Posts Tagged ‘Edinburgh Festival Fringe’

2017 foursomes

December 31, 2017

In which I celebrate another year of having successfully cheated death by looking back at my cultural highlights of the past twelve months.

Top 4 theatre
My two best shows of the year, towering above the rest, were Angels in America and Follies, both at the National Theatre, sublime and superlative achievements, thrillingly staged and acted. I’d like to list the entire casts of both, really, but the performances that have stayed most in my memory are those of Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, Aidan McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Angels, and Tracie Bennett, Di Botcher, and the central quartet from Follies, perhaps especially Imelda Staunton, desperately vulnerable as Sally. I saw excellent productions of Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus at Stratford, but my Shakespeare highlight of the year was Twelfth Night, again at the National, with Tamsin Greig imperious as Malvolia, Tim McMullan swaggering all over the place as Belch, Daniel Rigby as good a communicator of Aguecheek’s damagedness as I’ve seen (the man bun clearly a cry for help), and Tamara Lawrance a touching Viola. (Also, anything with Oliver Chris in it ticks my box.) And She Loves Me at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which I saw in January as a post-Christmas treat, a twinkly production of the most chocolate-boxy of musicals. I’d gone expressly to see Mark Umbers as Georg, but in the event his understudy Peter Dukes proved excellent. The decision to use British accents worked a treat, with ‘A Trip to the Library’ in Katherine Kingsley’s broad Cockney the high point.

Top 4 student theatre
It’s been a very good year at the ADC in Cambridge, starting with my first García Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba, done by an extraordinarily strong cast of future stars (the performances of Xanthe Burdett, Daisy Jones and Emma Corrin among the standouts) in Jo Clifford’s translation. Alecky Blythe’s London Road received probably the finest student production I’ve seen of anything ever, an exacting musical done brilliant justice by a cast and band who clearly knew it inside out (Footlight Orlando Gibbs, playing one of the press photographers, even managed some improvised business when the lens fell off his camera). Its composer Adam Cork saw the production, and I can only imagine he was thrilled. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce is a bit dated now, but still very amusing, and was fortunate to have some of the funniest people in Cambridge in its cast, most notably Colin Rothwell, having a ball as the perpetually whinging Nick, and John Tothill, who must surely be recognised before too long as one of the great character comedians of his generation. And recently, Gypsy, a show I begin to see the point of. Ashleigh Weir (Rose) is one to watch, but everyone in Cambridge knows that by now.

Top 4 Edinburgh
Although I didn’t have the energy to blog about it here at the time, I had a good few days at the Fringe this August, the highlights being as follows: Colin Hoult as Anna Mann (‘Oh, fuck off!’) in How We Stop the Fascists, fabulously warm and witty, the funniest part for me being the point at which Mann asked the audience what we thought a fascist looked like, then slyly produced a mirror for us to look at and pass around, concluding with ‘Anyway, you get the point – fascists look like mirrors!’ (Maybe you had to be there.) Joseph Morpurgo’s Hammerhead, the discussion following his nine-hour one-man performance of Frankenstein, was a tour de force. Then there was Ivo Graham’s fun and exciting Educated Guess, a stand-up show with a difference, the difference being a quiz in which Graham’s encyclopaedic knowledge of MPs and their constituencies was put to the test. The night I saw it he fell down tragically on Jeremy Wright (Con, Kenilworth and Southam), but the video at the end helped to soothe the pain. And lastly but mostly, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, the worthiest winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award, though as she says it’s not really comedy, it’s very dark and very important. She made me feel worthless, and somehow in a good way.

Top 4 live music
I’m surprised at how few concerts I’ve attended in 2017. Theatre seems to be usurping music in that respect. But it was special to see Joshua Bell and Dénes Várjon in Edinburgh playing, among other things, the Brahms G major violin sonata, which almost moved me to tears, an effect music almost never has on me. Brahms has not shifted from his place at the top of my personal pantheon, and seeing the Endellion Quartet and Barry Douglas play the G minor piano quartet in October was exciting, especially that furious Hungarian finale. I saw Mitsuko Uchida twice, playing two different Schubert programmes, the better of which was the one at Peterhouse in Cambridge, where the ‘Con moto’ movement of the D.850 sonata was particularly divine. And it was great to see Max Raabe and Christoph Israel at the Wigmore Hall, where Raabe sang a lot of unfamiliar songs by the likes of Walter Jurmann. Especially lovely was Jurmann’s ‘Tomorrow is Another Day’, complete with whistling duet.

Top 4 albums
Of this year’s releases, up with which I have very much not kept, Nelson Freire’s Brahms recital has been on repeat – I hadn’t known the third piano sonata, but it’s beautiful; the shorter pieces are exquisite, and exquisitely performed. My great discovery early in the year was the fourth symphony of Franz Schmidt, in the recording by the London Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Möst, a masterpiece whose organicism excites and entrances. I’m pacing myself, but want to get to know the other three (and got the Bychkov recording of the second for Christmas). The NT production sent me back to the 2011 Broadway recording of Follies, admirably exhaustive and addictive. And lastly, loads more Prefab Sprout. Why has it taken until my thirties for me to become properly obsessed with this band I have known from my teens? Maybe they’re too good for the young. I’ve listened to their 1985 album Steve McQueen constantly, as literate and elusive and romantic a collection of songs as anyone could wish to hear.

Top 4 old films
Don’t judge me, but I’d never seen Ninotchka before. Actually I’m not sure I’d ever seen a Greta Garbo film before. But I love Ernst Lubitsch, and it has his usual gemütlich charm and cosiness in spades, while at the same time, like his To Be or Not to Be, commenting smartly on the politics of its time. Garbo is fabulous, especially in her stone-faced incarnation, and Melvyn Douglas is a pleasing foil, but Felix Bressart steals every scene as usual. Is there any film actor pre-1950 I love more? Sidney Lumet’s bleak masterpiece Fail-Safe, a sort of Dr. Strangelove without jokes, left me deeply discomfited, a chilling film to watch at a time when the threat of nuclear war seems greater than ever before during my life. And two Japanese films: Juzo Itami’s ‘ramen western’ Tampopo, playful, erotic and hilarious from start to finish; and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, a straightforward drama of human relationships made with such delicacy and acuity that it’s exhilarating to watch. Kore-eda has an amazing hit rate in recent years, and this film is up there with I Wish and Still Walking. It’s been a very good year. Films that narrowly failed to make the cut: Ikiru, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Nobody Knows (more Kore-eda), Girlhood, Love is Strange, Holy Motors, In the House.

Top 4 new films
It’s been a great year at the cinema too. Most of all, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous Call Me by Your Name, one of those films I felt might have been made just for me. Given the novel is a favourite book of mine, the film had a lot to live up to, but it succeeded in almost every particular, a sensual, slowly intoxicating adaptation, sensitively scored, gorgeously performed, delicately devastating. Earlier in the year, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight had a similar effect on me, brutal and tender, poetic and pulsating. (I know, I’m overdosing on adjectives again.) Toni Erdmann was an unexpected delight, a film about an eccentric man’s dysfunctional relationship with his daughter. Sandra Hüller is tremendous as the daughter Ines, but my favourite moments were those where I suddenly became aware of Peter Simonischek’s Toni in the background, half Clouseau hunchback, half Les Patterson, simply being funny. It has its melancholic side too, but there’s a lot to be said for fun and funniness. And of course, Paddington 2, supremely entertaining. Not only are Paddington and the Browns lovable (hardly a given, considering how few film families one would wish to spend time with), the supporting cast is stunning. Tom Conti and his various physical indignities, randy Simon Farnaby, forgetful Sanjeev Bhaskar, and Hugh Grant giving the performance of his career (and even starring in a ‘Prisoners-of-Love’-style rendition of a number from Follies that was the cherry on the cake). Irresistible. Honourable mentions for The Big Sick, The Florida Project, and My Life as a Courgette.

Top 4 books
In a pretty good reading year there are a handful of books that stand out above the rest, among them Andrew Hankinson’s gripping You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], Maggie Nelson’s audacious The Argonauts, Peter De Vries’s heartbreaking The Blood of the Lamb, and Muriel Spark’s wicked Symposium. But if I had to pick four, I’d choose three of my Grand Tour reads – Erich Kästner’s The Flying Classroom, the perfect book to read this Christmas (though you may have left it a little late); Margarita Karapanou’s darkly beautiful Kassandra and the Wolf; and of course Tony Parker’s housing estate compendium The People of Providence – and for a fourth, probably Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s mesmeric tapestry of early 20th-century America. I also loved his The Book of Daniel.

More of this stuff in a year, if we all make it.

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2015 foursomes

December 30, 2015

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.

Sheeps Festive Bash

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.

Cria Cuervos

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.

Fun Home

Edinburgh 2015

August 24, 2015

I spent the weekend in Edinburgh. When Gareth goes to Edinburgh in Festival Season, he does things properly. So between Friday night and Sunday afternoon I managed to fit in ten shows, a visit to the National Gallery, and even sang a Piskie Eucharist on Sunday morning.

The first show I saw was also one of the best, Canadian stand-up Mae Martin’s Us, in which she talks about labels, and especially the erasure of bisexuality, the assumption that because a woman dates a woman, say, she must be a lesbian. It’s a very funny show, and I smiled and laughed a lot, but the abiding memory is of a feeling of tremendous good will in the room. When you watch Mae Martin perform, you fall in love with her. (I think I was most of the way there already, to be honest.) There were two or three times when she made points that felt really important to me, and some discussion towards the end of homophobic abuse and misgendering that would have been more painful if not for her reassuring presence, and I thought, perhaps another performer, a comedian with a more aggressive persona, would have made this into a rallying cry for change; but Mae Martin’s softer approach is effective in its own way. I loved it and will see it again when she brings it to London in a month’s time.

Mae Martin

On Saturday I saw a couple of shows on transgender subjects: firstly, Jo Clifford’s one-woman show The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, a tender, wry monologue told by a transgender Jesus, culminating in communion; and secondly, Trans Scripts, a theatre piece curated by Paul Lucas in which six actors recite testimonies from trans women, American, British and Australian, about their lives and experiences. The more I think about it, the more exceptional Trans Scripts seems. It’s a smart move to include a wide range of people, as it brings home both the individuality of everyone’s experiences and the universality. I keep thinking of Rebecca Root’s Eden, born intersex and assigned male because her father wanted a boy, justifiably bitter at her treatment by the world, by medical professionals, but still clinging to the hope of a reconciliation with her mother. To single out Root is to overlook the other performers, Calpernia Addams, Catherine Fitzgerald, Jay Knowles, Bianca Leigh and Carolyn Michelle Smith, who are flawless. I don’t recall the last time I was so moved at the theatre. At the end I was one of many who stood to applaud. Visit the play’s website here.

Jo Clifford made the point that she was preaching to the choir, that the people who would choose to attend a performance like hers would be those already inclined to be receptive to her show. The same goes for Trans Scripts. It’s frustrating. A piece of theatre as vital and important as Trans Scripts should – must – be seen by an audience of people not yet engaged with the ideas it deals with. It ought to be filmed, or at least put on the radio. It would be an ideal thing to broadcast on Radio 3 or 4 at the weekend. It’s infuriating (if not surprising) that when Clifford’s show was first staged in Glasgow it attracted condemnation from churchmen who would naturally never have dreamed of attending a performance of it so that they could give an informed opinion. Anything to avoid challenging their fucking prejudices. I know people who call themselves Christians and yet would deny trans people their gender. If I had the power to do anything in the world, it would be to compel the uninformed, the unreceptive, the insensitive, to watch these two shows.

Trans Scripts

One joy of the Fringe is that there’s so much going on, and if you have a spare hour here or there you can always find something to do. That’s how I ended up going to Michael Burdett’s show Strange Face – Adventures With a Lost Nick Drake Recording, which I spotted a poster for while I was queuing for Mae Martin. I knew about the project already, as he gave this talk at my friend Victoria’s excellent bookshop a few months ago, but hadn’t seen it myself. Having discovered a hitherto unknown recording of Drake’s ‘Cello Song’, Burdett travelled around the country playing it to people and photographing their reactions. It’s a disarmingly moving hour, well worth seeking out.

Most of what I saw was comedy, though. Gein’s Family Giftshop, so polished and sharp, gifted physically and verbally, and clearly destined for greatness; hot young Alex Edelman, engaging and likeable; and Sheeps, whose new show on the Free Fringe, a series of deliberately blunt satirical sketches, feels somewhat ragged at present but will doubtless be refined into something as dazzling as their previous offerings.

The two most brilliant comedy shows I saw were Alex Horne’s Monsieur Butterfly and Kieran Hodgson’s Lance, both tours de force. Horne’s show was on last year but I couldn’t fit it in; thank goodness I made it second time around. He constructs a wacky Mouse Trap-style contraption on stage, enlisting the help of the audience to assist with e.g. making a flower arrangement, or shooting an arrow through a toilet seat suspended from the ceiling. At the end, if all goes to plan (and it generally doesn’t), he succeeds in catching the squirrel that escaped him six years ago, thereby laying several ghosts to rest. No less exhilarating is Hodgson’s show, in which he plays himself and various other characters (including, briefly and convincingly, Oprah Winfrey) in an exploration of the various ways in which Lance Armstrong’s achievements inspired him as a boy and whether later revelations discredit everything. His writing is pitch-perfect, his performance too. It should win every award it is eligible for. I wish I’d seen his solo show last year, which received similar plaudits.

Kieran Hodgson

Just before hopping on a train heading south, I had time to see Sam and Tom from TV! The exclamation mark feels important, as it’s a very high-energy show, with the ‘Sam and Tomfoolery’ threatening to escalate into blind, ugly violence. Which it does, sort of, though the violence is mainly psychological. The physical violence is better left undiscussed here, and is the catalyst for the show’s finest sequence. There was a depth to Tom’s mania that I hadn’t seen since the time I gave him carpet burns on his back by dragging him around the floor by his feet when he was a little boy. Recommended.