Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Larry Miller Band at Reading's South Street Arts.

The Larry Miller Band opened Reading's South Street gig with a blistering furious take on Junior Wells' 'Messing With The Kid' that suggested he could peak too early and would seriously sweat to keep up the pace. How wrong we were. This was a man gunning with a 'pistol packing' purpose.

After that there was no holding him and he followed with, amongst many others, a devastating Red House, Amazing Grace and Bulldog Blues.

All well received rockers but it is when he tried the slower stuff that he sometimes came unstuck. Unfortunately, his buoyant vaudevillian Steve Marriot stage presence does not always lend itself well to gut ripping balladry. OK so it's all heartfelt and earnestly delivered but did not, as say with Stan Webb, bring on that dark and tearful sense of loss that the material so earnestly deserves.

However, despite this Miller excelled in other areas fiercely supported throughout by the younger Allan Penfold on bass guitar. They peaked on an immensely gratifying 'Voodoo Chile'. This was Larry at his best constructing a tower of compelling powerhouse guitar pyrotechnics.

Larry Miller is seen as one of the best rocking bluesmen around and as a classic 'axeman' never fails to deliver so look out for future dates on his tour. You will not be disappointed.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Clayson and the Argonauts Reading South Street Arts Centre 24th September 2009

Clayson and the Argonauts alleged mission at Reading’s South Street Arts Centre concert had been to launch the live performance DVD, Aetheria yet for many it was a rare opportunity to see this legendary lawless bunch fronted by the multi-talented Alan Clayson.

In the past, the band’s act had the distinction in rock circles to be branded a ‘travelling asylum’. It is no exaggeration to say that lead singer Alan Clayson must surely be a key candidate for election to ‘rock’s lunatic fringe’ if we should ever go to such a poll. The band’s early stage act often used to defy concise description and it was deeply gratifying to see that despite the ravages of time they can still ‘cut the mustard’, a sure sign of their unswerving professionalism and dedication.

With a tight mix of drums, keyboards, sax and guitar, they routinely traversed musical boundaries, offering an eclectic mix and an immense theatrical presence. This theatricality underpinned their dramatic stage entrance that glided seamlessly into three blinding openers, Superman 42, Rue Morgue (‘let’s not be beastly to the Germans’) and Searchlight, a song from Clayson’s earlier collaboration with Dave Berry on his 1987 album Hostage to the Beat.

They moved on cranking up the pace allowing Clayson to dive into the Landlocked Sailor, a roaring folk rock sea shanty. Probably worth noting that in ‘71 he sang for Turnpike a band that he humbly confesses were ‘a folk-rock quintet’ aspiring like Traffic to 'get it together in the country’ somewhere ‘near Reading’.

Luckily, for this audience he moved on from such adolescent tosh forming the ‘Argonauts’, a band that revelling in diversity and exemplified on Friday by the weirdly spaced psychedelic Sol Nova and the contrasting Eleanor in Bondage.

Moreover, just to remind that this was not just a rock concert Clayson delivered a jaw dropping turn covering On the Street Where I Live from Lerner and Loewe’s soundtrack to My Fair Lady.

Finally, Pagan Mercia, Rakes Progress, On the Waterfront, Days in Old Rotterdam and Rebel Rocker led to a beautifully accurate Arnold Layne. In suitable contrast to Syd Barrett’s quirky Englishness Alan Clayson gave his all on the melancholic Moonlight Skater. Taken from the album Soiree it underlined Clayson’s versatility and mastery of the chanson offering more than a passing reference to Jacques Brel and Scott Walker.

It is a pity that this band has not had more success. My guess is that as a ‘performance’ they offer an ‘experience’ - something that lies in the very bowels of European arthouse or Rue Morgue’s ‘mothers of Dada’ and possibly does not travel too well.

In an interview Alan Clayson quoted R L Stevenson, “Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.”  No failures but good spirit was keynote to this performance, a blistering set that had to be experienced and neither the DVD nor the two CD set, Sunset On A Legend, will ever catch such a performance as Friday’s.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Ellen by Alison Mead, Henley Fringe Festival, July 21st 2009, directed by Kirrie Wratten.

Ellen Terry is perhaps the most celebrated English actor of the 19th century. On the stage from the age of eight, she was a rebellious young woman, passing through much emotional turmoil - including a failed marriage to the artist G.F. Watts, and a longer relationship with the architect Edward Godwin.

As the acting partner of Henry Irving, Terry achieved her greatest distinction in Shakespearean roles most notably Portia and Beatrice. Universally admired she achieved one what we now call 'celebrity'.

So here we have a fascinating and remarkable woman and surely a life deserving a grand operatic scale?

Nevertheless, it is to writer Alison Mead's credit that she has grasped this magnificence and effectively translated the feeling and the emotion to the stage with just four actors.

These four, directed by Kirrie Wratten, handled eleven roles between them with veracity and conviction. Maggie Turner and Kate Willoughby brought warmth to both the older and the younger Terry. Maurice Byrne's Irving, that absolute if benevolent dictator, had enough charm to convince that there may have been more than a professional relationship with Terry. His presence at first seemed arrogant but changed into something more loving and tender.

In addition, J P Turner as George Bernard Shaw, a possible love rival, commanded the stage through the power of Shaw's writing convincingly and slowly conducting "a paper courtship...perhaps the pleasantest and most enduring of all courtships".

Furthermore all of this was achieved in the rather confined space of the 'King's Arms Barn'. Having visited previously, I had my doubts as to its theatrical viability but credit to the design team and the actors for successfully working the cramped and intimate space.

Kirrie Wratten agrees. In an addition to the programme, she acknowledges her 'extraordinarily talented team…who have seen the possibilities of this beautiful venue, rather than the problems of adapting a non theatre space to the needs of a play and audience'. Let us pray that any future visitors have the wherewithal to achieve the same result.

Ellen whetted my appetite to know more of Terry's gifted career and life and definitely deserves a wider audience.

It is educational, well written and above all enjoyable. A credit to all involved.

Originally published at Remotegoat

Friday, 24 July 2009

Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton, Kenton Theatre, Henley On Thames, June 2009, directed by Rachel Johnson.

Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, first performed in 1938, is set against the backdrop of a gloomy and unfashionable Victorian London, at the time that the author calls 'the zero hour', the period 'before the feeble dawn of gaslight and tea.' Even though it may lack some credibility as a thriller, it radiates a certain period charm that still appears to satisfy both audience and players.

This unsettling drama explores the life of Bella and Jack Manningham. While Jack (Alex Nicholls) goes out each evening, Bella (Susanne Sheehy) remains at home alone slowly sinking into an abyss of fear and loathing. It is evident from the start that Bella's husband has complete control over his wife, slowly convincing her through a complicated web of deception that she is delusional and falling into madness.

However, the appearance of a former police detective by the eponymous name of "Sergeant Rough" shows that there is more to the tale than first expected. He brings to the quaking Bella, a sense of order that bullying Jack strives to undermine. Rough exudes a roguish confidence and resolve from the moment he enters the parlour brusquely advising Bella 'You are up against the most awful moment of your life and your whole future depends on how you act in the next hour.'It is also probably fair to say that Robert Booth brought to the part a much needed touch of humour and insobriety that contrasted with the otherwise suffocating Victorian set. Even though the final confrontation between despicable Jack and Rough did lapse into risible melodrama, the fault lies solely with Hamilton's text.

In addition, praise to Jennifer Rae as Nancy and Polly Mountain as Elizabeth who although minor characters represented a brighter normal life beyond Bella's 'prison'.The set was naturalistic and suitably 'heavily draped' with a 'dingy profusion of the period' hinting at 'poverty, wretchedness and age.' Nevertheless more could have been made of the flickering gaslight and the ghostly footsteps that so perturb Bella as she sits alone at night. They are after all a major factor in Bella's descent into madness.Overall, a professional production from Oxford based Tomahawk in Henley's bijou theatre from a strong and accomplished cast under the direction of Rachel Johnson.

(Originally written for Remotegoat )