Saturday 29 June 2019

Sight return

Regular readers - or in this case, viewers, perhaps - may recall that I also keep a record of my photographic endeavours on the blog. In particular, portraits are my thing, and I'm grateful to have a group of pals who are not only prepared to step in front of the camera, but also collaborate on forming ideas, finding locations, and so forth.

However, due to all kinds of other stuff going on, it had felt like a long time since I'd used my portrait lens in anger - and sure enough, I was horrified on checking to find that it had been over a year. I contacted my friend Suzanne, with the idea of just picking a location and going out with a nothing more than a few background ideas - no over-arching plan, theme or concept. Just to kind of re-connect with it. (Interestingly, I found that S - a talented and fascinating portrait photographer herself - had been on a self-imposed 'sabbatical', so the timing was perfect.)

So, while I'd already scouted some suitable settings, it was actually rather liberating to just make up the shots as we went along. We encountered a surprise or two along the way - I'd spotted a huge set of steps on our route, for example, and mentally filed them away to provide a nice grey-white backdrop for some monochrome shots. Returning last weekend, they'd been transformed for Pride, with all the colours of the rainbow. We went for it, anyway.

If you're trying out portrait photography with a willing friend - or going back to it after a while - I can thoroughly recommend this approach. Don't head out as if it's a 'project' (or even more stressful, part of one) - go with the intent to improvise. Be willing to chuck your idea for a shot out the second you look down the lens and create something better in 'real life' with your subject. Look out for the kinds of poses they naturally adopt before you ask them to do anything - they will have a good sense of what feels, and therefore looks, comfortable and natural. I'm sure this has all been said twenty thousand times before by much better photographers than me, but I find it's the sort of thing I constantly have to remind myself to attempt.

Anyway, our first trip in a while. We enjoyed it, and I hope you enjoy the selection of photos below.


Sunday 23 June 2019

The Light fantastic: 'The Light in the Piazza', Royal Festival Hall

Music/lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas.

Main cast:
Renée Fleming as Margaret Johnson
Dove Cameron as Clara
Alex Jennings as Signor Naccarelli
Marie McLaughlin as Signora Naccarelli
Rob Houchen as Fabrizio
Liam Tamne as Giuseppe
Celinde Schoenmaker as Franca
Malcolm Sinclair as Roy


I bought a ticket for ‘The Light in the Piazza’ based on intrigue. I go to very few musicals, partly because I can’t quite explain how I feel about them. I love some, can’t bear others, with very little rhyme or reason. (To the way I feel, that is, not the musicals...)

But I’d read that ‘LitP’ was a little different - that its (excellent) reputation was partly to do with its straddling musical and opera forms to unusual effect. Also, it was to play at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank for a limited run, featuring Renée Fleming: operatic royalty, for sure, but also an artist unafraid to tackle some leftfield projects. I feel lucky to have seen her perform as the Marschallin in Strauss’s ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (when she was on the point of saying farewell to the role): but I’m also a card-carrying fan/evangelist for her rock CD, ‘Dark Hope’. So I was already an enthusiast for RF’s multiple vocal personalities.

In fact, the overall casting, as you can see above, only underlines this cross-genre element, with luminaries drawn from opera, film, TV, and musical theatre. I booked, knowing I’d regret it if I didn’t. And I’d urge you to go if you get a chance - it rewards your attention with something quite special.

Italy, the 50s. Margaret Johnson, a wealthy American, is spending summer in Florence, trying to show her daughter Clara the places of interest she’d toured with her husband Roy, years before. Clara, however, is easily distracted, particularly by the attentions of Fabrizio, a handsome local who has fallen for her at first sight.

Margaret, however, has other ideas: there is something Fabrizio doesn't know about Clara that will make a dalliance problematic. But for all her initial attempts to frustrate developments, this will be no mere holiday romance...

From that point on, there’s a kind of leisurely tension to proceedings: we gradually find out the details of Clara’s secret, the closer the couple become. Are we heading for bliss or disaster? Well, I’ll try not to spoil it... and in any case, the young lovers - or, indeed, the conventional 'plot' aspect of the romance - are not necessarily the centre of the work. Other relationships, in various states of repair, mirror and orbit around Clara and Fabrizio, and here I think the true sophistication of the concept lies.

The Naccarelli family are like human warning signs, with Fabrizio’s hapless brother Giuseppe barely holding onto his wife Franca... while his parents play out the routine of ageing philanderer and long-suffering companion. Each of these couples, including Clara and Fabrizio, play a specific part in bringing Margaret to certain realisations about her own life and marriage: mistakes made, roads not taken, the chance to put things right. It made me think that the real ‘light in the piazza’ is the illumination the other characters bring to the real focus of the drama, Margaret.

The action delightfully subverts our expectations. For example, the family speak in a riot of excitable Italian - untranslated - that for a very short while seems like cliché (I’ll come back to this). But it becomes apparent that this is a send-up of the Americans’ view of them. This changes as Margaret warms to them and understands them more deeply. Every ‘cheap shot’ in Act 1 - the elder brother’s gauche self-confidence, the sister-in-law’s vampishness, the father’s swagger - is revisited with more emotional depth and resonance in Act 2.

This reaches a natural resolution in the wonderful ‘Let’s Walk’ duet between Margaret and Signor Naccarelli. We’re fully primed for the old roué to try it on... and Margaret does indeed reconnect with a more romantic, flirtatious version of herself. The purpose of their stroll - suggested by Margaret - is to work through a potential obstacle the father has placed in the way of the youngsters’ happiness. But she doesn’t bring him round by initiating, or worse, falling prey to a seduction. Instead, the song celebrates the elegance of mature affection and mutual respect. Fleming absolutely radiates the inner warmth needed to melt the old boy’s resistance. (And the brilliant Alex Jennings never lets the father become a 2D, ageing man-child; he's as whimsical, complex and knotty as everyone else.)

Perhaps it goes without saying that we negotiate this emotional voyage so effortlessly due to the masterful music and lyrics of Adam Guettel. The piece doesn’t aim for ‘Opera’, in my opinion, but it is operatic. The score (powerfully played by the orchestra of Opera North) is intense, lush and at times insistent, punctuating the dialogue, giving a feeling of through-composition-meets-soundtrack. The Italians using their native tongue may evoke another dysfunctional Florentine family from somewhat further back in history, in Puccini’s ‘Gianni Schicchi’ - and Rob Houchen as Fabrizio tackles his solo numbers with the full-blooded passion you’d expect in a tenor’s aria.

If (and it’s a big over-generalisation of an ‘if’) you think of musicals as functioning a bit like opera seria - the dialogue/recitative barrels the plot along while the songs/arias freeze time for the characters to pour out their emotions - it shines a, er, light on why ‘LitP’ is a little different. The songs are so finely wrought that they seem to move both plot and character forward; in the act of revealing their thoughts and feelings, the protagonists also give us crucial information about what led them to that point, and take decisions about what to do next.

One example is ‘Dividing Day’, a magnificent Act 1 song for Margaret where we come to understand her motivations more deeply. RF is extraordinary in these solo moments - it's a marvel how she blends her jazz/Broadway timbre with the hint of 'going the full soprano' in the higher-octane moments. Such a captivating, distinctive sound.

Another favourite would be ‘The Beauty Is’ - so eloquent a song that to say too much is almost a spoiler. Not only does it allow one character to open up their innermost thoughts with such delicacy, its reprise later on, from someone else’s perspective, is almost impossibly satisfying. I also think this song gives the lie to some comments I've read that the piece doesn't address the complex issue at its heart.

There are also scenes where Clara succumbs to panic attacks, all in song. The other characters soothe her in their own styles, while her vocal escalates in terror - Dove Cameron, walking a vocal tightrope throughout between girlishness and adulthood, sustains this feat admirably.

So... why use a book at all? (I’ve read a few comments that the book perhaps can’t match the songs.) Ironically, I think it’s the book that allows us to stop and take a breather. The dialogue doesn’t deliver the same emotional heft as the lyrics, true: but it offers moments of release, and true wit - for example, Marie McLaughlin as the apparently passive Signora, casually destroying the fourth wall with sublime nonchalance near the start of Act 2.

‘LitP’ is comfortable in its shape-shifting skin from the outset, so it may take a you a minute or two to acclimatise - but a verse or two in, and I was thoroughly entranced. By the end, I'd been thoroughly entertained and profoundly moved. A show to make you think and feel.

The run ends on 5 July 2019 and, as I type, there are still 10 performances left - so there’s time for you to go! Book here.

(Both the images are taken from the publicity material for the show - the interior of the RFH, sadly, does not look quite like that!)

Saturday 8 June 2019


Liz Phair's debut album 'Exile in Guyville' arrived in 1993, when I was a student. At that weird time of life, no longer a teen but not quite an adult, both home and away ... when you persist in thinking you're a grown-up despite reminder after crushing reminder that you're not: a record like this can hit you in the solar plexus.

While I enjoyed most genres of music I came across, at that point I wasn't listening seriously to, say, classical, jazz or folk: rather, those days were the absolute height of my rock and indie youth. (Two of my most memorable gigs while I was at university were James and Ride: textbook.) If you liked an unashamed jangle, they were heady times. Just picking a few names, almost at random: the wry melancholy of the Smiths and the Sundays taking us into the euphoric flipside of the Stone Roses (and the 'Madchester' scene), and then bands like Suede heralding 'Britpop', just around the corner. And those are just acts from these shores (the UK). Whose names begin with 'S'.

I loved a great number of these bands, and still do. To my delight, some are still going or have reunited. But back then, the way pop and rock kept coalescing into movements meant that, by definition and distinction, certain artists came along who stood out a mile. Without my trying to claim any kind of retrospective woke-ness, many of the musicians that pushed my buttons at the time were women: among them PJ Harvey, Björk (in the Sugarcubes as well as solo), Tori Amos, Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses and more) ... and - especially - Liz Phair.

All of the artists I mention above seemed to come to their craft, and their instruments differently. Their records had a sense of self that wasn't solely confined to an alternative point of view in their lyrics, but was there in the entire atmospheres they created: there was honesty, aggression, tenderness and unpredictability in the melodies, arrangements, production. It's impossible, I'd argue, to imagine anyone else making any of the albums these women were releasing - that, at any rate, is how special they felt to me.

There I go, trying to explain the effect an artist like Liz Phair had on me: I can only imagine how exhilarating and empowering her music must have been for women listeners. 'Exile in Guyville' still feels like one of the most forthright and least compromising albums released in the last few decades - while remaining an utterly joyous listen. It even has a concept of sorts: its 18 tracks over 4 sides of vinyl are deliberately structured and sequenced as a mirror/riposte to the Rolling Stones' 'Exile on Main Street'. While the Stones album is generally accepted as some kind of masterpiece, it's surely one of the most swaggeringly blokey records ever to earn the term - and as such, it's the perfect springboard for LP's open-hearted, sexually frank and emotionally naked confessionals.

No-one else sounded like this. For a debut album, it's frighteningly fully-formed, and for a double, impeccably sustained. (Not that one should treat the album as if it was a lucky lightning bolt of inspiration - LP is also about graft: the brilliant 25th anniversary box-set of 'Guyville' includes the handsome body of work she had already built up on her 'Girly-Sound' demo tapes.) The arrangements are spare and uncluttered, foregrounding LP's distinctive rhythm guitar which, for sure, could ring and chime - but also warp and weft, scrape or churn, mutter and mumble, bending each track into shape. The voice is forward in the mix, but laconic, sometimes going a bit too low to sound truly comfortable: at once, this makes the listener lean in - LP is somehow intimate and intimidating, wanting you to listen, refusing to let you not listen.

I never thought I'd get to hear Liz Phair live. It's a bit like doublethink - I knew full well she was still a current, working musician (six albums now and counting) - but I somehow never expected that to translate to UK concerts in the here and now. And suddenly, supernova! A couple of dates in honour of the 'Guyville' reissue... so I booked my ticket for London's Islington Assembly Hall. Upstairs, seated, because I'm older now.

I'll be amazed if I don't look back on the evening as one of my gigs of the year - of the decade, even. The band were monstrously good: I was struck by how rarely I see a group with a three-guitar front line - we got subtlety and we got soloing, but in between, the fast and loud numbers really took off, amping up those unmistakable rhythms Phair created. The celebratory aspect of the tour translated onto the stage, with all the players looking like they were having the time of their lives, and communicating that to us. Witnessing the energy and electricity coursing through the performances, you'd have thought 'Guyville' came out 25 days ago, not years. LP was in glorious voice, all attitude and agility.

While selections from the first album ultimately dominated the evening, this wasn't one of those gigs where the artist plays a classic record in order from start to finish. I think that was a good decision, because it allowed this line-up to get their hands on some highlights from LP's later records. It was great to hear a few songs each from 'Whip-Smart' and 'Whitechocolatespaceegg' (her second and third albums), which display similar brilliance and character to 'Guyville' - just with shorter running times and, inevitably, without the 'shock of the new'. Personal favourites had the band snaking through the shuffling 'Uncle Alvarez' and nailing the juddering beat of 'Cinco De Mayo'.

(Video: 'Uncle Alvarez')

More recent albums also got a look in: with a bit more production gloss than the first three, they're sometimes described as lightweight fare in comparison... but the LP hallmarks are still there. A genius outcome of the current band make-up is that they flesh out the 'lo-fi' early stuff, but give a raw edge to the later material - 'Lazy Dreamer' from the 'Somebody's Miracle' being a perfect example. Unifying the songs in this way only underlines what a coherent, distinctive back catalogue this is.

Perhaps the section I'll cherish the most was a spontaneous 'off-piste' section (as LP herself described it!) where the volume came right down and for a short while we were in the largest control booth available, 25 years ago, as Phair and one of her right-hand men performed a stately 'Ant in Alaska'... which they then followed with my all-time favourite LP song, 'Explain it to Me'.

(Video: 'Explain It to Me' - which appeared on the soundtrack to the film 'Thirteen')

Buried mid-'Guyville', this restrained track positively shimmers, one of the most eloquent expressions of how Phair can sound so delicate, yet determined at the same time. As it unfolded in front of me, quietly propulsive, I had to pinch myself, close my eyes and then open them again, so perfect was the moment. There's no need to ask more of a concert, or performer.

Happy anniversary.

(Apologies for the pun in this post's title. But I could have gone for 'Liz-lington!', so think on.)


Here is a Spotify playlist that sticks as closely as possible to the gig setlist. However, please note that a new, as yet unrecorded song was played which of course is not on Spotify. In its place, I've added another of my favourite LP tracks, 'Nashville' from her second album, 'Whip-Smart'.