Tag Archives: Benjamin Britten

Last Train to Tomorrow

World premieres don’t happen to me every day. And as Andy Ryans of the Hallé pointed out in his speech to the orchestra’s stuffers on Sunday afternoon, it was a first for our group. I’d been feeling despondent and worried he wouldn’t actually come and make his annual speech, but finally there he was, curtseying no less, and drinking two glasses of gin-free orange juice.

The Hallé did all right – but that doesn’t mean everything is absolutey fine and not worrying! – last year, and would have been stuffed without us. I think that’s what Andy meant.

This was a family concert, and the Bridgewater Hall was teeming with tiny future customers, but this was no Hallé light as far as the music was concerned. The theme was the Kindertransport, and conductor Carl Davis started off with Smetana’s Mẚ Vlast: Vltava, to signify where some of the Kinder came from.

At this point my companion, who shall remain anonymous, dozed off very slightly, but that’s why I have been equipped with elbows, and the situation was soon rectified. The livelier Brother Come and Dance with Me from Engelbert Humperdinck’s – the original one – Hänsel and Gretel, was beautifully sung by the Hallé Children’s Choir, wearing red shirts and really brightening up the choir seats.

The final piece of the first half was a lesson in orchestral instruments (which the stuffers had been deemed as not being in need of), courtesy of Benjamin Britten, assisted by six brand new actors from the MMU. Anyone who needed to know about woodwind or the banging of percussion players now do so. Hopefully this will have provided interesting facts for any newbies in the audience. (And on a personal note, I was very pleased to see Roberto Carillo-García in his original place where I could see him clearly.)

I have a dreadful confession to make. I was feeling pretty cynical about this world premiere thing. I felt that regardless of what Carl Davis’s specially commissioned piece for the Hallé Children’s Choir actually turned out to be like, a polite audience would applaud to order and we would be none the wiser.

Sorry about that.

Carl Davis admitted to being nervous. Maybe he was, but this showman always seems very sure of himself. Today he wore a bright blue coat, except for the second half when he changed into black, which was more suited to the occasion.

For Last Train to Tomorrow the children of the choir came onto the stage, to act as children on a train, and the actors, Amy Cameron, Jack Coen, Lowenna Melrose, Lucas Smith, Sinead Parker and Will Finlason joined them there. Their words as well as the songs were written by Hiawyn Oram.

The actors told the brief story of what the Kinder of the Kindertransport went through, from Kristallnacht until their arrival in England. The choir sang beautifully and with feeling, with the odd solo bringing the attention to individual children and what happened to them. There was nothing new in all this. We have all read the stories, and many of us know it from novels about this period in history.

But that didn’t detract from the effect Carl’s piece had on us. I’m afraid I have to say that after a while I didn’t hear his music, nor the doubtlessly expert playing by the orchestra. That’s because what the children sang and the actors acted out was so strong and touching that you simply had no room for musical excellence.

It is time to eat my words. Not only was this a fantastic new piece and a great performance, more than deserving of honest applause, but the audience had the good taste and sense to know that it required a standing ovation. This went on for some time, which was good, because there is much repair work that can be done with a sleeve in the dark. My cheeks were almost dry when the time came to leave.

I’d like to think that in years to come, I’ll enjoy being able to say I was present at the premiere.

Needless to say, after so much ovation, we didn’t make the five o’clock train home. But it’s good to remember that 10,000 children made it to their train to England. (Carl made a reference to what things are like today. I suspect he wanted to make a point about what has become of us.)

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The Habit of Art

I pity the poor playwright whose characters keep arguing about what they should be like. Or maybe I don’t. It could be that some timely input from those who have to climb into the skins of other people are best placed to know what will work. Although I would draw the line at drag and tuba playing. Goddess of wind; I think not. If nothing else, in a play where they pee in the kitchen sink and fart in character, wind is worth not mentioning.

Alan Bennett’s new play The Habit of Art is rather like an onion. There are enough layers to confuse you. So it’s about a group of actors rehearsing a play – Caliban’s Day – about WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. But it’s also about Fitz and Henry who play Auden and Britten. There is the difference between the play’s play’s Auden and Britten and the real ones. And then there is the audience watching Alan Bennett’s drama, which opened at The Lowry last night.

Desmond Barrit in The Habit of Art, photo by Catherine Ashmore

It’s a National Theatre original, and it shows, with direct references to the National. That would have been good had we actually been in the Olivier auditorium, but the touring version of Bennett’s drama could do with some local re-writes. Perhaps mentioning a toilet in the Lowry where Fitz could ‘do his business’ without being overheard. It was a little like finding out you’re a replacement for someone else at the dinner party.

Speaking of parties, Fitz has never brought cake to any productions he’s acted in, having been a star at all times. It’s the smallest part actor who brings cake. So no cake even for The Birthday Party. This time round it seems the cake bringer might have defected to the Chekhov play.

It’s an almost exclusively male cast, again. Maybe Bennett can’t do women? He’s pretty good with gay characters, however, which isn’t surprising. The play within the play’s rent boy is keen to take his clothes off, while Fitz is desperate to be allowed to smoke. And Henry as himself, rather than as Britten, knows a surprising amount about what rent boys do.

The Habit of Art refers continuously to Shakespeare and all of of art and culture. ‘Thomas Mann was my father-in-law’, and there’s news that Tolkien has written another effing novel about elves.

Desmond Barrit and Malcolm Sinclair in The Habit of Art, photo by Catherine Ashmore

There is a set-within-the-set, so two kitchens. One for peeing in and one for the actors to make their coffee. They wander about on the stage going about their business, leaving the audience to wake up to the fact that the play has begun. We had a 20-minute interval, whereas they only had 15 minutes. Brian from the Chekhov wandered in to chat.

Not so difficult to know when the play ends. Someone switching off the lights and leaving is a pretty obvious hint. And I wonder if Prospero is all right?

It’s a very enjoyable onion.