Sunday, 23 December 2018

Review of 2018: Part 2 – Live

This part focuses on LIVE things: mostly music and theatre. Part one (the best part) was about books, you can read that here. Without additional ado, here goes:

2018 had its challenges, but its artistic compensations too. If my seven-year-old self could have seen me in the staff box as Morrissey played 'Everyday Is Like Sunday', he would have first asked whether I'd already retired as a footballer, then asked me to explain exactly how my job was a job, and then felt curiously proud. It was a pinch-yourself moment, of which I've been lucky to have many. I may not see eye-to-eye with Mozza on Anne-Marie Waters, but we'll always have Viva Hate. Most of it, anyway. Not 'Bengali in Platforms'. I saw Lynne Ramsey talk about Morvern Callar (her reaction to seeing the movie for the first time since release, "What a weird fucking film"), Sally Rooney talk about Conversations with Friends, and Tom Courtenay get heckled by opponents of the 1960 Education Act during a seminar on Woodfall's kitchen sink cycle. The world seems to have moved on from stand-up Bridget Christie, judging by the words of friends and the empty seats, which is a shame, as she is better than ever and better than anyone else. I was invited to Edith Bowman's Soundtracking with Lenny Abrahamson, lured to the 2018 Panzini Lectures – blank space has never been so much fun – and dragged others to Elis James and John Robins' book tour. Is watching a man drunkenly planking while his friend recreates the whole of Freddie Mercury's Live Aid set in mime entertaining? I'm still not sure, but I think it is.


Gigs of the year:

This man was not in attendance.

10. A Celebration of John Williams/Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert (Royal Albert Hall) – Don't worry, they won't all be things that took place in my office and for which I was responsible for the PR. Just three of the first four, and then the #2. The Williams show was originally 'An Evening with John Williams' and then became 'An Evening without John Williams' as he was regrettably checked into hospital while preparing for the show in London. This created an awful lot of work for the Hall's handsome Press Manager, but we found enough Blitz Spirit that wasn't already being used for Brexit to rally round and win the day. I say 'we', it was mostly the London Symphony Orchestra and substitute conductor Dirk Brossé. It was a hell of a night: poignant, nostalgic, life-affirming, with one great piece of music after another: a triumphant Superman, a lilting, heartbreaking Schindler's List. No-one sounds quite like this orchestra. They were back the following month to accompany the original Star Wars (well, the '97 version) in full: as the two suns rose over Tatooine, the LSO rose to meet them.

9. HAIM (Alexandra Palace) – Being a HAIM fan is like being in a cool gang where everyone is really nice. Support came from Maggie Rogers, who rocked up on stage wearing a cape and got increasingly less interesting.

8. The Snowman (Royal Albert Hall) – I watch this every Christmas. For me it is Christmas, though it was only this year that I realised its ending is a metaphor for Christmas as a grown-up – or at least can be. I watched it with thousands of children, and the Royal Philharmonic playing the music live, and the moment when it becomes clear (after a little ingenious use of perspective) that The Snowman and Young David Bowie are flying was as exalting as ever. The kids loved the show, though despite the neat jokes (pineapple nose!), the bit they laughed at most was when the boy gets changed out of his pyjamas and you see his bum. (Technically this was the second half of a show, but it was on in the middle of the afternoon and I do have to do some work.)

This is actually from the 2016 performance, don't tell anyone.

7. Guy Barker's Big Band Christmas (Royal Albert Hall) – This is one of my favourite things we do, and now an indispensable part of my Christmas. Paloma Faith turned up in a Big Hat, but as ever the incomparable Vanessa Haynes stole the show. She is our Aretha and I still don't understand how she isn't the biggest star in the world.

Still not quite sure about this publicity shot tbh.

6. Paul Brady and Andy Irvine (Barbican Centre) – It's not every day you get to see one of your all-time favourite records played live, long after you thought any such opportunity must have passed. The first half was deep cuts and obscurities, the second half that immortal debut album, featuring Irvine's 'Bonny Woodhall' and Brady's immortal 'Arthur McBride', up there with the best seven minutes of my year.

Somewhere in there is Bjӧrk.

5. All Points East: Bjӧrk and Father John Misty (Victoria Park) – I returned to the fray of the 'outdoor gig' after six years, irresistibly tempted by the two headliners. Neither were as good as the last time I saw them (Bjӧrk in 2016, Misty last year), but those were some unscalable bars. Her absurd sets, magical soundscapes and conga of flautists, and his stripped-back singer-songwriter shtick made for a lovely night. Highlights: 'Isobel' and 'Holy Shit'. And the queues for the loos weren't too bad at all.

4. David Ford presents Milk and Cookies 2018 (Bush Hall) – With #s 8 and 7, think of this as the third part of an informal trilogy of Christmas musical traditions, in which Eastbourne's finest digs out the charity buckets, lays off the songs about dashed dreams and macro-economics, and cranks up his guitar for a succession of unmissable covers. This year's highlights included a heartbreaking piano-led take on Lionel Richie's 'Hello', a gorgeous 'God Only Knows' and an uproarious 'Go Your Own Way', before he made his peace with 'YMCA' (once his punchline in a muddled interview with Rolling Stone) in thrilling, climactic fashion. There was space for his own material too, including a metal-ish freakout to 'Requiem'.

3. Courtney Barnett (Brixton Academy) was blistering and brilliant: intense and heavy and heart-open, warts-and-all joyous. Go get her new record – her best yet – and I'll see you there next time.

2. Nine Inch Nails (Royal Albert Hall) – Fourteen years ago I came down from Manchester on the £1 Megabus to see my first gig in London: Nine Inch Nails at Brixton Academy. This time I got to promote the show. That's not a humblebrag, it's just a brag. I knew this would be great, but not how confrontational and brutal and majestic the new material would sound against the old. Amidst songs from The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, the absolute stand-out was a relentless, furious 'Copy of A'. Sensational light show too: snapping timers casting rhythmic, perverse and iconic shadows.

1. Susanne Sundfør: Music for People in Trouble AV (Barbican Centre) – She just gets better and better. A suite of 11 songs, staged with a deceptively tricksy, pixie-ish sense of fun (the whole band dressed alike in hooded black capes, behind a mesh of projections, so Sundfør will be apparently sat behind a guitar at stage left, then pop up at the piano on the far side), but with a greater emotional heft than any gig I have been to in years. The album, and the show, begin with the quiet naïve simplicity of 'Mantra' and build, via 'Undercover' (the song of the decade), to the towering, escalating wall of sound that is 'Mountaineers'. An utterly singular experience that for an hour takes you out of the world, and then allows you to live in it a little more happily.


Theatre of the year...

... is quite a grand title considering I've only seen a dozen things, but here are my six favourites.

6. Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre) – My artistic appreciation of this production was hampered by having an overloaded kidney and a back spasm, meaning that Caesar was the only person who came out of this play worse than me... but through wincing eyes and a cloud of codeine I found much to love, especially the heartstopping 'Et tu, Brute?' set-piece, a sequence so profoundly moving that it has led me to stop using the phrase as a joke. The acting was variable and the Trumpian trappings a fairly unconvincing gimmick, but at its best it made Shakespeare new.

5. Witness for the Prosecution (County Hall) – As purely entertaining as anything I saw this year: a cleverly-staged production of the Agatha Christie story (memorably filmed by Billy Wilder in 1957): never profound or touched by genius, but remarkably enjoyable. It seems I can live without genius now and then.

4. Guys and Dolls in Concert (Royal Albert Hall) – I'm glad this was good, as I spent about a month working intensively on press for the show and we convinced lots of people to attend. Its abridged nature slightly undercut the play's emotional impact, but the numbers were astonishingly good. Clive Rowe's reprisal of his Olivier-winning role as Nicely Nicely meant that a show-stopping 'Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat' was guaranteed, Adrian Lester's 'Luck Be a Lady' was great fun and director Stephen Mear's take on the 'Crapshooters' Ballet' was inspired, but it was Australian cabaret star Meow Meow who absolutely stole the show, shrinking the Hall's notably large stage with her mammoth talent, presence and charisma.

It's-a-me, Iago!

3. Othello (The Globe), in which Mark Rylance (as Iago), manages to play the first half of the play almost exclusively for laughs. Genuinely. Rather than wickedness, Iago's evasiveness commences (at least in appearance) as a kind of shameless, confounded innocence – and his plotting as a clever caper – somehow dragging us to his side. Then he starts to drip cruel and complex villainy, all the time looking like Super Mario. Sheila Atim, as a bullish, knowing Emelia, is excellent in support too. The best five quid I've spent since the Merlin Premier League 1993-4 sticker album.

2. The Sea Wall (The Old Vic) – Andrew Scott stands on an otherwise empty stage for half an hour and breaks our hearts. Theatre at its most primal, modern and moving.

1. The Writer (Almeida Theatre) – Oh to write like this. Ella Hickson's confounding, irresistible, meta-textual exploration of gender and sexuality begins with a two-hander between a misogynistic but superficially reasonable theatre director (Samuel West) and a feminist audience member (Lara Rossi), then snaps back to reveal that these are just characters, and that writer Romola Garai is going somewhere else: perhaps to a quasi-psychedelic lesbian rural idyll (complete with a subsequent, sarcastic post-modern deconstruction), perhaps to the brink of masculinity and beyond, attaining power and control at the expense of her identity. It is so entertaining, so funny, so clever and so packed with ideas that it's exhilarating, but it's also utterly haunting: a profoundly disquieting and disorientating piece of theatre. And it even acknowledges that preaching to a small, committed choir in an Islington theatre is a complete waste of time. Maybe I do need some genius now and again.


Exhibitions get just a brief mention this year, as I didn't go to many. My favourite was Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A, which included genuine bits of the Titanic, alongside a celebration of the Normandie's hilarious levels of excess (perhaps not so hilarious during the Depression), and a crash course in liner design. The Great British Seaside, at the National Maritime Museum, was also a lot of fun, bringing together the work of four very different photographers, each preoccupied with a vanishing culture, whether capturing its inherent quirkiness (Martin Parr), its poetry, offbeat dignity and key to national character (Tony Ray-Jones), or its scale if you put a camera a long way away (I wasn't as into Simon Roberts).


Thanks for reading. Part three will be about FILMS.

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