Sunday, 18 September 2016

Mark Thomas - The Red Shed - Liverpool Everyman - 16/09/2016

The Red Shed is exactly what it says it is, and is the home of the Wakefield Labour Club, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Mark Thomas gave his first ever public performance there as an 18 year old student and it continues to have an important place in his life, so he decided to make a show that paid tribute to it.

It’s a story about the miners’ strike, he tells us, but promises that there will be no brass bands and that no young boys will discover a passion for ballet.

He brings on stage six members of the audience (pre-selected in the theatre foyer, so don’t worry about being pounced on in the auditorium). With chairs borrowed from real The Red Shed and a selection of face masks, these volunteers help Mark in the telling of his story, by miming the parts of various characters from his past.

Mark has a very vivid memory of the miners’ march back to work in 1985, and seeing all the children through the railings of a school playground, singing to their fathers, uncles and brothers as they march past on the way back to the pit. He had been invited to join the march, but cannot remember the name of the particular village or pit, or of the woman who invited him.

The problem is that, over the intervening 30 years Mark has re-told this story so many times that he can no longer tell how much of it is the truth and how much might be his own memory romanticising the details. He resolves to make the journey to find the woman, the village, the school and the children, and to find the truth behind his memories.

So it is that, through a series of anecdotes, some true and some clearly imagined, we follow his quest up hill and down dale through the former mining villages. The sites of the pits are frequently marked by no more of a memorial than a new branch of McDonald’s, and schools have been demolished or turned into something else. Nothing quite strikes a chord, until...

To tell what conclusions he reaches would be to extinguish the magic of Mark’s storytelling, and he should be borrowing another recent show’s hashtag, #KeepTheSecrets. In getting to his tale’s destination, he finds a convoluted route that takes in a number of other quests, including the campaign to unionise fast food outlets, discovering a little known fact that finally makes eating a Gregg’s Sausage Roll a guiltless pleasure.

Those who recall Thomas’s previous work will be familiar with his unique brand of storytelling, in which he blends fact and fiction to achieve powerful delivery of a message. There is a deliberate ramping up of the emotional tension in the room, with audience encouraged to participate in building the atmosphere. In 95 unbroken minutes, The Red Shed brings us stand-up comedy mixed with something more theatrical and plays to our sense of truth, whether it’s a truth that we know exists or a different truth that we’d like to make happen.

Following its 2 performances here at the Everyman, The Red Shed continues its extensive tour via Bristol, Nottingham, London, Glasgow and beyond. See Mark Thomas’s website for ongoing tour dates.

Mark Thomas in The Red Shed - Photo (C) Sally Jubb
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Friday, 26 August 2016

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at the BBC Proms - 25/08/2016

THE Liverpool Phil are on something of an emotional and artistic high this year as they celebrate their 175th anniversary and 10 years with Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko holding the baton.

Early in July, a concert to mark Petrenko’s 40th birthday featured Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony and the Cello Concerto No.1 by Shostakovich, composers that have become prominent in the orchestra’s repertoire both in concert and on record. On that occasion the cellist was Truls Mork, who was scheduled to repeat the work with the Phil at last night’s Prom, alongside the Rachmaninov Symphony.

When Mork had to withdraw due to illness on the morning of the concert there was some nail-biting in the Phil camp until the 25-year-old St Petersburger Aleksey Stadler came to the rescue, flying in just in time to get in one rehearsal with the orchestra before delivering a performance of huge stature. The Shostakovich concerto is a large and technically demanding piece, with the prescribed fireworks for sure, but with a deeply passionate core surrounding its central, extended cadenza movement. Nobody could have guessed that there had been so little time to prepare, as cellist and orchestra were so emotionally in tune with each other and the performance received a rapturous response from the capacity audience in the Royal Albert Hall.

Another work with passion at its core began the concert, as the Phil presented the world premiere of Torus by Liverpool born composer Emily Howard. Howard’s background in mathematics features strongly in her work, and Torus is built around the eponymous geometric shape, like a ring donut, but described by Howard as being like a stretched ball held together by a central void. It is an expansive piece, running nearer to half an hour rather than the estimated 20 minutes, and between serene landscapes in the strings that open and close it there are passages sounding like anger and despair. In her program note Emily Howard describes imagining a sphere with its heart ripped out, and at times the piece felt like an elegy for the sphere on which we live. There is a cinematic quality to the writing and in some of the desolate string passages it was almost impossible not to conjure images of the recent devastation of the Italian earthquake.

The program ended with Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony, not often enough heard on the concert platform. If Emily Howard’s music sounds as though it might have been written for the screen, it’s easy to see how so many writers of film scores have been influenced by Rachmaninov, with the passionate sweep of the melodies and the vivid, technicolour orchestration. The Phil were on sparkling form here and with Petrenko’s mastery of the balance between emotional depth and sheer Hollywood glamour it’s clear why audiences fill houses for their performances.

At the end Vasily threw us a parting gift with Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot, played with characteristic humour and flair and charming the socks off the prommers.

Flying the flag for Liverpool on the world stage, at this most prestigious of music festivals, The Phil showed us again why the city is so proud of them.

Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO - Photo (C) Mark McNulty
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Edinburgh Fringe Previews - Unity Theatre - 21,22&23/07/2016

UNITY Theatre played host to three nights of preview shows last weekend, as a line-up of performers fine-tune their acts en-route to the Edinburgh Fringe. We managed to catch a selection of the comedy on offer and here’s our pick of the bunch.

Adam Rowe calls his show Bittersweet Little Lies and it evolves from a story about the day his dad taught him it was ok to lie sometimes. Rowe can accelerate from deadpan delivery to full-scale rant in the blink of a lazy eye and uses skeletons from the family closet as the basis for much of his set. This is good solid comedy that hits its mark well and the honesty of the delivery belies the title.

Tom Little used 31 Teeth in My Mouth as a title, but he’s already thrown this out and by the time it reaches Edinburgh it will be “Chicken Supreme? No, is isn’t”(probably). Whilst there are some well-judged comic pauses in his act, Little has his audience breathless following the seemingly random trail of weird and wonderful observations he makes. There’s nothing random about it though, as much of the material relies on convoluted construction and repeated links back to earlier segments. Here’s the sort of humour that builds laughs upon laughs – fasten your seatbelt.

Brennan Reece closed the weekend with his show called Everglow, which he has recently brought back from Australia. Beware this sort of comedy, as it has a sting in its tail. There is a disarming frankness in Reece’s manner and he has a tremendous confidence, using the whole of the stage in a very physical way. What is particularly special, though, is the architecture of his material, which comes full circle in a hugely satisfying way and, startlingly, manages to bring in elements of pathos that are genuinely moving. Expect the unexpected with this one.

At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Adam Rowe plays The Caves at 17:20 from 5th August, Tom Little is at Nightcap at 13:10 from 6th August and Brennan Reece at Pleasance Courtyard at 18:00 from 3rd August.

Adam Rowe, Tom Little & Brennan Reece
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Queens of Syria - Liverpool Everyman - 15/07/2016

To light a candle is better than damning the darkness.

So explains one of the women during one of the interpolated video segments of this production from Developing Artists and Refuge Productions, brought to the UK on tour with the support of the Young Vic.

Queens of Syria began life as a 2013 drama therapy project in Amman for Syrian women displaced from their homeland, working toward playing out Eurpides’ Trojan Women. The parallels with the ancient drama are clear, but what we see on stage is no longer 13 women presenting a piece of classic theatre. It has become something close to documentary – a kind of community autobiography.

Verbatim theatre often takes the words of real people and places them in the mouths of actors, but there is no way to fully describe the power of hearing a group of women retelling their own experiences in this way. Theatre audiences will have become familiar with frequent references to “The Refugee Crisis” in mainstream performance in recent years, and the participants in Queens of Syria fire a broadside at this in the closing segments of the work.

“Shall we make a play about it” quotes one. “That’s a sad story, but do you have a sadder one” says another. These jibes about the (usually) well-meaning efforts of theatre and media producers, directed straight at the audience, are a reminder that what we are seeing is not staged for effect, but to help us put real faces and real lives to the reports we’ve heard in news bulletins. To humanise the inhuman experiences that people have suffered. To make us recognise that every one of them had homes, lives and families like our own that have been shattered forever.

This is not easy to watch, but if it can use the lighting of its own small candles to start illuminating the darkness of the horrors created by civil war, then maybe we can stop seeing a problem and begin looking for solutions.

Queens of Syria gave two performances as part of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival at the Everyman on Friday and Saturday and continues touring to Leeds, Edinburgh Durham and London.

Queens of Syria - Photo (C) Vanja Karas
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Stefan Pop - Recital at St George's Hall Liverpool - 25/06/2016

Following on from recitals earlier this year with Ekaterina Lekhina and Yunpeng Wang, Liverpool Opera Four Seasons introduced Liverpool to yet another former winner of the Placido Domingo Operalia competition, lyric tenor Stefan Pop.

Pop has appeared at many of the world’s greatest opera houses, from La Scala Milan to Deutsche Oper Berlin, and from Mikhailovsky St Petersburg to London’s Covent Garden.

In the intimate setting of St George’s Hall’s concert room he gave a recital featuring some of the most popular tenor arias including music from, among others, Verdi, Puccini and Rossini. Opening with Questa o quella from Rigoletto, it was immediately clear why comparisons are being made between Pop and Pavarotti. A powerful, bright, colourful tenor voice combined with a lively and hugely engaging stage presence immediately had the audience captivated. In the first half of the programme he also gave us Oronte’s act 2 aria from I Lombardi and took us to the interval with Che gelida manina from La Boheme.

Being a “Pop” concert it naturally came plus support, and we welcomed Barbara Ruzsics (who appeared with Lekhina earlier this year) and Andreas Z Magony. Ruzsics gave a delicately phrased Exultate Jubilate and Debussy’s Nuit d’etoiles, while Magony added concert arias as well as E lucevan le stelle from Tosca. His is a strong voice but his phrasing was at times a little awkward and he had some tendency to focus on projection over tuning.

After the interval the stage belonged to Stefan Pop, beginning with Rossini’s impossibly complicated tarantella, La Danza, which he navigated with thrilling flair. This was followed by the act 3 duet from La Traviata, where he was joined by Ruzsics.

After two more solos for Pop and Magony, the singers began to play musical games, turning solos into duets and duets into trios, with Pop and Magony sharing roles, and ending with two encores – the Brindisi from Traviata and a duet version of Nessun Dorma.

The evening was again beautifully accompanied at the piano by Kirsty Ligertwood who on this occasion also gave us an instrumental interlude in part 1, with a heartfelt solo performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Liverpool Opera Four Seasons will continue their series in the autumn and have promised us some surprises. Keep an eye on Good News for details of what’s coming up next.

Stefan Pop - Photo (C) Lucian Enasoni
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme - Liverpool Playhouse - 13/06/2016

Frank McGuinness’s play was first performed at Dublin’s Peacock Theatre in 1985 and won him the Most Promising Playwright award from the London Evening Standard – an accolade he has since richly lived up to.

This touring revival is co-produced by the Peacock’s sister the Abbey, with Headlong, Citizen’s Glasgow and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, and coincides with the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
This is indeed a piece very much about a group of soldiers heading toward the battlefield; about the men themselves and not the conflict that has driven them together. Eight members of the 36th Ulster Division slowly congregate in the barracks for the first time and begin to unfold their individual back-stories. The narrative is seen through the memory of Kenneth Pyper, whose older self opens with an extended monologue in which we find him haunted forever by the ghosts of his past in lifelong survivor-guilt. Slipping back to their first meeting, the work follows them as they discover each other’s fears and passions, learn to accept their differences and train to face the horror that awaits them.

This play makes an interesting bookend to The Night Watch, currently playing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. In that 2nd World War drama, a predominantly female cast of characters discover that the pressures of conflict bring a new urgency to expressing their individuality. In Observe The Sons, an all male cast similarly discover an exaggerated need to forget the things that make them different and find some sort of camaraderie. Both plays explore aspects of characters that at once draw them together and force them apart.

Donal Gallery gives a fearless performance as young Pyper, an angry young man who’s hard to warm to with his defensive manner, but who can’t escape the affection of Enniskillen blacksmith David Craig, played by Ryan Donaldson.

McGuinness writes dialogue with tremendous power, and this is a work in which anger and reconciliation vie with each other in a simmering cocktail of emotions. The piece is slow to develop, and it’s only in the second act that one really begins to see the full extent of its genius. Jeremy Herrin directs with perhaps a little too much delicacy, but does achieve a great sense of the impending threat that looms ahead as we march toward the inevitable.

The fine cast are contained in a spare but atmospheric set from Ciaran Bagnall, on which Paul Keogan’s lighting paints some spectacular pictures.

Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme runs at Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 25th June, after which it continues touring throughout the UK and Ireland.

Production photograph (C) Johan Persson
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Monday, 13 June 2016

RLPO close their 2015/16 season - 09/06/2016

Last  week the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic brought their main concert season to a spectacular close in a concert given performances on Thursday and Friday nights.

Vasily Petrenko conducted an orchestra of over 100 players, beginning the evening with Skryabin’s exotic and opulent Poem of Ecstasy. This is sumptuous scoring for large forces and can often sprawl or feel overblown, but this performance was well controlled and the ebb and flow of emotion kept under a tight rein by Petrenko. Strikingly, every detail of the dense orchestral textures was clearly defined even in the most heavyweight passages, the massive climax at the close supported by the hall’s organ, felt rather than heard, just beneath the surface.

The emotional tension was relaxed when the orchestra were joined by Welsh harpist Katrin Finch, ending a brief residency with the Phil in a performance of the rarely heard Harp Concerto by Reinhold Gliere. The concerto has a cinematic romanticism, bringing to mind the scores of Korngold, and uses a surprisingly large orchestra to accompany an instrument like the harp. Finch’s playing, though, had the power to project through the orchestral sound whilst never losing its delicacy. The concerto’s central theme and variations movement in particular was a great showcase for her playing, which probably made converts of some of those listeners not generally keen on the harp.

The concert closed the season with Stravinsky’s epic Rite of Spring, one of the most notoriously groundbreaking works of the 20th century. We have heard Vasily conduct the Phil in this work a number of times, but never with this kind of power and electricity. Having got his reading of the score under their skin, the players added extra layers of raw, elemental urgency to their playing. Every detail of the writing was absolutely clear and in place, but the energy and tension in the performance was simply breathtaking, and well deserving of its standing ovation.

The stage was festooned with microphones, as the performance was being recorded for a Stravinsky project to include The Rite of Spring, Petrushka and The Firebird.

Whilst this concert brings the 2015/16 season to an end, the Phil will give more performances during the summer, starting on 18th June with a sold-out concert of the music of John Williams.

The 2016/17 season, which will be Vasily Petrenko’s 10th with the orchestra, begins on 15th September. Tickets are already on sale to subscribers and general booking opens on 4th July.

Review originally written for Good News Liverpool