Back in London for a few days. Some excellent theatre, a book launch, Hot off the Griddle – the Alice Neel exhibition at the Barbican and “putting on the Ritz”, a thank you to Tarry Tours for our wonderful Colombian adventure.
Standing at the Sky’s Edge at The National kicked us off to a good start. Originally staged in Sheffield, in 2019, aimed at transferring to The National, it fell victim to Covid but was resurrected last year and now fits perfectly on the Olivier stage.
I wouldn’t call it a rock opera though there are moments when I felt I could, it is a “hybrid musical”, a love letter to Sheffield, springing from the idea that the walls of the Parkhill Estate* in which it is set, retains the imprint of its inhabitants, past and present. The estate’s interior and exterior are cleverly created on stage; the action
by its inhabitants ingeniously choreographed as they pass each other across 60 years. We see how the nation’s political gyrations leave their marks on the lives of three families and the city, from 1960 to Thatcherism, Brexit and beyond. The estate chugs inexorably towards gentrification until it becomes the Grade II listed trophy building of today.
*The Parkhill Estate is a housing estate in Sheffield. It was built between 1957 and 1961, and in 1998 was given Grade II listed building status. Following a period of decline, the estate is being renovated into a mostly private mixed-tenure estate made up of homes for market rent, private sale, shared ownership, and
student housing while around a quarter of the units in the development will be social housing.
On one London evening we went along to Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street for the launch of Sara Wheeler’s new book, Glowing Still – A Woman’s Life on the Road.
I started reading it the moment we left the launch. For anyone interested in serious travel this is a great read. It is a luscious book.
It is funny, and moving and do you know that feeling when an author so absolutely says what you think and feel about so much but you simply don’t have the words, the articulacy to express them? Well, that’s what Sara’s beautiful book does for me.
We are friends and concomitantly spent a week recently in Mompox, one of our stops in Colombia, where I noticed, and I hope Sara does not mind my saying this, that note book and pencil were always to hand, not a camera, (am I betraying a modus operandi?!) and I longed to have a peek at how she does it. On page 15 in the Introduction to the book there is a photograph of a shelf-full of the notebooks on which she based her book. She is brilliant. All her reviews have been too. How lovely. I wish I could travel like that.
Talking of books the other one that I have read that impressed me was Joshua Cohen’s The Natanyahus for which he won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize.
It’s a sidelong portrait of the Israeli prime minister’s father based on an anecdote he received in an email from Harold Bloom, the celebrated critic and long-time Yale professor. The Netanyahus is dedicated to Bloom’s memory, and fills out a story that the critic told Cohen about playing chaperone to Benzion Netanyahu, the Polish-born, Israel-based academic better known as Benjamin’s father, during a visit to Cornell.
Fills out, and wildly fictionalises: Harold Bloom, defender of the western canon, becomes Ruben Blum, a specialist in American economic history at Corbin college in New York state.
He is chosen, as the only Jewish faculty member, to host an obscure historian of late-medieval Spain – Netanyahu’s real speciality – who is coming for an interview.
Fiction it may be but hilarious – and rather worrying it was too, especially in the light of what is going on in Israel today.
It’s a great read. Go for it!
What can we say about Guys & Dolls?
At The Bridge Theatre and wowing London, we adored this promenading production with its gutsy enthusiasm and the immersive effects of the staging in a radically re-arranged theatre. Nicholas Hytner directing.
The last time I saw Guys & Dolls was in 1982 when Ian Charleson and Bob Hoskins, both now, sadly, no longer with us, were brilliant as Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit. Julia McKenzie and Julie Covington were Miss Adelaide and Sarah Brown. It was directed and choreographed by Richard Eyre and David Toguri, FORTY-ONE YEARS AGO! I can hardly believe it.
It was also a brilliant show which transferred into the West End with my friend Lynn Webster playing Sarah Brown where I saw it again.
Here at The Bridge Theatre Daniel Mays and Andrew Richardson were stupendous too as Nathan and Sky. Like Charleson and Hoskins, neither Mays nor Richardson have much experience in musical theatre at all. In fact for Richardson this was his debut on the London stage, making his performance the more amazing.
The Dutch actor Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown was perfect but Marisha Wallace’s Adelaide stole the evening for me. Wow.
Some of the reviews said they thought the re-arranged staging cramped the choreography. I agree. Richard Eyre’s production back in 1982 on the Olivier stage had space for David Toguri’s routines and the iconic Sit Down You Are Rocking The Boat was better there than at The Bridge. It was far more opened out and could breath better.
Nicholas Hytner’s production hints at the possibility that Sky might just be gay and “creates a thrilling spark of subversion but is an isolated moment, gone in a flash, as if a scene from a far more daring reconception” (The Guardian)
Tony and I did not promenade and don’t think we missed anything by not doing so.
It was a great evening.
And what about Philip Glass’s Akhnaten?
I like to think that John Adams’ Nixon in China prepared me for the mesmeric, repetitive music of Philip Glass, the slow motion; that maybe I could grow into it with age. I was wrong! I am not ready.
Is esoteric a good word to describe Akhnaten? Or just plain Chinese water torture? At the Coliseum the ENO’s production certainly kept us awake and wondering.
Glass’s work is built up from repetitive, phrases and shifting layers, says Wikipedia, and Glass describes himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures”, which he has helped evolve stylistically…..throughout the 1960s his music focused on the rhythmic
processes, exploring small amounts of musical material used with extensive repetition.
The new musical style that Glass was evolving was eventually dubbed minimalism.”
But the story is interesting: Pharaoh Amenhotep IV ascends the throne in the sacred robes and double crown of Upper & Lower Egypt, symbolising power over all. In an act of hubris that will result in chaos and tragedy, he becomes Akhnaten and forces monotheism and the worship of the Sun’s disc on pantheism being the old religion, the old order.
The ENO’s production was beautiful to look at but I came away thinking of Opera as an Art Installation.
I can’t move back to Mistley without mentioning the Alice Neel exhibition, Hot Off The Griddle at the Barbican Art Gallery. She was an American visual artist, known for her portraits depicting friends, family, lovers, poets, artists, and strangers; she uses expressionism in her work, there is a psychological acumen, and an emotional intensity. Her work contradicts and challenges the traditional and objectified nude depictions of women by her male predecessors. She was a figurative painter during a period when abstraction was favoured, and she
did not begin to gain critical praise for her work until the 1960s. She was considered by some as “one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century”.
She was a member of the American Communist Party and came to the interest of the FBI and HUAC at one point. This may also have explained why it took a while for her to get recognition – she was already in her 70s when that happened.
We both loved her paintings – for us a new discovery: always a good thing.
Meanwhile back in Mistley a trip to the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich proved amusing. Given the effect of Covid, Inflation & Brexit on the Arts, for a long while the erstwhile Repertory Theatres have been creating cooperative productions to stretch shrinking funds. Ramps-on-the-Moon is one such and we went off to see Village Idiot written by new writer on the block, Samson Hawkins. Presented by Theatre Royal Stratford East, Nottingham Playhouse and Ramps on the Moon, a collaborative partnership of six National Portfolio Organisation theatres led by the New Wolsey, funded by the Arts Council, and including Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Leeds Playhouse, and Sheffield Theatres.
We weren’t quite sure what to make of it.
It was clearly meant to shock with appalling language, deliberate political incorrectness, conscious unwoke-ness in everything; but somewhere rather quaint and with its heart in the right place. It seemed a cross between the iconoclasm of Jerusalem and “agitprop” going as pantomime.
The play is set in the Northamptonshire village of Syresham where compulsory purchase orders threaten to tear apart a 1000-year-old settlement to make way for HS2.
Like Jerusalem, Village Idiot has serious questions to ask about identity, nostalgia and modernity.
If anyone takes offence at its equal-opportunities upturning of intolerance and liberalism, they will be badly missing the point.
It is witty, romantic and politically fresh, perhaps too long, but you relish the company of these characters and when the laughter
subsides and the HS2 bulldozers move in, you are left wondering who the village idiot really is.
We enjoyed it.
We have never seen Prokofiev’s Cinderella although of course have heard the music before – so not at all well known to us really. The Royal Ballet’s new production at Covent Garden is sumptuous to say the least and looks good with sets and costumes newly designed by Tom Pye and Alexandra Byrne though some might say a little overdone perhaps.
Cinderella, Marianela Nuñez dancing beautifully, is always a great story and nothing can change that. Vadim Muntagirov, while not as pyrotechnic as other leading men, pleases as The Prince and both do justice to Frederick Ashton’s slightly underwhelming choreography but somewhere there is a disjoint between the story, the production and the music. Prokofiev wrote it when
Russia was in the throes of a fight for survival during the Nazi invasion and there is a darkness in the music that I felt belonged more to tragedy than the fairy tale qualities of this magical story. Romeo & Juliet remains by far my favourite though I am very happy listening to all his music.
We are both fond of the eclectic music of Erich Korngold, neither having seen anything of his on stage and certainly not Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), a story of obsession, remembrance and grief – can true love last forever? Familiar themes; well, it’s opera isn’t it? Our collections of his music range from Hollywood film themes through to classical compositions for piano, for violins and for orchestra. Tuneful narratives. The ENO’s production was directed by Annilese Miskimmon following the success of her debut of The Handmaid’s Tale staged last year at the Coliseum.
An interesting evening and possibly one of the last appearances of the ENO here in London before its forced removal to Manchester.
Watched some good television recently but by far the best film is without doubt the exquisitely beautiful Close, a ‘coming-of-age’ drama set in rural Belgium about two 13-year-old boys, Léo and Rémi, best friends, and the unravelling of their friendship. It is a heart breaking story which I’ll not spoil for you by explaining the plot any further. How on earth director and writer Lukas Dhont and Angelo Tijssens got not only such extraordinary and sensitive performances out of the two boys particularly but the whole cast generally, is nothing short of miraculous.
It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival last year and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Film Feature this. A host of other awards have been heaped on it. With justification.
Thank you Friend Mary Mouse for recommending this – heads ups are always welcome, dear Friends.
We found another Lukas Dhont film at the Curzon – streaming: Girl.
In short, Lara, a 15-year-old girl who was born in a boy’s body, is committed to becoming a professional ballerina; this is a story about gender dysphoria. We thought it brilliant too. Dhont really gets into the minds of his characters in a way one wishes Hanya Yanagihara would do with Jude St.
Francis in A Little Life (see below) – and doesn’t.
The performances in Girl boggle the mind. How does Dhont do it and, indeed the actors too?
Apparently the casting call for the protagonist was genderless, open for girls, boys, and those who were neither. 500 people between 14 and 17 auditioned but none of them could both dance and act well enough, so the filmmakers decided to cast the rest of the dancers first, and there they found 21 year old Victor Polster whose performance is also nothing short of miraculous.
During COVID I read A Little Life , Hanya Yanagihara’s 700 page book, an epic bore say some, about the little lives of Jude St. Francis, a disabled genius with a mysterious past, and his friends Willem, Malcolm and Jean-Baptiste “JB” Marion.
It took me an entire year to read. Interspersed with many other books and certainly a great deal of binge TV!
It drove me into frenzies of impatience and frustration. It went on and on and on but you never got any nearer the mystery revelation. Everyone who had read it refused to enlighten me so I trudged on with the project of discovery.
In my view it is far too long and the
‘shifting narrative perspectives’ very confusing. Who is talking about whom and what, for goodness sake, happened to Jude that should cause such trauma, pain, self-harming and eventual suicide?
All this has now been put on stage at the Harold Pinter Theatre where £195 bought me the last seat in the stalls at a Saturday matinee.
It was three hours and forty minutes of gut wrenching blood-soaked brutality and misery directed by Ivo van Hove, originally in Dutch with sur-titles, now in London in English with James Norton as Jude and Luke Thompson as Willem.
There is no question that the staging and performances here are brilliant and brave; the play is true to the book, obviously mightily compressed, but neither Yanagihara’s writing nor Norton performance convey Jude’s inner life and though others round about were weeping and covering their eyes, I did not and remained unmoved by what seemed to me a ‘naïve and psychologically incurious narrative of abuse’ aimed at manipulating my sensibilities.
Like the book it has had mixed reviews but it borders on pornographic and there was a taste of guilt in my mouth at the voyeuristic implications of the play.
These four friends are all supposed to be genius Ivy-Leaguers ; but their responses to the difficulties and horrors of their lives would not indicate that they had any sense at all!
I remain, I am afraid, very unconvinced by either the book or the play; and now I understand there is to be a TV series?
Jonathan Coe Tweeted: “Such a joyous 2 hours of theatre watching The Unfriend last night. Brilliantly funny writing from Stephen Moffat, expert direction by Mark Gatiss, comic performances par excellence from Reece Shearsmith, Frances Barber & Michael Simpkins who practically steals the show …”
This is a Chichester Festival Theatre production, in London for a mini run; at the Criterion, Piccadilly. We hied ourselves forthwith and managed to get the last seats in the house on the last day, a Sunday matinee.
Thanks Jonathan for the tweeterly heads-up. It was great. An excellent antidote to A Little Life of the day before – and half the length!
It’s a comedy, which follows Reece Shearsmith’s Peter and his wife Debbie, Amanda Abbington, an uptight middle-class couple who go on a cruise and meet Frances Barber’s Elsa, a kooky old American who invites herself to come and stay with them for a week. I cannot begin to describe the situations that arise.
It was hilarious and I am sure may well return to the West End in a longer run sometime in the future.
I hope so.
Thanks Friends. Hope to see you soon.
PS No exams this time, it’s the Easter Holidays.