Simon Purcell at Oliver’s 27.11.18

South-east London is blessed with a seemingly endless supply of talented young jazz musicians. One of the main reasons is the presence of Trinity Laban’s acclaimed jazz faculty and another is Oliver’s bar, where so many rising stars have cut their performance teeth.

Both were on display when Oliver’s played host to a phenomenal gig by Simon Purcell, once Trinity’s jazz guru and now a full-time jobbing pianist, who brought together his old tenor sax pal Mark Lockheart and three of the very best of his ex-students, bassist Conor Chaplin, drummer Corrie Dick and trumpeter Laura Jurd, to create a night of musical magic in Greenwich.

The latter three play together in the Mercury-nominated band Dinosaur and it showed – they had an almost telepathic understanding as Purcell led this quintet in a series of freewheeling, stunning improvisations based on works by such legendary figures as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Bronislaw Kaper and Rich Perry.

It’s tough to pick out highlights when every tune they played was a joy.

There was a fantastic percussion and bass duet by Messrs Dick and Chaplin on Perry’s amazing composition Squishy.

But at a pinch I’d opt for the whole ensemble’s virtuoso extemporisations on Rollins’ I’m An Old Cowhand, which filled most of the second half of their set.

It not only showed off the extraordinary talents of each member of the band but also underscored the widely-held view among experts that Jurd is a world-class trumpeter.

In fact the whole gig was world-class and was, as Purcell himself said at the end, a demonstration of why live improvised music is just about as good as it gets.

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Robinson Crusoe 28.11.18

What possible connection is there between Brexit, Donald Trump, dentistry, TV academic Mary Beard and Christmas? The answer – of course – is Andrew Pollard’s annual panto extravaganza at Greenwich Theatre.

This year he has gone back into the archives and given us his version of Robinson Crusoe, a panto favourite in Victorian times, and it is without doubt as good as anything he has done before.

Pollard not only writes and directs but also stars in this fabulous show as the hero’s mum Dolly, a shellfish seller at Deptford docks.

During the course of two hours of gag-a-minute fun, he and the rest of the cast lampoon everything and everyone in the news today while never losing sight of the fact that this is at heart a Christmas treat for the whole family.

The laughter and cheers of the 300-plus children at the performance I saw, at 10 o’clock on a wet November morning, were the best possible proof of how well they achieved that.

Anthony Spago, who has become Greenwich’s traditional panto villain, was magnificent as pirate king Gingerbeard, a cross between Captain Jack Sparrow and Harold Steptoe that had kids and adults booing and hissing every time he walked on stage.

And the rest of the cast were just as good. Matt Jolly as our hero Robinson and Michaela Bennison as his true love Polly were suitably dashing and somehow managed to keep a straight face as they swashed their buckles through the increasingly madcap action.

Tom Guest and Lizzy Dive were irrepressible as Captain Wally Windblower – cue any number of gags! – and ship’s figurehead Saucy Nancy.

And Arabella Rodrigo hit all the right notes with her amazing singing as sky-goddess Nimbus and as Native American Manotopha.

She also had a wonderful little cameo as Gingerbeard’s mother Mary Beard who prattled on endlesslessly about history.

Full marks too to the ensemble of Sarah Dare, Ejiro Richmond, Mia Yuill and James-Paul McAllister, who never missed a beat in the song-and-dance routines.

Speaking of which, the live music was as much a star of the show as the script and cast.

Musical director and pianist Steve Markwick, guitarist Gordon Parrish and drummer Chris Wyles were pitch-perfect as they played a score that included original songs and thunderous covers ranging from the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil to the Dolly Parton-Kenny Rogers’ classic Islands In The Stream.

And the set and costumes by Cleo Pettitt beautifully captured the seasonal silliness of the show.

But in the end it’s the jokes that had the packed house calling for more.

I won’t spoil it for you but the dentist sketch is one of the funniest things I’ve ever witnessed on a stage.

There were any number of terrific gags about contemporary issues such as Brexit, a side-splitting sequence featuring the President of the United States, a neat nod to comedy legend Max Wall’s association with Greenwich Theatre and – naturally – an almost non-stop onslaught of puns.

I don’t know how this panto could possible be any better. I do know, however, that you’d be crazy not to see it before it closes on January 13.

Here 10.10.18

There was a lot of audience laughter during Michael Frayn’s philosophical comedy Here at Greenwich Theatre. It wasn’t the gales of laughter provoked by the playwright’s great farces such as Noises Off. Instead it was that most satisfying of all outpourings – the laughter of recognition, especially the recognition of embarrassment. Frayn’s rarely-staged 1993 play is an intense examination of what it means to live in the here and now by way of human relationships, retrospection, gender politics, psychology and quantum theory. It’s an amazing mix of erudition and humour. But it also requires top-class acting because otherwise the bickering couple at the play’s core, Cath and Phil, could be irritating whingers and their nostaligia-obsessed landlady Pat would be little more than a cliché of bitterness. Happily Serin Ibrahim and David Hubball as the lovers and Kerry Joy Stewart were superb in director James Haddrell’s production, giving the play an emotional depth and honesty that made for great theatre. And there were lots of wonderful little touches to keep the here-and-now theme in our thoughts – an ever-growing spider plant, a print of Dali’s melting clocks adorning the wall and, best of all, the final fade-out leaving only an alarm clock spotlighted on stage. Frayn, who once lived in Blackheath and had been a member of the Greenwich Theatre board, had taken part in a Q&A session before the opening night in which he revealed his affection for what is one of his lesser-known works. And after watching this production, he told the cast it was the best version of it he had ever seen. Who am I to disagree?

Dennis Of Penge 11.10.18

Euripides may have been one of the inventors of playwriting nearly two and half millennia ago but his works are still relevant, as Dennis Of Penge showed so dramatically at the Albany. All the familiar tropes of Greek tragedy are there in Annie Siddons’ brilliant take on The Bacchae – loyalty, love, ecstasy, hubris, vengeance, suffering, obsession, magic, the implacable nature of the cosmos and the belief that the gods walk among us. And just to make the genre her own she has added a couple of contemporary leitmotifs – therapy and the joy of chicken wings. The result is a freewheeling, funny, heartfelt and fabulous story about Wendy, an overweight, out-of-work, alcoholic Peckham woman, and her fight for what’s right against a system geared to keep her under its thumb. The gods are represented by Dennis, a black, possibly pansexual childhood friend of Wendy who stands in for joy-loving Dionysus, god of the instincts whose sacred creatures include bees. Dennis leads a popular uprising against the rationality of the establishment (the jobcentre and its ghastly boss Pratt) with the help of Peckham’s downtrodden denizens, a squadron of attack-bees and a couple of dinosaurs brought to life after being liberated from Crystal Palace Park. Siddons herself played Wendy, Dennis was played by the multitalented actor, singer, musician and dancer Jorell Coiffic-Kampala and Asaf Zohar, who composed the terrific soundtrack and performed it live, helped voice the rest of the characters, a roll-call that included two gobby geezers who double for the traditional Greek chorus. The three of them created something truly extraordinary through a combination of words, music and their own dazzling charisma to make the divine human and the human divine. This reinvention of an ancient classic was a triumph for Siddons – and another triumph for the Albany.

Mat Collishaw: Queen’s House 2.10.18

Unique is a dreadfully overused word but I can’t recall anything else that comes close to resembling Mask Of Youth, artist Mat Collishaw’s animatronic face of Elizabeth I which will face down her glorious Armada portrait in the Queen’s House for the next few months. Her glistening eyes follow the viewer as well as gazing at her own portrait, a spectacular propaganda piece depicting the ageing 55-year-old monarch as a vibrant, potent, decisive young woman. From time to time her lips part to reveal discoloured and missing teeth. Tiny hairs – from squirrels, apparently – sprout from blue-veined, scuffed skin. But the blemishes cannot hide the face’s imperiousness. The eyes are darkly and impassively authoritarian and her mouth often seems to twist in what Shelley memorably called a sneer of cold command. You are left in no doubt that you are as nothing compared with the Faerie Queen.

Put simply, Collishaw’s installation is magnificent, capturing both the loneliness and lure of power and encapsulating the myth that sustains Britannia to this day. In a post-truth, possibly post-Brexit world, this is art at its most relevant and coruscating. I urge you to see it. And while you’re there, walk across the hall and look at seven photographs of seven 18-year-old pupils from local Thomas Tallis School which have been printed and framed by German artist Bettina von Zwehl as if they are 17th century miniatures in the style of Nicholas Hilliard. They hang in a room of small portraits of royal children which were painted to be sent to foreign courts seeking marriage alliances with Britain.

But unlike the little princes and princess, these 21st century youngsters are not monarchical commodities – they are classless individuals free to make their own choices. The display may be tiny but it‘s awash with life-affirming power.

Trinity Laban Percussion Ensemble 11.10.18

Trinity Laban Percussion Ensemble recitals are always a blast but I can’t recall one that made such an impression as today’s free lunchtime concert at St Alfege’s in Greenwich. Opening with the world premiere of Red, composed by fellow student Toby Ingram, the 12-strong group directed by Mick Doran took us on an emotional journey that began with quiet beauty and ended in the thunderous strains of Leonard Bernstein at his very best. After the lovely Ingram piece, we were given a delightful composition by Trinity alumna Litha Efthymiou called Egg Soldiers, which was wonderfully played with wooden eggs, metal eggcups and steel egg spoons. This was followed by the mellifluous Splendid Wood for three marimbas which certainly lived up to its name. This year marks the centenary of the death of Claude Debussy and to mark the event ensemble member Connor Chambers arranged Clair De Lune for marimba and vibraphone an performed it with Rory Clark. It was heartbreakingly gorgeous. The finale was a barnstorming medley of Bernstein’s great West Side Story songs rearranged for percussion which the ensemble played not only with virtuosity but with real joy. It was a most uplifting way to end a stunning recital.

Magic Realism in the Weimar Republic 6.9.18

This is a small but perfectly formed exhibition that runs at Tate Modern till next July. You can get a real sense of it in about 20 minutes, although it deserves a much longer and closer look. But if you’re in a hurry to see the other more famous displays on show on the South Bank, the first two rooms alone capture its essence. Start with Paul Klee’s wondrous watercolour Comedy, move on to George Grosz’s fabulously sleazy self-portrait, revel in the colours of Marc Chagall’s Green Donkey and then pop into the next room to marvel at Otto Dix’s gruesomely lowlife etchings – particularly The Butchers – and his brilliantly bloody watercolour Lust Murder. These pictures will tell you all you need to know about the national nightmare that engulfed Germany in the disastrous aftermath of the First World War.

Much Ado About Nothing 21.8.18

My, how fortunate we are in Greenwich! Just ten days after a fabulous outdoor Measure For Measure at Severndroog Castle we were treated to an equally wonderful alfresco Much Ado About Nothing In St Alfege Park. This time it was the work of touring company Merely Theatre, who managed to capture every nuance of Shakespeare’s most perfect comedy with its double-dealing plot, double-meaning jokes and double-quick repartee. Mostly this was because of the players, who threw themselves into their doubled-up roles with skill, feeling and unbridled energy. Emmy Rose was terrific as bride-to-be Hero and also as her foul nemesis Don John, Simon Grujich made a fine Claudio and an even better Verges, Jennifer Shakesby shone as jobsworth Dogberry and patrician Don Pedro and Andrew Hislop was magnificently stately as Leonato and the Sexton. But the play really belongs to Benedick and Beatrice and they were brought brilliantly to life by Scott Ellis – doubling up hilariously as Hero’s maid – and by Alice Osmanski, who handled the wild swings between slapstick and joy with total credibility, even while they mingled with the audience (and dipped into their picnics) during their verbal jousting and jesting. Director Abigail Anderson also managed to add an extra dimension of fun by underlining the action with terrific interventions of pop music ranging from Cliff Richard’s 1962 No1 The Young Ones to Walk The Moon’s 2014 smash Shut Up And Dance by way of Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping. I don’t recall ever seeing a more breathlessly entertaining – or easier to understand – version of this play. I look forward to the next time Merely Theatre are in town.

Eigengrau 1.8.18

It’s self-evident that a great play can be ruined by a below-par cast – no doubt we all have any number of examples in our memories. But the reverse is also true, as New Light Production’s staging of Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau at Greenwich Theatre proved. The play calls itself an urban fairytale and follows the romantic adventures of four people living in London. It’s full of truly terrific comic one-liners – so full, in fact, that there’s almost no time left for the narrative. As for the characters, they were little more than ciphers – and walking cliché ciphers at that. But despite the problems, the cast – directed by Aoife Smyth – was absolutely tremendous, with Joseph Holdroyd as granny-fixated saddo Tim, Katharine Hardman as ultra-feminist Cassie, Joseph McCarthy as misogynist Mark and Robyn Wilson as fantasist Rose giving it their all and ensuring the audience had plenty to enjoy. And I must pay tribute to Katharine Davies-Herbst’s set. In an era when sets tend to be minimalist in the extreme, hers made a significant contribution to creating an authentic atmosphere for the drama.