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Finding the Wry Humour and Heart of the Everyday: Talking Heads

Talking Heads

by Alan Bennett

First triple bill programme

 

OHADS at The Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre

21st to 25th March

Review by Melissa Syversen

I may have been a mere twinkle in my father’s eye back in 1982 when A Woman of No Importance made its first appearance on the BBC, starring the legendary Patricia Routledge.  Luckily for me, British comedy, and especially those starring dear Patricia, are very popular on the cold shores of Scandinavia where I grew up.  And as my family’s resident anglophile, I quickly caught up at a young age and continued to follow the series original run through the 90s and still watch every rerun I could since.

A Woman of No Importance paved the way for Alan Bennett’s subsequent two series Talking Heads for the BBC and today they are often aired and performed together.   The series has been adapted to the stage many times, with many different combinations of monologues over the years.  The OHADS production at the Hampton Hill Theatre features six of Bennett’s texts divided into two sets of three, to be performed alternately.  I attended the set featuring A Cream Cracker under the Settee, Soldering On and A Chip in the Sugar, which can be seen Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday matinee.  The other set consisting of Bed among the Lentils, Her Big Chance and A Woman of No Importance can be seen Wednesday, Friday and the Saturday evening and will be reviewed separately

It has been almost thirty years since many of these texts were written, but they are as funny and moving as ever, a testament to Alan Bennett’s gift as a writer.  He has that uncanny, and dare I say important, ability to express the silent depth and wry humour of the humdrum life of normal people.  All three of the characters presented on Tuesday were sweet and familiar.  These are all people we know and meet daily, be it in the shop or at local events.  And this is what I think OHADS production captured so well.   The cast of three actors together with their directors successfully found and expressed the humanity of Bennett’s writing.

Fran Billington played Doris, an elderly woman who has taken a fall as she tries to dust after her sloppy home-help has left.  It is particularly moving as she recalls memories of her departed husband and son.  You could see it on her face as the memories of a long life came to her as she waited for help on the floor, the clock ticking away both physically and metaphorically.

In the second piece, Soldering On, we meet Muriel, also a widow, having just lost her husband Ralph.  We follow her through her strong can-do attitude as she deals not only with her friends and community as they try to grab what they can of her husband’s possessions (all in the name of charity of course), but also with a son who may or may not be a competent business man.  Clare Cooper captured Muriel’s can do spirit and grace retaining her dignity to through increasingly difficult circumstances.

The upstairs Coward studio at Hampton Hill theatre lends itself well to this play.  It is a smaller space and together with the simple and effective furnishing of each piece it creates a close and homey atmosphere, giving an added touch of intimacy.  Each of the three directors, Harry Medawar, Asha Harjan Gill and Rebecca Tarry, respectively, have kept things simple allowing their actors and the text to shine.  Malcolm Maclenan oversees light and sound.   The sound is particularly well utilised in the first piece, using a lovely soundscape like a slamming gate and neighbours passing as Doris waits for help, the clock ticking away.

The final monologue A Chip in the Sugar, a piece Bennett himself played in the series, stole the show.  Steve Taylor plays Graham, an older man living with his elderly mother who faces a minor crisis when an old acquaintance takes a romantic interest in his mother.  Taylor had a thorough and confident handle on the text, moving with impressive dexterity between the characters of the story.  With impressive voice work and clear storytelling, he found so many lovely moments of humour and heart and shared them with the audience.  A very strong finish to a lovely evening at the Hampton Hill Theatre.

Melissa Syversen

March 2017

Photographs by Bernard Wigginton

Shakespeare, Who? Collaborating on The History of Cardenio

The History of Cardenio

by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher and Prof. Gary Taylor

Richmond Shakespeare Society and Cutpurse

at The Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, 18th to 25th March

Review by Georgia Renwick

You would be forgiven for doing a double take upon reading the poster for the latest production from the Richmond Shakespeare Society (RSS): a premiere?  Of a Shakespeare play?  And who’s this Cardenio character?  Your eye might then be drawn to the other two authors below the play’s title, John Fletcher, a fellow 17th century playwright, and Gary Taylor, the highly regarded American Shakespeare scholar, editor of the New Oxford Shakespeare.  Though nearly 400 years separate them, this unlikely triad of authors (and others besides) have “collaborated” in a historic UK premiere of this new and “most authentic” version of Shakespeare’s lost play.

CardenioRSS

The one consensus that has been reached in the world of Shakespeare scholarship, is that no consensus can ever be reached, but yet it is virtually indisputable in modern scholarship that the man we know as William Shakespeare, was not one man at all.  Shakespeare had collaborators and is credited alongside Fletcher, who succeeded him as the house playwright for The King’s Men, with The History of Cardenio in a 1653 register of soon to be published plays.  However, for reasons it is now impossible to discern, it never appeared in print and was “lost”, not an uncommon fate for a play of this period.  Certainly, more work was lost than now survives.  In 1727 the play was picked up again by writer Lewis Theobald.  Now widely credited as being the first ever Shakespeare scholar, he attempted to re-work Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play, naming it Double Falsehood, and it is here Gary Taylor comes in.  For over 20 years Taylor has been unpicking this surviving version of Cardenio, uncovering the cracks in the text that Theobald messily plastered over with his 18th century morality, and bringing his own material to the mix.  Using the latest in text technologies and the breadth of his knowledge and scholarship, Taylor has drafted his own “creative reconstruction”.  To use Mark Aspen’s analogy from his introductory piece earlier this month, Taylor has “piec[ed] together shards of an Etruscan urn to create, not a reproduction, but the real thing assembled with a little clay for the missing bits… to make Shakespeare’s The History of Cardenio live again”.  The US premiere was staged in May of 2012 at Indiana University and Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI), and attended by Twickenham based and established RSS director, Gerald Baker.  He offered his feedback – and Taylor asked for ours this afternoon – and became an intrinsic part of the project to further develop the script and stage it here in London.

The truth is that a truly “authentic” Shakespearian History of Cardenio can never be achieved, but does that matter?  Or to take a more postmodern approach, who cares about this Shakespeare character and what he did or did not write?  Is the play itself actually any good?

Have the combined efforts of the authors created or uncovered a new Hamlet?  Not quite, but nevertheless like any of the most gripping 17th century dramas there is a wealth of romance, a dose of death, more than one case of mistaken identity and a bucket load of bawdy laughs to boot.  The plot is based on a strand of Miguel de Cervantes” classic Spanish novel Don Quixote, of which Thomas Shelton’s English translation was first available in 1612, making it a popular and contemporary tale at the time the play would have been performed.

It follows the story of two pairs of lovers.  The earnest and poetic Cardenio (Matthew Tyrrell) who would “rather read than ride” into battle, is engaged to Lucinda (Emma Lambie), whilst his friend Fernando the Duke’s younger son (Hugh Cox), has fallen for the charms of strong-minded farmer’s daughter Violenta (Shana de Carsignac) who can “crow loader than any cock”.  However, when Fernando learns of and meets his friend’s betrothed he desires her too, and sets in motion a trail of betrayals and falsehoods that sends the court into disarray.  Caught up in this lovers” tangle is the old schoolmaster, Quesada (Christopher Yates) who, tired of his books, takes his sprightly young squire (Iona Twiston-Davies) on an ill-fated quest to kill giants and save princesses, high in the mountains.  Allegiances are tested and power struggles ensue between parent and child, master and servant, the old and the young, the mad and the sane, between races, and between the sexes.  “How can I be obedient and wise, too?” Lucinda begs of her stern and ubiquitous father, Don Bernard (John Kirchner), another exasperated daughter of one of Shakespeare’s missing mothers, whilst the young men are free to be led by “passions reign[ing] in their blood”.  “Every man’s thing is urgent”, Marcela, Lucinda’s maid (Bibi Lucille) wittily observes; as any reader of Shakespearean works will understand, it is often the servants who make the most astute observations.  Other Shakespearean tropes are scattered throughout, with thematic references in particular to Shakespeare’s later plays The Tempest and King Lear, discerning audience members may pick out countless other allusions.

Tyrrell makes for a spirited and romantic Cardenio, and the reciprocation of love from Lambie as Lucinda is charming and sweet, but it is de Carsignac”s performance as Violenta that stands out as the emotional heart of the play.  She descends with tragic grace from fierce and feisty to a heartstring-tugging vulnerability, given greater emotional intensity played across from the charismatic and engaging Cox as the unfaithful Fernando.

The more senior members of the cast make the most of some deliciously funny dialogue, particularly in a stand-out scene surrounding nationality, namely our “acorn” English nation, discussed over a game of bowls.  Yates finds a ponderous, Polonious-esque quality in the old schoolmaster Quesada, which is well balanced with Twiston-Davies snappy Sancho.  Out of all the cast her quips exhibit the best comic timing.  The overall pace is in places a little slow and indulgent, but who are we not to indulge?  When it is an unfamiliar Shakespearian text we are watching here, it is certainly welcome in places to land those crucial plot points.

The period costumes are a real stand-out element.  Although consistently good, RSS have really excelled themselves on this occasion.  The rich reds and greens and dramatic blacks pop especially well against the set (designed by Barry Evans) which is dominated by an abstract mountain backdrop painted in pale shades of blue, yellow and green.  This backdrop remains consistent throughout.

The minimalised scenery and stage furniture makes for slick scene changes, although with nowhere to go the actors are left a little limited in terms of movement and at times it can feel quite static.  It would be interesting to see this production progress into a larger and more fully developed set.

There are a few welcome instances of music to accompany verse (and watch out for the unexpected dance number!) one of which, “Wood, rocks and mountains” was composed by Robert Johnson for the original staging in 1612/13, but the others of which are original compositions.  This is another aspect of the production ripe for further exploration and development.

As Taylor himself freely admits, we will never know exactly how much of Cardenio we owe to our Bard but regardless this is an enjoyable piece of theatre, at once comforting in its strange familiarity and yet exciting in its freshness and originality.  Besides posing an interesting debate, the authorship doesn’t define our enjoyment, and Taylor and Baker are deserving of congratulations for their contributions respectively.  Perhaps in another 400 years we’ll still be enjoying 17th century dramas and asking “Shakespeare, who?”.

Georgia Renwick

March 2017

 

Fatal Attraction of the Garden Gnome: Neighbourhood Watch

Neighbourhood Watch

by Alan Ayckbourn

Barnes Community Players

at The Old Sorting Office, 7th to 11th March

Review by Thomas Forsythe

Power corrupts!  Well it would wouldn’t it, if you were thrust into power after your life-long pal had been decapitated?  But don’t forget that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Alan Ayckbourn’s Neighbourhood Watch takes a wry mischievous look at suburban paranoia as it spreads across the community of oh-too-recognisable characters on the Bluebell Hill Development.   Ayckbourn develops the turns of the plot steadily from possible to unrealistic to hysterical, cascading in a reducto ad absurdum argument that requires a more than usual suspension of disbelief.

Thirty-something unmarried siblings Sarah and Martin Massie have just moved into a “respectable” neighbourhood on the fringe of a “rough” estate.  They throw a tea-party as a house warming for their new neighbours, and the first to arrive are Rod Trusser, super-suspicious security specialist (retired), Dorothy Doggett, the local busy-body, and morose multi-cuckolded mechanic, Gary Janner.  All is very cosy until Martin discovers a young intruder in his garden, who kicks him in the shin before running off, dropping a small case as he goes.   Martin is willing to shrug it off, but Rod is obsessed with the idea that the case contains a modified sniper rifle, or bobby-trap bomb.  (It actually contains a child’s clarinet.)   They decide to form a neighbourhood watch, but at the first meeting Martin’s beloved-since-childhood garden gnome is thrown through the French windows, knocking off its head.  Now it is war!  – a war declared to stem the rising tide of ruffians – and the watch become volunteer vigilantes.  With a Martin as its leader, Bluebell Hill evolves rapidly over four months into a repressive gated community, with sophisticated security systems and draconian medieval stocks and pillory as punishment for transgressors.

gnome

 

It is this sense of the absurd that presents an ambitious challenge to a cast, who need pace and good comic timing to pull off.   Barnes Community Players production set about meeting this challenge with gleeful gusto and, to a large extent, achieved that ambition.

Alexa Bushell was impressive as the prim and proper Sarah (Hilda in Ayckbourn’s script), all buttoned up, both literary and figuratively, in her twin set, bustling with benevolence.  Her facial expressions, particularly the withering glares, were worth the ticket price.   One felt that Alexa Bushell’s secure acting was the anchor for the cast.  If so, Steve Bannell, as Martin, was the king-pin, certainly the plot revolved around his character, as he “progressed” from meek younger brother to Daily Mail super-hero, whilst still showing bemused bewilderment at the wicked ways of the world.

As Dorothy, the garrulous gossip, Marie Bushell clearly relished the part and portrayed its nuances and Dorothy’s hypocrisies:  propriety versus prurience, and passivity versus pretentiousness.  (She was in the press meant she ran the local small-ads.)

Rod is a reworking of Uncle Harvey in Ayckbourn’s earlier Season’s Greetings, a man unhinged by his own exaggerated suspicions.  Rodger Hayward-Smith, as a seasoned character actor in this role, tended to overdo the hesitancy of his character’s wariness and scepticism, (and one did wish that he would not constantly deliver his lines to the floor).  Nevertheless, he put across well Rod’s outlandish “bring-back-the-birch” approach, his ruthlessness (here was a man not adverse to employing petty criminals with baseball bats) and his mounting obsessive paranoia.  Rod is not one to pass on the hyperbole, his crescendo of vitriol on the contiguous “sink” estate, accusing its inhabitants of “incest” in their “Sodom and Gomorrah”.

Not that Martin in his later manifestations was short on the hyperbole, which culminated in an impassioned monologue, in a tight hard spotlight, the man of steel.  Bannell’s skilful delivery was reminiscent of a late Barack Obama in both stance and rhetoric.

 

But great men have their weaknesses: along comes the vampish Amy Janner, sizzling into the scene.   As Bluebell Hill’s femme fatale, Kat Walker excelled.  None of Bluebell’s red-blooded men were impervious to her extra-marital allure, even Martin, pillar of his new community.  This sultry siren soon seduced Martin, his awkwardness dissolving to her charms.  Now corrupted, his only reply to this sister’s rebuke that “she is the child of the Devil” is “if I’m going to Hell, I’m going to enjoy it on the way down!”.

Amy’s hapless husband is Gary, eating himself away with impotent fuming.  Andrew Williams played Gary as a quiet melancholic, whose bitterness was internalised.  He turns to fetish fantasies and re-engineers his skills as a mechanic to constructing the stocks and pillories for the vigilantes.  Not that Sarah is adverse to his constructing a chastity belt for Amy, although she does divert him to tar-and-feathering, or rather pixie-green paint and feathering, pixie green being Sarah’s favourite colour, derided by Amy.

For humour, and especially black humour, to work, it should be leavened with pathos.  Emilia Lederleitnerova brought this sentiment to the play beautifully as the timid and reticent Magda, a Polish émigrée and teacher of reeded instruments.  She is fearfully in thrall of her brutish husband Luther Bradley, played with energy by Patrick van de Bergh.   Luther is unrepentantly amoral: he is having an affair with Amy, and when it is discovered that the youthful intruder was one of Magda’s pupils, he tries to extort “compensation” from Martin.

So we have sex, violence and corruption: just the thing for a comedy you might hesitate to say.  But, then again, this is Ayckbourn, and Ayckbourn at his most contrary.  So, in a play packed with hyperbole, exaggeration and overstatement, we need an OTT denouement.  And it comes as all breaks down in mayhem.  The criminals, set on retribution, set fire to the next door house (mistaking it for Martin’s) and as the looters arrive, police helicopters hover overhead.  The police marksmen mistakenly believe that Martin has a grenade.  It is in fact Sarah’s garden statuette of Jesus and, as he holds it up to show them, they shoot.

At Martin’s memorial service there is an unveiling of a giant … … garden gnome.

The monumental gnome (uncredited in the programme) was the redeeming feature of a lacklustre set comprising only furniture in the black draped Old Sorting Office acting area, although in a strange way this added to the claustrophobic feel of a neighbourhood under siege.  It was left to Andy Hale’s lighting to rescue the design.

Director Terry Oakes, making his debut with BCP, was blessed with some strong actors, but more pace and timing could have helped others, as could more dynamic stage placements.  Notwithstanding this, the Neighbourhood Watch company have presented a good production of a difficult play, but most importantly, one which made for an hilarious and highly entertaining evening.

As the finger-wagging aphorism puts it, the way to Hell (even Martin’s enjoyable way) is paved with good intentions.  Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck has the same theme, but not the compassion of Neighbourhood Watch, and certainly none of the wicked humour of Ayckbourn when he is in full flight.  Certainly Martin Massie’s well-meaning intercessions start off well but go in the wrong direction, with calamitous consequences.  What turns the good intentions off course?  The heady sniff of power of course.  Add a sniff of perfume and a hint of fame and there is absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Oh, I wonder what happened to the headless gnome?

Thomas Forsythe

March 2017

 

Deeply Complex and Layered: My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend
PARTS 1 and 2.

World Premiere

Adapted for the stage by April De Angelis from the novels of Elena Ferrante.

RTK at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 2nd April.

Review by Melissa Syversen.

Life is hard.   From the moment we are born, we set out on a journey that will be filled with extreme highs and lows.  Sure, there will be wonderful moments of pure love and ecstatic joy, but there will also be times of grief, pain and loss.  There will be challenges to overcome, victories to be had, but also times you’d like nothing more than to vanish off the earth.  If you are lucky you might just have someone to share all this with.  A support and confidant, that special someone who makes you laugh like no other but can also drive you up the wall like no other.  Someone who will stay with you even when they are absent.  This is what Elena Ferrante has captured so vividly in her acclaimed four-part series known as the Neapolitan Novels.  Her story of two extraordinary women and their friendship in post-war Italy, told over six decades, has fascinated readers all over the world.  Elena Ferrante has managed to encapsulate and put into words not just the intricacies of life but the complex layers of female friendship.  I have unfortunately not read the novels (yet) but it doesn’t take a lot of research to feel the fervour of joy from readers and critics alike for these books.

Adopting such complex and beloved novels is a daunting project.  April De Angelis however, has risen to the challenge and has expertly transposed the series’ four novels into four acts, creating a tight and compact play that is part memory play and coming-of-age-story, it is performed in two parts, of two and a half hours each, and can be seen either in a single day or over two evenings.

My Brilliant Friend Part 2. Photo credit Marc Brenner (6)

All photographs by Marc Brenner

An elderly Elena (also known as Lenú) comes home to a parcel containing two old dolls.  Shortly after she receives a call from the son of her childhood friend Lila, telling her that his mother has disappeared.  The play then follows Elena as she looks back on her life together with Lila and their intricate relationship, trying to understand what has happened to her.  The audience are whisked through her life, carried rapidly through memories of their formative years together in a poor Neapolitan neighbourhood.  The scenes change swiftly and sharply, deftly handled through Melly Still’s directing and Jon Nicholls’ clever use of era-contextual pop music and soundscapes that transports you to the bustling Italian streets.  The strong cast of twelve play multiple characters, constantly and impressively changing between the various important people in Elena’s life.  Due to the pace and structure it is sometimes difficult to follow who all the characters are and how they relate to each other.  It does become easier as we go along but do have a look at the character list in the program.  Also, the character of Alfonso is played by two different actors in the two parts so keep an eye out for his mustard yellow jumper.

Keeping with De Angelis’ writing, Melly Still’s directing is equally economic as it is elegant.  Old chairs and tables become luxury cars and fire pits.  Strips of plastic become the ocean, brown wrapping paper creates earthquakes.  Still has an eye for the visual, her productions have a cinematic feel.  Together with beautiful set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour and impressive lighting by Malcolm Rippeth she has created a world as malleable as Elena’s memories.  Set inside a three-story frame of industrial steel and concrete the stage can as easily create cold, harsh factory conditions as warm summer nights by the Mediterranean Sea.  The passing of time is mostly marked with costumes in the style of each of the decades.  Elena alone remains in the same blue dress throughout, a reminder that she is the constant in this as both narrator and character.  We are seeing this, and Lila, through her eyes.

 

As Elena, Niamh Cusack starts as a gentle, and somewhat awkward young girl. She is a sweet mix of insecurity and ambition.  As she grows she proves to be a woman of both strength and vulnerability.  Cusack manages to inhabit the constant contradicting emotions of a strong woman caught between tradition and modernity, motherhood and ambition.


The friendship between Elena and Lila is not an easy one.  There is a relationship built on mutual fascination and love but also rivalry.  There is a constant change of who is the brilliant leader and who is the follower.  As they age their lives diverge.  Elena steps into the world and becomes a successful writer, a dream Lila once had.  Lila is denied further education by her father and remains in Naples.  Catherine McCormack is pure passion as Lila.  She brings both a fire and vulnerability to Lila, breathing life to fiercely intelligent woman trapped among lesser often violent men.  Through sheer force of will she refuses to submit to her role and the expectations of women, sometimes even to reality itself.  This adaptation’s greatest success is arguably the creation of two deeply complex and layered women that will challenge and fascinate great actresses for years to come.

I suspect I might have benefited from not having read the novels before seeing this stage adaptation.  I am all too familiar with the frustration of having your favourite novels cut and condensed into pieces, but I think this adaptation (and world premiere!) by Rose Theatre Kingston gets it mostly right.  I spent five hours with these characters, and I find myself still thinking back on Lila and Elena, ruminating not only on their lives, but how it reflects my own.  I want to learn more about these two brilliant friends and fill in more of their stories that might have been missed in the adaptation.  So off to the bookstore I go.

Melissa Syversen

March 2017

Chicago Calling Twickenham: Cyril Davies Tribute Night

 

The Cyril Davies Tribute Night

The Eel Pie Club at The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham

9th March 2017

A review by Cliff Tapstand

 They did you proud, Cyril!

Cyril Davies died on the 7th January 1964 at the tender age of 31, after collapsing during a performance at the original Eel Pie Island Club.  Along with Alexis Korner, Cyril is widely regarded as the driving force behind the birth of Rhythm and Blues music, and a tremendous influence on emerging bands like The Rolling Stones.

Once a year the resurrected Eel Pie Club holds a Tribute Gig in his memory, and on this night, he would have been thrilled at the number of exceptionally talented musicians that turned up to perform his type of music, his songs, and even more thrilled that so many of them played his instrument of choice, the blues harmonica.

The gig was put together by two regular performers at The Eel Pie Club, both of whom are renowned exponents of the harmonica, (or ‘harp’ as it known in the business): Alan Glen former member of The Yardbirds and Nine below Zero, together with John O’ Leary of The Downliners Sect.

CDavis1

Photographs by Pat Stancliffe

Joining them on stage in an All Stars band were Tim Penn (Cadillac Kings), Nick Newell (Kinks), Glynn Evans (Martha and the Vandellas), Al Vincent (Daniel Smith Band), and Peter Miles (Radical Sheiks).

The band was joined from time to time by an array of guest artists each with their own tribute to Cyril Davies, his music, and Chicago Blues.  First up was Bob Hokum, who gave excellent renditions of Bad to the Bone, and One More Reason, with some impressive very guitar playing.

CDavis2Plus

Photographs by Pat Stancliffe

In 1963, Cyril Davies released a 45rpm record with Country Line Special, a fast and furious harmonica instrumental on the A side, and Chicago Calling on the B side.  We were treated to two excellent versions of these, the first by Laurie Garman, and the second by Dave Raphael and Nick Hyde.

CDavis3

Photographs by Pat Stancliffe

Other special guests to contribute to this feast of blues classics were two regular visitors to the club, Robin Bibi who performed Guitar Slim’s Things I Used to Do, Lord, I Won’t Do No More, and the evening came to an end with a rousing session led by the ever popular Paul Cox.  Paul is one of the best front men in the business, and he didn’t let us down with Got My Mojo Working, Stormy Monday Blues, and a song closely associated with Cyril Davies, Hoochie Coochie Man, written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954.  A Chicago Blues classic as was the whole evening!

Cliff Tapstand

March 2017

A little more about Cyril Davies:

Read more…

Angel Cakes . . . or Cake Eating Angels? Choral Evensong

Choral Evensong

by St. Paul’s Cathedral Choristers

St. Mary’s Church, Hampton, Sunday 12th March 2017.

Review by William Ormerod
Tea and cakes would be served afterwards – if we were lucky! We were thus warned, for the boy choristers of St. Paul’s Cthederal are “very keen on cake”.

As part of a termly peregrination by St. Paul’s round the eight deaneries of the Diocese of London, the packed church at St. Mary’s Hampton was treated to a choral evensong by the visiting choir, the boy trebles of the Cathedral, fifteen strong, with accompanying clergy. The choir was conducted by their Director of Music, Andrew Carwood, and accompanied on the famous J.C. Bishop organ, which was a gift to the church by King William IV. The organ was played by the St. Paul’s Organ Scholar, Joseph Beech.

St Paul'sChoir

Photograph courtesy of St. Paul’s Cathederal

The format of the service, following the pattern of the Book of Common Prayer, and with plainsong-style versicles and responses. The main difference was that, following Cathedral practice, the Psalm (No. 135, verses 1-7), Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for trebles in C minor by Sir George Dyson), and Prayers were sung by the choir alone, as of course was the anthem, Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land by Parry. A minor difference in the Cathedral-style singing was the slightly incongruous elongation of certain syllables (especially in the aforementioned Versicles and Responses).

The psalm (‘O praise the Lord…’) was sung with restrained gusto by the choir, mostly antiphonally, to a chant by Sir George Job Elvey, Organist for 47 years of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. He had a reputation as a kind and gentle choirmaster – he never boxed the boys’ ears, except when they sang out of tune at Evensong! There was some subtle accompanying word-painting from the organist, notably a stormy crescendo of lightning, wind and rain at the end. Choir and organ imbued Dyson’s melodious and energetic Magnificat with a jauntiness and innocence that seemed to me to represent Mary’s dignified acceptance in her song while inwardly jumping for joy; while the more relaxed, reflective Nunc brought out the quiet, joyful resignation of Simeon’s song. Dyson was the father of Freeman Dyson FRS, the quantum physicist, doubtless familiar [among other Dysons] to those at NPL, Bushy Park.

In his Address, the Dean, David Ison, after thanking St. Mary’s for the hospitality (and cake!) on behalf of the choristers, whom we were told, had been transformed by Mr. Carwood “from little urchins into angels”.

The Anthem, which preceded the sermon, was familiar as being the original form of Parry’s lyrical hymn tune Repton (an arrangement for the hymn Dear Lord and Father of mankind) – probably his second most famous tune (after Jerusalem). This was a ‘ballad’ from Act I, Scene 2 of Parry’s oratorio Judith (1888) as sung by Meshullemeth, wife of King Manasseh of Israel (Contralto), which morphs in verse 5 into a trio with two of their sons (Treble) waiting to be sacrificed to the idol Moloch. The St. Paul’s choir duly sang verses 1-4 in unison (v. 3 a variation of the tune), and v.5, a different tune, in three-part harmony. The words, apparently by Parry himself, reflect the vivid Israelitish story, as he termed it, already met in the first lesson. Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (the third knight of the realm among this evening’s illustrious composers!) incidentally took composition lessons from Sir George Elvey while at school at Eton, where he also earned the Oxford B.Mus. degree at the age of 18 or 19. He was a protégé of the own organist (back in 1832), S.S. Wesley, and himself supported Sir George Dyson. Though a non-religious ‘free-thinker’, he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

We were blessed at the end by the Area Dean, who encouraged us, joyfully with the grace of God, to take up the cross and follow Him. Choir and clergy trooped out to a suitably Lenten closing Organ Voluntary – Saraband (in modo elegiaco) by Herbert Howells, with some deep and dark elegiac tones; and copious supplies of tea, scones and cakes survived the choristers and put the icing on the service.

William Ormerod
March 2017

A Step Back from Twickenham: Motown The Musical

First Birthday of West End Production of Motown The Musical

Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Review by Teresa Read

 

With just $800 borrowed from his family, Motown founder Berry Gordy, goes from featherweight boxer to heavyweight music mogul, discovering and launching the careers of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and many more.

 

Motown uncovers the true story of the legendary record label that changed music history and created the soundtrack of a generation.

Motown the Musical is not just a medley of Motown hits but is entwined with the social history of the USA and the part played by Berry Gordy and his aim to make black music part of American mainstream culture.

Starting with vibrant song and dance the scene moves to Gordy as a young boy inspired by Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion of the world. Born in 1929 in Detroit – Motor City – Gordy went on to found Motown Records. In 1960 Gordy’s friend, Smokey Robinson – and the Miracles – sold a million records with “Shop Around”, followed by the Marvelettes with Please Mr Postman reaching No 1 in the record charts.

An energetic and colourful performance of Dancing in the Street, co-written by Marvin Gaye and recorded by Martha and the Vandellas in 1964, was one of many songs in the show – a classic of pop culture.

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Motown the Musical is based on Berry Gordy’s autobiography: To Be Loved

Teresa Read

March 2017