The Light in the Piazza (Royal Festival Hall)

A hybrid of opera and musical theatre, The Light in the Piazza is based on an old Hollywood film and sets a complex love story among the ruins and sites of Florence.

The Royal Festival Hall isn’t known for staging musicals, and it is easy to see why – with no flies, wings or ubiquitous revolve, opportunities for set and staging are limited, and the hall is best utilised for classical concerts or semi-staged operas.

Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza
Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza

Here, the set is dominated by a huge plaster statue of a headless naked man’s bottom, and a cut-down snippet of set with a staircase, doors, archway, and a small space which is utilised for anything from a hotel room, art gallery and church to a tourist square, pavement cafe and briefly, Rome.

The cast is headed by opera superstar Renee Fleming as protective mum Margaret – I felt she didn’t quite fit her character early on but her singing was wonderful and as the character softened and we had an insight into her dead marriage back home (telling and brief scenes from Malcolm Sinclair) we warmed to her.

Renee Fleming
Renee Fleming

Dove Cameron plays Clara, mid-twenties and emotionally underdeveloped due to a childhood trauma (it felt for ages that the problem may have been terminal illness, as Margaret’s explanation to the audience comes late). Cameron is best known for her work for Disney, including the Descendants film series. Her high soprano didn’t quite click for me, but she acted well in a difficult role, depicting a girl finding romantic love for the first time.

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen
Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen

Rob Houchen, a new name to me, is Fabrizio, the Florentine who falls so head over heels for Clara he sings an impassioned aria about her – in Italian! He has a glorious voice, although in his scenes he is saddled with speaking in broken English.

Alex Jennings plays his father, with better English due to his work with American authorities during the war. He’s an urbane shop owner with a wife (Marie McLaughlin) stereotypical Italian until she breaks the fourth wall in act two to tell us what her family are talking about in scenes which verge on comedy, and older son (Liam Tarne) who neglects his flighty wife (the scene-stealing Celinde Schoenmaker).

Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen
Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen

The score, by Adam Guettel, is not that memorable, sadly, but is performed well – including solos for Fleming, Cameron, and Houchen, and duets for Fleming/Cameron, Cameron/Houchen and even Fleming/Jennings. The orchestra of Opera North do well, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, even if they over-dominate that vast stage.

View from front stalls.
View from front stalls.

The Light in the Piazza feels swamped in such a large space, even with the top level closed. I was lucky enough to secure my seat for half the price, but could have paid a lot less. Pricing this as a top-flight West End show when it is effectively a semi-staging feels too ambitious, and show would surely have more emotional impact in a more intimate space.

Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.
Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.

From my seat in the front stalls I did feel engaged and involved, but in the back row the experience would be very different. Kudos to director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones for bringing a bit of Italian magic to this cavernous stage, although the ensemble were limited to bits of movement and dancing on that staircase.

Production photo credits Dewynter.


Dave Gorman (Royal Festival Hall)

With a new show entitled ‘With Great Powerpoint Comes Great Responsibility Point’, Dave Gorman brings a hilarious new show on tour with lots of insight, more than a few surprises, a lot of Powerpoint slides, and a killer joke about a giraffe.


It’s a long show – we excited the hall at 10.45pm – and one Nick Doody supports in a kind of subversive John Shuttleworth-style.  Not to give any secrets or segments of the show away, I can say there is a great pre-show routine which pays off after the interval, and a domestic with the often-quoted Mrs Gorman which ends up involving some old friends you’ll recognise from ‘Modern Life is Goodish‘ in a convoluted way.

You may get old favourites.  You may get new perspectives.  You may never look at one particular word with a silent letter in it again.  You’ll be talking about the giraffe joke for weeks.  A high point of Gorman’s appeal.

Ever since ‘Are You Dave Gorman‘ debuted on TV in 2001, Gorman’s modus operandi has been a laptop, a checked shirt, a clicker, and a lot of cheek.  His fast-moving and quirky mind makes connections between the most mundane items and utilises social media platforms to develop routines in bizarre directions.  Not for him the basic fruits of observational comedy beloved of so many stand-ups.


A superior evening which will make you cry with laughter and keep you on your toes.


The Human League (Royal Festival Hall)

I’ve been a fan of The Human League since the early 80s: not their Don’t You Want Me phase as I was only nine years old then, but not that long after when The Lebanon was in the charts in Spring 1984.  Quite soon after like many other teenagers I sang along to the whole of ‘Dare’ on cassette in my bedroom many, many times; I had posters of the band on my wall; and loved their big selling singles Louise and Human.


I lost them around the time the 90s hit, but eventually came back and now, finally, have seen them live, so it’s been a long wait.

As with anything else which teeters on the ‘nostalgia’ tag (although I know they hate that and they haven’t really, technically, been away) you never know what you are going to get, but the moment the set appeared with the pulsing beat of the opening song, Being Boiled (a showcase for Phil Oakey alone, as it dates from the days of The Human League #1, when they were a kind of Yorkshire Kraftwerk electro outfit) and the video projections kicked into life, I knew we were in for something special.

Watch a bit of ‘Seconds’


The songs from ‘Dare’ were liberally sprinkled through this set: The Sound of the Crowd, Seconds, Open Your Heart, Love Action, The Things That Dreams Are Made Of.  There were those big singles I loved, too, plus Mirror Man (which I had forgotten, not having heard in years) and, of course, Don’t You Want Me, with the neat conceit of having one of the backing band playing an instrumental introduction of it which just got the crowd more fired up.


Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley are the decorative side of the band, and an integral part of their trademark sound, and they were showcased well on their own with One Man In My Heart as well as (particularly Susan) providing energy to keep the audience going throughout.  Their costume changes were slightly exceeded by the parade of Phil’s designer wardrobe, but it all adds to the spectacle.


Can I just pause to say how fantastic Phil Oakey’s voice still is?  It’s been said in some quarters that he isn’t one of the best popular vocalists, but I have to disagree: he has such a recognisable vocal style that fits the band’s songs perfectly; and I was so pleased that we got to close with Together In Electric Dreams, a song which I have always loved, even if the film it was written for is now hopelessly outdated.


Now slightly north of 60 years old this singer has unbounded energy and enthusiasm, and he is a total showman.  It is always a pleasure to see an act coming across so professionally, and The Human League are one of the most professional and accomplished acts I have seen.  Compare last night’s work with something way back like The Path of Least Resistance from nearly forty years ago and the look may be different (a sleeker hairline these days, but that’s no bad thing) but the voice hasn’t changed much.


I haven’t danced so much in years, and loved every minute.  How could I have waited so long?  My husband (not really a fan) enjoyed himself too, and yes, first thing we did on the way home was order a CD copy of ‘Dare’ to replace that tired out 80s cassette!


I wanted to give a nod to London band Ekkoes who were the support act, right at the start of their career.  Their cover of the late Laura Branigan’s Self Control was excellent and I liked their own song Last Breath as well.  I hope they go places and it was a bonus to see them, even if I would have rather liked (for 80s nostalgia again) to see Blancmange, who are doing some of the other dates on the tour as support.

You can investigate Ekkoes a bit more at

Here’s the twenty song setlist from The Human League: Being Boiled, The Sound of the Crowd, Sky, Heart Like a Wheel, Filling Up With Heaven, Open Your Heart, Soundtrack to a Generation, Seconds, The Lebanon, One Man In My Heart, Human, Louise, Stay With Me Tonight, Love Action, Tell Me When, Keep Feeling (Fascination), Mirror Man, Don’t You Want Me, The Things That Dreams Are Made Of, Together in Electric Dreams.


Photographs taken by Louise Penn and Colin Penn.  Video clip by Louise Penn.



The Magic Flute (Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer)

The Royal Festival Hall hosted a one-night stop on the current international tour of ‘The Magic Flute’, performed in German with dialogue in English.  Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra with flair, and it was good to see them all obviously enjoying making the most of Mozart’s dazzling score.

In a company of mostly young principals, the soprano Mandy Fredrich navigated the Queen of the Night’s fiendish arias and bursts of coloratura with ease, while Krisztián Cser‘s young and vital bass Sarastro gives a different frisson to his interaction with the imprisoned Pamina (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller).  As Papageno, Hanno Müller-Brachmann‘s bass-baritone fits perfectly with his ridiculous yet lonely bird characterisation, and the scene near the close with his Papagena (Norma Nahoun), leaves a smile on the face.

This is a semi-staged performance, but the use of a video storybook to display the characters as well as the translation.  Actors perform the dialogue for all the major roles and Bart van der Schaff was particularly amusing as Papageno.  The switch between languages worked well and made the opera rather more accessible than a fully German version would be.

Ultimately this is a glorious piece of work, even if the text is rather misogynous in tone, referring to the subjection and inferiority of women – although, as Pamina joins her true love, Tamino (Bernard Richter) in the trials of fire and ice, she would seem to be as strong as any man.



Oliviers in Concert (Royal Festival Hall)

One of the plus sides of living in London is access to a wide variety of music, theatre, cinema and other experiences.  So the last time we were at the Royal Festival Hall it was for a special concert to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Daniel Barenboim’s first appearance playing at the venue, with a wonderful pair of Brahms concertos played by the maestro, accompanied by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.


I mention this to contrast with last night’s musical theatre extravaganza which was put together by Maria Friedman and Tim Jackson in order to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards (formerly called the Society of West End Theatre awards).

The programme balanced standards from the musical repertoire (overtures from ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Candide’, the snappy “You’re The Top” from ‘Anything Goes’, Clive Rowe’s show-stopping piece from ‘Guys and Dolls’: “Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat”) with items from the jukebox musicals ‘Beautiful’ (the title track), ‘Sunny Afternoon’ (“Waterloo Sunset”), and ‘Jersey Boys’ (a medley including “Sherry” and “Walk Like A Man”), by way of familiar modern pieces from ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (a lovely duet between former Raoul Michael Ball and sparky young Scarlett Strallen of “All I Ask Of You”), the title track of ‘Me and My Girl’, ‘Stars’ from ‘Les Miz’ (a decent if emotionless rendition by Ball) and five different pieces of Sondheim including two songs from perhaps his least accessible musical, ‘Sunday In the Park With George’, the fabulous “Our Time” from ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, which showcased the talents of the young Guildford School of Acting choir, and the highlight of the night for me, Maria Friedman’s “Losing My Mind” from ‘Follies’.

In a varied programme we also enjoyed Strallen’s perky “Ice Cream” from ‘She Loves Me’ (which is ripe for another revival), Friedman’s title song from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (not, as she told the listening radio audience, dressed as a teapot), and, showcasing the youngest of talents, “Quiet”, from ‘Matilda’, in which Lara McDonnell commanded the stage with effortless poise.  The ‘Me and My Girl’ duet gave Katie Brayben and John Dagleish a chance to show they could sing when they were not impersonating Carole King and Ray Davies respectively.   And I was happy to see Daniel Evans again performing the works of both wordsmiths, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.

Lesley Manville performed the role of MC with charm and warmth, linking the numbers for both the audience in the Hall and the one at home.  And bringing back Petra Siniawski from the original cast of ‘A Chorus Line’ was a touching and effective opener.

I should also mention Elaine Paige, who came on in gold and glitter to try and bring back memories of her ‘Evita’.  It didn’t work for me, remembering when her voice was glorious when she was Eva and when she was Norma Desmond, but it seemed to be a crowd-pleaser.

A night of considerable polish, sparkle, and just a sprinkling of stardust.

Randy Newman (Royal Festival Hall)

Randy Newman has been in the singer-songwriting business for close to fifty years now, and here he is at the Royal Festival, with just his piano for accompaniment, sharing in excess of thirty songs with us over two hours, ranging from his one hit, ‘Short People’, through to classics like ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, ‘Political Science’, ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’, and my personal favourite of his songs, ‘Feels Like Home’, which closed the concert and sent us home.

Newman has quite a range of songs even if his delivery and vocalising is much the same throughout – there are love songs like ‘I Miss You’ (written for his first wife when he was with his second) and ‘She Chose Me’, more jokey numbers like ‘The World Isn’t Fair’ and ‘My Life Is Good’, serious pieces like ‘Rednecks’, and fun pieces like ‘Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear’.

There was even a bit of audience participation in ‘I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)’, while the song Newman claimed was his personal favourite, ‘My Country’, came across well.  Toy Story’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend In Me’ was perhaps more commercial than pieces like  ‘Where’s My Wandering Boy Tonight’ or even ‘I Love To See You Smile’, which opened the concert.

What I like about Newman is the way he can change the mood of a room from amusement at clever lyrics, to emotional engagement, to shock at more edgy and sarcastic material.  His voice may have weakened, but even in this large space it felt like an intimate occasion in which one person engaged with many in a way which transcended the venue.  Pricey it may have been, but this was a show well worth catching.

London Literature Festival: Terry Gilliam and Tom Jones

Two very different nights out last week in the company of two very different chaps, both born in 1940, at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre.

‘Inside the head of Terry Gilliam’ was a conversation between the American film director, artist, and ex-Python; and Arts Editor of the BBC, Will Gompertz.  Starting with the young Gilliam’s childhood in Minneapolis and working through his start in animation, through to his breakthrough at forty years old as an international film director, this conversation – supporting the publication of ‘Gilliamesque: a pre-posthumous memoir’ – was engaging, informative, and funny.  It also included a rather beautiful montage of scenes from his feature films, and a chance for audience members to ask questions.  Sad to say, with John Hurt’s recent illness it seems that the Don Quixote film is again stalled.

‘A conversation with Tom Jones’ was a night of two halves; first an opportunity for the Welsh singing legend to talk about his life and work, with Matt Everitt from BBC Radio 6, using photographs displayed as slides on a big screen to illustrate the tale and promote his ghostwritten autobiography, ‘Over the top and back’, and then a concert in excess of an hour which opened with ‘It’s Not Unusual’ and then settled into tracks from his new album, ‘Long Lost Suitcase’, proving that the ‘Voice’ was very much present and correct.  We even got an outing of his 80s hit, ‘Kiss’, but thankfully not with the thrusting around of old.  My favourite tracks of the night were Gillian Welch’s ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, Bob Dylan’s ‘What Good Am I’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’ (and I’m a big Cohen fan, but this was a good version), and John Lee Hooker’s ‘Burnin’ Hell’.

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.

Chrissie Hynde – Royal Festival Hall


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.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Royal Festival Hall)

A rare opportunity yesterday to hear the whole cycle of Shakespeare’s sonnets, read in two sections.  The Royal Festival Hall ended a day devoted to ‘the poet’s sonnets’ with this reading, featuring ten actors (Simon Russell Beale, Harriet Walter, Guy Paul, Victoria Hamilton, David Harewood, Maureen Beattie, Paterson Joseph, Deborah Findlay, Oliver Ford Davies and Juliet Stevenson).  The notes handed out as we went in warned us we might even hate some of the evening (!) but this did not prove to be the case.

I’d like to single out some of the readings for particular praise – Simon Russell Beale put across sonnets 143 (“Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch”), 126 (“O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power”), 42 (“That thou hast her, it is not all my grief”), and 138 (“When my love swears that she is made of truth”) with an emotional connect that reached through the centuries since this cycle was written.

The ‘greatest hits’ of the sequence went to Harriet Walter, 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, and David Harewood, 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and served well as anchor points for a change of mood.

Oliver Ford-Davies read well, but the one I remember the most is 37 “As a decrepit father takes delight”; while Deborah Findlay did well with 71, “No longer mourn for me when I am dead”.  The night was almost stolen in terms of pure performance and wit though by Paterson Joseph, who interpreted the pair of sonnets 135 “Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will” and 136 “If thy soul check thee that I come so near”, and 144 “Two loves I have of comfort and despair” extremely well.

I liked the way the Royal Festival Hall provided a big screen so everyone in the hall could clearly see the readers as they shared the sonnets with us, but as a viewer from the stalls it was interesting to see who was following the text from the book and who was paying attention to their fellow performers.  It was also interesting to see a definite chemistry between adjacent readers Paterson Joseph and Juliet Stevenson (who also read beautifully), and to note some pairings both professional and personal on the stage – David Harewood played Othello to Simon Russell Beale’s Iago at the National Theatre, Juliet Stevenson and Deborah Findlay played sisters in the film ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’, Harriet Walter and Guy Paul are married in real life.  These kind of things keep a viewer engaged during the slower passages of verse.

If the sonnet sequence does not fully sparkle throughout, then there are certainly enough highs and enough memorable lines of verse to make this marathon well worth attending.






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.




A quick London round-up …

At London’s Transport Museum, Covent Garden, you can see the exhibition of posters brought together under the umbrella title ‘Poster Art 150’.  It’s on until January 5th – more details at

The Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, has acquired Vivien Leigh’s archive and will display a selection of items from it in their Theatre & Performance galleries.  More details here –

In its last week at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank is the World Press Photo Exhibition –

The Royal Festival Hall’s Spirit Level gallery is also the venue for the Koestler Trust’s 2013 exhibition of art by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees.  As in previous years this is touching, surprising, and well worth a look.  It runs until the 1st December.

Staying on the South Bank, the National Theatre is celebrating its 50th birthday and has a small exhibition of images in the Lyttelton Gallery of Oliver’s first company amongst other celebrations –

At the BFI Southbank, we are halfway through the Gothic season of films (, and there is currently a Vivien Leigh retrospective which runs to the end of the year *, including a new restoration of ‘Gone With The Wind’.

From tiny musical boxes to the Mighty Wurlitzer, pay a visit to the Musical Museum in Brentford (, while at the Watermans just up the road the annual showcase of digital art, enter13, is running until 5th January (

At Pimlico, the Tate Britain has had a revamp and has an exhibition on until February of ‘Five Contemporary Artists’.  For more details, see

The Design Museum (at Butler’s Wharf) recreates Paul Smith’s chaotic office with its collection of miscellaneous objects until the 9th March –

Finally, over at the Barbican in the City of London, the Pop Art Movement is being celebrated at the Gallery –

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Shakespeare and Sylvia

Shakespeare’s Globe, at Bankside, London, has presented a range of plays suited to its open air stage over the past few years, but I wasn’t quite sure if they could pull off The Tempest, which with its storm, magic, and mystery seems to try out for an interior space where such things can be properly acted out.

Jeremy Herrin has brought a Tempest brimming full of comedy to the boards of The Globe, focusing less on the betrayal of Prospero by his brother and the blossoming love between Miranda and Ferdinand, and more on the misshapen Caliban and his drunken companions. Ariel, often melancholic or petulant, here is more of a Puck-like mischief maker, covered in feathers and moving around the set with cartwheels and acrobatics.

Roger Allam leads the cast and clearly relishes another chance to play at this unique theatre, where the audience are in your face and the regular aircraft services into London roar overhead. As Miranda, young Irish actress Jessie Buckley, fresh out of RADA, shows promise, although Joshua James made this production’s Ferdinand a bit too ‘silly ass’ in characterisation for my taste. James Garnon is a stand-out Caliban, although the ‘isles are full of wonder’ speech is somewhat lost in the play’s broad comedy. Colin Morgan isn’t my idea of Ariel, although he suits the mood.

A change of pace in the evening saw a full reading of Sylvia Plath’s restored masterpiece ‘Ariel’ at the Royal Festival Hall, introduced by her daughter Frieda Hughes. This evening was about forgetting Sylvia the ‘mad girl’ poet and all the material that had been written about her, or presented in the film about her and Ted Hughes. In ‘Ariel’, Plath finally found her voice and if the poems presented here are occasionally a little rough around the edges, or troubling in their focus on anger and depression, that does not detract from their genius. I have always admired her as a writer, and hearing thirty-nine different voices presenting her work (including actresses Juliet Stevenson, Susan Wooldridge, Kate Fahy, Harriet Walter, Deborah Findlay, Haydn Gwynne, Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson, Anastasia Hille, Victoria Hamilton, Phyllis Logan, Emily Bruni, Stella Gonet, Samantha Bond, Annabelle Apsion, Maureen Beattie and Siobhan Redmond; and poets Lavinia Greenlaw, Vicki Feaver, Julia Copus, Jean Sprackland, Ruth Fainlight, Gillian Clarke and Jo Shapcott) as well as Plath herself reciting ‘Daddy’, brought her words into sharp relief.

Stand-outs, if I had to pick them, would be Berck Plage (Walter), Lady Lazarus (Bruni), Cut (Amy McAllister), The Detective (Beattie), Fever 103 (Hamilton), and Death & Co (Chancellor), but all were accomplished and about the writer, not the speaker. Poetry as theatre can be difficult and inaccessible, especially when you consider a poet as ‘loaded’ in her history as Sylvia Plath, but this evening did achieve a tribute to her work without focusing too much on her demons.

Divas in London: Dear World and Liza Minnelli

Two American musical divas are in town. 

Last night, the legend that is Liza Minnelli proved that despite the rumours, the ridiculous fourth marriage, and the plastic surgery, she still has that star pizazz to wow a crowd, and a packed Royal Festival Hall buoyed up by a large contigent of Liza’s gay fanbase certainly appreciated her 90 minute set.  Her big showstoppers from Cabaret and New York, New York of course made their appearances, and if Liza’s voice has faltered just a little over the years and her health has declined, she makes up for any shortcomings with sheer personality. 

Backed by a band she has obviously collaborated with for years, she gave us a varied set which included as highlights a cut song for the landlady in Cabaret – ‘So What’, Charles Aznavour’s superb story of a lonely gay female impersonator (‘What Makes a Man a Man’), ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ (a duet with her pianist), the touching ‘You’ve Let Yourself Go’, and her final unaccompanied ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’.  The lady may be breathless, scatty and more than a little bit manufactured, but Judy Garland’s daughter still puts on a magnificent performance, especially in her fast paced whiz song ‘Liza With a Z’, and she seems to have genuine affection for her fans, as they have for her.  It’s been a long time since I was in a crowd chanting the name of their idol as they wait for an encore!

The previous week I was at the Charing Cross Theatre to see Betty Buckley as the mad countess in Jerry Herman’s ‘Dear World’.  Buckley had been indisposed with a virus but was in fine voice at the performance I saw, especially in the lovely ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ and a song reminiscent of Mame’s Open a New Window, ‘Some People’.  Paul Nicholas was the other star name in the cast, and although he still has a certain charm, the songs he has in this show are not a patch on those given to the lead.  As the eccentric ladies who conspire against the wickedness of the ‘presidents’ and the oil seeker, Annabel Leventon and Rebecca Lock are funny and grotesque, while the greed of moneyseekers is beautifully played by Peter Land, Jack Rebaldi and Robert Meadmore (who I recall seeing back in the 1980s as Freddie in ‘My Fair Lady’).

‘Dear World’ is a musical adaptation of the Jean Giraudoux play ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot’, which was itself filmed by Bryan Forbes with Katharine Hepburn in the lead.  Betty Buckley’s countess is a dewy eyed optimist with nerves of steel and a conscience, and if the character isn’t quite Mame Dennis, well there is still much to enjoy and appreciate for the rest of the musical’s residency in the capital.

An evening with Rolf Harris, Royal Festival Hall

A rare live appearance from perhaps the world’s best known Australian at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday. Rolf Harris and his band (bass, guitar, keyboards, drums, percussion and guest digaradoo) entertained us for a couple of hours starting with the perennial and catchy ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ and ending on an encore with Leadbelly’s folk song ‘Goodnight, Irene’. He also found time to paint Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) with grey cloudy sky, sun shining on the rock, and seagrass – his technique looks slipshod, but that is deceptive. After all this is a man who painted The Queen.

Of course, ‘Two Little Boys’, ‘Jake the Peg’, and ‘Sun Arise’ featured alongside songs of a more serious bent (‘Raining on the Rock’ and the superb ‘Jimmy My Boy’), and lighter fare such as ‘The Kiwi Can Never Fly’ and ‘The Court of King Caractacus’. The nadir for me was Rolf’s version of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ (with wobbleboard). I just don’t get it, but each to their own. Thanks to appearances on The Word and at Glastonbury it is a fixed part of his live set.

Bad jokes galore appeared throughout this show, but Harris is a pro who is best when he is ‘on’ with his audience, and he had plenty of devoted fans watching in the RFH. With a backdrop of a cartoon kangaroo sporting Rolf’s head, this was a fun and undemanding confection, enjoyable and relaxing.

Concert review: Brynfest #1 and #2, Royal Festival Hall

For the past two nights we have attended ‘Brynfest’, a celebration of Wales and the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who has pitched up at London’s Royal Festival Hall for a four-day festival.

Wednesday’s show was entitled ‘The Golden Age of Broadway’ and directed by Sheffield Theatres artistic director and Sondheim specialist Daniel Evans (who as a singer himself has appeared with John Wilson at the BBC Proms). Sian Phillips narrated and introduced the singers, including Bryn himself, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham, Emma Williams, and Julian Ovenden, and the music ranged from Rodgers and Hammerstein (Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma, The King and I), Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate, Anything Goes), to Darion and Leigh (Man of La Mancha), Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), and Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady).

Bryn Terfel has a history of recording musical theatre and has performed in Sweeney Todd, so it is no surprise to see him here, having a good time, just as he did in the Sondheim Prom in 2010. Whether singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘So In Love’, ‘The Impossible Dream’, or letting his hair down in ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ he certainly provides entertainment value. Clive Rowe recreated his triumph as Nicely Nicely in ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’ and was a sweetly unusual Freddy in ‘On The Street Where You Live’, while Julian Ovenden impressed in Carousel’s ‘Soliloquy’ – less so as Tony in ‘Maria’ (his voice takes on a Jolson-like quality at times which can be distracting but which would serve him well if the musical play ‘Jolson’ is ever revived!). As for Hannah Waddingham, her ‘Something Wonderful’ was just that, while she tried gamely to better the trumpets in ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ with a bevy of chorus dancers. Emma Williams was sparky in her duet of ‘You’re the Top’ with Clive Rowe, both making the most of Porter’s clever wordplay.

The choice for official finale, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ from Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ was inspired, inspirational, and beautiful. A well deserved encore of the lead tune from ‘Oklahoma’ left us with smiles on our faces and humming various tunes on the way home.

Thursday saw a change of pace to Bryn’s more usual milieu – the world of opera. In ‘An Evening of Opera Classics’ he teamed with tenor Laurence Brownlee, soprano Oksana Dyka, and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong to present selections from operas ranging from Macbeth to Tosca, Eugene Onegin to Mefistofele. Brownlee is a high tenor with an engaging personality which the audience warmed to, and although Dyka did not move me much with her ‘Vissi d’arte’ (for me, the gold standard of a Tosca is Callas), she had a tuneful if flavourless voice. DeShong – a late replacement as the originally announced singer was ill – has a commanding tone and filled the hall with sound effortlessly.

The best of the night – Terfel’s Scarpia in Tosca aside – was the duet between him and Brownlee in probably my favourite opera duet, ‘Au Fond du Temple Saint’ from ‘The Pearl Fishers’, a beautiful blending of the melody of two human voices. It didn’t disappoint. The Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus – on both nights – were excellent and worked very hard, and nods must go to conductors Gareth Valentine (Broadway) and Gareth Jones (Opera Classics).

A compilation programme from Brynfest is scheduled to air on S4C at 8pm on the 15th July 2012. Last night we were very aware of the camera directly behind us as the operators were having a conversation throughout. Next time, gentlemen, keep it a bit quieter for those of us who don’t like to hear our Macbeths or Toscas punctuated by nattering …

Concert review: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (Royal Festival Hall)

The rise of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (formerly known as the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra) has inspired young musicians across the globe to get involved in classic performance, and under the directorship of their flamboyant conductor Gustavo Dudamel, they have fast become one of the most crowd-pleasing orchestras on the tour circuit today.

To open a four-day residency at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, the orchestra performed a mix of Beethoven (the Egmont overture, and the Eroica Symphony) and Britten (the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, here without its optional narration). All three pieces were performed with verve and joy, and if there were points where the music could have taken a bit more flight, the enthusiasm of these young and talented players cancelled out any yearning for the depth of feeling in the Eroica that one might find from a more mature group of musicians.

El Sistema, which allows disadvantaged youngsters to follow their dreams through music, was the brainchild of Jose Antonio Abreu, who was in the audience, and he should be applauded and revered for his vision which has led to hundreds of thousands of young Venezuelans taking part in music through a chain of teaching centres known as Nucleos.

This orchestra has fun and has fire in their bellies, and the music sings with hope and happiness because of it. If you get a chance to see them (and you have to book quickly) don’t miss out. The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra with Dudamel are definitely going places, and any audience going with them will enjoy the ride.