Star columnists run through what’s impressed them this year
SCOTLAND CHRIS BARTTER
CELTIC Connections enhanced its key “front-of-the-year” presence, with Lau and the Unthanks producing a powerful and at times overwhelming concert at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. It showed us where folk music can go when grounded in imagination, talent and technical ability and the electronic wizardry fused well with the pure sound of the human voice.
Another concert demonstrated both cross-fertilisation and how life impacts on art. Inspired by the debates around the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, it was the culmination of two years’ work by 10 female Scottish and English musicians living together on Eigg.
Organised by double bassist Jenny Hill, it included Eliza Carthy and Karine Polwart among others at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow. Ironically, although entitled Songs of Separation, the dominant theme was a coming together of national and regional traditions.
The new material was particularly poignant when it dealt, as it often did, with the human tragedy of the migrations across the Mediterranean.
Migration was aslo the theme of a magnificent highlight to the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) which featured Lau’s Martin Green, Becky Unthank, Dominic Aitchison, Adam Holmes, Aidan Moffat, Karine Polwart and Adrian Utley. All these talents were married with with the wonders of whiterobot’s torn-paper visuals in stories of forced and chosen travelling in search of a place to feel comfortable.
Elsewhere in Edinburgh, there were glimpses of the former strength of Scottish drama, with a rehearsed reading of David Greig’s Europe at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was a prescient glimpse back (forward?) into European crises and their relationships with moving peoples.
The 1916 Easter Rising inspired a number of shows, including Edinburgh TUC’s dramatic and musical look at James Connolly — labour leader, rebel general, family man and songwriter (who knew?) — at the EIF.
The Rising centenary was the theme of one Scottish event after another, including a great new historical walk around Glasgow and a new play on the little-known Margaret Skinnider — schoolteacher, feminist and sniper — whose story was the successful centrepiece of the Glasgow May Day Cabaret at Oran Mor.
Finally, the world of Cuban film cemented the second Havana-Glasgow Film Festival in November. The key themes of music, history, community and real life featured in the celebration of Cuba’s Cine Pobre festival. And the look at the key role of the Soviet Union in sustaining the Cuban revolution — Los Bolos en Cuba — took us neatly forward to next year’s important centenary.
DANCE SUSAN DARLINGTON
THERE has been a boom in feminist retellings of fairytales but few did it as intelligently as BalletLorent’s Snow White at Lawrence Batley theatre in Huddersfield.
Based on an adaptation by Carol Ann Duffy, the family friendly show carefully balanced tradition with the modern world.
Here the “dwarves” were crippled from years of poor working conditions and the magical mirror informed the Queen that her beauty was based on face-lifts and hair dye.
With fast-paced scenes and at times impressionistic physical theatre elements, the show contained enough narrative twists to keep it fresh and accessible for all ages.
Accessibility was also at the heart of Tap Factory (St George’s Hall, Bradford), in many ways a reimagining of Stomp.
Featuring a combination of found percussion — oil drums, stepladders and tin cans — with the modern rhythm of tap, its generous doses of humour never detracted from the talent on offer.
The eight-strong cast tap out polyrhythms, perform aerial acrobatics and create visual comedy with a never-ending bucket of sand.
The narrative would undoubtedly benefit from tightening up but it was nevertheless an entertaining show that opened up dance to new audiences.
Nederlands Dans Theater 2 at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford showcased the extraordinary mixed talents of its 18-23 year old dancers.
Across five pieces of work, they demonstrated balletic spins that were so technically demanding that they required three dancers to perform one role.
Twitching contortions responded to the musical punctuations and, in addition to the technical skills, the mood was impressionistically emotional, with a graceful pas de deux and a high-energy satirical piece set to mambo music.
This combination of styles and moods opened up the mixed programme’s appeal and made it a perfect introduction to contemporary dance.
THEATRE PAUL FOLEY
This year has been one long pantomime, with Cameron’s hokey-cokey referendum, Sir Jeremy slaying the rebel dragons and trumpets portentously heralding the arrival of Darth Vader to the Oval Office. Yet, in the north-west of England, minstrels and players kept hearts warm and hopes high.
Manchester’s Royal Exchange gave us a grumpy old King Lear, wonderfully played by Don Warrington, who prowled, muttered and stomped his way round the stage. But the big event was Maxine Peake’s stunning portrayal of Blanche duBois in a fantastic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Her performance, laced with pain and humanity, once again proved what an outstanding actress Peake is.
There was a little gem in the Exchange’s studio theatre. Katherine Soper’s brilliant Wish List, with an astonishingly good cast, inspired tears and anger in equal measure.
The year ended main house with a rousing revival of Sweet Charity, full of great songs and dance numbers. A real feel-good night’s entertainment.
In Liverpool, the Playhouse commemorated the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme, Frank McGuinness’s bleak poetic story of an Irish regiment’s slaughter in France in 1916.
It was gut-churningly sad, given the many young lives destroyed by an incompetent and uncaring military and political elite.
The Everyman gave us a rollicking, high octane Two Gentlemen of Verona, cementing associate director Nick Bagnall’s reputation as one of the best modern interpreters of Shakespeare.
The highlight of Bolton Octagon’s year was undoubtedly the fantastic production of Singing in the Rain. Pitch-perfect stuff and there was a marvellous revival of Charlotte Jones’s beautifully sad, funny and uplifting Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis at the same theatre.
Back in Manchester, HOME continued to stage innovative productions. Stowaway, Hannah Barker and Lewis Hetherington’s timely play about the plight of desperate people fleeing poverty in search of a better life reminded audiences of the fatal consequences of indifference to human suffering, while Niamh Cusack gave a commanding performance as Helen Alving in an excellent modern update of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. Another exciting and inspiring year.
MUSIC PETER LINDLEY
PURVEYORS of the f-word Johnny Lydon and human maelstrom in the making Jehnny Beth from Savages just about summed up 2016.
Lydon’s evergreen What the World Needs Now Is Another Fuck-off trashed minds at London’s Indigo 2 in a smart and techno springtime PIL gig and Beth’s words: “We can fight until we’re dead” and “Don’t let the fuckers get you down” on the track Fuckers must have pricked the senses of any unsuspecting normaloid at the Brixton Academy Savages gig in early winter.
Beth’s notable lyrics typified the rise of the female songwriter during the last 12 months and a few weeks earlier the crowd at the Brixton Academy was riveted by schizoid words of isolation and spiteful emotion from Daughter’s Elena Tonra, made all the more impactful by the band’s blissful sonic mix and Tonra’s indignation.
To hear Chant of a Poor Man live on a midsummer night, performed by legendary electro-techno outfit Leftfield at the Beautiful Days festival in Devon, was a joy. The wraps came off a band that should play more.
With a sound system to die for, Chemical Brothers at the SW4 festival in London was the epitome of all things electro-audio-visual, a consummate display of light and synchronised moving image stimulants to music — an invocation to gaze and dance headlong into the flicker and haze of the perfect rave.
For a newer form of electronic music the tone that stuck out the most in 2016 was one of dark-matter minimalism, decon(re)construction paving the way for zone-out heavy glitch and meta-wave after wave of deep pulse sound.
Foremost in this development was Autechure’s prog-electronica set at the Royal Festival Hall and Tim Hecker’s monumental sound-scape to darkness at the Barbican towards the end of the year.