Saturday 27 February 2016

Review: Orange Tree Extras: Barb Jungr + I, Malvolio + Giles Terera, Simon Lipkin & Jon Robyns

Orange Tree Extras is an exciting new venture at the OT: curated by Matthew Poxon, it’s a series of one-night-only events showcasing a wide variety of performances - comedy, music, poetry, drag – and thus opening the theatre up to artists who haven’t performed there before (and to new audiences, too). I was happy to attend three of the evenings in the current series, which takes place between the closure of Chris Urch’s great The Rolling Stone and the opening next week of Alice Hamilton’s production of Robert Holman’s German Skerries.
The first evening set the bar almost ludicrously high, with the appearance of one of the best and most captivating of artists: Barb Jungr. Accompanied by the celestial team of Simon Wallace on piano and Davide Mantovani on bass, Jungr performed her set of Nina Simone-associated material, drawing in part on her 2008 record Just Like A Woman. (Jungr’s fantastic, just-released  new album, Shelter from the Storm [review here], also includes  a new homage to Simone in the shape of the beautiful ballad “Hymn to Nina.”)

I saw Jungr, Wallace and Mantovani perform this show at City of London Festival last year, and deliver an outstanding performance that triumphed over a somewhat disagreeable venue (ClubTEN), where inconveniences included a creaking stage and a weird seating set-up. The Orange Tree, though, could not have been more congenial a venue, nor could the audience have been more attentive or appreciative. “It’s quite puzzling to be doing this in the round,” Jungr admitted after the dynamic opening mash-up of “Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair” and “Break Down and Let It All Out”. “I do like to prowl, and I could get dizzy...”

In fact, the round proved particularly great for Jungr’s performance style: she is, after all, an artist who’s breathtakingly adept at showing us songs from multiple perspectives and in new dimensions. Here we saw her  from all angles: turning, bopping, grooving or swaying to Wallace and Mantovani’s superb playing, endlessly shape-shifting and spontaneous, hilariously irreverent between-songs, and then turning gleaming-eyed satire into overwhelming emotion. Sketching the images of the songs through gestures (turning her hand into a hummingbird on “Everything Must Change” or parodying a male fantasy of grasping femininity on her brilliantly subversive rendition of “Just Like A Woman”), Jungr is so vibrant when in motion that even when she performed a song with her back to us, it was expressive, and somehow an essential part of the story she was embodying.   

The set included some songs that weren’t featured at the ClubTEN performance, and ran the emotional gamut with exhilarating aplomb, from the distilled, aching tenderness of Judy Collins’s “My Father” to the joyful liberation of “Feeling Good.” Soul-replenishing womanly wisdom was dispensed on a stunningly beautiful “Angel of the Morning”; tension was ratcheted on a “Ballad of Hollis Brown” that closed with Jungr’s trance-like repetition of the lyric “Seven new people born”; and a cathartic “To Love Somebody” inspired the most enthusiastic audience singalong that I’ve heard it generate yet.(Go, Richmond!)  

Overall the tone was fiercer than at ClubTEN, though, highlighting the incendiary, political side of Simone’s artistry. This was nowhere more apparent than on a visceral segue from “One Morning in May” to “The Pusher”, Jungr charging the latter song with references to current events (from the refugee crisis to the US election) in an ad libbed section that reminded us that “pushers come in every size.” It was a total joy to see this brave and brilliant artist in this special space.   

The Orange Tree’s distinctive space was also much reflected upon in the following night’s show, Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio. Already highly lauded, Crouch’s solo show presents the story of Twelfth Night from the perspective of the “mightily abused” steward, spinning from his narrative a dazzling, very funny and sometimes moving reflection on audience ethics, actor/character relations, and theatre itself.  

Crouch’s Malvolio is already present as we enter the auditorium: centre-stage in tatty long johns and yellow stockings, eyeing us and muttering his displeasure. Malvolio’s parting shot “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” is one of the show’s refrains; another – closely related to the first – is “Find that funny, do you?” Before the evening’s out, Crouch has at once unfolded and embodied Malvolio’s sorry tale: that of a Puritan with a firm belief in order and a hatred of waste and excess, sacrificed on the anarchic improbabilities of Shakepeare’s plot for the audience;s delectation. Like Bob Barrett at the end of Propeller’s great  Twelfth Night, whose "pack of you" line was directed straight at the audience, Crouch implicates spectators at every stage, challenging us to rethink our responses to the character's humiliation as he picks out a boy from the audience to kick him (“You liked that didn’t you? There hasn’t been a good kicking in Richmond since 1780”), and generating both dark comedy and dramatic tension via the possibility of the character's suicide (for which two more audience members were roped in to participate).

It's a tricky tone to get right but Crouch manages with panache, generating big laughs alongside moments of real poignancy. His ad-libs and riffing around the text meant that the performance ran about 40 minutes longer than the advertised one hour show time.But it’s safe to say that no-one was complaining, so involving and appealing did the actor make this show in which critique of the theatre is intimately bound up in celebration of it.

Audience interaction turned out to be equally central to Giles Terera, Simon Lipkin and Jon Robyns’s    show last night - as the woman who was pulled from the front row to take part in a manic Mel Brooks medley probably won’t forget in a hurry. Reuniting three of the stars of the original London production of Avenue Q, the evening, overseen by excellent pianist and MD Alex Williams, had the joyous  feel of a reunion of three colleagues whose rapport and affection has clearly not dimmed a jot in the intervening ten years. 

Although there were a few lower-keyed moments throughout the night, including Terera’s fine solo on “Mr. Bojangles” and he and Robyns duetting on an acoustic guitar-led mash-up of John Legend’s “All of Me” and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” the emphasis was placed on glorious silliness, banter and fun for the most part. The tone was set from the opening number, “Not in the Show”, a hilarious reflection on jobs that the trio didn’t get set to the tune of “Into the Woods”.

Standouts, in between silly sketches and Jewish jokes, included Lipkin’s amazing mash-up of a sequence of pop songs based around similar chords; Robyns taking to the piano for an impassioned rendition of “The Music of My Soul” (from Memphis); Terera’s sublime and scarily accurate parody of Judi Dench singing “Send in the Clowns”; and he and Lipkin getting retro on a delightful “Me and My Shadow”. Best of all, though, was the Avenue Q material and the appearances of Princeton, Nicky and Rod (plus surprise FaceTime with Christmas Eve!), and it’s “For Now” that I find myself singing the morning after this thoroughly enjoyable night.

This set of Orange Tree Extras concludes today with appearances by Wendy Cope and Dickie Beau. Further information here.

Thursday 25 February 2016

Theatre Review: Cleansed (National Theatre, Dorfman)

My review of Katie Mitchell's production of Sarah Kane's Cleansed at the National Theatre is up at PopMatters.  You can read it here

DVD Review: Love on the Dole (BFI)

My review of BFI's reissue of Love on the Dole is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Theatre Review: Hand to God (Vaudeville)

From Off-Off Broadway to Off-Broadway and then to Broadway itself, Robert Askins’s Hand to God has proved itself to be the little play that could since its 2011 debut. The tale of a miserable Texan teen, Jason, stuck in his mother’s Christian puppetry workshop, who finds himself taken over by Tyrone, the left-hand, red-haired sock puppet he’s fashioned, has clearly struck a chord with audiences, and Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production now arrives in the West End with a great deal of audience goodwill towards it, judging by the wildly (over-)enthusiastic response to the opening night performance. In fact, it’s really not all that, but the show - best experienced with a large group of friends in a rowdy and undemanding frame of mind - proves a mildly amusing time-passer.

Although Avenue Q is the knee-jerk reference point for the show (and one stand-out scene of enthusiastic puppet sex here is a total rip off), the scenario of Hand to God is actually closer in spirit to the likes of Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978) and the Michael Redgrave-starring section of Dead of Night (1945), works in which recessive male characters find themselves acting out their dark impulses via ventriloquist dummies. But where those films mined the protagonist’s obsessions for creepy chills, Hand to God goes for brash, broad, black comedy, its target  religious dogma. The play’s approach reminded me quite a bit of another recent US import, Greg Kotis's Pig Farm, also a work that has fun with American archetypes and indulges (excessively, IMO) in slapstick violence – including, again, a full-on parody of a James M. Cain sex scene.

While neither play or production could be called seamless (one especially awkward scene, not helped by a First Night hiccup, is set in a car for no apparent reason than to demonstrate that the show can evidently afford a car now), von Stuelpnagel makes sure that the proceedings keeps up pace, and the play is ultimately better sustained than Pig Farm.

The production is helped in no small measure by the gusto and physical abandon with which the cast throw themselves into their roles. I’d have liked more of Jemima Rooper, who seems a bit wasted as Jessica, the nicely nerdy object of Jason's desires but Janie Dee as Jason’s frazzled Mom, Margery, Kevin Mains as his cocksure nemesis and Neil Pearson as a pastor with romantic designs all his own are terrific. And Harry Melling delivers a tour de force as Jason/Tyrone: always a distinctive and inventive actor, Melling is in his element here, as he creates two distinct characters, his timidity as Jason contrasting hilariously with Tyrone’s foul-mouthed tirades.   

Hand to God doesn’t hit the few grace notes it strives for: as well as a portrait of the divided human soul, the play strives – and, I think, singularly fails – to touch the heart as a tale of a mother and son working out their relationship after a bereavement. It’s thin material, and not a show to go to with big expectations, but it looks pretty certain to gain some devout followers during its time in the West End.

The production is currently booking until  11th June.  

Thursday 11 February 2016

Book Review: Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema by Sophie Mayer (I.B. Tauris, 2015)

My review of Sophie Mayer's brilliant and inspiring Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema is now up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

You can buy Political Animals here.            


Tuesday 9 February 2016

Film Review: A Bigger Splash (dir. Guadagnino, 2015)

Luca Guadagnino's terrific A Bigger Splash is out in the UK on Friday. You can read my review from last year's London Film Festival here.  The film also made my favourites of 2015 list

Thursday 4 February 2016

Theatre Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (National Theatre)

My review of Dominic Cooke's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the National Theatre is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Concert Review: Transatlantic Sessions 2016, Royal Festival Hall, London, 1st February

Now into its seventh year, the Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas-curated Transatlantic Sessions has firmly established itself as a tradition as it tours the UK at the beginning of each year: a reliable way of raising the spirits during the murky depths of British winter. As its name indicates, the project – which finds roots musicians from North America and the British Isles performing together in a relaxed set-up – is all about making connections: between Old and New World music, of course, but also between emerging and established artists, and between ancient and contemporary material. And it’s precisely that commitment to connection that makes these shows such invigorating and heart-warming experiences.

Last year’s show [reviewed here] found Patty Griffin, Rodney Crowell, Sara Watkins, John Smith and Kathleen MacInnes appearing with house band and regulars including Bain (fiddle) and Douglas (dobro), Phil Cunningham (accordion), John McCusker (fiddle), Danny Thompson (bass), John Doyle (guitars), Mike McGoldrick (pipes and whistles), Russ Barenberg (guitar/mandolin), James MacKintosh (drums) and Donald Shaw (piano) to form an “International Hillbilly Organisation” (as Griffin ingeniously dubbed them).  

This year sees US newbies Joe Newberry, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Californian indie folk duo The Milk Carton Kids (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan) joining seasoned stalwarts Karen Matheson and Cara Dillon to take on material that ranges from the melancholic to the infectiously boisterous.

Sleek in a black suit with tartan sash, Matheson delivered mouth music and Gaelic songs, including a stunningly beautiful version of Burns’s “Yowes to the Knowes”, with her customary grace and elegance. Dillon contributed a passionate “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” and a captivating a cappella “The Winding River Roe” that reduced the house to pin-drop silence; her lead on a singalong “Bright Morning Stars” was a highlight of the second set. Bain and Cunningham, now in their 30th year as collaborators (an association that’s lasted “longer than our marriages,” as Cunningham fondly quipped), led tunes both tender and rousing, with typically dynamic work from McCusker, McGoldrick, Doyle and co.   

As always, those new to the fold brought wonderful fresh textures to the evening. Most obviously arresting was Giddens, whose sublime, fierce swamp blues double of “Julie” (a Civil War-set conversation between slave and owner) and “Waterboy” brought the first half to a spell-binding and dramatic close. Strutting and declaiming, Giddens lifted the show to a whole new level of intensity, and her versions of Patsy Cline's “She’s Got You” and of “Black is the Colour” in the second half were almost as electrifying. Newberry brought charming old timey spirit to an uplifting “Rocky Island”, a chugging “The Cherry River Line” and the appealing maternal tribute “I Know Whose Tears”.

Compared to Simon and Garfunkel yet actually closer to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ brand of tranced-out duetting, The Milk Carton Kids played up their status as L.A. interlopers with wry humour, delivering sterling versions of their own compositions “Honey, Honey” and “Snake Eyes,” and then generating one of the most enthusiastic responses of the night for a stunning take on – yes – Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. It was equally unexpected to find everyone pitching in on a great, ragged rendition of  “It Ain’t Easy” (the Glen Davies song covered by David Bowie on Ziggy Stardust).

Material by Bowie and Pink Floyd may have been the wild card up the sleeve of this year’s show, but its inclusion testified to the openness of Transatlantic Sessions as a beautifully democratic showcase in which no single voice or musician dominates and in which the emphasis is placed, instead, on sharing, support and  collaboration. From the funky to the plaintive, this year’s show once again did dynamic justice to traditional music in all its rich and exhilarating diversity.  

Reviewed for PopMatters

The 2016 Transatlantic Sessions tour continues in Birmingham, Gateshead, Manchester and Londonderry. Further details here