Sunday, 23 October 2016

Pink Martini leave the Royal Albert Hall jumping

It’s a rare week indeed when The Other Half and I see two live performances of any variety. But the last few days have gone beyond ‘rare’ and into the downright surreal.

After witnessing a chorus line of tap dancing noses at the Royal Opera House on Thursday, Saturday offered up the sight of his excellency the US ambassador to the court of St James on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, playing the triangle.

But sure enough, friend of the band Matthew Barzun – presumably intending to enjoy a quiet eve-of birthday celebration by watching Pink Martini – had been lured on stage for a number.

And, of course, it gave him the opportunity to call on any compatriots in the 5,000-strong audience to vote next month in the US presidential elections. He didn’t say who they should vote for, but Pink Martini is a big band that describes itself on Twitter thus: “If the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully we'd be it.”

In other words, you might be able to take a guess at the type of people likely to be in attendance.

Along with the moment when the son of Palestinian refugees introduced a song he’d written for the band in Egyptian Arabic – and then hugged the vocalist, Ari Shapiro, who is Jewish – that was it with politics for the night.

These concerts really should be formally described as ‘Pink Martini and friends’, because not only did we get the US ambassador taking part, we were introduced to a young pianist band leader Thomas Lauderdale had just happened to meet, plus Ikram Goldman.

Credited with getting Michelle Obama interested in fashion, Goldman is the hugely influential owner of a high-end boutique in Chicago, but having introduced Lauderdale and co to the Arabic song Al Bint Al Shalabiya, she joined them on stage to sing it.

A brand new album
The band has recently penned three songs for the forthcoming French film, Souvenir – sung on screen by the wonderful Isabelle Huppert and on stage by the equally wonderful China Forbes, one of Pink Martini’s two regular lead vocalists.

And then there was a three-song guest spot by Australian singer-performer-cabaret artist (she defies easy label) Meow Meow, whose initial song, with two unwitting male ‘volunteers’ from the floor of the house, reminded both The Other Half and I of a routine by the late, great Eartha Kitt.

We get a spot of Schubert on the piano as a segueway into a pair of songs about a couple having a row: one from her perspective, one from his (radio journalist and regular guest Shapiro gets the latter of these, after Forbes has given us the first).

A lot of the current material in the concert features on the new album – Je Dis Oui! – which was given it’s global release on the UK leg of this tour.

The Pinks are all superb musicians, from Lauderdale, with his flamboyant style of playing the piano, through the likes of Forbes and percussionist – and occasional vocalist and dancer – Timothy Nishimoto.

This is sophisticated easy listening with a global sensibility.

A fabulous show that had the entire joint jumping by the end, with their marvellous version of Brazil (you can catch a flavour of the final few minutes here), Portland, Oregon’s finest leave you with a wide grin on your face, a spring in your step and optimism in your heart.

For details about more dates (in the UK and elsewhere) visit The new album is available in the UK now, but details of its wider release are also on the band’s website.

Friday, 21 October 2016

On The Nose – a brilliant ROH debut for Kosky

It’s entirely possible that the greatest sight at a London theatre this year is that of a chorus line of 13 giant noses, tap dancing across the stage of the Royal Opera House.

It might not be what many Covent Garden aficionados expect, but the reception at last night’s premiere of a new production of Shostakovich’s The Nose would suggest that, whatever some of the more culturally po-faced might imagine, opera goers in London enjoy a farce as much as anyone else.

Shostakovich’s first opera, completed in 1928, is just bonkers.

But there’s a simple reason for that – because it is based on Gogol’s short story of the same name, which is, err, three stops short of Upminster.

To precis: Kovalev is a pompous bureaucratic who wakes up to find that he has lost his nose. Looking for it, he finds that it has become rather larger and, indeed, overtaken him in terms of social standing.

His nose does not want to return to its former position. The police are no help. He advertises with a local paper after being ridiculed by the journalists – but then the nose itself gets caught up with populist sentiment and is almost lynched, before being returned to Kovalev.

Initially, he cannot re-attach it, but that happens miraculously over night. And that's it – or maybe not.

A chorus line of tap dancing, err, noses
There is neither logic nor sense here – it is entirely surreal. And entirely hilarious.

Or is it?

The scene I mentioned at the top is one that director Barrie Kosky has inserted into the piece, but it’s a perfect fit. The audience absolutely fell about.

Kosky is currently the artistic director go the Komische Oper in Berlin and has something of a reputation of being an operatic enfente terrible

In this, his ROH debut, he proves his maxim that no movement is ever pointless and presents the house with a wonderful first production of the piece. There is so much movement – but none is simply indulgent.

Now it flags in the middle (the whole is just over two hours, with no interval) – but that’s less Kosky and more the young composer. However, so much else is good that one forgets that by the end.

The house band, under Ingo Metzmacher, is first rate with a varied score, from very modern (at the time) to folk and conventionally melodic, – it even includes a balalaika accompaniment to one song from Ivan, Kovalevs servant, delightfully sung here by tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (making his ROH debut)

Martin Winkler as Kovalev
David Pountney’s translation to English helps to make it an immediate feel, and just adds enough to give us a sense of the transgressive nature of the work that the first audiences must have felt. 

It’s a superb ensemble cast, but special mentions go to renowned buffo performer Martin Winkle in the role of Kovalev, while Sir John Tomlinson as Kovalev’s barber reminds us (should we need it) just what a great bass he is – and how he really can still do it, vocally and in terms of the acting.

There are moments when you feel that Kosky was channelling the Weimar era of his now home city of Berlin – but that works well here, along with Russian Keystone cops and corruption at all levels, because we’re looking at a decaying, corrupt society. Yet within the church scene, before Kovalev challenges his wayward nose, it is both musically and emotionally beautiful and powerful.

And ultimately, beneath the farce, there is a sense – and it is a sense, but this is part of what I think makes the production so good – of both the vodka-soaked Russian tragedy, and indeed, the perverse insanity that threatens even now to engulf us all.

The obvious satire nods to a decaying society obsessed with the insignificant; to social standing and form, even as the pillars of that society crumble corruptly around it.

The Nose is subtle even at the same time as being quite the opposite: but there is also a darkness here that we can see in the world around us right now. And an element of ‘fuck you about a piece that perhaps gives us the hope that, having survived such possible apocalypses before, we can do so again.

I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that, while I am now a friend of the ROH, our tickets – with fab view and even fabber sound – were under £30 each. The ROH is NOT beyond the pocket of all but a few in this country.

Anyway, to find out more about The Nose and more, visit

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Death's vengeful daughter, alien invasion, over-reaching geniuses and uncensored Judge Dredd

The last few weeks have seen my comics enjoyment – and involvement – broadening and moving beyond the realms of simply being a reader.

But for this post, I’m going to stick with what I’ve been reading and begin in mid September, when The Other Half was away on a brief Rugby League trip and I leapt at the opportunity to visit Gosh! comics in Soho, where staff took the time to recommend a number of titles for me to try.

The first of these that I have read thus far is volume one of Pretty Deadly, a quirky fusion of westerns, folklore and fantasy by Kelly Sue DeConnick, centred on Death’s daughter and a bitter, savage search for vengeance.

Within this, we get a sense of something ancient and timeless in the power of stories.

The excellent, stylised artwork by Emma Ríos adds to the strange and magical quality of the story, with a fascinating palette that includes, almost as an act of artistic irony given the storyline, pale pastels.

To give you an idea of just how weird this is, each chapter is introduced by the ‘living’ skeleton of a dead rabbit talking to a butterfly. And yet somehow it all works, ensuring an immediate order being placed for the second instalment.

Next up was Y: The Last Man, Brian K Vaughan’s story of Yorick and his capuchin monkey, who find themselves as the last males on Earth when an unknown plague wipes out all other males – and with an awful lot of women wanting them dead too.

Vaughan is a bright new(ish) star of the comics scene, but it took me an age to get going with this and, with the flatness of Pia Guerra’s artwork, I’m not sure whether I’ll follow the story on to a further volume.

By contrast, the first Wild’s End trade knocked my metaphorical socks off.

Dan Abnett’s tale unfolds in and around a peaceful 1930s English village populated by a cast of anthropomorphic animal citizens, who suddenly find their rural idyll shattered by an alien invasion.

This is Wind in the Willows fused with War of the Worlds – with a dry humour underlying the whole and a very clever invocation of a semi-mythical England, from character names such as Captain Wainmaring to two pages of a delightfully realised travel guide that nods to the likes of Wainwright, Bradshaw and Pevsner.

INJ Culbard’s art is a joy. Deceptively simple, it absolutely pings off the page in vibrant colour. And the space ships are Deco lights!

Wild’s End is funny, violent, with a fast-paced story and strong characters – it’s an absolute delight. Whether I will be reading more of this is not even a real question.

The doormat at home is just beginning to get used to Forbidden Planet subscription packets landing on it.

But when the first issue of Hadrian’s Wall descended, it left me with the giddy delight of having my first ever subscribed-before-the-start-of-a-completely-new-comic experience – and that was before I’d even turned the first page.

Once I had read it, my pleasure was increased.

Set some time in the future, it sees pill-popping detective Simon Moore sent to solve an unexplained death on board the space station Hadrian’s Wall, where his ex-wife wants to avoid any trouble.

To be strictly accurate, the death doesn’t take place on board anything, but in space. Which makes this less a locked-room mystery and more an open-space one.

With a story by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel, and art by Rod Reis, it’s also further evidence that you can hit the ground running a new series.

Talking of comics that are slow to get going, Injection fell into this category. Volume one was confusing – yet also intriguing and well-illustrated enough that I pre-ordered the second trade.

Indeed, I actually went back and re-read one before starting two – and now it’s all coming together.

The central premise is that five geniuses have ‘poisoned’ the 21st century in an effort to drive innovation and growth and avoid stagnation. But ion course things have got out of hand and now they need to put things right. Which isn’t going to be easy.

In the second trade, everything tightens and, in particular, the concentration on one of the five, consulting detective Vivek Headland, works wonders for drawing the reader further in.

Warren Ellis’s storey is intriguing and the artwork, from Declan Shelvey and Jordie Bellarie, helps create a dark, brooding feel.

Also on the recent reading list was Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Uncensored.

Over the years, I’ve picked up the odd copy of 2000AD, but never really been able to get into it.

This, on the other hand, made it easy. The “uncensored” was what drew my attention to it in the first place – chunks had been removed from the original 1978 story because it used the McDonalds, Burger King and Jolly Green Giant trademarks, without asking permission.

And as they showed at the time, those companies are not exactly averse to litigation.

Fast forward to 2014, when the EU introduced a new directive stating that the use of copyright-protected characters for parody was not banned. Thus in June this year, we got the publication of the entire Cursed Earth storyline in a stunningly nice hardback version.

Written by Pat Mills, John Wagner and Chris Lowder, with classic black line art by Mick NcMahon and Brian Bolland, plus a smattering of colour spreads, it’s a fun romp and a perfect intro to the Judge if, like me, you’ve only really dipped in before.

So, that’s a little round-up on recent reading – coming soon: beyond the reading.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Burton's Miss Peregrine stutteringly takes flight

Tim Burton’s new film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is a slow burner, but by the time the final credits roll, it has enough going for it that you care about what happens.

Florida teenager Jake Portman has grown up with his grandfather Abe’s tall stories about living in a home for children with strange abilities.

After he finds his grandfather’s mutilated body, Jake is set on a path to try to uncover the truth about those stories – and finds himself at the centre of a time-bending struggle against a group of monsters.

Based on Ransom Riggs’s 2011 debut novel of the same name, Burton’s film captures the darkness of the fantasy and the alienating sense of feeling ‘different’, although as a part allegory of the Holocaust it can feel a little clunky at times and even, in a fairground scene late on, flirts with bad taste.

Visually, it’s a delight to look at and the special effects are top-notch.

Burton gets good performances from a large ensemble that teams unknown child actors with some big stars.

French actor and model Eva Green is excellent as a the eponymous Miss Peregrine, while Terence Stamp and Judi Dench add their considerable talents as Jake’s grandfather and the headmistress of a home similar to Miss Peregrine’s.

Samuel L Jackson is in fine form as the lead villain, Mr Barron (spot the nods toward Baron Samedi and zombies), and it’s always good to see Allison Janney getting big-screen time.

Of the children, Asa Butterfield as Jake and Ella Purnell turn in lovely performances as the leading figures in the story, and Burton ensures that even with so many children involved, it never veers into tweeness or sentimentality.

It doesn’t come close to Burton’s best work, but it has many charms and is certainly an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Matisse drawings create an exhibition of beautiful purity

“Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence.”

That quote is at the heart of a new exhibition celebrating Henri Matisse’s mastery of line drawing, which opens tonight at the Eames Fine Art Gallery in south London.

In our familiarity with Matisse as a master of vibrant colour, it’s easy to forget the striking simplicity and purity of his drawing.

Throughout much of his career, he also utilised a wide variety of printing techniques, and the collection that the gallery has put together unites lithographs and etchings to great effect.

However easy he made drawing look, Matisse was quite clear that it was an effect that resulted from long discipline.

“If I trust my drawing hand,” he said, “it is because, in training it to serve me, I forced myself never to let it take precedence over my feelings.”

The works here – and all are available for sale, with prices ranging from £400 to £4,000 – are linked by poetry.

From Florilège des Amors de Ronsard
Matisse himself loved poetry so much that he would start each day with reading verse before he began work.

The prints in this exhibition come from three suites: Poésies from 1932 was inspired by the work of the same name by the 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallard, while Florilége des Amours de Ronsard from 1948 illustrated the courtly love poems of 16th century poet Pierre de Ronsard.

The third series was inspired by the poetry of Charles-Antoine Nau, which was in turn inspired by visits to the Caribbean and, in particular, Martinique.

Years after Nau’s death, Matisse decided to create an album of poems, linked to a series of lithographic studies of models from Martinique.

The project began in 1945 and was completed by midway through the following year, but the album remained unpublished.

In 1972, 18 years after the artist’s death, his heirs and Fernand Moulot, the intended printer, agreed to print the album as Poésies Antillaises.

Portrait of Charles-Antoine Nau
“I have always considered drawing not as an exercise of particular dexterity … but as a means deliberately simplified so as to give simplicity and spontaneity to the expression, which should speak without clumsiness, directly to the mind of the spectator,” stated Matisse.

Here we see that simplicity in all its beauty: works that seem at once light years away from the bright textures and decoration that filled so many of the artist’s canvases, and yet also so instantly recognisable as works by the same man.

As if to remind us of the contrast and connection, a cabinet holds a vividly-coloured lithograph of a cut out from 1954, the year of Matisse’s death.

It is a joy to be able to let the eye take a walk around the lines of such deceptively straightforward drawings – a reminder (were it needed) of Matisse’s timelessness.

Matisse – The advantage of permanence opens tonight and runs until 30 October at Eames Fine Art Gallery, 58 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UD.

Find out more at

Ballade von den Seeräubern (Ballad of the Pirates)

For National Poetry Day 2016

Ballade von den Seeräubern (Ballad of the Pirates)

Frantic with brandy from their plunder
Drenched in the blackness of the gale
Splintered by frost and stunned by thunder
Hemmed in the crows-nest, ghostly pale
Scorched by the sun through tattered shirt
(The winter sun kept them alive)
Amid starvation, sickness, dirt
So sang the remnant that survived:
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

No waving fields with gentle breezes
Or dockside bar with raucous band
No dance hall warm with gin and kisses
No gambling hall kept them on land.
They very quickly tired of fighting
By midnight girls began to pall:
Their rotten hulk seemed more inviting
That ship without a flag at all.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Riddled with rats, its bilges oozing
With pestilence and puke and piss
They swear by her when they're out boozing
And cherish her just as she is.
In storms they'll reckon their position
Lashed to the halyards by their hair:
They'd go to heaven on one condition -
That she can find a mooring there.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They loot their wine and belch with pleasure
While bales of silk and bars of gold
And precious stones and other treasure
Weigh down the rat-infested hold.
To grace their limbs, all hard and shrunken
Sacked junks yield vari-coloured stuffs
Till out their knives come in some drunken
Quarrel about a pair of cuffs.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They murder coldly and detachedly
Whatever comes across their path
They throttle gullets as relaxedly
As fling a rope up to the mast.
At wakes they fall upon the liquor
Then stagger overboard and drown
While the remainder give a snigger
And wave a toe as they go down.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Across a violet horizon
Caught in the ice by pale moonlight
On pitch-black nights when mist is rising
And half the ship is lost from sight
They lurk like wolves between the hatches
And murder for the fun of it
And sing to keep warm in their watches
Like children drumming as they shit.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They take their hairy bellies with them
To stuff with food on foreign ships
Then stretch them out in sweet oblivion
Athwart the foreign women's hips.
In gentle winds, in blue unbounded
Like noble beasts they graze and play
And often seven bulls have mounted
Some foreign girl they've made their prey.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Once you have danced till you're exhausted
And boozed until your belly sags
Though sun and moon unite their forces -
Your appetite for fighting flags.
Brilliant with stars, the night will shake them
While music plays in gentle ease
And wind will fill their sails and take them
To other undiscovered seas.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

But then upon an April evening
Without a star by which to steer
The placid ocean, softly heaving
Decides that they must disappear.
The boundless sky they love is hiding
The stars in smoke that shrouds their sight
While their beloved winds are sliding
The clouds towards the gentle light.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

At first they're fanned by playful breezes
Into the night they mustn't miss
The velvet sky smiles once, then closes
Its hatches on the black abyss.
Once more they feel the kindly ocean
Watching beside them on their way
The wind then lulls them with its motion
And kills them all by break of day.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Once more the final wave is tossing
The cursed vessel to the sky
When suddenly it clears, disclosing
The mighty reef on which they lie.
And, at last, a strange impression
While rigging screams and storm winds howl
Of voices hurtling to perdition
Yet once more singing, louder still:
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Bertolt Brecht, 1919