Monday, 23 December 2013

The Good-Times Girls check out Exeter Northcott: Cathal O'Duill's Graffiti Classics Friday 21 December "The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister Benn" Saturday 22 December 2013 (Run: 11 Dec - 4 Jan)

¾ of Graffiti Classics
Double Bass: Cathal O'Duill
Violin: Marian Givens
Viola: Stephen Kennedy

Visiting drama
Mitzi Maybe
It it several years since 'The Good Time Girls' (Mitzi Maybe and Sally Scrumptious) were in concert here in Devon. Mitzi teaches drama in Lusaka these days, and only gets back to the UK at Christmas each year.

Last year, Mitzi appeared on the Christmas day broadcast from Phonic FM. The year before, she and Sally were in concert at Pullabrook.

This year Mitzi is determined to take in as many shows as possible, starting with London's West End. but leaving plenty of time to see what Exeter and Devon have to offer.

Plus: Emma Blanco
This Friday the long-awaited 'Graffiti Classics' arrived at Exeter Northcott Theatre. On Phonic FM (and Soundart Radio) we have enjoyed several extracts from their shows, including their fabulous video performance (see Cathal O'Duill's YouTube site).

However, nothing can beat the real thing. Sally Scrumptious was there to see the curtain rise at 7.30pm. Four indistinct figures were visible through a pall of stage 'smoke'. As the mist cleared, their identities became apparent.

On the far left was baritone and 'violabloke' Stephen Kennedy. Stephen combines his 'Graffiti' work with singing engagements. In November he was at Brentwood Cathedral in Essex to sing bass in the Verdi Requiem with the Billericay Choral Society.

On Stage
Stephen Kennedy, Emma Blanco,
Marian Givens and Cathal O'Duill
Next to him was the familiar vivacious figure of Emma Blanco. Emma could be seen and heard in a 'violin duel' with Ruth Elder in the 'Ciocârlia' (Skylark) by Romanian composer Grigoraş Dinicu during the Graffiti Classics video. On Friday evening Ruth was not with us, but her place was taken by Graffiti classics regular, Marian Givens.

On the far right was the man himself. Cathal O'Duill is an imposing figure, playing and manipulating his double bass with incredible strength and skill. In fact, all the performers defied the laws of human physiology by playing and dancing simultaneously. Sally Scrumptious was at pains to point out how difficult this is to do - and how easy the musicians made it look.

The programme opened with Richard Strauss' 'Dawn' from 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' (from the ethereal fog), and continued, in total contrast, with a 'hoe-down' with Cathal dancing arm in arm with his bass - while playing! The audience were naturally inclined to clap along, but got the rhythm all wrong. Unfazed, the players kept perfect time, while Cathal managed to make a joke about it without breaking step.

Brahms' Hungarian Dance No 5 was extended with several variations and, after apparently finishing, restarted in a gentle relaxed mode.

Stephen strummed his viola while Cathal crooned the opening to the next number, Giovanni Capurro's 'O Sole Mio' (My Sunshine), set to music by Eduardo di Capua. Stephen sang the original lyric in his sensational baritone voice - immediately attracting the attention of the two women who knelt at his feet to accompany him. Not to be outdone, Cathal donned sunglasses and fake sideburns to sing 'It's Now or Never' (Elvis Presley's version of Tony Martin's 'There's No Tomorrow' from 'Two Tickets to Broadway' by Schroeder & Gold), in the style of The King.

The women repeatedly switch allegiance between the two men, before the two come together in the climactic "Mio"/"Never". Singularly ingenious invention and choreography!

Emma introduced the now familiar 'Ciocârlia', which Cathal described as their 'birdy song'. In the extended stage version, Cathal provides a clucking chicken on the bass, and Stephen a budgerigar on his viola. Cathal caps that with his version of 'Woody Woodpecker' and is shot (in pantomime) by an arrow from Stephen's bow.
'Dark Eyes'

To add realism, Cathal throws a rubber chicken, which lands on the stage with an unceremonious thump. Stephen cradles the poor fowl in his arms and introduces the next song, which he sings seductively, "Очи чёрные" (Dark Eyes). The Ukrainian words are by Yevhen Hrebinka, sung to Florian Hermann's 'Valse Hommage'. With the addition of Russian fur ushankas ('ear hats') the Soviet flavour was complete. The comedy element continued, however, with Cathal, his ear-flaps dangling in the style of Private Pike's forage cap, leaping like a cossack as the women danced seductively.

Emma introduced the next number as by the old boy himself - J. S. Bach. Cryptically, she described it as an 'ode to a piece of lingerie'. Not to be confused with Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy', this was of course 'Air on a G String'. The violins and viola provided the continuo, while Cathal played that unmistakable theme on the bass. As he played, the other musicians knelt down. Cathal felt he had to do likewise. This position made it very difficult to play the huge cumbersome bass, and Cathal drew sympathy from the audience for his valiant efforts.

Finally the musicians all put their legs out in front of them, and then lay down on their backs. Cathal was forced to follow suit - demonstrating even greater agility and strength.

Franz Gruber's setting of
Joseph Mohr's 'Stille Nacht'
Arnsdorf 1818
Emma's next piece related to another item of clothing: Maurice Ravel's 'Boléro'. Stephen provided the snare-drum rhythm by tapping his viola - the beat being taken up by Emma and Marian in turn. Stephen's playing of the ostinato was singularly mellow - until it was interrupted by Cathal playing his bass like a giant guitar. Impossible, surely! But there he was, standing with a concert double bass under one arm, playing with no apparent difficulty.

A bit of 'business' involving tuning the instruments gave way to a unique rendition of 'Silent Night'. Cathal somehow managed to play the tune without stopping the strings. Instead he found all the notes by turning the tuning pegs on his bass - amazing!

Graffiti Classics took things to the interval with a traditional sea shanty 'Drunken Sailor'. A little impromptu sing-along with the audience got a little out of hand when one or two came up with extra verses. (e.g. Sally Scrupmtious!) The instrumental version was introduced by Cathal's description of their exhausting experiences playing to audiences on cruise ships in the Bay of Biscay. They reproduced the sound of a creaking ship perfectly by screwing bows on wood and string, before slowly breaking into "Hee-roar and up she rouses!" before singing (some of) the verses heard earlier. Stephen's west-country/salty-sea-dog brogue was classic. Finally, the traditional Hornpipe.
Marketing Manager
Cathal O'Duill

While the other performers prepared for the remainder of the show, Cathal was in the foyer selling copies of their latest CDs. Where does he get the energy? Immediately the curtain rose after the interval, the group struck up 'Orange Blossom Special' by Ervin Rouse. This bluegrass classic was perfect for the ever-inventive Graffiti Classics team. With Cathal in the lead carrying his bass they steamed round the stage in a very convincing representation of a trip down the Seaboard Air Line Railroad from New York to Miami (via Jackson, Mississippi of course!)

Suddenly we were in South America - Argentina. Astor Piazolla's 'Campursita' was brought to life with audience participation. After several false starts, Cathal had everyone giving the peremptory double clap every eight beats. Once the tango was well under way, Cathal added a new element, by leading his double bass in the dance - while playing.

Alexei Tannovitsky
as Prince Gvidon Saltanovich
with the Mariinsky Opera
Stephen prefaced his version of Prince Gvidon's 'Flight of the Bumblebee' from Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Tsar Saltan' by suggesting it would be a viola virtuoso performance. When the moment came, however, he somehow managed to sing the tune, modulating his baritone voice by shaking his cheeks from side to side. No-one was quite sure how he managed it, but the effect was very impressive - and highly amusing!

Emma wore red horns, and Marian a cowboy hat, for the Charlie Daniels Band's version of Vassar Clements' 'Lonesome Fiddle Blues'. Up one octave and played at breakneck speed 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia' is the perfect vehicle for a virtuoso display by two first-class performers. Marian, as 'Johnny' wins the contest, of course, but Emma's playing ran a very close second. Special pyrotechnics even made it possible for her bow to burst into flames at one point.

All the instruments were piled up on stage, as depicted on the group's studio album, 'The Graffiti Classics'. This was a cue for Cathal's sincere prayer for everyone to buy a copy before they left. Also, it was a chance for him to sing a solo Irish song. "Which Irish song should I sing?" he asked. Above the tumult of voices calling out, "Danny Boy" one small voice broke through from the back. "Silent Night!" In the ensuing pandemonium, Cathal managed to persuade the owner of the mystery voice to join him on stage. Jack, aged nine, sang 'Silent Night' with Cathal, followed by 'Away in a Manger', so beautifully that he received his own round of applause before hugging the delighted Cathal and leaving the stage.

Jack, the ad hoc star,
sang 'Silent Night'
Cathal did sing 'Danny Boy' of course. (The tune is the traditional 'Londonderry Air', but the words are - dare I say it - composed by an Englishman, Frederic Weatherly K.C.) Stephen, Emma and Marian, sitting behind Cathal constantly upstaged him during the performance waving cigarette lighters and Ireland scarves, donning ludicrous St Patrick's Day Parade hats and downing pints of Guinness. Cathal never quite caught them at it, but their antics added something very new to a delightful traditional song.

Marian had another song for us - this time with audience participation. With a little help from Cathal everyone got the hang of the words. "Hava Nagila" is Hebrew for "Let us rejoice". Emma and Marian played the haunting Klezmer music and danced the grapevine, as the audience delivered the words with increasing confidence. "Hava nagila. Hava nagila. Hava nagila. La. La. La.", with appropriate hand claps.

The overture to Georges Bizet's 'Carmen' led (naturally) to 'Adeste Fidelis' which Cathal sang perfectly in Latin. The children were encouraged to sing Frederick Oakeley's version 'O Come All Ye Faithful' followed by James Pierpoint's 'One Horse Open Sleigh'. Any adults who could not manage to sing in descant, were permitted to whistle. Finally we returned to 'Carmen' for the ever popular 'Toreador's Song' - in Stephen's faultless baritone, naturally.
Stephen and Cathal
sign copies of their CDs
in the Northcott foyer.
Marian just looks glamorous!

To ecstatic applause, the quartet returned to the stage for an encore. They finished with the piece everyone was waiting for. The final 'Galop Infernal' from Jacques Offenbach's 'Orphée aux Enfers' or, put more simply, 'The Can-Can'. Emma and Marian danced a somewhat refined version of the Galop as they played, but Cathal's dance, round and round his double bass, was truly infernal. What a finish!

 Find out more: The Graffiti Classics Website

 More fun at the Northcott: 'Mr Benn'

Tall Stories Theatre Company
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr Benn
Ellie Bell is 'Number Two'
Daniel Foxsmith is 'Mr Benn'
Duncan Macinnes is 'Number One'
Tim Hibberd is 'The Shopkeeper'
an (uncredited) extra player
translates every word into sign language

The Graffiti Classics concert came right in the middle of the extra long run of 'The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr Benn' put on by Tall Stories Theatre Company. The run continues until 4th January 2014, but with no performances on 25th December, 30th December, 31st December or 1st January, and only one performance on Christmas Eve, Boxing Day and 2nd January. There are two performances on every other day - 11am and 2pm.

Sally Scrumptious and Mitzi Maybe were both there, with Mitzi's seven year old son Eric, on Saturday for the 2pm performance. They were greatly impressed by what they saw.

Tim Hibberd's shopkeeper is utterly brilliant. His performance shines in every line. His character is always full of energy and life and holds the audience's attention like a magnet. His two assistants, played by Ellie Bell and Duncan MacInnes, although clearly his underlings are quite his equal in sparkling charisma.

Daniel Foxsmith as Mr Benn clearly leads a rather dull life. (Something which the other three are determined to put right.) However, Daniel's characterisation is anything but dull. He is more interested in wearing the right suit and tie (double Windsor knot!) than what to wear to a fancy dress party, but his every word and gesture fascinates and delights the eye and ear.

The simple set, which consists of three doors in frames on wheels, are skilfully manoeuvred by the other three to create Mr Benn's house, his train to work, the fancy dress shop, and the changing cubicle - not to mention the fascinating worlds to which he is transported. Children are entranced by the story, but adults watch in amazement as the players and props move in perfect synchrony to create a seamless sense of time and space.

There seems to be no limit to the skills of the actors. Conjuring tricks, puppetry, songs and dances all illustrate the engaging story of Mr Benn as he travels to exotic locations and solves the problems of the colourful inhabitants with his endearing common sense.

Every movement, every facial expression, every entrance and exit is perfectly choreographed and timed. The costume changes are slick and convincing, and all the off-stage 'business' is thoroughly and imaginatively done. One final 'ace' in this full house of theatrical skill is the addition of a fifth character (uncredited). She seems to be part of the plot, and even joins in some of the dances. All the while she translates all the words and sounds into sign language for audience members with hearing difficulties.

Sally and Mitzi were simply amazed by the work and imagination that had gone into this production, and the spectacular results on stage. Eric, quite simply, loved it.

This is thoroughly recommended for family entertainment over the Christmas period.

Tickets £12 - details on the Northcott Website

Box Office 01392 493493 or book online

Local school groups have been inspired by 'Mr Benn'
to make their own displays for the Northcott foyer:

The Deep Sea Diver
The Red Knight

And a carnival cut-out standee:

Mitzi Maybe: The Red Knight
Sally Scrumptious: Deep Sea Diver
Eric: The Cook
With more characters on the reverse
(a little bit scary actually!)

Opposite the Northcott
in The Forum
visitors can enjoy a coffee
and use the grand piano
Any requests?

(Hear Mitzi Maybe's music on
Tuesday's 'Classical Journey')

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