Sunday, 28 May 2017

Concert Review: Shelter from the Storm, Barb Jungr, Jamie Safir, Davide Mantovani (The Other Palace, 25th May 2017)



Recorded in a sweltering New York studio in summer 2015, and released early last year, Barb Jungr’s album Shelter from the Storm (Linn Records) [review] was a fine collaboration with the award-winning pianist Laurence Hobgood, the pair’s fresh and vibrant versions of a range of material – showtunes, Dylan and Cohen, Bowie and Mitchell – supplemented by some strong original tracks, all linked, as the album’s subtitle emphasized, as “Songs of Hope for Troubled Times.”

I wasn’t able to see Jungr and Hobgood perform the album live during their tour last year, so was glad to have the opportunity to catch the show at The Other Palace (formerly the St. James Theatre) on Thursday night, where the performance was the third edition in the venue’s new “Jazz Divas” programme.

With the album’s US-based personnel (not only Hobgood, but also Michael Olatuja on double bass and Wilson Torres on percussion) otherwise engaged, Thursday night found Jungr taking to the stage with her regular bassist Davide Mantovani and the young pianist Jamie Safir (fresh off a plane from Mallorca). From the opening “Something’s Coming” through the dynamically shifting rhythms of “Shelter from the Storm” to the penultimate “What the World Needs Now is Love” (hilariously prefaced by Jungr), the musicians proved more than up to the task of navigating Jungr and Hobgood’s idiosyncratic arrangements, often fleshing out the album versions with distinctive flourishes and spontaneous interplay all their own. Mantovani’s  work was characteristically elegant, subtle and supple, and Safir’s playing was a pure delight, by turns passionate and playful, and generating several spontaneous rounds of applause from the audience.

In great voice, Jungr herself was radiant as always, creating a warm and witty ambience for the evening, illuminating songs old and new in revelatory ways. Bruce Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” was revealed as a beautiful torch song, Jungr leaning hard into the “Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t” lyric. “Bali Hai” was approached via Brexit. “Life on Mars?/Space Oddity” was fruitfully developed  from the more skeletal album version, with stunning playing from Mantovani and Safir. “All Along the Watchtower”, with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” elegantly entwined in its folds, was taut and powerful. Tracks drawn from elsewhere in Jungr’s repertoire – such as her jaunty-deadly jazz strut through Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and a gospel-influenced, singalong “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”  to close – were also appreciated. She and Hobgood’s own compositions sat snugly beside this diverse material, with a soulful “Hymn to Nina” and a soaring “Venus Rising” among the standouts.

While even the most talented contemporary songwriters have struggled, so far, to write very profoundly about the US in the Time of Trump, Jungr brilliantly hot-wires us to the present moment by turning the clock back, finding relevant content in older material. Her version of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” was achingly poignant and deeply moving in this context, its chorus – “Good morning, America, how are you?/Don’t you know me, I’m your native son” – turning gradually into a devastating enquiry from a soul betrayed. Her vibrantly funky take on “Woodstock” also reinvigorates the song as an urgent anthem for our age.  Loving and subversive, witty and engaged, Jungr and her collaborators help us find our way back to the garden.

Further information on the "Jazz Divas" series at The Other Palace here.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Theatre Review: Twelfth Night (Shakespeare's Globe)


The sad story of Emma Rice's premature departure as Globe Artistic Director needs no further rehashing from me (besides, I already indulged in some in my review of her predecessor Dominic Dromgoole's recently-published Hamlet: Globe to Globe). So let's just get straight down to a few remarks about Rice's production of Twelfth Night, the second foray in the theatre's "Summer of Love" season, following  Daniel Kramer's decidedly unloved take on Romeo and Juliet.

The moniker seems an apt one for this final season, because Rice is such a loving director, with a generosity of spirit that shines through even in her weaker work. She approaches Shakespeare exactly as you approach a lover: with tenderness, curiosity and wonder jostling close to irreverence, impatience and cheek. She and her companies cut speeches, incorporate new dialogue, add or extend songs. (Credit for most of these changes goes, this time, to the excellent Carl Grose, Rice's collaborator on various Kneehigh shows, and the unforgettable Oedipussy.) Rice draws from a grab-bag of cultural influences: pop and punk, music hall and cabaret, film and sitcom. Her bracing inclusivity - her refusal to see a division between high art and low - makes her, in my opinion, a true Shakespearean.

Her Twelfth Night has all of that, in spades. The production approaches the play through a 1970s prism in its design and its aesthetic, allowing for disco flourishes and the wry, naughty inclusion of some good ol' sitcom stereotypes (including Marc Antolin's lisping, camp Andrew Aguecheek and Kandaka Moore and Theo St. Claire's brilliant West Indian evangelicals).

Still, proceedings start at too high and forced a pitch, with a "We Are Family" rendition aboard the "SS Unity", led by the great alt cabaret drag sensation Le Gateau Chocolat, who serves, following the shipwreck that divides Anita-Joy Uwajeh's Viola and John Pfumojena's Sebastian, as a ghostly Feste: ludic and melancholic in equal measure. (Gateau's function here is a little like that of Meow Meow's Maitress in Rice's undervalued The Umbrellas of Cherbourg of 2011.)

Le Gateau Chocolat and Joshua Lacey in Twelfth Night. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
Indeed, as often with Rice, irritation and rapture, clunkiness and illumination, are exhilaratingly close in this Twelfth Night. As in her terrific A Midsummer Night's Dream last year, the lunacy of love is a major theme, expressed with all the mania one could desire. Katy Owen's show-stopping Malvolio moves from brisk, whistle-blowing priss to a horny honeybee rubbing against a pillar and jumping on Annette McLaughlin's statuesque (and very funny) Olivia. Carly Bawden's Maria is a gleaming-eyed minx, as seductive as she's steely. Joshua Lacey's Orsino has Michael Flately's moves and his self-satisfaction, his messages conveyed to Olivia via tape-recorder.

Amid the mayhem, the notion of splits and divisions - not only from loved ones but also from the various aspects of the self - comes through with fresh poignancy, as "the whirligig of time brings in its revenges", subjecting characters to good or bad fortune. And for all her giddy, sometimes over-insistent flourishes, one can't accuse Rice of neglecting the company's verse-speaking, which is exceptionally clear throughout.

Moments of pure, surprising theatrical magic radiate. A boat carries Pieter Lawman's lovelorn Antonio through the crowd. A shower of glitter accompanies Olivia's "Most wonderful!" In a final heart-grabbing gesture, Gateau's Feste takes Malvolio's hand. Rice breathes theatre, gives us excess of it, and her production can make the viewer deliriously happy.

Twelfth Night is at the Globe until 5th August. Further information here.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Book Review: Hamlet: Globe to Globe by Dominic Dromgoole (Grove, 2017)


My review of Dominic Dromgoole's new book Hamlet: Globe to Globe is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Film Review: Afterimage (dir. Andrzej Wajda, 2016)



My review of Andrzej Wajda's final film, Afterimage (Powidoki), is up at Film International. You can read it here.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Theatre Review: JOAN (Ovalhouse)




From a silent film classic and an often-revived George Bernard Shaw play to songs by Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush and Madonna, the singular figure of Joan of Arc has remained a somewhat unlikely icon and object of inspiration in 20th and 21st century popular culture. This enduring fascination must be down, in part, to the contradictory qualities embodied by the so-called Maid of Orleans. Peasant, prophetess, warrior, witch, martyr, saint - the identities encompassed by (or ascribed to) Joan of Arc make her a slippery, weirdly radical figure whose transgressions can be seen to go beyond their very specific historical, political and religious contexts and find resonance here and now. 

The question of Joans identity - and, more particularly, her gender identity - lies at the heart of the most recent play to represent her: Lucy J Skilbecks JOAN. Seen last year at Battersea Arts Centre, and subsequently in a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe (where it won several awards) Skilbecks one-person show now comes back to London for a couple of weeks of performances in the intimate Downstairs space at Ovalhouse. Its a most welcome return, for JOAN is an embracing, illuminating, hugely enjoyable work that adds something genuinely fresh to our perception of its heroine and her historical (and contemporary) significance.

Skilbeck’s play has clearly been carefully researched. The focus is on the events leading up to Joan’s execution: we learn about the death of her mother at the hands of the English; her decision to leave her father; and the visions of Saint Catherine that inspired her to convince the exiled King to let her lead an army against the country’s oppressors.

However, the novelty and urgency of the piece lies in the way in which it reflects and refracts Joan through the prism of contemporary gender politics. This it does boldly yet also delicately, without attempting to impose one reductive reading on the protagonist’s identity. It’s no surprise that Joan’s religious zeal is less of a concern, conveyed mostly through her deep sense of connection to Catherine. Instead, the focus is on a much more modish aspect: namely, the confrontation of a radical, “gloriously confusing” body with the rigid apparatuses of patriarchal power.  The show is particularly good at conveying the sense of freedom and possibility that Joan experiences in her male attire, as she turns her bra into a trouser bulge, and feels “for the first time total ease.”

The fluidity of Joan’s identity is echoed in the form of the show itself which combines elements of dramatic monologue, cabaret and musical. The approach couldn’t be further from strained Shavian verbosity: rather, it’s physical, fleet and often very funny, with some exhilarating musical interludes. Complemented by Joshua Pharo’s terrific lighting, Emma Bailey’s simple set of crates and mirrors lightly accents the plays themes, and Skilbeck’s direction keeps the pace supple at all times so that the proceedings turn from wry to wrenching on a dime.  



In Lucy Jane Parkinson, the show has its ideal performer, too.  Winner of Drag King Idol 2014, Parkinson (aka LoUis CYfer) is a dynamic presence: a whirlwind who plays off the encircling audience with hilarious aplomb, especially when mobilizing us to become an army. This Northern-accented Joan embraces something of a Riot Grrrl aesthetic: Tank Girl top, big sneakers, dreads springing from a partially shaved scalp.

Yet, as Joan confronts the consequences of (in Judith Butler’s great phrase) “doing one’s gender wrong,” Parkinson skillfully modulates her performance, doing justice both to Joan’s swagger and her aching sense of set-apartness. The late scenes in which Joan tries to appease her oppressors by letting her hair down and attempting to find a male mate are equal parts funny and painful, revealing femininity to be its own kind of drag act for women. Parkinson’s generous, open interpretation hotwires us to the heroine’s humanity throughout.  

But that’s not all. Via brisk on-stage transformations Parkinson also morphs into three of the men in Joan’s life: her father, Charles VII, and her pro-English interrogator Pierre Cauchon. It’s these guys, in fact, who get the evening’s irreverent songs, and Parkinson’s manic metamorphosis into the disco-dancing Dauphin is particularly sublime. However, Joan herself is finally allotted a moving, intimate number that Parkinson delivers beautifully, as this huge-hearted, playful yet profound revisioning of an icon arrives at its deeply poignant close.

Booking until 22nd April. Further details here

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub.



Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Book Review: Thomas Hardy: Half A Londoner by Mark Ford (Harvard Press, 2016)



My review of Mark Ford's Thomas Hardy: Half A Londoner is up at PopMatters. You can read it here,

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Film Review: Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade, 2016)





Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann is out now in the UK. You can read my review from Cannes 2016 here

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Theatre Review: Winter Solstice (Orange Tree)

Winter Solstice (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)


I first became aware of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s work a few years ago when Actors Touring Company’s production of the playwright’s The Golden Dragon transferred from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to the Arcola. Translated by David Tushingham and directed by Ramin Gray, the production made a huge impression, its playful, eccentric form gradually revealing a deeply serious meditation on the exploitations of globalisation and capitalism in the contemporary metropolis. (Though with its “Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese” restaurant setting, and an all-Caucasian cast playing characters of diverse ethnicities, ages and even species, it’s likely that Gray’s production would be less warmly received in our current "#StopYellowface" moment.)

ATC, Gray and Tushingham now re-team on a more recent Schimmelpfennig play in a production at the Orange Tree.  Winter Solstice initially sounds like a more conventional prospect than The Golden Dragon: the piece focuses on a family gathering being disrupted by the presence of an outsider. We meet Bettina and Albert - she’s a filmmaker and he’s an academic - mid-Christmas Eve barney. The subject of their row is Bettina’s mother Corrina, who, it transpires, has invited to the couple’s apartment a stranger that she met on the train. Rudolph Meyer is a cultured older gent who’s soon settled in and is charming the hosts with civilised chat and classical music at the piano. But Albert gradually senses something sinister under the guest’s rhetoric about chivalry, decency and community. 


Nicolas Le Prevost in Winter Solstice  (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)

Those familiar with Schimmelpfennig’s work won’t be surprised by the ways in which this familiar set-up is subverted through meta apparatus. For a start, stage directions are spoken by the cast, who slip between first- and third-person, at once inhabiting their characters’ experiences and standing outside of them. Gray’s production accentuates the play’s “baring the device” self-consciousness, with Lizzie Clachan supplying a rehearsal room set, and a creative approach to props  (dig that Christmas tree!) throughout.

The mix of play, film, novel and radio drama that Schimmelpfennig has fashioned has its drawbacks: we’re told so much about the characters’ thoughts and feelings that some interpretive space is removed. But the distanciation, treated by Gray with wit and lightness of touch, can also be dazzlingly effective, allowing for fluid shifts in perspective and time. (This is appropriate for a play that’s very much concerned with the abiding presence of the past.) These shifts are negotiated with consummate skill by the cast, with fine work from Kate Fahy as Corinna, vacillating between mordant bitterness and hopeful flirtation; Laura Rogers as the prickly Bettina; Dominic Rowan as the increasingly harried Albert; Milo Twomey as an artist friend; and Nicholas Le Prevost as the insinuating, ambiguous Rudolph. 

Nicholas Le Prevost and Dominic Rowan in Winter Solstice

The play has been interpreted as a sharply topical piece: inspired by Schimmelpfennig’s concern about the resurgence of far right movements, it’s been stated in no uncertain terms that Rudolph represents the return of fascism, insidiously seducing its way into a liberal household.

In performance, though, the play feels like a much more slippery, psychological - and perhaps richer - creation than this blunt interpretation suggests. Kindly grandfather figure, potential paramour, Nazi… Rudolph gradually comes to seem like a projection of the other characters’ fantasises or fears. The play pulls the rug from under us right up to the end, as Albert -  agitated, pill-popping and influenced by his fascism-related research  - starts to seem less and less like a reliable witness. As such, the production’s final moments are perfectly judged, striking just the right balance between comfort and chill. Obvious political readings of Winter Solstice are certainly possible, but it’s as a deeply ambiguous portrait of the shifting significance of a stranger that Schimmelpfennig’s haunting play resonates the most.

Winter Solstice is booking until 11 February. Further information here.