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.