Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Last week I was told to stand up or fuck off by John Lydon. I remained seated, just to antagonise him - what's the point of an unriled Lydon?

Yes I accompanied Owen to see his beloved Public Image Limited at Shepherds Bush Empire and as is our wont these days we had tickets in the seated first level - quite tasty ones too, 2nd row on the centre aisle. Rather see something of the stage than straining to see past the heads of the tall sods who always see the same gigs we do.Now to be honest I parted company with PIL after DEATH DISCO although I always enjoyed the singles that were released in the ensuing years especially RISE, THIS IS NOT A LOVE SONG and the hypnotic FLOWERS OF ROMANCE. However Owen was so hyper after seeing them last year at the Electric Ballroom that I agreed to give them a go.

As becomes the legend that he is, there was no support act, just booming reggae tracks which suited us fine! Just after 9pm the lights dimmed as they strolled on, John accompanied by his minder John Rambo, who looks anything but his namesake and who stands at the side of the stage staring fixedly at his charge.
John was in a natty red waistcoat over a white shirt and after a good gargle of brandy with an extravagant gob-out into a handily-placed dustbin he was off! He started off with a thunderous version of THIS IS NOT A LOVE SONG and off we went into a real journey in sound.

It was less of a gig, more of a Sensurround experience with booming bass, thudding drums and Apple computer aural augmentation - oh and John's wailing voice weaving over and under the sound to create something quite hypnotic. My favorite moments were during ...LOVE SONG, TIE ME TO THE LENGTH OF THAT, DEATH DISCO, FLOWERS OF ROMANCE (although I was a bit miffed the drummer didn't do the big drummery bit - I was watching him especially but I assume that was off the Apple), WARRIOR, DISAPPOINTED and RELIGION.

Eat your prison cap out Phil Spector - this is real Wall Of Sound stuff.It was just before WARRIOR that he kicked off at us "lazy sods" who were sitting in the circle and he returned to this subject for the rest of the set - I particularly liked his line "Fuck me I didn't know you could get wheelchairs up in the circle". After CHANT he pointed to the Reserved section and said "Look over there, those are my friends who are standing up... they are real friends... not like you arseholes so fuck off". The fact that most of the reserved section were sat on their arses rather went in the face of Mr. Lydon's argument so we chose to remain seated.

I needed to dash to the wees while the lengthy clappy-clappy between set and encore was going on... only to hear the opening bass line of PUBLIC IMAGE start just as I was in situ - OH YOU BUGGER I said aloud and raced back to catch most of the song (I had 'adjusted my dress' before you ask) and whadya know... the end of the song was greeted by me and Owen giving him a standing ovation. See Johnny, that's all it needed. He followed up with rousing versions of RISE and OPEN UP and was gone, with the promise of an album of new material at the end of the year.Owen's picture captures the atmosphere well... PIL are an experience not forgotten easily.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Oh I'm all getting all behind. Matron.

Last week Owen and I went to see the unpredictable Macy Gray at the Leicester Square Theatre. It was the third time we have seen her and the venues are getting smaller - Shepherds Bush Empire, IndigO2 and now the Leicester Square Theatre.
I was thrown by the support act - I read the name spelled out at the front of the stage as Tinashe. Oh thought I... a transsexual act if ever I heard one. Um... no it was Tinashé a young singer/songwriter originally from Zimbabwe. Oops. Actually him and his drummer mate made a nice sound and are definitely worth a listen.

Macy appeared in a white dress with diamonté detailing that dazzled the eye and launched straight into the Glitter-stomptastic KISSED IT from the new album The Sellout".

It got the show off to a rip-roaring start and the funky stuff didn't let up as Macy, her tight band and two delicious-voiced backing singers Mika Letts and Maiya Sykes kept it coming, love!
Macy kept letting us know that she liked being with her London sexy people *blush* but the intimate auditorium inhibited us from getting up and showing her how sexy we really were but eventually it was impossible to remain seated and all were up and giving in to Macy's crazysexycool vibe.

With a later costume change from the glamour to the practical by wearing a suit, Macy was always a hypnotic presence on stage. From the opening number with everyone on stage wearing huge afro wigs to the crazy freak-out of OBLIVION with high-kicking singers, a guy doing a Bob Dylan peeling off pages of lyrics the funky fun never stopped.

We were treated to an extended mix of songs from her first album including a glorious reggae version of STILL along with WHY DIDN'T YOU CALL ME and DO SOMETHING. She also sang GLAD YOU'RE HERE and a fierce GHETTO LOVE from the Big album, RELATING TO A PSYCHOPATH, SEXUAL REVOLUTION and SWEET BABY from The Id and from the new album we had a lovely version of THE SELLOUT, LATELY and BEAUTY IN THE WORLD. She also did her usual great cover of Radiohead's CREEP (a perfect song for her) and ended with an extended rousing version of I TRY.I hope she is back soon... nothing like some Macy Deep Soul Craziness to get your ass shaking, head nodding and singing along!

Friday, July 16, 2010

This week Stephen Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC reopened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway after the departure of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury with the new leads Bernadette Peters as Desiree and Elaine Stritch as Mme Armfeldt.Now I would give my eye-teeth to see them in it but, I don't know, they just look odd on stage...

In other Broadway news, Halle Berry and Samuel L. Jackson have been signed to appear in THE MOUNTAINTOP by Katori Hall which was the surprise winner of the Olivier Award last year for Best New Play.

Mindful that Denzil Washington has just had such a Tony award-winning smash hit with FENCES on the Great White (ahem) Way, there appears to be a scramble to get black film actors on stage.

The latest gossip is that the same producer who blacked up Tennessee Williams' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF has approached Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith to co-star in a production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE! The thought of those two pissing all over one of the greatest plays of the 20th Century is really a step too far.

Oh and on the subject of black actors and productions I would give eye-teeth to see....

The box-office opens tonight!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What's the best way to spend the hottest day of the year Constant Reader? How's about sitting in a 40-seat theatre under a railway arch in Southwark? It works for me - especially if I am seeing one of my favorite Sondheim musicals.But is ASSASSINS a musical? Not in the usual sense of the word. There are not many musicals where one of the leading characters will have two intensely powerful monologues with no solo number to 'cap' them but then the world of ASSASSINS is unpredictable, just as it should be.

Unsurprisingly the show has never found the acclaim it deserves on the Great White Way, no doubt in part to the unflinching light it shines at that most absurd of concepts The American Dream. If allegedly anyone can find fame as the President then surely it follows that anyone can find fame as the President's killer. It's not unusual to say that a Sondheim score haunts you but what I love about ASSASSINS is that John Weidman's morally-questioning book is as powerful and a true equal to the music. Although not without it's flaws one thing this production pointed out strongly is the role of the Balladeer, here played pointedly by Nolan Frederick. As the audience's unofficial guide he is the one who frames the musical numbers of the show's 'historical' assassins - John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Giuseppe Zangara while the 'modern' failed assassins - Sam Byck, Lynette Fromme, Sara Jane Moore and John Hinckley are mostly given scenes by themselves.Towards the end though as the Assassins and the Balladeer argue during the song ANOTHER NATIONAL ANTHEM, the Assassins force the Balladeer from the stage and by doing so remove the show's moral compass... which leads into the wonderfully-written scene where the Assassins seduce and convince the suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald to the course of action that does indeed unify them finally as a group of people to be taken seriously and not just disparate, sad, random acts. Personally I like to believe that's what really happened in the Texas School book depository!

This also echoes the actions of the fairy-tale characters in Sondheim's previous show INTO THE WOODS who sacrifice the onstage narrator to the avenging widow of The Giant because they don't like his superior tone.
As I said the weather on the day we went was sweltering and the confusing and cramped front-of-house area at the Union - seemingly the alleyway between two buildings - didn't bode well for having to spend the next 110 minutes cooped up inside a small auditorium. Thankfully when once inside the space was deliciously air-conditioned although we did have to sit in the cinema-style seats which wobbled alarmingly on a podium - especially when the not-onstage cast sat on the back of it.

As I said the production was not without it's flaws. The scene changes were frustratingly slow for a show that is supposed to keep hitting you with scenes and songs which stalled the momentum of the scene that had gone before and the choreography for THE BALLAD OF CZOLGOSZ - one of my favourite numbers - seemed needlessly tricksy and prop-heavy - especially as the stage directions are in the song - you just need a line of people queuing up to shake hands with President McKinley!
Although I am all for atmosphere, the loud blasts of dry ice from behind us were annoyingly diverting and dissipated above our heads before reaching the stage anyway. There were also one or two dodgy voices in the ensemble although I really liked the idea of having them as presidential bodyguards and I thought their singing of Sondheim's added song SOMETHING JUST BROKE - in which we hear reactions to the killings from ordinary people down the ages - was particularly fine.

Despite all these I have to say this is one of the most enjoyable small-scale Sondheims I have seen. Michael Strassen's production is gloriously unrelenting and he has elicited fine performances from some key members of his cast. Glyn Kerslake and John Barr are two actors who I know more for their concert or cd appearances than for any stage work but here they both gave eye-catching performances as the vain, charismatic Booth and the clearly insane Guiteau, Barr making the most of THE BALLAD OF GUITEAU in which Sondheim used the actual poem that Guiteau recited on the gallows, as he cakewalked and cavorted nearer and nearer to the rope even with his legs tied together.

Adam Jarrell was an impassioned and sympathetic Leon Czolgosz especially in his scene with the brusque but well-meaning Emma Goldman (Lisa Stokke) and Nolan Frederick was fine as The Balladeer.
Just out of interest, I wonder how anarchist Emma Goldman feels in the afterlife about featuring in two Broadway musicals - this and RAGTIME? I'm sure it makes up for the fact she was deported from America in 1917 eh?Leigh McDonald was hugely enjoyable as Sara Jane Moore, the hapless assassin who brings her dog and small son to where she is going to assassinate Gerald Ford. McDonald played her with an attractive zaniness and a genuine sense of desperation.

However the most out-there performance was Nick Holder as the paranoid Samuel Byck who in his two long and engrossing monologues took us deep into the heart of the Assassins' psyche - the irrational sense of grievance, the anger at failed dreams, the realisation that nothing changes whoever is in power. Holder was frightening, hilarious, grotesque and tragic within seconds of each other.
What I loved so much about this production is that unlike the recent trend of small-scale shows this one had musicians - yes, SIX real musicians - who got on with playing the score leaving the actors free to get on with their job.

This remarkable work which showcases one of Sondheim's most gloriously theatrical scores will continue to linger long in the mind and will always intrigue me to revisit it's dark carnival of killers.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

It's nice to have the odd adventure and last weekend Owen and I left London to simmer in the heat and took to the road (well, railway line) and visited Oxford for the day.

It was a bit of a time-travel moment for Owen as he went to college in Oxford at the end of the 70s for a short while before realising it wasn't for him and moving on. So it was interesting to walk around it with him as he kept up the mantra "this wasnt here then".

What was there was the tiny pub that he remembered drinking in listening to that heady combination of punk and disco on the jukebox, now very much changed but at least it was still there with a seeming emphasis on live music. Oddly enough this week we walked past the pub in Mayfair which was my 70s after-work drinkerie of choice - namely because the downstairs bar had a great jukebox packed with the same combination of punk and disco.We went round the Ashmolean Museum which was a nice way to waste an hour or so on a sizzling lunchtime. It had the requisite one-off work by famous painters as all regional galleries have but there were also some paintings that I had on my usual shopping list for when I am allowed to run around with a shopping trolley for 10 minutes namely an evocative John Singer Sargent parting of an Italian balustrade and I got my Bloomsbury fix with Mark Gertler's vividly bold portrait of Gilbert Cannan by his mill home with J.M. Barrie's dog Porthos who was the basis for 'Nana' in PETER PAN.They have a nice cafe in the basement too by the way.

Oxford was pleasant enough but I could hardly see any of it thanks to every building being about 4-deep in people - the place was MOBBED. I heard every dialect on God's earth on the streets - and in particular in the generic High Street... they were all there Next, WH Smith, Odeon, Pret A Manger, HMV, Caffe Nero, Sports Direct... all rather dreary.

Now Constant Reader, you really don't believe I went all that way just to look at shopfronts? Not then there is THE HARDER THEY COME playing at the Oxford Playhouse.

Yes it was time for my 7th visit to Ivan's ni-night and boy, were they a provincial, small matinee audience! Lines which have always met with BIG audience responses at best get smiles. All very discouraging but the cast still put their all into it and it was great to see Chris Tummings, Victor Romero Evans, Derek Elroy, Joy Mack, Marlon King and Jacqui Dubois for possibly the last time.
Anyways normal service was resumed at the end with the stalls up and hollering for more!

All in all, a very nice day out.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

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Monday, July 05, 2010

Well Constant Reader, that's *that* crossed off the list. For some reason, I have never seen a production of THE TEMPEST. I know... killing isn't it? Not even when Vanessa Redgrave played Prospero at The Globe - and if I didn't see that....

I had seen Derek Jarman's 1979 film version but remember being totally baffled by it as I was not familiar with the play - all I remember was Elisabeth Welch as a Goddess singing STORMY WEATHER - utterly brilliant! Sadly Miss Welch was not available for reasons of mortality to join the cast at the Old Vic on Thursday. More's the pity.Sam Mendes' production is the latest in his much-vaunted and slightly pretentiously-titled Bridge Project in which two productions are cast with both English and American actors. Much is always made of this, Kenneth Branagh could bore for Britain on the AMAZING concept of using UK/US actors play Shakespeare, but it's been going on for years ffs! John Gielgud's Hamlet to Lillian Gish's Ophelia; Paul Robeson's Othello to Peggy Ashcroft's Desdemona; James Mason's Brutus and Gielgud's Cassius to Marlon Brando's Marc Antony and Louis Calhern's JULIUS CAESAR, Gielgud's Henry IV to Orson Welles' Falstaff in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT etc.

I saw one of Mendes' Bridge productions last year THE WINTER'S TALE which was ok thanks to the performances of Simon Russell Beale and Sinead Cusack but hardly earth-shattering. THE TEMPEST sadly cannot draw on even these talents.

Within 10 minutes of the production starting I was groaning. I had heard the reports that Stephen Dillaine as Prospero was muffling his delivery but even before he spoke we had Alvin Epstein making noises as Gonzalo - "Ee o' eh' Ba Ee ho" was all I heard - and I was about 10 rows back in the stalls. I was all but shouting out "Speak from your bumhole not through it!"

Ok let's name names - out of the American actors I liked Christian Camargo's Ariel (hardly 'an airy spirit' but well-spoken and an arresting presence), Ron Cephas Jones' Caliban (again well-spoken and with a real stage presence), Jonathan Lincoln Fried as Alonson (a bit stolid but again well-spoken) and Thomas Sadoski as Stephano (a nice hair-trigger feeling of menace)Now the English - I liked Edward Bennett as Ferdinand but I was aware too that his over-emphatic delivery and stolid presence offers little variety in his performance, Anthony O'Donnell gave his usual sterling support as Trinculo making the 'rude mechanicals' scenes bearable and although Juliet Rylance was a convincing Miranda I found her delivery annoying, horribly reminiscent of Stella Gonet's matronly tones.
Which brings us to Stephen Dillaine as Propero. I must put my hand up to say I don't care for him much, I find his wheedling delivery profoundly irritating and earthbound. But who wants an earthbound Prospero? I don't understand how an actor can be given the opportunity to play one of the great roles and piss it away as Dillaine does. You want to feel the poetry in his lines? You want to hear Shakespeare speaking through him in his farewell to the theatre? Well you won't get it from Dillaine who plays the whole thing like an irritated old giffer moaning from his garden shed.I can only presume he is taking his lead from Mendes but it's a misguided lead. The production never felt to be leading anywhere or even know it had arrived. I waited for something to happen, to lift us out of the Old Vic to Prospero's unnamed island but we remained trapped in Tom Piper's cave-like set although Paul Pyant's subtle lighting shifts at least gave us an idea of where we should be in our minds.

As I sat there I found myself drifting back to Ian Charleson - although to be honest it doesn't take much for that to happen.

Ian was a well-received Ariel in 1978 at the Royal Shakespeare Company opposite Michael Hordern's Prospero and would have been sixty this year, the perfect age for Propero. Imagining the way Ian could have made the lines come alive made me resent Dillaine's whittering all the more.

Friday, July 02, 2010

This week I stepped back in time and looked into the future at one and the same time with the unstoppable Blondie!

Can it really be nearly THIRTY THREE years since I first saw them? Well I have the ticket still to prove it... and it cost me £2.50 to be 6 rows back from the stage.As you can see I saw them twice in 1978 as they went from Plastic Letters to Parallel Lines then I took a break from them - for 25 years.

Their last show at Shepherds Bush doesn't linger in the mind apart from singing Happy Birthday to Clem Burke but after their Blondiefication of WE THREE KINGS last Christmas and good reports of their new material Owen and I decided a trip to see them at the indigO2 was in order.Against a massive backdrop of signature b&w parallel lines with their name picked out in alternate stripes, Chris and Clem appeared with their new keyboardist, guitarist and bassist - they work their way through so many of these they are probably called "Hey you" by the three founding members - and of course Herself.

It was odd to look at her and think "That's Debbie Harry" one of the greatest pop icons ever - the Diva whose Bardot-like gob and all-knowing eyes were plastered all over my bedroom back in the day, the cool cartoon blonde bombshell to the icy hauteur of Siouxsie, the anarchic avant-garde of Patti and the upper sixth performing arts style of Kate.

It has been a source of some discomfort down the years that Debbie has aligned herself with the former First Ladies of Pop who snipe at Madonna who has always praised Deb as an inspiration. But then Debbie seems to always bring the drama, be it with Patti Smith or the ex-members of Blondie. Still credit where it's due, she is a pussycat next to that moaning cow Joni Mitchell.
And she's still hypnotic despite herself! As usual Debbie was dressed very individually - a tight-fitting blouse over an A-line mid-calf skirt of black taffeta and net (which put me in mind of something you might see at a 1950s mafia christening) offset by some colourful chains and belts around her waist.

After opening with a new song D-DAY Debbie slurred "Hi, it's Blondie calling" before they smashed into HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE, one of my all-time favorites. They kept me bouncing in my seat when they followed it up with the other Jack Lee song from Parallel Lines WILL ANYTHING HAPPEN. Je squeal!They then alternated between new and old songs - they gave us THE HARDEST PART (which I never cared for!), ATOMIC, RAPTURE, CALL ME, THE TIDE IS HIGH, MARIA and ONE WAY OR ANOTHER.

The good news is that the group have found their inner Blondie again - all the new songs sounded fine with a couple that were real standouts and have me squirming till the cd is allegedly released in September, in particular I really liked LOVE DOESN'T FRIGHTEN, THE END, WHAT I HEARD and MOTHER.The encore included of all things a cover version of Taio Cruz' BREAK YOUR HEART - yeah as if I knew, I did a lyric search when I got back home! - which I guess was interesting but when you have a wealth of hits etc. etc.

Normal service was resumed with blistering versions of PICTURE THIS and of course the disco glory of HEART OF GLASS with extended "Oooowooo woe-hos" at the end which gave me more time to watch my drumming god Clem pulverise his kit with mighty runs across the drums to keep the momentum going. It was 1978 all over again.
Hopefully there will be a follow-up tour when the album PANIC OF GIRLS is released in September. Go on Deb... you know you want to!