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Star columnists run through what’s impressed them this year


A POWERFUL production of Eugene O’Neill’s epic family drama Long Day’s Journey into Night at Bristol Old Vic brought home the playwright’s description of a work written in “tears and blood.”

For once, the play did not focus primarily on the frustration of James Tyrone, with Jeremy Irons’s modulated performance conveying the guilt-ridden desperation of dealing with his damaged family. It allowed Lesley Manville’s Mary Tyrone, agonisingly escaping further into her drug-tortured dreams, to register the play’s dramatic tension.

There was a plethora of Shakespeare on show, marking the 400th anniversary of his death and, of the King Lears, Greg Doran’s RSC production at Stratford-upon-Avon featured a stellar performance by Antony Sher.

Unlike O’Neill, Shakespeare’s great tragedy relates the domestic with the universal. Lear’s is a savage journey from self-destructive blindness to an understanding of the human condition which embraces the “poor naked wretches” that people so many of our contemporary media images.

The RSC’s Don Quixote at Stratford’s Swan Theatre presented another view of our world where human follies are as entertainingly amusing as they are depressing.

James Fenton’s adaptation of Cervantes’s massive novel carries the audience through the attempts of the demented hero with his faithful Sancho Panza to resurrect the values of the lost chivalric world.

No pantomime this, as the play captures the book’s clever questioning of the relationship of fantasy and reality. A theatrical feast with philosophical undertones.

At the Edinburgh Festival, Interiors at the Royal Lyceum from Scotland’s Vanishing Point Theatre Company, with a household dinner party taking place entirely behind a huge glass screen, could have been entitled The Sound of Silence.

As voyeuristic observers, we watch and interpret the developing relationships as the introductory warmth of a festive opening becomes increasingly fragile. It spoke volumes without making a sound.

Barry Humphries’s Weimar Cabaret at The Usher Hall delighted with its evocation of Berlin’s musical eruption during the short-lived breathing space between the two world wars. Humphries divested himself of his Aunt Edna persona and informatively introduced the music of Weill’s less well-known contemporaries.

The curdled jazz rhythms, combining an insistent gaiety with a plaintive melancholy, underscored lives teetering on the edge of catastrophe.

Mark Thomas’s The Red Shed at the Traverse — still touring and well worth catching — celebrates with his characteristic high-octane energy and quick-fire wit the 50th anniversary of his spiritual home, Wakefield’s Labour Club.

With audience assistance, he relives his search for a lost memory of schoolchildren lining their playground railings, singing their support for a 1980s miners’ strike march and even gets his audience singing a version of the Red Flag. You can’t get more dramatic than that .

Oil by Ella Hickson at The Almeida Theatre in London ranged in successive scenes over 150 years, from the 19th-century discovery of oil, through the imperialistic exploitation of the Middle East’s wells and the rebellion against Western domination to a frightening future when the oil has run out and a dangerously arid nuclear world beckons.

This epic journey is married to a fraught mother and daughter relationship and if the parallel treatment of a caring but dominating parent to that of the great powers to their colonial subjects and servants doesn’t quite bond either politically or theatrically, the play grips our attention and is superbly acted by Anne-Marie Duff as May and Yolanda Kettle as Amy, her feisty daughter.


IN THE Lescar pub in Sheffield, Baltimore-born tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin — veteran of many a session with a stack of fine albums behind him — was accompanied by two young Englishmen, keyboard player Matthew Bourne and guitarist and electronics virtuoso Chris Sharkey. They delivered a memorable set.

Sharkey’s electronic birdsong, mixed with other strange sonics — banging cans, knocking wood, the sound of the London Underground, cymbal echoes and the heated furore of an orchestra of insects in a tropical night — meshed with Bourne’s interplanetary notes.

Eskelin, stony-faced and unsmiling, blew his phrases between long spaces — avant-garde shapes, yet with the beautiful tone of a classic pre-bop tenorist like Coleman Hawkins or Budd Johnson.

The whole history of the saxophone was in his every cluster of notes.

In Chelsea’s 606 Club, the launch of Benet McLean’s album The Bopped and the Bopless saw a quintet of all-British near-veterans, comprising pianist Julian Joseph, drummer Clark Tracey, legendary tenor saxophonist Steve Williamson and McLean playing some astonishing violin.

When they played Thelonius Monk’s Epistrophy, it was as if jazz was being invented again. Wonderful.

On the Barbican Free Stage at the London Jazz Festival, a young Scottish trio of saxophonist Helena Kay, prodigious bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer David Ingamells played a live and mellow set, including a memorable version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Brazilian lovesong, Luisa.

You could have been in Rio.

At London’s Cadogan Hall in November AZIZA, the quartet of tenorist Chris Potter, drummer Eric Harland, guitarist Lionel Loueke and ultra-deft bassist Dave Holland played with inventive zest and beauty. And with what human unity too — two black and two white musicians defied continents, oceans and Trumpery with an outpouring of musical brilliance.
Roll on 2017.


A MOST Uncivil War (Matador) by Nicolas Lalaguna is an utterly heartfelt and moving testimony of the years leading up to and during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.

Lalaguna compacts the class war across a whole nation into the sweaty, fetid confines of a small village in eastern Spain.

In doing so, the author exposes the explosive drama of each step taken by the Spanish working classes to attempt to liberate themselves.

Politically and emotionally engaged, it is Marxist literature at its most effective.

Just as the Spanish Civil War was a conflict of two major ideologies, so the events in Rufius (Barbican Press) by Sarah Walton reflect the clash between a brutal Christian establishment and the classical culture of learning.

The eponymous hero, one of the most marvellous literary creations, is an outrageously transgressive figure. Rufius is a learned and fleshly satyr, exciting ridicule and respect in equal measure.

The author comprehensively records life in the port of Alexandria in the quarter century leading up to the inter-faith massacres and wholesale destruction of the city’s famous library — the very place where Rufius has taken refuge.

The Britain of an immediate future is another place of conflict in John King’s furious and raw The Liberal Politics of Adolf Hitler (London Books). The European Union has mutated into the United States of Europe, which runs a society of intrusive technology, ruthlessly removes opposition and imposes bland but effective mind control.

King reminds us that nationalism does not have to be reactionary and can be viewed, even in a domestic context, as a liberation struggle against a powerful oppressor.

The question as to what is “terror” forms the basis of Philip Tucker’s provocative and moving novel The Jasmine Sari (Matador). Alex Cadman, a veteran of the 2005 London bombings, has been seconded to teach new recruits in a Dhaka academy. They are the guests of Akbar, a sympathetic and urbane police chief and his daughter Jasmina, herself a student.

A poorly built fabric factory collapses and the author agonisingly describes the still unstable building, like a giant cement mixer, spewing out the bodies and limbs of the victims.

Jasmina’s father is killed in the incident and Cadman and Jasmina are thereafter set on a course of personal decisions that will have a massive impact on their lives and those of others.

My book of the year is The Handsworth Times (Bluemoose), Sharon Duggal’s account of life in early-80s working- class Birmingham, which is defined by greater and lesser griefs.

Mukesh Agarwal’s son Billy is knocked down and killed by a hurrying ambulance and, as he slips into even greater alcoholic incoherence and joblessness, the other family members move to different points of the grieving compass.

Their son Kavi becomes totally nihilistic. Nina the eldest daughter escapes to university and commits the most heinous crime — she falls in love with a Pakistani man. Kamela’s first experience of same-sex affection is shattered by violence and she retreats into the home.

Anila, the youngest and most outspoken daughter, joins the dots between the family’s struggles and those of the wider community and becomes an activist in the Handsworth Youth Movement.

But amongst the real solidarity lies betrayal and further violence and Anila must struggle to come to terms with a confusing and fallen world.

This book, utterly of its specific place and time but also universal in its themes, is a prose act of praise to the humanist spirit that will never succumb to fear and hatred.


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