Posts Tagged ‘David Byrne’

A lean month as I spent three weeks of it out of the country…..

Contemporary Music

Musical theatre performers and audiences seem to love Scott Alan’s songs (though he’s never written a musical, yet), so I thought I’d give his song cycle The Distance You Have Come at the Cockpit Theatre a go. It was well sung and played but it was too generic for me, lacking variety, light, shade and colour. Preforming it in the round also affected audience engagement as a lot of the time performers were singing to others rather than you.

David Byrne’s O2 Arena concert exceeded my expectations. With a bare grey stage surrounded on three sides by a giant grey bead curtain, through which musicians entered and left, twelve people dressed in matching grey suits ‘wearing’ their instruments around their necks, no amps mics or leads in sight and just lights to add colour and shadows, it was visually stunning. The fast paced combination of old material with Utopia tracks was brilliant. A treat.


I first saw suffragette Ethyl Smyth’s opera The Wreckers in concert at the Proms 24 years ago, so it was thrilling to finally see it staged by Arcadian Opera in the Roxburgh Theatre in Stowe School. Even though the chorus were local amateurs and it was a scratch orchestra, the musical standards under retired opera singer Justin Lavender, who sang the leading role of Mark at that Proms concert, were very high.

Classical Music

The Nash Ensemble’s lunchtime recital at LSO St Luke’s featured British chamber music and song written immediately after WWI, five pieces by five composers I like, none of which I’d heard before. It was the first of three called War Embers.


Birmingham Royal Ballet’s double-bill Fire & Fury at Sadler’s Wells featured two contrasting works, one a reimagining of 14-year-old Louis XIV mid-seventeenth century dances and the other inspired by a Turner painting. Gorgeous designs, live music and fresh choreography all contributed to making it a treat.

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If you’d accompanied me to the Talking Heads concert in Bristol in 1977 and whispered in my ear ‘in 37 years’ time, you’ll be leaving the National Theatre humming the title song of David Byrne’s first musical’, I’d have reacted with disbelief and roared with laughter, but last night I did. Like others of the period (Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson…) Byrne continually re-invents himself, always interestingly and usually successfully, as he has here, with the help of Fatboy Slim. It’s the most original musical I’ve seen since Jerry Springer – The Opera 11 years ago, also at the National Theatre.

I’ve had a soft spot for the Philippines since a business trip there in 1993, 7 years after the People Power Revolution that forms the conclusion of this show. Filipino’s are amongst the world’s most hospitable people and while I was there the wife of our local GM took me on a private tour of the (presidential) Malacanan Palace, where she worked, which by then was more of a museum of excess. I saw the vast collection of shoes (though I didn’t count them) which has become the symbol of the Marcos’ corrupt and oppressive regime.

Byrne tells us Imelda’s story from her troubled youth to exile in 1986 with next to no dialogue and it works very well. He takes his lead from her love of disco and sets it in a modern one, with everything you’d expect in terms of lighting, projections and sound (including a giant mirror ball, obviously). The audience on the dance floor are surrounded by moving platforms and the action takes place absolutely everywhere, including amongst them, some becoming extras in the tale. There’s an eclectic mix of musical styles and most of the songs are short and to the point. Though it’s fast paced, the storytelling doesn’t feel rushed. Perhaps focusing on four main characters – Imelda & Ferdinand, opposition leader and Imelda’s ex Ninoy Aquino (I didn’t know that) and her childhood friend Estrella – helps give it more depth. It struck me how much of her story resembles that of Eva Peron, though this and Evita are poles apart as shows.

Alex Timbers’ staging is completely original, fresh, inventive and exciting; even though I knew beforehand how it was to be staged, I was still unprepared for this. The design team of David Korins, Clint Ramos, Peter Nigrini and Justin Townsend have done a superb job. You’re continually moving your head as the action moves around the space, but it’s so slickly done it just becomes part of the experience. The performances are as fresh and exciting as the staging. Natalie Mendoza is terrific as Imelda, managing to sing very well ‘on the move’ with some extraordinarily quick costume changes (I think she’s got at least two costumes on at any one time!). Both Mark Bautista and Dean John-Wilson are playing older much of the time (I don’t think actors of the appropriate age would have the energy) but their characterisations are very good and they too sing very well. Gia Macuja Atchison has a ‘quieter’ role as Estrella which she plays beautifully, providing welcome contrast and breathing space.

I’m sure someone’s out there scouting for suitable venues to transfer this to after it finishes its run as the opener of the new Dorfman Theatre – opening with a bang and a treat.

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The life of code-breaker Alan Turing is an unlikely subject for a musical, but then again so were the Ipswich prostitute murders! Like London Road, this is more a play with music than a musical (though not sung verbatim interviews in this case). What they also share is how successful they tell their story, and in this case it also makes you reappraise a man’s life.

Starting as Turing goes to Sherborne School, we zip through school and university days and on to Bletchley Park and his huge contribution to the second world war. Moving on into his post-war research & teaching career in Manchester, you realise this is no simple code-breaker, but a scientific colossus whose theories were extraordinary prophetic. Sadly, we see him brought down by the naive confession of a private act that would today be a complete non-event. A genius cut down in his prime.

You do learn an extraordinary amount in 90 minutes, partly because the music propels and illuminates the narrative. They aren’t songs you could play out of context, but they are tuneful and very listenable with live keyboard and recorded accompaniment and some added live strings from cast members. The staging is simple but superbly effective, with projections and two on-stage racks of props enabling scenes to be created swiftly, and a giant document patchwork used to great effect.

Richard Delaney is excellent as Turing, completely plausible as schoolboy & undergraduate through twenty and thirty something. They are lucky to have someone as talented as Judith Paris to play Alan’s mother, which she does with great sensitivity. All other roles are played brilliantly by just five actors and it often seems there are many more than seven on stage.

Though I liked Hugh Whitmore’s play about Turing, with Derek Jacobi leading (27 years ago now and surely overdue for revival), I think I learnt more about his life from this show, which seemed to me to really get under the skin and capture the essence of the man, the monumental achievements, the sadness of his personal life and the waste that his premature death was.

I really do hope we haven’t seen the last of this little gem of a show. Huge congratulations to The New Diorama and it director David Byrne (responsible for the book, lyrics & direction) composer / lyricist Dominic Brennan and young theatre company PIT. There was a real bonus on the evening I went, with a man from Bletchley Park demonstrating an actual Enigma machine in the foyer!

Let’s hope it comes back so more people can see it.

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