Wednesday 19 June 2024

Sight and Sound Summer 2024


The summer issue of Sight and Sound is out now. I interviewed Agnieszka Holland about Green Border for this issue. More details here

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Concert Review: Barb Jungr - Singing into My Seventies (Crazy Coqs, May 2024)

Barb Jungr
(Photo by Steve Ullathorne)

It's not everyone who'd necessarily opt to celebrate their 70th birthday by performing a trio of shows - each one made up of completely different, challenging musical material drawing on a repertoire of about 40 years.

But if there's one thing we know about Barb Jungr by now it's that she doesn't take expected routes. So that's exactly how Jungr spent her 70th - with a three night residency at one of her favourite venues, Soho's Crazy Coqs, accompanied at each show by a different long-time collaborator on piano.  

The first show on 9th May (Jungr's birthday night itself) found Jenny Carr joining to perform a set titled Dark Love: Elvis, Chanson & More. The 10th May show presented Jungr alongside Simon Wallace with a Dylan-centred programme, while the final night saw John McDaniel re-teaming with Jungr on a set revisiting their beautiful collections of work by The Beatles and Sting.

I was only able to make it to the 9th May performance, but have seen Jungr in concert many times since 2015 and it's always a unique, profound and exhilarating experience. She is, without a doubt, one of the greatest of contemporary singers: her supple voice, always exceptionally expressive but undiminished and deepened with the years, is able to dig into a dazzling range of material to find new and surprising qualities. And she's no slouch as a songwriter herself, either. 

But live she's even more than that: a great mover (in the sense of giving a vivid physical life to each song), and a spontaneous, hilarious and often subversive story-teller. At a Jungr show, you never quite know where the between-song chat will go: "I was obsessed with the Gothic nature of swamps," was one of the gems she shared this time around. But what might initially seem to be a non-sequitur always ends up adding to the texture of the song she's about to perform. Movement, gestures, delivery, chat - for Jungr, it's always about serving the story of the song in the most expressive way. 

Barb Jungr
(Photo by Steve Ullathorne)

With only one Jacques Brel piece, "The Tender Hearts," featured, the 9th May show didn't exactly adhere to its title - a case of 'its my birthday and I'll shake up the set-list if I want to', perhaps. But it was a rich and glorious evening nonetheless. Jungr opened with a punchy "Last Train to Clarksville," placing the song in a Vietnam context that I for one had never been aware of. As the evening progressed, connections between the  songs emerged, whether by theme - loss and separation were big - or by specific imagery: trains pulling out of stations, walking, rain. "It does get cheerful in a bit," she deadpanned at one point. 

With Carr's brilliant piano-playing as a by turns delicate and dramatic accompaniment, highlights included a pair of Elvis songs, drawn from Jungr's often wonderfully weird and spooky 2005 Love Me Tender album, a deeply moving "In the Ghetto" and "Kentucky Rain." With Jungr's delivery morphing from gossipy confidence to a preacher's declamation, the rendition of  Dylan's "The Man in the Long Black Coat" was staggering. And so, in an entirely different way, was "Au Depart," an extraordinary piece of writing by Robb Johnson that conjures a world of history, absence, loss, leave-taking and starting over through its economical images. With Johnson himself in the audience, Jungr performed the song with a captivating stillness that made each word pierce the listener. 

Jungr placed "Au Depart" in the context of the post-war refugee experience of her Czech father. This was one example of the resonant way she wove personal stories through some of the songs, from teenage Stockport memories to a traumatic visit to the eye hospital with her beloved mother (who sadly passed away just before Christmas last year) to her joy at getting a dog (Bambi, from Hungary). The latter relationship was celebrated via a rendition of Cat Stevens' "I Love My Dog," a warm performance of the song and a wry deconstruction of it at the same time. 

Indeed, when the evening did "get cheerful" it was with that infectious, soul-enhancing energy that's one of Jungr's essential qualities as an artist. She expresses a sheer joy in communicating with an audience that's often sadly absent from performers half her age.  A glorious take on Jeff Barry's "Walking in the Sun" and a singalong "Forever Young" were irresistible.  Carr led the crowd in a chorus of "Happy Birthday" before Jungr's rollicking version of "Walking in Memphis" sent us out of the club on an exultant high. 

From Ella to Emmylou, June Tabor to Joan Baez, Jungr joins the many female artists who've continued to perform dynamically in their later years, blowing apart pervasive ageist and sexist assumptions in the process. "I couldn't think of anything I'd rather be doing than singing tonight," Jungr said. A more vibrant and vital artist than ever - listen to last year's blistering My Marquee album for recorded proof - may she continue to do so for many more years to come. 

Thursday 16 May 2024

Sight and Sound (June 2024 issue)


The June issue of Sight and Sound is out now. I reviewed Ellen E. Jones's new book Screen Deep for this issue. 

Thursday 18 April 2024

Theatre Review: The Ballad of Hattie and James (Kiln Theatre)


A decades-spanning play about loss and forgiveness, talent and time, music and memory, centred around a thorny, complicated male/female friendship, Samuel Adamson's The Ballad of Hattie and James tells the story of the title protagonists - piano prodigies who meet as teens in the mid-1970s to collaborate on a college production of Benjamin Britten's  Noyes' Fludde

Inevitably, perhaps, they're a contrasting pair: James a stuttery, pretentious boy who flaunts his high cultural ideals like a badge of honour, and she an unruly middle-class girl, open to contemporary music, who turns up at rehearsal with a bottle of booze in her bag. Adamson's writing - rude, allusive, surprising and tender by turns - is attentive to the places where their experiences and temperaments connect and diverge - and how an early tragedy ends up shaping both their personal and professional lives in different ways.

Though not quite as ambitious as Adamson's last play Wife (2019), which traced and placed queer currents in and around productions of a A Doll's House over many years, The Ballad of Hattie and James shows a similar interest in time and its impact on creative artists. In Wife, a tambourine used in the Doll's House tarantella scene became a talisman passed down over decades. Here a similar function is served by a Bechstein piano owned by Hattie's family, coveted by James, and over which the two bond and bicker through the years.

Again, Adamson includes a futuristic flourish, but adopts a non-linear structure to tell this particular story - dropping in on Hattie and James at various points, moving backwards and forwards in time, as their dynamic shifts and changes. 

At first you might wish for a more straightforward telling. But the structure, elegantly managed in Richard Twyman's astute production, gives the piece a richness of texture  and pays off emotionally in the second half. Layering in references from Britten to Bush to Pulp's "Disco 2000", the play is much concerned with how music shapes identity - and vice versa - and how gender has impacted upon the career trajectories and expectations of musicians through history. 

A depiction of a friendship between a gay man and a gay woman is a rarity on stage or screen, and neither the writing nor the performances sentimentalise the protagonists, who are often prickly, selfish, or blinkered but retain our interest and affection, in all their recognisable flaws. 

With a Penguin book in his cardigan pocket and perfect pitch (but dodgy cords), Charles Edwards incarnates in James a certain species of gawky Englishman, smug and shy at once, dismissive in a kneejerk way of the female composers and writers who mean so much to Hattie. But Edwards also reveals the sense of sadness and loss underpinning James' attitudes. As often, Sophie Thompson seems on the cusp of doing too much, vocally and physically, yet keeps an emotional truth in her performance, including in her most florid moments to make Hattie a vital force even when at her lowest.  The mix of competitiveness and complicity that pair's interactions 

With Suzette Llewellyn multi-roling to great effect, and a pianist on stage to tackle the musical interludes, Twyman's production remains intimate but conveys the vagaries of fate and time and creative expression, a brief ballet of past moments bringing the piece together in a beautiful way. 

The Ballad of Hattie and James is booking at the Kiln Theatre until 18 May. 

Monday 11 March 2024

Theatre Review: Player Kings (Wimbledon; Manchester Opera House; Noel Coward Theatre, West End)


Though widely praised for iconoclastic boldness and intellectual rigour, the productions of Robert Icke have often seemed reliant on slightly half-baked appropriations of tropes associated with "European theatre-making" (sic): mics and pop songs, CCTV screens. Applied to classic plays from Aeschylus to Ibsen, these undergrad-level impositions have sometimes come complete with textual misreadings that the majority of critics have seemed willing to overlook. But even those of us who haven't bought into the forced eccentricities of Icke's approaches could find ourselves wishing for a few such quirks across the near-four hour running time of his latest piece of work. (The production might well be shorter by the time it reaches London; let's hope so.)

Player Kings, which opened last week at New Wimbledon Theatre and now heads up to Manchester before settling in to the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, is a mash-up of the Henry IV plays - with the report-of-Falstaff's-death scene from Henry V tacked on at the end (to sadly little effect). And apart from a blast of techno announcing the first Tavern scene - and repeated during the Gad's Hill robbery sequence - it's a surprisingly straight-laced affair. Hildegard Bechtler's design is minimal and unfussy, with rather bland contemporary costumes, and scene changes and location-shifts nicely accomplished by a swift swish of a curtain. (We also get place-setting titles, and a bit of historical context about the Battle of Shrewsbury that feels equal parts patronising and random.)

Possibilities for bigger, more attention-grabbing effects aren't taken - the production would surely benefit from a smaller space. Musical choices - "I Vow to Thee My Country," "Jerusalem" - are obvious. And some scenes (especially in the much-gutted yet still sluggish take on Part 2) are so under-directed that it feels like Icke simply abandoned them. Even with the great Robin Soans as one half of the pairing, I don't think I've ever seen a duller take on the Shallow/Silence scenes than the one offered here. You can feel a collective slump in the audience. 

Engagement is much stronger in the more compelling first half - especially, of course, whenever Ian McKellen as Falstaff takes to the stage. The goodwill is palpable, and McKellen is certainly more of an asset in this role than he was three years ago as Hamlet - particularly when delivering Falstaff's exaggerations about his field-of-battle prowess or sparring with Mistress Quickly (Clare Perkins, using her inimitable squawk to up the energy level). 

It feels like there's still a lot more to mine in Falstaff's relationship with Toheeb Jimoh's Prince Hal, though, and while Jimoh is very good - delivering Hal's portent of his rejection of Falstaff with chilling casualness, as an inevitability - there's more going on emotionally between him and Joseph Mydell's Lord Chief Justice, with a clear arc charted from hostility to a replacement father / son dynamic. 

Richard Coyle contributes a few fine, regretful moments as the ailing king Henry, and a final tableau brings the proceedings full circle in a satisfying way. Still, though well-acted, this much-anticipated production lacks epic sweep, richness of texture or an overarching concept, and ends up more solid than essential.

Player Kings is at Manchester Opera House between 14 March -23 March, and at Noel Coward Theatre between 1 April -22 June.

Preview: Danny is Fantastic (Arch 21, Valentia Place, Brixton)


It's lovely news that Daniel Cerqueira's very special solo show Danny is Fantastic is back at Arch 21, Valentia Place, Brixton for performances on 20 March, 21 March, 22 March. 

Danny is Fantastic was one of the best shows I saw last year, and I wrote about it here. The thing about the show, though, is that it's never the same night after night: it's "so live", in Cerqueira's wry words, and so influenced by the audience's presence, that it's a unique event each time. 

It's theatre as a present tense, in-the-moment, intimate experience: the opposite of the internet, the opposite of constant distraction. Cerqueira quietly creates such a warm and inclusive atmosphere that you come out feeling connected and inspired.

Go with some friends or go alone and maybe make some new ones. You can expect songs and stories and poems and fairy lights and readings and reminiscences, and you can leave a "remnant" of yourself behind afterwards. It's a gorgeous evening. 

For more info, go here.

Friday 8 March 2024

Programme article for The Human Body (Donmar Warehouse)


The Donmar Warehouse is incredibly special to me as it's the place where I first really discovered theatre 24 years ago. So I was especially pleased to write an article on 1940s cinema for the programme for the Donmar's current show: Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee's production of Lucy Kirkwood's The Human Body. 

The show is booking until 13 April.