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Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - An Inspector Calls (with James Pellow)

Folks who know me very well often say, kindly I think, that I should get out more. I’m a grumpy old sod at the best of times and in the ...

Monday, 16 April 2012

It's still a Grand National

Not sure I should get involved in this one. After all, this is mainly a theatre blog. But the horses often intrude. And no way more than with my ugly mug sharing a treasured moment with one of Jonjo O’Neill’s superstars. You don’t get much closer to racing at the highest level than that. Besides, as I have said many times, there is more drama in horseracing than in half a dozen productions at Stratford. Tragedy and triumph run side by side in a quicksilver fashion that even Olivier and Gielgud at their best would find bewildering.

Last Saturday’s Grand National had it all. Gold Cup winner ditching his jockey during the parade, fun with an elastic tape for the start of the world’s highest profile race, the closest ever finish, only a nose separated the first two, and a female jockey getting into the first three. Too much drama, old boy. Go away and revise the script. I wish we could because the biggest drama was the death of two beloved horses. According to Pete, small owner and unfashionable trainer, is what racing is all about. Bred for fun and winner of lots of handicaps. Super jumper, cruelly brought down when going well. That was bad enough but then we had Synchronised. Remember him? The Gold Cup winner who played up at the start. Ditched the world’s best jockey at Bechers and, five fences later, fell again. Fatally.

Ten million folks watched it on the BBC and umpteen million others saw it all over the world. Forget the result. Two horses died. High profile ones. The race is too dangerous. Stop it. Ban it. We may tune in for the excitement. But we don’t want too much. Fences too difficult, race too long, runners too many. Distil it all and you finish up with a two runner race on the flat over half a mile. That is the illogical conclusion. Horses die in the paddock, horses die when put out to grass, horses die when being trained. They also die at Plumpton and Towcester. It is the downside of racing. Nobody likes it but if you love racing, as I do, you have to accept it. Training and racing horses has its risks. If society is not prepared to take that risk then the sport is dead.

I sincerely mean that last statement because the serious antis won’t stop at the Grand National. Its high media profile, daunting fences, and large field is merely the beginning. Get that knocked off the agenda and a five runner novice chase at  Wetherby won’t be far behind. Cruelly, the death of the Gold Cup winner played into their hands. They couldn’t buy such publicity. For many years, because of my job, I regularly went to the Cheltenham Festival. Sixty thousand people poured through the gates for a day of excitement and pleasure. About fifteen regularly stood outside holding up their condemning placards. With the death of Synchronised those fifteen voices are getting worryingly louder. And they know it.

I don’t do show jumping. It has no appeal to me. Hickstead and Burleigh are foreign countries. A few years ago we regularly heard about fatalities at their events. Mainly riders, more newsworthy, but no doubt horses as well. I didn’t call for it to be banned. I know nothing about their sport. And neither do the once a year punters and viewers who tune in to our most high profile race. So leave us alone. The logic of your argument, as someone better than me said, is that the only horses we will ever get to see is in a zoo.

For anyone interested I backed the winner, Neptune Collanges, and coined a tidy sum. Did not stop me crying at the death of Synchronised and dear old Pete. I would give every penny back for that not to have happened. But I can just about live with the death of a horse, racing is after all the only reason they exist, not sure if I could cope with the death of racing. And that seems to be where we are going.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

HLOS - A Grand Night for Singing

I sometimes think there are no depths to which I will not sink in a blatant attempt to boost my blog reading stats. It’s a well known fact, or ought to be, that I am not a big musical fan. And on my very short personal list of the best of them, you will search hard to find any by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Too comfy for my tastes. So two hours of their wall to wall lyrical songs, without even a hint of narrative, hardly suggests a ticket that I was going to get too excited about. But Harpenden Light Operatic Society has never had my interfering snout pushed into their musical trough and I thought it was about time. My blogging is local theatre and you don’t get more local than this. And besides I am long enough in the teeth to know that how you serve things up is all. I was once reluctantly dragged, kicking and screaming, to a St Alban’s production of Oliver and came out so gobsmacked by its inventiveness that I immediately booked to see it again. Critics are like that. Ever so fickle.
I can’t say I saw much of that directorial wizardry in A Grand Night for Singing. Sally Davis, director and choreographer, played it all with a pretty straight bat. The simple black and bare nightclub set heavily relied on lots of white lights and colourful ladies dresses to add the required zing. Any show needs a bit more than that to float my theatrical boat. This steady stream of pleasant songs, unimaginatively linked, contained no theatrical surprises.. Not engaged by a complete and all consuming experience, I sat back and cherry picked the pieces. Dick and Oscar would have done the same.
Thankfully there was enough good singing, both collectively and individually, to make my twelve quid money well spent. Twenty four if you include an impecunious companion. I may be a sniffy theatre buff, got pictures of Rattigan and Ibsen on one of my walls, but I know a good tune, well sung, when I fall over it. When the thirty odd performers combined in stirring renditions of A Grand Night for Singing, I Have Dreamed, and Some Enchanted Evening even this old cynic tingled. Those colourfully dressed gals and the black costumed waiter boys can certainly belt out a song when they get together. And stand-in Musical Director Graham Thomson belted it all out with them. I like this man. He enjoys what he does and my untrained musical ear pleasingly flaps at his baton waving.
Individually it gets a bit more tricky. This is where you find out, if you didn’t already know, where my critical faculties lie. I loved Mary Watkinson’s The Gentleman Is A Dope. Beautifully sung with an evocative and earthy tone which ticked all my boxes and I give similar brownie points to Liz Firmin’s intelligent and amusing rendition of It’s Me. Excellent singers both and with an inner depth of controlled acting, one sad, one comic, that my Ibsen portrait would appreciate. I also had a lot of time for Chris Eagles and Pete Town, flashy cummerbunds both, for all of what they did. Mr Eagles sang beautifully, especially We Kiss in a Shadow, and Mr Town both sang and danced his Honeybun with consummate style. A bit off a show off, but hey he has the talent so why not, and both these chaps showed they were not one offs with a superbly combined All At Once You Love Her.
It is interesting, to me at any rate, that most of the singled out songs are from shows I do not know. Ignorant beast. It may partly explain why I was not totally enamoured of If I Loved You (Claire Millens) or Maria (Adam Briffett). The former is one of the few R and H songs that I adore and the latter belongs to those bloody nuns. Both performers were up against my expectations. Not easy to compete with that. But elsewhere I got immense pleasure from Nova Horley and Brian Woods in Parent Medley, and each proved it was no fluke with their respective renditions of Something Wonderful and This Nearly Was Mine. Magnificent voices and stage presence from both of them. I can’t sing, and listening to these two, I  wished I could and was glad I can’t. Good singing gets you like that.
So it was a funny sort of evening for me. No, I did not get that theatrical buzz that I constantly seek and desire. Sally Davis needed to pull up those choreographical socks of imagination much firmer for that. The occasional try for comedy didn’t really work and only Ms Watkinson and Kay Ward (It Might As Well Be Spring) came anywhere near it. But Mr Thomson led his band with verve and the lighting boys, forgiving the odd missed spot, lit with sparkly style. And the gal’s costumes, colourful as a spring garden, were never less than satisfying. My impecunious companion (extra twelve quid) thought so. And she is harder to please than me. She don’t blog but, if she did, it would be a much more incisive read than this. Me? I only know Ibsen. Roy Hall