Thursday 25 April 2013

CD Review: Quercus (Tabor/Ballamy/Warren, ECM Records, 2013)

2011 proved, even by her high standards, a terrific year for June Tabor, one bookended by the release of two of her finest-ever recordings: the exquisite, sea-themed Ashore (review here) and her long-anticipated second collaboration with Oysterband, Ragged Kingdom (review here). The latter deservedly scooped Best Album at the BBC Folk Awards in 2012 and Tabor was – just as deservingly – once again named Folk Singer of the Year at the same ceremony. The momentum generated by those two great releases has seen Tabor sign up for lengthier-than-usual touring duties in the past couple of years, and prove her ability to rock out with the best of them in her thrilling gigs with the Oysters across the UK.

The performances on Tabor’s latest release actually predate her reunion with John Jones and co, though, and find her in more customarily minimalist – though no less commanding – mode. Quercus (Latin for “oak”) is a trio made up of Tabor, her longtime pianist/arranger Huw Warren and saxophonist/composer and Food co-founder Iain Ballamy (who featured on Tabor’s 2005 album At the Wood’s Heart). The group undertook a series of concerts in this format in early 2006, and the new release draws from one of those shows, presenting performances from a gig at the Anvil in Basingstoke. Not that you’d necessarily identify this as a concert recording just from listening to the CD. For, as on Tabor’s 1997 classic aleyn, the sounds of the audience have been removed (the occasional light cough notwithstanding) to prevent distractions and to place the focus firmly on the performances. The result is a wonderfully fruitful and distinctive collaboration.

Stylistically, Quercus finds June at the jazziest she’s been since 1999’s A Quiet Eye (her album with the Creative Jazz Orchestra) - or maybe even since 1989’s album of standards, Some Other Time. (That's a record that someone really should get around to reissuing soon, by the way.) Jazz, of course, has informed her singular “chamber folk” approach ever since she hooked up with Warren in the late 1980s. But, accompanied solely by his piano and Ballamy’s tenor and soprano saxophones, the influence is at its most unmistakable here. That said, the album’s sound isn’t, at first hearing, wildly dissimilar to the kind of aesthetic that the singer's honed over the past 25 years, while the material – drawing on poems, standards, Ballads and (Les) Barkers – tackles treasured Tabor topics: war, death, Love Gone Wrong. But subtle distinctions do emerge, for the trio’s approach, with its compelling mixture of precision and improvisation, fleshes the songs out into little suites that produce a range of fresh textures, often edging into classical terrain. (In addition, there’s also a higher-than-usual proportion of songs focusing on Love Gone Right here, but more about those anon). There is, throughout, a subtle sense of experimentation and exploration to the endeavour. By turns delicate, grave, and brimming with passion, Warren’s piano-work has seldom been more luscious, or more orchestral in its range and breadth, while, brought to the forefront, Ballamy’s saxophone-playing proves a simply stunning complement to Tabor’s inimitable dusky contralto, with its breathtaking control and remarkable dramatic power.

Warren, Tabor, Ballamy (Photo: Tim Dickeson)

Thoughtfully structured, the album opens where At The Wood’s Heart closed: with a velvety rendering of “Lassie Lie Near Me” that - even more overtly than the album version - transplants Robbie Burns’s anthem of seduction from a familiar pastoral setting into a smoky jazz dive. The traditional “As I Roved Out” is exquisitely restrained and quietly devastating, with precise piano, plaintive sax and a shudderingly intense yet dreamy vocal cutting right to the heart of this classic of thwarted love. Ballamy and Warren’s instruments dance nimbly through both Barker’s “Who Wants the Evening Rose?” and George Butterworth’s setting of A.E. Housman’s “The Lads in their Hundreds,” the latter suggesting youthful innocence about to be swept aside by the turmoil and horror of war. Following it, Warren’s John Dowland-inspired instrumental “Teares” is a thing of aching, shimmering beauty whose title names the emotional response that the piece both evokes and provokes, cleansing the listener.  

A gorgeously extended take on Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s “This Is Always” suits the song’s celebration of enduring love. And it’s doubtful that the year will yield a more warmly, maturely romantic track than the closing rendition of “All I Ask of You,” Barker’s spare adaptation of Gregory Norbet’s text stretched to a glorious, embracing eight minutes. In contrast, Tabor takes “Brigg Fair” solo in one of her rivetingly direct a cappella performances that make it feel like the whole world just stopped in deference.

A few tracks require – and reward – more work from the listener. The trio’s coal-black take on Feste’s “Come Away Death” from Twelfth Night sounds forbiddingly austere on a first listen, but gradually reveals itself to be a deeply humane and soulful performance, as Tabor and Ballamy's tight "duet" gives way to spirited riffing when Warren joins in.  Billowy sax and wintery piano float around the image-rich floating verses of “Near But Far Away” in a reading that’s full of misty ambience. The track I’ve found myself returning to most, though, is David Ballantine’s deeply mysterious “A Tale From History (The Shooting)”. I’m not sure to what event the song alludes, specifically. But shifting from delicate, wistful verses to seething, impassioned choruses, the trio’s interpretation conjures a vivid sense of sudden violence intruding into everyday routine that feels all but timeless, and that cuts bone-deep. Rich and resonant, inhabited with soul-stirring skill by seasoned performers, the songs here are all  “tales from history” that connect with the listener in this direct way, and that captivate with the intensity, grace and depth of feeling with which they are delivered.

Quercus are currently touring. Further information here.

Monday 22 April 2013

Theatre Review: The Breadwinner (Orange Tree)

Cate Debenham-Taylor in The Breadwinner (Photo: Robert Day)

"Well, I’m dished!" The Orange Tree’s mini-season of plays on the subject of breadwinners and providers concludes with a spry final offering: Auriol Smith’s enjoyable revival of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1930 comedy. There’s been a pleasingly radical streak to each of the early 20th C plays presented in this season, especially in their engagement with issues of gender and economics. Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother critiqued patriarchal control of the purse-strings by showing the hard-working efforts of its enterprising heroine being systematically undermined by a no-good spouse. And GB Stern’s intriguingly conflicted The Man Who Pays The Piper advanced the proposition that a woman’s ultimate fulfillment might lie in the business world rather than in the domestic sphere. Though consistently lighter in tone than those texts, and much more condensed in its time-frame, Maugham’s play also offers a bracingly oppositional perspective on the way in which “money matters” in familial relationships - and on much else besides. That the play intersects beautifully with the two previous productions in the season isn’t a surprise. But it also proves a neat complement to Matthew Dunster’s creamy revival of Rodney Ackland’s Before The Party, currently at the Almeida and based, of course, on a Maugham short story.

Like Before The Party, The Breadwinner also skewers the shallow, status-obsessed mind-set of its spoilt middle-class protagonists and traces the fallout of one rebellious family member’s flouting of expectations. In this case, it’s the father of the family, one Charles Battle (Ian Targett), who stirs up his Golders Green clan when he announces that, following a serious spot of financial bother, he’s turning his back on the daily grind of the stock-broking world - and leaving the family, to boot. It’s a premise that might be played for hand-wringing melodrama. But as Charles’s wife Margery (Cate Debenham-Taylor) and his self-absorbed teenage kids Patrick (Joseph Radcliffe) and Judy (Nathalie Buscombe) register their objections it’s made clear that they’re more troubled by the possibility of scandal and the fact that Charles’s absence might deprive them of their creature comforts than by much emotional attachment to Daddy Dear.

Maugham can be a slyly subversive writer at the best of times (witness his euthanasia-endorsing The Sacred Flame, revived by Dunster for ETT last year) and in The Breadwinner he inserts a still-relevant critique of matrimony and materialism into an apparently well-behaved drawing-room comedy. Witheringly cynical about marriage, provocative on parent/child perceptions and insightful about the effects of WWI on gender roles and family relationships, the play’s jibes aren’t always subtle but they are well-aimed, and there’s a decidedly serious undertow to the demonstration that conventional family roles and the business world can stifle the spirit. Whether Maugham had been reading his Emerson when composing The Breadwinner I’m not sure but there’s surely a trace of Transcendentalism to the drama’s insistence that the individual must be allowed to develop beyond oppressive social contracts and conventions. In this way, Maugham’s Charles might be viewed as the more genteel English forebear of American Beauty’s Lester Burnham, as he espouses a philosophy of self-reliance and starts telling his loved ones some long-repressed home truths. And seldom can a male protagonist’s desire to abandon his family have been presented more sympathetically than it is here.

Nathalie Buscombe in The Breadwinner (Photo: Robert Day)

Designed with customary precision and economy by Sam Dowson, Smith’s production might benefit from a little tightening: a couple of performances still lack a bit of definition and not all of the lines generate the laughs they should. But the production is entertaining throughout and boasts several spiffing turns. Ian Targett warms up as Charles to give both poignancy and insight to his portrayal of an apparently humourless man’s bid for freedom. As the spoilt son who believes a hardcourt tennis court to be “one of the ordinary necessities of existence” Joseph Radcliffe puffs up with hilarious indignation at his father’s dismissal of him as “boring.” Cate Debenham-Taylor brings wonderfully subtle comic skill to her characterisation of the aesthete wife who’s contemplating extra-marital dalliances but is none-too-keen on the idea of being dumped. The Harriet Walter-esque Isla Carter gets a show-stopping vamp moment. And the appealing Nathalie Buscombe starts archly but softens into sympathy as the only family member to come round to the pater’s point-of-view.

Booking until 18th May. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Film Review: Simon Killer (Campos, 2012)

It's pleasing that Antonio Campos's great Simon Killer, one of the strongest films screened at last year's London Film Festival, is getting a UK release this Friday. The movie made my Best Films of 2012 list and you can read my review of it here.

CD Review: Old Yellow Moon (Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell)

My review of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell's new album Old Yellow Moon (Nonesuch, 2013)  is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Friday 5 April 2013

Theatre Review: Before The Party (Almeida)

Alex Price and Katherine Parkinson in Before the Party (Photo: Keith Pattison)

Of all the playwrights swept aside by the Royal Court revolution, Rodney Ackland had a more chequered career than most. Celebrated in the 1930s and 40s, when plays like Birthday and Strange Orchestra were big hits, derided in the 1950s when The Pink Room bombed, Ackland ended up enjoying a late renaissance thanks to the Orange Tree, whose rediscovery of The Pink Room in the late 1980s led to Ackland rewriting the play for TV and the NT as Absolute Hell to great acclaim. Scattered Ackland productions have followed this, including, at the Orange Tree in 2004, Ellie  Jones 's revival of Strange Orchestra: one of my all-time favourite productions. 

I think there'll be very few audience members who don't leave Matthew Dunster's revival of Before The Party at the Almeida hoping to see yet more of Ackland's work on the UK stage. For Dunster gives Ackland's 1949 play a truly luscious staging here, one that reveals the playwright as a distinctive anatomist of English mores, a satirist for whom wit doesn't exclude sympathy. From its cheeky animated opening to its perfectly judged end, this is the kind of confident production that the viewer watches in complete happiness, and the best that I've seen at the Almeida since A Delicate Balance.

Adapted from a W. Somerset Maugham short story, the play focuses on a few fraught hours in the household of the Skinner family as they prepare for - and then return from - a social-climbing function that the father, Aubrey (Michael Thomas) - a lawyer pursuing political office - can't afford to miss.  Recently returned to the family fold is eldest daughter Laura (Katherine Parkinson), a widow with a new man, David (Alex Price), in tow. This set-up has caused some consternation in the family already - especially from Laura's uptight sister Kathleen (Michelle Terry). But the drama gets a further kick when Laura ends up making a confession that threatens the family's position - one that might just have been overheard by her inquisitive 13-year-old sister, Susan.

A summary of the theme of Before the Party - the moral bankruptcy of the middle classes, post WWII - may make you groan, but the play is more nuanced than such a description suggests. What's admirable about Ackland is that, even as he subjects most of the characters to satiric treatment, he doesn't make them one-dimensional monsters as a lesser writer might. Rather, they remain all-too-human, even at their pettiest and most self-preserving. The material may not be Ackland's originally but he succeeds in making it his own: he's a writer who can create a wonderful comic hum scene-by-scene, as his characters interact, and who can swerve a moment from merriment to melancholy with consummate skill.

Dunster's production is fully alert to these sharp shifts of tone and presents the play with clarity and conviction. He's helped by a creamily gorgeous design by Anna Fleischle and by performances that are everything they should be. Katherine Parkinson is wonderfully sympathetic as she reveals the deep emotions that Laura  has had to hide and her insecurity about the prospect of future happiness. Michelle Terry, last seen rocking out at the Royal Court in In The Republic of Happiness, here makes Kathleen the hilarious epitome of uptightness: just listen to her bite into her description of Laura as "man-mad." Stella Gonet twitters gleefully as the daffy mother, June Watson is endearing as the family's Nanny, and there's fine work from Polly Dartford as Susan (one of three young actresses alternating the role), who declares early on that she's "going to take poison before I get old" and who by the end of the play has more reason than ever to question the conduct of her elders. A delicious evening all round.

The production runs until 11th May. Further information at the Almeida website.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Theatre Review: I Didn't Always Live Here (Finborough)

In a Glasgow tenement block in the early 1970s, reside two elderly neighbours, Martha and Amie. The building's falling to pieces, and might be destroyed to make way for a new ring road, and apart from visits from the vicar, occasional workmen and, in Martha's case, a young community volunteer named Ellen, Martha and Amie lead rather a solitary existence. Neither friends nor enemies, the two women deal with the privations of their lives in ways that reflect their contrasting personalities. The prissier, more genteel Amie – who feels that moving to the block was something of a social come-down – frets about her missing cat, corresponds with her disinterested nephew, and is currently making a song-and-dance about giving a donation to the local church. Next door, the housebound, rheumatic, religious sceptic Martha – for whom moving to the block years before represented a social step up – natters away to her pet budgie and increasingly finds herself retreating into memories of her past and, in particular, recollections of her dead husband Jack, a work-shy man not averse to the odd money-making scam.

Stewart Conn's 1967 play, first performed at Glasgow's Cizitens' Theatre and revived at Dundee Rep in 1973, now receives a belated English premiere thanks to the Finborough, as part of the theatre's commitment to staging Scottish drama. The premise might suggest a polemic about the social exclusion of the elderly, but the piece turns out to be more of an intimate, low-key work than that description suggests – a character study somewhat akin to Sharman MacDonald's The Winter Guestand Tim Price's wonderful Salt Root and Roe in its focus on elderly characters, though quainter than those plays in its language and design. Formally, it's a duet – a diptych – with the tiny stage split and the action shifting between Martha and Amie's two flats. Refusing to make the women mere quipping figures of fun, Conn's writing has a great deal of humanity and heart, and the parallel portraits of the women's daily lives that the play offers are, for the most part, well-observed and quite engaging. Firmly rooted in Glaswegian culture and language, the play certainly has the distinctive savour of a specific place, and the dialect has bite and beauty without seeming forced or overdone. There are some lovely, fond touches throughout, such as the resilient Amie finding out that Love Story isn't playing at the cinema and so takes herself off to watch Blood of the Vampire instead.

What's less effective, I'd argue, is Conn's attempt to make the piece a memory play. "Flashbacks" to Martha's past, though fairly fluidly integrated, frequently come off as overwrought, as if the playwright didn't quite trust the substance of the women's present-day lives to provide enough dramatic interest. Clearly, part of Conn's intent is to widen the play's scope by making the piece a portrait not just of the woman's daily existences but also of wartime Glasgow as seen through the eyes of "ordinary" people. But since the play doesn't present any of Amie's memories, the drama ends up feeling oddly unbalanced overall.

Lisa Blair's no-frills production doesn't entirely overcome the play's structural shortcomings, and the set and sound design by Alex Marker and Josh Sneesby are merely serviceable. What ultimately holds the evening together, though, is the conviction of the two central performances. Jenny Lee as Martha and Eileen Nicholas as Amie bring a lifetime of experience to their roles, creating two distinct individuals who both win our sympathy and affection. (And some of the more overdone flashbacks are saved by watching the expressions play over Lee's face when Martha's sometimes painful memories surface.) The two women only have one scene together, but it's a gem, and performed to perfection by both actresses. What's most touching about the play, in fact – and this is where the parallel structure of the piece proves effective – is that it shows us two lonely women living side by side who could, potentially, be friends and help each other through their difficulties but who don't, and not because of any particular hostility or antipathy. "Time passes", Amie responds when Martha observes that they see so little of each other. "Not that we've a great deal in common, I suppose..." I Didn't Always Live Here is a minor work, and hardly likely to be regarded as one of the Finborough's great rediscoveries. But the poignancy of its demonstration that years of day-to-day proximity don't make for intimacy lingers in the mind.

The production is at the Finborough until 20th April. 

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Theatre Review: The Woman in Black (touring)

What is there left to be said, really, about The Woman in Black? Edging 25 years in the West End, translated into 12 languages and performed in 41 countries, a success everywhere from Mexico to Japan, Austria to Australia, Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 ghost story has proved itself a genuine phenomenon over the years, the very definition of “the little show that could.” To the extent that even James Watkins’s Daniel Radcliffe-starring 2012 film version hasn’t managed to supplant the stage version in most people’s minds as the “definitive” adaptation. (Not too surprising perhaps, given the film’s mediocrity.)

You would think that almost everyone who wanted to see this long-running show would have done so by now. But, judging by the large and enthusiastic turn-out at Richmond Theatre last night, that isn’t quite the case. A cynic might suggest that the show’s ability to still bring UK audiences in is really down to the text’s appearance on the GCSE/A Level syllabus and the coach-loads of students who arrive at performance after performance. Doubtless that’s a large part of it, but The Woman in Black’s success must also reside, simply, in the enduring appeal of an old-fashioned ghost story. And, it seems, in Mallatratt and director Robin Herford’s quirky, overtly theatrical approach to the source material.

Focusing on the narrator, Arthur Kipps’s, memory of being dispatched as a young lawyer to sort out the estate of one Alice Drablow, and his haunting by the title character, Hill’s story is fairly bog-standard, when it comes down to it, lacking the depths and psychosexual ambiguities of one of its principal inspirations, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

But what’s striking about Herford ’s production is the way it embraces theatricality and achieves its effects through the most minimal and humble of means. By having Arthur engage a young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and thereby “exorcise” it, the adaptors’ innovation is to make this a show about the process of stage adaptation. “There are so many things we can’t represent,” Arthur realises. But what the Actor shows Arthur, throughout, is that what can’t be directly “represented” can be suggested and evoked: through sound, smoke, props, and, of course, the willing participation of the audience’s imaginations.

The set-up is a little fussy and jokey, but the approach works, ultimately - albeit as decidedly minor, instantly forgettable entertainment And the current touring duo, Julian Forsyth as Arthur and Antony Eden as the Actor (graduates of the show in the West End), both put in solid performances, with Eden in particular a likeable and engaging presence as the increasingly unnerved young man.

Is the show as scary as it’s rumoured to be? Some audience members, clearly determined to be terrified and leaping (literally) at any opportunity, evidently think so. The less impressionable might not be so convinced, and Hill’s material simply doesn’t have the depths or the resonances to generate anything but the most superficial of chills. Rather, it’s as an exercise in innovative stage adaptation that The Woman in Black’s interest really lies.

UK tour dates here.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

CD Reviews @ PopMatters

My latest CD reviews, of Ron Sexsmith's Forever Endeavour, Susie Glaze & the Hilonesome Band's White Swan and Laura Tsaggaris's Everyman, are up at PopMatters.