Arts Reviews

The good, bad and ugly in arts and exhbitions

Melodic elegance and literate sass: Ben Folds, at Usher Hall, reviewed

Choose your weapon. Artists are closely defined in the public imagination by their instrument of choice. Though the most untamed and transgressive progenitors of rock’n’roll – Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard – were piano pounders, and despite the later efforts of Elton John, over time the instrument has come to be associated with restraint and politesse; the straight second cousin to rock’s clichéd wild child, the electric guitar. He strolled on stage like a stranger and left 100 minutes later as an old friend I hadn’t realised I’d missed American singer-songwriter Ben Folds has been playing with these expectations for the best part of 30 years, first in Ben

Max Jeffery

‘My show is like life and death to people’: meet TalkTV’s Mike Graham

Hair combed and slicked, Mike Graham sits at his big shiny desk and waits on his cue. When his guest goes rogue backstage and starts swearing at a minion, it barely registers. He remains placid. Unruffled. It’s only his second week doing TV but Mike is in the zone. Three, two, one, zero. ‘Welcome to The Independent Republic of Mike Graham.’ He grins. ‘With you for the next three hours, of course!’ Of course. Independent Republic is a daily celebration of subversive tabloid television, beamed out on TalkTV to a dependable and swelling citizenry. Mike is the republic’s leader. During those three hours he skewers a museum for cancelling Santa,

Rich, beautiful and vital: John Craxton, at Pallant House Gallery, reviewed

The sensuality of the light in John Craxton’s painting ‘Two Figures and Setting Sun’ (1952-67) has to be seen to be believed. Viewing this large work in Pallant House, you feel its full force. Craxton was concerned with a scene’s essence, rather than simply its appearance and here he achieves not merely an effect but affect. In spite of most of the light being painted in yellows and oranges rather than white, the contrast and refraction of the rays produce a blinding sensation much like staring into the sun on a hot day.   It was as a chorister at Chichester Cathedral that Craxton’s daily encounter with two 12th-century Romanesque

James Delingpole

A calculated insult to the viewer: Channel 4’s The Princes in the Tower – The New Evidence reviewed

Major spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know the ending of The Princes in the Tower: The New Evidence, skip the next paragraph. Still with me? Good. The answer is no, Richard III did not order the killing of the two princes. That was just Tudor propaganda. Both boys, the sons of Edward IV, survived, and escaped to Europe. Thence, supported by their aunt Margaret of Burgundy, they made separate, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to regain the throne for the Yorkists, one under the name Lambert Simnel, the other as Perkin Warbeck. I’m telling you this not to be a spoilsport but to spare you 82 minutes of valuable life.

Lloyd Evans

Gloriously entertaining: Backstairs Billy, at the Duke of York’s Theatre, reviewed

Backstairs Billy is a biographical comedy about William Tallon, who worked as the Queen Mother’s chief footman for years following the death of George VI in 1952. Tallon was an enthusiastic gay cottager whom the tabloids suggestively dubbed ‘backstairs Billy’ during the 1970s when attitudes to homosexuality were growing more enlightened. The show, directed by Michael Grandage, is set in 1979 and Luke Evans plays Billy as a swaggering charismatic stud who loves his role as the unofficial head of the Queen Mum’s household. He adores his employer, ‘the last Empress of India’, and he praises her decision to remain in London during the Blitz rather than decamping to safety

Can Italy reverse its falling birth rate? 

Anne McElvoy is on the road again, exploring the state of modern Europe. Following her Radio 4 programme, The Reinvention of Germany in April, the Politico journalist has travelled to Padua, in northern Italy, where reactions to the rise of the right-wing populist Giorgia Meloni appear to vary. Is the 46-year-old PM a breath of fresh air – the best chance Italy has for a future – or a hypocritical dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist? The reinvention (or rather restoration) of Italy is very much Meloni’s goal. Clinging to the familiar principles of faith, flag and family, she has eschewed measures that would allow those born in Italy to define themselves as Italian,

A bit too short: Napoleon reviewed

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, has a running time of two hours and 40 minutes, which is scant by today’s standards, but don’t worry: a four hour-plus director’s cut is on its way. So this is Scott’s Napoleon Abridged, you could say, and it does have the feel of a film that’s been scissored to death. The battle sequences are spectacular but the jackhammer cutting-style – hang on, how did he get from there to here? – means the storytelling is hurried and confusing. I’m not too sure about this Napoleon either. Did you know one of the greatest military leaders in world history was essentially a man-child? Phoenix,

Lloyd Evans

Our theatre critic applies to be director of the National Theatre

The director of the National Theatre will be stepping down in 2025. I’ve written to the chairman offering a new vision for Britain’s leading playhouse. Dear Sir Damon Buffini, I’m a reviewer of plays and a part-time theatre producer. In the past 20 years I’ve seen more than 2,000 shows, hundreds of them at your venue, and here is my plan to transform the NT. Britain’s dramatic heritage is the best in the world and our national theatre should meet that standard of excellence. Three simple reforms to start with. US stars crave the prestige offered by the NT. Each year we will hire half a dozen Oscar-winning actors One:

A farrago of Blakean mysticism and steampunk twaddle: BalletBoyz’s England on Fire, at Sadler’s Wells, reviewed

It’s nearly a quarter of a century since Michael Nunn and William Trevitt bravely left their safe haven at the Royal Ballet to set up BalletBoyz, a company aimed at developing the underused potential of male dancers and exploiting Nunn and Trevitt’s passion for film technology. At the time this seemed like a useful mission – stereotypes and prejudices lingered around men in tights, and the formats for smaller dance companies needed loosening up. It lasts a moderate 70 minutes and, in its nutty way, it’s quite enjoyable One measure of BalletBoyz’s subsequent success is that so many of their experiments have been incorporated into the mainstream, and the enterprise

The death of TV

A while ago, a therapist advised me to go out less and stay in and watch TV more. Having avoided the world of block-streaming until then, I took her advice and immediately found great pleasure in my new pastime. There was so much to watch, and it was all so absorbing and pleasantly addictive. The pleasure and excitement has gone out of making TV – and it shows As soon as one arty but gripping ‘prestige’ series was over, there was another to begin. The golden age of television started around 2000, where innovation was enabled by leaps forward in visual technology and a revolution in storytelling ambition. Many of

Raucous, expressive and laugh-out-loud funny: Nicole Eisenman, at the Whitechapel Gallery, reviewed

There’s a photograph in Nicole Eisenman’s Whitechapel exhibition of the 28-year-old artist, in 1993, sitting at her easel with a big bow in her hair and a bevy of studio assistants – a feminist piss-take of the trope of the heroic male artist surrounded by adoring acolytes. Her resemblance in the photo to stand-up comic Sarah Silverman is not entirely coincidental; Eisenman is Jewish-American and funny. At the time she was producing the bawdy satires on downtown New York lesbian life – battles of the sexes redrawing Michelangelo’s ‘Battle of Cascina’ in the style of Where’s Wally? – which plaster the wall facing the exhibition entrance. She could have been

Whodunnit that disappears down a rabbit-hole: ITV1’s The Playboy Bunny Murder reviewed

Perhaps unfairly, Marcel Theroux does rather bring to mind Dannii Minogue. Not only does he look very similar to his more famous sibling, but when not writing (pretty good) novels, he’s in the same line of work: like Louis, he makes TV documentaries that feature much brow-furrowing. His latest was a neat fit for ITV1’s continuing obsession with true crime. As it transpired, The Playboy Bunny Murder was an over-simple title for an extremely tangled tale. Nonetheless, the programme did start with the killing of bunny girl Eve Stratford who, in March 1975, had her throat cut at her Leyton home. In those pre-DNA testing days, the police did what

Gig of the year: Ezra Collective, at the Royal Albert Hall, reviewed

The American music website Pitchfork is the journal of record for alternative America. It has became this generation’s Rolling Stone, for both good and ill. Long before it was bought by Condé Nast, however, it was famous for a disastrous jazz review in which the site’s founder chose to employ what he appeared to believe was the vernacular of a jazz ‘cat’ of the early 1960s. All is forgiven, though. Here was the London outpost of the Pitchfork Festival, opening with jazz stars Ezra Collective, the quintet who earlier this autumn won the Mercury Prize for their second album, Where I’m Meant To Be. Ezra Collective are very easy to

Lloyd Evans

Surprising flop from a top-class team: To Have and To Hold, at Hampstead Theatre, reviewed

To Have And To Hold boasts a starry cast and a top-class creative team. Richard Bean’s script is a meditation on ageing, directed by Richard Wilson and Terry Johnson, and it opens with a sight-gag about a wonky stairlift descending into a suburban lounge in Yorkshire. The stairlift is occupied by Flo, a tea-drinking fusspot (charmingly played by Marion Bailey), who looks after her crumbling husband, Jack. Both have endured 70 years of marital bliss and are slithering gently into the grave. Flo gets help from her middle-aged son Rob and his sister Tina, but they’re zestless, bland personalities. If a gag fails it returns again with the same result:

Cliché, cynicism and a car-crash finale: Royal Opera’s Jephtha reviewed

London’s two opera houses have been busy staging non-operas. Handel’s English oratorio, Jephtha, is his final exercise in a form that only existed because it was, explicitly, not opera (Georgian theatres needed something to play during Lent). We know better today, and dramatised reboots of Handel oratorios are proliferating, possibly because – unlike his actual operas – they give the chorus something to do. Katie Mitchell directed Theodora at Covent Garden last year. Now Oliver Mears has had a bash at Jephtha and has encountered the same basic problem. Operas seduce; oratorios preach. These are explicitly Christian, implicitly patriotic works, and what self-respecting contemporary director could allow that? It was

The growing revolt against Arts Council England

The acronym for Arts Council England is rather unfortunate at the moment. The organisation is being accused of many things: being overly close to government, underfunded and blinkered – but nobody thinks it is ace. Even friendly culture critics are losing patience. As the august arts commentator Richard Morrison recently wrote in the Times: ‘The Arts Council… seems determined to shift public subsidy on to supporting amateurs and community projects.’ ‘We are tempted to refuse our ACE grant and not spend so much time box-ticking’ Simple purpose has been replaced by a giant strategy paper, Let’s Create, which seems concerned with how ACE can insist on a policy of social

Has all the charisma of Chernobyl: Manchester’s Aviva Studios reviewed

There is a (possibly apocryphal) story about William Morris, where he spends most of his time in Paris inside the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant because ‘that is the only place where you can’t see the damned thing’. Aviva Studios risks a similar fate. Designed by architects OMA as the permanent performance venue for the Manchester International Festival and headquarters for its organisers, Factory International, it’s been savaged by critics and citizens alike for its ugliness. But not unlike the Eiffel Tower, it is from within that one can really witness the spectacles it has in store. ‘We designed the building from the inside out,’ John McGrath, Factory International’s artistic director and

Rod Liddle

A rather beautiful farewell to rock’n’roll: The Beatles’ ‘Now and Then’ reviewed

Grade: A The last song the Beatles ever recorded was called, appropriately enough, ‘The End’, on the Abbey Road album. As a consequence of digital sorcery, however, ‘Now and Then’ is the last song we will ever hear from them – a demo passed from John to Paul, dubbed over in the early 1990s by the (then) three surviving members and, more recently, unearthed and remastered. It does not sound very much like the Beatles; it is more akin to a mid-1970s John Lennon solo album song (think ‘#9 Dream’) but overseen by Paul McCartney – which in effect is kind of what it is. It’s a fine, lachrymose ballad