Saturday 26 May 2012

Concert Review: Spiers and Boden and Chris T-T (QEH, 10/05/2012)

John Spiers and Jon Boden performed a highly entertaining set at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 10th May. Celebrating over ten years of live performance as a duo, the pair structured the interval-less concert as something of a whistlestop tour through the folk traditions of the British Isles, with songs and tunes drawn from everywhere from Essex to Ireland. The warmth and sympathy of their interplay – Boden on fiddle; Spiers on accordion - emerged at its strongest on the crowd-pleasing instrumental pieces, especially the inimitable “Sloe Gin Set,” while a thrilling “Captain Ward,” and a captivating, tender “The Birth of Robin Hood” were among the highlights in terms of the songs, Boden’s distinctive, keening vocal style giving the material customary drama and drive.

Still, as accomplished as the two Jo(h)ns were, the highlight of the evening, for me, turned out to be the support set by Chris T-T, who - taking a break from his usual persona as a self-described “sweary, shouty folk-singer” - performed a selection of A. A Milne’s poems arranged for guitar and piano. The premise may have made you fear the worst (I certainly did), but the performance proved totally disarming: funny, charming and touching by turns. One moment the persuasive Mr. T-T had the audience enthusiastically pretending to be elephants; the next we were weeping at an extraordinarily moving rendition of “Binker,” Milne’s paean to a child’s imaginary friend. I’m all for “sweary, shouty” folk-singers, but the talented Mr. T-T might consider keeping up his generation-spanning collaboration with Mr. Milne, since it yields such good results. He's also a fine Twitterer: @christt.

Spiers and Boden tour dates here; Chris T-T dates here.

Concert Review: Mike Greene Trio (Club Mandala, Łódź, 19/05/2012)

It was a pleasure, during my recent visit to Łódź for a conference, to also have the opportunity to see the Mike Greene Trio perform at Club Mandala on the penultimate night of their current tour. Comprising Greene on guitar and vocals, David Price on fetching aluminium double bass [see here] and Łukasz Wiśniewski on harmonica, the group delivered an assured and entertaining performance – tight and focused but with space for spontaneity - for the very eager crowd. The Trio’s approach to their classic blues and country material is traditional, in the main, but Greene’s appealing vocals, Price’s supple bass and Wiśniewski's superb, dynamic harmonica-playing added some fresh textures to even the most familiar songs. Highlights of the well-structured set included an innovatively-arranged “Smokestack Lightning” and an intense “Back Door Man,” as well as very pleasing takes on such staples as “Sixteen Tons,” “Poor Boy Blues,” “Hellhound on my Trail,” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

A warm and affable front-man, Greene kept the mood relaxed and intimate throughout the evening, while the enthusiasm of the crowd resulted in an impromptu extended coda to the proper set including “She Belongs to Me,” “Bright Lights Big City,” and Greene’s lovely original song “Souls in the Rain.” The Trio have further shows planned for Poland in September and October: keep an eye on Mr. Greene's Facebook page.  

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Theatre Review: Steel Magnolias (Richmond Theatre, & touring)

Soap queens and theatre grande dames constitute the astutely-assembled cast of David Gilmore’s engaging revival of Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s 1987 talk-fest about the lives, loves and losses of six Louisiana women. Best known in its 1989 film adaptation directed by Herbert Ross, Harling’s play is a slight but affectionate and heartfelt affair. Written following the untimely death of the playwright’s sister, the piece unabashedly celebrates the humour, supportiveness and fortitude of a group of (mostly wealthy and all white) Southern women, whose mixture of strength and fragility provides the piece with its title.

Harling’s sharply-drawn crew of characters comprise the widowed Clairee Belcher (Cherie Lunghi) and her sparring partner, the batty curmudgeon Quiser Boudreaux (Cheryl Campbell); the new-to-town Annelle (Kacey Ainsworth); and mother and daughter M’Lynn and Shelby Eatenton (Isla Blair and Sadie Pickering), who gather in the beauty shop owned and run by Truvy Jones (Denise Welch) to gossip, confess and “crack wise.” The piece unfolds over several years, and the main thrust of the plot reveals around the diabetic Shelby’s determination to have a child against doctors’ advice and her mother’s wishes, the fallout from which decision motivates the drama’s inevitable tragic turn.

As with David Esbjornson’s West End production of Driving Miss Daisy last year, fans of Ross’s film may miss the additional scenes and characters that added texture and nuance to the movie, and find the play to be a little thin and static by comparison, the obviousness of the material accentuated. At the same time, the single salon setting - nicely designed here by Helen Goddard - brings a distilled, sharp focus to the piece, and the play seems more convincing, lively and inhabited than did Driving Miss Daisy, as well as a good deal less calculating in its effects than the obnoxious Calendar Girls, a production whose “demographic” this one would seem to target.

Gilmore’s direction can’t be called inspired - proceedings come to a dead halt during what feel like bewilderingly lengthy scene changes - but the actresses keep things as buoyant and as truthful as they can. Responsible for one of the least-heralded great stage performances of recent years as the MND-afflicted matriarch in The Company Man at the Orange Tree a few years ago, Isla Blair gives an understated, moving performance here as M’Lynn. Carefully communicating the character’s concern for her daughter as she takes her first steps into an independent life, Blair brings a wry humour and captivating stillness to the stage, making M’Lynn’s final outburst of anger and grief all the more affecting.

Cherie Lunghi does a witty, elegant job of work as Clairee, and Kacey Ainsworth is funny and touching as she charts Annelle’s shift from timid new recruit to voracious bible-thumper. Denise Welch, better known these days for her appearances in tabloids and on Loose Women than her acting roles, subverts expectations with a warm and endearing performance as Truvy, the role amply filled by Dolly Parton in the film. And an unrecognisable Cheryl Campbell does a full-on comic turn as a squawking, highly-strung Ouiser, moving from what feels like broad caricature into genuine eccentricity; at one priceless moment, she cackles with glee at her own reflection. As Shelby, Sadie Pickering struggles by comparison, hampered by a studied-sounding Southern drawl, but she manages a couple of affecting moments.

Ultimately, Gilmore’s production doesn’t match Ross’s film for emotional impact. But, attuned to the play’s combination of sharp humour and sentiment, it generates its laughs and tears on cue.

At Richmond until 19th May. Full tour dates and details here.  

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.