Thursday, 26 February 2015

Concert Review: Chas & Dave (Richmond Theatre, 25th February 2015; touring)

 
 
Shouting, standing, boogieing in the boxes, and – of course! – singing along, the crowd out for Chas & Dave on Wednesday night were perhaps the rowdiest that Richmond Theatre’s seen for a while, with the theatre turned for the duration of the show  into pretty much the equivalent of an East End boozer.
 
The great love and affection that many have for Messrs Hodges and Peacock has dimmed not a jot over the years. And it’s not hard to see why, for the duo’s “rockney” mix - boogie woogie, skiffle, pub singalong, a spot of music hall - is as distinctive as it is irresistible, a throwback to vibrant working-class culture that still feels surprisingly fresh. In fact, in doing their own thing so brilliantly, honestly and unapologetically, I’d argue that  Chas & Dave – sampled by Eminem, covered by Tori, parodied by The Two Ronnies, openers for Led Zep and inspiration to Libertines - are pretty much as punk as you can get.
 
Whipping briskly through the two-hour set, the pair – accompanied by Chas’s son Nik, dynamic on drums –  were in storming form, delivering a mix of covers and originals that passed from New Orleans to Edmonton Green (via Margate, natch) and demonstrated the strength of the pair’s musicianship, which has so often been overlooked. “We’re gonna be doin’ everything tonight,” Hodges promised, and the pledge was pretty much kept up, as the set started with their 70s material, including a  cover of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “I Don’t Know Why (But I Do)” and  a rollicking and rapturously received “Gertcha”.
 
 
The pair are great at covers, actually, giving each song their distinctive stamp and performing the (mostly US) material without recourse to American accents (take heed Adele et al., ya fakers).  A chunky “When Two Worlds Collide” (from their new album, That's What Happens [2014]) was sublime, showcasing the interplay of Hodges's great piano-playing with Peacock's supple bass at its best, while arrangements of “My Blue Heaven” and “The Sunshine of Your Smile” were also pleasingly inventive.

Still, it’s their own material - quirky, funny, full of affectionate detail and rapid-fire word-play - that most have really come to hear, and the second  half – beginning with a double of “London Girls” and “Margate” that drove the young woman in front of us into near-orgasmic raptures of delight – was simply a blast, offering a break-neck “Diddle Um Song,” a cheeky “Rabbit,” a spontaneous “That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)” when someone called for it, and that immortal kiss-off “Ain’t No Pleasing You”, before "The Sideboard Song” brought the night to a raucous close.    
 
 
If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the pair tend to go full throttle for the whole show when modulating the set with some quieter numbers (as their albums tend to do) might give a fuller sense of their artistry. That artistry should not be underestimated, though. And neither should the cathartic, empowering potential of a mass singalong of “Ain’t No Pleasing You.” Catch 'em where you can. Altogether now…
 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Film Review: The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Strickland, 2014)




Pinastri! Peter Strickland’s amazing The Duke of Burgundy is out in the UK on Friday. The film topped my Films of 2014 list, and my full swooning review from the London Film Festival is here.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Concert Review: Barb Jungr: My Funny Valentine: Songs for the Wild At Heart, Purcell Room (14th February 2015)




A beaming Barb Jungr takes to the Purcell Room stage, looking for all the world like there’s no place she’d rather be on a Saturday evening. And it’s not just any Saturday evening, either: this is February 14th, Valentine’s Night, no less, and Jungr is here to present an evening of love songs in the Southbank Centre’s most intimate auditorium.  “I don’t generally do whole programmes of love songs,” the singer admitted. “But tonight isn’t all about ‘Ooh, I’m in love, isn’t it lovely, ooh look at my skin, can’t you tell?’ No. We’re not just going to be doing songs about that.”

Such quirky, cheeky banter is central to Jungr’s singular stage persona, which combines playfulness and arresting intensity in equal measure. Fresh from a hugely successful tour (including a two week residency at New York’s 59E59) in support of her acclaimed recent album Hard Rain: The Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen , the Rochdale-born, Stockport-raised Jungr was in buoyant form on Saturday night, her stunning vocals and infectious joy in performance combining with the brilliant contributions of her accomplished accompanists Simon Wallace (piano) and Davide Mantovani (bass) to create a delectable, diverse yet complementary set that mixed material by Noel Coward, Jacques Brel, Joni Mitchell, Tom Rush, The Beatles, and Dylan, among many others.   

In a recent PopMatters piece, Robert Balkovich celebrated interpretations of male-authored songs by female performers, showing how singers such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Tori Amos  have re-invigorated (and, in Amos’s case, often boldly subverted) the work of male songwriters through creative covers of their compositions. Jungr - who herself disdains the term “cover version”  - certainly belongs in this distinguished company, for no matter what she sings, it all comes out Barb: impassioned, boundary-busting, and a totally personal and idiosyncratic artistic statement.  

A self-described “chansonnier”, Jungr is one of those artists (June Tabor and Marianne Faithfull also spring to mind) who’ve only become more powerful as the years have progressed. And her mix of inspirations – she’s listed Doris Day, Liza Minnelli, Edith Piaf and Vesta Tilley among her icons – is evident in a juicy performance style that combines elements of jazz, torch and art song with cabaret, music hall and even stand-up comedy.    




Vocally superb, and with Wallace and Mantovani providing delicate, subtle textures that give her plenty of space, Jungr uses her whole body in performance, and all of it is expressive, whether she’s crouching, bopping, pointing or otherwise gesticulating through Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” or getting wonderfully strident on Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. On “Mad about the Boy”, she’s practically a one-woman Noel Coward play, vamping and flirting to imaginary beaux and following up the line “I can’t afford to waste more time” with a knowing cackle.

Crucially, though, Jungr also knows the value of a more contained style too, and she demonstrated that on Saturday night with a sultry, subtly rearranged “I Love Paris” and - best of all - an absolutely exquisite reading of Dylan’s “I Want You,” slowing the jaunty song to a voluptuous crawl and expressing every ounce of ache and longing in the lyrics. It was one of those transcendent, revelatory moments where one hears a familiar, beloved composition entirely afresh.  And on a stunning “Woman in Love,” Jungr also brilliantly surprised us, wrapping a tender hush around the song in the first half before letting rip in the second to make the track a cathartic, startling (and slightly scary) anthem of intent and self-belief.

Elsewhere, her performances of her own very beautiful “Last Orders”, of Ewan MacColl’s “Sweet Thames, Flow Softly” and of Mitchell’s “Carey” (the latter complete with joyful dance routine) had glorious embracing warmth. And her gift for sequencing showed in the way in which she paired songs, making them into sequels and suites to convey the ups and downs of romantic attachments. Here “Lazy Afternoon” merged brilliantly with Small Faces's “Itchycoo Park”, and Tom Rush’s “No Regrets” was followed by an English-language “Je Ne Regrette Rien”, while a joyous “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)” segued straight into a rueful “Love Hurts”.

Steering clear of predictable musical theatre staples (no Sondheim, thankfully), Jungr’s musical affections don’t appear to lie far beyond the late 1970s, and she finds plenty of exciting material in the rock, pop, soul and jazz produced up to that period. Still, she might consider updating her repertoire a touch. As delightful and inventive as her takes on standards such as “My Funny Valentine” (which opened the show) and “What’ll I Do” (which concluded it) undoubtedly are, some engagement with the work of newer songwriters (try Morrissey, Amos, or Richard Shindell, for starters) could be galvanising.

Even so, Jungr never lacks for energy or engagement, whether at full-throttle or just pausing for a moment to close her eyes and sway to an instrumental passage. Cherishing the songs as deeply as she does, she can be as easy and irreverent with them as one can be with a lover, while also ensuring that every single word is heard and felt, ringing true and glowing like coal, to paraphrase her beloved Bob. There’s never a moment when you feel that she’s skating over the meaning of a lyric or is less that fully committed to communicating the song.  Goofy and girlish, wise and womanly, she’s an amazing artist, and she made this particular show a wonderfully vibrant Valentine’s gift. 



Friday, 13 February 2015

Film Review: Love is Strange (dir. Sachs, 2014)


In his previous film, the fitfully superb Keep the Lights On (2012), Ira Sachs charted a turbulent gay relationship across many years of drug addiction and separation. Sachs’s latest work, Love is Strange, isn’t as tough and challenging as the darker-hued Keep the Lights On was: indeed, it’s hard to think of a more gentle, tender-hearted film than this one. But it also has separation at its heart. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George and Benjamin, a New York couple whose decision to marry has unexpected consequences. When the Catholic school that George teaches at objects to the marriage, George loses his job, and, no longer able to afford their apartment, the two men are forced to live apart for a time, George with friends and Benjamin with family members.

From the subtlety and intelligence of its script to the quality of its acting (Lithgow and Molina give perhaps the most delicate performances I’ve ever seen these sometimes-strident actors deliver, and, in support, Marisa Tomei and Charlie Tahan  are every bit as nuanced), Love is Strange is a movie to cherish. The intense pleasure and gratitude that the viewer takes in the film isn’t just to do with its own evident virtues, though. It’s also to do with the cultural moment that the movie happens to be released in, a time when films as cynical as Birdman, as pushy and purely offensive as Whiplash, and TV shows as rancid and crass as Russell T. Davies’ Cucumber are receiving the greatest acclaim and interest.

Love is Strange falls like balm after such productions. In its compassion for its characters, its loving gaze upon them, the movie not only feels mature but also heroic and even radical, just now. Sachs’s generous respect for all of the people he shows us is evident in the way in which he allows scenes to develop and take their time, not straining for effect or revelation but nonetheless giving each moment a quiet power. Sequences – Ben’s reporting a joyful cinema visit or interrupting Tomei’s Kate in her work; George arriving at his husband's lodgings and collapsing into tears; the two men sharing an illicit bunk-bed bunk-up - convey character gracefully and truthfully.



The central relationship is presented with great affection but Sachs doesn’t fall into the Another Year trap of idealising the couple beyond believability or making them too adorable. The pains as well as the pleasures of cohabitation are, after all, one of the movie’s main concerns. Thus, hints at past hurts and betrayals surface, particularly in an exquisitely written late bar scene that subtly (and wittily) places the protagonists in the wider context of gay New York history, while also initiating the movie’s quietly devastating last quarter.

For some, I think, the very gentleness of Love is Strange may be off-putting: they’ll find the protagonists too passive (George's dismissal and its acceptance does pass by a little too lightly); the Chopin on the track too decorous. But, for those who do respond, the movie’s refusal of pushiness will feel like a gift in itself. I should mention, too, the film's distinctive visuals: Christos Voudouris's lensing sustains a bright, airy, highly appealing look that’s vibrant but never too glossy, and that's yet another central aspect of the hospitality and bracing generosity of spirit of this wry and radiant film.



Thursday, 12 February 2015

Theatre Review: Boa (Trafalgar Studios)

 
Harriet Walter and Guy Paul in Boa (Photo: Helen Murray)
 
Having debuted in a reading at last year’s HighTide Festival, Clara Brennan’s two-hander Boa now gets its world premiere production in the intimate confines of Trafalgar Studios 2. The play’s focus is a “transatlantic” relationship, and its title refers not only to the variously comforting and constraining ties of love (both feather boa and boa constrictor) but also to the name of its heroine.
 
Boa (originally Belinda), an English dancer, meets Louis, an American war journo, and the pair fall in love.  Moving between present and past periods, the play charts the couple’s history through work-enforced separations, drinking problems, moves, disputes and reconciliations over about 30 years.
 
Hannah Price’s spare, prop-free production is given an added element of interest thanks to its casting: the fact that a real-life transatlantic couple, Harriet Walter and Guy Paul, are taking on the roles of Boa and Louis here. With their matching faces and physiques, Walter and Paul are a striking pair, and both work hard to give the play some moments of truth and honesty. At times they succeed, capturing with wit the changing rhythms of a relationship and negotiating with dexterity some swift shifts between emotional states.
 
The play is actually at its best when at its least straining and confrontational: the couple’s debates about conscience and “liberal guilt” (“Do you think I find genocide erotic?” wonders Boa, bewilderingly, at one point) strike false notes. But when the pair suddenly launch into the singing of a silly song together, they’re perfectly charming and believable.
 
Unfortunately, though, Brennan’s writing is an odd mixture of the merely crude (“I love the piss and shit of you”) and the clunkily “poetic” (“You’re still bleeding into me with the beautiful force of … blood”), while the play’s form results in way too much editorialising by the characters in which we get told more about their relationship than we’re actually shown. There’s also some weirdly unpleasant recourse to gender stereotypes underpinning the characterisation, with Louis’s rationality and repression pitted against Boa’s creativity, neurasthenia and tendency towards, um, emotional “spillage.”
 
All that being said, Price’s production is clear and fluid, with Dave Price’s sound design and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting helping to keep the viewer orientated during the production’s moves between time periods.  Still, the patchy writing of the piece means that, despite the actors’ best efforts, these scenes from a marriage only intermittently resonate.
 
Booking until 7th March.
 
Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews.
 
 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Theatre Review: Little Light (Orange Tree)

Little Light (Photo by Richard Davenport)

Continuing his first season’s eclectic mix of revivals (The Widowing of Mrs. HolroydWidowers’ Houses) and new writing (TheDistance, Pomona) - all linked by being early works by each of their writers - the Orange Tree’s Paul Miller follows his Bernard Shaw production with a play by Alice Birch, a writer whose work I’ve failed to catch up to now. Although Birch came on to the scene in 2011 with Many Moons and then won the 2014 George Devine Award for Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again at the RSC, Little Light actually pre-dates those plays: it was the first full-length script that Birch completed and one that is at last being staged following some revisions to it. Personally, though - and despite a proficient production by David Mercatali that certainly strives to find the writing’s strengths - I think this particular piece would have been better off left in the drawer after all.

A seaside house undergoing renovation provides the setting for a face-off between two couples. Clarissa arrives pregnant and rain-soaked at the seaside home of her sister Alison. There’s a fish pie in the oven – cooked by Alison’s lugubrious spouse Teddy  - but any notion that this is to be a run-of-the-mill family reunion soon disintegrates, as  the appearance of Clarissa’s lover Simon, and various small deviations from the established order of things, serve to disrupt the oddly arranged rites and rituals of a trio trapped by past trauma.  

Though Birch’s dialogue tends towards the off-puttingly mannered from the start (it’s all ostentatious rhythmic utterances, sudden “lyrical” surges and tediously repetitious profanity), the set-up of Little Light is relatively intriguing, and the production stays strong for about half of its 95 minute, interval-free running time. Making some effective use of the OT space (including the seldom-utilised top level), Mercatali once more demonstrates his gift for bringing out suggestive, ominous moments, aided by a sparse, sinister sound design by Max Pappenheim.

In particular, a memorably unsettling meal set-piece (no one will be rushing out for fish pie after this production, I think it’s fair to say) evokes the hostility underpinning social gatherings in a chilling way. Presenting family get-togethers as rituals of complicity which are contingent upon everyone adhering to the established script, the play seems on the cusp of revealing something truly disturbing about the strange sisterly relationship it presents. 

However, once the revelations of the overwrought second half kick in, Little Light starts to look merely banal, at times suggesting nothing so much as Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill taking turns to scrawl over an Alan Ayckbourn play. In essence, the piece is just another dark-secrets from-the-family-past melodrama, and while that familiar form could be made to work, the trauma at the heart of this piece failed to either move or convince this viewer  by the end, with potential emotional involvement foundering due to Birch’s dialogue, which feels, despite occasional arresting images, overly calculated and counterfeit. Compare the play to Tim Price’s Salt, Root and Roe – also a portrait of two sisters in a rural locale, and a work of genuine beauty and eccentricity – and Little Light’s shortcomings become all the clearer.   

The cast – Lorna Brown as Alison, Paul Rattray as Teddy, Yolanda Kettle as Clarissa and Paul Hickey as the bewildered outsider Simon - perform well, straining to give  even the most wincingly, heavy-handedly “poetic”  passages as much life and conviction as they can. But there’s not much any actor could make of two risibly ornate, painfully over-written monologues that conclude the piece, and, during these, I felt any goodwill I’d had towards the play evaporate. The establishment of Birch as an exciting and distinctive new voice is certainly underway: she’s Guardian-endorsed, for one, and has a new work coming up in Rufus Norris’s first season at the National Theatre. But I found Little Light to be an unaffecting piece of work that offers little in the way of real insight and much in the way of grating pretentiousness. 

Booking until 7th March. 

Concert Review: Transatlantic Sessions 2015, Royal Festival Hall, 6th February


Transatlantic Sessions was the brainchild of renowned Scottish fiddler Aly Bain and dobro supremo Jerry Douglas, and a full 20 years on from its inception, the venture shows no signs of either a loss of vibrancy or a diminishment in popularity. The concept is simplicity itself: North American and British roots musicians convene to play together in a loose, relaxed environment, performing their own and others’ material in set-ups that range from intimate duo performances to foot-stomping jigs and reels featuring the entire company. 

Guests over the years have included Nanci Griffith, Karen Matheson, John Martyn, Iris DeMent, Darrell Scott, Allison Moorer, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Rufus and Martha Wainwright, among many others. But what’s crucial to the concept is that no one voice or personality dominates. Rather, these events are all about the democracy of traditional music as a form: of the pleasure of collaboration and sharing songs; of the joy of musicians just jamming; and, especially, of the humility of a singer taking centre-stage for a spot but then being just as willing to humbly chime in with some discreet backing vocals later on. 

  Transatlantic Sessions started out as a TV series in the mid-1990s, with the performances filmed in various Highland locales. But in recent years these series have been supplemented by live concerts, of which last Friday’s show at Royal Festival Hall was the final stop on the (all too brief) 2015 UK tour. Joining the fond and friendly fold this time around were Rodney Crowell, Patty Griffin and Sara Watkins on the American side, while Devon (via Essex) songwriter John Smith and Scottish singer Kathleen MacInnes made up the Brits. These performers combined their talents with those of the illustrious house band and regulars including Phil Cunningham (accordion), John McCusker (fiddle), Danny Thompson (bass), Donald Shaw (piano), John Doyle and Dirk Powell (guitars), Mike McGoldrick (pipes and whistles), Russ Barenberg (guitar/mandolin) and James Mackintosh on drums, not forgetting the ever-present Douglas and Bain, of course. The musicians made up a seventeen-strong collective (or “International Hillbilly Organisation,” as Griffin nicely dubbed them) that rocked and reeled boisterously while also delivering moments of equally breathtaking delicacy, too. 

 Following the dynamic instrumental opener “Waiting for the Federals,” Tim O’Brien took to the stage to deliver delightful bluegrass in the shape of “You Were on My Mind” and “Cowboy’s Life”; O’Brien later led the company in a soul-satisfying spiritual that briefly turned the hall into a revival meeting. The crystalline-toned MacInnes contributed a couple of Gaelic language numbers to the night, including an exquisite Hebridean hymn augmented by Shaw’s plaintive piano, while her rendition of “The Song of the Stone” bristled with attitude and assertiveness. 

 Sara Watkins’s airy yet taut vocals ignited the uplifting “Take Up Your Spade” and the poignant lover’s plea “Be There,” while Patty Griffin demonstrated her considerable stage presence on an intense “Cold As It Gets,” a heart-meltingly lovely “Coming Home” and a charming take on the Lefty Frizzell perennial “Mom and Dad’s Waltz.” John Smith’s intricate guitar-playing and beautiful keening vocal style compelled on his own compositions, including “Freezing Winds of Change,” while Dirk Powell led the swampy “Waterbound” with passion and grace. Meanwhile, Rodney Crowell was effortlessly commanding on elegant covers of songs by his inspirations and mentors, including “I Still Miss Someone” (by his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash) and Hank Williams’s “Honky Tonk Blues,” preceding the latter by succinctly summarising the concerns of country songs as follows: “Friday night trouble. Saturday night sin. And Sunday morning redemption.” Crowell was later joined by Watkins and Griffin for a rowdy rip through his own “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” 

 Plucking, twanging and teasing out new textures from the more familiar material, the band were in fine form throughout the night, and were especially captivating on instrumentals both joyous (a pair of Nova Scotian wedding tunes) and tender (Cunningham’s “Molly-Mae”, composed for McCusker’s baby daughter). 

 As its very name indicates, Transatlantic Sessions 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. A thrilling three hours in the company of musicians whose talent is equal only to their graciousness, this was an evening that did more to inspire belief in the “Special Relationship” than any number of Obama/Cameron photo ops could ever hope to do.