August 2010


Mayhem with meaning

It was back to the Asylum for another dose of the Kneehigh company’s unique brand of entertainment with a twist. This time, in Blast, the three characters in search of a plot attempt to give a patriot’s potted history of Cornwall in a mere 60 minutes – the time left before their suicide jacket of explosives is due to blow us all to smithereens. (It would have been sooner but Chough set the timer to minutes instead of seconds, which somewhat deflated his dramatic entrance).
Using the same basic set (a door and a gantry on a raised platform) as employed in The Red Shoes, they whizz through 2000 years of turbulent happenings helped by a rack of clothes, a cluster of wigs and an odd assortment of props from saffron buns and pasties to blow-up dolphins and glove puppets.
Adding to this anarchic mayhem there is a smattering of roistering songs, readings from the “national” poet and enough good old-fashioned slapstick to ensure even the youngest (and oldest) audience member is rocking with laughter.
Amid all the pratfalls and double-entendres (reminiscent of old-time music halls and pantos) there are numerous pungent political barbs decrying the Cornish loss of identity and the once-proud duchy’s status as the poor relation of English counties.
The sharpest shaft of all is reserved for Prince Charles (and Camilla) in his role as Duke of Cornwall “who even gets the Cornish oatcakes he sells made in Scotland”.
This is 90 minutes of riotous entertainment with bite; a patriotic fol-de-rol that ends with a tear-jerking roll-call of all who have contributed to the duchy’s long and proud history – and with Chough’s bomb going off right on time.

Rankin’s rules

It is what I have always said and aimed to achieve, but it is encouraging to hear it from the lips of one of the world’s best crime writers. Scottish writer Ian Rankin, reported in the Daily Telegraph, has told The Word magazine he sees himself as an entertainer rather than as a wordsmith.
“We’re not winning Nobel prizes for books that are difficult to read or written in an ornate language,” Rankin said. “Writers like me are part of the entertainment industry.”
Rankin said he had dumbed down the language of his books after his first novel, The Flood, which he reckoned read like the work of a PhD student – which is what he was at the time.
The author said there were words in The Flood which he doesn’t understand. “In thrillers there is very little room for purple prose.”
Rankin’s advice is that “the style has got to be invisible. If something jars, or if a phrase is too flowery, suddenly the reader is aware that someone is writing a book.”
Amen to all of that.

A night in the Asylum

Somewhere out beyond the tiny village of Blackwater, a vast white domed tent has taken root in a field with wide vistas down the verdant spine of Cornwall. Moorlands, pastures and distant coastlines provide the rural backdrop to this new home of innovative performance company Kneehigh. As if to emphasise the off-centre style of its productions, it calls this “theatre” the Asylum.
Now thirty years young, it has moved into its new home with a season of three shows that provide a welcome alternative to the well-worn two-act fare so often placed before theatregoers. The opening offering, The Red Shoes (nothing to do with Norma Shearer) is almost undefinable. It is dance, a musical, a comedy, mime, drama and much more all rolled into one beautifully narrated and, at one stage, quite gory folk tale.
Five mute characters clad only in daggy underwear wander through the audience on the nicely tiered seats (and wrapped in welcome woollen blankets) before gathering on a tiny open stage to enact a tale of obsession and compulsion.
Over the next 90 minutes they clamber in and out of a motley collection of costumes carried in battered old suitcases to enact the story of the girl who sells her soul to the devil for the sake of a pair of red dancing shoes. She pays a terrible price for yielding to the shoes’ seductive power (consumer greed?) that means she can never stop dancing until … but I won’t spoil this gruesomely dramatic moment.
The actors play out the drama to a background of music ranging from grand opera through jazz, pop and musical comedy – some of it recorded but most of it played by an “orchestra” of two supported by their own occasional efforts. Their facial expressions are a joy, the dancing (again ranging across the genres) gets fast and furious, the visual jokes are frequent and clever, the dialogue minimal apart from the pungent verse commentary of wonderfully voiced Lady Lydia (Giles King).
In such a cleverly crafted ensemble work it might seem unjust to single out any one cast member, but the extraordinary performance of Patrycja Kujawska as the unfortunate girl has to be noted.
This rich multi-layered allegory goes deep into the dark side of the human condition (religion certainly gets a good bashing) and is far more than the simple fairy tale it might at first appear. A visit to the Asylum, as night slowly descends through the open flap beyond the stage, is a refreshingly different theatrical experience.

Aussies shine in the sludge

A couple of Aussie opera stars managed to salvage a wreck of a show presented by the much-praised Holland Park company this week.
Cheryl Barker and Julian Gavin took the lead roles in the rarely staged Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai and received praise from Daily Telegraph opera critic Rupert Christiansen for being “terrifically committed and full blooded” in a work he described as “akin to wading through sludge”.
The 1914 opera has not been staged in Britain in living memory. Which is little surprise as Christiansen calls it nothing more than “wretched drivel” and hopes he’ll never hear a note of it again.
But at least Barker and Gavin survived this train wreck with honour. Seemingly one to avoid if it ever appears on the OA programme list.

Spelt rite

There was a time when research meant doing some really thorough investigation and examining all facets of the topic at hand. Now anything entailing a snap poll of a dozen or more people is labelled as research. Thus we get some odd findings from small samplings.
One such finding comes from OnePoll.com, which has “revealed” that the most commonly misspelt word in the English language is separate. In second place is definitely, followed by manoeuvre and embarrass.
So what happened to my personal favourite, accommodation, and that confusing pair, occasion and occurrence?
No doubt everyone has their own spelling stumbling block and this is a far from conclusive finding: it is based on talking to a mere 3500 people. Go figure.

A whale of a show

There must be few better places to watch a perfomance than in the astounding Minack Theatre, carved out of the cliff face in England’s far southwest, just a few deserted coves from Land’s End. Even if the show is a dud, there remains the backdrop of Atlantic Ocean, rocky coastline, untramelled beaches, the night sky and maybe even a pod of sporty dolphins.
Fortunately no such distractions were needed for Moby Dick The Musical, the cult romp that has been performed in numerous bizarre settings and with some odd variations, including one at a gay roller disco in Clapham.
Written by song-and-dance man/actor Robert Longden and composer/actor Hereward Kaye, with input and backing from Cameron Mackintosh, Moby Dick makes no pretence at sophistication.
It is a show within a show, with the girls of St Godley’s Academy for Young Ladies (a latter day St Trinian’s) staging a show to raise money to save their cash-strapped school. The pace is fast, the jokes are in the Benny Hill mould and the songs are a pastiche of almost every musical ever written.
As a lively spoof and punning pastiche it goes from song to song at a quite breathless pace. Its multi-talented (amateur) cast play double and triple roles with numerous (and hilarious) costume changes. Some of the solo singers were at times engaged in a losing search for the right note but the chorus work was a full-on, clap-your-hands and tap-your-feet delight.
Such a show really needs a more intimate setting and better acoustics than exist at the Minack. But who cares? There’s always that magnificent backdrop to enjoy.

Theatrical knees-up

Some innovative British theatre exists way outside of London. Check out Kneehigh from the “wilds” of Cornwall. They have already been to Oz but more visits are likely.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-features/7921964/Kneehigh-the-short-hop-from-old-barn-to-Broadway.html
Have tickets to a performance next week and will report back post-show,