Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category

The Encounter: time-travelling magic

June 14, 2016


I’ve written before about my, shall we say, complicated relationship with the theatre.  I take the approach once described by Sir Michael Parkinson: “I have never sat in a theatre without wishing I were in a cinema instead.”

Except…sometimes.  This was one of the sometimes.  Tempted by a friend who promised that it would appeal to my love of magic and illusion, I saw The Encounter, a one-man show with  Simon McBurney, produced by Theatre Complicite.  It was on at the Oxford Playhouse and is now touring France, a nice change for football fans tired of the Euros.  It’ll be back in the UK soon, I’m sure: it’s terrific.

This is how the programme describes it:

Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.

In 1969 Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life, bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. 

Simon McBurney traces McIntyre’s journey into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, incorporating innovative technology into his solo performance to build a shifting world of sound.

It’s this “shifting world of sound: that provides the illusion aspect of the evening.  Audience members are asked to wear headphones and McBurney uses multiple tricks and devices to create a truly three-dimensional picture of McIntyre’s extraordinary  – and true – Amazonian adventure.

When he encounters the more-or-less undiscovered Mayruna tribe in the depths of the jungle, McIntyre realises to his astonishment that at least one of the tribe – an elder he nicknames “Barnacle” – is communicating with him telepathically – the so-called “Amazon Beaming” that is the title of the book on which the play is based.  Subsequent research reveals that this “beaming” has been a long-standing, if little-understood, mystery.

TTWAHThere was another aspect of the drama, however, that caught my imagination, and that was the Mayruna’s concept of time.  In my research for Time Travelling With A Hamster, it became clear to me that our “Western” perception of linear time was not the only one.  Other cultures viewed time as more fluid, and often “circular”.  In the legends of Australian aborigines, this is called Dreamtime; ancient Hindu texts refer to a “wheel of time”.  The Mayruna, too, regard time as cyclical.  In The Encounter, the Mayruna are attempting, in effect to “time travel” back to pre-Columbian times to escape the encroaching modern world.

McBurney is superb in this show, which is bare theatre at its best.  The set is non-existent: a desk, some sound equipment, that’s it.  It’s a bit like watching a radio play, except it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good on the radio.



Lang Lang and Liberace

December 2, 2015

Went to see Lang Lang last night, the renowned Chinese pianist who, it seems, divides opinion.  A rather sniffy review in The Telegraph was typical of Lang Lang detractors: style over substance, too much of a showman, etc.

One comment online amused me: “Lang Lang needs to remind himself that he is a Pianist (sic) and not an entertainer.”

Like, you can’t be both?

Me, I like a bit of style and showmanship and my musical ear is not so sophisticated that I can necessarily tell when it overshadows the substance.  He sounded excellent to me: he played it all without either sheet music or wrong notes and that’s impressive to start with.

When I was a kid, there was still a place on TV for pianists as light entertainers.  Bobby Crush was a a teenager who won “Opportunity Knocks” and was rather like Liberace in his twinkly campness.  And what about Gladys “Mrs” Mills?  She was a jolly piano-thumper, with dinner lady’s arms and a repertoire of end-of-pier singalongs.

Anyway, This (below) is Lang Lang on The One Show about a year ago.  The really fast stuff (Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca) starts at around 7.50.

Last night, Lang Lang’s  main piece was a Mozart concerto in C minor which sounded lovely, but he was more subdued than I was hoping.  His encore was more to my taste: an impossibly fast version of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brilliante, with adornments aplenty, great leaps in the left hand.  Add a few more rings on his fingers and grins at the audience and he could be a reincarnation of Liberace.  There are those who would say that is a bad thing.  Not I.

Here’s Liberace, from 1969.

And, just for fun, a six year old Lang Lang wannabe called Chung Chung:


Impossible: where have the women disappeared to?

August 13, 2015

Impossible (Noel Coward Theatre, London) is one of those show about which you wonder, “Why has this not been seen before?”


An ensemble magic show featuring multiple performers doing different kinds of tricks, from huge illusions (yes, a car vanishes, a helicopter appears) to card and coin tricks.  It was packed, the audience loved it, and the 12 year-olds with me pronounced it “awesome”.

This is surely west-end gold.  For a start, you don’t need much English to watch a magic show, and it’s very family-friendly (even the ticket prices are lower than the west-end standard).  From a producer’s point of view, the ensemble nature of the show means than no performer is irreplaceable.

The magic was baffling, funny, slick and pretty much flawless in execution.  Maybe it’s because (wisely) almost the whole programme was built around tricks that  have been around for decades if not centuries – what magicians call “classics”.  I’ve been into magic almost my whole life and there were very few illusions here that I haven’t seen – in one way or another – before.  From Ben Hart’s opening “Diminishing Cards”, through Jamie Allen’s “sawing a lady in two” (OK, he used a “laser beam”, but it’s the same trick), to Ali Cook’s Houdini routine: these are classics but still look fresh and mystifying.

Funniest of all is that the trick that truly captivated the boys I was with was not the helicopter, or the mind-reading, or any one of the (frankly FAR too many) boxes in which pretty girls underwent myriad contortions and transformations, but a simple card trick performed by Luis de Matos involving all the audience which provoked gasps of amazement and delight.

For me, though, the biggest mystery was the absence of the only woman of the troupe, Katherine Mills.  What on earth happened there?  She was in all the pre-publicity.  She’s in the brochure.  She never made it much past the first night.  Done.  Gone.  Vanished.

And keeping very schtum on FB and Twitter.

The remaining line-up is all men, plus their compulsory “glamorous assistants”.  I’m the very last person to bleat on about “sexism”.  It didn’t strike me as sexist, just…old fashioned.

Despite the jeans-and-t-shirt chic, the magic with iPads and all the rest of it, the curtain call demonstrated that live magic has yet to get fully comfortable in the 21st century.

And now, just for fun a truly MYSITIFYING magic trick.  Not part of the “Impossible” show, but impossible nonetheless

The Audience and its audience

June 5, 2015

My mind wanders easily in the theatre.  I think it’s the fakery of the whole thing, the spare sets, the imagined actors waiting n the wings, mouthing their lines, the sound of footsteps on wood when it’s supposed to be gravel… everything, really.  And then I start to drift off.  Mainly I’m wondering what I’ll say to Mrs W that expresses that I’m not loving this, but pretending that I like it enough so that I don’t ruin her evening in the hope that one day she’ll come to see a musical with me which, frankly, is the only sort of theatre I can stand – probably because you’re not usually expected to take it at all seriously.

a91752d9-pfaudience2015jp-02406-edit_05c08005c03f00001e(Theatre-going friends don’t invite me any more.  They have spent too many intervals sipping HOW MUCH!? gin and tonics and hearing me slag off the play that they were – up till then – quite enjoying.  I don’t blame them.  I’ve probably quite spoilt their night.)

So last night was just me and Mrs W at the Apollo Theatre to see Kristen Scott Thomas playing the Queen in The Audience by Peter Morgan.  You’ve probably heard about it: it’s the one about the Queen and her private meetings with her Prime Ministers

It started off promisingly enough.  The audience were tittering from the off.  Actually, that goes for most audiences so far as I can tell.  God, they’ll laugh at anything, specially if it’s Shakespeare.  Last night, John Major fumbled with his hankie momentarily and there were gales of hilarity.

Honestly, it wasn’t that funny.

But then I started to get irritated.  John Major would not and did not, I am absolutely certain, break down in tears in front of HM as he recalled his humble upbringing.  Winston Churchill would not and did not address her by her pet name, Lilibet.  Harold Wilson would not and did not adopt a cod-German accent and tease her about her family heritage.  What’s more, he’s depicted as an oafish, northern chancer, overwhelmed by the grandeur of his position.  He was an Oxford don, for God’s sake!  These are more like comedy sketches, never more so than when Margaret Thatcher appears, in hectoring caricature, rather than in character.  They should just hire Steve Nallon and be done with it.

But perhaps I’m missing the point.  Perhaps this is meant to be a comedy.  If so, it’s just not funny enough.

Thing is, once you start to notice things, it’s hard to stop.  Anachronisms?  Yup.  For example, it’s 1985 and Mrs Thatcher s heading to the palace.  The Sergeant-at-arms (or whoever it is) warns Her Majesty with the words, “I thought I’d give you a heads-up, ma’am.”  A ‘heads-up’?  In 1985?


L-R Sir Anthony Eden, Allan Cuthbertson as Col. Hall, David Robb as Dr Clarkson

The second half settles into a surer rhythm, but I was thrown off-track by the appearance of Sir Anthony Eden.  Who diid he remind me of?  I was convinced that the actor playing him was the same one who had played Colonel Hall in the Fawlty Towers episode ‘Gourmet Night’ (he of the tiny wife and the huge twitch), and then I realise that whoever did play Colonel Hall must be at least ninety by now, and that was me distracted for the rest of the play.

And then it came to me when I was in bed, and I woke up Mrs W to tell her, not the she expressed any gratitude.  It was the doctor from Downton Abbey.

Glad I cleared that up.