival of a marvellous piece of theatre where no-one, literally, puts a foot wrong. I am still smiling a week later. Loved it. No idea what the original audiences in 1971 Broadway were thinking when they failed to turn this into a monster hit.

Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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Young Marx

Bridge Theatre, 1st November 2017

Let me add to the chorus of theatre lovers telling you how wonderful the new Bridge Theatre is. Cracking location by the river (Thames obvs) with a view of Tower Bridge. Wide open foyer space with a long bar for those who fancy a tipple. Pretty comfy seats in the auditorium with, what seemed to me, great sight-lines from wherever you choose to perch. More urinals in the gents than you could shake a stick at. (I appreciate this disclosure is somewhat unsavoury but theatre loos matter). All in all a mighty fine addition to the London culturescape.

Nick Hytner and co-founder Nick Starr have kicked off with an ambitious season which, from the sound of the plays in the pipeline, is set to continue. There were high hopes for this production of Young Marx, and, by and large, they have been realised. The last time co-writers, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman came together with Mr Hytner as director was for Great Britain, which went down pretty well. (I failed to get through it though had a pretty good excuse for leaving). And, of course Mr Hytner and Mr Bean had a moderate success in the past at the NT with a little comedy entitled One Man, Two Guvnors.

Young Mark is no One Man, Two Guvnors, that would have been too much to hope for, but it is still a very entertaining romp through the life of the young Karl Marx and his compatriot Friedrich Engels. Messrs Bean and Coleman don’t stint on the comedy, visual and oral, and the whole does come across as a series of vignettes with no grand dramatic arc, but it is still well worth the entrance fee. There are plenty of tickets left at prices comparable to the old workhorses of the West End, but for a better play in far more comfortable surroundings.

Rory Kinnear plays the eponymous genius. Now on his day, his Iago in Mr Hytner’s NT Othello in 2013 was about as good as stage acting gets, Mr Kinnear is peerless. Yet recent outings have been a little underpowered, the Trial at the Young Vic and his Macheath in the NT Threepenny Opera. He is back on fine form here. Marx, before bessie Engels went back to his Dad’s Manchester factory and provided the financial security of a stipend, was notoriously impecunious. This, together with his fondness for an ale, provides the backbone of the humour. We see him pawning family heirlooms, dodging creditors and German spies, evading the nascent Old Bill (there is a nice line in copper gags) and arguing with the other emigre revolutionaries that populated 1850s Soho. We also see the goading of his long suffering aristocratic wife Jenny and the overly close relationship with maid Nym. We see Marx as doting father and as inspiring rhetorician. Most of all though we see the close, and ultimately world-changing, friendship with Engels. Our Fred was no mean writer and thinker himself but he devoted his life to what he say as the superior intellect of big Karl. Marx must have wound him up something rotten in these early years but the mutual love and respect (“Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx” like some musical hall duet) is there on the stage.

Oliver Chris as the raffish Engels is the equal of Rory Kinnear’s more estuarine Marx. Nancy Carol’s desperate Jenny and Laura Elphinstone’s loyal Nym are the equal of the chaps both dramatically and intellectually which is a fine touch. The rest of the cast is bang on the money. Mr Hytner has wheeled out the A list for the set, Mark Thompson, lighting, Mark Henderson, sound, Paul Arditti, and music, Grant Olding. That’s why the production looks and sounds great. Beneath a silhouetted panorama of the London cityscape is a giant brick box, a brick building almost, which revolves to supply exterior and interior scenes, notably the cramped Marx household (just two rooms), upstairs in the the Red Lion and the reading room of the British Library. At one point we are transported to a frosty morning on Hampstead Heath as Marx duels with rival August von Willich (Nicholas Burns). The lighting is excellent.

So, all in all, this is a very superior production. As you might expect Mr Hytner’s direction is as energetic as the text of Messrs Bean and Colman. The gags come thick and fast, including some well wrought plays on Marxian concepts such as use/exchange value, alienation, capital accumulation, dialectical materialism and the like. Sometimes the humour is a little obvious, a bit Carry On if you like, but I think this can be forgiven. The farce elements are never overdone, the fight scenes stay the right side of slapstick. The whole thing is a little episodic, though to be fair these episodes from Marx’s life in London, which have been little embellished, are sufficiently entertaining to justify inclusion, and the lurch to tragedy near the end is a bit disconcerting, though again would have been hard to leave out. It might have been nice to have a couple more serious monologues from Marx and Engels, to create a little more message, though the scene where Engels lectures Marx on the plight of Manchester factory workers is arresting.

Minor quibbles though. This is a rollicking debut for the Bridge venture. I cannot wait for the forthcoming Julius Caesar. Nick Hytner directing again. Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, David Morrissey and David Calder in the lead roles. And for 25 quid you can be one of the citizens in this promenade production. Sounds brilliant.

Beginning at the National Theatre review ****

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Beginning

National Theatre, 30th October 2017

No need for some unseemly outpouring of emotional sharing from the Tourist but let’s just say that the very rare occasions when he has been compelled to confess his regard for another human being have been excruciatingly painful. A handshake is unsettling. Hugging and air kissing, in the absence of drink, promote intense anxiety (maybe this is genetic since MS and BD are exactly the same). Approaching a woman with a view to romance can literally leave the Tourist paralysed with fear. Fortunately the pity reflex seems to have taken hold of certain potential life partners in the past which has allowed the Tourist to deploy, and eke out, his pitiful amounts of charm, and then cling, limpet like, until finally, and rightly, he has been cast off. His strategy of keeping out of the SO’s way has miraculously worked for a couple of decades, but being this useless requires discipline.

Anyway this history meant it was easy to feel sympathy for the characters of Laura and Danny in David Eldridge’s outstanding two hander Beginning. As, judging by the reaction, it was for most everyone in the audience. For the anguish of loneliness and the awkwardness of coming together are feelings that most people (assuming basic needs are satisfied) will experience. I guess there are plenty of other ways to negotiate life but, for most, finding someone to share the journey is a vital goal. Technology cannot change the reality of this negotiation nor negate the risks that come with emotional exposure.

We are in Laura’s flat in Crouch End in the aftermath of a party. Only Danny is left. Both are a little worse for wear drinkwise. Danny halfheartedly says it is time to get a cab. Laura confesses she had wanted him to stay. They talk, they drink a bit more, there’s a bit of music, some tidying at Danny’s behest. They lay open their pasts. And their desires. It is funny, touching and engrossing. The “will they, won’t they” is there but reticence is only a tiny part of what unfolds. This are good people trying to be happy and that is what makes you care.

Now this is not, I am guessing, particularly novel territory for a text to explore. But it is also a subject that is pretty easily turned into inconsequential mush. David Eldridge, who was the leading light in the so-called Monsterist manifesto, is one of our leading playwrights, who has proved he can write at any scale. I am not sure though if he has written at quite such a domestic and personal level before. Whatever. This is still an outstanding text whichever way you look at it. Wry but still affectionate, awkward but not uncomfortable, funny but not played for laughs,.

It can only work though with utterly committed performances to create real characters, and, with Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton, this is exactly what you get. The ticking of late thirties Laura’s biological clock and the pain of early forties Danny’s separation from his son are universals which could easily lapse into cliches. Not here.

Polly Findlay’s direction doesn’t put a foot wrong, as usual, and Fly Davis’s set, in an end stage Dorfman, is spot on. The movement of the two characters around the set is as revealing as the things they say and the silences and interruptions are perfectly placed.

I see that a handful of tickets pop up on the day. With a bit of luck this will also find its way to another venue to extend the run. If so, go along, and wrap yourself up in their story for 100 minutes or so. You won’t regret it.

 

 

The Death of Stalin film review ****

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The Death of Stalin, 26th October 2017

There have been a lot of clever people born in Scotland. In fact there was a time at in the second half of the C18 when it was the smartest place on Earth, the Scottish Enlightenment. All right maybe I exaggerate a bit but not by much. Certainly, in David Hume, Scotland turned out one of the greatest thinkers of all time. There have been many dazzling intellects since then and I would put the satirist Armando Iannucci up there with them.

Many of AI’s early collaborators, (Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber and Stewart Lee, all big heroes in my world), have gone on to create some marvellous work but AI is the creative with the greatest reach. After The Day Today, the original Alan Partridge shows, (still the funniest comedies I have ever seen), and his eponymous C4 shows, he went on to the masterly political satires, The Thick of It and Veep. His first film was the Thick of It spin off, In The Loop. The Death of Stalin is his second film as director, and was co-written with David Schneider, (who the Tourist, bizarrely, hung out with many years ago), Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. This might be his best work yet.

Political satire is a tough gig. Especially in a world where, as is oft remarked on a daily basis by the commentariat of both established and social media, our politicians seem bent on acting in a way that defies satire. I suspect that this “oh they all grubby, corrupt, clownish, incompetent shysters”, or whatever variation you want to put on that from whatever your political perspective, is a refrain as familiar as Western style democracy itself. However, it does seem that the behaviour of our current crop of leaders in these democracies is particularly eye catching, reflecting their need to satisfy our own narrowing attention spans and mask their own impotence, in a world where capital and labour are increasingly mobile. Other than creating the conditions for the continued explosion of global credit, and orchestrating the mood music of cultural (in)tolerance, our politicians don’t really get up to much.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t tempted to make things happen and that is where we must be vigilant and prevent them doing anything too silly (let’s be honest we are falling short at the moment in the UK and US). Satire is an important component of that vigilance. Taking the piss is a ruthlessly effective way of drawing attention to the ineptitude (or worse) of our leaders and, if it does its job properly, is generally difficult for subject and audience to ignore. A society without satire is a damaged polity. So this is why AI is such an admirable chap in my book.

The Death of Stalin, (which is based on a French graphic novel), does not, obviously, address the failings of today’s Western democracies. It instead takes the year of Stalin’s death, 1953, and the Soviet Union as its subject. Now this was a dangerous and vital place to be a satirist. Modern day Russia has not escaped this legacy it seems. In an ironic twist it seems that this very film has wound up the Russian authorities whose ambivalence about the reign of Stalin looks somewhat ignoble. Whilst the film is rooted in a specific time and place it is pretty easy to see the universal message. Our rulers are human. They are consumed by petty jealousies and, in moments of crisis, often care more about plotting for their own positions and careers than they do about the good of the people.

The film opens with a radio broadcast of a Mozart piano concerto overseen by Andreyev (a frazzled Paddy Considine, currently wowing punters in The Ferryman in the West End which is A MUST SEE). Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin who captures the capricious bully with minimal screen time) is listening. He demands a recording prompting a farcical repeat of the concert. The soloist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) slips a note into the recording critical of the regime which pre-empts the brain haemorrhage which kills Stalin. All of this may have happened. Well maybe not the note. And the concert repeat may be apocryphal. Maria Yudina was certainly a critic of the regime.

Anyway we had already seen Stalin having a boozy boys night in with other members of the Central Committee. By this time the Central Committee had only nominal powers with the Politburo under Stalin making all the decisions. Remember too that the Politburo had been purged before WWII, and filled with Stalin’s lackeys’s effectively leaving him in sole control. However after Stalin’s death the Central Committee regained prominence, and we see how Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) came to power through manipulating the others members of the Committee and orchestrating the murder of the head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the NKVD, the secret police organisation which had carried out Stalin’s purges.

Those are the facts folks, but the way AI and his collaborators show these events is blackly and bleakly comic. These are powerful men holding the fate of an entire nation, embarked on a massive political experiment, in their hands, but they are utterly out of their depth. Some of them could be running a family carpet company in the Home Counties, such is their charisma.

Simon Russell Beale’s Beria is an exception. He is just the personification of the Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. He is first to the scene of Stalin’s haemorrhage but his first act is to destroy incriminating papers. His cruelty is effortless. As you might expect this is an inspired performance from, in my view, our greatest stage actor (on his day). It takes a bit of time to adjust to Steve Buscemi’s accent as Khrushchev (AI uses natural accents throughout I think) but his paranoid energy and gradual realisation that he can take power are perfectly captured. Jeffrey Tambor plays Georgy Malenkov, the hapless Deputy who easily yields first to Beria, and then to Khrushchev’s, manipulations. The scenes where Michael Palin’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, the great rhetorician, is unsure whether to condemn or embrace his returning wife, are priceless. The rest of the Committee is made up of Paul Whitehouse’s wideboy Anastas Mikoyan, Paul Chahidi’s effete Nikolai Bulganin and Dermot Crowley’s blunt Lazar Kagonovich. Jason Isaacs’s war hero General Georgy Zhukov is gloriously over the top as is Rupert Friend as Stalin’s embarrassing pisshead son Vasily. Andrea Riseborough plays Svetlana Stalin as manipulative brat.

This is an outstanding cast and a marvellous script. It is not the laugh out loud humour of The Thick of It or Veep, and the grotesquerie is constrained, though very real. It is in some ways a serious satire, in the sense that what you see is utterly believable even if what happens is not historically verified. It is full of detail and beautifully put together. And the ending reminds us that, beyond the vanity and scheming, these people bear collective responsibility for a violence which decimated a proud nation

“Italy in England”, Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review ****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (director and violin), Frank de Bruine (oboe)

Italy in England: When Handel Met Corelli, Milton Court Concert Hall, 19th October 2017

  • Corelli – Concerto Grosso in D major Op. 6 No. 4
  • Handel – Concerto for Oboe No. 3 in G minor
  • Geminiani – Concerto Grosso Op. 5 No. 3 (after Corelli)
  • Sammartini – Sinfonia in G major
  • Avison – Concerto Grosso in D minor No 3 ‘The garden of harmony’ (after Scarlatti)
  • Sammartini – Concerto for Oboe in E flat major
  • Handel – Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 5

We don’t know too much about Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). From the late 1670’s through to his death though he was a big noise in Rome, heralding a great leap forward in violin playing and an instrumental (ha ha) influence on the sonata and concerto form. Unless you are a Baroque nutjob, (there are more of them than you might think), you may only be peripherally aware of him. Yet you will certainly have heard snatches of his most famous composition the Op 6 12 Concerto grossi. Odds are if you hear Baroque music on a telly or film soundtrack, (and it isn’t Vivaldi Four Seasons or a blast of Handel), then it will be Corelli.

If you are just an occasional dipper-in to the Baroque canon, or just fancy some nice background stuff, get your hands on a recording of his Op 6. You won’t regret it. Here he is. Poodle wig and all. Fine looking fellow.

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By the late C17 Italy was the bees knees for all things musical, (as it had been in art for a couple of centuries), albeit with stiff competition from the French. Europe was stuffed with on trend Italian musicians and performers. Printed music was now ubiquitous assuming you mixed in the right circles. This concert from the consistently brilliant Academy of Ancient Music under its new(ish) leader Bojan Cicic sought to show how the the Italian Concerto grosso form, perfected by Corelli, and here his compatriots Geminiani and the Sammartini brothers, influenced composers in England, especially the mighty GF Handel. Both Geminiani and the elder Sammartini, Giuseppe, an oboist, ended up living in London, jus as Handel did. Handel had travelled to Italy from 1706 through to 1710  to learn from both Corelli and the other great master (of the keyboard especially) Scarlatti.

The Concerto grosso, as its probably not too complicated to surmise, is a piece of music where a small group of soloists, maybe a couple of violins and another instrument, called the concertino, pass the ideas between themselves and a larger orchestra, the ripieno. Simples. Mind you this is the Baroque so the orchestra is still pretty tiny by later standards. It is the forerunner of the single instrument concerto with orchestra we see today and which developed in the later Classical period. Vivaldi set the ball rolling with his acres of beautiful single violin (and other single instrument) concerti though the musical patterns are similar to his mates elsewhere in Italy.

Here, in addition to the violin led concerti on show from Corelli himself (the very jolly No 4), Geminiani, based on material from one of Corelli’s works, and Handel (No 5 from his own Op 6), we also had the same from Charles Avison, new to me, but I gather a big favourite of the cogniscenti. This was based on some of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas and was really absorbing. The oboe of Frank de Bruine joined the AAM in two other concerti and we had a sinfonia from the younger Sammartini Giovanni, a form that would develop further into the Classical period. Like the Avison I really enjoyed this and will investigate further.

Now I deft anyone now to get perked up by these pieces. They are dramatic, with vibrant rhythms, the typical motoric underpinning from cello and double bass, the continuo underpinning of the harpsichord, and the immediately catchy tunes from the other strings. It is dead easy to follow, the movements are short and sweet and the tempi unwaveringly fast-slow-fast.

The playing of the experienced AAM was pretty much faultless. We even had a moment of high drama (sort of) as Frank de Bruine had to simultaneously play and re-order his music in the Sammartini piece. I could listen to hours of this stuff, especially in this hall. Can’t wait for the next fix.