Blakeson - Writer

Cardiff-based film, theatre and gig reviews, cultural ramblings, whingeing, short films, etc.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

"The Hunting Of The Snark" / "Star Trek Beyond"

Sherman Cymru’s family offering for the summer holidays is an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense mini-epic “The Hunting Of The Snark”, with a lively cast of six, including on-stage musician. Great fun, with lots of topical references, although the fact that it focuses on the relationship between the Banker and his son (a character invented by writer Annabel Wigoder) means that any grander themes with which Carroll may have been toying seem to get lost.

"The Hunting Of The Snark" (photo: Mark Douet)

The weekend saw a visit to the National Museum of Wales, and the exhibition focussing on the Battle of Mametz Wood during World War 1, at which many Welsh soldiers fell. There is much memorabilia, poetry and art, most strikingly the painting “The Charge of the Welsh at Mametz Wood, 1916”, by Christopher Williams. Also showing is an exhibition of the work of legendary children’s book illustrator Quentin Blake which, seemed barely less dark, given his long association with the morally complex work of Roald Dahl; his illustrations for Michael Rosen’s “Sad Book” are particularly stark. Also somewhat downbeat, although inspirational in intent, is Shimon Attie’s vivid video-photographic tribute to the people of contemporary Aberfan, which was famously struck by tragedy in 1966.

The Charge of the Welsh at Mametz Wood, 1916”, by Christopher Williams

 Star Trek Beyond”, even though its release is tinged with tragedy following the awful death of Anton Yelchin (“Chekov”), is every bit as heartening as its immediate predecessors, despite the replacement of director J.J. Abrams by Justin “Fast And Furious” Lin. Relationships are foregrounded, as the U.S.S. Enterprise, having been lured to a distant planet, is attacked and the crew separated. Idris Elba plays the villain whose motivation (somewhat topically) is to subvert the Federation’s ethos of peaceful co-operation. The visuals are predictably spectacular, but it is the warmth between the crew-members which leaves the most lasting impression.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

My Month on Amazon Prime

Having accidentally signed up to a month-long free trial of Amazon Prime, I decided to make the most of it; not only catching up with music old (Bowie, Kraftwerk, Frank Zappa) and less old (Christine & The Queens, Richard Ashcroft, Laura Mvula, Chvrches, Royal Blood), but also checking out some recent films which I never got round to seeing in the cinema. These being:

  • Paddington (Paul King) - very amusing, warm-hearted take on Michael Bond’s Peruvian bear with an emphasis on inclusiveness, and excellent performances, especially from Sally Hawkins as Mrs Brown

  • The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) – visually impressive spin on Thurber (and Danny Kaye) but sloppily scripted and not as interesting as it should be

  • Bill (Richard Bracewell) – the “Horrible Histories” version of Shakespeare’s life; reliably witty and irreverent

  • It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) – much-praised indie-teen horror with an unsubtle STD/haunting metaphor, which is well executed but fails to stand up to logical scrutiny

  • The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller) – very clever tribute to the imaginativeness unleashed by the classic toy bricks, only slightly marred by sentimentality towards the end

  • Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas) – a seamless adjunct to the TV series, with many of the cast returning, primarily Kirsten Bell, relishing a disappointingly rare juicy leading role

  • Live, Die, Repeat aka Edge Of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) –  Groundhog Day meets Independence Day, with Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, and a largely British supporting cast; surprisingly funny, even if it does sink into hard-to-fathom sci-fi action visuals

  • Begin Again (John Carney) – featuring the same plot as Carney’s other films, Once and Sing Street, in which a man finds joy in music thanks to a beautiful woman, but none the worse for that; with winning performances from Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, it even manages to survive a prominent role for that bloke from Maroon 5

  • Carol (Todd Haynes) – a beautiful if somewhat leisurely version of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian-themed novel, with cleverly contrasting lead performances from ice-cold Cate Blanchett and naïve Rooney Mara, and the author’s cynical view of human nature dialled down a notch

  • Mr Holmes (Bill Condon) – a twinkly Ian McKellen as the aged Sherlock Holmes haunted by an unsatisfactorily concluded case; focussing on the man more than the detective, it is more likeable than many reviews suggested

  • A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour) – vaguely feminist-themed black and white tale of drugs and vampirism; moody and intentionally opaque

  • Girlhood (Céline Sciamma) – a rare look at the lives of French African girl-gang-members; compelling and gritty, even if they do all look like supermodels


  • The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi) – self-consciously stylised tale of teen crime, told in long takes, and entirely without dialogue, set as it is amongst students at a Ukrainian boarding-school for the deaf; very accomplished but extremely bleak

In addition to these, there were the exciting, exclusive “TV” series – a blank-faced Riley Keough transitioning into high-class prostitution in The Girlfriend Experience; season 1 of high-tech nerd-anarchism-and-paranoia drama Mr Robot; and most impressive of all, the first two seasons of Transparent, in which Jeffrey Tambor’s retired professor comes out as transsexual, and manages not to be the most confused or confusing member of his family.

Plus, I got a discount on a Kindle Fire tablet, which was also handy.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

"Sing Street"

Sing Street” is the Dublin-set story of fifteen-year-old Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who, partly to cope with the stress of moving to a new school due to his family’s difficult circumstances, and partly to impress a girl – Raphina, an aspiring model, played by Lucy Boynton – decides to put together a band. Since it is 1985, he is heavily influenced by the flashy electro-futurism of Top Of The Pops favourites Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, before things get a little more emotional.

The firm hand of John Carney – the man behind the delightful “Once” – is on the tiller, so the mechanics of music-making are cleverly dealt with; but issues such as marital breakdown, bullying and abusive priests also get a look-in before being superseded by teen romance. The songs – co-written by Carney and bona fide genius Gary Clark (of Danny Wilson fame) - are spot-on, whether they be pop pastiches or serious statements of intent.

The young cast, especially the leads, are charming – although there is a bit of Dublin mumbling which is quite hard to penetrate. Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy (star of “The Commitments”, an obvious touchstone) are reliable presences as Cosmo’s warring parents, and Jack Reynor is particularly poignant as his stoner big brother, who seems to come close to finding some much-needed redemption of his own by acting as guru.

Ultimately a tale about the importance of holding on to your dreams, “Sing Street” isn’t quite the feel-good comedy drama I had been expecting, since it delves into some dark corners. It is a highly rewarding watch, however; and it’s worth once more noting how good the tunes are.

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sigur Ros in Bristol

My birthday treat this year, coinciding with the disastrous EU referendum, was a trip to Bristol to catch a pre-Glastonbury appearance from long-time favourites Sigur Ros. The venue was the Canon’s Marsh Amphitheatre, an outdoor space in the lively harbour-side area of the city (fairly central, but inevitably I managed to get lost along the way). Mercifully, the rain stayed away.

In support was James Canty, a Liverpool-based singer-songwriter of a darkly romantic bent, whose set veered from folky acoustic guitar balladry to ranting electro wig-outs. There were some technical issues, but he displayed great charm, and was fairly well-received by the impatient crowd.

The headliners came on just after 9pm, and kicked off in ambient mode with “Óveður”, the song which recently sound-tracked their Slow TV Youtube film of a road-trip around their native Iceland; then came the magic moment when they played my absolute favourite song, the unnaturally lovely “Starálfur” – deeply moving. The early part of the set focussed on more familiar material, like “Sæglópur” and “Vaka” (although not their biggest hit, “Hoppipolla”), before settling into a Mogwai-esque “quiet-loud” groove – alongside the beauty (at one point, the seagulls seemed to start joining in, to the amusement of my fellow concert-goers) started there was a surprising amount of rocking out, accompanied by a stunning light-show. With only three band-members on stage, much of the music was inevitably on tape (or its electronic equivalent); but singer Jonsi’s ethereal, choirboy vocals still managed to connect; one could even forgive the fact that he spent most of the time playing his guitar with a violin-bow. They were on-stage for just under ninety minutes, including encores, but I don’t think I could have coped, emotionally, with much more. A remarkable band. 

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

"The Last Mermaid" / Dance Roads 2016

Aside from the glorious evening at “Make An Aria”, my only experience of the inaugural Cardiff Festival of Voice was the assignment to review local luminary Charlotte Church’s  first foray into music theatre: “The Last Mermaid” at the Wales Millennium Centre  Taking the lead role in this ecologically themed interpretation of the Little Mermaid story, she was in excellent voice, the visuals were remarkable, and the melodies very strong. A little more narrative clarity might have helped, but I can envisage it having a life beyond its short Cardiff run.
The Last Mermaid

Earlier that week I was invited to attend Dance Roads, an international evening of “challenging” modern dance from across Europe at Chapter. Part of the package was the opportunity to meet with some of the performers in the middle of the two-day showing, in order to discuss the role of the critic when it comes to dance; especially when most of us, especially in Wales, have no background in the form. It was a frank bur civilised session, which I attempted to write up for the British Theatre Guide; I think I managed not to betray my betray my excitement at having been in the presence of naked people (during the performance, rather than the discussion).

Cristina Lilienfeld (Dance Roads 2016)
Meanwhile, work has begun in earnest on the migration-themed project which I’m working on with Project Fio; actors have been cast and a venue secured. All very exciting.

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Friday, June 03, 2016

"Make An Aria"

Back in November, I was forwarded an e-mail from Michael McCarthy, Artistic Director of Music Theatre Wales, seeking writers to take part in their latest Make An Aria project, exploring the topic of immigration. This was in connection with their up-coming production of “The Golden Dragon” – an opera about asylum-seekers in Germany.

I was aware of the company’s pioneering work in the area of contemporary opera, and of their most recent aria programme, focussing on World War 1. Knowing little about opera (although I did go and see “Porgy And Bess” at the Wales Millennium Centre a few years ago, and “Turandot” at the New Theatre several years earlier), and always keen to try new things, I leapt at the opportunity to learn more.

A few days later, I found myself in a room at the Royal Welsh College of Music And Drama, with a bunch of other writers, several students of composition along with composer John Hardy (their head of department), Michael McCarthy and Michael Rafferty of MTW, and representatives from the Welsh Refugee Council. We were given a brief introduction to the concept of the aria, as well as some actual facts and figures about the asylum system as it applies to Wales, before hearing the remarkable testimony of Mustafa, a former soldier who has been forced to leave Gambia.

There was then a clever “speed-dating” exercise, where writers and composers interacted briefly whilst discussing imagery, following which we were put into pairs and, basically, told to get on with creating an original aria.
"Speed-dating" at RWCMD (photo: Music Theatre Wales)

Within a week, I had presented a first draft of a one-page libretto entitled “In Limbo” to my lucky collaborator, Carlijn Metselaar. We had already agreed that our take on the issue of immigration should be broadly positive, and that the writing of political theorist Hannah Arendt might be a good starting-point; I found a quote of hers about a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany which I borrowed for the opening line. Our protagonist is a universal character, meditating on his statelessness; I tried to keep the text simple, direct and fluent.

Over the next few months, via e-mail communications and a handful of meetings and consultations (from which I took the useful note that it is hard to make the word “limbo” sound serious in an operatic context), our aria magically came into being.

The climax finally arrived on June 2nd.

I first heard the piece during the afternoon rehearsal, with singer Rodney Clarke accompanied by Ian Shaw on piano; frankly I was lost for words. Carlijn had sent me the score, but with my primary-school-level sight-reading skills, I could only glean a vague idea of the melody. Finally getting a sense of the way in which she brilliantly used shifting time-signatures to signal the changes in mood throughout the piece – a kind of journey from a dark place to an optimistic one – with my words given life by a powerful, dramatic voice, I was profoundly moved.

The public masterclass, later that evening, was a bit of a blur.

Each writer/composer pairing (the others were Pey Pey Oh & Daniel Soley; Eric Ngalle Charles & Joe Shrimpling; Wanda O’Connor & Andrew Wallace; and Jeanne Jones & Charlotte Eaton-Jones) was called up on stage to introduce their aria, which was then performed (the other singers being Llio Evans and Martha Jones), prior to Stuart MacRae (composer of MTW’s recent production “The Devil Inside”) briefly interrogating the creative team, and bringing his experienced ear to bear on the interaction between text, music and performance and ways in which this might be enhanced.

Stuart MacRae (photo: Music Theatre Wales)

The show ended with Zimbabwean performer Bevin Magama accompanying himself on the mbira as he told the story of The Rat and The Porcupine – itself, vaguely asylum-themed.

A beautiful experience – transcendent, even.

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Friday, May 27, 2016

"Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink" by Elvis Costello

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing InkUnfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elvis Costello is one of my few personal heroes, in terms of creativity at least. I'm not sure I'd want to meet him in person; this masterful autobiography is the perfect alternative.

"I've absorbed almost everything I know from listening to records; the rest came from trial and error." This quote comes near the end of a lengthy, detailed account of a life dominated by an obsession with music. Flitting with apparent randomness back and forth through time, the man christened Declan MacManus writes with clarity and directness, although idiosyncratic turns of phrase abound ("I tried to find the corridor between the bedchamber and the war room").

His late father, singer/musician Ross MacManus is a dominant presence; he left the family to go adventuring with music and women, an example which Elvis seems to have followed. The heart of the book is Costello's account of his relatively brief period of pop stardom in the late '70s and early '80s; his many infidelities, and other indiscretions, are discreetly confessed.

We learn much about his upbringing, and his first and third marriages; the nature of his long relationship with Cait O'Riordan is only hinted at. The love for his musical collaborators and those of his heroes (e.g. Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint) with whom he has managed to connect is plain; the musicality of Attractions bass-player Bruce Thomas is extravagantly praised, but there are no titbits about their broken friendship.

For the true fan, the most fascinating element is his description of his songwriting process; the collage-style construction of lyrics, and the "borrowing" of the music which surrounds them. I possess the vast majority of the albums he's made, but there were many references which will elude all but the most obsessive completist.

There is little here for the casual reader; but for devotees, this is pure gold.

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