Monday, 30 April 2012

Julian Ovenden - If You Stay

It's not often that I'd write a blog post about one album and how much I love it, but I think If You Stay is worth it. I'm absolutely hooked.

Although best known as Andrew Foyle from Foyle's War or 'that guy from the Diet Coke ad', Julian Ovenden is a well-respected and in demand musical theatre performer. Having gained his education (Eton and Oxford no less) through musical scholarships, Julian has been staring in musicals since his 2000 début as Frank Sheppard in the Donmar Warehouse's production of Merrily We Roll Along. I have so far had the pleasure of seeing him in Merrily, Grand Hotel and Marguerite. However, it wasn't until summer 2010 that he finally found a huge audience with his critically acclaimed performances in two proms: Sondheim at 80 and John Wilson's Rogers & Hammerstein tribute. The response from the public was overwhelming and resulted in a record deal with Decca.

This is no musical theatre album though. Instead, it's a celebration of the brass-filed, Bond-esque sound that has long-since disappeared from the charts.  Opening track, It Hurts To Say Goodbye. sounds like it's come straight out of a Bond film but was made famous by Vera Lynn in the 1950s. If You Go Away is a version of Jacques Brel's 1959 Ne Me Quitte Pas. There have been so many cover versions of that song (my favourites are Scott Walker's and Marc Almond's), but every version brings something new, and Julian's take, mixing English and French, is all about vocal and musical quality. Woman To Man was released in 1990 by Harriet (who?! This woman apparently), but Julian has made it much more fun. I could go on. The eclectic song choices give old standards and more obscure, more recent songs a new lease of life.

Why I'm addicted to this album at the moment, then, is the perfect combination of song choices (some incredibly catchy), with beautifully produced orchestrations that beg to be played very loud, and of course an incredible voice, with impressive range and depth. Julian says his album is "Music for grown ups", and it certainly is, yet what's so captivating about it is the almost child-like enthusiasm he brings to every track. I can't wait to see the album performed live in November!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Surrealism and advertising

Hello again, blogosphere, I've missed you. The Cardiff culture blogging will resume shortly, but in the mean time, I thought I'd share something I love with you. Browsing just now, I came across Bibble Babble's (@sighnomoree) collection of the Best of Fast Food Advertising. I've always been a huge fan of clever adverts, especially those that show some knowledge of art history. My favourite of all are those inspired by surrealism.

Surrealism and advertising's love-affair is a long one. Surrealists, especially writers like André Breton and Louis Aragon, liked to incorporate real-life adverts into their work, for example this picture in Breton's Nadja: 

Beyond incorporating advertisements into their work, surrealists also profited from advertising, and no-one more so than Salvador Dalí. Breton famously remarked that 'Avida Dollars' (avida meaning eager or greedy for in Spanish) was a fitting anagram of Dalí's name. 

His advertising legacy lives on in the Chupa Chups logo, but perhaps my favourite example of Dalí's willingness to give up his integrity for advertising dollars is this TV spot for Lanvin chocolate:

Dalí wasn't alone, of course. If you go to any Spanish high-street, for example, you'll spot the logo for La Caixa bank, designed by Miró.

Beau comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d'une machine à coudre et d'un parapluie: Surrealist concepts in modern advertising
Moving towards today, it's clear that advertising executives have studied their art history, especially those who worked in the tobacco market. Obviously I don't condone smoking, and especially not trying to make cigarettes attractive, but they did make some brilliant adverts.

In the 1970s Benson & Hedges campaign, for example, all the surrealist staples are present, from Dalí's ants to the guiding principle that bringing two incongruous things together will create something beautiful.

Other adverts also followed the surrealists in their obsession with and exploration of Eros and Thanatos (Freud's sex and death drives). Particularly striking is the 1980s Silk Cuts campaign.

This brings me to my favourite advert of all time (although the Compare the Meerkat series do come close ;) )  I remember seeing this on TV years and years ago, and it's stuck with me, even though it never seems to appear on Best Ever Adverts lists. I'm surprised it didn't give me nightmares! I love that it's so magnificently weird, referencing classic moments from Dalí and Buñuel's L'Age d'or and Un Chien Andalou, among other early surrealist films, from the eggs and the ants to the clouds cutting across the moon.


More recently, the 2007 Gorilla marketing (hehe, pun!) campaign that saved Cadbury's once again brought surrealist principles to the small screen. The gorilla on the drums was as unexpected and beautiful 'as the encounter between a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table'.

These are just a few examples of recent surrealist advertising, but I'd love to see more. Please comment with your favourites!

PS: I love how surrealist works are put on just about everything to make money. This is one of my favourites:
Ceci n'est pas un Powerbook.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Sweeney Todd feat. Michael Ball & Imelda Staunton

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemenwho never thereafter were heard of again. He trod a path that few have trod, did Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The idea of Michael Ball as evil is a rather strange one. He's more of a cuddly, jovial type, or a love-sick fool. Yet somehow his encarnation of Sweeney Todd really works. Made up almost beyond recognition, he exudes malice in this latest version of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical, directed by Jonathan Kent at the Adelphi. However, this seems much more of an acting piece for him than a chance to show off his famous vocal range, as the songs don't really stretch him much (although at the end of one song he did hold the note for what felt like five minutes).

As his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, Imelda Staunton displays the ample wit that has made her a national treasure. She has one of the most expressive faces I've ever seen and didn't even need to do much to have the audience giggling. Sweeney's arch-nemesis, Judge Turpin, played by John Bowe (of Prime Suspect fame), was suitably malevolent. The scene of his self-flagellation was particularly disturbing. 

Moving away from the nasty characters, Lucy May Barker as the innocent Johanna was not quite sweet enough for me, while Luke Brady, as her young lover Anthony, was so earnest it hurt, but sang delightfully. Rounding off the cast, musical veteran Peter Polycarpou was perfectly slimy as Beadle Bamford.

The cast then was, on the whole, a real treat. Nonetheless, I was underwhelmed by Sweeney Todd. I had seen Tim Burton's film (and Tomorrow, La Scala! a rather dark TV drama about a production of Sweeney Todd being staged in a prison), but had somehow forgotten quite how dark and depressing it is. Not that dark doesn't have a place in musicals, but a show so unrelentingly bleak can't help but bring you down. Of course there are laugh out loud moments, particularly from Mrs Lovett and her meat pies, but they were pushed out of my head as the corpses began to stack up. As for the songs, they are certainly catchy - at least bits of them - but rather mundane. Not the kind of music that fills the theatre and gives you goosebumps. Nonetheless, the chorus which narrates the story is dramatic and menacing, and Not While I'm Around (sung by the young Toby to Mrs Lovett) has a simple beauty.

Aesthetically, I think Burton's signature gothic vision suits the story better than the realist setting of this production, which adds to the gloomy feel of the whole show.

In short, it is certainly worth seeing Sweeney Todd for the stellar performances - especially the rare chance to witness a very different side to Michael Ball - but don't expect it to be an uplifting experience.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Marguerite and French collaboration

Having spent the best part of today researching for an essay on the French far right, including reading about Vichy collaboration (I highly recommend Jim Shield's very readable introduction The Extreme Right in France), I keep thinking about how I first came to learn about the events of that time. It wasn't from a textbook, but from a musical: Marguerite.

I was drawn to Marguerite for many reasons:
  •  As Ruthie Henshall went to my school (long before me of course!), we were inculcated into following her career from a young age, so I couldn't miss such a vehicle for her.
  • Julian Ovenden, as Marguerite's love interest Armand, has, in my opinion, the best voice on the West End stage.
  •  It's written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the incredibly talented team behind Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre, all of which I absolutely love.
All of the above in part explain why it's now one of my favourite - and certainly most listened to - musicals, but the real reason I can't get enough of it is because its such a powerful history lesson.  

On one level, Marguerite is another version of Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux camélias, a story retold again and again, from La Traviata to Moulin Rouge: a courtesan falls for a romantic young  man who gives her a second chance for love and freedom, but must give him up to save his life, and a tragic ending ensues. But a Boublil and Schönberg musical is never just a romance, and just as Miss Saigon brought aspects of the Vietnam war that had been swept under the carpet to the stage, so Marguerite does not shy away from perhaps the most difficult part of French history.

The musical starts in 1940. Marguerite is French and her keeper, Otto, a leader of the German occupation. Their relationship mirrors that of France and Germany: "Great Germany, supreme in power, and France in beauty, side by side". At the same time Marguerite's naive, frivolous relationship with her young suitor Armand juxtaposes the plight of Armand's sister Annette and her Jewish fiancé Lucien, who must live in constant fear as the French are going well beyond the demands of the Nazi occupiers in rounding up, deporting and torturing Jews. 

Marguerite certainly doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the portrayal of the French bourgeoisie. Sure of Germany's eventual victory, they are shown profiteering, handing over Jews, and praising the German's for 'cleaning up France'. Then as soon as it's clear the Allies are going to win, they happily change sides and start searching for scapegoats. Having only ever learnt about the brave, French Resistance before, it was fascinating to see how people exploited the myth of Resistance for their own self preservation (of course lots of people did genuinely resist, but the real numbers are tiny compared to those who say they did).

Perhaps most shocking is the way Marguerite was treated. While she herself actually helps the resistance, she is an obvious target, a visible 'traitor' as everyone has seen her with a German man. She is subjected to a public humiliation and head-shaving to forever mark her as a collaborator, a practice sadly common at a time when everyone was trying to prove their innocence by piling blame onto an easy target.

Musicals are too often dismissed as light and fluffy - and some of them most certainly are - but Marguerite is undoubtedly a musical for grown-ups. Beyond the wonderful music and story-telling that Boublil and Schönberg are famous for, Marguerite is a fascinating insight into a period that too many people would rather ignore.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Preview: Sherman Cymru Presents Clytemnestra

Today I was lucky enough to be invited into rehearsals of Sherman Cymru's latest in-house production, Clytemnestra. It was really fascinating to see just how much hard work goes into every minute of a new play, and watching the production come together.

Clytemnestra is an ancient Greek tale, brought into the not-too-distant future by Gwyneth Lewis. It stars Jaye Griffiths as the titular character, whose daughter Iphigenia is raped and killed by a rival tribe, Nick Moss as Agamemnon, the husband who gave Iphigenia away to her killers, and Jonah Russell as Aegisthus, another rival who becomes Clytemnestra's lover. As the supernatural furies, Adam Redmore and Nia Gwynne drive forward their schemes. I was really impressed by how real the characters already seem, without costumes or sets. A credit to the actors and to Amy Hodge's direction.

A story of betrayal, murder, revenge, desire and despair, Clytemnestra is certainly high drama. In the scene I witnessed being put together, a claustrophobic, post-apocalyptic atmosphere is created by dance and some quite terrifying music. However, Amy assures me that it's not all dark - the Chorus provide some light relief with bawdy humour and the extreme physicality of the piece is counterbalanced with beautiful poetic language.

After the rehearsal, Amy spoke to me about the direction of Clytemnestra and why it is an exciting, relevant piece for today:

Clytemnestra is showing at Sherman Cymru 18 April-5 May. Tickets are available here and remember all tickets are half price for under 25s.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Bibliomula: a literary magazine from Venezuela to the world

A few weeks ago I found myself in a Venezuelan newspaper. Why? Because I'm a huge fan of Bibliomula, a new literary magazine written by and for literature lovers. Produced in Venezuela, Bibliomula is available to bibliophiles around the world (those who speak Spanish anyway) in Kindle or Tablet form.

Bibliomula, meaning book mule, comes from the idea that books have to be trafficked into Venezuela, as shockingly few books are imported there (for an article in English about the problem, read this). The idea of the magazine then, is to encourage people to read more, and from further afield, as well as creating a community of like-minded readers. Each month they release a new edition, packed with an eclectic mix of opinion articles, interviews and recommendations, as well as poems and short stories. The latest issue, a Japanese literature special, was released today. So if you speak Spanish and want to go beyond Murakami (the extent of my Japanese literature knowledge so far) then get downloading at

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Clwyd Theatr Cymru presents A Doll's House

The last (and first) time I saw Ibsen's 1879 classic A Doll's House was in Paris with Audrey Tautou staring as Nora, so Clywd Theatre Cymru had a lot to live up to. I'm pleased to say they did a wonderful job, and I have nothing but praise for their production.

Firstly, I loved the intimate, in-the-round staging. Having Nora surrounded by the audience at such close proximity really highlighted how trapped she is, by her marriage and the judging gaze of patriarchal society. Max Jones' beautiful but restrictive costumes served the same purpose, while the minimal sets meant that nothing distracted from the quality of the performances.

And what performances! As the eponymous doll, Caryl Morgan excels, dexterously taking Nora from a joyful, carefree creature to a serious, independent woman. An alumnus of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, she once again proves what quality the college turns out. I was particularly impressed with her balance between physicality, bringing madness to the stage through her desperate dancing, and total vulnerability.As her husband Torvald, Simon Dutton is at first suave and sophisticated, exuding an aura of total control that left no doubt as to why Nora seems completely smitten with him. Then as events begin to escalate, his mixture of condescension, naivety and sheer panic is truly engrossing. The supporting cast - Catrin Aaron (Nora's old friend Kristine Linde), John Cording (the couple's best friend Dr Rank), and Llion Williams (Nils Krogstad, the spark for the play's events) - are equally believable and engaging. Altogether, an exceptional ensemble.

As for the play itself, A Doll's House is a classic for a reason. Throughout his life, Ibsen was a stern critic of the patriarchal society he lived in and a defender of women's rights. There is perhaps no better vehicle for his beliefs than A Doll's House (although ironically it earned Ibsen the disdain of one particular woman, Laura Kieler, whose tragedy he stole for the plot of this play). The play delivers a powerful message about women's rights - the right to work, to education, to be treated as an equal by their husband, to have their beliefs taken into account by the law - which was totally shocking in 1879 and remains important today. Don't miss the chance to see this ground-breaking play so well produced by Clwyd Theatr Cymru.

PS: For some Ibsen-themed music, here's Broken Records with If Eilert Loevborg Wrote A Song It Would Sound Like This, based on Hedda Gabler.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Salomé with new music from Charlie Barber

"Salomé, what a woman, what a part, innocent body and a sinful heart!" 
Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard is one of my favourite musicals, so I have been aware of the story of Salomé for a very long time, but until today I had never seen the 1923 film. It turns out that's because few people have. The lovechild of Alla Nazimova, a Russian emigré who found fame on the American stage and screen, and designer Natacha Rambova, who wrote the script under the pseudonym Peter M Winters, the film never really found an audience. Nazimova, known for her flamboyant bisexual lifestyle, reportedly only hired gay or bisexual actors, creating such a scandal that it resulted in the film being shelved. Nazimova was bankrupted and her film production career ended. Now 90 years later, Salomé finally gets its audience, thanks to Charlie Barber, who has composed new music to accompany the film.

Charlie Barber explained at the pre-show talk that he was looking for a film which he could bring to an audience as a fresh experience, rather than something well-known like a Fritz Lang film. His choice of the film was also inspired by the vivid memory of a Lindsay Kemp production of the original Oscar Wilde play which opened with heavy percussion. The new score is based heavily on Arabic rhythms, which Barber says attracted him because of their mathematical quality, and performed with unpitched percussion instruments and voices (a choir singing extracts from the Psalms in Latin, Hebrew and Greek, in keeping with the period, and impressive vocal improvisation from Sianed Jones). Barber didn't want the music to just underscore what we see on screen, but to be a unique experience in itself. Nonetheless, whether as fortuitous as Barber would have us believe or not, the score certainly seems tailored to the action in the film, highlighting the melodrama.

Before the film, Barber warned us that it was going to be extremely camp and he wasn't exaggerating! The men were caked in make-up, jewellery, wigs and nipple-tassels.

Herod especially was shown as a complete buffoon, more of a clown (complete with bright red lips) than the Tetrarch of Judea.  

The point of the music then, was to counteract this campfest, with 'serious' rhythms, which keep the audience hooked. I have to say it did a very good job, adding a new layer of depth to the viewing experience, although we still couldn't help laughing at some of the more ridiculous aspects of the film!

It wasn't all camp though; there were some really beautiful art nouveau pieces, designed by Rambova following illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. I was particularly struck by Salomé, shot in sepia as she fantasises about being queen among Herod's peacocks.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the night for me, though, was finding out just how true to life Sunset Boulevard is. Nazimova - who incidentally lived on Sunset Boulevard - cast herself as the 16 year old Salomé when she was 44 years old, much like Norma Desmond in the film/musical. This was quite off-putting in the film, because even though her body remained remarkably youthful, this is by no means a 16 year old face:

In short, Salomé is definitely worth watching, both for the beautiful art nouveau costumes and to have a good giggle at the camper side of the film. Charlie Barber's music perfectly compliments the on-screen action, and also provides a good focus for attention if you ever drift off of the film. Full details of the tour can be found at, where you can also buy the soundtrack.

PS: If you have no idea what I'm talking about when I link Sunset Boulevard and Salomé, watch this:

Gomorrah: the Neapolitan Mafia from page to screen

As I've not had so much to review this week, I think it's time to go back to sharing what I've been doing in class with you. In my final classes of my MA (I can't believe it's almost over already), we've been looking at Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano's denunciation of the Camorra, the Campania version of the Mafia, which became an instant hit while condemning Saviano to a life-time in hiding.

This interview with Saviano on The Culture Show (the BBC's, not mine sadly!) really highlights what a sacrifice it was for Saviano to write Gomorrah.

Our study of Gomorrah was the final part of the course on adaptation of literature to film. Gomorrah made a particularly interesting case study because when I first read it, I thought it would be absolutely impossible to turn into a film. To highlight the enormous scale of the Camorra, its all-pervasive power within Naples and the surrounding areas, and its infiltration of Italian politics and global business, the book is bursting with lists, numbers, names and facts. This has a really powerful effect but lists obviously don't work well on screen. Moreover, the aim of the book, and the film, was to counteract the glamorising of the Mafia by Hollywood films, so rather than graphic murders, we have to see the day-to-day, the slums, the toxic waste, and the constant counting of dirty money.

The adaptation cleverly turned the huge cast of characters from the book into a few protagonists who embodied the main themes of Saviano's work. While this made a more watchable film (although as Mark Kermode points out, it's still a difficult watch because there really is no-one to root for), the film had to get creative to still give a sense of the scale of the Camorra. In particular, the scenes of the slums were full of visual metaphors for the Camorra's activity and its effect on people's lives.

The scenes in the Neapolitan mass social-housing make clear just how trapped the local people are. They are constantly shown behind bars which foreshadow the prisons that many of them will end up in if they're not killed first. The use of light and dark is particularly effective, as it's always bright outside, suggesting freedom and a better future, but the people in the slums are stuck in the shadows.

In these shadows we often can't see people's faces - we know they're doing some 'shady' deals but its not clear what, just like the Camorra's business activities. This is enhanced in the film by the sound of shouting - we cannot work out what is being said but we know it's angry.

The sound and lighting creates a sense of the 'everyman', as in everyone is involved in the Camorra in one way or another. This is a key element of the book which stresses how the Camorra 'democratised' the drug trade, allowing everyone to become a dealer, even if just to a small group of friends. This point is highlighted in the brief shot of the open air drug market, where heads cannot be seen (notice the bars once again). The scene is shot from above through a child's perspective, suggesting a strong moral judgement on these activities.

We see another slum which is the same but different, suggesting the scale of the deprivation in the area, and how nothing ever changes. The tight central corridor exemplifies the lack of escape options for the residents, as there is no other way out. The slum works as a panopticon: everyone's behaviour is constantly under scrutiny, so people have no choice but to act in the way expected, in this case following the Camorra.

Finally, we see the huge scale of the housing estate which brings home just how wide-spread the problem of the Camorra is. This housing estate might once have been bright white and modern, but it has been ignored and left to decay ever since. This is emblematic of the way the people of Campania see their situation in relation to the official authorities. The government don't care about their struggles so they have to turn to the Camorra for protection and for economic growth. The small area of colour where the children play may at first suggest innocence and a brighter future, but the juxtaposition with the rest of the grey housing estate, and the Camorra guards on duty just above them remind us that their childhood will end quickly and their future is bleak.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Top things to do in Cardiff over Easter

Every Monday I run through the best things to see and do in Cardiff for the rest of the week. This week's show was going to be a bumper-edition, with cultural highlights for the next three weeks over Easter holidays. However, when I got to the studio everything was locked; it seems most of Cardiff University has already gone on holiday. Not to be deterred, here's my top three recommendations in blog form.

A Doll's House @ Sherman Cymru 3-6 April
Hot off the success of As You Like It at the New Theatre, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Wales' premier drama production company, return to Cardiff with a new production of Ibsen's 1879 classic A Doll's House. Radical when it was realised, and still powerful today, A Doll's House tells the story of Nora, a housewife with an apparently idyllic life, who slowly begins to crave independence and self-determination. Clwyd have built a reputation for the quality of their production, and this version of A Doll's House, directed by Emma Lucia, has already won rave reviews from audiences at Clwyd Theatr in Mold. I can't wait to see it on Wednesday!

Art Car Bootique @ Chapter Arts Centre 15 April 
Think you know car bootsales? Think again! Chapter Arts Centre have teamed up with Something Creatives to bring you the bootsale as you've never seen it before, featuring 50 pitches of art, performances, dealers and curated projects, plus plenty of British food and ales. And if you think you're a master-baker, why not enter the Bootique British Bake-off and put your skills to the test? The event was a huge hit last year, as you can see in the video.

South Pacific @ Wales Millennium Centre 17-28 April
My number one event not to miss this Easter. This brand new production of South Pacific, which started at the Lincoln Centre in New York in 2008, has won rave reviews and a whole bunch of Tony Awards. Written in 1949 by Rogers and Hammerstein, South Pacific is undoubtedly one of the best loved musicals of all time. So many of its songs have become hits, including Some Enchanted Evening, Younger Than Springtime, There is Nothing Like a Dame, I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, and many more. The story combines comedy and romance with a serious message about racial prejudice. The UK tour cast is led by West End stars Samantha Womack and Jason Howard and sees Loretta Ables Sayre returning to the part of Bloody Mary for which she was Tony-nominated. Not to be missed.