Northern Lights Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius and Beethoven

I thought it was time for a bit of classical music to mix up my theatregoing, and decided on the Northern Lights Symphony Orchestra opening season concert at LSO St Luke’s. The programme featured Adam Johnson conducting and an appearance by soprano Serafiina Sainio, and ran as follows:

Beethoven Symphony No 5
Sibelius Luonnotar
Sibelius Symphony No 7

Knowing very little about classical music, as I’ve mentioned before, this is less a review than a general commentary, but I was impressed with the performance. I’ve heard bits of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony before – who hasn’t? – but it was good to hear the whole thing. I enjoyed Sibelius’ haunting Luonnotar, enriched by the short introduction by someone from the Sibelius Society which explained how it was inspired by Finnish mythology, a version of the Creation myth. Lacking background knowledge myself, I find short introductions like this really help me understand the music. I also liked the final symphony, though as with all symphonies, I feel I’d have to listen a number of times to really appreciate it.


On Friday night I visited the Tramshed, a venue in Greenwich, to see a performance of Duology by the Chantry Dance Company, a contemporary ballet company. The performance consisted of two ballets: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Vincent – a stranger to himself.

The first piece was a lighthearted ballet with three dancers – David Beer, Rae Piper and Paul Chantry. The only “prop” was a low couch which made me think of the programme Friends. In fact, the whole piece made me think of friendship – the ups and downs of relationships, with the three dancers interacting with each other in different ways. Set to Mozart’s music, the piece is designed to offer audience members the chance to interpret the ballet as they wish. I found it very funny and amusing, a lovely quirky piece.

The second work was a bit different, exploring the life of Vincent Van Gogh and the idea that he could only be saved by his art. It starred Paul Chantry as Vincent himself and Rae Piper as “Art”, as well as a number of other dancers who portrayed different characters in the artist’s life as well as demons or abstract characters. I was really impressed by this too: it was evocative and moving, and I found the bleaker characters genuinely chilling. Influenced by Greek theatre as well as modern dance, it made a strong impression on me.

After the performance, there was a short Q&A session which allowed the artists to talk about their work and their inspiration; I found this really interesting too.

Contemporary ballet isn’t something that’s ever been on my radar before, but based on this performance it’s something I would like to see more of. I was very impressed by this company and I would definitely be interested in seeing future work by them.

Arms and the Man

Arms and the Man is George Bernard Shaw’s comedy about the futility of war, performed here at the Questors Theatre in Ealing. It is set during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian war, when a retreating Swiss soldier in the Serbian army, Captain Bluntschli, hides in the bedroom of wealthy Bulgarian Raina Petkoff, challenging her ideas of the nobility of war with his matter-of-fact attitude. Raina is engaged to army hero Sergius Saranoff, but begins to question her love when he returns and starts flirting with the servant. When Bluntschli is reunited with the Petkoff family after the war, Raina must decide where her heart really lies. The play is both a romantic comedy and a commentary on the silliness of war, men fighting one another for no apparent reason.

Despite being an amateur production, the standard is very high, with an excellent cast and an effective set. I found it very funny, and the cast did ample justice to Shaw’s wit. Definitely recommended.

Shows the Chuckle Brothers could star in

A few weeks ago, I saw Waiting for Godot at the Barbican. On Twitter, I mused on whether the Chuckle Brothers could take on the roles of Vladimir and Estragon.



Some readers may be too young or too old to remember the Chuckle Brothers and their BBC TV show, ChuckleVision, which ran from 1987 to 2009. If so, I direct you to this music video starring Tinchy Stryder and the Chuckle Brothers, easily the greatest track of 2014. I was a huge fan as a child – one of the highlights of my youthful theatre experience was seeing them in panto – and their catchphrases, including “To Me, To You” (as demonstrated in the below video) and “Oh dear… oh dear oh dear”, will be familiar to most people between the ages of 25 and 35.

I appreciate that the above will probably make me sound incredibly uncool, but hey, I’ve been uncool all my life, and I’m cool with that. Lately I’ve been thinking about other plays the duo could star in – because, why not?

The Comedy of Errors

Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identity would be a perfect fit for the brothers’ daft humour. I can see them in the roles of the servants, Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse. Their real-life brothers, Jimmy and Brian (the Patton Brothers, who have also appeared in Chucklevision, the former as regular character “Mr No-Slacking”), could play Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse. I’ve got it all worked out, honestly.

City of Angels

An offbeat choice perhaps, but I can totally see Barry and Paul as Stine/Stone in this Cy Coleman musical. If Chucklevision was still going, they could totally have filmed an episode spoofing the show. Stine and Stone have a complex relationship of mutual dependency, just like Paul and Barry.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the original Chuckle Brothers, don’t you think? This existentialist comedy would be a brilliant vehicle for the duo and the absurd tone would suit them very well.

Come to think of it, they could also have a cameo role in Hamlet.

Anyone have any other suggestions for the brothers? Any chance of them actually taking part in any of these? I would pay good money to see these performances…

Fuck the Polar Bears

I booked for this play with interest, having thoroughly enjoyed Tanya Ronder’s Table at the National a while back, hoping that Fuck the Polar Bears would be of the same standard. The Bush Theatre is known for its commitment to new plays, which I don’t see nearly enough of, so I was looking forward to this.

It’s the story of a privileged family forced to face up to environmental issues: husband Gordon is about to be made CEO of an energy firm, wife Serena wants to move to a bigger house, the live-in au pair Blundhilde is obsessed with green issues and daughter Rachel has lost her toy polar bear.

Rarely have I seen such unlikeable characters in a play. With the exception of the young child, whose feelings for her missing toy are commendable, and Gordon’s brother Clarence, a recovering drug addict who is repaying his brother’s assistance by painting his house, they are the most unpleasant bunch of people I have ever had the misfortune to see on stage. Blundhilde is overbearing and humourless, Gordon treats his brother with contempt and Serena is self-obsessed and whiny. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to care whether Gordon and Serena would be able to afford to move from their multi-million pound mansion to an even grander multi-million pound mansion, nor was I concerned whether they’d be swallowed up by the environmental apocalypse.

The play does broach some of the important issues regarding the environment – the temptation to ignore the crisis and carry on as normal. However, it only examines them in a superficial way, during the last ten minutes or so of the play. The earlier part of the work largely involves Gordon becoming increasingly convinced that Phoebe, the missing toy polar bear, has come to life and is stalking him – this sounds funny, but unfortunately isn’t.

I loved Chiara Stephenson’s set, which framed the house and set the scene for the effects and the explosions. Unfortunately, however, the play left me cold – as cold as the polar bears before their habitat succumbs to global warming.

Bush Theatre Tour (Open House London)

It’s that time of year again: Open House London, the weekend in September when buildings of all kinds are opened to the public for exploration and adventure all over London. Last year I visited three theatres. This year I broadened my outlook a bit, only taking in one theatre during my weekend of visits. This was the Bush Theatre, located – as the name suggests – in Shepherd’s Bush.


The theatre moved to its current location, an ex-library, in 2012. The foyer, with its welcoming bar and comfy seating, echoes its literary past with a library of playtexts, not (officially) borrowable but free for anyone to use on the premises. Even when there is no show on, the bar is often full of people working, reading or relaxing.


The box office is a small desk at one end of the space, with posters of current and recent shows displayed above. There are several interesting features in this room, not least the front of the bar, which was made with doors found lying around upstairs.


We were taken into the auditorium, a “black box” space which is very versatile and can be adapted for each production. Later in the tour we got to see some of the scale models made for different productions, showing just how adaptable the space is. Even the four columns in the room can be worked into the designs. This area was part of a 1950s extension to the library, and the windows have been covered up so that light cannot seep into the theatre space.


We couldn’t see the dressing rooms because the actors were using them, but we were able to see the backstage area where scenery and props are made. Again it was possible to see that this space was part of a later extension to the library.


We exited this space and went round the building to see the foundation stone, laid by J. Passmore Edwards in 1895.


We spent a brief amount of time in the garden, which looked like a lovely place to relax away from the bustle of Shepherd’s Bush. The “carpet” is made of tyre shavings, and had a strange smell which I actually rather liked!


Here, we were able to witness the extension from the outside.


Back inside, we ventured upstairs, passing a window which had a good view of the Overground tracks.


In the Attic Space (sometimes used for performances) there was a small display of photographs and artefacts relating to the history of the building, including pictures of its use as a library.


One of the items was this interesting leaflet from the opening day.


As a librarian I’m always sad to see a library closed, but the building has been put to excellent use. The Bush Theatre is a versatile, welcoming environment. The theatre specifically focuses on new plays and regularly champions new playwrights, so is a much needed part of the London theatre scene.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg

In 2012, Ian Kelly published a biography of Georgian actor Samuel Foote entitled Mr Foote’s Other Leg. Following the success of this book, he adapted it into a play, which is now showing at the Hampstead Theatre. After it was announced that Simon Russell Beale would be starring as Foote, tickets quickly sold out, so I was lucky to get one, even though I was rather more excited to be seeing Joseph Millson, an actor I’ve liked since I was a fifteen year old watching Peak Practice on a Tuesday night with my mam (I was not a particularly cool teenager).

Youthful reminiscences aside, the concept of a play about the theatre really appealed to me. It begins in unexpected fashion: years after Foote’s death, his former servant and stage hand break into the Hunterian Museum to try and steal his amputated leg, hoping to reunite it with the rest of his body. Cue plenty of laughs, and a humorous tone that lasts throughout the entire play, even when events take a darker turn.

We first meet Foote himself when, along with several other actors including David Garrick (Millson) and Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan), he arrives for elocution lessons from Charles Macklin, shortly before the latter accidentally pokes another actor in the eye with his walking stick, leading to his death (yes, this actually happened). Despite this inauspicious beginning, the three remain friends over the next few decades, maintaining a level of mutual respect and love despite considerable artistic differences. We follow Foote as he becomes a hugely popular comic actor, getting round the censors by selling tickets to afternoon tea and offering the plays as an “extra”, and enjoying the patronage of Prince George (later George III) who is played to great effect by playwright Ian Kelly. Foote delights in the theatre as a joyous, ephemeral sort of place, a contrast to the serious and rather pompous Garrick. In one glorious scene, Garrick, horrified that Foote is about to play Othello as a comedy, chases him around the stage, the two of them in blackface and identical costumes, watched with growing bemusement by Foote’s Jamaican servant Frank (Micah Balfour).

After a riding accident, Foote’s leg is amputated in an aurally gruesome scene, each part of the unpleasant process being described by surgeon John Hunter and the other characters who are responsible, in the absence of pain relief, for holding Foote down. If you’re squeamish, you will need to stick your fingers in your ears, but the scene is undoubtedly effective. Following this, Foote becomes increasingly volatile, reckless in performance and causing rumours to be spread about his homosexuality.

As might be expected, Simon Russell Beale is excellent in the leading role, conveying his character’s comedic talents as well as his determination to crack on and make a career out of the loss of his leg. He is also superb in his character’s more vulnerable moments, as well as his sharpness and occasional cruelty. Dervla Kirwan is also excellent as Peg, her character’s humanity and warmth shining through. Joseph Millson is marvellous as David Garrick, pompous and severely lacking in a sense of humour, but loyal when it counts and appealing in his sincerity.

The richness of subject matter contained within a biography does make for a rather disjointed play: I struggled to work out the relevance of the Benjamin Franklin sections to the rest of the piece, for example. Having said that, although it is a very long play, it was never boring and the time flew by for me.

Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was one of the earliest stand-up comedians, enjoyed considerable fame in his day, secured the royal patent for the Theatre Royal Haymarket and had a rich and event-filled life. Yet he is a figure I hadn’t heard of until this play was announced. If this work can raise awareness of Foote’s incredible life, then it will have done its job; and while it isn’t perfect, it is gloriously entertaining.