Northern Ballet’s Cinderella


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Music by Philip Feeney

Choreography by David Nixon

Northern Ballet

Palace Theatre, Manchester

18 November 2014

Martha Leebolt and Tobias Batley in David Nixon’s Cinderella.  Photo by Bill Cooper.

Martha Leebolt and Tobias Batley in David Nixon’s Cinderella. Photo by Bill Cooper.

With Northern Ballet’s new production of ‘Cinders’, it’s fireworks all the way.

Set in an Imperial Russia of snowy landscapes and sumptuous ballrooms, the brisk narrative pace, present from the get-go, doesn’t ever really let up.  The action is punctuated by superb pyrotechnic and lighting effects, the costumes and sets are luxuriant, there are circus acts, bears and huskies and even a magician.  Blink and you miss something.

Each character has a set of signature dance moves and gestures.  Among a slue of splendid dance performances, Jessica Morgan as Cinderella’s stepmother stood out.  She was an elegant and sinister presence.

Philip Feeney’s score seemed to emphasize the drama of the story rather more than Prokofiev’s traditional score, if I remember the latter correctly.

If you’re looking for a Cinderella that pulls out all the stops, this superb production is the one to see.  Current tour dates can be found here.

The Imitation Game


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The Imitation Game

Directed by Morten Tyldum

UK, 2014

Cornerhouse, 16 November 2014

The Imitation Game

Turing’s wartime work at Bletchley Park and his sexuality, which naturally considering the law of the land at the time he sought to hide, are the focus of the film.

Happily, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alex Lawther, the young actor who plays Turing as a boy, manage to capture (you feel) the essence of his character: note in particular their off-tempo hesitancy, an almost-stutter at certain moments: a characteristic of Turing that many remarked upon.  In respect to period detail, brisk dramatic pace and strong supporting performances the film pretty much gets it right as well.  A few doubts do arise about its accuracy, mind.  For one thing, the title of Turing’s famous paper, the one where he introduced a test for whether a machine could think, was actually ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, not ‘The Imitation Game’, as he says here when being interviewed by a police officer.  And was Alexander really such a ladies man?

Still, after the war what went on at Bletchley Park was hushed up and all but forgotten.  It is therefore welcome to have this film as a belated public acknowledgement of the significance of Turing’s and others’ (Jack Good, CHO’D Alexander) achievements.

A splendid film.

RNCM Symphony Orchestra


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RNCM Symphony Orchestra

RNCM Concert Hall, 14 November 2014

An immensely enjoyable concert which featured works by Berlioz and Prokofiev, two of which were inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.

We began with Berlioz, the rousing King Lear Overture.  To follow, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C major: scintillating piano-playing from Oliver She and a lot of intricate, filigree violin and viola.

As the concert’s crowning glory, there followed-  Well, only the complete orchestral score for Romeo and Juliet, probably the finest music ever written for a ballet based on a Shakespeare play.  Is this the finest music ever on a Shakespearean theme, including opera, film and songs?  That’s more debatable.  This performance was crisp and clear throughout, altogether bracing.  During the ‘Dance of the Knights’ sequence, the knights leapt, they didn’t limp, to paraphrase Tartakower.

When it was over, you wanted more.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof @ the Royal Exchange Theatre


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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

By Tennessee Williams

Royal Exchange Theatre, 4 November 2014

Charles Aitken as Brick (left) and Dara O'Malley as Big Daddy in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.  Photo - Jonathan Keenan

Charles Aitken as Brick (left) and Dara O’Malley as Big Daddy in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Photo – Jonathan Keenan

Williams’ most personal play, a favourite amongst all his works, appears in a compelling production at the Royal Exchange.

He certainly created a fabulous, large-as-life, monstrous character in Big Daddy, brought into being by Dara O’Malley’s intense performance this evening.  Though brash and crass, Big Daddy is also vital and – surprisingly perhaps, although why should we be surprised? – accepting; more accepting, actually, of Brick’s (played by Charles Aitken) indeterminate sexuality than he himself seems to be.   Above all, it’s the desire to face life head on, the commitment to plain speaking and, for want of a better word, truth, that makes Big Daddy such an attractive character.  An American Falstaff, one can see why he meant so much to Williams.  Pertinent here as well is that great Frank O’Hara line from ‘My Heart’: ‘I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar’ (whoever they are).  You want to have whatever Big Daddy’s on.

Left to follow in Liz Taylor’s footsteps, Mariah Gale as Maggie more than fills her stiletto pumps.  She’s by turns, sometimes all at once, seductive and vulnerable and ballsy: a heartbreaker.  Significantly, she feels a kinship with Big Daddy.  Once too often, Maggie tells us that she feels like ‘a cat on a hot tin roof’ (Enough, already; we get it!), but other than that, the play can’t really be faulted.   And nor can this production.  An excoriating journey.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 29 November 2014, further details can be found here.




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Directed by Dan Gilroy

USA, 2014

Cornerhouse, 31 October 2014

Everything you’d ever want from a contemporary crime film; neo-noir so nasty it gets under your skin.

One night Lou Bloom (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose performance is as grotesque as realism allows: Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe would be a good reference point), a high-functioning sociopath, comes across a car wreck.  While the medics are attending to the injured, a cameraman – a modern day Weegee, though this is Los Angeles not New York – is filming the scene, footage that he will later sell to the TV news.  It’s an event that serves as an epiphany for Lou: here is rewarding work where his lack of empathy with people, indeed his positive dislike of them, not to mention his amorality, is a big plus.

At first, Lou is content simply to observe and record accident victims, scenes of violent crime.  Then he decides to take a more active role.  He is an artist, naturally he needs to innovate…  If you watch the film waiting for Lou to slip up, you’ll be disappointed – and that tells you something about what it’s about.

Yes, it is a critique of the media’s penchant for sensationalism and violence in the spirit of films like Network.  What’s as pertinent, however, is that it charts the point where the middle class fear of crime and accident (which is the market Lou feeds) segues into the fear of being unable to get by in a flat-lining economy where businesses are closing, investments are losing their value and underemployment (if not unemployment) is rife.  And even if you’re in employment, the stress of continually needing to hit targets (as Lou’s boss, played by Rene Russo, finds) is energy-sapping.

The key term is ‘precariousness’; we all of us live in a precarious world, or ‘a runaway world’ as Ulrich Beck would have it.  You can become a victim of the economy just as easily as a victim of crime.

But not Lou, he succeeds and prospers.  The Fates don’t rule his world.

Nightcrawler is a brilliant film, brimming with excellent performances from the likes of Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton, as well as Gyllenhaal.  As noir, it somehow put me in mind of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.

The Full English


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The Full English

RNCM Theatre, 1 November 2014

The Full English are a band of folk musicians brought together by Fay Hield to record an album of the finest English folk songs.

A further purpose was to make the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) archive, from which the songs were taken, better known.

The concert featured songs from the album, and a few others besides.  One song, The King of the Cannibal Islands, had a strong klezmer flavour.  Another, Stand by Your Guns, an Appalachian feel.  There was an exactness and a lovely openness to many of the songs, not least the two Joseph Taylor songs; each one a world you could step into.

Further details of The Full English band can be found here.  And the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) archive is here.  I’d definitely recommend looking around the EFDSS site: it’s a treasure house.

Confidentially Yours


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Confidentially Yours

By Charles Williams

Duckworth, 2014

ISBN: 9780715649114

Confidentially Yours

Charles Williams, a prolific writer of paperback originals in the 1950s and ‘60s, produced several mysteries of real quality.  Among them, Confidentially Yours, first published in 1962.

The set-up is classic noir and goes something like this: after being brought in for questioning by the town sheriff over one murder, John Warren returns home only to stumble over another.  Shortly thereafter, he goes on the run and, aided by his resourceful and beautiful secretary, sets out to bring the real murderer to book and so prove his innocence.  He succeeds, after a fashion.

It is an entertaining mystery and the set-up reminded me of the odd Hitchcock film – The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, the sort of film where romance blossoms between a couple as they try to evade capture by the police.  Little wonder, then, that François Truffaut, Hitchcock’s great admirer, adapted Confidentially Yours for the screen as Vivement dimanche! in 1983.

You could say, tongue in cheek, that it is the diverting story of how a man loses one wife and finds another.  There are lots of twists and turns to the story, the characters are well-defined (if anything, they behave a little too straightforwardly – no melancholy moping as in some novels I’ve read recently) and Williams’s prose is plenty good enough.

Ed Lynskey has written a pretty good article about Charles Williams, which can be read here.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

Vienna Piano Trio


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Vienna Piano Trio

Manchester Chamber Concerts Society

RNCM Theatre, 27 October 2014

© 2012 Wiener Klaviertrio - Vienna Piano Trio

© 2012 Wiener Klaviertrio – Vienna Piano Trio

A splendid concert.

There were three astutely chosen works.  Following the opulent melodies of Haydn’s Piano Trio in E flat major, we were given one of those ingeniously constructed artifacts that only the fertile genius of Mozart could have come up with.  It was his Piano Trio in G major, a work of potent splendor.  However, the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the closing performance of the original (1854) version of Brahms’ Piano Trio in B major.

When Brahms revised this work some decades after its original composition, in 1889 in fact, he basically cut it; his incisions pruned its branches and gave it a clearer, but an arguably more conventional form.  That’s how the mature Brahms saw the matter.  Yet unwieldy branches and weeds can, on being viewed from a different perspective, be seen as wondrous, luxuriant growths; and the original version had colour and complexity in abundance.

Anyway, the Vienna Piano Trio gave a strong performance of Brahms’ original work and allowed you to hear its beauty.  They’re all fine musicians and showed a plentiful amount of interaction throughout.  Stefan Mendl, the pianist, added a smidgeon of showmanship to proceedings but in essence they’re an efficient, well oiled machine.

At the end I reflected that whenever I hear Brahms, I like him.  But he’s not a composer I seek out especially.  Maybe I should.  And another stray thought: sometimes, More is More.

Details of forthcoming MCCS concerts can be found here.






Stefan Zweig – Abschied von Europa


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Stefan Zweig – Abschied von Europa

Curated by Clement Renoldner

Theater Museum

Lobkowitzplatz, Vienna

August 2014

Ausstellung im Theatermuseum, Gestalter: Peter Karlhuber, Kurator: Klemens Renoldner © Theatermuseum, Wien

Ausstellung im Theatermuseum, Gestalter: Peter Karlhuber, Kurator: Klemens Renoldner
© Theatermuseum, Wien

Just to revisit Stefan Zweig’s A Chess Story briefly.

At the moment there’s an exhibition at the Theater Museum in Vienna, looking at the latter part of the Austrian writer’s life and career.  In Stefan Zweig – Abschied von Europa, one room is given over to Schachnovelle.  Here you can read manuscripts and typescripts, view various editions of the book and so on.  A photograph of the room is above.

Note the chequered floor, the scale model of the Hotel Metropole – which was where the Gestapo were quartered in Vienna from 1938 – the leather great coats.  The layout of the room and the iconography may strike some as being a bit creepy, not to say problematic.  Zweig was Jewish, of course.

On a lighter note: elsewhere on the same floor, and as part of the exhibition, there’s a chess set on a table and a couple of chairs.  When I visited the museum in August, I couldn’t resist playing out the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3…

Zweig plays a part in the main exhibition, Richard Strauss und die Oper, as well.  He knew the composer and suggested writing an opera based on Ben Jonson’s play Epicoene; Or the Silent Woman.  This became Die schweigsame Frau (1933), for which Zweig wrote the libretto.

The top floor of the museum has a small array of artifacts relating to stage and set design.  This is, I think, a permanent exhibition.  The other two, Stefan Zweig – Abschied von Europa and Richard Strauss und die Oper, continue until early 2015, further details can be found here.

A Chess Story


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A Chess Story

By Stefan Zweig

Translated by Alexander Starritt

Cover illustration by Petra Börner

Pushkin Press, 2013

ISBN: 9781782270119

A Chess Story

Zweig’s novella, the Austrian writer’s last great work of fiction, was completed not long before his death.

It is a straightforward story, yet, as always with Zweig, psychologically complex.  We are on a steamship bound for Buenos Aires, where one of the passengers is Czentovic, the world chess champion.  Some chess enthusiasts take the opportunity to challenge the world champion to a consultation game and, naturally enough, he is soon beating them easily.  Until, that is, an enigmatic stranger, one Dr B, intervenes on the enthusiasts’ side and secures a draw.  A clamour ensues as they try to persuade Dr B to challenge Czentovic directly, to a match of two or three games…

Chess flowered in fin-de-siècle Vienna under the stewardship of George Marco, the celebrated editor of the Wiener Schachzeitung.  Carl Schlechter flourished in the city’s rich chess culture, going on to draw a match with Lasker for the world championship.  And the city attracted many talented players, including Richard Reti and Savielly Tartakower, leading lights of the Hypermodern School.  Hardly surprising, therefore, that Zweig gives a remarkable, if not always coherent or accurate, eulogy to the royal game in the early pages of A Chess Story:

But aren’t we guilty of being insultingly disparaging if we refer to chess as a game?  Is it not also a science, an art, poised between one and the other like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique synthesis of all opposites; ancient and yet always new, mechanical in its structure yet animated only by the imagination, limited to a geometrically petrified space yet unlimited in its permutations, always developing yet ever sterile, a logic with no result, a mathematics without calculations, an art without works, an architecture without materials, which has nevertheless proved more lasting in its forms and history than any works or books, the only game that belongs in every era and among every people, of which no one knows what god brought it to earth to kill boredom, sharpen the wits and tauten the spirit?

When Dr B is arrested by the Gestapo in Vienna and brought to the Hotel Metropole for interrogation, this wonderful game becomes his salvation.  He steals a book of master games and plays through them one by one in his mind; then later he plays against himself.  Chess offers an escape, a place of solace, a sphere where the mind can lose itself.  In time he survives, yet is damaged irretrievably.  A victim of the game’s awful infinitude.

A Chess Story is a brilliant work, excellently translated by Alexander Starritt, which might be described as a meditation on the fragility of culture and civilisation, a subject about which Zweig could speak with some authority.  Chess is used as a metaphor for myriad aids and evils, any arena of addiction and obsession - myth, fantasy, ideology, even art – where the mind may come to lose itself.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.



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