Following the example of previous years, a trawl through what I’ve been up to. It’s felt rather a mean year, but looking back there have been a handful of very high points.
Top 4 live music
The best classical concert I went to was a piano recital by Richard Goode at Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall. His Brahms op. 76 Klavierstücke were a thing of wonder. Later in the year, Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr playing the Bach viola da gamba sonatas at the Wigmore Hall, fabulous. Though it’s been a Sondheim-light year I saw a couple of productions of Sweeney Todd. The all-star ENO version with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel was all well and good, but better was the CUMTS one at Cambridge’s ADC Theatre. Among some spectacular performances, Aoife Kennan’s Mrs Lovett stood out. A star of the future. And, as chronicled elsewhere on this blog, Šimon Voseček’s Biedermann and the Arsonists at Sadler’s Wells, an excellent production of a very fine opera.
Top 4 theatre
The best theatre piece I saw all year, probably the best thing of all, was Trans Scripts at the Edinburgh Fringe, which I wrote about in detail here. The performances (I was going to write the performance of Rebecca Root, but in fact all of them) are still vivid in my memory. More recently, I’ve got back into the habit of attending the ADC regularly. I’d forgotten how exhilarating student theatre can be when it’s done well. The pick of the bunch were Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Nina Raine’s Tribes, and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy. Let’s keep doing this next year.
Top 4 comedy
The best things I saw, I saw at Edinburgh in an intensely concentrated couple of days towards the end of August. Three shows I liked so much I saw them again in London post-Festival, Mae Martin’s entirely lovable Us, Kieran Hodgson’s virtuosic Lance, and Sheeps Skewer the News, messy in Edinburgh, more refined and brilliant in London (David Cameron to Ed Sheeran: ‘Samantha and I love to listen to your music when we’re spooning in our isolation tank’). And fourth, Alex Horne’s madcap Monsieur Butterfly, the hit of 2014’s Fringe, which I caught on its return. I’d go and see it again in a second if it hadn’t finished forever.
Top 4 albums
I haven’t really been listening to albums recently – I’ve been on shuffle all year – but one that has been on repeat is Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s The Rascal and the Sparrow, which mingles transcriptions of Edith Piaf songs with original piano pieces and assorted song transcriptions of Francis Poulenc. It’s an irresistible concoction, beautifully played. Listening last month to John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir’s recording of Beethoven’s Mass in C on a train, I heard it as though through new ears. It’s a piece I’d forgotten I liked, but as I get better acquainted with this performance I know I will grow to love it. A late purchase has been the first volume of Fats Waller’s Complete Recorded Works on CD, which contains a lot of his smashing organ recordings, including many underappreciated gems. You can tell from his playing what a warm person he must have been. Lastly, Peter Pears’ A Treasury of English Song continues to prove itself a treasure trove. Pears, it becomes increasingly apparent to me, is more than a mere appendage to Britten, and a piece like Alan Bush’s cantata Voices of the Prophets is a genuinely exciting discovery.
Top 4 new films
I wish I could recommend something obscure, but the films I loved most at the cinema this year were all critical successes. Firstly, right at the start of January, Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s darkly comic film about a washed-up former action star staging his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story on Broadway as a last stab at success. Whiplash was a rollercoaster ride, perhaps a bit questionable psychologically but enormously exciting, with a bravura final sequence that stays in the mind for a long time. The film adaptation of London Road, one of my favourite theatrical experiences of recent years, was mightily impressive, and achieved (I thought) a profound sadness that the stage version missed. And just this month, Todd Haynes’ latest, Carol, emotionally involving precisely because of the restraint of its use of emotion – the look, the quiet declaration. I left the cinema thinking the most beautiful three words in the English language are ‘I miss you’.
Top 4 old films
My film watching is down on last year, but I’ve seen some goodies. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, for instance, exciting and weird. Or Héctor Babenco’s hard-hitting Pixote: a lei do mais fraco, a portrait of Brazilian street life that is grimly unsentimental and disarmingly poignant. There were two films that blew me away, though. Firstly, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. I don’t know what Bogdanovich was on in the early ’70s, but this and my beloved Paper Moon are two almost flawless films. A portrait of small-town life full of atmosphere and music on radios, and somehow more black and white than the black and white films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I think it made me cry. Film of the year, though, was Carlos Saura’s Cria cuervos, which automatically became one of my favourites. It’s an allegory of Fascist Spain, but I didn’t appreciate that on first viewing, I just saw a portrait of loss in childhood, a meditation on the nature of memory. It’s a film full of beauty, full of tender observations about the connection between memory and music, the lack of sentimentality there is in childhood, children at play, grief and guilt and coping, the blurring of dreams and reality.
Top 4 books
In the most reading-heavy year of my life (more on that anon) a small number of books have stood out. Firstly, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, which I loved. I saw so much of myself in her, particularly in our obsessions and compulsions, our childhood diaries, our solipsism. The best non-fiction book I read was Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, angry and incisive and eloquent and eye-opening and (perhaps most crucially) readable. Required reading. I’ve not read as many novels this year as previously, but one that immediately struck me as a masterpiece was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, dense and demanding but undeniably beautiful, and enormously witty (in places raucously so). The handful of Tom Stoppard plays I read late in the year left me reeling at their inventiveness, none more so than Arcadia, a work of almost mathematical perfection. Joy and sadness abound, and though the poignancy of the final scene stays long in the memory, so too do the jokes.
LADY CROOM: What hermits do you have?
NOAKES: I have no hermits, my lady.
LADY CROOM: Not one? I am speechless.
NOAKES: I am sure a hermit can be found. One could advertise.
LADY CROOM: Advertise?
NOAKES: In the newspapers.
LADY CROOM: But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.
See you next year.
Tags: ADC Theatre, Alan Bush, Alex Horne, Alison Bechdel, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, Arcadia, Biedermann and the Arsonists, Birdman, Cambridge, Carlos Saura, Carol, Cria Cuervos, CUMTS, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Edith Piaf, Fats Waller, Francis Poulenc, Fun Home, John Eliot Gardiner, Julia Serano, Kieran Hodgson, London Road, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mae Martin, Nina Raine, Organs, Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Pears, Peter Shaffer, Pixote, Richard Egarr, Richard Goode, Sheeps, Stephen Sondheim, Steven Isserlis, Sweeney Todd, The Last Picture Show, Todd Haynes, Tom Stoppard, Touch of Evil, Trans Scripts, Virginia Woolf, Whiplash, Whipping Girl, Šimon Voseček