Wednesday, 9 September 2009


4/9/09, Cockpit Theatre

Written by Penelope
In the week that two young brothers from Doncaster admitted to the gruesome and vicious beating of two other little boys, it somehow seemed fitting (if depressing) to see this play.

Country Music was written by Simon Stephens in 2004, after he'd spent eight months as a writer in residence at Wandsworth and Grendon prisons. It's performed by graduates from Rose Bruford College and directed by David Zoob.

It's a story in four acts, spanning 21 years in which we see the hopeless life and fate of Jamie Carris (played by George Banks). Here's a boy who doesn't take his chances and makes all the wrong choices, though he has bad luck too. The first scene has him as a teenager, in a stolen car, with his girlfriend Lynsey shortly after Jamie has stabbed another boy. He's cocky, funny, charming, scared, chilling and brutal in quick succession. She's all nervous laughter, bravado and then fear. The audience laughs along, while also wincing and shuffling uncomfortably. Middle-class theatre goers pay to see these scenes, but we're inwardly relieved Jamie doesn't play a part in our lives.

Jamie inevitably ends up in prison and in the second act we witness the poignant visit of his younger brother Mattie. Jamie has a terrible affect on everyone. He's all nerves. George Banks plays him with a series of nervous tics, he can't keep still, whether its shaking his legs, rolling cigarettes, folding sweet wrappers: he's perpetual motion. His family and friends are terrified into their loyalty.

Later, we see him released from prison where he meets his now 17 year old daughter, Emma. They have nothing in common and nothing much to say to each other and Jamie doesn't know how to tell her how much he's missed her. She's curious to meet him, but doesn't know what to say and is so uncomfortable, she keeps her coat on.

The final scene takes us back to the day before Jamie stole the car and stabbed the other boy. This is the day he makes his first big mistake. By now, we know what he's done, and we watch, uncomfortably as we see the beginning of the story.

All four performances are excellent and really spellbinding. George Banks as Jamie is the central focus. He "ages" 21 years, and has to be defiant, stroppy, nasty, violent and pitiful. And he does all this, while still making you feel sorry for him. That's quite remarkable. Each act is interspersed with a country music song (hence the title), to enhance the action. Lauryn Redding has a lovely, sweet voice and the music is well chosen. But I didn't think it was entirely necessary to the narrative. Mattie is played by Mark Conway, Lynsey by Hannah Pierce and Emma by"Emma-Louise Maw

It's not often you see a play in London which is so relevant to the current debate about 'problem kids". I hope this play gets a longer run in another theatre. I emerged into the night thinking that while Jamie's future was bleak, the future of our theatre looks pretty rosy.

Friday, 4 September 2009


3/9/09, Trafalgar Studios

2 hrs, 30 mins. The OUDS production en route from Oxford (via one night only in Stratford, for some reason) to Tbilisi in Georgia. Produced by the veteran Thelma Holt (who's been organising an international OUDS tour for a dozen years), with backing from Cameron Mackintosh. They're a well-connected lot: one cast member is son of a famous theatre director, the fights were arranged by Terry King who does this sort of thing for the RSC, no less (in the front row at the Trafalgar Two it felt like a sword might take a knee off at any minute, but with King in charge I was probably wrong to worry).

Two names to watch: director Tim Hoare and actor Jacob Lloyd, who played Henry. Lloyd has a commanding presence, comports himself like a king and speaks the verse as if he knows what it means. Hoare has a clear idea of what he wants, a fine sense of pace and some nice ideas and either undertook himself or commissioned a very clever stripped-down version of the play, bracketing it with the deathbed scene between Hal and the King from Henry IV Part 2, and the news of Henry V's death from the start of Henry VI Part 1, so giving the play a sense of context and emphasising the extent to which Henry and Agincourt were brilliant flashes in the otherwise dismal 15th century wars (of the Roses and against France).

We lost a lot of the lowlife stuff, including the by-play between Fluellen and Jamie and the rest, so it became less of a "picture of England" and more a portrait of a tough, successful and sometimes brutal king (he participates in the execution of the prisoners himself; personally oversees the hanging of Bardolph before cutting him down). We also lost the comic "naming of parts" scene between Katherine and her maid.

Some of the cuts produced clever tricks: Henry swaps gloves with the bolshy soldier before Agincourt... but then returns the glove not to a living survivor but to a dead body when he finds the soldier on the battlefield.

There were just ten in the cast, three girls (who played several male parts including the Chorus, the Boy and Montjoy the French Herald -- the latter rather well done by Martha May). Let's say some of the players were stronger than others, but none were actively embarrassing.

The English wore red, the French blue which helped with the doubling (though must also have required some pretty quick changes backstage); and knowing the play probably helped too. What the Georgians will make of it is anyone's guess.



25/8/09 and 1/9/09, Royal Albert Hall (Proms)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Roger Norrington with Joyce DiDonato singing; in the second half they played Mendelssohn's Symphony No 3, the Scottish.

I failed to make proper notes at the time but I did scribble in the programme. We had Purcell's suite from the incidental music to Abdelazer, and then La DiDonato came on in a green, full-skirted strapless dress to sing Ombra mai fu from Xerxes and Ah mio cor from Alcina. The former was funereal, though she sounded gorgeous. The second was much better, faster, and there was something she did at the segue into the middle section unaccompanied when her voice soared and fell and changed key and all sorts, and we all held our breath.

And then we had Handel's Water Music, which is too familiar and I fell asleep.

And that was followed by our Joyce back for Haydn's Scena di Berenice which is a splendidly dramatic concert aria. She was great: lyrical, highly dramatic, thrillingly low at times.

The Mendelssohn contrasts light and dark in the first movement (the Scots weather?), first brassy, then flute and clarinet. There are lovely melodies in the third movement. And a bouncy finish.

G didn't like Norrington: he thinks he's a show-off, turning to the audience at the end and bouncing like a schoolboy.

Royal Concertgebouw with Mariss Janson doing Haydn's Symphony No 100, the Military, and Shostakovich's Symphony No 10.

I failed to make a note at the time and remember nothing of it.

The reviews below help bring some of it back, notably the four percussionists marching on at the end of the Haydn.

Late-night Prom with the Michael Nyman Band.

Initially riveting: loud, repetitive, rhythmic with a spectacular sense of impetus and drive. Think Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds, the theme tune from The Draughtsman's Contract.

The trouble is, they all sound like that: same minimalist techniques, same (amplified) instrumentation.

Alas it became boring in the end


30/8/09, Pleasance (Edinburgh Fringe)

Only 35 mins. A disappointing piece of physical theatre from a company called Red Shift. A man, a woman and a bed: an extra-marital affair with the Slovenian au pair goes sour, intercut with extracts from Milton's Paradise Lost. As Eve eats the apple he recites the relevant section of the poem while the au pair gives him a blow job beneath the duvet (it is at least novel...). She wears only knickers throughout; he gets his kit off just before this point as he gets into bed with her.

He (Graeme Rose) knew how to deliver the verse: I'm not sure I've heard Milton better-delivered. She (Stephanie Day, who despite the name was authentically foreign I think) didn't.

A rather slight idea not fully-enough developed. There were rather a lot of solitary middle-aged men in the audience, which made her accusations that he was just a "dirty old man" hit rather close to home.


30/8/09, Zoo Southside (Edinburgh Fringe)

Dance and physical theatre piece with five dancers (three men, two women, plus another man and a woman who made occasional uncredited contributions) choreographed by Maresa von Stockert. Dance as political allegory.

At the start the five come on to loud martial music, marching, wheeling, shooting, saluting while dressed in uniforms and yellow sashes. The era could be any time from the 1940s to the 1980s: a drab police state, perhaps soemwhere in Eastern Europe.

We hear a dissident young couple rowing in voice-over about his political activism while watching them dance: rolls, lifts, scissor movements up and over and under and around one another. First he holds her then she holds him, defying gravity and expectations. Physically it's breathtaking but the voice-over is unconvincing.

As they dance one of the uniforms enters their home and steals one of his shirts, stuffing it into a glass jar. Next we see two functionaries in white coats with little folding tables "analysing" two similar shirts extracted from glass jars. They snigg, measure, fold, unfold, eventually turning into dogs on all fours, tossing the shirts in their mouths.

The dissident's half-brother is stopped by the political police and questioned, threatened and urged to shop him, the scene accompanied by secret policeman's patter and more rolls and lifts.

Then we see the half-brother at work, filing. At the back of the stage are two cages on wheels, the back wall facing the audience filled with shelves of box files; they can be turned to reveal interiors. Now one is turned (by the dancer playing the half-brother, with considerable effort) to reveal a woman sitting surrounded by concertina files. She extracts a cup from one, then a saucer and then pours tea for our hero (the use of props throughout is extremely ingenious), then the concertina files on the floor develop a mind of their own and start rising out of the floor. The couple (it later turns out this is meant to be a dream sequence) are forced to take to the walls and then the ceiling of the cage to escape.

The dissident's wife is taken in for questioning and literally enmeshed by her interrogators in the coils of quarter-inch tape used to record the bugs in her home.

There are signs of diminishing imagination as we proceed. There's a frankly puerile scene when one of the men's wives comes to report her husband missing and a large box next to her eats her handbag and the functionary who greets her through a hole in the box files then comes round to dance with her... and with a banana that turns into a phone.

The music is as much FX as anything, with shades of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra now and then. The spoken text is variable: the secret policemen (one sporting a rat-like countenance and the pencil moustache of a 1940s spiv) are effective, at other times you just wish they'd shut up and get on with the dancing.

At the end the regime collapses. The marchers return but now their movements are jerky and nervous and, like the Duracell bunnies, they gradually run down, develop repetitive faults or get stuck in corners. A new regime takes over. One of the men in uniform deliberately changes his yellow sash and badge for a red badge and scarf then walks into one of the cages where there's a table and lamp... and attaches them to the ceiling, the world turned literally upside down.

Our heroes in jail cells push out the box files which scatter across the floor; they hang from the ceiling and walls; their wives dance in anguished fashion amid the litter of boxes at the back of the stage.

Then the functionaries of the new regime appear and robotically and methodically start to build a wall of boxes while the dissident disassembles some of the other box files and scatters them wildly about. At the end the wall is destroyed.

Mostly inventive, with real skill and passion in the dance, but the allegory sometimes a little too obvious. A pitifully and undeservedly small audience at 11 in the morning.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


29/8/09, Festival Theatre (Edinburgh Festival)

3 hrs 45 mins. Handel's opera in a production for the Gottingen Festival directed by Doris Dorrie, who is apparently a well-known German novelist and film-maker and (these days) opera director, conducted from the harpsichord by Nicholas McGegan with around 30 musicians ranged all round him in the Festival Theatre's shallow pit.

Sheep, deer, naked dancers, Japanese costumes, shadow play, lighting that threw washes of colour over a white stage with black cloth wings: visually ravishing.

Admeto is dying. His wife Alceste volunteers to die in his place. He recovers and sends Ercole (Hercules) to bring her back from the Underworld. Meanwhile Antigona, who is loved by Admeto's brother Trasimede, makes a play for Admeto and he finds himself torn between love for her and for Alceste. Alceste returns in disguise, there is a predictable mix-up, until all is resolved and Antigona is paired up with T.

The singing had its ups and downs. Tim Mead as Admeto had the most beautiful counter-tenor; David Bates as Trasimede sounded totally out of his depth. Kirsten Blaise as the naughty temptress Antigona was a fine singer and entertaining actor (slapping away at her spurned lover Trasimede's horizontal sword as it rose towards the perpendicular while he sang "a ha ha"). Marie Arnet as Alceste had a lovely voice but lacked power (from where I sat somewhere round to the side at the front of the circle). Her dying aria was especially beautiful, sung in a huge white kimono, before she went behind a screen to expire; it rose to reveal spreading blood, represented by a red carpet gradually pulled outwards across the stage, and her spirit rising slowly from her body.

The spirt in question was the veteran butoh dancer Tadashi Endo, in long wig and white weeds, who also supplied the choreography. I'm beginning to get the hang of butoh, which seems to involve a lot of stylised and grotesque movement, white body paint, few if any clothes and much grimacing. This is the Wikipedia definition: "It typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally "performed" in white-body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion, with or without an audience. But there is no set style, and it may be purely conceptual with no movement at all."

At the very start the ten dancers played furies, tormenting the dying Admeto: they looked for all the world like a bunch of Gollums. Later they attacked Hercules (William Berger, dressed in a fat suit to resemble a sumo wrestler) as he freed Alceste from Hell: he shouldered them, threw them and bellied them aside. Then he was tempted by naked dancers, thrusting them too aside with superhuman effort. Before that we'd seen them dressed as sheep in silly woolly costumes accompanying Antigona, a princess masquerading (for reasons never made clear) as a shepherdess. Later they played deer in a hunting scene, the men with magnificent antlers on their heads.

At the end of Act 1 I decided this production was definitely camp, but respectful, and the Japanese setting was plausible.

In Act 2 Admeto laments that he loves two women while two dancers, one dressed in white and one in black, drift across the stage behind him: they used at this point the whole stage, right to the back, and very impressive it is too, reputedly the largest in Britain. The act ends with showpiece arias for the two sopranos; Alceste's is accompanied by half a dozen naked dancers in see-through chiffon kimonos tempting him/her (for she is now dressed as a samurai warrior). That seemed inappropriate since what she is singing has to do with discovering whether he husband (not she) is faithful or not; but maybe the director's aim was just to plant a suggstion of "temptation" generally.

Act 3 concludes with a solo dance for Alceste's spirit. I never felt the production fully integrated the spirit (unlike the rest of the dancers, who were fine). Before that there was an ensemble song, and before that a beautiful duet for Admeto and Alceste as the lovers are reconciled; but it was undermined by some silly business as Trasimede flits around surreptitiously with a drawn sword plotting to murder his brother.

This was also the only act in which the prevailing Japanese aesthetic was undermined for some reason with European baroque elements: a painted backdrop of a garden, then two drops of baroque palace interiors with windows and arched doorways. They flew up suddenly and disappeared just before the triumphal conclusion. I couldn't see the point, though one reviewer suggested it may have been a way of highlighting the forced, artificial, "stagey" nature of the proceedings at this point.

Plausibility, as so often, wasn't one of the librettist's strong points. Antigona has been obsessively in love throughout with Admeto, at one stage wrapping herself in a giant cloth portrait of him hanging from the flies (she is dressed only in a black swimsuit affair at this point). At the very end she is suddenly, instantly persuaded to switch her affections to Trasimede, the man she has energetically spurned throughout. Bizarre.

It was a delight, after a succession of 50 minute fringe productions, to have something really meaty and substantial to get one's teeth into.


27/8/09, St George's (Edinburgh Fringe)

Six women and four men from Cuba perform songs about Haiti ("the world's first black republic", but also "poor Haiti") in creole.

The women were matronly, two of them older and smaller than the others (one indeed was distinctly wizened); the men included one with an incredible bass voice (at one stage I thought there was a double bass hidden somewhere behind the stage). Everyone got to do at least one solo.

The music was African/European, but the harmonies not a patch on the South African ensembles to which some reviewers/previewers compare this one.

They wore long gold coloured, striped or patterned robes in the case of the ladies, and Hawaiian shirts for the lads.

The 11th member of the cast was a narrator in long trunks, white patterned body paint and a big straw hat, brandishing a paddle.

There was some audience interaction: clapping, shaking hands and so forth. The singing and accompanying percussion was amplified but at the end they came down without microphones and exited singing via the audience, which was sweet.

Most of the time you had no idea what they were singing about, which didn't help, though the narrator (speaking English) was helpful. At one point we were told many had escaped from Haiti to Cuba, the island of sugar. Cue a shout of pure Castroite joy.


25/8/09, Royal Albert Hall (Prom)