ASMF: BELL: USHER HALL: 19 JAN 20

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with Joshua Bell, center, in a dual role on Wednesday at Avery Fisher Hall.

“Oh glorious 1713 Huberman Stradivarius in the hands of Joshua Bell”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

The Usher Hall have done a great feat of marketing with their Sunday Classics International Concert Series.  It utilises concert downtime, offers below premium rates to hirers and audiences alike, and thereby enables second tier orchestras from around the world to perform in a city with the musical cachet of Edinburgh.  And by second rank I am not being pejorative.  How often do you get to hear the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Swedish Philharmonia, or St Petersburg Symphony (not Philharmonic)?

Moreover, the repertoire offered is accessible, and as a consequence of all of the above the Hall is usually sold out except for the Gods, mostly by the elderly not especially musically literate or regular concert goers, and, by the sound of things, after a good lunch.  The queues from the Box Office tailed back into the cold January air. There was a real buzz.

On the question of sound of the non-musical variety I again criticise the audience for their indiscriminate coughing.  January and February concerts are of course the worst for this, and I have again asked the Usher Hall to put a note in the programme such as do the Royal Festival Hall advising patrons to cover their mouth with a hankie when coughing is inevitable as it reduces the sound by 90%.  Compared with the discipline of the audience last night in Berlin who remained silent throughout and for 20 seconds after the conclusion of the BPO’s Bruckner 4, this lot were an ill-behaved bunch that would have got chucked out of any self-respecting German or Austrian concert hall.

End of rant.

In the context of the above, to have perform on a Sunday afternoon the Academy of Saint Martin’s in the Fields, undoubtedly one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world with probably the longest pedigree, alongside top soloist and their Music Director for over eight years, Joshua Bell, the mould was truly broken and I felt we were in for a real treat.

Only so-so.  The playing throughout was technically perfect, but the works were not over demanding.  The tempi were fast, not uncommonly so, but particularly in the two Bach pieces there was no time for the emotion to come through. You have to work to get the emotion in Bach, but it is surely there.  Both the Violin Concerto in A Minor and Brandenburg Concerto No 3 showed a pleasing brilliance of tone – oh glorious 1713 Huberman Stradivarius in the hands of Joshua Bell, what a privilege to hear its singing, pure, transcendent tone – but both were textbook readings of these pleasant pieces you could have found on a budget price label.

It was the glorious Mahler arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet No 14 in D minor that made the case for the band.  Whether Schubert or Bach is spiritually deeper would keep musicologists arguing for days, but the combination of Schubert and Mahler was formidable.  From the opening bars it was immediately obvious that we had gone up several notches in terms of interpretation, even allowing for, once again, the tempo being slightly on the fast side.

Why Astor Piazzolla’s (1921-1992) Four Seasons of Buenos Aries was chosen as the final and part of the programme beats me, other than for its superficial entertainment value.  A selection of tango inspired pieces with some virtuoso violin playing but in the the-dansant style delighted the audience, but classical music it was not, nor meant to be.

The overall impression of the afternoon was of a top-class band entertaining us, but without unduly stretching our critical faculties.  As such it was hugely popular with the audience.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 19 January 2020)

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I Can Go Anywhere (Traverse Theatre: Dec 10 – 21 : 20:00: 1hr 20 mins)

Photo: Lara Cappelli

Photo: Lara Cappelli

“A nail-biting reflection on identity politics”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Award-winning Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell’s new play I Can Go Anywhere sees Jimmy, a caricature of youthful optimism and mod-culture, arrive on the doorstep of Professor Stevie Thomas. Jimmy is seeking help in a last-ditch effort to be granted asylum in the UK. Dressed in his pinstripe suit and green parka combo, Jimmy is a larger-than-life comic book embodiment of all things MOD and all he wants is to prove he belongs. But Stevie, a disheartened academic, is suffering his own identity crisis, fresh from a break-up and meandering in the lows of a “transitional phase” in life.

Maxwell’s latest play follows a night of both confrontation and camaraderie between two men as they share vulnerabilities, anxieties and bond over 70’s vinyl. Both Nebli Basani (Jimmy) and Paul McCole (Stevie) hold the stage well as a partnership and their conflict offers a considerate perspective on identity politics. Eve Nicol’s direction also does well to present the character’s complex power and pride driven battle in 75 minutes, without seeming rushed or abridged. Basani’s performance as Jimmy is, no doubt, one of the best I have seen at the Traverse this year and by far the most captivating part of I Can Go Anywhere. From the moment that Stevie (Paul McCole) opens the front door, Jimmy explodes to life with an energy that is both nervous and endearing, embodying a personification of rogue mod that we recognise too well from contemporary British drama.

Ultimately, I Can Go Anywhere is urging us to face the way in which ignorance governs cultural identity, specifically in the process of seeking asylum in the UK. As we reel in the hostile aftershock of the General Election, there could not be a more appropriate time for a play to confront cultural identity. At times, Stevie and Jimmy’s to-and-fro of insecurities feels symbolic of the UK’s own divided identity. Here, there is a shared sense of feeling lost and a human desire to belong. For those living in Scotland in 2019 it seems ever more necessary for us to reflect on these notions and ask ourselves: What does it mean to be British today? Are our identities defined by the cultural groups to which we belong? What does it mean to belong

I Can Go Anywhere is both humorous and thought provoking, exploring notions of belonging, solidarity and authenticity in contemporary Britain. It concludes (if not a little clichéd) with a Billy Bragg style call to arms that urges the audience to look beyond appearances and judgments. Like Bragg’s political songs, Maxwell’s play uses mod culture to emphasise the collective power of music in creating solidarity amongst people. Let’s appreciate our cultural movements whether art, music or fashion, for how they help us understand how we identify with each other in this fleeting world. Maxwell states that I Can Go Anywhere evolved from desire to show that “art is far more important and powerful than politics”. Whilst the performance’s content certainly addresses this, my only qualm would be that the play’s dependence on naturalism is somewhat limiting and two-dimensional. Perhaps there was a missed opportunity here to engage with a more progressive and interdisciplinary style of performance that might explicitly confront the relationship between art and politics. 

 Despite this, I Can Go Anywhere delivers a nail-biting reflection on identity politics in the UK’s current climate of uncertainty and stands as a valuable experience for all audiences; regardless of class, culture or political views. The Traverse 2’s intimate and open space adheres to the nature of the play, allowing the audience to see and recognise solidarity with one another on the fringes of the stage space. After all, is it not the purpose of theatre to offer a moment of unity in an otherwise hostile world? 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Paige Stillwell (Seen 12 December)

Salt (Assembly Roxy, 07 -15 Nov : 20:00 : 45mins)

“A Poetic Conundrum”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Outstanding

If Fiona Oliver-Larkin had a magic formula for her new co-production with Al Seed, she might have mixed a little bit of Grotowski, Kantor, Alice in Wonderland, then have added some spices and at the end, naturally, loads of salt.

Far from trying to tell a linear story whilst retaining the aesthetics of a tale, Oliver-Larkin elaborates mesmerising scenic landscapes.  A poetic conundrum where the images work as oniric pulses that are splashed on the narrative, flashing throughout the piece: a marvelous and yet threatening house made of wood, salt and crystal; a submarine in a salted blue ocean; a small lighthouse; an indomitable garden where a beast lives; a still life as a graveyard made of wooden spoons; the light of knowledge that illuminates the main character at the last moment, right after a cathartic moment of biting the forbidden fruit.

This solo show with an austere scenography -that asserts the notion of poor theatre– and a noir and avant-garde study of beauty, makes use of dilated tempos to let the audience delve into the imagery (suspension very much appreciated in mime, puppetry or physical theatre). The lack of dialogue was key for the atmosphere of the show, as well as the accurate choice of making it no more than 45 minutes long.

In this fantasy world, where the strangeness and tenderness live together, we can see a little girl who uses her imagination to escape her reclusion, and plays with daily objects that become adventure companions, while an unknown being lives upstairs. The boredom of this normalised prison makes her mind work and boosts her inventiveness, to the point that fantasy and reality are blurred.

There’s a certain crescendo in terms of character’s development: the girl is afraid of beasts and dangers whilst at the end of the show -which is the travel of the heroine- she shows no fear. And that bravery makes her see the light. Plato’s cave, or just growing up?

Highly recommended for both adults and children.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Helena Salguiero (Seen 15 November)

Barber Shop Chronicles (The Lyceum, 23 Oct -9 Nov: 19:30 : 1hr 4)

“Unbridled and Exuberant”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

When you enter into the Lyceum, white is the colour that pops into your head. Not a black veil in front of the eyes; not velvet, countless red. 

No. White.

When you grab a sit on the bottom row and see a rather elegant field of white hair, white skin, middle class spectators facing a stage where a bunch of black actors are dancing unbridled and exuberant, owning the whole place at the sound of Afro B… it’s just priceless. For once, you don’t feel in a museum but within a game of contrasts that actually mingle.Visual art at its best. 

This storytelling masterpiece is a living example of how an actor actually enjoying the momentum can warm up the audience, let it breath and even feel grateful.

Inua Ellams’ play talks about the affairs of working-class (surprise!) black men through an intimate, tender study of masculinity’s emotional and political anatomy. Stories set in barber shops across Africa, interlinked as threads (wires in the scenography help to create this imagery) pass through the eye of a needle that spins like a hanging globe  – London.

Industrial set design, expressionist lightning and alienating effects remind us of a Brechtian play. Sheibani’s canny direction is not far from that. Articulate expressiveness highlights what Odin Teatret would call the presence of the actor and lives in different kinds of anthropological scenic art – eyes, mouth, hands and feet proficiency-. The homogeneous and impressive cast work is shaped by Aline David (the female presence in the script came to light at the after-show talk, but what about the production?). 

Along with the movement, the glowing pulse of the vocal work- phatic expressions, highly marked cadences as if the sentences were sung, voice projection- makes this a great example of what storytelling is. Needless to say, the art of storytelling is to keep the audience interested, and this production managed to keep the energy well-balanced from beginning to end – though sometimes it flirts with devolving into a stream of political or cultural references. Still, that’s what we ultimately want as an audience, to make the brain dance with the play since we cannot -unfortunately- dance on the seats.  Because If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Helena Salguiero (Seen 8 November)

“The Monstrous Heart” (Traverse Theatre, 22 Oct – 2 Nov : 19:30 : 1hr 15mins)

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Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” Elegant and attentive direction”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

An obvious symbol lies on a table at the centre of the stage.

A dead beast as the first actor of an analogy game that unfolds itself like a Russian nesting doll – the monstrous, the wild, the Other, the Mother, the Daughter. A metaphor and, ultimately, a show that rushed like hot blood within a febrile body: hastily.

During a storm in the Canadian mountains, the prodigal daughter visits her mother after a long time to seek answers and amend past decisions.

The attempted analysis of the human passions and post-freudian determinism (which of course condemns women first) with clear romantic allegories (Frankestein, connection between nature and sentiments through sound and light design) fails along the way. A good idea, but unfortunately without resolution.

Director Gareth Nicoll’s taste for Shakespearean, abrupt violence and the delicate language of gestures are as easily seen in this production as his others. But even elegant and attentive direction and fairly competent acting cannot save a flat plot and circumspect script.

A neatly conducted rhythm at the first part of the dialogue becomes a self-explanatory, polarised monologue. Rather than raise drama or empathy, the self indulgent storytelling leaves one wondering if one character is listening to the story or the actress is simply waiting to say her speech.

There’s a lack of tension all the way through the script: the position of power remains always the same, embodied by the daughter, whose acting is quite hectic and leaves no room for audience expectancy at the beginning. Nevertheless, her physical characterisation is superb. The restraint of the mother was sometimes staggered by little details (dramatic hand tics in particular), but the character blossoms once she downs a dram and the actress allows herself to relax.

In short, this is a strong initial concept that craves revision. I hope that it’s returned to, for the simple reason that the idea, the discourse, the creative team’s work and the cast have so much to offer – but, unfortunately, cannot be cured from the restraints of the substandard playwriting.

Maybe the magnificence of a living bear cannot be portrayed if the insides are not beating guts, but soft stuffing.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Helena Salguiero (Seen 23 October)

The Panopticon (The Traverse: Oct 11 – 19 : 19:30: 2hrs 45 mins)

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Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” A masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Shows are a lot like types of friendship. Some primarily uplift you; they wrap you up in a distancing blanket from what’s actually out there, or distract you from what can’t be escapes. Others are more of an intellectual affair, where the value comes from what you can glean. A working partnership, maybe, as much as acquaintanceship. Some are good, some are fine, and some you cannot wait to forget.

The Panopticon is a singular type of play: it’s like having a witty, irreverent friend who also spontaneously beats the shit out of you. It’s cool, you agreed to it, and honestly there’s a lot of heart and soul in the neverending chest-stamping and throat-chopping, but nonetheless beaten ye shall be. The Panopticon is a masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy, an important artwork – but if the content warnings plastered around the Traverse Lobby don’t tip you off, it’s not welcome territory for a frail disposition.

The premise of the story is easy to ramp into: a young girl named Anais is put into a home built in the shell of a disused panopticon: a prison wherein all prisoners may be seen from a central tower, and never know if they’re being watched. It becomes a damned succinct example of ‘setting-as-overall-metaphor’, and sets up a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and disorientating lows centred around the lives of the troubled and shunned, and the tragedy of a loveless childhood.

The star of the show, both literally and performatively, is Anna Russell-Martin as Anais: an acerbic, highly troubled young woman for whom the lines between reality and psychosis are not so much blurred as violently shaken together. Russel-Martin offers a masterclass performance in the title role: running the gamut from charming and rambunctious to devastated to utterly destroyed, whilst still maintaining rock-solid continuity of character. Anyone who’s been to a few theatre productions has likely seen grief, rage and joy played out – when watching Russel-Martin, it’s like seeing them for the first time.

Beyond the easy classification of “who is the main character”, the ensemble cast is both a blessing and a curse: a group of performers so uniformly talented that it makes picking a starting point incredibly difficult. Do you start with Laura Lovemore, whose attention to consistent physicality not only makes every one of her characters distinct, but wholly individual? Kay McAllister, who portrays beauty of spirit and acidic tragedy like an angel in a crack den? The wonderfully afflicted bravado and uncertainty of Louise McMenemy’s Shortie, the edge-of-unsettling vibrancy and humanity of Lawrence-Hodgson Mulling’s John, the kaleidoscope-esque multiplicity of Martin Donaghy. There’s simply too much good to unpick here without it turning into a bullet-pointed gush list, but suffice to say, they’re an ensemble cast dream team. Wholly professional, wholly consistent and an absolute joy to watch.

I would be remiss, however, not to highlight my two favourite performers: Gail Watson and Paul Tinto. Tinto, rugged yet approachable, almost singlehandedly carries the light of optimism for the majority of the show with a charisma and earthy crunch that turns what could easily have been a trying, one-note archetype into what may be one of the show’s more understatedly complex roles. And Gail Watson. Gail Watson! Chameleons would weep and don monochrome jackets out of shame. No matter the demands of the myriad parts she plays, each is done with nuance. Personality. Although Eddie Murphy’s Norbit may have traumatised me away from films where one actor plays every part, if Gail Watson were headlining? I might be persuaded to invest in the necessary therapy to enjoy it.

These players would be delight enough on their own, but when cast into sets as well designed and dramatic as those created by the incredibly talented stage team, it only serves to elevate. Not only are they clever to the point of enviousness, they are (much like everything from the lighting to the sound ops) integrated to the point of seamlessness. It’s very much like watching a morbid dollhouse play itself to pieces: a rare treat to watch though perhaps, given the subject matters, not a constant delight. The team behind The Panopticon commit entirely to the concept of theatre as illusion-making, and the results are wonderfully encapsulating.

Of course, perfection is theoretical, and this production proves that fact. Though the viscerality of the acting cannot be denied, the fight choreography felt too floaty and impactless for most of the violent scenes to carry home the needed drama. And although the digitally projected visuals were inspired, oftentimes they felt more like a palate-cleanser to cut the drama rather than an off-angle surprise to elevate it. This is less of an issue with, say, the visualization of the mental sensation of an orgasm, but is fairly noticeable on the subject of psychotic dreams.

It feels prescient to state here that, if you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t a show that flinches when it comes to deeply upsetting events. The plot features things that would certainly warrant thorough show research and consideration for anyone with prior trauma, and even if you don’t, make sure not to go on a bad day. It’s a white hot furnace of dismay, but it forges something deeply important and meticulously well performed.

It might be the darkest show I’ve reviewed for Edinburgh49 yet, but it’s a shining star on the theatrical horizon.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 11 October)

RSNO:SONDERGARD; CARGILL: USHER HALL 4 Oct 2019

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Imperial Palace (Hofburg) Vienna

 

“All in all a promising start to what looks like a first-class season.  Bring it on.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

The Season Opener for the RSNO always gets a buzz going at the Usher Hall and tonight was no exception.  Moreover, the happy occasion was also music director Thomas Sondergard’s 50th Birthday, which the audience and orchestra recognised by singing and playing “Happy Birthday” at the end of the concert, amply led by mezzo soprano Karen Cargill.

For the repertoire we were taken unashamedly and full on into early twentieth century Vienna: Richard Strauss, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler.  There is no doubt in my mind that the capital of the once great Austria-Hungarian Empire was the world capital of music from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century.  Lots of fabulous orchestration, complex rhythmic and compositional patterns, and brass.  Oh, the brass!  Eight horns for the Mahler.  Seven timpanies.  And the opening Strauss wasn’t shy about using them too.

The evening started with Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, an eighteen-minute escapade if not quite a romp comprising complex and multi-varying patterns of tempo and orchestration, the latter being the composer’s undoubted strongpoint.  Loud and soft, quick and slow, joyful and sinister that amply caught the character of the eponymous antihero.  Considering this was the first piece of the evening the orchestra was well on top of it, although it possibly lacked a little in terms of overall togetherness and smoothness which was perhaps unavoidable in a piece of such variety.  It made a tremendous start to the evening and set the tone of enjoyment and engagement.

Next we heard an early piece from Alban Berg, Seven Early Songs.  These slow, contemplative pieces allowed formidable Scottish mezzo soprano Karen Cargill to show off her beautiful rich and mellow tone along with a perfectly suited vocal range for a piece that could well have suited a contralto.  I was stunned by the quality of her voice. The orchestra accompanied her sensitively and effectively.  This was Berg in early, melodious form (1905-08) written under the instruction of Schoenberg, whose teaching, if not his composition, was decidedly traditional.  However the later orchestration (1928) gave a hint of his subsequent more complex compositional style.  The orchestra accompanied Cargill with sensitivity and empathy.

Following the interval came Mahler’s Symphony No 1 in D Major, the Titan.  An accessible and entirely enjoyable work in four movements it is a useful entry point to the composer, with all the mixture of poignant melodies and crash bang wallops that is his stock in trade.  Sondergard’s interpretation was a breath of fresh air, highly detailed bringing out every nuance of the piece, and the individual sections of the orchestra excelled from the piccolos and leader’s violin solo to the full-on brass and percussion. Yet perhaps because of this, I did not quite get a feeling of ‘wholeness’ from the orchestra because of this detailed interpretation.

All in all a promising start to what looks like a first-class season.  Bring it on.

 

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 4 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED