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Sunday, 27 May 2012

Theatre - Betrayal - Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

Star rating – 9/10

The Crucible has a gem on its hands in the latest adaptation of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal. It is the story of an seven year affair, but told backwards, from the awkward meeting two years after the break up, right through to the giddy, passion of the first encounter. And this brilliant production certainly does justice to Pinter’s genius.
There are three main characters, Emma and her husband Robert, along with Jerry, who is Robert’s best friend and with whom Emma has the affair. It is in part an autobiographical play, being based as it is on Pinter’s own affair with Joan Bakewell. And here Jerry’s wife Judith, who in the real life version was actress Vivien Merchant,  stays firmly in the background. John Simm is Jerry, Ruth Gemmell plays Emma, and Colin Tierney her husband Robert. Although Simm has garnered all the headlines due to his celebrity, all three actors absolutely nail their brittle and fraught roles to perfection.

It is a one act play, as surely an interval would break its spell with half time speculation, and it has famous long pauses that, if handled incorrectly, could feel stilted. They are not even noticeable here, as the audiences’ hearts beat faster with those of the characters. It is mark of the talent of Pinter to tell the tale backwards, so the audience have all the information at the start, or at least they assume they do. His taut, sparse writing charges every line, every word with a particular purpose and meaning.

The staging really evokes the period of the 1970’s, and the clever sets, with just a suggestion of each scene’s surroundings, are very clever. This is spellbindingly good stuff, with the audience witness to the unreliable narrators as the significance of each lie, and action is revealed.

Who is betrayed? Well, all of them really, except Jerry, who is has to be said does most of the betraying. And the child on the poster adds a touch of added poignancy, hinting at the families in the background who were collateral damage . And you might be forgiven for thinking the Joan Bakewell and Vivien Merchant were also betrayed by the very writing of the play. But I’m very glad Pinter did write it. As I filed out with the audience to the strains of Tom Jones’ Any day now, the action replayed in my mind all over again, and the brilliance of what I had just watched hit me like a train. Simm didn’t get fantastic reviews for his Hamlet here recently, he should get absolutely rave ones for Betrayal – it is masterfully done, by him and his fellow actors alike.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Theatre - Carousel - Opera North, The Lowry

Star rating – 7/10

Carousel might not be the best Rodgers and Hammerstein musical there is, with its slightly inconsistent storyline, (nothing can compare to A Sound of Music for me, and arguably South Pacific is a touch better too), but when given the full Opera North treatment it is a delight.
There are some lovely big song and dance numbers like ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’ which are sheer joy to watch. The leads, Eric Greene as fairground working bad boy Billy Bigelow, and newcomer Claire Boulter as Julie Jordan, who falls hopelessly in love with him whatever his behaviour, are both excellent. Their duet ‘If I Loved You’ is a real heartstring tugging number.

It’s great to see Opera North doing a musical rather than an opera for a change, and their orchestra fully do the lush score justice. One quibble, though is that Elena Ferrari as Netty Fowler was a slight weak link, her voice not sounding quite strong enough for the part. But who could resist the wonderful ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as the finale? So maybe the scousers have made it their own, but it’s a damn fine song and a damn fine ending to a great musical.

Gigs - The Handsome Family - St Clements' Church, Chorlton

Star rating – 5/10

It felt exciting to be going to a gig in Chorlton – it’s not West Didsbury but it’s the next best thing. The Handsome Family played at St Clements' Church as part of Chorlton Arts Festival, and a suitable proportion of the audience came with sandals and beards, having left their lentils at home. 

They’re a bit of an odd couple, to put it mildly. Brett Sparks spent the whole set grumpily moaning and having to be pandered to be his charming wide Rennie. ‘You’re doing fine’ she would say as he forgot his lines (again) or fluffed the odd chord.   

Their songs are folk ballads about murder, creatures from the deep, and fabled giants, many based on true events. She has a lovely voice and calming presence. He prefers to dwell in darker, more melancholy places, with a loud, gruff voice to match. The church was very hot - not an ideal summer gig venue perhaps, and it felt like a set from Beauty and the Beast. If Beauty had featured on more vocals I think I would have enjoyed it more, but the big Beast Sparks, with copious pints of beer to help him along, was definitely on top this night.

DVD - Black Pond - directed by Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe

Star rating – 6/10

This low budget film just out on DVD is a bit of an oddity – in a very British indie sort of way. New directors Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe produced it on a relative shoestring, and more or less did everything in it themselves, even some of the acting.
It’s a mockumentary drama about a middle class family in something of a crisis. An eccentric but seemingly harmless stranger comes into their midst and the ripple effect is enough to make waves in a mill pond. There are two points of particular note – one being the rehabilitation, professionally speaking, of Chris Langham after his conviction and jail sentence for downloading child pornography. I am not sure how easily it sits with me to see him again, even though the part he plays here as the father of the family seems to be absolutely made for him. I loved him as the hapless minister in The Thick Of It, so maybe its time to forgive, but forgetting is harder.

The second point of interest is the performance of Simon Amstell, whose comedy genius is currently getting the recognition it deserves with his second series of the gloriously funny Grandma’s House just finished on TV. Here Amstell plays a cruel therapist of extremely dubious professional qualification. He is sensational, and the film is worth watching for his short gem of a part alone. 

It’s quirky and watchable – with a good dream sequence – and Kingsley and Sharpe are certainly ones to watch – hopefully with a slightly bigger budget next time. 

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Gigs - Gemma Hayes - St Ann's Church, Manchester

Star rating – 3/10

I love Hey Manchester gigs, and I really enjoy concerts in sacred settings, but this one just didn’t do it for me at all. Gemma Hayes has a lovely voice, and the Grade II listed St Ann’s Church is just as lovely. But beyond that I’m afraid I’m struggling to find positivity.
Irish solo singer Hayes is allegedly a combination of prog rock, folk, and electronic. If that’s the case it’s not an enchanting mix. Her basic guitar technique reminded me more of Smokie in the 1970’s than anything else (and if you haven’t heard them believe me that’s not a good thing). She recounted an anecdote of the time she met Louis Walsh and he advised her to stop writing her own songs, and to get a celebrity boyfriend. Now far be it from me to agree with Mr Walsh on much at all, or to pass comment on Gemma Hayes’ love life, but I do think her songs are just not good or strong enough for her voice, so maybe Louis had a point. Sorry – just saying.

Theatre - Lady Windermere's Fan - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 6/10

The wit and sheer brilliance of Oscar Wilde’s famed one-liners needs to be brought out by a strong, almost Shakespearian cast, with authority and perfect timing. But in the Royal Exchange’s latest production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, Greg Herzov is directing a curate’s egg of a cast, in one of Wilde’s less consistently brilliant plays.
The upright and scandal free, two years married, Lady Windermere feels her world being rocked when she is told of her husband’s indiscretions with a mysterious woman. Bernice Stegers plays the Duchess of Berwick, who is the one to impart this bad news to her. The role is a peach, with some of the funniest  lines of the play, but unfortunately one half of the audience was laughing, the other half straining to hear what was being said, as her voice projection was just not strong enough. This is often a criticism of theatres in the round, but not one that I have encountered at the Royal Exchange before.  
And some of the other main characters in the first half of the play were also a bit less powerful that they needed to be. Wilde’s witty writing needs more precise delivery than some of this cast managed. Annoying little details just weren’t right – like some of the men’s’ shoes being too modern. Again this is most unlike the Exchange, and a bad sign when attention to detail has lapsed.

After the interval the action and calibre of performance were ratcheted up, thanks in part to Oliver Gomm playing the minor but hilarious role of Cecil. He is as excellent here as when he starred in Charley’s Aunt in 2010. Gomm has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, and is a very talented actor. Lysette Anthony is wonderful and commanding as the beautiful Mrs Erlynne, whose secret the play revolves around.  

This morality tale is not one of Wilde's  best plays (comparisons to The Importance of Being Earnest are unfortunate but inevitable, and this is just not half as clever or funny); and it is not one of the Royal Exchange’s best productions, but it still picks up its pace to entertain enough to make it worth a visit.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

DVD - Khodorkovsky - directed by Cyril Tuschi

Star rating – 8/10

Mikhail Khodorkovsky used to be the richest person in Russia, and indeed one of the richest in the world. And that’s an extremely dangerous thing when faced with the regime of Vladimir Putin, who wants to be indisputably leader of the gang. This fascinating documentary by director Cyril Tuschi, just out on DVD, feels more like a dramatic fictional espionage thriller than a real life story with, as yet, no definitive ending.
Putin had Khodorkovsky imprisoned for tax evasion in a dramatic night time swoop on his private jet on the Moscow airport tarmac in 2003. His wealth came from oil, and his big mistake was to pick a fight with Putin, and to support the Russian political opposition. He was warned of his impending arrest but chose not to flee his country, but to look Putin in the eye and face up to his imprisonment instead.

Cyril Tuschi has made this film of interviews with players from the seemingly larger than life drama, with a few black and white artwork pieces thrown in besides, despite warnings for his safety, and even his life. Many ordinary Russian people think Khodorkovsky was just stealing money from their country via his oil and banking empire, and no doubt agree with his riches being confiscated.

His supporters are a strange alliance of neo liberals, human rights activists, and people who just think he is good looking. Which, by the way, he definitely is - more like a Premier League footballer in appearance than a Russian oligarch like Abramovich.

Former President Boris Yelstin created this class of oligarchs, but Khodorkovsky was not flashy like other members of that club, preferring to invest in charities and education rather than expensive clothes, yachts, or indeed football clubs.

And he wouldn’t stay away from politics as Putin wanted him to. Possibly an error of judgement on his part, you might reasonably think, to practically accuse Putin of corruption at a meeting of fellow oligarchs and Putin in front of TV cameras. And his advanced stage plans to go into business with the Americans seem to have been the last straw.

This is quite an amazing and shocking tale, with German and other Western leaders allegedly not raising a finger to help for fear of jeopardising their oil supply from Russia. So Putin seems to have got away with expropriating his company and his wealth. Despite the European Court of Justice admitting his claim against the Russian Government, he is not due for release from his Siberian solitary stretch until 2016.  He is now also convicted of murdering a mayor who stood in his way, and of embezzlement on a grand scale.

But watch this space, for as this film makes a convincing case that he is not only innocent of all charges, but a future Russian leader in waiting too, and possibly the only person strong and brave enough to effectively challenge the regime of Putin, the next installment may be only four years away...

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Gigs - Ahab - The Deaf Institute

Star rating – 7/10

Ahab are usually a five piece UK Americana band, with soaring four part harmonies giving away their London busking roots. For this tour, and the first time I have seen them live,  they are without a couple of band members – their guitarist and co-founder Callum Adamson having just had his appendix out had a sick note, and they decided to give their drummer a rest too to create a more pared down threesome.
And what harmonies they create. Each of the three members present was equally confident on lead vocals, with three sumptuous voices that wrap around each other beautifully. It was a great night, full of fun and beautiful songs, with a small but very appreciative and devoted crowd to hear them. My personal favourites were one of their singles Wish You, the toe tapping Run Me Down, with its particularly beautiful vocals; and the lovely, catchy heartbreak tune Joanna.

They also covered the word of mouth country favourite, the Old Crow Medicine Show’s fantastic Wagon Wheel. This song is an oft covered catchy love song involving trains and Carolina. It has a great back story too, including being co-written by Bob Dylan – sort of. Check it out.  

They performed a few new songs included Neighbours, complete with a bit of mouth organ action. Rosebud made a lovely end to the night, with an encore in the middle of the audience, busking style, of My Father’s Eyes. Their temporary format had a slightly improvised feel to it, but that was no bad thing. This was a wonderful taste of a great emerging band, with warm personalities and an infectious love of their music. They are definitely worth checking out with their full complement of members. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Books - Ancient Light - by John Banville

Star rating – 8/10

From the moment you enter the world of Alexander Cleave via John Banville’s new novel Ancient Light, you know you are in the hands of a literary virtuoso, whose words dance off the page and draw you in completely. Cleave is, for the most part, narrating his memories of one formative summer when he was fifteen. And he is an unreliable narrator, not in the sense that he is wilfully deceiving or manipulating his reader, but the passage of time has faded the sharp relief of his memory.
The pictures which Banville paints of this first illicit love affair in small town 1950’s Ireland with the married mother of Alex’s best friend, Billy Gray, are glorious and sumptuous. The guilty but ever eager pair steal away for steamy sessions in a derelict, abandoned house in a shady wood. Alex refers to his mature lover throughout as Mrs Gray, rather than by her first name, in a very affecting way, redolent of his youth and naivety, and symptomatic of where the power lies in their fledgling relationship. Banville’s powers of description and ability to transport to a specific place and time are exemplary. These passages of the novel are as good as, and in truth mostly far better than, anything I have read this year.

But the disappointment for me comes with entwining this beautiful and poignantly fleeting story, which is embroidered in wonderful detail, with other themes which clutter the book up and break the spell. Alex as we meet him is married, and coping alongside his wife with the suicide of his daughter ten years before. He is also an actor in the twilight of his career, who is getting his first taste of movie making, and through it another emotional, although not romantic this time, attachment to a woman in turmoil. These strands simply can’t compete with the richness of the summer of love he had as a youth, and the book is lesser because of them. Every time they were explored I just wanted to get back to young Alex and Mrs Gray having furtive fumbles in the laundry room.

There is no denying Banville’s power as a writer. His prose is like velvet, and his love of language oozes out of every page. It’s just a pity this beautiful book feels a bit cluttered with too many competing strands that don’t work as well together as the one brilliant one would have done alone.

DVD - Into the Abyss - directed by Werner Herzog

Star rating – 8/10

German director Werner Herzog has created an amazingly insightful and compelling case against capital punishment in his documentary Into the Abyss, just released on DVD. But this is no Michael Moore hit you over the head with the argument type of film, although there is sometimes a place for that style of filmmaking too. 
Herzog focuses on the triple murder of three people in Texas a decade ago, and the two men who were convicted of the murders, one of whom is on death row awaiting execution. His film is a series of interviews with those whose lives have been changed by the events of that single night, some of whom will never recover from the shock waves. 

The young men who were convicted of the crimes were little more than boys at the time, although Herzog is not offering up excuses. They were convicted of killing a woman to steal her expensive car, and later returning to the scene and killing two boys, one of whom was her son, to claim their prize. The boys were under the influence of drink and drugs at the time, and cannot be said to have had the best starts in life. One of them protests his innocence to the end. 

Herzog interviews the victims’ and alleged perpetrators’ families; police officers; Death Row guards and the young men themselves. He does so with tremendous respect and skill, getting them to reveal intimate details and raw emotions which are riveting and heartbreaking.
This is a very bleak watch indeed. But still, essential viewing for anyone who believes that capital punishment has a place in a so-called civilised society. 

Film- Goodbye First Love - directed by Mia Hansen-Love

Star rating 8/10

This is a very French and understated film about the pain and intensity of young love. Director Mia Hansen-Løve accurately captures the maelstrom of feelings that can be involved in adolescent romance, but treats the subject seriously, without a trace of condescension.
Camille is a 15 year old schoolgirl (and her under age sexual activities are not made an issue of, as perhaps they would be if the film was British) who is in love with Sullivan, a self absorbed and self centred college student. When they are together, all she wants is to know when she will see him again, and all he wants to do is fob her off with vague promises to call her, and make plans for a 10 month trip to South America with his friends.

It’s not that he doesn’t love her, it’s just that his emotions can never match the intensity of hers, leading to fights and squabbles as his trip approaches. The film then tracks Camille through heartbreak, loneliness, and eventually, inevitably, solace in a new relationship as a young woman.

The subtly made, quiet contrast between the way her new lover, an older Norwegian architecture lecturer, views Camille, and expresses his affection for her in a much more mature and liberating way is well done. And then she bumps into Sullivan’s mother on a bus one day and meets up with him. Her old feelings resurface as they clandestinely renew old affections and open up old wounds.

The scenery of rural France and in Paris itself is beautifully captured, and there is a lovely soundtrack, with end credits playing to the beautiful The Water by Johnny Flynn with Laura Marling. It seems to perfectly capture the reflective mood of the film. There are two performances of some depth from young actors Lola Créton and Sebastian Urzendowsky as Camille and Sullivan. And apart from a dodgy short wig which Camille seems to be wearing half way through to signify her leaving her teenage years behind, it handles the time switch well. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Exhibitions - Haçienda 30 XXX - Manchester Photographic Gallery

Star rating – 8/10

How did it get to be 30 years since the legendary Hacienda opened in Manchester? Well it is – and there is a great new exhibition at the Manchester Photographic Gallery to celebrate the fact.
As well as superb photos of fantastic nights in the capital of cool, there are some artefacts from the club to take you down memory lane, including a fabulous model of the club itself (pictured), accurate in detail both inside and out. That’s so everyone who was surely far too young to have ever sampled its delights for themselves who were there at the VIP opening of the exhibition tonight can see what it looked like.

To be fair through there were a fair few oldies like me too, reminiscing about great nights over the evocative photographs, bits of wall, floor and original prints from the venue. For myself I like to remember some of the great gigs I went to there – best of the bunch being the Smiths, and Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five in the mid 1980’s. 

Whatever your memories of the Hacienda, be they Madchester, Flesh, gigs, or whatever, or even if you never even went, this great little exhibition gives you an idea of what an iconic club it was – yes we know about the gangsters and the money flooding out of New Order’s pockets that it also involved – but this is an exhibition for wonderful memories. And well worth a visit to reawaken them until it ends on 29th May.