La Bohème

La BohemeRoyal Opera House live screening
Bridport Arts Centre 16 June 2015
BR Rating ****

By Caitlin Appleton-Scott

I’m not sure I’ve experienced true happiness, but I perhaps come closest as part of a fully involved audience, be it at live music or a rugby match. Now that I’ve seen La Bohème, thereby losing my opera virginity, it made it all the more obvious that being one of a group, all experiencing the same emotions, is hard to trump.

What made the experience all the more emotional was that the broadcast was global. Whether you were in Stockholm, Barcelona, Zurich or Bridport, you could experience Puccini’s masterpiece, live.

The story takes place in 1830s Paris, where a quartet of Bohemians are living together in an attic: Schaunard the musician (Simone Del Savio), Colline the philosopher (Marco Vinco), Marcello the painter (Lucas Meachem), and our hero, Rodolfo the poet (Joseph Calleja). Our Bohemians banter their way through their simple life. They avoid rent by making their landlord drunk enough to confess his infidelity to his skinny headache-inducing wife, upon which they throw him out of the attic. However, their lives change with the arrival of the lonely embroiderer Mimi (Anna Netrebko), who enchants Rodolfo with her beauty and purity. She likes things with a quiet magic, which tell of love and springtime, of dreams and imaginings, things which are poetic. No wonder our poet falls under her spell.

However, the character who stole my heart was the charmingly mischievous Musetta (Jennifer Rowley). Her preoccupations are less honourable and pure, but nonetheless endearing; she adores teasing her previous lover, the secretly-smitten Marcello. Her intelligence, desire to live life as she pleases and kindness, which she demonstrates in the final act, make her profoundly authentic and empathetic.

The performances were all exceptional, and the love that the singers feel for their characters, for the authenticity of the play, and the story itself was made obvious through interviews shown during the intervals.

For me, the curtain call was as tear-inducing and smile-provoking as the play itself. To see people who have spent months dedicating themselves to their role, and watch their faces as they receive such well-deserved praise, is one of the most poignant examples of happiness I have witnessed. Rowley consolidated my love for her character, and my admiration for her as an artist, when she faced the audience for her applause. Her tears and smile were so genuine, and it provided a perfect conclusion to an already unforgettable performance.

By |June 17th, 2015|Caitlin Appleton-Scott, Music, Review|0 Comments

A Strange Wild Song

A-STRANGE-WILD-SONGBy Rhum and Clay Theatre Company
Bridport Arts Centre 5 June 2015
BR Rating ****

By John Pownall

Rhum and Clay, a small theatre company that creates its own material, should be applauded for finding a fresh new way to depict the human cost of the second world war. For this is a fascinating and hugely entertaining Tardis of a play. It is about the horror and madness of war, the way that the innocence of childhood can seem to disappear overnight, and yet somehow persist through the ruins of a village, a community, a nation. It has many contemporary reverberations, though it was written and first performed in 2012, slightly before the current horrors started to unravel on our television screens and over the internet. But war is perennial.

The show starts with music, and it’s music for which the production has garnered significant acclaim; a solo pianist (Laila Woozeer) plays over a recorded soundtrack, reminiscent of Einaudi, or early Philip Glass. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and works beautifully to achieve a poignancy in keeping with the arc of the story that is told so well by the four young actors on stage.

The first scene throws us straight into the French village that was the location of that half of the story told in flashbacks to wartime Normandy. Here we meet three brothers, survivors of war, camped out in the ruins of their home, surviving on carrots and togetherness. They never speak. They tell their tale through clanger-like whistles, facial expressions, and their flexible bodies. This is physical theatre with a narrative purpose. They are discovered by (as it turns out) an American sergeant on the run, a deserter from the 30th Battalion, played with haunting intensity by Christopher Harrison.

Harrison doubles up as the soldier’s grandson, returned to Europe (England in fact) to find out what happened to his grandfather the “hero”. He discovers the truth, through brilliant segued flash forwards, from the three boys now mutated into a group of archaeologists lead by the excellent Julian Spooner. Spooner also plays Pepete, the most energetic of the brothers. The changeovers are seamless; the actors never leaving the stage but changing costumes invisibly behind flats that double up before our eyes; at once the ruined village, and next the interior of the archaeologists’ workplace.

The history is revealed through the survival of the American’s Brownie camera; its locked-in exposures having captured tableaux of the boys in their ramshackle warzone, hoisting a tattered flag and firing off sticks fashioned into toy guns in the dangerous wartime skies. Those skies perform the space for Pepete’s fantastic dream voyage in an aircraft, pursued by German fighter- planes. The most memorable scene from the play, and certainly its most hilarious, is the imagined take off by Pepete. The stage seems to shake as the actors perform what looks like a dance of human hydraulic drills, just before the laughable aircraft leaves the ground. The lighting, by the way, is superb.

It’s not overly long. There’ s a (very) slight problem with the play, and that’s its bifurcated plot. Perhaps it tries to tell too much story in too short a time – it’s not clear where the core of the narrative lies: in the American soldier’s desertion, the boys’ plight as wartime orphans, or the American grandson’s discovery about the truth. Given its short duration, this does leave a slight sense of curiosity unsatisfied at the end.

But it’s terribly inventive, highly energetic, and extremely well performed. Perhaps the real message is that heroes need not be the ones who wear the khaki or pilot the Lancaster bombers, and indeed there’s an (albeit challenged) aside as to the possible status of allied bombings as war crimes. The American sergeant who deserted his men did not die a coward, but died trying to protect the boys he found in the ruins of the French village. We hear the massed boots of the enemy at the end, just before the stage blacks out. There are no survivors in total war.

By |June 6th, 2015|John Pownall, Review|0 Comments

The Beaux Stratagem

The_Beaux_Stratagem_poster_notitleBridport Arts Centre 26 May 2015
BR Rating ****

By John Pownall

Serendipitously, the National Theatre’s own production of George Farquhar’s last hurrah opened to the press the same night as Bristol Old Vic’s Theatre School brought its youthful, vibrant version of this late Restoration romp to Bridport. The Old Vic apprentices have brought us wonderful things in the past, but nothing quite so naughty.

The cast and the audience thoroughly enjoyed a production that brought the original vividly up to date with clever use of appropriate pop, rock, and even rap material, such as Stand and Deliver, Poison Arrow, and Gangster’s Paradise. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was just as the interval beckoned and the entire cast mimed and danced to the Manhattan Transfer. Yes, the show took liberties with the original, but was largely faithful to its spirit of good-natured ribaldry.

The theatre was as full as it has been for some time, a testament to the school’s well-earned reputation, as well as the drawing power of high-quality comedy. We were rewarded with strong performances by the four young players taking on the key roles of Mrs Sullen, Dorinda, Aimwell, and Archer. These are not easy parts. Mrs Sullen, in particular, requires comic timing as well as real sensitivity as the wronged, unhappy wife; Alais Morie managed it extremely well, and certainly had the clearest delivery on stage, with the possible exception of the excellent Tom Bailey, as Aimwell, who looked and sounded very much like a young Hugh Grant. All four thoroughly deserved their rapturous applause at the end, as did the great support provided by Corey Montague Sholey, Alexander Hall and Maaniv Thiara.

The visual comedy was played up throughout. We had some clever physical theatre, plenty of dance, and an extremely funny depiction of the gallery scene when picture frames were placed around members of the cast who then froze into the painted figures. Jac Cooper’s semi-naked Venus, complete with splendid blonde wig was uncomfortably convincing in a rather bizarre way. It had the audience in stitches.

Occasionally, perhaps, there was a little too much thrown at us. After the gorgeous Chanson D’amour arrangement, the music changed swiftly to the Benny Hill theme, which gave the cast yet another chance to have some daft fun. It spoilt the end of the first half a little. Sometimes it’s good to know when to quit.

The near destitute Farquhar wasn’t even 30 when he died during the play’s opening run in London in 1707. As with Marlowe, one wonders what the English stage lost with his untimely death. It’s wonderful, and somewhat touching, to see such young actors and actresses enjoying themselves so fulsomely with a script 300 years old, written by a terminally sick Irishman not a decade their senior as the ink dried on the parchment. The tour deserves good turnouts; if you missed it, catch other dates in Dorset late next month as the run nears its conclusion.

By |May 27th, 2015|John Pownall, Review, Theatre|0 Comments

Stompin’ Dave and his Bluegrass Band

stompin-daveElectric Palace 15 May 2015
BR Rating ****

By Sean Geraghty

I first encountered Dave as Dr Stomp busking outside the Arts Centre in the late 1990s. He cut a memorable figure hair flailing in the wind, wrestling with his rattlesnake fiddle, feet flying, hopping about on the square stomping-board. He had something of a cartoon image for a while. It seemed he was exorcising some sort of demon, putting in lengthy stints long into the afternoon.

He gigged at the Hope and Anchor in the good old days and became a fixture in the square alongside Oz and the old fella.

It’s delightful to see Dave in his present set-up, leading the line on the banjo with a band that had perfected the not-really-from-London-in-disguise look. Fortunately, they totally nailed the musical content. There was plenty to enjoy with fiddle and banjo solos, great harmonies and solid shiny bass lines.

Working around one live mike, with the occasional tweak from out front they got the enthusiastic crowd tapping their feet and a good number up on the dance floor. The healthy turnout demonstrated how Dave’s popularity has continued to grow.

The second set got off to a gutsy start with Ain’t gonna be treated this way. After a corny wander into Goodnight Irene things kicked up through the gears via Midnight Special, I’ll Fly Away and onward we went until three encores including a smoking solo, Duelling Banjos, (however contradictory that sounds).

Dave has a hatful of tricks, dancing while singing or picking up and down the fret-board, strumming the banjo up over his shoulder and spinning around on the well-worn stomp-box; even on the acutely raked Palace stage he floated like a ballerina in his patched pants and steel-tipped shoes.

Dave is a great musician and his tour is universally well supported, deservedly so. It may be only 50 yards or so from Bucky Doo to the Palace, but Dave’s certainly come a long way in between.

By |May 16th, 2015|Music, Review, Sean Geraghty|0 Comments

Man and Superman

Man_and_Superman_poster_notitle

National Theatre Live
Electric Palace 14 May
BR Rating ****

By John Pownall

George Bernard Shaw, like Oscar Wilde, is one of those figures known as much for what he said as what he did. Any book of quotations is likely to be liberally sprinkled with Shavian epigrams. So it’s not surprising that Man and Superman reads like an extended game of verbal tennis. This renders it very hard to stage. Apart from anything else it’s long; very long.

Simon Godwin directs the current NT production starring Ralph Fiennes as John Tanner/Don Juan. It’s been sold out for months (Fiennes is almost Cumberbatch-like in terms of drawing power, and with good reason), and so for stragglers the NT Live broadcasts afford an opportunity of seeing the show from remote locations such as The Electric Palace. It works wonderfully, unless, as happened at some venues on Thursday, the satellite gets messed up by electric storms causing a blackout during the First Act. Perhaps mysterious powers were at work as Shaw’s humanistic masterpiece unfolded.

The production depends hugely on Fiennes. The part is enormous, one of the most challenging in the repertoire, and the newly-bearded one (is he turning into Shaw?) more than matched its demands. The play is immense fun, as well as being philosophically intense, and Fiennes threw himself into the role with gusto. At times his manic patter was reminiscent of Leonard Rossiter as Rigby, at others he strode the stage and roared his cries for intellectual and emotional freedom so passionately that one felt he might have drawn from Shaw’s Life Force philosophy. Fiennes is never anything but committed; the stage ignited at his entrance.

For support, the great man draws on Indira Varma, whose Anne/Ana was a wonderful counterweight to Fiennes. As Tanner’s eventual fiancée, Varma is a match for Fiennes for both volume and presence. It will not be easy to forget Fiennes’s hangdog weariness as he learns at long last that he is to be caught in the marriage net by Varma’s prickly charms. In the midst of their mating game stands the lovesick Octavius or “Tavvy”, played with endearing naivete by Ferdinand Kingsley, providing a young, innocent contrast to Fiennes’s gnarled and sceptical Lothario.

The third ‘dream’ act, set in hell, is often dropped in modern productions; but so doing creates a huge void. The Act is essential, both in terms of linking the modern melodrama with the legend of Don Juan/Giovanni, as well as by providing much of the political and philosophical material that Shaw habitually crammed into his work. That said, at times the audience seemed less responsive to the actors’ Herculean efforts to convey the complex interchanges during this Act than to the more light-hearted dialogues of the family melodrama.

Aside from occasional weaknesses in the support lower down the cast list, the production is brave and fun, and worthy of the standing ovation it received on the South Bank on Thursday night, and proved, if nothing else, that Shaw’s challenging work can still be hilarious.

By |May 15th, 2015|John Pownall, Review, The Electric Palace, Theatre|0 Comments