Sunday, 29 March 2009


28/3/09, Barbican

2hrs 5mins. Mozart's Coronation Mass and Mendelssohn's Symphony No 2, the Hymn of Praise, performed by a choir we hadn't heard of accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the choir's conductor, one Mark Forkgen. The choir was large (forgot to count, but they filled the back of the Barbican Hall's stage with no difficulty) but, as so often, desperately short of men (so short, indeed, that one woman sang tenor). The RPO fielded around 30 players in the Coronation Mass, with only one set of violins and no clarinets (there were no clarinets in Mozart's Salzburg, G told me, and bless me, he was right); there were around 40 for the Mendelssohn. Both pieces featured a chamber organ.

Visual memory cues: chorus in black ties, band in white tie, soprano in fine dark burgundy evening dress and little black jacket.

The Mass is almost uniformly joyous and was sung with gusto, but the choral writing seemed unadventurous: almost all the choruses were sung in unison. I wondered if it showed Mozart had little faith in the capacities of the Salzburg cathedral choir, but I read instead that the Cardinal-Archbishop insisted on keeping masses short, and this was Mozart's solution (it lasts only around 30 minutes). The part-writing for the voice was limited to the soloists, mostly deployed as a quartet. There were only two quieter passages: the Agnus Dei, a beautiful soprano solo, and the Benedictus, where a reflective soprano alternates with the choir belting out Osannas. The choir seemed well-drilled right from the very first note, when they enter, all guns blazing, with a Kyrie.

Enjoyment slightly marred by a dreadful stomach ache brought on by too little exercise earlier in the day and a dyspeptic reaction to the meal beforehand at Searcy's (G paid): normally it's a good place and pretty quiet, but tonight it was full and they seemed overwhelmed. My starter never arrived; we were bolting our main course a few minutes before the concert started and more than an hour after we got there.

On the other hand, a Japanese woman sat at the next table in full fig, and there were more kimonos in the foyer beforehand, there to see the Ninagawa Kabuki production of Twelfth Night in the theatre.

The Mendelssohn is really rather fine, a three movement sinfonia, which lasts about 40 minutes, and then a 20 minute choral finale with three soloists (mezzo, a South African soprano called Erica Eloff, who had a powerful voice and a young tenor, Nathan Vale, with an agreeable voice but not perhaps quite enough heft). It starts with a distinctive and authoritative fanfare on the trombones which is then echoed by the rest of the orchestra and returns several times during the piece, including at the very end.

There were some lovely touches in the orchestral sections, including a clarinet solo which dies away to nothing; and in the finale there's a wonderful crashing chorus ("the Hymn of the German Reformation", apparently) with the band batting the notes of the fanfare back and forth between brass and horns, and which ought to be the work's climax. What can he follow it with? you wonder. In the event he pulls off a potentially very difficult transition by going straight to an unaccompanied chorale of Nun danket alle Gott, set to the familiar tune, and then a duet for soprano and tenor and finally another chorus, not quite so crashing.

Mendelssohn does write some lovely melodies and manages to write music that is mellifluous without being cloying. Why isn't this piece better known? G thought it better than Elijah. I'd love to hear it again with a better balanced choir.


25/3/09, National (Olivier).

Blogspot lost my first version of this review so, in brief...

Controversial Richard Bean play, directed by Nick Hytner, about immigration. A sprawling play-within-a-play: inmates at an immigration centre put on a devised play about the successive waves of migrants who have arrived in Spitalfields/Brick Lane since the Huguenots. Could teach the Convicts' Opera a thing or two about use of framing: done with a light touch, at the start and finish (and briefly immediately before and after the interval), plus some jokes in the play itself which have been set up in the prologue and so are welcomed as old friends by the audience.

Very funny, though much of the humour comes from shameless use of stereotypes. The Huguenots are all frightfully elegant; the Irish keep pigs in their rooms and breed with their siblings; the Jews are all revolutionary socialists and anarchists; the Bangladeshis invent chicken tikka masala.

Dramatic tension flagged towards the end of the first act, in the Jewish section, when posh Ruth (whose daddy owns the docks) foments working class revolution; and there was a frisson towards the end when today's Islamic extremists are mocked (in the shape of a radical girl who speaks in rhyming rap and a mad mullah with two hooks for hands). That seemed harder to take than the earlier sections. Is that because it's always difficult to see today's bogeymen as ultimately harmless, as it is possible to see their predecessors? Or because unlike previous waves of immigrants -- who within a generation or two are seen to have melded with the existing inhabitants and become thorough-going cockneys, suspicious in their turn of the next wave of new arrivals -- this lot seem less willing to reach an accommodation with their host society?

There are lots of running gags. A barmaid (Sophie Stanton, who starts each section with an explosive "fackin' Irish..." or whatever), a pub landlord (Fred Ridgeway, who fills in the barmaid's "wossnames" with erudite glosses) and a customer (Trevor Laird, "I got them Jews upstairs from me...") who comment chorus-like on proceedings. A young couple (Sacha Dhawan and Michelle Terry) who embark on doomed Romeo & Juliet style romances between incomer and existing inhabitant. A thug, Hugo, who knifes one of the newcomers. Etc etc.

Simple set, designed by Mark Thompson: a blank wall full of doors and windows, one section of which moves forward to form the bar. Great use of animations (by Pete Bishop) projected onto the wall, which sketch in historical developments. Music from a live four-piece who double as immigration centre warders in the first scene.


26/3/09, Peacock Theatre.

(Written by Penelope)
Tango is about passion, fire, heat. It's about precision moves, kicks, flicks of the foot, turns of the head and strong arm-holds. One of my friends, who has dance lessons, described her first Tango class as "having sex with your clothes on with someone you don't know very well".

Tango Fire! is a group from Argentina who are in London for a month. Their show is in two distinct halves - during the first, we're in the Cafe Del Tango, a "milonga" (dance hall from the first half of the last century). We get a historical view of the dance - the choreography (by Yanina Fajar) alternates between slow, sultry moves where the dancers are all long legs and swishing skirts, and the quick choppy "gaucho" kicks we've all come to love from watching Strictly Come Dancing.

The music is wonderful and really adds to the atmosphere. A four piece band helps transport you to a smoky Argentine nightclub - the bandoneon player, Hugo Satorre, deserves a special mention. A bandoneon looks like a small accordian and Satorre almost appears to be dancing with it, he plays some haunting slow melodies as well as upping the tempo for the faster dances.

The second half begins with the musicians, normally in the background, deservedly taking the limelight for ten minutes of moody solos and gorgeous playing. Then we get the 'show dances' where the couples are more acrobatic and daring. It's as much circus act as dance hall performance and some of the moves are astonishing with the women being held aloft, leaping through the air and kicking higher than you thought was physically possible. There were many oohs and aahs from an enthusiastic audience.

The costumes are fabulous and the women each have several changes into more colourful and more daring dresses. The dancers are flexible, fast and breathtaking. The one part which didn’t quite work for me was that the dancing and playing was "interrupted" several times by songs. Pablo Lago, who is initially dressed as a waiter, sings of Argentina and dancing. It was there to enhance the mood, and his voice was nice, but I found it broke the flow of the performances.

Thursday, 26 March 2009


24/3/09, Lyric Hammersmith.

1hr 40mins, no interval. Not exactly an adaptation of, more a variation on the Gogol short story of the same name by a company called Gecko. I'd assumed they were Eastern European (everything about them, subject matter, style, appearance suggested as much) but they turn out to be British, albeit founded by and starring an Israeli, Amit Lahav, and with members from across Europe; they have a residency at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Parts of the show come with words, often grotesquely amplified, in a variety of languages (Italian, French, Cantonese): for me the only jarring element in this was the female lead, a bird-like little beauty called Natalia. She was played almost completely silently by an English actress, Natalie Ayton; but when she did speak ("Oh sorry!") she did so in bell-like English tones... and the mittel-European spell was briefly broken.

What did mime companies do before amplification? And modern lighting? This was a fine cast who worked hard, had talent and trained with the best, including Le Coq and Lindsay Kemp. But much of the show's impact derived from the son et lumiere.

In the original story, a lowly clerk saves up, buys himself a smart overcoat, briefly enjoys enhanced status as a result, but then is destroyed when the coat is stolen. In this version a man (Lahav) dreams of marrying the girl at work, some ghastly office where the prize for employee of the month is apparently a smart camel overcoat with opulent fur collar, seen hanging to start with at one side of the proscenium. At one stage it seems he's got both the girl and the coat, but alas, it's a dream. In reality the coat has gone to another guy and our hero is summoned to see the boss (a godlike figure high on a ledge at the side of the stage) who casts him out, stripping him of the coat in the process.

He dies naked and alone in the little room he shares with a two-bar electric fire, a portrait of his parents (cast members gazing through a frame) and a rapacious Spanish landlady who has earlier seduced him under the influence of flamenco music on the Roberts radio hanging on the end of the bed.

These chaps know their stuff. The cast move brilliantly as a crowd, scuttling about the set in a body, yet each one an individual. They battle the wind, grouping and regrouping. At one point the hero is beseiged by birds in the gale: sheets of white paper, bunched and fluttered by the rest of the cast. The hero's room is assembled from half a dozen props: a bed (which at one point swallows him up), the fire, a door, a picture frame, all held in place by the cast. The "office" is a place of school desks each equipped with coloured lamps, red, green and blue-white, with a lamp-cum-hatstand, at which the cast perform mindlessly repetitive tasks, scuttling with documents from one desk to another or to grilles that open in the back wall (Natalia's job is to stamp the documents with rubber stamps; our hero's is to trim them with a guillotine) while the boss hectors them through a loudspeaker in a parody of French.

We loved the set: a black back wall with doors and shutters that opened and shut: design by Ti Green, who presumably also commissioned the early 20th century costumes in which overcoats of various lengths and degrees of tackiness inevitably featured. And a special mention for the lighting by James Farncombe and the music by percussionist Dave Price, who also performs in the cast. Musical high points included a tune tapped out on a tiny xylophone with metal thimbles on his finger tips from high up at the side of the proscenium.

Sunday, 22 March 2009


21/03/09, the Rose, Kingston.

A new theatre in a development between Kingston's spectacular 1930s Town Hall and the river. A pleasant enough glass-walled foyer, with metal staircases up to the circle. The auditorium more or less circular, with seating on three levels in a horseshoe and (this is a gimmick, surely) cheap seats on the floor at the front (bring your own cushion). I seem to remember the publicity made reference to Shakespeare's Globe, and Peter Hall lent his name to the enterprise, but it doesn't work that well as a performance space: we felt detached from the action even though we were in the first circle just round to one side, and there was the usual difficulty with a theatre this shape of hearing the actors when they turned away from you.

Also, alas, it was less than half full (and on a Saturday night, too). The place had to be bailed out by the council in January, a year after opening, and it'll have to do better than this show if it's to survive long-term.

The company is Australian, the director Max Stafford-Clark of Out of Joint fame. The idea is they're a shiploard of convicts in 1812 or thereabouts, performing the Beggar's Opera en route to Australia. So you get the Beggar's Opera, or most of it, but with added social commentary on the criminal/political underclass of the early 19th century and some anachronisms in the shape of modern pop songs (the play opens with all ten cast sitting on stage and singing Sailing...).

We felt the framing device betrayed a lack of confidence in the core material. Why not just do the Beggar's Opera straight? The scenes from John Gay's original seemed rather perfunctory and largely misfired; the modern songs had far more energy than his originals and raised a smattering of applause, which none of Gay's did. But then again, as D said, the framing scenes were equally perfunctory and one learnt only the barest minimum about the player-convicts. Two were "politicals", sentenced to transportation for seditious pampnlets; a couple were clearly whores; one, the "director", was a gay actor and elderly rent-boy sentenced after being found pleasuring a man in an alley off Seven Dials -- since the man was a judge, and therefore beyond the law, the actor was the one who copped it, falsely accused of stealing a watch.

The set was simple: a black back wall of mesh panels, with a sloping thrust stage coming down through a gap in the middle. When not performing the cast sat on boxes and bales with their backs to the wall. All ten of the cast were on stage throughout (except when they left briefly for a quick change -- there was much doubling, both among the convicts and among Gay's characters). Several were singers who could act (including Polly Peachum, who had a wonderful voice, and Macheath, who also had a good voice but couldn't in fact act and looked deeply uncomfortable throughout) and all of them played instruments (a couple of fiddles, a snare drum, a zither, a squeeze-box).

I took agin the production at the outset, as soon as I realised everyone was wearing far too much make-up, designed to make them look as grimy and unprepossessing as possible (except Lucy Lockett and Polly Peachum, of course, who wore lashings of eye make-up and in Lucy's case a great deal 0f cleavage). A's rather damaging question during the interval was: "Is this am dram?" It wasn't, but there was a lot of gurning, silly accents and general flouncing around which mostly, alas, fell flat. Much fun was clearly meant to be had with the scenes towards the end of the first act when the girls pretend to be men to make up the numbers and then the men play women in the scene of Macheath's entrapment.

We left at the half. Which was probably a good thing. It takes a long time to get back from Kingston.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


12/3/09, King's Place.

Two Haydn symphonies, No 26 Lamentatione and No 45 Farewell, plus half a dozen solo arias for tenor and soprano, played by a period band we hadn't heard of called the Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company founded and conducted by a chap called Ian Page. Around 20 musicians, two-thirds women, dressed in black, augmented by a harpsichord for the songs. The tenor a chap called Joshua Ellicott whose voice G especially liked; the soprano a rather self-satisfied lady called Gillian Ramm with an ill-judged dress and fringe but a cracking voice.

Five days later I can of course remember almost nothing in detail about the music (mark you, I could remember almost nothing in detail five hours later).

So let's review the venue instead. It's a basement concert hall, rectangular, pale wood (as at Glyndebourne, and presumably for the acoustic), with a narrow balcony running round the back and sides and a surprisingly high ceiling. The chairs are uncomfortable (according to G) but have individual heating/air conditioning in the base, again as at Glyndebourne. There are clever but understated lighting tricks: when the performers enter or exit the stage they do so through wooden doors that open to reveal a blue-lit area behind them; there are drapes hanging from the back wall lit by subtly changing lighting.

The public areas are exceptionally spacious: a large entrance hall which seems to occupy half the building's footprint, with box office, sandwich bar, bar-and-restaurant-with-canalside-terrace at the far end, and a great well in the middle through which you travel on an escalator down to the concert hall (Hall One: there's also a Hall Two rehearsal space) past a gallery floor on a semi-basement balcony or mezzanine. Ceiling heights are everywhere generous. Off the ground floor is an entrance to the offices of musical organisations like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and another to the Guardian offices which occupy the lion's share of the building. The Guardian has another entrance on the corner as you approach from King's Cross: more escalators, this time going up. As you stand in the ground floor atrium you can look up through the glass walls of the newspaper's offices to see signs like "arts and culture" and "interview room two" and "society".

Like a lot of modern buildings it's a pleasant contrast to the penny-pinching, cramped and often surprisingly dark developments of past decades, especially the 60s and 70s. Compare the National Theatre, whose public areas get much more crowded more quickly and which has to deploy plush carpets to fight the oppressive quality of the bare concrete walls. Or the Barbican, which is also in a basement and more spacious than the National but much gloomier than King's Place. Perhaps it's the plain white walls and pale wood; perhaps we're just better at lighting these large spaces. (Whichever it is the environmental implications are probably horrendous.)

As for the music... I'm ashamed to say I hadn't realised Haydn wrote any operas. Perhaps they're rarely done; several are lost with only isolated arias surviving. L'infidelta deluso was his fifth, but the earliest to survive in completed form. The arias we heard were spectacular, tuneful and charming by turns.

Of the symphonies I remember little of the first except its generally plangent tone. The last was introduced by the conductor, who said he hoped there were at least some people in the audience who didn't know how this symphony ended, and explained it was a kind of coded message to Prince Esterhazy that his musicians, who had been away from home in Eisenstadt at the prince's new palace at Esterhaza throughout the summer of 1772, wanted to go home now please. Since I had no idea how it ended this merely reinforced the impression I often have at classical concerts that everyone else there is far more familiar with what we're about to hear than I am, can hum the music backwards and knows exactly when to applaud.

(Look away now if you don't want the ending spoilt.)

In fact the symphony bowls along merrily for three movements. Then, during the fourth, the musicians leave the stage one by one until only the leader and the principal second violin are left. It's very effective.

There seem to be lots of non-musical hooks like this in Haydn's music, or what I know of it: jokes, gimmicks, back stories. He seems to have been a rather engaging as well as remarkably hard-working fellow. His stuff is tuneful, long on musical variety etc etc. So why don't I know it better? Why do I dismiss him as a rather boring composer who wrote too much and whose music all sounds the same? You could say the same about Handel, and I adore Handel. Perhaps the problem is that, unlike the earlier Handel, he was oveshadowed by the romantic composers who came after him and who found a musical language (helped by the development of larger ensembles and more advanced instruments, perhaps?) to express heightened emotion that Haydn couldn't quite manage, trapped as he still was in the polite conventions of 18th century music.

Either way I should find out more. Memo to self: listen to more Haydn. Read a biography.

Sunday, 8 March 2009


8/3/09, Sadlers Wells.

1hr 25mins (no interval). Robert le Page, Sylvie Guillem, Russell Maliphant with costumes by Alexander McQueen and (mesmerising) lighting by Michael Hulls, who is apparently a regular collaborator of Maliphant's.

The subject: the 18th century Chevalier d'Eon, who lived the latter part of his life as a woman and died in poverty in London after the French Revolution after a remarkable career as a soldier and spy in the service of the king of France. So he lived a double (split) life and kept 'em guessing right up until the autopsy. The title: a pun on d'Eon's name and on "onnagata", the men-who-play-women in traditional Japanese theatre.

Twenty years of serious theatre-going and I've never seen anything by the legendary Canadian director, never seen Guillem dance in the flesh, never (I think) seen anything choreographed by Maliphant. What would the three of them come up with?

In the event it was neither one thing nor the other really (a bit like the poor old Chevalier): a succession of stunning tableaux set to an atmospheric soundscape and an eclectic selection of music. I found myself wanting more dance or more narrative: we got snatches of both, along with mime and a succession of "how did they do that?" transformation scenes. Guillem is astonishing, her body impossibly lithe, though her French accent (and her emphases) was too strong for easy comprehension when she spoke, addressing the audience directly. Maliphant, shaven-headed, has a strong, dancer's physique and a perfect English accent despite his Canadian ancestry (but he was brought up in Cheltenham). Le Page has a tuft of bright red hair and a very slight French-Canadian twang when he speaks.

Visually it was perpetually inventive. In the second tableau Maliphant is on stage swinging a cavalry sabre (d'Eon was a cavalry officer and a renowned swordsman), a series of ringing metallic swishes on the soundtrack, narrow rectangles flashing onto the floor picking up on a reference in Guillem's opening monologue to flashes of lightning. It was breathtaking and exciting... but it led nowhere. Though this was one show where being in the second circle was a positive advantage since it showed the lighting to perfection (even if one could also see the performers scampering off behind the scenery on occasion, when they would have been hidden from the stalls).

I thought a slightly later scene might also lead nowhere: Le Page comes on in a spectacular McQueen confection, part white frock coat, part skirt hoops, with a huge red fan. He poses with it. And then he poses again. And then he poses some more. And then, just as you're getting seriously bored, he folds it and inserts it between his legs. A visual pun on the Chevalier's split personality and one repeated often, in particular in a scene with a table-that-became-a-mirror (not sure how) and first Guillem and then Maliphant stood at its end doing a Harry Worth.

In another scene the three dance and roll and slide over three tables; then tip the tables over so they lose their tops. They become frames, a bit like beds, or doors when upended. And inside them is fluorescent light, sometimes blue, sometimes purple.

The sabres appear often, one (when d'Eon is writing a letter) doubling as a gigantic quill pen. Yet when the aged d'Eon, dressed as a woman, mounts a demonstration of martial arts in London (his pension from the French king has dried up after the Revolution and he needs to earn a living) Le Page and Maliphant use sticks and hoops.

The Japanese references seemed limited largely to kimono-style costumes (and those sticks). There was a striking scene in which Maliphant emerges from an outsize kabuki-style figure. Another, presented as shadow play behind a gauze, has Maliphant discarding his cavalryman's tunic and approaching a kimono on a stand. He crouches down, apparently to climb up inside, and you realise he's turned into Guillem, who gyrates sensuously in the folds of the garment, before emerging through the gauze onto the stage.

She and Maliphant wear body stockings with markings reminiscent of early anatomy textbooks. All three play d'Eon at different times, sometimes in frock coat or military tunic, sometimes in kimonos, sometimes in elaborate wigs and hooped skirts.

A complained she wasn't always clear what was happening. I thought I was; I just wished rather more happened to justify the visual spectacle.

Saturday, 7 March 2009


4/3/09, Donmar at Wyndhams.

The one with Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. Missed it: had to work. D went with G and J and said it was excellent: funny, well-cast, Jacobi reminded her of Frankie Howerd (going a little over the top perhaps?), Indira Varma as Olivia very beautiful and very witty, Toby Belch and Aguecheek respectively short and fat and tall and thin, as required, in linen suits. Viola played by the understudy: a bit shouty to start but then settled down well. D was particularly impressed by the set (a series of louvred doors the entire height of the stage and a wooden deck-like floor) and the lighting. No furniture or props but for the odd letter and a chaise longue (briefly) at the start and a beach-style wind-break. When the doors opened the lighting suggested a beach. It was full: a very responsibe audience.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009


27/2/09, Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds. 1hr 30 mins.

The Hyde Park is the kind of old-fashioned little cinema you don't think can possibly survive: on a suburban corner in the student neighbourhood, a single auditorium, ticket office facing the street, sweet concession in the tiny foyer.

Cinemas like this deserve better films: a Woody Allen picture with Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz. A self-indulgent romp with some wit but few real jokes, relying far too heavily on a voice-over narrator and the undoubted physical charms of its stars and its settings (Barcelona and Oviedo).

A film that tries to have its pastel and eat it. It gently mocks the notion of the holiday romance. But it wallows in the gorgeous scenery, the tourist-board images of fountains and guitars and Spanish countryside and picturesque bars and villas inhabited by wealthy, yacht-owning expats.

Sensible Vicky (Rebecca Hall, pitch-perfect American accent), soon to be married to equally sensible (and boring... but affluent) Doug, comes with her dippy friend Cristina to Barcelona. Vicky is studying Catalan culture. Cristina is trying to find herself. They meet up with Bardem as a brooding but unfeasibly charming and sexy artist who, like the man in My Fair Lady, oils his way across the floor, oozing charm at every pore. He announces he'd like to make love to both of them and within an hour has whisked them off in the middle of the night in a light aircraft to Oviedo, despite sensible Vicky's thoroughly sensible misgivings.

This is performance as self-parody: fun but unconvincing. In due course Cristina and the artist become lovers (but not before Vicky has succumbed to all that oil), only for the idyll to be disrupted by the arrival of his ex-wife, a suicidal spitfire with a tempestuous temperament and Cruz's good looks: another exercise in self-parody. He can't live without her; together they tear each other to pieces.

The movie looks up whenever Cruz is around (which is presumably why they gave her the best supporting actress Oscar, though it isn't deserved). There's a wonderful moment towards the end when Vicky, newly-married, has succumbed to temptation and is allowing herself to be seduced by the artist when Cruz comes in brandishing, and indeed firing, a gun.

It might have been a far more interesting film without Vicky and Cristina in it at all. But then I suppose it wouldn't have been a Woody Allen picture. Though to be candid I'm not sure what that means these days, because I've seen only one since Annie Hall in 1977 (though I may have seen Manhattan a couple of years after that). His reputation and the critics put me off: I somehow think his films must be self-indulgent, feature insufficiently sympathetic people and be insufficiently funny.

That's a fair description of VCB, but not of the only other film I've seen, Sweet and Lowdown with Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, which I remember was sweet and touching and convincing in its picture of the world of itinerant jazz musicians in the 1950s (or maybe 1930s: it was a long time ago).

Monday, 2 March 2009


26/2/09, RSC at the Novello.

(Written by Penelope)
I have a confession to make. I left at the interval. This production is such a mess that it made me unwilling to leave my glass of wine at the bar and return to my seat. That's a first.

We all know the play isn't exactly written for the 21st century. It's deeply misogynistic and the two women characters - Katherine and Bianca - are symbols of a late 16th century woman's unhappy lot. Katherine is the property of first her father, Baptista, and then her husband, Petruchio. It's enough to make anyone squirm.

A clever production would make you value Katherine's early spirited independence and rejection of convention. Instead, what you get in this RSC production is crass, crude and grim. I was surrounded by uncomfortable, nervous laughter at some of the more graphic aspects of the director Conall Morrison's interpretation.

Michelle Gomez as Katherine is expected to endure too much 'mock' physical abuse and Stephen Boxer as Petruchio makes far too many lewd gestures with beer bottles, food and items of clothing. There is nothing subtle, knowing or satirical.

I think the actors do their best, despite the director's interpretation. Gomez (best known for her comedy role in the Green Wing) is lively and spirited. Petruchio isn't an easy character to like and Boxer succeeds in making him cunning, manipulative and two faced.

But while they and the rest of the cast may be talented, they are totally let down by a production which should have been buried in Stratford and not brought to London.

Of course, things may have dramatically improved in the second half, but I fear not. The RSC can, and almost always does, do so much better than this. The theatre was half empty - and I can't say I'm surprised.


27/2/09, ENO.

New production by Jonathan Miller.

It wouldn't be fair to say we came out singing the set, but design was a big part of this show's success.

The critics were rather rude. But then opera critics see too many productions of Boheme: they're bored, pernickety, hard-to-please. We've only ever seen it once, at this address many years ago, and I remember only two things about the evening: the soprano's voice cracked as she left the stage at the end of Act One and the beauitful love duet; and the bohemians' small, freezing garret apartment filled the whole of the Coliseum's vast stage.

No such problems with Dr Jonathan's version. The set was a triumph: a two story affair which came apart and turned to reveal a new setting. In the first version we were presented with the upstairs: a convincing attic studio, long and thin, at the top of a staircase in the centre running down towards the audience and turning into a hallway back to an open street door; at the top of the stair on the other side was a smaller room with a loo off it (used more than once). In the second version the whole thing turned to reveal the downstairs: a convincing Parisian cafe of the 1930s with tables, benches, awnings and the rest. In the third version the two halves came apart to reveal an alley between two buildings, and a cafe on the corner downstage left.

The date was the 1930s, the earliest for which we have decent photographic references for the period.

We thought it was a triumph for the designer.

The acting was convincing, too: from the upper circle they looked about the right age, behaved in a convincingly "playing-at-poverty-with-youthful-high-spirits" way and were equally convincing in the final act as Mimi was dying.

To my ear the singing was pretty good as well: musically we have no complaints.