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Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 Annual Cultural Tales of Two Cities Awards

Best Film

Hurt Locker - directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Best film about the Iraq war I have seen - edge of seat action all the way but from the soldiers' perspective.

Runners up

Mesrine - Killer Instinct - directed by Jean-Francois Richet
Stylish and charismatic French baddie - what more could you want?

In The Loop - directed by Armando Iannucci
Funniest film of the year. So it couldn't possibly be true could it? And with the wonderful Peter Capaldi as the evil one.

Best Play

Julius Caesar - RSC, Stratford
Impressive staging of the bard's political murder tale.

Runners up

Life Is a Dream, The Donmar Warehouse
Classical Spanish tragedy from Pedro Calderón de la Barca with the superb Dominic West.

Punk Rock, The Royal Exchange
Simon Stephens' powerful teen school drama.

Best Exhibition

The Sacred Made Real, National Gallery
Moving and spiritual Spanish religious icons.

Runners Up

Angels of Anarchy, Manchester Art Gallery
Work from little acknowledged women surrealist artists.

Anish Kapoor, Royal Academy of Arts
Big scale sculpture to amaze and challenge the senses.

Best Book

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – Stieg Larsson
Last of the gripping and highly original Millennium trilogy. Salander rocks!

Runners Up

Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann
Weaving the stories of lonely people cleverly around the 70’s Twin Towers high wire feat.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel – Andrew Graham-Dixon
Fabulously readable book letting us see the famous masterpiece from a different angle

Best Gig

Take That – the Circus Tour, Coventry
The fab four entertaining admirers new and old – oh what a circus, oh what a show….

Ray Lamontagne – Lowry and Bridgewater Hall
Wonderfully moving sets from the bearded shy one.

Rufus Wainwright, Manchester International Festival
Ok so this is cheating a bit as it was an exclusive invite only intimate gig but Mr Wainwright was very wonderful.

Thanks for reading my blog in 2009 – it can only get better in 2010!
For all those who disagree with my views – get your own blog!!
Happy New Year......

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Theatre – Grimm Tales – Library Theatre, Manchester

Star rating – 8/10

If you like your Christmas family entertainment without the corny jokes and saccharine sweet content, then this just might be the show for you. It is a modern reworking of some of the well known, and not so well known, tales from the brothers Grimm, by Manchester’s own current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

The pieces are played by an ensemble cast of eight musician/actors in an extremely energetic and lively style. There are delightful twists on classic tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and the Golden Goose. And there are also some lesser known but equally entertaining stories including Iron Hans; and the Bird the Mouse and the Sausage.

The acting is first class, with no-one really standing out amongst the excellent cast, but with each giving their all to the multitude of parts with great gusto. The stories are not dumbed down for the younger members of the audience. Duffy leaves all the gory bits in, including death, abandonment and cruelty to the children in the playlets. The set too is worthy of mention, with Gary McCann’s clever use of perspective and to convey the murky forest beyond.

The audience, young and old, are challenged by director Rachel O’Riordan to make great use of their imaginations, with little use of props to tell the rich stories, except most notably in the Golden Goose, where dolls are very cleverly used to get a few necessary extra cast members. The action is fast paced and the audience are kept well entertained. Particularly of note is the Little Red Riding Hood story, here called Little Red Cap, where the four male members of the acting cast have the audience in stitches with their renditions of the wolf and the grandmother alike.

This is a thoroughly recommended Christmas package for those seeking a bit of solace from turkey and the sales. And most importantly, it treats both adults and children with respect instead of pandering to the worst excesses of the season.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Film – Nowhere Boy – directed by Sam Taylor-Wood

Star rating 8/10

This debut feature film by artist Sam Taylor-Wood is the story of John Lennon’s early years, and more especially the two women who were the dominant forces in his life - one by her presence, and the other by her absence. The acting is superb, especially by the leads Kristin Scott Thomas (Aunt Mimi); Aaron Johnson (Lennon); and Ann-Marie Duff (his mother Julia).

The film beautifully evokes the 1950s feeling, where the advent of rock and roll after the austere war years is a cataclysmic event. Lennon lived with his aunt from the age of 5 after his mother abandoned him. Scott Thomas is excellent as the respectable Mimi, who listens to classical music on the radio whilst reading novels. ‘We don’t turn Tchaikovsky over here John’, she says when he wants to try out the new radio speakers his uncle has rigged up in his bedroom. She is very stiff upper lip, and tries to encourage John to be the same, as the moving scene after the death of her husband, his uncle, shows. He wants to hug her in grief but she cannot show such emotion so easily.

Such a contrast to his younger, exciting mother Julia, who he finds out has been living only a few streets away all the time with a new family. Mimi is worried that Julia will hurt John again, which she inevitably does, but they have a lot of fun along the way. She is a free, if fragile, spirit and loves the rock and roll music that John is discovering. She gleefully tells him that rock and roll stands for sex, and indeed their burgeoning relationship seems uncomfortably flirtatious for her son at times. The laughter turns to tears when she is knocked over by a car and killed. But not before John has taken his pent up anger out on her for leaving him as a child.

The music is fabulous, but is almost a backdrop to the story of John, Julia and Mimi. The band are shown in their infancy as they discover how to play their instruments and get to the famous line up that would go on to conquer the world. Lennon’s passion, arrogance and spirit are clear to see. And the 19 year old Aaron Johnson gives a convincing performance, even if his scouse accent is not as strong as it might be.

A great first feature for Taylor-Wood, told with a straight bat. It is a moving portrayal of these formative relationships in Lennon’s life. It is the story of love, loss and abandonment; as well as devotion and passion. But it is also a powerful period piece – well worth catching.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Books – Rosanna – The Martin Beck Series – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Star rating – 8/10

In my current mourning for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy phase, having recently devoured all three Lisbeth Salander adventures, and wanting to sample some more Swedish crime writing, I was happy to come across a series that is not new but that I had never encountered before. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo were a creative husband and wife writing partnership, taking turns at each chapter, who started off this ten book series about Detective Inspector Martin Beck in 1965.

Beck shows the ineptitude for family life and personal relationships, and the not unrelated inability to switch off from work that crime aficionados like myself love so much in our detectives. The pace of this investigation into the murder of a young woman dredged from a lake is refreshingly of its time, with the investigation delayed until telegrams can be sent and received and photos mailed.

The investigation really gets under Beck’s skin, and with hardly any leads to go on, he is reluctant to give up on the victim. With his dogged determination, and a few lucky breaks along the way, progress is slowly made, and the sharply written story is very readable and enjoyable.

Not quite up to the standard of Larsson (will anything ever be again?) this first in the series definitely left me wanting to read more, and to get to know the deep thinking and obviously complex Beck more through the following instalments.

Exhibitions – The Sacred Made Real – National Gallery

Star rating – 10/10

Anything that has the honour of being Andrew Graham-Dixon’s exhibition of the year has got to be worth a visit in my book. And this exhibition of Spanish painting and sculpture from the seventeenth century is an amazing experience. For these are not works of art that are usually on display in a gallery – these are sacred statues and pictures more usually used for veneration and worship by Spanish Catholics. And for believers like myself the experience was a truly moving and deep one, but I know of non believers who have been similarly moved by its beauty and awe inspiring detail.

The decapitated head of John the Baptist from the Cathedral in Seville starts the proceedings, and is gruesome in the extreme, with its graphic detail of his severed windpipe. The rich golden detail on the gilding of the gown of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception is amazing. This sculpture from 1628 is by Juan Martinez Montanes, but these sculptors were not allowed to paint their works due to the strict guild system in place in Spain at that time. That could only be completed by members of the guild of painters.

The sculpture of the head of St John of God, an important local saint of Granada, shows a beautiful young man who has an aura of sensitivity and humility. This artist, Alonso Cano, broke the rules of the guild system as he both sculpted and painted this piece himself. There are also many beautiful images of monks and nuns, such as Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zubaran. Saint Francis of Assisi was one of the most revered saints in seventeenth century Spain. Here we see dramatic pictures of him using shadow to depict him at prayer.

The sculpture of Cristo de los Desamparados (Christ of the Helpless) by Montanes is beautiful, moving and gruesome at the same time. It is 400 years old and still an object of veneration in its home in a Seville church. The bodily detail depicted here is appallingly accurate in showing his suffering. Pedro de Mena’s sculpture of Mary Magdalene meditating on the crucifixion, and how the greatest sacrifice was made for her's and the whole world’s sins, is magnificent in the facial expression of empathy and love that is achieved. The beautiful head of the Virgin of Sorrows, again by Mena, shows the grieving mother of Christ with red eyes and crystal tears for her beloved son.

But there are two stand out pieces for me from the rest of this excellent exhibition. One is a painting – Christ on the Cross – by Zubaran from 1627, although the detail and technique used is such that it almost looks like a sculpture. The staggeringly realistic image of the crucified Lord is painted on a black background to give it an even greater impact, and to allow us to appreciate his full suffering. And the other is a sculpture by Gregorio Fernandez of the Dead Christ, showing him laid out immediately after his crucifixion The details shown here are amazing. It is as if he has just been laid out and is not yet cold. The wounds on his hands, feet and side almost glisten with half congealed blood. The glass eyes and ivory teeth add to the effect. It is stunning, and awe inspiring and almost moved me to tears. And that is an experience that I have never before had in an art gallery. A fantastic exhibition which stirs up a real mix of emotions - between appreciation for the beauty of the art, and admiration for and veneration of its subject matter.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Film – The Limits of Control – directed by Jim Jarmusch

Star rating 6/10

This was my first experience of a Jim Jarmusch film, and after reading several reviews which were, let us say, very much less than complementary, my expectations were not too great. And I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. I was intrigued, and taken along some sort of journey, although I could not exactly pinpoint where it went, how it ended up there, or indeed why.

Isaach De Bankolé is extremely enigmatic as the unnamed lone hit man who travels around Spain encountering various characters who each give him more information towards the puzzle which seems to be his mission. And he is definitely the strong, silent type – having very few words of dialogue for the entire film, preferring instead to observe, size the situation up, and wash it all down with two single espressos at frequent intervals along the way.

The minor characters whom he encounters to help with his mission are played by cinematic big hitters John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Gael Garcia Bernal. Hurt is especially good in his brief appearance. But we are not really told who they are, why they are involved, or what the mission is. All we know is that the man is initially dispatched on the mission by two Frenchmen who use certain phrases that become code words used during the later encounters – ‘You don’t speak Spanish – right?’.

The action, such as it is, is enough to keep the audience engaged, if a little frustrated. The cinematography is stunning – sweeping from Madrid, Seville and onto the beautiful rural and barren parts of Spain that are seldom showcased. The lone man is certainly into control in a big way, such as in his ability to resist the lure of a beautiful young woman who stays with him at one point in the story.

So there is control in that sense, and also the control the Jarmusch is exerting over the audience, just hinting at possible explanations but never spelling them out. A thought provoking film that will split audiences, as it did with myself and my companions, but a hauntingly beautiful one that will stay with me after the final credits have rolled.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Books – Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry – Leanne Shapton

Star rating 7/10

This is by far the most original novel, if indeed that is what it can be called, that I have read this year. I am struggling with the classification, as what Leanne Shapton has created here is the story of a relationship, told via an auction catalogue containing various bits of material evidence of that relationship, and the possessions that chart its ebbs and flows.

It is told via the black and white photographs in the catalogue that begin with the meeting of Lenore and Harold, affectionately know as Hal and 'Buttertart', at a friend’s Halloween party and tracking their relationship in a very revealing, intimate and entirely original way. Indeed it is so obvious that it’s a wonder no-one thought if it before. We all do it (or maybe that’s just the females of the species). We keep mementos of our lovers in the form of cards received, tickets from events we have attended together, e mails we have exchanged, gifts we have given, and photographs that chart this all this so lovingly.

Lenore is a Canadian living in New York who is starting out on her career as a food writer with an occasional newspaper column about cake. Fellow New Yorker Hal is a British slightly older man whose career as a photographer frequently takes him away from his girlfriend. The way is which this book takes us right to the heart of the intimate little exchanges between this couple feels almost indecent.

And we see the relationship blossom, flounder, and unravel before our eyes. He is a bit of a commitment phobe who also needs a psychiatrist. She is a lively cake creator who catalogues the minutiae of their partnership in a borderline obsessive manner.

Shapton makes us like these characters, and really feel for them as we take the journey with them. The only words are the descriptions of each catalogue entry, but it feels as if we have lived each intimate and argument moment with them. A very original and creative idea which is very well executed and enjoyable, if a little sad in its seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Books – The Rector’s Daughter – Flora Macdonald Mayor

Star rating – 7/10

This book was first published in 1924, but deserves a review from yours truly after featuring on Radio 4’s ‘Forgotten Classics’ series from Mariella Frostrup’s Open Book programme earlier this year.

It is the moving and sad tale of frustrated and unfulfilled love. It is also a telling reflection of the duty bound devotion of a daughter to her widowed father. Mary is the rector’s daughter of the title, who lives alone with her father after the death of her mother when she is little girl, and later the death of her only sister. Even as a child Mary finds little solace in human relationships, her father retreating into his academic studies, and so Mary ‘retired within herself, and fell in love instead with Mr. Rochester, Hamlet, and Dr. Johnson.’

She lives in the village of Dedmayne, which to modern eyes seems deadly dull and unfulfilling. But Mary lives a happy life, devoted to and much loved by the parishioners, seemingly quite happy in her quiet existence. Happy that is until into her life appears Mr. Robert Herbert, son of a neighbouring clergyman, who befriends her father and so comes into contact with Mary, and awakens something deep inside her.

Slowly but surely Mary falls in love with him, and he with her. But fate intervenes, and the most they exchange in terms of passion in any material sense is one single kiss, and that only after he has married another woman. The author wants us to believe in theirs is a ‘once in a lifetime love’, and wants the reader to suffer as they do in its ultimately doomed conclusion. And indeed love is surely the greatest human emotion.

But to these present day hopefully slightly more emancipated female eyes, Mary’s tale is frustrating and a tad infuriating. She waits for years as a bystander as Robert finds happiness in an initially unhappy but later on a slightly more fulfilling marriage. Mary also yearns for love and affirmation from her father, but gets precious little of either, as he is incapable of expressing what little repressed feelings he has.

One kiss unleashes a great passion in Mary. She imagines that everyone else is capable of such stirring emotions too. ‘When she saw the village boys and girls together, she thought of the nerve- wracking rapture they were experiencing. She did not realise that perhaps one in a thousand feels as strongly as she did.’ Poor Mary – one kiss and still so much more to give.

If ever there was a case for giving up on a man who proved so undeserving of the devotion of a passionate woman, and who so deserved the mediocrity of a marriage he found himself to occupy, then this is surely it. Mary is a passionate and intelligent woman – but she needs shaking into the realisation that she has so much to give to someone who deserves it so much more.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Film – Where the Wild Things Are – directed by Spike Jonze

Star rating – 7/10

Let me first admit my vested interest in loving this film – this is one of my favourite all time books, not just children’s books. It is a fabulous story that I inflicted upon my own children, and still do happily inflict upon any passing children who will spare me the time, at every opportunity. Those wonderful opening lines just to remind you are:

‘The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another, his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.’

And if you have never read this 1963 classic – what have you been doing? Go out immediately and beg steal or borrow a copy….

So, back to this new film version by Spike Jonze. It is not so much a children’s film, as a film for adults like myself who love the book, to enjoy and to take along with them any children they might like to bring along the way. And it has to be said that it is a very dark film. One of my seven year old twin companions on this occasion thought it was a bit too scary to be a PG certificate. Jones brings the story to life by setting poor lonely Max in a family where his big sister and her friends make fun of him and won’t let him join in their fun, and his single parent mother is preoccupied by cuddling up to her new boyfriend with a glass of wine than inspecting Max’s new den. So obviously he gets mad, bites her, and runs away into an adventure with the wild things. Seems quite reasonable under the circumstances.

The adventure itself is also quite dark. The monsters have their own internal wrangling which make the group dynamic difficult to control. But they quickly make the intrepid Max their king and he tries to lead them into peace and harmony, with mixed results it has to be said. Max Records is wonderful as the young Max, and James Gandolfini stars as the voice of one of the main monster characters, Carol.

The film is a bit over long, which makes it more challenging for the young viewers. But the way the much loved and very short story is extrapolated is indeed very good. The wild settings are impressive and slightly futuristic, and the cinematography is wonderful.

So yes, ‘Let the wild rumpus start’, but just make sure you get back home by suppertime.

Theatre – Blithe Sprit – Royal Exchange

Star rating – 8/10

This year’s festive offering from the Royal Exchange is a real delight. The reworking of this hilarious Noel Coward romp will bring cheer and hilarity to those already feeling stressed by the season.

Suranne Jones sparkles and shines in her Royal Exchange debut. She proves her worth as a talented actor – with not a trace of the famous Manc attitude of Karen McDonald, so beloved by ardent Corrie fans like myself. And her elegant costumes are to die for. The play is set in the home of the dapper and suave author Charles Condomine (more about this later) , and his second wife Ruth. The first Mrs Condomine, Elvira, having died some seven years previously of a heart attack whilst recovering from a bout of pneumonia, and being unable to stop laughing at a BBC entertainment show on the radio. You have been warned – laughter can be dangerous. But not in this play.

Elvira’s spirit is conjured up during a séance being held by the true star of the show Madame Arcati. Annette Badland is simply wonderful in this hilarious role. She struts around the stage variously going into trances, and eating as many sandwiches as she possibly can, conjuring up images of Margaret Rutherford in English classic movies. Badland is a superb actress, and will be familiar to many from her TV roles including parts in Dr Who and Bergerac. She has the audience eating out of her hand – nearly literally at one point when a sandwich that she carelessly discarded accidentally hit one of the audience. The whole theatre erupted in spontaneous laughter, as did the cast, it has to be said. And when the sandwich was promptly thrown back she ad libbed brilliantly to add to the fun. But I think this extra frisson was a one night only addition…

The tale unfolds as Ruth is horrified by the sudden appearance of her deceased rival, and accuses her husband of being some sort of ‘astral bigamist’. And the only weak link it has to be said is unfortunately Milo Twomey, who plays the haunted Charles Condomine. He fluffed more lines than I have ever seen at the Royal Exchange – even though this was a preview showing I certainly do expect better. And he shouted his way through the performance, rather than being suave and debonair as the part demands.

That gripe aired then, the rest of the production is stunning and fun filled. And mention must be made of the wonderful set design and special effects, which add to the hilarity.

Bravo then to (almost) all and a very Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Books – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – Stieg Larsson

Star rating 9/10

If you haven’t started on the Millennium trilogy by this late Swedish crime genius yet, firstly - where have you been - and secondly - I am jealous of all the hours of reading pleasure you have yet to come. But please be warned, it is a strong willed individual who can resist leaving any time lag at all between devouring the three volumes. I have spent the last three weeks with my head and brain immersed in these superbly thrilling volumes. So get your excuses ready for your boss for unmet deadlines now…

This third volume is really just a continuation of the second Book, ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire’, as there is hardly a paper width between the two tales. We are again deep in trouble with the Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist helping the enigma that is Lisbeth Salander – who is facing a murder trial and incarceration for life on the grounds of insanity. This has got to be the biggest potential miscarriage of justice in history. Abused and used since she was a girl, Salander is the fall girl for a massive state cover up involving Soviet defectors, secret police, and reaching its tentacles even into the Swedish Government.

Salander is that crazy yet appealing mix of vulnerability and feistiness that is so beguiling and intriguing. She is in a hospital bed for a lot of the book, desperately trying to use her amazing IT skills to get her out of a colossal mess, and to help out anyone who she considers to be a loyal friend, which it has to be said is not an extensive group of people. Past experience has taught Salander that it is a mistake to trust - period. And she is no angel for those who do her wrong. I do like a woman who knows how to bear grudges – and boy does she bear them well.

Larsson, who tragically died before these novels became the worldwide publishing phenomenon that they are today (and deservedly so – unlike some others I could mention Mr. Dan Brown), is railing against both state oppression, right wing conspiracies, and violence against women in general. And he makes sure that the women in his novels are not merely victims or bit part players. They are centre stage at the heart of the action. And speaking of action, this final part of the spectacularly wide ranging tale is like a spider’s web – slowly building up the players and the game that they are each playing. It is not just an action packed thriller. There is certainly action but so much more than that. This is a morality tale for our times.

It is just a tragedy that we will not get to hear more of the wonderful Lisbeth Salander – computer hacker extraordinaire, heroine to rival all heroines – just don’t cross her. My kind of woman.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Film – A Serious Man – directed by Ethan & Joel Cohen

Star rating – 5/10

This is a very dark film – no doubt about that. It is the tale of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor in the mid west of America in the 1960s. When we join Larry and his family their world seems to be disintegrating fast. His wife has been having an affair and announces that she wants them to separate. Larry has to move into a motel with his overweight, dysfunctional brother Albert. His son and daughter seem to have no redeeming features to speak of. His son is a TV obsessed dope head, and his daughter is obsessed with washing her hair and planning to have a nose job. And his work at the college is not going swimmingly well either.

The Cohens use a cast of unknowns here, and the acting is top class. Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as the hapless Larry. He seeks guidance from a string of Rabbis – none of whom seem particularly suited to the task. He finds solace in the arms of a sexy neighbour. Still nothing goes right for him.

The film is very bleak, Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do - in a spectacular fashion. It is darker than the Cohen brothers’ earlier offerings. Too dark for me by far. In the end I just didn’t really get the point of the film. And I didn’t get all of the humour. There are a lot of Jewish jokes that totally passed by me, but had some of the audience rolling with laughter. The closing credits assure the audience that ‘No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture’. So that’s a relief. But I was disappointed – not as good as for example ‘Fargo’, or ‘No Country for Old Men’. For my money not one of their best offerings.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Theatre – Annie Get Your Gun – Young Vic

Star rating – 8/10

Irving Berlin’s famous musical is not often revived these days. Possibly something to do with the racist overtones in the original, sidestepped here in this new production by Richard Jones, by leaving out the less PC elements like the ‘I’m an Indian Too’ number. It is also a show without a shred of a feminist leaning, where the moral of the story is for women to be pink and fluffy, and to let their desired man win in any contest in order to win him over.

So, not one for Spare Rib readers then. But having said all that, this production, with the brilliantly versatile Jane Horrocks in the title role, is a bundle of laughs, and irresistible fun. Horrocks again demonstrates her vocal range, as she also did so memorably in ‘Little Voice’. Her target hunk is also played with style, and tongue firmly in cheek by Julian Ovenden, as Frank Butler. There is also a great supporting cast, who in the main only add value to the proceedings, perhaps except for a weak link in Buffalo Bill.

The score is arranged to great effect for four pianists, with heart warming numbers like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’; ‘Anything You Can Do’; and ‘They Say it’s Wonderful’. There is real chemistry between Annie and Frank, and the story of their on/off/on again/off again… love affair is heartening. Even with the anti feminist message of the show, I am still a sucker for a good musical, and this is a great one, with a good modern production and another star turn by the leading gun toting Horrocks.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Books – The Girl Who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

Star rating – 9/10

Ok so I admit it – there has been no external cultural exploits this week as I have been too busy with my nose stuck into the second of the incredibly exciting Millennium Trilogy – posthumously published by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. This volume is not quite so self contained as the first, but is no less gripping for that. The exciting and intriguing character of Lisbeth Salander again mesmerises – strong; bloody minded; fearless; sexy; an IT genius; secretive; and now an expert solver of impossible algebraic formulae to boot, Salander is a person you just need to know more about.

The other central character in the story is again her former lover and sometime friend (or at least he tries to be and she constantly resists) journalist Mikael Blomkvist. To start to reveal anything by way of a plot synopsis would be to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that this is a thrilling instalment, with a cliff hanger ending. So that means another week in my life trying to fit in work, in between having my head stuck firmly in the third and final volume. Thoroughly recommended – but be warned – once you start you really can’t stop.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Books – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

Star rating – 9/10

I am totally embarrassed to admit that I have only just got around to reading the first instalment of Stieg Larsson’s best selling Swedish crime trilogy. In my defence I did buy this as a present for a friend when it was first published in 2005, having read the rave reviews, but just never got around to sampling it myself.

And although I don’t usually put reviews on the blog of books that are not newly published or discovered, I couldn’t resist a few lines just to say that this was brilliant. It had me totally gripped with the fast paced and enthralling adventure. The two lead characters, are very interesting and attractive people. You want and need to know lots more about the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and the strange, vulnerable but brilliant Lisbeth Salander, who you wouldn’t want to get anywhere near your own PC.

I don’t usually read series of books back to back but I feel there is no other way with this one. Off to the bookshop then right away...

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Exhibitions – Fantasies, Follies & Disasters – the prints of Francisco Goya – Manchester Art Gallery

Star rating 7/10

The vast collection of prints among the 26,000 piece collection at Manchester Art Gallery are only allowed to be exhibited for a few months every 5 years as they are so fragile and need to be preserved. So this is a rare chance to see this very interesting collection of prints by Goya. Goya is well known as an important Spanish artist, and as principal painter to King Charles IV. But as well as his famous portraits of the great and the good of the age, there was a hidden private side to this man.

The prints in the collection fall into three distinct groupings, and show how disaffected and introspective Goya was behind his public image. The pieces reflect his concern about social and political issues in the Spain of his day, including poverty, and corruption. And some of them are indeed very disturbing. So disturbing were they that many were only fully revealed publicly after his death in 1828.

The first set of prints are entitled ‘The Caprices, or Fantasies’, and Goya uses them to reveal what he considered to be the ignorance and hypocrisy of Spanish society. The frequent robbery of prostitutes by the police is shown in ‘How they pluck her’, where the pathetic half-bird, half-woman figure is the victim. He challenged the authority of schoolteachers in ‘Might not the pupil know more?’, where the teachers are portrayed as asses.

‘The Disasters of War’ is the second set of prints, which reflect the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1807, and the imposition of his brother Joseph, who ruled for 5 years to 1813. Goya is also railing here against the church and repression by the state. He gave these prints to the Spanish Royal Academy in 1824, but they were considered far too controversial to be displayed, and indeed remained unpublished for another 40 years. They depict scenes of systematic torture and murder, including the clear involvement of women in these activities; and the plight of starving beggars. The corruption of the justice system is shown is ‘The consequences’, where the wretched victim is attacked by a blood sucking, human-faced vampire.

The final set of prints which completes this collection, ‘The Follies’ is by far the most fantastic and dreamlike of the three. Images of death, carnival figures, and monsters are all quite disturbing. One of the less disturbing prints, ‘A way of flying’, shows winged creatures in flight.

Overall the prints leave a feeling that you have had a private glimpse into the dark side of Goya’s mind – a place which is brutal and extremely unsettling. These prints are weird and wonderful, and show his talents as an artist, but I certainly would not want to be inside his head.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Film – The White Ribbon – directed by Michael Haneke

Star rating – 5/10

This disturbing and controversial film is set in a rural German village on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War, although we are not told of the exact period until much later on in the film, and it proves to be very significant. This is the first Michael Haneke film that I have seen, and I have to say that even though he builds the tale well, shot in eerie black and white and slowly building up the patchwork of characters and their lives, it was for me a very unsatisfactory piece. As the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year – that is clearly very much a matter of taste. But more of that later.

The film takes us along the lives of the villagers, from the Baron who dominates proceedings like a feudal lord, to the schoolteacher, the local farm labourers, and the pastor. The story really starts to reveal itself with the doctor, and the nasty accident he meets with by colliding with a trip wire seemingly put there expressly to harm him, whilst riding home on his horse. More nasty accidents, and some not quite so accidental incidents, follow. Haneke does not lead the audience to the culprits very directly, indeed he doesn’t seem to lead them to them at all. He prefers to let the characters act as a living parable for their times.

Most of the characters in the drama, with a few honourable exceptions such as the school teacher who acts as the narrator, are truly horrible. The doctor, who has been having an affair with the local midwife since the death of his wife, must give what is the most cruel and brutal speech I have ever heard to finish a relationship. He tells her in a flat, unemotional way that she disgusts him, that she is flabby, has bad breath, that he tries to pretend he is making love to other women when he is with her but that he just can’t do it any more, and that their liaison is over.

But it is the menacing nature of many of the children that is the real shocking element here. Their guilt in the horrendous acts of violence is never spelt out exactly, but it is heavily hinted at in different ways by Haneke. They are obviously being painted as the generation that will grow up to be the followers of Hitler. One notable exception is the little boy who tries to console his father, the pastor, by giving him his little caged bird.

The problem for me with the film is that it is a bundle of loose ends. The crimes are never cleared up. People disappear with no explanation, or in confusing ways. The audience is left having to try to work it all out for themselves. That approach may work for some, and my two companion film goers thought that was just fine, brilliant even. But I like things my films with a little more clarity. And I like to know the point of the film. I certainly didn’t get the point of this one. I thought it was overlong at 145 minutes and I was left wondering exactly what the purpose of watching it had been.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Theatre - Mixed Up North – Wilton’s Music Hall, London E1

Star rating – 7/10

This thought provoking and energising play is being staged in London at Wilton’s Music Hall after a spell at the Bolton Octagon, under the umbrella of the National Theatre, by Out of Joint and the Octagon Theatre. Being a contrary sort of Mancunian who would rather walk through the fires of hell than go to Bolton, I saw it in London. And before we get to the play itself, mention must be made of the splendid venue, whose existence is a very well kept secret.

Wilton’s Music Hall is a part derelict, part renovated gem of a nineteenth century music hall on the borders of the East End, which is now a flourishing arts centre, albeit still badly in need of more funds to complete the restoration. It was a delight to discover it – and I encourage you to do likewise (

Mixed Up North, the creation of director Max Stafford- Clark and writer Robin Soans, is based on the quotes and lives of real people in the former Lancashire mill town of Burnley. (Former because there are no mills left.) And if you hadn’t been to Burnley before seeing this play, it is very doubtful if it will inspire you to venture there afterwards. It is centered on the work of a youth street theatre group run by an inspired and dedicated woman called Trish. After the 2001 ‘disturbances’ – no-one is allowed to call them riots anymore in case it gives the town a bad name – much effort is now going into bridging the gulf between the Asian and white communities via enticing their youth into drama.

Celia Imrie is fabulous as the irrepressible Trish, the born again Christian who felt called to work with the young people of Burnley, and who does seem to have developed a tremendous amount of mutual respect with the drama group members. The first half of the play is in turns very, very funny, and then hits the audience in the stomach with some very punchy messages about how the everyday reality of Burnley existence really is for the group. Some of the messages do seem a little like hand grenades though, thrown into the mix with the odd rape or childhood sexual abuse tale for good measure, but without obvious purpose. The cast is largely made up of newly qualified actors, and they are on the whole very impressive indeed. We see them rehearsing for a community production involving Bollywood dancing and lots of gags, but which is fated not to go to plan.

The second half of the play does seem a bit bolted onto the first. It doesn’t flow very smoothly, and makes very uncomfortable viewing at times, as the audience takes part in a question and answer session, allegedly supposed to be about mixed race relationships, but going onto a wider debate about grooming of girls and other such thoroughly depressing topics. The council official who encourages politically correct language and opinions from the audience is very well played by Matthew Wait, although some of his contributions are truly cringe worthy – particularly from the perspective of someone like myself involved in the regeneration game which is so pilloried in this production.

We were also treated to an after show question and answer session with some of the cast, together with Stafford- Clark and Soans. Whilst being mainly aimed at the trillions of young drama students in the audience, it did give the opportunity for yours truly to ask about what the central message of the play was. In seems it was trying to get across to the audience how complex a place Burnley is, and to give a voice to the people of the town – nothing more, nothing less. And in the end I feel that this is a bit of a cop out. Just throwing all the issues in the town from racial tensions, unemployment, lack of hope for the future, rapes, sexual abuse (need I go on?) into the mix does not necessarily achieve a great deal. They also revealed that the play was originally just the first half – with the second added on later – which goes some way to explaining the disjointed feel it has.

But nevertheless this was a hugely enjoyable, if a bit disjointed production, which is to be applauded for its great acting, its bold aim of giving voice to the people of Burnley, its exhilarating involvement of the audience in the proceedings, and its general bringing of Northern 'in your face' culture to the good folk of London town – which can never be a bad thing in my book.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Film – Bright Star – directed by Jane Campion

Star rating 9/10

It is always a little worrying when a film that has been eagerly awaited then receives rave reviews. So often the excitement seems to be misplaced or overdone. But not in this latest offering from Jane Campion. Even her previous brilliant work, ‘The Piano’ is put in the shade by this impossibly sad tale of doomed love between the young poet John Keats, and the feisty seamstress, Fanny Brawne.

The film opens in 1818 when the two first meet in the then village of Hampstead. Fanny is immediately hostile to his friend and fellow poet Charles Brown, a feeling which seems to be based on some previous experience that is not really explained by the film. A little more back story would probably have been helpful here, but that is a minor quibble really. The two lead parts are beautifully and totally believably played by Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish. The on screen chemistry between these two actors is incredible, as they portray the developing romance and eventual heartrending ending with their love remaining unconsummated.

Fanny is feisty, independently minded, and a very skilful dress designer – the Vivienne Westwood of her day. At first she is scornful of the art of poetry, and prefers instead a man with a ready wit. Keats rebukes her for wanting a dandy, but this initial verbal sparring soon gives way to infatuation and romance. Fanny comes to appreciate the beauty of his craft.

The two handed relationship is threatened momentarily by the jealousy of Brown, who seem to veer between resentment of Fanny for taking the attention of his friend away from himself and their poetry, to wanting Fanny for himself via a crude Valentine gesture. But the feelings of Fanny and John are too strong to brook interference. The other more practical obstacle is that Keats is penniless, in debt even, and so not the most promising catch for Fanny as potential husband material in the early nineteenth century.

There is no mystery about how the story ends. The frail Keats dies tragically young at the age of 25, after Fanny and her family desperately try to nurse him back to health. Campion treats this inevitable tragic conclusion very sensitively. Brown comes to tell the Brawne family the terrible news from Rome, where Keats had gone to escape the harsh English winter, and for the first time in the film he now seems to realise how deep Fanny’s love for Keats really is.

The settings are sumptuous, with bluebell meadows and leafy woods providing the perfect backdrop to the tale. The supporting cast are excellent, including a nicely played part by Edie Martin as Fanny’s little sister Toots. And the final reciting of Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by Wishaw over the closing credits is mesmerisingly poignant. A beautifully sad, brilliantly acted and deeply touching film, which for once truly does live up to its billing.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Theatre – The Entertainer – Royal Exchange, Manchester

Star rating – 7/10

If you’re looking for a bundle of laughs type of night out, then this latest revival of John Osbourne’s 1950’s play about a washed up, second rate song and dance man, Archie Rice, is not the one to pick. David Schofield stars here in the role made famous by Laurence Olivier, and although those are very big shoes to fill, he does a fine job of it. Schofield is totally convincing as the wretched Archie, who is trying to convince both himself and the audience that his career is not over and his life is not descending into total disaster.

Very strong support to him is given in the form of Roberta Taylor as Archie’s second wife Pheobe; and David Ryall as his elderly father, Billy Rice, who is himself a former music hall performer. The fraught and alcohol fuelled family discussions between these three and Rice’s daughter Jean are excruciatingly painful to observe, as the characters engage in endless verbal sparring whilst not either saying what they mean or meaning what they say.

In some senses the play does seem dated and of its time, as in the extensive use of pejorative language to describe their Polish neighbours and other immigrant communities in general. But in other ways it could not be more poignant or relevant, such as the fate of Archie’s son Mick who is fighting in the army abroad and whom they are expecting to return home to a hero’s welcome.

Archie’s treatment of the long suffering Phoebe is also painful to watch, although she seems only too ready to forgive him any minor, or major, misdemeanours. The set itself reflects the drabness of the era, and of their lives in particular. The only colour is in Archie’s musical interludes, which Schofield performs admirably, and in Archie’s imagination.

This is a thought provoking, and polished performance, even if the conclusion leaves a somewhat depressed and deflated feeling as the audience departs, owing more to Osbourne’s subject matter, than to another fine production from the Royal Exchange.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Books – Muriel Spark – The Biography by Martin Stannard

Star rating – 7/10

The name of Muriel Spark will evoke for most people thoughts of her most best known and well loved novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a character so memorably brought to life on film by Maggie Smith. But most of her other 21 novels remain in relative obscurity today, which is odd for such a previously celebrated and talented writer.

This new biography by Martin Stannard helps to throw some light on the elusive author, and was written with her blessing and help, although would undoubtedly have suffered more from her desperate need to tightly control her privacy and public image if she had not died whilst it was being written. This is a very sympathetic telling of her story, and does in places feel a little too subjective for its own good because of this.

Her early story is fascinating. She comes from a relatively poor but stable and happy family in Edinburgh, and makes an early disastrous marriage to a man who takes her to Africa and turns out to be mentally very unstable and very unsuitable. After having her son, Robin, she manages to break away from her husband, but at the expense of leaving her son behind. When he finally does come to live in Edinburgh, he does not settle with his mother, by now a committed but penniless writer doggedly pursuing her craft, but with her parents. The reasons for this are somewhat glossed over here by Stannard. What seem like basic child abandonment and selfishness on Spark’s part are portrayed as reasonable and normal behaviour for a struggling young writer. Later in her life she tells one interviewer that her mother just seemed to take Robin from her, and to take over. She certainly didn’t put up much resistance, and her resulting relationship with her son is inevitably very strained at best throughout her life. At one point she says of him ‘He has never done anything for me except for being one big bore.’ This culminates in her disinheriting him totally in her will, due we are told to a disagreement over their Jewish heritage, which Spark is not as keen as her son to own and embrace.

This selfishness as a mother aside, her early story is told well and her other human relationships reveal a fear of closeness and opening up to others that perhaps leads to her spending her whole life basically on her own, with a series of transitory relationships, most of which seem to be platonic. One very interesting part of her make up is her conversion to Catholicism in the 1950s. Her religion becomes a theme running through many of her novels, although it does not really seem to effect her life in a very practical way. Spark does not feel the need to attend Mass on a regular basis, and even then allegedly always leaves before the sermon, not wanting to be told what to think by anyone. She does not really relate to the Catholic Church as it changes and modernises after the 1962 second Vatican Council, which opened up the Church and tried to make it more accessible to its worshippers.

She lives for her writing, and is prepared to sacrifice and suffer personal hardship to make it as a writer. But it is her relationships with others that reveal so much about her. She is always falling out irrevocably with friends, lovers, agents and publishers. It certainly seems that she was a very difficult woman to get on with or get close to. She guarded her public image fiercely, and loved the dramatic and theatrical gesture whenever the opportunity presented itself. ‘I like purple patches in my life. I like drama, but not in my writing. I think it is bad manners to inflict emotional involvement on the reader…’ But she does have many close relationships, mainly via letters in the written medium she was most comfortable with, with famous poets and authors such as Auden, and Greene.

She comes across through these pages as a brilliant, intelligent, but insecure, unhappy, and vain woman. The detail of her later life are not as interesting as the early part of the biography, as Stannard just seems to relate an endless stream of trips abroad, meetings and illnesses. But essentially this is an interesting read, and should tempt readers to explore more of her works than they already know, if not persuade them of the essential goodness of Spark herself as a human being. Do good writers need to sacrifice themselves for their art? On this evidence it would certainly seem that Muriel Spark did so.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Film – An Education – directed by Lone Scherfig

Star rating – 8/10

This 1960’s coming of age tale is based on the memoirs of Lynn Barber, and contains wonderful screenplay from Nick Hornby. Barber’s experiences are roughly translated into the character of Jenny, a plucky 16 year old girl brilliantly played by Carey Mulligan, who has been hotly tipped for a successful and sparkling career largely on the back of this film.

Jenny is intelligent and enquiring. She excels at school and is being groomed for an Oxford education by her middle class parents, in their desperate wish for her to succeed. The stifling atmosphere of her home and family is very evident. They are not themselves university educated or even remotely intellectual, but are desperate for their young daughter to do better. But Jenny wants more, she often escapes by listening to Juliette Gréco records in her bedroom instead of doing her homework.

The frustrations of young women in the early 60’s are all too evident here. The main purpose of their education seems to be a back up in case they don’t meet a rich successful man to marry. Studying is a passport to being able to support themselves by teaching, or even entering the civil service, if the worst happens and they fail to bag a husband. Jenny is clearly not happy with this prospect.

In steps David (Peter Sarsgaard), the dashing older man with a sports car and a one way ticket for Jenny to enter another world of culture, concerts and excitement. It is obvious why Jenny is attracted to this prospect, but what is not so obvious is why her parents are also totally won over by the charming David, and allow their underage daughter to run about town with this much older man, neglecting her precious studies on the way. Very poor judgement on their part.

This is unarguably a star studded cast – Emma Thompson as the head teacher who Jenny very definitely does not want as a role model; Alfred Molina as her gullible father; Dominic Cooper as David’s best friend and partner in extremely dodgy dealings Danny. The best of these is played wonderfully by Rosamund Pike as Danny’s girlfriend Helen, who sparkles as a beautiful girl with no brains who is happy to have a good time and readily befriends Jenny. Pike’s sense of comedy for the role is a nice touch, and pitched exactly right.

Of course the romance does not run smoothly, and Mulligan excels at showing Jenny’s young but feisty and determined character dealing with the experience and the fallout. The period detail in the film is absolutely authentic, and adds to the fine feel of the piece. It is a very enjoyable film, based on a story which , if you did not know was largely true, would seem a tad far fetched. And Mulligan deserves all the warm praise she will undoubtedly get for bringing Jenny to life so wonderfully as a rounded character, eager for life but still with a lot to learn.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Theatre - Twelfth Night – RSC Stratford

Star rating – 7/10

A play of two halves really for the RSC’s latest Stratford offering. This production of ‘Twelfth Night’ was apparently delayed until Richard Wilson was available to play Malvolio. I am just not sure that someone who is so known for one character can credibly play another. At times it felt like the audience was waiting for him to announce ‘I don’t believe it’…

The funniest characters by half were actually played by the wonderful James Fleet (from The Vicar of Dibley apparently) as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Richard McCabe as his partner in general drunken behaviour, Sir Toby Belch. The scene where they are eavesdropping in the box tree at the end of the first half of the play is truly hilarious.

This is a difficult play to follow – basically, everyone loves Olivia, and some of the characters are not who they seem to be. To say more would be to give too much away (and would quite possibly be beyond me). The second half definitely felt a bit weaker and contrived. Not sure if that is a fault of the Bard himself, or of this particular production from Greg Doran. To be a bit more picky – the Fool played by Miltos Yerolemou, did not really have a strong enough voice for the part.

But to be positive, Nancy Carroll plays the part of Viola/Cesario very assuredly. The set is fabulous, and as usual it was a pleasure to be at the Courtyard Theatre. Just a shame the play’s denouement felt a little far fetched.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Gigs – James Yorkston and the Big Eyes Family Players – Night & Day Café

Star rating – 7/10

The Night and Day Café in Manchester’s Northern Quarter is a very relaxed place to listen to bands, and James Yorkston is a very relaxed kind of guy, playing gentle folk music. If you add the preponderance of beards in the audience, and a few beer bellies and lots of flat sandals besides – you are probably getting the picture of what this gig was like.

So beards aside, Yorkston (who you will be glad to hear is clean shaven) has taken time out from his usual band, the Athletes, to join forces with the Big Eyes Family Players to produce an album of very British folk songs, which is largely what they were showcasing here. Ok so I do tend to wince when the recorders come out (except at a school concert obviously), as they did on occasion here, but, that aside, it was a very enjoyable, pleasing sound. Also the female singer of the ensemble Mary Hampton, who had an earlier support slot too on the same bill, has a voice that is sometimes a little shrill to accompany the dulcet soft tones of Yorkston.

So then beards, recorders and shrill voices aside, the music was lovely. Very folk, and very British. And Yorkston has a lovely relaxed, easy rapport with the audience. He helpfully informed them when he was moving into the encore section of the evening, without anyone actually leaving the stage, and did a few beautiful solo numbers here. Obviously a labour of love then, and it did make me want to find out a bit more about his other recordings – but not to go and buy some flat sandals. Me and my stilettos are very happy together thanks.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Film – Fantastic Mr Fox – directed by Wes Anderson

Star rating 9.5/10 (average from the 2 guest reviewers)

(Guest blog reviewers – Alfie and Lula Carr aged 7)

Alfie described this film as fantastic and, a little less predictably, as enthusiastic. His favourite character is Ash, the teenage son of Mr Fox (smoothly voiced by George Clooney) and his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep), because Ash felt he was different and wanted to be an athlete (like Alfie). His favourite scene was the part when the foxes and friends are hiding from the three farmers Bogis, Bunce and Bean in an underground cavern that gets flooded with cider. Mr Fox’s possum friend Kylie’s reaction - ‘Apple Juice Flood’ particularly amused Alfie. Alfie gave the film 10 out of 10.

Lula also thought that the film was very funny. She felt that it must have been difficult for the director, Wes Anderson to make as there were loads of puppets to make, then make them seem to move, and then to add all the voices. Lula’s favourite scene was Mr Fox’s trademark – he whistled and clicked his fingers in a very cool way. And Mr Fox himself was Lula’s favourite character. The three farmers were pretty scary, specially when they shot at the foxes and their friends. Another amusing part for Lula was when Mr Fox ate his toast very messily. She didn’t feel able to give the film 10 out of 10 as she did think that Monsters versus Aliens was funnier, but nevertheless gave it a very high score of 9 out of 10.

P.S. and their adult companion enjoyed it immensely too. It is a very clever and amusing film which doesn’t absolutely stay true to the Roald Dahl book, but the additions are very welcome. The developing relationship between Ash and his cousin Kristofferson is especially touching. Not sure why the goodies are American and the baddies are British, but still a rare treat for all.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Theatre – Life Is A Dream – Donmar Warehouse

Star rating – 9/10

If you like your drama to be reminiscent of the classic tragedies and plots of ancient Greece or Shakespeare’s finest, then this is a treat not to be missed. I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of Spanish writer Pedro Calderón de la Barca before, to my shame, but I now know that he was one of Spain’s finest dramatists in the golden age of Spanish theatre in the seventeenth century. And , not being familiar with the original text, it is hard to say how true this version is to it, but the adaptation by Jonathan Mumby felt extremely relevant to today’s Donmar audience.

And in ‘Life Is a Dream’, he explores the conflict between free will and predestined fate. It tells the story of the Basilio, King of Poland who imprisons his son Segismundo like an animal in a tower from birth, in order to protect his reign and defy the predictions of astrologers who saw the boy taking his father's throne. After several years, the King has a change of heart and orders his son drugged and brought to his palace to test out his character. Segismund behaves so badly, however, that Basilio banishes him back to his prison. Waking up in the tower, the prince thinks that he never left his prison, that the entire experience was just a dream.

Dominic West, better know as heart throb cop Jimmy McNulty from ‘The Wire’, is simply excellent in the lead role of Segismundo. He rages and roars at the injustice of his situation. As well as the obvious tragic element, West’s character is also highly amusing as he comes to terms with experiences he has so far been denied all his life. The clown of the piece is played for laughs by Lloyd Hutchinson as the servant Clarion. Also impressive is David Horovitch as his jailer, and general for Basilio, Clotaldo.

The plot is complex, with another inter weaving story competing to be resolved alongside the fate of Segismundo. But it is expertly told, and genuinely thought provoking and uplifting. My only slight criticism would be that at times of high dramatic tension, the music seemed to intrude slightly when the action could have more than spoken for itself. But overall a fantastic play, a pleasing confirmation of the talents of Dominic West, and another winning production from the Donmar.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Exhibitions - Monctezuma – Aztec Ruler at the British Museum

Star rating - 6/10

The latest of the exhibitions of great rulers to inhabit the Reading Room at the British Museum tells the story of Monctezuma, (to give him his correctly spelt name), the last ruler of the Aztecs (or Mexica as we learn they were called).

Monctezuma was born in 1467, and was the ninth and last elected ruler of this famous civilisation. We learn here about the mythological tale of how they came to choose the location for their capital. Copil was thought to be scheming against the Mexica, so his uncle tore his heart out and threw it onto an island. The spot where it landed was chosen for their great temple. And indeed we see the rather impressive ‘Heart of Greenstone’ which brings this tale to life, and which has lovely grey/green and red tones.

Blood and sacrifice are running themes through this story. A huge stone eagle, a bird which for the Mexica symbolised the sun, is shown with a very large cavity in its back – apparently for holding the hearts of human captives which were sacrificed to feed the sun.

Monctezuma was supreme elected ruler in 1502, and had a month long celebration for his coronation, which again involved human sacrifice, and blood letting by the new ruler himself. The large coronation stone shows rich detail of the events, deciphered from the many glyphs, or signature pictures, that the Mexica used to record their history.

There are some interesting details about Monctezuma revealed here. He wore jaguar skin sandals – obviously not an endangered species to the Mexica then. A reproduction shield is shown made of exotic materials such as ocelot pelt and hummingbird feathers. We see beautiful gold necklaces complete with bells. We see pottery with exquisite detail, and learn that good old Monctezuma used to smash it after each meal – so presumably he didn’t actually use the exhibits here then! His vast palace covered 5 acres. The Great Temple was located on the spot where an eagle was seen perched on a cactus. Hopefully this didn’t happen too often or the poor Mexica builders would have been exhausted – such was the scale of the temple that they constructed.

There are undeniably some beautiful exhibits contained here – the turquoise masks, the eagle warrior knife, and the gold disc with turquoise inlay. But to be honest I expected a bit more.

We all know roughly how the story ends – the Spanish conquistadors under Cortes come to convert the Mexicas to Christianity and plunder their wealth. And they end up killing some of them and giving others fatal diseases by raping their women which eventually leads to their obliteration. Not very positive really. And it does make you a bit angry at the arrogance of imperialism. Monctezuma himself died in mysterious circumstances depending on which part of the legend you believe – either he was slaughtered in front of his people as a dire lesson to them, or he died in the caring sharing arms of the conquistadors. Take your pick really.

An interesting but not fascinating exhibition then. It does reveal some great details and beautiful objects, but just not really enough for me to justify the big billing. Or maybe I just expected too much.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Theatre – The Power of Yes – at the National Theatre

Star rating – 8/10

It is too soon to place the events that culminated in the near meltdown of the entire worldwide banking system in a drama? Has enough time passed for us to view the play and players critically and objectively? Can we yet understand exactly why it all happened? Interesting questions indeed, but David Hare’s latest play at the National Theatre does just that.

And it is a very enjoyable and stimulating play at that. The audience is faced with a constant stream of different players in the unfolding drama for an uninterrupted 1 hour 45 minutes, although the drama is pacey and thought provoking. It is also very funny in places, as we are being asked to laugh at the incredulity of it all – even at this short distance. If you didn’t laugh you would cry…

We are taken through events by the character of the playwright himself, played by Anthony Calf, as he works out the answers for himself in order to produce the play. The roots of the crisis, the assumptions made, the risks taken, and the fall out, is all explained through the eyes of journalists, academics, lawyers, politicians, and of course the bankers. Complex financial constructs are explained through these figures in a very accessible way. Who would ever have through we would be going to the theatre to hear about quantitative easing, leverage and toxic assets?

Everyone involved in the crisis seems to come from either Harvard, Goldman Sachs, or the Financial Times, as one character notes. It is a non stop journey through greed, incredible over inflated self confidence, and risk taking to take your breath away. And the powerful and very imaginative sets help to convey the key messages and context of the action. Fred Goodwin, the disgraced RBS Chief Executive is, for example, very effectively pictured in a series of Andy Warhol type coloured prints in a copy of his famous Marilyn Monroe work.

It is certainly great entertainment - gripping and very fast moving. Is it too soon to tell the tale? Well only time will tell, but David Hare has made a damn fine job of this immediate response to the economic madness that gripped the world, and from whose fallout we are all still suffering the effects.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Books – The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

Star rating – 8/10

This historical novel is partly based on true life events, when the paths of the poets John Clare and Alfred Tennyson crossed in a random way via a mental asylum called High Beach, on the edge of Epping Forest in Essex. That sounds like a crazy plot, but this novel, which was short listed for the Booker this year, but lost out to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, is evocatively and beautifully written by Adam Foulds.

John Clare is an inpatient at High Beach – who is slowly loosing his grip on reality, and imagines himself, and those around him, to be many different characters. He is on a desperate mission to escape into the forest that he so loved to explore in his youth, and succeeds in spending nights under the stars in the company of the local gypsies. The connection that Clare makes with them, and the empathy that each has for the other is a touching detail.

Alfred Tennyson comes to High Beach to accompany his brother, Septimus, who is a patient there. Here he encounters the founder of the institution, Matthew Allen and his large family. He causes the young passions of one of Allen’s daughters, Hannah, to stir. She ‘walked and recited the remarkable facts to herself – a poet, tall, handsome, strong, dark – and out of her thoughts he appeared. Under the bell of her skirt she stumbled, seeing him, but continued forwards, calm, preparing her smile. What would happen? In her mind, the apex of their next encounter was, outrageously, a kiss, his large arms around her and the fierce kiss kindling where their lips touched.’

Foulds considerable descriptive powers convey the dark mystic power of the forest, and the brooding atmosphere of the asylum with great skill. We learn of dark secrets in the Allen family, and watch the money making scheme of Matthew unfold. We feel the full horror of High Beach, the desperation of its inhabitants, and the cloying atmosphere in which Allen brings up his family.

This is a beautiful novel, in which Foulds impresses with his distinctive creative style. I can’t say if it should have won the Booker without reading all the other books on the short list, but for me it was certainly a more powerful and evocative read than the recently declared winner.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Books – A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Star rating – 7/10

Tassie, our narrator for this new novel by Lorrie Moore, previously better known for her short stories, is a young student in her early twenties, who has escaped the boredom of her background in the mid West provinces of Dellacrosse, and come to be a student in the university town of Troy. She takes a part time job as a babysitter with a busy middle class couple called Sarah and Edward. The only thing is that there is no baby to sit as yet. Sarah and Edward are part way though an adoption process, and are keen to have Tassie on board every step of the way.

She thinks that Sarah especially is a bit sad. She sees to be a middle aged woman desperate to have a child, but not so desperate to tear herself away from her up market restaurant business. Sarah is viewed through the youthful eyes of Tassie on their first meeting - ‘Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-coloured, and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment’. On one of their trips to view a prospective child to adopt Tassie begins to feel Sarah’s sadness. ‘These middle-aged women seemed very tired to me, as if hope had been wrung out of them and replaced with a deathly, walking sort of sleep.’

Tassie’s world view is very amusing in places. Her observations send her mind whirring to past places, people and facts. At one of their meetings, the woman from the adoption agency leaves the room to make drinks and Tassie notes that ‘she returned to the room, carrying a tray with two bowls: one piled with creamers and one jammed with yellow packets of sweetener that I’d learned from friends had been invented accidentally by chemists during a reformulation of insecticide. Death and dessert, sweetness and doom, lay side by side: I was coming to see that this was not uncommon.’

Moore’s descriptive powers are wonderful, and add a really rich contextual backdrop to the story. Tassie is a very engaging character, and her thought process asides from the main action are relayed to the reader in marvellous detail. On accession, however, they do seem a bit distracting, as the narrative plot gets a little lost in their midst.

The central story of the emerging relationships between Sarah, her oft absent husband Edward, Tassie and their new charge Mary-Emma. Tassie and Emmie (as Sarah likes her new daughter to be referred to as) is very tender. And it could possibly have been made more of by Moore towards the end of the book. Things do not go smoothly in the household, and as the fragile happiness unravels Tassie finds herself at the heart of it.

The storytelling does loose its way a bit in the latter stages, the central story seems to be lost somewhat, with a lot of loose ends not tied up in detail. Possibly this is due to it being Moore’s first foray into the world of the novel. Nevertheless it is a captivating story, well told in the main, with brilliant and amusing detail throughout.

Theatre – Punk Rock at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

Star rating – 9/10

Simon Stephens’ last production performed at the Royal Exchange, ‘On the Shore of the Wide World’ in 2005 was deservedly critically acclaimed and went on to a successful run at the National Theatre. His new, equally if not slightly superior production, Punk Rock, which is also set in Stephens’ native town of Stockport, has made the reverse journey from an earlier run at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith to its current Manchester debut.

It is a mesmerising, powerful play which grips the audience’s attention for the whole of its uninterrupted 1 hour and 50 minutes. It is set in the sixth form of a private school, with the arrival of a new girl, Lily (Jessica Raine), to the small band of students. Lily’s arrival really stirs things up, and brings new friendships, romances, passions, jealousies and deeply hidden insecurities to the fore very quickly. The remarkable cast, played by young actors, with only minor one adult role in the whole piece, are totally convincing. The action is in turns highly amusing, but also deeply disturbing.

Special mention must be made of Tom Sturridge, who plays the frustrated, intelligent and lonely William with astonishing accuracy in his stage debut. He is certainly one to watch. The themes of the play do not make easy viewing. One central one is the nature of insidious bullying, and how others look on as bystanders, afraid to stand up for the victim for fear of being one themselves. Another is the sexual tension that fizzes around the group of students as they tentatively explore their relationships with each other.

They dream about getting away from Stockport, and why would they not indeed! But in reality it is their fumbling adolescent selves they want to escape from – and that is a bit more tricky. William fantasises about a potential relationship with Lily, and about past tragedies that are supposed to have befallen his family. His fragile balance is eventually toppled – leading to a horrific denouement, which Stephens builds up to with incredible tension in this gripping and brilliant production.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Gigs - Paolo Nutini – Manchester Apollo

Star rating – 7/10

This gig was a party – and that was just the band on stage. Paolo Nutini stormed through a set lasting one and three quarter hours, and didn’t seem to want to stop even then. He played all his hits – Jenny Don’t Be Hasty; New Shoes; Last Request; Coming Up Easy; and the amazing latest single Candy.

His voice soared above the crowd, most of whom joined in with every note, in his distinctive and very attractive singing style. He is as comfortable doing the stripped down ballads with just a guitar for accompaniment, as the big band numbers that really got the crowd dancing.

His many membered backing band, The Vipers, were a class act, including a great brass section. And they even did a cover of "Alone Again Or", originally recorded by the 60’s psychedelic folk rock band Love.

He is still a relatively young song writer and singer, and if his two albums so far are anything to judge by, he shows signs of having much more to come. But for now it was enough to just savour the party, savour his extremely versatile voice, and savour the music.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Film – The Army of Crime – directed by Robert Guediguian

Star rating – 8/10

This is not a new story, but nonetheless very much worth retelling, as Robert Guediguian does here in this moving and passionately told new film. It focuses on the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France by a leftist array of characters including Jews, Armenians and Communists.

We see the innocence of the people who believe that Jews are safe because ‘This is France’ quickly unravelling. We watch their reactions as the Jewish people are rounded up and driven away on buses to their deaths, as they harbour vain hopes of one day being reunited, knowing that they do not yet realise the full horror of the concentration camps.

And we know from the list of people who ‘died for France’ that is read out at the start of the film, that there will in no way be a semblance of a happy ending here for any of the characters. The resistance fighters are shown to be brave and fearless in their opposition to the Nazis, sometimes being foolhardy in the extreme in their actions.

It is a very moving story, compellingly acted by some very strong central performances including the leader of the disparate group of resisters, Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian), and his devoted and loving wife Melinee (Virginie Ledoyen). There is a very moving portrayal of a young Jewish man Marcel Rayman (Robinson Stévenin), who joins the resistance after seeing his father deported to certain death in the camps, and his young brother Simon, who he guards protectively to the end.

The film contains great period detail, and does not pull any punches when revealing how the French authorities were more than complicit in the capture and torture of anyone the Nazis viewed as a threat. If I had to criticise one thing about it then could have been a little more tightly edited to reduce its length, which at 139 minutes felt slightly overlong.

But overall a stirring story of brave people who were not afraid to stand up for what they knew to be right. They did die for France, but they died for a whole lot more besides.

Books - The Devil's Paintbrush by Jake Arnot

Star rating 1/10

I didn't enjoy this book and rarely for me, I didn’t finish it either. I have loved all Jake Arnot's other novels - so this was a great disappointment. I found the story to be confused and disjointed, and I could not relate to the occultist character of Crowley at all - nor did I want to read on to find out more about him. Sorry but that says it all really.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Exhibition - The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock – Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester until 13th December 2009

Star rating – 7/10

This exhibition of American print making from the early 1900s to 1960 is a welcome loan from the British Museum. It looks at the way artists used prints to reflect the great social and economic changes that happened during this period, and some of the pieces are really very moving.

George Bellows shows an illegal boxing match or ‘stag’ from the turn of the century. His fighters in ‘A Stag at Sharkey’s’ are strong, muscular and shown in a pyramid shaped tussle. In ‘Isolation’ he shows a lonely man surrounded by courting couples in Central Park. He reflects his strong moral and left wing views in some of his works, such as ‘Electrocution’ from 1917 where the prisoner is strapped to the electric chair awaiting his fate. An d his ‘Dance in a Madhouse’ is a haunting vision of inhabitants of the asylum wards in a macabre dance. All his works are in black and white, and very striking.

Later artists featured here reflect the changing New York skyline, such as Louis Lozowick with his ‘New York’ from 1925 showing the rising skyscrapers in another distinctive black and white print. Martin Lewis shows a clever use of shadow in his prints. His ‘Quarter of Nine, Saturday’s Children’ features smart young women going to work in the fashionable New York department stores as they ‘work hard for their living’ as the nursery rhyme goes. Robert Figgs returns to the imagery of the mentally ill in his ‘Psychopathic Ward’ from 1940. He shows the inmates in a fragile and vulnerable light.

The displays reflect the economic hardship of the Great Depression, and also the Federal Art Project which revitalised print making as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. By the 1940s the prints are more abstract, such as those by Jackson Pollock, and the vivid horror of a piece depicting the threatened nuclear holocaust by Hans Burkhardt in his ‘After the Bomb’ from 1948.

This is a fascinating exhibition, which is a real window on the social, economic and moral issues absorbing America in the first half of the twentieth century, shown via some spectacular and insightful prints.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Books – August Heat by Andrea Camilleri

Star rating – 8/10

This is the 10th novel in the Inspector Montalbano crime series. For those who have grown to know and love, and at times get infuriated with, the Sicilian Inspector over the past fifteen years, then this latest offering does not disappoint. This time however, the suave and renegade policeman is showing his age somewhat. His hearing is started to worsen, and his attraction to a beautiful girl young enough to be his daughter leaves him in a moral dilemma. But even in his middle age he is still an attractive man, and Camilleri reminds us that ‘he looked exactly like Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace’.

All the usual elements of the series are here. There is his explosive relationship with his girlfriend Livia, who lives in a different town, and whom he seems to disappoint on a very regular basis without even really trying to. He always seems happier on is own than when she is around. And that certainly suits his long serving housekeeper Adelina, who cannot stand Livia and will not even come to the house when she is around. Adelina prepares an endless supply of delicious meals for Montalbano (and his readers) to salivate over:

‘Adelina had made a pappanozza for him. Onions and potatoes boiled for a long time and mashed with the back of a fork until they blended together. For seasoning: olive oil, a hint of vinegar, salt and freshly ground black pepper.’

And when he is not sampling the delights of Adelina’s cooking, he is usually to be found at his favourite local trattoria, Enzo’s, where he gets special treatment whatever hour of the day he visits.

Camilleri is not afraid of expressing political and moral views via his inspector. He reads a detective novel by two Swedish authors ‘in which there wasn’t a page without a ferocious attack on social democracy and the government. In his mind Montalbano dedicated the book to those who did not deign to read mystery novels because, in their opinion, they were only entertaining puzzles.’ The mafia, for example, come under fire as being ‘like an obscene ballet’.

And so what of the crime that unfolds in the sweltering Sicilian heat? As usual, the crime is really just the framework on which to hang the well observed machinations of Montalbano. He has to fight his colleagues and the criminals of the island alike to solve his mysteries. But he is dedicated to his job day and night. This is a familiar yet very welcome addition to the series. Camilleri manages to keep us interested in and on the side of Montalbano. These are gentle crime stories alongside many others in the genre, but nonetheless extremely they are enjoyable all the same, and not afraid to place then in a solid moral and political framework.