In just the past week in Greenwich I have seen works by Robert Clark, Uchenna Dance and Tara D’Arquian, each of which explored different aspects of human connection – and each of which was magical.
Clark’s MASS, commissioned by the Greenwich Dance & TrinityLaban Partnership, couldn’t have been more relevant, turning the spotlight on to the opposing themes of empathy and alienation in our post-truth world of Trump and Brexit and raising difficult questions about our personal responses to immigration and insularity. Audience and cast mingled on the twilit floor of Woolwich Arsenal’s cavernous Building 17, all of us wearing diaphanous hoods and shapeless smocks that removed the distinction not only between dancer and observer but also between genders. At first I felt unsettled and apart. But as the evening unfurled into a gentle series of feather-soft encounters with the performers I found myself moved almost to tears by the sense of social immersion and inclusivity Clark’s ground-breaking work created. It was, to say the least, uplifting.
Uchenna’s The Head Wrap Diaries at the Albany was set in a south London hair salon and concentrated on questions of identity and gender. Multi-talented performers Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah and Emmanuella Idris mixed dance, spoken word, mime and laugh-out-loud comedy to give us a coming-of-age story, choreographed by Vicki Igbokwe, which used vast swathes of dazzling, polychrome African fabrics to create a stunning world full of childhood agony and joy, archetypal family relationships and, most importantly, female empowerment. It was spellbinding – and inspired a rapturous ovation.
The programme for D’Arquian’s Bad Faith began with a scene-setting quote from the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.” Sartre was influenced by Nietzsche and D’Arquian based her latest piece on the German thinker’s notion that any attempt to define the self is absurd because of its multiplicity. What followed at Laban theatre was a mesmerising collage of words, music and movement as D’Arquian, Laura Doehler and Hannah Ringham held centre-stage as nine women sitting among the audience called out or chanted aphorisms and affirmations to a soundtrack that ranged from Mahler to contemporary electronica by way of The Supremes. It trod a fine line between profundity and pretension. But that sense of danger gave it a fascinating edge and helped to make the show a deserved triumph.
Ever think acting is easy? Then you should have seen the performance of Lord Of The Flies that I saw at Greenwich Theatre. The young cast not only had to push themselves to their physical limits as the savage drama unfolded but also had to deal with some restless teenagers in the stalls whose inappropriate laughter must have been hugely distracting. The actors didn’t miss a beat, though, which was nothing less than heroic. The noisy faction in the audience were the ultimate losers, however, because this Lazarus Theatre Company production of William Golding’s great novel about marooned children was a gem – brilliantly acted by the cast and tautly directed by Ricky Dukes, although I was baffled by the decision to cast girls as five of the boys. Ben Jacobs’ clever lighting allowed the stage to be divvied up into far-flung parts of the island where the kids were stranded after a plane crash. And Dukes ensured the tension never faltered as the youngsters’ society quickly collapsed into bloody civil war. The two murders were genuinely shocking, particularly the killing of Piggy. But it was the acting that made this production special and rendered the mixed casting largely irrelevant. The four roles at the heart of the story – Ralph, Piggy, Jack and Simon – were magnificently played by Amber Wadey, Luke MacLeod, Nick Cope and Benjamin Victor. They were given excellent support by Michael Holden, Nell Hardy, Calvin Crawley, Robyn Holdaway, Georgina Barley, Abbi Douetil and James Russell-Morley. The actors’ youth meant they had had very little professional theatre experience between them. But you would never have known that because each of them showed an emotional maturity well beyond their years – and helped make this a memorable evening.
The children of jazz legends who choose to follow in their parents’ footsteps have to face a lifetime of comparisons, often to their disadvantage. But that hasn’t stopped Jacqui Dankworth and Christian Garrick – and judging by their dazzling appearance at Blackheath Halls, they needn’t ever have worried. Jacqui has inherited the unique voice of her mum Cleo Laine and the musical insights of her saxophonist dad John Dankworth. And Christian’s amazing skills as a violinist are clearly born of the virtuosity of his jazz pianist father Michael Garrick. Add to this the prodigious talents of pianist and composer David Gordon and bassist Oli Hayhurst and their gig as Butterfly’s Wing was of the highest order. Not only did they perform a string of great songs from their new album Le Depart they also let rip with swinging covers, including tunes by Bud Powell and a hauntingly lovely take on Kurt Weill’s September Song which I reckon rivals the version recorded by jazz goddess Ella Fitzgerald. They also had a neat line in wit and whimsy, with a self-penned number about ducks and one called The Alchemist & The Catflap that featured one of the best miaows I’ve ever heard. The fun was the ideal counterpoint to the ballads which Dankworth sang so beautifully and which brought out the very best in her bandmates. And it helped to give their programme a perfect balance of emotion, virtuosity and sheer entertainment.
The gorgeous great hall of the Queen’s House reverberated with the mellow, if unusual, tones of a double bass and harp duo working their way through a programme that included works by some of music’s greatest geniuses – Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Puccini among them. And I can say without fear of contradiction that bassist Valentina Ciardelli and harpist Anna Quiroga showed consummate skill as they interpreted the masterworks in this free Trinity Laban recital. But what turned a terrific performance into something magical was the inclusion of two pieces by the late great rock guitarist Frank Zappa. The duo, who call themselves The Girls In The Magnesium Dress – the title of a Zappa song – broke up an otherwise classical playlist with a storming version of the Californian’s 1969 composition Peaches En Regalia and ended with a stupendous cover, complete with chanting, of Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus from his 1972 album The Grand Wazoo. I’m old enough to have seen Zappa perform both tracks live and I’m convinced he’d have loved Valentina and Anna’s wild and wonderful renditions. I know I did.