Thursday 28 January 2010

Thirty years of Bedlam

Not much has changed at the Edinburgh University Theatre Company's headquarters since I first stepped inside its deconsecrated auditorium three decades ago this October. There's now a proper box office to the left of the entrance, brightly painted toilets, swisher lighting rig and sound, and the anteroom, plastered with many more posters than when I last saw it, has a cafe serving espresso coffee (no-one in Edinburgh or London, apart from the Italians, seemed to know what espresso was in the early 1980s despite its earlier infiltration).

It touched me, though, of course, to see students doing what students always did, albeit with laptops and mobiles. A drama festival was in full swing; I couldn't stay to see anything as I had to get back to Glasgow for War and Peace, but they were setting up for a play called God's Spies.

I found out to my amazement that the Bedlam turned thirty through the university magazine. And they have a website, too, Quick flurries of correspondence followed with the friends I made in the first weeks of term and still see: Simon Bell, Mary New (now Amorosino), Jo Dishington (now Clough), Jerry Pratt. It became a heady nostalgiafest and I dug out some old programmes.

Surprising how much I've forgotten about the early days. I slipped in to the freshers' week lunchtime play, Stoppard's Albert's Bridge with one repeated line ('hear, hear, Mr Chairman') and joined the second-week revue, too, along with the Albert, Simon Russell Beale's delightful medic brother Andy. It was terrible. Sorry, David Bannerman, wherever you are* - Simon bumped into you recently and you'd been talking about it - but the script of The Brick Programme wasn't funny, and I don't think the bright young sparks in it made it any more so.

I tried to remember the sketches, and only recalled the one where I, as an increasingly irate Weather Forecaster, had a box of soapflakes poured over my unwitting head, making my eyes run and sending me stumbling off into the wings in agony. Could it happen now? Don't know. But the friends united in a common front against the well-meaning director have, in some cases, become so for life through our sharing a flat in second year. Others we still see intermittently, though no sign in person of Adrian Johnston, who swiftly moved into genius mode as accompanist for silent films and has since written countless TV and film scores, getting an Emmy for his work on Amundsen. Might I embarrass him by putting up a picture of us as Mom and Dad, with Matthew Lloyd and Bill Anderson as our 'sons', in a later University Opera production of Weill's Seven Deadly Sins?

Adrian and I used to sit in my room at Pollock Halls listening to Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and he introduced me to Peter Grimes. Among the other rebellious Brick Programmers, the delightfully Greek looking Steph Crean used to keep a notebook in which she'd write down new words we spouted at her; last heard of working for iD magazine. 'Wee' Jenny Turner's a novelist and, still I believe, Guardian books editor.

So the lunchtimes progressed - usually chucked on in a couple of weeks. What else was I in? Mooched about simulating dole queues and other facts of life then unknown to us in Simon Evans's semi-improvised play without words Taking Your Time. Starred as Professor Taranne when Peter Kravitz and Hannah Maude-Roxby couldn't get the intended new play, The Ghost in the Machine, up and running. Directed all my flatmates in Sophocles' Electra (scantily costumed in a Bedlam with no heating one snowy February Wednesday). Played an oleaginous ship's steward in MacNeice's The Dark Tower.

But the highlight, in a Bridesheady way, for all of us, I think, was the late spring fortnight we spent on the annual musical, Cabaret. Wait for it, I have some photos (and a few more sent by Mair) to prove it. Our Mary, a vicar's daughter with the most infectious laugh ever, was born to play Sally Bowles. One night her holy parents - no, they have a sense of humour - were there, sitting at one of the Adnams beer barrels in the converted auditorium, to hear her deliver 'Don't tell Mamma'.

Simon was Clifford Bradshaw, entertaining us ever after with parody renditions of that corny juve-lead song 'Why should I wake up?' He was also a splendid Orsino and played quite a few parts in an ambitious Caucasian Chalk Circle. I always thought he could have been a professional actor, ditto flautist (he played The Rite of Spring in the NYO under both Boulez and Rattle), but his ex-actress girlfriend Patricia thinks not.

One who did make it to a high level - and we always thought he would - was Peter Forbes, Herr Schultz and since seen as Malvolio at the Globe and Max Reinhardt's business manager Rudolf "Katie" Kommer in Michael Frayn's sorely underrated Afterlife at the National, among other roles. His Fraulein Schneider, Kerry Richardson, made us weep at every rehearsal and performance with 'What would you do?' That, I think, was star quality. Last saw her presenting an angling programme on TV.

Jerry Pratt played the principal Nazi. He was very nearly beaten up in the street when he had to go round the outside of the theatre to make an entrance wearing a swastika armband; John Stalker, director and now doyen of Scottish theatre, had to bring his considerable presence to bear. And I? I was a humble waiter, spinning trays, messing up the dance sequences with my two left feet and joining with Andy Beale in 'Tomorrow belongs to me' (originally set, of course, in the cabaret).

Actually I think I look surprisingly butch in the middle of the dress-rehearsal melee (please note that some of the ladies, including Gabrielle and Zoe if I remember their names aright, aren't wearing their proper costumes). Despite the slicking, though, the coiffure needed attention and immediately afterwards, in time for the first night, I got my crash helmet hair cut short. I also smoked two cigarettes a day for a couple of weeks only and bought a pair of raspberry coloured corduroys - pace, McCall Smith - as a sign of delayed adolescent rebellion. Though coming out was not on the cards in those days, alas. Happy birthday, Bedlam - sorry I can't be there on Saturday to share it with you.

Stop press (6/2): This has triggered off an amazing amount of e-correspondence, with many old names joining the list: just like Facebook, I'm told, except with real friends present and erstwhile. Among many photos exchanging hands are several too mortifying to post, including one of Andy as a Hitler youth which could end his distinguished career if taken out of context, but I did think I'd add one more which Mary found, as it completes the Cabaret dramatis personae.

Our dazzling MC was one Leonard Webster. Perhaps because he was one of the few echt Scots in the cast and maybe disliked us braying English, he was rather quiet offstage. Knock me down with a fevver if putting 'Leonard Webster actor' into Google didn't bring up this page on his website. Turns out he went on to play the MC again at the Chester Gateway during a life in rep. Anyway, there he is above in 1981 asking for 'a little understanding...if you could see her through my eyes' with the ubiquitous Andy Beale underneath the ape skin.

*Update (12/1/18) - you coudn't make this stuff up, and I retract any apology. David Bannerman added 'Campbell' to his name, without licence, and became deputy leader of Ukip. When it went pear-shaped, he retreated to Ukip-in-government, ie the Tories, and occasionally pops up with some asinine observation or another. Total loser, to quote a certain total shithole loser.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Canine faux pas

If you were looking forward to taking care of a West Highland terrier

and it turned out to be a French bulldog

would you be disappointed? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder (and I must admit the little blighter above seems to be saying 'love me!'). Our Swedish friend Carl Otto, who can't keep a dog in his London dwelling, clearly misses his little companion, no doubt pining back in Stockholm. So how saddened he must have been when he came to supper and I learned the truth, reeled a bit from the picture on the internet and rudely asked whether it slavered and snorted like other bulldogs I know.

Alas, he said, it did. So I'm afraid I dashed his hopes of finding his beloved canine a temporary home here. J, who is entirely to blame because he gave me the wrong information in the first place and raised my hopes, asked me how I'd feel if I had a child and someone else told me it was ugly. To which I retorted that you can't choose the look of your child, but you can choose your dog.

Anyway, reflection on my insensitivity was rammed home, amid gales of laughter, up in Edinburgh with friend Caroline, who had also shared our rather odd supper and noted how, after that tergiversation, Carl Otto went rather quiet. Such was the thanks he got for introducing me to two of my idols, Anderssons Harriet and Benny, last year. Humble apologies, min herre.

Monday 25 January 2010

Tonicht's the nicht

Not for us, I'm sorry to say: Burns Night has been postponed until our guests can make it, on Sunday. But since I've just come back from Glasgie I was able to bring to the table a clootie dumpling. I think we were served one many years ago by the Gray-McCrorie duo, who always intrigued me by dangling the name in their inimitable Greenock accents, and of course these puds are best made by mam or grannie. But I was proud to buy the last in stock in a Sauciehall Street bakery.

Clootie dumplings, if the thought doesn't make you feel peely-wally - thanks, Ruth, for reminding me of that - have even inspired an exclusive website,

I was also intrigued by row upon row of haggi of all sizes in the nearby M&S; but rightly guessed that a sizeable McSween could be hunted down in our local Waitrose. So - Patricia will honour us on Sunday by reciting Rabbie's famous ode over it. A stanza or three will do here:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin'-race !
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm :
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.


Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

concluding a xenophobic diatribe with:

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!

I am, d'ye ken, an honorary Scot, four and a half more or less happy years a resident of Edinburgh (OK, Nice, don't kid yourself, they'll never let you join the club). And as I'm about to drown you in a sea of nostalgia for 30 years ago, when we green students first arrived in Auld Reekie, here as prelude is my major walk down memory lane. In first year, it was from Pollock Halls to George Square. For the next two years, the approach was from the north, from New Town to Old. I did it in reverse on a visit last Thursday - from the loved-and-hated David Hume Tower, one of the monstrosities which swept away half a Georgian square, so functional and yet with such fine views from the classics library on the fifth floor

down George IV Bridge, where Bauermeister's books and records are no more, to the Playfair Steps which we never tired of ascending or descending

and that immortal view upwards from the sphinxes to New College

before heading down the hill towards the Firth of Forth and home, 32 Dundas Street (pictured at the end of my last Edinburgh blog entry. You can see why I wallow in McCall Smith.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Council of war

There were some seasoned campaigners at the Glasgow conference preceding Friday night's world premiere of Prokofiev's original War and Peace. Left above is David Lloyd Jones, who back in 1972 conducted the first staged performances in the UK, and who spoke so entertainingly about the circumstances on Thursday afternoon. Next to him is Prof Simon Morrison of Princeton, fellow biographer and instigator of 2008's original-version Romeo and Juliet to Mark Morris's choreography. Then me, and on my left the star of the show, Dr Rita McAllister, whose work on what Prokofiev first wrote in 1941-2 included orchestration of those portions left in piano score and brought a masterpiece to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama where she's worked for so many years. Gabriel Prokofiev, new-music pioneer and son of much-missed Oleg and the lovely Frances, has one arm around her and the other around RSAMD researcher Christina Guillaumier, who made the conference happen. Thanks to Stephen Broad, Head of Research and Postgraduate Programmes in Music, who took the photo and was a genial animateur throughout the day.

As for the show (pictured above by Ken Dundas), performed by students from the RSAMD and their sister conservatoire in Rostov-on-Don under the watchful long-term eye of director Irina Brown, you can read rather a lot about what I thought of it in this Arts Desk review of War and Peace.

Do go and see it in Edinburgh next week if you can, though prepare to do without the council of war scene at Fili containing Kutuzov's great aria; that came much later.

The conference went well enough, I thought. On Thursday morning, Simon filled in some of the Soviet-era details and Christina examined traits of Prokofiev's operatic style, which strikes me as ever more extraordinary the more time I spend looking at it (and I'm looking at it a lot at the moment, preparing a big article for the forthcoming Royal Opera production of The Gambler). I reminisced about the four productions I've seen starting back in 1991, and their varying degrees of success in trying to make a performing version (a problem that hadn't really arisen for the RSAMD). Then Irina took time off from frantic final preparations to fuel our keen anticipation. She's an engaging speaker and a fun person, as I know from having her to hand as translator when I met Alfred Schnittke all those years ago and from her production of Preissova's play Jenufa at the Arcola Theatre.

After lunch, we heard some of the vocal talent I've cited in the review showcased in appropriate excerpts. Gabriel spoke to the RSAMD's Head of Vocal Performance Professor Christopher Underwood, DLJ waxed lyrical about discovering and putting on the opera, and Rita rounded off with chapter and verse about her work. She proved very reasonable and unself-important about its role in the general scheme of things - as we've all since discovered, the performing version has some revelatory new material but doesn't displace some of Prokofiev's later work. Its pacing, though, is impeccable - something that's never quite worked in all the compromised productions.

Asked to sum up, I found myself struck by the passing of time and the place of this big event in history, if that doesn't sound too portentous. It was nearly 30 years ago that I first read swathes of Tolstoy's novel sitting in a five-hour queue at the Glasgow Passport Office during a strike. How differently I understood it so many years later. And of course it's nearly two decades since Gergiev first came to our attention with his crazy ambition to mount five Prokofiev operas in a single Kirov season. Well, we're all still here - except, alas, for Oleg and the Downeses. Ted, as his colleague David reminded us, conducted the first UK concert performance in Leeds back in the late 1960s.

Anyway, the enormity of the achievement only dawned on us in the hours following the triumphant curtain, though we all came out jolly enough.

I hope Irina and Rita won't mind me posting this post-show photo in the glammed-up foyer of the Theatre Royal. It gives us the chandeliered opulence we hadn't got in the 11-scene version of the opera, since Natasha's meeting with Andrey at the New Year's Eve ball was a later addition.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Farewell, Kate McGarrigle

Very sad to note the death of Kate McGarrigle, maybe nowadays better known as the holy mother of Rufus Wainwright but a shining example to him in terms of good songwriting. My favourite number of the McGarrigle sisters, 'Southern Boys', with its melancholy arrangement and indeterminate tonality to begin with, isn't on YouTube, but there are a couple of other numbers from the same album, including the title track.

'Dancer with Bruised Knees' was once listed - I forget by whom - as among the top ten albums of the last half-century. The instrumentations show quirky genius; the lyrics still speak to us.

Seems like an odd way to look at it, but maybe this will give Rufus the spur he needs to go deeper.

PS: contacted my Arts Desk colleagues to see who might be willing to write a more detailed tribute than I could, and Sue Steward came up with this - which made me shed another tear or two.

Monday 18 January 2010

Act of God?

It would be foolish to give that outrageous American televangelist any more publicity by mentioning his name, but do you think it's enough for a senator just to call him 'silly'? 'Silly'? A man who says that God hates Haitians because they signed a pact with the devil to get rid of the French? Wouldn't that be categorisable as a hate crime, or at least a mindf**k? After all, I listened two days ago to Floridan Haitians gathered together to talk to the BBC World Service, all of them firm in their belief in God and several, including a priest, wondering whether they might not, after all, have been justly punished. The poison spreads.

Well, I hope I'm speaking to the enlightened, so I don't need to say any more. Except, like everyone else, to add, give what you can, either through Medecins sans frontieres or any other reliable charity.

As so often, the obvious awfulness of religious dogma and superstition sits alongside something genuinely strange or wonderful: the Jerusalem versus The Sacred Made Real syndrome. I've just finished Barbara Reynolds's lucid, if sometimes oddly uncritical, biography of her friend Dorothy L Sayers. Now there was a woman who could make dogma seem credible.

There's one obvious connection with the current bandwagon of disaster: the palaver over her attempt to render the New Testament vivid in contemporary language with the radio plays that make up The Man Born to be King. This was wartime, and when, Reynolds tells us, 'Singapore fell to the Japanese, the event was interpreted in the press as a sign of God's judgment on Britain for allowing such a blasphemy to be committed'.

Sayers is such a splendid example of the flexible mind, capable of change across vast swathes of time. It's true that she comes over a little priggish in her cleverness. But then, around the time of embarking on the Wimsey/Vane novel everyone thinks her masterpiece, Gaudy Night - I've just ordered it up - she seems to have learned how to reconcile the head and the heart. After that, she goes on developing up to her dying day: laying out her extraordinary parallels between the trinity, above all the Nicene Creed's essential idea of God's incarnation as man, and the three elements of artistic creation, before tackling Dante. The whole rule-of-three business is a conceit, of course, but how plausible she makes it. And I love her simple faith in the value of unimpeded work. I can't say I always like her from reading this, but I do admire her.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

A heart in winter

I was going to be pretentious there and begin in French - well, 'un coeur en hiver' does sound so wonderful, like 'ou sont les neiges d'antan?' which has to be better than Hofmannsthal's German in Rosenkavalier ('wo sind die Schnee von vergangenen Jahr?') It's the title of a French film, not as good a one as the best of the just-departed Eric Rohmer (how well I remember seeing A Tale of Springtime with five other people in the late, lamented Lumiere Cinema on the night of a World Cup quarter-final). To mourn him gently, what could be better than late Faure?

Poor, afflicted Gabriel (pictured above), going deaf, increasingly ill and losing many of his friends to the grim reaper, simply carried on in the line of increased harmonic complexity and chromaticism, allied to polyphonic singing lines in his chamber music. It struck me last night, listening to the very late E minor Quartet from our friends the Helikons who so generously returned to the BBCSO class, that for 1923 this is still amazingly experimental music. It's surely more durable than dodecaphonic Schoenberg, and of course much more melodic, but still hard to grasp. I've just read what my colleague Jessica Duchen has to say about it in her Phaidon Faure mini-biography, and I think she hits the elusive nail on the head:

The off-centre, syncopated rhythms, the extended phrases, the intricate counterpoint and dense textures, the often bizarre harmonies and apparently endless sequential progressions are characteristic of late Faure, but here reach their apex of concentration. Even world-famous string quartets have been known to make certain cuts in the piece which they feel renders it more intelligible to both performers and listeners. However, if performers accentuate the quartet's energy, rhythmic vigour and the nuances and contrasts of its stylistic language, rather than only its seamlessness and smoothness, the music shines out in vivid relief as a uniquely intense, rhythmically intricate and spiritually vigorous, abstract work.

'Our' Helikon Quartet (Patrick Wastnage, Nikos Zarb, Rachel Samuel and Graham Bradshaw pictured above at the end of their session last night), fresh from a day's recording of Debussy arr. Colin Matthews in their other role as BBC Symphony Orchestra players, said they found the finale especially problematic. There they did just what Jessica suggests - accentuated the energy - to get through it. I certainly didn't have a problem with the enigmatic aspirations of the slow movement, where the viola and then the first violin seem to be reaching towards a heaven that eludes their grasp. And one of the students, Piala, rightly pointed out that this was stream of consciousness writing very akin to Virginia Woolf's, and with equal discipline behind it.

After they'd gone, we had a brief and, on my part, not very detailed wallow in more late Faure. I've been listening to Katherine Stott's wonderful set of the complete piano music, marvelling again - as I first did when I came across them with Paul Crossley playing - over the harmonic adventures of the Preludes. We heard Nos. 3 and 4, followed by the colossal lament of the F sharp minor Nocturne from 1913. I was searching on YouTube, and didn't find any great heights in the works I wanted, but perhaps the most magical pianist on there is Marguerite Long in 1936, playing the D flat major Nocturne of 1894.

After our foray into the late piano music, I contrasted the fantastical Allegro vivo of the Op. 115 Piano Quintet with the relatively straightforward finale of the still very beautiful earlier Piano Quartet (C minor, Op. 15). You can hear that in the hands of the glorious Frances Angell and her colleagues in the newly-formed Turner Ensemble at Kings Place on Sunday evening. Their debut programme also includes the Janacek Concertino, and it's not to be missed. After the Loddon Mill experience, I'm also expecting them to be much more communicative than the Borodin Quartet in its latest incarnation - a bit of a disappointment on Saturday evening, which I've written up for the Arts Desk.

Monday 11 January 2010

Dorriting around the Marshalsea

Infatuated with Dickens's Little Dorrit again after watching the dazzling ensemble work of the BBC serialisation over the New Year, we took advantage of a pre-snow, ice-cold Monday to explore her Southwark haunts. Via the George Inn of Pickwick Papers fame, with its galleries still intact,

we carried on down the Borough High Street and turned left down an alley alongside the John Harvard Library, and there was the last remaining wall of the Marshalsea Prison. Dickens, whose father was briefly imprisoned there for debt in 1824, never forgot that terrible time when he lodged nearby and went off to work at the blacking factory by the river. The Marshalsea had already been demolished by the time he described it in David Copperfield and, here, in Little Dorrit:

It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs, who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door, closing up a second prison, consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.

The prison is down that parted Dickens briefly from the rest of the family - he went in daily for breakfast, just as Amy Dorrit goes out to work - but the wall is duly kept in good nick.

It forms a barrier between the former Marshalsea and the churchyard, now a park with a few forlorn tombstones stacked up against the wall, of St George's Church, where Little Dorrit was christened and where at the end of the novel she is married to Arthur Clennam.

Though it's hardly among the most popular of the Dickens oeuvre, the book has given its characters' names to many of the nearby streets: Little Dorrit Court, Doyce Street - after the cheery inventor whose honest enterprise is set against the easy money of speculator Merdle - and Clennam Street, running alongside a splendid pub which has been in the hands of the same landlady since the 1950s:

Little Dorrit would not have recognised the network of viaducts which gives the area its compelling character, though her creator would, of course.

On the other side of this arch is a Catholic church with a virgin in a grotto outside flanked by the bridge and barbed wire.

There's also a fascinating social housing project, constructed in 1864 by Sir Sydney Waterlow of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company from a design by Prince Albert in the 1851 Great Exhibition.

I guess Dickens would have approved of this. But by now we were in the zone reclaimed by the bourgeoisie, with care to keep some of the old identity as in the Menier Chocolate Factory where we saw Sweet Charity the following evening, and of course Borough Market. We toyed with having a Salt Beef sandwich in the Little Dorrit Cafe

But I was in the mood for fish, so we ended up in the excellent, if slightly extravagant, surroundings of the Wright Brothers Oyster and Port House alongside the market, in a row of seventh heaven (next door to Konditorei and Cook and the Monmouth Coffee Company, which served up the best espresso I think I've ever had in London). And having left our shabby Dickensian mood behind, we who like to think of ourselves as bobos (= Bohemian Bourgeois, as indeed the great man himself, I guess, became) joined the frozen tourists, including the Italians who walk in packs and knock you off the pavement, on the now familiar Thameside route

to the Tate Modern and were duly spooked by walking into the total darkness of Miroslaw Balka's How It Is in the Turbine Hall (these two photos were kindly sent to me by Tate Modern's press department).

I dreamed about it last night - this weird sensation of seeing only the illusion of your eyes flashing in front of you. And yet when you turn round you can of course see the daylight of the power station windows; walking out is a liberation. Balka wants to suggest all sorts of unholy associations; the other exhibition of his currently running at Modern Art Oxford features shots of natural life going on in the now-touristified Auschwitz.

As for man's heart of darkness, a lot of it is disturbingly etched in Little Dorrit. I can't decide whether to re-read that novel or David Copperfield, which I probably first encountered much earlier. But I reckon the BBC series got it pretty much right, without discarding any of the characters. And the superlative line-up surprises not so much in the known quantity of the stars - though how well Andy Serkis, currently wowing cinema audiences as Ian Dury, makes you believe in the villainous Balzacian Rigaud, and how transformed is Maxine Peake, the consummately brazen Veronica of Shameless, as a Satanic Miss Wade with lesbian overtones - as in the performances turned in by the young actors. As with the singers/dancers in Sweet Charity, it made me feel that our drama schools are doing a superb job at the moment. It was actually Russell Tovey as John Chivery, Dorrit's rejected suitor tearfully resolved to help out the man she prefers, who made me cry. Tom Courtenay's hapless Dorrit had me on the brink at times, but I can't forget how Alec Guinness redeemed the very flawed, bizarrely structured Edzard film, above all in the scene where the newly-enriched former debtor can't shuck off his shame and loses the plot at a society banquet. It's here on YouTube:

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Frug it

Alas, there were no production photos available of the Rich Man's Frug at the Pompeii Club, tongue-in-cheek highlight of the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of Sweet Charity. We squeezed in last night; I'd link, but the show's sold out there prior to a TBC West End run. Hardly the next best thing, then, to have the Fosse original on YouTube. The whole frugging works, in fact, above, which is why I think we can put up with a bit of not inappropriate Latin dubbing; the English-language clip only has the first couple of minutes.

Stephen Mear's choreography at the Menier (photograph above, like the others below, by Catherine Ashmore) pays homage, but his ChocFac Frug also manages to raise a laugh or two from its poker-faced men in white polo-necks and leggy lead girl (Ebony Molina). Where do they come from, all these bright young things? The answer's simple: from the show-training of our many colleges and drama schools, which seems to be better than ever. In the past fortnight we've also seen two handsome leading men who can really sing - Julian Ovenden in Annie Get Your Gun, followed here by Mark Umbers, who plays all the unreliable men in Charity Hope Valentine's hopeless love life. Here he is with Tamzin Outhwaite's heroine at Barney's Chile Hacienda.

Outhwaite, whose departure from EastEnders probably coincided with the end of my on-off addiction, can sing, articulate, dance and look good, but for me she doesn't quite have the X-Factor which I found in Josefina Gabrielle's sassy sidekick no. 1 (pictured here with Outhwaite and the also excellent Tiffany Graves).

'Something Better Than This', the girls' big trio, is quite a number. So are the other known quantities - a jaded 'Big Spender', 'If My Friends Could See Me Now' and a spoofy, pre-Hair 'Rhythm of Life'. Otherwise Cy Coleman's score and Dorothy Fields's lyrics have their dodgy moments. An all-out witty entertainment like Annie Get Your Gun or La Cage aux Folles it ain't, but it was brilliantly done here with all the economies turned into virtues, and a superb brass trio in Nigel Lilley's nine-piece band (though I don't see why in that small space any miking was necessary).

As for the source, I guess you just have to forget the film original, as I can't when Sondheim's A Little Night Music fails to deliver the second-half magic of Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night. Here the problem is Sweet Charity's several cop-outs compared to its inspiration, Fellini's roller-coaster Le Notti di Cabiria. It might have been wise even in 1960s New York, well evoked, to make Charity a dance-floor hostess who doesn't go all the way rather than a happy hooker, but oh, the end, the end. I won't spoil it, if there's anything to spoil, but Mr. Oscar Lindquist is not really a cad, and doesn't evoke a response anywhere near to the heartbreak of Giulietta Masina's Cabiria. Amazingly, the last seven minutes are on YouTube, but not all at once. So we can see the full expressive range of the great Masina when faced with a horrible truth. Spoiler alert: better watch the whole film first, but for a sample of Masina's plastic art you can't do better than this.

Believ it or not, there's an optimistic aftermath. I don't know how the above poster could have been satisfied with ending where he did; this ultima scena takes up exactly where the above leaves off. Nino Rota's score works its usual magic.

Pure cinematic genius: Fellini knows how to get the best out of his extraordinary missus. And of course it was Cabiria's Oscar nomination which prompted Masina to go off to Hollywood little thinking her character would triumph (she describes it amusingly in an interview attached to the DVD of La Strada) and which inspired Bob Fosse to think of adapting the film for Broadway. I got bored when the movie Sweet Charity turned up on TV some years ago, but I'll take one expert's word for it that this is one of the few great musicals filmed in the 1960s and give it another try.

Monday 4 January 2010

The best of times is now

Can't stop humming that sentimental Jerry Herman number. But it applies nicely to the fact that my limited experience of last year's best continues to roll into 2010. Johnny 'Rooster' Byron (Mark Rylance, pictured above by Simon Annand at the Royal Court) would down another vodka, milk, speed and egg cocktail to the good news that he's transferring to the West End. It was a foregone conclusion when Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth's baroque semi-fantasy of rural life today, knocked us all for six last summer. I didn't see many other new plays, but it seems I saw the best. And it ought to make a great film, too.

The Martinu trail, having reached far and wide (including to Brno last autumn, where the above photo was used for the festival logo), leads back to the Barbican. Those two BBC Symphony concerts conducted by Belohlavek spread the good news via Radio 3, and last November I learned that the four remaining instalments of the symphonies cycle, returning in February, were pretty well sold out. Time to make an excursion to Policka in between, too - though I'm not sure what I'm going to do about the talk and concert featuring Martinu 5, because at the same time Abbado is sharing the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela with Dudamel in Lucerne. Embarrassment of riches indeed.

Abbado's Mahler 9 with his very own Lucerne Festival Orchestra in August is simply unmissable, too. The partnership was my new best team of the past decade in the Arts Desk list, and however much I may have hesitated or racked my brains elsewhere, I feel certain that I won't hear more perfect or soul-shattering orchestral music-making anywhere else. The Mahler 1 and 4 from last year's Lucerne Festival should appear on DVD this year; in the meantime, feast on the Medici Arts film of the Third from 2007.

Otherwise, I've not looked much beyond the earlier part of the year, but the continuity is assured with sterling programmes from Ticciati, Nezet-Seguin, Nelsons in Birmingham (a Strauss Alpine Symphony before which I'm speaking), Jurowski and Salonen. We're getting more staged Prokofiev in a month than we got throughout the 50th anniversary year (Glasgow RSAMD War and Peace, Royal Opera Gambler), and then in the summer Grange Park is hitting the Three Oranges alongside Strauss's Capriccio while Glyndebourne plays safe. And that's before we even have more than an isolated hint of what the Proms portend.

In the meantime, the Sophie Sarin/Djenne Djenno experience is always there for the brave to investigate (not us again, this year, at any rate). Crises rock our Sophe but she remains regally come scoglio, up there on her sunset terrace with her cocktail and one of the, erm, fertility symbols of the mud hotel she had constructed only a few years ago.

Sophie's blog remains as unique and unsinkable as she. In the absence of recent communication, I've taken the liberty of reproducing from it the latest image of our ex-Parisian fashion model. Skol, aelskling!

Saturday 2 January 2010

Chopin - the works

The bicentenary is only just upon us, and I've spent part of the interstitial time listening to everything in the new EMI box - the wacky, myriad mazurkas; the ineffable nocturnes; the proud polonaises; even the oddities, the juvenilia, the variations and a few one-off gems I ought to have heard before but don't remember (of which Barenboim's hypnotic performance of the Berceuse was the one I keep coming back to).

Within his pianistic parameters, Chopin was all things to all men; it's a paradox that with one instrument he runs perhaps a broader gamut, and touches on more harmonic experiments, than any of his contemporaries. But who was the real FFC?

Benita Eisler's quirky little book, if intermittently frustrating, does a good job of placing George Sand's biography alongside his, with the result that the self-centred lady of letters and monstrously unfeeling mother comes over as a more real human being than the chimerical composer. Portraits are few, and the famous early photo which shows an unhappy and already dying Chopin swollen from oedema, reproduced on the above cover, is only marginally less disturbing than the death-mask. The only truly romantic image, by Delacroix, was originally part of a strangely-proportioned double study with GS as the larger figure (the above reconstruction, not entirely felicitous, restores realistic dimensions to the sketch).

Never mind: the artist's life's his work, and what work. Apart from the Berceuse, the slow movement of the Third Piano Sonata and the A flat 'nouvelle etude', the piece that haunts me most is that odd little Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 No. 4. It's easy enough to pick out on the piano, but I can't come anywhere near the metaphysical touch it needs. Not quite the best performance, but marvellous for the introduction and the poster's clever pasting below of the printed notes, is Horowitz's:

More classical with his right hand is Paderewski in 1912:

Little wonder if Bernstein as composer of 'Maria' found the unresolved opening and closing of the piece worth quoting in his Harvard lectures.

Louis Lortie, in a mostly-Chopin interview I've just written up for Pianist magazine, recommended listening to Liszt's pupils as the closest we might get to what Chopin sounded like (though the two composers, of course, had utterly different approaches). Here's one of the piano rolls of Eugen d'Albert he recommended. It was made in 1905.

Lortie's own commentary on the Etudes, with his luminous latest interpretations, can be found on his beautifully produced website. That evening of half-Lortie, half-Leonskaja can't be trumped for me by anything Chopinesque this year, though I look forward to hearing the magisterial Zimerman in February. The magic won't wear thin.

An irreverent, possibly irrelevant epitaph, from the other side of our listening obsessions this New Year - more Cole Porter, whose better-known classics we'll be singing in our odd little choral group later this afternoon:

When, in Venice, Georgia Sand with Chopin romped,
Her libido had the Lido simply swamped,
But today who would be buried in the sand?
Why, the leader of a big-time band

The sentiment almost certainly isn't apt, given Sand's catty remarks about her invalid's nonexistent sex-life, and has more to do with finding yet another rhyme for 'The Leader of a Big-Time Band'. Still, it's surely outrageous for 1943, and trust the sublime Ethel Merman to have gotten away with the belting of it. Kim Criswell does a great job on her disc of show songs The Lorelei, which I'm playing a lot at the moment alongside La Merman, and Hampson in Jerome Kern.