Monday, 25 November 2013

Review of Jude Law in Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre in London, November 23, 2013

It's telling that this production is at its best when Jude Law is playing Henry the man rather than Henry the King.

As the King, Law lacks the big-voiced bravado and brio that you expect from Shakespeare's battle-hardened Henry V. But as the Man, Law is charismatic, convincing and winningly human.

That's the main reason why the second half of Michael Grandage's production is so much more enjoyable than the first.

True, Shakespeare loads the first act with so many bishops blathering on about the politics of the day that it's more like a challenging history lesson than a drama. All Law and the sell-out audience can do is sit, watch and wait for the action to start - Law from his throne at the very back of the sparse, white-washed wooden stage, the rest of us peering down the alarmingly steep drop from the top of the old-school Noel Coward Theatre.

When Law is finally called upon to be kingly he seems a bit uneasy, maybe like the young king himself. Even now I'm always amazed at how Shakespearean actors so brilliantly memorise such complex poetry but on this first preview night Law seems in a bit of a rush; "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, " in the midst of Agincourt fizzes past without quite capturing the epic grandeur of the moment.

The Happy Few scene, in contrast, is very nicely done. Law's pre-battle rallying cry starts with his older courtiers scattered around the edges of the Globe-style semi-circular set. By the end he's encouraged a passionate huddle of fighting men with their arms around each other like pre-match footballers around the centre circle: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

But it's in the second half that Law and the rest of the cast really hit their stride. Confidence visibly grows and the audience comes alive. The undoubted highlight is Law's wooing of Jessie's Buckley's charmingly resistant Princess Katherine after his defeat of the French. He paces around her like an agitated teenager desperate to win her first kiss; teasing, cajoling and pleading in pigeon French until he finally faces her on his knees and wins the day just as her father walks in to great comic effect.

Law, now 40, oozes easy Hollywood star quality ten years after that Oscar nomination for Cold Mountain. This is his finest seduction since the clinch with Cameron Diaz in The Holiday that almost won him the MTV Best Kiss Movie Award back in 2006.

The direction feels solidly and traditionally authentic and the play still has resonance; the nationalistic rows between stereotypical Welsh and Scottish characters - complete with one Welshman's victim being forced to bite into a leek - strike a chord in a Britain on the brink of a Scottish independence referendum.

Shakespeare himself could have wandered in straight off St Martin's Lane and felt right at home. And that's good enough for me.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Review of Depeche Mode at Manchester Arena on November 15, 2013

Clifford the big brown dog
I lost track of him during the first number, Welcome To My World. Dave Gahan had just twirled on to the stage like a leather-bound spinning top. Manchester had roared. A fleet of space ships hovered above the stage spurting light and the Depeche Mode logo all over the arena:  > ⋀ ⋀.

I looked round to share a witty remark with him, but he'd vanished. Must be a bladder infection or something, I thought. He'd had to keep nipping to the gents between pints at the Wetherspoon's and the grimly contemporary Mitre pub near the cathedral. Why else would he keep going?

They say you've got the face you deserve when you get to 50. Dave Gahan is 51. He doesn't look four years older than me. I vividly remember the cherubic, chubby chap from Essex grinning his way through Just Can't Get Enough on Top Of The Pops. He's weathered the storms well. The drugs, the years, the bladder tumour. The countless feasts laid at his feet. From Epping to Manchester via world synthrock domination. Try walking in his shoes.

Still no sign of him after that singalong anthem. No text. No tweet. No nothing.

Why do bands seem to lose the joy of living when they get older? Would DM always have sounded like this if Vince Clarke hadn't created such cheerful melodies in the 80s? Would they look and sound plain daft jigging along to New Life thirty years on? That's what they were doing when we paid 80p to see them at Fagin's down the road in '81.

Now they make brooding, angsty, gothy noise - close your eyes during Angel and you could be listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Nobody's going to tweak a replacement hip joint dancing to that one. You sway, yes, you think, yes, but you don't dance, no. One Movember victim next to me conked out half-an-hour in. Splat. "Medic!" Carted off by his own personal Jesus.

Still no sign of him.

Maybe Enjoy The Silence marked the start of the DM transformation from kindergarten to autobahn. What a superb song that is. A magnificent closer on the night. Their gotterdamerung key to immortality. Just look around at the thousands of blackened souls living every word and drumbeat of it.

I didn't like the Martin Gore solo bit. No doubt that's because I just don't get enough, I'm not a proper fan, I'm mean-spirited and spiteful. All possibly true. But I paid my £65 plus booking fee to stand there after a Friday afternoon train rattle from that London and I'll say it: he looks sunken-eyed, spooky and unhappy. He makes me sad looking at him. Bring back Dave with his twirling, his Marc Almond showmanship and the happy evidence of a lifetime of sit-ups. Everything counts in large amounts.

Words like violence break the phone silence. A tweet: "Object of ridicule after I lost track of u. sloped off. C wot happens when u hit the north?" That's the Policy Of Truth, alright - another riffy winner on the night.

By now I'd threaded my way to the back to take in the widescreen view of Manchester loving every magical minute of the slow-burning Personal Jesus. The space ships descended and ascended spectacularly. The video screens offered HD proof of the passing of time and claustrophobic lady contortions. Melancholy but stirring nonetheless.

In the gents before the encore one fan, plastic beer glass in one hand something else in the other, was loudly hoping for See You, his night ruined if it wasn't played. He'll get over it.

A tram ride through the drizzle and I found him back in the Wetherspoon's, an unexpected pint of Guinness waiting for me. The drink suited the gig. Dark, roasted, creamy head. Bit too cold.

Monday, 11 November 2013

My Big Fat Culinary Week

For one week, I set out to cook each Dinner Tonight by Lindsey Bareham in The Times. The mystery factor of not knowing what ingredients I needed until I looked in the paper each morning was both exciting and irritating; I couldn't buy anything in advance which called for a daily trip to Waitrose and a steely determination to walk past the ready meal aisles. There were four of us doing the taste test every night. Was it worth it?

Haddock Risotto

Monday: Smoked haddock and parmesan risotto
Haddock Recipe

An immediate challenge on Day One. Everyone knows that risotto takes forever to cook, dribbling bits of stock on fussy rice a third at a time while stirring constantly, and we've all eaten botched, stodgy versions. The amount of haddock Lindsey recommended also seemed a bit stingy so I bought more which pushed up the cost a bit. As it turned out, it was quick and simple, blowing the risotto myth out of the water. And the dinner table verdict - satisfied Mmmmms all round.

Delicious. Smokey, creamy, tangy and very satisfying. Served with a French Sauvignon Blanc for extra sharpness.

Cost of ingredients: £18
Haddock Bill

Aubergine Linguine

Tuesday: Linguine with aubergine, mint and ricotta
linguine recipe

Aubergines, eh? Sounds bland, but the rest of the ingredients looked tasty - chilli flakes, mint, celery, a big dollop of Ricotta cheese. And everybody loves a bit of pasta on a Tuesday. Let's give it a go.

Disappointing. Aubergine too chewy - I think I should have cooked it for longer - sauce too thick with no juices for the linguine to absorb. 
Chilli flakes and mint were kick-ass flavours but we couldn't taste the ricotta cheese. Might have another bash at this one because I'm sure it should taste zingier than that.

Served with Chilean cabernet sauvignon.

Cost of ingredients: £11
Linguine bill

Wednesday: Lancashire Hot Pot
Gah! The Times recipe was for another veggie dish - Pan Haggerty. Didn't fancy another day without meat for dinner so I opted for another traditional British dish using this recipe from The Guardian. I thought it was unusual in calling for lamb chops to be thrown in the pot complete with bones - surely that would result in a big faff for everyone eating it.
It took about three hours to cook in the oven: it was good but a bit over-cooked: I forgot Grace's piano lesson and had to keep it warm for half an hour which made it a bit greasy with dried-out sauce. Nobody enjoyed picking the bones out of it but the meat was deliciously flaky. 
Served with steamed cabbage and leaks.
And a bottle of excellent Jaipur IPA followed by one of their Swan Pale Ales.

Lancashire Hot Pot

Cost of ingredients and beer: £23:
hot pot bill

Thursday: Ginger noodles with sesame white fish

Now this is more like it. Really enjoyed this one. Very simple to cook, fresh and tangy taste, fish tender and flakey. Again, bought more lemon sole than suggested because the amount in the recipe seemed a bit stingy. The sesame seeds did tend to pop everywhere during the frying and there wasn't a lot of liquid for the noodles to absorb. Joe complained that none of the dishes this week had enough sauce. I blame the cook, not the recipe.
Forgot to buy any soy sauce and had to settle for non-black sesame seeds. 
Cost of ingredients: about £18.50.

Fish noodles recipe

Fish Noodles

Here's the receipt:
Noodles Bill

Friday: Eating Out!

So was it worth it? 
Yes it was. It was a satisfying exercise and added variety to the usual weekly menu. But the daily trip to Waitrose became a pain. Better, I think, to plunder a few recipes from the archive and cut the checkout visits to a couple a week.
With the haddock risotto I've discovered a new favourite but I won't be troubling the guys at Masterchef just yet.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Review of Steve Mason at The Ritz in Manchester on November 2, 2013

There can be few better ways to celebrate Manchester City's first top-flight 7-0 win since 1968 than by enjoying a couple of cheeky Unicorns at the Briton's Protection before heading to The Ritz for some soulful Scottish rabble-rousing.

Steve Mason's face-punching new album, Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time, is almost certainly the only one this year to feature quotations from both Dante and Tony Blair. It hints at dark political arts, hypocrisy and a sinister establishment squeezing the pips out of Britain until it honks.

As poetic as Elbow and as strident as a student sit-in, Steve's lyrics scuff with snout and paw while his melodies drift along like Beta Band lullabies. He's at his best when he's bobbing like Boz, tambourine in one hand, bongo stick in the other, piano chords plonking away stage right, urging innocent bystanders to, "Get up and fight them back, with a fist, a boot and a baseball bat."

Some of the more wistful album tracks may have killed the vibe a bit when played live but not for long when there's Steve's Fight The Power shipyard rhetoric between songs and killer melodies like Come To Me to tingle-up the evening with kitchens full of distinction.

Colin kept hoping Steve would surprise us with an impromptu version of Beta Band favourite Dry the Rain, Marco kept telling everyone it'd get going in a minute (one drum kit too few for him) but Guy and I had a great nodding along to a hugely original 90-minute set.

Alarmingly, Steve left it to Blair to have the last word on the night with the sample on gig-closer Fight Them Back: "The thing about Libya, it's potentially a goldmine of a country."

So with Bambi ringing in our ears, we scuttled out into the Manchester drizzle and headed back to the pub before sleeping with the flowers in mile and miles of Albert Squares.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Review of The Wedding Present at Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, on November 1, 2013

I used to love The Wedding Present. I played their wonderful George Best album all the time when it came out in 1987. The combination of desperately bittersweet lyrics and three-chord guitar riffs created some of the best indie pop love songs ever written.

When I was asked to write the weekly Rock On column at the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford in '88 I upset the city's majority of heavy rock fans by insisting on featuring a David Gedge story every week. It didn't help that they were from deadly rivals Leeds down the M606 but that was close enough for me.

Their albums and single after single were great, but their live sound was even better - fuller, feistier and less timid than the recorded WP. One of the happiest, joyful, grin-daft gigs I ever saw featured the band jumping up and down in a circle on stage at the Academy in Manchester to the magnificent chorus of Brassneck. I even went to see their roisterous Ukrainian incarnation somewhere in the ever-dimming past.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing wry, spry David a few times. When I once unwisely complained that they'd run out of Large tee-shirts at one gig he told me to lose some weight and buy a medium. Wise words.

So what a treat to see the band just down the road on Friday. This was the Hit Parade tour, the chronological playback of the dozen singles they charted in 1991. By then I'd left the newspaper and was busy getting married so I wasn't paying full attention to their oeuvre. It was a joy to hear it, see it and feel it lifting the burden of years off the grown-up indie kids in the crowd who came to London but never forgot how to hit the north. There were plenty of Large and Extra Large tee-shirts on sale this time - the George Best version looks even better now than it did then.

Gedge is still the coolest indie kid on the block, Katharine Wallinger is the best bass guitar singer currently wearing a dress and the bonus live addition to the Hit Parade of Brassneck still raises neck hair (all that's left for a lot of fans) and beckons goose bumps from first chord to last.

I'd watch them every week if I could.