Sunday, 31 December 2017

Review of 2017

Max Richter’s Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works (*****) fused neo-classical instrumentation, ambient sounds and sampled dialogue in a compelling manner. Norwegian band Ulver performed another creative volte-face to deliver a consistent set of electronic pop songs in The Assassination of Julius Caesar (****). Noise musician Ben Frost had a busy year with the release of the Fortitude soundtrack (***), the Threshold of Faith EP (*****) and its accompanying album The Centre Cannot Hold (****). Neil Young’s demo album Hitchhiker (****), recorded in 1976, proved that understatement is often a virtue, while Mogwai delivered their strongest set in some time with Every Country’s Sun (****). Kikagaku Moyo contributed further psychedelic noise on Stone Garden (****), while Brian Eno’s most immersive ambient piece in some time came in the form of Reflection (****).

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross recorded an effective cover of John Carpenter’s Halloween (****), alongside Nine Inch Nails’ Add Violence EP (****). NIN’s classic 1990s releases Broken (*****), The Downward Spiral (*****) and The Fragile (****) were also re-released in ‘definitive versions’.

There were decent electronic efforts from Four Tet: New Energy (****), Teen Daze: Themes for Dying Earth (****), GAS: Narkopop (***), Bonobo: Migration (***) and Bicep: Bicep (***). David Bowie’s archive yielded the fantastic Berlin-era boxset A New Career in a New Town (****) and 1974 live recording Cracked Actor (***). Pallbearer delivered a fine album, Heartless (****), while Public Service Broadcasting explored Welsh mining history with Every Valley (***). Slowdive returned after a long absence with the self-titled Slowdive (****), and Steven Wilson embraced the mainstream with the somewhat underwhelming To the Bone (***). David Gilmour and Dextro both delivered live albums: Live at Pompeii (***) and Live at The Cluny (***) respectively.

The return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks led to the release of three separate soundtrack albums: Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting Twin Peaks (Limited Event Series Soundtrack) (****), sound designer Dean Hurley’s atmospheric Anthology Vol. 1 (****) and the more uneven Twin Peaks (Music From The Limited Event Series) (***). Further Twin Peaks soundtrack material could also be found on Johnny Jewel’s sparse, bittersweet Windswept (****) and Uniform’s unrelentingly aggressive Wake in Fright (***).

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s Blade Runner 2049 (***) score didn’t quite reach the majestic heights of Vangelis’ original Blade Runner soundtrack, but still contains some fine work (especially when you skip the superfluous vocal tracks). Contrarily, Kyle Dixon and Michael Dixon’s synth soundtrack to Stranger Things 2 (***) might have benefitted from some of the 1980s pop and metal songs used in the show.

I attended live Newcastle shows by Einsturzende Neubauten (***) and the Australian Pink Floyd tribute act (***), but was very sorry to miss Sigur Ros’ concert in Glasgow due to ill health.

Paranoia and dread were potent driving forces in It Comes at Night (****), which features strong lead performances from Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott. Armando Iannucci's satire The Death of Stalin (****) was as terrifying as it was amusing, with fine performances from an all-star British and American cast. Blade Runner 2049 (****) effectively evoked the atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s original film and featured some fantastic visual effects, although there were perhaps too may action scenes and a rather hammy performance from Jared Leto. Michael Keaton was in fine form as McDonald’s guru Ray Kroc in the entertaining The Founder (****), while Jennifer Lawrence undertook one of her most challenging roles yet in Mother! (****).

Lady Macbeth (****) was a tense re-telling of a novel by Nikolai Leskov, filmed in the north east of the UK, while Rachel Weisz starred in the more lavish period drama My Cousin Rachel (***). Natalie Portman was effective in Jackie (***), while Fences (***) suffered a little in translation from the stage. T2 Trainspotting (***) had some interesting things to say about memory and nostalgia, but suffered from some predictable plot devices and an ugly soundtrack. Manchester by the Sea (***) and The Levelling (***) were both reasonably gripping family dramas.

Logan (***) brought the Patrick Stewart-era X-Men franchise to a violent-but-poignant end. The divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi (***) was entertaining in parts but also overlong, with a reliance on unnecessary sub-plots and CGI critters reminiscent of the atrocious prequel trilogy.

I didn’t find much time for drama this year, although my reviews of Hedda Gabbler and Playing Up 4 at Northern Stage can be found on this blog.

Twin Peaks: The Return (*****) was unpredictable, baffling, infuriating, amusing and at times genuinely terrifying; David Lynch has raised the bar once again. Netflix's The Sinner (****) was a disquieting and absorbing drama exploring repressed memory, while the BBC's Line of Duty (****) was as tense as ever in its fourth series. Stranger Things 2 (***) was an enjoyable sequel to the first season, although not without its flaws. The Handmaid's Tale (***) effectively brought Margaret Atwood's dystopian vision to life  at a time when its lessons particularly bear repeating  although there were a few curious diversions from the source material. Game of Thrones (**) seemed on something of a crash-course this season, with very questionable plotting and some lacklustre performances, although it remains an effective spectacle at times.

I have a tendency to neglect contemporary writers, but I found Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods (*****) fascinating: an account of Christopher Thomas Knight's extraordinary 27 years of solitude in the North Pond area of Maine. I thoroughly enjoyed George Orwell's meticulously written Down and Out in Paris and London (*****), which has aged much better than The Road to Wigan Pier (***). The Revised and Updated 2016 Edition of Nicholas Pegg's The Complete David Bowie (*****) is the most thorough guide to a musician's work that I've ever read, while Oliver Sack's Musicophilia (****) is an accessible, anecdotal study of the effect that music can have on the human brain. Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale (****) has possibly never seemed quite as relevant. The world is a sadder place without the wit and (hard-earned) wisdom of Carrie Fisher, as displayed in Postcards from the Edge (****). Nic Pizzolatto's Galveston (****) is a dramatic, noir-flavoured novel from the creator and writer of HBO's True Detective, while Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (****) manages a palpable sense of atmosphere in its brevity. Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, and The Remains of the Day (****) is a successful period piece with a strong narrative voice. The surreal nightmares of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (****) and Philip K. Dick's Minority Report: Volume Four of the Collected Stories (****) kept me sane while I was recovering from surgery. Finally, I enjoyed re-reading Henrik Ibsen's Four Major Plays (****) and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays (****).

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Ridley Scott: Past, Present & Future Visionary Exhibition, The Word, South Shields

The Word in South Shields is currently home to a Ridley Scott-themed exhbition, 'Past Present & Future Visionary'. Degree students from the Cleveland College of Art and Design have recreated props and costumes from Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and more.

 Alien display

 Replica Ripley jumpsuit


Signed script and alien egg



 Blade Runner display

 Deckard blaster

 Voight Kampff machine

J.F. Sebastian costume

The exhibition runs until the 2nd of May. Entry is free.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Review: Hedda Gabler, Northern Stage

Audience members are warned about loud gunshots upon entering Northern Stage for the current production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler; they are also warned, by means of an added subtitle, that ‘this is not a love story’.

A bare table and chairs sit in front of large, tarnished mirror panels which reflect and distort the action on-stage. Insistent drums, synthesized squeals and discordant piano announce the entrance of the cast, as maids prepare for the arrival of Jørgen Tesman and his recent bride, Hedda Gabler.

Ed Gaughan gives a wonderful performance as Tesman, the shambling, earnest academic who yearns to satisfy his demanding wife but whose mind is focused firmly on Dutch cottage industries. Victoria Elliott is also strong as Hedda, strutting around in a dressing gown as if at a ball, manipulating her companions as a means of escape from the tedium of married life.

Electric drones and red lights signal the start of ‘rage reveries’ in which Hedda vents her frustration at those around her: Donald McBride’s scheming Judge Brack, Rachel Denning’s nervous Thea Elvsted, the oblivious Tesman and his tiresome devotion to his ageing aunts. It is the return of Tesman’s reformed rival Eilert Lövborg (Scott Turnbull) to the town which gives Hedda her chance: in a world where women are refused control, she plots to take charge of Eilert’s destiny. Equating destruction with the beauty she seeks, she perpetuates his undoing and casts his manuscript into the fire.

Unfortunately, the production comes to a disappointing end when Hedda rises from the dead to heckle the rest of the company, tearing off her corset to reveal the slogan ‘Knowledge is power’. The abrupt ending of Ibsen’s play, where Brack, Tesman and Thea are left in total confusion at Hedda’s brutal suicide, is much more subversive: like Iago, she will never speak a word from that time forth. Neither logic nor insanity can explain her actions.

Hedda Gabbler runs until Wednesday 8th March. Tickets are available here.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Review: Playing Up 4, Northern Stage

For its fourth installment, Playing Up relocated to Northern Stage for a sold-out performance of seven short plays. It may have been trying to snow outside, but the audience was treated to an infernally hot auditorium. But the play’s the thing…

Jane Pickthall’s ‘Bingo Wings’ came first, in which pious vicar Peter (Richard Gardner) and slightly lascivious bingo caller Graham (Kevin Gibson) compete for the attention of their waning crowds. The performances were slightly hesitant, but the play featured some humorous turns of phrase and drew a good reaction from the crowd.

Patrick Robertson’s ‘Ganymede’ followed, and was the highlight of the evening. Actor Francis (Colin Jeffrey) receives a visit backstage from his friend Gary (a subtly nuanced performance from Alex Blenkey) after a performance of As You Like It, and the two discuss changing views on gender and sexuality from the ‘fluid’ Shakespearean period to a more ‘defined’ modern world. These were interesting characters, well established during this short performance, and I wanted to see more.

From the theatre to the modern office environment: Chris Wilkins’ ‘Cow Juice’ began as a convincing portrait, featuring stand-up meetings and ‘scrums’, but veered close to farce in its later stages. Myopic middle-manager Hurn (Chris Iddon) terrorises his office juniors while attempting to curry favour with his superiors (a convincing performance from Zoe Hakin as Bridget). Wilkins’ ‘Smile!’ was one of the highlights of the previous Playing Up, but at times this play felt like an excuse for the actors to shout and swear. However, the performance generated an enthusiastic response from the audience, and the withering manner in which consumers were defined by their supermarket milk preferences was highly entertaining.

The second half began with Sharon Zucker’s ‘A Moment’, in which Alice (Sara Jo Harrison) celebrates her female attributes (‘Her Breasts’, portrayed by Donna Tonkinson). I had reservations about the premise, but the play turned out to be a moving tale, beginning with a retrospective history of shared experience (Alice’s body developing physically as she progresses emotionally through puberty to adulthood, motherhood, and towards marriage). The play then shifts to a Miami bar, where Alice is faced with difficult choices.

Lewis Cuthbert’s ‘Chad’ featured a committed performance from David Parker as obnoxious former child star Chad Schweizer, star of the ‘Geek-O-Tron’ and ‘Weenies’ series. Perhaps more of a straightforward satire than some of Cuthbert’s earlier work (although given Parker’s Woody Allen-esque delivery, there were still plenty of neuroses on display!) The play’s reliance on pre-recorded voices was a little alienating, but the main character’s frantic dialogue was warmly received. 

Next the evening took an unfortunately ugly turn with Katie Ann Hunter’s ‘Misophonia’: a grotesque piece about a new mother suffering from a fear of certain noises, as well as apparent post-natal depression. This short play led predictably from sleepless nights and domestic arguments to infanticide. A facile piece of writing which did not explore the complex issues involved, opting instead for archetypal characters and distorted wailing noises. I'll stick with Eraserhead.

And finally, modern airport procedures in the post-9/11 era: John Harrison’s ‘Scanners’ allowed the audience to eavesdrop on the egregious jobsworths at a baggage check-in department. I’m sure that anyone who has travelled by air in the last 15 years can relate, although this apparently under-rehearsed piece lost its way when one of the actors forgot their dialogue.

Playing Up 4 benefitted from Northern Stage’s technical support (the sound was noticeably better than at Playing Up 3), but the quality of the writing was variable on this occasion. Perhaps some more time rehearsing would also help matters, but when Playing Up is good, it is very good indeed.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Aladdin Tights

My fiancée and I co-wrote this pantomime with Bill Miller for the Players of Sacred Heart (POSH) which is being performed at Sacred Heart Parish Hall from Thursday 26th January Saturday 28th January 2017.
My fiancée is directing, and I am producing, peforming and providing the music and sound effects.

The kingdom is ruled by Sultan Jeffrey, who is stark raving mad. His sister, the evil sorceress Jaffa, has been banished to Sunderland, but is plotting her revenge.

Meanwhile, Widow Flash is having a tough time running the city laundrette – and her layabout sons aren’t much help. Aladdin dreams of being a famous actor and marrying the Princess Jinja, and Daz wants to be a magician, but his spells always backfire. When Aladdin finds a magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders, he gets the chance to help his family and marry the fair princess, but as always, things aren’t quite that simple…

Tickets are £5 for adults and £3 for children. Ticket price includes a free glass of wine/orange juice or cup of tea. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Review of 2016

2016 was a tumultuous year which saw the election of Donald Trump in America, while in the UK a slight majority voted to leave the European Union. It was also a bad time to be famous as David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, Kenny Baker, Gene Wilder, Andrew Sachs, Richard Adams, Harper Lee and John Glenn all passed away.

David Bowie's unexpected death followed very hard on the heels of his final studio album, Blackstar (*****), a cryptic, jazz-tinged opus which sits among his best work. Norwegian experimental band Ulver's latest album ATGCLVLSSCAP (*****) was a dense and largely instrumental release which fuses many different elements of their 23-year career. John Cale's harrowing 1982 album Music for a New Society (*****) was given a long overdue re-release, accompanied by M:FANS (***), an unnecessary but occasionally interesting set of contemporary reinterpretations of the original songs. Japanese band Mono pushed their instrumental rock to new extremes with Requiem for Hell (****), while Radiohead delivered their strongest set in quite some time with A Moon Shaped Pool (****). Further impressive instrumental albums came from Dextro in the shape of In the Crossing (****) and Russian Circles in Guidance (****).

Some interesting soundtrack work came from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein with their two-part synth score for Netflix's Stranger Things (****), and Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Mogwai and Gustavo Santaolalla teamed up to score Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary Before the Flood (****). Leonard Cohen exited the stage with a short, stark set of songs on You Want it Darker (****), and Nine Inch Nails brought the year to an agreeably noisy end with new E.P. Not the Actual Events (****).

I didn't manage to make it to many concerts this year, but ambient Texans Stars of the Lid (****) put on an effective show at the Sage in Gateshead, while the Northern Electric Festival (***) at the Ouseburn showed some promise, with sets by Nathalie Stern and Ochre.

Robert Eggers' debut The Witch (****) was a thought-provoking and haunting tale set in superstitious 17th Century New England. Tom McCarthy's Spotlight (****) chronicled The Boston Globe's shocking exposé of systematic child abuse by Roman Catholic priests, while László Nemes' debut Son of Saul (****) artfully used cinematic techniques to portray the horrors of life and death in an Auschwitz Sonderkommando.

The gloriously escapist Star Wars series gained its first anthology film, Rogue One (****), which deserves as much praise for its storytelling and characters as it does for its technical wizardry. In a year of powerful cinematic debuts, Brady Corbet's The Childhood of a Leader (****) was another strong contender, with a suitably aggressive orchestral score from Scott Walker. Quentin Tarantino returned to form with the slow-building western The Hateful Eight (****), and Jeremy Saulnier portrayed contemporary American neo-Nazism in Green Room (****), which features an alarming performance from Patrick Stewart.

Ciro Guerra's Heart of Darkness-esque Embrace of the Serpent (***) explored man's relationship with nature, which was also a large element of Alejandro G. Iñárritu's revenge epic The Revenant (***). Meanwhile, Louis Theroux drew attention to some of the more ludicrous aspects of Scientology in My Scientology Movie (***).

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen joined forces once again to perform in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (****) at the Theatre Royal. The Cluny 2 hosted a night of short plays by new writers, Playing Up 3 (***), which featured the excellent 'Smile!' and 'No Response Required'.

'80s nostalgia infused Netflix's new show Stranger Things (*****), which borrows from Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, David Lynch and many others, combining the elements in a compelling manner. The Night Of (****) was an effective exploration of the legal system in contemporary America, featuring strong performances from Riz Ahmed and John Turturro, while the BBC succeeded with its big-budget production of War and Peace (****).

Season 6 of Game of Thrones (****) was a return to form, the multiple storylines developing with a refreshingly fast pace, and plotlines old and new collided dramatically in the third series of Line of Duty (****). Tension was equally high in John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager (****), while the very real dangers of climate change were explored in National Geographic's Before the Flood (****).

Further documentary work came from Louis Theroux in the form of 'Drinking to Oblivion', 'A Different Brain' and 'Savile' (****), while ITV chose to explore the dark side of celebrity in new drama National Treasure (***) starring Robbie Coltrane.

I entered the year reading Frank Herbert's Dune (*****), a monumental achievement in the science fiction/fantasy genre. Truman Capote's challenging 'non-fiction novel' In Cold Blood (*****) was a fascinating read, perhaps as much for its questionable veracity as for the author's painstaking research. Gitta Sereny's Into that Darkness (****) provided a unique glimpse into the motivations of Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl, despite its occasional journeys off-topic.

I re-read Albert Camus' unfinished final novel The First Man (****), which offers a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of one of my favourite 20th Century novelists. The short stories in Daphne du Maurier's The Birds (****) are of a consistently high quality, as are the interconnected webs of the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights (****).

Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder (****), which was adapted into a film this year, offered insights into the nature of memory. Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (****) conjured up an impressive host of narrators, while his novel Wild Sheep Chase (****) explored allegorical themes via a slightly more conventional narrative structure. Meanwhile, Tom Wolfe mercilessly satirised the 1980s in The Bonfire of the Vanities (****), and the inspirations behind Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories were documented in the revealing Christopher and His Kind (****).

I am currently reading the new 2016 edition of The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg: an up-to-date copy of the most thorough guide to a musician's (and actor)'s work I have ever read. Finally, in a year blighted by fake news reports, 'Political Correctness: How the Right Invented a Phantom Enemy' by Moira Weigel from The Guardian was an impressive piece of research.