Monday, 12 December 2011

Great British Folk Festival December 2011 Skegness, Lincolnshire.

Set against two major stages, this year's Great British Folk Festival was a worthy successor to 2010. Although set on the cold Lincolnshire coast in all its bleak grandeur it could not be faulted. It's a good venue and a welcome diversion for its host, Butlins.  What follows is hopefully an objective overview of what was a very busy weekend. Moving between stages it is an attempt to give a taste of the weekend and not under any circumstances provide a definitive set list for over twenty acts so apologies to those not found below.

Opening Friday, Three Daft Monkeys displayed an energetic and theatrical performance even though it was somewhat marred by inconsistent acoustics. At times intros and banter was barely audible. Their exhortation to 'roll up' defined their whole approach to their music. 'One Fine Day' and 'Paranoid Big Brother' from the benchmark "Social Vertigo" album were particularly memorable.

In complete contrast and with a smaller billing, Emily Smith recently nominated for a 2012 Folk Award displayed a mastery of keyboards, accordion and guitar. Songs were often Scottish traditional - 'Whistle O'er the Lave O It' and 'The Plooman' but still managing to digress to Richard Thomson's classic 'Waltzing for Dreams'. Chumbawamba may possibly have offended the more traditionalists with their rousing political set that included El Fusilado, and possibly one of the very few songs celebrating Charles Darwin, 'Charlie'.

Whilst they were tearing up Centre Stage, Ralph McTell followed Emily Smith on the rival 'REDS'. As you would expect from the man it gave a loyal audience exactly what they wanted. Although currently touting recent album "Somewhere Down The Road" he still had the grace to perform 'Streets of London' and in respect to the late Bert Jansch, 'Angie'. On the other hand, is that 'Anji'? Saturday evening saw an acoustic Steve Gibbons, Matthews Southern Comfort and Cara Dillon. 
As far as festival content goes, it definitely leans towards the folk rock idiom of the late sixties aptly exemplified by Fairport Connections ((Dave Pegg, Gerry Conway, Anna Ryder, Anthony John Clarke, Bob Fox, P.J.Wright and Steve Tilston) who took the stage on Sunday afternoon followed in the evening by Jacqui McShee's Pentangle and The Dylan Project. 

The organisers this year threw in a couple of 'curveballs' with the inclusion of The Wurzels (surely an aging novelty act?) and Kanda Bongo Man. 'Bongo Man' championed by Andy Kershaw and the late John Peel is more a 'WOMAD' act with his infectious African sound. 

However, this is a festival that appears to be embracing diversity, yet suspiciously defined by Cropedy Festival but this is only the second year so it may take on a more 'Cambridge' hue. This year definitely captured last year's spirit and plans are in place for a return in 2012, tickets are on sale but no artists announced but don't let that put you off either. Based on their track record in organising two superb weekends I'm sure 2012 will be another pre-Christmas cracker.

Edited version of review posted on the Remotegoat website. 

Monday, 21 November 2011

The 39 Steps by John Buchan, adapted by Patrick Barlow. Progress Theatre, Reading, November 2011

John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS' is a hilarious adaptation by Patrick Barlow of Buchan's intriguing mystery and Hitchcock's classic 1935 film. It shares the same characters but as befits Barlow's methods the drama employs only four actors. It's all very comic and at times leans towards 'Monty Python' but still manages to show a saintly reverence towards both filmmaker and author. Owen Goode's dapper gent Richard Hannay is at the centre of the action, a man bored with London life who yearns for an escape from his 'dull little rented flat' in Portland Place.

However, it doesn't take long for pipe smoking Hannay to find himself in a murky world of murder, spies, car chases, and steam trains and, I'd say, rather fetching hats. All it takes is a chance encounter at 'A Cockney Music Hall' with Laura Sherman's shady femme fatale Annabella Schmid that leads to an accusation of murder and the key plot device - what exactly are the 39 Steps? It cannot be an easy task for the actors. Laura Sherman has only three parts, yet, Christopher Hoult and Craig Daniels, in the course of the evening, take on over a hundred roles between them. Furthermore, this is against a minimal backdrop of twelve plus locations that takes in everything from 'The Forth Bridge' to 'The Scottish Moors'. Anyone familiar with the original works will swiftly recognise these striking places and their dramatic significance to the narrative.

With quick-fire costume changes, highly effective nifty props and sets, this ripping yarn rattles along at a cracking pace. One has to marvel at the out and out energetic performances of all four leads. Especially notable is the comic timing of Clown 1 (Hoult) and Clown 2 (Daniels) that takes it beyond farce and into a higher realm of dramatic comedy. One has to admit though that you cannot go wrong with this play, as it is so lovingly crafted and respectful to its outstanding source material - a gripping thriller of a bygone age. I'm not usually one for superlatives but in this case, I have to admit defeat and state - an excellent play and a great production.

Edited version of review posted on the Remotegoat website. 

Kate Rusby at Reading Concert Hall September 2011

Kate Rusby celebrates twenty years in the business next year and is now something of an institution on the folk circuit. She came into a moribund scene and along with others took the music to a wider audience even achieving the distinction of a nomination in 1999's Mercury Prize for "Sleepless". She confidently demonstrated how she achieved this swing to popularity and why she remains the darling of the Radio 2 Folk Awards. With the help of Damien O'Kane, Julian Sutton,Ed Boyd,Malcolm Stitt and Kevin McGuire she amiably meandered through her past nine albums.

Following a brief set by her fellow musicians, Rusby opened with "Playing of Ball", Cobbler's Daughters and "Only Hope". This opening section also gave us "The Old Man" from the "Awkward Annie" album.Clearly, the best performance of the evening must surely have been "Who Will Sing Me Lullabies?" This poignant lament pays tribute to the Battlefield Band's lead singer Davy Steele who died in 2001. It deservedly won Rusby the 'Best Original Song' award at the 2002 Radio 2 Folk Awards.A minor revelation of the evening was discovering that the singer had contributed to the soundtrack of the film "Heartlands" [2002]. It featured her next song "Over You Now". This song was a perfect marriage of Damien O'Kane's banjo playing and Kate's mellifluous and haunting voice.

A change of tempo and she effortlessly moved to "Game of All Fours" from "The Girl Who Couldn't Fly" and "Let the Cold Wind Blow" from "Little Lights".Rusby then quit the stage briefly, leaving the band to demonstrate their ability as instrumentalists. On Kate's return, the evening concluded with "Sweet Bride", The Wishing Wife" and "Underneath the Stars".

Overall, it was a 'safe' and agreeable concert peppered by Rusby's trademark banter and well received by her knowing audience but it lacked luminosity. It could have quite easily been down to the cruel acoustics obscuring the lyrics.Then again, maybe it is time for her to move forward and somehow experiment, to give a bit of edge to her performance. If not, there is definitely a danger of Kate Rusby becoming, dare I say it, a national treasure.Edited version of review posted on the Remotegoat website. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Creation Theatre's Antony & Cleopatra at the Said Business School July 2011

Antony and Cleopatra holds a special place in Shakespeare work as a fine example of a mature love tragedy. Written whilst in his forties Shakespeare focuses on two lovers in the autumn of their lives. 

This contrasts neatly with last year's Creation Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet performed at the same outdoor venue - the impressive Amphitheatre at Oxford's Said Business School. 

In Romeo and Juliet it is the young that are impeded by their elders yet in this play it is the old that are spurned by the young exemplified by the young Octavius Caesar who holds onto authority in Rome while Antony lounges at the Egyptian court 'tippling with a slave'. 

Most directors would possibly agree it is not an easy play to stage and that the most successful productions have been those that have been devoid of ostentation and hark back to what we imagine was the early Jacobean model.

The Director, Helen Tennison, has clearly recognised this and with the assistance of Designers Neil Irish and Sarah Bacon has used the amphitheatre subtly proving the adage 'less is more'. On the other hand, maybe the delineation between the two worlds could be clearer. It is a quiet play requiring constant attention. A few visual markers would help.

One last quibble albeit a minor one. As I said, at the beginning, this is a 'mature love' story and one has to question the casting of the leads. Although both Tom Peters as Antony and Lizzie Hopley as Cleopatra perform brilliantly they are possibly too young for their parts. Think for example of some key actors who have played Cleopatra: Glenda Jackson, Harriet Walter and on a lesser note Kim Cattrall. All were all in their forties and fifties when they took on the part. 

It has to be said that Creation are now the leading Oxford theatrical company and so far have never failed to deliver. To them location is paramount and they never fail in this aspect. Artistic and Executive Director David Parrish has outlined Creation's adventurous spirit by saying that he found 'theatre in unusual places much more engaging'. 

During his tenure, he has clearly stuck to his guns and this cracking production set against a burnished Oxford sky certainly ticked all the creative and artistic  boxes.

Edited version of review posted on the Remotegoat website. Production reviewed 19th July 2011.

Photo: Peter Wolfes©​ Creation Theatre Company 2011  - Cleopatra - Lizzie Hopley, Iras - Raewyn Lippert, Charmain - Lucy-Anne Holmes

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Romeo and Juliet at the Kenton Theatre, Henley on Thames, 4th June 2011.

In Romeo and Juliet the young teen protagonists fall in love yet their rivalling families -the Capulets and Montagues, impede their progress. It is their tragic deaths, and not the power of their love, that overturns the feud. Audiences never seem to tire of it.

Troika's inspirational first production, under Rachel Johnson's direction, has a joyous atmosphere with its surface gloss of masked balls and bawdy street scenes, yet eclipsed by the omnipresent spectre of death. We are, after all, aware, of the impending tragedy from the very outset.

In addition, though audiences marvel at the stately poetry of love, proffered by the leads they often overlook those minor parts that contain suitable comedy or eloquent gravitas. Zakk Robinson's bawdy, unreserved Mercutio is a case in point. Whilst he may only be a prop to the flaccid impetuous Romeo [Nathan Grassi] in pursuit of his Juliet [Camilla Clarke] he rhythmically and humorously keeps the party alive.

On the other hand, we still need some solemnity and we get this in the form of the dour heads of the respective houses - Lords Capulet (James Studds) and Montague (Andrew Whiffin). The play's minimalist staging is perfectly suited to the restrictive, yet inspiring, intimacy of the Kenton Theatre. Economy of space comes to the fore in the credible and sometimes unsettling street fights, expertly choreographed by Tom Bateman. Of the three productions, I have seen over the last couple of years this came over as the most adventurous and innovative with dance routines set to an inspiring contemporary soundscape.

It is overall a sensual and erotic reading and luckily untainted by the judicious editing that brought it down to a running time of just over two hours. In a recent interview with online magazine Theatrepunk, the founders of Troika outlined their shared vision for the company, a vision of creating 'high quality theatre that will challenge, excite, stir and entertain audiences'. Based on this first outing one feels that they may be on the right path to attaining their goal.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Singular Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, performed at The Bear And Ragged Staff, Cumnor,

Don’t Go Into The Cellar is a Birmingham based theatre company who specialise in the Gothic and the macabre in ain a playful  and haunting manner. Recent titles include “Sharing Digs with Burke and Hare”, Sweeney Todd: A Love Story” and “The Feast of Blood! Or, Lord Ruthven’s Revenge”.

Judging by these examples of their back catalogue ‘Singular’ appears to be a mild distraction for them as its only connection 
being the Victorian setting of hansom cabs, sulphurous fogs and murders ‘most foul’.

However it is fair to say that even after 124 years we still cannot get enough nineteenth century gore especially when it involves England’s best ‘consulting detective’ Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle never shared our enthusiasm and ‘killed’ him off at Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem”.

Public pressure saw Holmes back from the dead and it is at that point that the play, held in the in the grand confines of the pub’s restaurant, takes its cue.
After a brief introduction by Rachel Green, the play's Director, the scene opened on the eminent literary detective’s rooms at 22b Baker Street.

An excellent script gave Jonathan Goodwin, as Sherlock, the chance to show unbound enthusiasm for his character through tales that took in all of the detective’s best moments including “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, the astounding escape from the ‘Falls and musings on his legendary nemesis, the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Moriarty.

Meanwhile Gary Archer’s Watson, and Holmes’ ‘Boswell’, listened intently and patiently as Holmes entertained the room with dazzling wit and repartee. Participation was encouraged and moreover greeted genially by the audience, or as Holmes defined them, ‘The Baker Street Irregulars’. Unfortunately, time did not allow for the promised question and answer session.

Don't Go Into The Cellar are available for bookings and can be contacted either by email or phone. See website for details.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Dancing at Lughnasa, Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke 27th January 2011

Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa premiered in 1990 and has had many successful runs and even a film version starring Meryl Streep as the fiercely devout Catholic Kate.

It is 1936 in rural  Ballybeg in Donegal, that the five Mundy sisters, along with Michael, the illegitimate seven-year-old son of youngest sister Chris attempt  to get by in the  harsh economic climate of thirties Ireland. As an adult, Michael (Alastair Whatley) looks back on the events of that long warm summer, during the pagan festival of Lughnasa. Whatley offers an affectionate and caring  study of Michael's family and childhood, his narration evoking the subtle and complex pattern of the women's housebound lives, from which there's only one escape, the wireless set. Michaels recollects the   "sheer magic...the kitchen throbbing with the beat of Irish music beamed from Dublin...dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell".

However, the spell is shattered and the Mundys' relatively safe and quiet existence  is rocked by a series of events, starting with the arrival of Michael's father and the return of lapsed elder brother Jack (Daragh O’Malley) from Africa where he has been saving Catholic souls until he was accused by the Church as going ‘native’.
Dancing at Lughnasa is  a striking ensemble piece demanding  strict affinity between the sisters who live  together with no visible means of escape - only dreams in a fragile domestic ‘prison’ underpinned by repressive Catholic expectations of rural Irish society has to face up to change.

As a group, they create a boiling cauldron of raging passion  - a simmering erotic subtext that I have never felt in past performances. It reaches its climax in the iconic dance scene that, under the direction of Choreographer Lucie Pankhurst, still manages to convey a spontaneous release - if only for a brief minute.

Of the sisters simple Rose(Bronagh Taggart), impresses with her mix of innocence and dependency and contrasts starkly  to the other sisters, Patricia Gannon’s  bawdy Maggie,  young mother Chris(Siobhan O’Kelly), contemplative Agnes(Mairead Conneely) and of course  the pious yet vulnerable ‘virtuous bitch’ Kate( Victoria Carling)

All the actors brought a wealth of detail to their roles and offered, what I felt, was a fresh interpretation  achieved brilliantly by Director Alastair Whatley whose  aim  was achieved in  offering  'a fresh perspective on the play, unadorned by the shadows of past productions'. 

Reviewed for Remotegoat Website

[Produced by Original Theatre Company in association with Anvil Arts and South Hill Park Arts Centre. On tour until 23rd April 2011.]