A play about legal aid cuts… no, wait, it’s not that bad, please, don’t stop reading, give it a chance. Still here? Good, so, as I was saying…
Legal aid and the government’s decision to reduce eligibility to claim it is maybe not the most riveting of topics for a play. So when the Bush Theatre commissioned Rebecca Lenkiewicz to write such a play, there are many thoughts that spring to mind. Such as:
You want what as the topic of a play?
Are you mad?
Why did she actually say yes?
and the list goes on. Thankfully Lenkiwicz did said yes. And gave very good reason for that.
Such a remit in the hands of mere amateurs would no doubt be a disaster, then again, most things in the hands of amateurs usually are; take this review for starters. The first things that come to mind about legal aid, for those of us a little left leaning, is how it will create a two tier legal system, how the less fortunate of society will be trodden upon as they fail to get the help they need. So it would be all too easy to write something that shows this in all its ugly truth, the rich against the poor played out in the courtroom, the under-privileged against the privileged, and we all know where that ends.
It’s a relief then that Lenkiewicz goes for a more subtle approach. While our central character, Gail, may be a lawyer struggling to pay the bills of her small community based firm, it’s hardly noticeable for much of the time. In fact the two halves of the play both open around her (disastrous) blind dates as she seeks out romance to get away from the pressures of the day job. It’s humorous as we watch first the discomfort as the dates clatter along without success, and then they are used to subtly introduce the topic at hand; both dates in fact being just an excuse for the men to try to get help with their own issues, both unable to afford proper legal assistance.
Interspersed with her doomed love life we see her legal firm; her and an assistant, and the pressures of running this as funding is slashed. It may be subtly done, but for anyone with knowledge of the type of people who are the clients of such firms, it is clear what the message is going to be.
Over the course of two enjoyable hours we see reference to who is going to be most affected by such cuts; those with low level mental health, those living in sub-standard housing, those earning just enough to survive but not enough to employ a solicitor when things go wrong. Again, the list goes on, but it can be simplified maybe by just saying “the poor.” Or if you are a Tory lover, that can be rephrased for you as “unimportant people.”
The play flows smoothly, scenes move quickly from the blind dates around the restaurant table, into the law firm, into the lives of those affected and in need of such help. And slowly the picture is built, that these are people who aren’t scroungers, they aren’t leeching off us hard working upstanding citizens, but rather, and for various reasons, they are people in need of help. And the play shows that the help is going to vanish, leaving those who need this help stranded. Simple as.
The problem as ever with plays such as this is twofold. Firstly, in its simplicity. It is near-on impossible to do justice to such a serious topic in two hours whilst also entertaining. Second, and maybe more importantly, it’s already preaching to the converted. I doubt anyone who bothers to turn up to this charming little theatre in Shepherds Bush is the type of person who doesn’t already agree with Lenkiewicz’s views of being “deeply troubled about the way society increasingly talks about the poor and less fortunate.”.
Then again, as she also says, “All I can do is shout loudly about it. A play may be a very small ripple, but it’s a start.” And there are a few minutes during “The Invisible” when that ripple becomes a wave, reaching a level of awareness that should be recorded and played over and over again to anyone who thinks legal aid should be done away with; I’m thinking we should all club together and hire a big screen to play it on outside the next Tory party conference, anyone fancy chipping in?
For we see Aisha, one of three totally varied characters played by the same actor, Sirine Saba (and to me, the absolute stand out performance). She sits and explains what has happened to her. The background already having been set earlier; an arranged marriage, moved to live with her new husband and his over-bearing mother, and quickly isolated and abused, physically and mentally.
She speaks softly and slowly, in stuttering English, how she feels, how she is in need of help but has not been able to find anyone who will listen to her. Yet. It’s an incredibly powerful few moments, gone is the light heartedness of it all for the briefest of scenes.
Then Gail begins to ask her to expand, and there is a sad beauty as Aisha repeatedly changes the subject, seemingly shocked that someone is, at last, taking her seriously, that there is help at hand to someone in a strange place with no friends, no support and no money. “It was my birthday on Saturday, we went to Kew Gardens” she explains in complete contrast to the violence she has been the victim of as she pulls out sweets to offer to Gail, as in a way of saying thank you for listening.
In those few minutes perhaps the very meaning of the play is in full glare for anyone who takes the time to watch it, and maybe in the audience each night might be one or two people whose opinions could alter, and that could be the small ripple Lenkiewicz is referring to?
So, still reading? In that case, please do think about going, it is a wonderful way to spend two hours in a wonderful little theatre.
I so want to be very flippant, casual and easy going when I write here, but at the same time, as anyone who knows me will testify, I can get just a little serious and way too deep in my thoughts. So “Violence and Son” left me in a real quandary. Because I am not sure I can be so causal about something that left such an impact on my thoughts, both good and bad, and left the girl sitting next to me crying as we stood to applaud the fantastic performance of the four actors.
But at the same time, I want to talk about the things that made this a great piece of theatre; the humour, the theatre’s layout, the endless Doctor Who references, as well as explain the pain of Sloane Square tube station being closed for the day meaning I had to walk through the high street on a Saturday afternoon trying not to imagine burning the whole place down.
So, maybe a review in two halves is needed. Let’s start with the serious…
I’ve been told recently that I have a pre-disposition to put myself into situations that I find uncomfortable. Apparently by generating my own discomfort I can fulfil my need to feel something. Yes I know, deep shit hey!
That theory though might explain why, after a week of work that involved the usual wide range of social problems for which it’s never easy to find a solution, I thought it would be a good idea to go and watch a play called “Violence And Son”; I think the title alone should make it fairly obvious where this was going to lead.
I’ve seen some “weird shit” (I’m loving that phrase, courtesy of Tracey, see my review of The Angry Brigade for the reason) but as the first half of this drew to a close, I was feeling more uncomfortable than normal in the small confines of the upstairs of the Royal Court theatre.
Firstly there was the context of the play, the alpha male who is happy with the fact he is nicknamed “Vile” short for violence, “you know, how when you are young you get a nickname based on what you do, like Pat the Butcher” explains the girlfriend, apparently equally relaxed that he is more handy with his fists than his mind.
Then there is the way the first scene of the play is so sweet, innocent and funny; Liam, the 17 year old son in the title, and his friend Jen, returning to his home after a Doctor Who convention, Liam dressed as the Matt Smith era doctor, Jen as Amy Pond as she first appeared in Doctor Who, a kissagram police woman. It is all very geeky with references to the series flying from their mouths. At the same time, there is a tension between them as the audience know full well Liam fancies her, but there is some innocence as to whether the feeling is mutual.
Even when the father and his girlfriend Suze are introduced, the humour and innocence remain, as the pair tease Liam about Jen; “a girl don’t wear a skirt that is nothing more than a belt just for a friend” the father explains to his son with a knowing wink. It’s all looking rather cute and sweet and nothing like the title suggests. Except well, we all know it’s not going to last.
As we hit the interval, “hit” being the word you need to place some emphasise on there, the violence of the title freshly played out right in front of us, there is a momentarily stunned silence in the room as the lights go out. As they come back, there is the normal chatter as the audience discuss it and get up to relieve the tension, in both body and mind.
While this is happening, I’m thinking “why do I do this to myself?” The absolute discomfort of the subject matter, the familiarity of scenes I have seen played out in real life, “He doesn’t mean to do it, it’s not his fault” being a phrase that seems so apt. And however unfair it may be, I feel a disgust at both myself and my fellow audience members for taken such a serious subject and treating it as just a piece of entertainment to pass a few hours of our middle class lives. This feeling really isn’t helped as I watch around me, a trio return from the bar with a bottle of wine to share, something so middle class and casual in this, something for a moment I want to scream out “how can you just drink that, surely you need to take in what you have just watched first?”
The second half is even more harrowing; suddenly a sledge hammer is causally laid against the wall. Where did that come from, I’m sure it wasn’t there earlier, and worse still, I’m now fixated by it, it clearly has a purpose. And again it’s reminding me of something else I have seen for real recently, not a sledge hammer but a garden fork, but the same thoughts were in my mind then.
The play drives on, the humour still there to break up the tension, but less so now as we wait for what we all know is going to happen at some point. Except it doesn’t, the title doesn’t play out that obviously.
Because this play suddenly turns in a way no one watching could possibly have been expecting, and it is that turn that I found so harrowing, driving home a concept that is at the heart of so much I feel strongly about; how our actions affect children, how children learn from their parents, their guardians, their protectors; that what we do later in life is so strongly influenced by what happens to us and around us when we are children. And I’m thinking that most of us in the audience had very good childhoods, so this is just a play, just two and a half hours of entertainment before we wander home for maybe another glass of wine, thankful we don’t have to deal with dreadful people like “Vile” for real, we just won’t come across them in our safe little lives.
As the play ends, you do feel the tension in the theatre, that final twist so unexpected. I think we could have handled the violence we were waiting for, we may have been upset but not as upset as we were with what we were given instead. This was worse, much much worse.
As we start to walk out I am talking to the girl beside me, the one crying, and I ask “has this really affected you that much?” She nods with a smile, and I do have some hope that she will be thinking about that when she is home, that maybe for some in the audience it isn’t just about a few hours entertainment to please our middle class needs, but also it will make us think a little more, understand a little more about the lives of others outside our happy norms, and maybe, just maybe, will change an attitude or two.
Too hopeful? I don’t know, but as I said, sometimes I think too much, maybe I should just think of this as two and a half hours of stunning theatre and leave it at that, it would probably be so much more healthy for me. Whichever, I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants to be stunned, shocked, moved;
Told you it was heavy shit didn’t I. I do apologise, and promise I will be more light-hearted when I write the second half of this later.
“I’ll come to the theatre with you. But none of your weird shit.” my friend and work colleague suggested while we were having lunch one day in April. For someone so respected in the office, she does sometimes have a direct and blunt way with words
Of course what I should have asked is “define weird.” I mean, just look at the big west end shows, surely they are “weird” when you think about it. we have people painted green, others pretending to be animals, shows based on wars, shows about autism, and god knows what else. So, what exactly is my “weird shit” anyway?
But taking her simple request into consideration, I settled on The Angry Brigade, clearly not weird at all. What is wrong with a play based (loosely) on true events from the early 70s when a small group of activists bombed a number of big targets to protest against their perceived commercialisation of the world. See, perfectly normal, nothing weird at all in that, move along, nothing to see here thank you very much.
I’m fairly certain she agreed. As I forwarded on the emails from the theatre to tell us more about the play and its history, I took her comment of “oh god what have I let myself in for?” as a clear sign her interest had been piqued. Then the night of the play finally with us, I introduced her to the marvelous Bush Theatre; “yes, it is a converted library, what’s weird about that?”
So what about the play anyway, this perfectly normal play that I picked to avoid anything too weird? Well, it really is a play of two halves, both in content and style. The first half sees the four actors as the police seeking out the activists. Then the second half they are now the activists, the same time period as the first half now re-run from their viewpoint.
As the police, everything begins very formal, very straight, very normal. Desks are neatly arranged, people correctly attired, formalities followed, tea and biscuits on offer, everything is as it should be. But as it progresses and the four police officers try to get into the minds of the activists, it slowly changes. The office becomes a mess, paper strewn everywhere, desks are moved out of line, and the officers become more relaxed, no longer the formality of earlier; in uniform or language. In short, they slowly descend into a form of anarchy.
In total contrast, the second half begins in chaotic, anarchic fashion. The four actors, now playing the activists, run around the theatre, scenes happen all over the small and intimate surroundings, making us look all around ourselves to see where the voices are coming from. Scenes descend into song and dance for no apparent reason other than it is anarchy. Other scenes flick quickly between time lines, no longer the more linear approach of the first half. And yet as they head towards the moment where the two halves collide and end, there are suggestions that the anarchists are becoming more formal; tea is even being served.
Lines slowly become blurred between the two halves, the police formality trails towards anarchy while the anarchists seem to seek more formality. You are left wondering who are the good guys and who are the bad? After all, how can the bad guys be the ones claiming to want to help others, and yet how can the good guys be the ones planting bombs? As with so much, there is no real answer, no black and white, just many blurred lines in-between.
There are some stunning performances, the ease with which the four actors switch between characters, one moment a police officer, the next a witness, then later an activist, leaves you admiring how flawless and flowing it all is.
There is clearly some artistic licence to the play, and I’m sure if I were to research the real history, much of what was portrayed tonight would be debatable as to its truthfulness.
While set in 1971, it had the feel of today, and maybe it can be questioned how much of the premise was influenced by today’s thinking. Concepts of commercialisation, a lack of trust in authority, politicians having vested interests, all maybe as true today as when the Angry Brigade were rallying against them in their time.
But as with all good theatre, the aim is to make you think, to make you discuss it. And discuss it me and my friend did as we wandered back to the tube afterwards; the concept, the stunning performances, the fantastic use of such minimal staging, and the perfectly normal non-weirdness of it all… ok, maybe the last wasn’t discussed, maybe that was in my mind?
And in-between our happy deep ramblings about what we had just seen, she stated “I want to read what you write before you put it on your blog.” And for a moment I thought that would be only fair, but then on second thoughts, we had just seen a play about anarchy, and well, I thought it only right that I should have this one act of rebellion, it’s the anarchist in me, live with it darling, live with it.
So I publish and be damned. After all my friend, it’s all just more of my “weird shit.” Take it up with me over lunch later while I try to convince you to come back to see something else perfectly as normal another time.
As The Royale drew to its close tonight I sat in wonder as our central character, the black boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson, entered the ring against the world champion, except that the person facing him was his sister, who in herself represented the black population of America in 1905 when the play is set. As the fight was played out in superb chorography, the pair entered conversation about what the fight meant, not just to Jackson himself, but more importantly, the whole of the black population of America.
It was a scene that left me in wonder as to how someone could come up with such an idea; I can get my head around a character to represent more than one person (the black population) and an idea or thought (racial tensions), after all this is what the chorus line in every Greek tragedy is about, but to then take that concept and play it out in the guise of a boxing match is just utter genius, tinged with a stroke of madness and explains why this play has had such great reviews and is now sold out for the remainder of its run.
It’s very loosely based on the life of a real boxer, Jack Johnson rather than Jay Johnson. Jack Johnson did fight for the world heavyweight crown in 1905, a fight that did cause massive controversy at the time because he was black. Major liberties are taken with his story, but that is because the play isn’t really about him, but about the racial tensions of the times.
While the play closes with the boxing match ending, it also closes with the knowledge that more fighting is beginning in the form of the riots and tensions that occurred for real when Johnson won the fight, outrage that a black man could be the heavyweight champion and beat the white man, and that the black population celebrated. It’s a powerful end, more so because of the imagery of the sister as the opponent rather than the actual boxer.
The staging is as simple as it can get. The centre stage, surrounded on all four sides by banks of seating, is just a wooden square that shakes as the actors move around, and the only items used are two wooden stalls. And yet it doesn’t matter, it is a boxing ring from the moment the actors set foot on it and start the opening scenes, and it is the changing rooms of the boxing hall when they are talking pre-fight, it doesn’t need lots of props, just the right words and a little imagination, something that this play has plenty of.
The fights are played out in an imaginative way as well, at times the opponents aren’t even close, or looking at each other. At one point Jackson is addressing the audience with his thoughts, and as he swings his fists, his opponent folds over as if hit. It might sound stupid, but it works, the power of the words and the visual effect making the fact no punch really landed so unimportant.
This was a play that left me stunned on so many levels; I was in awe of not just the brilliance of the acting, the writing and the actors, but it also left me wanting to know more about the real boxer, and the history behind him and the real fight. Something that I did as soon as I was home, reading up on the real boxer and the issues around the troubles that the fight caused.
And it was a play I wanted to talk about, the first thing I did on leaving was text a friend with the less than subtle message “fucking hell that was powerful”, maybe not my most eloquent use of words, but I feel expressed how I felt in that moment.
Perhaps it’s not until the encore tonight, the epic eighteen minutes of Lights, that some people may have first glanced to the wings of the stage, as the first five minutes of the song are basically performed there; built up layer by layer on piano and programming by Danny Griffiths and Darius Keeler, the founding members of Archive, and yet two guys clearly happy to remain out of the limelight, leaving that to the two vocalists who do take the center stage for the rest of the night.
It’s normal at a gig that the focus is on the singer, or at a push the lead guitarist. After all, these are usually the guys thrust to the front of the stage and are the main actors in the performance. And more often than not, the singer is also the main man in the band and has an ego so big that heaven forbid you don’t look at him all night long.
But Archive are an abnormality in this basic concept. The heart of the band stay almost hidden in the wings with their keyboards and electronic paraphernalia, making the wall of sound that allows the others to work around them and the audience to feed on with ecstasy. At times it can seem they are doing nothing except watching the rest of the band, one just waving arms furiously, arms pumping so fast that at times I was genuinely worried he was going to either disconnect his shoulder or punch himself in the face. In fact once your eyes were able to draw away from center stage, this did become a sight that you just had to keep going back to, seeing him do what I’m sure so many of us did as kids, waving arms around, pretending to play guitar or conducting the rest of the band.
The two vocalists complement each other well, enough contrast in their styles that you never really question the need for both of them. Opening tracks “Feel It” and “Fuck U” have an edge to them that work well for the more flamboyant nature of one, while as the tone changes completely for “Dangervisit” and “Finding It So Hard” the softer tones of the second vocalist make it seem as if every band should be doing it this way.
The evening is a build up of sound, there is little pause at all as song after song merges from one to the next, very rarely does a song just end to allow time for applause, rather even as one song draws to its close, there is a natural transition immediately into the next. This isn’t a series of songs, rather a continuation of a sound that lasts from first note of the evening to the very last.
Archive are massive in Europe, and from tonight’s performance you can see how they could hold stadiums and festival crowds in the palms of their hands, slipping from rock band to electronic to god knows what else with infinite ease. It’s just a real shame that for a British band they can go so unnoticed here, and yet thankfully while it could be easy to just go through the motions in a venue so much smaller than what they normally play in the rest of Europe, they still clearly put everything into tonight.
Tonight was a gig that will stick in the mind for a long time, and yet if asked about individual songs, it’s almost impossible to name any, rather it is the overall feel of the night, of the power of the sound, and of course of the arm waving madness of our man in the wings.
About halfway through his set, Nick Mulvey announced he wanted to try something; to do a purely acoustic song, and not only that, but do it in the middle of the crowd, not from the stage. Well Nick, you may be an incredible guitar player, you may write the most beautiful songs with the most amazing hooks, but you are not yet godlike enough to do that successfully, not in the Roundhouse at least.
It was an error that almost destroyed the whole gig. Anyone who knows the Roundhouse will know the name describes the venue perfectly, it’s very round. You stand in the middle and most of the audience is so widely spread only those immediately around or up on the small balcony can see a thing. And because no one had a clue what was going on, we weren’t even sure you had started or what was happening, well, people just got bored. The first most of us knew something had happened was when a cheer went up and he suddenly reappeared on the stage asking “was that good, did you hear?” No Nick, we fucking didn’t and all you did was give the idiots around us more reason to just talk.
The big problem tonight was that it appeared too many people were there for reasons other than the music. Clearly Nick Mulvey is a cool act to see right now, and playing at Camden’s Roundhouse just doubles the cool factor. So I can only assume people turned up for the sole reason of saying “I was they, how cool am I!” And with the mellow nature of much of the music, the subtle sound of every note, it was too quiet, the chattering crowds around me could be clearly heard drowning out so much of the music. One girl even had the nerve to complain about being asked to shut up. I mean, really, you would think we had paid to listen to the music, not her life story.
When I mentioned this on twitter, it was good, in a strange way, to hear others agree, even being told by one girl that she almost ended up in a fight for complaining about the same!
Of course, this rant is pointless, no one who turned up and chatted has any interest in reading about the night, they just need to be able to say they were there. Ignorant pricks.
….. RANT OVER…
So anyway, back to the gig.
Nick Mulvey is clearly a talented musician, I mean, he played the Hang in his time with former band, Portico Quartet (look it up, it’s real! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hang_(instrument))and he seems to have put together a band that can support him in highlighting that talent, although he now concentrates on the guitar, maybe a good career move if he wants a little more commercial attention.
He walked casually on stage, baseball cap in place, which seems almost to be a trademark look, I’m sure it is the same one he wears on the album cover? No theatrics as he takes centre stage, the band giving him all the space, afterall, it is him we have come to see and hear.
From the opening bars of Alisa Craig, its gentle sweeping sound gradually building up, the audience, at least those of us who were interested, were rapt. The Roundhouse allowing his sound to flow and fill the room, the minute detail of his guitar work crystal clear.
He rattles through song after song, flawlessly, with the majority of the audience in his hand. As the band leaves him alone to do an acoustic “I Don’t Want To Go Home” I’m starting to think he can’t do any wrong. And then, that fatal error, the acoustic song in the crowd.
He returns to the stage and is straight back into the music again, but he’s lost parts of the audience now, and the beauty of the sound starts to get lost as it fights against the background chatter of those idiots who think this is a pub and the music is for their background pleasure while they talk about their boring lives… yes maybe unfair, but fuck ’em, rude c’~#s.
Maybe “The Trellis” is not the right song to have resumed with, it’s too subtle, too soft, and not powerful enough to stop the chatters, or loud enough to drown them out. Even the distinctive opening of the album’s title track, “First Mind” doesn’t do enough to stop them talking, so again, the lovely sound is half lost.
It’s only when he draws the main set to a close with “Cucurucu”, probably his most singalong track, the chatters seem to remember why they were there. I could almost have laughed when one such person declared at the top of her voice, “oh I love this one” and finally shuts up. The response that we should have given her is “we loved the rest, more than your boring monotone voice”, but I doubt she would have noticed the irony.
The two song encore returned us to the start of the evening, the audience seemingly more engaged again, and as the sounds of “Nitrous” built up, again the night seemed perfect, and over too quickly.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the gig, apart from the five minutes of silence wondering what on earth was going on, not able to hear a sound. So, a good night, a great musician, let down by a bad attempt at connecting with the audience, and further by a lack of respect from certain parts of an audience who should have stayed in the pub.
So Nick, if you are reading this, I will come to see you again, as long as you promise not to try to sing in the middle of the audience again (unless it’s right next to me, I am selfish like that) and if you promise to remind your audience to shut up so the rest of us can enjoy your performance. Do we have a deal?
Quite often when a band finds commercial success, it can be at the risk of losing their old fans. This is often pure and simple music snobbery; “Oh I liked them before they sold out” being the line you most expect to hear, the people who like to think they are music trend setters, seeking out the new up and coming bands to show how hip they are, then dropping them when they find fame, to show again how cool they are.
And other times, it is because the band changes; maybe following a style that is more commercial but less appealing to some, losing the edge that attracted some of their original fans. I know full well this has happened to me in the past, and I’m sure it will happen again. I like to think when I go off a band, it’s this reason, not because I don’t want to listen to them now they are slightly more popular.
And so that brings me nicely onto Elbow, one of the best kept secrets for so long until that pesky Mercury Music award win thrust them into the limelight back in 2008. Way back in 2001 with the long overdue release of their debut, “Asleep In the Back”, I was in awe of their beautiful landscape sounds. I wasn’t the only one, that album being nominated for the Mercury award at the time. But commercial success was always just on the horizon, and by the third album, their record label had clearly lost faith and they were dropped.
In that time though, a hard core fan base remained, and they stayed true to their sound. Then out came “The Seldom Seen Kid”. I remember laying in bed one night, hearing it for the first time on XFM, when the band talked the always knowledgeable John Kennedy through the album track by track, explaining the stories behind the songs and how it all come about. And I was once more transfixed by their beauty, their well crafted song, their sheer perfection. And I also listened to every track as the radio played them out thinking “This isn’t going to break them into the big time, this album is just too un-commercial, nothing to grab the mass radio audience here”, I knew full well me and the other devotees could keep them as our lovely secret without having to tell people that we preferred them when they weren’t famous.
Yes, ok, I may have misjudged that one then. A million plus sales later, a shed load of awards, world tours, I admit it, I misjudged it just every so slightly. And I am so happy that I did, because Elbow should never have been a secret, they deserved to be seen as a band that they made albums that should be cherished and held up as an example of what music should be all about.
So here we are then tonight, Hammersmith Apollo, a crowd packed in and waiting with high expectations. The staging is as simple as always, it’s about the music after all. About the only addition from previous times I have seen them in smaller venues is a small staggered section to one side for the strings and brass section, a few lighting rigs, a plain back drop, nothing to distract from what we are here for, fine music. If you are as good as Elbow, you just don’t need distractions.
The band saunter onto the stage casually, no great fanfare, just taking their places, a quick count in and straight into the latest album opener, “This Blue World”, a slow builder of a song that rises and falls and highlights the surprising smoothness of Guy Garvey’s voice. Then from the new to the old, “Any Day Now” a nod to that debut album, but showing that while they have matured in age, the music has always been of a high quality. This isn’t a case of doing a few old ones to fill the gaps, this is old songs because they deserve to be there.
In-between songs Garvey banters with the audience, at ease and at home, not long rambles, sometimes one-liners, sometimes a little more, on a couple of occasions giving a background to the next song or answering back some calls from the audience. He is a natural, maybe doing this for 20 years has honed his skills, or maybe doing a radio show on the side has given him more gift of the gab. Either way, it’s fine entertainment and the audience lap it all up. Even when he starts to tell a story about one of the crew who has run onto the stage, only to end the story with “I should have a punch line for that really shouldn’t I” he is still greeted with cheers.
But we came for the music, a run through the new and old. And while emphasise is given to the new as you would expect, the old is not ignored at all, at least one song from every album finds its way into tonight’s set list (http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/elbow/2015/eventim-apollo-london-england-13ca0d99.html), not always the ones you might expect, but with a back catalogue this good, they could play a different set list every night and it would still be of top quality.
They surprise the audience by throwing in “One Day Like This” early on, the song that is first on everyone’s lips when you mention Elbow, and the one you would expect to be saved for the closer. But it is dropped so casually in, “Here’s one you might know” declares Garvey as the opening bars play out and the audience explode ready to sing. It’s a show stopper, and will always be so. “Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year would see me right” is sung back and forth between band and audience, Garvey directing proceedings, pitching it perfect, milking the refrain for every ounce of effect. And then as soon as he decides it is finished, fantastically moving on by declaring that the next song, “Bitten By The Tailfly” is about “getting drunk, doing drugs and going out to pull.” The contrast is perfect, both lyrically and musically, the dirty guitar certainly different from the smoothness of “One Day Like This”.
As the evening draws closer to the end, we’re treated to the opening two songs from “Build A Rocket Boy”, but the first, “Birds” is a total reworking, taking the original and adding additional layers to the point it is almost a new song. And then “Lippy Kids”, made poignant as Garvey dedicates it to the person it was written for who recently passed away.
Then after the title track from the latest album, with its brilliant vocal performance “The Take Off and Landing Of Everything”, my personal highlight as they end the main set with “New Born” another from the debut album, and a song with the perfect opening line, “I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub, useless”, a line I remember listening to in 2001 and still hear today and smile at its poetry.
And then I did something I haven’t done in such a long time. Living in London is perfect, never any rush for trains, but not tonight, a train was calling for my gig partner and I actually had to leave just as the encore started, so I can’t even tell you how amazing it all ended, as I am sure it did. But it actually didn’t matter, the night was still perfect, the band were amazing, Garvey was the front man he was always destined to be, and it was just good to see a band that I have followed for so long continuing to be seen by the bigger audiences, showing that they twenty years of hard word was well worth it, not selling out, not changing to meet the demands of the record label, just doing what they do until the world looked up and noticed them like us lucky ones who were there in 2001.
But saying that, I am actually a terrible music snob, and proud of it. But now and again, I make an exception to the rule, and for that reason I am still in love with Elbow.
There is a blackboard in the foyer of the theatre that simply says “287,182 people have screamed at Ghost stories. And all have kept the secret.”* The area around the number shows obvious signs of constant rubbing out, so it looks like someone has the role of updating this on a regular basis. Well, that makes it hard to write about it without giving too much away doesn’t it. But here goes…
The show is exactly what the title suggests, a collection of ghost stories all perfectly fitted together around a narrator. One of the things I enjoy with theatre is seeing how a narrator is worked into the story, and often a show will live or die on the strength of that one character. That is even more true with Ghost Stories, as the narrator, cast as a parapsychologist presenting a lecture, spends long periods alone on the stage, building the tension for the audience as he gives his talk that initially shows his disbelief in ghosts and ghouls, but as things develop you start to suspect something deeper going on in his denial.
The staging is well done. starting with just a lecture rostrum on the front of the stage with the curtain down. As the stories unfold, the set moves around the performers. For example, the first story is set in an old warehouse type building, and the simple set is just one room, that turns as the actor moves out to walk around the building, turning into a corridor, and then another room. Simple and effective, no doubt helped by the dimmed lighting and the fact the audience isn’t really concerned with the wobbly walls as they move, too focused on waiting for something scary to happen.Like all good ghost stories, they work best with an audience who are willing to suspend belief, who want to be scared. This is one show that just wouldn’t be the same with a polite demure audience waiting for the appropriate moment to clap and make any noise. Rather the show needs the background chatter as tension rises and falls. The writing is perfectly crafted for this, but what would you expect from a duo whose credits include The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson) and Derren Brown’s TV and stage shows (Andy Nyman). You can feel the withholding of breath, the discomfort of the more susceptible members of the audience as the tension builds, the shuffle of bodies as coats are lifted across faces ready to hide from the scare that could happen at any moment (https://twitter.com/GhostStoriesUK/status/553305308421181440 actually think I am sitting just under the words at the bottom of this picture.) It is this tension that makes a good ghost story, making even the most hardened viewer likely to jump when all those around you scream at just the right moment.
And as tonight’s audience included a whole school party taking up the best part of the front four rows, this audience was cannon fodder for the show. Even before it had started you could feel the tension. The eerie music and the flickering lights all creating a tense atmosphere that was having an effect even before the lights dimmed.
When things did really start and we got into the first of the stories, the audience were already primed, and just the rattling of a chain was enough to make some people yelp out well in advance of anything actually scary. But then, that is the art of a good ghost story isn’t it, those false moments when you expect something to happen, luring the audience into the hope that it won’t get any worse, when in fact everyone watching knows that soon something really is going to give you reason to scream.
For me, half the enjoyment tonight was the audience, and I do suspect this is the same most nights. Being in the third row, surrounded by the school group, meant I couldn’t help be drawn in to the tension as they almost sucked the air from the room as they all held their collective breaths. And sitting next to a young teen who spent the whole show with her coat pulled up to her chin, and at time over her whole face, squirming in her seat whenever things got even slightly tense, it all just added to the evening. Even if the clever staging and special effects weren’t going to make me react, having everyone around you jump and scream in unison certainly made sure we all got a fright too.
Ghost Stories is great fun, and even those who don’t do horror, it is still recommended. There is no gore, no long lasting memories of fear, it simply works well in making you jump, scream and then laugh at how simply you have been taken in by someone basically saying boo when you least expect it.
But remember, if you see it, don’t tell anyone the secret, or maybe the ghouls really will hunt you down for spoiling it for others.
* The number may be slightly wrong, and is obviously changed on a regular basis. In fact the words may be slightly wrong too, but the thought is right!