Saturday, 3 December 2022

Ennio Morricone - The Official Concert Celebration - Review

O2, London


Conducted by Andrea Morricone
Curated by Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone

It is rare that London’s massive O2 Arena hosts an evening of intimacy. But so it was last month when The Official Concert Celebration of the work of Ennio Morricone played for one night to a full house. For this writer, the evening held a particular poignancy as in 2019 I had interviewed the legendary composer at his home in Rome. Under the baton of Morricone’s son Andrea, a selection of extracts from just a few of the 500+ scores that the Maestro had penned were played by the Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra, the programme having been largely devised and curated by Morricone himself prior to his sad passing in July 2020.

The evening’s intimacy came via a number of channels: Firstly, the music itself, with Andrea offering a profound and flawless understanding of his father’s work. A composer himself, it was clear as the various soundtracks filled the evening, that Andrea was immersed in his father’s music. 

Andrea Morricone

Secondly – the clips of the movies that were screened above the orchestra. For those familiar with Morricone’s work, it is always a special joy to revisit an old favourite. Films are cultural milestones, each locked into the] era of its individual release, ageless and frozen in time while we the audience journey through our mortality. And so whether one watched the extract from Quentin Tarantino’s relatively recent Oscar winner The Hateful Eight, or the far more mature extracts taken from Sergio Leone’s filmography, each and every clip will have triggered unique and personal memories and recollections across the audience.

The third aspect of intimacy came from the filmed contributions that were played between the pieces. Ranging from some revealing, and at times self-deprecating reflections from Morricone himself, through to contributions from some of the great directors who are still alive for whom he composed. The comments made were warm, respectful and so deeply full of love and admiration for a man whose career spanned 60 years. Guiseppe Tornatore, Tarantino and Roland Joffe all spoke with a revered insight into Morricone’s style and flair. But it was probably Jeremy Irons, one of the stars of Joffe’s The Mission, who spoke most frankly when describing Morricone’s scores as having an  uplifting effect on the underlying movies, that rank alongside Shakespeare for their place in the pantheon of great art.

And then, of course, there was the evening’s programme. Opening with extracts from The Untouchables, one was immediately reminded of Morricone’s genius in writing exquisite melodies that could accompany the most brutal on-screen violence. Robert De Niro in a starring role segued from The Untouchables to Once Upon A Time In America, where Deborah’s Theme and the Main Theme played to a powerful string of clips from the movie. Up next was The Legend Of 1900, the first of the evening’s nods to director Tornatore.

An interview extract with the Maestro saw him speaking of his structural approach to composition, that musically links scores as diverse as The Sicilian Clan and Metti Una, the former featuring some delicious solo work on bass guitar from Nanni Civitenga.

Nanni Civitenga

The work of Sergio Leone returned in the lead up to the interval with a fascinating filmed explanation from Ennio Morricone of his simple use of four notes for the harmonica, which naturally led into Harmonica from Once Upon A Time In The West, mournfully and beautifully delivered by Daan Wilms on solo harmonica. That movie, together with The Good,The Bad and The Ugly teased the audience in the run up to the interval, with the stunningly heartbreaking soprano Vittoriana De Amicis taking the stage for Jills Theme, before wrapping up the first half with a truly ecstatic Ecstasy Of Gold.

Vittoriana De Amicis

The orchestra returned to play Andrea Morricone’s tribute to his dad, Theme For Ennio, which with a prerecorded Hauser on cello was a magnificent tribute to his father’s work. Then a few filmed words from Tarantino and we were straight into The Last Stagecoach To Red Rock from The Hateful Eight, a piece of music almost symphonic in its length and beauty. They truly don’t write ‘em like that any more!

What was particularly touching about the film clips played while this tune played out, was the inclusion of film of the Maestro himself conducting the score at London’s Abbey Road studios. To see him on screen, baton in hand, was as if he had never died. 

Leandro Picconi with Hauser on screen

Cinema Paradiso – where the film’s touching Love Theme had been penned by Andrea – and Chi Mai were up next, with the latter holding a special place in British hearts from back in the day when the BBC made good drama and in 1981 bought the tune (originally penned for Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s movie Maddalena) as the theme for The Life And Times Of David Lloyd George, where it then went on to reach No.2 on the UK Singles Chart.

There are other soloists who demand a mention for their contribution to the evening. Leandro Picconi on piano, Rocco Ziffarelli was magnificent on guitar, while Massimo D’Agostino was a tour-de force of energy on drums. A nod too to the tour’s choir conductor Stefano Cucci who for this London gig was conducting the Crouch End Festival Chorus, a local ensemble who have first-class form in providing the Maestro’s vocal backing.

Rocco Ziffarelli

A filmed interview with Roland Joffe signalled that The Mission was up next, with yet another appearance from De Niro above the orchestra. Gabriel’s Oboe was as exquisite as ever, with The Falls and then On Earth As It Is In Heaven tingling spines across the arena.

The enchanting Miss De Amicis returned for a cracking encore of the Ecstasy Of Gold and as the crowd called out for more, Andrea lifted his baton for the final time, to reprise On Earth As It Is In Heaven, only this time played as a montage of the Maestro, from baby to nonagenarian, filled the screen. Rarely has a piece of music been so aptly titled for the moment, as throughout the O2 tears were shed at the beauty and the genius of the music of Ennio Morricone.

Photo credit: Hanout Photography

12:37 - Review

 Finborough Theatre, London


Written and directed by Julia Pascal

The cast of 12:37

Julia Pascal’s 12:37 is a multi-layered exploration of nationalism in the mid 20th century, that follows Paul and Cecil Green, two Irish-Jewish brothers, from 1935 Dublin through to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, via a 1936 encounter with London’s fascism.

Pascal’s research is detailed, spotlighting a hatred of the Jews on both sides of the Irish Sea that prompts the brothers, via separate circuitous routes to find themselves in Palestine under the British Mandate.  Paul (Alex Cartuson) is lean and fit, a boxer in his youth, who works his way into the nascent army fighting for the establishment of the Jewish state and ultimately into being part of the terrorist gang who, at 12:37 on 22nd July 1946, bombed Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, a key base for the British Forces. That devastating action that was to prove influential in the UK’s withdrawal from Palestine and the subsequent creation of Israel. Cecil (Eoin O’Dubhghaill), less of a fighter than his brother and a kinder soul with a beautiful voice, finds his own journey to the Holy Land via ENSA, the British military’s entertainments division.

Perhaps the most intriguing character in Pascal’s play is the young Rina Goldberg (Lisa O’Connor) who we first encounter in London as a firebrand communist raising funds for Moscow’s Yiddish Theatre, and who by 1946 has survived the Holocaust, experiencing horrendous sexual violence having been moved around between concentration camps by the Nazis. The love triangle that Pascal creates between Rina and the brothers may lack credibility, but O’Connor’s interpretation of Rina’s horrific journey is a masterclass of powerful understatement.

The quintet of actors is completed by Ruth Lass and Danann McAleer and across the two hours of the drama all five put in outstanding and compelling performances, with Pascal’s direction making ingenious use of the production’s evidently modest budget and the Finborough’s compact space. An observation on the casting (albeit a company of excellent performers, doing their job superbly) is that the producers appear to have put more effort into ensuring the ethnic authenticity of actors playing most of the Irish characters, than they have as regards those playing the Jewish characters.

Dr Pascal is at her best in her slow, harrowing reveal of Rina’s story and equally talented in the bold technical construction of her play. Politically however she loses objectivity, her writing suggesting that she is uncomfortable with the concept of national identity per se. That this production’s printed programme/playtext itself ignores the time and location of the play’s final scene, set in 1948 in the newly-formed Israeli state, speaks volumes.

Runs until 21st December

Friday, 2 December 2022

Mother Goose - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Written by Will Brenton
Directed by Clive Rowe

Clive Rowe

Hackney Empire is celebrating its 120 year anniversary with Mother Goose, an absolute cracker of a festive pantomime. Hackney’s (never hackneyed) perennial Dame, Clive Rowe returns in the title role (and in the director’s chair too) and he has never been better on this stage.

Set in Hackneywood, a parody on Tinseltown, the storyline is a simple fable of love and humanity being worth more than fame and money, with an appropriately 21st century morality pitch that shows up the shallow selfie-seeking values of the mobile phone age. There’s goodies and baddies, slapstick, perfectly pitched comedy and a slickly choreographed company, all contributing to an evening of glorious entertainment.

Kat B (another Hackney regular) is great in the comedy role of Mother Goose’s son Billy, Tony Marshall is fun as a hapless landlord (the chocolate bar routine between those two is one of the night’s comic highlights), while Rebecca Parker as the Demon Queen is as evil a villain as you could hope to boo at.

In this special 120th year there’s also a fine tribute to the history of the Frank Matcham venue, with a 5-minute whirl in the second act that pays a nod to some of the greats who’ve graced that stage - from Marie Lloyd and Harry Houdini through to Morecambe and Wise and Louis Armstrong.  

But the evening of course belongs to Rowe, whose years of panto experience allow him to direct the show brilliantly. His stand-up and put-down work is perfectly timed, a hallmark of his consummate professionalism. Rowe’s costumes are gorgeous (credit to Cleo Pettitt) and as for his voice, when Clive Rowe gets his chops around Ain’t No Stopping Us Now and later on, What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, one is reminded quite what a star of musical theatre he is.

The sets by Imagine Theatre are colourful and lavish the five piece band under Renell Shaw are equally wonderful. Steeped in and proud of its local community, Hackney Empire’s family pantomime does not get better than this!

Runs until 31st December

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Spectre In Concert - Review

Royal Albert Hall, London


Composed by Thomas Newman
Conducted by Anthony Gabriele
Directed by Sam Mendes

At the Royal Albert Hall and conducted by the gifted Anthony Gabriele, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed the world premiere of Thomas Newman’s 2015 score for the James Bond film Spectre, played live and synchronised to a screening of the movie.

Composed by Newman alongside filming, the score is both inspired by and honours many of the film’s locations. Memorably, the opening sequence set in full swing at a Day Of The Dead festival alongside local bands in Z√≥calo Square in central Mexico City, gives the orchestra and in particular the percussion section, full opportunity to embrace the vibe of the occasion.

The titles play to Sam Smith's ballad The Writing's On The Wall, with its dramatic strings content deliciously echoing Monty Norman.  For lovers of the famous franchise, Newman’s work incorporates those familiar, almost expected Bond-sounds and the orchestra deliver magnificently. The powerful accompaniment of the musicians provides added excitement, a supercharged experience in the form of waves of pleasure, aesthetic chills almost, from the musical vibrations generated in the acoustically perfect auditorium. Under Maestro Gabriele’s seasoned baton, the orchestra add another nuanced layer to the viewing experience.

The afternoon closed with the familiar Jazzy big band sound of Norman’s original "James Bond Theme".  One could feel the audience relax into their seats, succumbing to that timeless leitmotif, the applause and standing ovation only defining their appreciation and fondness for this classic music, wonderfully and flawlessly performed.

Reviewed by Lucy Bex

Friday, 11 November 2022

My Fair Lady - Review

Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff


Music by Frederick Loewe
Lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner
Directed by Bartlett Sher

Charlotte Kennedy and company

It is rare that a West End production improves on the road, but so it is with Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady, touring the UK and Ireland after a short summer residency at London’s Coliseum.

The show, now with Michael Xavier and Charlotte Kennedy playing Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, is a sensational take on the Broadway classic. The two leads fizz with a chemistry that fills the Millenium Centre, their complicated relationship evolving before our eyes. Michael Xavier is one of the country’s finest leading men of his generation and, aside from his top-notch vocal delivery he cracks the complex emotional dysfunctionality of Lerner and Loewe’s Professor.

Kennedy’s Eliza however is the show’s revelation. Not just in her stunning vocal presence, but in how she inhabits every song. Her transformation from cockney Covent Garden flower-girl to powerfully spoken young woman is mesmerising.  Wouldn’t It Be Loverly and I Could Have Danced All Night are long recognised as Eliza’s highlights – here however, not just smashing those all time favourites out of the park, Kennedy grasps the second act cracker of Show Me, transforming it into a fusion of rage, frustration and passion rarely seen on stage. Kennedy’s elegance and presence is equally astonishing, with her entrance just before the interval bejewelled and ballgowned (take a bow costume designer Catherine Zuber) ready for the Embassy Ball, proving literally breathtaking. There is more than a hint of Audrey Hepburn to this Eliza.

Adam Woodyatt makes the delightful transition from Albert Square to Lisson Grove as he takes on the role of Alfred P. Doolittle. Albeit a supporting role, Eliza’s father is a larger than life caricature of London’s working class and it takes a performer of massive character to play the role to its full, with Woodyatt a delight in both voice and persona. John Middleton’s Colonel Pickering makes for a faultless foil to Higgins, while Annie Wensack, stepping up to cover the part of Mrs Pearce on the night of this review is another treat. Tom Liggins as Freddie Eynsford-Hill gives an excellent performance of On The Street Where You Live that only adds to the evening’s delights.

The set design is ingenious, with Michael Yeargan’s scenery working well for a touring production. Londoners – who are often spoilt for cultural choice – have missed out on a local chance to catch this cast. Now touring the regions until April next year, Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady is, at last, unmissable musical theatre.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

From Here To Eternity - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Music by Stuart Brayson
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Donald Rice and Bill Oakes
Based on the novel by James Jones

Jonathon Bentley and Desmonda Cathabel

This autumn is all about musical theatre based on movies that featured Burt Lancaster on a beach. Last month it was Local Hero at Chichester and now From Here To Eternity returns to London’s Charing Cross Theatre for a short residency in the run-up to Christmas.

This production marks the first UK revival of the Tim Rice and Stuart Brayson show, drawn from the classic film and set on Hawaii in the two weeks leading up to the Japanese attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. The power of the story derives from the pressure cookers of passion building up on the island – love, cuckoldry and honour are all at play here – that are to be swamped by the tsunami of death and destruction that rained down upon the island on December 7th.

Brett Smock directs a literally well-drilled company that offers another glimpse of London’s musical theatre fringe at its finest. Jonathon Bentley is the principled Private Prewitt, a gifted boxer who’s hanging up of his gloves and who irks his company Captain, the misogynist Holmes (Alan Turkington). The Captain’s wife Karen (Carley Stenson) finds love in the arms of company Sergeant Warden (Adam Rhys-Charles) as Prewitt falls for local prostitute Lorene (Desmonda Cathabel).

The whole affair makes for a well observed tale of humanity, sung beautifully by the aforementioned leads. In equally fine support are Eve Polycarpou as brothel-keeper Mrs Kipfer and Johnny Amies as troubled soldier Maggio.

Tim Rice’s lyrics are as ever astute takes on life. Witty and perceptive, Rice teases out the characters’ strengths and weaknesses, with The Boys Of ’41, sung as the attack on Pearl Harbour is in full spate, proving a devastating summary of war’s brutality – marred only by the unfortunate, almost invisibility, of the show’s three women who deliver it.

Nick Barstow’s arrangement and direction of his 5-piece band is classy as are Louise Rhoades-Brown’s projections, effectively capturing Karen and Warden’s passionate clinches in the Pacific surf. Equally Adam King’s lighting and Stewart J Charlesworth’s set, make good use of the theatre’s compact space to create Hawaii’s various scenescapes. Cressida Carre's choreography and Renny Krupinski's fight direction (there's a lot of fighting!) are top notch too.

Beautifully performed, From Here To Eternity makes for a tragically gorgeous evening.

Runs until 17th December
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Wednesday, 2 November 2022

Tubular Bells 50th Anniversary - Review

Royal Albert Hall, London


For one night only and under the baton of Simon Dobson, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. In some ways any orchestral performance of Oldfield’s groundbreaking album will always be ersatz, as back in the 1970s it was the composer himself who played every instrument in the work layering the recording together over weeks, track by track. When one considers that this was in pre-digital times, with Oldfield only having access to multi-track analogue recording equipment, this makes his original album all the more remarkable. Dobson however is a gifted musician with an intimate understanding of Oldfield’s work. His arrangements of the two Tubular Bells pieces, together with a collection of Oldfield’s other lesser-known recordings, make for an evening of fine music.

The concert initially comprises the first parts of both the Ommadawn and the Hergest Ridge albums with the music and perfectly hazed lighting plots creating an atmosphere of wonderfully mellifluous melody. Moonlight Shadow, Oldfield’s chart-topping single concludes the pre-interval proceedings with Ella Shaw powerfully delivering the vocal honours.

The second half kicks off with the hallmark opening bars of Tubular Bells, the 15/8 time melody that was to define not only The Exorcist's score but also lay the foundations of Richard Branson’s Virgin Records fortune. The RPCO are augmented by featured soloists throughout the performance, with Pete Callard’s Lead Guitar work particularly stunning through many of Tubular Bells’ challenging riffs.

Tubular Bells of course requires a charismatic Master of Ceremonies. Oldfield’s original MC, Vivian Stanshall set the bar high (it was Stanshall’s distinct pronunciation of “tubular bells” that prompted Oldfield to name the album thus) and there are few finer voices than that of Brian Blessed to provide the wry bombast that the role demands. Proud of his 86 years, Blessed bestrides the stage like a colossus through Part One of Tubular Bells, with his Caveman in  Part Two proving an equal delight.

If there is one criticism of the gig it is of the video projections that are (sometimes dimly) shone onto a screen above the orchestra. Ranging in style from what looks like a Lloyds Bank black horse advert through to what could be a Microsoft screensaver based on the Tubular Bells 50 logo, the imagery is tacky. The Royal Albert Hall is one of London’s grandest venues and while the players magnificently fill the space with their music, the video work proves to be an uninspiring detraction, dwarfed by the hall’s imposing grandeur. If projections are to be used going forward they should be grander and LED based or not used at all. A waggish suggestion, overheard on leaving the venue, was that maybe scenes from The Exorcist could be shown!
The whole affair is wrapped up with Dobson’s energetic arrangement of the Hornpipe – sending the audience out into an autumnal Kensington with feet tapping, hands clapping and grinning at the evening's wave of nostalgia that has flooded over them.