Move forward a couple of centuries and, for the next play, the audience finds itself in 19th century London, bookended by two short scenes that take place in Poland some 30 years later. Red Velvet is currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and starring her husband Adrian Lester (Mickey of Hustle fame) it tells the story when the legendary English actor Edmund Kean is taken ill and his role as Othello is taken over by a black American actor, Ira Aldridge; his style is considerably more avant garde than that of the English cast, with their ‘teapot’ acting techniques (imagine the item and then the comparable actor’s stance), with the majority of the cast using this as a ready-made excuse to display their prejudices. And all this is set against the background of the Abolition of Slavery Act. Despite the efforts of the radical French producer of the play, the English press is clearly not ready for this, and as a result of damning criticism of the play and his acting style, Aldridge never appears on the London stage again. A final note: Lester will be taking on the role of Othello at London’s National Theatre next spring.
The final play I’m writing about is This House at the National Theatre. It’s currently showing at the flexible Cottesloe space with the downstairs seats arranged as in the House of Commons. The play tells of the five years of knife-edge Labour government between 1974 and 1979 – knife-edge because with wafer thin majorities, they only hung on by the skin of their teeth and by ferrying in ‘walking wounded’ and those almost at death’s door for crucial votes. The main focus is on the whips’ office, a topical subject in the ‘pleb-gate’ context, and the wheeler-dealer shennanigans necessary to retain power. As with so many productions at the Cottesloe, it’s currently sold out; however, the good news is that it’s transferring to the large Olivier stage at the National in the new year.
The acting profession has always been a precarious one, but such is the passion for it that many youngsters embark on this career path despite knowing, or perhaps ignoring the fact, that any success at all let alone mega-stardom may never be attained.
I recently attended the launch of the So & So Arts Club, whose aim is to help and support aspiring and established actors and others involved in the theatre business. It’s basically a networking club which for a modest annual fee of £30 also offers free advertising for shows, professional workshops and seminars and concessions on tickets and rehearsal and performance spaces.
But the networking is the main thing and this was clearly manifested at the launch. The room positively buzzed with the ‘hi’s’, ‘how are you’s’ and shrieks of recognition as the mostly young crowd met and greeted non-stop. Fuelled by the bar (and a welcoming free drink), the optimism and confidence was palpable. Many were dressed up to the nines and no-one was more enthusiastic than the club’s founder, Sarah Berger. In her welcoming speech she gave the answers to so many dreams, outlining what the club was designed to do and what it already has done.
I engaged in conversation with a few obviously talented members. One, a guy called Nathan, had come from Malta to study at a drama school in West London. He must have had talent at his auditions because he also had been offered a place at a school in New York. Since graduating, he had done some radio work, some adverts and a number of performances, but confessed that to keep body and soul together his main occupation was that of a waiter. This must have been true of so many of the bright young things in the room. Those actors that make it big are such a tiny proportion of the profession, and although acting in modern times is no longer restricted to the stage, with television, radio and the internet offering more outlets for talent, the increase in numbers competing for jobs has probably meant that there is still around 80% out of work at any one time.
Yet how many become disillusioned? Not many, I’ll warrant. There are not many professions where there’s such determination to carry on despite all the knockbacks. And thank goodness for that, as my life like so many others would be much the poorer without theatre and those that create it. Some might argue that in a time of recession the arts are not a top priority. I would disagree with that. When life’s hard, there’s a real need for its more esoteric side, and the pleasure theatre and the related arts give is immeasurable.
I wish Sarah Berger and her new venture, the So & So Arts Club, every success, its aims are laudable and should, in many practical ways, help those struggling to find their way to the top – or even the middle! In a currently rather dreary and pessimistic Britain (with the exception of course of the life-affirming Olympics) it would be nice to think that all the enthusiasm that manifested itself at the club’s launch will continue unabated throughout many of the potential theatrical careers.
Jeannette Nelson, Arts Critic A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.
I first met Christiane Kubrick when she took part in the Open Studio event in 2003 and since then I have made a point of going to her annual Arts Fair at Childwickbury, near St Albans.
Christiane has painted since she was a child, creating theatre sets, some even with electric lighting which nearly killed her!
In 2011 she used backdrops she designed for the set of Hansel and Gretel for the production at the National Theatre, in the area devoted to children working on their own painting. The backdrop included a mysterious eye and a witch that appealed to many children and whose paintings had a mysterious bent.
I interviewed Christiane about her life of art and theatre in 2008 when she spoke of her work, her husband Stanley and her background.
At 80+ she continues working daily on her painting and you will be able to to watch her working on her latest work at the Fair.
Her daughter Katharina is also a prolific artist with a figurative style of her own who will also be painting at the event as will many artists and craftspeople.
I’m looking forward to the next Arts Fair 6-7-8-July 2012 where it will be possible to watch crafts people at work … fascinating for all concerned. And there is a programme of events specially focussed on children’s interests, juggling, felt making, face painting and concerts in the evening. A three day event it is something of a celebration of creativity as well as a great day out.
- Love ceramics?
- Like outdoor shows?
- Love talking to gifted potters?
- Like lots of space for the kids to feel free to run around?
- Like the chance to pot yourself?
- Like watching craftspeople working?
- Like listening to stimulating talks?
- Then why not go to Art in Clay in the beautiful and spacious grounds of Hatfield House in Herts to be held 6 to 8 July 2012.
Art in Clay – the best show we know for viewing a huge collection of ceramics together with their creators from all over the country and abroad.
Here’s a video clip we put together some time ago showing the standard and diversity of the work you can expect to see.
And here are more images from last year.
Yes you’ve guessed! We go every year!
2 for 1 tickets are available on all three days of the show. To qualify just copy this email and take it with you on the day. Feel free to forward it to your friends and family if you think they would be interested in visiting the show. You can pre-book with the St Albans Tourist Information Office 01727 864511, or directly with the show organiser on 0115 987 3966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you there! Val Reynolds Brown Editor
Well, me and 3,840 other people!
I’d heard about the huge choirs of amateur singers that sometimes gather at the Albert Hall to sing together, but had never got further than thinking vaguely that it might be nice to join in. It took another member of my local choir to start the ball rolling and whip up some enthusiasm, and eventually tickets were bought for “Messiah From Scratch” in November. It was unfortunate that all four members of our little group then did the same thing – put the tickets aside without checking to find out exactly what was involved – so it was just a few weeks before the date of the concert before we realised that when the organisers called it “From Scratch”, they really meant it. We were to turn up at 6.15pm in order to be ready for the concert to start at 7pm, without even a few minutes in which to warm up, let alone actually practise the music!
At this stage, we had no way of knowing how many people would be singing with us, and therefore how exposed our own singing abilities and knowledge of the music would be. If we’d known then that nearly 4,000 people would be there to sing, we probably wouldn’t have worried so much, but even so, The Messiah isn’t especially easy music to sing and none of us had sung it all the way through for years, if at all. Our first task obviously was to get hold of copies of the musical score, and even this wasn’t simple as the organisers specified the exact version to be used. Here, though, we were very lucky as our local library still had just enough copies left for us to borrow even though Christmas was approaching fast. Recordings of the work then had to be found/bought/borrowed, and our unfortunate families had to suffer the dreadful, dirge-like sound of amateur singers droning their own rather approximate version of Handel’s great work along to a professional recording. All four of our group are contraltos, which means we sing the lower of the two female parts, mainly to provide harmony, so we never get the good tunes. I have to confess that in our household, even the cat found pressing reasons to go out once I and/or my daughter started rehearsing!
By the week before the date of the concert, we were all beginning to wonder why we’d volunteered for this event. Some friends and colleagues were incredulous. “You mean you have to pay in order to sing at the Albert Hall? You don’t get paid to do it?” And no, we don’t get paid, and we do have to pay (£20 for this performance) because this was a charity event, and the proceeds were going to the British Heart Foundation.
An added complication was the dress code. As ever, men got off lightly as they were only required to wear a dark suit, but ladies were requested to look elegant, with sopranos wearing blue, and the contraltos red. None of us had anything red which could remotely be described as “elegant” so several hours had to be spent in going around the shops in the search for red tops to be worn with black skirts or trousers, but eventually we managed to cobble together some respectable outfits, and by 4 pm on the day of the concert we were all dressed up and heading for the station for the trip to South Kensington.
We were in luck; the trains and tubes ran perfectly, and within an hour and a half we were outside the Royal Albert Hall, where people were gathering and chatting enthusiastically. After demolishing the sandwiches which we’d brought with us and paying a quick visit to the Ladies, we made our way to the seats which we’d been allocated, right up in the Circle. Already nervous and a little bit prone to vertigo, I found the steepness of the rake and the height above the main auditorium alarming and for a few minutes was wondering if I’d have to remain sitting for the whole of the performance, but I became acclimatized to it surprisingly soon and began to relax and take in the scene. We’d taken our seats quite early, so were able to watch the other singers gradually arriving and taking up their positions all around the Hall. Lots of people were greeting friends, while others were arriving on their own, clearly content just to be there and to sing. The majority of singers were probably in the middle-aged to mature bracket, but there was a substantial number of young people too. There was also considerable variation in dress. While a lot of women had opted for the safe combination of black bottoms with a red top of some kind, others had made only a minimal gesture towards the dress code with perhaps just a red flower or brooch pinned onto a black T shirt. A few had decided to take the light-hearted approach and were apparently wearing fancy dress, with one rather substantially built young woman happily wearing what looked like the costume of the Red Fairy, complete with frills and red sequins.
By the time we’d arrived at the Royal Albert Hall, it had felt as though we’d travelled quite a long way on a dark winter evening but when Don Monro, the man who had dreamt up The Really Big Chorus in 1974, stood up to speak, he welcomed singers from around the world! Singing alongside us would be singers from Australia, Canada, South Africa and many parts of Europe, so popular have these events become.
His short speech over, the soloists and the conductor, Brian Kay, took their places, and the orchestra struck up the overture. At this point, I noticed a really interesting phenomenon. Up until then all the people I’d been watching, far away on the other side of the hall, had been sitting relaxed in their seats, sometimes bending down to adjust their belongings, sometimes chatting to other singers beside them. But the moment that familiar music started it was if an electric current had passed through them all, or as if an order had been barked out. In an instant, everyone was sitting bolt upright, heads erect, their entire bodies looking alert and ready to sing.
After a beautifully sung aria from the young tenor (“Comfort Ye, My People”) the conductor signalled to singers on the ground floor of the auditorium to stand. It was really at this point that we became aware of how different it would be to sing in such a huge hall with so many other singers. We could see the conductor, but from our position high up in the Circle, he was just a tiny figure far below, and when we lifted our music to sing, he became invisible behind it! Instead of relying on him for cues as to when to come in, when to slow down, and all the other more subtle variations in the performance, we’d be dependent on hearing other voices singing our part in other areas of the auditorium, the singers who were much closer to the conductor and could therefore follow his directions.
I think it’s fair to say that the first few choruses were a little bit ragged, while the singers gradually got used to the acoustics. At one point, I could see the conductor frantically signalling to the huge mass of sopranos to sing more quickly, but, however distinguished and able he may be, it’s a brave man who takes on a thousand sopranos alone, and very wisely he deferred to their group judgement and allowed the choir to find its own pace. Before very long, our little group had relaxed in the knowledge that any musical mistake we might make would be lost in the huge volume of sound being produced by so many singers.
One of the delights of singing with these big choirs at the RAH is being able to watch and listen to the soloists. For this performance, the soloists were all very young singers in training for professional careers, and to me at least their extreme youth added poignancy to the music.
Our position in the Circle meant that we were well placed to make a dash in the interval to the bar, so by the time the second half began and our gin/vodka’s were taking effect, we were feeling quite comfortable and ready to tackle the remaining choruses with enthusiasm. By now, the choir was (almost) singing as one, so that by the time we reached the famous Hallelujah Chorus, I think we produced a very creditable performance. Knowing that our audience would all have been eagerly anticipating this most famous of all choruses probably tipped the tension rates up a notch, and I think we all gave it all we’d got. It certainly got a rapturous reception from the audience! Many people think that the Hallelujah chorus is the final part of the Messiah but in fact there are more arias to follow, before the last chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” leading into the final section known as the Amen chorus. This is a far more sombre and spiritual chorus, and I felt that the huge choir sang it with a surprising amount of sensitivity and feeling, perhaps aided by the knowledge that this marked the end of the occasion.
Discussion of the evening had to be postponed until we’d accomplished the journey back to the railway station, but, once on the homeward-bound train, we shared our thoughts. My daughter and I agreed that we hadn’t experienced the huge rush of emotion felt by a lot of singers, which was a surprise and a bit of a disappointment, but I suspect that this was due to our position in the Hall. Because we were so high up, the sound of the rest of the choir was coming to us almost as if we were listening to a recording, whereas I think that if we’d been seated downstairs in the main auditorium we’d have been far more aware of being part of a huge group of singers. We agreed that it was only towards the end of the concert that we’d really relaxed and enjoyed ourselves, so we’re all keen to have another go before too long. It was clear from the joy and sense of achievement on some of the faces around us that taking part in this event means a huge amount to many people and I suspect that like them, we’re already hooked and will be booking our places for the next big chorus. This time though we won’t get so stressed about our musical abilities (or lack of them) as all we need to do is relax and prepare to enjoy ourselves and let the music and the other singers scoop us up and carry us along with them.
Contributing Author: Janet Hamer
For more information about how The Really Big Chorus began, and how to get tickets, the website to go to is www.trbc.co.uk