St Petersburg Philharmonic, Sinaisky; Kempf, Devin. (Usher Hall: 27 Jan.’19)

At the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad.
Photo credit: TASS/Yury Belinsky

“This orchestra has soul”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars Outstanding

It became very clear to me on a visit to St Petersburg in February last year ( … temperature minus 20C) that the St Petersburg Philharmonic (which begat the Petrograd Philharmonic, which begat the Leningrad Philharmonic, which begat the St Petersburg Philharmonic for the second time), Russia’s oldest orchestra, is not just an orchestra or a magnificent symbol of Russian culture, but an entity that goes to the very soul of the St Petersburgers themselves.  For in the Great Patriotic War (World War Two to you and me) the citizens of this great city were under siege for 872 days and reduced at one stage to eating cardboard and glue – after the rats ran out.  Tannoys were fixed around the city to relay the playing of the orchestra to maintain morale, usually Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (‘The Leningrad’).  The orchestra were given extra rations to give them the strength to play.  Some died at their desks.  The siege ended on 27th January 1944, 75 years to the day of this concert.

I doubt if any playing in the orchestra on Sunday were alive then, but of course their parents would have been, and they would have known.  This orchestra has soul.

There is also a poignant connection between Eastern Scotland and Western Russia, as anyone who has read Eugenie Fraser’s The House by the Dvina knows, although this was principally trade between Dundee and Archangel.  However, there was terrific snob value in nineteenth century aristocratic St Petersburg houses in having an Edinburgh Nanny, just read Harvey Pitcher’s When Miss Emmie was in Russia.

So it was touching that the St Petersburg Philharmonic chose to start their UK tour in Edinburgh, and we got a full on performance.  This was no warm up venue.

The Usher Hall’s programme of Sunday Classics featuring international orchestras is an unashamed and thoroughly enjoyable crowd pleaser. The programmes are highly accessible if not populist.  Why not? The place was packed.  Nobody plays like a Russian orchestra, and nobody plays Russian music like a Russian orchestra, and our first item was the biggest lollipop of them all, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op. 18It was played superbly, with not the slightest hint of schmaltz or vulgarity.  Freddy Kempf set the tone from the beginning by making every one of the eight bell like introductory chords sound different.  His was a very intelligent, totally clear interpretation that let the music speak for itself.  The orchestra’s tone was rich and warm, conductor Vassily Sinaisky kept soloist and band in balance, keeping the magnificent brass in check and letting the strings soar, with ample support from woodwind and percussion.  This was a thoroughly rehearsed yet utterly fresh and committed rendition of a well known work that did not tire through familiarity, a lesson to orchestras everywhere.

The ultra cool Freddy Kempf treated us to a substantive jazz encore.  The music writer always wants to know what the encore is, but even when announced can rarely hear.  Anyway, Freddy said that “It was written by a Russian Ukrainian whom you won’t have heard of”.

To my surprise the second part of the programmes was not a Russian composer but Mahler, albeit the very accessible 4th Symphony.  The orchestra went into the opening without catching its breath, beautiful light flute and string phrasing, a fast rhythm quickly developed with a definite sense of swing.  Immediately we had the confidence that we would be in for a fine performance, and we were.  The horns came in strong but beautifully measured, the four flutes, no less, pleasingly fluent and inducing a sense almost of easy listening.  Knowing of Mahler’s love of scoring for banks of the same instrument (he has been known to write for eight horns) I was impressed to see and hear no less than ten double basses playing pizzicato in the third movement Ruhevoll (Restful). An extraordinary experience.

Come the final movement Sehr behaglich (at ease) soprano Anna Devin emerged from where she had been patiently sitting in the midst of the orchestra to take front stage.  I am always slightly disappointed when soloists have to have their music with them, and Anna’s relative lack of projection at first may have had something to do with this.  Nonetheless her voice was pure, pleasing and if not drowned by the huge orchestra would have soared a little more, and Sinaisky’s baton could have helped her a little more in bringing the necessary balance about.

The audience was totally engaged even if not as sophisticated as those of the evening kind – too many whoops in the applause.  So I was absolutely delighted that they not only restricted their coughing at this difficult time of the year but held their applause for what seemed like a lifetime as the conductor’s baton held the silence for a satisfyingly and deservedly long interval before the house came crashing down with enthusiastic clapping and cheering.

After several returns to the rostrum, we were treated to an engaging encore of close harmonied late nineteenth century orchestral music, or so I guess.  I wish I knew, but, hey, who cares about names, it was a beautiful way to end this gorgeous Sunday afternoon occasion.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 January)

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“It’s too easy to depict the women as the only victims of the ambition and cruelty that pervaded the dynasty.” – Author Guy de la Bédoyère discusses Domina

“Who could resist the chance to take time out at Tivoli? It’s the Roman world in miniature…”

Notorious. What other word can encompass the lives led by the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty? As Rome morphed from a Republic to an Empire under the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero their wives and mothers took centre stage. With varying profiles of courage, ruthlessness, and skill women such as Livia, Octavia, as well as the elder and younger Agrippina, emerged as the true backbone of the dynasty. Their stories are familiar from the pages of I, Claudius. The various and nefarious paths each woman took to power are chronicled in Guy de la Bedoyere’s Domina, a behind-the-scenes tour of the machinery and chicanery that really made the Roman Empire tick.

Guy de la Bédoyère was born in Wimbledon and studied Archaeology and History at the Universities of Durham and London. Starting in 1998 he appeared regularly on the Channel 4 archaeological television series Time Team. That same year he became a freelance writer and broadcaster. In addition to his many respected studies of the Romans, especially during their occupation of Britain, Guy has published books chronicling the lives and friendship of the diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.

Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome was published in September 2018 by Yale University Press. To find out more click here.


Why ‘Domina’?

Domina was the formal name for the female head of a household. Indeed, it comes from the word for a house, domus. The senior women of the imperial family were addressed by that title though some were also called Augusta if they had been given that title (not all empresses were). Domina covers all of them.

Roman women ran the household, many of which were staffed by people held as slaves. Why are we still surprised that Roman women knew how to successfully manage, manipulate, and tyrannise?

Roman history is completely dominated by accounts of men and written in terms of their lives or careers. There are no ‘lives’ of the empresses, for example. Roman women, especially powerful ones, were subjected to a great deal of stereotyping by Roman historians who either depicted them as women of great honour and purity, or as duplicitous and immoral schemers. These were rhetorical devices that were used by them to depict their husbands and sons in a good or bad light. Extrapolating the truth is very difficult and perhaps now impossible.

What is clear is that while women were able to operate outside the ‘system’ because they held no office, they were also restricted by having to work through men. There is no doubt that this led to a certain amount of subterfuge and lateral approaches. Those who were most successful were also the most vulnerable and liable to terrible retribution. But it is important to understand that the men of the dynasty suffered equally hideous fates too. It’s too easy to depict the women as the only victims of the ambition and cruelty that pervaded the dynasty.

The book details many of the objects created to enhance the image of the Julio/Claudian dynasty. If you could pocket one, even if you needed a very big pocket, which would it be?

I already have it. It’s the silver cistophorus coin of Claudius and Agrippina the Younger made at Ephesus in 51. There they are with their heads beside each other in the manner of joint rulers. It was unprecedented and never repeated. It shows how far she had managed to get. I was so fascinated by the coin I purchased it. It inspired the book.

Did Agrippina the Elder live up to the hype? Would she have made a good Augusta?

Agrippina the Elder was dealt a terrible blow when her husband Germanicus died in 19 in Syria. That destroyed any chance she had of becoming an empress unless she had been allowed long enough to survive into her son Caligula’s reign. Again, what is the truth? Tacitus was keen to depict her as a victim and as a woman of great dignity. It would seem that in some respects he may have been right. Germanicus and she would have been celebrated by the mob had he been made emperor. But for all we know he could have descended into despotism like their son Caligula. Who knows what Agrippina would have turned into?

Might the stupendous fabric of the Roman system have resisted yielding to the pressure of its own weight for longer if women had been woven in directly and able to exercise power in their own right, rather than through an occasionally pliant male?

Again, this is completely speculative and with so many factors involved it is impossible to say. The rise of the Severan women in the third century and then certain women like Galla Placidia in the fifth show that under certain circumstances women could gain even more remarkable power than the Julio-Claudians. But the Roman world was a militarized superstate and it depended on military leadership to survive. The women would have had to be prepared to lead armies. Agrippina the Elder showed that some women came close to being able to do that.

I’m guessing there’s a copy of ‘I, Claudius’ somewhere on your bookshelves. Are there any contemporary novelists (who use ancient Rome as their setting) there too? Who do you esteem and recommend?

In all honesty, I do not read much fiction and especially not ancient fiction. The real story is quite compelling enough. In fact, had a novelist invented the Julio-Claudians and their story he or she would have been laughed at for writing something so implausible. The little ancient fiction I have read usually contains the odd quite significant error that makes them totally implausible.

You’ve got a one-way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family. When and where are you taking them?

Funnily enough, not Rome. It would either be Pompeii and the chance to see the faces of the people who lived in the houses I have visited there, and to smell the place, or it would be Lullingstone Villa in Kent. I know Lullingstone very well. The setting is little changed and I’d love to see the original house as a living home with the people who lived there.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the Library of Alexandria. Which do you choose?

Who could resist the chance to take time out at Tivoli? It’s the Roman world in miniature with fabulous buildings and doubtless visited by interesting people, but most especially because of Hadrian. I’d like to meet him. He’d have been mesmerized by tales of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.

Will there ever be anything as good as Time Team on telly again?

Was it really that good? There’s a lot of rose-tinted spectacles going on with Time Team. It was great fun to be on and a privilege to participate in. I saw some remarkable places and met some very special people. But it was around for too long. The experience became repetitive and began to turn into a dog-day afternoon, especially on dud sites where we scrabbled around for a story. In fact making TV programmes is generally very boring and I got very bored of it.

On the whole I avoid TV like the plague now. The thought of hanging round all day on set is too ghastly to contemplate. Time Team was very expensive to make and those days are long gone. There will certainly be nothing like it again, at least not in our time, because the budgets do not exist to make shows like that. As for ‘as good’ I’m sure that as time moves on later generations will find plenty in their own lives that is just as good, even if it’s completely different. All things must pass. And Time Team is past – forever.

What’s next for you?

Perhaps I should think about selling one of my 1970s Honda motorcycles before I do anything else! I’ve been writing books for over thirty years. That is what I mainly do now, but with an increasing sense of uncertainty about where books and publishing are headed. I have two books on the boil at the moment, one a survey book of life in the Roman army from original sources, and one about how the Romans became rich and what it did to them.

I have lecture tours in Australia and New Zealand in 2020. After that, who knows? I travel a lot with my wife and we are enjoying seeing our granddaughters grow up. I’m 61 now and keen to make the most of being fit and well and having the time to do things I haven’t an opportunity to do before. Mick Aston was only five years older than I am now when he died. Robin Bush, Time Team’s archivist, was only six years older than I am now when he went. Tragedies like that are a lesson not to sit around waiting for the ‘right time’ to do something. As Mr Micawber said in David Copperfield, ‘something will turn up’.


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“Male relations in this period were generally more physical. For warmth as well as protection, powerful men would routinely share a bed with their underlings.” – Author Benjamin Woolley discusses The King’s Assasin

“George’s political vision has generally been underestimated. I think Dumas has something to do with this, fixing a not entirely undeserved image of him as a dandy and libertine.”

The rise of George Villiers from regional obscurity to the heart of the Jacobean court defied logic. A meteoric royal favourite, the young gallant enraptured James VI & I. Britain’s first Stuart king even declared that he wanted the beloved courtier to become his ‘wife’. For a decade, Villiers was at the king’s side – at court, on state occasions and in bed, right up to James’ death in March 1625.

As Charles I’s reign dawned Villiers’ star was reaching its zenith. Villiers had groomed the shy and awkward Charles to don the very public mantle of monarchy. Villiers’ tempestuous relationship with the late king, his closeness to Charles, and their not-so-private clashes with the old King over Britain’s place in Europe led many tounges to wag. Was George Villiers more than a spectator at James’ deathbed? Almost immediately a parliamentary investigation was launched. Scurrilous pamphlets and ballads circulated London’s streets. But the charges came to nothing, and have since been relegated to a historical footnote.

In The King’s Assasin Benjamin Woolley reexamines the evidence and plots a course through the murky Jacobean interplay of hubris and vulnerability with that flare for historical narrative, intricate detail, and big personalities familiar both in print and on television. Woolley is the author of the bestselling The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr John Dee. His first book, Virtual Worlds was shortlisted for the Rhone-Poulenc Prize and has been translated into eight languages. His second, The Bride of Science, examined the life of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter.

He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC on subjects ranging from the fight for liberty during the English Civil War to the end of the Space Age. He has won the Arts Journalist of the Year award and an Emmy for his commentary for Discovery’’s Three Minutes to Impact. He lives in London.

The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I was published in August 2017 by Macmillan. To find out more click here.


Why George Villiers?

I first encountered George many years ago, researching another story. I found a long-forgotten transcript of a notebook written by a member of parliament. It was one of very few eye-witness records of a secret trial of this extraordinary figure who had become a favourite of King James. The notes were fragmentary and difficult to piece together, but despite this I caught glimpses of a character so beguiling, so mischievous, so charismatic, so besotted by his friends and despised by his enemies that I could not resist.

How accurate is Alexandre Dumas’s portrait of George Villiers in The Three Musketeers?

Of George, Dumas wrote: ‘At thirty-five…he passed, with just title, for the handsomest gentleman and the most elegant cavalier of France or England. The favourite of two kings, immensely rich, all-powerful in a kingdom which he disordered at his fancy and calmed again at his caprice’. That is a pretty accurate summary (though he was not exactly a favourite of Louis XIII – indeed, he made several passes at the French king’s his wife, which did not go unnoticed). Dumas also noted that he ‘lived one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity’.

Did James VI & I and George Villiers have a physical or a platonic relationship? Does it matter either way?

Male relations in this period were generally more physical. For warmth as well as protection, powerful men would routinely share a bed with their underlings. But I believe James and George’s relationship to have been carnal. This is a complicated issue, as the boundary between physical intimacy and sex has shifted over the centuries. James undoubtedly doted on George, and wrote of his ‘dog’ with deep affection. The intensity of their relationship was revealed by their frequent bust-ups. After one, James fantasised about George becoming his ‘wife’. Following another, George recalled their first night together at Farnham Castle, ‘where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog’.

Can George Villiers role in government be thought of as that of a proto-Prime Minister, a signpost to later first ministers managing both parliament and the executive?

One point of comparison certainly holds. Parliament became his political nemesis. Despite being a dominant figure in government, parliament proved impossible to manage. For a while, he was a favourite of MPs, hailed as ‘St George on Horseback’ for standing up to the Spanish. But leading up to James’s death in 1625 and following a series of military disasters, they turned against him. It led to the charges that he had murdered the king, as well as abused his office. Efforts by James’s heir Charles to defend George led to the antagonisms between crown and parliament that culminated with the Civil War.

Did George Villiers have a vision or public policy agenda beyond his own ambition?

George’s political vision has generally been underestimated. I think Dumas has something to do with this, fixing a not entirely undeserved image of him as a dandy and libertine. But as he matured, he developed a strong vision of national renewal, culminating with ambitious (and ultimately disastrous) efforts to put Britain at the heart of a new global order, built around an alliance with Europe’s Protestant states that would challenge the dominance of the Spanish and Holy Roman empires. It was this vision that led to him falling out with James, who was much more cautious and conciliatory when it came to foreign affairs.

Did James VI & I die unaided?

Big question. In 1625, while the king lay on his sickbed, apparently recovering from a bout of malaria (common in England at the time), George administered a ‘potion and plaster’ which led to a sudden and catastrophic deterioration in the king’s condition. No one knew what was in the medicine, and the only person who claimed to have tasted it before it was administered (the standard method of checking for safety in the era before phase 3 drug trials) was the man who had mixed it on George’s behalf. That much we know from the royal doctors who treated the king during his final illness and (reluctantly) testified before the secret House of Commons committee set up to investigate the episode. A toxicologist I consulted was fairly certain that the potion was a poison—he even identified the toxin. Others are sceptical, and there is certainly room for doubt. What we do know is that George interfered at a vital moment, and the outcome was one that enabled him to put into place the policies James had been so fiercely resisting in his final months.

How seriously should high Anglicans, such as The Society of King Charles the Martyr, take the accusation that Charles I was a patricidal regicide?

After George had given James the unauthorised ‘potion and plaster’, a delegation of royal doctors had gone to Charles to protest, begging him to intervene. He refused. Following his succession, Charles also issued pardons and pensions to the doctors who had turned a blind eye. It was certainly a suspicion among MPs that Charles was involved. Two were arrested and had their houses searched for implying it might be the case, precipitating a parliamentary crisis.

Did Francis Bacon have any genuine esteem for George Villiers, or were his motivations simply venal?

More sexual than venal. Accused throughout his career of being a ‘sodomite’ (then a capital crime) and a ‘pederast’, Bacon was certainly infatuated by George. But he had to tread carefully to avoid upsetting the king, who was notoriously jealous. He nevertheless became devoted to George, becoming a loyal mentor and advocate, and offering advice on statecraft at a crucial moment in the favourite’s rise. He also cut a pathetic figure when George spurned him.

Was the Royal College of Physicians a force for good in the early modern period about which you write?

No. Another of my books, The Herbalist, about the radical medic Nicholas Culpeper, shows how corrupt the College had become by this time. Medical practice was based on the notion that health was determined by a balance of four bodily ‘humours’, a theory formalised by the Roman medic Galen in the second century AD. One of the leading members of the College, William Harvey (who was at James’s bedside in his final moments and became close to Charles following the king’s death) is rightly hailed as one of the greatest figures in medical science. He performed a series of experiments disproving the prevailing assumption that blood seeped through the body like sap in a tree by showing its circulation, pumped by the heart. His discovery made a nonsense of the notion of humours, yet Harvey was one of the College ‘censors’ who expelled any physician who questioned Galen’s theories.

The College also enjoyed a monopoly over medical practice throughout London and the suburbs, which they used to restrict the number of doctors who could practice. This ensured demand and fees for their services were kept well beyond the reach of most ordinary people. In 1625, London was hit by one of the worst epidemics of the plague in recorded history. Nevertheless, while James lay sick at his country retreat, more Fellows of the College were at his bedside than in all of London.

What are you currently working on?

A history of Black Bile – the ‘humour’ associated melancholy.


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Valhalla (Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh College of Art: 11 – 22 Dec.’18)

“I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.”

Editorial Rating:  2 Stars

Do politicians reach Valhalla, that great hall of slain warriors? No, they don’t, and Ronan Jennings’ valiant play shows why. You need to be dead, mighty, and Norse. Jennings’ principal candidate has led a bloody revolution, for sure, but he has a French name and is stuck behind a desk. Still, Joy Division’s Candidate plays on from 1979 and provides the sombre mood music.

Twelve Twelve Theatre’s production is in the Wee Red Bar in the College of Art. It is a handy space but with no stage as such and with only a minimal set it is unfortunately not equipped to suggest the final overthrow of the Imperials by a people’s army.

Four characters find their way through unseen rubble to the seat of power, the old imperial palace that has its vodka store miraculously intact. Guillaume (resolute and deluded by Andrew Johns Cameron) may have won the war but he is plainly rubbish at making peace. ‘His’ city, Belogard, is without water and riots are around every corner. His bright idea to arm the citizenry is not working out as he hoped.

Three women would oppose this megalomaniac, each one – in my book – worthy of a place in Folkvangr, the other Valhalla, presided over by Freyja. Eloise (Hana Mackenzie) is trapped between loyalty to the Leader and a winning humanity; Ingrid (Debi Pirie) has the best lines when she rounds on Guillaume, the born-again fascist; and Zaitsev (Christina Kostopoulou), a cool emissary from a neighbouring state who is there to seize a favourable trade deal from a country in ruins. Surely an available Brexit analogy here?

Forget lofty mythology and Imperial Stormtroopers; the whole idea is too big, too self-important. It helps if you scale Valhalla down, away from chemical weapons and child soldiers, down to comic strip frames. There’s a nasty Colonel Boris in Herge’s child-satirical King Ottokar’s Sceptre and that’s where I see this piece, in 1938, where a plot to overthrow a good ruler is discovered and thwarted (by Tintin and his wee dog). Guillaume, like Hitler, has penned his own Memoirs of the Common Man.

The best is in determined acting, the brutality of a couple of confrontations, and Guillaume’s laughable ignorance of what-to-do-next. Economics is not a minefield that he’s happy in. The worst is in the reduction of history to pop pistols and bombast like ‘tackling a wolf in single combat is the way to high office’, even though Odin would applaud. Regardless, I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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Mouthpiece (Traverse: 5 – 22 Dec.’18)

“Knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

As Edinburgh plays go, this one is outspoken. Its audience is there to be stuffed and startled. Do you ‘live’ or do you ‘stay’ in Edinburgh? Whatever, wherever, you are unlikely to say – as you look out over the city – “See they flats?”. For a start the grammar’s wrong: amusing, sure, but plain wrong unless you’re local and out of school. Second, those flats are way over there “in the bit nobody looks at”. Not Muirhouse, as it happens, but more likely on the Southside, in Gracemount or Craigmillar. That’s where Declan (17) lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and his little sister, Sian. Declan’s father killed himself when Declan was seven. He was an alcoholic and everyone says Declan will end up just like him.

Libby (46) is not from Morningside, but possibly close to; the Grange maybe, or even Fairmilehead which always sounds nice. For Libby is nice and her mother listens to BBC Radio 4. Mouthpiece tells the story of Declan and Libby; posh woman who used-to-be-a-writer meets radge schemie. In the end it is perfectly possible to consider it a love story but it’s Declan’s love for Sian that really touches you.

This play’s energy pours out of Declan. It’s pure, vehement fun one minute – a verbal battering of Libby’s proper speech (and attitudes mebbe?) – but then it’s full of despair and longing the next. Lorn Macdonald delivers a knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge: “I ken what precarious means, I’m no daft”.

Neve McIntosh as Libby can fall back on herself and land safely, even comfortably, by the end. She has the background and the education that is not available to Declan. She uses ‘Professional’ status as a defensive excuse that will make you queasy. McIntosh’s performance is finely judged; never provocative or clever but – if anything – rather shy and vulnerable. But she has two parts to play: one, with Declan, and the other with us, an audience of posh cunts. (Sorry, but that’s how it is and you’d better get used to the word if you’re going to see Mouthpiece). Libby talks to us about her story, ‘her’ play. Was it ever Declan’s?

Designer Kai Fischer and writer Kieran Hurley frame the work within a stark rectangular set that Libby steps easily in and out of. The shock quotient when Declan does the same goes off the scale. Projected text is used to identify place and time and to underwrite the action (as if penned by Libby). When that fractures and Declan disputes what is happening is both unsettling and dramatic. It also arrests a formal, ‘meta’ narrative before it gets too precious.

Mouthpiece is artistic director Orla O’Loughlin’s last show at the Traverse before she goes to London’s Guildhall. It displays the same drive and attack that distinguished her Devil Masters from 2014. There may be no expensive New Town interior to trash – Hurley’s script does that all by itself – but her hold on what matters is just as tight and uncompromising. The play will not bring much comfort and cheer for Advent but it does send you out with an important sense that the hurt and the dispossessed are never far way. Little Sian’s name might mean ‘God’s precious gift’ but no-one is giving Declan any presents this Christmas.

The applause came in fast and loud at the final blackout. Too fast. The performances are outstanding and deserve it but Mouthpiece is one of those plays that is yelling at yous to shut up and think.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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SCO: Rustioni, Mendelssohn (Queens Hall: 6 Dec. ’18)

Image result for mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)

“A delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is currently offering a two part programme celebrating Mendelssohn and music in a similar vein.  On Thursday we got two pieces by the main man, along with a Rossini overture and a charming suite of Respighi bonbons, published almost a century later.

 

Whilst the Queens Hall is a welcoming venue with a genial atmosphere of really committed Musica Affecianadi Geriatrica the venue, as an old church, is pretty basic with stackable chairs forming the main stalls whose lack of racking means sightlines are poor, particularly as in this evening’s case where the size of the orchestra meant dispensing with the stage.  We saw the top half of the conductor, the heads of the soloists, and the wind and brass, the strings and woodwind, in glorious invisibility.  This made it frustrating and difficult to engage.

 

One wonders if the excellent young conductor, Daniele Rustioni, knew this, for his style of conducting was endearingly inclusive in terms of rapport with the players and at times almost swaying to the music with frequent flicks of his fine head of hair to engage with the audience.

 

But notwithstanding these built-in disadvantages and compensating factors, the music, and the playing, spoke for themselves in a delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.

 

Mendelssohn was the main event and is what I shall concentrate on but let me say first that Rossini’s Overture L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) delighted us with a ridiculous contrasting opening of pizzicato followed by orchestral chords in a positively Mozartian romp, with special mentions to the oboe of Robin Williams and piccolo of Alison Mitchell.

 

Our lively conductor almost ran back to the podium after minor re-seating between works and got straight into Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite 1, which did exactly what it said on the tin, a pleasant collection of instrumental ditties with oboe again to the fore and some strong cello playing from Principal Philip Higham.

 

And now the main attraction, Felix Mendesssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847), in the view of many the most precocious musical talent of all time, including Mozart and Schubert; the critical difference between him and Mozart was that his father did not exploit his youthful talents and instead let him grow.  Nonetheless he died aged 38 only a few years longer than Mozart’s 35 and Schubert’s 31, but the latter was disease driven (typhoid or syphilis, depending whom you believe), whilst the former two was almost certainly overwork.  His catalogue is enormously popular, and this evening we got to hear two lesser known works.

 

Mendelssohn’s Two Concert Pieces were in effect small scale concertos for two clarinets, in this case regular B-flat and bass.  The bass clarinet made a pleasant change to hear in these two light, entertaining pieces which while hard to take seriously were none the less enjoyable for that.  SCO Principal Maximiliano Martin and sub Principal William Stafford disported themselves with aplomb and the whole band, and audience, had a great time.

 

I did not know Mendelssohn’s 1st Symphony in C minor at all and was impressed by its structure and depth, late Mozartian in style, and astonishingly, composed when he was 15.  There was no hint of immaturity in this work whatsoever, which the orchestra played with verve and enthusiasm throughout.

 

So, all in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of accessible, tuneful music, very well played throughout with everyone, conductor, soloists, band and audience, having a great evening’s entertainment.

 

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 December)

Go the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

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Wendy and Peter Pan (The Lyceum: 29 Nov.’18 – 5 Jan. ’19)

Isobel McArthur (Wendy) and Dorian Simpson (Smee/Doc Giles)
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“It’s a visual treat”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

It is not often that I review children’s shows. Luckily, as a twenty-something I’m basically a child in an adult body, pretending I know how to do taxes or what grenadine is. Less luckily, it’s much harder to review a children’s show honestly than it is to convince people at parties you can make a drink other than “rum in a Tom & Jerry mug”. With that in mind, consider this a review in two parts: one for the adults in the audience, and the other for the kids you’ll most likely have alongside you.

If you’re a parent, or just someone who’s interested in the general state of children’s theatre, the outlook is actually pretty good. Ella Hickson’s interpretation of the J.M Barrie classic plays its adaptational cards fairly straight: despite new framing devices and subplots the bones of the original do shine through. Though whilst that may be nothing new, it’s definitely nothing unwelcome.

The production paves its own way in design terms. It’s a visual treat: the vertically focused sets are detailed and interesting enough alone, but when coupled with costume and staging the whole production goes from “act” to “spectacle” on visual merit alone. Particular praise to Ziggy Heath as Peter Pan, for extended service to physical clownery, exhausting even just to watch. Co-lead Isobel McArthur performs an admirable Wendy, managing to keep up almost effortlessly against her more physically dynamic ensemble.

This is also a show, however, that could be accused of over ambition in its writing. Whilst the quality of the dialogue is high, Hickson’s adaptation suffers from trying to do too much at once. By the second half, the story is about accepting the death of a child, and also about becoming an adult, but also a swashbuckling adventure, but also about Wendy wanting to lead, and on and on as such. Just when it seems to be coming to grips with one theme, it switches. And whilst there is something to be said about writing for the often less-than-infinite attention spans of younger kids, as an adult you might be left feeling a little dazed. Despite a very talented cast and that excellent overall design, the story changes momentum so often that it struggles to carry a single cohesive theme.

But it’s all well and good to sit on my high horse and judge: perhaps more important than what I think is what the kids thought. And despite any criticisms levelled previously, there is one overriding factor that makes the difference here: they were enthralled. For nearly the show’s entire run time, silence pervaded over a crowd of people whose average age barely went above double digits. On the way out, it was a sea of smile and fake sword fights, and it’s honestly very easy to see why.

Gyuri Sarossy as Captain Hook

Sally Reid as Tink

Despite being a little clumsy in its execution story-wise, Peter Pan and Wendy succeeds in capturing something essentially child like. Call it something I can’t put my finger on, or hook onto it (geddit?), but it’s obvious that this production understands the motivations, feelings and fears of young children. At the end of the day, it’s going to do its job for its intended audience, and not only do it well, but with sincerity. The performances are big and expressive, but thoughtful too. Funny, even – Dorian Simpson as Smee delivered laughs that had every age bracket rolling, alongside Sally Reid’s wonderfully crunchy portrayal of Tinkerbell.

PeterPan3

… and with Ziggy Heath as Peter

Is it worth going to see if you don’t have kids? Maybe, if you want something interesting to look at for a couple of hours, but aren’t expecting grand narrative. But if you’re looking for something that the younger people in your life might be able to connect with in a really meaningful, fun way? Absolutely.

 

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 30 December)

Go to Wendy and Peter Pan at the Lyceum

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