Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Paris: Joseph Arthur @ Galerie Chappe and Peter Gabriel @ Bercy

For three years since I left Paris, I've been waiting for an excuse to go back, so when Joseph Arthur suggested I should come to his gallery opening, in one of my more impulsive moments, I booked an overnight bus for the next evening and spent one incredible day in one of my favourite cities.

I arrived at 8am and began with something of a nostalgia tour, heading straight for St Eustache, a church that I always preferred to its more glamorous cousin Notre Dame. I then strolled through Ile de la Cité to my "fancy apartment on the Boulevard Saint Michel" (more like a nunnery in reality) and greatly confused the receptionist with my strange desire to wander around and reminisce. I got similarly nostalgic in les Jardins du Luxembourg, which I visited every day while I lived there, whether rushing through on my way to class, catching up on some work among the flowers or just people-watching.

Then in the evening I headed up into Montmartre to Galerie Chappe, "Paris' highest gallery", specialising in art related to music and film. While I'd seen many of Joe's paintings spread around Heath Street Baptist Church, it was amazing to be in a gallery packed full of them, ranging from intricate, detailed pieces to huge murals, all with Joe's signature figures. One of my favourites was a painting on the back of a door that Joe had found on the street and taken back to his hotel room. As well as enjoying the art, I got to chat to lots of interesting music people, including Joe himself, his band - Bill Dobrow and Rene Lopez - and Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Jesse Harris.

Joe performing Saint of Impossible Causes surrounded by his paintings:

I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, because that night Joe's good friend and mentor Peter Gabriel was in town, playing the 17,000 seater stadium in Bercy, and I got to go along with Joe, Bill and other friends for free. While not a huge Gabriel fan by any means (I know Solsbury Hill obviously, and In Your Eyes from seminal 80s smush-fest Say Anything) but wow, the man knows how to put on a show! Gabriel bounded with incredible energy throughout, aided by Manu Katché on drums and a spectacular light show. I was completely swept up in the joy of it all and the enthusiasm of the enormous crowd of fans.

All in all it was an unforgettable evening, made even more special by the fact that it was totally unexpected. I should take spontaneous trips more often!

Sunday, 29 December 2013

American Psycho - The Musical

When I first heard about the musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho back in the spring, I was amazed that someone shared my esoteric tastes. It turns out there are quite a few of us out there who enjoy the combination of singing, dancing and graphic murder, as the show sold out incredibly quickly. Perhaps the main appeal of American Psycho for most was curiosity about just how Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (book) would pull it off, but I'm glad to say that they surpassed all my expectations, creating a wonderfully weird and utterly involving new musical.

Certain things were to be expected from any adaptation of Easton Ellis' 1991 cult classic: synths, neon and designer labels abound, with a mixture of 80s pop and newly written song and dance numbers including Hard Bodies and You Are What You Wear, while the minimalist interior design, video tapes, yellow cabs and pretentious restaurants of Es Delvin's amazing set design submerge us in Patrick's world.

Much less expected was the choice for the lead: former Dr Who star Matt Smith. Opening with a spectacularly ripped Patrick Bateman in nothing but a pair of white designer boxer shorts and the iconic blue face-mask of the movie poster, it is immediately clear that we are going to see a very different side to Smith. His singing is solid in an 'alone in the shower' way and his dancing is clunky, particularly against the rest of the extremely talented cast (Cassandra Compton was especially impressive as Patrick's lovelorn secretary Jean), yet this proved to be inspired casting. Beyond the shock of seeing Smith in a role so far removed from his loveable, quirky Doctor, his slightly awkward performance brings out one of the most interesting angles of Bateman, which is lacking from Christian Bale's handsome and suave portrayal: Patrick really doesn't fit in with his yuppie society, but everyone around him is too self-absorbed to notice.

While American Psycho has repeatedly faced outrage from moralistic critics over the passed 22 years for its shocking depravity, this production by Rupert Goolde features surprisingly little gore. Instead, the focus is on the satirical nature of Easton Ellis' story, bringing out the dark humour with which the writer passed judgement on the world he was entering as a young man, while at the same time delving deeper into Bateman's troubled psyche. The result is an unexpected treat: a show at once thought-provoking, funny, moving, experimental, musically catchy and aesthetically thrilling.

American Psycho runs at the Almeida until 1 Feb 2014. It sold out long ago, but returns may be available on the day: www.almeida.co.uk/event/americanpsycho

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Paper @ Saatchi Gallery

When my housemate was looking for a free exhibition to document for a university project, I couldn't think of anywhere better than the Saatchi Gallery, on the King's Road. In my opinion, it's the best place in London for contemporary art exhibitions, and it's always free. 

We were lucky to catch the Paper exhibition days before it closed, having already been extended due to popular demand. As quite a vague theme, 'Paper' gave space to everything from pencil sketches and collages to enormous paper sculptures. Although some sketches didn't really seem worthy of inclusion in the exhibition, there were some really beautiful, or just incredibly cool, pieces. Here are some of my favourites (photos stolen from Matej Oreskovic):

José Lerma (1971, Seville, Spain) and Héctor Madera (Puerto Rico) - Bust of Emanuel Augustus (2012)
The artists, both resident in New York, were fascinated by the story of this grandly named journeyman boxer and decided to make a sculpture equal to the size of his personality.

Steven Lowery (1980, Newcastle) - Selected Works (2003)

Dominic McGill (1963, Brighton) - Muqaddimah (2009-2010)

I nearly had to be dragged away from this enormous mural as I would happily have spent a whole day reading the densely scrawled quotes - ranging from The Bible to Das Kapital - that make up this epic dystopian vision of contemporary society.

Marcelo Jácome (1960, Rio de Janeiro) - Planos-Pipas (Kite Planes, 2013)

We were struck by the scale and beauty of this installation, made of bamboo and tissue paper, which seems to float through the gallery.

Han Feng (1972, Harbin, China) - Floating City (2008)

I was totally hypnotised by the slowly rotating buildings that form this giant mobile, playfully subverting the idea of the city as something heavy and immovable. Each box had an individual photograph of a building printed on to it, which again made me want to spend hours comparing each one and guessing at the story behind them all. Who would live there? Would these very different houses ever come together in a real city?

Visit the exhibition yourself virtually through this video:

The Saatchi Gallery is open 7 days a week and all exhibitions are free. Find out more about the whole Paper exhibition and the artists involved here. The gallery will now close to change exhibitions and will reopen on 20 November with Body Language.

Michael Feinstein & Friends: The Great American Songbook

Just when I was starting to worry that now he's caught up in Downtown Abbey I'd never get to see Julian Ovenden sing again, I spot a tweet that he'll be making a special guest appearance in Michael Feinstein's Great American Songbook show at The Palace the next day (Monday 4 November), as part of the London Festival of Cabaret. While I had never heard of Feinstein before, I couldn't resist a live performance of those wonderful old classics.

As a young man, Feinstein - now 57, although you would never guess! - worked for six years with Ira Gershwin, cementing a life-long love of the 'great American songbook', which he has dedicated his entire carer to promoting. 28 studio albums, five Grammy nominations and a Drama Desk Special Award later, Michael has become known as the authority on the songbook, not only performing and recording the classics himself, but archiving and preserving them for everyone.

This packed show last night featured classics from the Gershwins (obviously!), including a medley of audience requests (Embraceable You, Someone To Watch Over Me, They All Laughed...), Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, and Feinstein's beloved friend Jerry Herman. Feinstein loves I Won't Send Roses, Herman's hit from Mack & Mabel, so much that he has recorded it five times. The heartbreaking confession of a man who doesn't think he's good enough for the woman he loves was the highlight of the evening (although I couldn't help comparing it to John Barrowman's flawless version).

Feinstein is a real showman, full of anecdotes and jokes: "Frank used to say his wife was the evil of two Loessers". His evident closeness with and incredible respect and admiration for these great songwriters was a joy to watch. Ir seems that the feeling is mutual, at least for Leslie Bricusse, writer of Stop the World I Want to Get Off, who was in the audience last night.

Michael was very flattering to Julian, to the point of performing a mutually complimentary rewrite of Cy Coleman's I'm Nothing Without You from City of Angels with him. Eschewing more famous musical hits, Julian performed a stunningly beautiful Noel Coward medley. He argued that while everyone appreciates Coward's wit, his often overlooked 'melancholia' is where his true songwriting genius lies. Elaine Paige, enjoying her first time at The Palace in a non Andrew Lloyd Webber capacity, performed a gleeful version of Irving Berlin's Blue Skies Irving Berlin, as well as a romantic medley duet with Michael.

Although my friend and I seemed to be the only people under 60 at The Palace, we both left infused with Michael's passion for these timeless classics. Michael, Julian and Elaine all stressed how "they don't make them like they used to any more" and I couldn't agree more.

Monday, 4 November 2013

BFI London Film Festival 2013 - As I Lay Dying & Elle s'en va

Every year, the catalogue for BFI's London Film Festival arrives and I get carried away planning the dozens of films I will see, until I'm thwarted by a mixture of selling out (Blue Is The Darkest Colour, Inside Llewyn Davis) or having to be elsewhere (most annoyingly for the one Venezuelan film in the festival, Bad Hair). However, I was happy to still make it to two, very different, films in the first week.

As I Lay Dying

James Franco's adaptation of William Faulkner's 1930 epic depiction of a truly dysfunctional Southern family travelling to bury their mother was one of the main talking points of the festival season. I was particularly looking forward to it as Faulkner, cited as an inspiration for every great Latin American author, is a huge gap in my reading. Most of the controversy around the film stemmed from claims that, as Franco is not from the South, he cannot truly understand Faulkner's source material. While I don't agree with the logic behind that argument at all, having not yet read the book, I can't comment on the fidelity of the adaptation. Nonetheless, I am well aware of the breakdown of narrative certainties created by Faulkner's use of 15 different narrators. I found the use of split screen throughout the film, showing characters from two different angles, or making slightly different actions at once, captured this well, and also made for a very interesting visual experience. I have to admit getting a bit fed up with the unsympathetic characters and how their quest to bury their mother drags on, but, thinking back on it, it seems that the characters themselves would share those feelings, making As I Lay Dying not a film meant to be enjoyed.

Elle s'en va

By contrast, Emmanuelle Bercot's Elle s'en va passed somewhat under the radar, and yet was the film I was most looking forward to, partly because of my enormous love for Catherine Deneuve, but also because the trailer completely won me over. An homage to French cinema's greatest living actress, Elle s'en va is a very touching exploration of the fragility of a former Miss Brittany facing her lost youth and beauty. When her married lover leaves his wife not for her, but for a twentysomething, Bettie leaves her mother and her restaurant behind and begins to drive. The film follows her odyssey through the French countryside, from random encounters in dive bars, through painful memories, to possibilities of renewal. Bercot deftly balances fear and hope, sorrow and humour, without ever falling in to cliché. However, the main attraction of course is Deneuve's tour de force performance: she is an absolute joy to watch, and proves that 70 can be sexy.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Theatre Royal Bath Summer Season - Candida and King Lear

It was another exciting summer in the Social Programme Office at the University of Bath's English Language Centre - so much so that I feel like I'm only just recovering from it now! Like last year, I was lucky enough to meet some wonderful people from all over the world and enjoy sharing British culture and landmarks with them. One particular highlight for me was being able to take my students to the beautiful Theatre Royal twice this summer, even if I was underwhelmed by the two very different plays themselves: George Bernard Shaw's Candida and Shakespeare's King Lear.


Although in recent years it has been eclipsed by Shaw's triumph Pygmalion, Candida (1898) was quite the hit in its day, questioning Victorian ideas about love and marriage with a side order of socialism. The play centres around a love triangle: popular priest and orator, Reverend James Mavor Morell (Jamie Parker), whose seemingly perfect live unravels when a young poet who he had taken pity on (Eugene Marchbanks, played by Frank Dillane) arrives and announces that he is in love with James' beautiful young wife Candida (Charity Wakefield). While considerations of the practicalities of socialism rumble in the background, most of the action is the conflict between the two males, making it clear that neither affords Candida any agency in her own love life. The most interesting part of the play for me, therefore, was how Candida deals with this situation, eventually resisting the Victorian ideal of female passivity that both men unwittingly force upon her.

I expressed concerns about Jamie Parker in my review of Henry V and his performance in Candida left me with similar doubts. I can't work out if he's just a boring actor, or whether he is intentionally accentuating the staid nature of the character, making it clear why Candida might seek entertainment elsewhere. By contrast, Dillane (famous for playing Tom Riddle in Harry Potter), was very full on, to the point of being highly irritating at times, but it worked for the nervous, conflicted young poet. Of the main cast, I was most impressed with Charity Wakefield's (Land Fothergill from Any Human Heart) sensitive portrayal of the title character. Overall, Candida was at turns funny and thought provoking, but lacking the spark that makes Pygmalion such an enduring hit.

King Lear

Regular readers will know that I'm quite familiar with King Lear after following Cardiff University's Act One as they took their adaptation to Edinburgh. However, my students were happy to learn that even I struggled to follow every word of this incredibly dense tragedy. The main attraction for this particular adaptation was David Haig (Four Weddings and a Funeral) in the title role. The dramatic weight of the role was quite a departure from Haig's usual comedic roles, and at times he seemed to struggle with it - just one of the many let-downs of this production. A particular strength of King Lear is how the universal themes of greed and ambition can be adapted to an enormous range of settings, but for me the 1960s East End gangsters premise which had seemed so promising just didn't pay off. There were some strong performances and the notoriously difficult eye-gouging scene was impressively depraved and gory, but at a certain point the production just seemed to lose its way. Rather than the emotional punch the end is supposed to provide, this Lear's eventual denouement left us feeling only relief.

Find out more about the Theatre Royal and their upcoming attractions here.

Mr B's Reading Year - Part 3: And Then We Came To The End

We had these sudden revelations that employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from our better selves.

From sexy, smoky Guatemala to a Chicago advertising agency for the next instalment of my Reading Year: Joshua Ferris' And Then We Came to the End (2007). Mr B warned me in his recommendation that the novel, filled with wry observations like the one above about the soul-destroying nature of office life and Twenty-first Century Capitalism, can be "toxic", but this impressive début is nonetheless an incredibly engaging read.

The novel is told almost entirely in the first person plural, evoking the group who know and control everything. While individual characters do emerge, as in any office - the know-it-all, the clown, the desperate to be cool, the man on the edge of a mental breakdown - they are subsumed into the group, which will continue to exist regardless of how many individuals "walk Spanish down the hall". The one exception is brief introspective interludes from the agency's boss, Lynn, who is coming to terms with breast cancer; the contrast between the single and plural here accentuates the isolation resulting from such a deeply personal situation.

Ferris juxtaposes real tragedies, like Lynn's cancer and the murder of a co-worker's young daughter, with mundane concerns, highlighting how the tiny daily irritations come to dominate working life. Despite their objections, however, the group acknowledges the impossibility of living without work.

Yet for all the depression no one ever quit. When someone quit, we couldn't believe it. 'I'm becoming a rafting instructor on the Colorado River,' they said. 'I'm touring college towns with my garage band.' We were dumbfounded. It was like they were from another planet. Where had they found the derring-do? What would they do about car payments? We got together for going away drinks on their final day and tried to hide our envy while reminding ourselves that we still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately.

Ferris' catalogue of human failings could easily have been unbearably bleak, yet it is saved by a constant sardonic, incredibly dark humour, which makes it an unnervingly fun read. We shouldn't be laughing at people abandoning their individuality, their morality, to the desire for money, or the chronic depression resulting from the daily grind, or the terrible suffering of those dying or in mourning, but Ferris makes it impossible not to. Toxic is therefore a good word for And Then We Came To The End: like some kind of narcotic, it will leave you feeling spent and disturbed, but you will enjoy the ride.

Learn more about Mr B's Reading Year and how to get one for yourself here.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Boogie Christ: Joseph Arthur @ Heath Street Baptist Church

Christ would wear cowboy boots, Christ would have sex, Christ would eat pizza and cut blackjack decks...

Regularly readers will know that I find it hard to write objectively about something I love, but this - far too overdue - account of Joseph Arthur's reverential gig at Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead on 11 October may be even more laden with superlatives than usual.

I've been a HUGE fan of Joe's since my dad, in his infinite musical wisdom, advised me to go to his gig at Café de la Danse in Paris four years ago. Joe blew me away then, playing for two hours solid and then some more acoustic at the merch stand passed curfew. Since then, the prolific Arthur has released three more solo albums, as well as albums with supergroups Fistful of Mercy and RNDM. His latest solo effort, the semi-autobiographical The Ballad of Boogie Christ, "about redemption and what happens after you find it and lose it", is considered by many to be his best yet, and certainly one of my favourite albums of the last few years, so it was with great excitement that I headed off to a Hampstead church for a sermon of a very unusual kind.

As well as an incredible musician, singer/song-writer and poet, Joe is also an artist, so we found the church adorned with his Basquiatesque creations. I loved the juxtaposition of his somewhat deranged visions with the sombre religious iconography. If I had a few thousand pounds to spare, I would have very happily taken one home with me.

Fellow New-Yorker Rene Lopez opened the show in style with songs from his new Latin-tinged Let's Be Strangers Again EP, ending with an old classic Roosevelt Is Burning. It was a real struggle for me not to jump out of my pew and start dancing, but it didn't seem appropriate in a church, so I had to limit myself to grinning like a crazy person.

Then it was time for the main attraction, with Joe accompanied by Rene on bass and Bill Dobrow on drums/rebolo. The packed set showcased the impressive range of styles that feature on The Ballad of Boogie Christ - rock, folk, soul, sung poetry... - as well as his trademark live guitar solos, which make spectacular use of a whole floor of effects peddles and loops. Scattered among the new tracks were classics including In the Sun, Chicago (one of my favourites, partly because of my weakness for the harmonica), and the hauntingly beautiful Redemption's Son. Joe struggled to speak through the gig - a mixture of insomnia and being weirded out by being able to see everyone as the church left the lights on - but that only made him even more endearing.

As well as his exceptional talent, one of my favourite things about Joe is how well he treats his fan. No amount of fatigue would stop him satisfying our demands for autographs and photos. It's this mixture that makes fans so devoted to him - my pew neighbour had travelled from Spain just for the gig - and is why, as we waited to meet our hero, all you could hear was fellow fans asking each other incredulously how he isn't playing a bigger venue... while  being selfishly grateful for the privilege of such an intimate gig. With the next album promising to be even better than Boogie Christ, I'm sure we won't have him to ourselves for much longer!

Visit josepharthur.com for more information, tour dates and live recordings of gigs. For a great introduction to The Ballad of Boogie Christ, watch the interview and live performance at KEXP below.

Friday, 27 September 2013

And They All Lived Happily Ever After: A Fairy Tale Friday Night is Music Night

Once upon a time, the good people behind Radio 2's Friday Night is Music Night decided to give us a magical treat with a special programme dedicated to fairy tales. With music from Rimsky-Korsakov suites to Disney classics performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra, current Wicked star Louise Dearman and my favourite fairy tale prince Hadley Fraser, what more could a girl want? Luckily, my genie granted my wish and transported me to the very apt Mermaid Theatre for the recording.

Our charming narrator for the evening Samantha Bond took us through the history of fairy tales, from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve penning Beauty and the Beast deep in the French woods in 1740 to the adventures of chicken farmer L. Frank Baum, via the undisputed champions of the genre, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. In keeping with Friday Night is Music Night's famed eclecticism, there was an incredible range of music from Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov ballets, to a jazz version of Some Day My Prince Will Come from Snow White. Hadley enjoyed reuniting Thumbelina and Tom Thumb in a small-but-mighty medley, before whisking us off to Hushabye Mountain, while Louise stopped the show with her version of The Wizard and I from Wicked. Having grown up with Disney, though, their versions of the fairy tales will always be my favourites, so I was grinning like the Cheshire chat through highlights from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and my recent favourite Tangled. Of course the evening could only end with Night on Bald Mountain, made famous by Fantasia, and completely spellbinding when performed by the full orchestra. 

 Once Upon A Time will be broadcast on Radio 2 at 8pm today and will be available on BBC iPlayer after. More information and clips available at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b039ft9v

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Mr B's Reading Year: Part 2 - The Polish Boxer

A story is nothing but a lie. An illusion. And that illusion only works if we trust in it. 

Between extensive travelling and a summer in the Social Programme Office, my Mr B's Reading Year blog has lost its way (though I have received and read five books now with the same enthusiasm as ever), but now I'm back to normality it's time to catch up. I was instantly struck by my second book, The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon, on the strength of the cover, the blurb and Mr B's personal recommendation. I remembered reading about Halfon's visit to the bookshop several months ago and being intrigued by this Guatemalan literature professor, especially as my knowledge of literature from his country only extended as far as Nobel Prize winner Miguel Ángel Asturias.

Halfon's stories are as addictive as the smoke that permeates through all of them. I rushed through the whole book in one afternoon desperate to know where the semi-fictional Eduardo's search for answers would take him next in this series of interconnected stories. The Polish Boxer has everything I look for in a book: an engaging, flawed  but likeable first person narrator, an eclectic mix of characters (including a girlfriend who draws graphs of her orgasms and a Serbian half-gypsy classical pianist), and observations of the beauty, sadness and absurdity of every day life.

As an aspiring literature teacher myself, I was particularly struck by Halfon's very honest reflections on the futility and vacuousness of academic conferences at times, the point of teaching literature to a class full of students who don't care, the moral implications of simply studying literature when there are people really suffering in the places we study, and his having to put this out of his mind to get on with his job and still appreciate the power of stories. The Polish Boxer is therefore quite a melancholy read, but the fleeting moments of unexpected human contact that proliferate through the stories are fascinating and oddly beautiful.

Learn more about Mr B's Reading Year and how to get one for yourself here.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Aida @ Arena di Verona - New Production

While thousands of tourists flock to Juliet's balcony every day, there was one attraction in Verona I was far more interested in visiting, the Roman Arena. 2013 marks the centenary of both the summer opera festival at the Arena di Verona and the first performance of Verdi’s Aida there, an occasion celebrated with a lavish new production by La Fura dels Baus.

While the ancient stone benches high up in the Gods may be the cheap seats, they afford spectacular views over the Arena and Verona beyond, with the Lamberti Tower, beautifully lit up, dominating the night sky. The downside, however, is that sound doesn’t travel that well, so sometimes had to strain to hear the singers.

My only prior knowledge of Aida came from Elton John’s 1998 musical and boiled down to 'Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris loves warrior Radames but he is in love with Aida, who happens to secretly be the princess of Ethiopia, with whom Egypt are currently at war'. This wasn’t really enough to follow the show, especially when it was so hard to hear the lyrics, and the singers performing Radames and the Pharaoh looked so similar.

At the time, I wasn't particularly moved by the music either. There was only one truly memorable piece of music, the Triumphal March at the end of Act One, but that one piece is incredibly rousing and remained stuck in my head for days (the video below is a version by the Metropolitan Opera House).

Luckily the production was so ridiculously extravagant, it kept us entertained for the  four long hours of the opera. While replicas of the original 1913 cardboard pyramids and Sphinx were piled outside the Arena for anniversary performances later in the season, this version of Aida was completely wacky: fire, inflatable sculptures, an aluminium pyramid assembled by crane, acrobats, mechanical camels, men in orange boiler suits with scarab beetle heads riding bumper cars, flooding the stage to make a lake inhabited by dancers dressed as crocodiles... Under the night sky, it was a visual feast that impressed and baffled us in equal measure.

Aida continues to run as part of the 2013 summer season at the Arena di Verona until 8 September: full details here.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A Little Night Music In Concert

I was confused by A Little Night Music at first. Not by the plot - a delightfully simple tale of marraige, infidelity and finding a happy ending - but by how and why such a stellar cast were performing together for one night only in Guildford. It was only when I read the programme after that I realised the debt that we as an audience owe to the producer/musical director  Alex Parker (@alexparker91 on Twitter), who is lucky enough to live the theatre-goer's dream: gathering your favourite cast and putting on a classic, under-appreciated show. I know I would do the same given half the chance!

A recent BMus graduate, Alex has achieved a remarkable amount for someone so young, working on a wide range of productions, including, most recently, The Pajama Game. As a result, he has put together an enviable little black book, which he put to excellent use in A Little Night Music. I realise I'm prone to hyperbole when it comes to blogging about musicals, but when I say stellar in this case I really mean it: Janie Dee (Desirée Armfeldt) and Joanna Riding (Countess Charlotte Malcolm) are both double Olivier award winners, Anne O'Byrne (Anne Egerman) recently starred as Christine in the DVD of Love Never Dies, Fra Fee (Henrick Egerman) is fresh from the barricades of the Les Mis film, and the entire cast have a long and impressive list of stage and screen credits to their name. This concert version - no props, no costumes, and scripts still in hand - displayed just why this cast are so successful. Their vocal and acting performances were strong enough to completely envelope us in the production, to make us laugh out loud or marvel at their singing abilities, without any of the usual accompanimients to a musical of this scale.

Of course, the cast are helped by the material they're given to perform, and A Little Night Music certainly lends itself to a concert version. Essentially the story of a handful of characters in one location over one weekend, the show relies on Sondheim's music and lyrics, which at 40 years old, are as fresh and captivating as ever. With the Menier Chocolate Factory version of Merrily We Roll Along finally bringing Sondheim's classic the acclaim it deserves in the West End, and the Chichester production of Sweeney Todd cleaning up at this year's Oliviers, Sondheim's work is once again proving its enduring worth.

My last brush with Sondheim was the new, fully orchestrated version of Sunday in the Park with George staring Julian Ovenden at Theatre du Chatelet, which I had to listen to on the radio (thank you France Culture) as the ticket price and a trip to France was a bit steep even for an obsessive like me. While there are some great songs (like Move On, which you can watch here), they are interspersed with far too much dialogue. I realise Sondheim wanted to make a point about the nature of art, especially after the original production of Merrily had just flopped, but Sunday just left me cold. Thankfully, A Little Night Music couldn't be further from Sunday. It's HILARIOUS, stuffed full of laugh out loud moments. It's also filthy, opening with a song in which Frederick (David Birrell) considers ways to get his wife of 11-months to finally sleep with him, and continuing in a similar fashion. Yet somehow at the same time, there are incredibly moving moments, full of Sondheim's trademark wry observations on human failings in relationships.

As well as the cast, Parker's concert benefitted from a 31 piece on-stage orchestra who really made the most of the score, full of 3/4 time waltzs. Apart from the ubiquituous Send in the Clowns, the songs from A Little Night Music are not well known, but they should be. Every Day A Little Death, the lament of the cheated yet loyal wife, is one of Sondheim's most heartbreaking ballads, while perhaps the most rousing first act closer ever (though Les Mis fans may disagree with me), A Weekend in the Country, is so catchy that it's been stuck in my head on and off for the last three years now, since I first watched the incredible Stephen Sondheim 80th birthday prom in 2010. 

Alex Parker states that his aim is to produce the highest quality short runs and one-off productions that everyone will be talking about for a long time after. He certainly achieved that with A Little Night Music. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Stupid F*@#ing Bird @ Woolly Mammoth, Washington DC

-          “Is that a seagull?”                                
-          “It’s just a bird. A stupid fucking bird”.

After the thoroughly traditional Newsies on Broadway, I was ready for something a bit more transgressive when I reached D.C. As the title would suggest, Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner's postmodern take on Chekhov’s The Seagull, certainly didn’t disappoint.

The enormous Latin American Studies Association Conference didn’t leave me with a huge amount of free time to explore D.C., so it was sheer luck that on my – rather long! – walk from the National Gallery of Art to the conference I happened to walk past the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and their rather eye-catching posters for their latest production.

You’d be forgiven for guessing from the poster that the play is about Twitter. It’s actually far more interesting and original than that, but social media does have a very important presence in the lobby (see #sfl). With ‘Pinspiration stations’ and tweets projected onto the walls, the audience are encouraged to interact with both the text of the original play and the very idea of art.

The play itself questions the form and purpose of theatre just as Chekhov had done with his original over a century before, while bringing Chekhov's famous subtext out into the open. It is self-reflexive, self-referential, and completely breaks the fourth wall, frequently addressing the audience for input. Further nods to Chekhov include a small pile of leaves hinting at the bucolic setting of his plays, and Banksy style mural of the great Russian playwright on the back wall.

Just like Chekhov's Konstantin, the main character Conrad (Brad Koed) expresses his belief that theatre – at least in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century  - used to have the power to change society. ‘Why would you want to change the world?’ asks Dev (Darius Pierce), the most grounded character in the production.  The question, like the production as a whole, makes us consider what we, as an audience, want to get out of the theatre. While Stupid Fucking Bird won't change the world, it did give me everything I want from a play. Despite the distancing effect of all this experimentation with form, there are still moments when the audience completely lose ourselves in the play; there is shock, happiness, despair and a whole lot of laughs, interlaced with really thought-provoking moments. I was incredibly impressed that one production could have so many different effects on me. Since I saw the production, on the second night of previews, it has unsurprisingly garnered rave reviews.

I later learned that Woolly Mammoth is just one of a host of new experimental theatres that have popped up in D.C. in recent years. Apparently new zoning laws make it far more economically beneficial for developers to turn the first few floors of their new buildings into public arts spaces. If the quality of productions at Woolly Mammoth is anything to judge by, it would seem this law is paving the way for a new wave of exciting, experimental theatre in D.C. It makes me wish the city weren't quite so far away!  

Stupid Fucking Bird runs at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co, Washington D.C. until June 23 2013. Full information and tickets are available here.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Newsies on Broadway

Now is the time to seize the day!  - Newsies.

The last (and first) time I visited New York, my one regret was not having seen a show on Broadway, so when I knew I would have an evening in the Big Apple before heading to Washington for the Latin American Studies Association Conference, I only had one objective, and this song from Smash on repeat in my head: Broadway Here I Come!

One of my main aims was seeing a show that I couldn't see in the West End, as there is a particularly high level of cross-over at the moment. There was certainly a range of shows on offer...

However, one thing I learned about Broadway is that the vast majority of shows are closed on a Monday. That ruled out the spangly new circus version of Pippin, last night's Tony champion Kinky Boots and even the 'so bad it's hilarious' spectacle of Spider Man: Turn off the Dark. Nonetheless, there was one homegrown hit I hadn't had a chance to see in London yet open on a Monday night, Newsies.

The second thing I learned about Broadway is it's WAY more expensive than the West End, and that's saying something given that a stalls seat here will often set you back at least £60. For Newsies, I was offered the choice between $140 for a seat or $30 to stand. Despite having woken up nearly 24 hours earlier and travelled half way across the world, you can guess which option I chose!

My prior knowledge of Newsies was pretty much limited to Kurt mentioning the twirly jumpy dance move that dominates the production in Glee and knowing that it was the show that launched the career of Smash star Jeremy Jordan (singing Santa Fe below). It turns out that the show is a remake of a 1992 Disney film about the newspaper boys whose strike brought down Joseph Pulitzer himself. The original, starring a young Christian Bale, was a box office disaster but became a cult classic.

Newsies prides itself on its Tony-winning choreography, and it certainly is impressive, if repetitive. Those boys are strong and skilled at doing multiple leapy twirly things without getting dizzy! The story is fun, and the historical achievement of the newspaper boys is actually quite inspiring, but the show is almost painfully sweet (it is a Disney production after all). Musically, you could tell straight away it was Alan Menken; although not his best work, it does boast a couple of incredibly catchy tunes (Seize the Day was still rolling around in my head over a week later). My main disappointment, however, was the cast, who were almost entirely Broadway newbies. They could certainly dance, but their voices were weak and often overpowered by the music. While star Corey Cott has the look and charm for newly appointed Union Leader Jack Kelly, having heard Jordan's version, I couldn't help feeling cheated.

Choreography photographed by the NY Times

Besides the show, I was interested in seeing the differences between Broadway and the West End. The stereotype seemed to be true: Broadway fans are more vocal in their appreciation, giving huge cheers after every song, while West End audiences have to work harder for far more tempered applause. I was also amused that Annoying Actor Friend's spoof bios are so accurate; everyone really did thank Telsey and quote Bible verses!

Overall, I'm very glad I saw Newsies! if mainly for the experience of a Broadway show, but it certainly didn't seem worth the extortionate amount they charged for full price tickets. I wouldn't rush to see it when it (according to Baz Bamigboye) transfers to the West End in 2014.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Spectacular Translation Machine

At the King's Cultural Institute Creative Labs on Thursday I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Ricarda Vidal who does all sorts of exciting things with translation, such as the upcoming Translation Games. Thanks to her, I found out about The Spectacular Translation Machine event at the Southbank Centre's London Literature Festival this weekend, which as a language nerd I would have been really sad to miss out on.

Translation can be a lonely activity, with nothing but you, your source text and a pile of dictionaries. The Spectacular Translation Machine aims to change that. For one weekend, members of the public - from French native speakers to absolute beginners - will collectively translate an entire French book into English, under the guidance of experts lead by award-winning translator Sarah Ardizzone. The book in question is On les aura!, a graphic novel with a fascinating story behind it. On les aura! began life as the diary of a soldier fighting in the first few months of World War I. The soldier is never named, and what happens after the diary ends remains unknown. French illustrator Barroux recently found the diary and decided to publish the text verbatim accompanied with his distinctive line drawings (Paris, Seuil: 2011). The project is therefore a double first: the first time ever that a book will have been translated collaboratively over one weekend, and the first translation of this work into English.

The space in the Royal Festival Hall allocated to the project felt like a magical translation playground, designed to make translation as engaging and interactive as possible. Large whiteboards on the walls were covered in alternatives for the title, for visitors to add to, and the table was littered with not only a range of dictionaries, but maps, reference books and other items to get people into the frame of mind of a French WWI soldier. A washing line was strung across the whole room with each panel of the graphic novel pegged up. Visitors could choose which of the panels they would like to work on, write their own translation and then peg it up with other people's versions. Participants are encouraged to discuss their translation attempts with each other, creating a real sense of community, as everyone seems so passionate about language and literature. At the end of the weekend, the experts will put all of the panels together into a complete book. What I love most about the project is that its truly collaborative nature will ensure the best possible translation of the book. Because translations are often individual efforts, the end result is naturally a subjective interpretation of the original; for as much as translators try to stay faithful to the source text, they cannot avoid making choices between different words or ways of interpreting a phrase. 

Another reason why this project is so exciting is the opportunities it opens up for translating texts quickly, accurately, and most importantly in today's market, cheaply. The chronic under-representation of foreign fiction in British markets is undoubtedly due in large part to the unwillingness of publishers to finance translations. Turning the activity of translation into an event not only reduces these costs but creates invaluable publicity for the finished product. While this event is thanks to the British Centre of Literary Translation, I really hope that publishers take note and run events like this of their own in the future, not only for the fun of being part of a community activity, but to help other wonderful books from other languages achieve the translation they so desperately need if they want to find an audience outside their country of origin. 

My attempt at translating one of the first panels from On les aura!
Translation continues at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 26, Monday 27 May. and Saturday 1 June. The results will then be presented in a celebration on Sunday 2 June at 3pm. Full details are available here.

Friday, 24 May 2013

We Are Cardiff Film Launch

While I don't live in Cardiff any more, I often miss the thriving cultural community and still keep up with what's going on there. One of the most interesting local projects that I followed while I was there was We Are Cardiff, which documents residents' stories through pictures, videos and writing. Around this time last year, I visited the Roath State of Mind exhibition, which put Roath residents on the walls of the Waterloo Gardens Teahouse, and their stories on the tables. Now the project culminates in the Portrait of a City film, which launches at Chapter Arts Centre on 7 July at 12:30.

For just £6 you get not only a documentary introducing the wonderful, diverse array of characters who populate Cardiff, but tea and Welshcakes, live acoustic music and a raffle with prizes donated from the likes of Chapter and I Loves the 'Diff. It promises to be a really fun afternoon, a celebration of all the hard work that has gone in to the project in the last three years. Tickets are available exclusively at wearecardiffportraitofacity.eventbrite.co.uk 

Monday, 13 May 2013

Mr B's Reading Year: Part 1 - The Howling Miller

As a student in Bath for four years, I was always enticed by Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, an award-winning independent bookshop full of unusual treats. At the same time, as much as I love spending a large amount of every day with Venezuelan literature, I've found myself really missing books from other countries. So when my boyfriend asked what I'd like for Christmas, I immediately suggested Mr B's Reading Year. Due to moving house and other distractions, I have only just started my Reading Year, but it is well worth the wait.

The Reading Year is the ultimate gift for book lovers. The package begins with a session with a bibliotherapist (what an amazing job title!) to establish your reading tastes over a nice cup of tea. What do you like to read, and why, where and when? I found it quite challenging at times to actually formulate why I like the books I do - and remembering books that aren't obscure Venezuelan fiction! - but my therapist Becky was great at suggesting different aspects of books that might appeal to me, leaving me confident that by the end she understood my reading tastes better than I did. She also asked about my Mastermind specialist subject, my guilty pleasures, and favourite place in the world, to ensure that the books I receive will be tailored to my tastes. Which brings me to the best bit: armed with my literary likes and dislikes, Mr B's will send me a book at the start of each month for the next year (except January, when readers are expected to be too busy enjoying their Christmas presents).

It's the attention to detail that Mr B's put in to their deliveries that really turns the arrival of each book into an occasion. When the first book arrived, wrapped in brown paper, tied with string and sealed with wax, I was more excited than a kid at Christmas. Attached to the outside of the package is a note detailing why that particularly book has been chosen, without revealing its name, which only heightens the excitement. As Becky has since left to pursue her own writing, my bibliotherapist is now Mr B himself, so I feel like I'm in particularly safe hands. He mentioned in his note that he doesn't usually recommend this as a first book as the cover 'is just too awful', which made me extremely eager to see what it was. I instantly loved the bright, Dada-esque design. I know they say don't judge a book by its cover, but this one gave me very high hopes.

My first book, then, is The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna. While the original Finnish version was written in 1981, it was only translated into English in 2007 and so remains relatively unknown here. It is the story of a misunderstood miller, Gunnar Huttunen, who enjoys howling like a wolf and has occasional violent outbursts. It's a short novel with simple, straight-forward and unemotional language, yet the story of Gunnar facing the hypocrisy of a small-town who villainize this outsider while ignoring their own failings is oddly moving. I found myself really routing for Gunnar, which meant I sped through the book to discover how he fared. Having very little knowledge about Finland, I also enjoyed learning snippets about the country through the novel, from its involvement in WWII to some of its rural geography, and even the spelling of words (many place names looked Japanese to me).

I can't wait to see what my next book is!

Want your own reading year? Click here

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Pajama Game @ Chichester Festival

Chichester Festival has become the place for musical revivals in recent years, with their version of Sweeney Todd, starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, sweeping this year's Olivier Awards, narrowly beating their Kiss Me Kate which also received multiple nominations. Having enjoyed both of these productions in their London transfers, I already knew the quality to expect from a Chichester show, so when I saw that Sir Richard Eyre was directing Hadley Fraser and Joanna Riding in a revival of The Pajama Game, I knew it was time to finally take a trip down to Sussex. 

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' 1954 classic all-American musical The Pajama Game is a love story with a backdrop of an industrial dispute in an Iowa pyjama factory. Sexy new super-intendant Sid Sorokin instantly falls for ballsy Babe Williams when he moves to Sleep Tite. The only problem is he's management and she's the head of the union's grievance committee, and their timing couldn't be worse, as the union are on the verge of striking for a 7 and 1/2 cent rise. While certain reviewers seem more concerned with the politics than anything else (I'm looking at you, Quentin Letts), The Pajama Game is above all a good, old-fashioned love story, with a huge heart, lots of laughs and enough energy to power the pyjama factory for a year.  My face hurt at the end because I'd been smiling constantly, either because I was swept up in the joy of songs like There Once Was a Man, Once-A-Year Day and Seven and 1/2 Cents, and Stephen Mears' exhilarating choreography, or because I was just so happy to witness up close such sublime performances from the whole cast.

It was an incredible treat to see the two leading performers in action. I've been listening to Joanna Riding for the last decade, in Martin Guerre and The Witches of Eastwick, and have always been impressed by how she can express so much of the story just through her tone of voice. It was really exciting to finally witness the Olivier Award winner's acting and dancing abilities as well as hearing her sing live. As for Hadley Fraser, it wasn't until the Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Concert that I was struck by his wonderful, rich voice (and his looks!). I was meant to see him in Les Misérables as Javert opposite Ramin Karimloo's Val Jean, but unfortunately he was ill that day, so I've been waiting for an opportunity to see him live ever since. His hauntingly beautiful duet with himself on the dictaphone- the classic Hey There (You With the Stars in Your Eyes) - is the highlight of the show.

There is no footage of the show available yet, so in the meantime treat yourself to some of Hadley's own music, which I have been listening to on a loop since I got back from Chichester.

Unsurprisingly, it's extremely difficult to get a ticket but it's worth it if you can to see the production in such a tiny, intimate space. The Evening Standard's review called the production 'unimprovable' and I have to agree. I'm already looking forward to the inevitable West End transfer.

The Pajama Game runs until 8 June at the Minvera Theatre in Chichester. More information and ticket booking is available at www.cft.org.uk/the-pajama-game

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Kiss Me Kate @ Old Vic

When I first heard about the new production of Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic, directed by Trevor Nunn and with a stellar cast, I knew I couldn't miss it. And yet with one thing or another it suddenly came to four days before closing night. Through a real stroke of luck I managed to get a last-minute ticket, and thanks to the Old Vic's fantastic £12 for under 25s ticket offer, I got spectacular value for money.

Cole Porter's classic 1948 backstage comedy is bursting with ridiculously catchy hit songs, from Another Op'ning, Another Show, So In Love and Too Darn Hot. Sam and Bella Spewack's book is also incredibly funny. It's no surprise then that, since winning the first Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949, the show has frequently been revived on Broadway and in the West End, as well as being adapted to film in 1953. In 2003, Great Performances broadcast a London revival production starring Brent Barrett and Rachel York, which had since then been my definitive Kiss Me Kate.

Nunn had his work cut out to put his own stamp on this musical, then, but he certainly succeeded. Starting life as the triumph of the 2012 Chichester Festival season, the new production won critically acclaim above all for its completely reinvented, high energy dance routines from Chichester Festival Theatre's resident choreographer Stephen Mear. The monochrome costumes and set-design for the show-within-a-show Taming of the Shrew sections was a particularly striking choice, marking a clear distinction between the two sides of the show (and looking really classy at the same time). Turning Always True to You in My Fashion into a duet was a bold choice that really worked and brought new meaning from an otherwise overly familiar song. It is the stellar cast, however, who really deserve the credit for the incredible success of this new production. Multi-award winner Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne sizzled as Hollywood star Lilli Vannesi/Katherine and her ex-husband, director and verbal sparing partner Fred Graham/Petruchio, showing off both really powerful voices and comic talent, while Adam Garcia (of Coyote Ugly and Got to Dance fame) wowed us with his breathtaking dancingas Bill Calhoun/Lucentio.

According to Nunn, this production has been a very long time coming. It was certainly worth the wait.

Monday, 22 April 2013

A Chorus Line - London Revival

For a long time now, my friend Zoe and I have been saying we should make the most of living in London by going to the West End one night and just asking for day tickets at every theatre we come across until we succeed. On Wednesday, we finally took up the challenge.

The quiet before the storm of tourists at The Book of Mormon
First stop was The Book of Mormon, for their ticket lottery. Two and a half hours before the show starts, you can enter a ballot for up to two front of stalls tickets for £20 each. Unfortunately, at least 100 other people had the same idea (it helps that the Prince of Wales theatre is directly between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square and - just like real Mormons - they send Elders out to recruit people). Undeterred, I ran down Regent St to the London Palladium where A Chorus Line is having its first major London revival since it opened here in 1976. I'd been meaning to see the show since it opened in February, and was extremely happy to find front of stalls day tickets for just £19.50 each.

As regular readers will know, I'm fascinated by dance, which is one of the major draws of A Chorus Line. As you would expect from a show about dancers, the dancing is spectacular, so intensely physical it left me in awe of the performers strength and stamina. It was a real joy to see these iconic dance pieces performed by some of the most talented performers in the West End at the moment, including John Partridge (who despite being more commonly known as an Eastenders heart-throb has been staring in musicals since he was just 16) as director-choreographer Zach, Scarlett Strallen as down-on-her-luck but still desperate to dance Cassie, and Leigh Zimmerman, Olivier nominated for her role as the ageing but brazen Sheila.

However, A Chorus Line is more than just dance. Directed by original choreographer Bob Avian, the revival stays true to the unique genius of Michael Bennett's original production. A character piece inspired by interviews with real-life chorus members, the show introduces each of the auditionees for a spot in the chorus of an unnamed musical through a skilful weaving together of speech, song, dance, movement and lighting that results in 15 minute long pieces like 'Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love' which revolutionised the shape of Broadway productions back in the 70s. The result is a frenetic and constantly engaging show, which slows only for the musically stand out number What I Did For Love, beautifully sung by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Diana, before culminating in the show-stopping, and incredibly sparkly, One (Singular Senstation). I left with a huge smile on my face and the urge to dance my way back down Regent St.

A Chorus Line is currently booking at the London Palladium until January 2014. Find out more at http://www.achoruslinelondon.com/