Christmas at the Hall

The Gospel Messiah, an original concept by Marin Alsop with musical arrangements by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson. Bearing in mind Handel took precisely three weeks to write what has become a perennial Christmas and Easter favourite – one particular chorus is very familiar – here we were with a version that sounded like we were in downtown New Orleans, with elements of jazz, soul and rhythm and blues to the fore. Alsop is best known as a conductor – three times she has held the baton at the Last Night of the Proms – but her talents, along with those of her musical collaborators, are manifold and this version, to quote Sue was “simply sensational, and exceeded my expectations”.
Alsop created this reimagining thirty years ago and it has been performed all over the United States. This, strangely, was its European premiere. I know it can take us a while to catch up with our American cousins, but many in the audience were asking the same question. Be that as it may, Christianson and Anderson’s musical arrangements take from a variety of styles, which to a purist may be musical blasphemy, but they probably haven’t heard this. The choral parts remain, the original includes sombre parts that are moving if somewhat lugubrious. Gospel changed that. The London Adventist Chorale and the BBC Symphony Chorus were technically superb, that combined with searing emotion and power combined to create a monumental sound. The Messiah is also known for the challenge presented to its soloists, requiring stamina, vocal strength and an ability to interpret its complexities. Step forward British soul singer Vanessa Haynes and South African tenor Zwakele Tshabalala. Yes, they were sensational, consistently filling the historic auditorium with a triumphant sound.
Then of course, right at the death, just when you thought the buoyant BBC Concert Orchestra – beautifully conducted by an excitable and animated Alsop, could excel no more – and magnificent singers lifted the roof off with the “Hallelujah” chorus. Yes, we know it’s in the wrong place from the original but such details are forgiven when one looks at this recreation as a whole. Handel wrote ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, another movement from the original. It did as did the remainder of the buoyant brass section and the jubilant standing ovation was fully justified, recognising that we had been treated to vocals, musicianship and musical imagination that has earned a right to be included in the next Proms programme.
The House of Bernarda Alba

Frederico Garcia Lorna’s The House of Bernarda Alba (National Theatre), is a play about shame, guilt and family hatred. A mother who scorns her daughter for bringing scandal to her house and disobeying becomes persona non grata. Alice Birch’s version, described in the programme as “radical” is certainly different.
Merle Hensel’s set is startlingly unlike a large traditional Spanish house, more a modern hospital or holiday apartments with 7 transparent cell-like rooms. Interestingly you can see and hear what is happening in several rooms at once which is stimulating but sometimes distracting. The crosses in each room and the gun on the wall are important but the bright light take away from Lorca’s description of darkness and repression. Another departure from more traditional production is the fact that all the daughters and even the mother swear, profusely and strongly. This jars. Possibly it would be acceptable with the most rebellious daughter but it grates, particularly with the mother. It does not fit with the staunchly Catholic, old-fashioned, prudish way of life that the dictatorial matriarch is trying to uphold.
The strong cast, led by a formidably excoriating Harriet Walker, create a repressive and strangulating atmosphere and there are one or two excellent scenes as when the crowd gathers at the end of the first act to punish the young woman, mother to an illegitimate child. Brilliant lighting, music and choreography. Overall however Rebecca Frecknall’s direction lacks conviction and purpose and it doesn’t really hang together as a coherent piece.

The Homecoming

Picture the scene. A London family of butchers and boxers. One of the sons Teddy, a smart lad, returns home from the USA with a wife that nobody has ever seen. What follows is classic family dysfunction and Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (Young Vic) captures that mayhem and cracked dynamic to telling effect.
This is most definitely a tale of two halves. In the first we see patriarch Max (Jared Thomas), a disturbed control freak and his brother Sam (Nicolas Tennant) who is on the receiving end of much of his irrational ire. Max’s two sons meanwhile, Joey (David Angland) and Lenny (Joe Cole) are up to all sorts, displaying erratic behaviour and vying for dominance. They seem to be wallowing in a stage of would have, could have, should have. Life passing them by. Anger, both verbal and physical bursts forth like mini volcanic eruptions. Teddy’s (Robert Emms) “homecoming” with Ruth (Lisa Diveney) turns their already messed up world upside down.
But it is the female presence that causes most upheaval. Misogyny prevails and testosterone fills the stage. The power dynamics between generations, the educated and uneducated, male and female, all battling for legitimacy and position. Until Ruth sits in the chair otherwise mostly occupied by the mad dad! At this point, an illusion arises as the victim suddenly appears to turn perpetrator in succeeding with feminine charm and wit to place a spell on the men. Until you wake up and realise it is only as a survival strategy, the spell is well and truly broken. Matthew Dunster’s excellent production is moody, raw and sometimes disturbingly enchanting. There is an outstanding performance from Cole whose physicality on stage pulls you into a false sense of security, a classic Pinter ruse.
High Society

High Society (dir. Joseph Pitcher) is on now at The Mill at Sonning, a remarkable theatre putting on entertainment that begins with a soporific christmas dinner and ends with a musical performance. I’m not a food critic so I’ll keep my thoughts on the buffet to a succinct ‘thumbs up’ and focus on the play: based on The Philadelphia Story, it tells the tale of wealthy socialite Tracy Lord who, on the eve of her wedding to safe-pair-of-hands George Kitteridge, is caught in a love triangle (quadrangle?) with ex-husband Dexter Haven and tabloid journalist (and self-proclaimed ‘bolshevik’) Mike Connor.
The action is light and breezy, the music is by Cole Porter and the class satire is, well, a bit on the light side – frothing revolutionaries will be disappointed that the extent of analysis is “aren’t rich people a bit silly”, but it’s a 1950’s musical, not a Rosa Luxembourg pamphlet.
Performances are consistently good, standouts being Kurt Kansley as the lascivious, bombastic Uncle Willie and Katlo as Dinah Lord, the precocious, meddling younger sister of Tracy. The choreography, as you would expect for a big nostalgic musical, is tight as a drum, particularly for the big start-of-act 2 musical number ‘Let’s Misbehave’, which pound for pound might be the most entertaining set-piece I’ve seen all winter.
Definitely worth your time!

Christmas at the Hall – www.royalalberthall.com
The House of Bernarda Alba – www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
The Homecoming – www.youngvic.org
High Society – www.millatsonning.com

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