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Arts & Entertainment - Reviews

REVIEW: St Peter's fifth Brilliant Young Pianists series brings Adrian Oldland to Marlborough

The third recital in this series at St Peter's Church in Marlborough was given (February 26) by the young British pianist, Adrian Oldland. 

Adrian began his musical studies at the age of seven when he joined his local church choir and went on to gain a place at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music where be completed both a B Mus and an M Mus, studying under Alexander Ardakov.

Since then  Adrian has gone on to establish himself as an exciting and formidable performer on the concert platform, noted especially for his  sensitive interpretations of the works of Robert Schumann.   He has taken part in many master classes with distinguished pianists such as Peter Donohoe   and William Howard, and currently enjoys a busy career, performing regularly across the UK and throughout Europe.

Adrian Oldland began his recital with two of Schumann’s eight ‘Novelletten’ or short stories written in 1838. No 1 begins with a march-like staccato theme which gives way several times to a more languid and expansive  theme, full of sunshine, before returning triumphantly to the original  theme -  two very different moods in one piece, very reflective of Schumann’s own personality.

Clearly at ease with Schumann, Adrian made much of the contrasts, highlighting the plangent mood of the trio theme.  No 8 is a much grander piece, but again, Adrian developed the marked contrast in mood which the piece exploits. It opens with a passionate statement heard above an outpouring of rippling semi-quavers.

This gives way to a jovial trio before returning with renewed urgency to the first theme before a second trio changes the mood again; contrasts that were very well articulated. 

Then comes the last movement, which is almost the same the length as the remainder of the piece and with its own dramatic contrasts in mood, first  languid and reflective and then forceful and masculine.

All human emotions seem to be encapsulated in this movement of frantic contrasts of both key and mood. The movement seems rather disjointed ('ramshackle' was the word Adrian used!) as if these short movements were put together randomly. However the movement does have some shape  with a repeated use of the initial march theme.

Technically this was a  ‘tour de force’. However, although the contrasts were clear, I thought there was insufficient ‘storm’ and grandeur in the louder sections.   

Beethoven’s Sonata No 30 in E major completed the first half of the recital.  This is a fine work - both personal and intimate. The first movement is all froth separated by more tranquil sections, while the second movement, a ‘prestissimo’, is more urgent and compelling. It was well played, but lacked some of the drama which the composition requires.  
Finally came the third movement a gentle cantabile - one of the finest melodies that Beethoven ever produced. It is like a wistful sigh or a gentle yearning. This theme is then developed into a series of variations of varying character and complexity until the listener is returned to the serenity of the opening melody.

Technically Adrian’s playing was impressive, but was lacking in emotional intensity - the initial theme lacking in personal engagement and languor.

The second part of the concert was devoted entirely to one work: Franz Liszt’s ‘Apres  une lecture du Dante’. This enormous work known is known as a  ‘Fantasia quasi Sonata’  and was published in 1856 as part of the second volume of his ‘Annees de Pelerinage’.

The piece was inspired, as the name suggests, by the extended poem ‘The Divine Comedy’ completed in 1320 by the greatest of all Italian poets Dante Alighieri.  As in the poem Liszt transports the listener on a   journey towards eternal bliss through Hell and Purgatory until Paradise is finally gained.  

Liszt begins the work in the key of D Minor and makes frequent use of the ‘Devil’s interval’, the  augmented fourth. Both musical devices were used by many composers to portray the wailing of souls and the hopelessness of Hell.   Slowly this turbulent  work transforms into a brighter F sharp major key as we are drawn up towards the Heaven.
The work ends with  a series of  the massive chords in the key of D major - reflecting  the reality  of redemption  as we bask in the  glory of Paradise.

Like the poem which was its inspiration, this is a very profound work - technically and emotionally demanding. Adrian certainly rose to the technical challenge, but the performance was lacking in emotional punch. I remained unmoved by the horrors of Hell, and the rapturous description of Heaven lacked real conviction.    

It was a very good concert, and it was refreshing to hear Adrian introduce the works at the beginning.  However his demeanor and playing were a little stiff and short on emotional input especially in the Liszt. He has the potential to go far, and we wish him well.   

 NOTE:  the recital advertised for Sunday, 26 March has had to be postponed.  It will now take place on Sunday, 25 June and will feature the tri of Simon Watterton (piano), Anna Cashell (violin) and Ashok Klouda (cello).

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A Very Naughty Polar Bear

Review of The Bear, Bristol Old Vic, Saturday 18 February 2107

A polar bear squeezes through a child's window very naughty.Dressing up. Photo by Paul BlakemoreDressing up. Photo by Paul Blakemore

Tales of polar bears could go cuddly or monstrous. Recently, for instance, I've been watching the TV show Fortitude set on an Arctic island. There, everyone packs a rifle in case they encounter one of the huge white beasts and are in danger of becoming its snack.

But this is a half term theatre show based on a Raymond Briggs story and performed at the Bristol Old Vic, so we can assume this is a Nice Bear - the kind teddies are based on, the vulnerable giant whose habitat is rapidly shrinking.

I'm here with my almost four year old who is as concerned with the snacks in my bag with the action on stage. (This is the kind of distraction that kids' theatre companies such as Pins and Needles Productions have to put up with and handle with glee.) Tilly - who loves writing and singing pop songs - finds she has a large and noisy house guest. He becomes her new pal, but it's not easy sharing with someone who splashes bath water everywhere, messes up mummy and daddy's bedroom, mistakes the floor for a toilet and the toilet for a bowl of drinking water, and breaks things.

For a while I thought it might be just another children's show with a simple story where the bear is a child stand-in, but it, as it turns out, was a much richer metaphor than that. As with other Briggs' stories like The Snowman, it finds the magical space between dreams and reality.

Lily Donovan makes a charming Tilly; by turns excited child who can't get to sleep without Teddy, to a full tantrum on the floor because Bear has left the house in a state, but most of the time in wonderment of her new best friend.

And although Bear in the bath and Bear dressed up and what to do with Bear's big poos are funny enough, it is Tilly riding Bear across the stage, Bear swimming and Bear reunited with Baby Bear at the North Pole which takes the story from kids' TV territory and transforms it into a beautiful, tearjerking piece of theatre for any age.

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REVIEW Psychological thriller by local author: Jar's girlfriend killed herself - why does he keep glimpsing her so long afterwards?

Find Me - before they do  by J.S. Monroe (published 2017 by Head of Zeus Ltd)

J.S. Monroe's Find Me is a tremendous read.   The story unfolds at a great pace and the narrative  structure is used with great finesse to keep the reader puzzled and on the very edge of resolving the mystery.

Rosa, a troubled young Oxford undergraduate, has committed suicide. With the apparent and highly unsettling sightings of her by Jar, the young Irish writer with whom Rosa had an intense but all too brief affair, you spend the book’s first section wondering what kind of world you are entering.

It is only on page 93 that one of the characters lets you down none too gently with a very short sentence: “This is not a ghost story.”  But there is still the web of events that may be coincidences misread as connections - or may not be.

The first part of Find Me tightens the mystery of Rosa’s apparent reappearance.  The second part is an even tighter unravelling of that mystery.  It is difficult to say much more without adding a 'spoiler alert'.

Find Me is a thriller that combines a young man’s post-bereavement hallucinations with a very taut cat and mouse chase involving a garden shed, the ‘dark web’ and hacking galore. And among a cast of strange characters there is at least one mouse – called Rosa - that drowns.

The main characters are very clearly drawn – with just enough left unsaid to keep you guessing. Much of the well controlled tension is produced by cleverly alternating the story between the main characters.

In part one, as the hunt for a vital hard drive continues, readers are in the privileged position of being first to find out what is on the hard drive.  Or are they?  Is Jar being ‘played’ – as one of his helpers suspects?
The author says he was inspired to change genres – switching from his spy novels to this psychological thriller – as he had so enjoyed reading The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl.  But J.S. Monroe cannot quite leave behind the world of spies spy he wrote about as Jon Stock.  In telling us that, perhaps he too is laying a false trail for his readers.  Watch out for it.

Having got as far into the ‘dark web’ as is good for one’s sanity, we then get drawn into recent history with the CIA’s use of nasty psychological experiments that surround the nasty theory – and practice – of ‘learned helplessness’.    

There are clear echoes in Find Me of current controversies – not just about torture, but about the media and truth.  We get right up to date with a George Orwell definition: “Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printing. Everything else is public relations.”  So we tiptoe into President Trump’s world where torture by the CIA is okay and all journalism should be PR for himself.

I was intrigued to read in the Marlborough.News report of the Marlborough launch for Find Me, that a friend of the author had devoured the book at one sitting – all eight hours of it. I did not manage the eight hour record, but I did finish it at one o’clock in the morning.  Good finding…

You can read more about the author on Marlborough.News and Marlborough’s White Horse Bookshop still has signed copies of Find Me.  

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Review: Remember, remember? Fame is a trip down memory lane for parents

Rosie Amos as CarmenRosie Amos as CarmenRemember the kids from Fame? I do. I was 10 when the TV show began airing on BBC in 1982 – a little too young to fully appreciate some of the topics being explored, but you couldn’t move for the Irene Cara’s theme song at school discos: “Baby remember my name (remember, remember…)” she implored. I didn’t. I had to look it up for this article.

Anyway, like last year’s We Will Rock You, the St John’s Academy production of Fame is aimed squarely at a parental market, although I’m sure the ongoing 80s revival in fashion and music helps it feel not too irrelevant to the cast (in fact the only time the stageplay feels dated is when fame-hungry Carmen fantasises about fighting off autograph hunters – today they’d all be taking selfies).

Like the movie and the TV series, the musical is set at New York City's High School of Performing Arts. Pre-X Factor and YouTube, young people had to go to college for a shot at success, a fact of which we are reminded in the opening song, a full company rendition of Hard Work.

Here singers, dancers and musicians triumph or fail, fall in love and fall back out again. They also swear and take drugs – something I’m sure was cut from the BBC teatime show but remains intact for this production, giving the cast members the chance to (legitimately) use four letter words on school grounds.

Thus Sam Austen as Hispanic acting student Joe Vegas gets to sing (quite graphically, and with superb comic timing) about his sexual prowess (I Can't Keep It Down), while dancer Carmen Diaz (Rosie Amos – a terrific actor, dancer and singer) substitutes breakfast for drugs to stay skinny and alert, drops out of school to seek her fortune in LA, and has to do God knows what to earn the money to get home again, all the while shooting the audience sassy looks that could stop traffic.

Archie Fisher as TyroneArchie Fisher as TyroneNew York, of course, was and is a cultural melting pot, and class and ethnic tensions are a running theme throughout Fame – not easy for an all-white cast to convey.

So top marks to Archie Fisher (hip hop dancer Tyrone), who manages to rap (quite capably) about growing up poor and black in the Bronx. “No-ones gotta tell me what its like to be black,” he raps, without flinching.

The lad can dance, too. And besides some great dance performances from Sophie Little (ballet dancer Iris) and Rosie Amos, the role usually filled by “chorus members” is a stage-commanding dance troupe, while the backing singers huddle around the band in the orchestra pit.

School musicals normally demand acting and a bit of singing. Throwing dance into the mix is ambitious, and it says something about the St John’s – which offers music, dance and drama as part of its syllabus – that it has produced young performers who can handle all three – with aplomb.

Images courtesy of Sally Bere

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Review: local author's vivid tale of a woman's unequal struggle for independence in Victorian Britain and its violent Empire

Do not go down to your local bookshop to buy The Planter's Daughter by Jo Carroll - known locally as a writer through her widely-read columns for Marlborough.News.  This is her first novel and it is only available to download from Amazon to a Kindle (a bargain at £3.50) - or you can download a sample of the opening chapter as text.

Previous books by Jo Carroll have been her travel series of Over the Hill titles - about her adventures in Nepal and Ecuador.  The Planter's Daughter was born from a story she heard on her travels in New Zealand in 2005.  

It is a novel full of absorbing characters that stretches across the world of Britain's Victorian-era Empire and is as serious as it is entertaining.  In each section of the book the story is told through a different person's eyes.

We first meet Irish-born Sara Weldon in Liverpool.  We see her through the eyes of her Aunt's maid, Kitty.  It is 1847 and she has come to England escaping the potato famine and eventually she leaves Liverpool having become tangentially involved in working class politics - she leaves as a criminal transported to Australia having fallen foul of her scheming Uncle.  But before she leaves she provides her Aunt with a purpose in life - we will not spoil that surprise.

In Australia we see Sara through the eyes of a religious zealot Grace, who saves her from the slave market and takes her in as maid to her troubled family.  Life near Melbourne on a barely viable small-holding - with a side-line in making tools for the country's many thousand gold prospectors - is vividly drawn and based on sound research.

Grace is not an easy character to read about and you can tell quite early on that her relationship with Sara is based more on Grace's pious views of what people should be like (with the Lord's help) than on any realistic view of Sara's character and how she might make her way in the world.

One of Grace's stepsons takes Sara with him when he leaves home to join life among the rough and tough prospectors. They are mostly men and almost all of them are deprived of female company.  Sara's escape and her attempts to support herself financially take her several rungs down the ladder of despair.

Jo Carroll first heard about the 'notorious character' Barbara Weldon when she was in Hokitika (on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island) in 2005 and the book, she says, has been 'simmering' ever since.

The novel turns Barbara into Sara Weldon and it is from Australia that she is sent to New Zealand for using 'obscene language in a public place' - she is transported again.  The British Empire's rough and ready legal system could not send its unwanted any further away than antipodean New Zealand.

In New Zealand a magistrate named Grenville, who has been shipped from Scotland to work for the Empire, falls for her undoubted charms and lures her - with promises we know he cannot keep - to Hokitika where he is the local magistrate and where he lives with his starched-pinny of a wife and their two sons, Rupert and Alistair.  

He sets Sara up as his mistress in a cabin by the sea - just far enough from the town to keep her from prying eyes.  But can she keep away from the men from whom she can make money by selling the only thing that is by now her own - her body?  Will she ever save enough to get home to Ireland or to Liverpool?  Can Grenville fulfil his promises?

Throughout this section of the novel the magistrate is only referred to by his surname - he is just 'Grenville'.  As his relationship with Sara unravels, she refers to him with increasing sarcasm as 'Mr Magistrate'.  He ends up abandoned by his wife: "And you - you can walk into the sea for all I care.  You might as well.  There's not much left for you here, Mr High-and-Mighty Magistrate."

Each historical and geographical part this book has been carefully researched, yet the research is not obtrusive.  That it is true of this section.  But of all the stages in Sara's story, it is this one that really comes to life both in terms of the characters and the descriptions - especially the descriptions Grenville's state of continual panic as he realises his duplicity will be discovered.

It also lives strongly with Jo Carroll's descriptions of the bleak scenery of the sea shore blasted with winds from the Antarctic, of the little town with its disreputable cast of seekers after gold and of Sara's prisoner-like existence.  Some of the scenes reminded me of those desperate beach scenes in the 1993 film The Piano - also set on New Zealand's west coast.

Sara's attempt (in Jo Carroll's words) to 'steer an independent path' in the male dominated nineteenth century, ends badly.  Barbara Weldon's life also ended badly - in the words of the real life New Zealand magistrate, it ended "casually and by misfortune".   

Jo Carroll could not leave us with Sara simply being "swept along by a tide of events".  So she gives us one last chapter that helps explain how Sara ended up on this one-way ladder.  

The author takes us back in time to the potato famine that led to Sara's initial move from Ireland to the unpleasant rule of her Aunt and Uncle and to the mayhem and inequalities of Liverpool's burgeoning capitalism.   

The descriptions of the Antrim countryside and its inhabitants destroyed by the potato blight are grim.  And overlaid onto the disaster of starvation is Ireland's all to blatant religious divide.  Sara was, after all, a planter's daughter - and the incoming, colonising Presbyterian planters held out strongly against the native Irish Catholics.  So the book ends by taking us into the divides that still blight that part of Ireland to this day.

One of the major accomplishments of this novel is that the story flows so clearly. There are no unlikely coincidences to perplex the reader and undermine the veracity of the tale.  This is as close to the real story of such women as Barbara Weldon as we are likely to get.

However, coincidences do happen.  No sooner had I finished The Planter's Daughter and put away the Kindle, than I spotted a report in my morning newspaper datelined Hokitika and headlined "Miners pile in for latest gold rush in New Zealand".  

In the 1860s gold rush, Hokitika, this report says, had 72 hotels and few women: "Just as today, the original miners were secretive about their claims, often laying false trails and misinformation to lure their competitors away from prosperous sites."

Magistrate Grenville's pot of gold was Sara herself - and his false trails and misinformation led to his downfall and to Sara's death.  His was 'fool's gold' and she paid the price for his folly.

We can look forward to Jo Carroll's next novel - whether it is available between hard or soft covers or online.

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Review: The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic

The Flower Witch, photo by Mark DouetThe Flower Witch, photo by Mark Douet

A fight between good and evil with an icy darkness – Milo Davison (10) reports from Bristol Old Vic's Christmas production.

The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic made a unexpected start. The two main characters, Gerda and Kai, were introduced as puppets.

In the small peasant Village of the Yellow Roses both began as swaddled blankets, then as toddlers and young children both were puppets controlled by actors - learning to crawl then as young children until actors Steven Roberts (Kai) and Emily Burnett (Gerda) took over.

The songs were catchy, the music and lyrics were relevant to the scenes and I often wanted to dance.

I liked when Gerda and Kai called each other names in their first song to show how good friends they were, like ‘a factory full of farts’ and ‘the stickiest, stickiest kind of glue’.

Thousands of miles away in the Antarctic, I think, two goblins had captured bad-tempered children to feed the Snow Queen with their angry thoughts.

Doctor Boffin, played by Joanna Holden, and a goblin apprentice, played by Dylan Wood, were pulling a giant machine.

This machine looked handmade and I really liked all the gadgets they could pull out. Then a shadow projection of the Snow Queen appeared and we heard her speak - Gwyneth Herbert, the musical director, made a voice that sounded like it extinguished all hope.

Then back in the village Kia was captured for his big heart which was turned black by a magical shard. So started Gerda’s adventure to find her friend.

In one scene she swam with the turtles and these were my favourite costumes - they had green clothing a big shell on their back and it looked like their bellies were resting on a skateboard or a platform with wheels so they could scoot along really smoothly.

Gerda washed up on a beach where the Flower Witch, played by Miltos Yerolemou, found her. He had a hilarious costume of a flowery body with a fake beard with artificial flowers stuck to it.

He also had a companion called Parrot, played by Jessica Hayles. Her costume was quite cool with feathers sticking out here and there and a head-dress with a row of multicoloured feathers along the top which kind of reminded me of a centurion.

The Flower Witch had been bullied by other humans but Gerda made friends with him and liked him for his different style, just like her friend Kai who preferred dancing to football.

My favourite song was by the evil Duchess which was robotic and electronic and my favourite character was the Snow Queen.

Her costume had a giant icy ribcage a long snow battered dress night black beady eyes and a rugby ball shaped head with icicles sticking out - how she looked was how she was inside.

The set was great too, especially the smoke effects making icy fog.

A soul devouring, heart touching, laughing happiness, heartbreaking, icy sunlit performance.

The Snow Queen runs until January 15. For tickets, visit


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“This orchestra gets better and better" - a review of Marlborough Concert Orchestra Winter Concert

Marlborough Concert OrchestraMarlborough Concert Orchestra“This orchestra gets better and better.” ...was a comment overheard on Saturday 3rd December, when the Marlborough Concert Orchestra gave its Winter Concert at St. Mary’s Church to a highly appreciative audience.

There was a strong ‘young’ element to the evening.  Alexander Webb, currently a Conducting Scholar at the Royal Northern College of Music, came to the podium at very short notice and conducted with aplomb, giving fine, clear direction.  The two professional soloists in the first half were Irene Enzlin (‘cello) and Verena Chen (violin) who gave us a superb rendition of Brahms’ Double Concerto; in this they were ably supported by the orchestra.  It is said that Brahms was very diffident about this concerto.  On the basis of this performance, there was no need for such modesty.

Following the interval, when raffle prizes were collected (one lucky family appeared nearly to scoop the pool), there was an impromptu encore from the soloists – a delightful Passacaglia by the Norwegian composer, Halvorsen.  After this, the orchestra set forth with Invitation to the Dance by Weber, described by one member of the orchestra as “not as easy (to play) as it sounds”.  These playersd did make it sound easy, David Edwards, (1st ‘cello) set the standard with the opening solo part.

Next came the Vocalise Op.14 No.14 by Rachmaninov, in which momentum was well-maintained under Alex Webb’s baton and the familiar ‘sob factor’ of this composer shone through.  Finally, we had Variations on a theme of Haydn by Brahms, where each section of the orchestra came to the fore separately and collectively, demonstrating fine musical abilities in dealing with the changing pace of these variations.  The comment at the opening to this review was right, this was an evening of splendid music, well-played.

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