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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.