Reviews previously published in Arts in Leicester magazine.
This version of the Arts in Leicester magazine website started in 2013 but the whole thing began life in 2005. The old site had many reviews of plays, shows, books and films and other articles that have now disappeared from the Internet.
Our archives project has re-published some of this material and it is likely that further articles will be revived in the future.
The current set of archived articles is listed below.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Curve, 14th October to 5th November 2011.
“You must follow the rules”, Nurse Ratched demands of her patients on the ward of the mental institution where the play is set. The ward is organised like a prison; rules, policies and strict routine are order of the day. Medication is handed out, a ‘chemical cosh’ designed to keep the inmates subdued and compliant.
The asylum is run like a military academy, with an emphasis on order, routine and compliance and a belief in the curative properties of discipline. The day is organised into a series of activities and events, one of which is group therapy in which the inmates are encouraged to talk about themselves and discuss individuals.
The ostensibly ‘democratic’ regime of the therapy group is portrayed as being manipulated and controlled both by the steely Nurse Ratched (Catherine Russell) and by the patients themselves, not least by McMurphy who organises them to vote in favour of watching the world series on the TV.
In to the orderly routine of the ward comes Randle McMurhpy (Michael Beckley), a brawling, aggressive but fun loving, untamed rogue of a man who, in those days, would have been referred to a ‘recidivist’. He has been committed to the institution as an alternative to being sent to the drudgery of the penal work farm, having committed a variety of offences during his life of drunkenness and debauchery.
The plot is set. The characters and their relationships are ready and ignited to burn towards the explosive ending of the play. The ward is a microcosm of the wider society, the USA of the time (the late fifties, early sixties). The story is about rebellion against authority, revolt against tyranny, insurgency – sounds familiar?
We discover that the inmates of the ward fall into two groups: those with acute conditions that are there to be cured and eventually released and those with chronic conditions for which a cure is not an option. Referred to as “vegetables”, their fate is to be warehoused indefinitely. One such inmate is Chief Bromden (Thomas Renshaw), a native American Indian, who spends most of his time, motionless in a chair, apparently deaf and dumb.
Chief Bromden understands the struggle for power that he sees in McMurphy’s bid to take on the might of Nurse Ratched. It is through Bromden’s eyes that we see the underlying significance of the struggle of the individual against the machine.
It is his relationship with McMurphy which is pivotal to the whole plot. Initially said to be deaf, dumb and catatonic, he delivers a set of soliloquies, illuminated by a bright spotlight in an otherwise darkened stage. The mysterious monologues unravel a deeper meaning to the plot. In the later stages of the play, McMurphy and Chief Bromden engage in a duo scene, impeccably and movingly acted by Renshaw and Beckly.
Another revelation appears later in the play when we find that some of the acute patients were admitted voluntarily; something which shocks Randle McMurphy. He is accused of feigning mental illness to avoid the penal rigours of the work farm. He believes that some of the voluntary patients chose to be there as a way of escaping unbearable situations in their personal lives.
Are they mad? It’s a theme that had been around since the time of Shakespeare, who used madness, either real or contrived, in Hamlet and King Lear. The twist that writer Ken Kasey puts on this theme is to question the sanity of the wider society and of the people who are running the mental institution.
McMurphy refers to group therapy as “chicken pecking” – one member of the group is pecked to death by the others. If life on the ward is not brutal enough, there is the spectre of ECT – electro convulsive therapy – in which patients are subjected to electric shocks which send their brains and bodies into spasms. That is not the ultimate punishment that could be inflicted. If ECT fails to modify their behaviour, violent patients could be subjected to surgery, having parts of their brains removed.
Randle is determined to conquer the case-hardened tutelage of ward nurse Ratched. She is a taught figure, an iron lady whose dictatorship must be obeyed to the letter. The battle of wills winds towards its dramatic and tragic denouement.
The production was well cast, the characters fitting the plot like a glove and the cast delivered a set of superbly acted roles. Altogether, an excellent production, mixing the darkness of the plot with moments of humour and pathos. Their acting skills created a believable storyline and the result was a convincing play that did justice to the book.
The cast brought the story to life and made it enthralling. Like many in the audience, I had seen the film, in fact, more than once. A story about mental patients in an asylum might seem to be an unattractive theme, depressingly sombre and far from uplifting. Novelist Ken Casey used the plot to open up something about the wider society of the day and to explore aspects of the human condition.
Designer Ellen Cairns has put together a set that fitted the plot, the one room of the ward, given depth by the clever use of perspective, with the lines of the room using well known optical illusions to make it look much bigger than it really was.
Was this production enjoyable and entertaining? Last time I was at Curve, I saw a musical. That certainly was enjoyable and entertaining. Being the person I am, I don’t only like bright, happy, joyful entertainments. Plays, films and books can lift one’s spirits in a variety of ways and stimulate the mind. This was a piece of ‘drama noire’, a dark thriller with a tragic ending. It plays out issues that speak to us on a variety of levels.
Drama does not have to be superficial to be entertaining and often deals with the darker and challenging elements of the world and human existence. Director Michael Buffong has done an excellent job of keeping the action and the drama taught and convincing. The plot unwinds towards its (literally) explosive ending. The stark ambience of the clinical ward is lightened by comedic moments and by amusing quirks and idiosyncrasies of the characters.
Acting lunatics is never easy but Paul Joseph did a particularly brilliant job of playing the catatonic Ruckley, a victim of over-used ECT. Based on Ken Casey’s iconic, cult novel of 1962 (his first book), and the 1975 Oscar winning film starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Milos Forman, that was based on it, both are credited with dealing the death blow to ETC. They influenced the emergence of the anti-psychiatry movements both in the ‘states and here in the UK by opening up the sinister world of state psychiatry to the public.
The book was quickly brought to the stage by playwright Dale Wasserman. Broadway was ripe for productions with social issues, ever since West Side Story opened in 1957. Several stage productions of the play have appeared, both in the West End and in the Midlands.
This review was published on Arts In Leicester magazine in 2011.
by Trevor Locke This article was first published in Arts in Leicester magazine in 2013.
The history of what we now know as De Montfort University revolves around art. It was in 1870 that the first students attended classes in a disused warehouse in Pocklingtons Walk. Neither they nor their tutors could have imaged the institution of today – one of the most prestigious centres of learning in the country with its campus of award winning architectural splendours. In the same year, the Reverend James Went began to teach a series of technical classes at the nearby Wyggeston Boys School. Demand for lessons was so high that the Leicester School of Technology was founded in 1882.
Funds were raised to construct a new building and The Hawthorn Building came into existence in 1897, this being extended in 1909 and a new west wing being added in 1927. A £4 million refurbishment was completed in the year 2000. The first headmaster of the Leicester School of Art, Wilmot Pilsbury (1840-1908.) He was a noted landscape artist who arrived in Leicester in 1870. Pilsbury studied at the South Kensington Schools and at the Birmingham School of Art and was headmaster of the school from 1870 to 1880.
By the 1930s, the schools had been renamed the Leicester Colleges of Art and Technology.
The Leicester Pageant
Art students helped to create a fabulous event held in 1932 – The Pageant of Leicester. It was a celebration of the city’s history that saw a large procession snaking its way through the streets. Costumes were made to depict key scenes from the past up to the opening of Abbey Park in 1882.
Participants dressed as Roman Soldiers through to Victorians and an Ox Roast was held. The event lasted from 16th to 25th June. even Stephenson’s Rocket made an appearance. Decorated floats advertised local industries.
A silent, black and white film exists of the Pageant, which can be viewed over the Internet on the University of Leicester website My Leicestershire History.
This remarkable piece of archive film and reveals a great deal that is of interest from Leicester in the 1930s. It was a substantial event involving a large cast of characters dressed in period costumes. The film shows the Roman Army, complete with a large number of live horses, a battle with the Vikings and the visit by Cardinal Wolsey, whose memorial can still be seen in Abbey Park. There are also scenes showing the Ox Roast and those showing the procession of motorised vehicles and some horse drawn floats through the streets, one of which was entered by the Leicester Hosiery Union. It was a bright sunny day and large crowds had lined the roadside to see it.
From the Crusades to the Wars of the Roses, the Pageant marked the landmark events of the history of Leicester. The various scenes were filmed in the grounds of Abbey Park and later in Leicester as the parade went past.
DMU is now homes to a number of specialist centres. One of these is the Institute of Creative Technologies. Launched in 2006, the Institute has initiated hundreds of collaborative research projects.
Working across the whole of the University and across many disciplines, its main concern is with the practice, theory and history of creative technologies. These include creative computing, interactive arts and media and networks and collaboration. Of particular interest is the Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre. Activities here are concerned with a range of artistic creation focused on innovative application of new technologies to music. There is an active agenda to do with electroacoustic music studies and sonic arts.
There was a time when Leicester was an important centre for the boot and shoe industries. Boot and shoe makers began to increase from about 1793, driven by the needs for foot ware for the army. In 1835 Thomas Crick and J. Dilkes entered the shoe trade in Leicester and became large-scale manufacturers. Stead & Simpson became well known in the shoe trade from the 1850s. By 1934 the firm had 186 retail shops in the British Isles. The shoe industry grew steadily throughout late Victorian times and into the middle of the twentieth century. See Foot ware Manufacture (McKinley Ed.)
At its height, the Leicester boot and shoe industry manufactured more goods than were produced anywhere else in Britain.
By 1900, the firm had over 300 shops. The rapid development of shoemaking and distribution in Leicester attracted a variety of associated trades, so that Leicester became the main source of production of shoe machinery and materials. David Holmes has lived in Leicester since 1960 and spent all his working life in the boot and shoe industry, working for the British United Shoe Machinery Company. David Holmes (University of Leicester) has undertaken research into the development of Leicester’s shoe industry.
Whilst the making of lace has never been a large segment of Leicester’s manufacturing economy, it has played a significant part in the life of the city and its outlying towns such as Loughborough. The East Midlands became a centre for textile production in the late eighteenth century. It has been argued that lace making was introduced into this country by the Flemands or Huguenots.
Education and the economy
As Linda Butt’s account reveals, the history of development of Art Education needs to be seen in the content of the various industries and trades that have been dominant in Leicester. Whilst there has always been education in fine art, courses have also been a conduit for employment and skills, channelling people into the local factories and manufacturers.
The early days of art education in Leicester
This article is based on an Interview we did with Linda Butt, the Archivist of De Montfort University, made on 5th April 2012. The pieces in [square brackets] have been included by the Editor, based on separate research.
The School of Art opened for lessons in 1870. The development before that was quite long. They had been trying to get an institute going for about ten years before that. It kicked off with the Mechanics Institute. As was the case in so many of the industrial cities, efforts had been made to get an art school going until finally various philanthropists in the city got involved. Plans were put in place and preparations were made throughout 1869; in April 1870 the first classes were held, at a disused warehouse in Pocklingtons Walk. I don’t know the precise location of that building.
The history of art education went back before that at a national level. The Great Exhibition of 1851 kicked off the interest in good design in industry, The London School of Art (or school of design), had started in the 1750s, somewhat as a result of the European Tours that great people undertook. They were bringing back influences from Europe – from painting sculpture and architecture – and thought that Britain needed to start its own cultural efforts in that direction. In London the School of Design became the Royal College of Art (founded in 1837.)
[The RCA was founded in 1837 as the Government School of Design. In 1853, it became the National Art Training School with the Female School of Art in separate buildings, and, in 1896, it received the name Royal College of Art. During the 19th century, it was often referred to as the South Kensington Schools. See Richard Burchett, an early Headmaster, for more details on this period. After 130 years in operation, the Royal College of Art was granted its Royal Charter in 1967, which gave it the status of an independent university with the power to grant its own degrees.]
It always had an emphasis on design and applied rather than fine art. The Schools of art in the regional cities, were also set up primarily for design and there was a lot of pedantic teaching for shading, for drawing, from life or still life. The ultimate goal was to feed designers and artists in to industry, to whatever industry that city was supporting. In Leicester it was textiles, shoes, printing – Leicester was a very big centre for printing. They needed the kind of draughtsmen skills that could be taught at an institution.
So in 1870, the first classes were centred around art of various kinds. In the 1880s there were technical classes, starting at what was then the Wyggestons Boys School, organised by the Reverend James Went. Those carried on there and were augmented by the various engineering and draughtsmanship courses.
In 1890 the Hawthorn Building was built – although, at that time, is was known as the Leicester School of Art – it was named Hawthorn some time later. The building derives its name from John H. Hawthorn, the first headmaster of the newly established technical school. The technical classes then joined the art classes which had moved from Pocklingtons Walk up to a building that was on the side of the current New Walk Museum building, which was started as a school begun by non-conformists for their children. The art classes went into a wing on the side.
When the Hawthorn building opened in 1897, everything came on to our current site. The classes expanded to take in a lot more vocational education – architecture, building, food trades, textiles – art was very central to what was done and still is. The vocational courses that we teach now in textiles, shoe design, graphic design, interior design, still pull very much on that core of applied art.
A very good modern example of that would be the shoe that was designed for Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge. That is so close to the original purpose of this establishment. You can see the link between 1870 to 2012.
Early courses were qualified. They were validated by the South Kensington body which was tied to the Victoria and Albert Museum, when the whole of arts and technology education was based in South Kensington. I believe that a lot of the examination papers were sent down there to be marked. Prizes were awarded from that body and the various standards were decided by that body. Our courses always have been externally validated and nationally accredited.
Initially it was thought that part time courses would be better for people who were already in employment, or who had other commitments, although there were always full time courses available, a lot of courses at that time where in the evening or at the weekends, when working people could come.
The tutors on those courses were highly qualified people. The first headmaster was Wilmot Pilsbury who was a very talented water colourist. He specialised in landscape painting and particularly that which included water. He got the school up and running and off the ground.
Benjamin Fletcher was another pivotal character and Principal of the school from 1900 to 1920, had been and still was a very able artist. When Augustus Spencer was appointed headmaster here he brought Fletcher along with him as a teacher. So Fletcher began his career here in 1888, taking up the principalship in 1900. Fletcher was an able artist and designer and also a noted pedagogue, who wrote pamphlets on how art should be taught. He was very influenced by the arts and crafts movement. He was a great friend of William Lethaby (1857 – 1931) and was close friends with Harry Peach who set up the Dryad business. That started by making cane furniture but widened out to arts and crafts in general. At that time the two of them were very influential in furniture design and tied up with the arts and crafts movement. Fletcher was pivotal to art teaching within the institution.
Some of the milestones in the development of art education?
I think it is difficult to give artistic milestones. The education that was offered and is offered, was built, very much in those early days, around the needs of local industry. The institution of course has changed out of all recognition, in that we went from being The College of Art of Technology, to being Leicester Polytechnic, and then to becoming De Montfort University. The training in art history and fine art has always been there. What has been added on have been specific courses, in graphic design, interior design which are now strong courses, and are leading directly into industry, which is really what we are here for.
They now run very much in the way that they always have. The Institution has changed around the courses, rather than the courses having changed around the institution. So there are very strong threads, of fine art, of history of art, of applied arts, of various kinds. These have continued through the changes in the institution, and are continuing now.
We are still training artists and designers, to go out into industry, into fashion, in to architecture, into shoe design, interior design, graphic design, which of course are the new names for printing, dress making, all the things that we did back in the early days. The Scraptoft campus offered teacher training and health studies, and youth studies, and dance. Community dance developed there, one of the earliest in the country, that has been continued now here, and links very closely with the Foundation for Community Dance. Performing arts were at Scraptoft but Fine and Applied arts were always here on the City Campus. Performing arts are still very strong. The departments have branched out into media studies, theatre and film studies. All of the new media have been incorporated into that.
Music and computer gaming
We are also now strengthening our teaching into computer gaming, which is a new strand of art education, so the new technologies have been brought in. Music forms a part of performing arts, particularly cutting edge modern music in that we have the links with Gavin Briers, that kind of very forward looking minimalist music, which was carried on there and that links with the American minimalist music.
That has actually branched out now, and seems to be basing itself again in the Baltic countries. There are composers in the Baltic countries, who have taken on that minimalist aspects of music, and there is some phenomenal work coming out of there. People like Arvo Part is a slightly different aspect of it but the strands are still there.
Scraptoft was linked into that and that is being continued here on the City Campus within the Institute of Creative Technology, which is pioneering electronic forms of music. We have the link with the Curve Theatre. We are training students go into theatre.
Our Theatre Studies students do productions at Curve, they are looking at modern play writes, and producing extremely good theatre. We are becoming increasingly known for music technology.
DMU Institute of Creative Technologies | DMU Music, Technology and innovation research centre.
Shoes and fabrics, dresses and corsets
We began teaching dress making, tailoring and shoe design, from quite early days when the college came into the Hawthorn building in the late 1800s. That would have been for people who were already in the trade, who wanted to learn that kind of skill. Dress making, tailoring was taught as a formal subject. There were also general craft classes, where embroidery would have been done, certain types of lace were made, competitions were held to design lace. Lace making was taught to women from Ireland so that they could augment their family income.
I don’t know what kind of lace that was, but there are mentions in the Annual Report – that prizes were given to students for their designs. Unfortunately we don’t have those designs now. The dress making courses fed into the city industries, as did tailoring.
In 1946 we began corsetry classes which fed into what we now call ‘contour fashion’. As rationing came to an end, after the second world war, the materials for that kind of garment started to become available. The college decided that that was a good area to go into and to get into an an early stage. That has always been one of our most successful courses, within the textiles area. We are still the only full time degree course in the country in Contour Fashion.
Shoe design was done from quite early days, but in various guises. In the early days it would have been called ‘cobbling trades’. After the end of the second world war when soldiers were de-mobbed, and needed a trade, we held classes, to teach those soldiers, how to make and repair shoes, so they could then go into civilian life with a trade.
Our most recent success is the student who designed a pair of shoes for the Duchess of Cambridge on the recent Royal visit. That is really coming full circle from 1870 when we started teaching designers and artists to feed into city industries, we are still doing this now.
Lace making was particularly interesting. I found a photograph that was taken in the 1930s, of a women’s craft class. Most of them are doing embroidery; some of the women are working on large embroidery frames, so I would assume they are working on quite complex pieces.
One girl, right at the front of the class, is working on a bobbin lace pillow. The photograph is quite clear but not clear enough for me to see what kind of lace she is making but she seems to be using East Midlands Bobbins with a continental pillow. Quite how that combination came about I am not certain. I am not sure what kind of lace was made then, East Midlands-type laces had not at that time been developed.
There is a large collection of East Midlands Bobbins in the Museum and I do know that there was bobbin lace making in Leicester as early as 1610.
I wonder whether that girl in the photograph had brought her skills with her. If you look very carefully at the photograph, the girl sitting next to her, who is working at an embroidery frame, is wearing very antiquated clothing, that you would almost associate with peasant garments: a long skirt, hair in a coil round her head, shawl, and a frilly blouse. This does not look like the kind of garment that a 1930s girl here, would be wearing. It looks Eastern European.
Those two girls – if you look very closely at their features – I have a feeling they are sisters or possibly cousins. Now, if those two girls are related, and they have those skills, the centres of bobbin lace making (apart from England and Northern Europe) were in the region of what became Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia. I do wonder whether those girls came out of Eastern Europe, prior to the outbreak of the second world war, brought their skills with them, and then were honing their skills in order to fit themselves for employment. It is just a surmise, because I have not had time to research the registers, but they look very much as if they might be of Eastern European extraction.
The Midlands would have been known in Eastern Europe as a centre for lace making at that time. Nottingham was machine lace, which is a very different discipline to hand made lace. The machines were developed in Nottingham because the technology was already there. There is no tradition of hand made lace in Nottingham – that resided in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and in Devon. Those were the centres of hand made lace.
Nottingham started to make machine lace because the skills and the factories and the know-how about to the build and maintain them was already there. Machines were then taken to Northern France, so the industry spread out but I am not aware of machine lace being produced in Eastern Europe.
There is some bobbin made lace in Leicester from 1610 and there is a notice (at that date) of money being given by a particular charity to a lace maker in Leicester to employ girls to make bobbin lace. Leicester was right on the very periphery of the hand made lace area but I do know that one of the Ellis family was a very competent lace maker and her collection of bobbins and lace appears to have formed the foundation of the collection within the museum. Agnes Ellis may have known some of the girls who trained here in the very early days. I am not aware of bobbin lace being taught as a separate subject here, which me think that the girl in the photo probably brought her skills with her rather than having learnt them here.
In this page we present some of the news archives from the old Arts in Leicester website, included here where they have relevance to current articles published in this magazine.
8th January 2013
Nilima Devi is Awarded MBE
Nilima Devi Menski, the founder and Artistic Director of the Centre for Indian Classical Dance (CICD), in Leicester, has been announced as a recipient of an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s New Year Honours List 2013 for her services to dance.
The award has been granted in recognition of Nilima Devi’s sustained commitment to promoting Indian dance for British arts, multicultural education and community cohesion for over 30 years.
Leicester’s councillor and former Mayor, Manjula Sood said “I am very thrilled to hear that Nilima’s work within the cultural community has been noticed and rewarded.”
Chris Maughan, Associate Research Fellow Lecturer, Arts and Festival Management, De Montfort University commented, “it is richly deserved. Let’s hope it provides a foundation for invigorating ideas and energy in arts development more broadly.”
Under Nilima Devi’s leadership, CICD has made significant educational and artistic contributions through numerous workshops, conferences, classes and public performances on local, regional and national scales. In addition to nurturing more than 20,000 students in Indian dance through teaching in schools, Nilima Devi has pioneered projects such as Sinjini (2009), a DVD on Indian music and dance produced using UK-based artists, and Karman, (2012), a book documenting the living history of arts in the South Asian diaspora, which have become invaluable resources for educational establishments.
Nilima Devi has also produced many major performance works such as the Ugly Duckling (1989), Triangle (1991), Rainbow (1993) (choreographed by Kumudini Lakhia), Melory (1995), Dances of the Spheres (1999) (choreographed by Roshan Date), Flaming Feet (2000), Kathak Tells a Story (2001), Images (2004) and Urjah (2007), which have contributed to transcending cultural and artistic boundaries whilst retaining the spirit of Indian dance.
In addition, Nilima Devi has trained several accomplished British-born dance artists, such as Aakash Odedra, who has been touring Rising with the British Council in India and internationally, a solo production choreographed by Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan.
The MBE is to be presented by the Queen at a special ceremony to be held at Buckingham Palace in London in 2013.
[From Arts in Leicestershire, news section, 2013]
Karman: groundbreaking heritage project tells the story of Indian Classical Dance
By Asian Arts Editor [the late] Harjinder Ohbi
It was 30 years ago when Nilima Devi, an Indian classical Kathak dancer threw open her doors to a handful of young girls wanting to learn this intricate but colourful dance form.
This gave birth to CICD (Centre for Indian Classical Dance.) Parents eager to revisit their own Indian roots encouraged their children to join the classes. Later, as years passed by, these students went onto become mothers and teachers, having made the gruelling grades, passing on their knowledge to third and fourth generations.
CICD led the way for visiting professional dancers from Bharatnatyam and Odissa holding masterclasses whilst Nilima also introduced folk, street and bollywood dances, as demanded by youngsters.
Numerous groundbreaking shows at various local and National venues gave way to young male dancers who went onto become International artists. Akram Khan and Akaash Odedra brought forth a new dimension to Kathak with their innovative styles and fluidity within their choreography, earning rave reviews where ever they performed.
It is no surprise then that the year long 30th anniversary celebrations of CICD last year was to lead to Karman the book. Karman literally means a collection of past work .You will find interviews with young performers and how they have managed to incorporate their traditional dance forms during their daily lives and what it means to them.It is an historic account documenting not only achievements based on over 70 hours of oral history interviews by a host of voluntary historians aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The books theme also explores the social changes related to these developments thus presenting a unique piece of history that has never been exhibited in Leicester before. Karman is a project very special for me as it explores the living history of Indian classical dance in the UK. It exhibits the roots of Indian classical dance and music through contributions by early pioneers, professional dancers, musicians, members of the community and art lovers.
There were several aspects to the formation of CICD from spirituality, keeping fit and bringing one’s culture, mind, body and soul together. The opening of the Centre, in 1981, came as a blessing for the young women eager to learn Indian classical dance.
They later introduced Indian Folk styles. It was not always easy to make CICD sustainable at times but they made it happen through performances and sheer passion shown by the youngsters. Whilst the support of Local Authorities and the Arts Council England made it possible to work within local schools and communities, that helped them to create a greater interest, reaching a wider public.
Many of the students have gone onto become teachers whilst the likes of Akram Khan and Aakash Odedra have won International acclaim. I feel theirs is an extension of the form of Kathakand, a modern way of interpreting it. “Traditional art is not static, it moves with the times”, concluded Nilima Devi, Artistic Director of CICD.
The official book launch and exhibition [was] staged at the LCB Depot on 14 June 2012
The touring exhibition opened at the Embrace Centre (11th-27th May 2012) and [was] staged at the following venues:
Peepul Centre, 28th May – 8th June
LCB Depot, 11th – 22nd June
Hamilton Library, 03 July – 17th July
St.Barnabas Library, 17th – 30th July
South Fields Library, 31 July – 15 August
BBC Radio Leicester 01 – 17 October
CurveTheatre, 8 – 19 November
Highfiields Library, 19 – 30 November
The second in a series of articles. These articles lay the foundations for a book bearing the same title. In this respect the articles sketch and outline a more substantial work into which much more detail will be deposited. This article has cantered through the content and has omitted a great detail of detail. My aim in publishing this article (and those that will follow) is to stimulate interest in the subject of Leicester’s musical history. The problem for me, in writing these articles, is not what to leave out – but what to put in.
Music and Technology
Imagine, if you will, that you are suddenly transported into a world where electrical gadgets do not exist. Perhaps this is our world, of today, and an alien power had beamed around the globe, rays that have disabled every small electrical appliance. We have no computers, laptops, smart phones, pads, tablets, radios, televisions… everything that we used to listen to music had been disabled. Now you are living living a world where, the only way you can listen to music is to hear it played live, in front of you, by musicians playing wooden instruments or other kinds of devices that can make sounds but without the use of any electrical power.
You are now in a world that existed before the invention of electricity. The only way you can hear music is the way that our ancestors heard it. It is always live and it is always played on instruments that are powered by the hand or the lungs of those using them. Since the creation of the very first musical sounds, that is how people heard music.
In Leicester, the introduction and mass ownership of electrical goods defined and shaped musical tastes. The gramophone, the radio, the television, the Walkman, the transistor radio and eventually the Internet changed the way people listened to music and changed access to music. Music lovers were increasingly given access to the music of other countries, cultures and eras. The depended on the introduction of either batteries or the availability of public electricity supplies. The first homes in Leicester started to be lit by electricity in 1894. The electric light bulb was invented around 1880. Electricity supplies began from around 1894 in Leicester.
What I want to do, in this article, is plot the time line of the way that electrical technology has changed the way that the people of Leicester have found and listened to music. Peoples’ access to music was revolutionised by the mass availability of the radio and the record player. Later the widespread adoption of television sets further increased access to music in the everyday lives of ordinary people. In Leicester the broadcast media, the growth of record stores and later on the emergence of the Internet, gave people more access to music than was the case when their only choice was live music venues.
Radios, record players and the television
Prior to the emergence of radio and record players, music was performed live and listening to it would have been a relatively rare event for the majority of people. This was changed by the advent of the mass ownership of the record player or phonograph
The record player was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. Also known as the Phonograph or gramophone, the record player began with a rotating cylinder, being replaced by flat discs in the 1890s. It was not until the 1980s that the traditional large record was replaced by the compact disk
To begin with, the phonograph was the preserve of the rich and did not achieve mass ownership until the 1930s, when factories began to mass produce players at a price that was affordable by the average household. This happened in tandem with the mass production of cheap records.
The rise of record players gave people access to music on demand and meant that people could listen to songs far more frequently than was previously the case, when going to a live performance was the only way that people could hear music.
It was not until the mid to late 1980s that the record player would be widely replaced by the Compact Disk player. The CD became commercially available from 1982 although its mass availability in the UK would have followed a few years later. A recordable CD – the CD-ROM – came out in 1983/5. It was not until the early 2000s that the CD player began to display the widely used audio cassette player. The first commercial CD was released in 1982 but it was not until 1988 that CD sales began to overtake those of the vinyl record. In the 1980s (and probably into the 1990s) unsigned local bands would have recorded their music on to cassette tapes, unless they were wealthy enough to produce their own vinyl records. In the 2000s, bands started to produce music CDs for their fans when players became cheap enough for the majority of fans to own one.
The early 1960s saw the introduction of the music cassette, a compact tape-player which began to reach a mass market when Sony introduced its Walkman in 1979.
During the late Victoria period and early twentieth century, musical instruments became more widely available. The guitar became a popular instrument that was easy to learn and which could be purchased either new or from shops that sold them second-hand. It was in late Victorian times that pianos became affordable and many homes began to have them. Prior to that it was only the better off in society who could afford to purchase and play musical instruments. This created a sense of being able to participate in music rather than being just a passive consumer of it.
It was the mass ownership of radio receivers that really transformed access to music as well as musical tastes. In the late 40s and early 50s,when I was a child, I remember the radio being more or less constantly switched on. Our family home also had a record player which was played frequently. My childhood was filled with music. We listened to the Home Service, the forerunner of what we now know as Radio 4. Whilst all members of my immediate family owned music instruments and could play them, my main access to music was through the radio. When I became a teenager, I had my own radio and could choose which programmes I wanted to listen to; so, in this regard, my experience is typical of my generation.
The first radio transmitter was erected in London in 1922. The BBC’s Broadcasting House opened in May 1932. Radio Leicester was launched on 8 November 1967. During the years of the second world war, the television service was suspended and everyone listened to the radio (mainly the Home Service.) Programmes such as ITMA attracted 16 million listeners. The Forces Programme was launched in 1940 initially for the troops in France.
I remember Family Favourites, which started in 1945, and, having parents from a naval background, this was required listening in our home. The programme had a huge influence on my childhood and my familiarity with popular music. Other programmes, such as Listen with Mother – boosted the importance of radio broadcasting in our home and I think that was the case for a very large number of other people born in the post-war period.
In 1959 the BBC began to broadcast Juke Box Jury and DJs like David Jacobs, Alan Freeman and Pete Murray, started to become household names. New programmes started like Pick of the Pops. Music stars were born; Elvis and Cliff Richard owed their emerging popularity to the radio, as well as to record sales in the shops. The radio introduced the top 40 chart programme and, on Sunday afternoons, a quarter of the population tuned in to listen to it.
This period also saw the rise of popular music magazines and newspapers, such as The New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Record Mirror. Paper-based national daily newspapers also printed stories about the world of music and its celebrity stars. The forerunner of The Leicester Mercury began in 1874. By the time Queen Victoria died in 1901, the Mercury was a widely read local newspaper and it had begun to include photographs. When World War Two ended in 1954, the paper reported ‘Hot off the press, the Mercury captured the mood of the nation by producing a special VE. edition, while 10,000 people attending a thanksgiving service in Town Hall Square.’ Even in those days, great moments in history saw people celebrating or doing things face to face. They might have read the news but their immediate reaction was to take to the streets in large numbers.
Even though the BBC had a legalised monopoly on broadcasting, people listened to pirate radio stations, such as Radio Luxembourg and Radio London in the 1960s. The 1970s and 80s saw a considerable growth in commercial radio stations. The English version of Radio Luxembourg began as early as 1933. Radio Caroline broadcast from a ship in the North Sea, outside of UK waters.
In the years from 1933 to 1939 the English language service of Radio Luxembourg gained a large audience in the UK and other European countries with sponsored programming aired from noon until midnight on Sundays and at various times during the rest of the week. 11% of Britons listened to it during the week, preferring Luxembourg’s light music and variety programs to the BBC. [Wikipedia]
Commercial radio made its mark on the audiences of Leicester in the 1980s.
Centre Radio was the first independent local radio station to serve Leicestershire. It was based as at the lavish Granville House, Leicester, England. Centre Radio launched on 7 September 1981 in a blaze of publicity. The station’s licence was re-advertised and won by Leicester Sound, which commenced broadcasting on 7 September 1984. Leicester Sound merged with Trent FM and Ram FM in January 2011 to form the regional station Capital FM East Midlands, based in Nottingham. [Wikipedia]
With the advent of mass ownership of television sets, people began to watch rather than to just listen to broadcast programmes. As a child, I vividly remember watching the live broadcast of the Coronation (2nd June 1953) on a small black and white TV set in my parents home.
Top of the Pops started in January 1964 and for many years of my early life, this was a ‘must watch’ programme, as much as listening to the radio on Sunday afternoons, to hear the latest chart hits. Today, festivals such as Glastonbury, can be watched on the television. On YouTube there are innumerable video films of artists performing at Glastonbudget and other open-air live music events in our local area.
The first music festivals began
Live music was by no means killed off by the broadcast media and the record industry. Music festivals began to be organised in the UK, bringing a whole new approach to live music and access to bands and singers.
1989 – believed to be the start of the Abbey Park Festival – would have been influenced by the growing national scene for music festivals, the largest of which began in the 1960s. Glastonbury began in the 1970s and the forerunner of the Reading Festival in the 1960s. It was not until 2003 that Download started on the borders of Leicestershire as a follow-up to the Monsters of Rock events held at Donnington Park between 1980 and 1996.
Free festivals were held in the UK between 1967 and 1990. Some people might remember Roger Hutchinson, who who created the iconic Stonehenge Free Festival poster of 1987.
Roger developed a passion for local history and for much of the decade was busy preserving barges and canals – seemingly light years away from tripping at Stonehenge, but I think connected . Whatever Roger was involved in, he gave it his all and he was, despite not being very well in the last three years of his life, creative and positive and keeping busy, whether it was making a film about taking his dog for a morning walk , or creating his superb drawings of his beloved Leicester for the canal group.
Music festivals have, since their inception, rejuvenated interest in live music. By 2010, around two million people attended music festival in the UK. National events, such as Download, Reading and Leeds festivals and Glastonbury, have attracted large numbers of music fans from Leicester. These days, we can get some ideas of this from the postings they make on Facebook and Twitter. Many local festivals have attracted large numbers of people: Simon Says…, Summer Sundae, Glastonbudget, Strawberry Fields, Cosby Big Love, Foxton Locks, White Noise, all of these have proven to be popular with the people of Leicester and Leicester shire over the years. Many other large-scale public events such as Caribbean Carnival and The Belgrave Mela have provided live music alongside their other activities.
The mass ownership of record players changed the way that people in Leicester listened to music. Previously, only wealthy people could afford to buy them. As the electrical equipment manufacturing companies began to produce ever cheaper players, more and more people owned them and also the records to play on them. This gave rise to the record retail trade in Leicester. Rockaboom opened in 1988; it joined Facebook in 2010.
Ultima Thule was established in 1989, originally in Exchange Buildings in Rutland Street, moving later on to Conduit Street. It was run by Steve and Alan Freeman.
Ten years ago Leicester was full of independent record shops and they were a recognisable feature of our City Centre. Music fans spent hours flicking through hundreds of records on a weekend looking for that special edition picture disc, admiring the album covers referencing politics, fashion – you name it. [Raegan Oates writing in The Monograph in 2013].
St. Martin’s Records, originally in St Martins Square, later moved to Horsefair Street. Martyn Pole told me that he bought nearly all his records there when when has a DJ in the early 1980s. Leicester people will remember Ainsleys, Archer Records, Back Track Records, Boogaloo Records and St Martin’s Records. HMV’s store in the High Street and Virgin Records in The Highcross centre (then called The Shires) also provided retail outlets in the city centre. After 15 years 2Funky closed in 2012. In its time it was a popular destination for record-buyers, especially those wanting the more esoteric and experimental genres of music.
The record label – as a company that published recorded music – is less important now than it has been in the past. This is due mainly to the rise of Internet-mediated sources of music such as iTunes.
The rise of the record labels and their relationship with live music created a constantly changing scene in many parts of the country during the 1950s [Firth, 2010]
Music and technology
What is clear is that how people gained access to, and listened to, music was dependent on, and was reflected by, the availability of technology, as far as the electrical epoch is concerned. We can therefore divide musical history into periods characterised by the technologies that gave people the music they wanted to hear. Before the invention of, and distribution of, recorded music in the nineteenth century, all music was live. As the availability of electrically-operated music players grew, so various periods of music emerged: the era of the radio, the record player, the television, the personal devise and the growth of the Internet. These all figure in the timeline that I have used to divide my account of Leicester’s musical heritage.
Firth  Firth, Simon, 2010, Journal of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, 1,1
This review was first published in Arts in Leicestershire magazine, on 22nd February 2011. The film was screened at Phoenix in February 2011.
The 2010 film Brighton Rock, is loosely based on Graham Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name. Rowan Joffé wrote the screenplay and directed the film, which stars Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Andy Serkis, John Hurt, Sean Harris and Helen Mirren.
In a dark, edgy thriller with convincing characters and settings and sumptuous camera work, Joffé has done a superb job in updating the Boulting Brother’s classic of 1947, which starred Richard Attenborough.
Set in the Brighton of 1964, Director Rowan Joffé has adapted the plot of Greene’s novel and reworked it. The opening sequence tells you that it is not going to follow the story of the novel in precise detail. The film brings into sharp contrast the rock and candy-floss seaside holiday resort with the low-life brutality of gangland criminals and pulls in the infamous teenage riots of the 60s between the mods and the rockers. Certainly the location shots make it look like the Brighton I knew in 1964, as far as I can remember, but then I was only 17 at the time.
“The Boy”, Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) is portrayed as a cold, heartless, calculating hoodlum, who would stop at nothing to further his criminal career in protection rackets and extortion. His humourless face rarely smiles, locked into a steely-eyed stare as his mind concentrates fanatically on the chess board moves of gangland business. Pinkie is pursuing gangster Fred Hale and kills him under the pier. Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a vulnerable though strong-witted young waitress at Snows teahouse, briefly met Fred on the Pier, before the murder. The two of them were photographed together, on the Palace pier.
Anxious to recover the incriminating photo, Pinkie goes to Snows and is served by Rose. The actor who plays Pinkie (Sam Riley, 31) captures Greene’s character (except that he has dark brown eyes whereas, in the book, they are significantly described as a sinister “slatey gray”). In the book Pinkie is 17; Sam Riley looks older (by modern standards) but could pass as 17 in even 1964 and certainly so in the 1930s days of the book, when men matured and looked older at a much earlier age.
Pinkie wants to take over the mob from gang leader Spicer. Hale was a friend of Ida Arnold (played by Dame Helen Mirran) who runs Snows. Mob leader Colleoni (played by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame) tells Ida that “Brighton is on the move”, a reference to its growing popularity with the holiday seeking public as well as with the teenagers who are terrorising south coast towns.
Pinkie is taken in the by the Police,who question him about Hale’s murder but as they have no evidence, they let him go. The police know that Spicer is now running Kite’s gang.
The love tryst between Rose and Pinkie is kept deliberately ambiguous. Whereas some scenes suggest that Pinkie really does, deep down, have some affection for the girl, in others we see him as merely using her in a cynical effort to further his plans and devices in the small-town crime world. The anthem of doomed love plays out against the backing of grimly violent evil and the rioting that engulfs the happy-go-lucky seaside resort.
Pinkie takes Rose (on his stolen scooter) to some high cliffs. He questions Rose about Hale and the mob, trying to find out how much she knows. He takes her to the edge of the cliff; he asks her if she is scared. She replied “not when I am with you”, they kiss and the scene ends its portrayal of the developing and ambiguous relationship between the young gang leader and the somewhat innocent waitress.
Spicer asks Pinkie to buy him out of the gang so he can leave Brighton, allowing Pinkie to take over the gang. In an acutely worked scene, Pinkie goes to see mob boss Colleoni, to offer a joint operation but his real plan is to get Spicer removed. The scene at the Palace pier shows Colleoni’s men attacking Spicer but they also turn on Pinkie in a disturbing act of subterfuge.
The mob’s battles are set against the backcloth of riots between the mods and the rockers. Pinkie puts Spicer on the back of his stolen scooter and rides to the pier; on the way he gets into the middle of a huge group of mods on scooters. Crowds line the street to cheer them on while the rockers jeer and curse at them. The gangs fight it out under the pier as the mods and rockers battle it out on the beach.
Pinkie uses the chaos caused by the rioting teenagers to make his escape from the mob. The good thing about this film is that it tells a story in the ‘present’, no flashbacks, it has one continuous time line. Pinkie kills Spicer by thrusting a stick of rock into his throat but unconvincingly tries to make it look like a suicide.
Pinkie marries Rose at a registry office, knowing that a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband. After the marriage ceremony, we see Pinkie and Rose on the pier, where she asks him to go into a booth a make a record of his voice. As Rose stands outside the booth, unable to hear what Pinkie is saying, she imagines that he is putting his love for her on record. In fact, he is saying that he does not love her, that, in fact, he hates and despises her but he prefaces his rant with the words, “You asked me to say, I love you “.
Ida confronts Rose, interrogating her about what she knows. Ida goes to see Colleoni in an effort to protect Rose from Pinkie. In an attempt to end the girl’s life and remove the risk of her ‘squealing’ on the gang, Pinkie takes Rose back to the cliff tops and asks her to commit suicide by shooting herself.
Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know how it ends, look away now.
The scene jumps from the cliff top drama to Ida finding one of the gang members and making him drive her to the spot where Pinkie said he would take Rose. In a nail-biting climax, the two of them arrive at the cliff top, almost as Rose is about to pull the trigger of the gun she is holding to her ear. The gang member fights with Pinkie, who tries to get hold of the gun to kill him, but, as they wrestle on the ground, Pinkie pulls out of his coat pocket the bottle of Sulphuric Acid that he used to frighten Rose, earlier in the film. Struggling to get the top off the acid bottle, it shatters in his hand and the acid sprays over his face and eyes. In his agony, Pinkie falls over the edge of the cliff to his death. We see Pinkie’s corpse, his face burnt off by the acid, dead on the beach below.
In the closing scenes, Rose has retired, heavily pregnant with Pinkie’s child, to a convent. The Abbess, like Ida, tries to convince her that Pinkie never really loved her and she should try to forget him.
In the final scene, she plays the record they made on the pier, for the first time and hears Pinkie’s voice saying “I love you” but the tracks are damaged and she lays there listening to the words being repeated over and over, never getting to hear the rest of the message.
The casting is good, the acting superb and the camera work sharp and evocative. It is a totally different version from the original classic production of 1947and Riley’s character is played very differently from Attenborough’s performance. Transposing out of the 30s into the 60s achieved very little, as the mods and rockers aspect occupies only one scene and is just a montage against which the plot is played out.
Whilst I thought the camera work was superb, the monastery music was decidedly odd, linking back into the religious motif that runs through the film but it’s still only a backdrop. It suggests that even in the midst of the evils of gang crime, people can still believe in Heaven and Hell and make a pretense of faith. Like the mods and the rockers, the scenes in the church, Pinkie praying to God during his flight from the mob, the religious elements are just for decoration, rather than having anything approaching the depth that we find in Greene’s work. They salute Greene’s preoccupation with Catholicism but there is no deeper layer behind the narrative of the story line in this film.
Joffé’s film is an exciting and visually stimulating piece of film noir; well casted and acted, very different from the earlier version and a good two hours of cinema. Worth seeing, whether you have read the book and seen John Boulting’s version, or not.
Good things about the film: sharp camera work and top class acting from Sam Riley, Helen Mirren, Andrea Riseborough and John Hurt. Keeping to the language of the 1930s in the dialogue even though it would have been an anachronism in the mid 60s.
Bad things: lack of attention to contemporary details in the mods and rockers scene and the rather irrelevant migration of the setting to the 1960s.
Re-published on 9th August 2015 to mark the broadcast of the film on BBC2 television.
In 2011 we reported on the visit to Leicester of Labour’s Ed Miliband.
“The creative industries are vitally important for the economic recovery of the UK, ” said Labour Leader Ed Miliband, in Leicester today to rally the local troops behind Jon Ashworth, candidate for the Leicester South by-election. Answering a question from ArtsIn editor Trevor Locke, Mr. Miliband acknowledged that the arts generally and the creative industries in particular were important for economic growth and the UK was able to attract industry on a global basis.
Trevor Locke explained to him that Leicester stands out in the UK as a centre for the development of creative industry but that the hustings, currently taking place in the run-up to the elections on 5th May, had not focused on this issue.
Ed was keen to point out that Labour Policy does support the Arts and does see the potential contribution it can make both for economic development and for its own sake.
When he asked Trevor Locke why he thought that there was a problem with Labour’s Arts policy, Trevor commented “It’s just not getting through in the hustings that are taking place here right now”.
“Leicester stands out nationally for its culture, arts and creative industries and more could be done to put our city on the map”, Trevor said. “If the politicians are not talking about this, maybe its because they lack a firm programme”, he said.
Speaking at a meeting of invited guests, Mr. Miliband expressed his support for the work of De Montfort University in developing key projects which would have a bearing on the future of Leicester.
Looking relaxed and confident, the Labour Leader fielded a broad range of questions from party activists, people from the local community who might not have been Labour voters and students from Leicester schools and colleges.
Labour leader Ed Miliband, standing the middle of the room in his shirt sleeves, on this warm and sunny afternoon, rather than from behind a rostrum, said this was an informal opportunity for people to get up close to the Leader of the Opposition and listen to his views on a wide variety of topics, as he answered questions from people in the room.
Responding to a question from Geoff Rowe, of the Big Difference company and Leicester Comedy Festival, Mr. Miliband said that the 2012 Olympics would offer opportunities for people in the regions to get involved.
He commented that sport is one of the UK’s leading exports and hoped that British Athlete’s would come away from London with a respectable collection of medals.
So what does Labour have to say about policies for the Arts? See Mayoral Candidate Peter Soulsby’s manifesto. 17 pages long … try searching for the word “arts”.
To be fair, it does include the commitment “Explore the possibility of making a bid for the 2017 ‘UK City of Culture’.” and “Continue to support small arts organisations in our City … “. Labour will ” … also support Leicester’s strengths in the creative industries. ”
We have not yet seen a manifesto for Leicester South conservative candidate Jane Hunt.
Gary Hunt is standing in Leicester for the office of Elected Mayor. Speaking on the BBC Mayoral Hustings at CURVE, he made a point of raising a wide range of specific local issues but the arts was not one of them. Zuffar Haq is the Lib-Dems parliamentary candidate in Leicester South.
A trawl through the web sites of these politicians reveals that none of them have anything to say about arts issues, including the all-important key topic of support for our local creative industries.
[Arts in Leicester magazine, 19th April 2011]
Also, in 2011 we ran a news story on some work that Leicester South MP Jon Ashworth had been doing:
Leicester South MP Jon Ashworth featured in Arts in Leicester magazine
Ashworth hosts summit in bid to make Leicester top destination for music acts and bands and promote Leicester’s talent
Leicester South MP, and keen music fan, Jon Ashworth MP working with Leicester Shire Promotions is hosting a ‘summit’ dinner in the House of Commons, today in a bid to promote Leicester as top destination for big band and major music acts.
Jon Ashworth MP said “I’ve always been a big fan of music and I see no reason why we can’t attract more high profile bands and major music acts to Leicester in the same way Birmingham and Nottingham attract major acts
“That’s why I’ve teamed up with Martin Peters of Leicester Shire Promotions and pulled together this summit in the House of Commons this week with major figures from the music industry to bang the drum for Leicester and tell them what we can offer and at the same time promote Leicester’s music scene and our local talent as well.
“Given our large student population and with venues like the O2 Academy, De Montfort Hall plus our two stadiums, we should be able to get major bands and acts to come to Leicester when on tour.
“I hope this summit will be a chance to discuss how we get more acts to Leicester as well as look at how we make it more viable for those venues to put on the acts”, Mr Ashworth told us.
Those attending the summit will be representatives from the Leicester Alliance of Music Promoters; O2 Academy; De Montfort Hall; The Auditorium; City Council and Coda Music Agency. From the national music industry attending the summit dinner will be representatives of BPI (British Recorded Music Industry); Music Managers Forum; UK Music; Music Week and Live Nation.
Editor of Arts in Leicestershire magazine, Trevor Locke, commented “This is a step forward for music in Leicester. Apart from big bands coming into town, I hope the group will consider the 200 bands resident in the city who will be looking for support slots.”
Original published in Arts in Leicestershire magazine in April 2011.
Republished here as part of our archiving project.
Darren Aronofsky’s darkly disturbing story about classical ballet is a taut and often shocking portrayal of the rigours of perfection and professional pressure. Brilliant camera work and casting makes it a gripping film that is heading for the Oscars and Bafta awards.
Rightly so, because Natalie Portman in the lead role of Nina, the psychotically troubled ballerina is convincingly realistic. The role of Thomas, the Artistic Director (Vincent Cassel) is well played but by no means as solid.
The film endlessly slips between the real world and the bleak nightmares and paranoid hallucinations of the ballerina. The camera follows the action in a hand held way, using the technique of real life news journalism and documentaries, first developed in the Blair Witch Project.
It’s fast moving scenes follow the progress of aspiring dancer Nina whose ambition is to be cast in the role of the Swan Queen. Having secured the role, she becomes obsessed that other dancers are trying to take it away from her. Tchaikovsky’s great classic ballet is often regarded as having the sweetness and candy flossed chocolate box of a beautiful romance; in fact it has a dark side, a grim underside of evil and Aronofsky follows this in his film.
From the stunning opening sequence, the film is constantly backed by the luscious music of Swan Lake, either in full orchestration or on the piano. Set in New York, the cast are rehearsing for a “…stripped down, visceral and real …” interpretation of the Russian masterpiece. The challenge to the lead role is to deliver a convincing portrayal of the White Swan and then transform into an equally convincing evocation of the Black Swan, moving from white to black, from good to evil, in the same character.
Various scenes vividly portray the bone cracking, joint crunching rigours of ballet. The ballerina is meant to float effortlessly across the stage, gliding with almost super-natural grace. To achieve this, ballet dancers have to train like Olympic athletes, having even more agility, combined with considerably more strength than weight-lifters and more tenacity than rugby players. They have to punish their tiny, skinny bodies remorselessly in the pursuit of perfection of effortless movement. Nina has spent years, relentlessly pursuing control of her body and her movements but in so doing has sacrificed her emotional life.
The film portrays professional dance, at this level, as shot through with sexual passions and pressures, dancers mortifying themselves emotionally and physically in the pursuit of discipline and perfection. The Artistic Director, Thomas, asks Nina to “loose herself in the role”, to become the character she is portraying on stage and to make the White Swan as equally convincing as the Black Swan.
Nina, however, lives at home with her cloying mother, a dancer who gave up her career to give birth to her. The tension between the two women boils and creaks and ends in (imaged) violence. The mother treats her little princess like a child; in order to get into the black role, Nina scoops up the profusion of white, cuddly, soft toys in her bedroom and stuffs them into the garbage chute.
She goes out to a night club with another dancer, takes drugs, gets drunk and gets laid in the men’s toilets, the night before her first performance. She (actually or in fantasy) brings the other dancer back to her flat for a night of hot girl on girl action through which she looses her inhibitions and develops her dark side. Did she really do this or was it one of her fantasies? The film adeptly confuses the real story of the plot with Nina’s fantasies and dreams and we are left wondering whether it actually happened or was just part of her mounting psychotic delusions.
This is where Aronofsky handles the story line with brilliant precision. After all, the story of Swan Lake is a theatrical fantasy, a tale of light and dark, good versus evil, spinning out a monumental tale on stage. It’s why Swan Lake is so widely acclaimed as the world’s most famous and celebrated Ballet, beloved of dressy lovers of high art and dance school students alike and the least understood.
The film, like the ballet, peels off the sequins and feathers to reveal the naked passions, the bodily agonies and intense mental pressures that are said to lie underneath. The Black Swan graduates from being a ‘dramamentary’ about ballet into a horror movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat, makes you jump (like all good horror flicks do) and has a surprise ending that you were least expecting. It finishes with a monumental finale of high drama. Just like Turandot or Madam Butterfly’s suicide, Tosca flinging herself off the wall to her death or Brunnhilde riding into Siegfried’s funeral pyre … in that regard the finale of the film is in keeping with high art.
The film noir’s dark and disturbing scenes are counterpoised with those of the corps de ballet in their glistening white tutus gliding across the stage in the light of the moon. But that’s after you have seen moments of sexual abuse, scenes of lesbian love-making and gut wrenching moments of extreme violence laced with plenty of sweat and gore.
This tense and gripping drama ends with some digitally enhanced special effects where you see the skin of the ballerina morphing into the skin of a bird, which then mystically sprouts black feathers as she reaches the climax of the dance and becomes the Black Swan, her body taking on the persona that has been growing in her mind. Two hours of spell-binding story-telling keeps you on the edge of your seat and blasts you with scenes you would not associate with classical ballet.
Beneath the polish and glitter of all great art (it would have us believe), there lurks a dark underbelly that the audience never sees. Aronofsky lays it bare and in so doing creates a masterpiece equal to that of Tchaikovsky. I can hear choruses of professional dancers hooting with laughter about this; but then, thousands of people love Phantom of the Opera and Hamlet. All that Aronofsky has done is to tell a story. It’s a tale of the Brothers Grim, proving that even in the twenty-first century, an audience can enjoy a dramatic plot whose roots reach back thousands of year into the rise of ancient Greek theatre. It’s just the technology that has changed. It deserves an Oscar. See also:
Karen McCandless reviews the History Boys by Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett’s masterpiece that is The History Boys made its Leicester debut to a packed and appreciative audience at the Curve on Monday night. The most well known of Bennett’s plays and probably the most critically acclaimed, I put this right at the top of my ‘do not miss’ list when the Curve unveiled its programme for the season ahead. And I was not disappointed. Just to recap, The History Boys is set in a school in Sheffield in the 1980s. It follows the fate of a group of boys who are studying for the Oxbridge entrance exams at the fictional Cutlers’ Grammar School.
The play also focuses on the teachers’ attempts to impart an education to the boys: Irwin (brought in specially to coach the boys), Mrs Lintott (straight-forward and factual) and Hector (charismatic and eccentric English teacher), while the headmaster is mostly interested in exam results and league tables.
One criticism sometimes leveled at this play is that Bennett puts too much of himself into it. While it may be true that the playwright’s views on the importance of education are apparent throughout, the issues actually tackled here are much more complicated than that. The characters are all fairly complex individuals, not so one-sided as to be either good or bad, nor loveable or easy to hate. Nor does Bennett particularly condemn or condone any of the behaviour or manner of teaching in his play. In a way, this is very much a coming of age drama, a transition between youth and adulthood, a glimpse into the sort of education Bennett himself enjoyed. He has previously likened himself to the character of Irwin, saying that is the kind of education he had at degree level, while a teacher similar to Mrs Lintott at school taught him at school. Hector is the only one who he has never been taught by and as such still remains something of a mystery.
Given the blaze of publicity that follows any production of The History Boys, directing a new stage version must be a daunting, but at the same time very exciting, prospect. It is certainly one the director Christopher Luscombe handles very well. The choice of set and the music that accompanied each of the fast-paced set changes all helped to set the scene. The backdrop was a simple classroom window, meaning that there was nothing to distract the audience from the action that was taking place centre stage. The revolving set gave the audience a multi-dimensional view of what was going on; it meant we looked at things from new angles all the time. The action, meanwhile, was anchored firmly in the 1980s, with both the music choices that accompanied each scene change and the dingy classroom chairs and tables.
Luscombe’s casting was a triumph. Ben Lambert was a perfect fit for Irwin, both in looks and character. With a smug and patronising air and emitting the feeling of ‘I’m better than you’ from every pore, he occupies the unenviable position of being the easiest character to dislike.
To his immense credit, he plays that part very well and it is only during the second act that he reveals a new dimension and lets us inside the young man’s mind. When he reveals the truth of his university history to Dakin and when we find out what will become of him in the future, we are firmly persuaded that this is actually a fairly likeable man. His antithesis Hector (Philip Franks) is an enthusiastic and slightly foppish character, a likeable yet slightly laughable man. Franks aptly portrays the innate sadness of his whole situation, and his scenes with Irwin when he discusses how much of a disappointment his life has turned out to be are truly moving. One of my favourite performances of the night came from Penelope Beaumont as Dorothy Lintott. Straight-laced and sensible, she gives real dimensions and depth to what could otherwise be just an also ran character. “A safe pair of hand is how they would describe me,” she says.
As for the schoolboys, Dakin (George Banks) was played with plenty of pomp and bravado, just as he should be. You could almost see the swagger in his walk. While for Christopher Keegan as Timms, a career in comedy surely awaits him. I for one was in stitches with his uncanny impersonation of a lady of the night. The stand our performance for me came from Posner (Rob Delaney).
He brilliantly portrayed the complex nature of his character; after all growing up a Jewish homosexual in the 1980s in Sheffield couldn’t have been easy. Despite that, Delaney manages to bring out the humour in the situation with his love for song and dance and his open but unrequited love for Dakin.
Performance wise, he sang, danced and acted brilliantly and with so much life the whole way through. A star in the making. The chemistry between all the teachers and the boys is magnificent. The camaraderie feels so real and the friendship and animosity between the teachers comes across really well. At times I felt like I wanted to jump out of my seat and get on stage and join them; they just seemed to be having so much fun! The delivery of dialogue was tight and well rehearsed, not a line out of place.
The whole production seemed like a well-oiled machine of epic proportions. Given how much I enjoyed this play, I was glad to see it clearly captivated the Leicester audience as well. It couldn’t have been more aptly demonstrated than at the end of the first act, when not a noise could be heard across the whole theatre. The moments of hilarity followed by moments of poignancy were dealt with brilliantly and were lapped up by and entranced and enthralled public. A simplistic set design, perfect music choice, comedy mixed with the tackling of important topics, superb acting and direction; this is how theatre should be.
(This review was originally published on Arts in Leicester in 2011. It was re-published today (7th January 2015) as part of our archiving project.)
Directed by Paul Kerryson
Choreographed by Drew McOnie
Reviewed by Karen McCandless
Paul Kerryson has been making a name for himself for the high-quality musicals he has been directing since he became artistic director at Curve, Leicester.
From The King and I to 42nd Street to the world première of Finding Neverland, Kerryson produces shows that rival the West End in terms of quality while putting his own spin and mark on each performance.
The choice of Chicago to celebrate Curve’s 5th birthday was always likely to sell tickets, as the musical is hugely popular and very fun to watch. But it was also likely to be a challenge to make this version stand out from the very successful film, as well as the stage versions that run in the West End and Broadway.
What Kerryson produced was of West End standard but with some extra ‘razzle dazzle’. In the 1920s, murder is a form of entertainment in the city of Chicago (a quotation from Mama Morton). And this musical showcases is all about the (sometimes brutal) murders carried out by women, normally their husbands. It’s funny, sassy, slick and dark and features an extremely strong range of songs from All That Jazz to Razzle Dazzle to Cell Block Tango.
Chicago does an excellent job of incorporating these songs into the storyline so that they actually tell the story rather than being add ons that finish a scene. Often with musicals, a review starts off talking about the strength of the vocals. And in this production, all the cast had strong vocals with no notes out of place. The stand out performance vocally was from Sandra Marvin as Mama Morton. Quite how she managed to hold the note in her opening number so long is a mystery.
Adam Bailey as Mary Sunshine also put in a strong vocal performance. But, vocals aside, what set this show apart from the many other productions of Chicago there have been through the years is the choreography.
Drew McOnie did an outstanding job and it is his work that made this a five-star production. Every scene was intricately choreographed and thought out. The particular stand outs scenes were the introduction of Billy Flynn (Leonard) with his harem of girls with feathers, the press conference scene with Flynn and his ‘puppet’ Roxie Hart and the court/circus scenes.
Both the choreography and the direction on the circus/court scenes were brilliant and the staging was excellent. The role of the male dancers was more prominent in this production, as they had a slightly more effeminate, sexy style while also being comedic. They often cross dressed in scenes but still retaining a certain masculine air. It was reminiscent of Matthew Bourne’s casting of men as the swans in Swan Lake.
The costume department made all the outfits sexy but fitting for each scene, whether it be a press conference or in court or the baby scene. Standout performance on stage came from Gemma Sutton who played a minxy Roxie Hart. She was less naïve and innocent than others have chosen to play Hart, deciding to take the character down the route of cold, calculating and manipulative from a much earlier stage instead.
Verity Rushworth as Velma Kelly had such an air of ‘has been’ with far less sex appeal than Roxie. The scene where she was trying to convince Hart to form a double act with her dancing in the show was very funny but had desperation written all over it. Rushworth played Kelly with a real air of faded glamour. David Leonard oozed sleaze and bravado as criminal lawyer Billy Flynn and Matthew Barrow was suitably pathetic as Roxie’s put-upon husband Amos.
Curve’s production of Chicago was a triumph and a stand out show, combining spectacular choreography, excellent staging, brilliant costumer design and strong vocal performances.
(This review was originally published on Arts in Leicester in December 2013. It was re-published on 18th November 2014 as part of our archiving project.)