Monday, 7 September 2009

Back from Whitehaven: Two Entertainments

The theatre itself is small, seating just over 200 at push, with only one aisle and that to one side because Sekers thought having a central aisle was a waste of several ideal viewing positions. Ideally ushers would filter the audience in in severely utilitarian order, filling seats from left to right so as to prevent the untidy orgy of clambering over those already seated. A minor inconvenience.

The stage is a straightforward if rather shallow apron, a very straightforward classical proscenium arch allowing the eye entrance to it. All is plush red with Seker's original silk lining the walls. The Messels details are deeply restrained for one such as Messels, but cost must have been an inhibiting factor. Still it is a pretty plaything - a gorgeous deep red heart. You almost expect the roof to open and a plaster ballerina to turn round and round to a musical chime. And performers clearly loved it. Not too intimate, according to Joyce Grenfell, but just intimate enough not to have to raise your voice or use a microphone.

Intimate enough for Nigel Kennedy anyway and his jamming quintet of whom two, the saxophonist Gyula Csepregi and the pianist Róbert Rátonyi were Hungarian. Alec Dankworth looked coolly detached on bass but was fully engaged musically, increasingly so as the two hour jam progressed and Brian Abrahams on drums was elegant, perfect and unobtrusive, taking a few barnstorming solos when the occasion demanded.

NK, who still prefers street punk, was clearly taken by his saxophonist for the night while being a touch ginger and distant with his pianist, whose playing was delicate and diffuse, which one would not say of NK. NK has three between-the-tunes gestures: the fist to fist greeting for a successful completion; the thumbs-up for a fine solo; and the mock army salute for his own applauded solos. The rest of the time it's larking and turning the air blue as much with language as with minor sevenths. Don't worry about it, dear. It's just his way. He's a genius, you see. Like Peter Shaffer's Mozart, only more so.

The programme was mostly Duke Ellington standards, twisted, pinched, smooched and pounded into various, often exciting shapes. NK took the longest solos and while he could tiptoe for odd minutes, his natural bent is to blaze. He was having a great time, and eventually Csepregi and Dankworth seemed to relax into NK's brand of generous but aggressive madness. Maybe some of his solos were over-extended, maybe some of the gypsy-style rubatos and cadenzas were more habit than pain and glory, but the whole was nothing if not generous - blurtingly, fartingly, lyrically generous. The world has to arrange itself around NK while he's around, but the air is too busy vibrating to notice. Personally, I felt an occasional urge to punch him. A healthy feeling. It wouldn't have stopped him. Not for an instant. And it is terrific really, the sheer blurt of it.

Also intimate enough for the assembly of what the grandly bellied, lost-looking MC referred to as Whitehaven's Got Talent. This was the next afternoon / evening show. I wanted to go because I wanted to experience the theatre in its everyday working clothes. This was local people singing songs from the shows, doing a recitation, indulging in a bit of dancing and performing excerpts from two plays, one of them being Mary O'Malley's 'Once a Catholic'.

Some certainly did have talent. One little blond boy in the youth theatre danced and sang as though he meant it. He could blame it on the boogie and even be the boogie-woogie bugle boy of company B. The chief girls could all belt out a song and look interested. One briefly donned white, became Kate Bush, and performed 'Wuthering Heights' with all the appropriate histrionics.

There was - and probably always is - a big age gap between the youth theatre level and the adult am-dram company. It was as if everyone between the age of eighteen and forty-eight had disappeared off the face of the earth. The plays were the province of the over-fifties, performing heartily, and often, if not always, with good timing.

Is this top quality entertainment? Of course, not. But in so far as it is perfectly ordinary people singing, dancing, learning lines and becoming someone else, it is a properly human affair. It is something to know that the desire for transformation persists. That it remains a challenge to hit the right note, to master a convincing dynamic as the voice rises and falls, to work on a gesture until it seems to be part of something more complete than everyday life.

There's no point getting sentimental about it, but it's always comforting to find evidence that people are not entirely passive. I wondered what would become of this voice, or that grace? What place it held in the darkness outside once the thing was over?


Kathleen Jones said...

I love the Rosehill theatre, and have heard some good jazz there. Pity I'm in Italy and couldn't be there - Cumbria is not exactly overwhelmed with events of this kind. Just my luck to be away! Interesting that NK was using Alec Dankworth and not the Hungarian born bassist Arnie Somogyi. But I suppose the former is better known.

George S said...

It was the Hungarian Cultural Centre who brought Rátonyi and Csepregi over. Maybe that's what their money extended to, or maybe Somogyi was elsewhere.

It was quite a coup getting this lot together - and Dankworth was very good.