Stevie (Hampstead Theatre)

To Swiss Cottage this weekend for a revival of the 1977 play by Hugh Whitemore, about the writer Stevie Smith, which has now landed in London via the Chichester Festival.  It was filmed in 1978 with the original ‘Stevie’, Glenda Jackson.

This time around the role of the spinster poet who lives with her maiden aunt in Palmers Green is played by Zoë Wanamaker, with Lynda Baron as the ‘Lion Aunt’ and Chris Larkin as ‘The Man’.

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The set design by Simon Higlett is a perfect balance to Christopher Morahan’s direction, and the intimacy of the piece sits well in the Hampstead Theatre’s space – where the Smith living room is invaded by trees from the garden and is filled with photographs, books, and religious icons.  This ‘house of female habitation’, to quote one of Smith’s plays, is where both Stevie and her aunt pass the years, and during that time we see hints of both past and present through the last few years of her life.

Those of you who remember the film might notice one slight change it made from the stage production – it did not have the same actor playing both ‘The Man’ and Smith’s old beau, Freddy.  Here, Chris Larkin (who is so like his mother, Maggie Smith, especially when he plays the slightly camp friend who is used as a pseudo-taxi service by Stevie) plays both roles, and observes many scenes in quiet contemplation.

I liked Lynda Baron’s aunt a lot – she is both funny and vulnerable, and it is a great portrayal of a strong women growing frail and forgetful with age.  Wanamaker’s Stevie is also funny and fragile, although throughout I was reminded how good Glenda Jackson had been in the role, and how she could bring a sense of dangerous imbalance to the role which I didn’t see in Wanamaker – I also felt the play took a little time to warm up and get going, although the second half, on balance, is much better,

The strength of this play, though, is not in Whitemore’s ‘creation’ of Smith as a person, but in the reciting of her poems, which can stand on their own without embellishment.  Smith was a rhymer, and on the face of it a writer of fey simplicity, but that would be a great disservice to her.  In pieces like ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’, ‘The Jungle Husband’, ‘Infelice’ (not included here) and others there is a lot more going on that would originally appear.


Harvey (Richmond Theatre – now in the West End)

The 1950 film of ‘Harvey’, starring James Stewart, and directed by Henry Koster, is certainly a hard act to follow.  I’d seen the play (by Mary Chase) done by an amateur theatre group before, and found it entertaining.  This is the first professional production I had seen, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Yes, it takes a while to warm up and get going.  Maureen Lipman’s Veta has an American accent which wanders all over the place but then settles into something far less painful, but she is excellent as the fussy woman with aspirations to have a house-full of guests who are not scared away by her odd brother and his friend.

That friend being the Harvey of the title, a large white rabbit, six feet three inches tall, who appeared to our hero, Elwood P Dowd, one evening, just leaning against a lamp-post.  He spoke to Elwood by name and commented on the intoxication of his friend, who had just been shepherded away by taxi.  And as Elwood tells us, later, he thought nothing of it because ‘when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.’

James Dreyfus, who was so good on television in ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’, is a fine Elwood, a little camp, a little fey, and nothing like Stewart.  That’s all to the good.  He makes the insane normal and the psychotic likeable, while all the normal people around him seem to be strange.

The thing about ‘Harvey’ as a play is that it has some great lines, whether it is the one about the ‘stranger in the bathtub’, or ‘For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me’.  The characters are well-drawn, if a little ridiculous, and if Elwood and his friend bring the doctor and nurse together, or the burly orderly and the niece, then that’s to the good.

In Lindsay Posner’s new production, there is superb and clever set design by Peter McKintosh, working largely on a revolve, while most of the lines and passages we know so well remain.  My particular favourites are the little speech by the taxi driver (here played by Linal Haft, who I recognised immediately from those 1980s BT ads where he played the son of ‘Beattie’, played by … Maureen Lipman), and the description by Elwood of how he gains friends in drinking places.

In fact I will repeat that lovely passage right here:  ‘Harvey and I sit in the bars… have a drink or two… play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, “We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.” Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers – soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear’.

There’s an hilarious bit from David Bamber as Dr Chumley, who starts the day hiding in his room and ends it pub-crawling with a brand-new friend who makes him yen for cold beer and a girl who never speaks.  And, curiously, this comedy, which started so gingerly, becomes something rather more than fun.  It becomes rather moving in its finale.  And that is its gift, and Harvey’s.

‘Harvey’ is now on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.  I strongly recommend it.


Remembering England’s great eccentric, Vivian Stanshall

On 5th March 2015 it will be twenty years since the wonderfully weird singer, musician, wit, poet, artist, mystic, songwriter and all-round ‘definitely not normal’ Vivian Stanshall (1943-1995) left our world for somewhere far more colourful, wild and magnificent.

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He may well be best known yet for his time as the frontman of the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band, a ragbag of art students who started by apeing the sounds of jazz and silly big band tunes by way of Spike Jones and Flanders and Swann.  They recorded ‘My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies’, ‘Button Up Your Overcoat’, and made a memorable, and early, television appearance performing ‘Bill Bailey’ on Blue Peter, before taking up residency on one of the shows which pre-dated Monty Python, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’.

Neil Innes provided the melodic music and the happy Beatly-type face of the Bonzos, but Vivian provided a sense of danger and fascination, which came to the fore during the band’s first album, ‘Gorilla’, in 1967, which featured such cuts as ‘Jollity Farm’. ‘Look Out There’s A Monster Coming’, ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’ and the delightfully subversive ‘I’m Bored’.  Vivian’s posh vowels and droll delivery livened up the songs and made them different to the mop-top popular music or the dreary psychedelic epics of the time.

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It was with their 1968 album,  ‘The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse’, however, that the odd side of the Bonzos really took hold: ‘Can Blue Men Sing The Whites’, ‘My Pink Half of the Drainpipe’ and ‘Postcard’ all seemed to be railing against what the rest of the world accepted as dreary, everyday, and normal.  During this year their single ‘Canyons of Your Mind’ was played out on the German show ‘Beat Club’ – it was in repeats of that show that I first spotted Vivian Stanshall, thought he was a fascinating and unique creature, and became hooked for life.

Following the break-up of the Bonzos, what can only be described as the ‘Sir Henry Rawlinson’ phenomenon took flight – first with a run of radio extracts on the John Peel show, an album (strictly speaking two albums, but the second was released, unfinished, after being taken without consent from Stanshall), then a feature film in 1980 (with associated book, published by Eel Pie and full of wonders and snapshots from the film),   Sir Henry might well be his greatest achievement – and yet, and yet …

Watching ‘Vivian Stanshall’s Week’ from 1975, one might take time to adjust to the absurdity and surrealism of what passes as one man’s everyday life (as well as being quite shocked at his appearance at this time), but it is a slice of television quite unlike anything else that was around at the time.  During the 1970s he was also involved in the seminal ‘Tubular Bells’ project from Mike Oldfield, introducing the instruments, and in writing for Steve Winwood’s solo albums (notably the songs ‘Vacant Chair’ and ‘Arc of a Diver’).  These songs alone showcase a perceptive and sensitive lyricist rather at odds with the public image of a difficult and crude eccentric given to scatalogical humour and slightly offensive offbeat observations.

1974’s album ‘Man Opening Umbrellas Ahead’ achieved almost-legendary status during its long period of unavailability between release date and 2010.  I remember obtaining a bootleg in the 1990s and being shocked and enthralled by the music I was hearing – dangerous, yes, but also sensual, troubling, wildly funny, and in places, rather beautiful.  It is a modern classic in many ways (particularly the epic ‘Strange Tongues’ and the troublingly weird ‘Yelp, Bellow, Rasp, Et Cetera’).  His follow up solo album (of songs) from 1981, was ‘Teddy Boys Don’t Knit’, a far more personal affair with tracks dedicated to his wife and young daughter, and reflections on his childhood and life as a ‘rock musician’.

Stanshall’s life continued to be troubled by addictions and mental breakdowns throughout the remainder of his life, but now and again there were peaks of brilliance – artwork, voice work on adverts (the 1980s Tennants Pilsner ones were superb, as were the two Creme Egg ones based on older Bonzo songs ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’ and ‘The Intro and the Outro’), and a more recent discovery for me, the return of ‘Tubular Bells’, from 1993.  His last major television appearance was in ‘Crank’ (made for ‘The Late Show’) in 1991, while on radio he spoke about his parents, in 1994, for a special programme, and discussed losing his virginity at a surprisingly early age in the Pulp promotional film ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’

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It seemed that despite his frailty Vivian Stanshall would always endure, and so it was a great shock, and a great sadness, when he passed away in a house fire on that fateful night in 1995.  Since then his star has continued to shine bright and his influence on performers such as Stephen Fry and Adrian Edmondson has endured.  We might celebrate the Young Ones, Little Britain, or the League of Gentlemen, but I submit that someone else got there first – the man in the sharp suit and the lounge voice who appears in the cabaret spot in the Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, the man who contributed a couple of rock pastiche songs to the soundtrack of ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and parodied the King himself on ‘The Last Temptation of Elvis’, the man who crooned about being a ‘Big Shot’ and frightened passers-by dressed as a giant rabbit.

We will not see his like again, and we miss him like crazy.  However, his widow Ki Longfellow-Stanshall is currently planning to bring a showcase of Vivian’s work back to the fore through an exhibition of his work which will hopefully engage and excite a new generation.  I have a feeling the old boy might have been very pleased about all the attention.

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First Encounter: King Lear, 2012 – ★★★½

The Royal Shakespeare Company developed this truncated version of King Lear for young audiences through their education programme, and this version was taped in New York.

Running just seventy-eight minutes and starring Paul Copley as the King, this is set over a week at Christmas, with Lear opening his presents at court on Christmas Day and dividing his kingdom between his cruel daughters while banishing the one most true to him, and reaching the end of the play on New Year’s Eve.

Although the running time is short, the main elements of the play are there, although an audience may struggle to find emotional engagement.

There are some interesting parallels in costume – when we first see Edmund he is dressed as the red-nosed reindeer, the same as the Fool will be later – however, both Kent and the Fool have their parts much reduced, and although the blinding of Gloucester survives along with Edgar’s masquerade as ‘poor Tom’ (wearing clothes retrieved from the drains), it doesn’t have the same power as it might in a full-length version.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Remembering AC/DC’s first frontman

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I have to give Radio 1’s ‘Friday Rock Show’ the credit, in the person of Tommy Vance, who, during the late 1980s, introduced a whole range of rock artists to the airwaves ranging from death metal outfits, 60s folk rock, to early tracks from big names like Quo, Purple, Sabbath and Zeppelin.

It must have been 1985 (shortly after a whole show had been devoted to a live gig by Motley Crue) that Vance played a track which made the twelve-year old me sit up and take notice.  The track was ‘Ride On’, and the band was AC/DC – a band which I had previously only associated with ‘Hells Bells’ and ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, with a singer whose voice sounded as if he was scraping fingernails against a blackboard, a good rock voice, sure, but not this one that I was listening to on the FRS.

I was of course listening to the band’s previous singer, Ronald Belford Scott (known as ‘Bon’) who had passed away in 1980.  The 35th anniversary of his death has just been and gone, on the 19th February, and although their most enduring singer, Brian Johnson, has now been in the band longer than Bon Scott was alive, he is still one of my favourite frontmen, an attractive and vibrant personality with a huge sense of fun (Vance would play other songs from the era which played on this, from ‘She’s Got Balls’ and ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ to ‘I’m a Rocker’ and ‘Up To My Neck’), but it was ‘Ride On’ which made me place him in that rare group of superb vocalists who stand head and shoulders above everyone else.

I love ‘Ride On’.  It not only has fantastic vocals but also great lyrics and perhaps Angus Young’s best guitar work – until I heard this track I hadn’t really rated him as a musician but here, he was the real deal.  It’s hard to find the song in the usual places – all the YouTube videos which feature it have been muted through copyright claims – but if you look on Dailymotion, you’ll find it.  I don’t want to deprive people of the pleasure so I’m not linking it here.

I will however link a little bit of fun, which was how Bon started off, in the 1960s, in ‘The Valentines’.  He isn’t the lead singer here, and he does look just a little embarrassed, but this is fun.

When Bon Scott died he was at the peak of his success and, so it seems from a Top of the Pops appearance less than two weeks’ before (‘Touch Too Much’), of his fitness too.  There have been all sorts of rumours around the events of that fateful night when he drank a little more than he should and died in a freezing car in the middle of the night that February – but whatever the truth, it still feels a terrible waste of an admittedly difficult but talented individual to pass away at the age of just thirty-three, but perhaps it was inevitable given his alcohol and drug addictions, and at least he did not become a member of the 27-club along with others of his contemporaries.

Anyway, if it hadn’t been for Tommy Vance’s inclusion of these songs in his broadcasts I probably wouldn’t have known about the first few years of AC/DC’s existence, and what might have been.  He’s gone now, too, and although Radio 1 still rocks it isn’t quite the same.  On 6th March it will be ten years since we lost Vance, so I raise a glass to both him and Scott, and say we miss both of you, very much.


Horror of Darkness, 1965 – ★★★½

A visit to the BFI Mediatheque is always well worth it, and this time I had a particular Wednesday Play in mind, ‘Horror of Darkness’.

This play by John Hopkins was filmed in 1964 but held back for a year before its television transmission as one of the ‘Wednesday Plays’, perhaps due to worry from the BBC about its subject matter, which touches on homosexuality at a time when this was still a matter for the criminal courts.

Peter (a dour Alfred Lynch) and Cathy (Glenda Jackson in sparkling form) are a couple, not married, but rubbing along together. He’s an artist, illustrating biology books. She appears to be a homemaker. Into their world comes Robin (Nicol Williamson, playing in his native Scots accent), a fey and unpredictable friend of Peter’s from the past, who brings a sense of unease into the happy home.

Early on, we see Robin’s playful but disruptive side when he ruins Peter’s commissioned drawing, but we don’t know why he is like this. We also don’t know why Peter is so shaken to find Robin in the flat with a woman, listening to stereo instrumentals on the gramophone.

As Robin weaves a web in which he claims to be a successful writer, first of a short story in the magazine ‘Impetus’ and then of a produced play, his hosts seem to remain shaken by his presence.

There’s a great scene where Peter and Cathy are shut out from a party going on in their own house, a party we don’t see, and they share wine on the stairs before arguing, again, about their unpaying guest. “Where can he go?” “I don’t know.” “Sad, isn’t it?”.

Robin singing snatches of ‘Over The Rainbow’ probably gives us a large clue these days as to what’s going on – not sure that fifty years ago this would have been as obvious. But then there’s a lovely moment where Peter offers to light his cigarette, and Robin grasps his wrist and holds it just a fraction too long, and then we know, even as they continue to dance around the subject and goad and needle each other.

Then the moment. “I love you!” And an eyebrow raised, beautifully done by Lynch, rejecting his friend with a carefully phrased retort: “Cathy’s right. You can be something of a liability.” Cathy, for her part, is goading too, with a clumsy kiss filled with contempt and a warning to Robin that she knows he aims to take Peter away from her.

There’s music all the way through this play, whether from the LPs which play filling the room (a glorious scene with a classical chorus), or Robin, alone in his lonely bed, whistling. Everyone seems to be heading for breaking point throughout – this is a darker, more dangerous turn away from the niceties of Coward’s ‘Design for Living’ which balances a similar triangle. Peter even makes boiling a kettle full of menace. Robin is as desperate as coiled springs. Cathy is manically miserable.

I didn’t see the twist coming, and that probably makes it effective even now. Robin’s last line in the play is “I can be nice only so long. You know?”, and after that he proves it with his actions and the way they finally tear the couple apart. There’s also a mysterious visitor, who sheds light on what has gone before.

And Peter? Well, Robin said he was ‘just like him’ but ‘safe as houses’, and we understand that, and so does Cathy. The two ‘nicest people in the world’ have destroyed themselves, and there’s a chilling scene where Peter in an act of verbal and physical violence lets out his feelings on the girl Robin had to visit back in the early part of the play.

The three leads are extremely effective together, and there is a real sense throughout that something is going to explode, but we don’t know what – and it never quite does. The gay angle is handled well, and we completely understand what has been going on, and it is quite pathetic to watch this sad trio approach their own private darkness.

My visit to the Mediatheque was completed by watching the final episode of 1957’s television serial for children, the adaptation of ‘The Silver Sword’ by Ian Serraillier, which had been published the previous year.  A tale of four Polish children around the time of the Second World War (including familar names Melvyn Hayes (aged 21) and Frazer Hines (aged 12)) this does look as if it would be well worth watching were the whole series to become available.


Royal Opera Live: Der fliegende Holländer, 2015 – ★★★★½

Without having the ready money to spend on seeing a live production at the Royal Opera House, I decided instead to do the next-best thing, and watch the relay to cinemas for the final performance of Wagner’s popular opera of ‘The Flying Dutchman’.

Tim Albery’s production is now on its third revival, and the role of the Dutchman was played by Wales’ finest bass-baritone, the marvellous Bryn Terfel, who has really grown into this part over the years: one might say it is one of his signature roles.

Here his dour and dark captain, doomed to sail his ghostly ship through inhospitable waters for eternity, was complemented by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka. She is in her fifties, but managed to convey through her acting and singing a portrait of Senta, a young girl in obsessive love with a legend, with her toy ship and the stories she tells her co-workers about the pale seafarer and his need for redemption.

Some of Albery’s choices might be suspect to Wagnerian purists – the ending has lost the sense of the dramatic (instead of Senta plunging into the icy waves she instead collapses holding her ship while her friends look on), and there is a lot of water (using what resembles a shower curtain to throw water against before curtain up to convey the storm, and having various characters paddling in the stream where the toy ship is anchored).

No sound problems at the Westfield London’s Vue, though, although some were reported at other screenings. The staging and presentation was quite cinematic – I like to see close-ups and be in the thick of the action. Interestingly, the most melodic and memorable pieces of the score are not those sung by the Dutchman, but rather those by Senta, and by the Steersman and the crew.

The crew’s party was jarringly modern, with a feel of Newcastle on a Saturday night with short-skirted ladies and hard drinking men, but the appearance of the ghostly crew of the Dutchman’s ship was effective. I also liked the line of sewing machines at which Senta and her friends dreamed and sang.

Peter Rose as Daland might have been a little below par (we were warned before the start that he had a heavy cold) but the pro came out in decent voice and did well to make it through to the end. No harm done there.

Great production, and I’d heartily recommend these live relays for anyone not sure about opera, as well as those, like me, who have seen these pieces before and just go along to enjoy them in a different setting.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


My Network DVD collection

TV Comedy

  • The Complete Adrian Mole
  • Agony: The Complete Series
  • Catweazle: Series 1 and Series 2
  • Cilla’s Comedy Six: The Complete Series
  • Classic ITV Christmas Comedy
  • End of Part One: The Complete Series
  • Frost on Sunday
  • The Galton and Simpson Playhouse
  • The Goodies … At Last, A Second Helping
  • If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have To Invent Them
  • The New Incomplete Complete and Utter History of Britain
  • Outside Edge: The Complete Series
  • Pipkins: Volumes 1-3
  • Ripping Yarns: The Complete Series
  • Romany Jones: Complete Series 1 and 2
  • Sadie, It’s Cold Outside: The Complete Series
  • Six Dates With Barker
  • Spitting Image: The Complete Series 1-7
  • The Strange World of Gurney Slade: The Complete Series
  • Sunday Night at the London Palladium: Volumes 1 and 2
  • Victoria Wood: Screenplays

TV Drama

  • The Adventures of Black Beauty: Best of
  • Adventures of Robin Hood: Complete
  • Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel: Complete
  • Alan Plater at ITV
  • Anglo Saxon Attitudes: Complete
  • The Arcata Promise
  • Armchair Cinema: The Collection
  • Armchair Theatre: Volumes 1-4
  • Armchair Thriller: Complete
  • Band of Gold/Gold: Complete
  • The Bass Player and the Blonde
  • Beasts: The Complete Series
  • The Beiderbecke Trilogy/Get Lost: Complete
  • The Blackheath Poisonings: Complete
  • The Brontes of Haworth: Complete
  • The Buccaneers: The Complete Series
  • The Caesars: Complete
  • Casting the Runes
  • Cause Celebre
  • Children’s Ward: Complete Series 1
  • Chiller: Complete Series
  • A Choice of Coward: Complete
  • Clayhanger: Complete
  • Codename Kyril
  • Coronation Street: 1972
  • Crown Court: Volumes 1-7
  • Danger UXB: Complete Series Special Edition
  • The Dark Angel: Complete
  • Dennis Potter at LWT: Volumes 1 and 2
  • Dick Turpin: Series 1
  • Disraeli: Complete
  • Dramarama: Spooky
  • Dramarama: Volume 1
  • Edward and Mrs Simpson: Complete
  • Enemy at the Door: Complete
  • Espionage: Michael Powell
  • Fireball XL5: Complete
  • Flickers: The Complete Series
  • Floodtide: The Complete Series
  • The Four Just Men: The Complete Series
  • Framed
  • The Gold Robbers: Complete
  • The Good Companions: Complete
  • The Hanged Man: Complete
  • The Invisible Man: Complete
  • ITC 50
  • Jack Rosenthal at ITV
  • Jamaica Inn: Complete
  • Jemima Shore Investigates: Complete
  • Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill: Complete
  • Justice: Complete Series 1-2
  • A Kind of Loving: Complete
  • The Knock: Complete Series 1
  • Ladies in Charge: Complete
  • Lady Killers: Complete Series 1-2
  • The Last Place on Earth: Complete
  • Laurence Olivier Presents
  • Lillie: The Complete Series
  • Look-Back on 70s Telly: Issues 1-4
  • The Main Chance: Complete Series 1-4
  • The Male of the Species: Three Plays by Alun Owen
  • Mr Axelford’s Angel
  • Mr Palfrey of Westminster: Complete
  • Mystery and Imagination
  • Philby, Burgess and Maclean
  • Piece of Cake: Complete
  • Plays for Britain: Complete
  • The Power Game: The Complete Series
  • The Protectors: Complete Series
  • Red Letter Day: The Complete Series
  • Redcap: Series 1
  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Complete Series 1-2
  • Robin of Sherwood: Complete
  • The Sandbaggers: Complete
  • Scoop
  • Scorpion Tales: Complete
  • Sergeant Cork: Complete Series 1-6
  • Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance
  • Shadows of Fear: Complete
  • Six Days of Justice: Complete Series 1-2
  • Smuggler: The Complete Series
  • Soap Box: Volume 1
  • South Riding: The Complete Series
  • Storyboard: The Complete Series
  • Strangers: The Complete Series
  • Tales of the Unexpected: Complete
  • Tales Out of School: Four Films by David Leland
  • Thomas and Sarah: Complete
  • Thriller: The Complete Series
  • Travelling Man: Complete
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Tyrant King: Complete
  • Upstairs Downstairs: Complete
  • Van Der Valk: Complete
  • A Very Peculiar Practice: Complete
  • Village Hall: Complete Series 1 and 2
  • Warrior Queen: Complete
  • The Widowmaker
  • Will Shakespeare: Complete
  • William Tell: Complete
  • Wish Me Luck: Complete
  • Yesterday’s Dreams: Complete
  • The Zoo Gang: Complete

TV Other

  • 56 Up
  • Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow
  • Charley Says: Limited Edition
  • Frost on Coward
  • Frost on Friday
  • Frost on Saturday
  • Six Centuries of Verse: Complete
  • The Story of Film: An Odyssey
  • Tempo: Volume 1
  • Unknown Chaplin
  • World in Action: Volumes 1-4

Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle (Royal Festival Hall)

A London visit from the Berlin Philharmonic is always an occasion, and this Valentine’s Day visit from them, with their conductor Sir Simon Rattle on the podium, did not disappoint, especially as they were playing their signature piece, Mahler’s Symphony No 2, the Resurrection, in an emotional and absorbing rendition assisted by the London Symphony Chorus, the CBSO Chorus, soprano Kate Royal, and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená.

The orchestra could very well play this piece in their sleep, but the strings, the woodwind, and the percussion all gave it life and energy, and the solo arias from Royal and Kozená were beautiful.  But it is the chorus, that chorus, that soar of voices which makes this piece so special, and which brings tears now and then from audiences.  The human voice is probably one of the greatest of all instruments – and even if this choir performs much of their singing seated in Rattle’s voice of the piece, it remains an effective piece of ‘theatre’.

Before the Mahler, we were treated to Helmut Lachenmann’s Tableau for orchestra, which is a very modern and sparse piece, enjoyable and very different to the melodies of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  A good companion piece, then, to the mighty Resurrection.


History Is Now – exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre

Any exhibition which aims to present a history of British culture from 1945 to the present day has to be wide-ranging and risk-taking, and the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition manages to be both.

Seven curators have presented six exhibitions within this space and generic umbrella of ‘History is Now’, and although there are no obvious links between the different shows, together they present an immersive snapshot of the country as it was, and where it is going.

Richard Wentworth’s section, on the top floor of the gallery, goes back the furthest, presenting photographs, sketches and texts around the immediate aftermath of the war, along with books about the period arranged above head height, covers facing downwards, on glass shelves.  His vision also includes a surface to air missile which sits outside in the Southbank Centre’s space, aimed towards the financial heart of modern London.

Hannah Starkey’s set of images includes collages of advertising from the 1970s, hugely sexist and geared towards a culture which has all but disappeared, where shoes, household appliances, and politics could be presented in ways that – if you remove the sexual politics and objectivity from the equation – remain startling and innovative.  Her section also includes real life photographs of destitution and degradation which are at odds with the glossy images depicted in the advertising.

John Akromfrah presents seventeen films which look at Britain’s artistic past and future – in themselves they represent hours of footage on which we only quickly glanced on our visit – but there is material from Hepworth, Bacon, and others, which could repay repeat visits.

The Wilson twins Jane and Louise focus much of their attention on Northern Ireland and the Troubles, in a thought-provoking set of images, paintings and texts which focus on both sides of the issue.  The most powerful piece in their section though might be the cage of gloves, each representing a person unemployed with hands idle at the height of the employment crisis of the 1980s.

Roger Hiorns presents a whole room devoted to BSE and the hysteria around mad cow disease – hard to remember now how this was headline news for so long, but newspaper covers, articles, reports, photographs and other artifacts remind us of the fact – a peripheral side effect of this is seeing what else was news at the time, which caused some nostalgia when viewing this particular exhibit.

Finally, and the first section you will see on entering the Hayward, Simon Fujiwara shows us David Beckham sleeping, Meryl Streep’s costume for ‘The Iron Lady’, some plastic cutlery, a couple of bin bags, and Damien Hirst’s dot painting (his cattle heads in formaldehyde are in Hiorns’ section).  This is the most ephemeral and the least engaging part of the exhibition, but the one which is the most flash – even including a section of balcony from a Canary Wharf apartment.

A mixed exhibition, and one which does require some attention to be paid to its messages and juxtapositions – we took nearly two hours to circulate on its preview night and could have stayed longer, had we engaged with every film on show.  I particularly liked the photographs from Erin Pizzey’s Chiswick Women’s Refuge, the items from Greenham Common peace camp, and the sense of history once you move away from the throwaway nature of Fujiwara’s vision into something with just that bit more depth.


Twisting the Dial (BBC Concert Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall)

This second concert in the series by the BBC Concert Orchestra was of rather more pedestrian fare than the one presented last week as part of Friday Night is Music Night.   Grant Llewellyn was the conductor, the singer was Anna Jane Casey, the solo flautist was Ileana Ruhemann, the MC was Ian Skelly, and the concert was transmitted live to BBC Radio 3.

Although there was a mix of music from television, the radio, and the cinema from the years 1959-1979 included in this concert, it didn’t really give a sense of the changing times, although there was some discussion between Skelly and a historian who specialised in the period (I didn’t catch his name).

So the songs – the theme to the Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice’ (John Barry/Leslie Bricusse), ‘Alfie’ (Burt Bacharach/Hal David), ‘Yesterday’ (Lennon/McCartney), and ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ (Lionel Bart’s song from the musical ‘Oliver!’) – were well enough delivered, although the sound mix sounded a bit off in the hall itself.  The musical pieces varied from the buoyancy of the ‘Thunderbirds’ theme by Barry Gray, the ‘Carry On Doctor & Carry On Again Doctor’ suite by Eric Rogers, and excerpts from the opera ‘Our Man In Havana’ by Malcolm Williamson to a truly dull ‘Suite on English Folk Tunes’ by Britten and a well-performed but forgettable ‘Flute Concerto No 2′ by Malcolm Arnold, and nostalgic pieces like Johnny Douglas’ theme to the film ‘The Railway Children’ and Walton’s prelude for Granadaland.

Hard to say why this concert didn’t quite succeed – perhaps the programming was slightly on the heavy side, perhaps the sound balance was a factor (we couldn’t hear Skelly’s introductions as I am assuming he was miked up only for radio), perhaps we needed an MC and a conductor with a bit more energy.  Whatever the reason, the applause tonight was polite rather than enthusiastic.


The Hard Problem (National Theatre)

hardproblem

Tom Stoppard’s new play for nearly a decade is also Nicholas Hytner’s last directing job before he stands down as Artistic Director at the National Theatre, so here we are at the new Dorfman Theatre (Cottesloe as was) to see it.

The picture above shows the set design by Bob Crowley which includes a very clever metal and light structure which buzzes with music (Bach) and fizzes with fireworks in order to distract from scene changes or enhance one key dinner party set piece.

The Hard Problem’s focus is on the mind, the brain, psychology, and coincidence, and it centres around a fairly large and unlikely coincidence between Olivia Vinall’s totally unconvincing professor (she looks too much like Elsa from Frozen) and Anthony Calf’s well-acted Jerry Krohl (a spiky billionaire who is a bully in the office and a benign domestic at home).  This weakens the play somewhat, as does the pre- and post-coital interplay between Vinall’s Hilary and her tedious lover-tutor Spike (Damien Molony).

This play has a lot to say about academia and publishing (fairly accurate, as it happens), office politics and rivalries, family, life choices, and systems of belief – Hilary is a believer in God who kneels to pray by her bed each night.  But it is mired in cliche – the over-achieving Indian scholar (Parth Thakerar), the brilliant female Chinese mathematician (Vera Chok), the sunny lesbian pair of academic and Pilates instructor (Lucy Robinson and Rosie Hilal).  There’s also the sexist academic who interviews candidates in the men’s room (Jonathan Coy) and the fiercely intelligent privileged child (I think this was Eloise Webb of the three Cathys cast).

Broad characterizations aside, this does try to do something interesting, and to see a more cerebral play than most fill its 100 minute running time is not without interest.  Not vintage Stoppard, or vintage Hytner, but worth a visit.


Friday Night is Music Night (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

A finely nostalgic night about The Light Programme, titled ‘On the Wireless and Off the Box’, on stage at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and live on Radio 2, with the ghosts of Hancock and Semprini, Jimmy Edwards, Flanders and Swann, Gus Elen, Max Miller, and others jostling for space with songs from My Fair Lady (‘Show Me’) and Carousel (‘If I Loved You’), as well as Noel Coward’s sparkling Nina.

Bringing these to life for us, under the watchful eye of Master of Ceremonies Ken Bruce and conductor Gavin Sutherland, were the BBC Concert Orchestra, Kitty Whately, Simon Butterkiss, Roy Hudd, and Tim FitzHigham/Duncan Walsh.  It’s quite a feat the move from the fun of ‘In Party Mood’ to the pomp of ‘Orb and Sceptre’, to the music hall high jinks of ‘It’s A Great Big Shame’ and ‘Lucky Jim’ to the crowd-pleasing singalong of ‘Mud, Glorious Mud’ and the patter song ‘My Name is John Wellington Wells’ (from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer).  The most touching thing was to see Roy Hudd, a man who appears more elderly when he isn’t in full flight, deliver ‘While London’s Fast Asleep’, by Harry Dacre, which could indeed “have been written yesterday”.

Funny, too, to see an audience delight in banter between Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams, relayed over the years, and snicker at Dick Barton.


Taken at Midnight (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

This new play by Mark Hayhurst transfers from the Chichester Festival and brings the story of the incarceration of Hans Litten to the stage, timely so in this lead up to Holocaust Memorial Day.  Litten’s mother, Irmgard (Penelope Wilton), at the start of the play, claims that the name of Sonnenburg concentration camp would stand for shorthand for the cruelty of the Nazi regime, but of course the events of the post-Reichstag Fire round-up of political prisoners into long-term ‘protective custody’ was only the start.

midnight 1midnight 2

I hadn’t been that aware of Litten before seeing this play, although the programme makes reference to an earlier drama ‘The Man Who Crossed Hitler’ and documentary ‘How to Stop a Tyrant’ from the same writer, both of which are easily located online, to give a full picture of the story which is finished, here, in the stage play ‘Taken at Midnight’.

Litten (Martin Hutson) was a bright lawyer who identified as a Jewish atheist, the adoption of the ‘Jewish’ being taken from his father, who had himself converted to Christianity some time before.  The bright lawyer subpoenaed Adolf Hitler to the stand and humiliated him during a lengthy cross-examination and so when the Gestapo take power he is one of the first in line to face arrest and a form of revenge in torture and degradation in custody, while his mother uses her quiet and righteous rage as a German woman to tackle his freedom head-on, notably in exchanges with the initially sympathetic Dr Conrad (John Light).

This play is about Irmgard Litten and her crusade to free her son just as much as it is the story of Litten and his comrades in captivity – Carl von Ossietzky (Mike Grady), a pacifist who gains the Nobel Peace Prize while under arrest; and Erich Muhsam (Pip Donaghy), a cabaret performer and satirist.  We also see Litten’s father, Fritz (Allan Corduner) a man who lacks the conviction to make the difference his wife feels she can, as well as an English aristocrat, Lord Allen (David Yelland) who is ultimately powerless to intervene in the Fuhrer’s detention and murder of political prisoners for reasons of his own country’s political expediencies.

‘Taken at Midnight’ is a powerful watch, and a difficult one, especially in the second half where the lightness, where there was lightness, of the earlier scenes, becomes very bleak indeed.  To see the growth of a regime which is just as corrupt as the one it replaced, but with a dictator in charge who is revered by diplomats outside of Germany, is chilling in retrospect when you have the knowledge of the full impact of Kristellnacht and the Final Solution.  Dr Conrad’s words to Mrs Litten about Hans not having the choice to be Jewish makes one stop and pause, and the final speech of the bereaved mother, about events in Dachau, and not having stopped screaming, is one which can only provoke devastation.

Wilton is frankly superb here but she heads an excellent cast, and it is a true privilege to be able to spend time in their company hearing this tale which is just one of many, but one which should not be forgotten, especially in these dark days where the freedom of speech is under threat.


Elvis That’s the Way It Is, 1970 – ★★★★

It is Elvis Presley’s 80th birthday tomorrow, the 8th January, or would have been had he not died prematurely at the age of 42 in 1977. His fan-base remains huge and diverse, and his musical and cultural influence is wide-ranging.

‘That’s the Way It Is’ was his first concert film for the cinema – the ’68 Comeback Special had been originally presented on television. I first saw this film (the original 1970 cut) in about 1982 or 3, when we had a copy on laser disc. That version was in stereo which did justice to the wonderful range of songs presented in both the informal jamming sessions in the early section of the film, and the full concert in the later half.

EPE, however, had an idea up their sleeve and in 2001 they released a ‘Special Edition’ of TTWII. I remember going to see this at the cinema and, yes, it was excellent to watch The King in his prime, but some favourite songs had been completely cut (‘I Just Can’t Stop Believin”, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’).

I point this out to emphasise that there are now TWO versions of this film, and the one EPE give the full bells and whistles treatment is the later version. This original one, in the version now available on DVD as a second disc, is in mono, with muddy sound and un-restored picture. Happily I have a recording which I made to VHS and then to DVD of the laser disc version, but new fans coming to the film will not be so fortunate.

OK – this version has a lot of off-stage stuff with fans, promoters, and vox pops. A lot of this was snipped from the 2001 special edition, to present a different mix of songs with a much more rock and roll bias, but I like these informal bits, which give the film some humour as a documentary as well as a concert film.

And Elvis – well, for me, he is the greatest of all singers and at this time, was at the height of his physical peak as well. Although he only earned a co-writer credit on a handful of his early records, he was a gifted interpreter of other people’s songs, especially early rock numbers like ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ and contemporary classics like ‘Polk Salad Annie’, ‘Words’, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’.

That’s what you get here, with his gifted backing band (the TCB ‘Taking Care of Business’ Band – James Burton, Glen D Hardin, Jerry Scheff and Ronnie Tutt); the Sweet Inspirations (Cissy Houston, Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shernwell); the Imperials Quartet (Jake Hess, Jim Murray, Gary McSpadden, Armond Morales) and the recently deceased Joe Guercio and his Orchestra, is a slick show, well-choreographed.

This film is directed by Denis Sanders and is really recommended viewing for any Elvis fan – but for goodness sake, I wish that the EP estate would release the thing with its original 4-track stereo mix.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 8,200 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


Goodbye Piccadilly, exhibition at London Transport Museum

Running until the 8th March 2015, this is the latest exhibition to use posters and artefacts from the collections of the London Transport Museum.

Goodbye Piccadilly is about the First World War, and more specifically, about the fleet of London buses which were sent into Europe and beyond, along with their drivers, to assist with the war effort.

piccadilly 1piccadilly 2

The posters on show present quite a naive and chilling message to those back in Blighty at the start of the war, as the examples above indicate – ‘the childrens recruiting depots’ being an example which made me particularly shudder.

Other notable artefacts include the plate which adorned ‘Ole Bill’, one of those commandeered buses, the war memorial to the fallen, a bus conductress’ uniform, and more.

piccadilly 3

There are two books to accompany this exhibition, and both are well worth getting (and currently available in the Museum shop at £20 for the pair).

There is also a wall where you can add your own message to the soldiers and civilians of the Great War, and one such item, drawn by a child, simply said ‘Thank you’.  With all the commemoration of the 1914-18 conflict we sometimes forget the scale of sacrifice, and how everyone joined up, expecting the conflict to be ‘over by Christmas’.


Potted Sherlock (Vaudeville Theatre)

Fresh from the Edinburgh Festival, this show is the fourth in the series of ‘Potted’ shows from Dan Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, who are joined in their Sherlockian endeavours by Lizzie Wort.  Their aim: to present all sixty Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories in just eighty minutes.

Their previous shows have centred on Harry Potter, Pirates and Panto, so this is a step further, and although the former CBBC presenters do aim this at the childish end of the spectrum and audience, somewhere along the way the point of the show is lost.

We start with Holmes being introduced by the theme from Shaft, and despite the best efforts of the three hardworking cast to swap characters and zip through the stories with some humour and a bit of song and dance, the moments which really work are few – a running gag involving a puppet Moriarty is fun, the Northern grit of the murderer in The Speckled Band works well, and some musical interludes during the Hound of the Baskervilles raise a smile.

It’s obvious that the performers love the stories, but why throwaway so many opportunities when characters like the one-legged man of the Sign of Four, the Crooked Man, the Man With The Twisted Lip, and even Mycroft – who is mentioned but sadly, never appears could be rich seams of comedy?  Too much mugging and fake corpsing goes on, and although it is funny to see the old water pistol gag making an appearance, it may be a case of too little, too late.

(Also, in the Priory School, it is not the father who orders his son to be kidnapped so the illegitimate elder son can inherit, but the half-brother himself).


Romeo and Juliet, 1966 – ★★★½

This film is of historical interest as it is the only record of the first production of Kenneth McMillan’s choreography to the music of Prokofiev.

The ballet was developed with, and planned for, the premier principal dancers of the Royal Ballet at the time, Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, but they got relegated to the second cast and missed out on being immortalized on screen – a great shame and although the decision to replace them must have made box office sense, I have heard from people who were lucky enough to see them dance fifty years ago that they were exceptionally good.

In this film we have the greatest and most famed pair of dancers of the day, the incomparably beautiful Rudolf Nureyev, and the too-old but sweetly convincing Margot Fonteyn, as Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. There are only a handful of films available of this pair dancing together, and of course film can never truly replicate the sense of ‘being there’, but they make a potent duo and are entertaining to watch.

As a film, though, this disappoints. Paul Czinner – who had directed a number of films before including Olivier’s Bard debut in ‘As You Like It’, puts at the start a flowery claim that he has discovered a new way to film dance theatre, but it really isn’t that good – the famed balcony sequence is partly in shadowy darkness, and there are too many long shots where a close-up would have been welcomed. In one key scene in the first marketplace scene our first view of Nureyev’s Romeo is inexplicably blocked by another dancer coming into shot, which is really unforgivable.

As a filmed record of a new and breathtaking piece of performance choreography, this is worth watching, although the stunning score is buried in an unappealing mono mix, and some of the dancers are too heavily made up for the screen.

For the definitive screen version of the ballet I much prefer the Royal Ballet’s version of two decades later, where Wayne Ealing and Alessandra Ferri – helped by new filming techniques, no doubt – succeed in bringing true emotion as well as athletic technique to their roles.

Devotees of the stars on show will want to add this to their collections, though, and you will also see Anthony Dowell and others at the peak of their dancing careers.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Highlights of 2014

I want to share my personal cultural highlights of the year, especially when living in the capital where so much goes on and so many opportunities are around to visit the theatre, the cinema, and exhibitions (I haven’t done many this year, so I haven’t ranked them).  I don’t work in this field (I’m a senior manager in academic libraries), but I like to see as much as possible, and with the BFI Southbank, the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre, and the Barbican, we are extremely lucky, as well as being able to make the occasional excursion into the expensive West End.

Theatre:

1 The Crucible, at the Old Vic.  Richard Armitage was superb as John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s still-powerful play.

2 Ballyturk, at the National Theatre.  This divided audiences but I really liked it and came away thinking about Enda Walsh’s absurb creation for a long time afterwards.

3 Happy Days, at the Young Vic.  Juliet Stevenson was heartbreaking as Winnie in the Samuel Beckett classic.  More Beckett to come in 2015 as I see ‘Waiting for Godot’ at the Barbican.

4 Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, at the Barbican.  The RSC brought Antony Sher as Falstaff and Jasper Britton as Henry in this pair of classic Shakespeares.

5 The Importance of Being Earnest, at Richmond Theatre.  I liked this gentle parody of the Wilde classic, seen through the eyes of an ageing amateur theatre company.

Honorable mentions go to the revival of Miss Saigon, at the Prince Edward, and Twelve Angry Men, at the Garrick.

The disappointments of the year were Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Richard III, at Trafalgar Studios.

Film:

1 NT Live – there were some excellent performances transmitted to cinemas this year – War Horse, Skylight, and A Streetcar Named Desire.  This is fast becoming a much cheaper alternative to forking out London theatre prices.

2 Jane Eyre (1956).  The BFI Southbank showed the entire Stanley Baker/Daphne Slater series as part of its Gothic season back in January.  It is absolutely terrific.  Whether it will ever see the light of day on DVD (it is a BBC production) is doubtful, but if you get a chance to see it, it is a definite must-see.  It is now my fourth favourite version of the eleven films/miniseries I have seen adapted from this book.

3 Monty Python Live – 1 Down, 5 To Go.  I saw this at the cinema, live from the final night at the O2.  I am a long-time Python fan but was sceptical about whether this reunion would work.  It was a musical comedy extravaganza.

4 I was very pleased to get a chance to watch the original Django (1966) on one of those cheapo Sky channels.  The gorgeous Franco Nero in an ultra-violent (for its day) Spaghetti western.

5 I got twelve films into my Reverse Hitchcock marathon.  With 44 more films to go, I might finish this in 2015, but then again I might not.  Psycho and Frenzy were particularly brilliant.

Honorable mention goes to my discovery of the 1919 The World and Its Woman, which I thought was lost.  Now I have seen three Geraldine Farrar films!  You can see it, and many other films from European film archives, here.

Television:

1 Peaky Blinders (series 2, BBC).  The television event of the year as far as I’m concerned.

2 CBeebies commemorated the anniversary of the Great War with a very touching short called Poppies.  Quite superb in its simplicity, geared to its young pre-school audience.

3 Grand Hotel continued its mix of murder, secrets and period drama in the Spanish series running on Sky Arts.  It returns for a final run in the first week of January 2015.

4 The viral video that was Too Many Cooks took everyone by surprise with its quirky take on American sitcoms.

5 We got the first series of The Vikings, which ran, curiously, on History, with an American and Irish cast and creatives.  It was a TV highlight while Gabriel Byrne appeared as the warrior leader (he also appeared with less fanfare as the alcoholic pathologist in Quirke), but tailed off thereafter.

Honorable mentions go to Remember Me, a creepy ghost story starring Michael Palin, and the Victoria Wood play That Day We Sang.

DVDs:

1 My purchase of the year has to be the 1965-69 series The Power Game.  Intrigue in the boardroom (and implied in the bedroom) this series from half a century ago is sharp, engrossing, well-acted, and has a marvellous opening sequence where all the main cast assemble in Paternoster Square in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

2 The Dutch release of Who Pays The Ferryman was well worth watching.  I like Michael J Bird’s dramas and was similarly impressed with his earlier series The Lotus Eaters.

3 Young Anthony Newley made his debut in The Adventures of Dusty Bates, a TV serial that has made it to cut price DVD.  He was around 12 or 13 here and wasn’t quite in Vegas mode, yet.  He was a decent little performer.

4 The wonderful set of Ealing Rarities from Network Distributing came to an end with volume 14.  This series of discs has brought 56 films back into distribution, some for the first time since their release.  Network continue with their companion series of British Musicals of the 1930s, which is about to reach volume 3.

5 The BFI, as part of their Sci-Fi season, released Out of the Unknown, which presents all the surviving episodes of the BBC landmark series.  I have had these episodes on bootleg discs for years but this set makes them look as great as possible with a sumptuous booklet.  Well worth a purchase, and will be the subject of a more in-depth blog post in 2015.

Sport:

The only event worth noting really is the surprising rise of Brentford FC in the Championship, which is good news for the other member of our house, a fan of some 40+ years standing.  May they stay in the top half of the table for the remainder of the season.

Concerts:

Chrissie Hynde and Joan Baez both impressed, independently, at the Royal Festival Hall.  Chrissie gave us her new album but saved the best of Pretenders material to last, and Baez performed a rounded set of classics.


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