Chiwetel Ejiofor is EVERYMAN

If you are walking around Bankside at night and see an imposing figure talking to himself about life and death, it could be Chiwetel Ejiofor rehearsing his lines for Everyman – the National Theatre’s new production directed by Rufus Norris, with a fresh script by Carol Ann Duffy.

In discussion with Mark Lawson on the Olivier stage before the evening performance, the actor explained that, after each show, he strives to identify where he could improve and extract the best performance – eager to examine all the possibilities and avoid regrets after the play’s run ends. So, he revisits the lines on his way home after the show. And what an absolute pleasure it must be – even after several performances – to mouth Carol Ann Duffy’s ingenious weave of modern expressions, songs, images and medieval manner and rhyme. You can tell she had a hoot reworking the old anonymous classic for a new audience.

The hero – Everyman, or ‘Ev’ – is a City wheeler-dealer. We meet him at his drug-and-alcohol-fuelled 40th birthday party. After his friends are long gone and he is left alone, collapsed in a stupor, he is challenged by Death to a reckoning with God before his number is up. His journey in the play then becomes a frantic fleeing, escaping Death by attempting to confront his life and repair the damage done.

Ev is used to justifying his actions by the amounts of cash he has accumulated, buying friends along the way. The one thing he finds he cannot buy is time on this earth. In one of the standout scenes, he ventures to a department store and tries to convince the team of gold-plated personal shoppers that his fistful of credit cards should be enough to guarantee his soul – “Come on, the customer is always right!” he pleads before they throw him out. Like his drug-fuelled lifestyle, Ev’s credit has maxed out and he is low on loyalty points to God, the planet, family and fellow man too.

I love the way Duffy takes the opportunity to carve for posterity some of today’s measures of wealth – the list for high-flyers includes private health insurance. She makes this play as confrontational as the original would have been to its deeply religious audience back in the 1500s – even the most agnostic viewer will twinge at the questions about charity-giving, damage caused to the planet and the guilt of perhaps leaving it too long to make that phone call home to check up on elderly parents and long-suffering siblings. She even has a go at religion pondering hopefully that, like other man-made entities, it too will pass.

As Ev, Ejiofor finely juggles the balance between Cityboy prat that he has become and the bright young boy on the scooter that he once was. Confronted by Death towards the end, he expounds each of his senses and what he’d miss of the world. It is truly moving. In hot pursuit, Dermot Crowley’s Death – dressed in white plastic coroner’s scrubs – manages to be menacing and hilarious at the same time – in a sort of Monty-Python-meets-Mrs-Brown sort of way.

From the opening scene where Ev crashes to his death from the rooftop of the nightclub (Ejiofor says that, luckily, he is not scared of heights when he is in character!) his life flashing before him on giant, neon billboards, there were many scenes that deserved a round of applause. And, to my mind, the lifeless NT crowd were too quiet and let this performance down. That is, until the end scene when Death points his finger out at us all – “Eenie, meanie, minee, moe.” Who will be next? That shook ‘em up!

I’d love to see this play at Shakespeare’s Globe where I’m sure the audience would participate and give the energy that Lawson and Ejiofor had discussed as being crucial to a play’s life. Meantime, the NT is the venue and this play must be seen for Ejiofor’s performance and heard for Duffy’s words.

Cheers for now, Beth


Jim White’s junkyard of dreams

ImageIt was fitting that Jim White and Paul Fonfara should end their UK tour at the tiny and hidden Whirled Art cinema near Loughborough Junction station. Difficult to find, located under a railway arch, surrounded by graffiti, decaying shop signs, Andy’s gym, MOT service stations. En route you pass a rainbow-clad community centre and a bunch of church group meeting spaces – the Celestial Church of Christ, the Sureway International Christian Ministries, a Jehovah’s Witness centre. There’s a sign on a street corner saying ‘CAFÉ – tyres, punctures, alarms, sun roofs’.

You could be forgiven for thinking you’d woken up in the dreamscape of one of Jim’s songs – choruses of singing from a distant window, the rap song of a passing car boombox, the wailing of a kid strangling a tune out of a plastic recorder, the comforting chugging of a passing train. Oh yeah, this is definitely Jim White territory – especially when punctuated by the haunted Klezmer-hued notes of Paul Fonfara’s bass clarinet.

Under the curve of the brick railway arch, Jim and Paul performed an informal set of mostly unrehearsed songs from Jim’s back catalogue and Paul’s band the Painted Saints. As it was their last day in the UK, Jim auctioned off one of his guitars to top off the benefit part of the gig to raise funds for Blue Canary Films’ next documentary. The gig included a screening of their previous collaboration, Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus, a journey into the deep South for which Jim provided philosophical and musical segues. Jim didn’t stay for the film screening (“There’s only so many times you can watch yourself on screen,” he said) but the audience of maybe 150 people certainly did. This is a dedicated fan base. Some had been to all Jim’s gigs. They know they are on to something here. None would say the words ‘musical genius’ out loud – that might invite too much attention which would spoil the ride – but they know from many years of panning seedy venues and noisy dives that they have finally sequestered some precious specks of musical gold.

In the film, Jim drives past a fly-tipped pile of white goods, cars and furniture. He says ‘This is my kind of junk.’ You could say that about his songs. Like other writers with his precocious wit and talent (notice I didn’t say ‘genius’) he doesn’t read or write musical notes. His tunes are pulled out of the musical ether – littered with diamonds and tin toys, old crooners and loud-hailers. Add to that a lyrical landscape of biblical iconography, wounded hearts, serial killer diaries and you might get the picture. Imagine being in one of those dreams where you are in a dusty attic and everything you find is an unexpected treat with a twist, where all trash is a treasure – a magical junkyard.

In the US, Jim says he could play to an audience of only 20 or so a night. Here in London he has a loyal following and can obviously make some way to a living wage from his tour of the UK. But one of Jim’s 1997 songs, Wordmule, has just featured on the soundtrack of cult US drama, Breaking Bad. So, one suspects it won’t be too long before more curious seekers find their way to Jim’s junkyard of musical delights. But, like the members of the secretive and exclusive Whirled Art cinema club, Jim’s fans probably won’t mind if these hidden gigs in small venues, with surprising guests like Paul Fonfara, remain for at least a little while longer.

Cheers for now, Beth 

Postcard from London – Southern Alchemy: White & Allman at Sundance London – April 2013

What is it about old Bluesmen that is just so moving? Perhaps it is knowing that they have survived the gamut of emotions in their songs – falling from the soaring highs to the lowest sorrows. To these sweeping sensations, add an authentic blues tune and a layer of sweet vocal harmonies and I am as gone as a heartbroken sweetheart crying at the end of a lonely, beachside pier.

Gregg Allman and John Paul White had this exact effect when they performed together after a screening of the Muscle Shoals music documentary at the Sundance London festival. A resident of said county in Alabama, White was there to help the director promote the film and the music he grew up with. Allman’s mentor, brother Duane, had been studio house band guitarist and one of the originators of the Muscle Shoals sound at the legendary FAME studios. So, street cred established, White kicked things off with a solo stint and a handful of songs, including ‘No one will ever love you’. Penned for the hit (but unfathomably awful) TV show, Nashville, this song let White’s powerful voice soar – and heavenly heights it sure enough reached.

After a hesitantly performed Allman Brothers cover, White was joined on stage by the man himself. The duo started the intro for ‘Midnight Rider’ and their combined harmonies brought tears to my eyes. You don’t expect something quiet and melodic to be electrifying, but it just was.

Despite his hard-living history (I submit as evidence that the man has survived a recent liver transplant) Allman has an innocence in his voice that brings a lump to your throat. And when he recounts older brother Duane calling him ‘Babybro’ (‘… that was his kind of nickname for me.’) well, your heart just melts.

Allman inspired a similar awe in his performing partner. While tuning his guitar, White stopped suddenly: ‘I know this may be breaking all sorts of protocol here, but I just want to say what an honour it is to be here performing with you.’ Allman is so humble, he barely flinches. Instead, he just says a quiet ‘thanks’ and begins to introduce an old song ‘I can’t be satisfied’. Saying it has been covered by many performers, he runs off a list and adds Muddy Waters.

White can’t help himself and adds: ‘… and Gregg Allman’.

To which Allman responds with a country gentleman’s quiet, understated laugh: ‘Of course.’

Seeing these two performers separately is a treat; seeing them together is to witness a powerful mixing of base metals – with a good measure of bourbon to sweeten the mix. Let’s hope that T-Bone Burnett, their mutual producer, is planning an alchemy session, Southern style, soon.

Cheers for now, Beth 

Postcard from London – Z is free at the 11 – Zhenya Strigalev – March 2013

Saturday morning: feeling decidedly lacklustre. I had just been watching a classical music documentary in which someone commented on the longevity of ancient wood and metal instruments. They have survived and still hold their mystery to us humans, despite the onslaught of technology in music. True – there is nothing quite like the hum of the human behind the playing. The thought struck and I was suddenly overcome, energised and needed to get out of the flat and see some live music.

Festival Hall: members’ bar packed as usual as I scurried to find space to finish off some work on my laptop. Some music scheduled for later in the day, but the Clore Ballroom is equally busy and buzzing with a loud and eager audience. I need to find somewhere smaller.

Facebook: work complete, I log in to see what my FB mates are up to. There’s a reminder from Zhenya Strigalev, a saxophonist I’ve been following since seeing him at Ronnie Scott’s late-night sessions about a year ago.

TODAY – Free Music Lunch – with Tim Lapthorn, Dave Whitford and Matt Fishwick and Z. From 2pm till 5pm. Nolias 11, 56 Stamford St, SE1 9LX. Waterloo tube.

Googlemaps: that’s right near the Southbank, just up near the Oxo. Ten minutes later, I’m there!

Nolias 11: a small restaurant with a downstairs jazz café. Perfect. Dark. (As my friend Rex says, jazz is best appreciated in dark, underground venues). I grope my way to a small table, dimly lit with a candle in a 70s red bulb holder, and peruse the cocktail menu while the band are on a break. Hmm – an Espresso Martini sounds like a good combo. I order one and the waiter gently dissuades me from also requesting a side order black coffee which could have delivered an unkind overdose of caffeine. The cocktail arrives just before the band reconvene. Curiously, it is a most apt mix, with the playlist selection a quirky blend of high-energy tunes like Thelonious Monk with sweeteners a la John Coltrane.

The talent: The tunes are punctuated by Strigalev’s announcements of suggested tracks and keys for the band to try, as Lapthorn on piano and Whitford on double bass swap notes and share scraps of paper with tune prompts.

As rehearsal sessions for later gigs, these sessions have a juiced, impromptu feel but married with the kind of talented, faultless playing that makes jamming and improvisation bearable. Matt Fishwick’s drumming holds everything together and lets Strigalev glide his sax over the top of the mix in whatever way he likes – classically cool, scarily straight or cut-snake crazy. What’s not to like?

A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music, Strigalev was a teenage virtuoso in his home town of St Petersburg. His influences are notably world-wise, from the be bop of New York city, to the discipline imbued by his stint in a Russian Army band during his compulsory military service.

Go to: Look, these guys are all top musicians who play around London at venues like Ronnie Scott’s. To be able to see them at a small, delectable space like Nolias11 is a real treat. Go for the cocktails, go for the lunch, go for the jazz – but just go!

Cheers for now, Beth

Postcard from London – January 2013 – A quartet of Sir Tom Courtenay

Former RADA boy, Sir Tom Courtenay, took to the stage at the small 150-seater RADA Screen cinema for a Q&A after a screening of Quartet.

Sir Tom appears not to like answering questions about himself. Then, he doesn’t appear to like answering questions about any one else in the Quartet cast either. But he does seem to like talking about Dustin Hoffman, Quartet’s director, and some of the other luminary actors he has appeared with over the years – Sir Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Michael Williams – and some of his early mentors at RADA.

There are four sides to this confounding and complex actor.

1. Impersonator par excellence

During the course of the chat, he manages to bring to life on stage the spirits of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Michael Williams and Dustin Hoffman.

A chance question about method acting raised a hilarious story about Dustin Hoffman dealing with Sir Larry on the set of Marathon Man. According to Hoffman, director John Schlesinger was unsure of how to approach ‘the world’s greatest living actor’ to tell him to tone down his performance a notch. Hoffman stepped in to coerce Sir Larry with some fleet of foot flattery which had the desired effect.

You feel that if someone could structure a one-man show around the characters Courtenay has met and worked with across the years, it would be a warm and funny way to spend a couple of hours. Highly entertaining and enlightening. But, you get the feeling that Courtenay would never allow it.

When advising the young Tom on how to survive the humiliation of working with actors who may be more popular and successful but who you think is not up to your standard, you feel that Sir Tom would heed the sage words of Sir Alec who said: ‘One learns to keep one’s trap shut!’

2. Grumpy old luvvie

When asked by a young RADA student what advice he has for young actors starting out: ‘Think again. Really.’ He spoke about the gaps in between jobs and then the disappointment when a pet project falls flat – as his one-man show did in New York. He obviously has not forgiven the Americans for not ‘getting’ his show.

3. Bright young brat

While Courtenay is an old RADA boy, he seemed highly uncomfortable with the whole episode of being back at his old school, and the nearby College where he started out, enrolling only to be near to RADA anyway and spent all his time at the Drama Society keeping a check on the competition in RADA’s halls before being accepted himself a few years later. He said he’d spent five years all told at both educational establishments. And he didn’t seem to enthuse over much learning he’d done there – most of the stage techniques fell by the wayside as the tide turned and parts ‘for Northern boys like me’ started turning up in films.

His lack of similar success to contemporaries like Finney, Bates and Caine is said to be of his own choosing. Instead of tackling London’s West End, Courtenay went to Manchester and worked in small theatres like the Royal Exchange. He never courted Hollywood either.

While he feels guilty at his success, he envies those who have taken the Hollywood parts and made a success of it – something he tried but didn’t like. ‘I couldn’t get on in LA,’ he said, ‘You can’t walk there. You go for a walk, you get arrested.’ But then he revealed the envy when talking about a part he’d recently turned down. ‘I just didn’t think the part was real enough. Someone else took it. I think they were nominated for an Academy Award. Ha! I don’t know why I’m laughing.’

And, like most actors, with his excess of self-confessed arrogance comes a good helping of insecurity. He still feels like he has not achieved success as an actor. A young girl asked him if there was a performance where he feels he has achieved that success. He said it was on stage in ‘Moscow Stations’ as the drunken Venichka Yerofeev en route to Moscow. In that character’s despair Courtenay said he found the truth.

And getting to the truth seems to be the key to his idea of successful acting. He felt he didn’t do it in his early film roles, including Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I can only shake my head incredulously. Perhaps Sir Tom should let his audience, or his directors, decide when those moments have been reached. I’m sure we could sit down with Dustin Hoffman and agree on several moments in Quartet alone.

4. Artist ready to retire

Someone asks a sensible question about the renewed popularity of films featuring older actors and whether he thinks this is an optimistic trend. He flinches at the mention of the Marigold Hotel saying ‘I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel it was real.’ And, ‘well, it’s not up to me to say really. I hope so, I’d like to be optimistic.’ Nevertheless, he tried to explain the recent trend for stories about older characters. ‘When I finished drama school and was looking for work, all the Northern and working class writers were coming up and the same for the actors. Now all the writers are older, that is what they are writing about. That’s just what happens.’

An audience member commented that Pauline Collins character was her favourite and the only one who addressed the realities of growing old. Tom was dumbfounded: ‘Well, what do you want me to say? She is very good. It was my idea to cast her in that role.’

He enjoyed talking about the process of making the movie. ‘When I was younger I used to hate all the sitting around on a film set. I thought it was a waste of time. Now it’s my favourite part.’

He was on much more comfortable ground talking about the director, Dustin Hoffman. ‘Dustin is the real hero of the piece. He made it happen.’ And his Hoffman impersonation is superb, capturing the energy of the man and his ‘pocket dynamo’ personality. How did Hoffman deal with the many real musicians and singers who are extras in the cast?

Courtenay holds his arms up at right angles and makes a screen that frames his head and neck. ‘Dustin said to them: See this – this is all there is. Be still and say the words.’ Great screen acting advice for those of a dramatic persuasion who have never acted on screen before.

 ‘Can we finish?’ he squirms signalling his wish. And so, the session ends.

Cheers for now, Beth


Postcard from London – August 2011 – The vitals of revivals

My hairdresser on Dean Street is a star establishment – this week they moved my appointment so I could squeeze in a sneaky 5.30pm performance of Betrayal at the Comedy Theatre. And this is not the only classic revival taking place – a short walk around the corner at the Haymarket you can see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Stoppard (which I did, recently).  Directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, this 1966 black comedy is starting to show signs of age. Perhaps we’ve seen too many imitations and this surreal style of comedy has dated. Chris Andrew Mellon, who stepped in to fill the boots of Tim Curry as The Player, is the standout, maximising his short time on stage. It’s an excellent and enjoyable production, but, like the play-within-a-play setting, something is amiss. We are not supposed to distinguish between R and G– they mix up their own names in fact – but it starts to feel strained when the performance tones of Jamie Parker and Samuel Barnett sound the same as well.  I love these two former History Boys; they are quite something. The potential is clear, but perhaps their relative inexperience leaves them a little lost and unsure. It’s as if Stoppard hands them ice-skates, but then places them in a snow drift on a very thin rollercoaster frame – they struggle to stay on track. The repetitions of phrases and words that make Betrayal so strong seem shaky and uncertain here.

And so – to Betrayal. Pinter’s 1978 piece has lost none of its power. If Stoppard left his actors on skates, Pinter gives his performers a solid safety seat in which to speed to their confrontations with betrayals of trust, friendship and self. Pinter’s words and gaps provide a stable tracking, allowing his actors to shine – provided they know where to tweak the nuts and bolts and add a squeak of oil. Director, Ian Rickson, must be very happy indeed with his cast. Kristin Scott Thomas is as pitch-perfect as finely cut crystal – cool but sympathetic as the woman surrounded by men, but in need of love. Ben Miles provides the punch of the archetypal Pinter alpha-male, and Douglas Henshall is as warm as a whisky chaser embodying everyone’s ‘best man’ – caught as much in mateship as in love.  

While Stoppard has us hovering around the fringes of existentialism, Pinter hones right in on the heart – reasons to revisit the genius of both writers. You have until the end of August – and you could see both plays the same afternoon, provided you don’t have a clandestine meeting or hairdressing appointment.  Right! I’m off, and, having dealt with that retro-revival, I think I should ask for a brand new do. What do you think?

Cheers for now, Beth


The start of forever … truly modern dance with Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother at Sadler’s Wells, London, July 2011

It’s the UK Summer. So, what are we seeking – Sun? Yes! Time? Yes! Relaxation? Not necessarily. What most people long for is something to sweep the cobwebs away – an edginess and restlessness – the feeling from Summer holidays past that this is the start of something fresh with endless possibilities. Ash summed up the clear rapturous romance of Summer best in their song Oh Yeah: ‘It felt just like it was the start of forever …’

And now I’ve found a company of artists who, after a winter tinged with doom and gloom, have the energy to inject a summer sting – to awaken our senses after months of wayward inactivity and aching shade. Hofesh Shechter is my new remedy of choice – seek a good dose of him and his dance company: take as often as you can, and sit or stand wherever you can.

A dancer and choreographer who also composes his own music (percussion studies in Tel Aviv and Paris) Hofesh uses his Israeli background, experience in Europe and 10 years in London to draw inspiration to create his own unique forms of dance and music. It is exciting, group work. Using an international mix of dancers, Hofesh steers the inherent power of numbers moving in unison and then the sheer explosive energy of going against the grain to create memorable visions. He fixes a mosaic of different dance styles onto a mirrored glitter ball reflecting the theme of people’s oppression overcome.

With a company of 16 dancers and a band of 23 musicians on a mix of classical and electric instruments – 9 of them drummers on everything from military snares to gigantic Taiko drums – this feels more like a Summer rock festival than a dance recital. And with standing room only at the front near the stage, that is exactly the point – to get the audience involved and shaken up. An immediate standing ovation and scream of glee that almost blew away the ceiling at Sadler’s Wells, clearly signal that Hofesh achieved the reaction he was hoping for.

Hofesh Shechter Company are in Melbourne for the Festival in October – get your hands on some tickets now and experience the start of forever in modern dance.

Cheers for now, Beth Keehn