Thursday, June 18, 2015

Send in the clowns: Carnivals, funfairs and Coney Island

The Lost Carnival rolled into town amid much fanfare, teasing us with tales of golden feathers and phoenixes and mythical circuses cursed to roam the earth – but we could save them! As you’d expect from Wild Rumpus, which runs the excellent Just So Festival every summer, it was a fantastic event perfectly pitched at its target audience of adventurous families and wide-eyed primary age kids. Mine were terrified by the stage shows but transfixed by the dancers and strolling clowns, while enough installations that might be described as “weird arty shit” (a tree full of writhing nymphs, etc) were scattered about to keep them interested. And they spent so long in the mermaids’ hut playing with sand and listening to sea stories that they practically grew fins. Good and reasonably-priced food and drink meant the adults didn’t mind so much about spending hours in a damp field in Bury. We hear it might be back next year. We'll be there.

Every funfair has its dark side, the shadow that throws all that bright levity into sharper relief. Just think about clowns: all jokey one minute, creepy as shit the next.  And that dark side was thoroughly explored in The Funfair, HOME’s much anticipated first production in its new… oh, don’t mind if I do!… home. I’m no sucker for happy endings and escapism, but this was so unremittingly black that it could be used as a medical-grade depressant. It was like being coshed.

The plot lost its way before the end of the first act, and then chaos reigned. True, it was cleverly staged, but no matter how cool the thing looks or what a twisted Brecht-meets-Hairspray vibe it evokes, you don’t want to spend time in the company of this company if the story isn't good. This was, I think, a failure of writing. Who knows what they were trying to do? Scriptwriter Simon Stephens (adapting an obscure German expressionist play from 1932) assembled a gang of clichéd character tropes – gold-digging glamour girl, unprincipled lowborn high roller, cruel aristocrat, ne’er do well crook. But then he never got around to subverting them. The only two characters with a bit of dimension to them - Cash and Esther - had a moving scene at the end, but what small bit of redemption that provided felt like it came at too dear a cost.

If you need cheering up, Coney Island is a good place to go. Set partly there, Lonesome is a fascinating piece of cinema history. Made in 1928 at precisely the moment when silent films were poised to give way to talkies, it’s mainly silent with a few sections of speech. I hadn’t been expecting these, at a special screening of the film at HOME, and they came as an unwelcome shock, so immersed do you get in the language of music, overemphasised facial expressions and a few elliptical stitches of text. The film is a sweetly naïve New York love story, very of its time. The specially commissioned live score, by Robin Richards of Dutch Uncles, was beautifully performed live by the composer and a small company of RNCM students who were also involved in composition. A rarely-seen classic film combined with a new artistic commission, made right here in Manchester; it's exactly what we’d hoped to find at our new multi-form arts venue, and an undertaking beyond the scope of our dearly departed Cornerhouse.

I do miss it, though. Okay, I said it. So sue me.

Photo credit Brett Harkness

Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Anna Karenina, The Royal Exchange





I can understand why someone might try to adapt Anna Karenina for the stage, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to do it. You’ve got to cut a lot or the play would be 27 hours long. Sadly, the cuts they’ve made in this Royal Exchange/West Yorkshire Playhouse production are mortal wounds. Gone is the deep texture and grand scale that make Tolstoy’s book one of the greatest ever written – the complex motivations and insights into characters’ inner lives, the engrossing philosophical asides, the whole beautiful maddening mess of human society. We’re left instead with the predictable tale of a bored society wife, an ambitious young soldier and a series of really bad decisions. 

The first scene, in which Anna manages to make peace between her philandering brother Stiva and his long-suffering wife, Dolly, is absolutely crucial. It establishes Anna as a kind and wise woman, someone of character – which makes the tragedy of her downfall really hit home. But Ony Uhiara’s Anna seemed only fit for making a scene, all shrill hysterics and jerky, nervous energy. I just didn’t buy her reassuring the excellent Dolly about anything. 

It was the same throughout the whole play: I couldn’t get past the disservice Jo Clifford’s adaptation does its title character. Anna’s agonizing over the decision to abandon her young son Seriozha for her lover is a major plot point, probably one of the main reasons she decides to off herself, and yet here her son is barely mentioned. In the book, she also becomes pregnant with Vronsky’s child early in their affair, which has bearing on how and when she decides to leave her husband and on the lovers’ ensuing relationship – here it simply doesn’t happen. We aren’t encouraged to understand Anna or identify with her, so we can only pity her. The audience is left on the outside, with little to do for the next couple of hours but admire the (admittedly superb) coats the cast are wearing.

John Cummins’ bumbling Levin, who provided most of the evening’s few laughs, stood out in the small ensemble, directed by Ellen McDougall. While the design gets points for imagination – metal rails, rolling cars and plastic panels are used in inventive, occasionally gimmicky ways – it just didn’t work for me. And having characters linger onstage in the background when their scenes are over might be an attempt to disrupt the theatrical space, but it just confused things. It was a worthy endeavour with some memorable moments, but for me, the only level on which this succeeded is as a reminder of how bad it sucked to be a woman in Tolstoy’s Russia. That, at least, is something we can all agree on.

Anna Karenina is on at The Royal Exchange through 2 May, and transfers to West Yorkshire Playhouse 9 May- 13 June. Tickets from £10.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Two new independent bookshops in Manchester

Good news for the city's readers: if all goes according to plan, we'll get two independent bookstores in Manchester this spring. Weird, huh? We haven't had one since forever, and now, suddenly, we're getting two. It's kind of like those two new cereal cafes we're getting, but without the business concept that makes you want to stab yourself in the eye repeatedly with a spoon.


Chapter One Books



The first of the two is already being installed in the Northern Quarter. Sister-owners Christine Cafun (above) and Lyndsy Kirkman come to the book trade from the beauty industry and the NHS respectively. They've taken that long-vacant storefront on the corner of Dale and Lever Street, fronted by a pocket park with a few benches, and are completely overhauling the place. Cafun says they're lobbying the city to let them keep the large trees currently throwing shade there, which are due to be chopped down (guess they decided the Northern Quarter was leafy enough with all those mature trees around. Mmmhmm.)

Inside, there'll be nearly 5,000 feet of bookstore for people of all ages, including a cafe and a 50-capacity event space that the owners hope will be used for book launches and readings as well as more offbeat live lit shenangigans. Also, maybe some typewriters. I'm kinda excited about the typewriters. They're aiming to be open around April 1. You can follow them on Twitter @chapter1, and if you have a good idea for the shop or several boxes of unused typewriter ribbon to donate to the cause email them on somethingnew @ chapteronebooks.co.uk.


Aspidistra Books


Aspiwhatnow? As-pi-di-stra. It's a plant. The name comes from the Orwell novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which was partly inspired by working in a bookshop. It's also a book about throwing off the shackles of the nine-to-five, which is exactly what proprietor Joseph Parkinson is doing: after years in the charity sector, he's following his bookstore-owning dream.

As the Orwell connection suggests this will be a shop with a political and literary bent, and according to Parkinson, a strong interest in LGBT literature. Parkinson also likes the idea of hosting readings alongside casual literary-themed events like 'speed dating with Hemingway' {insert joke about Hemingway's love life here.} He's currently looking for a premises, probably in the Northern Quarter or the Village, and hopes to be open by May. Parkinson wants us to tell him what we want in a bookshop. Get in touch via Facebook or Twitter (@AspidstraBooks), or help by filling in this survey.


Independent bookstores are great, aren't they? We definitely want some around. You know how we get to keep these, and maybe get some more? By actually buying books from them. That's how.

Monday, February 09, 2015

A cockroach, a cat and Tom O'Bedlam


Don Marquis was a journalist in New York, apparently minding his own business, when a cockroach and cat invaded his column in the Evening Sun. The pair had been friends in their former lives - archy the cockroach had been a free verse poet and continued to write in his reincarnated state by jumping on a typewriter, which accounts for the lack of capitals and punctuation. Bohemian alley cat mehitabel reflected on her many misadventures, remaining "always a lady in spite of h dash double l." Marquis featured the characters in a hugely popular series of comics and writings beginning in 1916, eventually illustrated by Krazy Kat creator George Herriman. They continued on through the 20s and 30s, staking out a strange territory between comic verse, serious poetry, commentary and cartoon.

I was looking around for archy and mehitabel on the internet the other day and I found SpokenVerse, a YouTube channel dating back a few years ago. All of the 400+ videos feature a man's voice reading poetry under the name Tom O'Bedlam. The poems are well chosen, the voice extraordinary. But no one has any idea who did it, or why he did it, or why he stopped.

Tom O'Bedlam liked Don Marquis though. He recorded three of his poems: mehitabel dances with boreas, the lesson of the moth and archy's autobiography (below). If you're a writer who just had to pay their tax bill, you'll probably relate.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Manchester live music preview: Spring 2015

I like gigs. More accurately, I like making plans to go to gigs. I get to roughly 25 percent of the gigs I fully intend to go to. Because, you know, my life is complicated. Also, sometimes I find out that my new favourite band was in Manchester last week, oh no, you weren't there? Best gig ever! Ah, too bad they're not coming back for another year... or four. This makes me sad. So I sat myself down and made a formal plan to get more live music in 2015, and this post is the manifestation of it. If you see me at any of these, I'll probably be looking very happy. If you don't see me, I'll be at home, resenting the hell out of you.


February


Matthew Halsall with The Gondwana Orchestra, GoGo Penguin, and Mammal Hands at RNCM, 7 February

I've been known to bitch about the fact that the jazz scene in Manchester is kind of lame, and then a concert like this comes along and makes me realise how completely full of shit I am. Three jazz acts, each Manchester-based, each good enough in their own right to warrant a trip down to the venue with the best acoustics in the city. But together - trumpeter; composer Matthew Halsall's new outfit the Gondwana Orchestra (with vocals from special guest Josephine Oniyama), Mercury Prize-nominated GoGo Penguin and the slick Mammal Hands - they make for an unmissable lineup.




Ex Hex at Soup Kitchen, 12 February

I'm not so into February. You know what's good in February? An all-woman power pop band fronted by fount of musical awesomeness Mary Timony. I want Ex Hex hanging on my wall in a box with a little sign that says: IN CASE OF FEBRUARY, BREAK GLASS. Their Rips was one of my favourite records of 2014: a storming succession of short and punchy riffed-up songs that will make you slam dance around your kitchen. Or Soup Kitchen.




D'Angelo at The O2 Apollo, 18 February

Sneakily dropped on us like a stealth soul bomb in December, the long-awaited Black Messiah is an intensely textured and timely album, and features the work of the exquisitely-named bass genius Pino Palladino. Pino, Pino, Pino...





Father John Misty at Gorilla, 24 February

He was the drummer in the Fleet Foxes and recorded a bunch of moany songs as J. Tillman before re-inventing himself as the glorious Father John Misty after some psychedelic vision in a tree. His new album I Love You Honeybear, produced by Laurel Canyon music god Jonathan Wilson, is out on 9 February and to say I'm looking forward to hearing it is kind of an understatement. I actually don't even know where to start with this guy. Maybe just read this. And listen to this:




Olafur Arnalds at RNCM 26 February

Appearing as part of FutureEverything (25-28 Feb), Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds has recently become better known here on account of his excellent film and TV scores, most recently for Broadchurch. It's good stuff for long winter evenings: spare, minimalist electronically-inflected classical music that exudes warmth and emotional resonance. Should be mesmerising live.




Ariel Pink at RNCM 28 February

Another gig that's part of the FutureEverything programme, Ariel Pink. With the Haunted Graffiti he made some good lo-fi psych pop, with appealing melodies and growly singing. On his newest release, pom pom, he's performing as a solo artist. Oh, and he likes to say daft things. He's a kind of professional weirdo at this point. Honestly worth going down just to see what he does. And wears.






MARCH

All We Are at the Deaf Institute, 9 March 

All We Are are from Liverpool and I've been listening to their eponymous new album for a couple of days now but I still don't know how to describe it. Hmm. Can't really better their own description: "The Bee Gees on diazepam". No? Oh, okay, it's kind of stripped down electronic post-rock, with a dreamy, shoegazey wash of guitars and boy-girl vocals but sunnier and poppier than, say, the xx. Good tip from the clued-up folk at our friendly local record store, Piccadilly Records.





Handsome Family Band at the Martin Harris Centre, 21 March 

The husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks make a cinematic kind of alt-country that reminds me a little bit of Nick Cave and, actually, Calexcio (see April). They've been performing together for 20 years, which makes their gigs feel like real family affairs.



Dutch Uncles at The Ritz, 27 March

The Manchester heroes of angular, thoughtful-math pop launch their long-awaited new album with a hometown gig and a tighter, more polished sound.






APRIL

Courtney Barnett at Gorilla, 3 April 

Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett's debut album is yet to come out, but her double EP A Sea of Split Peas is full of songs that are raw and messy and delivered in a deadpan shout. If you're as tired of twee, safe, overly-produced lady singer-songwriters as I am, you might like her. Her lyrics are always excellent, as in the cuttingly Dylanesque Out of The Woodwork. But her just-released  single is faster and even edgier. She clearly hasn't calmed down any. Good.



Calexico at The Albert Hall, 30 April

Ah Calexico, you stayed away for too long, hiding out in some Mexicali boxcar making music full of tumbleweeds and long nights and mysterious strangers with itchy trigger fingers. But we'll forgive you because you're coming back to us, and in the fantastic surroundings of the Albert Hall, too, with solid support from The Barr Brothers.




Sunday, September 28, 2014

Restaurant review: 4244 Edge Street


Halfway through our meal at 4244 Edge Street, I’m reminded of that Woody Allen quote: “Is sex dirty? Only if it’s done right.” If you can come to the end of a plate in this restaurant without running your finger along its surface to capture the last drops of sauce, you’re doing it wrong. If you can finish your bread and then not go on to scoop up the last bit of the nut brown butter neat, you’re doing it wrong. This is food that demands The Full Nigella. Granted, I may have taken things a bit too far when I finished off a little dish of beef dripping and pan juices by pouring it directly into my mouth. To her credit, our server smiled and pronounced me her favourite customer of the night. “It’s so deliciously wicked, isn’t it?” she said. “Would you like some more?”

And to think this sort of thing is happening in the back of Teacup. When I heard the sainted Mary Ellen McTague was opening a pop up here while her Prestwich restaurant, Aumbry, was being renovated, I wasn’t sure how it would work. The answer is: fine. It doesn’t feel much like the back of Teacup, though you can see people in the cafe. The lighting from the open kitchen shines out like floodlights – but some German botanical prints and an antique dresser have been employed to good effect. As at Aumbry, the china and silver are old fashioned and mismatched, and the big, nubbly linen napkins look like the sort of thing a Victorian housewife might have done the washing up with. They probably cost about £45 each, but they’re intensely covetable.

4244 is serving a single menu, four courses for £50 with wine on top (pairings at £36). Eccentricities abound: The wine list is all Croatian as they genuinely love the wines and want to showcase small producers from the country. I’m on board with that as long as they’re all as good as the big, powerful Cattunar Teran, which knocked us sideways like a fist swathed in silk. They make their own bread from biodynamic flour – yep, grown according to the phases of the moon – no idea if this makes any difference, but it’s the chewy, rustic stuff I love. And there’s that butter (made in Bolton). And the dripping. Ah, the dripping.

The food is exactly what you'd get at Aumbry, but no need to do anything new as this is a different audience. A frankly ridiculous number of good amuses was followed by wild mushrooms with curds, hay ash and birch powder. The textures were punched up with crispy, soft rounds of homemade malt loaf – but the taste balance was edgy. McTague likes bold, at times downright peculiar taste combinations and I love eating food like this, but it’s dangerous cooking. With this many powerful flavours shouting at once the result is not always completely harmonious. I don't mind that, though. It's the opposite of comfort food, and I mean that as a compliment.

Hare consommé reminded me a lot of a dish I’d had at The French, which I’d argue is the only place in town serving better food than this right now: cubes of barely cooked turnip, daringly rare rabbit and a rich, tepid broth poured from a wee teapot. But the star of the night was a slow cooked partridge pie of unsurpassing loveliness. Again, the textures were so beautifully balanced, and here the taste combinations were spot on, with the mellow shards of savoy cabbage, flaky homemade pastry, cooked-to-meltingness meat and the sweet pan reduction mingling with the celeriac cream.

Ratafia pudding is one of those 18th Century dishes of the sort that McTague likes to ferret out of her vintage cookbooks. Given the choice, I’d never order it. Thankfully, I didn’t have a choice. A cube of Cox’s Pippin, clear red and baked until buttery perched on a slab of sweet pastry, like a deconstructed Tarte Tatin with a dash of intensely cidery sauce. My Cattunar Muskat Ruza was pleasantly dry and green for a dessert wine, though I wished I’d gone back and ordered another glass of that glorious red instead. Next time. For I’m going to be saving up to get back there again before 4244’s six week run is over. Greedy? Maybe. But when it comes to this woman’s cooking I have very little self control.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Romeo and Juliet, HOME at Victoria Baths



I’m not gonna to lie to you: I walked into Victoria Baths ready to be disappointed by HOME’s production of Romeo and Juliet. I loved their debut outing with ANU, Angel Meadow, so much there seemed little chance the second instalment in their site-specific season could top it. And then there was the venue. People always want to use Victoria Baths for events and performances and, while it is a truly spectacular building, it’s still a big, echoey swimming baths; sound problems are inevitable. They’re still here, but with mics you can just about understand everything. It’s a reasonable compromise to see these spaces used so inventively – designer Ti Green has delivered with a staging that fully inhabits the baths, in three dimensions. 

And this is by and large a bold, assured production that delivers more than enough on pure vision to make good theatre, even if it falls short of truly connecting with the heart of the play. From the very first moment, when an Eastern European folksong came at us out of nowhere, and then the Montagues and the Capulets emerged singing from the striped changing cubicles arrayed around the pool, you knew we were in safe hands. 

With such a stripped-down set much rests on costume and music and these are strong: all tight Eurotrash spangles and the rackety gypsy barminess of an Emir Kusturica film (in an interview this spring, HOME Artistic Director Walter Meierjohann mentioned the Serbian director’s work as an example of the feeling suggested by the baths’ grand decay, and they’ve nailed it.) Props are employed with great efficiency: a little smoke machine and a wooden bench are brought on and then we’re in the Turkish baths having a shvitz with Capulet, splendidly arrayed in black towels and gold chains, as he barks out orders for his party. 

The cast is good overall, with an ensemble that slightly overshadows the lovers, who always felt a little aloof. Griffin Stevens as bumbling Capulet flunky Peter and Rachel Atkins’ as Juliet’s nurse stole every scene they were in. And Ncuti Gatwa as Mercutio moved so beautifully I could have watched him dance all night. There were a few missteps – Romeo breaking into Love Me Do and Crazy in Love during the balcony scene can be excused as a well-intentioned bid to shake up the lines we can all basically recite, and there’s more than a whiff of ham about the penultimate scene, where Romeo writhes on a platform covered with a picture of Juliet’s face. 

But when the windows opened to the third location and light and music streamed into the dark, it was a powerful moment. We were led into the final pool which has been filled with 86,000 gallons of water, and what we saw there – well, that would be a spoiler too far. It’s a difficult thing to breathe magic back into a scene where everyone knows what’s going to happen, but HOME have done just that. 

Romeo and Juliet, through Saturday October 4, Victoria Baths. (Sadly it's sold out, and the waiting list is closed.)