Monday, 22 December 2014

'Love Lies Here' at the National Theatre

On Saturday we went to see the musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos, 'Love Lies Here' at the new Dorfman Theatre at the National. I had no idea what to expect other than shoes.

The Dorfman hasn't been open very long so it was nice to browse around. The public areas are bigger than the old Cottesloe and there's actually space to move, bigger toilets and bar and a well organised cloakroom (better organised than the bar). It was advertising an international investment company (which I won't name) so I assume it's had money poured into the place. From the looks of the place it's going to be a bit of a moveable feast when it comes to staging, built to be flexible with the stage and seats moving to accommodate the needs of the production rather than the other way round.

When we went in all I could see was a series of pink risers as the moveable stage and people standing in huddles around the floor. I could see that the staging was moveable within the production but had no idea how moveable or how herded around the standing audience would be - I was sensibly seated in the front row of level 1 beside the DJ booth.  Yes, DJ booth with a DJ (an actor, obvs) spinning banging choons and it was banging! It's set inside a disco with a giant, glittery disco ball and people in pink jumpsuits ushering people around every time the staging moved. It was all very well organised!

It's the story of Imelda Marcos growing up in a provincial town, entering a beauty pageant and moving to the big city where see meets rising politician Ferdinand Marcos. They marry, win the election and start ruling the Philippines any which way. He puts her on pills and has an affair, she just gleams up more and then takes power when he's ill in hospital. There are always shady people dressed in black and wearing shades hovering in the background. There's always that potential menace. We see scenes of Imelda travelling, building her arts centres, visiting Studio 54 and the years pass. With the help of America they stay in power until a popular and peaceful revolution forces them to flee to the USA.

It's a non-stop, full-on show with no dialogue, just song after song after song evoking different moods and spectacles. It was a lot of songs to take in at one go.  The lighting was excellent as were the many costume changes (some incredibly fast!). The moving stages kept everyone on their toes, especially the standing audience. I did find that a little bit distracting, sometimes watching the black-clothed stage hands pulling and pushing something rather than following the action but it was all very smooth. Quick transitions from one scene to the next, one musical style to the next and different singers appearing and disappearing. The pace was impressive and kept it feeling energetic and vibrant.

I particularly liked Natalie Mendoza as Imelda (with her many costume changes) and Dean John-Wilson as Aquino (in his perpetual white suit).  The whole cast were great and terribly athletic throughout the show.

It's a great show and I think it's now sold out for the entire run - I was hoping to see it again but I've missed my chance. If you get the chance for returns of extra ticket releases jump at them - this is a real theatrical and musical experience you really shouldn't miss.

'Edward Scissorhands' at Sadler's Wells

This evening we went to see Matthew Bourne's 'Edward Scissorhands' at Sadler's Wells. I like Sadler's Wells and a visit to a Matthew Bourne production is a mandatory pre-Christmas treat. I last saw 'Scissorhands' in 2008 and it was a delight to see it again. I'd forgotten about quite a few of the scenes so it was nice to be reacquainted with it again.

So, the story goes something like this. The boy Edward dies so his father creates another boy with scissors for hands (as you do). His father dies and Edward wanders into the All-American town of Hope Springs, is taken in by a family and falls in love with the daughter but she's hanging out with the bad lads from the wrong side of town. Edward becomes celebrated in the town for his skills with topiary and hairdressing but the bad lads get him drunk at the towns Christmas party and he accidentally cuts someone. Cue the townsfolk metaphorically picking up flaming torches and chasing him to his creators ruined house on the hill where he has a final dance with his sweetheart before being ripped to shreds by the townsfolk. That's a very rough précis but it's sort of all you need to know.

Of course, this is dance we're talking about and that's what's important. There was constant movement, no time to be still on that stage, but there didn't seem to be much dancing. The story unfolds excellently and you don't need to know the story to be able to follow it easily. The was lots of activity on the stage, much running from side to side, and something I like about Bourne's productions is that no-one is left standing at the back waiting for their turn again - even people not in the spotlights are doing things, being seen talking or picking up food from a buffet or something, no second is wasted. Minor characters are given their own chance to grow and shine and no-one in the cast is a second fiddle.

The first half seemed almost exclusively to be about storytelling and characterisation and there are a lot of people to be given a character. It's the second half where we see the true mystery and romanticism of the production, where the heart-strings begin to be tugged and it really comes alive. The Christmas party sequence that leads to Edward's downfall was a trifle long and that was when I was mainly looking to the sides and back of the stage to see what other people were doing.

And then Edward accidentally cuts someone. That's enough to turn the townsfolk into a howling mob, chasing him as he escapes the party. His beloved runs after him, finally realising that she loves him and they have a final moment together before the bad lad appears to start a fight, followed swiftly by the mob and that's the end of Edward. Or is it...?

This is a lovely production and it's been tweaked a bit in the years since I first saw it. The staging was magical, especially the snow, and there was some excellent lighting with great use of shadows. Dominic North was great as Edward and all of them were really good irrespective of how much time they had in the limelight. It was all great fun, very sentimental and perfect for Christmas (especially with the Christmas Tree and the snow). It was much better second time round and I'd recommend it to anyone as a great evening out. And a great start to Christmas!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

'Christmas Squirrel' by Kim Boekbinder

You know I mentioned that I was backing 'Instant Minute', the latest Kickstarter from Kim Boekbinder? She'll write a one minute song for every $100 raised and you can commission your own song. So I did and gave Kim two words to work with. Those were 'Christmas' and 'squirrel'.

True to her word, the song has arrived before Christmas so I now have my very own Christmas song.  Kim sent it last night along with the lyrics and here they are. It's lovely!

Dear readers, I give you 'Christmas Squirrel':

Twas the night before Christmas
and all round the world
not a creature was stirring
except for a squirrel

Shivering, quivering, 
fluffing her fur
burying presents 
just meant for her

Acorns and peanuts, 
a crust of old toast
Come Christmas she would be 
the squirrel with the most

She's a Christmas Squirrel
No boy or girl
In this great big world
Has it as good as a Christmas squirrel.

Friday, 19 December 2014

'OK Father Christmas' by John Otway

I've been bemoaning the lack of new Christmas songs this year and, as if my magic, up pops John Otway with his contribution to the festive season, 'OK Father Christmas' and three other Christmassy songs.

He proves you can be over 60 and still produce loud and raucous guitar music that forces you to move parts of your body you'd rather forget about. These songs mix the Christmas season, winter and his trademarked humour and manic guitar.

'Rocking with the Reindeer' is another song on his 4-track Christmas EP and it's great fun, starting with the words 'Christmas… jumping on a tube train to Piccadilly Circus…' and then slags off the horror of Christmas shopping in London.

Yes, John might have had one hit single 35 years ago but he's still going strong - thank you for the new Christmas music!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

'The Wind In The Willows' at The Vaudeville Theatre

This evening we went to see 'The Wind In The Willows' at the Vaudeville Theatre on The Strand, Kenneth Grahame's lovely book made into a stage production by the Royal Opera House. As soon as it started I became 11 years old again, rapt with wonder at seeing Mole, Ratty, Badger and Mr Toad brought to life in front of me. And it snowed!

But hold on, I'm getting ahead of myself. This production was put on a couple of years ago but I didn't get to see it so, when I saw it was opening I had to buy tickets. It's not opera in the slightest, but it tells the tale of the riverbank through dance and narration and it's so easy to follow and so delightful. It opens in Kenneth Grahame's attic with Alan Titchmarsh as Kenneth, the narrator, as he introduces us to his animal friends and the story kicks off.

We learn of the friendship of Mole and Ratty, of their friendship with the exuberant Mr Toad who decides he wants a gypsy caravan (pulled by a rocking horse) until he encounters his first motor car. Uh oh, children, that's a danger! Badger convenes a meeting to discuss what can be done to curb Toad's dangerous driving and Mole is saved from the stoats and weasels in the Wild Wood by Ratty. Mr Toad is arrested and put in prison, escapes and makes his way back to his friends only to find that Toad Hall has been taken over by the stoats and weasels. A battle ensues and Toad and his valiant fiends win back Toad Hall, seeing off the nasty stoats and weasels. Phew!

Of course, there's a lot more going on than that. We see the changing of the seasons from lazy summer to bountiful autumn and chilly winter and the first half ends at Christmas with carol singers and snow descending from the ceiling onto the audience. There are lots of little messages in this production about friendship and loyalty, of 'Englishness', of life and living it to the full. In the half-time interval up in the bar the driver of the car ran in asking where his car was to be followed by police checking out leads and then, finally by Mr Toad in the stolen car. He was arrested a couple of feet from me and led away by the police. When the second half opened Mr Toad was in the dock in court being sentenced to 20 years in prison! O no!

I hope you don't mind me saying that I *loved* this production? It was fun, it was frivolous and it was magical by turns. The real surprise was seeing Alan Titchmarsh on stage for almost the whole time. I knew he was narrating but I'd assumed it would be a voice-over track, not that he'd be physically there on stage for almost the whole time. He was the only one who spoke during the whole production and even did some singing and dancing (well, sort of). Alan is a gardener who turned into a TV personality in the '90s and has been building on that since then and he was really excellent as the tweedy narrator. I hope his grandchildren (if he he has any) have seen him up there on that stage. Well done Alan!

If you're in London and have time for some magic in your lives then go along and see this lovely production. You won't be disappointed! O, and they also serve extra large glasses of Shiraz in the upstairs bar if that helps you decide...

Sunday, 14 December 2014

'A Christmas Carol' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

OK, so Christmas festivities started today with giving a Tree a home for Christmas and going to hear a reading of 'A Christmas Carol' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank. I also wore my thick, furry winter hat for the first time so it must be nearly Christmas.

Most years I read 'A Christmas Carol' in the run-up to Christmas and I never get tired of it. Dickens is a master story-teller and this is one of his best, the tale of how Mr Scrooge became the epitome of Christmas spirit. It's not easy but old Ebenezer does it.

We all know the story of Scrooge being visited by the spirits of Christmas past, present and future and how he grows to love Christmas, of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. All classic characters that tell a very touching tale of one man's journey into Christmas and humanity. Yes Ebenezer, that's you.

It's a stage reading - the same as I saw last year - with different actors taking on the characters and reading an abridged version of the story by Rosie Kellagher. Griff Rhys Jones was Dickens/the narrator and Bill Paterson played Scrooge (reprising their roles from last year). Ron Cook played Bob Cratchit and Tim McInnerny played a few roles. It was great fun and surprisingly dramatic given they're all dressed in suits and wotnot rather than costumes. The big screen at the back of the stage featured various period illustrations in black and white but I can't help feeling the atmosphere would've been enhanced with a Christmas Tree or two on stage. Or maybe just some candles?

In any case, it was a really good start to the real run-up to Christmas. The foyer had a small brass band playing carols and everyone was cheerful as we trooped into the hall to take our seats. I'd wandered along the Southbank beforehand, browsing in the Christmas market and the excitement of the colourful magic roundabout and found a huge tree outside the Royal Festival Hall for the Macmillan's cancer charity, a wish tree where you can write wishes and memories of people with cancer and some of them were very touching. This is, I think, the first time I've seen a Tree on the Southbank and it's most welcome.

Welcome to Christmas 2014!

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Human League at Hammersmith

Last weekend I had a date with The Human League at Hammersmith Apollo, the same venue as the now legendary Kate Bush gigs. I never miss a date with the League. I've seen them before at Hammersmith but never from the eighth row so I was very pleased indeed. I've loved the Human League for 35 years and it's always good to see them. They are the epitome of professionalism and always give good show, with fab lights, excellent sounds and, of course, songs that are most fab.

As ever, Phil strode across the stage while Susan and Joanne (aka The Girls) sang at their mic's, arms in the air and bums wiggling (as is The Law) with a three-piece band making some amazing electronic sounds. Can anything be better than that? And lights going off everywhere, atmospheric and exciting, and never knowing where to look next. They have more hits than you can shake a stick at and it's always interesting to see which songs they include as well as those they don't play on each tour.

They were in monochrome again. When the girls wore black Phil wore white and vice versa. I sort of like the idea that they plan their shows down to those details - it's all designed to give us a good time and they never fail to deliver.

They opened with 'Mirror Man' and went straight into 'The Sound of the Crowd', getting us off to a great start with two favourites. We had 'Sky' and 'Night People' from the last album but, other than those, we were given hit after hit and songs that everyone must know. The age profile of the audience suggested to me early on that here we have fans from way back having a Saturday night out.

We had 'Seconds' with the clock ticking on the giant video display, the always excellent 'The Lebanon', 'Life On Your Own' and 'Louise' and, of course, '(Keep Feeling) Fascination'. An instrumental 'Hard Times' gave them a break for a clothes change and they came back with 'Love Action' and 'Tell Me When'.

The final song was 'Don't You Want Me' (of course) with Susan holding out her mic so we can sing 'I still love you' (and we do!). What an amazing song to finish with, one of the biggest hits ever summing them up so perfectly.The Human League created a new way of being pop stars and having pop hits and that song says it all really.

But there was more…

The first encore was 'The Path of Least Resistance' from 'Reproduction' before the girls joined the League, a most unexpected song. The second was 'Human', another unexpected song that I don't think I've seen live before and finishing with the wonderful 'Together In Electric Dreams', Phil's hit with Georgio Moroder.

The Human League are always excellent and always worth seeing. I am very proud of them. They give us love and dancing and what more could we want?