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Friday, 30 December 2011

Cultural Tales of Two Cities Annual Awards 2011

Best Film

Both my favourite films come from early on in the year – nothing since has quite matched their brilliance. So it’s a double award this year:

Blue Valentine – simply the most beautiful, saddest love story ever – with stand out breathtakingly good performances from both leads Michelle Williams, and the gorgeous, fantastic, not to say slightly ubiquitous Ryan Gosling. How Oscars escaped this pair of actors I do not know. Heartbreaking perfection.

And Animal Kingdom – brutal brilliance in the dark underbelly of the Melbourne suburbs. This is a mesmerising example of the crime genre which will be hard to beat.

Special mentions also go to Ryan Gosling in Drive, slightly over violent in places I admit, but if this doesn’t spark a revival in brown leather driving gloves nothing will. Gosling is too cool for school – more please.

Also to the most brilliant documentary I have ever seen – Senna. Even if you have no interest in Formula 1 motor racing or sport in general, I defy you to watch this film and not be moved to the tips of your toes and emerge with a new hero in Ayrton Senna. Sheer class.

Turkey of the year award has to go to The Eagle – even the very easy on the eye Channing Tatum couldn’t save this swords and sandals Roman tale from descending into farce. But with no Frankie Howard...

Best play

The prize is again shared for the best theatre production this year – not a crisis of decision making on my part you understand, just two brilliant comedies that were master classes in plot, timing, and the precise art of a great adaptation, both of which have deservedly transferred to sell out West End runs.

Firstly One Man Two Guvnors at the National Theatre (which I saw via the magic of NT Live – much more of that please) was a fabulous farce for which James Corden has rightly received much praise. He really makes the show, and it is pure joy to watch his brilliant ad libs, even if some were rehearsed – who cares?

Secondly, The Ladykillers at Liverpool Playhouse was also comedy perfection, as this new adaption starring the brilliant Peter Capaldi, and a set the like of which I have never seen was a surprise - sheer delight.

Special mentions must also go to the mesmerising power of David Morrissey as Macbeth at Liverpool Everyman (R.I.P. until it rises phoenix like in a couple of years time); and to Michael Sheen as Hamlet in a secure hospital at the Young Vic. His was a performance of impressive passion and stature, even if the overall setting was slightly weird. It was a total pleasure to see such great actors each at the top of their not inconsiderable games. And the Royal Exchange had some great plays early on in their season – Private Lives, A View From the Bridge, and As You Like It were all fantastic.

Turkey of the year was Winterlong in the Royal Exchange Studio – both for the play itself, and for the ungracious attitude to criticism in this very blog by its author Andrew Sheridan – boo hiss.

Best Book

My favourite novels were The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which deservedly won the Booker Prize for its brilliantly observed account of relationships via an extremely unreliable narrator; and the unaccountably overlooked The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, which was to my mind equally brilliant and haunting.

I also very much enjoyed a couple of noteworthy biographies this year: Cleopatra – A Life by Stacy Schiff, and Charles Dickens – A Life by Claire Tomalin.

Turkey of the year for my was Great House by Nicole Krauss. I know it was critically acclaimed in all the right places, but it just goes to show that there is no accounting for taste – I found it practically unreadable. C’est la vie.

Best exhibition

Nothing in this country topped my Russian adventures this year, with the St Peterburg Hermitage and the art of the Moscow Metro artistic experiences so special that I would thoroughly recommend a trip for those two destinations alone.

Two Temple Place near the banks of the Thames is a hidden gem which is well worth seeking out, and the William Morris exhibition there was also sheer pleasure.

Turkey of the year most definitely goes to the new Museum of Liverpool – it is a jumble sale of a place, with confused and cluttered cases of not very much at all, housed in a building which is simply an affront to its beautiful and majestic neighbours on the Liverpool Waterfront. Sorry and all that...

Best gig

Although my firm favourites I Am Kloot and their lead singer troubadour John Bramwell have been brilliant on all six times I have seen them/him this year (really looking forward to the new album in 2012 guys), the stand out best live gig was a real unexpected pleasure (always the best kind I think). The award proudly goes to Justin Townes Earle at the Deaf Institute. He is a real showman, who sings brilliantly and plays his guitar with jaw dropping musicianship. I enjoyed every minute of his set, including his very entertaining stories in between songs. A very charming and charismatic country performer indeed.

Turkey award sadly goes to The Lemonheads at the Ritz last month – lack of attack, lack of connection with the audience, sticky dance floor , need I say more?

Best classical concert

For atmosphere and seasonal cheer this has to go to Manchester Baroque’s performance of Handel’s Messiah at Manchester Cathedral. Great setting, great soloists, great night.

Highly commended were also a couple of offerings from the ever inspirational Manchester International Festival this year – the genius that is Damon Albarn produced a visually stunning and thematically interesting opera in Doctor Dee at the Palace Theatre; and Alina Ibragimova and The Quay Brothers produced a concert to remember in the glorious setting of Chethams School.

No turkeys in this section– I am, after all, a vegetarian...

So it’s been a great year for culture in Manchester and beyond. Thanks for reading my blog. Here’s to a great 2012 with all the cultural delights that it will surely bring for those who endeavour to seek them out. Happy New Year!

Theatre - The Wind in The Willows - Library Theatre

Star rating – 8/10

The Library Theatre has yet again managed to come up with a quality Christmas entertainment for all the family in its current production of Alan Bennett’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’ at the Lowry. It is not a classically Christmas tale, but that doesn’t matter as the lovely riverbank tale of Toad, Ratty and Mole has been updated by director Chris Honer with some great touches.

My own favourite was Albert the Brummie horse, played by Jason Furnival, who works for that loveable rogue Toad, and loves to complain about the smallest everyday detail in a highly amusing manner. The dastardly Weasels are great, dressed as Mafioso types in long camel coats, but in character seem more like a comment on elements of the gutter press. Very topical.

But as always, the show is stolen by Toad, with his outrageous hobbies and proud snobbery. Paul Barnhill plays him with more than a passing resemblance to a certain Boris Johnson. This is great, harmless, funny, and topical all round festive entertainment at its best.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Theatre - Company - Sheffield Crucible

Star rating – 6/10

In Sheffield the Crucible Theatre’s Artistic Director Daniel Evans dons his 1970’s garb in this unusual offering for the Christmas season in the shape of the Stephen Sondheim musical ‘Company’.

Evans plays Robert, a 35 year old bachelor, living it up in a Manhattan loft apartment to die for. His friends, who are all in relationships of varying degrees of happiness and fulfilment, all want him to get married, but he seems happy enough dating various women at the same time. That’s about the size of the plot – in other words, it’s a bit thin.

Some of the musical numbers are very good, notably the Broadway style extravaganza ‘Side by Side by Side’. The trouble was it was so good that it left me wanting more of the same, and there was none to be had. Francesca Annis was great as the bored, drunken wife of a wealthy husband. But none of the other characters were very memorable. All their various relationships were examined in turn, whilst Robert happy frolicked in black satin sheets with an air hostess. It was all a bit cutesy and dated to really pack the required seasonal punch, despite the great fashions – I did love the white plastic boots.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Film - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - directed by David Fincher

Star rating – 8/10

I’m not usually a big fan of Hollywood makeovers of perfectly good foreign language original films, but as it’s the season of goodwill to all film directors, and as I needed a break from festive chocolates and tinsel, I decided to give this a chance. It is a remake of the original Swedish film, which was itself an adaptation of the best selling crime novel that is the world wide publishing phenomenon by Stieg Larsson.

I was loathe to accept Daniel Craig as political journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and especially sceptical about anyone but the excellent Noomi Rapace playing Lisbeth Salander, the IT genius with extreme anti social tendencies. But I have to admit that both Craig, and Rooney Mara are exceptionally good in their roles, and do bring another dimension to the action rather than merely a pale imitation of what has gone before. And it has to be said that her blond eyebrows with jet black hair are a seriously menacing look.

Of course this version will have had a significantly bigger budget than its Swedish predecessor, but it is also slick in other ways, with David Fincher adding a deft touch of sleekness that was arguably missing from the original. The cold harsh Swedish setting is atmospheric, with the wealthy family Blomkvist is investigating nicely fitting the crazy Nazi stereotype that has been painted of them.

If you are familiar with the story, as I am, then the plot is no surprise, but is expertly handled – violent and repugnant in all the right places, laced with the odd tender moment. The tension is built nicely to the climax, even if perhaps the film is a little overlong. So don’t expect to read this too often – but this is one Hollywood remake that is most definitely recommended.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Gigs - Badly Drawn Boy – The Deaf Institute

Star rating – 8/10

Full marks to Damian Gough for doing more than his fair share of charity work over the past few weeks. Last month it was for organising a special fundraising gig at the Comedy Store to fund research into a rare brain stem cancer for the Billie Butterfly Fund for his friend and music journalist Luke Bainbridge’s young niece. This time the gig at the Deaf Institute was in aid of Operation Shanti ( which helps the poorest and neediest children and elderly people in Mysore South India, with the basic human needs: food, shelter, medical services and educational assistance.

And BDB is a performer who really grows on you. He did covers of Dylan and The National (great opening song called ‘Runaway’), as well as lots of tunes from his back catalogue. He told a great dog joke (you had to be there), and really got the crowd in the festive mood – in a down beat, low key kind of way. It was a bit of a lovvie luv-in – with soap star/DJs and hosts for the evening Jeff Hordley and Greame Hawley, as well as Mark Riley and Pete Jobson in the audience. Merry Christmas!