Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review: Giselle, Royal Ballet

Yesterday afternoon’s performance took a while to get going. It may have been the last minute casting changes; perhaps the talking and coughing from the matinee audience, or it may have just been that I didn’t feel too good. At least I ought some cough sweets on the way there. I saw the matinee starring Laura Morera as Giselle and Federico Bonelli as Albrecht. He was substituting for Nehimiah Kish due to injury. They are both excellent dancers but perhaps had not had sufficient practice together to generate the magic to make the love scenes as convincing as they should be. Going. It was the arrival of another substitute, Hikaru Kobayashi in the Pas De Six that marked the moment it really got going for me and Morera and Bonelli then found that magic in the ghostly second act. Generally, this was a good production of Petipa’s classic but the cast sheet tells me it was their 560th performance and I couldn’t help feeling they are all getting a bit tired.


Review: The Cement Garden, VAULT Festival

Now that Jermyn Street has new seating, this venue, in a warren of tunnels under Waterloo station, must be the most uncomfortable in London. To be fair, this wasn’t aimed at me – I think I was about twice the average age of the audience. I went home when it finished at 9:45, leaving the vast majority to keep on partying in the bar, listening to the live music, etc. as part of the Vault Festival. The difficulty of how to play Tom was got round by using a simple puppet operated by David Annen who was simultaneously the adult Tom to whom Jack (George Mackay) was narrating the story. That may sound complicated but it worked perfectly. Both actors were excellent, as was Ruby Bentall as Julie. I won’t say anything to spoil the plot for those who haven’t read it, but the adaptation by David Aula and Jimmy Osborne captured Ian McEwan’s novel perfectly. Above all, it showed clearly the internal logic by which the children end up behaving in ways that might otherwise seem inexplicable. At 100 minutes with no interval, it kept the audience engaged and the only reminder of its length was the barely cushioned, hard wooden benches – had I been a bit younger I’d have really loved it.

Preview: King Lear, National Theatre, Olivier

This was a preview, so I imagine there will be a bit of tweaking before press night, but it hardly needs it. Simon Russell Beale who was so good as Timon last year is astonishing as the King, his authority, his voice and his body shrinking through the play as his madness takes hold. The direction by Sam Mendes is faultless although, like so many directors in the Olivier, he does love using that revolving stage a little too much – perhaps he will calm that down before it opens. All the acting was first class so it seems a bit unfair to pick anyone else out, although Olivia Vinall, who was so good as Desdemona in the NT’s Othello last year is a superb Cordelia. For someone still at the start of her career, that promises much to come. I won’t say any more as it would be unfair before press night but this really is unmissable.

Review: Nightingale String Quartet, @wigmore_hall

This was the last in the ECMA series of concerts at Wigmore Hall and was probably the best. This young Danish Quartet are very impressive. I went because I can never resist Bartók’s string quartets and the concert started with is second quartet. It was enjoyable but it does not reach the levels of greatness that his later quartets reached. The surprise for me was the second piece, Beethoven’s String Quartet In E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2 ‘Razumovsky’. I knew Beethoven’s late quartets were wonderful but I have never heard one of these earlier quartets sounding so good before. For a relatively young quartet that is a major achievement and they certainly deserved the resounding ovation we gave them and gave us in return an encore of the second movement from Rued Langgaard’s Third Quartet.Short and sweet, it was a fun way to end a lovely concert.

Review: Wu Quartet and Streeton Trio, Wigmore Hall

This lunchtime concert formed part of the European Chamber Music Academy series of performances by up-and-coming chamber ensembles. First, the Wu Quartet played Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 in C Op. 36, a wonderful, complex work. It sounded to me as it was telling a story, full of melodies talking to each other and transforming into new ones. It is clearly a difficult work to play but they managed it well, even if they looked exhausted at the end – apart from the quartet’s leader, Qian Wu, who smiled triumphantly. The Streeton Trio then played Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor Op. 101. It is a shame the concert was programmed in this order. The Brahms trio would have made a good warm up for the Britten but, coming second, I felt it was somewhat overshadowed by the much greater complexity of the Britten quartet, even though it was played highly skilfully.

Review: Anton Chekhov’s Vaudevilles, Jermyn Street Theatre

I was not sure what this had to do with vaudeville but an online search shows this is what Chekhov called his early humorous sketches. The three sketches and three adaptations of short stories here are a very sensible choice for a small company like Mercurius who staged this. At around 15 minutes each, there is no time or need for character development, nor is there time to get bored. Translated and adapted by Michael Frayn, the dialogue is very well written and, at times, very funny. Themes from other Chekhov plays run through them, as do echoes of Gogol and Turgenev – the bored country landowner keeping a house guest to amuse him, the widow with a country estate, marital problems and arguments between neighbours about land ownership – but they are generally played as pure comedy rather than tragi-comedy. A light, amusing evening that is essential viewing for anyone who enjoys Chekhov. Previous visitors to the Jermyn Street Theatre will also be please to learn that they now have very comfortable seating. 

Review: Le Corsaire, English National Ballet

The ENB advertises this as, “Probably the best ballet you’ve never seen.” Most full-length ballets  are either very familiar, such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, or are based on well-known stories, such as the Royal Ballet’s recent Alice in Wonderland. Unless you have read Byron’s poem The Corsair, buying the excellent programme is therefore essential. This will give you the full story which starts with the pirate captain, Conrad, and his faithful slave, Ali, going to rescue Menora, the woman he loves, from a slave trader. Having rescued her amid much joyful dancing, the most famous part of the ballet is the dance between Ali and Menora. This is not technically a pas de deux, as Conrad dances part of it with him but the most exciting choreography is given to the relatively junior soloist Joan Sebastian Zamora who drew the loudest cheers of the night with his astonishingly athletic leaps and twists, while Erina Takahashi was superb as Menora. I felt a little sorry for Yonah Acosta’s Conrad as his part, originally a non-dancing one, is very much in the background but he came into his own later in the ballet.

After the slave dealer has recaptured Menora, Act III features the Pasha’s opium-induced dream, Le Jardin Animé, in which the flowers of his garden come to life, dancing beautifully with students from the English National Ballet as the buzzing insects around them. After this pastoral interlude, it is back to the action as Conrad recaptures Menora and they sail off into the sunset – only to end up shipwrecked. The production and costume design by Bob Ringwood is very different from his productions for films such as Batman and Alien III but equally stunning, permitting a smooth transition from scene to scene without interruption, particularly in the third act which moves rapidly through five separate scenes. In summary, a hugely enjoyable family show, even if it is a story of murder and kidnap by pirates, sexual slavery and a drug-induced hallucination!

Review: Bloodshot, St James Theatre Studio

This is a really intriguing whodunnit. Simon Slater is excellent as an alcoholic ex-policeman turned failing photographer in 1957 London. He is alone on stage for the best part of two hours, telling the story and impersonating the other characters. It is set in seedy clubland so this involves singing, playing the banjo, playing jazz saxophone and doing close-up magic, all of which he does really well. I daren’t give away anything of the plot, very cleverly crafted by Douglas Post – watch it and find out for yourself. The performance takes place in the intimate surroundings of the St James Theatre Studio, its night club atmosphere suiting the play perfectly. Thoroughly recommended.

Favourite exhibition of the year: Stanley Spencer at Somerset House

I stopped reviewing exhibitions a while back as I felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job of it but I haven’t stopped going to them. Bob Dylan at the National Portrait Gallery was disappointing, Michael Landy’s Saints Alive at the National Gallery was great fun, reminiscent of the ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition back in the 60s. Bruce Munroe’s light sculptures at Waddesdon House, particularly the Christmas collection, have been wonderful and the Beastly Hall exhibition of modern art at Hall Place was intriguing. However, the one unmissable exhibition this year is Heaven in a Hell of War: Stanley Spencer’s war paintings loaned from Sandham Memorial Chapel while the chapel is being renovated. Somehow, his pictures of the mundanity of war, scrubbing floors and making beds rather than fighting, makes it even more moving. It continues until January 26th and it is free, so there is no excuse not to visit if you are in London, especially as this year marks the centenary of the Great War.

Favourite play in a small theatre: Dances of Death, Gate Theatre

It is unfair to compare performances in small theatres with those in large theatres but in this case, Michael Pennington’s astonishing performance in Dances of Death would not have been out of place on the stage of the Olivier. Howard Brenton superbly edited Strindberg’s play to include the rarely performed second act – this really should have gone on to the West End. As usual, the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond was dependably first class, most notably The Stepmother starring the superb Katie McGuinness (and Christopher Ravenscroft who was also in Dances of Death). The slightly larger St James Theatre was more variable but Rutherford & Son and The Room Next Door were both excellent. A final word must go to the Old Red Lion Theatre for another astonishing play by Philip Ridley – The Fastest Clock in the Universe. He is clearly one of our greatest playwrights and I’d never heard of him until last year.