Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Review These Trees Are Made Of Blood

These Trees Are Made Of Blood
Book by Paul Jenkins
Music and Lyrics by Darren Clark

That Was The Kidnapping And Murder That Was

The legacy of the Cold War years in South America is still very much with us with issues unresolved.

In 2015, director Amy Draper with writer Paul Jenkins and songwriter Darren Clark set about putting on stage "a political musical cabaret" about the Mothers Of The Plaza de Mayo who still stalwartly protest against the terrible abuses of the Argentinian regime at that time.

We didn't see The Trees Are Made Of Blood two years ago, but now the team behind the show, led by the same director, has revived it on a two-tier cabaret stage, designed by Georgina Lowe and Alex Berry, at Dalston's Arcola Theatre.

The headscarved women in the Plaza are the mothers of "The Disappeared",  many of them student activists, abducted by the military, raped, tortured and murdered in numbers estimated, according to Wikipedia, at anything from 7,000 to 30,000 between the 1970s and 1980s during Argentina's "Dirty War".

TLT has to be honest that she found the portrayal of these terrifying times channelling a nipple-tassel drag act, magic, stand up and turns seemingly trying to emulate the Cold War era British show That Was The Week That Was less than compelling.

Yet like many a musical, it's the book rather then  the music, lyrics, musicanship and singing, arranged by the composer for the band of Rosalind Ford, Neil Kelso, Eilon Morris, Anne-Marie Piazza and Josh Sneesby, which is the weak link.

The British creators  of These Trees Are Made Of Blood (a good title but rather at odds with the cabaret concept) are undoubtedly passionate about the subject. Even so, the cabaret veers  towards the generic. It feels  as if it is borrowing its cabaret structure rather than finding its own shape and voice.

In giving little or no hints about previous Argentinian history and culture, this piece, despite all the subsequent disturbing delving into the torture chambers, feels  uncontextualised and even sometimes skewed. So, for example, a British aspect to the story late on probably unintentionally gives Britain an almost heroic status. 

The combination of satirical cabaret and the more straightforwardly affecting tale of mother (Ellen O'Grady) and daughter (Charlotte Worthing) also sits rather awkwardly together.

Yet in the latter tale, when the General with great coat and epaulets who hosts the Coup Coup Cabaret and perpetrates countless crimes, is reduced to an aged civilian in a cardigan and slacks, the narrative has the potential to become piercingly insightful.

However reduced to the thinnest outline, with too neat an ending, this part of the play was almost  drowned out by the preceding sometimes over-egged cabaret set pieces.

There are still  more thoughtful, ambiguous lines within the cabaret. For example a mother-in-law joke indicating the deep structures of anti communism and a lawyers' network geared towards cover ups - but it feels too much like a throwaway line rather than hooking into the story,

OK, not all the audience have lived through the age of the  books, newspaper articles and documentaries which emerged some years ago covering the subject. These Trees Are Made Of Blood is certainly a solid introduction to this shameful history.

Nevertheless it could be a lot shorter and more pointed with the songs part of a tighter structure.

The problems, which have also now emerged concerning the children of kidnapping and rape, the grandchildren of the Mothers, are not even touched upon. It therefore feels merely expedient to take what should be a heartfelt slogan "Never Again" to end suddenly a meandering book and we give it an amber light.    

Monday, 19 June 2017

Review The Misanthrope

The/Le Misanthrope
by Molière

Back To You In The Studio, Alceste

The bilingual theatre company Exchange promises much in an interesting, if deeply flawed, version of  Molière's classic 17th century tragicomedy The Misanthrope. 

The milieu is updated from the French court to a contemporary TV and radio current affairs channel. Alceste is the misanthropic news anchor whose increasingly, in the eyes of others, bizarre behaviour  makes him bite the very hand that feeds him.

In a age when citizens globally are increasingly turning from mainstream news to a mishmash of opinion, soundbites, memes but also some genuinely investigative alternative sources, it's a pretty good concept for Molière's satire.

However, once the initial idea is in place, this under-rehearsed production doesn't fully think through the situation or push towards all the logical conclusions. It's not helped by an over-fussy set which tries to emulate a cinematic look but ends up impeding the action.

After a hesitant start and rather muffled diction also afflicting some other roles, the Alceste of David Furlong (who also directs) does develop as a very strong lead and gains in clarity and eventually pathos.

His dark-eyed, expressive looks both fit the 21st century role and give a glimpse of the 17th century courtier. This is in keeping with a successful verse translation, plus some additions for the new media age, which wisely doesn't attempt to change the fundamental 17th century text.  

Alceste is a TV anchor who turns against the hypocrisy of the life around him, railing at a world of artificiality, sycophancy and fraud. 

His uncompromising position when he refuses to give a flattering response to a wealthy would-be rapper and love rival  (Palmyre Ligué) leads to a law suit.  Meanwhile another of his targets, fellow TV celebrity Célimène (Anoushka Ravanshad) to whom he is also attracted, threatens his very sense of self.

It would be all too easy to call this version a mixture of the movie Network with the TV comedy series  Drop The Dead Donkey, but Molière's satire has a double edged potency and complexity which makes this a very crude summary. 

Yet, with some uneven performances aside, this production seems diverted by Donald Trump and fake news - video news clips and musical interludes roll on too long - and it misses a simpler and more focussed premise - a hard news reporter frustrated by his promotion to the role of celebrity presenter. 

There are consistently strong performances from Simeon Oakes as more measured colleague Philinte and Fanny Dulin as female co-presenter Eliante. 

However other roles lack timing with self-conscious Amadeus-like brays of laughter and awkward poses and pauses.

There are also performances in French on alternate nights, but the English version was decidedly under powered on press night, even if there were some powerful moments.  

Frustratingly, as with the concept, all the cast gave signs of being capable of better. However, this is a play which relies on a dynamic and intricate domino effect leaving the audience with no easy answers. 

The lasting impression was of an under-developed idea which left the actors adrift from each other, without a precise compass for their particular role, rather than sparking a chain reaction which Alceste finally ruptures. It's a lower range amber light.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Review Hamlet

by William Shakespeare 

Catching The Conscience Of A Nation

The transfer of the Almeida Theatre’s Hamlet into the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre is an unadulterated success, with Andrew Scott leading an accomplished cast in a memorable production.

Scott achieved global fame for his Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but where Moriarty is an evil genius, Scott’s Hamlet is an angry and very human young man.

It's a cliché, but it's still worth repeating, Hamlet is so multi-faceted it’s always possible to draw insights from it into the human condition and also for it to be a thermometer reading of contemporary times.

And so it is with this production. Scott’s temperature is hot -- he is at fever pitch, but the prince’s antic disposition reflects the passionate anger of a young person betrayed, confused, numbed and then outraged by the actions of his parents’ generation.

He knows the marriage of his mother Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) to her brother-in-law Claudius (Angus Wright) is wrong. The transfer of this production comes after a series of terrible, wrong real-life events.

The  numb shock, the realisation, the profound anger suddenly takes on new resonance as the famous lines and the play-within-a-play within Hamlet speak afresh.

The ghost of Hamlet's father brings clarity to and hones Hamlet's intentions and, many would say, reflects a generation gap between older and younger citizens where global warming, career insecurity, lifelong debt and the breaking of social contracts is descending on us in wave after wave.

Scott’s  Irish accented Hamlet chops at his words which jump out at the audience with the driest of humour and, above all, a burning, angry, raw intelligence. His rhythms and intonations are pure 21st century.

Obviously with the worldwide fan base and celebrity, many of the audience around me were under 35 and possibly not there solely to see a Shakespeare play. Yet this is visceral production that may have taken many of them unawares and given them arguments to follow and grasp in a gripping plot during febrile times.  

Director Robert Icke’s production, with set and costume by Hildegard Bechtler, is also pure 21st century.

There are video screens, dodgy Internet connections (Claudius cannot even get his computer to start, he has to be helped by IT), and live video streaming.

Even the supernatural is inextricably associated with CCTV broadcast and a bank of video screens manned by castle security guards with events reported as if they were breaking news.

Stevenson’s Gertrude also goes through her own revelation and re-evaluation of what is going on, the turning point coming when she is watching the play-within-a-play as she is needled into, "The lady doth protest too much" and her own realization.

Peter Wight’s Polonius, the well-upholstered old-guard courtier has the manner of a local freemasonry lodge stalwart, eminently believable in his verbal pomposity as an out-of-touch palace politician.

Icke’s production overall has wit: when Hamlet appears he has a worn leather suitcase, his baggage is dragged around  as if he is always prepared to be a traveller to "the undiscovered country",

And, aside from the monologues, ths intimate production breaks the fourth wall, with Claudius and Hamlet invoking the audience and the royal family literally taking front row seats. .

It’s nearly 35 years since I saw my first Hamlet followed by several since then. Scott’s Hamlet is the wittiest, most intelligent, and most humane of them all and it is a performance that will long stay with me. A green light for a production which achieves greatness.  .

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Review Remnants

by Erratica
Created And Directed by Patrick Eakin Young
Based On The Memoir The Stone Fields By Courtney Angela Brkic
Composed by Christian Mason and Shelley Parker

Beneath The Surface 

When terrible events occur, it can feel to those involved that the world is divided up into those who have gone through such trauma and those who have not, with no bridge to cross over from one to another.

Remnants combines real-life verbal testimony, dance, original electronic music and Balkan folk song to give a very particular history of a family in Croatia and Bosnia Herzogovina.

It is based on the family history and experiences of a first generation American, Courtney Angela Brkic, whose father and relatives endured the Second World War in Sarajevo and then saw both within the country and from the vantage point of the USA, the collapse into civil war in the 1990s and its aftermath.

The remnants of the title are both the clothes of the massacred and the individual and communal memories of lives - and deaths - stretching back to the Second World War and all are excavated during the course of the performance.

Created and directed by Canadian Patrick Eakin Young, a cast of five evoke the double layered tale of the 1940s and the 1990s.

Fabiola Santana is Brkic's representative on stage with close cropped hair and angular choreographed movements (choreography by Jamila Johnson-Small) which also convey the dislocation of the land of her childhood visits.

The recorded words of Brkic bear witness to her own literal part in the excavation as a forensic archeologist after the late 20th century civil war which ripped the country apart set against her grandmother's and father's lives in the Balkans and America.

Starting from Brkic's relationship with her father, the piece moves fluently between the young woman's work as part of the forensic team trying to identify the human remains and clothing of the Srebrenica massacre victims.

Brkic's words and projections of family photographs also lead us back to the village in Herzogovina of her father, uncle and grandmother. The four sisters, played by Emma Bonnici, Victoria Couper, Eugenia Georgieva and Olesya Zorovetska are introduced using music, percussion and haunting voices in song.

With musical direction by Jamie Mann, a soundscape by Alex Groves and electronic music  by Christian Mason and Shelley Parker, the cohesions and factures of the family are then traced after the narrator's widowed grandmother moves to Sarajevo with her two young sons. In the city she strikes up a relationship with the son of a Jewish shopkeeper before the catastrophe of the second World World War and a fate which reflects back on the civil war of the 1990s. 

The story is outlined with sensitivity with an abstract black and white set lit by Burke Brown and  designed by Ana-Ines Jabares-Pita, with minimal props but enough to conjure up the ways in which women were left without any certainty about the fate of their husbands, sons and other male relatives.

While the production is smooth and abstract, it's a raw, horrific story and sometimes one longs for a little more context even if the tale of an individual family draws us in.

There are a series of events and an exhibition accompanying this piece and the affecting performance does feel like a threshhold stimulating a curiosity to find out more and it is careful not to try and bridge the divide with sentimentality.

It's a compact and clear meditation taking us beneath what might otherwise seem like cliché and we give it an amber/green light.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Review Bring On The Bollywood

Catherine Kelly's career has included freelance journalism, as well as art director and magazine editor roles. She currently runs training workshops and has worked extensively in India.

Bring On The Bollywood
by Samir Bhamra
Music by Devesh Sodha and Niraj Chag

From India With Love

A feel-good extravaganza, Bring On The Bollywood, currently on tour,  has plenty of talent on board within its romantic East versus West star-crossed lovers musical comedy format.

There's a love story with many of the elements and twists and turns expected of a Bollywood movie plus a neat twist examing contemporary British Indian attitudes towards India.

Inspired by Oliver Goldsmith's eighteenth century play She Stoops To Conquer, the stock figures of Goldsmith's comedy and the Bollywood genre meld together well. It proves a strong framework setting up the modern against  the traditional, reality versus idealism, all within a romantic comedy that pays heart-warming homage to Bollywood.

Nisha Aaliya's Dr Katrina Pawar is our London-based heroine who returns to her parents' home in India for the wedding of her younger brother, Lucky played by Anthony Sahota. There's a series of tangles resulting in Katrina's parents' home being mistaken for a hotel but true love wins the day when the "samosa" love triangle is resolved.

Dance, unsurprisingly in a show modelled on Bollywood, takes centre stage choreographed by Subhash Viman,  Dr Leena Patel and Sonia Sabri  in a dazzling and dizzying array of ensemble set pieces. Many of the songs are also recognisable from Bollywood movies.  

Nevertheless it's long at nearly three hours and would benefit from hefty cutting and pacier direction by the show's creator and director Samir Bhamra.

This might also have increased the chemistry  between the two good-looking leads,  Aaliya as Katrina and  Robby Khela, who displays fine vocals, as her British born Indian love interest Ronny.

In a supporting role, Yanick Ghanty as Bollywood actor Amit has plenty of earthy comic swagger and is nicely matched with Rekha, an innocent Indian ward of the Pawar family, gracefully played by Sophie Kandola. Errant playboy son Lucky is a star turn by Sahota whose easy mastery of physical comedy quickly won the affection of the audience.

At the same time, it's often the more experienced veteran actors who carry the show.

Avita Jay's lovelorn Kanga gives maximum value both in the acting and singing stakes. Sakuntala Ramanee as the powerhouse matriarch matchmaker Lalita determined to marry off her children and Rohit Gokani as her bumptious husband Colonel Sunder Pawar also push the production up a much needed gear - ‘We don’t like each other but we love each other’.

There's spirited work from the dance ensemble of Emiko Jane Ishii, Jo Bispham, Mithun Gill, Raheem Mir, Kesha Raithatha.

However, having recorded backing tracks rather than live music did sap some of the energy out of the show and made me wonder whether it needed more volume to get audience toes tapping.

Apart from one clever transition when the Indian villa became a mountain top, the set, designed by Richard Evans, seemed rather inflexible in signalling mood and location changes, although Pete Bragg's lighting design made up a lot of the deficit.

Bring On The Bollywood has a great concept, story premise and  a witty script with depth and insight even if more experience in the 24-strong cast would give it the zing it deserves. However, the audience around me thoroughly enjoyed it and it's a sparkling upper range amber light.

Review DenMarked

A Theatrical Autobiography
Written and Performed by Conrad Murray

In The Loop

The music business lures in a lot of young talent which sometimes shys away from theatre. It's therefore refreshing to see that Writers Avenue at The Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton and Battersea Arts Centre have given space to a 60 minute one-man show from musician and actor Conrad Murray.

Conrad is a stocky figure in a red baseball cap who charts his life in a monologue combining guitar, song vocals, beatboxing, rapping (oh do we really have to put a link to explain rapping? 😉) and live looping.

The publicity image veers towards an American guy-from-the-hood feel and there is an inspirational American-like side to Denmarked. But it's also an intimate, simple but engrossing tale of a Mitcham lad.

While there is material which the publicity also flags up as 15+, Murray gives an appealing performance, directed by Ria Parry, diving in and bringing us on a journey with him.

He presents his story as  a series of short, vivid verbal and musical chapters starting with his hesitant steps- most of us can identify with this - as he enters the building where he's about to have a job interview.

DenMarked also introduces Murray's life against the background of the Shakespeare text introduced to him several years ago by a teacher. This gives a framework of quotes, some of which, it has to be said, work better than others.

The Shakespearean interludes can feel a bit clunky - but they also work in other ways. Of course rapping and the wordsmithery of Shakespeare work together.

But Murray discovers Hamlet's words take on a new meaning when superimposed on his own life and whip up his own enthusiasm. The title's new look at Hamlet's homeland, is an obvious example.

Murray is the child of what many would term bureaucratically a "dysfunctional" family - a violent father, a mother, beaten up by her husband, who seeks solace elsewhere, although she does hold down a responsible job and he also has a rock of a brother.

Murray maps his struggles, his dreams (in all senses of the word), his rebellion against "inevitability", a life of crime on the estate.

He also marks the coming to terms with more matters. Amongst other things, his Indian heritage through his father and even his Mum's Dad's refusal to go against his egalitarian principles and buy his council house instead of thinking of his family's individual interest. It's mentioned in passing rather than laid on thick and all the better for it.

By the end, the hard-won bright spots overcome the many darker phases of his life and the winning of a  holiday park singing contest and acclaim of his classmates does, with many and various detours include a few bus rides, lead to something good.

This is quite a low key unostentatious show, carefully thought out with touches of self deprecating humour and lighting by Mitch Hargreaves. DenMarked is not perfect and there were times we longed for more information but at other times we could also understand his caution.

You want to know how the job interview turned out? You'll have to catch the show but hurry because the short run finishes on Saturday. It's an upper range amber light and we look forward to Murray bringing further layers as he continues to builds up his undoubted skills in theatrical performance. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Review Anatomy Of A Suicide

Anatomy Of A Suicide
by Alice Birch

Paper Dolls

Some years ago TLT reviewed a sad but tremendously worthwhile book where the author, the late Siân Busby, traced the circumstances leading to a young woman's conviction for infanticide and its impact through generations stitching them together in a remorseless thread.

The writer. who had an equally difficult childbirth experience, was more than sympathetic to the woman convicted of a charge - killing her own baby - simultaneously classified as a crime and a mental illness and a defence to the charge of murder.  The woman was Siân Busby's great grandmother.

The book came to mind watching Alice Birch's new play about three women who, it is gradually revealed, share a family link and a predisposition towards taking their own lives. However, unlike Busby's book which discussed among other matters the legal characterisation of women, there is little of the social and economic context.

So anyone coming to Anatomy Of A Suicide expecting the title to be ironic may rapidly find themselves wrong footed by the two-hour play which, rather disturbingly to our mind, seems to want to persuade us suicide is an inheritable trait.

In Birch's bleak determinist universe for at least two generations from the 1970s through the 1990s until the more disruptive 21st century future, the outcome is inevitable.

Yet they also appear to be self-inflicted, all of which for us comes perilously close to first world problems.

It's true that, and this is not to trivialise, within the same generations of men, clothes hardly undergo radical change. While the women are like paper dolls, every now and then stripped down to their underwear and re-dressed by others, as in those days before computers when we girlies lovingly snipped on the dotted line and clothed such dolls with a variety of  pre-printed paper skirts, blouses and dresses.

Yet the problems outside their psychological state seem practically non existent - 1970s' Carol (Hattie Morahan) has no worries about her financial independence or her daughter Anna (Katie O'Flynn) other later financial anomalies preventing parity with husbands, which surely has implications even for the experiment in communal living in which she dabbles with her partner.  

The three lives do run side by side as in a split cinema screen or church triptych, with sentences and dilemmas counterpointing each other like an undulating musical ensemble piece. There is a light touch theme of property and jobs in relation to the women and by the final scenes it is partly through these that a cycle seems to be broken.

There is also no doubting the intricate skill shown by writer Alice Birch and director Katie Mitchell in interlacing the three shifts of times stitching together the three women, model-like Carol, Goth Anna and more clinical Bonnie (Adelle Leonce).

Anna played by O'Flynn (last seen, somewhat intriguingly, as Laura in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie) was distinctive for us, both for her performance and because her actions mark a more seismic change in the family.

But we can't pretend that this story, played out on Alex Eales's concrete gray set, held us for the full two hours without an interval where everyone outside the trio seemed so well-meaning, if misguided. Maybe there was a subtle political and historical thread (we're not sure), but, frankly, we're grasping at straws here.

All this  appeared to us to be buying into, rather than dispelling, a secular pseudo-scientific medicalised view of woman's biological destiny, even with the final gentle rupture.

Maybe also the title led us almost to expect an analysis through women's bodies and minds of a changing anatomy of Britain. However, if so, our pre-conceived notions, like the paper dress with tabs fitting perfectly the doll, were matched by the pre-conceived notions in the play and it's an amber light.

Review Danny And The Deep Blue Sea

Peter Barker applauds the acting and direction in an American one-act play which uses dance and music to enhance the action

 Danny and the Deep Blue Sea
by John Patrick Shanley

Barroom Encounter

The latest play at the tiny upstairs Old Red Lion Theatre stage is an intense but hopeful two-hander set around the relationship of two lonely and damaged people in a grimy and noisy New York.

The two castaways thrown up by the ocean of life, Danny (Gareth O’Connor) and Roberta (Megan Lloyd-Jones), meet while seeking solace in a seedy bar in the Bronx district of the city.

John Patrick Shanley wrote this short, 75-minute play in 1984 but it still feels contemporary. The play’s arc, two people meeting in darkness, pain and anger and travelling towards light, happiness and hope, may be conventional, even sketchy, but it still works.
Danny is scarred, bruised and bloodied after a brawl when he came off the victor but fears repercussions. Roberta’s scars are not so visible, but she has a childhood secret for which, although the innocent party, she blames herself.

O’Connor’s Danny conveys the brutishness and the uncommunicative nature of a man trapped within his aggression. Lloyd-Jones brings the right sassiness and hurt to the role matching Danny’s physical violence with a strength which still has a vulnerable spot, her neediness.

One of the strongest parts of the production are the two episodes of superb choreographed music and dance by the pair  (choreography by Kate Lines set to music by Ross O’Connor) which also manages to move the plot and action along. It’s a joy to see some dance in a production like this.

This reminded me of the Sea Interludes in Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes communicating gracefully internal storms and passion. Indeed Danny is much like Grimes, lacking eloquence and on the outside of society, needing to be understood, even if the play's ending is much more upbeat than the opera.

Nevertheless, the play feels rather slight, lacking the length and breadth of a more substantial play and the drama, however well-acted, suffers a little for its brevity.

Shanley is probably best-known as screenwriter for Hollywood movie Moonstruck, but also won a Pulitzer for his play Doubt, A Parable, soon to have a London revival.

Director Courtney Larkin keeps this revival's action fast moving, playing to its strength, the robustness of language. The minimal set is suitably seedy as a bar with cheap tables and worn seats, and later a messy bedroom.

The ending, it has to be said, stretches the bounds of credibility. However it would be mean-spirited to ignore the strengths of this production -- both the performances and the choreography --  outweighing the limitations of Shanley’s story, and raising this production to an amber/green light.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Review The Enchanted

The Enchanted
Based on the novel by Rene Denfeld
Adapted by Joanna Treves and Connie Treves
Devised by Pharmacy Theatre

Living Death

Death Row has been in the news lately for glib reasons - part of a post election inquest and political rhetoric. However the reality of the death row exists all over the United States where jail inmates are left in limbo, sometimes for years, until the appeals process against their death sentences is exhausted.

This devised performance from Pharmacy Theatre, in an adaptation by Joanna Treves and director Connie Treves,  draws on an acclaimed novel by Oregon author Rene Denfeld, The Enchanted.

The core of the tale is  is the arrival of The Lady (Jade Ogugua), an investigator who works alongside the prisoners' legal defence teams to probe further at the eleventh hour into  the background of those facing the electric chair.

There's nothing to beat a good story and there is a good story here - as the plaudits novel writer Denfeld has received can testify. The investigator trying to save two  lives, that of Arden (Corey Montague-Sholay) and a fellow prisoner York (Hunter Bishop), as time runs out is the stuff of top notch police procedurals and Hollywood blockbusters.

Sholay grounds the whole with a stonking central performance, contorting his stocky muscular body and giving ahis  clear tender delivery of monologues. These are interspersed with the entry of The Lady into the prison and her work as she probes the backstories of the prisoners hoping to find the basis of a successful appeal.

But this is real life and, without having read the novel, we have mixed feelings about such non-naturalistic representations transformed into an exquisite fable and what at times almost becomes a dance piece.

 The collective waves of movement which involve all the cast interrupt the flow of the story and turn this staging into a self-conscious actorly piece. The introduction of small puppets feels out of proportion to the large space and the slope of the audience seats, taking the audience out of the moment.

This felt self-indulgent and lessened the impact of the individual pieces even if Sholay's performance manages to integrate the personal story of a man whose stunted mind finds some kind of freedom in Death Row and the physicality much more successfully.

All of which is a shame because there are some compelling moments. The investigator goes outside the prison interviewing relatives and telling us of their lives. Here the devised piece begins to spark theatrically. This happens sometimes at its most naturalistic and, dare we say it, filmic scenes..

There's the investigator's interview of an inmate's aunt (Georgina Morton) as The Lady starts to piece together the disturbing backgrounds of men condemned as monsters. There's also a curious interlude of a priest (Jack Staddon) and a prostitute which feels like scenes from a particular type of 1970s crime genre movie but still has some nicely honed performances..

Despite the strong performances and without having read the novel, TLT does wonder about the wisdom of turning the material into a lyrical  devised piece which sometimes tips over into the mawkish.

We recalled the direct simplicity of Oscar Wilde's poem The Ballad Of Reading Gaol with which The Enchanted shares some of the imagery and which deals much more simply with a similar issue.

Perhaps The Enchanted would work better with projections of real prison buildings and other more solid images of the outside world. As it is the poetic verbalizing sometimes swamps the piece and feels in conflict with the nitty gritty of the investigation. .

The stage, in a design by Jacob Lucy, is bare apart from the a white block suspended from the ceiling with branches splaying out. A long thin white block on the floor of the space is pushed back and forth by the cast revealing silver cans round its edge

On the whole, this feels like an overlong 90 minute piece studded with little gems from a talented cast but there is an imbalance between the lyricism and the more naturalistic sections when the story feels lost. It's an amber light for an interesting adaptation which, nevertheless, sometimes feels a little too constrained by the source material. 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Review Charlie Parker's Yardbird

Charlie Parker's Yardbird
Composer Daniel Schnyder
Libretto Bridgette A Wimberley

Sax Appeal

It's a rare treat for TLT and her sidekick with finely tuned engine to be able to review opera - and even rarer a new work.

So we were excited (very uncool for a reviewer to say, but true) to enter the gilded auditorium of the Hackney Empire to see and hear Charlie Parker's Yardbird, a chamber piece with a cast of seven.

Bebop pioneer saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker developed a fast-paced, challenging form of jazz in the 1940s and 1950s before his early death at the age of 34. But in Yardbird we encounter a man left in a surreal limbo trapped between life and death.

Lawrence Brownlee, celebrated for his bel canto tenor Rossini roles, is Parker determined to put on paper a lasting symphonic legacy. Yet his efforts are tangled with the lives of the five living women brought into his orbit whose lives are also irrevocably changed by his life and death.

Yardbird is structured as a series of flashbacks from this afterlife. The clear movements move fluently from the repercussions of Parker's death in the hotel room of wealthy jazz patroness and friend Nico von Koenigswarter (mezzo soprano Julie Miller) and different stages of his life including his musical partnership with jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (baritone Will Liverman).

Designer Riccardo Hernandez has created a versatile abstract nightclub set, flanked on either side by small delicate birds in cages, with giant letters lowered down in between, spelling out the name of one of his most famous works. The towering letters are filled with the magnified features of jazz musicians.

This suits the piece where the characters in the different time periods of Parker's life step forward individually. From Nico back to his Kansas City mother, Addie (soprano Angela Brown), his wives Rebecca (mezzo soprano Chrystal E Williams), Doris (soprano Elena Perroni) and his final common-law partner Chan (lyric soprano Rachel Sterrenberg). And of course bandleader Dizzy Gillespie.  

This is a polished, beautifully sung production, originally mounted by director Ron Daniels in Philadelphia in 2015 and here directed by Amanda Consol. Clark Rundell conducts a 15-piece orchestra which includes Mick Foster's alto sax.

Yet for all the power of the vocal and instrumental  performances, it's dramatically a strangely thin rendering of Parker's short life. Bridget A Wimberley's libretto feels somewhat on the nose, even if there are moments of inspiration such as the verbal image of black notes caged on a stave.

However the opera veers between the specifics of an extraordinary musical talent ravaged by heroin  and a more generalised indictment of the American black experience and segregation. In the end, this  does not totally satisfy in either area.

Apparently, there are quotes from Parker's music in Schnyder's score, but we only learnt of these in the after-show panel discussion and we feel prior knowledge was needed to pick them up. Potentially the most potent love song in Yardbird is Parker serenading the sleek curves of his beloved saxophone.

However the lack of Parker's own quicksilver playing is keenly felt and Yardbird therefore becomes a rather more generic, if slick and poised, telling of a black musician's story.

While TLT and her sidekick have enjoyed a range of 18th and 19th century operas in the past, we are punters expecting to be entertained rather than experts in the genre. We are glad to have experienced this 90 minute opera and think it well-worth catching for its synthesis of jazz and the classical.

This was a refreshing operatic interlude in TLT's reviewing repertoire and would also make a good introduction to opera appealing to a diverse audience and tastes. It's an upper range amber/green light.