Monday, October 26, 2020

A Recital of Opera, Song and Musical Theatre


You can't get more local than singing at an old people's home in Kings Langley, realising you don't have a sustain pedal on your keyboard, and rushing over to Bushey to pick one up! Except of course that Thomas Isherwood is even more local than that. An operatic baritone with a sumptuous and versatile voice, he actually began his training at Watford School of Music at the tender age of eight. It's a pleasure to see a 'Hertfordshire lad done good' up on the Pump House stage taking part in the Watford Fringe.

His diverse repertoire took us on a well organised grand tour of English folk song, German lieder, Italian opera, art song, and musical theatre. The joy of the show was not just in his confident, clear performances which imbued the music with a passionate sense of character and narrative, but also in his charming contextualisation of the music. He balanced witty asides and personal anecdotes with knowledgeable insights about the history and traditions of his chosen songs.

Elspeth Wilkes was a marvellous accompanist, following closely and intuitively through fast paced patter, steep rallentandos and the free, open rhythms of Isherwood's storytelling style. Congratulations also to the sound technician who initially had quite a job on their hands managing the frequent switches between Isherwood's gentle, unassuming talking voice which he used to introduce each of his songs and the booming power of his baritone singing voice at full belt.

Overall, this recital was a delightful evening of musical appreciation which placed the love of song centre stage. Isherwood informed, educated, entertained and entranced in equal measure, delivering a beautiful voice matched with a sweet selection box of melodies.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Review: A Year On


It's rare for a fringe show to start with such a meek introduction as David Naylor's A Year On. He openly says how worried he was about choosing the topic for his show, how anxious he was about not having done much since his Watford Fringe Festival show the year before, and how he turned to a moment of quiet reflection to find direction. The result of which was a simple realisation: he had to tell his story.

And what an interesting story it is. Naylor meanders calmly through his tale of record deals and music touts, flitting briefly on episodes as diverse as working as a carer for a man with cerebral palsy, quitting smoking, performing at open mics, training in music therapy and suffering from brain injury. He talks about feeling lost, and about asking for help, in essence about the much lived and rarely discussed truths of the human experience. It was like watching someone unpeel themselves on stage, unwrapping the hardened outer layers of self to expose the truthful, private layers underneath.

Naylor's style is slow and meandering, rambling even, but with the show coming in at 30 minutes that's never a problem. If anything, it's a refreshingly charming and intimately personal performance style. 

You feel an immediate sympathy and connection with Naylor, and although I felt compelled to stick with him to the end, it would have been enjoyable to have some music peppered through the show. There was a guitar and drum in full view for the entirety, and I felt myself willing him to pick them up and use his music to help enrich his storytelling. In the end we got one song at the show's conclusion. A magical moment which it would have been great to see more of throughout.

Review: SafeHaven - a place to call home


The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been devastatingly far reaching. Alongside the medical and health concerns have been a wide array of social impacts. Young people have faced a trench of these, having endured disruption to their school lives, their socialising and their extra-curricular activities.

In that context, The Dan Tien Performing Arts Studio deserves a big round of applause for enabling this devised performance to go ahead as part of the Watford Fringe Festival. The young people involved here have clearly had a wonderful time flexing their creative muscles, creating an intriguingly original story, a range of challenging characters and a stage set that is both visually dynamic and Covid safe.

SafeHaven is a dystopian tale, which is perhaps unsurprising in the current times, but there are also touches of comedy, optimism and resilience. Nine women are forced together in a quest to escape a prison like existence watched over by an anonymous Doctor who surveils their every move but himself remains a disembodied voice. The story brings to the foreground a range of contemporary concerns around authority, rebellion and technology. Bubbling under the surface are many of the worries connected to social media, in particular concealed identities, curated identities and exaggerated life stories. 

For this young group to have produced this during lockdown is impressive. I understand the play is going to be developed further over the next few months and I wish the young cast every success as they continue to adapt their creativity to fit the the new norms of devising, rehearsing and performing in a pandemic.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Review: Rough Sleeper


Rough Sleeper is the self-told tale of a homeless man who is busking, begging and sleeping in the doorway of a closed down high street store. The published synopsis places the story in an affluent South-Eastern City. However, the set is effectively a blank stage, a black floor against a white background, which cleverly situates the action both anywhere and everywhere. It reminds us throughout that while we're hearing a specific person's story, the experiences he recounts are more disturbingly universal.

The structure is basically that of a monologue, with our homeless protagonist addressing us as an audience directly. The actor (whose name unfortunately I can't find on the Youtube page on which the show streamed) did a very convincing job of balancing the pessimistic fatalism of someone ground down by the relentless discomfort of life on the street, with the glimpses of disbelief and optimism which spring from memories of his affluent past and his dreams of a happier future.

Occasionally other actors appear for brief interactions with our hero, and shine in little cameos including a green belt obsessed mother and a disapproving GP. The most interesting of these minor characters is the playwright, who comes on stage to ask the homeless man about his experience and in that manner effectively prods the whole play into being. I think this idea could have been played with much more creatively to generate a fresh and exciting new dramatic structure. Perhaps a negotiation between the playwright who wants to sculpt and shape the homeless man's life story into a conventionally satisfying narrative, and the homeless person who wrestles to keep control of his own story, including its coincidences, inconsistencies and failures. At present, without that sense of dramatic conflict, the piece feels a bit like agitprop, with a likeable, sympathetic, liberal-minded homeless man monologuing eloquently on the hassles, irritations and discomforts of his life.

Homelessness is a really important social issue and it's great to see it tackled by writer Jo Emery with such detail and sympathy. What's lacking however is plot. Young adult novels like Robert Swindell's Stone Cold remind us vividly how accomplished story tellers can generate immense sympathy for the homeless while simultaneously telling a gripping story. Rough Sleeper is a socially conscious piece of theatre that would benefit from a sense of narrative drive.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Review: How To Space

This short film 'How To Space' is written by St Albans based Anna Reynolds and inspired by the world of her play ‘Nothing on Earth’. Many of the shots are beautifully framed, the proportions between character and space and sharp contrasts between light and shadow drawn with dramatic confidence.

The story is that of a young girl obsessed with the night sky and a yearning to fly out into the unknown. It's a story of breaking through barriers and overcoming societal limitations in order to fulfil astronomical ambitions.

It features actress Chanel Glasgow, whose beautiful voice wraps you in the story and drips with a sense of optimism in the face of frustrated dreams. Filmed under lock-down restrictions in her home of Trinidad and Tobago, tantalising glimpses of the beach and sea form the basis of some of the exterior shots.

Produced using Zoom under the creative leadership of Artistic Director Rosamunde Hutt and directed by Grant Watson, this is a thoughtful and reflective piece filled with poetic imagery and haunting language. A wonderful premiere for the Watford Fringe.

Review: The Dream Speaks Back


A panel conversation between three authors who explore the ups and downs of writing a joint book, this was an interesting hour of chat between three incredibly creative people who share an obvious friendship and love. Married couple Sue Hampton and Leslie Tate (happily dear friends of mine who have shared their work at my Dial Up open mic events in the past) are joined by Cy Henty, a comedian, actor and artist who created the front cover of the book (displayed above).

The conversation was eclectic and wide ranging, with a little bit of something for everyone, including energetic and emotional readings from the book itself. Not having read the book, this sporadic approach was at times hard to follow, and the friendship between the three meant they shared a carefree shorthand that was lovely to watch but sometimes left the audience missing a link in the topic progression. Nonetheless, the talk was pebbled with charming little gems of insight on topics ranging from mental health issues, growing up as non-binary, the process of writing autobiography as opposed to fiction and rediscovering the child within.

Leslie hosted the talk, and he was as ever a consummate chair and questioner (he hosts a regular show on local community radio). Streamed on Youtube, it would have been wonderful if the comments could have been enabled to allow the audience to engage and ask questions, but of course in the current context it's simply wonderful that it was able to go ahead.

Literature is often overlooked at fringe festivals, crowded out by comedy, theatre and music. I'm delighted space was made to enjoy and reflect on the power of the printed word.

Review: Shackleton- an introduction to a new musical

One of the joys of fringe festivals is the opportunity to catch new works in an early stage of development. What a pleasure then to find Shackleton among this year's offerings. Presented by the Rickmansworth Players, this 15 minute online taster of a brand new musical is slickly edited and confidently performed. 

There is clever use of photography and voice over to set the scene, while multi-frame face to camera shots of the actors in full voice, both solo singing and forming a tightly harmonic chorus, give an excellent insight into the overall musical style. More Lloyd-Webber than Sondheim or Herman, the melodies are light classical in feel with gentle open chords and sweetly slushy arpeggios in Andrea Rae's superb piano accompaniment.

The story outlines the epic journey faced by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew during their Antarctic expedition. The music captures in its frequent minor strains the futility and despair associated with what we as an audience already know is a journey doomed to grim failure. Yet there is something heroic too in the anthemic quality of certain songs like The Ones We Leave Behind which reminds of the courage and self-sacrifice of those involved, in pursuit of a goal far bigger than themselves. I'm sure echoes with our own contemporary situation could be teased out in a full production.

Lyric writing, unlike poetry, needs to get its message across to its audience under the very tight constraints of rhythm, pitch and dramatic context. There is here an over reliance on repetition to meet those challenging demands. More variety, wit and originality in the lyrics would give the songs a richer depth, enticing the listener back for second helpings.

Overall, though, what a wonderful achievement to have come out of lockdown. Massive congratulations to Matthew Knowles (Book and Lyrics) and Simone Chiappi (Music) for producing such a compelling introduction to what I'm sure will be a magnificent new musical. I look forward to seeing a fully fledged production!

A Recital of Opera, Song and Musical Theatre

  You can't get more local than singing at an old people's home in Kings Langley, realising you don't have a sustain pedal on yo...