Friday 30 December 2016

Highs and Lows of 2016

Edited in early January to reflect two events I inexplicably managed to miss out of the original...

It's that time of year again...

Best Opera: The lacklustre recent form of London's two main houses continued. That said an honourable mention for the fine revival of Tannhauser at the Royal Opera. Outside London Opera North delivered a powerful, moving Billy Budd. But the palm goes to a show I reviewed first time round, this year getting its second outing: Glyndebourne's outstanding Cunning Little Vixen.

Worst Opera: Plenty of dreary but not irredeemably awful opera this year. Honourable mention for the Aix Cosi at Edinburgh (hopeless production but musically solid).

Best Play: Despite the National having a generally dismal year it did produce two outstanding shows which tie for this award: Les Blancs and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Honourable mentions for Mr Foote's Other Leg, the RSC Cymbeline and the hilarious Harlequinade revival.

Worst Play: Exceptional level of competition for this for the second year running. The National appears now to be trying to compete with the Almeida for how many indifferent to awful shows it can put on in succession. Collectively their candidates for this award in 2016 included Oil, Boy, They Drink It in the Congo, Sunset at the Villa Thalia and the sadly disappointing revivals of Waste and As You Like It. Edinburgh had a second disappointing theatre year under alleged theatre man Fergus Linehan. In the end it comes down to the endurance test that was van Hove's Shakespeare mash up Kings of War (Barbican) and the painful Anything That Gives Off Light at Edinburgh - the latter just edges it.

Friday 18 November 2016

Billy Budd at Opera North, or, The Power of Cumulative Effects

To me, Billy Budd is one of the great operas and I've been lucky to see some outstanding performances including the Albery ENO production and the more recent Grandage production at Glyndebourne. But I am always grateful for an opportunity to see it again, for repeated viewings so far have only confirmed its power to me. This strong evening at Opera North was not an exception.

This Budd is directed by Orpha Phelan. I had previously seen a semi-staging of hers at the Barbican  but nothing else. She takes a straightforward approach with a curving upper railed balcony for the officers, space for the men underneath that, an open area in front which with small changes to lighting and furnishings doubles for the variety of other onboard settings. Finally she encloses the whole in decaying grey walls – the house, or perhaps somewhere else inside Vere's mind where he struggles with his regrets. Visually it isn't as totally satisfying a production as were the Albery and Grandage ones but it still works perfectly well, and, especially in Act Two, Phelan reveals other gifts which I rate exceedingly highly. Firstly, and this was especially apparent from the luxury of the Stalls, she has worked effectively with many of the individual performers to craft detailed characterisations. This is already brought out for Redburn (Peter Savidge) and Flint (Adrian Clarke) in their Act One scene with Vere – their “Don't like the French” duet is masterful. But it builds to new and powerful heights in the trial scene. Here Phelan and her performers really capture the sense of entrapment. Redburn's horror when ordered to preside is palpable, as is the desperation in their final plea to Vere to assist them. Phelan also makes the unusual decision to include a small amount of movement alongside the famous sequence of chords describing Vere informing Budd of the verdict. The cabin (formed by a wall of male bodies) dissolves and a tortured Vere stares upstage where we can just see Budd sitting with his back to us. Then, slowly, he goes over and sits down alongside. To me, it was a simple, powerful piece of movement which complimented, indeed reinforced the music.

Lulu at English National Opera, or, A Dated Shocker

Note: This is a slightly belated review of the performance on Saturday 12th November 2016.

I didn't have particularly high hopes in advance of this production. My previous encounter with the work of William Kentridge in Edinburgh did not impress me and a first hearing of operatic Berg (Wozzeck) at the Coliseum a few years ago did not make me want to rush back for more. So I booked for this primarily on the principle that I will see any opera once.

This show does have one strong element. It wasn't finally enough to sustain my interest over the 3 hour and 40 minute running time, but it does deserve high praise – the musical performances. During the first act I was a little doubtful as to whether Brenda Rae as Lulu had the necessary vocal weight – up in the Upper Circle there was a lightness to the voice when it seemed to me the role required more presence. But Rae's vocal performance does strengthen through the evening, there may also have been an issue with the layout of the set in Act One. She sings many of the high lying passages with great beauty – though I did think Mark Wigglesworth could have brought those rare more lyrical moments out more, it isn't all brutality – and in a punishing role her stamina sees her through to the end. She also throws herself fully into the acting side of the role – that that doesn't perhaps make the impression it could is a function either of the work or the production – I remain in doubt as to which. I was surprisingly impressed by both James Morris's Dr Schon and Willard White's Schigolch. The last occasions on which I heard them both I thought the voices were becoming strained and not up to the demands of the roles they were taking. Here this was not a problem. Both were vocally and physically compelling. The Countess Geschwitz is a smallish role for a singer of Sarah Connolly's talents, but her rich mezzo brought welcome vocal variety to the texture and she found, I thought, more in the not always convincing movement of the production than some of the others. Also very fine, as Lulu's other lovers were Michael Colvin's Painter, Nicky Spence's Alwa and David Soar's Athlete. The minor roles were all well taken. In many ways, from a vocal and acting point of view, this was a rich ensemble show of the kind that was once, before the disastrous John Berry era, ENO's calling card. In the pit Mark Wigglesworth draws committed and powerful work from the ENO Orchestra. My one quibble would be that there are some phrases in the text that seemed to me to hint at a greater complexity of character than the production really wanted to get at and that the musical interpretation could have done more to point those up – Lulu's reaction when her first husband dies for example.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Cymbeline at the Barbican, or, Making Magic from Potential Muddle

Regular readers (and twitter followers) may have noticed that I've been suffering a run of poor to indifferent shows. It is therefore a joy to be able to say that this RSC Cymbeline breaks the run, in magical, moving fashion.

As a play Cymbeline is at times like a compendium of Shakespeare devices, characters and plots all thrown together into an occasionally crazy pot. We have battles stepping out of the history plays, feigned deaths akin to Hero or Juliet, recovered heirs as in The Winter's Tale and a darker reusing of the idea of love tokens seen more happily in All's Well. Then there are the abrupt deaths, the sudden changes of tone, and an exposition heavy final scene. It is easy to imagine a less accomplished team coming to grief. That instead the play transcends its limitations is I think a tribute to the way the team trust it. From the outset this show simply asserts belief in this world and its abrupt changes of fortune, and that tone successfully carried me over even the most bumpy textual moments.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Oil at the Almeida, or, “It's Going To Get Worse”

The Almeida under Rupert Goold, like the National under Rufus Norris, has become a venue that I approach pessimistically. Sadly this was another occasion when that pessimism proved all too justified.

This new play by Ella Hickson is, as the title makes obvious, about oil. It starts in Cornwall in the late nineteenth century when a random American turns up to bring kerosene to a squabbling, struggling farming family and ends sometime in the mid 21st century with a Chinese company discovering cold fusion and mining the moon. In between we visit pre-World War One Persia, 1970s London and 2021 Iraq. In theory these disparate locations are bound together by the two central characters of mother May (Anne-Marie Duff) and daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle) but there's a problem. You may ask how it is that May, already pregnant in Scene 1, is still alive and looking not much older in Scene 5. The play makes absolutely no attempt to answer this question, or to provide any substitute scenario to explain who Duff and Kettle are playing in different scenes if it is not the same May/Amy. The result, by the time we reached Scenes 4 and 5, was to render the relationship, as far as I was concerned, hopelessly unbelievable.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Amadeus at the National, or, Mysteriously Famous

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on Saturday 22nd October 2016. The final preview takes place tonight with the press night tomorrow, Wednesday 26th October 2016.

This was my first encounter with this play (though I knew it by reputation). By the time the three hours was over I was puzzled as to how the work had attained that reputation.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the play, it fictionalises the relationship between Mozart and rival composer Salieri. In theory, it questions whether or not Salieri destroyed Mozart's career and finally murdered him (via the subtitle Salieri gives the piece of “Did I Do It”). Unfortunately, the play has no interest in creating any doubt on this subject. Not only is it clear from very early on that Salieri is bent on destroying him, but one could scarcely miss the processes by which he achieves this. This makes for a lack of dramatic tension. One way round this would have been if the play were to craft leading characters in say a Shakespearean mode so that one is gripped by their mental deliberations even though we are pretty clear what is finally going to happen but, as I'll explain, the play is not very effective in this regard either – or at least its effectiveness was not sufficiently put across in this performance. Pacing is also a problem, the drama moves forward too slowly, and the ending is unsatisfactorily drawn out.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Allegro at Southwark Playhouse, or, Trying to Blaze a Trail

I've always struggled with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Intellectually I'm aware they made a major contribution to the development of musical theatre, but songs like Some Enchanted Evening just don't particularly appeal to me. So I went to this more for completionist and Americanist reasons. It turns out to be a flawed but rather fascinating show. And it has one outstanding number.

The premise of the show is to follow the life of a single man, Joseph Taylor Jr (Garry Tushaw) from his birth in 1905 to the age of 35. Needless to say he makes mistakes, in work and love but in classic musical theatre fashion, it all comes right, a little too pat, in the final scene. I'm sure I'm not the first person to observe a clear lineage between this show and Sondheim's masterpiece Merrily We Roll Along (though the programme note is likely to put this in mind as well with its reminder that Sondheim worked as a 17 year old as a production assistant on the original production). During the early parts of this show I rather longed for Sondheim's greater command of emotional engagement – I found it difficult to get that interested in a baby. But gradually the work does find more depth and as the evening wore on it brought tears to my eyes several times.

Sunday 28 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Cosi Fan Tutte, or, Shocking? If Only It Were

When I received a warning about explicit content in this show, and learned that refunds were being offered to children, I assumed the staging must be seriously shocking. After all sex, nudity and violence are regular features of International Festival productions (the name Bieto springs to mind). So it was something of a surprise to find that, bar one moment at the very end, there is really nothing shocking about this production at all. Worse, it commits my cardinal sin of being emotionally cold. (As an aside, on a second closer reading of the e-mail in question it appears to me to go into more detail than would seem necessary just for an offer of refunds to "young people" and the thought does occur that the Festival may also have been seeking to stir up controversy in the hope of boosting sales).

Christophe Honoré has set the show in Italian occupied Eritrea during the 1930s. However, if the gramophone record which opens the show did not explicitly name check Mussolini, and the girls (bafflingly) post up his picture later on, this would not have been obvious. The general colonial setting is clearer but problematic, as will be discussed later.

Friday 26 August 2016

EIF 2016 – The Toad Knew at the King's, or, Not Quite Complete Beguilement

I hoped in advance that this show might be the equivalent of 2015's En avant, marche! or 2014's The War. There are magical moments, but it doesn't quite achieve the absolute power of either of those two shows, particularly in emotional terms.

Visually, Compagnie du Hanneton seems to me to fall into the same category of strongly visual European theatre occupied by such recent Festival visitors as Theatre du Soleil or The War. The set is very striking – a lotus like flower on complicated wires hanging in the air, a water tank, a spiral staircase and, most of all, the stunning toad creation at the end. However, it doesn't have quite the unfolding inventiveness, either in itself or in the performers engagement with it of the work of those two companies.

Thursday 25 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Richard III at the Lyceum, or, An Endurance Test of Mostly Wearily Familiar Elements

When I arrived at the Lyceum and saw that this show was to run for two and a half hours without an interval my heart sank. The omission of an interval is increasingly common but only occasionally justified - the superb The War at EIF 2014 for example – sadly it was not so in this case. This show is a largely unoriginal endurance test, and is another disappointment in what has been a weak year for International Festival theatre.

The set (designer Jan Pappelbaum) is nondescript. Occasional pieces of furniture appear but the main element is a full length wall with a balcony, a set of stairs, a fireman's pole and various doorways across the back. Additionally, a microphone/camera/harness hangs centre stage. We could be pretty much anywhere and this has a familiar effect in Shakespeare of making it difficult to believe that there is a kingdom at stake. A further effect is that there are an unfortunately obvious number of escape routes at crucial points when there should be none (from Clarence's prison cell for example).

Sunday 21 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Anything That Gives Off Light, or Sunk by the Script

Picture if you will the following Scene One. A man enters looking as if he is going to announce a cast illness and instead takes up position stage right and shuffles his feet in a pile of brown soil. Small child in audience enquires what he's doing. Man: “I'm recalibrating my Scottishness.” And things pretty much go downhill from this unpromising beginning.

This show follows a familiar, and not noticeably successful, International Festival theatre formula. Buy in a company who've won awards on the Fringe and hope for similar success. The company here is the American group the TEAM, with whom this was my first encounter. In this case, a further element is added, by having them collaborate with the National Theatre of Scotland, whose record at the EIF is uneven. The result is one of the most painfully laboured pieces of theatre it has been my misfortune recently to encounter.

Saturday 20 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Alan Cumming at the Hub, or, A Very Personal Cabaret

When the full International Festival programme was announced this show stood out as a hot ticket. Alan Cumming is both a very fine singing actor and a performer with remarkable charismatic presence. In the intimate setting of the Hub, it promised to be a memorable experience, and so it proved.

The programme of songs (ranging from Rufus Wainwright via Miley Cyrus to Marra's Mother Glasgow) is structured to a large extent around Cumming's life story – though he does play with the audience towards the end by introducing a Liza Minnelli anecdote which does cause one to wonder whether absolutely everything he's said during the preceding 70 odd minutes is true. There are particularly moving nods to aspects of his complex family history with songs chosen to acknowledge the grandfather who never returned after the Second World War and died playing Russian roulette in Malaya, and his abusive father. But Cumming is also keenly alive to the fact that his audience wants to have a good time – throwing in a Sondheim mash-up, and less niche and quite hilariously a Trojan condom advert.

Thursday 18 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Daniil Trifonov at the Usher Hall, or, An Evening of Magnificent Pianism

I first became a fan of Liszt's piano music in 2011 when I made a rather insane trip in the middle of my annual Edinburgh visit to hear Louis Lortie play the complete Annees de Pelerinage at the Snape Maltings. It was an unforgettable performance. In recent times though, thanks to regular visits from the talented Daniil Trifonov, Edinburgh has also been lucky enough to hear some superb Liszt. A particular highlight was Trifonov's Queen's Hall recital in 2014 when he gave an outstanding account of the complete Transcendental Etudes. This year he was upgraded to the Usher Hall for a recital of Bach's Chaconne (arranged for piano left hand by Brahms), Liszt's Grandes etudes de Paganini and Rachmaninov's Piano Sonata No.1. It proved to be one of the highlights so far of Festival 2016.

The Bach/Brahms opener is in part a striking technical challenge. Closing my eyes it was hard to imagine that the intricate sequences and often rich timbres were being produced with only one hand. Occasionally, individual progressions could feel a little over-laboured, I presume an effect of that technical limitation, but overall the effect became remarkably gripping. Brahms's transcription successfully brings out the range of Bach's dynamic, tonal, speed and chorale like effects and Trifonov captured them all. A fascinating occasional piece.

EIF 2016 – Measure for Measure at the Lyceum, or, Failing to Solve a Problem Play

Unlike Twelfth Night I've only seen Measure for Measure once before, and I don't remember it working terribly effectively. This production arrives trailing large numbers of positive reviews from a 2015 run at the Barbican. The supertitled text convinced me that it is a play capable of having a strong impact, unfortunately the production largely failed to achieve this.

As with Shake this is another minimalist staging. The set consists of five large red boxes – three at the back and one each at the sides. The textual reference to our being in Vienna has not been removed, but as so often in modern productions in Shakespeare the actual setting gives an insufficient sense of place. The use of the boxes to shrink the stage, most of the time, is, like other aspects we'll come on to, presumably intended to emphasise the trapped situation of the various protagonists. Unfortunately, there were too many obvious avenues of escape, and this was further undermined by the decision to send the ensemble wandering randomly about the whole stage on several occasions for unclear reasons.

Saturday 13 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Shake at the Lyceum, or, Too Ingenious for Its Own Good

I love Twelfth Night. I think this makes about the fourth version I've seen on stage. One day I hope to see a truly great version that is both funny and moving (as I believe the play to be). Unfortunately this latest in a long, and not terribly distinguished, line of foreign Shakespeares at the International Festival is not that version.

This French version by Dan Jemmett is set, according to the publicity, in a 1970s seaside resort. In practice the rather minimalist set – a row of beach huts and a picnic table, doesn't really suggest anywhere terribly concrete. The costumes and music do a little more but not much. The huts with their frequently slamming doors do suggest French farce is intended as a model, but unfortunately the pace of the play, and its tragicomic character are actually not well served by that idea. The more followed through ideas are to be found in the casting, particularly the doubling, and the direction of the performers. These are certainly often ingenious (as the programme note claims) but they don't add up to a satisfying, convincing total version of this play.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

EIF 2016 – The Salzburg Norma, or, Success By Dramatic Force and Charisma

This flagship of the 2016 Festival was a fascinating experience. The production has flaws, there were occasional slips in musical cohesion, and the question of Cecilia Bartoli's performance in the title role is a complex one. But the level of red blooded drama, anchored by Bartoli's electric presence, ultimately overrides the questions.

The only previous time I heard this work live was in the comparatively recent Opera North run performed, as I understand is standard, with a large orchestra and bigger voiced singers. This version, as other reviewers have noted, sees the forces downsized, quite evidently to accommodate Bartoli. This does bring clear benefits, and frankly I don't think Bartoli needed to make such claims to the idea that this is what Bellini originally intended (which seems to be debatable). It's a perfectly defensible approach on its own merits. For one thing it is easier, it seems to me, to locate appropriate sized voices that blend effectively with each other when you downsize everybody than it is when you're trying to cast large voices.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Barry Humphries' Weimar Cabaret, or, Histories from a Vanished World

I always enjoy spending time in this particular musical world. What made this show unique was the presence of Barry Humphries as compere and sometime performer. This gives the evening a particularly personal touch as Humphries describes its origins in his discovery of a case of Weimar era music in a secondhand bookstore in Melbourne, brought there by one of the era's exiles. Alongside Humphries's masterfully delivered, and often moving, anecdotes we have cabaret songs performed by Meow Meow, and orchestral pieces performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra directed from the violin by Richard Tognetti.

The musical selection includes plenty of Weill (unsurprisingly), but also Hindemith's Kammermusik Op.24 No.1 (why his work doesn't get more performances I don't know) and a wonderful selection from Krenek's Potpourri. The Australian Chamber Orchestra were, to my ears, heard to better advantage here than in their Queen's Hall concert on Saturday, and Tognetti was excellent in the solo part of Brand's Black Bottom. I also very much enjoyed the rare chance to hear Toch's Geographical Fugue.

EIF 2016 - Mark Padmore/Kristian Bezuidenhout at the Queen's Hall, or, A Masterclass in Lieder Singing

This was one of those occasions of music making when it was quite simply a privilege to be present. I wouldn't have predicted this with complete confidence in advance because Bezuidenhout was playing a fortepiano. I can't recall ever hearing one live before, and on broadcasts the sound has often stuck me as a bit tinny and unsatisfactory. But in this case it proved to be the perfect partner to Mark Padmore's voice.

Great lieder performances to my mind require a number of things. Firstly a real dynamic and expressive range to the voice. Secondly, the ability to harness that to a general physical performance resulting in both elements harmonising to command the attention, but without going over the top. This doesn't happen, even at the top level, as often as you might imagine. But it unquestionably happened yesterday morning.

EIF 2016 – Vanishing Point's Interiors, or, Through A Window Unevenly

Interiors, the second of Vanishing Point's two EIF shows is, thank goodness, an improvement on The Destroyed Room. It manages some moments of emotional connection, and there is a genuinely funny scene when one couple launches into an impressive piece of choreography to Video Killed the Radio Star – they are helped by the quality of that song which comes as a blessing in a show where there is rather too much ineffective silence, though it is as well not to give too much thought to the likelihood of the couple a) having actually devised such a fairly complicated routine and b) really choosing to perform it at a dinner party of people their relationship to whom is murky at best.

The conceit of the show is also more original than that of The Destroyed Room. The audience are similarly cast as voyeurs but this time looking through the window of a house somewhere in the far north, on the night which marks the halfway point of winter. An annual party is gathering inside. However, we cannot hear anything that any of the attendees say for the 80 minute duration of the play. Instead, we get a partial narrative from a ghost who is outside with us. It's at least (unlike Destroyed Room) an interesting idea. Unfortunately, the execution fails to sustain it.

Monday 8 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Vanishing Point's The Destroyed Room, or, How Many Ways Can We Alienate Dr Pollard?

It is never a good sign, in my experience, when a play begins with an explanation from the director (I assume) as to what the play is about. If the work can't speak for itself then you need to go back and work on it some more. The Destroyed Room by Vanishing Point is not an exception. This show and I thus started off on the wrong foot, and things went downhill from there.

It features three unnamed people (two women (Elicia Daly and Pauline Goldsmith) and a man (Barnaby Power)), in a room, talking mostly about why we do, or don't, watch videos of questionable taste on the internet (like ISIS executions, or immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean). The performances are solid, but are undone by the work. Although as time goes on we learn one or two things about these people (whether they have children, recovering alcoholic) we never learned enough, at least as far as I was concerned, to care about any of them, or to be convinced as to why I should be interested in their opinions on the questions posed. More seriously, the show never convinced me as to why these three people were stuck in the room in the first place, why they were being filmed by two onstage cameramen, and why they didn't just leave if they weren't enjoying the discussion. This is compounded by the fact that after about an hour of this frankly rather aimless and uninvolving talk they then do all decide to leave. There follows an equally interminable. though fortunately far shorter, coda beginning with projected film of a Mediterranean migrant rescue video, followed by some light damage being inflicted on the room (the show even flunks the destruction element) and finally a man in a radiation suit wandering in and examining the place.

Monday 18 July 2016

The Deep Blue Sea at the National, or, An Emotionally Cold Evening

Note: This is a review of the performance on Tuesday 12th July 2016.

Carrie Cracknell and Helen McCrory who previously united at the National for a much praised Medea in 2014 now return for what is, apparently, Rattigan's masterpiece. Just about every other critic seems to have loved this. As with that earlier Medea I was not very favourably impressed.

For those not familiar with the play, it concerns the mess Hester Collyer (McCrory) has apparently made of her life, both in regards to any profession (she may have some artistic talent, but has not fully developed it) and her love life (she spends much of the evening dealing with her ex-husband, a straight-laced judge, and her current lover, an ex-RAF pilot). The central question is whether the thwarted suicide which opens the play will become a successful one by the conclusion.

Saturday 16 July 2016

Il Trovatore at the Royal, or, An Understandable Fall from Fashion

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 11th July 2016.

A number of commentators have remarked on the fact that Verdi's Il Trovatore occupies an uncertain place in the repertory these days. Given a narrative as creaky as this, and the evident difficulty of locating four world class voices, I am not at all surprised. Despite some positive elements this new Royal Opera production does not make a compelling case for the work.

The production is another indifferent, though not unrevivable, effort for the company. David Bosch's debut contains a number of things I've seen too often in recent times. He makes ineffective use of projections – I was particularly baffled as to why plants starting growing in one of Leonora's early arias, or why we needed a cartoonish drawing of Leonora later when it was perfectly obvious whom the Count was singing about. There is little, until the last scene, in the way of set apart from barbed wire, crosses and a vague attempt at trees such that the overall sense of place is feeble. The excessive tank suggests some kind of modern battlefield but beyond that there is a lack of clarity as to exactly where or when we are supposed to be – and some costuming (especially of Leonora) doesn't fit well with the implied modernity.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Richard III at the Almeida, or, Rupert Goold is Uninspired (Again)

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 7th July 2016.

Many critics and audience members at present rate Rupert Goold's Almeida highly. I, on the other hand, don't think I've seen a really exceptional show there since Our Town (and that was an American import). This latest effort sees Goold returning to Shakespeare where again he has often received high praise from others and hasn't especially impressed me. This latest effort does not change my mind.

As a production it is muddled. The first problem is that Goold can't make his mind up about when we are (where is also far from clear). Guns are mingled unconvincingly with swords, modern suits with armour. The set is little help. It is largely minimalist – and those items which are present like the throne on a platform at the back and the overdone skulls in the wall add little. Goold's main idea is to play it all over Richard's grave (the action is framed by its recent excavation, an unconvincing device). During most of the second half the grave is uncovered and sits centre stage while various protagonists struggle to navigate their way around it, or drop handfuls of earth into it, and I kept wondering whether somebody was going to fall in by accident. That most characters in this play are teetering on the edge of the grave, and many of them do indeed end up in it, is clear enough without piling on the symbolism. A further effect of all this is, as is too often the case with productions of the Histories, a failure to convince that a kingdom is at stake.

Friday 8 July 2016

On the Twentieth Century at the Guildhall, or, It's About Life on a Train

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 2nd July.

Regular readers may have realised that I have a real soft spot for what I think of as old fashioned musical comedy. By this I mean shows which are real musical comedies – witty, plot on the silly side, happy ending assured – musicals, one might put it, as they once were. This 1978 show (music Cy Coleman, book & lyrics by the incomparable Betty Comden and Adolph Green) has had a recent London outing, off-West End at the Union, but I wasn't able to catch it – so I was delighted when I discovered the Guildhall was reviving it for the musical theatre class's end of year show. I was even more delighted when I started to scan through the programme book on Saturday evening and discovered that the director was Martin Connor and the choreographer Bill Deamer – the team responsible some years back now for the magnificent Babes in Arms revival at Chichester (still, I'm tempted to say, the best musical revival I've ever seen there). And I was not disappointed – yes there are some uneven aspects to the evening but taken all in all, it's performed with great panache, and that vital sense of pure enjoyment which says yes, we know this is all a bit silly, but isn't it such fun. Indeed it is.

Thursday 2 June 2016

Sunset at the Villa Thalia at the National, or, I'm Sorry You Have Failed to Interest Me

Note: This is a review of the final preview on Tuesday 31st May 2016. The press night took place last night.

This performance was one of those occasions when I arrived at the theatre feeling not much in the mood for an evening inside. Great theatre can dispel such moods, but sadly this play (my first encounter with the work of Alexi Kaye Campbell) proved to be a dull, unconvincing evening.

Sunset takes place on the Greek island of Skiathos in 1967 and 1976. In Act One we meet playwright Theo (Sam Crane) and his wife Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) who have rented a house there so that Theo can write – this is apparently easier on a Greek island than in Camberwell. Into this alleged paradise they invite (for reasons which are not convincing) an American state department official Harvey (Ben Miles) who is from the beginning one of the more obvious spies you are likely to encounter, and his stereotypically ditzy blonde wife June (Elizabeth McGovern). Once they turn up Harvey dominates the rest of the act. He tells pretty much everybody what they are thinking, why they are thinking it and, by the interval, he has talked Theo and Charlotte into agreeing to buy the rented house from a Greek uncle and daughter who want to emigrate to Australia.

Sunday 15 May 2016

Zender's Winterreise at the Barbican, or, Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 12th May 2016.

The original version of Schubert's song cycle Winterreise is, in the right hands, one of the most searing pieces in the repertoire. Although it requires only two performers it possesses remarkable emotional and musical range. I was sceptical in advance about whether the work could be improved, or even equalled, either via orchestration or, particularly, the addition of multimedia elements. Committed performances from Ian Bostridge and the Britten Sinfonia under Baldur Bronnimann did not convince me otherwise.

I mistakenly thought, until I read the programme afterwards, that Zender's orchestration dated from the Weimar era, in fact it dates from the early 1990s – possibly I was misled by elements in the design of this performance which seemed rather influenced by the world of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret. Schubert's original is still largely detectable, and the additions are not challenging but rather bring to mind other familiar voices such as Bartok, Strauss, Wagner and, obviously, Weimar cabaret. The sound world stretches from slightly twisted Schubertesque chamber music to Hammer Horroresque film score. Overall, it struck me musically as an interesting occasional piece but one which suffers from fundamental weaknesses in comparison to the original. Zender is so busy bigging up effects that he doesn't leave the space for the listener's imagination that the original piano accompaniment allows. More seriously it manages, for me, to lose the emotional power of that original. The finest moments, tellingly, came when the orchestration was sparest and Bostridge was delivering the vocal line straight out (Der Wegweiser and Das Wirtshaus in particular).

Saturday 14 May 2016

Why the European Union Youth Orchestra should be Saved

I am a passionate pro-European. One of my reasons for this, which doesn't get the kind of public emphasis that I think it should, is that it is ever more important in a world where nasty, narrow-minded nationalism seems resurgent that we break down rather than increase barriers between nationalities. I consider the European Union for all its faults still a powerful vehicle in enabling that to happen. One important way in which I believe such an agenda can be taken forward is through finding ways to bring members of different nationalities together in pursuit of a larger goal. For 40 years, in the no doubt small world of classical music the EU has facilitated this through its support of the European Union Youth Orchestra.

I am not claiming that the mere fact of uniting young people from 28 nations in a symphony orchestra is necessarily going to change the world but I do firmly believe that it achieves two powerful and important things. Firstly, it can, and the evidence from past participants clearly shows that it does, forge links between those who participate who might otherwise never have encountered one another. Links which go on to enable other such cooperation and moments of understanding. Secondly, it is a powerful symbol of cooperation between nations at a time when we badly need such things. As an aside the Orchestra regularly delivers high quality performances (I recall with particular pleasure a fabulous one of Busoni's mad Piano Concerto at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012).

Monday 25 April 2016

Les Blancs at the National, or, Whose Country Is This?

In advance of this performance I was worried that it was going to be another Norris era lecture – where the desire to make political points trumps drama. Fortunately, this turns out to be an enormously powerful piece of political theatre. In lesser hands many of these characters might verge into caricature, but this excellent ensemble in harmony with Yael Farber's effective direction successfully find that individuality.

Lorraine Hansberry's unfinished play, final text adapted (as the programme has it) by Robert Nemiroff is set in an unidentified African country embroiled in an increasingly bitter independence struggle. The use of the term Emergency perhaps hints at Kenya, but the story wisely doesn't get pinned down since it wishes to, and depressingly can, stand for too many places. The action takes place in a Norwegian run medical/religious mission in the heart of the jungle staffed by whites who turn out almost all to be, for all their apparent connections to the native population, as problematically racist as the white settlers off-stage. A palpable air of threat hangs over the central mission house (the main piece of Soutra Gilmour's set), abetted by miasmas of smoke and a superb soundscape (Adam Cork and the Ngqoko Cultural Group). The average audience member will probably anticipate the fate of the building, they are perhaps less likely (I certainly didn't) to anticipate the other, human, fate revealed on the last page.

Kings of War at the Barbican, or, Ivo van Hove makes a film

I've seen a good many foreign Shakespeares over the years, mostly at the Edinburgh Festival, and mostly they've been poor (though oddly enough not the last foreign language version of the Henry VI trilogy). Sadly this latest work by the in fashion Ivo van Hove is not an exception.  After the long first half I was just indifferent, by the end of the four and a half hours I was pretty fed up.

Van Hove has amalgamated Henry V, the three Henry VIs and Richard III (plus a bit from Henry IV Part II at the beginning). After sitting through the show I'm still unclear what he was trying to achieve by doing this. His deletions and inclusions can be curious but it is less those textual choices and more the overall effect which is the big problem. This is because van Hove succeeds in the surgical removal of pretty much any sense that there is a kingdom at stake, or that there are more than a handful of people inhabiting it or dying for it. The set consists of one enormous room, behind which are a set of white corridors which we see, interminably and ineffectively, on film. It's an increasingly boring space to look at. I suspect we were supposed to think of modern leaders launching air strikes from their bunkers (some of the visual projections are overt about this) but frankly this is illuminating neither about those modern leaders nor the Shakespearean text, and it isn't in any case followed through in a sufficiently sustained way.

Monday 14 March 2016

Akhnaten at ENO, or, Philip Glass's Operatic Limitations Repeated

I went to this performance purely for completionist reasons as it was of an opera that I had not previously seen. Having endured three previous attempts at the genre by Philip Glass my hopes were not high (you can read my thoughts on the Barbican Einstein on the Beach and ENO's Satyagraha). This is not as interminable as Satyagraha, but it is not great opera.

The problem on this occasion is with the work itself. I concur with others who have argued that Glass uses more orchestral colour here (particularly brass) than in other works of his I've heard. He also seemed to me more willing to allow for fleeting melody. This can't finally transcend the basic limiting character of Glass's repetitions – this is music that dramatically to my mind either goes nowhere or goes to the same place over and over again with diminishing effect – but it does make them more bearable. Influences of greater composers also seemed more evident here than in other Glass operas – Wagner for example (the programme note cites Purcell) with the overall unfortunate effect that his weaknesses against their greatness are the more exposed. All that said the approach does work better here than in Satyagraha, because the subject matter lends itself to this kind of style more readily – particularly in the heavily ritualised Act One.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Cleansed at the National, or, Extremes of Violence, Nudity and Sex Will Take You Only So Far

Note: This is a review of the final Preview performance on Monday 22nd February 2016. The Press Night is this evening.

As a general rule with my cultural activities I am willing to see most things once, though I admit I do exclude immersive theatre, other things which advertise audience participation in advance, and horror films. I mention this because even when booking for Cleansed I was hesitent, and reading reports of earlier previews I nearly abandoned the whole thing. In the end my completionist streak won out, I went, and survived. However, I never need to see this play again, and I am not convinced of its merits.

First, the positives. The cast are very strong and deserve enormous credit for what must be an exhausting experience, both physically and emotionally. I should also have thought it was unpleasant but I assume performers must measure such things in such a context differently otherwise I can't see how you would cope with these roles. Michelle Terry, on stage almost throughout, deserves particular praise.