Category Archives: concerts

Radio Stanshall (Bloomsbury Theatre)

As I posted earlier in the year, it is twenty years since the versatile singer-songwriter, wit, wordsmith and all-round oddball Vivian Stanshall passed away.  This show, although retitled, is rather similar to the one mounted for Vivian’s 70th birthday celebrations back in 2013 – so much so, in fact, that the programmes for that show were on sale last night albeit for half the cover price. (However, someone who went to both shows said the anniversary show was better).

The centrepiece of the evening was a performance by Michael Livesley of what is probably Vivian’s best and more enduring work, ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’, English as tuppence and gloriously un-PC, with all characters from the beasht himself, Sir Henry and his wistful wife, Florrie, to his brother Hubert (‘in his late forties and still unusual’), their servants Old Scrotum (‘the wrinked retainer’) and Mrs Eeeeeee, and Florrie’s brother Lord Tarquin Portly and his wife Lady Phillipa.  As well as these you get the know-it-all Reg Smeeton (‘do you know there is no proper name for the back of the knees?’) and the mincing pair of painter-decorators Nice and Tidy.

The ‘Sir Henry’ piece is full of clever and nonsensical wordplay with a smattering of songs, close to the work of the Master, Noel Coward (whose patter song, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ was on the tape played before the show started), and comic singers like Frank Crumit (‘What Kind of Noise Annoys An Oyster’).  Livesley’s homage to Stanshall is quite staggeringly good: a Northerner by birth he captures the faux posh phrasing of the piece perfectly, as well as mimicking the East End bolsh of the song ‘Ginger Geezer’ at the end of the night.

He’s been performing ‘Sir Henry’ since 2010 and has honed it well, adding his own flourishes and inflections here and there to make it remain an interesting piece outside of the simple spoken word – having said this, I do enjoy the mental pictures that can be painted by listening to the original radio shows and album, with lines like “The body of Doris Hazard’s Pekinese, unwittingly asphyxiated beneath Sir Henry Rawlinson’s bottom” or “A pale sun poked impudent tiger fingers into the master bedroom and sent the shadows scurrying like convent girls menaced by a tramp” or “The Wrinkled Retainer took cover behind a leather armchair, peeping through his fingers and clutching a rosary.”

Aside from this performance, we had a handful of songs, with Neil Innes and Rodney Slater opening proceedings (a few renditions of ‘Happy Birthday’ aside) with Kevin Eldon on surprisingly good vocals for ‘Look Out, There’s A Monster Coming’, and later on, Eldon again on ‘Sport’ and with the first Rawlinson appearance on record, ‘Rhinocratic Oaths’.  Livesley joined Innes and Eldon with the rather topical ‘No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Get In (Heigh Ho)’ and shared Vivian’s favourite song (from ‘Teddy Bears Don’t Knit’) ‘The Cracks Are Showing’ with us.

I might have picked something to show Vivian’s softer and sentimental side (like one of his songs for Steve Winwood), but otherwise, a good mix of titles.  These last few benefited from the addition of drummer John Halsey (once Barry Wom in The Rutles) playing alongside Slater and the Brainwashing House Orchestra, with Innes and Rick Wakeman making the occasional foray on the piano.


Follies in Concert (Royal Albert Hall)

follies program

Not quite a ‘once in a lifetime’ show, but a ‘twice in a lifetime’ as this staging of Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Follies’ played at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday afternoon and evening.  It now has the distinction of being the most expensive ticket I ever bought for a show – I initially baulked at the £98 ticket price, and sales were sluggish for quite a while, but we duly booked once the cast was announced.  Good seats, in the stalls.  Nothing could go wrong, could it?

follies tix follies view

When we arrived, it was clear these were restricted view seats, although not sold as such.  I appreciate the RAH may not have known at the point of sale that this was the case, but in advance of the show they would have done.  This problem affected four seats on each side of the stage.  Note the speakers and the ugly black rail that gave one double vision when watching a cast member singing at the front (only affected three numbers, but still).  At a sporting event where we had a slight restriction on the view of a full price ticket at Wembley Arena we were given the option to be reseated: as ‘Follies’ was not entirely sold out, this would have been a nice gesture from the Hall.

I might have let this go had we not paid extortionate premium West End prices for our tickets.  For nearly £100 I don’t expect a rail in my way or speakers that stop me seeing people’s feet when dance numbers have been staged (as Craig Revel Horwood of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ was directing, it was no surprise to see some inspired pieces, of which more later).  So that’s my one negative of the night: on to the show.

(And do look for the 1985 concert version, too, which is available in part on DVD.  Revel Horwood rightfully flags it in the programme: Follies in Concert (1985).)

When the cast was announced, it was quite a mouthwatering confection – the four main roles of the couples Buddy and Sally, and Ben and Phyllis would be played by Peter Polycarpou and Ruthie Henshall, and Alexander Hanson and Christine Baranski.  A slight disparity in ages aside this was excellent casting, and Henshall’s emotive vibrato worked well on ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’, ‘Too Many Mornings’ and her big number, Act Two’s ‘Losing My Mind’; while Baranski’s acid vibrancy pepped up ‘Would I Leave You’ (circling Hanson’s Ben like a snake as he was symbolically caged between the set’s flexible arches, which also served as doors, mirrors, and showcases, and her sense of brassy fun fizzed through ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’.

Polycarpou’s Buddy was a jaded traveller who juggled the wife who was bored by him and the girlfriend who was wowed by his status with seedy charm, and ‘Buddy’s Blues’ was fun, while his acting in the background while the story of his wife’s former love affair with the young Ben unfolded was well thought out.  As Ben, Hanson was in very good voice and he was well matched by Alistair Brammer as his younger self (we’d missed Brammer in ‘Miss Saigon’ as he was ill when we attended the show, I can see he would have been an excellent Chris).

‘Follies’ in many ways is about the girls, and they were all introduced in a chorus line by Russell Watson’s ‘Beautiful Girls’.  We had Stefanie Powers as Solange, Betty Buckley as Carlotta, Anita Dobson as Stella, Anita Harris as Emilie, Lorna Luft as Hattie, and Charlotte Page as Heidi.  I’d seen Page a couple of weeks ago as the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, so she is definitely versatile with pure opera coming to the fore here, but she seems far too young to play alongside such a veteran cast – although of a similar vintage to Henshall.  What I didn’t realise until I just looked it up was that Page is married to Alistair McGowan, who was tonight’s Dimitri (wasn’t this originally announced for Christopher Biggins?).

The other ladies do well in their roles.  The Whitmans’ ‘Rain on the Roof’ always strikes me as a curious inclusion to the score alongside the big numbers, but Harris, still glamorous, played well alongside comic great Roy Hudd in this piece; while Powers was a cheeky minx in ‘Ah! Paris’ with better singing than I expected.  Lorna Luft (otherwise known as Judy Garland’s second daughter) exuded star quality and big voice in ‘Broadway Baby’, the first palm-tingling showstopper of the night – I’d seen her on stage once before, in a show in Leeds alongside Wayne Sleep, and she hasn’t lost any of her energy: this song was a belter.

After Ben and Sally’s quieter, reflective pieces it was time for a bit of fun where Dobson took centre stage for ‘Who’s That Woman’ aided and abetted by her colleagues – nicely portraying Stella’s hesitation at going back to her singing and dancing past, and also perhaps the fact that this artist does not have the same musical range as the other ladies.  Whichever, the staging was superb, with a rotation of ensemble girls mirroring their mature counterparts, and Dobson clearly having a lot of fun, and deserving of her prolonged applause.

Betty Buckley – last seen here in Dear World – was, as expected, a superb Carlotta.  ‘I’m Still Here’ has been much performed: if you go to YouTube you can watched Dolores Gray, Ann Miller, Elaine Stritch, Elaine Paige, Shirley MacLaine, Carol Burnett, tonight’s own Christine Baranski, Yvonne DeCarlo, Polly Bergen, Eartha Kitt and more perform the number.  It was perhaps the highlight of the night, although I still find Buckley a cold performer in some ways while others might engage more with their audience.  Regardless, she is a huge Broadway star and was a good choice for this show’s Carlotta.

The richness of the Sondheim music is often lost in a show which is hard to revive, but the central quartet and their regrets and futures were portrayed well, and the quieter songs were not lost in the mix.  ‘Too Many Mornings’ is perhaps one of his finest lost relationship songs, and this was done well – as was Henshall’s Sally reacting with clear grief when she realised her suspicions about her husband Buddy’s infidelity were true.  Baranski’s Phyllis also showed a soft centre under the hardness she had developed over the years in a marriage where she felt taken for granted.

A word, too, for the ensemble, who worked hard, from the glamorous girls to the suited boys (young Sally – Amy Ellen Richardson, young Buddy – Jos Slovick and young Phyllis – Laura Pitt-Pulford), to Carol Ball’s veteran chorus member – and of course the City of London Philharmonic under the baton of Gareth Valentine.  This was a show I was pleased to attend (no sign of cameras or recording equipment so I assume it has not been recorded for posterity), despite the disappointment of feeling cheated by the venue in their description of the seats we purchased.

Some decent curtain call photos were afforded by our view though (once we stood up), and I present a couple for you – Miss Luft and Miss Powers:

follies curtain call 1

… and the best I could get of tonight’s core couples:

follies curtain call 2


Staatkapelle Berlin/Barenboim (Royal Festival Hall)

A very special concert this week at the Royal Festival Hall, with Daniel Barenboim leading his Staatkapelle Berlin orchestra through a couple of intense pieces from Tchaikovsky (Violin Concerto, with Lisa Batiashvili as soloist), and Elgar (2nd Symphony).

The violin piece is a chance for the soloist to show off her virtuosity, and such was the case here – and a joy to watch, from our seats above the orchestra, the interaction between Batiashvili and Barenboim as he watched her play.  Just wonderful.  This is a joyous and uplifting piece in which the Staatkapelle excelled themselves.

The Elgar, though, was the highlight of the evening – and across the whole orchestra, there was outstanding work from strings, woodwind, percussion, and brass.  Barenboim was awarded the Elgar Medal at the end of the night for his five decades of work championing this great modern composer, and in mentioning his former wife and ‘great Elgarian’ in his speech (not by name, but everyone in the house knew who he meant) he awakened memories of that superb Cello Concerto performance of days gone by.


Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle (Royal Festival Hall)

A London visit from the Berlin Philharmonic is always an occasion, and this Valentine’s Day visit from them, with their conductor Sir Simon Rattle on the podium, did not disappoint, especially as they were playing their signature piece, Mahler’s Symphony No 2, the Resurrection, in an emotional and absorbing rendition assisted by the London Symphony Chorus, the CBSO Chorus, soprano Kate Royal, and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená.

The orchestra could very well play this piece in their sleep, but the strings, the woodwind, and the percussion all gave it life and energy, and the solo arias from Royal and Kozená were beautiful.  But it is the chorus, that chorus, that soar of voices which makes this piece so special, and which brings tears now and then from audiences.  The human voice is probably one of the greatest of all instruments – and even if this choir performs much of their singing seated in Rattle’s voice of the piece, it remains an effective piece of ‘theatre’.

Before the Mahler, we were treated to Helmut Lachenmann’s Tableau for orchestra, which is a very modern and sparse piece, enjoyable and very different to the melodies of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  A good companion piece, then, to the mighty Resurrection.


Twisting the Dial (BBC Concert Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall)

This second concert in the series by the BBC Concert Orchestra was of rather more pedestrian fare than the one presented last week as part of Friday Night is Music Night.   Grant Llewellyn was the conductor, the singer was Anna Jane Casey, the solo flautist was Ileana Ruhemann, the MC was Ian Skelly, and the concert was transmitted live to BBC Radio 3.

Although there was a mix of music from television, the radio, and the cinema from the years 1959-1979 included in this concert, it didn’t really give a sense of the changing times, although there was some discussion between Skelly and a historian who specialised in the period (I didn’t catch his name).

So the songs – the theme to the Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice’ (John Barry/Leslie Bricusse), ‘Alfie’ (Burt Bacharach/Hal David), ‘Yesterday’ (Lennon/McCartney), and ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ (Lionel Bart’s song from the musical ‘Oliver!’) – were well enough delivered, although the sound mix sounded a bit off in the hall itself.  The musical pieces varied from the buoyancy of the ‘Thunderbirds’ theme by Barry Gray, the ‘Carry On Doctor & Carry On Again Doctor’ suite by Eric Rogers, and excerpts from the opera ‘Our Man In Havana’ by Malcolm Williamson to a truly dull ‘Suite on English Folk Tunes’ by Britten and a well-performed but forgettable ‘Flute Concerto No 2′ by Malcolm Arnold, and nostalgic pieces like Johnny Douglas’ theme to the film ‘The Railway Children’ and Walton’s prelude for Granadaland.

Hard to say why this concert didn’t quite succeed – perhaps the programming was slightly on the heavy side, perhaps the sound balance was a factor (we couldn’t hear Skelly’s introductions as I am assuming he was miked up only for radio), perhaps we needed an MC and a conductor with a bit more energy.  Whatever the reason, the applause tonight was polite rather than enthusiastic.


Friday Night is Music Night (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

A finely nostalgic night about The Light Programme, titled ‘On the Wireless and Off the Box’, on stage at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and live on Radio 2, with the ghosts of Hancock and Semprini, Jimmy Edwards, Flanders and Swann, Gus Elen, Max Miller, and others jostling for space with songs from My Fair Lady (‘Show Me’) and Carousel (‘If I Loved You’), as well as Noel Coward’s sparkling Nina.

Bringing these to life for us, under the watchful eye of Master of Ceremonies Ken Bruce and conductor Gavin Sutherland, were the BBC Concert Orchestra, Kitty Whately, Simon Butterkiss, Roy Hudd, and Tim FitzHigham/Duncan Walsh.  It’s quite a feat the move from the fun of ‘In Party Mood’ to the pomp of ‘Orb and Sceptre’, to the music hall high jinks of ‘It’s A Great Big Shame’ and ‘Lucky Jim’ to the crowd-pleasing singalong of ‘Mud, Glorious Mud’ and the patter song ‘My Name is John Wellington Wells’ (from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer).  The most touching thing was to see Roy Hudd, a man who appears more elderly when he isn’t in full flight, deliver ‘While London’s Fast Asleep’, by Harry Dacre, which could indeed “have been written yesterday”.

Funny, too, to see an audience delight in banter between Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams, relayed over the years, and snicker at Dick Barton.


Highlights of 2014

I want to share my personal cultural highlights of the year, especially when living in the capital where so much goes on and so many opportunities are around to visit the theatre, the cinema, and exhibitions (I haven’t done many this year, so I haven’t ranked them).  I don’t work in this field (I’m a senior manager in academic libraries), but I like to see as much as possible, and with the BFI Southbank, the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre, and the Barbican, we are extremely lucky, as well as being able to make the occasional excursion into the expensive West End.

Theatre:

1 The Crucible, at the Old Vic.  Richard Armitage was superb as John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s still-powerful play.

2 Ballyturk, at the National Theatre.  This divided audiences but I really liked it and came away thinking about Enda Walsh’s absurb creation for a long time afterwards.

3 Happy Days, at the Young Vic.  Juliet Stevenson was heartbreaking as Winnie in the Samuel Beckett classic.  More Beckett to come in 2015 as I see ‘Waiting for Godot’ at the Barbican.

4 Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, at the Barbican.  The RSC brought Antony Sher as Falstaff and Jasper Britton as Henry in this pair of classic Shakespeares.

5 The Importance of Being Earnest, at Richmond Theatre.  I liked this gentle parody of the Wilde classic, seen through the eyes of an ageing amateur theatre company.

Honorable mentions go to the revival of Miss Saigon, at the Prince Edward, and Twelve Angry Men, at the Garrick.

The disappointments of the year were Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Richard III, at Trafalgar Studios.

Film:

1 NT Live – there were some excellent performances transmitted to cinemas this year – War Horse, Skylight, and A Streetcar Named Desire.  This is fast becoming a much cheaper alternative to forking out London theatre prices.

2 Jane Eyre (1956).  The BFI Southbank showed the entire Stanley Baker/Daphne Slater series as part of its Gothic season back in January.  It is absolutely terrific.  Whether it will ever see the light of day on DVD (it is a BBC production) is doubtful, but if you get a chance to see it, it is a definite must-see.  It is now my fourth favourite version of the eleven films/miniseries I have seen adapted from this book.

3 Monty Python Live – 1 Down, 5 To Go.  I saw this at the cinema, live from the final night at the O2.  I am a long-time Python fan but was sceptical about whether this reunion would work.  It was a musical comedy extravaganza.

4 I was very pleased to get a chance to watch the original Django (1966) on one of those cheapo Sky channels.  The gorgeous Franco Nero in an ultra-violent (for its day) Spaghetti western.

5 I got twelve films into my Reverse Hitchcock marathon.  With 44 more films to go, I might finish this in 2015, but then again I might not.  Psycho and Frenzy were particularly brilliant.

Honorable mention goes to my discovery of the 1919 The World and Its Woman, which I thought was lost.  Now I have seen three Geraldine Farrar films!  You can see it, and many other films from European film archives, here.

Television:

1 Peaky Blinders (series 2, BBC).  The television event of the year as far as I’m concerned.

2 CBeebies commemorated the anniversary of the Great War with a very touching short called Poppies.  Quite superb in its simplicity, geared to its young pre-school audience.

3 Grand Hotel continued its mix of murder, secrets and period drama in the Spanish series running on Sky Arts.  It returns for a final run in the first week of January 2015.

4 The viral video that was Too Many Cooks took everyone by surprise with its quirky take on American sitcoms.

5 We got the first series of The Vikings, which ran, curiously, on History, with an American and Irish cast and creatives.  It was a TV highlight while Gabriel Byrne appeared as the warrior leader (he also appeared with less fanfare as the alcoholic pathologist in Quirke), but tailed off thereafter.

Honorable mentions go to Remember Me, a creepy ghost story starring Michael Palin, and the Victoria Wood play That Day We Sang.

DVDs:

1 My purchase of the year has to be the 1965-69 series The Power Game.  Intrigue in the boardroom (and implied in the bedroom) this series from half a century ago is sharp, engrossing, well-acted, and has a marvellous opening sequence where all the main cast assemble in Paternoster Square in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

2 The Dutch release of Who Pays The Ferryman was well worth watching.  I like Michael J Bird’s dramas and was similarly impressed with his earlier series The Lotus Eaters.

3 Young Anthony Newley made his debut in The Adventures of Dusty Bates, a TV serial that has made it to cut price DVD.  He was around 12 or 13 here and wasn’t quite in Vegas mode, yet.  He was a decent little performer.

4 The wonderful set of Ealing Rarities from Network Distributing came to an end with volume 14.  This series of discs has brought 56 films back into distribution, some for the first time since their release.  Network continue with their companion series of British Musicals of the 1930s, which is about to reach volume 3.

5 The BFI, as part of their Sci-Fi season, released Out of the Unknown, which presents all the surviving episodes of the BBC landmark series.  I have had these episodes on bootleg discs for years but this set makes them look as great as possible with a sumptuous booklet.  Well worth a purchase, and will be the subject of a more in-depth blog post in 2015.

Sport:

The only event worth noting really is the surprising rise of Brentford FC in the Championship, which is good news for the other member of our house, a fan of some 40+ years standing.  May they stay in the top half of the table for the remainder of the season.

Concerts:

Chrissie Hynde and Joan Baez both impressed, independently, at the Royal Festival Hall.  Chrissie gave us her new album but saved the best of Pretenders material to last, and Baez performed a rounded set of classics.


Pelléas et Mélisande (Southbank Centre)

This opening performance in the Philharmonia’s ‘City of Light: Paris 1900-1950’ season presented Debussy’s opera in a concert setting, with the orchestra centre stage and the singers walking down from the choir seats to stand stage front and sing their roles.

A piece rich in melodrama and both orchestral and vocal power, the music unfolded at a leisurely pace (starting at 7pm and finishing at 10.25pm, with a 20 minute interval) but there were moments which were moving, engrossing, and which presented the story with an immediacy which was captivating – much of this was down to the choice of lighting and in the use of cleverly staging (each act was ‘dressed’ in a different way to push the story forward).

Of the cast, Sandrine Piau (a last-minute substitute) was outstanding as Mélisande, her acting of the role as effective as her singing – while Stéphane Degout as Pelléas displayed a vibrancy and power of voice which kept you watching.  No less effective were Laurent Naouri as Golaud (I enjoyed watching him inhabit the role, through curiosity, anger, suspicion and finally grief), Jérome Varnier – a fine bass – as Arkél (the grandfather, so he looked too young, but his voice was perfect), Felicity Palmer as the mother of Golaud and Pelléas, and Chloé Briot as the little boy Yniold.

If I had a quibble it would be with the decision to add a narration which added nothing and which was hesitantly delivered by Sara Kestelman.  I appreciate this was an experiment to try and gain the pauses and silence which usually come naturally in a fully-staged production of this opera, but it didn’t quite come off.

Far better was the decision to have the cast garbed in white masks at the start, which were removed as the piece began.  As a metaphor for blindness, shadows, and secrets this worked very well indeed – this also reminded us of the great Greek tragedies, where the Chorus were generally masked but all-seeing.

In the case of ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ much is hidden, misconstrued, or simply missed.  The King, almost blind, sees only Mélisande’s innocence.  Golaud sees this in her, a frightened bird, but can not bring himself to trust this mysterious bird of paradise, while Pelléas betrays his family and eventually brings tragedy to them all.

An intelligent production, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, with the Philharmonia in good form.  Exhausting and immersive, but very much worthwhile.


Review: Joan Baez (Royal Festival Hall)

This week has seen the only 2014 tour dates in the UK of folk balladeer Joan Baez, someone I have admired for a long time but never seen live until last night.  The famous voice might have deepened and lost a bit of its power, but with her accompanists (Dirk Powell on guitars and squeezebox, her son Gabe Harris on percussion, and singer Grace Stumberg) she still manages to weave a powerful piece of magic with songs such as ‘Farewell, Angelina’, ‘Handsome Molly’, ‘God is God’, ‘Imagine’, ‘Catch the Wind’, ‘La Llorona’, ‘Joe Hill’, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, and others.

Baez has always been involved in political causes, and these were mentioned in passing, along with her participation at the legendary Woodstock festival (‘hundreds of years ago’).  The passage of time, too, was noted in her song about her relationship with Bob Dylan, ‘Diamonds and Rust’, where ‘ten years ago’ has now become ‘fifty years ago’.  A solo rendition of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ was quietly touching, as was a duet with Stumberg (‘Just The Way You Are’).  In the true folk tradition ‘Lily of the West’ and ‘The House Carpenter’ were welcome guests, while ‘Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry’ picked up the pace a little, and ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ gave new life to a song which can sometimes be described as over-familiar.

‘Forever Young’ and ‘Gracias a la Vida’ closed a pleasing set, which had been friendly, intimate, and truly enjoyable.


Monty Python’s 40 finest moments

Following on from the recent O2 stage shows, the Monty Python team have been much on my mind, and I wanted to bring some of my favourite sketches of theirs to your attention.  I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but here are my picks.  No ranking (that’s FAR too hard), but these are the moments I would not want to see wiped from the archives.

Sharing links only to spread the joy, copyrights remain with the creators, etc, etc.  You can buy the series episodes, the films, and the German specials on DVD, as well as the other programmes referenced here.

Enjoy!


Monty Python Live (Mostly), 2014

Watched on Sunday July 20, 2014.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

We elected to watch this final show from the now septuagenarian Python team at Vue cinemas, where proceedings were unfortunately transmitted with a weird yellow hue throughout (but kudos to the cinema, who gave everyone in the audience a voucher to come back to a screening for free).

However, on making that choice we got to see the ‘naughty’ song and dance number snipped from the live TV broadcast, which was replaced by Palin in drag wittering on about sheep. What the TV audience missed was a glorious celebration of naughty bits (but why slang names for female genitalia could not be broadcast and slang names for male ones could is a bit of a mystery, as it would have been simple enough to bleep the offending c-word).

The show begins with orchestral overture with John Du Prez, long time musical collaborator with Eric Idle, conducting, before we see a headshot of the late and much-missed Python member Dr Graham Chapman kicked like a football into space to welcome a ‘re-tardis’ holding the five remaining members of the team. ‘One Down – Five To Go’ is the nominal title of the show.

All the classic sketches are present and correct – Parrot/Cheese Shop crop up in the second half with Nudge, Nudge (which turns into a sleazy hip-hop number leading into the ‘Blackmail’ show), and we have the Spanish Inquisition, The Death of Mary Queen of Scots, The Argument, and a reboot of the Silly Walks idea with the song ‘money is the root of evil’ (ironic given the Pythons are all millionaires who will make another cool £2.5m each from these shows).

First up though was Four Yorkshiremen, perhaps a little creaky now but still funny, and a queerly poignant Lumberjack song (probably Palin’s last hurrah in this role, and he did it well). Whizzo Chocolates was a blast, especially Gilliam’s ailing policeman, despite a bit of corpsing and losing the thread of the sketch. Anne Elk, not performed on stage before, suffered from the absence of Graham Chapman IMO, although Cleese’s spluttering theorist was amusing.

This show sometimes felt like it was ‘Eric Idle and friends’. He’s clearly in good form and has the bulk of the songs (The Galaxy Song, I Like Chinese, etc.), and of course ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. Terry Gilliam has more to do than usual and seemed to be enjoying himself, although Terry Jones was muted and his line deliveries were not what they were at his peak – John Cleese though was better than I expected, growing into the rhythm of the sketches and especially good in the Michelangelo sketch: ‘what in God’s name possessed you to paint three Christs?’ – a sketch which segues into the Roman Catholic/Every Sperm is Sacred piece from ‘The Meaning of Life’.

The energy of the young singers and dancers give this show the life which might be missing had we simply been watching a quintet of pensioners reliving their greatest hits, although all the team have their chance to shine, as well as rib each other (Palin and Idle’s camp judges discuss ‘the Cleese divorces’; the two Mary Queen of Scots pepperpots talk about Palin’s travel programmes, suppressing yawns).

Carol Cleveland was here, too, and for a while it almost felt as if we were back in the 1970s at the peak of the show. The team were on fine and cheeky form, from the Bruces song through to the final ‘piss off’ slide letting the audience know it was over. Nice reference to Graham too in the Parrot sketch, accompanied by thumbs up to heaven from Palin and Cleese for their absent colleague.

I enjoyed this. I was in two minds about whether it would work, but Idle’s decision to stage this as a huge spectacle was inspired, as was Arlene Phillips’ choreography (for those who missed it on GOLD, the sailor’s dance had British Sign Language accompanying the naughty words). What a lovely and fitting way to say goodbye – my only change would be to run the ‘Christmas in Heaven’ film in its entirety as a tribute to Graham, whose presence was felt throughout this show even though he was not physically there.


Chrissie Hynde – Royal Festival Hall

chrissie

Chrissie Hynde appeared as part of the Meltdown festival (this year curated by James Lavelle) at the Royal Festival Hall last night.  The bulk of the show was promoting her new album, ‘Stockholm’, which has only just been released, so we haven’t had a chance to hear or get to know the songs yet.  Still, ‘You or No One’ and ‘In a Miracle’ sound like songs which will repay multiple listens.

Flanked by Swedish flags and her touring band (more starry names appeared on the record, like Neil Young and John McEnroe), Hynde was in good voice and looked every inch the cool professional post-punk star in white jacket and old school tie.

Following the ‘Stockholm’ songs the mood changed to honour some of her favourite songwriters, with Jarvis Cocker’s ‘Walk Like A Panther’ being a particular highlight, sexy, laid-back and slightly dangerous.  The show finished with a couple of old favourites from The Pretenders days, ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ getting the audience out of their seats and streaming down the staircases and aisles for a dance, and ‘Hymn to Her’ (just Hynde and her keyboardist) being an effortless fusion of melody.

A quick note on the support act, Zacharias Blad, a Swede who with his family came through Swedish television talent shows.  His style is reminiscent of a camp Jim Morrison on speed, but he certainly has energy.  He’s probably the oddest live act I’ve seen in a long time.


Christy Moore (Royal Festival Hall) review

Last night’s concert (the second of two) was the first appearance in two years of Irish singer-songwriter Christy Moore and his accompanists Declan Sinnott and Jimmy Higgins to the Royal Festival Hall,  and his brand of Irish folk tunes and raucous sing-alongs seemed to go down well with a capacity crowd.

Moore has never been a household name but he’s been around close to half a century now and his blend of melody and political statement makes for an interesting and varied set, with some stunning musicianship (simply using a collection of different guitars and percussion).  Fan favourites made their appearance (‘Black is the Colour’, ‘Ride On’, ‘The Voyage’, ‘Sweet Thames, Flow Softly’, ‘City of Chicago’, ‘Beeswing’) alongside songs about Mandela (‘Biko Drum’), communication (‘Natives’), the Hillsborough and Artane disasters (‘Does This Train Stop At Merseyside’ and ‘They Never Came Home’), the Spanish Civil War (‘Viva la Quinta Brigada’), solid Irish folk numbers (‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’, ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’, ‘Well Below The Valley’, ‘Nancy Spain’) and more upbeat fun titles (‘Joxer Goes to Stuttgart’, ‘Lisdoonvarna’, ‘Don’t Forget Your Shovel’, ‘Delirium Tremens’).

Nice to see a crowd singing along with gusto where required, and soft accompaniment for the ballads.  A heckler or two aside, this crowd was good natured and despite the size of the Festival Hall the trio managed to make this concert feel intimate and involving.  Highly recommended for connoisseurs of the folk tradition.


Pull Out The Stops: Organ Gala Concert (Royal Festival Hall)

The organ which is the centrepiece of the stage of the Royal Festival Hall originally dates from the Festival of Britain, and this was its first unveiling in a full concert since it has been reassembled and restored thanks to lottery funding and a generous amount of support from concert-goers.

The Gala Launch Concert presented a mix of old faithfuls (Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue; Mendelssohn’s Scherzo and Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), new commissions (Maxwell Davies’ Wall of Music and Taverner’s Monument for Beethoven) and arrangements (Bach’s Concerto in D arranged for trumpet and organ; Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz arranged for organ), all designed to show off this beautiful instrument at its best.

The highlights for me were the Bach and Mendelssohn pieces, although the Taverner piece was characteristically provocative and the Maxwell Davies, set to a poem by Jo Shapcott, attempted to juggle organ, brass and a children’s choir and almost pulled it off.

The four organists (John Scott, Jane Parker-Smith (who arranged the Liszt), Isabelle Demers, and David Goode) had very different styles of playing and presentation which made the evening varied and enjoyable.  I am not enough of an organ aficionado to comment on their phrasing but to me the organ sounded ‘a wall of music’ indeed, and as we were fairly close to proceedings we could see something of the technique involved in playing these pieces as well as the mechanics of the instrument.

The Pull Out All The Stops festival, much of which is live on Radio 3 (the station is currently ‘in residence’ in the Royal Festival Hall’s foyer), will include solo recitals as well as Cameron Carpenter’s improvision of a score to a live screening of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (which I will review in due course).  The organ may have taken several million pounds to restore, but on the face of this concert it has certainly been worth the money.

 

 

 


Heaven 17 (Birmingham Town Hall)

One of Sheffield’s finest electro-pop groups, Heaven 17 emerged from the original Human League in the early 1980s leaving the name (and it has to be said, the chart success) to Phil Oakey, while continuing to plow their own furrow as a trio.  With Ian Craig Marsh leaving the band in 2007, the others (keyboard wizard Martyn Ware and singer Glenn Gregory) continue to perform as a duo, augmented by two girl singers (Billie Godfrey and Rachel Mosleh) and a keyboardist (Berenice Scott) for their live shows.

Heaven 17 never really bothered the Top 40 – achieving just two big hits in 1983 (‘Come Live With Me’ and ‘Temptation’), and did not even play fully live until the 1990s.  Still, their brand of pulsating electro-beats and melodic vocals evokes the spirit of thirty years back while still sounding musically relevant.  The venue was not the most inspiring of settings so I was pleased that early crowd-pleasers included ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ and ‘Let’s All Make a Bomb’, which got the stalls crowd on their feet.  A quieter passage included the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’, while a couple of early Human League songs – notably ‘Being Boiled’ – went down well, as did their own personal favourite of their own songs, ‘Let Me Go’, and the dreamy synch-swirl of ‘Dive’.

I was especially pleased to see ‘Temptation’ make the set – one of Great Britain’s finest dance records, in my opinion – giving the girls a chance to let themselves go after a fairly restrained backing performance throughout.  It seems that this group have had something of a resurgence following their complete live performances of the ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ album a few years ago.

I’d say this show takes a while to get going (and it’s short – advertised as 70 minutes, it actually ran to 90) but by the end, everyone had the chance of a bop and left happy.


Fascinating Aida (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

The UK’s funniest and filthiest comedy cabaret act are back with a tw0-week residence at London’s Southbank with their new show, ‘Charm Offensive’.

If you’ve seen these three ladies (Dillie Keane, Adele Anderson and Liza Pulman) before, then you’ll know what to expect.  If not, then look up their YouTube sensation, ‘Cheap Flights’.  There are songs about coping with grown-up children (‘Boomerang Kids’), shared hobbies (‘Dogging’), the poignancy of the passing of time (‘Look Mummy, No Hands’), the story of Adele’s gender reassignment (‘Prisoner of Gender’), old classics (‘Taboo’), and in place of last tour’s go at the HSE, this time OFSTED are in the firing line.

With fast-firing wordplay mixed with beautiful harmonies, these ladies look almost angelic, even when sharing off-colour thoughts about Michael Douglas.  And their Christmas song is utter fun.

Don’t miss.


Cinema review: Napoleon (1927), Royal Festival Hall

Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’, a French film from 1927, has achieved almost mythical status due to its continued unavailability to audiences on home video or DVD in a version which matches as closely as possible the vision of its director. You can of course obtain the Zoetrope sanctioned release, butchered in length and speeded up so it runs just four hours, and with a frankly obvious and pedestrian score by Carmine Coppola (which was the only version you could see live in the United States until last year, when the full restoration finally got its premiere) – but that’s not what we are looking at here.

The Royal Festival Hall, all day yesterday, showed for the third time since 2000 the full five and a half hour restoration of Gance’s film which has represented nearly fifty years of dedication and work by Kevin Brownlow, bringing together elements thought to be long lost, assembling them in the right order by means of consultation of a shooting script which has survived through the years, and presenting the finished work with a score by Carl Davis which mixes original themes with borrowings and arrangements from a range of classic composers to provide an emotional punch which really cannot be equalled as a cinematic experience.

napoleon1

The film itself is presented in several parts – the first has the young Napoleon as a boy at Brienne-le-Château, a military school where he spent his formative years, a proud exile from Corsica disliked by his peers. His only friend is an eagle he had been given as a present, and his days are spent in an angry combination of writing and fighting – Gance allows us two set-pieces in this first section, both stunning: a snowball fight with some clever photography and superimposed images between Napoleon and a rival faction of boys; and a pillow fight in the dormitory which leaves the room and the film frame covered in feathers. Vladimir Roudenko plays the young Napoleon, his expressive face showing his pride and resourcefulness, and in one arresting image, his happiness in the company of his beloved eagle. He is a wonderful little actor who doesn’t seem to have appeared on camera again following this film.

Secondly, we have the seeds of the French Revolution. A section where Danton, Marat and Robespierre plot becomes a fully-fledged recital of “La Marseillaise” – at the close of this, we see a solitary figure at the edge of the crowd, in the familiar hat and profile; this is the adult Napoleon, now played by Albert Dieudonné. He will become linked with the Revolution throughout the rest of the film. The playing of the revolutionaries (Alexandre Koubitzky as Danton, Antonin Arnaud (deliberately exaggerated) as Marat, Edmond Van Daële as Robespierre) may be a little on the broad side, but this serves to place focus on Dieudonné’s quietly authoritative army lieutenant. In his close-ups and emotional responses, we see flickers of greatness – and this being a French film, it very much presents its subject as a hero figure, a saviour who eventually grows to be the one who saves France from doom and degradation. However, as the film shows, it was an uphill struggle, with Napoleon in poverty in indifferent lodgings (from which in one impressive sequence he watches the mob take over Paris).

The third part of the ‘first epoch’ is set in Corsica, where Napoleon visits his family and aims to save the island from betrayal to the English. This is perhaps the slowest sequence, although it has its moments, notably the sea-bound central figure heading for France with just the Tricolour for a sail. The pomposity and preposterous nature of this sequence is nicely underlined by a shot showing the English Admiral Nelson proposing to blow up the ship which eventually rescues Napoleon from the waters, to be told not to waste ammunition on ‘such an insignificant target’.

The second epoch is mainly the siege of Toulon, and Napoleon’s triumph as a military commander. This is the sequence mainly missing from the available version on DVD, and it is a pity – there is humour (the little boy in the inn mimicking Napoleon’s walk as he follows him), action, and a storm sequence which uses the full potential of camera tricks available to Gance at this time. By the time we find Napoleon asleep with his head on a drum, with an eagle again landing to push home the point, we are ready, if you like, for the main events to come.

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The Terror which has taken hold of Revolutionary France is presented in part three, from the quiet gallows humour of a clerk who eats indictments to prevent executions, to the unholy trinity of Robespierre, with his cruel and pinched face; Saint Just (an appearance from Abel Gance himself, his handling of a rose and wearing of earrings somehow enhancing his cruel streak); and Couthon (Louis Vonelly), a villain worthy of Bond film in a wheeled chair with a pet rabbit. We see a claustrophobic prison where Josephine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès) cheats death by the chivalry of her husband’s sacrifice. Later we see the same setting as the venue for a decadent ‘Victim’s Ball’ where despite the charms and nudity on offer, Napoleon prefers to play chess in a corner, with Josephine as the obvious prize, flirting behind a fan.

The romance between Napoleon and Josephine is perhaps the weakest part of the film, although it has clever sequences (Josephine’s face appearing on a globe caressed by her suitor), the military genius almost forgetting his own wedding. Gina Manès is a rather obvious leading lady, in typical style for the silent screen, she’s pretty, conniving, and not much more. Still, she captures our subject’s heart and his great love for her pushes him on to the final section of the film, and the one people who have seen it will talk most about, the conquest of Italy.

Not content with using camera tricks, image overlays, mirror images, and other things not tried before in silent cinema, Gance uses the final section of his film to introduce a new system of projection, Polyvision, in which images are shown on three screens at the same time, side by side. It’s a little like Cinerama in the 1950s, but with the crucial difference that where the widescreen process presented one image across a wide area, Gance’s film often presents three different images at the same time, which is almost overwhelming, and by the end, with the eagle soaring, the colours of the French flag painting the frames, and the climactic music of the Davis score, is the last word in patriotism.

According to the programme which accompanied this screening, when the restoration was first presented on an outdoor screen in 1979, Gance (at nearly ninety years old) watched from his hotel window and stood throughout. The standing ovation this screening received last night was a tribute to him just as much as for Photoplay and Brownlow, and for Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The greatest film ever made? Perhaps – perhaps not. But as a cinematic experience, and an example of live silent cinema, it cannot be equalled.


Defining ‘the film musical’

Ever since the birth of ‘the talkies’ at the premiere of ‘The Jazz Singer’ in 1927, the genre of film referred to as ‘the musical’ has been strongly represented in the type of material brought to the screen.

But what IS a musical?

Films developed from Broadway and West End hits are easy to classify (‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’, ‘Hello, Dolly’, ‘Sweeney Todd’).  Alongside these there may also have been concert versions of the same material (‘South Pacific’, ‘Camelot’, ‘Follies’, ‘Les Miserables’), or versions made expressly for television or video (‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, ‘Wonderful Town’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Cats’, ‘Into The Woods’).

Alongside these are the concert films featuring rock bands (‘The Last Waltz’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘Festival!’, ‘Message to Love’, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’), and musical versions of popular plays or films (‘Silk Stockings’ – Ninotchka, ‘High Society’ – The Philadelphia Story, ‘My Fair Lady’ – Pygmalion, ‘Legally Blonde’, ‘My Sister Eileen’).

There’s a third group which are more problematic, films which have songs included in them, but which are not generally thought of as musicals – but they could be (the 1940 ‘Thief of Bagdad’, ‘The Wicker Man’, even ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ or ‘Pillow Talk’).

Then we have the operettas (‘The Mikado’, ‘Rose Marie’, ‘The Student Prince’) and the full-blown operas (‘Tosca’, ‘La Boheme’, ‘Das Rhinegold’).  These are musicals, too, if having characters breaking into song counts – and if the argument against an opera being a musical is ‘no dialogue’ then where does that leave ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, or ‘Phantom of the Opera’)?

Some musicals have simply been written for the screen, although in some cases, they have made it onto the stage later – ‘State Fair’, ’42nd Street’ – some have been comedies with music attached (‘The Cuckoos’, ‘Buck Privates’, ‘Way Out West’).  And if Rochester and Blanche share a duet in one of the many versions of ‘Jane Eyre’, is that a musical too?  What about Westerns with a bit of music, like ‘Rachel and the Stranger’?  (Singing Westerns of course are a genre all on their own, with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and even John Wayne and Vaughn Monroe contributing to titles often dismissed as ‘horse operas’).

For me all the above fit the definition.  You could also stretch the definition to fit the dance or ballet film, although music without words becomes something else.  But some ballet versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ brought to film give Tiny Tim his song.

If it sings, is it then, that thing – the musical?

NaBloPoMo November 2013


Petula Clark (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

A run of Sunday night concerts at the Theatre Royal continued last week with a visit from one of the 60s legends of song, Petula Clark.  Now in her ninth decade she might not have the wide range which served her well in performances such as ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’, but her set-list here, with an appreciative audience in London, does give an indication of the range she still has.

Her new album, ‘Lost in You’, is a mix of re-workings of old hits, and covers of more modern material (such as ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley).  We heard several pieces from it – a version of Elvis’s ‘Love Me Tender’, one of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, a piece with Clark’s lyrics to the music of Bach – ‘Reflections’, and the title song itself, which is a tender and slow ballad, beautifully put across.

(Here’s Petula singing ‘Lost in You’, on Belgian television).

The 1960s songbook still remains a crowd-pleaser: ‘Colour My World’, ‘Sailor’, ‘This Is My Song’, ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love’, ‘I Know A Place’, ‘A Sign Of The Times’, ‘Don’t Sleep In The Subway’, and, of course, ‘Downtown’.  Her obvious energy and enjoyment in performing these songs is infectious and if she doesn’t always reach the notes, well, she is a bona fide star and still gives a great show.

She also gave a nod to her work in musicals – a couple of songs from the film she made with Fred Astaire and Tommy Steele, ‘Finian’s Rainbow’, and ‘With One Look’ in full Norma Desmond mode from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (a role I saw her play, and she was sensational, even more so when she confides she did not like the character at all).

I’d also add that this lady is graceful, looks great, dresses well and with style, and is gracious in praise of those she has worked with and known (Elvis, Lennon, Dusty, Karen Carpenter).   It is easy to forget what a huge star Petula Clark was in her day, and she well deserved the standing ovation she received at the end of the night.


The demise of thebox.bz, and that thorny torrent question

So it is goodbye to thebox.bz, the private file sharing site which specialised in TV shows, old and new.  Unlike The Pirate Bay before them, who were legislated to (almost) oblivion by ISPs being forced to block them, thebox is calling it quits themselves.

Copyright legislation protects rights-holders from unauthorised copying and sharing of their work, whether for profit or not, for up to 70 years after the death of the last of those rights-holders (so for a film, it can be screenwriter, director, composer).  This means that in the UK at least not many titles are in what might be termed ‘public domain’.  In the USA, some lapsed copyrights have left titles in legal limbo, which probably explains the dime-bin DVD collections of film and TV titles which are widely available there (yes, Mill Creek, I am looking at you!).

But what of bootleg DVDs and torrent files?  What of the hundreds of full films and TV series which can be found at YouTube, and which are unlikely to ever be made available for commercial purchase (especially if they are from the BBC)?

Technology constantly challenges copyright and bites at the heels of the requirements of the letter of the law.  It is very easy to rip a DVD or dub from VHS and put the file on the internet.  I recall about ten years ago when music files and short videos might have been hidden in a directory tree which you could stumble across, or someone might share the link if you’re lucky.  That’s where my Bonzo Dog Band journey began, and led to many CD/DVD legitimate purchases.

Torrents though have left me a little bit torn.  I think there is a distinction between the material you would never see otherwise (orphan episodes of largely wiped TV shows, films with no obvious owner, series seen to have little value by their creators), and material which has been commercially released and/or broadcast and is offered by means of file transfer or DVD-Rs to other territories.

I have bootleg titles in my collection, both films and TV.  Years ago I had a library of VHS heavy metal concerts, all bootleg recordings from German TV or similar.  If I really want a title, I’ll pay a small amount for it, or I’ll download it from YouTube.  If it then gets released ‘for real’, I’ll buy it.

Thebox.bz didn’t just make their audience passive viewers of material, though, but because of their seeding policy (to ‘leech’ or watch, you had to ‘seed’ or share an equal amount) it made their audience bootleggers, and therefore tipped into potentially infringing activity.  Whether this is different from the eBay shop which sells DVD-Rs of ‘titles in the public domain’ is a moot point, but I think that both are now here to stay – the torrent is only going to grow because it is easy, it is simple, and to a younger generation, it is second nature.

So … the grey market.  Good, or bad?  “Discuss.”


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