Bells and Spells

All is not what it seems in this glamorous and enchanting show, that offers a gentle and lulling mix of humour and beauty.

Aurélia Thierrée is the light-fingered lead, gliding through a series of surreal vignettes and compulsively stealing items as she goes: jewels, clothes, table lamps, loofahs – anything she can get her hands on.

She achieves these feats through dexterous sleight of hand and optical illusions: disappearing into thin air to escape a pursuit through a revolving door, repurposing a bejewelled lamp shade to become a tiara, using a closed umbrella as an impromptu net for her bounty.

Thierrée makes instant costume changes before your eyes, slips in and out of tapestries, and transforms a room full of hatstands into a skeletal chimera that she rides off into the flats.

In one scene she becomes part of a painting and her head becomes decapitated, bouncing up and down above her body before that too becomes disconnected from the background, allowing for body swaps with a man and a pug. It is silly, simple, but infectiously fun to watch.

This is deliciously light fare in the main, reminiscent of old school music hall magic that is heavy on clever lighting, physical placements, and limbersome bodies and pleasingly bereft of bombast.

The show is directed by Thierrée’s mother Victoria Thierrée Chaplin and co-stars Jaime Martinez as an occasional love interest stroke mark. His dance and tap provide occasional interludes to the confounding dramatic scenes.

The planning and preparation to pull off such a show – with so many props, so many switches and changes – is a mammoth task. Armando Santin’s choreography is spot on, and Nasser Abdel Hammandi’s lighting is a masterclass in keeping the right things visible and the mechanics just out of sight.

The original French production of the show was called Vols De Nuits – or Night Flights. That is perhaps a more fitting name: it rests on the edge of memory like one of those delightful but half-forgotten dreams, something you can’t quite believe you really saw. A true Festival highlight.

Reverse

The concept of Reverse is simple: walk backwards around the city, getting a new view on Norwich. The outcome is something much more profound.

Perhaps I’m too familiar with the city’s vistas to get much of a surprise from the viewpoints offered on this winding tour around the centre of Norwich. The opening view of St John’s Cathedral from Chapelfield Gardens is a delight, but except from some surprising detours through the innards of The Forum and Norwich Castle there is not much new to see here.

What there is is a revelation as to how your own senses operate. Kitted out with headphones that provide a witty and evocative soundtrack as you traverse the urban landscape, you walk backwards following a white taped line, guided by special symbols showing changes of direction, steps, and other obstacles. There are also, thankfully, strategically-placed volunteers on hand to save you from striding obliviously into oncoming traffic.

The white line itself is oddly liberating. Armed with the knowledge that in the days of lawsuits and health and safety the route must have been though dozens of risk assessments, you quickly become blasé about not seeing where you’re going. Gentleman’s Walk – normally a game of dodgems looking out for pushchairs, proselytisers, and the Puppet Man becomes disconcertingly tranquil: you just trust people will get out of your way. (And, perhaps thanks to you being a weirdo walking backwards wearing headphones, they do just that – alongside a bit of pointing).

You became acutely aware of the slightest incline – Hay Hill never felt so steep – and not just your direction but your perception of spaces becomes reversed. Outdoor spaces, objectively more exposed and threating, feel carefree whereas interiors provoke more nervousness, with their narrow circulation strips and immovable barriers. Somehow the texture of surfaces become more tangible: moving from stone, to wood, to grass, is distinct in a way that normally is barely perceived.

Artist Johannes Bellinkx’s concept looks simple and silly. The experience is anything but.

Boy Blue: Blak Whyte Gray

From the first tentative move of the opening piece to the concluding strut of the third and final dance, it is clear Boy Blue are an exceptionally talented company.

This reprise of their 2017 triptych for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival features eight dancers at the top of their art.

Whyte is a disturbing dystopian vision: two figures branded with a projected barcode, wearing tops resembling straitjackets, and twitching through jerky, awkward movements like possessed action toys or short-circuiting robots. The totality of the performance is entrancing, and that is with one dancer down from the original production’s three marionettes.

Second piece Gray is more energetic, evoking guerrilla warfare. The starkly literal miming of rifle loading and grenade throwing play sits awkwardly with the more lyrical and suggestive choreography of the rest of the piece but the company dazzle with a complex and audacious portrayal of kinship and rivalry.

Blak is the final piece of this triple bill. It is strongest in its earlier movement; the silent interval as a vulnerable central figure struggles to stay upright, shorn of the violent and aggressive soundtrack that successfully punctuates the rest of the evening is perhaps the most startling.

There’s a surfeit of ideas here – red drapes, hanging masks, and dayglo make up feel unnecessary against the purity and strength of the dance – but the technical supremacy and astounding energy of the performers ensures the audience is left in awe, and on its feet.

5×15: Bodies

This Writers’ Centre Norwich event brought together five speakers for a diverse set of 15 minute talks on our often frustrating and surprising bodies.

Suzanne O’Sullivan spoke about treating broad manifestations of epilepsy: not just commonly-known seizures, but symptoms like uncontrolled running. Research has moved on from hitting parts of the brain with spatulas to targeted surgery to prevent incidents.

Jack Hartnell protested that medieval medics get a bad wrap; while their ideas might not have lasted, some themes and concepts are paralleled in today’s approaches.

Rachel Clarke opened with the shocking statement that “dying is my day job”, going on to speak movingly on palliative care and the power of storytelling in an area of the NHS not easily captured in numbers and targets.

Aarathi Prasad gave a fascinating and challenging insight into how little we know about reproduction, from the ancient non-human retro virus that makes pregnancy possible, to the chimera-like individuals whose DNA defies convention.

GP Gavin Francis rounded off the talks looking at how we change throughout our lives, from puberty grow spurts to mental changes, and down to a microbial level how our blood shapeshifts to carry oxygen.

Grand Finale

From the very start of Hofesh Shechter’s return to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, with a blatant nod to the monolith and apes of 2001 Space Odyssey, we a bombarded with a dense series of cultural references.

We are thrown hints of Titanic with a life-jacket wearing musical sextet, prolonged hakas, zombies and marionettes. We get a taste of Lord of the Flies, and an impromptu rave. We get Cossacks, even a dab or two.

There is so much here, and yet also so little. The eleven dancers pulse and shake, ritually slaughter, and lifelessly drag each other around the stage – you hope the smears left behind are from the unexplained downfall of bubbles that accompany one vignette rather than sweat, but the latter seems more likely. If the first half wasn’t so studiously monochromatic it could even be blood.

The choreography is dense and flawless, and the sparse set – a series of giant masquerading pillars that circle around like a possessed Stonehenge, creating barriers and shelters – literally looms over the action with every inch a deliberate menace.

But, ironically, like late Kubrick despite all the obvious talent in front of your eyes there is little to connect the dots in your brain, instead a kind of frenetic nihilism pervades that gives us multitudes of movement but such little progress. Even the costume change in the second part only degrades us further: half the company are in tracksuits.

With so many bodies on stage, there is precious little connection between them. One couple joins together for a split second in the first half; we get a smidgen of slow dancing in the second. Just one kiss. So much humanity, and yet so little joy.

Perhaps somewhere, in there, is the point.

David McAlmont

Skulking on stage in his skinny jeans, white t-shirt, and fulsome beard, David McAlmont cuts an unprepossessing figure.

At one point he seems to hide behind the piano. The lights are set in a soulless white wash.

But he has more music in his little figure than most people experience in a lifetime, and a voice that transcends any diminutive visuals.

Performing from Billie Holiday’s Carnegie Hall set list, songs like What A Little Moonlight, Don’t Explain, Nobody’s Business and Loverman come alive afresh. McAlmont doesn’t feel the need to insert gimmicks to reinvent these standards, but still makes them distinctly his own.

His five piece band don’t quite match up (though pianist Alex Webb has bursts of flair) but a missed cue aside, that doesn’t overly distract from the main event: McAlmont’s superlative voice.

He closed his encore with Body & Soul, and his voice was charged throughout the gig with an abundance of both. A great start to this year’s festival.

Manual for Heartache

Reading from his debut book Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Max Porter said it was too hot in the bejewelled Spiegeltent surroundings to get in to the really heavy stuff – as if the extracts he delivered with such brave force were easy words.

Alongside Richard Beard (The Day That Went Missing) and Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love), Porter gave honest insights into their experiences of writing about grief, covering both fictional versions and troubling personal memoirs.

Beard spoke of his family’s ‘unblacking’ of the day one of his brothers died, and Rentzenbrink the slow loss of her older brother and the way memories mutate over time, both having wrestled with writing about their experiences for many years.

These were sensitive and dark topics for a summer’s day but also a reminder that human connections and creativity can come from difficult places, if we’re prepared to wallow just a while.

Rear View

This IOU Theatre piece definitively gives a new perspective on life: for most of the show the audience are watching from the back of an open-top bus.

Specially converted for this very unusual type of street theatre, the raked seating makes the city a stage as the vehicle circuits around Bishopgate and Magdalen Street, stopping in a few hidden spaces on the way.

Throughout the journey poet performer Cecilia Knapp narrates the story of a 65-year-old woman, reflecting back on her life, her mistakes, her heartaches, and her moments of joy.

Her voice comes through headphones, her presence is fleeting: sometimes we see her on an improvised stage, sometimes a car following the bus. More often she is just an ethereal, disembodied voice: a memory of a memory.

The poetics are startling and the approach novel, though the connection between the two – and the host city – could be deeper.

Chotto Desh

One of the delights of live theatre is feeling an audience react.

Sometimes it’s a loud, convulsive laugh that echoes through the auditorium, sometimes it’s an almost imperceptible shift as everyone’s attention becomes totally focused on the smallest movement on stage.

Chotto Desh contains dozens of those moments.

Weaving together the story of a boy’s childhood and a Bangladeshi folk story of angered forest gods this astonishing show fuses mime, dance, animation, and shadow puppetry into a playful, witty and uplifting 50 minutes.

Dancer Dennis Alamanos is exceptional: fluid, expressive, and yet exactingly accurate when interacting with massive projected animations and the recorded score and narration.

Director Akram Khan’s choreography, Tim Yip’s visuals, and Guy Hoare’s lighting are all perfectly tuned together.

This is a gem of a show: a lush, imaginative, total delight.

And you can feel every moment.

The Story Machine

Eleven stories scattered across the battered remains of an old factory are yours to explore in this creative and surprising event from the Writers’ Centre Norwich.

Some are told with the aid of dancing, music, or a little spontaneous drama (with mild audience participation) – others are simply read aloud, or heard through headphones.

With just the opening and closing pieces shared by the whole audience, the meat of The Story Machine at the Show Factory Social Club is open to the individual to concoct, picking one of 18 journeys through the pieces.

From the initial segment’s totalitarian theme to Thomas Morris’ Welsh night out and Carys Davies’ tale of old horrors in the New World, many cultures and themes are explored.

It’s a great mental workout, and also a slightly physical one: with two and a half hours of standing, you might want to bring a camping chair.

Billy Bragg

The Bard of Barking opened this sold-out gig with a classic Bragg number, the Milkman of Human Kindness, and the crowd never stopped drinking it up

Bragg is often pigeon-holed as a protest singer but his greatest strength is not his politics but his poetry; he is a superlative lyricist and that combines with emotional warmth and intellectual curiosity to create some cracking songs.

His between tunes patter is also a step above that of most artists. Not for Bragg the quick check with the theatre staff about which local rivalry or hot topic to mention. Instead we got affectionate anecdotes about the tremendous past of the Hippodrome venue, a short history lesson about the links between Great Yarmouth and his Essex birthplace, and – of course – some impassioned pleading over the EU referendum (followed, naturally, by a charged rendition of There Is Power In A Union).

The set list included covers of Anais Mitchell and Woody Guthrie songs, as well as some well inspired re-workings of his own back catalogue taking in The Warmest Room, A Lover Sings, Greetings To The New Brunette, Handyman Blues, and Levi Stubbs’ Tears, in many cases joined by CJ Hillman on pedal slide guitar to add a lazy, country, vibe.

A feisty A New England was the closing crowd pleaser that saw the audience on their feet and shouting their lungs out with a big a roar as any of the tigers that once prowled the circular stage.

With the historic Hippodrome and Billy Bragg combined we got two national treasures for the price of one, and an exceptional gig to round of the festival’s modern music programme.

The James Plays trilogy

There are certain things that people claim to be indivisible: countries, marriages, artists and their work.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s James Plays question all of those, and more. Three plays touching the lives of King James I, II, and III of Scotland, they are performed as a whole but are far from the trinity they might appear to be.

The first is a relatively traditional history play, with courtly machinations, shifting alliances, and bloody battles and revenge. The language is modern and expletive-ridden, but the mode is classic.

By the second play we have shifted to psychological drama, and a fractured narrative employing flashback, repetition, and bold visual cues for an unrelenting focus on the inner troubles of a boy king.

The final play is a very different beast, presenting an exuberant aesthete of a monarch pitched against the rationality of his Danish bride, rendered like some illegitimate and fantastical offspring of Ibsen and Eurovision.

What brings them together – aside from playwright Rona Munro – is the production and the cast, and both are immaculate in all respects.

Despite the focus on three kings, there are strong and brilliant parts for three women: Rosemary Boyle is exceptional in her professional stage debut as Queen Joan; Blythe Duff carries an internal ferocity as Isabella Stewart; and Malin Crepin has steely poise as Queen Margaret.

The Jameses (Steven Miller, Andrew Rothney, and Matthew Pidgeon) are masterful: each inhabiting without any doubt their royal characters as well as taking quite contrasting supporting roles in the other plays.

Jon Bausor’s bold set design runs through all three pieces: a giant sword plunged in to the ground and on-stage seating for some of the audience dominates throughout, with the remainder of the backing shifting slightly for each play.

Seeing all three plays in a single day is certainly arresting, but perhaps deceiving. Munro’s storytelling in the first two pieces is taut and convincing, but the third takes considerably more licence and is an odd adjunct. Despite its many parliamentary scenes it feels less of a piece about Scotland, or kings, and more about families; and its conclusion has more of a tone of condescension than the corralling that I suspect was intended.

As a theatre experience this trio of plays, performed by such a strong cast and crew, is breath-taking: the sheer audacity of running seven and half hours of drama together and doing so with such verve commands respect.

As individual plays, and in the hands of lesser performers, things might be a little more shaky – but for now at least those are not things that can be put asunder.

The Measure of All Things

Life is measured in many ways: money, family, legacies left behind, even Elliot’s coffee spoons. But for film maker Sam Green the main measure is Guinness – or more precisely, the book of records to which the black stuff gave its name.

His live film The Measure of All Things explored some of the entries in the legendary tome, probing beyond the bare facts of the records to the people behind them: the enigmatic suicide of the man most struck by lightning; the bizarre rescue of a dying dolphin by the world’s tallest man; the surprisingly clarity with which you can hear a mechanical heart valve pumping in the world’s quietest place. (His filming of the last, to Green’s obvious pride, led to him appearing in a photo in the latest edition.)

Performed at the Theatre Royal as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, the piece mixes recorded film and stills with Green’s live narration and music from yMusic, a sextet that beautifully accompanies his stories.

Green also touches on the strange world of the McWhirter twins, who first edited the book, and the way their creation has taken on a life of its own, and its particular fascination for children.

This is a charming, funny, and intriguing piece and it deserved a bigger audience.

Those that did make it left with a richer understanding of what life is all about.

451

Drones sweep overhead, orders are barked from speakers, and fires burn all around: so opens the ambitious, dystopian finale of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

Performed to thousands of people on derelict land just outside of the city centre, Periplum’s 451 was all about the scale of the spectacular. Dozens of poles topped with aerials and speakers dotted the performance area, searchlights bedazzled and blinded the audience as they were advanced on by giant wheeled ladders carrying the piece’s ironically titled ‘firemen’ from scene to scene.

Based on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the show tells the story of Montag, a ‘fireman’ charged with burning books who doubts his mission and begins to hoard and prize the contraband literature.

It does it with bombast and fierce style, whether it’s the violin player standing atop a pyre or the lead spinning uncontrollably in a gyroscope as his confusion and confliction take hold.

A large-scale production is perhaps not the place for subtlety but Periplum’s stripping down of the story removes some of Montag’s humanity and therefore his motivation: we do not see his wife, his curious relationship with his young neighbour, his forced destruction of what he holds dear.

There was more room for political comment, with the strident fire captain barking that we have been tolerant for too long and that is no longer enough to obey the law — words that I doubt were accidentally close to those used by David Cameron in a recent speech on extremism.

On its own terms this was a sensory feast and an engaging piece of outdoor theatre.

As a retelling of Bradbury’s novel, it lost a little too much plot to the flames.

The Hot Sardines

There can’t be many bands that count a tap dancer as one of their percussionists, but that’s not even the most extraordinary thing about the Hot Sardines.

That honour goes to their stellar musicianship: they know their heritage, know their instruments, and best of all know how to use and abuse that to have a lot of creative, energetic and audibly delicious fun.

Their set touched on Gershwin, Fats Waller, and even Disney, all laced with their own unique strain of showmanship.

Bandleader Bibs Palazzo was at the heart of the action, a fantastically talented pianist (and whistler) whose open-fronted piano is as stylish as his playing, with lead singer Miz Elizabeth adding plenty of pizzazz with a mixture of French and English vocals topped with a New York twang.

With an accomplished band around them bringing in crisp clear tones for the Charleston or breathy, messy, sleazy notes for a sublime Summertime, there wasn’t anything more you could ask of them.

The only thing missing was the chance to get up and dance: hard to help thinking that the Norfolk and Norwich Festival’s spectacular Spiegeltent would have been a better spiritual home than the Theatre Royal, but it would have required a week-long residency to pack in Tuesday night’s sell-out crowd.

Oh, and the tap dancer? Fast Eddy Francisco is not just a pair of pretty feet; as a well as some sweet dance breaks he also pulled out a ukelele for one number.

Told you these guys are talented.