Archive for July, 2011

The Ship Song Project

Posted in Music with tags , , on July 27, 2011 by alexlarman

I only discovered this the other day, but I think it’s absolutely beautiful – it’s one of those all-star things that could go really badly wrong or actually work surprisingly well, a la the BBC’s Perfect Day. It takes Nick Cave’s seminal The Ship Song and gets a range of artists to do it, mostly but not exclusively Australian, and then ramps up ‘The Epic’ to make it a suitably grand accompaniment to the Sydney Opera House, which it is designed to celebrate. Watch it here:




The Merchant Of Venice

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , , on July 15, 2011 by alexlarman

As some old dowager quipped on the way to the interval, ‘It’s less Merchant of Venice than Merchant of Vegas.’ Yes, there are remarkably few adaptations of Shakespeare that begin with a bequiffed Elvis impersonator singing a (remarkably good) version of Viva Las Vegas, complete with on-stage band, but there are even fewer that seek to translate Shakespeare’s difficult, still-controversial meditation on anti-Semitism, unrequited love and avarice into a showboating, no-holds-barred extravaganza. Still, doing the apparently unthinkable is director Rupert Goold’s stock in trade. When it fails, as with a dismal King Lear starring an ailing Pete Postlethwaite in 2009, the results are embarrassingly poor. But, when it succeeds  – as in his breathtaking stagings of The Tempest, Macbeth and Enron – he’s probably the most exciting director in British theatre today.

The appeal for Goold would seem to be the connections between the unfettered avarice that Vegas is synonymous with and the underlying sense in Merchant of Venice that everyone has a price. Thus Portia (a convincingly jittery Susannah Fielding) is compelled to take part in an X-Factor-esque live show called Destiny, where contestants choose between three boxes and hope to win a wife by so doing. Likewise, Antonio (a quietly compelling Scott Handy) finds himself on the receiving end of Mafiosi-esque rough justice when Shylock demands the execution of his bond, dressed in the orange jumpsuit of a Guantanamo detainee and apparently faced with being brutally murdered without any recourse to the law.

It’s an endlessly febrile, challenging but immediately accessible and enjoyable reading of the play. In the midst of the showboating and extravagance, Patrick Stewart offers an intriguing performance as Shylock. Initially seen vainly potting golf balls in his office (as other critics have suggested, presumably he’s been denied entry to the country clubs on the grounds of his Jewishness), he’s equally determined to seek revenge for his daughter’s flight into the arms of a Christian as he is merely to recover his apparently lost wealth. Stewart, rapidly becoming the greatest older Shakespearean actor working in Britain today, offers a portrayal of Shylock devoid of sentimentality that’s never moving, exactly, but is certainly an uncompromising account of vengeful malice in a society where he’s hated in the most mundane and casual of ways.

Yet everything about this production is crystal clear, fresh and innovative. When it’s revealed that Lancelot Gobbo is the Elvis impersonator, it not only makes one of Shakespeare’s most annoying clowns a more intriguing character, but helps to illuminate his frustrated desire to be a more glamorous and successful figure than he actually is. And Portia here isn’t the conniving and brilliant woman of conventional presentations, but someone who has a delicacy and fear to her that makes her great legal coup de theatre less a moment of brilliance and more the luckiest of lucky breaks.

It’s a true pleasure to watch a production as skilful and nuanced as this, and it’s a full credit to the RSC that this, one of the premiere productions in their highly impressive new RST in Stratford-upon-Avon, sets the bar extremely high for the various other stagings that are going to follow over the next few years. When Shylock is asked, mockingly, ‘Are you contented?’, his answer might be one freighted with bitterness and cynicism, but the audience’s response is likely to be an altogether more sincere ‘yes!’

Until 4th October. RST, Stratford-upon-Avon

Pulp at Wireless

Posted in Music with tags , , , on July 7, 2011 by alexlarman

Last week, I was in Hyde Park for two gigs, Arcade Fire on Thursday and Pulp for the final day of the Wireless festival. The usually estimable Arcade Fire, playing to what has to be their largest ever headline audience, were  a bit disappointing – not their fault, it must be said, but the rubbish sound, a strangely aggressive crowd and a grotesquely overlong support slot for Mumford and Sons didn’t make it the most enjoyable of experiences. So I headed down to see Jarvis and co at Wireless with rather low expectations.

However, thankfully these were soon surpassed. Pulp have been on what they somewhat coyly call ‘hiatus’ since 2002, but they have now returned in the time-honoured fashion that bands who have had a few years out of the spotlight soon embrace. Thus they have followed the path of everyone from the sublime (Suede) to the ridiculous (The Darkness) and come back with some high-profile gigs, including this headlining show at Wireless.

They were on fine form it must be said, despite a faintly lacklustre supporting series of acts (Grace Jones, The Hives, etc). Starting with ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ is a masterstroke, and splitting the set more or less evenly between His ‘n’ Hers and Different Class (with one song apiece from This Is Hardcore and We Love Life) proved a savvy way of keeping a boisterous-without-being-irritating crowd on side. Singalongs aplenty followed, as ever helped by an on-form Jarvis, whose banter and charisma saw the expanded seven-piece version of the band produce a remarkably rich and full sound which, at times, verged on Arcade Fire grandiosity. Passionate performances of Underwear and Something Changed were particular highlights, but it would be hard to fault any of it. They’re playing at Brixton at the end of August; given mutterings that this is but a temporary reunion, it would be a pity not to take full advantage.

Common People (which they didn’t play on their last tour) was a particular highlight, and you can watch it here, thanks to the glories of YouTube:


One Man, Two Guvnors

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on July 2, 2011 by alexlarman

Whenever a sold-out play is garlanded with the sort of critical superlatives that lead to lengthy queues forming at the box office come returns time, there’s always the worry that it’s going to be a case of hype over delivery. In the case of Nicholas Hytner’s new staging of Richard Bean’s loose adaption of Goldoni’s One Servant, Two Masters, there is no such cause for concern. This blissfully, at times hysterically, funny evening at the theatre rehabilitates James Corden from the obnoxious self-parody that he seemed mired in, offers a clutch of some of the best supporting performances anywhere on stage in ages, and shows (after the similarly giddy London Assurance) that the Hytner/Bean team-up produces some of the best comedy to be had anywhere on the London stage.

Bean relocates Goldoni’s original to 1963 Brighton, which leads to on-stage skiffle, an amusing evocation of the criminal underworlds of there and London, and a similarly convoluted plot. It boils down to Francis (Corden), a cheerful, limited and permanently hungry sort who finds himself working simultaneously for two employers, a young woman disguised as her dead twin brother and a public-school Hooray Henry who killed her brother but is also madly in love with the aforementioned young woman. Throw in an aspiring actor called Alan (because his first name, Orlando, was already taken by another Equity member), an 87 year old waiter, a Latin-spouting solicitor and a proto-feminist who eagerly awaits the first female PM ‘because she’ll be gentle, and kind, and humane’, and the scene is set for an evening’s hilarity.

What’s so endearing about this is the warmth and looseness to proceedings. There is a great deal of ad-libbing and improv, mostly from Corden, who shows after all that he’s a natural comedian. A typical example went something like this the night I went:

CORDEN: I’m so starving, I could eat any sort of sandwich. Meat, fish, even a nice bit of cheese…

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ve got a sandwich. You’re perfectly welcome to it.

CORDEN: Well, that had to happen one night. (Pauses for laughter). What flavour is it?


CORDEN: (Disbelievingly) Hummus?!

Followed by merry gales of generous hilarity. It’s not all entirely like this – the great scene at the end of Act 1, in which Francis serves two meals simultaneously to both his guvnors, aided and abetted by the ancient waiter, ends on a note that’s both brilliantly unexpected and apparently rather cruel – but what strikes one most about this show is the openness of spirit that it displays. Oliver Chris’ near-genius Stanley Stubbers, the Wodehousian silly-ass who lusts after his disguised lover, gets most of the wittiest and funniest lines, at times coming on like an updated cousin of Hugh Laurie’s George in Blackadder. But there isn’t a weak link in the entire cast, even down to Lloyd Boateng as an ex-con chef who thinks back, wistfully, to his glory days at Parkhurst nick.

It’s very much sold out, although a West End transfer is planned for the autumn. (Heaven knows whether this will involve the likes of Corden and Chris.) There’s an NT live screening in September, but I don’t think that seeing this via a cinema screen will convey the full burlesque hilarity. Instead, I recommend queuing for returns and hoping that your luck’s in. The evening is more than worth it.