Tuesday, 30 July 2013

David Bowie Is, V&A Museum

Yes, he certainly is. David Bowie - despite being a feature (in sound) of the Olympic Closing ceremony last year - has never been as present as he is now, with a new album backed with a squall of new videos, released over the period of this retrospective exhibition at the V&A. Set out, initially, as a classic chronological show, the contents quickly break down into an emporium of costume, influences in literature, theatre and fashion all bound in an ether of sound played on speakers in rooms and on the site-responsive headsets with which we are all issued.

A classic culture chameleon, it is impossible to pin down a definitive Bowie, though the museum have done a good job with the opening piece, a Kasui Yamamoto-designed bodysuit (right) that is at once preposterous, exotic and really cool. The full gamut of design is there, from Bowie's own precocious insistence on designing his immature bands' outfits to the famous looks of Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke and Diamond Dogs right through to Alexander McQueen's rotting-Britpop jacket.

There is a room showing excerpts of Bowie's film roles (a letter from Jim Henson dating from Labyrinth is touching) and a remarkable stage show of The Elephant Man in which Bowie played John Merrick without prosthetics. More exceptionally, there is footage of an aforethought unfilmed tour in 1974 when Brecht was on Bowie's mind. Yes, it's very spare...

Perhaps inevitably for a show about a man who dissolves himself into composite styles of his adoption, one of the most impressive exhibits was an original cardboard cut-out of Oscar Wilde, used by Peter Blake in his montage for the Sergeant Peppers album cover.

This is what is being passed on here, Bowie's sense of imagination and wonder; how he was drawn to all sorts of ideas, not to have and to hoard, but to reproduce in his own image. I got no sense throughout the show that Bowie's intent was one of trying to shock or subvert. Rather, he seems to be holding himself up, like an exhibit: "I think like this today. Is this cool? I think it is. It might even be worth something. What do yo think?"

It's not a perfect show. The portable sound packs could be temperamental (and no amount of thumping the stop button would turn it off!). The lighting design meant that it was often impossible to read wall-mounted notes - that and the crowds, at this, one of the busiest London exhibition I have been to. I missed there being a handout guide, not least as I like to make notes. Instead we were given a postcard telling us when we could see a relay in the cinema. Perhaps the museum had capitulated to the manifest impracticalities of marshalling so many through so small a space.

Bowie has the last word though, his irrepressible charisma drawing you in and through the exhibition despite niggling privations - rather like the character himself, pulling the dreaming adolescent through the torpor and minute concerns of middle class suburban life with songs and a sense of something altogether greater, wilder and more wonderful.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Benjamin Zephaniah, Club Inégales


Topographically speaking, if you want to edge your way into the North London jazz scene, then Club Inégales is probably the best (closest!) way forward. Tucked away under a law firm just off the Euston Road, the 'club' refers to the people that gather there - Peter Wiegold and his band, and the various diverse collaborating artists who join them - rather than the venue itself ('Double Orders', which is actually the lawyers' private bar, generously lent out to the musicians).

Google maps notwithstanding, the venue may be easy to access but the music makes no concession. On this evening we were to hear the Rastafarian-Beat poet Benjamin Zephanaih both alone and then with the band. All improvised, the three tracks of the band's set were clearly indebted to the sound world of late sixties fusion Miles Davis (one can hear the sound of both In A Silent Way and Big Fun. Indeed, large screens advertise a recent studio recording in homage to the trumpeter) The form moves between sparing musical gesture and groove, using electronic processes to transform sounds. In the first number Criminal Negligence Joel Bell's electric guitar (on this occasion) started the process in just this fashion, creating a mirage of sound as a leaping-off point, only to take his part in the improvised discussion later on.

Second in the set, Stuff, had the barest suggestion of compositional form to it, but only in that there were various thematic ideas written down in blocks, with a starting point once again decided on at the last moment (a good feature for Martin Butler's piano here). Finally the group went all in for groove proper - although, with an ethnic twist, working a number in 11 beats to the bar after a South Indian model. Rowland Sutherland's flute shone throughout this first set, and the whole band played with purposeful articulation in the lines of their solos.

For his part, Zephanaiah spoke as much as he recited, giving us characteristically open-eyed poems about multiculturalism (he's an advocate) and a charismatic, forceful meditation on Stephen Lawrence. There's a lot of humour in his work though; unafraid of subversion and parody he had the audience shouting 'be happy' to a series of modern conundrums that needle us all in an updating of the popular song.

There is great rhythm in Zephaniah's work and so the final set the brought him together with the band was the evening's most rewarding. Closing with the celebrated Rong Radio Station was not only a crowd-pleaser but a driving number but the intensity had already been established with Naked, where the evocative power of processes allied to the instruments (here, Torbjorn Hultmark's trumpet) showed itself every bit as powerful as the grooves.

The whole evening was compered by bandleader Peter Wiegold in a clubbable, informal style, though he takes time to talk about the backstory and make-up of the music. All this I imagine to be the right formula for such events and I'm looking forward to seeing what's coming up in their autumn season.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

From the diary of Virginia Woolf, Wigmore Hall

Part of a 'Perspectives' series curated by the pianist Julius Drake, this recital was an augmented single span taking all its words from the diary of Virginia Woolf. The central cycle was Dominic Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf of 1974 performed by Drake with Sarah Connolly. Beside them Fiona Shaw read further extracts selected (and lightly staged) by Kate Kennedy, a Cambridge English Professor specialising in Modernist English literature and music.

The last time I heard the cycle was in a final recital ten years ago. High calibre performers then failed to lift it from the page or stage; despite the ascetic circumstances of the performances I felt that the blame should be partly ascribed to the piece. Here - ironically 'despite' the world class of the performers - I felt that the effectiveness of the eight song cycle was down to the obscure riches of the piece, exposed not so much through interpretation as clarity of presentation. Fiona Shaw's demonstrative reading of pertinent diary extracts interpolated between the songs was part of this exercise in illuminating the texts, particularly effective in highlighting the humour near the surface of the diaries. Of course, everything felt quite at home in the decorous art deco interior of Wigmore Hall.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

One Man Two Guvnors, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Finally. It's been running in London (since opening at the National Theatre two years ago) on Haymarket, where it's booking until next year. Given that, a look at the trailer doesn't really seem to do it justice:



In fact, the show is an all-out assault on the fourth wall, an audience-incorporating farce that embraces silly in a slick patois of script and stand-up comedy.

At the head of this is the tireless Rufus Hound. The night I went he dealt with a conspicuous mobile telephone ring with exemplary adjustment of the script in hand (he was discussing a putative wedding 'ring' - you get the idea) - preserving the fragile sense of a proscenium arch before blowing it away with a circus-level stunt involving cashew nuts.

From there the show charges on with no quarter given to tentative heckling or malfunctioning props. It was impossible to tell whether a conversation with someone in the audience about their 'humous sandwich' was real or not, despite Hound doubled up in giggles, as the show flowed on without stumble. Even the bit parts can manipulate their stage-hand walk-on roles given the right temperature and timing. Slapstick abounds. It is extremely funny and the climactic crossed wires of trying to serve both adopted 'guvnors' their lunch in opposite hotel rooms is the high-point of the show.

The third act is necessarily rather more downbeat, like talking the audience off the hysteria-ledge (though it scarcely gets less silly, with musical interludes increasingly tending towards the drunken party pieces of North London students). The end is a big singalong and the slick curtain call taken equally by the live in-house band, The Craze, is a model for all West End shows, of whatever genre.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Gregg Edelman, Crazy Coqs London

Just before the weekend I caught another set at Crazy Coqs, the (newish) cabaret bar that's bar of the Brasserie Zedel complex just off Piccadilly Circus. The multiple Tony-nominated actor Gregg Edelman had come over to sing a selection of Broadway numbers from the centre ground of the tradition of the Great White Way.

This was a exemplary evening of compering and performing, in the style one would expect sitting in some dowtown NY bar any given night of the week. Inbetween numbers by Lerner & Lowe, Sondheim and Kander & Ebb there were stories from his performing experience and introductions to the songs. We were even party to a little tale of his visiting Fred Ebb's brownstone where a mesmerising morning's singalong culminated in the composer John Kander writing a song specially for Edelman. This is the joy of an evening such as this - that one is invited to bear witness to the incremental growth of the Broadway/American Songbook tradition through the actual personalities and practitioners passing on the songs themselves.

Edelman was joined at the piano by a London based pianist, James Church, who was playing well-judged arrangements of the songs; the duo did a great job of finessing a performance that, as these things are, was probably put together on minimal rehearsal.