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Review Murder in the Dark, New Theatre,Cardiff by Jane Bissett

 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Murder in the Dark was not exactly what I had expected and I did wonder by the early reaction of other theatre goers close by, if it had been what they had been expecting.

Wonderfully played out, this production had us drawn in by the end of the first scene.  Seldom have I been to any play that has had the ability, so quickly, to engage with an audience where you actually felt as if you are there, as part of the very story itself.

Without giving away any spoilers, the plot centres around Danny (Tom Chambers), a ‘famous’ musician who has been stranded on New Years eve following a car crash.  Mrs Bateman (Susie Blake) offers him an opportunity to stay overnight in her holiday let on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

What transpires next is a revelation into family relationships and the mysteries of the mind.

Brilliantly cast, with Rebecca Charles as Rebecca, Jonny Green as Jake and Owen Oakeshott as Will and Laura White as Sarah.  This tight group of actors certainly took us on a journey where none of us could have predicted the destination or outcome.  

I have never been to play where there was so much audience reaction with audible intakes of breath and laughter when the characters made comments that we could all have made in the circumstances they found themselves with laughter as light relief, or was it really to suppress the fear of the situation?? 

Written by Torben Betts, best known for his dark comedies of social embarrassment with a smattering of political commentary thrown in, this was departure from his usual writing.  

Directed by Philip Frank, this masterpiece of theatre was almost an immersive experience and I think best played in an intimate theatre space. The New Theatre, Cardiff, the ideal venue and assisted in helping create the an atmosphere and mood needed to enjoy this production to its fullest.

The design of the set as both realistic and clever and the designers, Simon Kenny for set and Max Papenheim for sound, created the perfect on stage environment for the telling of this particular tale.

Intrigued? Murder in the Dark Plays at the New Theatre until Saturday 2 March.

Review, The Way, BBC Wales, by Gareth Williams

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Its title is perhaps deceiving. For there are many ways to describe The Way. Realist, certainly, but both magic and social. Incorporating documentary-style shots with archive footage. Alluding constantly to myth and legend. And that fine line between the supernatural and the imagined. All such elements contribute to what feels like something that wants to be epic. But there are so many strands to this drama that sometimes it drowns in its own details instead.

As Michael Sheen’s directorial debut, it isn’t too bad. It is not so disjointed as to be lacking any concept. The problem is that there are too many big and weighty themes being handled. Boil it down to the Driscolls – the family at the centre of this drama – and it becomes understandable. A fractured and broken unit, the four of them are forced to work together when Port Talbot becomes a site of insurrection, for which mam Dee (Mali Harries) and son Owen (Callum Scott Howells) are largely to blame. In this alternate-reality, they have no choice but to flee their country, seeking to cross the border (which is hard and fast here) into England, and on to daughter Thea’s husband Dan in Germany (played by Sophie Melville and Aneurin Barnard respectively). Their journey is strangely perilous, avoiding road blocks and any kind of surveillance in very familiar countryside and townscapes. It is a bit like watching Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto’ trilogy but without the humour. Everything is a lot more serious here. As if Sheen wants to create a contemporary version of a Classic tale: a 21st Century Mabinogion, if you will. But this lofty ambition is perhaps pushed too far, with hyperbolic tendencies that create, at worst, confusion, and at best, fascinating melodrama.

Lead actor Steffan Rhodri brings a pathos to dad Geoff that keeps the drama believable. He handles his character’s unresolved grief and melancholic temperament with a natural ease that catches the eye. In contrast to Mark Lewis-Jones’ hammed up performance as Union man Glynn and Luke Evans’ suitably brooding but underwhelming appearance as mercenary Hogwood, Rhodri embodies an everyman persona that keeps The Way grounded in its otherwise flittering state. For amidst the jump cuts, involving security cameras, social media sites, and news flashes, there are also talking teddy bears, Carry On clips, and prophetic dreams. But whilst on one level it could be described as strange, there is also a prescience to it that remains real. None more so than with the threat of job losses at the steel plant. Sheen is not content with just a standard social commentary on this issue though. He incorporates immigration, nationalism, Thatcherism, and nostalgia into a story that also wishes to say something about the nature of story itself. Not self-referentially but in the wider sense of Wales as a land of story and song.

Everything is done with good intention. But it doesn’t always result in translation. There are times when, for example, the life of the steel plant would work better as spoken metaphor, and the final monologue more affective, in the context of theatre. The Way almost shows us too much and, in doing so, doesn’t say enough. It rightly has one family at its core but a tendency to reach wider causes it to lose sight sometimes of this feature. The Way still manages to be entertaining though. Just a shame that it’s Michael Sheen’s name that gives it kudos rather than his direction or the drama itself.

Watch the full series on BBC iPlayer here.

Reviewed by
Gareth Williams

Review, William Thomas & Florent Mourier, Opera Rara, Lansdowne Club, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Opera Rara are on the prowl for the lesser heard, lesser staged in the operatic world. They have no council funding and have excelled with rarely seen delights. This saloon concert at the Lansdowne Club, a charming membership venue over looking Berkeley Square proved a thrill. I was taking the charm of the older gentlemen’s club, I was warmly welcomed and they were happy to allow me to sit and have a drink before. It was all rather fetching, it was seeing the club’s cat that really did it for me, Harry one of two who live there.

This was a fine opportunity to hear emerging bass singer William Thomas and on piano Florent Mourier. The chance to hear encounter lesser heard Verdi and Donizetti songs was a treat and in such a fine space. We heard many songs on the night, too many to mention. Thomas who is such a talented bass, felt quite special sitting and listening to him. The bass does not always get a lot of love and a fine, young singer like this could break down many barriers. Even in the Italian or the French repertoire (such was the influence of Parisain opera and all things francophile) from the two composers.

Starting with Donizetti’s Troppo é vezzoza la ninfa bella, we couldn’t have had a better start. Thomas plays the odd little characters well in these songs, humour aside great timing also important. My Italian plus one said the language was clear, though not all the time as is the way with words used in opera. Hearing Verdi, In solitaria stanza had a sweet Bellini reference, more influence from the past. Deh, pietoso, oh addolorata had the words of Gothic God Goethe. Mourier had a few rehearsals with Thomas prior, you would think they have played together for years. His piano skills meshed marvellously for these songs, he seems to get these hardly hear song like few do. Together, magic was made between Thomas and Mourier, both at the top of their game. An encore would preview his role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra coming up in Manchester, wetting mouths. 

Seriousness met fun, romance and tension, in the club saloon setting you couldn’t ask for much more. 

Opera Rara perform the original Verdi Simon Boccanegra from 1857 at Manchester Bridgewater Hall 18 April 2024. 

Review, Hadestown, Lyric Theatre, London by James Ellis

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

I’ve wanted to see Hadestown for sometime. Anas Mitchell has whipped up a frenzy with this Greek myth inspired musical take on the tale. This being it’s West End premiere, can it live up to the hype?

Whilst it might work better as a concept album, it is Mitchell’s songs which are the pulling power of Hadestown. The familiar story has been on stage and screen in varying styles, yet its the lack of innovation which bores here. This is one of the most famous stories in Western literature, with a real opportunity do something interesting with it. Granted the New Orleans style jazz and hearty folk stylings do meld only to a certain degree. Its the former which is punchy and keeps toes tapping. They could have even pushed the jazz even more from this golden band,

My main gripe is that this story (presented as it is) does not fill 2 hours of a show, this is made clear in the second act when Hades stops and pauses as the Furies sing about his indecisions to free our young couple. Some press night jitters also saw a hanky nearly fall and a few instances of mic scratches. We let this slide, as this press and guest night performance had great energy. The ensemble for the show are very impressive in their energy, their diverse apperance another great thing. Musically, they have the least interesting songs, the Fates might just claim that crown.

As a cast they are top tier. A spirit of a bard, Dónal Finn is Orpheus with piercing falsetto and an all round Irish charm. His love: Eurydice is Grace Hodgett Young who is equally matching Finn in voice and atmosphere. Melaine La Barrie is the wise Hermes, the narrator guide who really loves to belt out numbers and use a novelty train whistle of the underworld. Zachary James is Hades in the vain of the comic baddie, not really songs for a singer, more acting songs. He looks a bit like Wesker from Resident Evil and Robotnik from the Sonic franchise. Not much to the depth of the part other then having some mercy for the couple leading to an atmospheric trial home scene. Gloria Onitiri is an easy favourite as Pesephone, of colour and spring lost to the underworld. Some blazing moments with her, really stirring powerhouse songs and good fun too. The Fates: Bella Brown, Madeline Charlemagne and Allie Daniel are analysing and wild sparks to the party, their harmonies a revelation. 

Rachel Chavkin could have done more with this show as director. Something about it not filling it’s true potential, yet the show has become a hit. Some costumes and set pieces might not have wowed as much as they should. Steam punk, art noveau and the Wild West all seem to be a part of this, though only in suggestion. If kept shorter this could have worked better, the songs though getting love and the all round gun-ho attitude is what makes this memorable.  

Review, Emma Roberts, Charles Tam & Jo Ramadan, The Musicians’ Company Concert & Concordia Foundation Artists’ Fund, Wigmore Hall, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Many Prizes to be found here from a wonderful trio of musicians. Mezzo Emma Robert’s has real pulling power, making the most of this fine afternoon at Wigmore. Proving many talents with a selection of Fauré, Brahms and Debussy in the first half. Fleur jette was a lush opener from Fauré, the German from Brahms and his Der Tod, das ist die Kyle Nacht was another treasure, solemn and resplendent. Emma has a warm mezzo and at such a young age. Not always easy to get it right in the ladies lower register, but she pulls off so much with grace and poise. Debussy and his Chansons de Bilitis ended this set with warm heartedness and a vivid palette of colours and poetry.

Charles Tam arrive to wrap up the first half with two of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. Le baiser dr l’enfant-Jésus started things off for anyone who had never heard this outstanding French composer…you’d be surprised. The main sort of Jesus melody is heard and transposed aside daring chromatic  investigations aside daring expressionistic key play. Leading into the most acclaimed from the two hour piece: Regard de l’Esprit de joie. This tenth movement dazzles with sizzling Indian music, frantic high and low register pounding and an unwavering mastery of melody. Tam leaving this audience impressed, it has such a demand on the player, we too were tired after hearing it. My plus one knew little of Messiaen and was teary eyed by the end. Tam made an excellent choice here and it was a fine way to show his sweeping musicianship.

More of Emma and her companion on piano Jo Ramadam, who played everything with fine fingering and brezze. Schumann’s Myrthen got back to basics, heady Germanic style and sense of romance evaded the space. A choice of Sibelius songs proved Emma multi language skills further, these were fun and wry. Sanglots from Banalités by Poulenc was even more cheer and thrills. Emma really getting into the patter of the song. I want to hear her do more and Wagner!

Tam returned with a final offering, Liszt’s Fantasia quasi Sonata from Aprés une le tur du Dante. Half misery and half hope, the whole piece had the clamour you expect from Liszt. Hell and its layers evade the score effectively thanks to the composer’s cleverness. It didn’t quite complete the concert as an end piece, but I was caught by its passion and Tam’s real vitality, no score needed and his swaying motions throughout noteworthy. 

Review, Juan Pérez Floristán, LSO St Luke’s, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The essence of Spain is alive and well at LSO ,St Luke’s in London. We got a real firestarter concert from Juan Pérez Floristán. Fantasiá bética from Manuel de Falla was the native and justified opener. It was terrific and terrifying in equal measure, flamenco used and keeps the kinetic spirit of the dance. Very contemporary, a commission by Rubinstein, de Falla really shows off here and so does Juan.

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte is the most famous piece in the programme. Inspired by Spanish Baroque, this endearing if somewhat overdone piano miniatures remains a delight. Juan kept it sincere and totally pianissimo. Three Debussy works, two of which were from the Preludes, perhaps captured the essence of Spain out of the non-native composers. Maintaining the evocative perfume usually attributed to Debussy, aside the dance and heat of Espana really did excite her. Juan doing more Debussy would be an event in and of itself. A longing and lingering mood drifted into the space.

Joaquín Turina is a discovery for me and a real find. His Orgía from Danzas fantásticas was another extreme thrill. We don’t near enough from Spanish composers, a work like this proves why we should. Juan thrives in playing his own country’s canon. He is not afraid to dance and scribble around whilst playing. Captivating would be a nice descriptor.

Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody may lose a feel for the authentic, replaced with virtuosic playing. A delightful melody is heard throughout and is heart warming. Juan scrubs the keys and pounded this justified finale. We were smitten as an audience and an encore of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair was familiar fare and a nice way to end this fine afternoon.

Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Series Review, Bariau, S4C by Gareth Williams

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Bariau is the latest series to enter the realm of prison drama. With Time and Screw already making a mark in their respective ways, it is the turn of S4C to put a Welsh spin on the subgenre. Bariau follows the blueprint of the other two insofar as real-life stories inform the onscreen narratives. Verisimilitude is in vogue when portraying life behind bars these days. But while Bariau does not shy away from the dark realities, its soap-like presentation makes for palatable viewing.

The casting of Adam Woodward (Hollyoaks, Emmerdale) as Kit Brennan ensures that Bariau entertains popular appeal. He brings a slight melodramatic edge to this central villain, making him at once genuinely terrifying and ludicrously arrogant. He arrives with a real swagger, and fast becomes the controller of a wing that features a great cast of misfits. Glyn Pritchard is particularly good as the religiously-devout Peter, whose overbearing mother and anger management issues give some kind of insight into his incarceration. The focal point is Hardy however, played with a fascinating aloofness by Gwion Tegid. An air of mystery continues to surround him even as he becomes embroiled in the powerplay and blackmail of life in the cells. He gets dragged into Brennan’s world largely against his will, performing tasks with deadened emotion. He is intriguing to watch.

The relationship between George Lyle (Bill Skinner) and prison guard Elin (Annes Elwy) is fatefully believable. Brennan threatens them both with exposure unless they enact his plan, inevitably involving drugs. The way tension is built up by the searing music is nicely done (though a little too overbearing in episode five), especially in the final episode, where things come to a head in dramatic fashion. Not edge-of-the-seat thriller but still an enjoyable twist or two to keep glued to the screen. The bilingual nature of the show also adds a touch of finesse which plays into the reality of Wales’ prisons. It means overall that Bariau falls somewhere between Time’s grittiness and Screw’s humour: late-night soap opera, if you will, meant not as an insult but very much a compliment.

Watch the full series on BBC iPlayer here.

Reviewed by
Gareth Williams

Review, Alegría: In A New Light, Cirque du Soleil, Royal Albert Hall, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

I wanted to see more of this stalwart of the circus world. I’m amazed by the number of people who turn up to see them. Now, even with Alegría one of Cirque du Soleil’s older shows has been revised and dubbed ‘In a New Light’.

Whilst I remained impressed by the international effort from a range of the circus spectrum, the novelty can wear off quite quickly. The clowns were just that little too childish, the only thing for the adults was a very suggestive cleaning of a gun motif which went on for years. There is universal humor, though the British like things a bit more angular. Flame eaters wowed with their circular fury. Ariel acts dazzled with grace and spirit. The singers belt out the same unrelenting refrain of ALEGRÍA just a little too much, though other songs are sweet and loving. Even the clowns made fun of this when the title song came up on their radio during a clean up of paper snow spread across the promenade and stalls.

Director Franco Dragone, with creative director Gilles Ste-Croix have created a show which would have held more weight back in its day. The costumes by Dominique Lemieux recall the golden era of fashion not quite circus eras but Art-Deco, Gothic and more. Composer René Dupéré wrote an award winning plush score not afraid to get really soupy or even rocky heavy. I realised that the acts are very similar from other shows, I guess it’s just the trappings which change. The athletic prowess  ever wants…it’s the pacing which struggles. A hock story about a crystal king is very slight and the clowns play a role in this, with little of so called plot development.

Most will find lots to love in Alegría: In A New Light. I think i’ll take a break for a while from the all consuming circus spectacle.

Alegría: In A New Light runs at the Royal Albert Hall till 3rd March, then on tour in Spain.

Review, ENO, The Barber of Seville, London Coliseum by James Ellis

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A strike action from the chorus and orchestra of English National Opera would halt my plans to see their amazing Handmaid’s Tale once more. I’m all for their fist raising and standing their ground. They have been through a wringer for some time and it is simply not fair.

In a revival of the marvelous Jonathan Miller, sharply done now thanks to Peter Relton, this classic, faithful Barber is a delight. It’s touching to see the company who have only ever given their all do a piece like this, which is one of the opera world’s most cherished jewels. Rossini takes the famous Figaro story and turns it into a marvelous encounter. The arias are fun, the humor still holds up and the story still grabs.

Conductor Roderick Cox makes the orchestra glisten. The bouncy nature and telling melodies are all brought out on display here. Count Almaviva is Innocent Masuku having fun and is vocally grounded, his past with ENO noteworthy. Charles Rice is a fine Figaro, not the best I’ve ever heard but he looks the part and his comic timing is race car swift as expected. Anna Devin as Rosina, the wealthy heiress is perfect and her arias are a treat of the evening. Her costumes from Tanya McCallin are finely crafted and could easily be seen in a Seville of the era. Curiously I expected to see a few fans in the show, or at least one on Rosina. Perhaps too expensive?

Simon Bailey is in turbo mode as Doctor Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian and foil to the Count in stopping him from courting the young lady. Some great inflections and slapstick made the role great and his voice is balletic for his absurdly quick aria. Don Basilio from Alastair Miles gives off something of the Child Catcher, with a ridiculously large hat to boot. His own aria, arguably the best out of the whole opera, is also a thrill and his presence added to the wit, especially when mucking around with Bailey. Berta, the maid, is from Lesley Garrtett. Though mostly in one half decent aria, Lesley lost some of the tune during the high bits. A minor blip in an otherwise fabulous offering. The hair raising end of act one was worth the trip alone…go and support ENO!!

The Barber of Seville runs at London Coliseum till 29th February 2024

Review, Connor Fogel, Tabernacle, Cardiff by James Ellis

It is a rare thing where I review a friend’s work. Though some opportunities shouldn’t be ignored. Connor Fogel is proving his chops as a music director, pianist and all round dandy. I remained quite touched by his playing on the piano. The choice of programme cleverly demonstrated his talents, Connor has also covered more experimental plains.

Connor knows my thoughts on Chopin, though his Boléro was rather charming. The novelty of Spain lingers, the composers eloquence always on show. Debussy’s Ballade was a special choice, I found the exotic mingling with France to be beguiling. Connor fluttering and depth in the chromatic plain made it sound a breeze, as if a trifle. Quite splendid.

A selection of Rachmaninoff miniatures: two of the Études-Tableaux, Barcarolle and one of the Preludes followed. You may not need massive hands when playing Rachmaninoff, but it certainly would help (the Russian composer had famously large hands). Connor finds many great things in these pieces: the post-Romantic sensibilities, daring tonal leaps all over the keys and maintaining the joy and a heady passion in the pages. Connor has reminded me of the greatness of Rachmaninoff, which I may have dismissed in the past. Though seeing him play the work he adores is proof of this.

The last billing was Liszt and his Andante finale und Marsch aus der Oper König Alfred von Joachim Raff. A lesser known charmer from the eccentric Hungarian composer, Liszt found his secretary and composer Joachim Raff wrote wonderful operas, which got little notoriety. Liszt cheeky and highly attractive work commands more attention, as with his other famous opera transcriptions. The stirring bel canto opening leads into the bouncy march, filled with glissandi, a new ideas at the era. Hats off to Connor for finding these curious rarities that remained a crowd pleaser.

A decent encore of King & I, was a testament to Connor’s stage musical work, the other half to his career in music. I’m glad I went to support a friend, one with oodles of talent.

Connor performs the same recital at Bristol Cathedral on Tue 16th April 2024.