The Devil Inside -Birmingham Rep

Another evening, another opera. This is the life.

Arriving early in Birmingham, chilling out in the Central Library with a coffee and cake and my notebook; a reminder that the city has much to offer. People wandering across my line of vision, cranes dragging RSJs up ever climbing towers, the murmur of one hundred languages swirling in my ears and the open confidence of the pedestrianised area in front of the Repertory Theatre and Library all point to a place at ease with itself after years of turmoil and neglect.

I had decided to see The Devil Inside on a bit of a whim as I knew nothing about the opera other than some brief reviews I’d read on line which sounded tempting. But I really want to experience more contemporary opera, it’s a place I need to frequent, so sat back to experience two hours of something new.

The Devil… has been on tour , since its première in January this year. Based on the short  story by Robert Louis Stevenson, Louise Welsh updated it to set it in the 21st century, with music by Stuart MacRae.

The imp in the bottle makes your wishes come true, but should you die while in possession of the bottle, you go straight to Hell. And to pass the bottle on, each transaction must be for a lower price, so at some point, it cannot be any cheaper.

From impoverished to loaded, the main characters become entrapped by the addiction to wealth, luxury and the trappings of a successful life. The ever decreasing circles close in on them as their need for the imp’s help and the desire for money ensure the bottle keeps returning.

The lyrics are stark and crystal cut, as the set is simple and the lighting effective and transparent. There is no artifice, no fanciful ostentation. And the music is equally simple in its sophistication. The shifts from atonality to tonality- tonality representing the purer, less corrupted human qualities, and the variety of timbres and textures the fourteen instrumentalists create keep the listener enthralled throughout. Sometimes as rich as an orchestra, sometimes a single instrument or a duo, I found the music very moving and fitted so precisely with the emotions and psychology of the the individual cast members.

I was particularly moved by Catherine’s aria ( in scene 4, when she discloses she has a terminal illness) It reminded me of Baroque arias when the female lead plans to kill herself, dies of neglect, lost love etc…..  the contemporary equivalent of the Ariadnes, the Didos, even the arias in cantatas and oratorios. The obbligato accompaniment demonstrated how old forms remodelled often have something profound to say.

It is not that often that one sits on the edge of the seat, dragged head first into the turmoil of certain death, willing the characters to find a way out of an impossible scenario. But that’s what happened for me on Monday night. I’m really looking forward to the next opera by this pair.



Don Giovanni English Touring Opera

The only one of Mozart’s “essential” operas I hadn’t seen live, and the one I am probably most obsessed with, my relationship with it rose to a new level last night.

I couldn’t resist, (a little like the Don’s charms) , the opportunity to see the performance at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre. Having recently seen a number of shows there and been a little disappointed by the very traditional high arched unconnecting stage, which can make it difficult to really communicate with the audience rather than just perform in front of it, I was a little apprehensive. But the staging and directing of this production was fantastic, and all my worries beforehand were completely melted away.

The director, Lloyd Wood, sets this production in turn of the century (that is 20th) Vienna, and divides the stage into two, horizontally, so low life are on the stage itself, and upper classes on a higher level, with what looks like a rickety outside staircase linking the two. The lower level represents the secret world built underground, in tunnels, sewers and so on, where the sewer scroungers live. Max Winter, an investigative journalist, born in what is now Hungary, who lived most of his working life in Vienna, (he died penniless, a refugee in California, in 1937) wrote about the Kanalstrotter first of all in an article published in 1904.  These tunnel dwellers lived by collecting coins, soap and even bones. While life above ground became increasingly sophisticated, their lives were primitive and tough.

So Don Giovanni, attempting to “find” himself, hangs out with the low life, and of course by being there is only one step from hell below. He also uses the ladder attached to the wall, to move between the strata whereas, the other characters can only cross the social classes by moving up and down the stairs.

The set and costumes are an atmospheric work of art, the catacombs, the Klimt like paintings, the gloom and despair, and the lighting that accentuates the drama, the colours of character, of emotion in the costumes….Donna Anna’s pink and green outfit was particularly sweet  and sugar almonded,  and somehow repugnant at the same time, Donna Elvira’s black and white costume so dramatic, and still reminds us of the colours of mourning, of repentance and the convent.

Don Giovanni is challenging to perform in a 21st century culture which is well aware of the abuse of women, of migrants, of those in poverty. Don Giovanni exploits – he uses his wealth and power to manipulate and get what he wants- and yet he never finds what he wants- he is always on to the next conquest, the next possibility for happiness. Or perhaps he’s not looking for happiness at all. Until now, I’d loved the music, but a little like being infatuated with Wagner, I had a streak of guilt about loving the opera. (I had the same issues with Byron, and his Don Juan but have finally decided it’s ok to love art and even characters that are truly despicable. After all, I always had a thing about Satan in Paradise Lost… and as for Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park……)

In this production I actually felt sorry for the Don- not as in falling for him as the women all do in the story, but that here was someone who felt things really deeply (no pun intended), who really wanted to experience all there is in life, and had ended up wrecking himself and those around him. In many ways a Shakespearean fatally flawed tragic hero. And I realised that is what I had always seen in him. Whether it is the stunningly beautiful, exquisitely poignant music in the opera, or the barbed wit in Bryon’s take, under that evil facade there is something that wants to reach out to everything in the world. But he doesn’t have the means to do so.

The other aspect of the story that I hadn’t really considered before is that as well as the issues of feminism in this story, there is the question of what it is to be male. Another challenge for the 21st century- it’s not just women that wonder what happened to all those broken promises of the 1960s and 1970s. Men, perhaps more than before, are questioning their position in the world. For so long dominant in most cultures, the male superiority plinth has been partially demolished. But it leaves a question mark. What is it to be male? What is it to be heterosexual? How does one have relationships with other people- both sexual and platonic? At what point is it not worth trying to be the alpha fe/male?  How is one meant to know, in this world where relationships can be as superficial as swipe right,  how and where stand, whether to fight for the little space that is left on the broken slab, or to build something new. Or not bother. Don Ottavio’s statement that he will be both father and husband to Donna Anna was goosebump making for me. No, he can’t be both. Or if he is,  it bodes disaster at some point. The question of whether she is actually raped is left unspoken, but somehow the uncomfortable relationship between herself and her fiancé  only makes the situation worse, and it is left unresolved.

I haven’t said anything about the performers yet- the orchestra started a little tentatively but by the end had really got into its stride. I was a little concerned at the beginning but perhaps there hadn’t been an opportunity to really get used to the pit beforehand.

The singing and acting was of the highest level, although there were a few slightly off notes in some of the higher voices. For me the highlights in terms of voices were the brilliant pairing of George Con Bergen (Don Giovanni), who had the most remarkable stage presence, and Matthew Stiff as Leporello, a real comic actor as well as very fine singer. Lucy Hall’s Zerlina was delightful and she is a very witty actor although her voice was sometimes lost. Timothy Dawkins’ Commendatore was a fabulous bass that in the final scene dragged the audience down to hell with him and the Don.

English Touring Opera is touring most of England and stopping off at Perth as well until mid June, so well worth going to see either this or the other operas on tour. Details are at






Sorry to disappoint you musos out there- I’m not going to discuss the merits of melody over harmony or rhythm or anything else intellectual on the music front.

However it was well worth a round trip of nearly eight hours to see Jemima Foxtrot, the award winning performance poet in action at Omnibus, an arts centre converted from the former library at Clapham Common. You wonder whether it really is worth it for less than an hour’s performance, but, wow, what a performance!

This is going to be one of those Tristram Shandy like reviews. Just warning. I’d never been to Clapham Common before. I’ve missed out. A fabulous variety of architecture, most of which I didn’t have time to photograph, a real feel of a village in the city and enough trendy shops including a nice looking book shop to keep anyone with my book addiction well supplied. Personally I’m always happy to see an Oliver Bonas (I do lust after those eclectic chests of drawers in stock at the moment. Maybe I just need to get round to tarting up an old set myself!)

Omnibus as a building has a good vibe about it. I loved the exhibition of fabricated paintings by Ruth Dupre hanging on the wall of the bar- very friendly bar staff, good atmosphere and the cakes looked good. Self control. Unusual, I know. And in fact everyone working there seemed so welcoming. It seemed a shame I had to rush off afterwards as it would have been good to have a chat with them. There’s a literary festival coming up, at the beginning of May, and if you are in the vicinity , it would be worth checking out.


Back to Jemima. She has a slightly gauche naive quality, especially at the beginning of the show, which traps you like a sundew’s sticky globules, you get drawn in to  seemingly innocence- and then she plays with you, a cat with a mouse, for nearly an hour. She seamlessly moves from childhood memories, to lost love, to family and friends, holidays and places she’s visited, and running through, like a golden thread, is music. She leaps and prances, she dances and skips round the empty stage- a lonely wooden chair being the only prop, (apart from some cleverly disguised unread lines of text)- sings snippets of song from soul to pop, funk to folk song, the thread binding it all together with her boundless energy, excellent sense of timing and pace and amazing memory, of which I am incredibly jealous.

The audience laughed and held its breath in turn. We were taken on a journey through memory, along the road back home to the red painted peeling front door. It felt sometimes as if we were invited into her mind, her memory, inside her head. It was a slightly uncomfortable feeling, but not because of any fault in performance- just because it felt personal, intimate and exposed.

If you get a chance to see her elsewhere (this was a one night only performance) then take it.




Trainspotting @ the Lo-Co Club

Saturday night was one to remember. Travelling from Bridgend to Bristol Templemeads by train, the locals, blokes tanked up already on beer, women wearing as little as they could get away with, loaded onto the train to spew out at Cardiff for a night out….

Then the train was quiet. And we gently rolled in to Brunel’s masterpiece of a station, the sun shining brightly and low in the sky on the brick and golden limestone round the station, a true temple to travel.

Trainspotting has been sent on tour by The Kings Head theatre, one of my favourite pub theatres, ever….I usually see opera there but am open to trying most things! The front row, being truly immersed is my speciality, but Trainspotting at the Lo-Co Club, under the arches at the station, dark, sanguine red and black, fairy lights and stage lights, a faint joss stick aroma, is another place again- and perfect for staging this raw, visceral and messy production. Don’t go in your best outfit- there’s a chance you might get beer, shit, or something worse on it (not real shit, I’m sure, but messy enough!)

If you are a bit of a prude best to avoid as well…. constant swearing, lots of nudity, and the harsh realities of drug addiction are confronted with no space for insecurity. And if you’re not into strobes and the lights of a 90s nightclub perhaps best to avoid. And if you don’t like your actors coming up close and personal you might be a little embarrassed.

Needless to say, I loved it. Found it hard to tune in to some tough accents to begin with (but then that’s ok, all part of the alienation process) but once I got used to it, I was there with them as they fought heroin addiction, alcohol, domestic violence, aggression and everything else between.

The acting was supreme- this was a true ensemble piece with everyone working flat out all the time- hardly any time for rest between totally physically and emotionally exhausting close up performances. And after the 7pm showing they were doing it all again….

It’s running at The Lo-Co Club until 23rd April so if I haven’t put you off, you really should go!



Doing what we do….

I now have the schedule of work being exhibited. Do go and see it while you can.


An exhibition of work by MA Fine Art students made during 2016

(works clockwise from door)

  1. Dani Sangway Janie Arthur’s Shawl natural sheep’s wool and paper dimensions variable
  1. Deb Catesby Between the Mixing Bowl and the Silver Chair…1’ oil on canvas 33 x 30cm
  1. Dawn Harris Souvenir – The Last Supper postcards dimensions variable
  1. Deb Catesby Fez oil on canvas 20 x 30cm
  1. Janet Lamb In the Beginning oak gall ink in glass bottle 7cm x 5cm
  1. Deb Catesby Between the Mixing Bowl and the Silver Chair…2’ oil on canvas 33 x 30cm
  1. Rui Iris Sun untitled oil on canvas 70 x 45cm
  1. Alice Monaghan untitled mixed media and paper 15 x 10cm each
  1. Sue Cridland The Cloud of Unknowing chalk, blackboard paint on board 100 x 150cm
  1. David Ingleton The Agony & The Ecstasy acrylic on canvas 60 x 90cm
  1. Sophie Starkey It’s Not All Black and White digital print and mixed media 95 x 130cm
  1. Sophie Starkey It’s Not All Black and White digital print and mixed media 70 x 95cm
  1. Sophie Starkey It’s Not All Black and White digital print and mixed media 70 x 95cm
  1. Carolyn Morris Scroll 2 digital print and mixed media 70 x 95cm

Doing What We Do…… In the Chapel

No I’m not going religious on you. The  Fine Art MA  students (year 1 and year 2) at University of Gloucestershire  have put together a fascinating show of their current work which will be on show from this Wednesday until Friday 8th April during college opening hours.

Apologies for lack of quality of photographs- camera on phone is playing up….

I was lucky enough to be there today while the show was being hung. It is such an enjoyable experience, no, more like Schadenfreude, watching others going through the torture of the hang. You decide something looks good in one position, then another piece completely changes the dialogue between them, or the light changes and you realise it doesn’t really look right there. And on top of that we are not talking about the standard white box but the height of gothic revival, patterned floor, wood panels, carvings and stained glass that jostles with art still clammy with oil paint and smelling of printers’ ink.

Unfortunately I was not able to grill everyone about the titles of their works, so this brief review and description will have to be read in conjunction with your visit to the show, which I would highly recommend. Some of the work is for sale, and I am sure the artists are awaiting your commissions!

I was particularly taken with Deb Catesby’s small perfectly formed oil paintings that were set off so well in their placing against the wooden panelled walls. I had seen a couple of them in their early stages of development so it was interesting to see how they had emerged from the wrestle of paint and wipe back, brush and palette knife.





David Ingleton’s  the agony and the ecstasy, (were they fuzzy felt letters, I wondered?) was challenging and stunning hung high up above us while Sue Cridland’s blackboard and chalk ephemeral piece felt supercharged on the altar.




Janet Lamb’s bottle of vitriol, otherwise known as iron gall ink- made from iron salts and oak galls- which has corrosive qualities, silently and balefully glowers on its pedestal. I was drawn irresistibly to it without even knowing what was inside until I spoke to her about it.



Sue Edwards spent some time telling me about her piece based on one of her countless collection of photographs – this of stone carvings in Honduras. The finished piece, although one can see the links, has really abstracted and explored and taken her on a journey into new artistic territory for her. Surely that’s exactly what the MA should be about.


Do not be deceived by the row of what look like chapel prayer books on the altar rail. Alice Monaghan’s zine, for want of a better word, is well worth careful examination. Witty, a commentary on religion, and full of dramatic imagery, and for me, also painfully referring to the US reports on extraordinary rendition as used by Jenny Holzer in her recent exhibition at Hauser & Worth in Somerset. I would have loved to have taken one of them home with me for my artists books/zine collection….



Cascading over the balcony, Carolyn Morris’s piece, literally pieced together collaged photographs, drawings and cut outs sets up a conversation with Dani Sangway’s woven piece which I would love to know more about.  And then we have Rui Iris Sun and Dawn Harris participating – Dawn’s installation piece which I envisage she would like to be spread throughout the West of England/ Midlands if we take her postcards and Rui’s abstract painting casually seated on a chair by the piano, as if waiting for someone to play the introduction to a solo, and other photographic images, by Sophie Starkey were in the process of being hung as I finished my wanderings and tea swigging. (one of the great things about exhibiting here is that the little kitchenette attached to the chapel is available for constant mugs of tea. A perfect arrangement.)


I can’t resist adding these two photographs of the tutors- both with angelic qualities for which I blame the sunlight streaming in….. they probably won’t forgive me, but this is what getting an exhibition together is all about…..