Saturday, 28 August 2010

Camille O'Sullivan - Chameleon - review

It would be unfair to expect Camille to live up to the first encounter on seeing her a second time. Her new show, Chameleon, carries on where the previous show left off, and indeed much of the material is the same. Much of the magic is lost on seeing her again. The ad libbed banter, the asides - all are carefully scripted and dropped in with consummate professionalism. But, as with stand-up comics, that's not a reason to criticise. She merely has her act highly polished, and sticks to it.

Nevertheless, in a show of less than an hour and a half, it was a shame to see so much duplicated material, even if it was some of the best songs from the previous time. Tom Waits's All the world is green, Brel's Amsterdam (equally extraordinary performance second time round), Nick Cave's The ship song and Dylan's Don't think twice, it's alright took up a substantial proportion of the show. It would be nice to see the band showcased a little more, as well, and Camille's range of songwriters is limited (all the more irritating given that she asked for repertoire suggestions on her Facebook page a few months back, then slipped into her usual Waits-Cave-Brel-Bowie hitlist).

But to show some irritation at seeing a show without many changes is churlish, as the fact of the matter is that Camille is simply a massive star. She has it all: performing ability, charisma, presence...and a stupendous voice. It was a special moment for me to hear her take on the music of Leonard Cohen, as the two singers are two of the greatest live performances I've ever seen; Tom Waits's God's away on businesswas another highlight. It's a shame that she has outgrown more suitable venues, but sitting in the sixth row, the sparks were exploding in all directions.

Verdict: Not the same seeing her second time round, but damn! this girl can perform.

Markus Makavellian's International Order - review

The cross-dressing Markus Makavellian (Drew Taylor to his family) flounces onto stage and confides that he's going to talk about poo. Sat in the front row, my heart sank a little: it's an inauspicious start. But things pick up rapidly and Taylor's loosely rhyming writing is red-hot at times, his lines rattling off like slam poetry at times. As a straight male perhaps I wasn't necessarily the main target audience for the show, but it didn't stop my enjoyment: Taylor is engaging and intimate throughout and there are times (the love-letter reading sequence) where the audience's attention is held rapt. Occasionally we drifted into cliché territory but on the whole, the detail of the writing kept this well and truly afloat.

Markus Makavellian's International Order (Drew Taylor/Proud Exposure, Underbelly)

Verdict: tight writing and a flamboyant performance make this a captivating hour after a wobbly start.

Impressionist Gardens: asphyxiating colours

I'm not going to bother with preamble. The Impressionist Gardens exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland is brilliant. It's a thoughtfully curated collection of works leading up to and including the whole Impressionist period, covering gardens and natural outdoor spaces. Quite broad, you would think, and yes: there is a wide range of subject matter, but all showing fine examples of the Impressionists' use of colour and warmth to generate atmosphere.

The first room, Towards the Impressionist Garden, explores some of the work pointing towards the techniques and styles that the Impressionists proper would use, and an increasing obsession with the natural world. The vibrancy and sensuality of Eugene Delacroix's Still life with flowers (1834) - a rust-coloured background highlighting the heady flowers. I also loved Corot's Parc des Lions at Port Marly (1872) with its silver birches dividing a brother and sister.

Mary Cassatt - Summertime (1894)
Leon Frederic - The fragrant air
Gaston La Touche - Phlox
The largest room displayed a variety of Impressionist works. One that made a real impression on me (sorry) was American painter Mary Cassatt's Summertime (1894) with wonderful depiction of a young girl's shoulder being the highlight. Even more striking, although rather hideous in some ways, was Leon Frederic's The fragrant air; it's not a beautiful depiction of a child, but you can feel the warm air, the smell of the roses, the innocence of the child. It's a startling work. A name new to me was Gaston La Touche; his painting Phlox is a celebration of whites and lights, the sunlight peeking through the leaves and bouncing off the flowers and dresses.

What surprised me was that although there are only a handful of works by the blockbuster names (Monet, Renoir, Manet, etc), the exhibition does not suffer one bit and there is absolutely no feeling of there being and "filler" (which was the problem with the Impressionism & Scotland exhibition at the same gallery a couple of years ago when they padded out the good stuff with a load of Scottish stuff from their own collection). Indeed some Scottish works were amongst the highlights: Arthur Melville's A cabbage garden (1877), placed later within the utilitarian and market gardens section, was one, with its gardener knee-deep in blue-grey cabbages. Belgian James Ensor's The garden of the Rousseau family (1885) also sits in this section, a real magical feeling, not to mention the spooky cabbages looking like eyes.

Monet - The garden at Vetheuil (1881)
It can't be said that the blockbusters aren't among the highlights, however. Sitting in a row in the main room are two Monets and a Renoir. Monet's The artist's garden at Argenteuil (a corner of the garden with dahlias) (1873) is an arresting piece: soft light and clouds (the weather has a very British, changeable feel) provide the background, with trees smudging into the sky. The viewer's eyes are drawn into the foreground where vibrant dahlias burst out of the canvas. The garden at Vetheuil, from eight years later, is overwhelmingly busy, with dense layers of dark colours. Renoir is represented by Woman with parasol in a garden, which features a striking dark figure in the background, surrounded by lush vegetation, almost like a jungle. It's this lush greenery which got me thinking, was there much Impressionism in Ireland, particularly in the southwest? The sheer lush intensity of the vegetation in parts of Cork and Kerry, where it's so warm and wet, would seem like ideal targets for French Impressionists, not to mention any local painters.

Other highlights included a Gauguin (Skaters in Frederiksberg Gardens, 1884) where the red autumn leaves highlight the coldness of the ice; Monet's pair of paintings of The parc Monceau in Paris, where he deliberately avoids the brilliant parts to concentrate instead on a shadowy corner; and The rainbow (1896) by Leopold Graf von Kalkreuth, who captures the feeble white sunlight contrasting the dark clouds perfectly. Serene figures shiver as they contemplate the rainbow.

Pissarro - The Cote des boeufs at L'Hermitage, 1877
Joaquin Sorolla y Baptista - The garden of Sorolla's house (1920)
Camille Pissarro is represented by The cote des boeufs at L'Hermitage, 1877, with its winding poplar trees which draw the viewer's eyes from one side to the other in a zigzag motion, and by the perfectly proprtioned The artist's garden at Eragny, also from 1877.

The final rooms, featuring later Impressionist works, are the most dreamlike and fantastical of all. Nature gets sinister with Van Gogh's Undergrowth while a couple of Monet's most misty, dimensionless waterlily works are also exhibited. Henri Le Sidaner - another I'd never heard of - made a wonderful piece called An autumn evening in 1895: an air of soft beige mystery surrounding a woman walking alone at gloomglow in profile. Meanwhile, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida's The garden of Sorolla's house (1920) is idyllic, with luminist shimmering perfection in a garden framing a dazzling white chair. It's an extraordinary work. Another Van Gogh work, the rather stark, raw Garden with path (1888) feels almost harsh and uncouth by comparison to the earlier lushness (presumably what contemporary critics felt as well!).

The very best is left until last, however, with works of rose gardens on the final wall - four heady, indolent washes of colour and texture: Klimt's Rosebushes under trees is one highlight but my favourite of all is the very final work - another one by Le Sidaner: The rose pavilion, Gerberoy (1938) is a wonderfully evocative work of colour and beauty.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Julien Cottereau - Imagine-toi: more than just bubblegum

My Fringe kicked off on Sunday with Julien Cottereau at the welcome addition to festival venues, the Spiegeltent rip-off run by Assembly (a member of box office staff informed me conspiratorially that they were on strict instructions not to refer to the real Spiegeltent). Cottereau, a mime artist/clown formerly of Cirque du Soleil, has the audience in the palm of his hand for an hour as he creates a host of fantastical characters and situations. From a brilliant extended sequence featuring a piece of imaginary bubblegum, to various animal creations, his only props are a series of audience stooges and his voice, which he uses to concoct all manner of noises. There were times where I didn't understand what was going on, but this is natural - many of the stooges were equally perplexed, and only Cottereau's vocal talents managed to turn rather wooden stomping around into some magical moments. I'll admit that I didn't join the standing ovation at the end, but make no mistake, this is a joyous hour for young and old alike.

Verdict: gentle and uplifting, worth and hour of anyone's time.

Will Glenda put her money where her mouth was?

At the election hustings I attended for Hampstead & Kilburn in April, Labour candidate (and now MP) Glenda Jackson impressed me to a surprising extent - she spoke eloquently on a number of subjects, and I wondered if she was able to shake off her "laziest MP in London" reputation, if she might end up being a half decent representative.

One of the subjects she spoke about most passionately was the electoral system and how it so desperately needs reform; a topic close to my heart. Of all the candidates on stage that evening, she spoke with the most vehemence, gravitas and rhetoric on the subject - and had me totally convinced that she would be a strong proponent of changing the electoral system.

Well, barely three months later and we are looking forward to a vote on the bill to put forward a referendum. Labour, who under Gordon Brown had piped up about being in favour of the Alternative Vote, are demonstrating the destructive, wrecking side of them that we have seen consistently since the election (and are rapidly putting forward the argument that they would be a disaster in any sort of coalition); they are using the "gerrymandering" excuse as the bill also contains elements relating to boundary changes.

Labour will be whipping their MPs to vote against the historic bill. Boundary changes can be argued one way or another, and perhaps it was cheeky to lump everything together in the same bill, but boundaries come and go. A chance to vote on the lame duck electoral system may never come again in our lifetimes. Glenda Jackson is not afraid to vote against her party whips. She should put her money where her mouth was at the hustings and vote in favour of the bill. I intend to speak to her about it before the vote. I hope other local Hampstead & Kilburn residents do the same.

Thrilling Brandenburgs from Gardiner topped by stupendous brass

An early start to queue for day seats meant that the hangover battle was marginally tougher than usual, but a local Sloane Square caff's bacon roll did the job and a tenner to hear John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists is a bargain not to pass up.

To my knowledge, I've never seen a Gardiner concert performance before - and it was worth waiting for: the Brandenburg Concertos are, for my money, about as close to musical perfection as you can get. I've known them back-to-front since I was about two feet high thanks to sitting on my dad's knee listening to Menuhin and Pinnock recordings (with the odd Wigmore trip thrown in). You'd never have anything at the Wigmore resembling the chaos of getting the audience into the auditorium in the first place at the Cadogan Hall though: they hadn't manage to get the audience completely in by the time the concert started. I promoted a concert there about four years ago and it was similarly shambolic; they no longer have the excuse of being a new venue.

We kicked thing off with the Concerto No 1, never one of my favourites, and it was a thrilling ride. Gardiner launched into the opening movement at a breakneck pace and the exhilaration never let up. It was a quite extraordinary performance. Swooping changes in colour and dynamics, a perfectly balanced second movement, and crisp main themes were excellent. Dominating everything were the horns. They hurled themselves into the fray, thrashing out cross rhythms like their lives depended on it. The music around may have been refined; the horns bullied and harried, "hooligans breaking up the party" as Gardiner observed during his excellent, and lengthy, discussions with Catherine Bott during the shifting of chairs between pieces. But these weren't modern French horns, but old-school hunting horns - nigh-on impossible to play. Both players demonstrated incredible technical skill - particularly Anneke Scott, whose trills and virtuosity were out of this world.

The slow movement was perfectly balanced, but it was in the beautiful polonaise, buried deep within the menuets (and shortly before the ludicrous horn & oboe trio), which provided one of the moments of the entire concert: following the lulling of the strings with their appoggiatura-like duplets, halfway through, where it breaks into a dance (you know the bit): suddenly, the strings crackled into electric staccato. My jaw nearly hit the floor - it was another thrilling moment. As Wagner once said of Beethoven's seventh symphony, it was the apotheosis of the dance. As a whole, the first concerto was a spectacular success.

The sixth was up next. Never a blockbuster, I've always had a soft spot for it thanks to its unique colours - dark yellows, mauves and browns provided by the instrumentation. With no natural high voices, the violas, gambas and cellos provide a rather oblique feel. The key (B flat) heightens the effect. The first movement, which has no real tune but is just a wash of dark tonal colour in languid, almost turgid rhythms, is almost impressionistic and I can think of no other piece like it. The group, now conductorless, played the colours up marvellously. The final movement, once again, as with so many of the Brandenburgs (as Gardiner emphasised) provided the EBS to show off their dance music making skills.

All the Brandenburgs are special to me but the fourth is especially close to my heart and was a disappointment. Kati Debretzeni was very accomplished in the virtuoso violin role, but I found Rachel Beckett and Catherine Latham - especially Beckett - extremely dull. The first movement plodded along, with one-dimensional staccato-by-numbers recorder playing, with little variation in tone or style. After the joys of what we had heard so far, I felt let down. The slow movement was similarly uninspiring, with only some excellent orchestral balance making up for dull solo playing. Only in the presto finale did the piece really spring to life - sparkling virtuosity from Debretzeni in the background supporting bubbly recorder solo lines. A wonderful ritornello came out of nowhere shortly before the end, reminding us that however brilliant the soloists might be, Gardiner remains the star of the show.

Technically, the day was split into two separate concerts, so after finding a paella stall just off Sloane Square (the only place that served something more promising than rocket ciabattas) it was time to go back for the second part. Among a set of some of the best music ever written, the third shades it as my favourite of all with its perfectly balanced nine solo strings and incredible fugal lines. This, too, was a riveting performance. We heard a lengthy violin improvisation as the non-existent slow movement (perhaps a bit of a partita); various conductors have done "all kinds of wanky things" according to Gardiner (Catherine Bott did well to keep her composure at this point, with producers doubtless falling off their chairs).

As wonderful as the melodies are throughout the Brandenburgs, the best thing of all is the harmonies and most of all the driving pedal basslines. None more so than in the third, where the tension is ratcheted up to fracture point at times with the bass. Although a soloist in the third, special mention must be made of the principal cellist (I will have to wait until I get back to London to check my programme for his name) whose continuo playing I thought was superb.

Gardiner and Bott indulged in some cringeworthy flogging of dead horses in repeatedly describing the music as "funky". They're really "boogying down", we were told. Set toes to curl and ears to shut. That said, I could see an obvious comparison: in the late 70s and early 80s, heavy metal guitar solos became ever more lengthy, virtuosic and gratuitous - and self-indulgently brilliant; I can't think of a better way to describe the harpsichord solo in the fifth. Ever since I was a kid I've loved the way the rest of the band gets out of the way to admire the harpsichord and this was no exception. The slow movement of the fifth always strikes me as the only movement in the entire catalogue that is genuinely dull - although the dainty last movement makes up for it.

We finished on a high note with some facemelting natural trumpet playing from Neil Brough in the second concerto, with oboe, violin and recorder providing able support. Brough didn't put a note wrong throughout and the final movement's lightning pace was a fitting way to finish.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Reviews: Daniel Kitson "It's Always Right Now Until It's Later" a winner but Grandage directs limp "Danton's Death"

It's Always Right Now Until It's Later (Daniel Kitson, BAC/Traverse) ****

Danton's Death (National Theatre) **

Daniel Kitson is the master of coaxing the most out of something so tiny that after an hour and a half in his company, you feel you'll be able to spot something idiosyncratic or beautiful in the tiniest thing you pass. It's Always Right Now... is typical Kitson fare these days, to be honest, and if you've seen any of his more recent material this will have a familiar ring to it. But that doesn't detract from it in the slightest. The night I went was the final preview night at the Battersea Arts Centre, before he transferred to the Traverse in Edinburgh for a (more expensive!) run which is currently in progress. He warned that it might be slightly shambolic, which is was at times, but not in a bad way. Kitson remains incredibly nervous, and was easily put off by shuffles in the audience; eventually this developed into a full-blown heckle from some bell-end sat next to me. As I pointed out to him afterwards, Daniel Kitson hasn't done stand-up since about 2004 (his complaint) but (as the knobwhiff found out) he is possibly the greatest exponent of putting down heckles in the world. The turbomong was duly despatched with, with savage efficacy.

Back to the show. Kitson tells the tale of two lives, independent of one another, in fleeting moments: falling off a bike, or a moment on a bus. It's loose and sprawling, but the tenderness with which he spins his yarns, and acute social observations, make it an utterly compelling 90 minutes. I emerged wide-eyed and inspired to look for more beauty in the mundane: if Kitson has a message, it is that all our lives are extraordinary. Which is an inspiring thought in itself.

Donmar Warehouse director Michael Grandage has been exalted to near-legendary status in recent years with some brilliant productions: I can vouch that his Othello with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan MacGregor, Hamlet with Jude Law, Ivanov with Kenneth Branagh and Twelfth Night with Derek Jacobi were all superb.

With Danton's Death, however, Grandage hits a massive dud. It is a lengthy French Revolution saga which is completely one-dimensional (lots of shouting) and linear (brave revolutionaries jockey for position and make "inspiring" speeches, ad infinitum). Toby Stephens as Danton is completely indistinguishable from the rest of the cast, and the only memorable feature, a nice guillotining gimmick at the end, only goes a small way to recouping the time wasted in seeing this show. Avoid.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Lush, but it ain't Tchaikovsky, Valery

World Orchestra For Peace/Gergiev - Mahler: Symphonies 4 & 5 (Proms, RAH) ****

An hour's queueing was enough to secure a gallery place to watch the world's greatest all-star orchestra on Thursday night. It felt like seeing the Harlem Globetrotters - the fact that it was Gergiev and Mahler made the gig that little bit extra tantalising. The result: a wonderful performance...but memorable Mahler it was not.

The Fourth Symphony isn't one of the blockbusters, indeed it's not one I'm particularly familiar with. The opening was arresting, with an exaggerated tempo change to the string line. Decidedly microtonal intonation marred the second movement - there seemed to be some problem with one of the horns. The third movement passed without incident; the end of the movement is bizarre, with a clashing gears tempo change and unexpected modulation late on. Camilla Tilling's soprano was beautiful throughout the finale, although solo vocals don't carry well up to the rarefied atmosphere in the gallery.

Throughout, the tones produced by the musicians were out of this world. The combined orchestral colours sounded like the Albert Hall organ at times, such was the richness of the sonorities. Strings were superb throughout. Aristocratic horns and clotted cream heavy brass (I particularly liked the tuba), but things were too measured, especially in the Fifth. The oboes didn't yowl, the clarinets weren't petulant enough. The first movement of the Fifth was taken at a majestically sombre pace, the triplets given paramount importance. I liked the interpretation. The second movement had some wonderful moments, notably the exposed cello line which was spinetingling (even hearing it puts an amateur cellist into jitters, it's a horribly stressful passage to play!). The gigantiLändler, a wild, rough jamboree, had too many ballet shoes and not enough clogs. As the movement progresses, it flirts with bitonality, and can feel like a party that's gone out of control as the harmonies and crossrhythms descent into anarchy. There was none of that here. The Adagietto was perfectly balanced, and The Greatest Note In All Music welcoming in the final movement was as pure as can be. Only then, in the final movement, did the orchestra sound truly Mahlerian. There was a swagger in the woodwind and aggression in the brass that had been lacking somewhat.

Had we been hearing Tchaikovsky, this would have been a stupendous performance. As it was, the evening was a masterclass in tight, marshalled orchestral playing. But a little more Mahlerian entropy would not have gone amiss.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

5 year old Gouda tops bill at cheese party

Last Thursday I hosted a Cheese, Port & Chess night. It was a throwback to uni halls, where a few of us used to waste all manner of late-night time playing chess and necking cheap port - most of the same crew were in attendance again. The eventual winner was a guy who wasn't part of that original Linstead crew but used to be some kind of U12s champion back-in-the-day.

We added a cheese element to the night and boy did the lads make an effort. Pretty much everyone turned up not only with a bottle of port but with a piece of cheese or two. we ended up with nigh-on twenty cheeses to choose from. A week later and my fridge is still rammed. Rachel and I emptied our wallets in Whole Foods Market, coming away with a selection of things. Others ventured elsewhere including Borough Market. as someone pointed out, there was almost no doubling up.

Highlights included:

  • a 5 year old Gouda - with almost fudge-like colour and texture, and an incredible dark nutty flavour
  • some knock-your-face-off Gorgonzola
  • something prehistoric wrapped in leaves, mould and stench, which must have been smuggled past customs
  • Brie de Melun (puts your normal Brie de Meaux to shame)
  • a lovely light creamy cheese from Borough laced with chilli
  • some tasty Gruyère
  • Saint Felicien
  • Fourme d'Ambert
  • Camembert
  • a nice Caerphilly
  • a massive chunk of Manchego
  • a Crottin de Chavignol
  • and an excellent Stilton.
Port highlights included a nice white port, and a Dow's 1991 which I'd been saving up for a while. Sadly, there aren't any photos of the night, but a lot of good memories.

The only problem is, if I ever have the good fortune to have a stag night, how can I top it?