christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: July, 2016

‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.’ Review of Hamlet, Outspoken Theatre company, East Town Park, Haverhill

As a play, Hamlet is full of questions, the most famous of which perhaps is the life and death choice: ‘To be or not to be?’ But there was no question over the quality of the Outspoken Theatre’s superb production. In the atmospheric setting of East Town Park, with crows in the trees and the creeping dark of a summer night, the company staged an emotionally charged performance of this most daunting of works. With a minimalist set, director, David Hart let the poetry do the talking; his own voicing of the Hamlet’s father’s ghost  was exceptionally well done. He caused ‘each particular hair to stand on end/Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’

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There wasn’t a weak link among the cast, which was efficiently employed, with some playing two or even three parts, notably the versatile Candice Danleigh. Alfie Allin was compelling as a restless Hamlet, by turns brooding and animated, with darting eyes and wild flights of fancy. His leaps, bounds and cat calls made him a wonderfully unpredictable presence. But there was variety in his delivery too; a bar stool, upon which he perched to deliver some of his soliloquies, was a witty touch. Hart was also careful not to be too reverent: Gravedigger, (Debbi Walters in excellent voice throughout) ate a cheese sandwich during Hamlet’s ‘Alas, poor Yorick…’ set piece.

The fact that Hamlet and his friends are students was emphasised in both costume and manner. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (Emma Letcher and Jacob Simmons in mischievously good form) were seen helping themselves and filling their pockets with free food from the royal table. Lorraine Mason’s loyal Horatio meanwhile wore an Oxbridge style scarf. Her clearly spoken, level headed performance made her the stabilising presence in the otherwise spiralling madness of the Danish court.

The pace was sure footed and the first half was peppered with highlights. Alan Davison was a comic delight as the pompous, long winded Polonious and promising newcomer Daniel Payne gave a witty, vibrant performance as Laertes, at one point miming along to his father’s advice (‘To thine own self by true etc.) as if to show he had heard it all before. It is an odd part, as he is absent throughout much of the play, but his return at the end as the avenging brother was thrilling and his nimble sword fighting was an electrifying finale.

Steve Murray gave a suitably lascivious turn as the dastardly, usurping uncle, Claudius, who murders his brother and steals his wife. His naturally authoritative public tone was undermined perfectly by his guilt ridden, hand wringing soliloquies. In short, he was  the ‘something’ that was ‘rotten in the state of Denmark.’ Andy Letcher was accomplished in multiple roles, particularly as the decorously spoken Osrick, master of ceremonies at the sword fight.

But it was the two principle women who stole the show. Catherine Keeble gave a nuanced performance as Gertrude, conflicted by her love for her son, attraction to her new husband and desire to maintain her position in court. She was waspishly short when required (‘More matter, with less art,’ she instructs Polonius) but her delivery of the play’s greatest piece of poetry – her vivid, heart rending account of Ophelia’s death was masterful, clutching her ‘fantastic garlands’ as she sank into the ‘glassy stream.’ Billie Allen as Ophelia herself was superb, at once formidable with the courting Hamlet and haunting as she slides into madness and grief. Her broken singing and disturbing sense of purpose as she distributed flowers, a sort of natural justice, was the emotional heart of the play.

The company disappeared after the first curtain call, but easily deserved to return for another. They filled East Town Park with ghosts, dreams and poetry at the ‘very witching time of night.’

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Review: Born EP by Boo Hewerdine

The Born EP finds Boo Hewerdine in reflective, but never less than tuneful mood. The lead track, The Year That I was Born is a gently ironic meditation on the momentous events of the year 1961. From the publication of Catch 22 and the death of Hemingway to the ‘cracking of the genetic code’, he succeeds in producing a more measured, and quintessentially English, version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.  

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To stately piano and understated bass and percussion, he contrasts these seismic events with his own lethargy ‘(‘I let today just drift away’) and ultimately the admission that he was nothing more than a blip in history and just ‘another mouth to feed.’ However you cannot help but feel he was quite pleased to have made his own minor ripple in this eventful year. The major chords and gently ascending melody capture the optimism of the new decade, before being tempered by minor key diversions, suggestive of the looming threats of Cold War; he celebrates the: ‘post war girls and boys in a world that might explode.’ His voice, as always has a doleful clarity which seems to evoke pathos, resignation and humour in equal measure. It’s all quite beautiful. Further listening: That’s Me, by Paul Simon and That Was Me, by Paul Simon.

Hometown is an equally reflective piece and is delivered in a quietly dramatic performance. To the accompaniment of well mannered, front parlour piano, and with pastoral images of drifting clouds and passing bees, the narrative is pleasingly oblique. The theme, right across this EP, is the passing of time, and here, memory in particular is a place of sanctuary and retreat. It has a heartbreakingly beautiful bridge too.

Swimming in Mercury is a playful waltz with a bittersweet theme, namely that old television sets contained mercury, a deadly toxin that sat happily in the corner of the room beneath the plant pot and the school photo. It has the carefree resignation that is thoroughly charming.

If we are to skip past Tim Rice’s thoughts on the subject, Chess is hardly obvious territory for songwriters. However Boo hits a rich seam with Bobby Fischer, an elegiac two minute bio-pic of the 11th World Chess Champion, who placed himself into self-imposed exile in Iceland. The central tragedy is a genius who for reasons of his own turned his back on his talent, seeking ‘sanctuary in the land of ice and snow.’ The wordplay with ‘openings’ and ‘sacrifices’ is skilfully done and the chorus is strangely uplifting; the ironic counterpoint of the major key melody and downbeat sentiment is once again Boo’s trump card.

Finally, ‘Farewell’ is an elegant, doomed waltz that provides a fitting coda to an exquisite EP that is a love letter to Boo’s past. But far from being a pall bearer for the 20th century, with these songs you get the sense of Boo exploring his cultural influences, the landscapes of the past, drifting back to unlock his own identity and find the source of the river.