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Dance@TheGrange

Human Interactions, Expressed With Flair

Dance@TheGrange

Company Wayne McGregor and Ballet Black

The Grange Festival, at The Grange, Northington until 26th June

A review by Mark Aspen

Our humanity is the one thing which we all share. This was the sentiment of the brief curtain speech by Michael Chance, the Artistic Director of The Grange Festival on the opening night of Dance@TheGrange, reflecting the enthusiasm of the audience for the inspired harmonisation of dance into the Grange’s opera season for a second year. His words, “We all love dance; we all love to sing; we all are human”, encapsulated the ethos of his collaboration with the renowned choreographer, Wayne McGregor.

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The common themes that emerge from the five dance pieces are twofold: how we interact with other human beings; and how we interact within ourselves, our bodies with our minds and our minds with our spirit. We could interchange the word interact with the word react, as the two themes interconnect.

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The programme comprises five dance pieces, three by Company Wayne McGregor and two by Ballet Black. One piece by each company had its premiere on the opening night. Wayne McGregor is the doyen of the modern dance world, having successfully managed to fuse a spectrum of dance styles, the classical ballet of The Royal Ballet, the innovation of Sadler’s Wells and the cutting edge contemporary dance of The Place, having been choreographer in residence with all three companies.

Outlier, the first work of the programme, is by Company Wayne McGregor, a remounting of McGregor’s own neo-classical ballet, initially produced for the New York City Ballet, as part of its 2010 Architecture of Dance series. Although McGregor describes this as a miniOutlier_carousel_PaulKolnik_production1malist work, in many ways it is anything but. It is a high-tempo piece that is complex both visually and musically, being set to Thomas Adès’ labyrinthine Op 24 violin concerto Concentric Paths. Its three movements are entitled Rings, Paths and Rounds, which contextualises it within the architecture theme. The architectural inspiration is Bauhaus, and here is where the minimalism is apparent in the clean cut lines of Bauhaus reflected in the precise placings and movements of the dancers. The abstract presentation hints nevertheless at the human interaction within and its reaction to the built environment. Rings is a boldly sinuous section, where the interactions are between pairs dissolving from duets into investigative groupings. It is set at first against scarlet Ferri promo 1ring of light, an understated but effective design by Lucy Carter, who opens Rounds by bold placing the whole company in silhouette. This short passage includes some remarkable interpretations of flute set against a pizzicato violin, which is  danced with staccato steps, humanity confined. These two movements parenthesise the longer middle movement, Paths, which features the guest artist, Alessandra Ferri, prima ballerina assoluta at La Scala Ballet and a former Principal of The Royal Ballet. This is a more lyrical and introspective movement with the intensity of the solo violin set against the caprice of the other instruments, giving ample opportunity show Ferri’s virtuosity, much en pointe, supported by the fugitive background of the corps. (It is difficult to find an image of Alessandra Ferri not en pointe.)

Washa, the first of the works with its premiere at The Grange, is a gorgeously vivid contrast. Produced by Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black it is especially commissioned for the Grange Festival from the talented emerging choreographer, Mthuthuzeli November. Contemplating the origin of music, November asks in this piece “Exactly why do we dance to music?” and he answers his own question with this very affirming celebration of the human body and spirit interacting thorough music. Washa translates from Xhosa as “burn from the inside” and November is fascinated by the clicks and trills used in that language. The opening of the dance is inspired by the rhythms created by San Bushmen singing around the fire. Fire forms an all-encompassing image in this integrated ensemble piece from the full sextet of the company’s dancers. Opening with the sounds generated by a dancer kindling a fire from a fire-stick and driven by Peter Johnson’s percussive score, the image of fire is impressively pervasive, highlighted by the free-flowing fire-red flaming skirts of the dancers. The piece is a triumphant fusion of classical and modern dance into the millennia-old African culture, which realises November’s aim to cause the inner fire of the dancers to suffuse through their audience.

The emotionally penetrating duet, Clay, by the acclaimed Australian choreographer Alice Topp, is presented by Company Wayne McGregor as the second of the world premieres. Human beings can mould and shape each other like clay, but separation, grief and pain can intensify mutual feelings. Clay studies the sensitivities underlying the interactions between a couple where one is suffering under the burden of pain. How much can the burden be shared to the other, the clay stretched before it shears? The subtle lighting of erstwhile dancer Geneviève Giron provides a claustrophobic atmosphere. The ostinato score, Whirling Winds, by the Italian laureate composer, Ludovico Einaudi is the perfect vehicle for the two artists, Rebecca Basset-Graham and Izzac Carroll. The opening is lyrical and the dancing shows mutual sympathy, but as the music takes on an urgency and sense of aggravation, tensions become apparent. Carroll and Basset-Graham’s expressive dancing portrays the compassion and the tribulations of the relationship, its actions shift from gentle and sensitive to troubled and grudging. The pair cut some dramatic figures, difficult dynamic lifts are executed effortlessly, and the increasing weight of the piece is thoroughly acted out. As Clay is said to be a sketch for a larger dance-piece, we should be looking out with impatience to see the final work.

The versatility of Alice Topp’s choreography is exhibited in the style of Company Wayne McGregor’s Little Atlas, where it owes much to classical ballet. It premiered in 2016 at the Sydney Opera House, but transfers well to the Grange stage, where Jon Buswell’s adapted lighting plot enhances the sense of confinement crucial to the piece. This too is set to a score by Ludovico Einaudi, taken from two of his works, Fly and Pieces. Little Atlas is a piece of considerable crystalline beauty that explores the nature of memory. A solo dancer, Camille Bracher, is discovered held within a cone of brilliant light, the confines of her past experiences, her memories. She is joined by two male dancers, Jacob O’Connell and Jordan James Bridge, positive and negative reminiscences of her past. There are some beautifully executed classical movements, the ballerina held en attitude Balanchine. As forgetfulness intervenes, the top lit cone becomes more stable. Finally we are left with the solo dancer again, in a close top spotlight, a moment of sublime pathos.

The final work in the programme, The Suit, firmly picks up the theme of human interaction. It is a longer piece, with a sharply defined narrative. The plot is based on a short story by South African writer Can Themba about a married couple Matilda and Philemon, who live in a suburb of Johannesburg. The story moves from light-hearted observations of day-to-day life to a dark and tragic denouement, and requires a difficult emotional journey from the principals. American dancer Cira Robinson and Brazilian born José Alves, both Senior Artists with Ballet Black, are well up to this task and their characterisations are impeccable. The Suit won two Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards last year for Ballet Black, and choreographer Cathy Marston’s revival at The Grange remains fresh and energetic. The adage, less is more, works wonders in Jane Heather’s inspired set and David Plater’s lighting which give a sense of place as scenes move convincingly from bedroom to bathroom, to the road and bus-stop outside, to a park and on to a dance hall. All is done with two simple frames, albeit greatly augmented by the company ensemble who mime everything else from an alarm clock to a bathroom tap. Ballet-Black-The-Suit-Mthuthuzeli-NovemberAlves, as Philemon, extracts much humour from the husband’s daily routine, taking scrupulous care of his ablutions. Then into the streets where he has a cheery hello for everyone, helps little-ol’-ladies across the road, and generally excels as a good egg. But things are about to change for Philemon. Back home Matilda has shown in her lover, Simon, and her morning is about to hot-up. Their amorous encounter rapidly develops in intensity. Robinson’s sensual dancing is matched by the erotically charged interpretation of Mthuthuzeli November, now as a dancer, as they come to “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”. Unfortunately, Philemon has forgotten his briefcase, and discovers his wife in flagrante delicto. Alves’s depiction of Philemon’s revulsion is palpable. In true farce style, Simon disappears déshabillé, though the window, but not in Brian Rix style, since he leaves his trousers, and the rest of his clothes, behind. The score is written by Phillip Feeney, as arrangements of eight diverse composers’ music, and this works well to delineate the changing emotional circumstances of the protagonists. You see, Simon’s abandoned suit becomes a symbol, of shame for Matilda and of humiliation for the cuckolded Philemon. The vacant suit, cleverly becoming one of the ensemble on its coat-hanger, is constantly with the couple. It sits with them at dinner and goes with them on a walk to the park. Philemon’s personality has changed and he now only wants to humiliate his wife. He even forces her to come to a dance with their friends and makes her dance publicly with the suit. All the company, and the suit, dance a beautifully choreographed paso-doble, , but clearly its binary rhythm (and its title) is a sardonic musical pun. There is a point in the dance where it seems that Philemon is going to forgive her, a great moment of dramatic tension and you could almost feel the audience willing it to happen, but he cannot bring himself to do so. This is a moment he will regret for ever. Supported by a versatile ensemble, the expressive acting conveyed by skilfully interpretive dancing by the three principals, made this a memorable piece of story-telling.

THE SUIT_BALLET BLACK, BARBICAN,
Choreographer; CATHY MARSTEN

A wide range of human interactions, bodies, minds and spirits, is packaged in the 2019 Dance@TheGrange programme, and is presented with the flair that we have come to expect of The Grange Festival, a successful pairing of opera and dance: what a wonderful way to express our humanity.

Mark Aspen
June 2019

Photography by Bill Cooper, ASH, and Paul Kolnik

Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies

Laugh Your Head Off !

Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies

by Mike Poulton, adapted from the novels of Hilary Mantel

Teddington Theatre Club at the Hampton Hill Theatre until 28th June

A review by Viola Selby

Who fancies a good gossip about so called friends, adultery, incest, divorce and beheading? Well then Sally Halsey’s production of Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies is just up your alley! This six-hour long production, including intervals, but not dinner breaks, is a royally rumbustious affair that will have you both laughing your head off (pun intended) whilst sitting on the edge of your seat. Taken along by Sally Halsey’s great direction, the audience is transported back to various famous locations of Tudor England by Junis Olmscheid’s exquisite and highly detailed set designs, including hidden gems like the Tudor Rose on one of the corridor walls, clever lighting and sound by Gary Stevenson and Harry Jacobs and costumes that would make a queen green with envy, creatively crafted by the wardrobe team.

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Each performance is strong and carefully planned out, with all actors having a clear understanding of their character and motives. For example, Dave O’Roarty plays Cardinal Wolsey, not just as a greedy right hand of the king, but as a man whose beliefs and desires are often in conflict with his need to survive and to serve his king. Whilst Tom Wright’s Thomas More is not some gentle religious man as often More is made out to be, but an annoying pious creep.

Wolf Cromwell 2But it is Dave Brickwood, who is the star of the show as Thomas Cromwell, managing to portray a man with many layers, in an intense yet seemingly effortless performance. Instead of portraying him as a man completely devoted to Wolsey, as Mantel would have us believe, or the Tudor Alistair Campbell with an axe, as David Starkey argues, Brickwood has the audience’s mind in a real muddle as they try to work out Cromwell’s true intention. As Cromwell says, “I have never known what is in your heart. Do not presume to know what is in mine.” And this is something that in this play we can never do!

Unlike many other plays adapted from books, this is not a play about which the audience needs to have read and rememberedWolf Seymour 1 Mantel’s books word for word, nor do you feel the need to remember everything from your GCSE History lessons. It holds well on its own. However a light understanding of the characters and places would help, as there are so many plot twists and place names it is almost like watching a Game of Thrones episode! It would also help in understanding the comedy behind lines such as when Jane Seymour, brilliantly played by Hannah Lobley, introduces herself as, “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m only Jane Seymour.”

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A gripping and hilarious royal romp filled with backstabbing, plotting and intrigue, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies is a six-hour production that will have you both sitting on the edge of your thrones and laughing your breeches off!

Viola Selby
June 2019

Photography by Joe Stockwell

The Magic Flute

Riotous Spectacle, Gloriously Sung

The Magic Flute

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder

Scottish Opera at the Hackney Empire until 22nd June

A review by Genni Trickett

As a steampunk enthusiast, I have learned to be wary of mainstream events and productions that claim to be steampunk. Often, it signals a half-hearted attempt to leap on the popular bandwagon by bunging a few cogs into the design and making the ladies wear their corsets over their dresses.

The cast of The Magic Flute. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop (3)

Not so in this production of The Magic Flute, however; Scottish Opera have really gone for it. Simon Higlett’s lavish set gleams with brass, there are top hats and goggles everywhere, a delightful mechanical automaton almost steals the show, and a gloriously voluptuous, rather kinky chaise makes an appearance – maybe a sly nod to the rumour that Victorians considered furniture legs obscene. Oh, and there is also a rather fabulous monster, all gleaming metal and glowing eyes.

Peter Gijsbertsen (Tamino) and Gemma Summerfield (Pamina) in The Magic Flute. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop (3)

Papageno first appears as a flamboyant Victorian showman, drawing Tamino into the house of wonders, where a sparkly Queen of the Night and a sinister, black-clad Sarastro await him. The Masonic symbols are all present and correct, of course, but they fit rather well into the lavish spectacle. Mark Jonathan’s lighting is marvellously atmospheric, giving us gloomy shadows, bright sunshine and sinister flashes of lightning as required.

Bethan Langford (Second Lady), Jeni Bern (First Lady) and Sioned Gwen Davies (Third Lady) in The Magic Flute. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop

All in all, a visual feast. And thankfully, the production itself lived up to the aesthetic. Movement is kept largely minimal, especially during the singing, but what little there is works well. Sarastro’s henchmen lurk unsettlingly in the shadows on scaffolding, the Queen’s naughty handmaidens glide about, full of devilment, and three small boys dangle bravely from the rafters.

Bethan Langford, Jeni Bern, Sioned Gwen Davies (Three Ladies) and Peter Gijsbertsen (Tamino) in The Magic Flute. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop (2)

Peter Gijsbertsen is a noble, bewildered Tamino, and Gemma Summerfield brings some welcome melodrama to his long-suffering love, Pamina. Adrian Thompson is perfectly revolting as the cartoon villain, Monostatos, and Dingle Yandell gives an unnerving stillness to the ineffable Sarastro. Julia Sitkovetsky, as the Queen of the Night, gave a bravura performance while singing, perfectly nailing the legendarily difficult Der Hölle Rache.  However, her character lacked power, particularly when compared to her handmaidens, played by Jeni Bern, Bethan Langford and Sioned Gwen Davies.

Julia Sitkovetsky (The Queen of the Night) in The Magic Flute. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop (2)

Full marks for James Cleverton, standing in for Richard Burkhard as Papegeno; his is surely the most difficult and complicated role, but he really pulls it off. His clowning and theatrics give a much-needed lift to the meandering story line, and in this he was greatly aided by Sofia Troncoso’s ridiculously entertaining Papagena.

Sofia Troncoso (Papagena) and Richard Burkhard (Papageno) in The Magic Flute. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop

The orchestra, doubtless sweating away in their pit on such a hot night, were simply wonderful, and the sound levels were spot on.

It is impossible to review The Magic Flute without touching on the thorny issue of its innate sexism and misogyny. In this production its troublesome presence was greatly alleviated by Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s witty, slightly modernised English libretto and Sir Thomas Allen’s light, comic direction. Together they emphasised the fact that almost everything and everyone in this opera is ridiculous, and should not be taken seriously. It is a sumptuous, riotous spectacle, gloriously sung and marvellous fun. That is all.

Genni Trickett
June 2019

Photography by James Glossop

Belshazzar

Power, Piety and Pity Flow from Sybaritic Sensuality

Belshazzar

by Georg Frideric Handel, libretto by Charles Jennens

The Grange Festival, at The Grange, Northington until 6th July

A review by Mark Aspen

If you want a good rip-roaring story, there is probably no better place to go than the Old Testament. There are tales on an epic scale, as armies besiege cities, Jericho … or Babylon. There are cities of debauchery, Sodom and Gomorrah, … or Babylon. Or Babylon … here you have the best of the worst worlds, an army besieges while the city debauches. Hence, the fall of Babylon at the end of the reign of Belshazzar is a gift for an opera, and particularly if large scale choral singing is your forte (in both senses of the word).

Large scale choral works, oratorios and opera, were unquestionably a forte of Georg Frideric Handel, but to the devout Handel and his pious and staid librettist Charles Jennens, Belshazzar had a strong moral and religious message (and possibly hints of a political one).

The excesses of the eponymous Belshazzar, King (or strictly speaking co-regent) of Babylon, as the conquering Persians attack his city, are certainly strong meat; and Daniel Slater, the director of The Grange Festival’s powerful production of Belshazzar, takes every opportunity to squeeze out every delicious drop of juice from that meat.

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Handel conceived Belshazzar as an oratorio and it is indeed rare for it to be presented as a fully staged opera. Michael Chance, The Grange Festival’s ebullient Artistic Director, tells us that this is the first UK production* of Belshazzar as an opera in “living memory”. The dedicated and knowledgeable Chance knows how to pick his season, and this opera is more than a dramatised oratorio, it is a triumph!

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Slatter’s setting reeks of voluptuousness, think Peter Greenaway meets Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The setting has a tripartite artistic concept, design, lighting and movement. Robert Innes Hopkins set design is an inspired by the iconic image of Breughel’s Tower of Babel. We feel we have to let pass the anachronism of a couple of millennia between Genesis and Daniel, but then again this tower is truncated and no longer has the conceit to reach heaven. It is still a structure of some substance set with precarious footholds for the cast to clamber on. The tower is mounted on a revolve and turns to reveal the sumptuous golden walled palace of Belshazzar. Then Peter Mumford’s lighting design follows the various moods of the plot, colour-coding emotions and emphasizing place. We can be with the licentious Babylonians inside the massive city walls, or outside with the haughty Persians. The third impressive element is the movement, individuals become masses: crowds whose every move underlines the action, sometime disciplined armies, sometime mobs, sometime orgiastic writhing heaps of sensuality. Movement director Tim Claydon’s choreography is a well-studied and accurately observed replication of the collective instincts of the crowd. It delivers just as much impact as the large scale operatic or dramatic blockbusters mounted on the London stages by directors such as Deborah Warner.

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Claydon’s palette is the augmented festival chorus comprising The Sixteen Choir and The Grange Festival Chorus. It is unusual in a review to mention the chorus before the principals, but in this production the chorus makes such a magnificent visual and vocal foil to set off the talents of the individual performers. Handel gives the chorus much to do, and they are certainly kept busy repeatedly changing costumes to become Babylonians, Jews, Medes or Persians. But Handel gives them music of grandeur and magnificence, and the augmented chorus of some 27 singers bring this out with musical vibrancy and unimpeachable coordination. Each of the peoples has its own character. The Babylonians, gaudy and brash, mock the besiegers from atop the walls, “Hark, Cyrus! A tedious time! To make it short, thy wise attempt will find us sport”. The Jews, dressed in black are pious and are submissive, until Belshazzar profanes their sacred chalice, “Recall, O king, thy rash command”. The Persians, determined and confident, hold the moral high ground, “Of things on earth, proud man must own, falsehood is found in man alone.” The chorus differentiate between each with well-polished skill.

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The visual impact of the chorus, increased to thirty by the presence of three skilled acrobats (Haylee Ann, Craig Dagostio and Felipe Reyes), comes from the fluent and expressive choreographed movement that almost articulates the collective consciousness of the group, as cowed prisoners, marching disciplined armies, or decadent courtiers. The depraved licentiousness of the Babylonian court reaches its depths in the Feast of Sesach, an unbridled drunken orgy of sex in all its versions and perversions, which continues even as the Persians besiege the city.

Belshzz10And from the innermost core of the depravity there bursts like an erupting volcano the lip-smacking figure of the bisexual tyrant, Belshazzar. Robert Murray makes a remarkable Belshazzar, his muscular tenor negotiating the intricacies of the score with aplomb, and obviously relishing acting the reckless despot. The sybaritic sensuality of his court is played out in Haylee Ann’s aerial ballet, on a stream of golden silk, dangled before Belshazzar’s popping eyes. She climbs the silk to retrieve the Jewish chalice … Belshazzar drinks from it! Then a sudden staccato violin chord as he faints in fear! At first it is only he who sees the Writing on the Wall.

Belshzz7Daniel, the charismatic prophet of royal Jewish descent, is brought forth, as only he can decipher The Writing. James Laing, as a long haired, bespectacled and somewhat studious Daniel, conveys calm and dignified piety. Laing (soon to revive his “sleazy” Terry in Nico Muhly’s Marnie at ENO) has a finely pointed countertenor voice, which emanates authority “Thou hast not glorified, but hast blasphem’d.” As he interprets the portentous message, he places a healing and exorcising hand on Belshazzar, who is spiritually slain.

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The countertenor is a stock in modern interpretations of Baroque opera, and The Grange Festival has built a strong reputation in the Baroque with its yearly production of early opera. (Michael Chance himself is of course a renowned countertenor.) It is interesting to hear the subtleties of timbre and approach that exist within the countertenor range. Christopher Ainslie, who played Ottone in The Grange Festival’s Agrippina last year (and Oberon in A Midsummers’ Night’s Dream at ENO) is now Cyrus in this production, Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor. He portrays the patient confident Cyrus with an assertive countertenor, slightly more coloured than Laing’s defined approach, imbuing the character with considered audacity.

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Cyrus’s audacity is at its most evident in his bold tactic of diverting the Euphrates river which encircles the city, an historic detail that Jennens gleaned from Herodotus rather than the Old Testament, but which embodies the out-of-the-box daring-do of the character. This trait is highlighted by the juxtaposition of Cyrus’s more conventional military man, his general Gobrias, scored as a bass. The men are depicted as mutually supportive. Gobrias is “oppress’d with never-ceasing grief” over the murder of his son by Belshazzar, but Cyrus urges him to revenge. Henry Waddington portrays Gobrias as a tragic figure for whom “no hope, but in revenge, is left”. He relishes in his delivery of his observation of Belshazzar, “Behold the monstrous human beast, wallowing in excessive feast” and the drama of the descending scales paints a vivid picture. It is Gobrias who kills Belshazzar with his own hand, and in a dramatic coda we feel his revulsion as he hands over the bloodied sword to Cyrus.

Belshzz4In spite of all the swashbuckling, there are profound depths to Belshazzar. It is a three-way struggle between reason, immorality and spirituality, embodied in each of the three peoples, the good, the bad and the pious. Nitocris, Belshazzar’s mother, is a well-developed character who is torn by the heart-rending dilemma between condemning Belshazzar’s sins and protecting him as the son she loves, whilst filled with foreboding about his fate. Slater places Nitocris as the parentheses around the opera. During the overture we see the veiled Nitocris mourning alongside the coffin of her late husband, one of the four Babylonian kings assassinated during the bloody six years following the death of Nebuchadnezzar. Finally, as a visual epilogue to the opera, we see the veiled Nitocris mourning alongside the coffin of her late son. Claire Booth’s Nitocris sincere characterisation and expressive soprano vocal colour exudes the emotional language at the heart of the opera’s message.

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Slater’s Belshazzar drips with symbolism. Some is obvious, witness the lascivious things the Babylonians do with luscious bowls of fruit, some less so. Why does Daniel end up locked in erotic embraces with Nitocris after Belshazzar’s death? There is nothing in the libretto or score to suggest this. Maybe it contrasts with Cyrus, for whom the libretto has him declaring to Nitocris, “Be still a queen, a mother still, a son in Cyrus you shall find”. A bit Freudian-Oedipal it seems, so perhaps the implication is that Daniel will become a spiritual step-father to Cyrus. Are we meant to read that much in?

The Orchestra of The Sixteen, under the baton of its director Harry Christophers, is at one with the piece. Christophers moves the opera along at just the right pace, and the orchestra and the augmented Sixteen Choir are in perfect balance. Indeed, they have had a long time working together as this year marks the fortieth anniversary of The Sixteen, which Christophers founded in the summer of 1979.

With all the flair that The Grange Festival has for the baroque, its Belshazzar is a tour de force, a parable of power, piety and pity told with epic spectacle and artistic finesse. Yet another must see for The Grange.

Mark Aspen
June 2019

Photography by Simon Annand

* Rene Jacobs rather  lacklustre production featured at the Aix en Provence Festival in 2008.

Hansel and Gretel

If You Go Down in the Woods

Hansel and Gretel

by Engelbert Humperdinck, libretto by Adelheid Wette, based on the Grimm brothers’ story

Regent’s Park Theatre and English National Opera, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 22nd June

Review by Suzanne Frost

I have never been to the amphitheatre in Regent’s Park before, because the reality of a Great British Summer always means that, in choosing a date and buying a ticket, you also acquire the risk of having a right miserable wet time. For ENO’s opening night of Hansel and Gretel the weather gods were on our side (the only dry day all week!) and how lovely the grounds look, with fairy lights in the trees and the lawn dotted with picnic baskets and happy people carrying wine coolers. My continental bones still need a fleece jacket and a blanket to wrap up in but there’s no denying that when it goes right, a Great British picnic really is charming.

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With the trees whispering and birdsong mingling with the human voices, those pastoral brass notes of the overture develop a very special magic. Engelbert Humperdinck’s children’s opera is sweet in its simplicity yet rich in melodies and orchestration; very reminiscent of his mentor and teacher Richard Wagner, but much more optimistic and in this case, deliberately more modest with a close vicinity to German folk music. Indeed, so many of the songs are nursery rhymes any German kid knows to sing in kindergarten and so the opera taps right into memory, transporting you back to simpler times. Usually Hansel and Gretel is a Christmas favourite, its rich brass and wind section giving it a festive splendour. But in Derek J Clark’s stripped down re-orchestration for a scaled down ensemble, conducted by Ben Glassberg, it has a pastoral charm that works just as well when your stage is in the forest and the surrounding bushes act as wings and the odd pigeon comes flying through the scenery.

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To the sounds of the overture, director Timothy Sheader populates the stage with a chorus of sinister looking witches in dirty rags carrying broomsticks and sulkily sucking on lollipops. With their empty stare and exaggerated rings under their eyes they resemble a zombie army straight out of The Walking Dead and give a nice chilly creepiness to the fairy tale without ever doing anything truly unsettling.

Hansel And GretelWe meet Hansel and Gretel in their squalid little house, short on food but rich in cheer and energy, playing games using their imagination. Grown-ups playing child characters often ends up icky but I found Rachel Kelly and Susanna Hurrell convincing enough without piling on the sugar. While not confined to any distinctive time period, there are fun contemporary touches such as Rosie Aldridge’s robust mother calling on God to help with a lottery scratch-ticket or getting positively turned on by the can of Heinz beans her brush maker husband brings home to feast on, while swigging from a can of beer (and relieving himself in the bushes of Regent’s Park!) A special mention to Duncan Rock’s beautifully clear articulation and I am so pleased that while in the past I have often struggled with ENO’s insistence on English libretti, the translation for Hansel and Gretel by David Pountey is perfect, with natural, easy rhythm that retains the simplistic charm and dreamy poetry of the original.

There are beautiful directorial ideas, from the forest built out of upside-down broomsticks, lit up with twinkly fairy lights, to the dream pantomime that concludes Act II and sees a crew of fourteen angel airline hosts descending in a wonderfully imaginative scene with a distinct Matthew Bourne aesthetic to it.

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The gingerbread house that greets us on return from the interval is a colourful construction of blinking flickering lights with the irresistible appeal of an amusement arcade to a gambling addict. Only Alasdair Elliott’s witch is a bit of a let-down, his panto dame attire just isn’t as menacing compared to the truly spooky chorus of zombie witches – but then he does shave his legs using whipped cream and reveals a bald head under his wig, in a nice nod to Roald Dahl’s The Witches.

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The spirited kids from Pimlico Children’s Choir get to finish the show with a Mathilda-like power to the little people number, but overall this production feels more for grownups than children – it’s got humour and heart and a few knowing winks and pop culture references that make it quite sophisticated in its sweetness.

Suzanne Frost
September 2018

Photography by Johan Persson

Di and Viv and Rose

Anywhere, Anywhen, Together

Di and Viv and Rose

by Amelia Bulmore

The Questors at the Studio, Ealing until 22nd June

A Review by Genni Trickett

Di and Viv and Rose is, as you would expect, a play about three women. Three women at university in the 1980s. Three women with very strong, disparate personalities. Three women who, throughout their lives, will share and support each other through experiences both good and bad. Three women called…err, Di and Viv and Rose.

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Despite the strong whiff of nostalgia running through the play, emphasised in this production through the use of political activism posters and a catchy 80s soundtrack, the play itself seems strangely timeless. For the most part it’s set in the north of England, but that also is irrelevant. These three women could be anywhere, anywhen. All over the world, this kind of deep, complex, very female relationship has been played out, over and over again, since the beginning of time. Writer Amelia Bulmore focuses intently on the intertwined personalities of the three as the basis for the story, their shared house serving almost as a protective bubble for much of the first act, but the intense social and political upheaval of the era outside is reflected in the personalities of the girls.

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Rose is a well-to-do, bubbly arts student, with a penchant for sleeping with anyone who takes her fancy. Di is a strapping, sporty, proud lesbian, who nevertheless daren’t come out to her family. And Viv is a no-nonsense intellectual feminist, obsessed by the social history of the corset.

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All three actresses inhabit their roles with verve and gusto, making their characters sympathetic and believable. Lauren Grant, as Rose, is perhaps the most comfortable in her character’s skin, playing her with a wide-eyed childishness that seems very genuine. Their interactions are, for the most part, lovely to watch – although a joint dance sequence to Prince was overlong and very awkward.

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Despite the strong characters and acting, the play is patchy; whether this is due to the writing or to Sukhi Kainth’s direction it is hard to tell. It begins with a series of jerky vignettes – maybe a legacy of Bullmore’s screen writing past – which then stretch gradually, like bubblegum, to form whole scenes. At times it feels dragged out, and at times rushed; possibly the whole script could have done with some judicious pruning. Bron Blake’s set was also often more hindrance then help; people tripped over trailing phone wires, bumped into chairs and, at a point where we really should have been focussing on tragic Viv, we were all distracted watching the other two running around with mattresses.

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Despite its flaws, there is enjoyment to be derived from Di and Viv and Rose. Merely watching and listening to the girls is a delight, and, thanks to our emotional investment, the occasional moments of darkness pack a heavy emotional punch. With some trimming and tightening, it could be a great success.

Genni Trickett
June 2019

Photography by Carla Evans

The Lonesome West

Firing On All Cylinders … And In All Directions

The Lonesome West

by Martin McDonagh

Richmond Shakespeare Society, Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 15th June

A Review by Raymond West

Every so often you have an evening at the theatre that is hard to describe. Was it terrific? Was it terrible? Richmond Shakespeare Society’s revival of The Lonesome West provides just one of those evenings. This hilariously funny production is a non-stop carnival of lunacy, set in the west of Ireland and centred on two brothers who seem to have been hell-bent on destroying each other since birth and are now set to bring their home – if not the neighbourhood and everyone in it -crashing down around them.

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Fiona Smith directs Martin McDonagh’s play with verve, allowing the quiet moments of reflection – there are some – the time and space they need, while keeping the brothers’ never-ending struggle centre stage even when they are in the wings. The production is well cast with good performances from the quartet of actors, especially Tom Shore’s quietly desperate priest who has failed in every aspect of his life and Elle Greenwood as a schoolgirl poteen dealer (only in Ireland!) who might have more balls than any of the men – all failures in their way – yet has a softer centre that comes to the surface only when events take a turn for the worst.

As the Connor brothers, living a Punch-and-Judy life in a sparsely furnished cottage, Steve Webb and Martin Halvey are very entertaining. Halvey’s is a more subtle portrait of insanity – just – while Webb’s herky-jerky twitches owe much to Father Ted, too much so when he first appears. Against the odds, the two actors, well paired, succeed in making some sense of the Connors’ insanely destructive rivalry.

The pace of the production is furious throughout which means that the over-lengthy set changes and blackouts provide a little respite and are less distracting than they would otherwise be. The technical effects are generally good, especially the sound, though the opening scene of the second act was too expansively and brightly lit, leading to audible confusion for some members of the audience.

All in all, a flawed but thoroughly enjoyable whirlwind of an evening that will stay in the memory for some time to come. Was it terrific? Was it terrible? It was both.

Raymond West
June 2019

Photography by Simone Germaine Best