Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

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The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1

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The Ferryman is a kitchen sink drama with an epic storyline. Apart from the prologue, it is totally set in the large kitchen of a family farmhouse outside Derry. The action is a day and a half in the lives of the extended family that resides there. But, the themes are huge, its about family and war, about love and loyalty, about freedom fighting and terrorism, and it tells these stories through short interwoven family interactions that come and go throughout the play that gradually meld together to make a complex tapestry.

Jez Butterworth has been spoken of as one of the best writers around today, and with  The Ferryman he delivers. The language and the narrative are superlative, it is the writing of someone both confident and ambitious. He is brave to wind traditional songs and ancient stories through the dialogue and he is talented pull it off so well.

The direction is awesome, there are 17 characters in this play, without counting the live goose, rabbit or the baby. Just moving them all around the stage must have been a major task but, Sam Mendes makes the whole setting feel real,  natural and, even simple.

The cast is also fabulous, lots of lovely performances from so many different actors. Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly are great as Quinn and Caitlin, but right through the cast there were great turns. I loved Rob Malone as the troubled Oisin. Brid Brennan had a scene stealing part as Aunt Maggie Faraway and she played it perfectly. Dearbhla Molloy and Des McAleer are wonderful as Aunt Patricia and Uncle Pat.

As you can tell, I loved this show. I have to finish because I am about to run out of superlatives. This is a play that will become a classic piece of literature that will be on school curricula.

 

 

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London WC1.

 

Franz Hals, the Laughing Cavalier
The Laughing Cavalier

 

The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.

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Van Dyck, The Shepherd Paris

The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.

 

Cannon

Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

Vases

A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.

 

Canaletto, the Grand Canal
Canaletto, The Grand Canal

 

It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.

 

Rembrandt, Susanna van Collen and Anna
Rembrandt, Susanna Van Collen and her daughter Anna

 

Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.

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The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.

Zigger Zagger, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

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From the second the opening whistle sounds and the cast of 50 begin their football chants, the audience is dragged in – to a world of youth tribalism, disaffection and tough choices. Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect size for this play, large enough that the cast doesn’t outnumber the audience, small enough that the cacophony of sound envelops you to feel part of the crowd.

Zigger Zagger is a late 20th century parable, ostensibly about football hooliganism but also about loyalty and fitting in. The protagonist, Harry Philton, excellently played by Josh Barrow, is a school leaver searching for belonging and is drawn to the local football terraces. He is aware of its limitations as a life choice so investigates the alternatives.

Among these are: Police, Army, Religion, Apprenticeship and, settling down. These options are caricatured, often in musical or poetic form. Adam Smart is particularly funny as the Youth Careers Officer. In between each option we are brought back to the terraces for a song and each time we feel the allure of being part of the crowd.

The soundtrack is great, T.Rex, Mud, Bay City Rollers even the Sex Pistols. The crowd songs are classical and traditional, with some chanting thrown in for good measure. Zigger Zagger is a boisterous and entertaining evening, with some great performances, and an interesting reminder of a specific moment in this country’s development.

 

Late Company, Trafalgar Studios 2, London SW1

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Late Company is an intense, intimate play, perfectly suited to the small Trafalgar Studio 2, whose three rows of seats all feel right in the heart of the action.

The parents of a teenager who committed suicide, invite one of his teenage tormentors, and his parents, to dinner. Brave, is one word you could use, to describe the sending of that invitation, and equally brave to accept.  Presumably one set of parents is hoping for some kind of closure over the death of their son and the other parents are hoping for some kind of redemption for theirs.

The result is an awkward dinner party of epic proportions; raw emotions unsuccessfully reined in over pasta and salad, broken occasionally by moments of dark humour. The play is beautifully written and wonderfully acted. The writing is very even handed, you can understand the pain and resentment of each character as they speak, and yet you can also understand why the others cannot forgive.

The acting is key to this play, all five are brilliant, but David Leopold as Curtis, the accused bully, is exceptional, his part is a great one, and he delivers it perfectly. I love writing that encourages us to examine our prejudices, and this is a play that complicates the allocation of blame.

Jordan Tannahill, who wrote this at the age of 23, shows all the hallmarks of a very talented new playwright and I will be looking out for more of his work when it comes to London.

Motel One Manchester-Piccadilly, Manchester

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Motel One is about as handy as you can get if you arrive in Manchester by train. It is directly across the road from Piccadilly train station. The rooms are quite small, but they are cleverly laid out and well appointed. The windows are big, so even on a grey day the room feels bright. The bathrooms are new and modern and the shower is excellent. The bed is big and comfortable, all rooms have free wi-fi that is efficient, the code only works for 3 items though – so if you are as gadget fuelled as we are, you may have to sweet talk the reception staff into giving you more codes.  Motel One is German hotel brand and the TV comes with many European channels as standard.

The breakfast is good, but continental only, it is not included in the price and not particularly great value in a part of town that is full of great brunch venues. Head to Hilton Street which is less than a ten minute walk away and has a number of interesting cafes, including  The Pen and Pencil, 57 Hilton St, Manchester which we really liked.

Also, you need to be aware that, despite its name, Motel One, does not have a car park, so you are at the mercy of private car parks if you have driven to Manchester and parking in town is not cheap. Having said that, central Manchester is a great city to walk around and public transport is pretty good, so a car would not be essential for your time here.

The bar on the ground floor is decorated in a modern European style; flash furniture and muted colours, pleasant enough to sit and have a drink in while waiting for friends. The music is at a nice level for conversation and they have pleasant bar staff.

Overall, Motel One Piccadilly is a very good budget hotel, right in the heart of town and I will happily stay here again next time I come to Manchester.

The Albert Square Chophouse, Manchester.

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This restaurant is very centrally located – in a beautiful solid brick building, on the corner of Albert Square. The entrance is up a few steps to a nice bar space with a mixture of sofas and chairs. The restaurant is downstairs, it looks impressive as you descend, an industrial sized room filled with fully set dining tables, booths and banquettes. The windows are set high and the kitchen is open and visible from the dining room. The walls of both floors are lined with photos of Manchester luminaries, some recognisable others less so.

The menu is traditional British. The corned beef hash cake is a great starter, meaty and comforting. I had a rib eye steak and it was flavourful and tender, one of the best steaks that I have had. The steak and kidney pie was reportedly great too, done in the old fashioned way with suet in the pastry.

The wine list looked good, the house rose was excellent. They have a full bar, so the selection of beers is good too. The service was friendly and helpful. It is not a cheap restaurant, but everything they do is high quality, so definitely a meal to sit and savour. This is a venue for a night out, to enjoy the evening and chat after.

We ate early, 6pm, so we managed to get in without booking, but it was quite full by the time we left, so I would imagine it would need to be booked if you wanted to eat at a more popular time.

We thoroughly enjoyed it and will be back next time we are in Manchester.