Issue 117:2017 08 10:The Tobacconist (Adam McCormack)

10 August 2017

The Tobacconist

a book by Robert Seethaler

reviewed by Adam McCormack.

Franz has lived an idyllic childhood with his single mother by a lake near the mountains of the Salzkammergut in Austria.  When he is 17, his mother’s lover dies in the lake, meaning that their lifestyle can no longer be maintained, and Franz is sent to Vienna to work in a tobacconist’s shop. The proprietor, Otto Trsnyek, is an old “friend” of Franz’s mother who, being single with just one leg, happily accepts his new apprentice.  Franz readily throws himself into learning about all of the cigars, and devours the contents of the shops newspapers, to help sell both to the varied clientele. – one of whom is Sigmund Freud.  When Franz becomes infatuated with a girl, he calls upon the advice of Freud which, while it helps achieve his desired ends, is more significant for the friendship the two develop than for helping a love story.  However, this is a time of great change in an Austria and the shadow of Nazism is never far from view.  The new regime has consequences for Franz’s lover Anezka, Freud, who is forced into exile, the tobacconist, who refuses to discriminate against his clientele, and ultimately for Franz.

This is a beautifully written, compelling story of a boy becoming a man in a time of great upheaval.  I  often have issues with bringing real characters into works of fiction, which usually only works in more plot-driven driven books such as An Interpretation of Murder (also featuring Freud).  However, here Freud and his daughter are sensitively portrayed and Freud’s initial advice is more avuncular than psycho-analytic.  Later, when Franz is encouraged to record his dreams – which he does publicly in the shop-window – this is not a vehicle to let us know how clever the author is, but more a way to understand the emotional challenges of doing what you believe is right in an environment of persecution.  Some of the descriptions, particularly those of the Gestapo, may seem like caricatures, and there could perhaps be more examination of the motivations of local sympathisers.  However, this does not undermine the sympathetic depictions of the central and pivotal characters

Robert Seethaler was nominated for the International Booker prize in 2016 for A Whole Life.  The Tobacconist, translated very effectively by Charlotte Collins, is worthy of similar accolades.


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Issue 115:2017 07 27:The Beguiled (J R Thomas)

27 July 2017

The Beguiled

A film by Sophia Coppola

reviewed by J R Thomas

A film by Sophia Coppola is always something to look forward to; the tingling anticipation of a thing of beauty to be sure, a gentle intelligent fusion of music and photography and well-directed acting; and a thoughtful, subtle pointing to some human condition, usually of the female persuasion, that gives much rumination for the post-cinematic stroll home.

Her latest piece of moving art is “The Beguiled”, Ms Coppola’s adaption of the book by Thomas P Cullinan.  It is almost everything that one would expect.  The acting is professional to pip-squeaking level, the music is supportive and subtle and suitable, and the photography very well done indeed, with the American Deep South of 1864 providing a series of shimmering ghostly backdrops in the plantations, plus Miss Martha Farnsworth’s  School for Young Ladies providing the sort of interiors that Pre-Raphaelite art was invented to record.

1864 was a busy time in the Deep South; the Civil War was about to be over, defeat looming over the Confederacy, and the cannons are booming away constantly in the background.  Oddly, nobody amongst the Young Ladies seems in the least phased by this looming or booming; one might expect that just occasionally one of Miss Farnsworth’s pupils might say “Cor, that was a bit close” or worry about the future for her menfolk, but no.  But, as it is said that the First World War battlefield guns in France could be heard in London on quiet days, maybe the cordite action is so far off that nobody is unnerved by the booming, and they assume that all will be well in the end.

But what does disturb the young ladies – seven of them pupils of various ages and two teachers, including Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), her nervously charged deputy – is the presence of Corporal John McBurney, a severely wounded Unionist soldier, found by the youngest pupil whilst gathering mushrooms. (Would you let a ten or so year old out gathering mushrooms in the middle of a war?  Maybe the guns were indeed a very long way off.)  Head teacher, proprietor, and presumably daughter of the departed plantation owner, Miss Martha is nursing him back to health so she can turn him over to the Confederate Army, who presumably will not continue the medical support programme.  Martha and her girls come to the slow realisation that army nursing standards may be poor, so he is allowed to stay on, to be useful around the school.  But the two teachers and one of the pupils seem to have ulterior motives as to what he might be useful for, viewing his potential talents widely, not surprisingly as plays the wounded John McBurney with a charming Irish brogue (one can’t help wondering if Ms Coppola has been watching Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon too often).  He too has ulterior motives, as men are often said to have, not dissimilar to that of those ladies, but his main motivation is not to be handed over to the Confederate Army.  And that is quite enough plot.

It has to be said that, in spite of the superior technical standards of this film, it seems a strange tale.  This may be because your reviewer is of the male persuasion.  He, as it happens, took with him a person of the opposite sex (her motives were not in the least ulterior, we should put on record) and she found it a carefully crafted insight into the motivations and responses of women, faced with challenging and difficult circumstances.

Your reviewer might also be influenced by having read the book (often a mistake, but it was a long time ago), a complex piece of writing which contains a range of perspectives, some misleading, as to what is going on.  It also contains, as Confederate households tended to do, a black slave, a housekeeper, who is not beguiled in the way everybody else seems to be.  Ms Coppola’s omission of the racial nature of life in the Farnsworth School is one of the stranger recastings of the tale, though one Ms Coppola has strongly defended.  Cullinan wrote a physiological thriller of an intensely gripping nature; much of that has drifted away in the new film, replaced by a more dreamlike exposition of trouble and stress building in the closeted mansion.

There is in fact a previous movie which starred Clint Eastwood as the soldier and Geraldine Page as Miss Farnsworth.  This was Clint’s first real departure from his lone lawman genre and was too much for his fanbase (or perhaps not enough); the film flopped, though it is now highly regarded as one of Siegel and Eastwood’s best.  Siegel followed the book closely, displaying its complex messages fairly faithfully.   In both originals the soldier does not have Irish heritage, a strange modification by Ms Coppola, the racial cross currents are core, the mushroom gatherer is thirteen (so fine to be out in the woods alone), and the “school” was then a seminary, which students of Civil War films know that they always were.

So the message here is probably; go and see the Coppola version if you want film-making of the highest standard; but if you want a well-told tale maybe the Siegel/Eastwood version will suit you better.   Though maybe it is simple as this:  ladies should go to the Coppola offering; gentlemen stick with the Siegel one.


“Beguiled” by Sophia Coppola is on general release and playing at various cinemas now.  “Beguiled” by Don Siegel is available on various film on-line distribution sites, or on DVD. 


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Issue 114:2017 07 20:Thank you for your patience(Adam McCormack)

20 July 2017

Thank you for your patience

The Hackney Showroom

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Star rating: ****

Have we become too blasé about nuclear waste?   The seventies and eighties saw continual impassioned protests from students, but of late there has been a silence.  The issues have not gone away – it will still be 100,000 years before the waste is safe and this new piece of performance art, by Hector Dyer and Rob Morton, perfectly encapsulates the tacit conspiracy to overlook a portentous legacy.

Partly a polemic narrative, interspersed with rap-like prose of a dystopian future, where ill-informed future generations uncover the toxic residue of our indulgence, this production is both powerful and thought provoking.  By illustrating the short memory surrounding the disposal of chemical waste in a Bristol field, and then describing the mechanics of the deep disposal of nuclear waste in Finland we are left with a feeling of an inevitable apocalyptic scenario.  Once buried, how do you keep mankind informed as to its whereabouts and significance for 100 millennia?  Dyer’s impassioned and mesmerizing one-man delivery is perfectly complimented by Morton’s pulsating soundscape, and the sparse set facilitates an intimate and, under Georgie Staight’s direction, perfectly paced experience.

The show in Hackney follows an opening in Paris, and there are two further performances, on 26th and 27th July.  This is one that our children should see.


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Issue 114: 2017 07 20: Mosquitoes (Adam McCormack)

20 July 2017


The National Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Star rating: ***

Alice is a brilliant scientist.  She is not as brilliant as her mother, who really should have won the Nobel Prize given to her father (according to her mother), but smart enough to be involved in the search for the Higgs Boson, or the so called “god particle”, at CERN.  It is 2008 and Alice is preoccupied with the launch of the Large Hadron Collider and so has little time to focus on her sister who has lost a child, a mother who fears dementia and a deeply troubled son struggling with the disappearance of his father and life in an international school.  Her sister Jenny is generally regarded as “thick” by her family, particularly her mother whom she looks after, and spends her time worrying about information that she finds on the Internet.  Jenny constantly seeks reassurance and forgiveness from her family but rarely receives it.

At its heart this play has a lot to tell us about sisterhood.  The counterpoint of searching for the essence of the universe and its potential dramatic demise, against the acutely painful turmoil of a family facing loss and upheaval is very effective.  Sharp and well-constructed dialogue, together with beautifully observed performances from Olivia Williams as Alice and Olivia Colman, pathetically comic as Jenny, ensures that, despite some highly complicated subject matter, this play is eminently watchable.  The problem, however, is that fitting in so many layers of narrative when the science part is hard to grasp leaves a degree of confusion.  Add to the narrative issues surrounding science and religion, MMR jabs and IVF and you are left with a lot to digest.  Helped by tremendous stage effects, explanations by Alice’s errant husband of the ways in which the universe might end are brilliant, and Katrina Lindsay’s set design once again show how adaptable the Dorfman stage is to cutting-edge theatre.  The innovative set manages to encapsulate the universe, the Large Hadron Collider, flats in Luton or Geneva – as well as gauche teenage Internet conversations.  Nevertheless, the scientist’s return to the stage later leaves us facing overkill – you can’t create PhD scientists in under 3 hours.

The complexities of the family issues, particularly when Alice’s son goes missing after an unfortunate sexting incident, risk overwhelming the broader themes of life, loss and the universe.

Lucy Kirkwood wrote one of the best plays of 2015 with Chimerica, and is undoubtedly one of the best writers we have.  However here she may have taken on a little too much.  Just as with Tom Stoppard’s efforts to explain the complexities of human consciousness in The Hard Problem, having superb dialogue delivered by the very best acting talent, more than ably directed by Rufus Norris, cannot overcome the difficulties of an overly intricate plot and tough to understand subject matter.


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Issue 114: 2017 07 20: Watts 200 (William Morton)

20 July 2017

Watts 200: Celebrating England’s Michelangelo

The Watts Gallery, Guildford, Surrey (20 June – 26 November).

By William Morton

“Choosing” by George Frederic Watts (copyright the National Gallery)

This exhibition celebrates the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904).  To call him ‘England’s Michelangelo’ is perhaps over-doing it but he is an important artist, even if he has never quite regained the status he enjoyed in his lifetime.  He was twice offered a baronetcy and was an original member of the Order of Merit.  His achievements were all the more remarkable because his origins were humble and he had little formal education.  Nevertheless, he was friends with such eminent Victorians as Tennyson, Swinburne and Lord Leighton.  He was a sculptor as well as a painter and produced some important frescoes.

The basis of his success was portrait painting, and the exhibition includes some appealing and striking ones such as that of the young actress Ellen Terry, entitled Choosing, and another of his friend, the philanthropist Jane ‘Jeanie’ Elizabeth Hughes, both of which show a clear Pre-Raphaelite influence.  One of Cardinal Manning with a skull-like head is said to have inspired Picasso.  Swinburne said Watts only painted portraits ‘for three reasons – friendship, beauty and celebrity’.  There seems nothing wrong with that.

Watts is probably better known for his symbolic and allegorical paintings.  He himself said that he painted ideas, not things.  The exhibition includes some well-known examples such as Hope depicting a blindfolded girl sitting on a globe holding a lyre with broken strings (allegedly Barack Obama’s favourite painting), and Found Drowned showing a woman’s corpse by the Thames with Waterloo Bridge visible through smog in the background.  Again, there is a hint of the Pre-Raphaelites, but they are individual and striking works.  Some of his symbolic paintings are of subjects which seem out of touch with modern thinking.  Paintings such as Love steering the Boat of Humanity, The Court of Death and Whither goes Thou Satan strike an old-fashioned note and this may explain Watts’ current comparative lack of popularity.

“Hope” by George Frederick Watts (copyright Tate Gallery)

What does seem clear is the confidence and public spirit which he demonstrated in his lifetime.  He believed that art could change lives and made a practice of giving paintings away including a large number to the Tate (it seems clear that he was financially secure).  One in the Exhibition, Love and Life, he gave to the United States to encourage a kinder political culture.  In it, Love is an angel sheltering Life as a young woman with his wings and guiding her.  It used to hang in the White House.  It is tempting to imagine Donald Trump staring at it with his mouth open, but it would appear it was removed before his time.  Watts  painted a huge fresco for free in Lincoln’s Inn with a typically Wattsian title, Justice; a Hemicycle of Lawyers.  He was also responsible for establishing Postman’s Park in the City to honour ordinary people who saved the lives of others.

Watts’ sculptures, like his paintings, tend to be large scale.  On show is the plaster model on which he worked for many years for Physical Energy, an impressive sculpture of a naked man on a horse peering into the distance which is well-known as it located in Kensington Gardens.  Watts himself said it was ‘a symbol of that restless physical impulse to seek the unachieved in the domain of material things’.

Watts’ second wife deserves a mention.  His first marriage to Ellen Terry took place when he was 46 and she was a teenager, and lasted less than a year.  He waited another 20 years before having another go, marrying Mary Fraser Tytler, a Scottish potter.  The Watts Gallery is part of a complex which includes a remarkable mortuary chapel designed by Mary.  It is built of terracotta bricks and elaborately decorated inside and out and well worth a visit.

Watts had a very individual approach and the Exhibition shows that he was great artist, even if his star is not as bright as it once was.


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Issue 110: 2017 06 22: Contents

22 June 2017: Issue 110


The week’s news –

your chance to catch up:

Image of elliptical decal with £$€ and Financial News caption


Debt by John Watson

Disaster waits in the wings.

Meanwhile, In The White House… by J R Thomas

The administration looks at Syria and Wall Street.

Remain Or Leave by Richard Pooley

The dilemma facing one British expatriate couple.

A Tale Of Two Committees by Frank O’Nomics

Should the Fed and the Bank of England swap strategies?

After Isis by Neil Tidmarsh

To the victor, the spoils?


Old Goats by Chin Chin

What are they doing in parliament?

Election Diary of a Corbynista by Don Urquhart


Caravanning In The Ionian by Lynda Goetz

Avoiding the car crash at home.


Tosca (by Puccini)

Grange Park Opera, West Horsley

reviewed by Adam McCormack.

The RA Summer Exhibition

Royal Academy, 13 June – 20 August

reviewed by William Morton

Gem Amongst Jewels

Trewyn Studio Garden, St. Ives

reviewed by J R Thomas

Puzzles, Cartoons and Calendar

Cartoons by AGGro.

Crossword by Boffles: “Heroes and Notables”.

Solution to the last crossword “More Pop”.

What’s on in June 2017 by AGGro

Earlier EditionsLarge 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 105: 18 May 2017

Issue 106: 25 May 2017

Issue 107: 01 June 2017

Issue 108: 08 June 2017

Issue 109: 15 June 2017

Issue 111:2017 06 29: Ink (Adam McCormack)

29 June 2017

Ink (by James Graham)

The Almeida

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Stars: *****

It is 1969, and Hugh Cudlipp wants to get rid of The Sun, a broadsheet newspaper that is failing, with a circulation dwarfed by its sister paper the Daily Mirror.  Enter two archetypal outsiders.  One shunned by the establishment for trying to enter into the protected environment of newspaper ownership, the other a former employee of the Mirror, who has retreated to the regions, frustrated by his inability to overcome a northern background and the lack of a university education.  This play gets to the heart of how and why Rupert Murdoch, having recruited Larry Lamb, took on the press hierarchy and won.

James Graham’s latest play, superbly directed by Rupert Goold, is both genuinely funny and thought provoking.  Scenes where Lamb recruits his new editorial team and how they brainstorm a new format and content are hilarious, but very effectively convey how Lamb changed the approach of giving readers what papers thought they should read, to what they really wanted.  Equally, Graham does not ignore the dark side of the process, both when the paper becomes the story (with the kidnap of the Deputy Chairman’s wife) and the apparently desperate move to bring nudity to page 3.

Graham had a huge success in 2012 with This House, which brilliantly captured the electoral machinations of the 1970’s (particularly apposite given the current hung parliament), and his portrayal of the great change in the delivery of news is equally timely.  Newspaper production was an antiquated process and here we are shown both how the unions restricted progress and how Murdoch and Lamb made seminal changes.  While we know the outcome, the suspense created by the progress of circulation figures is compelling, and the use of song and dance to develop the narrative never allows the audience’s focus to drift.

The central characters are well cast, and the performances perfectly observed. Bertie Carvel as Murdoch is a suitably diffident, impeccably dressed outsider, shunning the limelight but relishing the profile, while Richard Coyle as Lamb gets us on his side in the battle with the old guard but leaves us questioning his “circulation at all costs” approach.  The set (which must be a health and safety minefield) has been designed to help us realise the Heath Robinson nature of the old process and the limited resources that Lamb had at his disposal.

Ultimately James Graham may have delivered something more than just an account of the last century’s biggest media epoch.  He may also have exposed how the press came to command too much power.  Social media is now challenging this position, and the latest political drama demonstrates the extent to which the popular press has lost its punch.  It was a short step from the events of Ink, to a Sun headline that read, “It’s the Sun what won it” in the 1992 election – but that path would now seem to have begun to reverse itself.


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Issue 110: 2017 06 22: RA Summer Exhibition (William Morton)

22 June 2017

The RA Summer Exhibition

Royal Academy, 13 June – 20 August

Reviewed by William Morton

copyright David Tindle

The Summer Exhibition is fun.  Each Academician has the right to submit six works, and the public is invited to submit a maximum of two each for possible inclusion.  This year 12,500 items were put forward by the public, of which 1,200 were selected for hanging.  The result is an extraordinary mixture of art ranging from works by established artists priced at £100,000 or more to amateur works for sale for a few hundred pounds.

There is a certain confidence about the work of the established figures,  and one can understand why these artists are well-known.  Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Unborn is really punchy even though perhaps not easy to live with. Tracey Emin’s neon signs such as I did not say I can never love you I said I could never love certainly catch the eye.  Anthony Gormley’s Fall manages to create a looming figure in an abstract woodcut.  There is a clinically beautiful sculpture Silent Journey by Ann Christopher.  Established artists who did not impress, however, were Gilbert and George whose Beard Speak 2016 seemed a fairly simple idea worked up to a degree it did not deserve.

copyright Stephen Cox

An enjoyable element of the Exhibition is the wacky art (although, again, many of the works you might want to take home only if you are Charles Saatchi with your own gallery).  One fine example is Stephen Cox’s Butter Puja consisting of a series of stone heads daubed with pats of butter.  Then there is a painting where the ‘canvas’ consists of machete blades.  There are thrones by Gonçalo Mabunda made up of bullet cases, rifle magazines and mortar bombs.  There is a letter to Mr Trump in the form of an LP cover taking him to task over his wall.  Picasso’s Busy Day is a cartoon showing the great man, inter alia, on the lavatory and depositing large sums of money at his bank.  Two large stuffed but ragged figures mounted on rockers with banknotes in their mouths are apparently Defending Integrity from the Power That Be (Tim Shaw).

Both the public and members of the Academy are represented by ‘mainstream’ art works, many of them appealing.  They include a number of Sickert-style nudes, paintings of gardens and flowers and Joe Root and plentiful scenes of Venice.

There are also many photographs and some works made of fabric, but none made a great impression. Video films are, of course, now a major art form and some (very highly priced in two cases) are included in the Exhibition.  The picture quality is fantastic but the overall effect seemed, to me at least, as often with this art form, just rather pretentious.  A room full of detailed architectural drawings is more intriguing and one could, for example, well imagine putting a cut-away ground plan of Mexico City Airport on the wall.

copyright Howard Phipps

What art does the great British public like?  Judging by the red ‘sold’ stickers at the Exhibition, it likes prints or woodcuts of the countryside, boats and the sea.  These are among the cheapest items and that no doubt is one reason for their popularity but I do not think it the only reason.  You are onto a winner if that is your line as an artist.




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Issue 110: 2017 06 22: Garden Review, Barbara Hepworth St. Ives (J R Thomas)

22 June 2017

Gems Amongst Jewels

Trewyn Studio Garden, St. Ives

by J.R.Thomas

If you are going to create a garden, Cornwall is probably just about the best place in the British Isles to do it.  The climate is wonderfully benign, aided by some sidewash from the gulf stream and the moderating influence of the sea; to say nothing of large infusions of rain water, though mostly delivered in the autumn and winter, with summer sea frets to keep plants moistly happy, if not the tourists.  There is rarely frost; careful choosing of the site, and judicious planting of shelter, will protect from the winter gales.  Indeed, the Cornish garden owner will soon find that the problem is not getting things to grow, but keeping that growth under some sort of control, if all is not to be submerged in a jungle of lushness.

Tranquil garden scene with sculpture and old cherry tree

Stone Sculpture (Fugue II  to the left, embraced by the cherry tree)

Which all goes to suggest that Dame Barbara Hepworth and those devotees to her memory who now tend her garden need to be aces with the secateurs and devotees of the lopping knife.  And with especially good reason in the garden which she made at Trewyn Studio, her home and workplace in St Ives on the north coast of Cornwall.  The Sculpture Garden is well hidden in the crowded townscape of St Ives and surprises visitors to the studio displays as they walk out of the back door into this sheltered but north east facing space.  It feels surprisingly large, yet initial exploration soon reveals to the musing visitor that the garden is in truth of modest size but carefully planned and generously planted.  That planting gives impressions of enclosure but also releases views from one glade to another and outwards across the town roofs to the Atlantic waves endlessly shaping the north Cornish coast.  The contrast with the rolling acres of woodland and paddocks around Henry Moore’s studio in Hertfordshire is startling, and, one suspects, most have caused those two fellow Yorkshirepersons and great friends some amusement.

Miss Hepworth lived in the house and worked in the adjacent studio from 1949 until her death in 1975, and the garden was partly her workplace.  It contains her workshops, the wonderfully old fashioned greenhouse which she used both for plants and drying her casts, and a huge outdoor turntable which was used for carving.  The garden contains a number of finished works, in particular three large stone sculptures, and eighteen bronzes which she retained as the artist’s copies from commissioned works.  Most evocative perhaps is the store of stone pieces waiting for the sculptor’s chisel that was wielded no more after 1975.

These are positioned amongst a range of plants set mostly as sheltering enclosures; but all dominated by a huge central cherry tree, which has flourished on this sheltered hillside, its long declining branches forming a lichened frame off which parts of the garden seem to hang.  The garden, like so many Cornish gardens, is probably at its best in spring, but Dame Barbara gardened for year-long interest and to form those bowers for her sculpture. Castor oil plants and bamboo groves help perform this function to great effect.

the stone store

One of the problems in a small garden which is intensely used and open most of the year is renewing and refreshing the planting.  Some of the shrubs and trees have really grown too big to properly fulfil their function in the design, but to take them out would create gaps in what is after all a modest space.  No doubt most of the visitors who walk round are looking mostly at the sculptures, which are indeed magnificent and compelling, and are probably almost unaware of their carefully crafted setting.  But even temporary holes in the planting would strike a discordant note, and one can only have sympathy for the gardener who must manage the renewal in so delicate a manner.  The ageing cherry tree in particular must be a subject of troubled dreams.

Smaller gardens with heavy footfall have somehow to manage the falling of those feet.  The lower garden has some moderately intrusive paving but in the upper areas the conundrum is managed very well, and it must be very much as Miss Hepworth knew it.  It rarely gets intrusively busy and even a short visit will form a calming and restful interlude created by the interplay of foliage, plants, and a quiet break from the packed streets of St Ives on the other side of the wall.

The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden is run by the Tate St Ives (which will itself fully reopen after enlargement in October this year).  The Hepworth is open daily from 10am to 5pm (4pm in winter).

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Issue 110: 2017 06 22: Theatre Review – Tosca

22 June 2017


Grange Park Opera, West Horsley

reviewed by Adam McCormack.

If you unexpectedly inherited a crumbling country pile with 300 acres, what would you do with it?  This is exactly what happened to former TV presenter Bamber Gascoigne, who was left a sixteenth century manor house in West Horsley by his aunt, and his altruistic response was to allow an opera house to be built in the grounds.  Fortunately, there was a ready-made opera company in need of a new home, for whom Mr. Gascoigne’s inheritance has proved serendipitous.

The great news is that the relocation of Grange Park Opera from Hampshire to West Horsley has done nothing to undermine the impressive quality of their operas.  Their first production, Tosca, brilliantly highlights the truly remarkable achievement of building a new theatre, based on the 4-tiered horseshoe shape of La Scala, Milan, from scratch in less than a year.  A current lack of air-conditioning or permanent bathrooms might not be ideal given the current hot spell, but a 99-year lease should give plenty of time to sort that out (along with a £10mn fundraising programme) and tickets for productions will continue to be gold dust.

Perhaps because of the need to keep the previous regulars happy, director Peter Relton takes few risks with this production of Puccini’s Tosca, but given the quality of the performers and the auditorium he didn’t need to.  The shift in setting from Rome in 1800 to one more akin to that of Mussolini works very well in conveying an environment of fear and oppression, and the drama is played with maximum pathos.  Francis O’Connor’s set utilizes the impressive stage perfectly; shifting from cloistered church, to grand offices of state, prison and those perilous battlements.  When one looks at the cast it is no surprise that the singing is top notch.  Securing Joseph Calleja to play Florian Tosca’s true love, the painter Caravadossi was an undoubted coup, but Roland Wood more than holds his own as a suitably malevolent rival Baron Scarpia.  Ekaterina Metlova certainly looks the part of Tosca, which she sang beautifully, although at times her hand gestures seemed a little self-conscious and wooden.  This is a very minor criticism in an otherwise excellent production and the pacing, by including a second interval between acts 2 and 3, helps the audience sustain their enrapture on a sweltering evening.

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