Monday, September 28, 2009

See the pretty lady Constant Reader?
This weekend she became the most successful female singer in UK chart history with CELEBRATION becoming her 11th #1 album.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Not too busy this week but had a couple of nights out.

Last Saturday I stepped into the Tower of London moat with Owen - luckily it was drained in 1830 - to see a WOMAD festival. Don't worry Constant Reader, I have not gone all NUTS IN MAY on you, I accompanied Owen to see The Imagined Village which is a bit of a folky supergroup collective.
There was a very genial atmosphere around & about and we we had timed it just right, leaving us about 30 minutes before The Village imagined. Sadly those minutes were spent queuing at the one and only food outlet. A massive, empty tent contained a table with a till and cashier who took your order and shouted it to the staff on the adjoining table to reach behind them for either a burger, chicken breast or veggie sausage on a grill - 30 bloody minutes we were in the queue!! That also meant 30 minutes of listening to the screamingly predictable whine behind me of two female WOMAD-types - meditation, friends who have kids called Emma and Jake, the fact that one of them was just back from her holiday in India where she had taken her sketchbook - oh you know... the usual.Anyways we headed off to the main stage and got nicely positioned by the wall of the Tower just as The Imagined Village were made real. Father and daughter folk stars Martin and Eliza Carthy were joined by the one and only Billy Bragg, fiddle player Chris Wood, Indian drummer Johnny Kalsi and singer/musician Sheila Chandra. They give you traditional folky songs but shot through with Indian instrumentation, British music for a multi-cultural age.

Now anyone who knows me will know of my biological aversion to finger-in-the-lughole "Well I went out a-wandering" songs full of suicidal milkmaids up the duff and disappearing soldier lovers, but I enjoyed The Village's set - a nice big full sound and all propelled by Kalsi's drumming as he wandered around the stage. Eliza Carthy is a fine big lump of a girl and fiddled up a storm! It was great to see Billy Bragg in his pearly suit and he sang his songs of multi-cultural Londoners with his usual effortless charm. He asked me to budge up the pew at Kirsty MacColl's Memorial Service you know...We decided to head off after the lights came up as we had seen who Owen wanted to see - and thank God we did because the heavens opened as we walked along the Southside of the Thames and sounds of drowning were heard drifting over from the former Moat.

On Friday night it was finally time to see Janeane Garofalo at the Bloomsbury Theatre - I had booked the tickets in April! I have been a fan of Janeane through her film and tv roles and have admired her publicised and much-criticised stand against the Iraq War so this opportunity to see her in Stand-Up mode was a necessity.

She was great - a hypnotically laconic performer - and loved the way she leapt from subject to subject in a totally conversation style: maxi-tights, airport security, feminine hygene, incontinent boyfriends, puppies, Southern Baptists, Catholicism and alcoholism as a lifestyle choice and as a pro-active help to recession-hit off licenses. I was as upset with the red light as she was... I would have happily listened to her for a further 45 minutes!

She was supported by the deceptively subdued Al Madrigal whose tales of unexpected fatherhood were sly and knowing.

A hugely enjoyable evening - and I am so happy that I've finally seen one of my great screen heroines Heather Mooney from ROMY AND MICHELLE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION live on stage!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Everything old is new again....

ok Rory... get your tracksuit off, you're up next....

Today it was announced that Rory Kinnear will be playing HAMLET at the National Theatre next year under the direction of Nicholas Hytner - the director of the last London HAMLET, Michael Grandage, will be directing a new revival there of Georg Buchner's DANTON'S DEATH which was last staged at the National Theatre in 1982 with the late and great John Normington as a chilling Robespierre.I have liked Rory Kinnear's performances at the National Theatre in BURNT BY THE SUN and THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY (itself very similar to "Hamlet") but with those performances in mind I can almost imagine how he will play it. I hope he can pull out some surprises.

Meanwhile over the water in December, Broadway will see it's first revival of Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in the production directed by Trevor Nunn which originated in London's Menier Chocolate Factory then played a brief season at the Garrick.

This was going to be the production which reunited Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave who appeared in a concert version of the show in January. Two months later events transpired to make this only a beautiful dream.Instead the production will be fronted up by Catherine Zeta Jones making her Broadway debut as "Desiree" and Angela Lansbury as "Madame Armfeldt". Well done to Alexander Hanson who will be reprising his role as "Fredrik Egerman"!

I must admit the idea of seeing Angela Lansbury in her fourth Sondheim show is making a trip to NY highly likely. But Catherine Zeta Jones?? She was fairly insufferable when she was a mere chorine in 42ND STREET at the Drury Lane!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

They've done it again! The utterly pop-drenched joy of Alphabeat's new 'un THE SPELL... Stine's singing "Your magic...." in the chorus is my latest favorite Pop Moment!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What is going to get me through the week now?

Last week I had to say goodbye to the last episode of THE WIRE.
Now I know the show has been on cable ages ago but as I am terrestrial only - yes Constant Reader, I am the only one left - I caught up with it this year when it was shown on Beeb 2. It arrived heavily promoted as one of the greatest TV series so as I *always* miss out on these - usually over-hyped - series, I sat back with my best Impress Me face on. By the end of the first episode I was as hooked as any of the street junkies in the show!
Over the span of it's five series, the lives of a wide range of people are followed in the city of Baltimore. Each series focused on a particular organisation - the police, the dock workers, the politicians, the teachers, the journalists - their lives intersecting all the time either in a big or small way, and as a constant thread linking them all together, the dangerous internecine world of the street drug dealers. The genius of the show was to use mostly unknown actors in all the roles - of all the cast pictured here I only knew seven! - so you came to each character fresh with no preconceptions of previous roles played. Of course now whenever I see them it will be different! The main surprise was the casting of three actors who definitely are known to me: British actors Dominic West and Aidan Gillen in the pivotal roles of policeman Jimmy McNulty and politician Tommy Carcetti as well as American actor Clarke Peters as detective Lester Freamon, who is primarily known for his stage work in this country. I have always liked him but his work here was one of the many triumphs of the series.
Conversely Dominic West is an actor I have never particularly cared for but in the role of the flawed anti-hero Jimmy McNulty he was never less than compulsive. He is due to appear at the Donmar soon - at the same time as one of his WIRE co-stars Reg E. Cathey (who played Norman Wilson, Mayor Carcetti's gimlet-eyed political right-hand man) is about to star in the Morgan Freeman role in the ill-advised stage version of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.It is rare to look back over 60 episodes of a show and find not a single bad performance - not one false note struck. David Simon, the show's creator, producer and co-writer is to be applauded for his particular vision for the show - the characters frequently committed either major crimes or tiny cruelties which hurt the lives of others, but none were ever judged or played accordingly. How often do you see an American series where the police and the criminals are given equal weight? All the characters seemed to know what was the right thing to do... but the compromises and deal-making to do the right thing inevitably took them further away from their goal. So often I kept finding parallels to other drama - Shakespearean and Greek tragedy played out on the urban streets, the American tragedy of Arthur Miller played out on the docks or in school rooms... it really was that good.
So many great actors helped by nuanced direction and deeply-layered characters made an indelible impression that will stay with me for a long time. I will miss their stories of loss and redemption.

11.20 p.m. won't seem the same again.
Yes Constant Reader, I have been a bit of a gadabout this week.

I'll quickly mention we went to see Roger Allam and Philip Quast in their last week of playing Albin and George in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at the Playhouse. The spotlight will swing back to the show next week with the arrival of John Barrowman as Albin so it was good to see it without the inherent over-balancing that he will no doubt bring.

We had seen Quast in the original Menier production and he was as good as he had been there - maybe better as he no longer had to contend with the more barnstorming performance of Douglas Hodge to play opposite. I had no idea what to expect from Roger Allam but he gave a fine, subtle performance, suggesting the middle-aged vulnerability of Albin and had a real "Dockyard Doris" flavour to his appearances as 'Zaza'!

If someone had told me a year or so back that I would have seen a production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES three times I would never have believed them! Memories of the elephantine production at the London Palladium in the 1980s had swamped any enjoyment had. Terry Johnson's stripped-down, more earthy version is coming up to celebrating a year at the Playhouse and one wishes it continued success and especially in it's coals-to Newcastle journey to Broadway next year with Douglas Hodge.

As Owen was seeing Amanda Palmer's extra Friday show at the Union Chapel in Islington I decided to take the opportunity to pay one of my infrequent trips to the Almeida Theatre. Either through my lethargy or their programming I don't seem to go there often but I was rewarded this time with James MacDonald's excellent production of JUDGMENT DAY.My main reason for going was because it was adapted by Christopher Hampton from the original play by the Hungarian writer Odon von Horvath. Hampton has a particular affinity for his work and I was first introduced to both writers through Peter Gill's fantastic National Theatre production of Hampton's TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD which imagined Horvath in WWII Hollywood with the other German emigre writers. The production made me an instant fan of Christopher Hampton and so this combination of the two writers had me hooked.

Odon von Horvath was a playwright in Germany in the 1920s and 30s whose work was constantly under threat from the Nazis but he stayed, observing the growing chaos and using it as inspiration. He left for a year in 1933 - marrying a Jewish opera singer in Budapest so she could have a passport - but returned in 1934 and went so far as to join the Nazi Writers' Union so he could work on film scripts under an assumed name. However in 1936 he was given 24 hours to leave Germany. He moved to Austria and continued to write. It was here he wrote JUDGMENT DAY.

He also wrote an acclaimed novel "Youth Without God" which was put on the Nazi Banned Books. In 1938 the emigre director Robert Siodmak invited him to Paris to discuss a possible film of it. After their lunch, Siodmak urged him to see SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. Caught in a violent storm while walking home, he sheltered under a tree. A branch snapped off and fell, killing Horvath instantly. Somehow you suspect it's absurdity and randomness would have appealed to him.

His work makes an interesting comparison to his contemporary Brecht: whereas Brecht showed the people doing bad things to each other as some parable for the evils of Capitalism, Horvath shows people doing bad things to each other because that's just what people do! No political framework trapping people, just human beings trapping themselves.

JUDGMENT DAY is set in a small Austrian town where the local stationmaster Thomas Hudetz is universally admired by all for his friendliness and attention to duty running the station and signals single-handedly. His distant and suspicious wife who is 15 years older is universally despised as is her brother who is the local chemist.

One night Hudetz is left alone on the platform with Anna, the young daughter of the town bar after she sees her fiancee off on his train. She taunts him with the knowledge that he is under his wife's thumb and, aware that Frau Hudetz is probably watching them from the flat above the station, she passionately kisses him. As she does, a train thunders through the station which Hudetz realises is an express train - and he hasn't changed the signal. The train crashes and a large number of people are killed.When questioned later in front of the rubbernecking townsfolk Hudetz lies that he changed the signal and blames the driver, although the stoker has survived the crash and says this was not the case. Anna is questioned and she corroborates the lie. Mrs. Hudetz appears and tells the Prosecutor that her husband is guilty as she saw him with Anna. The crowd protest violently that she is a jealous shrew and obviously not to be believed.Four months later, Hudetz returns to a hero's homecoming when all charges are dropped. Hudetz's despised brother-in-law Alfons is nearly lynched when he arrives during the party but he tells them all that he believes his sister to be a liar and is immediately welcomed into the loving embrace of the town. Anna however has been consumed with the knowledge of her lie and asks Hudetz to meet her later that night. When a body is found three days later, the town and the murderer has to face the truth at last.

MacDonald's brooding but swift production - 75 minutes no interval - was perfectly complemented by Miriam Buether's spare set with it's curved wall of vertical wooden planks which hid various sliding panels and a movable wooden platform - economic but effective, the design did not impede the momentum of the play but proved to be constantly surprising. Neil Austin again came up with an excellent lighting design which again never drew attention away from the play but lived in the memory after.

David MacDonald has also drawn an excellent ensemble together, you can imagine these people having lived together for years. Joseph Millson was perfect as Hudetz, deftly turning into a shadow of the morally certain man he was at the start. Laura Donnelly was also great as Anna - one is so used to seeing young actresses give merely adequate performances nowadays that her wilful then haunted portrayal really stood out. Tom Georgeson gave yet another fine supporting performance as her inn-keeper father and Suzanne Burdon was an excellent dour and unforgiving Frau Hudetz. Special praise must also go to Sarah Woodward, in blistering form as the town's venal, spiteful gossip and Julie Riley as the long-suffering barmaid Leni.

It's a play that lives on in the mind, in particular for Horvarth's understanding of human nature - in 1937 he was already able to identify the danger of a community basing it's judgment on it's bias towards an individual and the mitigating plea that because someone always followed the rules it made them innocent.Then last night it was my turn to accompany Owen to the Union Chapel to see Amanda Palmer. It was an interesting show as she had tailored the setlist to be site specific... mind you that didn't stop her saying fuck on stage!From what I can remember she sang AMPERSAND (very well done), THE POINT OF IT ALL, RUNS IN THE FAMILY, ASTRONAUT, OASIS and from her Dresden Dolls years we got SEX CHANGES and BOSTON.

She invited Neil Gaiman on stage to sing Derek & Clive (!), auctioned off a painting that had been done on stage during the two shows - it went for £450! - she played a Bach prelude, she answered audience members' questions in two 'Ask Amanda' segments, she sang a lovely version of Dillie Keane's LOOK MUMMY, NO HANDS as well as acapella versions of a doom-laden folk song and Tori Amos' ME AND A GUN which had her quickly wiping tears away after she finished. You never really know what you are going to get at an Amanda show - but that's what makes it fun!
She appeared after the show by the sparse (for her) merch stand to sign autographs with Neil Gaiman - and when Owen and I stepped up to the table he remembered straight off that we were the fans from the foyer of the Alan Cumming show! She was all smiles and thanked us for coming to see her again though we had to upset her with the news that we were not going to be at her midnight Camden show on Sunday. I hope she doesn't take it personally.

I have Owen's snap to illustrate the happy couple!

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Ooop a bit tardy with my September Legend of

Owen recently sent me a link to the Soul Music Store - which is The place for all soul cds on the web - which featured a review of the Four Tops at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1971 - and guess what Constant Reader? I was there! Down the years I had forgotten when exactly it was, I just remembered it was fantastic! Especially when they were joined onstage for their final encore by The Supremes - it was all almost too much for my young heart.

The Four Tops were always there on the radio when I was growing up and when I started getting into Motown in the early 1970s they were just getting their second wind chartwise with the wonderful SIMPLE GAME and KEEPER OF THE CASTLE as well as their duets with The Supremes RIVER DEEP MOUNTAIN HIGH and YOU GOT TO HAVE LOVE IN YOUR HEART.

Levi Stubbs, Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Ronaldo Benson and Lawrence Payton had already been signed to four record labels with little success when they joined Motown, indeed they had already been performing for seven years together originally as The Four Ames. Being teamed with Holland-Dozier-Holland however soon had the hits coming - and what timeless classics they are: BABY I NEED YOUR LOVING - ASK THE LONELY - I CAN'T HELP MYSELF - IT'S THE SAME OLD SONG - REACH OUT, I'LL BE THERE - STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF LOVE - BERNADETTE - SEVEN ROOMS OF GLOOM - WALK AWAY RENEE - I'M IN A DIFFERENT WORLD.

The Tops were hardest hit when Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label but still managed to make great records with WHAT IS A MAN, DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO, STILL WATER (LOVE) and the magnificent ALL IN THE GAME. When Motown moved to Los Angeles they signed to ABC and Casablance before briefly re-joining Motown in the early 1980s. They signed with Arista in the late 1980s where they had two last great chart hits: LOCO IN ACAPULCO and INDESTRUCTIBLE. No matter what label they were signed to, they always toured, frequently in the UK where they had always had a fanatical following.

Their songs are timeless thanks in part to great productions, Lawrence, Renaldo and 'Duke''s impeccable harmonies and above all else, Levi Stubbs' astonishing vocals. Never has heartbreak or joy been so beautifully captured than in Levi's impassioned singing. What also makes these songs memorable is the feeling that they were being sung by four great singers who had a special bond.

Sadly that bond was broken by Lawrence Payton's death in 1997. The remaining trio continued together until Levi suffered a stroke in 2000. Sadly 'Obie' Benson - who also co-wrote WHAT'S GOIN' ON with Marvin Gaye - died in 2005 and Levi died in October of last year. I don't mind admitting I shed a few tears when I heard the news.

'Duke' is still keeping the magic alive, with Lawrence's son Roquel who joined in 2000 as did Ronnie McWeir and former Temp Theo Peoples who joined in 1998.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

On Friday Owen and I went to see Alan Cumming's one man show I BOUGHT A BLUE CAR TODAY which is playing a week at the Vaudeville Theatre.

It was an interesting event, especially after seeing Beverley Knight the night before. Whereas Beverley totally gave herself over to every song, you could see Alan Cumming pausing during each intro, thinking himself into right 'attitude' to sing the song. I guess both approaches are valid but it lead one to muse on the style.I first became aware of him as one half of the riotous double act Victor and Barry with Forbes Masson. They were a kinda camp concert party pianist and singer who appeared occasionally on stand-up shows in the mid-80s. They morphed into Sebastian and Steve, the bickering air stewards on the BBC sitcom THE HIGH LIFE. By then he had already appeared as the Emcee in Sam Mendes' reinterpretation of CABARET at the Donmar Warehouse, it was only when it eventually transferred to Broadway in 1998 that he became that most misnamed of creatures, an overnight sensation!

He has since found it hard in roles being offered to shake off the persona that the Emcee established for him - dark, reptilian, pansexual. His career in mainstream film has been constant but hardly laudable but he is carving out a nice niche in offbeat documentaries - he co-produced the excellent SHOW BUSINESS which covered the 2003-4 Broadway season. He is also a player in the gay celeb world which has resulted in an OBE for his services "to the community" as well as to his profession.

He has a great personality on stage, winning and tart, and he certainly had an interesting setlist comprising songs from a diverse range of talent from Cyndi Lauper to Dori Preven, from Cole Porter to Victoria Wood. He also provided a good overview of his career with a particularly touching mention to Natasha Richardson who "held his hand" during the madness of the Cabaret period.He was ably assisted by the talented Lance Horne as his music director/pianist who also wrote several on the songs in the setlist. If I had a quibble about the show is on balance there seemed to be one too many touchy-feely love songs which were an odd contrast to his more caustic on-stage banter.

The show has kind of vanished out of my mind to be honest for the lovely coda to the evening! After our post-show visit to the loo we came out to find the audience mostly dispersed so Owen headed to the foyer bar to buy Cumming's cd of the show while out of the corner of my eye I saw a guy taking photos of his lady friend as she lay on the foyer carpet! I thought "Girl you are gonna catch something off that floor" just as I also realised that the bloke was Neil Gaiman ergo the other person was none other than Amanda Palmer. I tugged Owen's sleeve and the look on his face was priceless!
As always Owen had his Dresden Dolls "Punk Cabaret Is Freedom" badge on so after shyly butting into the photo shoot he was rewarded with Amanda bouncing up off the floor and giving him a big hug! We had a lovely chat with them - we told Amanda that we had talked about her in the interval as the first act closer Alan C had sang a wild version of "Mein Herr" which Amanda has sung live as well as "I Don't Care Much" which he also mentioned! She said she was going around to see him so hoped he was a fan - bless.
We talked about her upcoming gigs at the Union Chapel and when Owen told her he was going to both nights she said that immediately decided her mind to change the set list! We bade them a fond farewell and I then walked to Leicester Square Station with Owen bouncing off the clouds like a happy Owen-shaped balloon! And to think everyone in the foyer bar before the show were whispering behind their hands and jittery because Geri Halliwell was there! Who knew there was a singer there as well?
On Thursday I reached a rather important anniversary... the 10th time I had seen Beverley Knight in concert... and all I can say is "Wow"!She was playing the - for her - intimate ICA to launch her sixth album "100%" to her appreciative fanbase (*waves*) - she was ready, we were ready - cue lift-off!

Every song, new or old, received rapturous and sustained applause - and deservedly so. Beverley has been making great music for 15 years now and is no where near where she should be in the music world - loved and appreciated yes, but where is the recognition or even a tenth of the promotion afforded to the white singers such as the over-praised Duffy, Adele, Joss Stone... Amy Shitehouse? Leona Lewis... my arse. It felt good letting her know how much she IS loved and quite a few times she seemed visibly moved at the response from us.

Bev looked fierce in skintight glittery trews, skyscraper bootie-heels and a see-through mesh top! From her back catalogue we were treated to lean and sinuous versions of FLAVA OF THE OLD SCHOOL, a mighty PIECE OF MY HEART, MADE IT BACK, a dense and bluesy SHOULDA WOULDA COULDA, a stomping KEEP THIS FIRE BURNING, GOLD and from the new album we heard the lovely new single BEAUTIFUL NIGHT, EVERY STEP, SOUL SURVIVOR, IN YOUR SHOES, TOO MUCH HEAVEN (yes the old Bee Gees song) and the soulful ballad BARE. The encore included the title track of the new album "100%" and a superfunk COME AS YOU ARE sending us all skittering out into the night with big smiles!
As you can see we were quite close to the stage - only about four people back - so I managed to get some half-decent pictures but Bev really should not be viewed through a lens... especially as she engages in heaps of eye-contact! Yes Bev that was me going woo-woo-woo!

Monday evening will find me turfing into town to buy "100%"! It's being released on Bev's own label Hurricane so I hope it's a massive hit for her.