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Messages - HtoHe

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News and Current Affairs / Re: Peter Shaffer, 1926-2016
« on: June 07, 2016, 09:59:13 am »
Very sad.  Equus is one of the most powerful pieces I know - certainly in my top five plays of the late 20c.  I didn't see it at the Old Vic, but shortly afterwards in the West End after Michael Jayston had taken over as Dysart (my text says it was Alec McCowen in the premiere).  I remember liking The Royal Hunt of the Sun, too; and Five Finger Exercise.  I've never seen Amadeus on stage but, if the example of Equus is any guide, I expect it is a more profound experience than the film version. 


The Coffee Bar / Re: Grumpy Old Rant Room
« on: May 31, 2016, 09:38:36 pm »
Sorry to hear about your bad experience, George.  I'm afraid, though, that I can't resist sharing that, by an amazing coincidence, we've had the police in the street all evening dealing with a sad case that's almost the converse of yours.  From what I can gather, they were alerted by an estate agent who had an appointment with the owner of the house opposite mine.  Presumably the estate agent spotted something a bit more suspicious than a missed appointment; but the bottom line is that the house owner had been dead in the house for some time and, presumably, nobody  had missed him until now.  I barely knew the man.  It was his father's house but said father moved to a care home many months ago and subsequently died.  His son didn't live here permanently and showed a marked reluctance to have anything to do with the neighbours.  Unless there's more to it than I think (forensics are still here so it's possible they're treating it as suspicious rather than just unfortunate) that will be the second such incident since I moved here 13 years ago.  A few years back, my own next door neighbour was found after lying undiscovered for a fortnight.  The tragedy is that he might still be with us if he hadn't been so reclusive.  He was polite enough on the rare occasions I met him in the street, but he simply wouldn't answer a knock at the door so nobody would have thought it unusual if they called on him and got no reply.  I'm not trying to excuse your neighbours' ineptitude - but worse things can happen!

I don’t know this play well at all; indeed last night might well have been my first live production of the original (as opposed to an operatic adaptation).  Not that Northern Broadsides’ version is really the ‘original’ what with ‘Windsor’ having been excised from the title and the script and various other changes such as relocating the Fat Woman from Brentford to Ilkley. 

On a pretty bare stage – just a few stylised trees supplemented by easily portable props – the characters wear a strange mix of costumes which, if you had to put a date to the setting, suggest the 1920s.  The date, however, matters even less than usual since Shakespeare himself, from what I’ve read, reported the death of Falstaff in Henry V only to resurrect him, along with half his entourage, apparently in Elizabethan times.

The performances are decent enough with Barrie Rutter’s Falstaff, predictably, dominating (apparently he’s played this role twice before with NB, but this is the first I’ve seen) and tremendous support from Mistresses Ford, Page and Quickly (Becky Hindley, Nicola Sanderson and Helen Sheals) and from Andrew Vincent as Tom Ford.  Unfortunately, some performances were rather less satisfactory.  Abraham Slender (Jos Vantyler) was excessively camp and moody while his attendant Robert Shallow (Gerard McDermott) was just as much a caricature in his stupidity and gracelessness.  Worse than either of these, though, was Doctor Caius (Andy Cryer) whose stage-French affectations were, in my opinion, seriously overplayed and began to grate long before the interval, let alone the close.  I wouldn’t want to blame the actors for this because they were clearly playing the characters as directed.  I’m not even sure I’d blame the director as it must be quite difficult to make characters with fairly substantial roles but rather insubstantial, ahem, characters interesting.  In short,  I wondered whether this is a very good play.  If Alan Ayckbourn were to come up with a plot like this tomorrow would we suspect him of needing to service the mortgage?  Did Shakespeare dash this off to pay the bills?  Or, as the programme hints, because he was commanded to do so (I can just imagine Miranda Richardson asking ‘who’s queen?’ as Will protests that the fat knight isn’t interesting enough for a central role). 

Not, in my view, one of Northern Broadsides’ better productions but still probably worth seeing. If you want to see it, you should note that Liverpool is the last stage of the tour and it ends on Saturday:

Announcements / Re: 2016 donation drive
« on: May 24, 2016, 08:59:01 am »
That would be goodbye from me, then.  I can't think of anything that would make me change my policy of avoiding Facebook, Twitter etc.  It's the autonomous nature of things like r3ok that appeals to me, regardless of size. 

I will be making a modest contribution to the funding as soon as I can find someone with a Paypal account to do the honours; but if this board folds I'll either find another independent one or just go back to communicating with individuals. 

The Concert Hall / Re: Liverpool Concerts, 2015-16
« on: May 22, 2016, 12:39:32 pm »
This concert deserved more than the 75% attendance I estimated from my seat in the stalls.  I checked the online seating plan on Thursday (in case a concert called Songs of Lamentation had attracted hundreds of extra people after Liverpool FC’s performance the night before) and concluded I didn’t need to book ahead.  When I checked again on Saturday just to make sure I didn’t have a wasted journey I swear there were more seats available then than there had been in midweek.  Perhaps the football fans had sent their tickets back when they noticed the concert clashed with the FA Cup Final.

Those who stayed away missed a very fine concert.  The opening was inauspicious, but that might just be my prejudice.  Much as I love Richard Strauss’s work, Intermezzo has never appealed, and I wasn’t converted by the RLPO’s reading of the First Interlude from that opera.  What followed, though, more than made up for it.  First was Shostakovich’s  eleven Songs From Jewish Folk Poetry.  The orchestra was joined by three impressive singers, soprano Olga Mykytenko, mezzo Jennifer Johnston (recently seen as a last minute replacement to sing Linden Lea and, it seemed to me, better suited to last night's material even though it’s not in her native tongue) and tenor Alexey Kosarev, who would get the vote if I were forced to pick one out of the trio.  I thought his voice beautifully rich and expressive in these songs.

The trio came back after the interval, along with the RLPO Choir (another fine performance) for Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied, another work based on folk material.  I vaguely remember hearing this before in a version that was somewhat longer than last night’s forty minutes and with two male voices.  Perhaps this was the original, rarely-performed version.  What we heard last night, though, was very fine and included an off stage band which added to the atmosphere of the piece.  The story is a familiar one – the bones of a murdered person that acquire a musical voice and cry out to indict the murderer.  It’s a story I first remember hearing in Pentangle’s grimly gorgeous Cruel Sister.  The version set by Mahler, as well as using brothers rather than sisters, uses enormous forces rather than Jacqui McShee’s crystal voice over simple instrumentation; which goes to show that a powerful story can be told in many different ways. 

This was a superb concert, and anyone who missed it just to see Crystal Palace v Man Utd should be kicking themselves. 

Theatre / 3 Winters - LIPA (Sennheiser Studio), Liverpool
« on: May 18, 2016, 12:54:12 am »
I don’t usually write up the student productions I see as, apart from anything else, the runs are usually too short for my info and recommendations to be of any practical use.  I make an exception for this one because I also failed to write up the NT production of Tena Štivicic’s play, having seen it on the last day of the run.

I remember thinking that 3 Winters was a play that deserves to be revived but might have to wait a long time because the commercial appeal of a 160 minute piece rooted in modern Croatian history is limited regardless of how well crafted the piece is.  I haven’t spotted any major revivals but, as I said in the ‘Coming up’ thread, this LIPA production appealed immediately to me, especially as it gave the opportunity to see the piece from a radically different perspective.  My first reaction was that presentation in the round in the intimate Sennheiser Studio made more impact than the monumental Lyttelton staging.  It must be remembered, though, that the NT’s production had itself given me an introduction to the piece which must have been contributory to my enjoyment second time around.  The narrative is a complex one that flits back and forth between three significant times in Croatian history: 1945 and the accession to the Yugoslav Federal Republic after WW2; 1990 and the fractious Communist Party Congress where the federation effectively disintegrated; and 2011 and the negotiations to join the EU.  Being familiar with the history is useful for enjoyment of the drama; and being, additionally, familiar with the family story that’s central to the narrative was useful for a deeper appreciation the second time around.  Also useful to me was the mental image of the grand house in which the action takes place – something which, with the best will in the world, the Sennheiser couldn’t possibly implant as well as the Lyttelton.

The play is very much an ensemble piece with several characters played by different actors at different stages in their stories.  There isn’t really a central character; but if you had to select one it would probably be Rose, whose obtaining the keys of the house (possibly in return for sexual favours to a Partisan General) sets things in motion – though the daughter of the former owner of the house (a Nazi collaborator who fled to Argentina after the war), Karolina, arguably has a greater claim to continuity in the historical thread.  All the characters, though, contribute to a fascinating human story  in which the moral high ground is never very firm in an unstable world.  Indeed, the feisty but somewhat self-righteous Alisa could be seen as an illustration of how (relatively) easy it is to be righteous if you never have to make a decision that could endanger your life.

Anyway, enough before I give too much of the plot away.  I know this is only of limited use and then only to locals but I would strongly advise anyone who can to try and see this.  Not only might it be the only chance you get to see the play, but I genuinely thought it the best production I’ve ever seen at LIPA.  Though this was the first night, the performances were wonderful and the many scene changes were effected very efficiently considering they don’t have the Lyttelton’s array of technology to help this along.  All performances are sold out but, as with Candide the night before, last night’s performance had half a dozen or so empty seats – so if you’d turned up on spec you’d probably have got in.  Two more performances left (oh, and Candide is worth seeing, too):

Theatre / Re: Coming up....
« on: May 17, 2016, 11:00:38 am »
Not to be outdone, LIPA have Candide as imagined by Mark Ravenhill (Voltaire doesn’t even get a credit on the listing!)....Candide, too, is in the Sennheiser so they’ll need directors who are economical with space

I saw it last night and recommend it if you can get a ticket.  The three remaining performances show as 'sold out' (don't say I didn't warn you!) but there were half a dozen empty seats last night, and I've had returns for 'sold out' performances in the past.  All performances of Three Winters also show as 'sold out' but I suspect that a few people might give up their tickets when they spot the 3-hour running time.  The staging difficulties (for Candide, at least) were solved in the best way possible - by using just a few props on a bare stage and letting the script and costumes do the work.  On the subject of the script: while Voltaire didn't get a credit on the listings, it was Ravenhill who was omitted from the printed programme which said, simply, By François-Marie Arouet.  This was bizarre as huge chunks of the narrative, let alone the text, were not by Voltaire.  A staff member thought it was an oversight and even hinted that the programmes might be amended for future performances.  The programme also had a notice I've never seen before:  The rights to this amateur production have been granted on the condition that no reviews are given.   Does anyone know the purpose of this?  Is Ravenhill afraid amateurs might mess it up and get his work a bad reputation?  Most amusing, though, was the casting of Adam Smith as Pangloss.  Well, I thought it was funny - and Mr Smith's performance raised a good few laughs, too.

Theatre / Les Blancs - Olivier Theatre
« on: May 14, 2016, 01:04:27 pm »
I ended up having rather mixed feelings about this production.  I chose to see it after being impressed by A Raisin in the Sun and guessing that anything by Lorraine Hansberry was unlikely to be all bad.  And, of course, it’s not – but then it’s not all Lorraine Hansberry either; she left it unfinished on her untimely death and what see at the Olivier is the work of several people, including her ex husband, Robert Nemiroff.  Without a great deal of investigation it’s difficult to tell who is responsible for what.  The very brief Wikipedia article tells us “Hansberry originally planned to have a female protagonist, but revised the play so the only black woman has no name and no lines, referred to only as "woman"” and in the NT production this is clearly the figure we see traversing the stage like a sort of grim reaper or other fatal representation.  It’s an interesting image but somewhat diluted by the presence of several other black women, described in the programme as the 'Matriarchs',  who periodically regaled us with African chants that sounded, to me, straight out of the radio adaptations of Alexander McCall Smith novels.

My eventual conclusion was that it’s best to consider this a work in progress – a view that is supported by the fact that the running time given in the programme – 3h30m – had been cut to 2h50m by the time I saw the play.  The set, while it makes good use  of the revolve, is pretty simple with a skeletal* Mission hospital at its centre.   The plot is played out against a background of insurgency, terrorism and retaliatory repression in an unnamed African country in the later stages of imperial rule; and the major characters are generally stock figures – archetypes if you approve of this kind of characterisation, stereotypes if you don’t.  I was particularly struck by the fact that the leader of the independence movement (who doesn’t appear on stage) is referred to as Kumalo.  This name is familiar because of Cry, The Beloved Country and I wondered if it was significant; but a Zimbabwean woman told me in the interval that it’s a very common name so could just be coincidence.  If there is a central character I suppose it would be Tshembe Matoseh (fine performance by Danny Sapani) – an educated man who has a life and a family in the west but is drawn back to Africa (ostensibly for his father’s funeral but it emerges that he was once Kumalo’s right hand man).  His family seems to represent various aspects of African reaction to colonial rule – eg his brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle) has become a priest and his half-brother (the outcome of his mother’s rape by a white soldier?) is alcoholic and dreadfully confused.  Tshembe is on good terms with the Mission personnel – who themselves represent various colonial types eg the devoted doctors Marta Gotterling (Anna Madeley) and Willy Dekoven (James Fleet) and the Pastor’s wife Madame Nielsen (Sian Phillips, wonderful as usual).  The Pastor is the white counterpart of Kumalo – central to the story but absent.  And, while I wouldn’t want to give too much away, things emerge about him that make his wife, who is otherwise a very sympathetic character, appear less than perfect by association.  The Mission is very much the focus of the plot and around it revolve a colourful array of extras and minor characters – and  a couple of significant outsiders – Major George Rice (Clive Francis) a character who veers dangerously towards the comic Major in Fawlty Towers but is in fact a very desperate man fighting a rearguard action to preserve what he sees as his country and lifestyle; and Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan) an idealistic journalist who thinks he can sidestep a legacy of repression by deigning to speak to Tshembe man to man.

Without going into too much plot detail – which I try to avoid unless I’m dealing with a classic that most people will already know – there’s little more to say.  The play is, I think, worth seeing but I’m not sure this attempt to complete it works.  A great deal of the narrative involves characters delivering apologias and sermons; which is not necessarily a bad thing – GBS, for example, does it to great effect and, for all I know, Hansberry might have envisaged a piece of Man and Superman proportions – but has the effect of unbalancing the drama as it is presented in this version.  The presentation, though, can have the effect of drawing you in so my advice would be to go with it otherwise even the reduced running time might start to drag.  There seem to be only four performances left with three being sold out (a bit of a surprise as there were hundreds of empty seats for last Tuesday’s matinee) – but there’s always the day seat queue:

*I don’t think we were meant to think the Mission was dilapidated.  The structure was without walls for reasons of transparency,

Theatre / The Caretaker - Old Vic (London)
« on: May 12, 2016, 08:26:52 pm »
I like Timothy Spall’s screen work so I was keen to see him on stage.  The Caretaker with Spall as Davies, therefore, appealed strongly.  Unfortunately, by the first interval I had the feeling that I was seeing Davies as Spall.  In the seats next to mine was a couple who had travelled from Denmark to see this.  At the second interval I ventured the opinion that the production took a very definite view on all three characters and got the reply ‘yes, it reduces them all to caricature’.  I wouldn’t go that far, but I felt that director Matthew Warchus was playing directly to Spall’s strengths  - the studied mumbling and stumbling that he does so well – at the expense of Pinter’s text.  Spall’s performance prompts hilarity and sympathy throughout; but Davies’s almost feral selfishness doesn’t come though and his racism – which would have offended decent people even in 1960 – is reduced to just another laughing matter like his fecklessness and his lack of self-knowledge.  I thought George MacKay’s Mick, too, was rather unidimensional.  With his machine gun delivery, slicked back hair and leather bomber jacket he’s almost a parody of a London wide boy - indeed his accent was so exaggerated that I can’t, in real life, remember meeting anyone who wasn’t actually taking the, ahem, Mick speaking like that.  The production takes a definite view on Aston, too, but this character is, at least, fleshed out satisfactorily.  He is limping throughout – which my Danish neighbours thought a bit affected at first but, while it’s not in the stage directions, there is authority for it in the character’s long monologue describing his treatment at the mental institution.  Daniel Mays’s Aston is a vulnerable, damaged man and the performance, for me, is by far the best of the three – which was gratifying because, having seen Mays in two plays I actively disliked, I was looking forward to seeing him get his teeth into a decent role.

It could also be argued that Warchus has taken a very definite view on the play itself and decided it’s essentially a comedy.  It is, indeed, hard to deny that The Caretaker has a comic streak running through it from beginning to end; but it has always struck me as very dark humour whereas yesterday’s audience was giggling throughout as if it were Only Fools and Horses – or Till Death Us Do Part, perhaps.  There is no doubt in my mind, either, that the play has strong tragic elements, too.  Davies, in particular, has a classic fatal flaw in that, no matter how justified he is in bemoaning his misfortune, he seems unable to grasp the fact that nothing will change unless he addresses his own attitude and behaviour.  To my eyes, and those of my neighbours, that aspect just didn’t come across; and to judge by the audience reaction, you could be forgiven for thinking we’d seen nothing more than three grotesques clowning around for our amusement.  And, if Pinter had been around to see this, he might have wondered why he bothered ending the script with ‘long silence’.  Admittedly it’s hard enough to get any audience these days to leave a pause for contemplation; but by killing the lights almost as soon as Davies stopped speaking this production seems almost to ignore the script’s final direction on purpose.

This was my third consecutive more or less disappointing Pinter and I keep thinking the least disappointing of the three was the semi-pro The Birthday Party from London Classic Theatre.  At least that merely failed to hit the heights, whereas the two West End, star-studded productions seemed to be using the scripts to showcase directors/stars.  This latest finishes on Saturday and, if yesterday’s matinee was any guide, it won’t be easy to see unless you’ve already booked.  My advice, anyway, would be to save your money for a production that sheds light on a classic script rather than plunders it.

The Coffee Bar / Re: What has made you smile today?
« on: May 09, 2016, 08:26:12 pm »
I listened to The Unbelievable Truth this evening.  The show is a bit hit and miss but I was tickled by David Mitchell's comment towards the end.  I paraphrase:

"Lena Guilbert Ford, who wrote the words to Keep the Home Fires Burning died in a fire at her home.  Now, if you're listening Alanis Morissette, that's ironic!"

The Concert Hall / Re: Liverpool Concerts, 2015-16
« on: May 09, 2016, 08:17:11 pm »
I just listened to the youtube recording of the Proms 'Pastoral' with Allan Clayton.  Very fine - and the quality was adequate for my purposes.  The composer's options, including the clarinet, are mentioned in the comments section.  My preference is as I would have expected, with the soprano as first choice.  I'm sure the clarinet would be fine if I weren't expecting a voice but I think male or female 'high' voice adds an extra dimension.  The comment says 'He also specified that the passage could be played by a clarinet if no singers were available' which tallies with my feeling that the instrumental version should be kept for cases of necessity; but then that might just be the poster's view rather than RVW's.

Thanks, Bryn.

London Classic Theatre is a wonderful company that takes modern classics (Ayckbourn, Beckett, Orton, Pinter, Shaffer to name just a few I’ve seen) to unfashionable theatres and generally allows the works to speak for themselves – ie without pretentious directorial input.  This worked particularly well in the recent Waiting for Godot so I have been looking forward to The Birthday Party since I saw it announced.  Unfortunately, while it would be churlish to call this workmanlike presentation disappointing, it would not be unfair to say it came across as rather flat compared with, say, the Royal Exchange’s effort of three years ago. 

The set is pretty much representational – Meg and Petey’s dining room with the customary serviceable table and chairs, armchair etc.  We are left to imagine the doors either side and the kitchen, presumably due to practical considerations of space, is represented by a small table with plates, cereal container etc.  One curious feature is that – in this proscenium arch venue – the set is mounted on a platform, so raised a foot or so above the stage.  This was a bit of a nuisance for those of us near the front of the stalls; but, as a sort of consolation, we could more easily spot the bones and skulls under the platform.  I’ve no idea what this meant.  Is the director, Michael Cabot, perhaps suggesting that Boles Towers is built on a graveyard; an oblique reference to Kath’s house on a rubbish dump in Entertaining Mr Sloane, an earlier LCT presentation at the Oldham Coli?

The performances, too, were decent as far as delivery of the text goes but somehow failed to convey underlying menace in the kind of depth that this piece really needs.  Declan Rodgers’s McCann, in particular, comes across as more of a bored ‘minder’ than the borderline psychopath I expect in this role.  Jonathan Ashley’s Goldberg is a more familiar reading;  an authority figure who takes it for granted that he’ll be respected and taken seriously even though, more often than not, he’s talking nonsense.  Gareth Bennett-Ryan’s Stanley just wasn’t terrified enough so that, in my view at least, he failed in the essential work of engaging the audience’s sympathy response.  Imogen Wilde’s Lulu was ok, especially for a relative newcomer, but didn’t sparkle like Danusia Samal at the RE (or the youngish Julie Walters in the BBC version).  Ged McKenna played Petey rather well, I thought; but that role is possibly the least important in the play.  Cheryl Kennedy’s Meg was rather strange – and not just because the half-witted landlady is strange by nature.  Unusually, the second act Meg scrubs up rather well for the party.  I appreciate that you can’t always present her as some pathetic character with smudged make up.  Sometimes you have to try a different approach and see if it works.  Unfortunately I don’t think it did.  Another odd thing was that the first act Meg had her hair in rollers, taking the front ones out while talking to Stanley.  Why, I wonder.  Certainly not for the birthday party.  Goldberg hadn’t even appeared, let alone suggested throwing a party for Stanley.  When I got home I scanned the text for any mention of this but found nothing.

The above notwithstanding, I’d say the production is worth seeing if it passes your way.  After all, it’s still a fine play and a lot of decent work has gone into presenting it.  But if you’re looking for a revelatory interpretation you might be expecting a bit much.  Still 12 locations to visit (though 6 of them are in Ireland):

The Concert Hall / Re: Liverpool Concerts, 2015-16
« on: May 06, 2016, 08:50:46 am »
Thanks Bryn. As I said, I'd never heard of a tenor option or a clarinet option and, to be fair to myself, nor had anyone I spoke to at the hall yesterday!   And a quick consultation with Wikipedia and mentioned only the soprano.  I must have overlooked the Proms performance you mention.  I'll see if I can find a recording of it.  I suspect the tenor voice will sound better to me than the clarinet did.

The Concert Hall / Re: Liverpool Concerts, 2015-16
« on: May 05, 2016, 11:50:06 pm »
I found Andrew Manze’s all-Vaughan Williams concert this evening a trifle confusing.  We got a sheet informing us Unfortunately Andrew Staples is indisposed and will not be able to perform in this  concert. We are grateful to mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnston for stepping in at short notice to sing Linden Lea.  The programme remains unchanged.  The wordless voice part in the final movement of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No 3 ‘Pastoral’ will be played by Principal Clarinet Benjamin Mellefont, an option offered in the score by the composer. This is all a bit confusing.  Discarding the notion that RVW marked his score ‘for soprano, unless you have a clarinettist called Mellefont’ that still leaves several different interpretations.  Perhaps Mr Staples was to give us a tenor version of the wordless vocal part.  This seems highly unlikely – but then I’d never heard of the woodwind alternative either.  More probable is that they always intended to do the symphony without the vocal; which means they booked a soloist – and a replacement – just for the four minutes, or less, of Linden Lea.  This is the sort of extravagance seldom seem outside the Proms.  Enjoyable as Ms Johnston’s performance was, she must have spent as much time walking on and off the stage as she did singing!

Anyway, how was the symphony?  Well, it was fine and the rare opportunity to hear RVW’s Pastoral these days wasn’t to be missed; though, as a purely personal opinion, it struck me that the option of replacing the soprano with a clarinet is one that really should be reserved for emergencies.  An ethereal voice floating across the hall in the finale (especially right at the end) really suits this elegaic piece – more a comment on the horrors of war than the paean to the countryside that the title might suggest.  I mean no criticism of Mr Mellefont when I say that the clarinet really isn't an adequate substitute, in my opinion.

Fine as Linden Lea and the Pastoral were, the first half was, I thought, better received; and justifiably so.  Unless you’re incompetent you can’t go wrong with Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Manze got a suitably serene rendition from the RLPO. But it was the Fourth Symphony that was the highlight.  I got the impression that the conductor favoured the livelier passages but the Andante had its moments, too.  The applause at the end was sustained – so much so that, as Manze left the stage for the third time, I swear I saw Thelma Handy spring up and motion to the band to follow lest the applause continue and they miss their half time oranges.

Anyway, a good concert – confusion notwithstanding.

Was anyone else there?  The attendance, downstairs anyway, was pretty good for a non-Petrenko cpncert on a big football night.

The Opera House / Pleasure - Liverpool Playhouse
« on: May 04, 2016, 11:44:16 pm »
Melanie Challenger and Mark Simpson’s chamber opera wasn’t what I expected – and even if I’d gone against my usual practice and read reviews before seeing the Liverpool performance it still wouldn’t have been what I expected.  I knew from information released even before the piece was written that Lesley Garrett would play a toilet attendant in a Gay nightclub (presumably the eponymous Pleasure, as witness the neon tube letters that make up most of the set).  And, had I read Alfred Hickling’s Guardian write up I might have expected a ‘parade of colourful characters passing through the toilets of a gay club’  - which is a strange description of an opera with just four characters who, if they are colourful at all, surely represent some of the darkest hues on the palette.  It’s certainly not propaganda for the gay scene; indeed it could more easily be seen as a warning against desperate hedonism.  Rather than the piece being about the club or the gay scene it seems to me more accurate to say that both are little more than the setting for a drama that involves the four characters in various combinations. 

The characters comprise two club customers, Nathan (Timothy Nelson)  and Matthew (Nick Pritchard) getting, ahem, romantically involved while two employees look on and comment in various ways.  These are Val (Garrett), ‘belle of the bogs, slapper of the crapper’ and various other descriptions given her by the fourth character Anna Fewmore (Steven Page), an exaggeratedly camp drag queen.  As might be expected in a plot with damaged characters set in a club, drink is also a major character – beer for Matthew, wine for Anna, whisky (and pills) for Nathan and tea for Val.  This last is surely significant as it forms part of a pattern – along with the facts, inter alia, that she is not at all flamboyant or camp, making us wonder what she is doing there.  Ostensibly it’s because she sees herself as a mother figure, offering an ear, a shoulder to cry on and sage advice to the clientele; but there’s a twist in the plot that gives us a clearer insight into her motivation. SPOILER ALERT she recognises Nathan as the son she gave up years ago and there are hints that she has installed herself in the job mainly to wait for him to show up no matter how long it takes (though I’d have to read the libretto to make sure I haven’t misunderstood).  I'm not going into the denouement even under a spoiler alert.
It must be said, too, that the characterisation is deeper than the bare outline I have given - with, in particular, a fair bit of Val's history laid out in the libretto.

The acting and singing are pretty good.  Garrett is the star – with her plain clothes and her cleavage well covered this must surely be one of her least glamorous roles and she excels in it.  Page is almost the opposite – extremely flamboyant and mischievous – meaning the commentary on the relationship between Matthew and Nathan can come from several different perspectives.  For an opera, the dialogue is very easy to understand, which is a tribute to all four singers but also to Simpson’s handling of the vocal line.  He seems to be going by Britten’s rule that if you can’t understand every word there is something wrong with the music.  He doesn’t yet (imo, at least) have Britten’s flair for orchestration, but the music is attractive enough and well delivered by the chamber ensemble Psappha, playing on a gantry above the stage.  It’s perhaps a measure of the darkness of this piece that the biggest laugh I had all evening was when I noticed that an opera set in a gay night club was conducted by Nicholas Kok!  The music was serviceable and unobtrusive, allowing the action to dominate – which is as it should be.  Simpson makes no attempt to imitate ‘club’ music – which is another point in favour of my view that the story, not the setting, is the important thing.  In his programme notes, though, the composer explains that while he likes ‘techno’ music, he’s no good at it and prefers to stick to his own voice.  Quite right, too, imo.

Verdict?  Perhaps not a masterpiece, but a fine piece using the fashionable shortish, no interval format.  Tonight was the last northern performance but it comes to Aldeburgh on Saturday and then a few nights in Hammersmith.

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