Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sunny Afternoon : Hampstead Theatre

First of all I should say that I didn't actively hate this, which I feared might be the case based on the first twenty minutes establishing The Kinks' working class credentials via the medium of having their family talk about 'going down the pub to watch the football.'

In fact football features a lot here, as either a metaphor or as historical wallpaper. We get to hear England win the World Cup whilst the cast sings 'Sunny Afternoon'. I don't know whether The Kinks actually cared about football at all. Perhaps they did. The writer certainly wants us to know that they did.

Those of you who have read my blogs previously will know that I'm usually pretty easily pleased. I try to look for the positives. Mainly because I'm aware that no one -  or no one sane - actively sets out to make something terrible. And this isn't terrible. It's just not quite right.

Part of the problem might be that we're too familiar with the story. Not necessarily of The Kinks themselves but of too many bands : ripped off by parasitical managers who try and make the boys something they don't want to be, arguments, fights and fiascoes. It could be the story of a hundred bands. However there is, struggling to get out, a slightly different story about families and friendship. It's there but it's surrounded by too much padding and too many events and experiences that might be true then but have gathered the veneer of cliche as time has passed.

I should say here that the cast isn't the problem. They do a brilliant job with the material. I'm not an expert of musicals so I'm not going to pontificate on the quality of the singing. It was fine by me. Particularly good were Ben Caplin as Eddie Kassner, Lille Flynn as Rasa, George Maguire as Dave, Adam Sopp as Mick and John Dagleish as Ray. Although with that haircut I found myself thinking that Dagleish looked less like Ray Davies and more like Peter Serefinowicz doing Paul McCartney but I digress. It isn't the cast.

And it certainly isn't the music. If you come out of this not thinking that The Kinks are a bloody great band then you have a problem. Some of the songs are performed pretty straight, almost like a Kinks tribute band, especially in the 'encore' (of which more later). Others have gone through the transmogrification of the musical. But they still work. Sometimes brilliantly. The scene where Rasa (Lille Flynn) sings 'I Go To Sleep' is wonderful for example. It's fantastic lyrics sung well. The music is great but if I wanted to see a Kinks tribute band, I'd go see a Kinks tribute concert.

But it doesn't quite lift itself as a piece to the level of the songs. Now I know this was the second preview so I'm sure there's more work that will be done. In fact I'd be interested - in an almost cold academic way - in seeing it again late in the run just to see what they've cut back or dropped. It certainly appears to need a bit more directorial control.

It's directed by Edward Hall who hasn't put a foot wrong with the limited things I've seen him direct elsewhere but this seems to need tightening and perhaps some focus on what the story they are trying to tell is here.

Perhaps it is just me. I know that during the encore - when the actors play a medley of Kinks songs almost dead straight - I was almost the only person not on their feet dancing and clapping along. That's partly because I'm aware of what an utter dick I look dancing and partly because I find actors trying to encourage me to get up on my feet brings out and almost belligerent level of grumpiness. The more you try and shame me into dancing the more I'm going to sit there looking like a bulldog chewing a wasp. If I want to get up, I'll get up. Thank you.

I may have made this out to be worse than it was. It certainly seemed to entertain most of the people around me and I suspect if you just concentrate on the songs and forget about the story it makes for a fine evening. But there's a good story in here. It's just buried under too much flab.

However as I always say: see it yourself and then decide.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Brigid Coleridge : Elgar Rooms

Firstly I should admit that my knowledge of 'Classical' Music is so shallow you probably couldn't drown an ant in it. In fact this is - I think - the first live 'Classical' Music I've seen live. So this isn't going to be an incredibly in-depth and technical review.

As I've noted elsewhere part of the reason for writing these blogs / reviews is it forces me to write something every day - or almost every day - to keep me writing.

This was part of The Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Room Classical Coffee Morning series. The Elgar Room isn't the most exciting of rooms to listen to music in because it has the vibe of the cafeteria of a medium sized company in the Berkshire area. This is especially disappointing as the Royal Albert Hall itself is rather wonderful. For your money you get to watch some music and get a cup of tea or coffee and one of the world's smallest pastries. But mocking the generosity of the Royal Albert Hall when it comes to pastries is besides the point we're here for the music, not the croissants.

Brigid Coleridge is an Australian violinist who I suspect would have got the Pre-Raphaelites busy with their paint brushes. On a less shallow note she's also currently a student at the Royal College of Music studying for an Artist Diploma.

She was supported on piano by Umberto Jacopo Laureti, who looked suitably like a piano diva, which was reassuring. In fact he reminded me a little - and forgive me for this - of Lee Curreri aka Bruno Martelli from Fame. Hey, stop judging at the back I don't have much musical hinterland to draw from here.

They played Beethoven's Sonata for piano and violin in A Major (Op. 30, No.1) and Franck's Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano.

As I said I'm something of a musical ignoramus so I can't comment on technical details but I preferred the Franck to the Beethoven. For me there was more to it. As someone once said 'All art aspires to the condition of music' and this is because the effect it has on you is almost unconscious. It can divert past conscious thought and have an impact on you that is totally unexpected. That's particular true of music without voices or in languages you don't understand.

One of the best illustrations of that is in The Shawshank Redemption : "I have no idea to this day what those two Italians ladies were singing about. Truth is I don't wanna know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it...it was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away and for the briefest of moments every last man at Shawshank felt free." Which is a solid a way of explaining what music can do to you as any, even that smart quip above about all art.

The Beethoven was nice but I still had distractions running through my little head. The Franck though set me free. Yes, I suspect on a second listen it might seem too romantic or too much frippery. Yes, I'm aware that Beethoven is a genius and that - confession - I'd never heard of Franck but the Franck took me out of myself and that drab little room. I'll have to find it and listen again.

So time well-spent, especially as Brigid did nice little introductions to both pieces of music that helped put them into context.

It was a new experience for me and I did find myself wondering why do Classical Music 'fans/aficionados/audiences' not applaud between movements? And also muses on the incredible fact that a hollow wooden box, some strings and a bow with added human being can make such a fantastic range of sounds.

Anyway, I'll definitely try to get to another of these 'Classical Coffee Mornings'. It's a nice way to start a day.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Fires Were Started

Fires Were Started is a 1943 film directed and written by Humphrey Jenkins and starring real fire fighters and fire service staff. It was made under the auspices of the Crown Film Unit and might now be called a docu-drama.

It follows the lives of one group of fire fighters on a full-moon lit night during the Blitz. In many respects it feels like a typical wartime film as it sets up : a new member is added to the crew, one man's wife tells him not to go off and do something silly, there's a bit of a sing-a-long and a nice mix of classes.

But once we get to the fire itself it feels almost like a documentary and it's terrifying. What's most terrifying is watching these men go up against a huge warehouse fire with the most basic of equipment - no breathing masks for example.* It's a fantastic portrayal of the matter-of-fact danger that they faced on a daily basis and the risks they were taking.

The way the film also shows how - as the size of the fire grows - that the behind the scenes support kicks into action and more pumps arrive, including from 60 miles away from where the fire began. It's an illustration of the size of the problem and the staff involved.

As with most films of the period everyone seems to display a phlegmatic calm that might once have been described as 'typically British'. How true that was in the flames and fear of the real thing I don't know. I'm not sure I would have been so calm.

The fire crew know they can't save the building they're standing around but they are trying to save the ship nearby with its valuable cargo of weapons and ammunition soon to be sent off to help the troops. A war can't be won if all is lost here. It's emphasized at the end as we see the ship setting off from the docks and off to deliver its cargo, cross-cut with the funeral of a fire fighter. Here, it seems to be saying, we are all in it together. When that phrase actually meant something.

Having a cast of non-professional actors never particularly feels stilted. It reminded me most of The Bells Go Down, which also came out in 1943, but which is an out-and-out drama. The cast includes Tommy Trinder and William Hartnell. It has similar themes - that I remember as its been a while since I saw it - but obviously feels more like a film than a documentary.

If you've never seen it I'd recommend it. It's only 80 minutes long but it feels like a genuine slice of wartime life. Perhaps watch it with The Bells Go Down to contrast their two approaches. Jennings is definitely aiming for a more documentary feel and the fire scenes definitely feel like you're watching a documentary rather than a drama.

*There's a fantastic of its time moment where the water pressure drops on the hose that one group of fire fighters are using on the roof and whilst they wait one of the firemen lights up a cigarette.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Eastern Approaches - Fitzroy Maclean [A Review: Of Sorts]

Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches is a fascinating book written by a man who must have been rather interesting to know. The sort of man that since the end of major conflict and empire would now be limited to exploration of the world's wilder regions.

I will firstly digress a little to castigate whoever it was at Penguin that decided to package up this 2009 edition as if the book were a Chris Ryan SASfest. This book is so much better and deeper than that it deserves to be treated with a little more respect.

Yes, this is a book about World War Two and yes, the SAS feature in it, including David Stirling himself. But that's only one third of the book. It's like Penguin felt they had to have as obvious a cover as possible but I suspect if you bought this book with that expectation you might be a little disappointed. Particularly as the first third focuses on Maclean's time in the Soviet Union as a Foreign Office bod from 1937-39 and the travels he undertook whilst there to the central Asian republics.

In fact the first third is a fascinating travelogue which makes you want to visit some of the places mentioned - Samarkand, Tashkent, Alma Ata and others - but which also makes you wonder how different they are 70+ years later. How much of the traditional areas survive now? These places are all in the forgotten or unknown parts of the former Soviet Union. The places that we only generally know because England get drawn against them in World Cup or European Championship qualifiers. Even at the time Maclean was writing he already noted the impinging architecture of modern Soviet Russia on some of these places. But at least this book makes you want to go and see. There's an element of the thriller about this section as Maclean tries to visit places that he's not really supposed to go and visit. There are a number of obvious NKVD goons trailing him, sometimes to their own disappointment.

This first third also contains a rather brilliant chapter* on the 1938 Show Trials in Moscow, which combines narrative power with some fascinating analysis. For that chapter alone I'd recommend this book as it gives you a real taste of the atmosphere of Moscow at the time and the trial itself as well as giving interesting portraits of those on trial and those doing the trying. It's interesting to see Vishinky at work for example before he ends up as the Chief Russian Judge at the Nuremberg Trails.

That section ends when war breaks out. Maclean is keen to serve but the Foreign Office aren't keen to let him go. So he discovers that if he stands as an MP he can resign from the Foreign Office. This he does - being elected MP for Lancaster in a 1941 by-election - before joining the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. From there he goes to North Africa when the second section of the book begins and keen to be involved he joins the SAS. This part again is well-told. There's a phlegmatic air about the whole thing with Maclean playing down his own courage often. This isn't a man you feel is keen to steal the limelight from others. Included in this section is his role in the kidnapping of General Zahedi, commander of the Persian forces in the Isfahan area who the British fear is being 'tapped up' by the Nazi's.

The final section is his time in Yugoslavia - or Jugoslavia as it is in the book - where from 1943 he served as liaison officer to Tito's partisans. He was originally dropped in there to judge whether Tito was worthy of support as the British felt that that General Mihailović and his Chetniks were failing to persecute the Germans with sufficient vigor. It was Maclean's reports that led to Allied support switching to Tito and his Partisans, despite their communism. Maclean's book makes it pretty clear that Churchill was more bothered about who could do the most damage to the Germans than who had the right political connections.

Yugoslavia is one of the areas of World War Two where my knowledge is a little scant so I found this whole section fascinating and Tito is a figure about whom I know little too. Maclean seems to get on well with Tito and his men, which might be surprising considering his background and experiences, but like Churchill he was focused on helping defeat the Germans. It certainly seems you can see the seeds of Tito's independence from the Soviet Union here, although the book ends with Maclean worried about what might happen post-victory.

Sir Fitzroy Maclean died in 1996 and you wonder what he would have made of the implosion of post-Tito, post-Communist Yugoslavia.

Eastern Approaches is well-written, interesting and tense it tells a story that might - in other hands - have become rather melodramatic. Maclean's war was a fascinating and tense one. There's no flinching from what war means in this book but there's a realistic matter-of-factedness about the whole thing that comes from a man who was really there. It has a certain understated power that fictional writers of war might do well to copy.

It makes me want to find out more about the war in Yugoslavia, about Maclean himself and perhaps best of all it makes me want to see what the places he saw now look like. If you can do that in a book then you've succeeded.


*Chapter VII, Winter In Moscow