Coasting, Bristol Old Vic Studio: review

3 stars

Fruit machines in the amusement arcade flare and bleep, waves crash over the shingle and a dead body lies on the beach. This is the twilight world of Natalie McGrath’s Coasting, the first full-length play to come out of Bristol Old Vic’s new-work programme, Ferment.

Pearl and Ocean live on the edge of respectable society: they flirt with criminality, they loiter under the pier at night and hide from Falcon, the chief of police. But then they spot the body on the beach and Ocean gets involved with a gangster. In the hands of director Emily Watson-Howes, it has moments of real power. But those moments are scattered through an evening that feels self-consciously showy and ultimately frustrates…

Read my full review of ‘Coasting’ on The Independent’s website here

The Madness of King George III, Theatre Royal: review

4 stars

“I am here, but I am not all there.” So declares the troubled monarch at the centre of Alan Bennett’s play. In Christopher Luscombe’s production, a wall of empty frames looms over the stage: this royal family is expert in framing itself for public view. But now, someone has forgotten how.

Bennett’s play follows the illness which gripped George III in 1788 (now thought to be porphyria) and the politicking and absurdity which arose as a result. At its centre is David Haig’s irrepressible King. He whizzes from person to person like an over-wound top…

Read the rest of my review of this production on The Independent’s website here

Henry IV Parts I and II, Theatre Royal, Bath: review

4 stars

At the heart of this year’s Peter Hall season in Bath sits a work that the veteran director staged at the RSC almost 50 years ago. And this production, taking place on a versatile set by Simon Higlett, has all of his hallmarks.

It is brilliantly spoken – the language takes centre-stage and every pun, witticism and tongue-twisting insult is given its moment, no matter how much semaphore is required to translate the meaning today…

Read my full review of this production of ‘Henry IV Parts I and II’ on The Independent’s website here

Treasure Island, Bristol Old Vic: review

4 stars

A ship has dropped anchor in Bristol. There’s nothing unusual in that, perhaps. But this one is on dry land, parked outside the Old Vic Theatre and overrun by 18th-century pirates.

The theatre space of the Old Vic is closed for redevelopment. But director Sally Cookson, not one to be deterred by the lack of a theatre, decided to construct a stage on the Old Vic’s doorstep for her production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island…

Read the rest of my review of ‘Treasure Island’ on The Independent’s website here

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne: review

Yesterday I went to Glyndebourne and I am feeling very smug about it.

Not, as some might assume, because I am part of a rich elite who can afford access to high culture that other plebs can’t, but because I am a pleb and nevertheless managed to get in. For £20.

Getting a ticket for Glyndebourne involves roughly the same amount of effort and money as, say, locating a Siberian tiger. In fact, the latter is probably cheaper. So I was pleased with my £20 ticket – standing, admittedly, and with restricted view. But David McVicar’s staging of Meistersinger looks set to be one of the opera tickets of the year, if not the decade. So what’s a bit of leg ache?

I got the ticket through Glyndebourne’s excellent <30 scheme for the under 30s. Last year I managed to get a £30 seat in the stalls to see Hansel und Gretel and the previous year I paid the same for their brilliant The Fairy Queen. There’s no waiting list, just sign up on their website.

And so, on to the production. The opera tells the story of a song contest held in the guild of Mastersingers of Nuremberg. A member of the guild offers his daughter’s hand in marriage as the prize. The only problem is that she’s in love with a knight who isn’t a Mastersinger. (The whole sticky mess could have been avoided if the daughter, Eva, had been left to choose her own husband. But that would have been too simple. And too feminist.)

The London Philharmonic Orchestra, under Vladimir Jurowski, was on stunning form: they responded to each flick and tremor of the maestro’s baton with precision and tangible enthusiasm. This was an orchestra at the top of its game and there was some particularly fine horn playing.

Wagner GlyndebourneBut can you go to this, of all Wagner’s operas, and simply enjoy the music? David McVicar certainly thinks so – and his production encourages the audience to lay aside all the political and historical baggage that accompanies Meistersinger (see this excellent blog from Tom Service for more on this). The setting is a politically safe period around 1810 and the final paean to German art becomes less about cultural superiority and more a general celebration of art. Everywhere McVicar tones down distasteful elements – the final song (‘Even if the holy Roman empire/ Should dissolve in mist,/ For us there would yet remain/ Holy German art’) is sung without surtitles and the character Beckmesser – often regarded as an anti-semetic caricature – is pompous but essentially empathetic.

Partly this is thanks to the characterful, comic performance from Johannes Martin Kränzle who is an operatic Mr Collins, wooing Eva (Anna Gabler). Who is clearly far too young and evidently doesn’t like him anyway. The other stand-out performance is Gerald Finley’s in the lead role of Hans Sachs. Finley’s powerful baritone proved more than equal to the part and his Sachs, if slightly younger than usual, manages to convince as a pillar of the community.

McVivar’s staging has been criticised for being unadventurous. True, both costume and set are fairly naturalistic, but with an opera that is so rarely performed, why go for a Big Idea? Why not just stage the work elegantly and simply – as was done here.

Finally, I will add that despite the length of Meistersinger (4hr with a fair wind), my legs only began to ache in the last 15 mins as there is a convenient bar to lean on. Jolly good show all round, Glyndebourne. Shame about the weather – see to that for next year will you?

Is Classical Music Relevant: Cambridge Union debate, Stephen Fry and Kissy Sell Out

“The idea that classical music is the province of white-wigged old farts shows a failure of imagination and rank snobbery.”

Thus spake Stephen Fry at a debate in Cambridge last night on the relevance of classical music to today’s youth. His adversaries included Kissy Sell-Out, Radio 1 DJ and critic Greg Sandow. But it was Stephen “dub-step is my life” Fry who stole the show – and indeed won the debate (365 to 57, 88 abstentions). As someone embarking on a career as a classical music journalist I’m obviously pleased with the result, but much of the debate was depressing.

Classical Music

White-wigged old fart?

Over and over the genre was called “elitist”, snobby, exclusive, out of touch. Yet only yesterday morning I was musing with my pianist and conductor house mate as to whether now was the best possible time to be a classical musician – or indeed spectator.

London alone has a healthy clutch of symphony orchestras performing music from Puccini to Pärt, Tippet to Turner, every evening. And there are chamber ensembles across the country, constantly experimenting, performing contemporary music and attracting new audiences. The classical music scene is vibrant, exciting and full of incredibly talented people.

Nor is it fair to call the classical music world elitist. Opera houses and concert halls are busting their gut strings to show young people that the door is open, there are comfy seats waiting for them and –look – you don’t even have to wear a suit.

This summer I will be going to the Glyndebourne opera festival for the second time in as many years. Last year my ticket was £30, this year it is £20 – both special deals for the under 30s. And the OAE are forever throwing late night events with tickets for just £5 – which always seem to sell out. Thanks to these initiatives, classical concerts are full of young people just enjoying the music and, rare from worrying about it’s relevance, they are simply thankful that for a few brief moments, they are transported away from worries about exams, boyfriends, school gangs, fashion, essays or emails. It’s just them and the music.

Why this concern over relevance anyway? Why can’t classical music just be enjoyable, moving, terrifying, thrilling, transcendental, beautiful, staggering, heart-breaking, cheeky, humorous, thought-provoking or threatening? Pop music may use the language of the young, refer to Twitter, video games and clubs but it is the toilet paper of the music world: a one-use item. It is relevant today, gone tomorrow. Classical music, by contrast, is vellum – it might take a bit of blood to produce, but will be around long after the toilet paper has disintegrated.

The brilliant Benjamin Grosvenor (very much not wearing a white wig)

And the, ahem, toilet paper

The whole debate will be available to view at

Little Eagles, RSC, Hampstead Theatre: review

By Rona Munro
Director: Roxana Silbert

Royal Shakespeare Company, Yuri Gagarin

In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the eponymous time lord said of man kind’s ambition to get to the moon “You saw a big shiny thing in the sky and you couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” Rona Munro examines our urge to reach up to the sky and touch the stars in this play about the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin – and the engineer who got him there, Sergei Korolyov.

It is almost fifty years ago to the day that Gagarin was sent up into the stratosphere in what has since been called little more than an catapult and a tin can. Still, they beat the Americans and that is what matters, we learn in Munro’s hugely ambitious docu-play. She attempts to cover in just under three hours the Cold War, Stalin’s regime, life in the gulags, Gagarin’s personal life and the Cuban missile crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that it feels too broad in scope for an evening’s entertainment.

Under Roxana Silbert’s direction the RSC troupe all put in solid performances – Greg Hicks is dealt a bit of a dud hand with an enigmatic grumpy ghost and Noma Dumezweni’s Doctor veers from being a sympathetic character to a hugely dis-likeable one. Darrel D’Silva in the lead role of Korolyov does a good line in Soviet scowls and stomping. But there is the feeling that Munro couldn’t decide whether to concentrate on the engineer’s personal story or that of the space race. And the space race story allowed her to have fun with aerials – men dangling from the ceiling by their waistbands against a star-studded backdrop.

Dyfan Dwyfor as Yuri Gagarin is bright-eyed and eager – a walking piece of Soviet propaganda and Brian Doherty as Khrushchev is a sort of Russian Boris Johnson, all bluster and pats on the back. But like all the characters in this far-reaching play, he is little more than a sketch.

Undoubtedly I now know more about the Soviet space programme than I did last week. But Munro’s play doesn’t go beyond the educational – it is a book-at-bedtime sort of a work: harmless enough. But for a play about the human urge to touch the sky, Little Eagles is disappointingly Earth-bound.

3 Comedy Masks