Tag Archives: review

Empirical @ mac

Last Saturday night saw the return of exuberant young quartet Empirical to Birmingham’s mac to perform a selection of pieces from their new release Elements of Truth. Echoing not only their musical influences but also their life philosophies in their playing, this band’s sound is something quite different from what you might usually expect from a small jazz ensemble.

As is customary for gigs in mac’s theatre, the audience awaits the performance in a low, blue light. In this case, just the near-silhouetted instruments appear on the stage; a double bass, drum kit and vibraphone all clustered tightly together in the centre. However, when Empirical took to the stage, this still, almost sombre image was soon forgotten, giving way to an instantly captivating rush of sound. The first tune, Out But In, began with clear-cut, angular melodies from Nathaniel Facey on alto saxophone, reflective of the sounds of horn players of the 1950s such as Charlie Parker and perhaps Ornette Coleman, as well as more modern players such as Martin Speake. What is most striking about these musicians is the way they play so tightly as a unit, underpinning each melody with stunning harmonic and rhythmic precision. This was apparent on rhythmically demanding tunes such as bassist Tom Farmer’s composition Simple Things, in which the motives, notes and textures appear uncomplicated, but are distributed in such a way over the pulse of the tempo that unique and mesmerising rhythms are created.

Each member of the quartet is seen to be equally responsible for the feel and texture of the music, the way the instruments layer to create the sound. This was particularly apparent in In the Grill, a tune entitled after a boxing reference in which the band place emphasis on spatial awareness in their playing, listening intently to the overall sound and adding their individual contributions accordingly. The vast array of colour tones that drummer Shaney Forbes achieved from the kit and cymbals in this piece and throughout the performance was especially fascinating, switching from using sticks, to mallets, to brushes, to his hands to create the right sound.

With an emphasis on well known sayings and philosophies for their music’s foundations, Empirical presented pieces such as like Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and the tune the new album takes it title from, The Element of Truth composed by Vibes player Lewis Wright. A stunning combination of ethereal, ringing chords with occasional striking dissonance, this thought provoking tune brought a wonderful clarity to the end of the set.

For anyone who believes that jazz is random, it just takes watching a band like Empirical to see how even the most free and unusual sounding jazz has solid underlying structure, underpinned by a precise sense of rhythm and patterns. Yet, equally, for anyone who is perhaps keen to intellectually decipher the exact, constant beat of such music, my advice would be to leave this to the experts. Empirical’s sound is both musically and intellectually experimental, pushing the boundaries of contemporary jazz. With a group of musicians so advanced their craft, the listener can entirely trust in them to deal with where the beat is (wherever it is) and just take pleasure in what is created.

Words by Anna Lumsden

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Lucinda Hawksley: celebrating 200 years of Charles Dickens

The 7th of February this year marked the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth and a multitude of events will be going on all year to celebrate one of the most famous British authors. This anniversary was marked by Lucinda Hawksley, great, great, great granddaughter of the man in question, giving a talk in the National Portrait Gallery, London, on his family and social life two days later. Since then, Hawksley has been touring the country giving the same presentation to Dickens enthusiasts everywhere; on Sunday, she came to Birmingham’s Modern Art Gallery the Waterhall.

As a public speaker and lecturer on Dickens as well as 19th century literature, art and culture, Hawksley was well suited to presenting an in-depth talk. Focusing on the lesser known facts, Hawksley took her audience through Dickens’s life, starting with his parents and the debtor’s disgrace faced by his father, and ending with his humble tombstone. She emphasised the importance of certain figures in regards to his fame, such as George Hogarth, a journalist who first published Dickens’s work Sketches, under the pseudonym ‘Boz’, in the Evening Chronicle. Moreover, Hawksley drew attention to Dickens’s social impact on 19th century culture and his activist writings campaigning for reform. Indeed, she revealed his dramatic impact on the poor quality of the Yorkshire schools where bad children were sent to board. Upon hearing of two boys who were blinded by the awful conditions, Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby, which highlighted these issues and within two years all of these Yorkshire schools were shut down. These nuggets of information lent further authority to her argument and showed the audience how Dickens’ works were thoroughly important, focused on topical issues of the time. The talk was perfectly balanced between being in-depth enough to entertain any scholar of Dickens, and being accessible to those who have had no engagement with the texts; it was a brilliant preview to her book Charles Dickens written for the bicentenary.

This event is only one of many going on around Birmingham about the celebrated author, but with Hawksley’s extensive knowledge matched with her family ties it was a terrific introduction. She also referred to many important events occurring this year in regards to his anniversary. Hawksley disclosed that although Dickens stated in his will that he wanted no memorial in England, two statues are set to be erected this year, one in Portsmouth where he grew up, and one in Southwark, London to honour this influential figure. Moreover, it was revealed that the Royal Mail is set to produce Dickensian stamps which will be released in June, two of which are available for preview now. Hawksley provided a fantastic insight into why Dickens has become the icon he has today, and we she should look beyond the books to see the influence he had on his society.

For more Charles Dickens events, see the exhibition currently on display in Birmingham Univeristy’s Muirhead Tower Atrium.
Also keep an eye out for the up and coming production of Great Expectations @ the Crescent Theatre.

Words by Eleanor Campbell

Lost in Lace

Lace. What does it evoke? I envisage yellowed net curtains, doilies and Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. A bygone age, elegant Edwardian ladies twirling parasols, fragility and antimacassars on chairs. What I do not imagine is a swathe of Swarovski crystals, a mesh of metal or a suspended mattress of feathers. Cue Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery‘s Lost in Lace exhibition located in the Gas Hall, which sets to reform the way we view the aesthetic quality of lace.

Instead of focusing wholly on the materials that make up lace (typically cotton or silk), the 20 leading international artists involved in this exhibition also concentrate on the intertwining, interconnectedness of their mediums and on the meanings translated through semiotics. Naomi Kobayashi of The Cosmos Series reveals how, ‘Like lace, [her] work is about the spaces in-between. The columns rise up like mist, giving a light flexible border dividing exterior and interior within an architectural space. This semiotic notion is also carried forth in Iraida Icaza Panam‘s series of Untitled Photographs of Lace, which she exclaims convey the ‘duality of darkness and light, the creative tension between negative and positive.’

Other striking works within the exhibition include Nils Völker‘s installation One Hundred and Eight. Initially, his work may appear seemingly unrelated to the core theme of lace. The viewer stands in front of forty-eight inflating and deflating bags that mimic the respiratory motion of the lungs. The complexity of this work however, lies beneath what the viewer can see, in the form of a circuit board. This circuit board is an interwoven web of wires that mimic the intricacy of lace. Through this, we discover that the practise to create patterns indicative of lace are not only bound to be used as embellishment or decor, but can extend way beyond into the world of engineering.

This exhibition is, in essence, like a dream-world. Annie Bascoul’s works Moucharabieh and Jardin de lit, lit de jardi ncan be seen to work hand in hand, and are evocative of a fairytale world. Bascoul’s floral lace partition Jardin de lit, acts as a kind of thicket that the prince must pass to reach the Sleeping Beauty in her chamber, Moucharabieh.The Princesses’ lace dresses hang in an exhibition space created by Chiharu Shiota entitled After the Dream, to the opposing side of the Gas Hall. In light of this, we can note how all these separate works of art interlink together in the viewer’s imaginations, just as lace does.

This exhibition was also refreshingly favourable in terms of its interactive elements. Individuals are encouraged to touch examples of the works of art through samples provides in conjunction with them, There is a section towards the back of the Hall in which visitors can cut snowflake-like patterns from paper and contribute their own work of art, by threading and interweaving yarn through other pieces on the wall that visitors have left before them, creating their own little memory. Lace has a timeless quality. Through this innovative exhibition, we can clearly see how it is not restricted to a bygone age, but can be carried forth in new and exciting ways in a whole range of materials.

Lost in Lace is at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until the 19th February 2012.

Words by Jessica Holroyd

The Paper Birds: Thirsty

Startlingly personal yet utterly relatable, Thirsty by the Paper Birds theatre company is a brutal representation of the truth of binge drinking culture. The play has been touring around the UK after winning a number of awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with many sell out performances and has tour dates booked up until 2nd April 2012. One of the latest performances came to the cultural ground of Birmingham’s mac on Thursday last week.

Combining drunken tales from hotlines and blogs, Thirsty attempts to determine not only why we drink, but also the effect of drinking on us. However, the tale is not a particularly didactic one extolling the virtues of a sober lifestyle. Instead, through their research techniques, writers Kylie Walsh and Jemma McDonnell have found the hilarious highs and lows of drinking, portraying the highs as honestly as the lows. The stage setting reflected the Paper Birds’ research into their field, and in the after show discussion they explained their choices. The staging involved a club bathroom being put in front of the audience: three toilet cubicles with removable toilets on a tiled floor lined with half full glasses. What was created was a type of documentary theatre, a place where late night secrets can be revealed; therefore, the club bathroom is the only suitable setting, with its communal but private areas.

The play itself is a confused tale between the subject of the plot, ‘She’, an 18 year old first year at university, and the narrators of the story. We are told that the narrators are the writers of the play, Walsh and McDonnell, who have their own story: the story of how they devised the play and of their own relationships with alcohol. Their story runs deeply through the play and the portrayal of their friendship, brought together by university but pulled apart after graduation, is painfully applicable. Missed trains and phone calls resulting in empty voicemail messages acted out on the stage brought the audience near to tears, but within seconds the pair are reunited on a night out, clinging to each other and stumbling over the all too familiar phrases ‘You’re so great, I love you so much’ and the audience are roaring with laughter. These emotional turns were helped by Shane Durrant, who provided live background music to the action on stage. Sitting in his own separate cubical with a ukulele, two computers and a keyboard, Durrant was adept at providing the perfect soundtrack with a comic undertone.

The writers’ story is used to create a rapport between them and the audience, resulting in an atmosphere of absolute belief created by plain honesty. The play needs this believability to back up the story of ‘She’, the real focus of the narrative, the one story they repeatedly emphasise that they didn’t want to tell. This character has no actor to play her, only a pair of red shoes which are moved by Walsh and McDonnell on stage. The plot is chaotic, with the narrators arguing with what she does, how she feels. She is introduced to us as ‘18 and she’s on a night out in Fresher’s Week and she’s feeling great!’, yet later this description is edited multiple times. However, the distance created between ‘She’ and the audience and narrators encourages us to properly discern the situation as it unfolds onstage. After going home with a man she met that night, then passing out, was she raped? Was it her fault or his? The Paper Birds don’t attempt to provide any answers to these questions, but attempt to show the story as honestly and plainly as it was told to them and to make their audiences think about the questions themselves.

The Paper Birds have chosen a controversial topic in Thirsty, one which is relevant to everyone, but they manage to touch upon painful issues with an objective eye. The group know exactly how to play with their audience, allowing a serious topic to be a comedy, but also allowing the audience room to determine their own opinions. Overall, a fantastically emotional play, bringing frightening problems of drinking culture to the fore.

Words by Eleanor Campbell

My Father and Other Superheroes @ mac

My Father and Other Superheroes is a one-hour, one-man show written and performed by Nick Makoha. With recent events such as Hit the Ode  and Poets’ Place, it is no secret that Birmingham has well and truly come alive with spoken word. It is very fitting therefore that mac should not only host but also produce this fantastic piece of theatre. Described aptly as ‘one man’s honest revelation of how pop culture raised him in the absence of his father’, Makoha bravely confronts his personal struggle with abandonment and, in turn, questions the role of fatherhood in society. First and foremost, Makoha’s performance was raw and captivating. His characterisation was consistently authentic, whether he was playing The Incredible Hulk, his eleven-year old self, or his Ugandan mother. Even with the complete absence of props, the BMX he was riding or the baby he was holding seemed completely tangible.

Benji Reid’s direction was apparent in Makoha’s excellent use of physical theatre. His transformation from child, to superhero, to adult and back again was as engaging as some of the dances Reid has choreographed throughout his reputable career. Throughout the performance Makoha took the audience on a global journey: from a London-estate to Kenya, to the desert of Saudi Arabia. With minimal effects, no scenery and just one man in an average shirt and tie, making this believable must have been no easy task. To his credit, however, the audience remained wholly invested in Makoha, both as a storyteller and a character.

At one point Makoha re-enacted a scene from a Superman film, as he daringly walks along the edge of a building. Although on stage he was only a few inches off the ground, his physicality, and the plumes of smoke billowing from off-stage, effectively captured the ‘reality’ of such a scene. Indeed Reid’s masterful use of staging and lighting successfully created the other-worldly sense of the ‘Superhero’ genre, whilst avoiding cliché and slapstick acting. Even before one watches the play, the cathartic nature of the piece is clearly evident. Telling such a personal story could have run the risk of alienating an audience that might not entirely relate to him. However, Makoha’s use of humour and emotion, forced the audience to move from observing to psychologically engaging with the piece with highly successful results.

In the post-show discussion, both the writer and director gave a moving insight into what they had set out to achieve. As fathers themselves, they discussed how this was as much a play about learning what it is to be a father as well as letting go of past resentment. Nick Makoha considered the poignant saying, ‘if a child survives childhood, they can survive the rest of their life’, and it was clear that this was a story that touched the audience members in many different ways. In playing witness to Makoha’s personal quest for forgiveness and redemption, the audience were called upon to think about what it means to love your parents, not just as hero-figures, but as adults and humans who are liable to make mistakes. It is a story that remains extremely relevant to society today and will thus continue to bear value and importance.

Words by Elisha Owen