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Archive for October, 2008

Unrelated – Film

This was a really interesting first film from writer and director Joanna Hogg.     Anna, played superbly here by Kathryn Worth in her first film role, arrives to join her old school friend Verena (Mary Roscoe) who is on holiday in a villa in Tuscany with her family and another family in what is clearly an annual arrangement.    Anna was supposed to bring her partner Alex with her, but cited his pressure of work as the reason for her arriving alone.    In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that Alex and Anna’s relationship is in a rocky place, and Anna is in Italy to enjoy a bit of space.

The holiday party divided into the old and the young.    Anna, whose place should have been with her school friend and ‘the olds’, gravitated to the more whizzy youngsters with their loud drinking games, skinny dipping, dope smoking and general hell-raising in a battered Fiat, trustingly lent by neighbouring friends.   Verena’s son Oakley (Tom Hiddleston) began to show an interest in Anna, but he eventually rejected her signals, leaving her struggling to bond with any group.

This was a wonderful film about a woman in her mid-life.    It was also a telling study of an outsider being pitched into a different world.    Verena and her family were well-to-do middle class, but were not an endearing bunch.    The older people were insensitive and unfriendly to Anna, who was in need of someone to talk to;   the youngsters, let loose from public school, were brash and spoilt.    Anyone who has been ignored in a social situation – and there was a wonderful lunch scene here, featuring Mussolini’s sofa – will recognise exactly where Joanne Hogg is coming from, and it makes rather uncomfortable viewing for its target audience.    It takes Anna’s flight to a grim local hotel to finally galvanise Verena into having the conversation she should have had much earlier, in a highly charged scene.

But it was the way that this was filmed which made this something out of the ordinary.    There were lovely set pieces in the Tuscan countryside, and in Sienna, but the weather was not always sunny, and often there was a wind blowing.     Hogg was bold in her approach:    at several points, the camera held steady on Anna, even when conversation and action was going on out of shot, and there were long slow scenes.    A car crash did not show what happened, but only the vehicle being pulled out of a field by a tow truck, with the (unharmed but shaken) occupants standing about, as one does.     A key scene was an almighty row between Oakley and his father George (David Rintoul) which took place inside the villa:    we had to join the families sitting about outside, and like them, we were forced to listen to the dangerous raging coming from inside.   And we all had to wait to see who came out of the house first, and in what state.

The slow pace and arthouse style of film will probably annoy and delight audiences in equal measure.    I loved it and am very keen to see what Joanna Hogg does next.

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I caught Jeff Beck’s set from Ronnie Scott’s on BBC Four recently, and have not enjoyed music on TV as much as this for ages – and that includes Later with Jools Holland, good though that show is.

Here was Beck, relaxed and really enjoying himself in an intimate club atmosphere.    His guitar playing was sensational, and the camerawork allowed us to study how he was producing such amazing sounds.    He was joined by Joss Stone for a blistering version of ‘People Get Ready’ – (Joss Stone has changed completely by the way), as well as by Imogen Heap and finally Eric Clapton.

The band were extremely good in their own right:   Vinnie Colaiata on drums, well-known jazz pianist Jason Rebello on keyboards (letting fly at one point with a solo which had so many notes coming so fast that it just sounded impossible to do – did he just play that?), and relative newcomer from Australia, Tal Wilkenfeld on bass – one to watch – at only 22 she has a big career ahead of her.      It was the way all the players interacted that showed us just what a great time they were having ….. and so was the audience.

The BBC i-player has run its course now, but bits of this are on Youtube, like the Joss Stone number. 

Interestingly, Vinnie Colaiata and Tal Wilkenfeld joined Herbie Hancock on ‘Live at Abbey Road’ with Corinne Bailey Rae singing River.

Track listing was:

01. Eternity’s Breath
02. Stratus (2007-12-01 second show)
03. Behind The veil (2007-12-01 second show)
04. Nadia (2007-12-01 second show)
05. Space Boogie (2007-12-01 second show)
06. Angel (Footsteps) (2007-12-01 second show)
07. People Get Ready (with Joss Stone)
08. Good Bye Pork Pie Hat / Brush With The Blues (2007-12-01 second
show)
09. Blanket (with Imogen Heap) (2007-12-01 second show)
10. A Day In The Life (2007-12-01 second show)
11. Little Brown Bird (with Eric Clapton)(2007-11-29)
12. Jeff band intro (2007-12-01 second show)
13. Where Were You (2007-11-29)

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Oleanna – Perth Theatre

This is a play that I have been wanting to see for a while, but never quite managed to get to, so it was fortunate that Guy Masterton’s Theatre Tours International brought this to Perth – one of only two venues in Scotland on this tour.

This production has been around for a while, first appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002, and revived for this tour, with Guy Masterton playing the professor with Joanne Hartstone as Carol, the student.

Like The Lesson by Ionesco, the play examines the power balance between teacher and pupil.    Here, Carol is genuinely upset by her failure to understand her course, and in particular, the book which her professor has written.    But when the professor offers to give her A grades in exchange for her continuing to attend the one-to-one tutorials, Carol starts to take notes.    

Oleanna

Guy Masterton and Joanne Hartstone. Photo from Theatre Tours International

Certainly, early on, the professor made the unwise choice to cross boundaries better left uncrossed.    The offer of A grades was taken as a bribe to buy time alone with Carol;   the ‘comforting touch on a shoulder’ was taken as something more.

A house deal going under, the constant interruption of his phone, and finally the threat of losing his job put enormous pressure on the professor.   Carol’s concentrated anger added fuel to the fire, and when she accused the professor of rape, the play simply boiled over.

The two players, with only two office chairs on an otherwise black set, did well to build the tension throughout.     We saw both sides of the situation presented well, and had a good discussion in the bar afterwards.

The audience was small but very appreciative.   Perth Theatre (Horsecross) could have done much more by firstly removing the Sunset Song signs from the front  (run ended days ago), and putting up some posters for this show at street level.   The way it was, there was only one poster opposite the box office, otherwise, there was nothing to inform the passer by that this excellent show was running.

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Scottish Opera

I have been to two operas in Glasgow fairly recently, and was very disappointed with audience numbers.    In other European cities, both performances would have been packed out, and difficult to get tickets for.

So, what is going wrong?    Scottish Opera does all the right things, and ticks the right boxes.    They go into schools, they have great discounts for people under 26, they tour small scale round the wee corners of Scotland, they have Friends, and they work hard to obtain sponsorship from both individuals and businesses.      But there remains a fundamental ‘disconnect’ about opera in Scotland:   as an art form, it is simply off many people’s radar, and there is no popular culture of ‘going to the opera’ as there is in the rest of Europe.

It is such a shame, because I know that many people would have really enjoyed both these operas.    They were easy to understand, funny, tuneful and sung in English with English supertitles.    The Two Widows , a transfer from the Edinburgh Festival, in particular was world class.

What needs to happen to get more people into the opera house?

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Benchtours Theatre Company have had their funding taken away from them, so this might be their final show, which is a pity.   The company has produced challenging and engaging work for the past 15 years, so I hope that something happens to allow them to continue.

The Lesson is a typically quirky short play from Eugene Ionesco, the master of the Theatre of the Absurd.   A pupil arrives for a private lesson from a professor.   The initially assured 18 year old pupil is challenged to name of all the seasons, and to do some some very simple maths.    And in the ensuing hour, relationships enter a strange and dangerous terratory.    Good performances by benchtours founders Peter Clerke and Catherine Gillard as the Professor and his maid accomplice, but a star turn from Kirstin McLean as the pupil, trying to make best sense of the absurd logic she is presented with.

I enjoyed the pink set by Jason Southgate, and Tim Brinkhurst’s sound palette was almost an extra character.    Gerry Mulgrew’s direction nicely overcame the challenge of bringing this piece up to date from its 1950s origin.

A double bill with Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna would have made more of an evening of it.

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Sunset Song – Perth Theatre

It seems much more recently than 2001 when Prime Productions performed Alastair Cording’s adaptation of Sunset Song, directed by Benjamin Twist in a touring production.    It was haunting and deservedly award-winning.

The current staging by Kenny Ireland working with a team from HMT in Aberdeen was not quite as successful, despite an excellent central performance from Hannah Donaldson as Chris Guthrie.    The pace was relentless at first with events crammed in on top of eachother, but once things slowed down, Grassick Gibbon’s wonderful hymn to the Mearns emerged, emphasised by set-piece movement and live music from Paul Anderson (lovely fiddle playing) and Shona Donaldson .     

I had not realised that Sunset Song was just about out of print until the BBC adapted it for TV in the 1970s.    Since then it has grown in popularity, and is used in schools as a text.     It is as much about life and times in the agricultural community as it is about the shattering changes which war brought, and how things would not be the same again.     It is up to Chris’s new husband, the Rev Colquhoun to give the final big speech – the one which explains exactly what the play (and book) is ultimately about, and why we have been sitting in the theatre all evening.      Let’s just say that it was an opportunity missed.

I was looking for more – the 2001 production was better than this, and still sticks in the mind.

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Scottish Ensemble – Red.

The Scottish Ensemble chose Perth to perform their first concert of the season.   This year, each concert has a name, and this was ‘Red’.    The programme was a well balanced mixture of Baroque and Shostakovich, and joining the Ensemble were two top class soloists.    We had spied Alison Balsom and Jonathan Morton in the chamber orchestra for the Soldier’s Tale, so had high hopes for this evening’s concert.    We were not disappointed.

First off was a violin sonata by Albinoni transcribed for trumpet, played by Alison Balsom on a tiny baroque instrument.    The Ensemble came onto the stage all carrying two bows, and used special pointy baroque bows for this piece (and in the Corelli later).   The playing was first rate, with the slow movements allowing Alison Balsom to demonstrate how a normally strident instrument can blend in with the music, and the faster ones producing thrilling interplay between soloist and the ensemble.    

Then the mood changed from sunny Venice to darkest East Germany.    We heard Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony on C minor, originally written as string quartet.    Shostakovich visited Dresden after the cold war, and was deeply disturbed by what he saw.    The piece simply poured out of him in only three days.   The contrast to the first piece was shocking;  this was deeply serious music, well out of the comfort zone, as it should be.   The way this was performed was spellbinding, with passages played quiet enough to strain the ears, to faster, louder, angry angular music.    Played continuously with no breaks between the movements, it was as intense as it was very moving.

Back to Italy, and Rome then, for Correlli’s Concerto Grosso in Bb, with showcasing parts for ensemble members Jonathan Morton and Zoe Beyers on violins and Alison Lawrance on ‘cello.   It was played well, but there were perhaps a few slight rough edges at times between the two violins where they swap over tunes.   

But finally, to round off, the Ensemble were joined by Alison Balsom and Alasdair Beatson, playing in his home town, to perform the extraordinary Concert for piano, trumpet and strings by Shostakovich.    It was a thrilling virtuoso performance from all.   We were sitting near enough the front, and in good view of the piano keyboard to be completely mesmerised by Alastair Beatson’s playing.

There was a large crowd in to hear this concert, and our applause was rewarded with an encore of a Piazzola Tango for trumpet, piano and Ensemble.    

The Scottish Ensemble concerts are always guaranteed to be top quality.    One of the pleasures for the audience is watching the communications between the players:   who looks at who, how they control their bows together (especially the blizzard of exciting downbows in sequence) and how they all appear to be really enjoying themselves.   

This was a really special evening.    I am looking forward to the rest of the concerts.

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