Grand Guignol

This unusual play in Southwark Playhouse was excellent in setting the scene for its particular brand of comedy-horror. Audience members had to walk through a darkened corridor before taking their seats in the auditorium, in time for the first scene which set up expectations for the show, and then determinedly shattered them.

Carl Grose’s Grand Guignol was inspired by the legendary Theatre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, which terrorised audiences between 1897 and 1962. The play is set in 1903, and sees André de Lorde (Jonathan Broadbent), the theatre’s writer, trying desperately to come up with more and more outrageous ideas, calling on the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe to assist him. An interested psychiatrist, Binet (Matthew Pearson), finds himself increasingly drawn to the theatre’s dark world. Meanwhile, there is a Ripper-style murderer wandering the streets.

The play is funny, clever and inventive, particularly when it comes to the horror scenes of the plays within the play. I particularly liked the over-the-top acting in these hilariously dramatic scenes. The piece asks questions about why people are drawn to the horror genre, but mostly just goes with the flow, getting sillier and sillier until the final scene when all hell breaks loose. Not for everyone, but I loved it.

Monstrous Regiment

I visited the Mary Wallace Theatre in Twickenham to see a production of Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment, performed by the Richmond Shakespeare Society. The story, adapted for the stage by Stephen Briggs, was directed by Louise Stenson and told of Polly (Becca Stafford) who joins the army disguised as a boy in order to find her brother. The show was enjoyable and there were some strong performances, particularly from Matt O’Toole as Sargeant Jackrum and Tom Shore as the vampire Maladict. Definitely worth seeing if you are a fan of the Discworld novels.

Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto

I attended a London Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Royal Festival Hall, part of the “Rachmaninoff: Inside Out” season. The programme included Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and Symphony No. 1 (Winter Daydreams) by Tchaikovsky. In between, Nikolai Lugansky performed Rachmaninoff’s fourth Piano Concerto (the final version).

The Apple Cart

George Bernard Shaw’s 1928 political farce The Apple Cart was recently performed at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in north London. It concerns the fictional English King Magnus and his battle of wits with his cabinet, including Prime Minister Proteus. Faced with the possibility of a further loss of political power, the king decides he would rather abdicate and take his chances as an ordinary MP instead.

Despite being over eighty years old, the play still feels very fresh, and several of the themes and issues it explores – such as differing political beliefs and the role of the monarch in politics – are still highly relevant. In some ways the play reminded me of Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III which premiered this year. Shaw’s piece is much more of a comedy, however – in particular I loved the subplot in which the British are appalled at the American ambassador’s suggestion that they would like to give the US back to Britain.

Performed by the amateur theatre group KDC Theatre, this was a highly amusing evening.

Mariinsky Opera Chorus

The last night of the Mariinsky Opera’s residency saw the Chorus perform in Milton Court Concert Hall. Conducted by Andrei Petrenko, the Chorus sang Russian Orthodox choral music and folksong, traditions which inspired Shchedrin and Mussorgsky.

The highlight for me was Valery Gavrilin’s Perezvony, a large-scale choral fresco inspired by Russian folklore that was rich, funny and moving. The singers did things with their voices that I would hardly have thought possible. The full programme included:

Valery Gavrilin Fragments from Perezvony (Chimes)
Russian Orthodox works of Dmitry Bortnyansky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky, Sergey Rachmaninoff, Alexander Arkhangelsky, Igor Stravinsky
Russian folk songs:
Ah, wide steppe arranged by Alexander Sveshnikov
In the dark forest arranged by Alexander Sveshnikov
Good little road arranged by Alexander Sveshnikov
Up the mountain, up the hill arranged by Oleg Kolovsky
Only the steppe all around arranged by Alexander Sveshnikov
With a loach fish, I go arranged by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Why must I live and grieve? romance by Alexander Varlamov, folk lyrics
Love, brothers, love… arranged by Feodosy Rubtsov
Birch twig broom arranged by Feodosiy Rubtsov
I come out onto the path, alone romance by Elizaveta Chashina to words by Mikhail Lermontov
The wicket gate romance by Alexander Obukhov to words by Alexey Budishchev
Twelve robbers arranged by Anatoly Novikov
The Lady arranged by Anatoly Novikov

Levsha (The Left-Hander)

The second show I saw as part of the Mariinsky Opera’s residency at the Barbican was a modern piece: Rodion Shchedrin’s The Left-Hander (2012-13), based on a short story by Nikolai Leskov.

The story is set during the reign of George I. Visiting England, Tsar Alexander is given a present created by English engineers: a mechanical, life-size steel flea. Later, Tsar Nicholas wants to prove that Russians can be even more skilful, and sends the flea to “Levsha”, a left-handed craftsman, who gives it shoes and teaches it tricks. Sent to England, he is offered rewards and education but flees, and is attacked and dies before he reaches home. It is a complex tale, brought to life by a talented cast.

I liked the music less than Boris Godunov, which I had seen the night before, but I did find much to enjoy: not least the charm of the Flea (Kristina Alieva) and the sympathetic title character (Andrey Popov). The story proved an interesting commentary on Anglo-Russian relations – considering the performance location, particularly apt.

Boris Godunov

I heard that the Mariinsky Opera would be having a three-day residency at the Barbican, and I decided to go and see all of their shows. The first was Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

I am familiar with the story, as I saw Pushkin’s play on which the opera is based a couple of years ago at the RSC. The historical epic was given powerful treatment in a concert performance conducted by Valery Gergiev.

I was impressed by the singers, particularly Mikhail Kazakov as Boris and Mikhail Petrenko as the monk Pimen, and loved the music, which was powerful and memorable. The story was gripping, and I was interested to see how it differed from the play I was familiar with.