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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Gigs - Laura Marling - Manchester Cathedral

Star rating – 8/10

It’s always a bit of a different experience when you go along to a gig without knowing much about the artist beforehand, and as I was offered a ticket to go to see Laura Marling without really knowing much of her music, I didn’t really have any prior expectations of what she would be like. And I very much liked what I heard.

This young singer carries the folk banner lightly, and has a lovely soaring voice, at times very reminiscent of a young Joni Mitchell. It seemed to fit perfectly with the beautiful and majestic surroundings of Manchester Cathedral. Marling has a charming personality and an unassuming presence. Both she and her band seemed like they were having a really good time, regaling the delighted crowd with factoids about the Manchester area.

The set was a slight mixed bag, with some stand out songs and some where her voice seemed a little lost. She fluffed her guitar part a couple of times, but simply laughed and carried on in a very endearing way. Overall she is an extremely talented songwriter with a beautiful voice, which she showed off perfectly.

Laura Marling is definitely one to watch – her voice and talents can surely only get better with maturity. And as she is only 21 she has a long way to go. I will definitely be checking out some of her music as a result of this heavenly night (pardon the pun).

Monday, 24 October 2011

Film - We Need To Talk About Kevin - directed by Lynne Ramsay

Star rating – 9/10

If you’ve read the bestselling novel by Lionel Shriver, then you’ll know this is not exactly a feel good tale. It is harrowing, uncomfortable, gripping and pain filled. I know that doesn’t sound like the best of recommendations, but this really is a superb film from director Lynne Ramsey, who has captured the menace and visceral tone of the book perfectly.

And yes Tilda Swinton deserves all the plaudits that she will no doubt get for this tremendously difficult role. Swinton is the most chameleon- like of actors, switching seamlessly without effort from sexy and sophisticated in ‘I Am Love’; to the archetypal wicked queen of Narnia, to this surely her greatest challenge yet. She plays Eva the mother of Kevin, who seems to have been fairly happy and carefree before she had him, but then fails to bond with him as a baby. From then on their relationship is strained to say the least, with each day being a constant battle of wills.

It is a bit of a nature, nurture debate, with no clear answer being given to the obvious and disturbing question of whether it was something in Kevin which made him unlovable in his mother’s eyes, or if her lack of affection caused his dysfunctional behaviour. The tragedy is played out here in a non sequential way, with Eva’s present tormented, lonely and wretched life interspersed with flashbacks to days with her family. She spends a large proportion of the film with her hands covered in red paint as she desperately tries to scrape it from her house and car after various acts of hatred are performed by the locals, obviously not overjoyed at her presence in the neighbourhood.

In the book the horror of what Kevin has done is not revealed until near the end, but with the story having been read by so many, the film does not rely on that element of surprise to shock and draw its audience in. It is pretty obvious from the off that there has been some sort of Columbine style massacre at Kevin’s school.

And although most of the headlines will be about Swinton’s mesmerising performance, some lime light must also be reserved for the amazing and horrific portrayal of the eldest Kevin by Ezra Miller. His enactment of evil is truly disturbing. He torments his mother and switches to normal more whenever his father (John C Reilly) appears in the room. He is horrible to his beautiful little sister, and all I will say is that the moment she gets a guinea pig for Christmas you just know that things will not go well. And I am amazed at how the younger actors who played Kevin, some just toddlers, were got to stare with quite so much malice at their mother.

This is not an easy film to sit through, but it does stay with you for a long time after the credits role. It is a masterpiece and a great adaptation of an equally great but deeply unsettling book.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Exhibitions - Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair

Star rating – 7/10

I’ve never actually been to a craft fair before – at least not one where you are expected to pay for the privilege of going to part with hard earned cash to purchase things – but as I got my hands on a couple of free tickets to this one I gave it a go. The fourth Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair is set in the newly anonymised and depersonalised glass and steel temple to Mammon that is Spinningfields; maybe better than a marquee, but not a setting to make the soul soar or to artistically inspire I would have thought.

And the first thing that struck me was how very expensive everything was. I appreciate the value of a hand crafted object as much as the next person, but to pay £15 for a single place mat, for example, is a bit wide of the mark in these hard pressed times. There were a few stalls that had some jewellery for under £40, but not very many it has to be said – most of the others had at least one nought, and maybe more, added onto that. So not for the faint hearted or financially stretched then.

But having had a little moan, the next thing I noticed was just how relaxed and happy all the stall holders were. There is obviously a lot to be said for making your living, or at least trying to do so, by using your hands and talents to create objects of beauty that other people appreciate enough to buy to install in their homes or about their persons. And some artists in particular I feel deserve a mention:

Clare Lane is a textile artist from Leeds whose pictures are one of the first things you see when entering the exhibition rooms. They are vividly coloured part textile pieces showing the decaying industrial heritage of beautiful cities like Manchester and Leeds, set against their more recent development in the shape of cranes, building sites and new gleaming towers. And her work is absolutely stunning. There are large canvasses, which can also be reproduced as prints. Clare’s website is, and in a week or so it will be updated with all the pieces on display at the craft fair. Please take a look – they are fabulous.

Jen Scott-Russell is a wonderful milliner based in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. She creates beautiful head ware, and nearly tempted me to buy a sumptuous Louise Brooks 1920’s style purple number – but £150 seemed a tad extravagant at the time – see comments above – and whilst I would love to spend my days pretending to be in Brideshead or some other period lavish drama – I am not sure how well it would fit in at a football match or in the local park. However Jen is a lovely woman and a hat ambassador extraordinaire. Her website is .

Lastly, Emilie Taylor is a young artist from Sheffield whose pottery fuses chintz with tower blocks in a very original way. She is interested in high rise living as an object of art, and has attracted famous clients such as the Duke of Devonshire no less. You can see her work at .

So I met three very talented, charming and interesting women whose work is beautiful, and who are all passionate about what they do. I wouldn’t say I am completely won over to the idea of a craft fair as a destination event to pay for, but I did come out more uplifted by the experience of seeing their wares, and talking to them about their individual passions, which can’t be a bad thing.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Theatre - Good - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 5/10

Brecht famously said that for evil to prosper, good men must do nothing. It is this central idea that forms the basis for ‘Good’, the new play at the Royal Exchange, which is based on the novel by C.P. Taylor. It follows the terrible path taken by ‘good’ music- loving university professor Halder, in a series of small steps towards denial, toleration and finally acceptance of the Nazi regime, until finally he ends up working at Auschwitz.

Not having read the book, it is difficult to pin point if my main problem with it was with the source material, the play, or with this particular production of it. Certainly it was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1981 and has been much dramatised since. It is a truly terrible subject, which is just as much relevant today as it was in the 1930’s. And for the Nazis, and any other regime of terror for that matter, to prosper and dominate as they did obviously required lots of nice liberal people to turn a blind eye until it was too late, even people like Halder whose one and only friend was Jewish.

But I found this play difficult to get into, and trivial in all the wrong places, as music came out of desk drawers and coffee pots. I guess I like my drama to be either comic or tragic, and was uncomfortable with this mixture. The scenes seemed to drift in and out of each other, with no clear definition between them. And the same actors played different characters with little signposting, which was sometimes a tad confusing.

The central performance by Adrian Rawlins as Halder was a big ask, being ever present throughout, and there were quite a few fluffs in the first half, although as this was a preview night maybe it’s a bit churlish to mention them. One small but impressive part of a Nazi officer was played by Pieter Lawman, but his gusto and energy just made the other players pale by comparison.

I didn’t quite get why director Polly Findlay required the auditorium to be covered up with red velvet curtains at the start and end of the drama. That sort of negates the point of theatre in the round. So after a great run of quality productions, the Royal Exchange has hit a fallow patch for me with this play. Pardon the pun - but not quite good enough.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Events - Claire Tomalin - Manchester Literature Festival

Star rating – 8/10

Claire Tomalin is very much in vogue at the moment, owing to the publication of her latest biography, that of Charles Dickens. I haven’t read my copy yet, but am certainly looking forward to getting stuck into it even more after hearing the author herself.

At this Manchester Literature Festival event she was modest, charming, witty, intelligent, fascinating, and so enthusiastic about her subjects that it’s truly infectious. In fact – just like her books. She told great anecdotes and gems about the great author, and is not wearing rose tinted glasses about him either. She is very upfront about his bad behaviour towards his wife and mother of his many children, Catherine, whom he deserted and told lies about to be with his new young love Nelly Ternan.

Her 1991 book about Dickens’ relationship with Nelly, ‘The Invisible Woman’ is revelatory and honest, but does not condemn the man totally for his most obvious failing as he took to lies and deceit to hide his relationship and preserve his all important reputation.

Her biography of Samuel Pepys is also a classic, and in addition to reminding the world about this most skilled of diarists, gives a fascinating history lesson about the times that he lived through, which included the execution of Charles I, and the Great Fire of London, to name but two.

She is generous about her subjects, and has that rare ability to get right under their skin, leading her readers to a rich and informed understanding of their lives and times. And she could have talked all night with such captivating authority about Dickens that I am sure the audience would not have noticed the hour. Just a minor moan – the setting of the Banqueting Hall in Manchester’s fantastic Town Hall was a treat, but the loud pumping music from Albert Square during most of this talk was definitely not.

I can safely predict that after I have devoured her book on the whole of Dickens’ life, I will be turning pretty sharpish to her other biographies of Thomas Hardy, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austin et al – what a rich literary pleasure awaits.