Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Here we are again, for the 30-something year. This time we started with food & wine at Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year, http://www.timberyard.co, where the food was lovely, the wine list too much of a tome and the staff doing cool a touch too much aloof. Still, it’s the food that matters most and here it excelled. On to the first cultural highlight with the Philhamonia and the wonderful Edinburgh Festival Chorus under Peter Pan conductor Andrew Davies for a rare outing of Elgar’s oratorio King Olaf. Unfathomable narrative, but musically exhilarating, with three good soloists to boot. The Usher Hall crowd were a bit too restrained; they should think themselves very lucky indeed.

Our fringe started with a little gem called Jess & Joe at TraverseTwo, a growing up story with a difference, told by the characters acting out what has already happened to them. Lovely writing, beautiful performances and unpredictable. I left welled up, with a warm glow. The first art was Beyond Caravaggio at the Scottish National Gallery which I missed, intentionally because of their dreadful gallery space, at the NG in London. Here in a proper gallery, the handful of Caravaggios are wonderful, but served to show up the rest, those he influenced. On to the Book Fest for a Q&A with Dominic Dromgoole, responsible for two of the most inspirational theatrical events of my lifetime, both in the last five years – Globe to Globe, every Shakespeare play in a different language, and the Hamlet World Tour to every country in the world. Insightful, with some great anecdotes and excellent audience engagement. I queued up to get my book signed and he was just as friendly and engaging one-to-one. More art with True to Life, realistic art from the twenties and thirties, including usual suspects like Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights, but lots new to me. Worth the schlep out to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a place Lothian Transport seems determined to wipe off the map. Then our first comedy, Ed Byrne at Assembly George Square Theatre, who I’ve been drawn to since his recent TV travel programmes with Dara O’Briain but have never seen. Very funny, very engaging, a bit of a lag in the middle, but a treat nonetheless. Late night supper at the delightfully named http://www.angelswithbagpipes.co.uk. where excellent food combined with friendly service to great effect. A lovely first full day.

Sunday started early with something more appropriate for a late night slot, Wild Bore at TraverseOne, which the critics seem to have taken against, unsurprisingly given that they loom large. It’s three women talking out of their, well, arses, mostly quoting vitriolic reviews of their shows and others, but it evolves and changes rather a lot, and I loved the combination of subversiveness, surprise, anarchy and humour. The next show over at Stand Six couldn’t be more of a contrast – that’s the fringe for you – with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading her work, and multi-brass-and woodwind-instrumentalist John Sampson chipping in. A sombre start with First World War poems, the tone lightened and it became funny and cheeky; a rarger charming hour. I rested before the day’s main event, back at the Usher Hall. Edward Gardner brought his new band, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, along with a cast of soloists to die for led by Stuart Skelton, and they took us all hostage with an extraordinary interpretation of Britten’s operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes. The usually reserved Usher Hall crowd justifiably erupted. I doubt I’ll ever hear it that good again; a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. Emotionally drained, I needed a drink before I joined the others at http://www.mumbaimansionedinburgh.co.uk where the food was a delicious new spin on Indian cuisine, but the staff rushed and harassed us too much.

With such an extraordinary start, things had to take a bit of a dip and so it was in (full) Day Three. It started well at that Edinburgh institution, the International Photographic Exhibition, though there were a few too many contrived, overly posed shots for my taste. The day’s first theatre saw the normally reliable Paines Plough deliver a mediocre and rather pointless piece called Black Mountain in their mobile Roundabout theatre at Summerhall, about a couple seeking to rescue their relationship when his ex turns up, or does she? A mildly thrilling atmospheric thriller with cardboard performances. As my companion said, it would have been better on the radio. From here, stand-up Dominic Holland at the Voodoo Rooms lifted things significantly with the brilliantly observational, autobiographical humour of a 50–year-old who’s career has been eclipsed by his 21-year-old son. Then back to Summerhall for Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies, a somewhat slight piece about renewing an old friendship, and Skelmersdale!, which never rose to the giddy heights of their Solid Life of Sugar Water in 2015. We ended on a high with another terrific meal at http://www.lovagerestaurant.co.uk Food & wine eclipsed culture on Day Three, but there are three more full days to go……..

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It’s sixteen years since my last visit to the Buxton Festival and twenty years since my first, and boy has it grown. Then there were two operas, now there are eight. It has dropped ‘Opera’ from its title and added recitals, lots of spoken word and more. It has grown a fringe that, like Edinburgh, has got bigger (though maybe not better – yet!) than its parent. Fortunately, it hasn’t succumbed to dressing up and other poshness, though the average age seems to have gone up (same audience getting older?) enabling me to feel good about bringing it down!

The first opera was Vivaldi’s first. He apparently wrote 50, but we rarely see any. By the interval I thought I understood why – mediocre music, perfunctorily performed here – but he saved his best tunes until the second half and the cast responded by raising their game significantly. Ottone in Villa is one of those silly love quadrangles with trouser roles and implausible disguises, but when the music was good, it didn’t matter – though three stifling hours on the hottest day of the year was a challenge!

The same first half / second half contrast occurred in the double-bill, with the first opera, Saint-Saens’ La Princesse Jaune, creaking somewhat, despite a clever set and good singing. It has been relocated to Paris and set in an attic where Lena is pursuing her cousin Kornelis who has an opium-induced fantasy about an oriental woman! A bit slight and a rather dated feel to it. The second, Gounod’s La Colombe, made up for it though; a delightful comedy about how a parrot gets killed for love! Beautifully sung, with Jonathan Best’s Maitre Jean a masterclass in comic opera performance. Les Brotherston’s clever set relocated this in the apartment below the attic of the first opera, which was still in view, as the top of the apartment had (just) been in the first opera without giving the game away.

I’d failed to get tickets for Britten’s Church Parables in Aldeburgh, but managed to get them for the same productions here, and what a treat they were. Written at two-year intervals over four years in the mid-60’s and performed in the same four-day period in June, they are now rarely staged (I’d only seen them once, in a concert hall). Though each lasts just 70 minutes or so, they have huge atmosphere when staged in a church, weaving an extraordinary spell. Singers process as monks to a high stage where they play out the parables – a woman’s search for her lost son in Curlew River, a father’s unconditional love in The Prodigal Son and Nebuchadnezzar’s killing of three Israelites in The Burning Fiery Furnace. Director Frederic Wake-Walker has infused them with Japanese, Middle-Eastern and Balinese influences respectively and it works. A big feather in Mahogany Opera’s cap and yet another treat for the Britten centenary.

The unexpected highlight was Literary Britten, which interspersed two Britten song cycles, beautifully sung by tenor Andrew Kennedy, with poems and letters to Britten by WH Auden read by Alex Jennings no less. There was a bonus too – a world premiere of Tim Watts’ excellent new song cycle. It was a perfectly formed 70 minutes and I was a bit surprised the audience weren’t cheering loudly – I think this might have been the inclusion of Auden’s more racy letters; it’s a conservative crowd here!

Add in a talk by former Labour MP and writer Chris Mullin and a walking tour of the town and you have as fine a festival weekend as you could wish for – despite the fact it wasn’t really the weekend to spend indoors! It was good to return and I hope (and suspect) it won’t be another 16 years before my next visit.

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Well, it’s March and I’m still catching up with Edinburgh ones-that-got-away…..

When you first hear that this is a bunch of people reading from autobiographies, it doesn’t seem like an enticing prospect. The reviews were mixed but word-of-mouth and bloggers more favourable. It’s not long into the show when the show’s sub-title ‘you couldn’t make this stuff up’ rings very true indeed.

Last night, there were six excellent readers – Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan & Sally Phillips from C4’s sketch show Smack the Pony, Harry Enfield, James Lance and Sam Roukin – reading from, amongst others, David’s Hasselhoff and Cassidy, boy band ‘N Sync, Ivana Trump and Britney Spears. After initial solo turns, the readers return in different configurations, the best of which were Katie Price & Peter Andre spliced together and, lest you think this is a modern phenomena, a ‘mash up’ of Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher autobiographies from the time the latter moved on from Reynolds to Taylor.

It’s a clever idea, the extracts are well-chosen and the readings were well delivered, but at £24 for 70 mins I did feel a bit cheated and wished I had caught it on the Edinburgh fringe, where it would have been better value and more at home. It’s back at Leicester Square Theatre on 11th April if you want to catch it.


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The art treat of the month was a visit to William Morris’ house, Kelmscott Manor, in Oxfordshire. It was a private Royal Academy visit so we had time and space to take in this beautiful home. An Arts & Crafts gem.

The Linda Mccartney photo exhibition was good, if small – 40 or so photos. I’d like to know where the money goes as at £4000 per print, I valued the sale at over £2m! In contrast to the realism of these, Gregory Crewdsen‘s wierdly painterly photos at White Cube were spooky.

My comedy hero, Mark Thomas, did a short platform performance at the National. I love people who use their talent to advance a cause and Mark is the master. He’s a one-man opposition, exposing things that need to be exposed, lately a lot on the arms trade. This platform was organised to tie in with the production of Shaw’s play on the arms trade, Major Barbara. Marks expose’s are thought-provoking but also very funny – try his book ‘As used on the famous Nelson Mandela’.

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I’ve never done an e-postcard from here so, as this year’s trips are more frequent but shorter and all European, I thought I’d have a go…..For those of you not ‘in-the-know’, this is the world’s biggest arts festival; in fact, it’s several festivals – the main festival, the fringe, the book and film festivals with the jazz festival preceding it, the TV festival (closed to the public), the tattoo for the tourists and something called the ‘politics festival’ which appears to have no real purpose other than allowing politicians to indulge in even more introspection during their long holiday (in case they get withdrawal symptoms) and a use for the over-priced Scottish parliament – 10 x budget – though this year without using the debating chamber as its roof is falling down already (please note the Welsh Assembly was on time and on budget and was still standing when I last looked).

For me the fringe is the main event – almost 2000 productions in c.250 venues over 3 weeks – theatre, comedy, dance & music and many other things that defy categorisation. They run from 9am to 2am with 20-30 min gaps between shows, so the typical venue has 10 shows. Some venues have as much as 14 performance spaces. It’s a logistical marvel, but it has no artistic policy and no quality assurance, so it’s an anarchic maze which gets easier to navigate the more you do so. This is something between my 15th and 20th year (I’ve rather lost count), so I’m getting better. The city takes on a unique atmosphere, with performers providing samples of their shows on the streets, leafleteers finding ever more original ways to promote their shows, performances in ever more bizarre places – this year including Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a hotel swimming pool and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a tree!

If you go to fewer than 3 shows a day, you’re a festival wimp. Most things are kept at 1-1.5 hours, so this isn’t as hard as it seems. The best things are often ones you haven’t planned. Word-of-mouth (particularly from people you meet in queues) is often more reliable than reviews. At some point you end up in the pews of a de-consecrated church watching a Czech company performing an indescribable show about emigration with east European folk songs, no dialogue but extraordinary choreography and you realise why you keep coming.

For me this year it will be 32 shows and 12 exhibitions over 11 days and it has been a good Edinburgh. It has been particularly good for music – Antonio Forcione, Loudon Wainwright III, Mazaika (Russian accordionist plus English violinist with an eclectic set) plus the two mentioned below. The highlights, in addition to the Czech company above (yes, they do exist – look up their show ‘Sclavi’ on

www.infarma.com), have been many and include:
Mark Thomas’ one man crusade against arms dealers turned into a very funny hour of political comedy. See him on tour (www.markthomasinfo.com) or buy his book ‘As used on the famous Nelson Mandela – underground adventures in the arms & torture trade’
‘Black Watch’; a magnificent play created from interviews with the regiment’s soldiers returning from Iraq. It takes place in a drill hall with bagpipe music and spotlights sweeping the space. It has a lot to say, but it does so in a superbly entertaining (and often very funny) way. Look out for tipped London transfer.

A Welsh comedian called Hugh Hughes, who – with another actor – performs a charming and very funny ‘play’ (with flip-chart, overhead projector, powerpoint presentation, slide-show, film projector and other visual aids!) about the day Anglesey split off from Wales and drifted into the Atlantic. It is as if you are in some eccentric’s front room being told a story. Look him up on

Three Scottish folk singers (Karine Polwart, Annie Grace and Corrina Hewat – have a listen on www.myspace.com/girlytrio) performing a wonderful set (much of it accapella, though with harp, guitar, whistle and celtic pipes too) including many Burns’ songs and a unique version of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t get you out of my head’!

A very original comedy musical about British spys in Ireland during the second world war with the corniest puns you’ll ever hear (www.rough-magic.com)

A recital of English songs, Brittain, Shubert and Brahms by barritone Simon Keenlyside & pianist Malcolm Martineau – sheer perfection (Radio 3 Weds 30th 1pm)

There have to be disappointments, of course; this year’s big one had a promising premise – a show about hairdressing with a limited audience as the show was centred on a live haircut for an audience volunteer. It brought rave reviews from it’s home in Ireland. Well, it will vie for the most pointless hour of my life award and if I was Irish I’d be picketing their Arts Council offices to protest about their grant! Helen thought the best thing about it was the programme and I admired and envied the man who had the nerve to walk out about half-way through.

Exhibitions are often things that fill the space between shows, but this year has been an exception, with a small but fascinating Van Gough exhibition, wonderful Art Nouveau posters (including, but much more than just, Toulouse Lautrec), three contrasting world-class photographers (posed and stylised Robert Mapplethorpe, fashion and style by Albert Watson and documentary photos from Henry Adams), the miniatures of a 16th / 17th century, largely unknown, German genius called Elsheimer and spooky lifelike sculptures by Ron Mueck.

The city is now packing up. The main festival goes on until Saturday, but today is the last day of the fringe. It really is rather infectious and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back next year; which means I’d better reserve the house before I leave – the festival is rather popular too……


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