Thursday, 8 October 2015

CD Review: The Light Princess Original Cast Recording (Mercury Classics/Universal, 2015)

Levity Forever! In the anniversary tribute piece that I wrote about The Light Princess, I noted that it was hard to believe that a year had passed since the show opened at the National Theatre. Well, now two years have passed since The Light Princess’s great NT debut, and the Original Cast Recording of Samuel Adamson and Tori Amos’s vibrant musical fairy-tale has, at last, been released on Mercury Classics/Universal. As dedicated followers of this show know by now, good things (or - c’mon! - “better than good” things) come to those who wait, and the chance to finally own a copy of this score is joyous indeed.

The reason for the lengthy gestation of the OCR has been down to Amos’s involvement in other projects (a new album and world tour last year) and her commitment to micro-managing this release, which she’s produced with her usual team, and Adamson's close collaboration. Not for Amos the shove-the-cast-in-a-studio-and-get-it-recorded-fast tactics of most OCRs. Rather, she’s approached this recording with all the commitment, care and attention-to-detail that she’s brought to bear on her best studio albums. Boasting full lyrics, detailed plot synopsis and exquisite photos of the NT production (many being presented for the first time), the packaging of the two-CD set is stunningly beautiful. Such elements as the synopsis and the photos are also a handy addition for those experiencing the musical for the first time, without the benefit of the memories of the superb, surreal stage pictures conjured in Marianne Elliott’s terrific production.

While many of us loved the The Light Princess’s score from first encounter, and were excited to go back and experience it many (many…) times in the theatre, the music proved to be the most divisive element of the show, with a number of commentators bemoaning the score's lack of “accessibility” and absence of - gah - “memorable tunes”. Frankly, such complaints never held much weight (pun intended) for those who’d truly paid attention to the show. Instead, such remarks revealed that Amos and Adamson had co-composed a musical too sophisticated and intricate for some tastes, and painfully exposed the lack of an adequate vocabulary to really discuss and explore new musical theatre writing on the part of many British theatre critics.  

Such criticisms can now be silenced. With enhanced strings, a more central place for Katherine Rockhill’s terrific piano work, and lush production, the beauty, depths and detail of the music emerge as clearly as a bell on the OCR. Amos and her team have ensured that the score leaps off the speakers here: fresh, supple, shimmering, chamber-intense, always expressive of the characters’ personalities and emotional states, always a motor for the unfolding narrative.

The Light Princess is, indeed (and perhaps problematically so for those who prefer their musicals po-mo ironic), a score that runs on pure emotion, encompassing delicacy, stridency, playfulness, gleeful exuberance and operatic ache in order to tell what is, at its very tender heart, a coming-of-age story of an archetypal variety presented through the contrasts, parallels and pairings of its two protagonists’ worlds. What’s striking is that the show doesn’t descend to mere camp. It’s sharp, witty and cheeky, sure, but Amos and Adamson’s emotional acuity ensure that the piece never shies away from doing justice to difficult, complex feelings. The sense of emotional ebb and flow, the meaningful transitions, the refrains and variations, the exquisite melodies that may be employed only once, the stunning build of the ambitious sustained sequences “Queen Material”  and “Nothing More Than This” can be fully explored and savoured here, along with the terrific vocal performances from the cast– all of whom reprise their roles from the original production.

In performance, Rosalie Craig did so many fresh and in-the-moment things as the gravity-free heroine that to hear her performance "fixed" by a recording may seem inevitably reductive. Yet Craig's shrewd choices here mean that her Althea remains a wonderfully complex, protean creation, and her sublime delivery of  “My Fairy-Story,” “Better Than Good,” and “Darkest Hour” retains every bit of the soaring passion and bite that it had in the theatre. Craig’s is a thrilling, generous performance; one for the ages.  The brilliant Nick Hendrix sounds beautifully sweet and strong as Digby, and his duets with Craig on “Althea” and “Amphibiava” are among the funniest, sexiest, most poignant duets in any musical, period. As the controlling Kings, Hal Fowler delivers a properly scary “Proverbs” - accompanied by seismic piano crash from Rockhill –while Clive Rowe’s Darius remains one of the finest achievements in the actor’s distinguished career, his fearsome bellow at the climax of “The Whistleblower” turning, heartbreakingly, into the vulnerability of a little boy as he begins to realise the damage that his actions have wrought. 

It’s part of the project’s embracing generosity of spirit that each cast member gets their moment to shine, though: whether it’s Laura Pitt-Pulford’s contribution to the swaggering “Sealand Supremacy” (what I think of as the show’s “Bonnie Tyler moment”), Amy Booth-Steel’s Piper fiercely challenging Darius on “The Whistleblower”, Malinda Parris’s sensational, hilarious “Scandal”, or Kane Oliver Parry, as Llewelyn, harmonising exhilaratingly with Hendrix on “Bitter Fate”.  

There are, inevitably, some losses to "just" listening to the show: the series of four “Hellos” that invariably brought the house down at the coda are absent here, for one. Still, the show’s themes emerge with perfect clarity: the seductions of escapism; the balance required in human affairs; the challenges of two teens dealing with maternal loss and paternal legacy. “I’m a d’Arcy/Heartless brutes that’s what we are,” cries Althea on the show’s startling operatic apex, “No H20”, in which she believes herself to be (literally) bolted to her fate. The sentiment is echoed on the aforementioned “Bitter Fate,” where Digby resigns himself to his belief that “I am the solemn Prince; and to be the solemn King’s my lot”.  The fact that both characters find ways to not have their identities and fates controlled by others is part of what makes The Light Princess the affirmative, empowering and cathartic experience that it is (and all-of-a-piece with Amos’s body of work, too).  

Moreover, those who know the score will note, and take delight in, some new additions, including an expanded version of the joyous “Gravity”. That song is also included as one of the "Bonus Tracks" on the OCR, alongside Amos’s piano-and-vocal versions of “Darkest Hour” and “Highness in the Sky”. Though not precisely essential to the album as an experience, both tracks are lovely additions, and “Highness in the Sky” is especially noteworthy, with Amos’s urgent, tumbling piano work and sensual, caressing delivery allowing certain details of the composition to emerge afresh, especially when she reaches the “Everything’s changing, we’re not as we were” lyric.

For those of us who were deeply changed and inspired by The Light Princess over its run at the NT listening to the OCR provides all the joy and emotion of revisiting an old friend after a long separation. For those who didn’t see the production, here - at last - is the chance to experience one of the most original, inventive and richly textured musical scores of our time. And so:  Levity. FOREVER. 

The Light Princess is released on 9th October. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Theatre Review: The War of the Roses (Rose, Kingston)

My review of Trevor Nunn's production of The Wars of the Roses is up at The Reviews Hub. You can read it here.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Theatre Review: Crush (Richmond Theatre, & touring)

My review of Crush is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Theatre Review: Photograph 51 (Noël Coward Theatre)

Photograph 51: Photo: Johan Persson
Science on stage can yield mixed results, from the charm and cheek of Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy, through the deep intellectual pleasures offered by Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen  to, most recently, the cutesy superficiality of Nick Payne’s Constellations

Photograph 51, Anna Ziegler’s new play about  Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist who helped to discover the structure of DNA but who, as a woman, was ultimately sidelined from the story,  isn’t quite up to the Copenhagen level. But it’s a lot closer to Frayn than to Payne. It’s a sober, solid, serious-minded piece of writing, sometimes a bit too eager to tell where it might show, but astute, nimble and thoughtful, nonetheless. Michael Grandage's characteristically crisp, lucid production – 95 minutes, no interval – keeps up the pace, delivering a gripping evening that, though starting a tad stiffly, gradually thaws into surprising emotion. Christopher Oram's design evokes both the restrictive walls of fusty academia and the puzzle of a chessboard, as its protagonists’ grapple with the mysteries of scientific discovery (and the mysteries of each others’ personalities, too).

Beyond the telling of an important, still-relevant story - as recent ill-advised comments have shown, the status of women working in science is far from resolved even now - the production’s big draw is, of course, Nicole Kidman, returning to the London stage for the first time since her turn in The Blue Room set an over-excited Charles Spencer salivating about “theatrical Viagra”. It’s to Kidman and Grandage’s great credit that her performance as Franklin never feels like a star turn: defining Franklin as someone who wasn’t “a showman”, Kidman captures without fuss and with great feeling the character’s prickly defensiveness, her intellectual drive, and her latent longings.

Echoing Franklin’s position as a woman in a man’s world, the production surrounds Kidman with an all-male cast, comprised of Will Attenborough as James Watson, Edward Bennett as Francis Crick, Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins, Patrick Kennedy as Don Caspar and Joshua Silver as Ray Gosling. Attempts at humour sometimes feel forced but Kidman and Campbell Moore succeed in making something truly moving of the Wilkins/Franklin relationship – with its misunderstandings and missed opportunities - finally revealing the piece to be a melancholy memory play at its heart. It’s doubtful that Photograph 51 will constitute anyone’s idea of “theatrical Viagra” but its quiet intelligence and unflashy approach make Grandage’s production a definite asset for the West End. 

The production is booking until 21st November. Further details here.   

Friday, 11 September 2015

Concert Review: Stockport to Memphis - Barb Jungr, Crazy Coqs, 6th September 2015

Celebrations of Stockport – the Greater Manchester town described in hackneyed terms by Paul Morley as a place of “slumped skies and enclosed air … the town I couldn’t wait to escape from” – can’t be said to be ten a penny. But, never one to take the predictable view, Barb Jungr offered a love letter of sorts to the place that she grew up on her great 2012 album Stockport to Memphis. That record represented something of a departure for Jungr, combining songs by some of her favourite writers – Dylan, Mitchell, Hank Williams, Sam Cooke – with original, deeply personal compositions that reflected on Jungr’s background in Stockport, thereby evoking what the singer believes to be the “special connection” binding the North-West of England and North American coasts.    

At Soho’s wonderful Crazy Coqs club on Sunday night, Jungr (fresh from the recording of her new album and her debuting of a Beatles show in the States and at Edinburgh) revisited Stockport to Memphis in spell-binding fashion with Simon Wallace (co-composer of most of the original songs on the record) on piano and Davide Mantovani on bass. Listening to this trio – and this is the fourth time I’ve seen them on stage in the past year, following their Valentine’s Night show and two City of London Festival gigs – is an unalloyed joy, their wonderful rapport delivering shows that are always reliably confident and accomplished but also always fresh, spontaneous and surprising. The nimbleness with which Jungr, Wallace and Mantovani move through moods, making connections between apparently disparate songs, is simply sublime. Combining the observational humour of a Victoria Wood with the all-out, passionate intensity of an Edith Piaf, Jungr’s performances are totally fulfilling emotional experiences, leaving the audience elated, inspired and, at a profound level, changed.

The set-list for Sunday’s show, the first of a series of Jungr residencies at Crazy Coqs, re-ordered and often subtly re-arranged some of Stockport to Memphis’s songs, adding additional surprises, to boot. Jungr’s years of close attention to, and committed performance of, the work of numerous song-writing greats has clearly had its benefits on her own song-writing, which is evocative, economical, rich in specific detail, yet full of open spaces for the listener. The beautifully constructed “New Life,” referencing both her leaving of Stockport and her parents’ emigration experiences, resonated deeply, gaining even greater poignancy and pertinence in the context of the current refugee crisis. The slinky “Urban Fox” presented an encounter with the titular critter as a reminder of the natural wildness suppressed by gentrified city living. The album’s title track was as punchy and affirmative as the full-band album version, as Jungr joyfully evoked her early musical discoveries and the exciting, still-evolving journey that they set her on.     

Between these songs, Jungr vibrantly interwove material from the album by other writers that complemented the original material beautifully. Highlights included a magnificently aerated, gender- switched version of The Zombies’s “She’s Not There”, a liberating take on Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon’s “Breakin’ Down the Walls of Heartache” and an achingly beautiful reading of The Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues.” Jungr transformed that boisterous song into the tenderest and most redemptive of ballads, digging deep in to the redemptive sentiments of Scott and Wickham's lyrics: “Tomorrow I will be loosened/ From bonds that hold me fast/The chains all hung around me/Will fall away at last”. Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" was ingeniously reinvented as a dialogue, and Jungr's delivery of the line "His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean" was especially cherishable. On Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”, Jungr departed the stage and ventured into the crowd, directing the “you’ve been faithful – give or take a night or two” lyric at a (slightly perturbed-looking) audience member.   

There are few more gracious and hospitable artists than Jungr, few who create such an inclusive and loving ambience for the audience. But, like all the best performers, Jungr also keeps a palpable element of unpredictability, of danger – even of punky threat – in the air, ensuring that the evening never gets too cosy. This was nowhere more apparent than on a breathtaking rendition of Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole” which moved from gleaming-eyed parody to visceral emotion as Jungr brilliantly embodied the narrator’s wavering between resistance and capitulation to the Devil’s temptations. She closed the show with Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. Deeply moving, and again unavoidably illuminating responses to the current crisis, it was the perfect benediction with which to send us travelling on.

Jungr returns to Crazy Coqs on Oct 4th. Details here

Film Review: Irrational Man (dir. Allen, 2015)

Woody's Allen's Irrational Man is out in the UK today. You can read my review of the film from Cannes 2015 here