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Monday, 28 February 2011

Classical - Hallé orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder

Star rating 8/10

This was my first experience of going to a classical concert – which is a hell of an admission having lived in a city with such a world famous orchestra as the Hallé for nearly 30 years. But better late than never.

The first thing that struck me was the average age of audience, which must have been well over 60, and is very worrying in terms of the future of live classical music after that generation has passed. The evening was also a bit formal – a fact not unrelated to the aforementioned age profile of the crowd I presume. There was positively no clapping between movements, just a hell of a lot of coughing, so it felt a bit too restrained for me. And obviously it was a black tie and evening dress affair for the performers. If someone could reinvent and reinvigorate the genre they would be onto something very big I suspect.

But nevertheless it was a very moving experience. The raw power of hearing the huge orchestra play live in such an acoustically perfect and magnificent setting as the Bridgewater Hall was stunning. The programme began with the Overture from the lesser known, by me at least, Verdi opera Luisa Miller. It was a brief but very energetic and exciting start, not least for the world famous conductor Sir Mark Elder, looking very chic in his all black ‘Milk Tray man’ style ensemble. Following this beautiful Verdi opener they moved onto a fabulous performance by the young German pianist Martin Helmchen of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major. Whenever I hear Mozart I am struck by the youthful fabulous brilliance of the man who gave us such a catalogue of perfection in his short life. And this piece was no exception to that. The piece demanded great dexterity of the pianist, and Helmchen certainly provided it. It is in places an intimate and gentle concerto, but then rising to a finale that reminded me of some of the beautiful music in his later work, ‘The Magic Flute’.

The Elgar Symphony No. 1 in A flat was obviously supposed to be the highlight of the concert, but in truth it was my least favourite bit. The slower movement was like a flowing river, but a bit too soporific. The percussion didn’t have much to do – I felt a bit sorry for them sitting there on their hands for more or less the entire second half – as they only came to life briefly in one of the movements. But I was still swept away by the majesty of the music – it felt very British – which was very apt for the night we were to triumph so emphatically at the Oscars.

It was overall an enlightening and uplifting experience that I will certainly repeat. The power of the music was moving and beautiful, and the skill of the Hallé undoubted. So , another reason to be proud to live in Manchester then – job done.

Theatre - A Doll's House - Library Theatre

Star rating – 7/10

This is a very different play about the institution of marriage from Friday night’s frivolity courtesy of Noel Coward. Ibsen’s 1897 play ‘A Doll’s House’ from the Library Theatre company at their temporary home at The Lowry is a much more sombre and thought provoking affair. Emma Cunniffe plays the lead role of Nora Helmer, who is the wife of a bank manager on the verge of a triumphant promotion. Nora and Torvald have been seemingly happily married for eight years, and have two small children and a happy, cosy, and idyllic home.

But Nora is hiding a secret that she has successfully managed to keep from her husband for years. And she is forced to confront it when she has a chance encounter from an old friend from her past, Mrs Linde. Ibsen’s views on the position of women were radical in his day, and are still pretty progressive now, and the events in his play still have the ability to cause shock waves even now.

Nora is forced to see what her doting husband really thinks of her, and to confront what role she has been playing through their relationship and her position in it. It is an intelligent, and sometimes humorous play, which is well adapted by Bryony Lavery to maintain its relevance to a modern audience.

The acting is solid, if not sparkling, with Ken Bradshaw as the smothering, domineering husband Torvald, and Paul Barnhill as his unpleasant but mistreated employee Krogstad. Daniel Brocklebank is excellent however in role of family friend and admirer of Nora, Dr. Rank. The themes of marriage, honesty, honour and love are explored in a relevant and important Ibsen classic. A good play – which is definitely worth watching for its message.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Theatre - Private Lives - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 9/10

Noel Coward was a playwriting genius, and this is probably the best of his brilliant plays.The tale of a chance encounter on honeymoon of two separate but distinctly connected couples still fizzes with sexual chemistry, humour and keenly observed social commentary, especially on the institution of marriage itself.

Elyot and Amanda are acrimoniously divorced, and five years on have both now found new spouses and find themselves hilariously on honeymoon at the same time at the same Deauville hotel as each other. So it’s safe to say that it is not the romantic start to their honeymoons that they were imagining. At least not romantic as far as their new partners are concerned. It quickly transpires that, after their first passionate union, both have settled for a sweeter, nicer, more amiable partner. So when Elyot and Amanda come across each other on the terrace for pre dinner cocktails, the reaction of each one is of horror and of the urgent need to get away from each other. They know all too well what will happen if they don’t.

Imogen Stubbs, the former RSC star, and aka Lady Nunn, as Amanda is simply wonderful. She has a perfect sense of timing and comedy, which is so necessary to get the most out of Coward’s precise and side splitting script. Stubbs has a wonderful stage presence – with her dancing and fighting scenes which are equally wonderful, and it is a credit and a joy that the Royal Exchange manages to attract such high calibre actors to its productions.

And Simon Robson as her ex husband Elyot is definitely a match for her (save a few slight line fluffs – well, it was a preview) and is equally terrifically funny. The couple prove that love, lust and hate are passions that lie dangerously close to each other. We are treated to seduction and fight scenes in equal measure.

Coward’s writing is sublime. But it does need great actors to bring it together so successfully and make it seem seamless as it spins along at a dizzying pace. And these are great actors. The supporting roles of the spouses are also beautifully played by Joanna Page as Elyot’s new wife Sybil, and Clive Hayward as the unfortunate Victor, Amanda’s husband. And the direction by Michael Buffong, who is becoming something of a Royal Exchange regular after his ‘Raisin In The Sun’ last year, is spot on.

This is a very, very funny play. It is as relevant today as when Coward wrote it in 1930. The sleek costumes are beautiful and the set is perfect for this intimate comedy. I would have given it a perfect score but for a few preview night imperfections, but I am sure that these will quickly disappear and it will be a perfectly sublime and unmissable evening’s entertainment.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Film - Inside Job - directed by Charles Ferguson

Star rating – 9/10

The story told in this gripping film is shocking, shaming, and, had it been a pre 2008 drama, we would have probably derided it for being totally unbelievable and ridiculous. The problem is that it is all too true, as director Charles Ferguson takes us through the causes, and effects of the world wide banking crisis and economic meltdown that unfolded in 2008, and is still unravelling even today in a home near you. Well done to Matt Damon for narrating this brutally honest and probing film, which is the familiar story as told from an American point of view.

It actually begins in Iceland, where the deregulation of the banks and thirst to embrace the American global conglomerates led to the meltdown of a peaceful, idyllic country, whose economy was previously hailed as a model for all to follow. Unfortunately we all did – and then some.

The talking heads format used to interview some of the main protagonists in the drama, well those who would agree to participate at any rate, is very effective. Greed on a monumental scale is exposed, as well as a propensity to gamble in an adrenaline fuelled rush with the very highest stakes. The money men of Wall Street (and the captains of this particular industry were very much a male club), apparently were regular users of cocaine, and high class prostitutes, whose fees they had no problem as passing off as legitimate business expenses. Apparently cocaine stimulates the same part of the brain that is also stimulated by very risky behaviour – perfect. And the best of it was that the more they gambled, and the higher the stakes, the more they rewarded themselves in eye watering amounts of millions of dollars of personal wealth each.

But, and you know what is coming, the problem was that it was the working class people of America who paid the price. They were sold a dream of home ownership that their personal finances just could not sustain. But as the very banks that had sold them the loans had also hedged them, or made bets just in case they failed, it was a win-win situation. Or not – obviously – as this international Ponzi scheme was a house of cards just waiting to tumble down.

Charles Ferguson’s excellent and brave documentary does not pull any punches. Heads of all the major financial institutions and so called regulators are made to squirm in their seats as they try to avoid answering straight questions, and get increasingly hot under their very expensive collars. And the finger of shame is also pointed at the academics who are in charge of the top class universities and business schools, oh, and who also sit on many of the boards of the aforementioned financial institutions. So their academic research is really not worth the paper it is written on – or to put it another way – is worth a hell of a lot of money in personal fees that they get from the banks to write the theories that they do. So much for the independence of academia.

Ratings agencies who continued to give the financial institutions the very highest credit rating scores right up until the days and weeks before they either failed or were bailed out by taxpayers also come under fire. And if you were just thinking - well thank goodness that Obama is in the White House now – then think again says Ferguson, as despite his tough talking before winning office, he has in fact appointed the very same people who were in charge of the banks and regulators at the time of the scandal to be his own financial advisors.

None of the film is new, but it is important. We know about the millions of average Americans who have lost their homes and jobs as a result of this behaviour. But it deserves to continue to be told and retold until someone somewhere gets the message and makes changes that will make a difference, and make sure that we learn the lessons from this very public tragedy.

And the irony tonight was that, as I was going into the cinema in Brixton, there was a demonstration across the road outside the town hall protesting about the massive spending cuts that local government in this country is currently enduring. Some might say there is a connection to be made there…and you don’t have to be a clever banker or professor to make it.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Film - Never Let Me Go - directed by Mark Romanek

Star rating – 7/10

The adaptation of prize winning books is a tricky business, but as I haven’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel I went along to this movie with no preconceptions. Except that is that I don’t really like Keira Knightley – and shocking though I know that is for many readers, I think she is usually good at playing one role only – Keira Knightley. So with that admission out of the way, was the film any good? It is competing with an awful lot of big hitters vying for Oscars at the moment so maybe has suffered a bit in comparison.

This is the science fiction/literary story of children being bred as clones to save the human race from fatal diseases by donating their vital organs and forgoing any chance of adulthood. Only they weren’t supposed to know that in the boarding school they were brought up, with its high fence and strict rules. But a new teacher takes pity on them and spills the beans, resulting in her instant dismissal from the children’s’ lives, and a lot of wondering on their part. To tell the truth it seemed unrealistic how little they actually rebelled when they had the full truth at their disposal. But maybe it is all in the breeding.

The love/friendship triangle/tangle at the centre of the story is between Tommy, Ruth and Kathy. At the start of the film these parts are played excellently by child actors, but it is inevitably in later years that the real sadness takes hold. Andrew Garfield as Tommy once again impresses in a role so different to that which he played in The Social Network that it’s startling how good he is in both. The aforementioned Ms Knightly is well cast as the horrible and spiteful Ruth who comes between true love in Kathy and Tommy, partly through jealousy, and partly as she believes a vague rumour that if you find true love you are spared the horrible inevitability of vital organ donating for a few years more. And Carey Mulligan is perfect as the more timid Kathy, who can only watch as the love of her life is taken by her best friend. But wait a minute – they aren’t supposed to have these feelings are they?

I can imagine that the book is very moving, but the film, although sad and tender in many places, feels a bit pedestrian in others. Although it does make a refreshing change to see Keira looking so bloody rough, and the music was hauntingly beautiful. And the film did make me think towards the end – just a shame it felt like a long time to get there.