‘We’re All going to Die!’: Richard Herring at Nottingham’s Glee Club

Richard Herring: We're All Going to Die!

Richard Herring: We’re All Going to Die!

They may seem like unlikely bedfellows but death and comedy have always held a special relationship. Our fear of death often manifests itself in a love of the ghoulish and the macabre and yet we often feel uncomfortable talking about it.

But in his latest show – We’re All Going to Die! – Richard Herring tells us that we should confront death head-on and celebrate the time that we have left on earth.

From being named after an intimate part of the body to becoming a fossil, Herring says that there are all sorts of different ways to live on after your death. Herring examines death from all angles, from religion, linguistics, existentialism to the cost of funerals and falling down the steps on the way out of the gig. He questions what the benefits of heaven are when we have to leave behind all our earthly pleasures (which are, of course, physical pleasures) in exchange for a pair of wings and concludes that death is necessary otherwise the earth would be full of unevolved amoebas who will never die.

Ever the pedant, Herring also spends plenty of time unravelling the absurdity of the nursery rhyme ‘There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly’ before concluding that the last line makes the most sense: there is a finality in death so we should make sure we should make the most of our lives. He also offers a counterpoint to Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech in which he tells the doomed prince not to dwell on death but instead to have fun and take Ophelia out.

Anyone who saw Herring’s earlier show What is Love Anyway will remember the fondness with which he spoke of his grandmother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He tells us that she has since passed away at the age of 102 and what follows is a poignant and hilarious take on how we cope with death, demonstrating his ability to engage the audience with his fascinating and sometimes child-like take on life’s big questions.

Richard Herring appeared at Nottingham’s Glee Comedy Club last week. For upcoming tour dates visit his website.

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Review: Inside Llewyn Davis is full of symbolism and dark humour

Oscar Isaacs as Llewyn Davis.

Oscar Isaacs as Llewyn Davis.

The story of the struggling artist, eking out an existence from his work and relying on the goodwill of friends, is one that has been told many times before and it is the subject of Joel and Ethan Coen in their latest film, Inside Lleywn Davis. But what starts as a picaresque narrative dealing with a familiar idea becomes something that is much harder to define and the result is a highly original work, full of leitmotifs and temporal shifts.

Set in New York in the early 1960s, just before the explosion of the folk scene, it tells the tale of Llewyn Davis, a down-at-heel singer who seems to be plagued by bad luck. He is someone who lives on the fringes of society, refusing to get a steady job and settle down. As the story unfolds we are drip-fed details about his life but there are always plenty of unanswered questions, for example, why is he beaten up outside the nightclub and what has happened to his partner in the folk duo of which he was once part?

In this film there is a sense in which relationships and friendships are ephemeral. Even the begrudging friendship Llewyn strikes up with a ginger cat is hollow after we discover that it is not even the same cat and in what looks like a conscious attempt to avoid sentimentality he later  abandons the animal when he has the chance to help it.

Llewyn has always led a transient life, first in the Marines and then as a folk singer, and yet the respectable lives led by his father and his sister seem no more appealing or rewarding. He undertakes a road trip to Chicago with two strangers to meet a record executive and as he travels across this vast landscape, reminiscent of No Country for Old Men, he becomes stuck in a kind of purgatory where everything is tantalisingly out of reach. His efforts to forge a successful musical career or go back to the Marines elude him in an almost Kafkaesque way and he is left feeling tired and drained.

This might seem depressing but the film is punctuated by dark humour and moments of Schadenfreude. With a raised eyebrow and a knowing glance, we are invited to laugh at the increasingly commercialised folk scene. Another great comic performance came from John Goodman who plays the heroin-addled, cane-carrying jazz musician who travels with Llewyn to Chicago.

Overall, this is a deeply insightful film, brimming with difficult questions, pathos and humanity. And while I am not a huge folk music fan, the score, created by T Bone Burnett, is beautifully melancholy.

Inside Llewyn Davis is on at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 13th February.

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The Epic of Everest offers a fascinating insight into the 1924 expedition

Explorers on the 1924 attempt to climb Mount Everest.

Explorers on the 1924 attempt to climb Mount Everest.

The summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, was something that eluded even the most determined climbers until it was finally conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Until then, mountaineers had come close but all were defeated by the brutal terrain and unforgiving elements.

In 1924, a group of British explorers attempted to take on the mighty Everest but their mission was doomed. Although questions have been raised about whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine did in fact reach the summit, both disappeared on the mountain. Astonishingly, the tragic expedition was captured on film by Captain John Noel and later released as The Epic of Everest.

Now, after being restored by the BFI, it has been re-released giving modern audiences an insight into the enormity of the challenge. Making use of colour filters, the stunning landscape takes on a dream-like quality, underpinned by Simon Fisher Turner’s haunting score. But that does not detract from the harshness of the conditions and it is difficult to believe that the explorers climbed the mountain wearing blazers and breeches.

The film also sheds light on Western attitudes at that time. The British Empire was still a long way off being dismantled and there is a sort of colonialism in the quest to conquer the mountain. History does not always remember the local porters, one of whom was a woman, who heroically hauled cumbersome boxes of supplies up the mountain. Some of the language of the film may seem distasteful to us today but by the end there is a feeling of humility. Captain Noel concludes that instead of just being ‘rock and snow’ the mountain has a spiritual quality which was recognised by local communities long before Western explorers set foot on it.

The Epic of Everest is on at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 2nd January.

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Review: Trevor Noah performs at Nottingham’s Glee Club

South African comedian Trevor Noah who performed at Nottingham's Glee Club.

South African comedian Trevor Noah who performed at Nottingham’s Glee Club.

There is a real freshness about South African comedian Trevor Noah who appeared at Nottingham’s Glee Club with his latest show The Racist on Sunday evening. He does not rely on crude humour or bad language in his routines and while he is not afraid to talk about politics and race he does so with a wide-eyed innocence which is instantly likeable.

After a short pre-amble in which he mock-confesses that the first part of the show could be ‘awkward’ Noah quickly revealed himself to be an accomplished comedian who was fully at ease on stage. His began with a few observations about life in the UK (it’s cold, dark and there is no mobile phone reception) before weaving insightful stories about life on the road, touring around Africa, growing up during apartheid and the fact that he was the product of an ‘illegal’ relationship (Noah has a white, Swiss father and a black South African mother). Growing up in a township with his mother and extended family he was not even allowed to be seen with his father and there is no bitterness or world-weariness in his tales; the horrors of apartheid are there in the background but what shines through is the humour that permeates family life.

Towards the end of the show, Noah tells us he can speak six languages and indeed it is his command of language that makes him such a pleasure to watch. He moves deftly from black American slang to Spanish to the German he learnt by inadvertently by listening to Hitler’s speeches. Race – and by extension language and culture – are the dominant themes in this show and Noah is able to subvert our notions of what these mean through playfulness rather than lecturing. He didn’t even need to win over the audience; he was greeted warmly from the beginning and he was rewarded with rapturous applause by the end.

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Review: RSC production of Richard II delivers on every level

Oliver Ford Davis, Nigel Lindsay and David Tennant in Richard II.

Oliver Ford Davis, Nigel Lindsay and David Tennant in the RSC production of Richard II.

Much praise has been heaped on Gregory Doran’s production of Richard II for the RSC at Stratford and it is indeed a gripping exploration of the politics and psychology of power. It contains some of Shakespeare’s most stirring speeches and these were handled superbly by the immensely talented cast members.

It is a performance which is drenched in medieval mythology. From the traditional costume to the pageantry of the three trumpet players and the piety of the trio of sopranos this is a tale which is placed firmly in an era of royal instability and brutal power struggles.

With his flowing blond locks and feminine demeanour, David Tennant brings an almost angelic quality to his Richard II and there are even occasional moments of humanity. As his crown slips from his clutches, Richard, who came to the throne at the age of just 10, gives a speech about the perils of kingship. He tells us that ‘some have been deposed; some slain in war’ while others are ‘haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d’ – and all because death keeps court ‘within the hollow crown’.

But don’t deceived by this apparent frailty; it is his tyranny, apparent from the beginning in his decision to have his uncle the Duke of Gloucester killed, which come to define him as a vain, power-hungry monarch.

Compelling performances came from every actor who walked on stage. Nigel Lindsay played Bolingbroke, who seized the crown and became Henry IV, and although he was thuggish he was also confident and commanded a respect which eluded Richard. Jane Lampotaire, meanwhile, put on a gut-wrenching performance as the grieving widow of the Duke of Gloucester and as the play opens, she can be seen draped across his coffin.

Medieval politics, particularly a belief in the divine right of kings, may seem very alien to a modern audience but the eloquent speeches, created by Shakespeare and brought to life by the actors made for a truly spine-tingling performance.

Richard II was performed at the RSC in Stratford and broadcast live in venues across the UK including Derby’s Quad. It will be showing at Broadway Cinema from 23rd November to 7th December.

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Impressive staging of Richard III at Nottingham Playhouse

Ian Bartholomew

Ian Bartholomew as Richard III

The last time I saw Ian Bartholomew perform he played a very convincing dictator in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Nottingham Playhouse. Brecht’s masterpiece, an allegory which examines Hitler’s rise to power, draws us in to the point where we feel complicit in the terrible acts he committed.

As with his portrayal of Arturo Ui, Bartholomew has a mighty stage presence in Shakespeare’s Richard III which recently opened at the Playhouse. He’s dressed in a Gestapo-like military uniform and jackboots (another nod to Hitler) but he does not immediately appear to be the despot you expect. In fact, he’s somewhat self-deprecating and comical and by addressing the audience directly, he makes us feel part of his wicked scheme.

But the violence of this era nevertheless pervades the performance. A monarch’s reign, often established through battle, cruelty and strategic marriages, was by no means secure and this meant atrocious acts were committed like the imprisonment of the princes in the tower.

And in a perverse twist, Charles Daish, who plays Clarence, staggers onto stage on crutches, his face visibly pained, after suffering a real injury during rehearsals.

All of the actors performed well and the traditional Shakespearean delivery was peppered with an element of playfulness: I particularly liked the depiction of the two murderers as an East-End gangster and a young hooligan dressed in a hoodie, complete with cockney accents.

They also used the entire theatre to great effect and in the climatic moment when Richard is declared king, he stands on the balcony and we sit, surrounded by his supporters, gazing up at him.

On stage, the grey backdrop gives us a sense of foreboding, while the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, horrifying visions are projected onto the white tent in which Richard fights his demons. The final battle scene was also wonderfully dramatic, with swords clashing and bodies strewn across the ground.

In the Playhouse’s production of 1984 last month the quest for absolute power is explored and this play follows on neatly from that. Although many historians now view Shakespeare’s Richard III as a piece of Tudor propaganda and are less inclined to apply a modern moral framework to his actions, there is no denying that this is a fascinating examination of power, tyranny and oppression. It’s also a must-see if, like me, you have been hooked by the discovery of the remains of the last Plantagenet king in Leicester.

Richard III is on at Nottingham Playhouse until 16th November. For details visit the website. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #mykingdomforahorse

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Powerful figures: Geoffrey Farmer’s Let’s Make the Water Turn Black at Nottingham Contemporary

geoff2Walking into a gallery filled with classical sculptures can be somewhat unnerving. Forms that suggest strength and power stand static while the cold, white marble is strangely death-like.

As with Frankenstein’s monster, it is easy to imagine a bolt of electricity reanimating these frozen figures. It’s an idea that played on my mind when I went to see Canadian sculptor Geoffrey Farmer’s latest installation, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month.

Inside, the figures that greet you are indeed white and motionless. Created from salvaged objects and old movie props, some playfully reference traditional sculpture. One even has the muscular limbs and noble face typical of the art form but it has been deconstructed: its body is made up of a mechanical-looking frame, a horn has been placed in its ear and a carrot has been stuffed into its mouth. Seemingly disparate, the sculptures spring to life as different coloured lights flash across them, animating even the cabbages that appear to grow from the solid, white gallery floor. Other characters, created with mop hair and light bulbs for eyes, suddenly come alive in a way that is both playful and sinister.

As well as the transformative lighting, a soundtrack made up of field recordings and Foley sounds perpetually changes the mood in the gallery and abstract electronic soundscapes contrast with the cheerful, half-remembered 1940s radio ditties.

The exhibition takes its name from Frank Zappa’s 1968 song Let’s Make the Water Turn Black which follows the story of pair of young brothers who lock themselves up in the garage and amuse themselves with all sorts of revolting games. The childish humour shifts to something darker as we learn that one of the brothers is in the army while the other is ‘taking pills’. During a recent visit to the Contemporary, Farmer said that he was interested in 1960s LA and his installation perfectly captures the dichotomy of this era (free love and peace versus war, drug casualties and the horrors of Altamont and the Charles Manson murders).

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black runs until 5th January. For details on the exhibition, and the events that have been organised around it, visit the Contemporary’s website.

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Not easy to watch but some genuinely touching moments in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine in Woody Allen's latest film Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine in Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine.

“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” says Sharon, one of the minor characters in Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine as she describes the guests at a party.

While it may have appeared to be an unremarkable comment, I thought it was an apt description of the disparate people who are thrown together by circumstance. In the opening scenes we meet the beautiful, glamorous but intensely troubled Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett who spends the entire flight from New York to San Francisco talking non-stop to a fellow passenger. Carrying her Louis Vuitton luggage, she turns up at her adopted sister’s flat after discovering her rich husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was an adulterous crook.

Jasmine, whose real name is Jeanette, has followed a very different path from her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who works in a grocery store, has two children and a string of rough-and-ready but generally kind-hearted boyfriends. Using a series of flashbacks, we see that Jasmine always looked down on her sister, while seemingly turning a blind eye to her husband’s dodgy deals in return for the lavish lifestyle she believes she deserves. Clutching a bottle of pills and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the protagonist in Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, Blanchett’s depiction of Jasmine’s descent into depression and alcoholism is suitably gut-wrenching.

Like its characters, the film is not always perfect; it trundles along in places and it was difficult to muster up much sympathy for Jasmine, who continues to view Ginger with disdain despite her generosity and sweet nature. At the same time, there are some genuinely touching moments and in one scene when Jasmine is babysitting Ginger’s two boys we see a much more ‘human’ side to her as she speaks candidly for the first time about her break-down and the pills she has to take.

Blue Jasmine continues at Broadway Cinema this week.

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Stewart Lee shows his playful side at Nottingham Playhouse

stewKnown for offering the antithesis of big venue comedy gigs, Stewart Lee began his latest show, Much a Stew About Nothing, by telling us unceremoniously that he is trying out new material for an upcoming TV show.

When he was last in Nottingham for Carpet Remnant World he performed in front of a row of grubby, sad-looking carpets and the show culminated in a nihilistic super rant about modern alienation. But when he appeared  at Nottingham Playhouse on Sunday evening, Lee seemed altogether more playful, occasionally cracking a gleeful smile. He even roped three members of the audience to cart a load of boxes to Anish Kapoor’s famous Skymirror sculpture so that he could use it as a stall to flog his DVDs.

For fans of his biting political satire there was plenty here with Lee launching a searing attack on Paul Nutall ‘of the UKIPs’ for his views on immigration. That said, politics does not dominate the show and references to TV programmes like The Really Wild Show proved to be a crowd pleaser. A large part of Lee’s routines these days centres on his experiences of family life and his description of himself as a ‘vasectemised, alcoholic, 45-year-old father of two’ was brilliant.

There is no doubt that Lee is a consummate performer and he is a skillful improviser who easily fended off the heckler who decided to start belting out a song in the middle of the routine. Perhaps this show did not reach the dizzy heights of Carpet Remnant World but Lee seemed comfortable with the audience and there was a warm humour that sat surprisingly well alongside his satire.

An extra date for this show has been planned for 23rd January. For details visit the Playhouse website.

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REVIEW: Stunning performances in 1984 at Nottingham Playhouse

1984The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The moment when Winston Smith and his lover Julia realise they have been caught in this stage adaptation of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most dramatic I have ever seen on the stage. Away from the omnipresent telescreens, they have created a sanctuary where they conduct their illicit love affair and plot to bring down Big Brother and the Party. But in this terrifying scene lights flash, scenery is pulled down and the couple are taken away to face their inevitable fate: torture, indoctrination and the notorious Room 101.

The play, which opened at Nottingham Playhouse on Friday, is framed by two scenes set in modern times. The characters, who only really exist in Winston’s mind as the ‘unborn’ people of the future, study the forbidden diary he began to keep in order to confirm that his thoughts were still free and that two plus two really did equal four. This part takes us into Winston’s troubled mind and there were some great dramatic flourishes such as the fact that the mobile phone ring tone of one of the characters is Oranges and Lemons, the nursery rhyme which those in Winston’s world vaguely remember from the time before the Party took control.

But the modern era soon gives way to the paranoid world of Big Brother in which people view each other with suspicious eyes. At the Ministry of Truth, where Winston is responsible for falsifying documents from history, a dark routine is played out in the canteen. The same people have the same conversations every day – until one of them inexplicably disappears one lunchtime. This paranoia is heightened by a tray being dropped just as Parsons describes the execution of an enemy of the state and it reaches a dramatic climax during the absurd Two Minutes of Hate. In a scene which was perhaps even more gripping than the novel depicted, the characters shout words of hatred at a telescreen which shows someone being hounded by men in boiler suits and gas masks, while pictures of the ultimate enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein, flash on the screen.

Overall, this was a superb production with stunning performances throughout, particularly from Mark Arends as the poor, ulcer-ridden Winston. I did think that the relationship between O’Brien and Winston could have been drawn out a little further; in the novel O’Brien wins Winston’s trust over time so the moment when he betrays him is more dramatic however this is a minor qualm.The real power of this production, aside from the dramatic effects, lies in the fact that the director does not need to hammer home the idea that our world resembles Orwell’s vision in more ways than he could have imagined, for instance, the chilling moment when Winston ‘unpersons’ a man by deleting him from history, reminded me of how easy it is to remove people from social networking sites with the click of a button.

1984, which is a collaboration between Nottingham Playhouse and Headlong, is on until 28th September. For details and tickets visit the Playhouse website. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #1984Play.

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