Monday, August 23, 2010

BBC Prom 49 at the Royal Albert Hall

Since I saw John Wilson's MGM Prom on television last year, I'd been looking forward to his return to the Albert Hall.
And thanks to my colleague from Musical Opinion, I had an excellent ringside seat.
It was an intensely enjoyable hour and three quarters. Wilson's hand-picked band, led by Andrew Haveron, were on sparkling form, and put heart and soul into these movie classics. Yes, these were the Hollywood arrangements we were hearing, written for similarly stellar bands in the 50s and 60s, in Wilson's new performing editions.
The non-stop music began and ended with Oklahoma, the Overture and Main title leading into Julian Ovenden's Oh What A Beautiful Morning. We were impressed by his Sondheim work a couple of weeks ago, and he seemed equally at home in this more innocent world. He was joined by the excellent Sierra Boggess [Christine in Love Never Dies] for a delicious People Will Say We're In Love.
Carousel was equally strong, with its intoxicating Waltz and the touching Soliloquy [Ovenden again] as well as a roof-raising June Is Bustin' Out All Over from Kim Criswell and the Maida Vale Singers, who gave sterling support throughout, including some character work – Nothing Like A Dame, for example, from South Pacific. Anna-Jane Casey and Rod Gilfry were the duettists here, in the twin soliloquies leading into Some Enchanted Evening.
The climax was Climb Every Mountain [Criswell, perhaps lacking the register for the role] but for me Boggess's inhabiting of the Julie Andrews numbers - I Have Confidence and Something Good – best represented the Sound of Music. The women from Maida Vale gave us the most classical piece of the afternoon, an A Cappella anthem; since the RAH organ was pressed into service for Sondheim, I was a little disappointed not to have the Processional for Maria's Wedding ...
No doubt, though, who the star of the show was, with his style and stage presence, complete with tail coat and red towel – for the hot and humid Albert Hall – John Wilson, whose enthusiasm and intuitive understanding of these wonderful scores made this a highlight of this year's Promming.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


National Theatre at the Cottesloe

I escape the V Festival in Chelmsford by going clubbing in the Cottesloe. The National's poor relation has undergone a transformation, in Miriam Buether’s radical design, into a trendy bar, with stools and a standing area for the braver punters. There are videos all around the walls, and two strange widescreen letter box stages halfway up the end walls.
The occasion is Mike Bartlett's new piece – twice as long as his previous shows, and ambitious in its intellectual and emotional scope. More does not necessarily mean better, and I wonder how essential the production numbers are. But the playwright explicitly encourages the director, Rupert [Enron] Goold - this is a co-production with Headlong – to throw everything at the piece. So we have a burlesque strip show, sinister mums with Silver Cross prams, clubbers and lowlife crowding the S-shaped catwalk which snakes the length of the auditorium.
This is theatre for people who like their eclectic playlist on shuffle. Me, I prefer standard sonata form, but I could not help being swept along by the excesses of the production, and of course by the narrative as it unfolded.
Three sisters are disowned by their climate scientist father, who thinks it would have been better had they never been born. Watching their lives unravel, you had to sympathise with his view. The youngest, excellently if uncomfortably played by Jessica Raine, is a wild child, permanently, confrontationally unhappy – memorably, she seduces her own brother-in-law, an impressive Tom Goodman-Hill. Freya [Anna Madely] is pregnant, but desperately unsure whether she can bring a child into this doomed world. The elder sister [a strong, cold Lia Williams] is a Lib Dem minister in the coalition government. Her portfolio is the environment, and like her father she is tempted by the corporate dollar.
The whole seventeen-strong company is excellent – Maggie Service has some lovely cameos as a dismissed employee, a saleswoman in an unrecognisable Liberty, and, touchingly, a war widow nostalgic for a vanished world. Bill Paterson is the curmudgeonly paterfamilias, preaching Armaggedon as he watches the wildlife and waits for Gaia to redress the global balance.
The “Matter of Life and Death” finale sits strangely with the visceral energy of the rest, but there's no doubting the power of the piece, and its timely message.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Tomorrow's Talent

Cardboard city with fairy lights; street sounds and sirens. And then the feline invasion, cats of all varieties pouring in through every imaginable entrance for a stunning sequence of extracts from TS Eliot's only hit musical, now approaching its thirtieth birthday.
Big numbers and impressive solos, from amongst others Jess Moore as Grizabella in the iconic Memory, beautifully staged here, Bart Lambert as a rock-god Rum Tum Tugger, and Mark Ellis, precise and perky as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat. Duos included Laura Messin and Sophie Walker sharing Macavity, Polly Grieve-Russell helping Alex Houlton's Gus regale the listening kittens with tales of his palmiest days, and a lively Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer from Andrew and Natalie Cooper - “a wonderful way of working together”.
But the greatest impact came from the production numbers: Jellicle Cats to start and finish, The Naming of Cats with its disciplined choral speaking [and these are tricky literary lyrics], and the carton train for the Sleeping Car Express.
Superb make-up and hair [West End expert Sally Tynan] – with special plaudits to Sam Toland's Munkustrap and some splendid ears and whiskers on kittens. Dance Captain was Liz Pilgrim, and the show was directed by Tomorrow's Talent Principal Gavin Wilkinson.
photographs by Louise Freeland

Saturday, August 14, 2010

BBC Prom 37
BBC Philharmonic, Gianandrea Noseda

Noseda is a persuasive champion of Dallapiccola's orchestral works. Two CDs [with the BBC PO] on Chandos, and talk of a third.
So no surprise to find the early Partita programmed in this prom. It's a work of many colours, beginning with the dark low notes and steady rhythms of a solemn processional, which moves slowly into the sunny upland, guided by Yuri Torchinsky's limpid violin. Then a Scherzo [Burlesca] with plenty of percussion and a pastoral theme passed around the BBC Phil's impressive woodwind section. After the calm of the Recitative, an animated passage leading to the sacred lullaby, reminiscent of Mahler, beautifully and simply sung by Sarah Tynan, though I suspect a steelier tone might have carried the vocal line more effectively to the further reaches of this vast space.
The other Italian work was the familiar Force of Destiny, played with urgent freshness to open the evening. Languorous melodies from the woodwind, and the big theme magically emerging as if from nothing.

Smaller forces after the interval for Bruch's First Violin Concerto, with James Ehnes. Not a heart-on-sleeve account, but eloquent and passionate, with superb rhythmic attack in the Finale, and lightness and brilliance in the final bars, Noseda giving his trademark leaps on the podium.
A vivid reading of Schumann's Fourth Symphony ended the programme; the Scherzo marked by determination rather than dash, but with plenty of energy in reserve for the final sprint to the finish.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Tomorrow's Talent


A new departure for this, the first of two summer schools from Tomorrow's Talent.

Over the five days of the course, West End professionals spent time with the students, sharing their secrets and preparing extracts for performance.

Rebecca Louis, dance captain for Oliver! in Drury Lane, said the experience “renewed her faith in teaching”, and it was her numbers that opened the show. I've seen Food Glorious Food more times than you've had hot gruel, but never with so much imagination. You could tell the kids could smell the saveloys and see the peaches and cream. The power of imagination alone took us straight to The Three Cripples for a lusty Oom Pah Pah.

Anna Lowe, working on Chicago, gave us Razzle Dazzle, sung with spirit by Sam Toland, with some very inventive choreography going on.
A bundle of blankets conjured up Les Misérables, whose MD Adam Rowe worked with the students on the Tuesday – a lively “Little People” and an impressive Fantine from Sophie Walker.
Julie Atherton is no stranger to Tomorrow's Talent, and we had a generous helping of Avenue Q, featuring ping-pong ball puppets of varying complexity, and including Julie's signature number, A Fine Line, with Laura, Polly and Laura voicing Kate.
And these two dozen kids [dance captain Liz Pilgrim] still had energy left for a brilliant Mamma Mia finale, including some creative curtain calls – this last segment from director Gavin Wilkinson, whose boundless energy and enthusiasm are the driving force behind Tomorrow's Talent.

photos courtesy of Vanessa Martyn and Richard Shorrocks

Blitzed! at the Brentwood Theatre

Come, write me down, ye powers above …”
The old folk song was an appropriate opener to a play that harks back well beyond Shakespeare's time. The choice of music was one of the strengths of Neil Gray's pocket production - ”short as any dream”.
Lots of stylish touches – the white-faced fairies, led by elegant, if not always eloquent, Oberon [a mischievous interpretation from Darren Matthews, an impressive stage presence] and his Queen [Emma Feeney] with Dawn Cooke's un-gentle Puck boldly played as a sulky drudge. The lovers were nicely differentiated: Gemma Salter's sweet Hermia, with her backpack and her conventional boyfriend [a likeable Will Fox] against the painted maypole of Laura Hughes and her Demetrius [Matthew Jones] with his dubious dress sense. Their quarrel quartet was one of the strongest points of the show.
Neil Gray was a believable luvvie Weaver, leading his ragged troupe, tee-shirted for their interlude.
Theseus [Alex Muckersie] had a voice that was easy on the ear, but was one of the actors affected by memory losses in the last act. There were also occasional outbreaks of Random Stress Syndrome, but generally this trim, tightly staged treatment of Shakespeare's magical comedy made for a delightfully enjoyable evening.

photograph by Dawn Cooke

Sunday, August 01, 2010

BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall


There could have been a whole week of such concerts without anywhere near exhausting the riches of the Sondheim canon !
We were in the fourth row of choir seats, and apart from the pleasure of sharing the occasion, and feeling the mighty organ vibrate, we were able to watch the conductor's obvious, and understandable, delight at being in charge of it all …
It would have been worth the ticket price just to hear this excellent band play the Overture to Follies. But we also had generous extracts from Sunday in the Park with George, Simon Russell Beale and Dame Judi Dench. Not forgetting the grand old man himself, coming on to take a bow at the end.
Here's a proper rave review from an expert in the field …
at Shakespeare's Globe


The pillars are sprouting shoots and leaves; the actors are at hand, chatting to those groundlings within reach, and more awkwardly, to the Middle Gallery. Nothing profound [“so then, Anne Boleyn, witch, whore or wronged woman?”], but the sort of stuff our own dear Queen might ask [“have you been here before?”].
Then Jon Banks's band strikes up one of Henry VIII's greatest hits, and we're away, with Miranda Raison's modern Anne charming the Globe, teasing the audience, pulling her story [religion, execution] out of the bag, then fast forward 67 years to James I – a big bold performance from James Garnon, playing his second Scottish King this season. Government by show of glory – all those Elizabethan frocks on a rail – and his fetish, Anne Boleyn's marriage gown.
Time is a recurrent motif – five hours later, a fifteen-minute interval, thirteen lucid seconds between the blade and oblivion.
Religion, too, of course. Puritans, Presbyterians, protestants, conspirators for Christ. A meeting with Tyndale in the woods; pleading in vain with Cromwell's implacable back. 'Priest', 'Church' and 'Charity' in James's new Bible, drafted by the best scholars, with poets “for the odd felicitous phrase”.
Not to mention politics – the men and the money, “the mighty and the mice”.
John Dove's production never puts a foot wrong, with strong input from the Henry VIII company, though only Raison keeps the same character. Anthony Howell is even younger and fitter than Dominic Rowan's Henry, Colin Hurley blusters as “Woolly” Wolsey, and John Dougall is a cold, hard Cromwell. And on the distaff side, Amanda Lawrence, a memorable Fool in Henry VIII, was Lady Rochford, later to share the fate of another “unfaithful” queen, Katherine Howard.
In an ending which recalls Brenton's In Extremis as well as Shaffer's Amadeus, Boleyn returns to address us, “demons of the future” and ask God's blessing on us all. Followed, as ever, by the jig, with the whole company – Simpkin, Cecil, clerics, courtiers and countryfolk – enjoying the Globe atmosphere with the capacity crowd.