Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Film’

CINEMA

I really enjoyed The Damned United, a film about Brian Clough’s short time at Leeds United with another stunning portrayal of a real person by Michael Sheen. I found it more sympathetic to Clough than the backlash suggested.

In The Loop, Armando Ianucci’s big screen version of his BBC profile of spin doctors benefits from the transatlantic storyline and is often laugh-out-loud funny, but the ending lets it down a bit.

Shifty is a small independent British film made for £100k which proves there is no relationship between money and quality. It features one of my favourite young actors, Daniel Mays, and has a terrific twist. I loved it.

State of Play was a superb TV series written by Paul Abbott with David Morrissey and John Simm. When I saw the appallingly over-rated Russell Crowe starred in the movie I groaned, but despite him it has successfully made the transition in part because it has been given a contemporary relevance with a post-Iraq war context.

ART

Performance artist Bobby Baker’s evocative drawings / paintings documenting her 11 year mental health experiences at the Wellcome Collection makes for a stunning highly original thought provoking exhibition; I can’t recommend it enough.

The expanded Whitechapel Gallery has opened with four exhibitions, the best of which are a stunning one-room collection of pieces bought (for peanuts) by the British Council to tour the world (including Bridget Riley, Petter Doig and Lucien Freud) and a fascinating room devoted to The Whitechapel Boys; early 20th century Jewish east end artists with a distinctive and striking style. It also has the tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica on temporary load from the UN.

MUSIC

Elvis Costello renewed his 15-year old collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet for a short tour which I caught at the Barbican.  It was a lot more than a re-run of their Juliet Letters album with EC songs revisited, some covers and one new song. It was good to see Elvis again and I enjoyed it a lot.

In my occasional role of rent-an-audience I went to a ‘reading’ of a new musical called The Piper. The Boston Strangler is an odd choice for a musical, but there was some nice music; I doubt it’ll make a staged production though.

I’ve wrongly ignored many of the Lost Musicals concert season at Sadler’s Wells, but I did go to The New Yorkers, a 30’s satire, and loved it. Like the Opera North full productions of Let Them Eat Cake and Of Thee I Sing in February, they seemed way ahead of their time.

Read Full Post »

MUSIC & OPERA

Only two operas and an oratorio in a musically lean two months! Dr Atomic at ENO would have been a much better opera if he’d cut it by 30 mins (especially in the more static first half). I liked the design and staging, the music is accessible and there are some very good performances (though Gerald Finley’s understudy didn’t really cut it and looked too young) but it’s a case of more is less. I saw the premiere of The King Goes Forth to France at Covent Garden in the 80’s, but enjoyed this revival at the wonderful Guildhall School so much more (or maybe I’ve grown into modern opera). This production seemed to lighten the fantasy and bring out the humour and the staging and performances were yet again exceptional for a conservatoire. Another conservatoire put on the hugely ambitious Britten War Requiem with considerable success. The venue was tiny so the singers and musicians outnumbered the audience but this gave this anti-war piece so much more power.

Maria Friedman’s Sondheim concert was the fourth I’ve seen by her in the last year. Her interpretations of Sondheim are as goods as any others and the selection was as inspired as the choice of cello and piano accompaniment.

CINEMA

I was put off Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino because I thought it was a classic revenge movie; I’m glad I gave in as it’s a lot more than that – and it may well be the last chance to see him act.

The Boat That Rocked was overlong and would have benefited from an independent director’s scrutiny. However, it was nowhere near as bad as the reviews and is worth the ticket price for the soundtrack alone.

ART & EXHIBITIONS

Another dire month for ‘art’ though better for ‘other’ exhibitions. The only art exhibitions I enjoyed were Rodchenko / Popova at Tate Modern (way-ahead-of-its-time iconic design – the posters, pamphlets and other graphic designs were as captivating as the paintings), the Japanese painter /  illustrator Kyunoshi’s stunning range of work at the Royal Academy and the wonderful original artwork for London Travel Posters  at the London Transport Museum.

All of the contemporary stuff was disappointing – the middle eastern contemporaries at the Saatchi were patchy though there were a few crackers, the Annette Messager installations at the Hayward seemed to me to be the product of a disturbed mind and I found it impossible to like, and worst of all was Tate Britain’s dreadful After Modern; like walking through the cast-off’s in an art school after they’ve taken the good stuff out for an exhibition.

I’m afraid the oldies didn’t fare much better – Tate Britain’s Van Dyck exhibition was only for those who are prepared to view room after room of lifeless nobles in their finery in preposterous over-staged poses and Constable’s portraits at the NPG were even less interesting than his biscuit-tin landscapes.

Gerard Richter’s photo-paintings at the NPG didn’t do a lot for me either, I’m afraid, though the DeutscheBank Photo Prize finalists at the new Photographer’s Gallery as the best short-list in a while.

Of the two architecture exhibitions, I preferred Le Corbusier at The Barbican to Paladio at the RA, though there were too many drawings which may be fascinating to an architect but rather dull to a layman.

The Russian Linesman collection at the Hayward seemed to me to be another of those excuses-for-an-exhibition that the Hayward (and others) are rather too fond of.

I caught up with the British Museum’s Babylon just before it closed and even though it falls into the excuse-for-an-exhibition category, like the Queen if Sheba before it at the same museum, there were enough good exhibits to excuse it on this occasion. By the time I saw it the Shah Abbas exhibition had moved into the converted Reading Room and proved to be as good as The First Emperor and Hadrian before it with some terrific exhibits, but above all telling the story of a great leader very well.

The Natural History Museum’s Darwin exhibition was a huge disappointment – very static; you’d learn more and have more fun reading a book. The V&A’s contribution was an exhibition about Hats which I went to ‘passing through’ the museum but I’m afraid left me cold – it was crowded though, so its clearly up a lot of other people’s streets. I was there to see the new performance galleries and they proved to be a real treat – a superb collection of costumes, memorabilia, video clips really well curated in just four galleries (though rather hidden somewhere on the 3rd floor). We went to the new British Music Experience at the O2 in its first week. It’s a terrific interactive tribute to 50 years of popular music. You can learn to play instruments, watch and hear video and sound clips and view memorabilia and store what you like onto a web space you can then access at your leisure. I’m not sure I’ll access my attempts at drumming and keyboard playing much, but I did love the experience and could have stayed all day. Of course, you tend to concentrate on your favourite period – in my case 60’s and 70’s – and provided the visitor age range is as wide as it was the day we went that means the visitor numbers are managed well.

DANCE

Eonnagata is a collaboration between a favourite dancer (Sylvie Guillem), a favourite theatre director (Robert Lepage) and a favourite choreographer (Russell Maliphant). I’m not sure the idea of staging a story of a transvestite 17th century French nobleman works, but the craftsmanship is unquestionable and the visual imagery stunning; I was spellbound for all 90  minutes.

OTHER

Frank Skinner’s Credit Crunch Cabaret was a great idea – a variety show thrown together on the day for a tenner. It was a hit-and-miss affair but enough of a hit to make it a decent birthday treat. My other (surprise) birthday (and Christmas) treat was a visit to Simon Drake’s House of Magicwww.houseofmagic.co.uk – I think Lynne & Graham were as pleased that the surprise remained a surprise and that they’d found something in London I’d never heard of as they were that I enjoyed it so much – it’s a very original night out.

Read Full Post »

OPERA & MUSIC

 Well it was a busy month for opera, with three each from Opera North in London and WNO in Cardiff plus one each at the ENO and Covent Garden.

I suppose none of the Opera North offerings were really opera. Skin Deep was a modern operetta about cosmetic surgery – a great idea with a sparkling libretto and some good music, but it was a good two-act / two-hour piece hiding inside an overlong three-act / three-hour piece. It shouldn’t have been three hours, but Sadler’s Wells seem to find it difficult to prevent a 20-min interval becoming 40. The Gershwin pair – Of Thee I Sing and Let Them Eat Cake – are satirical musicals about democracy set in the US in the 50’s. Though not great musicals, they proved fascinating pieces with a bite way ahead of their time and a surprising resonance to recent events.

I’ve begun to look forward to my trips to Cardiff to see WNO on their home ground. It’s a very customer-friendly experience (free talks before every opera and good pre-performance foyer music) that outshines ENO (twice the price) or the Royal Opera (four times the price) whilst still providing world class opera, with an outstanding orchestra and chorus. Next seasons singers include Bryn Terfel, Amanda Roocroft and Simon Keenlyside; this is no second best. On this trip, the highlight was Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, a frothy concoction given a fresh production with four superb leads, including the British debut of a young Greek American singer called Dimitri Pittas with a gorgeous tenor tone. Salome was very good but would have been a classic if it were not for two issues – the person who fainted in the row behind us (resulting in 30 mins of faffing around to get her out of the theatre!) and Matthew Best’s decision to sing when he wasn’t really up to it (the terrific stand in from 2 days earlier should have stayed). Still, it was another UK debut, a Swedish American soprano called Erika Sunnegardh, who we’ll be hearing a lot more of. I’ve always thought The Marriage of Figaro was too long – a classic case of more is less – and I haven’t changed my mind. The singing was uniformly excellent but it takes so long to tell the story and the stylish elegance of the design seems at odds with what is after all a farce.

Jonathan Miller’s La Boheme at ENO was a good enough production, but in the first half the orchestra drowned out the soloists, which rather defeats the point of singing it in English. It picked up in the second half, but that just isn’t good enough when you’ve paid £80. At The Linbury Studio in Covent Garden a new opera by George Benjamin was paired with a short Harrison Birtwhistle piece and it turned out to be a treat; both operas being high on tension much suited to the modern musical setting.

I made an impulsive visit to the Temple Church to see the Tiffin Boy’s Choir (often seen at operas and oratorios as they are one of the best boy’s choirs) fund-raising for a tour to New Zealand. It was a terrific programme and the acoustics of the church suited it. Sitting in the pews sipping champagne, it was a real delight.

I saw Maria Friedman’s last show twice and loved it. This one, at a very empty Shaw Theatre, was a largely new selection – The British Songbook – which went from Purcell through Gilbert & Sullivan, music hall and wartime songs to The Beatles and it was wonderful. She really knows how to interpret a song and the accompanying quartet suited them in the same way that the bigger band suited the last selection.

The Fleet Foxes disappointed largely because it was just ‘the-album-live’, not really adding anything. They have a lot more material than they gave in a short 60-min set (more like 45-50 mins if you take out the faffing around) and the rock style venue (The Roundhouse) didn’t really suit the gentle harmonies. If anything, support band Vetever fared better.

CINEMA

Anvil, a Canadian documentary about an aging heavy metal band which never really sustained its early success, is a wonderful feelgood film. It’s ‘Spinal Tap’ for real and I found myself moving from laughter to tears, completely captivated by the life story of the two men at the centre of it.

Doubt was one of three disappointments alongside Revolutionary Road and Vicky Christina Barcelona. I suppose I didn’t like the ambiguity of Doubt, though that is probably the point, and I didn’t really find Meryl Streep’s nun particularly believable. Revolutionary Road was a lot of talent wasted on a story that wasn’t worth it, though again the period setting was great. The best thing about Vicky was Penelope Cruz who did a great turn as a neurotic Spanish woman (though very Almodovar); otherwise it seemed a mediocre movie which didn’t look anything like as good as all of the others.

Benjamin Button was a great piece of film making, but it they’d cut the first half by 30% it would have been so much better. Brad Pitt gave another impressive performance (following hot on the heels of Burn After Reading) and I’m beginning to rate him having thought him over-rated in the past.

Read Full Post »

ART & EXHIBITIONS

What a disappointing month! I can’t really see the point of Rothko and found his Tate Modern exhibition dull. The Miereles installations and Gonzales-Foerster in the turbine hall at the same venue were only slightly more interesting. The Royal Academy’s GSK Modern was another dull affair; if this lot are the best of British contemporary art, god help us. The best of Indian contemporary art at the Serpentine was better, but still not up to the outstanding selection of Chinese contemporary’s at the Saatchi, which was the highlight of these two months. This was my first visit to the new Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea and what a great space it is too.

 The Warhol exhibition at the Hayward was all video and films so you’d need to spend a few days there to see it all. I dipped in for a couple of hours, but can’t say I got much out of it.

Photography fared better with a very good Capra / Taro exhibition at The Barbican. These were mostly black & white war photographs, many from the Spanish Civil War, and provided a stunning photographic documentary on these events. At the NPG, the Annie Leibovitz exhibition had its moments, but I didn’t really like the idea of the personal story interwoven with the work; it somehow seemed rather self-indulgent and vain.

CINEMA

In the run-up to all those awards, cinemas are awash with good films; then you spend 10 months looking for something worth seeing. Well, this year was no exception.

I have to agree with all the accolades given to Slumdog Millionaire. It somehow managed to portray the contradictions of India – all that poverty but all that contentment and hope – without the usual tourist glamorisation. I can’t agree with the ‘feelgood’ label, but it’s certainly hopeful and uplifting.

I’m glad I didn’t have to choose the best actor awards because it would be impossible to select from Micky Rourke in The Wrestler, Sean Penn in Milk and Frank Langella in Frost / Nixon. The problem with the Wrestler was that as much as I admired the performance, I didn’t really have empathy with the subject matter. Penn was a revelation and the film captured the period and the significance of the events brilliantly. The expressions on Langella’s face told much more than words and it’s a shame that he missed out on recognition. The film gripped you just as much as the play but those close ups added much.

Though a rather sad and depressing film, The Reader was craftsmanship of the highest order. Kate Winslett was terrific and deserved her accolades, but the boy was great too and somehow got ignored in the awards round. Though the story of The Changeling was fascinating and the period setting excellent (but why so much lipstick!) I somehow found it an old fashioned film So now I suppose it’ll be lean film times for another 10 months!

A lean month for OPERA and MUSIC with just one visit to the Wigmore Hall’s where the exploration of English songs continued with another lovely programme of the usual suspects – RVW et al.

Read Full Post »

A lot of dance this month, starting with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Stravinsky triple bill. Petrushka was a bit of a museum piece and in The Firebird they allowed the spectacle to overtake the ballet (but the music’s always lovely), so it was the newer production, Le Baiser de la feu which we enjoyed most; the critics, of course, thought the opposite! I’d been looking forward to Mark Morris’ Romeo-and-Juliet-with-a-happy-ending for a long time. This is apparently the lost first version of Prokofiev’s wonderful score, recently uncovered and restored. It’s not Morris’ best work but there was much to enjoy and the critical panning was totally unjustified. Being a lover of Howard Goodall’s music, I had to go to Rambert to see the premiere of their new ballet set to his especially composed requiem Eternal Light. The music was gorgeous but I found the dance uninspiring and the design tacky. The final dance piece was Independent’s Ballet Wales’ Under Milk Wood, which proved to be a delightful and charming chamber piece which didn’t dispense with the verse but illustrated it.

 

An opera-rich month too, starting with a new Michael Berkley chamber opera called For You. It was well staged and sung but the music isn’t particularly accessible so it left me a bit cold. At the Guildhall School, a wonderful rare Gluck opera, Le Recontre Imprevue, proved to be a delight in a highly inventive and very funny production. Three outings to ENO this month, the first to Partenope, yet another lovely Handel (there seem to be so many of them and I wonder if I’ll ever get to see them all). Later in the month, a disappointing Boris Gudunov which was rather static – come on, sing, go off, someone else comes on and sings, goes off – so even though it was musically good it didn’t really inspire. The third was Vaughan Williams short opera The Riders to the Sea. I’d seen a concert version in Brighton in May and this was musically as good and was well staged – but I felt cheated. They added a short Sibelius piece and a musical link which I thought was pointless. Instead, they should have paired it with another British one-acter and given us a full evening rather than a slight 55 minute morsel.

 

The Vaughan Williams 50th anniversary also produced two concerts of symphonies and shorter pieces at the Royal Festival Hall, both of which were real treats. The Philharmonia and Richard Hickox have done the anniversary proud – unlike the opera companies and other orchestras who should bow their heads is shame. Les Arts Florissants’ concert version of a rare Rameau opera at the Barbican was well performed but I wondered if the work was worth it. The musical month ended with the Bach Choir at the RFH in a combination of Howells and Vaughan Williams with an eccentric Maxwell Davies world premiere thrown in.

 

After the Philharmonia concerts but before the Bach Choir and Riders, the news of Richard Hickox death at the untimely age of 60 came as a real shock. Richard was the undisputed champion of British music and being a lover of Britten, Vaughan Williams and Elgar I was at his concerts regularly; four times in his last 6 months. His semi-stage Pilgrim’s Progress may well prove to be a career high, though there were so many. I became a friend of his Endellion Festival this year so that I could add a visit to my musical life. His death is a sad sad loss.

 

I also went to my first live Opera in HD at the cinema and loved it. It was Robert Lepage’s stunning production of Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust live from the Met in New York. The sound and pictures were great and I liked the backstage stuff before and during the interval. I could have done without the preposterous audience members who dressed up, quaffed champagne and applauded as if it was the real thing. The only other cinema outing was to see the new Bond movie; after an exhausting month and in a hot cinema I’m afraid I dozed for the first part so if anyone would like to update me on the story….it was nice to see Bolivia as a film location anyway!

 

Art-wise, Byzantium at the Royal Academy was well worth the visit but I think I’d have preferred it to be chronological. The small exhibition of Miro, Braque, Calder & Giacometti was much better than I was expecting (given that I don’t really like any of them that much!).

 

A staged evening of the last two Scott Walker albums with guest stars like Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be rather pretentious and dull. At the lovely Bush Hall the Carolina Chocolate Drops were the sensation my American friends said they would be. The atmosphere was wonderful and this trio performed a range of bluegrass, blues, country….you name it, which had you clapping, tapping and smiling. Finally, a rare visit by the legendary Todd Rundgren to promote his new heavy rock album. Though good, he made the mistake of following 30 minutes of oldies with an unbroken 70 minutes of the entire new album in sequence. Not all the tracks work well live and they would have been better interspersed with the old stuff. By the time he got to two great encores, much of the buzz had gone.

Read Full Post »

The month’s highlights were almost all musical, and they were all crammed into the last week. Scottish folkie Julie Fowlis sings entirely in Gaelic. Accompanied by her excellent small band, her Union Chapel concert was an absolute delight.

 

The free New Orleans Festival at O2 was a hit-and-miss affair – ambitious but badly organised – but we still managed to take in excellent sets from two people recommended by the friends we met at the real NO Festival in 2004 – jazz pianist Marcia Ball and blues guitarist John Mooney.

 

Over at the Barbican, the LSO accompanied two musicians on successive nights. Their pairing with Mali Kora player Toumani Diabate was the less successful as the orchestra didn’t really add anything; his solo show at St Luke’s in May was better. The evening was redeemed by short solo and band sets. The following night they fitted the sound of Anthony & The Johnsons like a glove and the combined sound was heavenly.

 

The musical month ended with a retro evening with 80’s diva Mari Wilson who seems to be having a renaissance with two very good recent albums. The audience at the Shaw Theatre was embarrassingly small but after a shaky start, the concert evolved into a party with chums in your front room, her humour and personality matched the music and we had a ball.

 

Classical music fared less well, though ENO had a splendid Cav & Pag with the latter moved to Blackpool with the lead reinvented as an old school comic. An LSO Prokofiev concert and a Simon Keenlyside recital though both seemed below par.

 

It was a disappointing month for art. Francis Bacon was an exhibition which proves that more can be less. So many pictures all at the same time just watered down the impact. Also at the Tate, The Turner Prize shortlist was without doubt the worst for ages – absolutely nothing of merit and a huge disappointment.

 

At the Design Museum, Design Cities was a good idea which didn’t really come off, but at the V&A Cold War Modern proved to be a superb run through post-war design and a surprise treat. It’s as good as their other thematic design exhibitions – Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernism, Arts & Crafts etc. I killed some time at the Fashion / Sport and Supremes exhibitions; the first completely pointless and the second surprisingly good.

 

The sole cinematic outing was the Coen Brothers Burn After Reading and I loved it; much better than the reviews with Brad Pitt providing a fine comic treat.

Read Full Post »

I took the opportunity of a slow start to business post holiday season to catch a lot more culture than just theatre this month and here’s a summary.

The Art highlight was Seizure. Artist Roger Hiorns sealed up a disused ground floor flat, drilled a hole in the ceiling, filled it with a copper sulphate solution and left it for 3 weeks. When it was drained, if left behind a blue crystal grotto which you can now enter; quite extraordinary. Wierd Inventions in the IP centre at the at the British Library is a handful of cases displaying some of the most bizzarre things ever patented and it made me laugh out loud, as did the Beano & Dandy 70th Birthday Exhibition at the Cartoon Museum; fond memories. There were some great rock photos in the Keith Morris photo exhibition; I’d never heard of him and was amazed to see some iconic photos for LP covers, such as Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim Is True’. The Ilumini exhibition in the crypt of a church at St Pancras was a bit hit-and-miss and didn’t really come together under the theme of light & art, but the antiqueTravel Posters at Sotherans were great.

Catching up with recent cinema releases I was captivated by Somers Town, a heart-warming tale of the friendship between the son of a Polish immigrant and a runaway from the Midlands. The Wackness was just that- a charming whacky coming of age tale set in NYC with a terrifically funny turn from Ben Kingsly as a dope-smoking analyst who refuses to grow up. At the Ritzy, it was shown in digital HD and the quality was sensational. I loved The Duchess; one of the best costume dramas for years which is beautifully designed and directed and has an excellent performance from Keira Knightly who up to now I hadn’t really rated. Finally, I caught up with the new Indiana Jones film and thought it was much more fun that the reviews suggested; there were some great tongue-in-cheek moments.

During a trip ‘Up North’ to check up on the Hawkins-Watsons, we went to Leeds Town Hall for their 150th birthday concert. It’s a gorgeous building and the entirely British programme contained items of significance in terms of previous performances there. In the same trip we saw Northern Ballet Theatre’s latest dance drama Two Cities, based on the Dickens novel. Though I love their style, it was a rather over-ambitious story to tell in dance, as was their Hamlet which I saw earlier this year at Sadler’s Wells.

My final Prom was a surreal experience; they had programmed a Vaughan Williams symphony and Holst’s Planets with a Xenakis 45-min percussion piece, so it was bound to end in tears! During the Xenakis, the conservatives in the seats behaved like ageing delinquents – talking, booing, and walking out. I’m afraid I had to reprimand the 70-something in H37 as I was not prepared to let his disrespect for the rest of the audience go unpunished! As it happens, I didn’t really like the Xenakis myself, but that’s not the point. At the Wigmore Hall, a recital of English song was a bit hit-and-miss; Christopher Maltman getting more hits and Joan Rogers more misses. Finzi outshone Vaugham Williams & Howells on this occasion.

Another successful opera weekend in Cardiff where quality and value continue to reign at WNO. I loved everything about their new production of Verdi’s Otello – the design (more gold and red broccade that you’ll see in your lifetime; and that was just Act 3!), the staging, the terrific chorus and orchestra and an on-form team of Dennis O’Neill, Amanda Roocroft and David Kempster (I think this is his first Iago, in which case it’s a triumph) in the lead roles. The Barber of Seville was a delightful Commedia del Arte production which didn’t look its (20+ years) age and came over sparking and fresh. Back at the Lindbury Studio at Covent Garden, an opera for children called Varjak Jaw had a lot to recommend it but as you got under half of the words it seemed to me to be rather inaccessible to its target audience. They clearly know this as they were thrusting a free synopsis into your hand before you entered the auditorium. Better vocal composition, better diction and surtitles might have helped more.

It was a good year for London Open House. Our tour of the Beefeater Distillery in Kennington (the only London Gin still distilled in London, so I’ve switched brands as a result!) was the highlight. A trip to eco-homes at BedZed in Wallington was very interesting. The tour of the 2012 Olympic site made you gasp at the scale of it all. Will Alsop’s Palestra building was a bit of a disappointment (to be honest, we didn’t feel that welcome and they didn’t try very hard). A couple more livery companies to add to my collection – The Painter Stainers and the Barber Surgeons – completed the weekend.

In the same action-packed weekend, we were lucky enought to catch a try-out of comedian Mark Thomas’ new show – mostly new material (and some old stuff he delivers so well it bears a lot of repeating) based on his new book on Coca Cola which I can’t wait to read.

I was invited to the press launch of the transfer from Australia of the stage musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. They’d flown over the Aussie cast during a gap in their tour and we were treated to some extracts, as a result of which I headed straight to the box office! ‘Costumes’? – I’m not sure the word does it justice!

Read Full Post »

This has been an action-packed month, and I’ve done a lot in the 19 days I wasn’t in Edinburgh & Orkney!

The exhibition highlight was Hadrian at the British Museum; the second use of the magnificent Reading Room space. Though it was a bit crowded (even first thing on a Monday), I rather liked the way it told the story of his life, loves and adventures.

Street Art was a recurring theme as I caught up with Cans, an anarchic selection in a tunnel near Waterloo where even the street art had graffitti on top, and Tate’s Street Art on the building’s outer walls and elsewhere around Southwark (though I only found two-thirds of it, even with a gallery map!). Inside Tate Modern, both Cy Twombly‘s paintings and the photographs in Street & Studio were disappointing – the annual Press Photographers exhibition at the RNT was far more satisfying.

Architect Richard Rogers exhibition at the Design Museum was a great retrospective and it was particularly interesting to see the unbuilt designs; it must be very disheartening to spend ages on a design which is rejected. The Serpentine’s pavilion this year was designed by architectural genius Frank Gehry (Guggenheim Bilbao and many more) and proved a bit of a disappointment, as did the Richard Prince exhibition inside the gallery.

August is musical theatre compilation month. The Cole Porter one at Cadogan Hall was good but not up to last year’s Sondheim collection. Though I enjoyed the smaller scale Kander & Ebb compilation at Jermyn Street Theatre, not knowing which shows some of them were from was rather frustrating. A freebie in the RFH foyer saw X-Factor’s Brenda Edwards give a gorgeous 45 mins of songs connected in some way to The Wizard of Oz. I didn’t see the show, but I really enjoyed this.

The new Batman movie, the Dark Knight, is a great piece of film-maikng but boy is it dark. I missed the tongue-in-cheek campness that was an integral part of the brand. The 12A rating is completely wrong.

Confession time! I went to see Kylie at the O2 and even though after a while the music becomes techno-mush, the staging was spectacular and probably the most visually stunning pop concert in 40 years of concert-going….and she’s an honorary national treasure!

Our annual outing to Holland Park was disappointing this year; La Giaconda with some ropey singing. This was compensated for by a terrific one-act Puccini opera Il Tabarro at the proms (in an odd pairing with Rachmaninov’s 1st symphony). The month ended at the Proms for Verdi’s Requium, back where it had it’s world premiere well over 100 years ago. This piece is more reliant on good soloists than most choral works, and we were lucky with our quartet from Italy, Malta, Lithuania and the US. The Royal Albert Hall is made for pieces on this scale – 250 voices + 150 players – and this was a great performance and a terrific end to a culture-packed month.

Read Full Post »

A great month for art after a bit of a famine of late. I’d never heard of Wyndham Lewis until the exhibition of his portraits at the NPG which are simply stunning; they are a surreal crossover between art deco, soviet realism and cartoons. At the same gallery, the Portrait Award exhibition is the best for a while, except that they are all stylistically similar – sort of photographic realism. Though it was a bit samey, I enjoyed Hammershoi at the RA because of his ability to create moods and intriguing characters; a sort of visual equivalent of an Ibsen play. Viktor & Rolf at the Barbican is a bizarre idea – showcasing the work of off-the-wall Dutch fashion designers – which turns out to be a kitsch treat. They are clearly avante guard pioneers, but I’d never heard of them! The low point of the month was a visit to see Chapman Brothers Hell II (Hell I was burned down in the Saatchi fire) – a series of glass cases containing tableau of horrific war scenes – but I felt the same as I did about Hell I; stunning craftsmanship, but pointless and depressing.

 

Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez has wowed me at Covent Garden and in an earlier Barbican recital. With the orchestra of WNO rather than a pianist, I had high hopes of another wowing but ended up unwowed! He complained of problems with phlegm (too much information) and this together with lots of gaps and as many orchestral overtures as there were arias made me feel rather cheated.

 

Though not anywhere near as much fun as it is on stage, Mamma Mia turns into a fun movie which is well worth catching. I’d never have cast Meryl Streep, but she is rather good. Julie Walters gives us another Julie Walters but Pierce Brosnan’s singing is excruciating, not quite covered up by a lot of chorus! I was taken to the Pixar animation Wall-E, which the neocon’s consider to be propaganda aimed at kids. I suppose it is, but as it’s true ‘We’re killing the planet’ propaganda. I approve!

 

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s end-of-term musicals are always a treat. This year they were very very ambitious in attempting City of Angels, a chandleresqe film noir musical which weaves the story of writing a show with the show itself. Well, they pulled it off and I think I enjoyed it more than the original West End production in the mid-90s. The production values were exceptional and there were some real stars-in-the-making in the cast.

 

The month ended with two musical curiosities – Rogue’s Gallery and the World Music prom. The former was a rather overlong 3.5 hours (without interval). It’s a collection of ‘star turns’ interpreting pirate ballads, sea songs and shantys which was the idea of Johnny Depp and the director of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The show was well and truely stolen by the British folkies – three Waterson-Carthy’s, a pair of Thompsons and Julie Fowlis – plus Martha Wainwright. Suzanne Vega and actor Tim Robbins (singing)seemed uncomfortable and out-of-place, Shane MacGowan was a complete wanker and Pete Doherty ‘wouldn’t get out of his car’. Still, it was worth the ticket price for Norma Waterson (acompanied by husband Martin Carthy and daughter Elisa Carthy) singing The Bay of Biscay – a whole life in a song.

 

The World Music prom is a new innovation, showcasing some of the winners of the Radio 3 World Music Awards. From Cape Verde to Spain to China to Gambia / UK to Mali, it was a fascinating cocktail of musicians, none of whom I’d heard before but most of whom I’d be keen to hear again. The highlight was a hypnotic and life affirming set from Mali’s Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba. How many more magnificent musicians does Mali have?

Read Full Post »

This is an article from The Observer on 13th July for which I was interviewed. You’ll have to scroll down to para 28 to find my few words of wisdom, but I’ve hightlighted them for you in case you haven’t got time !
IS IT CURTAINS FOR THE CRITICS?
An army of arts bloggers is posting internet reviews on subjects from grand opera to soap opera – instant, global and free. US newspapers have begun to ditch their reviewers as digital alternatives flourish. Could it happen here? On the blog, Jay Rayner asks for your thoughts. Join the conversation
Jay Rayner
Sunday July 13 2008
The Observer

It was a croquette of pig’s head that finally forced me to recognise the threat posed by the blogosphere. It was served at the Westerly, a restaurant in Reigate, Surrey, in April last year. I knew nothing of the place, or its chef, but I had a copy of the menu, and it was full of things I like to eat: Jerusalem artichokes and wild garlic, snails and pigeon and Amalfi lemons. It had the potential to be everything a newspaper restaurant critic dreams of – a genuine find outside London, serving terrific food at a reasonable price.

It was all that and more. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. My companion agreed. Simon Majumdar, a one-time publishing executive, is a food blogger. We had met on internet food discussion boards, which he had left behind in favour of his blog, Dos Hermanos, so named because he writes it with his brother, Robin. It is their account of eating out across the world. A restaurant critic needs a companion, and Simon had regularly been mine. We both adored the gazpacho and the rillette, the lamb with its butter-rich mashed potato and the sorbet made with Amalfi lemons. And of course we loved the pig’s head croquette with sauce gribiche, for we are both men with a taste for the cheaper cuts. At the end I asked for a copy of the menu, paid the bill and we went home.

Within two hours of getting back to my desk, Simon’s review was online. He did not explain why he had been there. He did describe it as his best meal of the year so far. My eye strayed to his mention of the pig’s head, with mounting panic: ‘a large disc of head meat fried perfectly in crumbs to a crisp coating which when punctured gave off a steamy aroma of pork’. Spot on. Simon might not have been paid for it, but he is a good writer. And a lot of people would read him. Granted, not as many as read The Observer. Even today, with the cult of the Dos Hermanos blog fully developed, it rarely gets more than 7,000 readers a week.

The problem was that his readers would be opinion formers: not just chefs, restaurateurs and food journalists but other hardcore restaurant goers. And when my review was printed almost three weeks later they would all assume I was the one who had taken my lead from Simon rather than the other way round; that the real finds were being made by the amateurs. The blogger had beaten me into print. I had no choice. I called Simon and asked him to take down his post until my version had appeared. Ever the gentleman, he agreed. From that point on I concluded I could no longer view the blogosphere as source material or even mere displacement activity. Now it was the competition.

It could be worse. At least those of us in Britain who make our living from our opinions are still gainfully employed. Across America it’s a different story. Paid newspaper critics from a number of disciplines are being laid off or redeployed, their judgment deemed superfluous to requirements in the age of the net. Book review pages are becoming increasingly skinny. Television sections are disappearing. In April, Sean Means, the film critic of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, used his blog to publish a roll call of his movie-reviewing colleagues who, since the spring of 2006, were no longer in the opinion business: ‘Steve Ramos, Cincinnati CityBeat, position eliminated … Jami Bernard, New York Daily News, contract not renewed … Michael Atkinson, Village Voice, laid off …’ At that point it ran to 28 names across the US media but since then it has stretched inexorably on.

Others soon started taking notice, with both the entertainment industry journal Variety and the Los Angeles Times publishing large pieces on the death of the critic. As Patrick Goldstein put it in the LA Times: ‘Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it’s in classical music, dance, theatre or other areas of the arts. While economics are clearly at work here – seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can’t afford a full range of critics any more – it seems clear we’re in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism.’

It appears that consumers no longer feel the need to obtain their opinions from on high: the authority of the critic, derived from their paid position on a newspaper, is diminished. Opinion has been democratised. In the movie world two sites are credited with decimating the profession. Ironically, Rotten Tomatoes, founded in August 1998, was designed to give readers access to the opinions of a bunch of critics. If 60 per cent or more of the reviews are good, the film gets a fresh rating; fewer than 60 per cent and it’s rotten. The site became so popular that in 2004 it was bought by IGN Entertainment which, in turn, was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (which, as a newspaper publisher, also pays critics). Metacritic, launched in January 2001, also combines reviews but across various media and arts, including films, video games and books. It too became so successful it was bought out, by CNET networks. Since then, blogs, written by unpaid enthusiasts, have proliferated to
 such a degree that in some areas of the arts their writers are being courted by the PR machine.

The old media have, predictably, been outraged. After all, their jobs are on the line. ‘People who make these decisions,’ says Sean Means of the host of sackings, ‘get it into their heads that people who want to read about new movies have lots of places to do so, from fan sites, through blogs to critical aggregators, but they are being short-sighted. The reason people buy newspapers is to hear that particular voice.’ So is he saying that the opinions expressed for free on blogs are not of value? Not necessarily, he says. ‘The truth is, though, that there are very few amateurs who are better than professionals. If you really are good at it you figure out some way to get paid for it. At the risk of sounding elitist, everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has an informed opinion.’

The advent of the net has been described as a revolution. If so, one of its most heated battles is being fought over the right to claim expertise. In the US the ancien régime, in this case the salaried critic, appears to be in retreat. The question is what will happen here? We need only look at television criticism, a once-noble calling pursued for this newspaper by both Julian Barnes and Clive James, for clues. In May the Daily Telegraph decided it no longer needed a daily TV review. Regular TV reviews have also gone at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and London’s Evening Standard. Could the same happen to other arts?

The British critical tradition is long and rich and deep: from the pamphleteering of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the early 18th century, through the literary criticism of Oscar Wilde in the 19th to Graham Greene’s film reviews and Kenneth Tynan’s first-night theatre notices in the 20th, we have never been short of confident people to tell us what is good and what is not and why.

‘We have a wonderful tradition of criticism in this country,’ says Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard for nearly 25 years, ‘and it would be a tragedy if we lost it. The onlooker sees most. We are the skilled onlookers.’

But in a globalised world where something posted on the net in Chicago one minute is read in London the next, no trend is ever localised. So how web-savvy are Britain’s crew of professional opinion-peddlers? Are they ready to take on the challenge from the ones who do it for free? There’s only one way to find out: ask them. So we assembled a collection of Britain’s longest-serving and most distinguished paid critics who, between them, have more than two centuries’ experience in telling us what they think, and sought their opinions. It’s what they’re for.

Andrew and Phil have lots of opinions too, and tonight I’m hoping to hear some of them. It is a warm evening in Waterloo and we are at the Young Vic for a preview performance of Berthold Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan, starring Jane Horrocks, a gritty little number full of cement dust, exploitation of the workers, prostitution and discordant, irritatingly Brechtian songs.

Of course, paid newspaper critics do not review productions on previews, but Andrew and Phil – they insist on first names only, to maintain the web-enhanced ‘mystique’ – are not paid by anybody. They write a blog called the West End Whingers, which they set up in June 2006 after sitting through what they regarded as an appalling production of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, starring Juliette Lewis. Both middle-aged, long-time theatregoers, they were fed up with each other’s whingeing so, as they explain on the blog, they ‘decided to whinge at the world instead’.

Their reviews, written under one voice, are sharp and irreverent in a mannered, high camp sort of way. Their destruction of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife at the National Theatre, written for the most part as a play about the imagined receipt of the script, is laugh-out-loud funny – and a damn sight more enjoyable than the hand-wringing from some of the paid critics when they held forth over what was agreed to be a sub-standard work by the revered playwright. (‘[Frayn’s] deliberately repeated bits over and over again,’ they imagine National director Nicholas Hytner howling, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have given him a word count. It’s the oldest trick in the book.’)

As we wait for The Good Soul to start I ask them if they feel they have a responsibility to anybody. (As with the no-surnames rule they also insist on being interviewed as one person, while telling you that they have never been a couple.) ‘We’re only here for our own amusement,’ they say. ‘We have no obligation to sit through it on behalf of our readers.’ Walking out of plays is a speciality of the West End Whingers. If they don’t like it, they leave. After all, their tickets aren’t free. They have paid for almost every one, bar those for Swimming With Sharks starring Christian Slater. ‘We didn’t care for it and we said as much. We haven’t been invited back to the West End since.’

Their beautifully described midway departure from an early preview of the epoch-long Gone With The Wind was, according to a number of people in the theatre world, the first sign that all was not well with the musical. So do they think the mainstream critics have a role? ‘Oh yes. Someone has to stay until the curtain to see what happens at the end.’ Would they like to be paid for what they do? ‘I think if we were paid it would mean we would have to play the game, which would be boring.’

They also have no desire to work for a newspaper. ‘Endure the theatre without alcohol? Locate things in the wider discourse? No. we have no aspirations in that direction.’

There is quite a lot of alcohol tonight: before, during and after as the whingers and their entourage – me, other bloggers, a few friends of friends – settle in to enjoy themselves. Their review, when it is posted a couple of days later, seems to reflect a good night out. ‘Horrocks was great and there were many other performances to enjoy, too,’ they wrote. ‘In fact there were oodles of things to write down: great wigs, a lot of cigarette smoking, rain, wonderful props and signage…’ So no, not exactly a first-night crit of the sort Kenneth Tynan might admire. But – whisper it – it did quietly remind me more of the night I’d had than did the professional reviews I would later read.

Which is all well and good, says Charles Spencer, a theatre reviewer for the Daily Telegraph since 1991. But that doesn’t mean we should mistake what the West End Whingers do for criticism. (Which, for the record, they never claim it to be). ‘I don’t think they’re very helpful,’ Spencer says. ‘Mildly entertaining, I suppose, but that brand of camp humour doesn’t do it for me. They’re not really critics. The last thing of theirs I read was them whingeing about squeaky seats at the Old Vic.’ Then again, Spencer admits to being a bit of a web-refusenik. ‘I look at Wikipedia now and then but until a year ago I hadn’t looked at the web at all.’

Indeed it would be easy to portray many of our leading critics as a bunch of silver-backed elders of the tribe, caught on the hop by technological change. Of course, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. Gillian Reynolds, who has been writing superbly about radio since 1967, and for the Telegraph since 1975, admits she has little time for opinions on the web. ‘I just don’t want to hang around with company I don’t value. Life’s too short.’ Clement Crisp, who has been writing about dance for the Financial Times for more than 35 years, and for whom the word ‘venerable’ might have been invented, is succinct about it: ‘I don’t really understand the beastly internet.’

This is not to suggest that Crisp dismisses what bloggers are doing. ‘The people who are writing these reviews are absolutely splendid,’ he says, letting the last word sing for slightly longer than the other nine put together. ‘They are devoted ballet fans. But it has nothing to do with criticism.’ The point, he says, is that the true critic can draw on a well of experience. ‘I started going to the ballet as a child in 1943, and for the next 20 years I saw everything there was – the creation of the great new companies, the arrival of the Russian, the Danes …’ Only then did he begin to write.

Spencer agrees. ‘You’re supplying a service, one with real authority behind it. There is always going to be a need for expert opinion.’

Don’t even mention the need for the democratisation of opinion to Brian Sewell. ‘I do not believe in the democratisation of opinion. I believe in benign authority. And if we undermine the authority of critics then we shall descend into mayhem.’

Our own Philip French, film critic for The Observer for 30 years, is a little more accepting of the challenge from the bloggers. ‘People should have the right to express their opinions. The right to free speech has been extended, but you don’t have to be elitist to say that not all opinion is of equal value. There is good criticism and there is bad criticism. The risk is that bad criticism will drive good criticism out of business by sheer volume.’

Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre man for more than 35 years, allows that there is a new accommodation to be made. Then again, he works for the publishers of this newspaper which, historically, has embraced the online world with more enthusiasm than others. He has been forced to join the debate on the web. His first piece for Guardian Unlimited (now guardian.co.uk) was about The Sultan’s Elephant, a public art installation involving a huge mechanical pachyderm striding through London in 2006. ‘I wrote a piece attacking it and got hundreds of comments. They clobbered me. I wasn’t used to getting such a response.’ It was a wake-up call. ‘I was suddenly aware that there was an army of people with opinions as strong as mine. Journalists of my generation have to adapt. And we have to accept that the printed word no longer has aristocratic supremacy.’

Of course, some newspaper critics are living the digital life to the full. Both Mark Shenton, drama critic of the Sunday Express, and Ian Shuttleworth, of the Financial Times, either blog or weigh in on other blogs. Norman Lebrecht, arts columnist of the Evening Standard, has long written a blog for artsjournal.com and is an avid consumer of online opinion. ‘What I see out there is quite a mixture. A lot of it is amateurish in a good sense. But I do miss incisiveness, people delivering real information and knowledge.’ He also counsels his brethren to think twice before wading in to online discussions. ‘One has to be very careful of making any comment. Bloggers are as sensitive as any diva. Criticise them and they will attack you.’

Sometimes they will attack without any encouragement. Gareth James is a freelance management consultant who has been writing reviews at whatsonstage.com for six years. There is, he argues, a shift in power towards the consumer. ‘I simply started disagreeing with the critics,’ he says. ‘They are out of step with the audience and that’s because they do it all the time. Most people go to be entertained. We go to have a good night out.’ Critics, he thinks, go for something else. It’s why he believes they write enthusiastically about the works of Pinter or Chekhov which, for the most part, he can’t abide. ‘That sort of thing is put on for the Michael Billingtons of this world, not for Gareth James.’

It was a similar sense of disconnection that got Lynne Hatwell writing her book blog, Dove Grey Reader. A community nurse with a major reading habit, who lives in the Tamar Valley on the border of Devon and Cornwall, she increasingly felt the books pages of national newspapers had nothing to offer her. ‘I had this feeling there was a literary feast going on in London but that I was not a part of it. I also didn’t feel I was being well served by the bookshops, that I had become a puppet of their three-for-two tables. I wanted to know how you find other stuff.’ Now, according to her ‘what I’m reading’ panel, she is working her way through Trauma by Patrick McGrath, Trying to Please by John Julius Norwich and, er, my latest one. Hell, the woman’s far too influential for me to let that opportunity pass me by.

She declares that she is not a literary critic or reviewer. She writes about what books mean to her. ‘There’s nothing objective about what I’m doing. I used to worry about whether what I felt about a book was the same as anybody else.’ Not any more. ‘I feel a responsibility to myself, to be transparent and honest, but also to the readers because there are some who now compile their reading lists solely from my recommendations.’ Is she posing a challenge to the books pages of national newspapers? ‘Absolutely, and one that was long overdue. For too long it was a closed shop.’

But, she says, the project was personal. In the first year she spent more than £2,000 on books. But publishers set up Google alerts, which mop up any mentions of their titles online. Soon she was receiving emails offering to supply her with details of new publications. She now gets nearly all the catalogues and free review copies of books from most publishers (except, curiously, Virago, which ignores her – but probably won’t after reading this). ‘I’ve realised that I could be used as a marketing tool, and I have to resist that. A fundamental rule is that reading still has to be a pleasure.’ Also, she doesn’t do bad reviews. If it’s on her site it’s because she likes it. ‘It’s about my emotional responses.’

Other sources of critical opinion have risen up online, their creators say, because the old media wasn’t able to handle them. Steve Bennett created chortle.co.uk, an online stand-up comedy fanzine, because there was not enough coverage in the press. ‘Even the mags that dedicated space to comedy didn’t give it much space.’ Everybody did Ricky Gervais on tour. Everybody did Bill Bailey and Lee Evans. Nobody did the smaller names. ‘To do a print version of Chortle would be very expensive whereas an internet start-up is cheap.’

Naturally, comedy publicists take notice of chortle, but it’s in film where the real PR action is. Jam, a digital marketing agency, targets bloggers. For Daniel Noy, an executive with the company, utilising their power is a no-brainer. ‘Bloggers are important because of the way the internet started. It’s a community, which means there’s a community of film fans online.’ The challenge, he argues, is to know how to use them. ‘There’s a wariness about bloggers, a sense that you can’t control them. Personally I don’t think that you should control them. Reactions can be good or bad. It’s a risk you have to take, and that’s the power of real conversation.’

Jam has begun blogger-only screenings, starting with Juno. ‘It helped that Diablo Cody, Juno’s screenwriter, was a blogger.’ But the digital marketers have to be honest. Back in 1999, the Jurassic age in web terms, Warner Brothers wanted to hold a test screening for the Will Smith movie Wild Wild West to build buzz on the net, but was so unsure of the film that it told the invited audience of online critics that they were going to watch The Matrix. The audience was furious and helped create the negativity around it that never dissipated. ‘They posted comments slagging it off and it did very badly.’

So does Noy think newspaper critics are now redundant? Not yet. ‘You can’t deny the readership of newspaper and magazines.’ Chortle’s Bennett agrees. ‘A lot of newspaper critics have got the job because they both know what they are talking about and can write,’ he says. ‘Where as a lot of bloggers may only fill one side of that equation.’

I wondered if my sometime dining companion Simon Majumdar agreed. When his last employer went bust he decided to explore the world’s eating opportunities. He came up with an idea for a book, Eat My Globe, which is out next year. He is now a paid food writer. Does he think the democratisation of opinion is a good thing? ‘You can get as many opinions as there are arseholes. Everyone’s got one. There are some good writers out on the web. Then there are some who shouldn’t be allowed to write an address on the front of an envelope.’

So the professionals still have a role? ‘I like reading you all but I don’t think any of you necessarily know more about food than I do. I read you for entertainment. If you’re not entertaining, however informative you are, there’s no reason for you existing.’ In short, he says, we can claim authority only by being good.

Finally, I alight on the killer question. Simon, would you like my job? ‘If I had the opportunity to take your job away from you,’ he says, ‘yes, I would.’ That is a reassuring vote of confidence in old media. More reassuringly, there isn’t a vacancy. At least for now.

Additional research by Maria Garbutt-Lucero and Katie Toms

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »