Now The Hero, Swansea International Festival.

Swansea

Swansea International Festival runs from the 22nd September to the 7th October this year. It has many interesting events, among them a stand up performance by Rob Bryden and a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”.

The centrepiece of the Festival is a Welsh Commission for 14-18NOW called “Now The Hero” 14-18NOW have collaborated with various artists to make some very compelling pieces over the past few years, related to the centenary of the First World War. A particularly thought provoking event earlier this year was “Fly by Night” where thousands of pigeons with LED lights were released over the Thames at sunset.

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“Now The Hero” is their final piece and it looks like another winner. It is an immersive musical/theatrical parade, starting in Swansea Bay and finishing with a choir recital in Brangwyn Hall in the city. It tells the story of three Welsh warriors from different time periods. There is an ancient Celtic soldier, a First World War conscript and a contemporary service man. There is also a voice for peace, with Eddie Ladd voicing quotes from protestors at Greenham Common’s women’s camp.

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The music is a choral requiem written by Owen Morgan Roberts and Owen Sheers. It is based on a traditional old Welsh poem “Y Gododdin” and will be performed by Cambridge choir, Polyphony. Brangwyn Hall where the event finishes contains “The British Empire Panels” a work originally commissioned to be hung in the House of Lords but rejected by them as too colourful.  It was notoriously described at the time by Lord Crawford as “all tits and bananas”, however almost a hundred years later it is regarded as a powerful commemoration of Welsh participation in the First World War.

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This event will transform Swansea over the course of five days  on 25th to 29th September and it looks as though it will be a spectacular highlight of the Swansea International Festival.

Other performances at the Festival are The BBC National Orchestra with Karl Jenkins and The Welsh National Opera doing “Rhondda Rips it Up” with Lesley Garrett and Madeline Shaw. So if you are looking for some art and culture at the end of September, Swansea is the place to be!

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Taster Classes at the City Lit, Keeley Street WC2.

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The City Lit is an adult education college situated in the heart of London’s West End. It has a huge number and variety of classes. Twice a year, usually in April and September, they have open days, where prospective students can visit the college, to see what it is like and to discover whether City Lit has anything to offer them.

During these open days they also host over 100 different Taster classes, so one can see what the course is like. Some of these are free, the rest cost either £5 or £10. Examples of taster lessons are: History, Discover Spanish, Adult Ballet, Stand Up Comedy, WordPress, An Introduction to Art and Architecture in Persia, Piano for Absolute Beginners, Screen Printing….. They even have a number of magical mystery courses where the student is not told what they will study until after they arrive in the classroom.

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Over the course of past two sets of Open Days, I have attended four of the Taster classes and have enjoyed them immensely. This was really my introduction to the phenomenon of education as entertainment. The four classes that I took were: Introduction to Arabic, WordPress, a brief overview, Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey and Curious – blue which is one of the mystery lessons.

The Arabic gave a basic overview of how the language works, we did not really get any insight into the alphabet or written Arabic, and by the end of the lesson we were all able to introduce ourselves, say where we were from and make the general opening conversation pleasantries. This is certainly enough for one to be able to know whether taking the full term class is something that would be of interest.

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WordPress was much more practical and the classroom had many very up-to-date PCs. By the end of the lesson everyone in the class has set up their own WordPress account,  made a webpage with text, pictures, video and sound. The computer courses are often single unit workshops to work on a specific programme or platform. The taster would be enough to inform you whether the medium would be constructive in your business or life.

Homer was a much more relaxed affair. An informative discourse, telling the story of his epic poems, the time in which they were written and a chat about why they have remained of interest for such a long period of time. City Lit has a large selection of humanities and social science classes and this would be a good test of whether this kind of course might be what would be of interest.

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The Curious Blue course, the mystery course, was the busiest of all the classes that I tried. It surprised me that for so many people that it was not important what class they attended, it was more about the enjoyment of taking part. It turned out that the course was an introduction to Latin. The class was fun and very informative, we learned almost as much about English and language structure in general as we did about Latin.

There is a great deal of camaraderie in learning and I interacted with many people over the series of lectures – all of them in a positive way. Everybody I spoke to was having an enjoyable time and many were learning about themselves as well as their chosen subjects. One person I chatted to had taken the “Piano for Absolute Beginners” taster course and was amazed at his ability to play the chorus of “Ode to Joy” by the time the class was over. A lady I spoke to in the Latin class had signed up for the “Stand Up Comedy” course because she had taken the taster course and enjoyed it so much.

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City Lit’s open days were, for me, a truly eye opening adventure. I enjoyed them thoroughly. I had forgotten that learning was such a positive experience, the building was buzzing with excited chatter. I recommend them heartily and I know that I will be looking out for the dates of their open days and taster classes in the coming years!

 

 

Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Alan Bennett has consistently been one of England’s best playwrights over the course of the past fifty years. His last couple of plays have been well written and funny, but were a little too cosy to be among my personal favourites of his work. Having said that, everything he writes is at least very good and nicely droll.

Allelujah! is set in the geriatric ward of a hospital that is at risk of closure, and for most of the first act we are lulled into a gentle musical comedy about the hardships and indignities of growing old. However, towards the end of the act, things take an unexpected and darker direction and we realise that, during the first third of the play, the scene was being set for a biting political satire. Alan Bennett is cross, and this irritation has led to some of his best writing in years.

This is a play about how poorly we treat the aged in our society and it examines the reasons why this is the case, while entertaining us with smart one liners and whimsical song and dance routines. Nicholas Hynter directs the play, he is a long time collaborator with Bennett and he complements him well. The cast is big and there are many good performances. I particularly liked Sacha Dhawan as Valentine, diffident at first, but bristling with restrained anger by the end. Samuel Barnett is good too, he has an unlikable character to play, yet he manages to have us understand his motivation.

The play has so many scene changes that it might have been written for television. The ingenious set design prevents us feeling that the stage is in a constant state of flux. Arlene Phillips is the choreographer and she has a fine line to tread between keeping the routines tight and having us remember that these people are too old and unwell to be released from hospital – she does a fine job.

The real star of the show is the writing. I love Alan Bennett’s balance, he always presents both sides of an argument. Even when he is presenting a personal point of view, I admire his fairness in giving the other side a voice. He does this particularly well here, he writes some characters with quite unsavoury personality traits in this play, yet they are unapologetic and we understand that they feel justified in their actions, even if we cannot condone them ourselves.

I hope that I haven’t made the play seem too dark and political, because it is a truly funny and entertaining show, made all the better by the fact that it makes you think about the way the old and infirm are treated in our society. I think this is possibly my favourite Alan Bennett play yet.

 

 

Kiss Me Kate, Opera North, London Coliseum, London WC2

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Cole Porter’s 1948 musical, Kiss Me Kate is a complex show, some of its numbers are  classic Broadway showtunes, while others have a light opera edge. It has complicated, full company dance routines as well as individual virtuoso displays. It also has a couple of good comedy roles that require great timing and delivery. On top of this, the Coliseum itself, has a big stage that needs a large company to fill. All in all, this is a show, in a venue, which will test every part of the company putting it on, to the fullest degree. I have to say that Opera North have passed this test with honours.

The two operatic leads, Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corley, as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate both have splendid voices, suited to their roles.  Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt, as Lois and Billy, carry the more standard musical numbers perfectly. Each of the four of them has at least one great song to show of their respective talent. Lois has possibly the most famous songs in “Always true to you in my fashion” and “Tom, Dick or Harry” but Kate’s “I hate men” and Petruchio’s “Where is the life that I led” are really great songs that show of their vocal abilities. The show’s biggest song, of course, “Too Darn Hot” is sung by the chorus, and the dancers, particularly Aiesha Pease and Stephane Anelli, deliver a truly show stopping performance to this number.

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Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin play the comedy roles of first and second Gunman. They work very well together, their interaction is excellent and they make the most of their comedy duet “Brush up your Shakespeare” – a song more full of puns than I had previously realised. The company as a whole is excellent and you realise that this is going to be a show full of movement and vigour, right from the first song of “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”.

Kiss Me Kate is a big show, and this is a big full-on production of it. The costumes are bright and lavish.  The choreographer has a tough job, with so many people on stage at once, however the dance routines are vivacious and have lovely shape. The set design needs ingenuity too, and is very clever at swapping from front of stage to back of house in seconds.

The director, Jo Davies, has taken the bold decision not to update the show in any obvious way. At times, it felt like you were actually watching a show made in the 1940s, giving the show an interesting post-war period feel. The tap routine, in particular, had a dated, black and white movie quality, which suited the production very nicely. This is a lush and exuberant production of a distinguished show and it fully deserved the love it received from the packed audience at curtain down.

 

Circolombia, Underbelly Festival, Southbank, London

 

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This photo is courtesy of @tcspr.

 

Let’s start with the Underbelly Festival itself. Over the past 10 years this has become a symbol of summer on the Southbank. Each year it seems to get bigger and last longer. It started as an event around a giant inflatable purple cow in a coach park on Belvedere Road and used to be called Udderbelly. Now the cow appears to have gone (surely I didn’t miss it?!) but it has two covered performance spaces, at least four bars, street food stalls, plenty of outdoor seating and it lasts half the year – from early April until late September.

The shows consist of comedy, circus, music and cabaret, usually with a couple of silent discos thrown in through the season. The content varies from full on family entertainment to risqué burlesque. The tickets are generally pretty cheap for central London although many of the shows get booked up very quickly. You can just go in to use the bars and seating for free though, so its a nice place to meet friends even if you are not seeing a show – think Box Park without the claustrophobia of the box!

Circolombia are a  fourteen strong circus/dance/music troupe from Colombia and the show they present is part concert, part circus. They sing, they dance, they rap and they display awesome tumbling skills and wonderful aerial work. It all works very well together and you can see why they have built a big international reputation from their global tours. The music enhances the atmosphere for the circus work and you can feel the tension rise when the place quietens for a particularly daring routine.

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The routines are jaw dropping. The tumbling skills are immense, from rolling under and over a see-saw as it rocks, to throwing a performer onto the shoulders of another person who is already balanced on the shoulders of a third. There is one where one performer does acrobatics inside a circular frame, while that frame is balanced on the forehead of a man below.

The aerial feats are equally amazing, varying from solo high rope tumbling to double acrobatics with both people suspended by just a rope around the neck of one of them. At one point a performer is lifted high into the air by a ribbon held in his teeth, the person lifting him is suspended by her legs and carrying that ribbon by her teeth. One cannot help but be moved by both their strength and their trust.

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The show is short, at only an hour long, and the quality is of the highest order, there is no filler here, there were audible gasps from the audience throughout the show. I hope the acts are not actually as risky as they make them appear, because there is a sense of jeopardy, watching them in such a small space, you are aware that these are real people, taking real risks and this adds to the intensity of the performance.

Circolombia at the Underbelly Festival is a fantastic, exciting evening out and they have a number of dates here before moving on to the Edinburgh Festival in August. If you are unable to catch them here – or there, I urge you to look out for them, in case they come to a venue near you.

Chess, The Coliseum, London WC2

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Chess at the Coliseum is part opera, part rock concert, but full on spectacle. It has a large orchestra, positioned in full view, above the stage. It has fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerial silk dancing, a company of fifty people. There are video screens, pop concert style, at each side of the stage; showing the current singer in close up. There are video clips showing American capitalist advertising and Russian communist iconography. They have lavished both money and attention on this show and it has not gone to waste. Sometimes, it is good to see a big production and the extravaganza that can be delivered when no expense is spared.  The music and performances need to be strong to cope with these distractions, and luckily here that is the case. When Chess was written, it was set in the near present, however the world has changed so much sine the 1980s that now it has become historical period drama, and this has given it has a timeless quality that it did not have at that time.

Music by Benny and Bjorn from Abba and lyrics by Tim Rice, the songs are memorable and emotional. It is clever that the American characters have the more rock style songs. Tim Howar has the perfect voice for these songs, unsurprising I suppose, as his day job is lead singer with Mike and the Mechanics – a classic ’80s rock outfit. Alexandra Burke is Svetlana, the Russian wife, not many songs but she sings them very well. Cassidy Jansen plays Florence, which is the bigger part and she also has an amazing voice. Their duet “I Know Him So Well” is beautiful. Michael Ball is Anatoly, the lead character and is just as good as you would expect him to be. All four main singers are artists at the peak of their careers and they bring out the full potential of the songs. Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal, as Molokov and The Arbiter respectively, also have lovely rich voices.

The choreography is clever and witty. I particularly liked the British dance, with the suited, bowler hatted, umbrella wielding civil servants doing their homage to the swans in swan lake, while the typing pool work away in the background. There is so much going on, all the time, in this production that, no doubt, there are elements that I missed, however, rarely has two and three quarter hours flown by so quickly. The Coliseum is a venue that is more used for traditional opera than modern musicals and Chess fitted in very well. Seeing it here, and hearing it with the benefit of the ENO chorus, one realises that this is a show that could be performed in a venue such as this for centuries to come.

Bat Out of Hell – The Musical, Dominion Theatre, London 2018

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Bat Out Of Hell – The Musical is a full-on, no holds barred show. It is not afraid to take risks, it is prepared to appear ridiculous and one has to admire that bravery. Sometimes these bets pay off and there are moments of stupendous, over-the-top brilliance. Most of these come in the songs that are on the Bat out of Hell album, when the spectacle and choreography seem to step up a gear. The original LP was about forty minutes long and this show runs a little under three hours including the interval.

All the tracks from 1977 are done well, and some of Jim Steinman’s other early songs fit in well. Surprisingly “It’s all coming back to me now” made famous by Celine Dion is a real highlight. However some of the other songs are saccharine, subpar Disney, teenage angst repackaged for the late middle aged.

The storyline is poor, difficult to follow and uninventive. The characters are all two dimensional, composite caricatures. Despite this, some of the performances are outstanding. Andrew Polec has the perfect rock bearing as Strat. Christina Bennington, who plays Raven, has a lovely voice and can act well, a more traditional musical might suit her talents better, I’d love to see her sing Sondheim.  Rob Fowler is outstanding as Falco; a camp, overblown baddie – who can really sing. Perhaps it’s true that the devil has all the best tunes. Danielle Steers steals the show as Zahara, she has an amazing rock voice and rock attitude, she commands the stage whenever she sings.

The set is excellent, the huge stage at the Dominion allowing it to be up to four different areas, all at the same time. The special effects are among the best I have ever seen in a stage musical, although I suspect that those who sit in the front few rows miss parts of the show because of the amount of dry ice rolling off the front of the stage. The choreography is mostly wonderful, especially in the big set pieces and the songs that end each half ensure that you leave the auditorium on a high.

The audience adored it. The cheering began when the first backing singer arrived on stage, even before the start of the show and there was an instant standing ovation at the end. I can understand why it is such a hit wherever it goes, it is a big overblown, melodramatic rock opera and it does that wonderfully well. I think it could have been even better if it cut the emotionally manipulative ballads and ran maybe an hour shorter.