Stories and announcements

13Jul. 2017.

A Very Special Centenary

On 6 April 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson abandoned neutrality to join Britain and its allies at war with Germany. The following day, George M Cohan wrote a song titled ‘Over There’. It took him barely two hours. Despite not being published until June or publicly aired until the autumn of that year, it became the most popular song of the First World War, selling more than 2 million copies. A century later, it will be performed here at Wilton’s and is the title of the London English Song Festival’s annual celebration of words and music through song and poetry.

This year’s festival is the second in LESF’s series commemorating the First World War and follows 2016’s Songs of the Somme. The festival was founded in 2011 by Artistic Director, award-winning pianist and conductor, William Vann. Conscious of the English tendency to be reticent about sounding our own trumpet (sorry, couldn’t resist that), William responded by creating this platform for promoting and celebrating the wide and varied repertoire of English Song in London and throughout the UK. The festivals present lesser known and performed works alongside all-time classics, art songs alongside popular music hall ditties and dramatised performances by marrying the music with readings and images. They have collaborated with organisations such as the Imperial War Museum and attract internationally renowned artists such as James Gilchrist, Dame Ann Murray, Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside. Some of you may recall that Simon Callow took the role of guest reader for Songs of the Somme and may have read his blog post about the show.

The power of popular music, song in particular, is undeniable. Long before people gathered round a radio or television, before computers, the virtual world and social media were dreamt of, families, friends and communities clustered around pianos and they sang together. As a consequence, by the turn of the Twentieth Century, sheet music sales were booming as every front parlour, every pub or bar, every church, village and civic hall rang with the sounds of the latest tunes. Communal singing, especially in times of crisis, helps to forge common bonds and galvanise people into action. No surprise, then, that song lyrics can so accurately reflect social or political trends and can so easily be used for propaganda. This is clearly illustrated by the way that American sheet music  - with over 35,000 songs copyrighted during the war – perfectly maps changing attitudes in the lead up to 1917. Initial anti-war sentiments were expressed in songs such as ‘Uncle Sam won’t go to War’ and ‘I didn’t raise my Boy to be a Soldier’ . As events unfolded which made it clear that America could no longer remain neutral, those sentiments gave way to the likes of ‘When Yankee Doodle Learns to Parlez-vous Francais’ and ‘Hang the Kaiser to a Sour Apple tree’. Plus, of course, the marvellous (and rather less bellicose) ‘Over There!’.

Meanwhile, in England, a movement christened the ‘English Musical Renaissance’ by music critics had been burgeoning since the turn of the Twentieth Century. Rather than the then dominant style of German Lied, this nurtured a very home-grown song tradition, one which endured through both world wars. In particular, composers such as Hubert Parry, George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney were setting the poetry of writers such as Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and poet of an earlier war, A E Housman. These were poems driven by romanticism, sentimentality and idealisation of the pastoral, rich in rural imagery. This resulted in verse which was overwhelmingly preoccupied with England and redolent of Englishness. Small wonder that this was extremely popular during WW1. These songs may not have had the mass appeal of ‘Over There!’ but there is no doubt that they heightened national feeling and contributed effectively to wartime propaganda. Young Gurney signed up in February 1915. His yearning for the beauty of his native Gloucestershire countryside is a constant theme throughout his wartime works and he often compared the safety of his personal pastoral idyll to the hell of the trenches. He was not alone. Think of Canadian John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields', Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and Edward Thomas’s ‘Lights Out’, to name a few.

Ivor Gurney

Such are the works and themes explored by Over There! through music, song and poetry. And, to really get you in the mood, there will even be a selection of original 1917 recordings of some of the year’s most popular songs, playing before the performance begins.

William Vann will be accompanying an acclaimed group of singers and musicians: mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, tenor Nick Pritchard, bass-baritone Craig Colclough and Louise Williams on viola. They will be joined by a very special guest reader, William K Gorrie. William studied singing, acting and dancing in his youth, before being called for National Service in 1959. He then served a further 17 years as a professional soldier whilst continuing to act and direct in theatre and light entertainment. William now resides at The Royal Hospital Chelsea as one of London’s iconic Chelsea Pensioners. When William Vann directed Britten's Noyes Fludde at the Royal Hospital’s Wren Chapel in 2013, William Gorrie played the Voice of God so they are both thoroughly delighted to be working together again.

William K Gorrie

Education is at the heart of LESF’s work and, with generous support from the Concordia Foundation and The Foyle Foundation, there will be two educational matinées for children, which will include an introduction from William Vann and a Q&A session with the artists; the team describe the 2016 Q&A as one of their greatest educational highlights to date! LESF also run an annual children’s competition  to design the educational progamme cover and the winners will be announced at the matinée shows.

Over There! runs 18 to 20 July with educational matinées on Wednesday and Thursday. You can book tickets here.

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25Jun. 2017.

A Taste of Hong Kong

Think of Hong Kong. What springs to mind? What sights? What sounds? Whether you know the city intimately or have only glimpsed this vibrant, cosmopolitan hub in magazines and on-screen, Hong Kong Episodes will surprise and delight you.

Hong Kong Episodes was created for the 2015 biennial World Cultures Festival, a celebration of the rich and diversified cultures around the world through music, dance and theatre. For their 10th anniversary festival, The Leisure and Cultural Services Department of Hong Kong felt it was rather incongruous to present artists from many other countries yet none from the host city itself. So they commissioned a work from two of Hong Kong’s foremost native musicians and composers: Fung Lam and Teriver Cheung.

Fung Lam has yet to reach the age of 40, yet has a profile at least as distinguished as many his senior. His works have been performed by internationally renowned orchestras such as the BBC Symphony, London Symphony and Tokyo Philharmonic. In 2007 he became the youngest Chinese composer, and the only one from Hong Kong, to be commissioned by the legendary BBC Concert Orchestra; his Unlocking, inspired by an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was featured in BBC Radio 3’s ‘Discovering Music’. Another work, Endless Forms, was premiered at the 2012 BBC Proms.

Fung Lam

Teriver Cheung is a world-renowned jazz guitarist and composer with a difference. Influenced by classical piano training from the age of five, he has developed a distinctive style of playing and composing, which has won him great acclaim in the highest jazz circles. After studies at home and in the USA, Teriver has toured extensively in Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico and America and appearing at just about every jazz festival in the world. After moving to New York City in 2009, he became an important figure on the jazz scene, as a bandleader as well guesting with influential musicians such as Latin Grammy Award winner Eddie Gomez, Billy Drummond and Jeremy Monteiro. Teriver has guested on many recordings, made his own albums and owns his own record label.

Teriver Cheung

Put the two of them together and what do you get? Fung explains that as soon as they put their creative heads and hearts together, they agreed on the essential elements of Hong Kong Episodes, one of which was the reversal of the usual scenario. “We wanted to include visual elements but in a similar role to the soundtrack to a movie – it should add something to the overall experience but not overtake the main focus of the music. We also wanted to divide the concert into a number of ‘episodes’ to present a virtual 24-hour day in Hong Kong. In the original production, we presented 12 episodes at two-hour intervals, but in this new 2017 touring version, we have eight episodes at three-hour intervals.” They also knew that they did not want to portray the stereotypical view of a city comprised exclusively of high-rise buildings and teeming streets. “We wanted to re-present Hong Kong in a slightly different light.  Familiar places (to locals, at least) would be presented visually from different artistic angles which, when combined with original music, creates an interpretation that is strangely familiar yet refreshingly different.” That refreshingly different view is seen through the eyes of architect Anthony Lai, who adds an extra dimension to the audience's experience.

Snapshots of just a few of Anthony Lai's striking images

Musically, this is very much an equal partnership with half of the pieces written by Fung and half by Teriver. "My music is often more contemplative in nature, leaving space for the jazz musicians to improvise.  Teriver’s music is often more vibrant and uplifting.  I think it makes a nice contrast.”

It most certainly does and you can savour the very special flavours of Hong Kong Episodes on 7 and 8 July.

To keep you in the mood, flamboyant pianist Fingerman (aka Kajeng Wong) will lead an exciting trio of performances from the innovative young Hong Kong musicians of Music Lab on 10 and 11 July. Book for both Hong Kong Episodes and Music Lab to take advantage of our 20% discount offer. Both shows are presented by Hong Kong Arts Development Council and Music Lab is also a co-poduction with Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, London.
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25May. 2017.

Food for Thought

‘Been there, seen it, done it’ is an expression that could well have been coined with Elizabeth Pisani in mind.

Born in the US, raised and educated in Europe and Hong Kong, Elizabeth speaks French, Spanish and Indonesian and modestly describes herself as able to 'fake' Mandarin. She has an MA in Classical Chinese from Oxford, an MSc in Medical Demography from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a PhD in Infectious Disease Epidemiology. She began her career as a foreign correspondent. Her work for Reuters, The Economist and Asia Times thrust her into Tiananmen Square as the troops invaded, into Aceh to cover the civil war and, at less risk to life and limb, into Hong Kong to investigate the impact of the 1986 stock market crash on nightclub hostesses. Her zest and curiosity have prompted her to live, work and travel extensively, particularly throughout the Far East. She has written books, as well as countless essays, research papers and reports and has delivered two TED talks. She swapped one high-level career for another when she became an epidemiologist and insists that the skills are the same: find the right people; ask them the right questions; organise and analyse the information intelligently; communicate it to people who can do something about it. She has advised health ministries and organisations the world over and now runs her own public health consultancy. Here is a woman who has even taken tea with a stranger’s dead granny, for heaven’s sake. But she has never channelled her zeal to spread the word about what really drives decision making in global health, and the mismatch between need and resource, into creating a musical show. Until now.

In the autumn of 2014, Elizabeth dropped in, on a whim, to see Grand Union Orchestra’s spectacular Undream’d Shores at the Hackney Empire. Witnessing the phenomenal energy GUO generated around the weighty subject of migration scratched at an itch she’d been harbouring for a while. After years studying the data, Elizabeth knows that the diseases causing most suffering around the world are rarely those receiving the lion’s share of attention or funding. Yet the health establishment’s answer is to keep throwing ever more technical evidence at the problems, ignoring historical, social and political evidence and solving nothing much in the process.

Elizabeth yearns for a different approach. What about music, for instance? Why not take the statistics around a disease  - geographical spread, demographic, the amount of publicity it gets, how well treatment is funded – and assign musical elements such as rhythm, tempo, volume or specific instruments to each? Could people ‘hear’ the difference between diseases and the way the world treats them? Surely, this might set people thinking more creatively than what she describes as endless "po-faced conferences with power point presentations to an audience that has seen them all before".

So she stuck her neck out and emailed Tony Haynes, GUO’s founder and, for over 30 years, it’s composer and artistic director. Fortunately, Tony (no stranger to Wilton's) is also a great fan of long shots. With support from Wellcome Trust, many brainstorms, workshops, revelations, discussions, dinners and disagreements later, Song of Contagion premiers at Wilton’s in a few weeks. "I was so thrilled when Tony agreed to take on the challenge. I’ve worked with lots of brilliant scientists, but Song of Contagion is my first collaboration with musical genius, and it has been a real education.”

The very first workshop and, after an inspiring brainstorm, Tony Haynes explores the similarity between the didgeridoo and London's drains

Their first task was to decide which diseases to feature and the final work explores five stories. Here’s how Elizabeth describes them:

Cholera: London versus Kolkata: the disease was rife in both during the 1850s but their outcomes differ radically. When The Big Stink drove parliamentarians out of their riverside offices, pure self-interest led them to authorise funding for Bazalgette’s sewers, which happened to halt the water-borne disease in its tracks. In India, where such environmental investment has never been made, cholera continues to cause death and misery.

Zika versus dengue fever: both are spread by the same mosquito, Zika does not kill, yet received huge publicity when it was linked to a few thousand cases of abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development in Brazil in the run up to the Rio Olympics. For decades, dengue has killed 10-20,000 people every single year (many of them children), expensively hospitalising half a million or more, yet few people know of it and it never hits the headlines. Images of deformed babies make front page news but photographically unremarkable dengue shock syndrome never will.


HIV in the US versus Africa and the first case of successful patient activism: faced with the US government’s inaction, the well-connected, media-savvy gay community bravely campaigned for research and drugs, pulling stunts such as closing down the Stock Exchange for the first time in history. Treatment was available far sooner than it would have been without them. Meanwhile, the high cost of those drugs was prohibitive for sufferers in other continents, especially sub-Saharan Africa. But US public support (and George W Bush’s $60 billion in aid) for the campaign for cheaper drugs and treatment for Africa was only won after victims were widely shown to be innocent women and their babies, rather than gay men, drug users and prostitute.

AIDS on a graph and on a stave

Coronary heart disease and ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’: though it may just end up killing you, particularly if corporate lobbyists from the food and sugar industries have their way and block public health measures to reduce consumption.

Post traumatic stress disorder – inequities in diagnosis and treatment:  if you are a soldier with a rich country and a guilty government behind you, you will probably get treatment for the effects of dropping bombs on people. If you’re a civilian and those bombs killed your husband and three children, you will probably just be left to get on with it.

Through traditional music hall songs, African drum beats, Brazilian samba, strings, brass, sitars and the gamelan, plus all-too-human voices from around the world, these stories will colourfully and energetically unfold. And, hopefully, no-one will resist the urge to get on their feet for the Dengue Merengue. “Tony’s brilliance is that he manages to create shows that are simultaneously thought-provoking, moving, and damned good fun."

Elizabeth is keen to stress, however, that there will be no preaching or heavy messaging. "This is a fascinating topic, full of questions and answers with so much yet to learn. It encompasses all of life around the world. Yet what drives it is so embedded in our lives - the way we do business and so on - that we’re not necessarily aware of it. We’ve tried to make more explicit things that we don’t always articulate. We simply want to provoke thought and hope that people will perhaps question for the first time – why am I being sold this drug and not that one? Why have I heard of Zika but not dengue shock syndrome? Then begin to find answers and make connections. And, above all, have fun!"

There will certainly be plenty of opportunities for all that and more as the show will include schools and family matinees plus pre- and post-show presentations and discussions (strictly NOT po-faced). There is even an East End cholera walk ending at Wilton’s in time for the show.

Elizabeth delivering TED talks and with the portable tools of her trade(s): laptop and beer

The irony of all this is that music is one talent Elizabeth Pisani claims to lack in abundance. Aged seven, her piano teacher proclaimed her ‘unteachable’ after one lesson, insisting on refunding the full term’s fees there and then. Who knows, perhaps it was not being constrained by knowledge of musical theory that allowed her to make that creative leap and see (hear?) music as a new way to present these issues?

Song of Contagion runs 13 to 17 June. See our website for full details of all performances and associated events.

If you would like to read more about the fascinating story behind Song of Contagion and read the blog tracking its development, visit the website here.

Portrait of Elizabeth Pisani by Marit Miners.

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27Apr. 2017.

On being Othello and Desdemona

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Othello opened in Bristol to a barrage of ecstatic reviews. A great deal has already been said about the production so, ahead of its arrival here at Wilton’s, we thought we would bring you a very personal account of what it’s like to get under the skin of one of Shakespeare’s most tragic couples, in conversation with Norah Lopez Holden and Abraham Popoola.

Both Abraham and Norah graduated from RADA in 2016. How does it feel to play such iconic Shakespearean roles in such a high-profile and acclaimed production so early in their careers and how familiar were they with the play beforehand?

A:  I feel privileged, very privileged. I studied the play for my English Literature degree at University of Westminster and used one of Othello’s monologues as my audition piece for drama school. I was then lucky enough to play the role at RADA in an abridged version for secondary schools. Their responses were fascinating, especially an all-boys school where they were really hot, sweaty and bored; all they wanted was action but, during the quieter moments, they were riveted. It was amazing to see how we could grasp their attention, even though some were harder to win over than others. I do believe we were helping to open their eyes to something new.

N: I studied it in the sixth form and loved it. It seemed so different to any other Shakespeare I’d come across before because it’s so economical in terms of its exposition. The story unravels so quickly. We have a joke in the company that it could easily make a Netflix one-part drama! I would once have been scared by a part like this and hadn’t imagined myself, with my Manchester accent, playing Shakespeare. It’s easy to get caught up in what are often perceived as the dos and don’ts of Shakespearean acting. Desdemona has always been dusted over as this very naïve, wishy-washy sort of creature. Like many young actresses, I’m inclined to gravitate more towards women with substance, with meat on their bones, so I was actually more drawn to Emilia. When this audition came through, though, I really looked at the story from Desdemona’s perspective for the first time and realised that she’s a headstrong young woman with the balls to stand up for herself. The first thing we see her do is defy her father.

Norah and Abraham not only studied together at RADA, they are also friends off-stage. Has that made a difference to their experience of playing Othello and Desdemona?

N:  We’re definitely comfortable with each other and, of course, our training together means we’d already broken down all the barriers of discomfort around things like love scenes. There have been plenty of laughs around our difference in height – I’m barely 5’ 6” and Abe’s 6’ 5”. If we need an intimate moment, he has to either pick me up or sit down! Although the physical difference perfectly reflects the changing relationship. In the beginning, he is this big, strapping, sexy man who literally sweeps me off my feet and carries me away. As events unfold, he becomes completely overpowering so that I can’t defend myself against him. Our physicality mirrors the opposition where everything turns from good to bad – the almost erotic heat of Cyprus becomes stifling and oppressive, Othello’s being a muslim lends him an exotic, attractive otherness at first, which then becomes terrifying as she realises “you’re a stranger, I don’t know anything about you”.

A:  I think our friendship and prior knowledge of each other’s acting has definitely helped us to explore the characters further. It also means we’re there to support each other when the play weighs heavy. It’s almost inevitable for me that some residue of the character lingers in me during the run and there are aspects that I’ve been affected by. I may never have killed my wife or led an army but the paranoia Othello feels, fuelled by the racism he encounters every day, that’s something I have felt. It’s close to home in that sense. It’s double-edged – in some ways it's a strength, being able to use my own experience to play the character, but it’s difficult when it reflects negative experience in your life. Whenever I’ve been struggling with that, it’s been good to know I have a friend there who understands me.

In rehearsal

Despite their previous knowledge of the play, there are elements of Director Richard Twyman’s production that are still fresh and unexpected.

N:  It’s really exciting to be in a production that deals with the female voices. They are so often overlooked as Othello is presented very much as about a group of soldiers - a man’s play, set in a man’s world. Yet the three women’s voices are so distinct and have such purpose. The relationship between Emilia and Desdemona has been a revelation. I had always read (and been taught to read) them as dowdy, cynical Emilia and naïve, stupid Desdemona but that does no justice to the characters, and denies all the nuances in-between. Their relationship is particularly sad and illustrates another about-turn as Desdemona becomes increasingly trapped in her marriage and loses her grip on her own strength and the oppressed Emilia gains courage to make a stand. There’s a scene between the two, the only scene with only women present, where the great unspoken truth underlying their conversation is that Desdemona is being abused by her husband. It’s also a play about domestic abuse, which still goes on today; nothing much has changed.

Katy (who plays Emilia) and I often marvel at how Shakespeare could hear both Emilia’s and Iago’s opposing voices so clearly and take an almost feminist approach to the way men treat women. The incredible irony is that those women would have been played by men because women were not allowed to play themselves!

A:  The women’s roles were a revelation for me too. It’s been illuminating to discover that this is not just a play about two alpha males. And that Othello can be - is – young. I always delivered my audition monologue as a man much older than myself because I’ve only ever seen the role portrayed by older actors. A director who saw that I’d played the role at RADA once made a point of telling me that I was far too young and shouldn’t think about it until I was 50! That thought was stuck in my head but Richard was keen to make it clear that he saw Othello as a young man. Also that he is a Muslim in hiding, he’s adopted Christianity in order to survive but his true faith is Islam. That and his youth mean he has no choice but to trust the older, more experienced Iago, who has been moving, manipulating and surviving in that society for longer than Othello has even been alive.

N:  Yes, it’s so important that they are a young couple, deeply in love, and Iago’s jealousy is made even worse by being faced with this young man who has everything he wishes he had. Audience feedback from Bristol shows that we really have portrayed that.

A:  It helps that, instead of just hearing other characters talk about the couple before we see them, we actually witness their wedding at the beginning. That’s a new addition for this production.

The cast are now gearing up to seven performances at Exeter Northcott Theatre before heading to Wilton’s. A prospect at which Norah, who has recently moved to London, and Abraham, who hails from Dalston, were particularly excited when they visited us recently.

A:  I’m absolutely buzzing – I can’t wait for the whole cast to come in! And it’s so significant to be doing this play here in Tower Hamlets where there is such a large Muslim population. We overheard conversations in Bristol that suggested we had managed to communicate something to Muslim audiences that they had never seen before so it’s going to be fascinating to see what responses we get at Wilton’s.

N:  Playing in the round here is going to be amazing. I can’t imagine it any other way now because it creates a stifling claustrophobia and you can feel the gender differences in the audience; you sense the male discomfort listening to speeches about the way men treat women and women are held spellbound with the recognition.

As themselves

We couldn't resist throwing in these snippets of Othello trivia: The first play Abraham ever saw was Ibsen's Ghosts at the Arcola. Which just happened to be Norah's first major role after graduating, at Home Theatre in Manchester. They both have friends who were in the recent version of Othello at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Abraham worked with Kurt Egyiawan, who played the eponymous lead in that production, in Three Migrants at the Royal Court, which was also directed by Richard Twyman. 

Othello runs 16 May to 3 June and you can buy tickets here.

You can also read another very personal account from a member of the cast in this blog post from Hayat Kamille, who plays Bianca.

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13Apr. 2017.

A Truly Revelatory Q&A with Boris & Sergey

It's not often that we get a glimpse into the lives, minds and sordid living conditions of a duo such as Balkan Bad Boys, Boris & Sergey. When we do, we feel it is our duty to reveal their secrets to you in a candid Q&A. You may feel the need to wash your hands after reading this.

How long have you been brothers and does it help or hinder your working relationship?
Sergey: We have been brothers all of our lives, though it certainly feels like much longer. I'm clearly being punished for something I did in a past life. In terms of our working relationship, I tend to be the help whereas Boris has the hindrance covered.
Boris: (proudly) Sergey says I'm the biggest hindrance in his life.

What’s your secret for keeping your skin so smooth and lustrous? Dubbin? Lard? Lenor?
Sergey: I take my skin care and personal hygiene very seriously, it's particularly important with all the disease and pestilence that Boris brings into our dwelling. My day typically starts with a bath in two litres of mountain spring water, followed by a hearty thrashing with Sicilian olive branches, performed by twelve stout men of honest character. At night I have myself vacuum packed to maintain my freshness.
Boris: Whereas I experiment with hot and cold, Sergey scolds me with boiling water, and makes me sleep outside at night. Which gives my skin it's natural onion-skin texture. The doctors say if I keep it up I won't see my next birthday, but Sergey doesn't let me have birthdays so I'm not too concerned.

Any tips for the gentlemen on how to succeed with the ladies?
Boris: A judge has ruled that I am no longer allowed to talk about, or be in the vicinity of anything female. I'll have to pay a heavy fine for answering this question.

Woken up with anyone interesting lately?
Boris: Mr Bumbles. I wake up next to him a lot.
Sergey: Who is Mr Bumbles? Some ridiculous cuddly toy that you need for security?
Boris: No, he's some guy who watches me sleep.

Who is your favourite puppeteer?
Sergey: Like any good parent we treat them with equal disdain, they are all expendable.

What's the worst thing you ever smelled?
Both: Fear.

It seems that Boris has been suffering for his art in rehearsals this week. Shame.

You can witness this kind of spectacle and worse, much worse, in Boris & Sergey's Astonishing Freakatorium 9-13 May.
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31Mar. 2017.

Ida Barr's mix-tape

From music hall to old skool, cockney rhymes to east London grime, Ida Barr shares some of the influences behind her Artificial Hip-Hop sound.

Solange – Don’t Touch My Hair

Solange and Beyonce were all that got me through the misery of 2016.  Lemonade and A Place at the Table were never off my Victrola.  This track got me in trouble with the warden in control of my warden controlled flats.  I was humming it under my breath not aware that the mobile hairdresser had arrived.  She reported that I was being difficult and the warden suspended my rights to a half price perm.  Innit tho!

Noel Coward - There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner

A reminder that there are a lot of people who are very keen on making us feel that things are getting worse.  I’ve lived a long time and it seems to be that things have always been going to hell in a dustcart.  But that’s probably a lot of nonsense.  Noel was a lovely fella.  Light on his feet, and kind to his mother.  He was always very charming to me, and once bought me a Eccles Cake at Crewe Station.  That’s the kind of thing you don’t forget.

Mary J Blige – MJB da MVP

As the Notorious IDA, I appreciate this song by the lovely MJB.  MVP means most valuable player and it’s American slang.  I don’t know a IUD from a IOU which has got me into trouble in the past.  There’s too many acronyms about these days, but this is still a smashing song.

Stormzy – Big For Your Boots

Stormzy used to pop round for a tamazepam for his nan from time to time so when we meet now in the lift at Radio 1Xtra is always a delight.  I’m thrilled by his success.  He’s got a lovely sense of humour and is a tip top rapper, which he credits me for.  Maybe he picked up more than prescription medication on those trips up to my flatlette!  

Nadia Rose – Tight Up

Nadia is a lovely girl, she’s never orff my WhatsApp.  And she is right to bring this menace of tight garments to the forefront of our attention.  Some gals look like they are wearing a bandage rather than a garment, which ain’t nobody’s business but their own, but it looks very distressing to a harmonious and healthy life.

TCTS – Do It Like Me

I put this on to get my home help to speed up whilst she’s doing the dado rails.  She can get very lethargic.  This is like aural caffeine.  Kelis is old pal of mine since I covered her Milkshake number for a Complan advert.  ‘My Complan brings the old boys to the yard’

Jidenna - White Niggas

A snappy dresser and an interesting musician.  Jidenna is on Janelle Monae’s label.  I’ve a lot of time for her and her music.  Lovely gal.  When I first heard of her, I thought she was Jonelle the John Lewis own brand which I found confusing.  I was familiar with their pillowslips but hadn’t expected them to bring out futuristic sci-fi narrative RnB.

Missy Elliott – I’m Better

This is namedropping but Missy wrote this number for me about my nasty bout of flu last October.  Me and Missy go way back.  She always stays at mine when she’s in London.  I say, stay in the suite at the Hilton, Miss and come to mine for high tea.  But she prefers my put-u-up.

Michael  Kiwanuka – Black Man In A White World

Lovely lad.  Lovely voice.  Treat yourself and have a listen to this.  And an important sentiment.  It’s a little like being an older female in a world which discounts you entirely.  But this is a playlist – not a discussion of intersectionality and oppression.

Lady Leshurr – Queen’s Speech

Finally I’m representing for my girl Leshurr.  Inventive, creative, funny and headstrong.  She’s like me at her age.  She’s going to go far.  But she does owe me a fiver I leant her at Victoria Bus Station when I saw her onto the Birmingham MegaBus last April.  Fair’s fair, Leshurr.  

Listen to the full playlist and follow us on Spotify here. 

Ida performs here 4th & 5th April, tickets available: http://bit.ly/2kUGlFf

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27Mar. 2017.

How to revive a classic without sacrificing your cynicism

It’s more than 50 years since the last major London production of Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, his second greatest achievement after Guys and Dolls.  Now, the creative team behind The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse and Shock Treatment at the King’s Head are in rehearsal, bringing this Broadway classic to Wilton’s in a stylish revival that is bursting with life, energy and very contemporary, cynical humour.

Director, Benji Sperring, is relishing the opportunity to apply his signature style to such an iconic work from the era of big-band musicals. He admits “It is quite a tricky piece, being very much of its time, particularly in its portrayal of the gender stereotypes and office politics of the 1950s – very un-PC by today’s standards”.  Which is what made this musical such a tempting prospect for a man who believes the greatest source of learning for theatre today is the past and who founded Tarquin Productions in order to put a new spin on works that have rather been consigned to history. It is precisely those potentially dating elements that Benji gleefully picks up and runs off with in his own musical-comedy-with-added-anarchy sort of a way.  For him, this musical is all about the weird wackiness of the often unpleasant yet strangely likeable characters and his vision is very much one of cartoon and caricature. Which is not to say that there is no serious or relevant message for 2017 audiences. “With characters using nepotism and sociopathic tendencies to get to the top, there are definitely parallels with what is going on in the US right now. At the end of the day, we see how capitalism continues to screw all of us over and I believe that British arts and theatre have a duty to comment on that. If you can do it with great characters, great tunes and a tap routine, all the better.”

Marc Pickering takes the lead as J Pierrepont Finch

Which is exactly what Benji does, aided by a cast and creative team laden with awards, nominations and accolades too numerous to mention, several of whom have worked magic together under his direction before - anyone who saw Toxic Avenger will be happy to find Marc Pickering, Hannah Grover and Lizzii Hills reunited on stage with Ben Ferguson this time in the Musical Director’s chair. Suffice to say, there will be a roof-raising nine-piece band on stage to accompany such musical theatre royalty as Andrew C Wadsworth and razor-sharp dance routines choreographed by the inspirational Lucie Pankhurst. Meanwhile, we’re all oohing and aahing over glimpses of Mike Lees’ costume and set designs with colour-coded characters and a fun skewing of gender identity that we won’t spoil for you by revealing here.  Mike has created a heightened, stylised setting, unlike anything seen on Wilton’s stage before and which delights in the disconnect between the fast-talking, chain-smoking world of Mad Men chic and our charmingly distressed Victorian music hall.

 So. Can our hero triumph in the boardroom without becoming an unscrupulous monster? Can he live happily ever after with the girl of his dreams, even though she is, quite frankly, completely off her onion? Can the company glamour-puss keep her big secret and save her (and the Chairman's) reputation? Can anyone truly succeed in business without really trying? Find out between 8th and 22nd April. And don't forget to invite us to your next Big Launch.

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16Mar. 2017.

The truth and magic in storytelling

Undermined was conceived when Danny Mellor was required to write, direct and star in a piece as a final showcase for his MA at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. As the grandson of a South Yorkshire miner, with the 30th anniversary of the end of the miners’ strike looming, he saw the opportunity to create a show about a subject close to his heart.

There’s nothing quite so compelling, thought-provoking or entertaining as storytelling at its best. So Danny becomes Dale, down the pub with a pint, simply telling it like it was. Based on real events and first-hand accounts, stories of ordinary and extraordinary day to day events in the lives of ordinary and extraordinary miners and their families during brutal times. No sensational news reports, no politicians, no rhetoric. Just tales of the day a police superintendent in a range rover tried to mow down a snowman, a tedious drive in search of an elusive Welsh pit, an ingeniously simple but effective prank to make fools of riot police. Stories to make you laugh, cry, rage, or all three.

’s first airing in Edinburgh attracted high praise: “If only there could be more one man shows like this at the Fringe” (Stef O’Driscoll, Associate Director Paines Plough & Artistic Director of Inner City Theatre); “Other actors could do with taking a leaf out of Danny Mellor’s book. The book would be called How to do a One Man Show Properly” (Chloe St George, EdFringe Review). Such is Danny's craft and passion in conveying the humanity at the heart of one of this country's most controversial and damaging disputes.

If you have read our History Book by Carole Zeidman, you will know that the Methodist Mission at Wilton’s played an important role during times of hardship caused by another historic strike - the dockers’ strike of 1889. Here’s an extract from Carole’s book:

"In 1889 dockers in the port of London went on strike demanding wages of 6d an hour for a minimum of four hours’ work a day. The strike for ‘the dockers’ tanner’ became a landmark in British labour history. Almost everyone living in and around Cable Street, Ratcliffe Highway and Wellclose Square was affected by the strike. John Jameson, the first minister at The Mahogany Bar reported ‘Here we are in the thick of it. This morning it was piteous to see the people. Some of them had had no food for three days’. Peter Thompson, the first superintendent of the East End Mission encouraged the dockers to hold their union meetings at The Mahogany Bar and set up a soup kitchen there to feed the starving dockers and their families.”

All of which makes us doubly proud and thrilled to welcome Danny, duly equipped with pint and chair, to our stage next week. You can catch Undermined 21 to 25 March and can buy tickets here. Cheers!

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7Mar. 2017.

Welcome to International Women's Day

Today we are marking International Women’s Day with stories of some of the extraordinary women who feature in a series of events during our coming season.  We are very proud to be presenting diverse shows both by and about very special women and we invite you to join us in celebrating these exceptional lives and works.

In May, we welcome National Opera Studio with works from three celebrated female composers, Dubai – Rostov – New York. The Rostov of the title was the Russian birthplace of pioneering psychoanalyst, Sabina Spielrein, her home for much of her life and scene of her tragic death in 1942. Sabina’s story is told by composer Errollyn Wallen, described by The Observer as a 'renaissance woman of contemporary British music'.

Born in 1885, Sabina, along with her siblings, suffered a brutal upbringing at the hands of a violent mother and tyrannical father. She was also highly educated with an extremely sharp mind. A diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ in her late teens (now easily recognisable as a natural response to the trauma she suffered throughout childhood) led to her becoming the patient of a young psychiatrist by the name of Carl Jung, who was keen to try a new approach known as psychoanalysis. Sabina was not only cured but inspired to begin assisting Jung with his research, then to study and become an analyst herself. She played a primary role in the development of child psychology and her work and thought is known to have had a significant impact on those of both Jung and Freud. She published 30 papers in French and German, most notably on schizophrenia and, still only in her mid-twenties, was elected to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1911. Despite this, the name Sabina Spielrein has been surprisingly little-known until recently and her own outstanding achievements have frequently been overshadowed by a preoccupation with her love affair with Jung and Freud’s disapproval of their relationship. Even her groundbreaking work in child psychology has been wrongly attributed to others such as Anna Freud or Melanie Klein.

Not only did Sabina Spielrein excel in her field, she overcame massive obstacles as a woman working in a male profession and a Jewish woman during a period of extreme anti-Semitism. The latter culminated in her murder at the hands of a German SS squad, brutally cutting short a brilliant life and career. Errollyn Wallen says of her ‘I am in awe of Spielrein for the sheer power of her mind and for her extraordinary ability to think herself out of her own mental illness — and beyond the prejudice which faced her and women of her time.  I have lived with Sabina Spielrein’s story for several years now and am extremely lucky that David Pountney has written a powerful libretto which contains much of Spielrein’s own writing. Composing an opera based on a person who has actually lived presents emotional and artistic challenges . . .  However, telling the stories of our time — and the stories of the women of our time is one of my principal objectives as an artist.   I hope that anyone coming to the opera Sabina Spielrein will be as enlightened and moved by her story as David Pountney and I have been.’

Errollyn Wallen and Sabina Spielrein

Dubai – Rostov – New York: Scenes from Contemporary Opera runs 4 – 6 May and you can buy tickets here.

At the end of June, we present Jessica Walker’s portrayal of 1930s Paris cabaret sensation, Suzy Solidor in All I want is One Night.

Jessica describes Suzy as ‘conceivably the most famous woman you’ve never heard of’. Yet she was one of the most celebrated and wealthy entertainers of the 1930s, the toast of Paris, her image captured in 225 portraits by some of the 20th century greatest artists, including Tamara de Lempicka, Francis Bacon, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray. After coming across Suzy’s story in Robert Aldrich’s compendium, Gay Life Stories, Jessica was curious as to how this woman, once so successful, could sink into obscurity and she began to delve into her fascinating and ultimately sad story.

Born in Brittany at the turn of the last century, poor, uneducated and illegitimate, young Suzanne soon showed her mettle when, barely more than fourteen, she lied about her age in order to drive ambulances during the First World War. In her twenties, resourceful, determined and already skilled in using her wiles and beauty to get ahead, she took herself, penniless, to Paris where she soon found a lover and benefactor – rich antiquarian Yvonne de Bremond d’Ars – and established herself as a couture swimwear model. After discovering her singing voice and leaving Yvonne for a wealthy producer of luxury cars, she opened her own nightclub, in which she sang erotic lesbian songs surrounded by adoring audiences and her growing collection of portraits painted by artists who recognised the value of displaying their work in a club increasingly frequented by the great and the good. Suzy starred alongside Edith Piaf in Jean de Limur’s 1936 film La Garçonne and, two years before Dietrich, she recorded a French version of ‘Lily Marlène’. Her fame, however, could not protect her from being found guilty of collaboration with the German officers who enjoyed her club's hospitality and she was exiled from France, an experience from which she never quite recovered. On her return, she opened a new club on the Côte d’Azur but she was now middle-aged, the world no longer desired her or wanted to look at her as it once had. She stubbornly resisted making changes to an act that people no longer wanted to see. When audiences dwindled to nothing, she closed the club, opened an antique shop and took to dressing as an admiral until she died, aged 83, in comparative obscurity; wealthy, obese and, as Jessica strongly suspects, lonely.

Initially, Jessica was drawn to Suzy’s compelling alpha-female image. In a country where women would not even be granted the vote until 1945, here was a sexually potent woman, refusing to be labelled, unapologetic and proud of who she was. What’s more, hugely successful, including financially. Jessica describes her as ‘effortlessly gender fluid, shamelessly capitalist and seemingly without recourse to feelings of guilt when it came to her poly-amorous relationships. She had the most powerful sense of self and, unlike many lesbians presented in mainstream media today, she was far from cosy and un-threatening, she was dangerous.’ Yet, for all her emancipation and daring modernity, she allowed her life force to be inextricably linked to her desirability and this, combined with the vanity that prevented her from accepting her aging self, led to her downfall. Once her adoring public stopped gazing upon her with desire, she simply did not know what to do with herself. Jessica also believes this was what prompted her later reinvention as the admiral: ‘If she could not live with herself as a woman, she would become a man’.

It would be nice to believe that no woman, no performer, today could possibly face the same fate, the same pressure to hide herself away or resort to any other means to conceal the natural aging process. But how often do we read vicious media criticism of those who go to great lengths to defy the effects of age and, equally, of those who do not? Plus ça change . . .

All I Want is One night runs 27 June to 1 July and you can buy tickets here.

n July, we welcome back Poet in the City with Ladies of the Left Bank - a celebration of some of the greatest female modernist writers living and working in Paris between the wars.

‘I talk too much because I have been made so miserable by what you are keeping hushed.’  Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

At the turn of the 20th Century, the laissez-faire climate of Paris attracted the exiled American and European cultural community and Modernism as we know it was born.
Characterised by the way it ruptured conventional language structure, modernism made it possible to work with narratives that had previously been non-categorisable and non-linear. Suddenly, identities previously impossible to articulate could be recognised and developed. For Ladies of the Left Bank, Poet in the City have chosen to let the works of the women leading this movement to shine.

HD (Hilda Doolittle), Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and Nancy Cunard were all indisputable influencers of the avant-garde scene. As Poet in the City programmer, Georgia Attlesey explains, 'they created a new liberal language for women to express themselves and, by doing so, extended the ambitions of the modernist movement. These radical women capitalised on this opportunity to establish a defiant new voice that spoke freely on sexuality, politics and society. Without them, the landscape of modernism would have looked very different, and it is essential that we recognise their legacy and that their words continue to echo through history.'

Clockwise from top left: HD; Nancy Cunard; Sandeep Parmar; Lisa Dwan

This event also brings two very special contemporary women to the Wilton’s stage: celebrated actor Lisa Dwan, renowned for her unique approach to Beckett will read the poetry; and acclaimed scholar and poet Sandeep Parmar will provide an overview of the Modernist movement and the poets themselves.

Incidentally, Suzy Solidor was not the only female of great note whizzing round France in an ambulance during the First World War. Gertrude Stein bought her own Ford van and, together with her life-long partner, Alice B Toklas, she also worked as an ambulance driver for the French. During her time in France, Gertrude served as both hostess and an inspiration to such American expatriates as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and she is credited with coining the term ‘the Lost Generation’. Here's how fellow Modernist, Mina Loy, so succinctly and splendidly summed her up:

of the laboratory
of vocabulary
she crushed
the tonnage
of consciousness
congealed to phrases
to extract
a radium of the word'

 So, we think Gertrude should have the last word here:

'There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer.'

Ladies of the Left Bank is on 5 July and you can buy tickets here.

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23Feb. 2017.

What it is to be Human

We all know the story of Frankenstein, don’t we? At least, we think we do, even though many of us have never actually read it. We’ve probably seen plenty of film adaptations and we can all conjure up the image of Boris Karloff lumbering around in an ill-fitting suit with bolts through his neck. Which is not a million miles from where writer Tristan Bernays and director Eleanor Rhode were coming from when they threw all that out of the window and each burrowed into Mary Shelley’s often rambling, sub-plot-ridden novel to unearth what really excited them about it.

They soon found that they were of the same mind, underlining the same passages - unsurprisingly, as they have collaborated closely and to Offie-Award-winning effect before, with Teddy at Southwark playhouse. Their strong connection and shared artistic vision have sparked an interpretation of Frankenstein like no other.

Stripped back to the bare bones in every way, this production allows audiences’ imaginations to go to work and builds atmosphere, layer upon layer.  We see a cast of only two, George Fletcher playing both Frankenstein and Creature, and Rowena Lennon in the role of Chorus, observing, highlighting and reflecting the characters’ thoughts and actions through sound and music. The world presented on-stage is barely dressed yet richly furnished by sound designer David Gregory, blending natural and electronic, music and ambient noise, to create an absorbing soundscape, made all the more magical by Lawrence T Doyle’s almost hypnotic lighting.

This is Creature’s world where, for Eleanor and Tristan, the beating and, ultimately, broken heart of the story lies. We see him as an innocent child, yet in a full-grown, monstrous body that he doesn’t understand how to use. He is struggling to develop and survive but without the love, protection and nurturing that a child needs. Eleanor was particularly fascinated by his schooling, courtesy of the blind man, in the works of Milton, Plutarch and Werther and the way that part of the story ‘really forces you to stop and think, of all the things that you’ve learnt over a course of a lifetime and how you take those things for granted’.

Movement Director, Tom Jackson Greaves, took George back to the very basics to examine the physicality of a child’s incremental control over muscles and cognition and development of awareness, movement, dexterity and language. The result is a unique interpretation and we’ll leave it for you to wonder how they handle the scene where both Creature and Frankenstein meet and to be captivated by what you see when they do.

George Fletcher in rehearsal

Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote the book. The story was concocted merely to amuse and impress Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and other guests during a stay near Lake Geneva when what she described as the ‘ungenial’ summer of 1816 confined them indoors to entertain each other with scary tales. She did not originally intend it to be a great novel but it grew into a story that is destined to resonate through time. As Tristan Bernays puts it, Frankenstein is about ‘the dangers of science, parental responsibility, Good and Evil, the question of what it actually is to be human. These are massive universal themes in a story that will always be relevant and will always speak to people'.

If only Mary Shelly could see this extraordinary re-imagining of her work  - what would she make of it?

Frankenstein runs 7th to 18th March and you can book tickets here.

Photography by Philip Tull

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