Tag Archives: music

London Slant: What’s inside London’s three new cultural caskets?

It’s a year since a red inverted table called The Shed appeared at London’s Southbank. This temporary theatre’s first play, appropriately set around a table passed down through generations of a family, kicked off a string of full-house hits. Now this rough timber building with a fringe vibe has had its planning licence extended until 2017. Could it end up a permanent landmark alongside its neighbouring once-temporary structure, the London Eye? As a showcase for edgy works that are tapping a new, younger audience, there seems no reason why it shouldn’t run and run.

The Shed, National Theatre, London's South Bank

Extended run: The Shed at London’s Southbank Centre frames St Paul’s.

It’s just one of three timber boxes that have freshly sprouted in London’s cultural hubs. A short amble along the Thames leads to another fizzing theatre: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s also been packing ’em in since Bond girl Gemma Arterton took to the stage as the Duchess of Malfi a few months back.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

The gorgeous candlelit interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe.

This intimate “jewel box” is a real feast for the senses. You don’t just wander in and sit down. You wait until invited to make your entrance: just stepping inside is a piece of theatre in itself. The scent of the hand-crafted oak auditorium wafts over you as you step among flickering beeswax candles, the only source of light. Then, as your eyes adjust to the dim glow they wander from the richly patterned backdrop up to the ceiling, a celestial scene of cherubs among clouds.

On the occasion of my audience with The Duchess, I took my seat as strolling minstrels in Elizabethan garb appeared onstage playing viols and lutes. Then came figures in fabulous ruffs and pantaloons bearing tapers. Chandeliers came spiralling down from the ceiling which they lit with great bravura to enthusiastic applause. Now it was time for the performance to begin.

Sam Wanamaker ceiling

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ceiling, lit by candles in revolving chandeliers.

If the Sam Wanamaker has been designed to reflect a true Jacobean-era night out, right down to its bum-numbing benches, the opposite is true at the high-tech Milton Court Concert Hall. The Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s new performance space boasts indulgently bum-hugging seats. From its light-flooded glass lobby with a Martin Creed artwork to its white ceiling and walls, this 600-capacity hall feels fresh yet surprisingly intimate. And yes, it too features masses of wood—in this case sapele, a native African cousin of mahogany often used to make musical instruments. The acoustics are superb.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London

The intimate Milton Court Concert Hall.

The Hall hosts concerts by the school’s musicians alongside performances by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Britten Sinfonia, bookable through the adjacent Barbican Centre. It’s part of a complex that also include two new theatres, which I’ve yet to sample but could well take my tally of beautiful new boxes to five.


Photography: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse by Pete Le May; Milton Court Concert Hall by Morley von Sternberg



This summer two “blockbuster” London exhibitions go head to head. In the first corner we have Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum. Opposite, across town at the V&A, we have David Bowie is…


This season’s must-have coffee table ornaments: catalogues for David Bowie is… and Pompeii and Herculaneum

With 67,000 tickets pre-booked, Bowie has attracted more advance sales than any previous V&A show. Pompeii, which one reviewer even compared to the landmark 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition, has gone a step further with nearly 72,000 enthusiasts reserving slots before the opening day. What is it that’s got everyone scrambling to get in?

At first glance the two shows couldn’t be more different: the elegant, exquisitely presented British Museum exhibition versus Jean Genie and Rebel, Rebel pumping through headphones at the V&A.

But hang on a minute…

Going to the Pompeii show is like being invited to dinner at a Roman house minutes before Vesuvius starts to spew. Many of the exhibits are so intimate—a child’s wooden cradle charred by the heat, a table arrayed with trinkets to impress guests, a flask of the condiment du jour, fish sauce—you feel an instant bond with these people even though they lived in AD79. With the notable exception of a container to breed dormice for the cooking pot, the exhibits constantly remind you of how their lives resemble ours.

David Bowie

Origins of a legend: where Ziggy Stardust began.

The Bowie exhibition, too, is a walk-in scrapbook of minutiae that build into a living portrait of a time past. We have the pieces of paper that he scrawled his lyrics on and even a tissue with lipstick blotted from his lips. Of course there are the gorgeous costumes and enough high art (Die Brüke, Warhol and Gilbert and George) to elevate the show above the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. But I won’t forget the crowd of balding heads just inside the entrance completely spaced out by a video of Bowie playing Major Tom beneath a television shaped like a sputnik and an image of the moon. This is a snapshot of an era. And they were there.

Both shows still have months to run. You’ve seen the advance booking figures, but who will come out tops in the end? If the two venues want to really see visitor numbers skyrocket the British Museum could host evenings of drinks in the fabulous Roman garden they’ve created. (How about serving the favourite Pompeiian tipple of watered-down wine—perfect for these straitened times?) Meanwhile the V&A could deploy its Sennheiser headphones to run a silent disco among the vast screens pulsing with the Spiders from Mars.

Count me in.


Who needs the hassle of long haul travel when you live in London? You can just sit put and let the world come to you. I certainly felt as though I was in Bali at a concert of the island’s music and dance the other night.

London gamelan

Dancer moves to the rhythm of the Balinese gamelan.

I might have been sitting in St Luke’s church near Old Street tube, but in my mind it was years ago when I visited a temple in Bali’s central hills. Then, devotees in elaborate costumes performed rituals against a backdrop of emerald rice paddies. But what I most remember was the music. A gamelan orchestra of xylophone-like instruments and gongs played hypnotic, flowing sequences of rippling notes.

I’ve remained on red alert for gamelan music ever since.  And, I’ve discovered, you can find it all over London, from the South Bank to the Horniman Museum. I was listening to the LSO St Luke’s Community Gamelan Group. Anyone is welcome to join their Monday evening practice sessions to learn how to play. Plus they regularly put on performances to sell-out crowds.

Last Friday evening St Luke’s was joined by Lila Cita, the UK’s leading Balinese gamelan group. The two teams of musicians came together in a lively concert that powered along at a lick.

The scene was set with ranks of elaborate gold and scarlet metallophones ready to ring out when struck by shark’s tooth hammers. To either side were glittering parasols and giant gongs. On came the performers: men and women in sarongs, crimson military-style jackets and blouses, with flowers in their hair. The drums struck up and they launched into cascading, classical pieces like Golden Rain. These mixed with more challenging contemporary pieces such as Short Ride in a Fast Machine, an exciting arrangement of John Adams’ 1986 composition for a western symphony orchestra.

London gamelan

A fascinating instrument: an exotic creature with red pom-pom cymbals on its back.

Then came the dancers, in their shimmering brocades. First on was 7-year-old Maya Channing, tap-dancing for her first time in public as she elegantly enacted the misadventures of a naughty Balinese pig. Next were ceremonial dances by sinuous ladies and ferocious-looking men.

London gamelan

Men perform a martial arts dance.

By now the gamelan had drifted into the background, letting the performers take centre stage. I enjoyed its gently tumbling notes as much as the earlier, more distinctive set pieces. It brought back the temple music in Bali that was played as an accompaniment to offerings to the gods.

*Watch out for more performances coming up at St Luke’s and by Lila Cita. If you’re reading this at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, the evening’s programme noted that one of the performers is running gamelan projects in UK prisons.


If Africa Express got me worried about the future of “world music”, Kutumba had me smiling once again. This superb band from Kathmandu takes traditional Nepalese music and makes it their (totally modern) own.

Invitations to their performance at Covent Garden’s Actor’s Church had stated “English time”, but the band’s arrival on stage 3/4 hours late heralded an evening that was Nepali through and through.

They started off with their own compositions, adding a wonderfully contemporary twist to centuries-old sounds. New numbers like “Yak” really conjured up the ponderous animal lumbering through distant hills. The trilling flute was magical, the pulsing drums exciting and I loved the plaintive violin-like stringed instrument, the tungna, which I encountered here for the first time. Huge applause followed from the largely 20-something audience of Nepalese lads and girls.

But then – a surprise.

The band announced that they would now play some folk tunes – and the audience erupted in cheers. Clutches of friends stormed the stage and others rushed down to dance at the front. By the end of the evening we were all up on our feet, writhing around in the distinctive coiling movements – one hand on hip, the other up in the air – that characterise Nepali dance.

Last time I’d done this it was in Kathmandu, among ladies in long black skirts edged in red, with flowers in their hair. This time it was with girls in micro skirts and Ugg boots. Somehow it seemed exactly right, and wonderful to know that traditional Kathmandu culture continues to thrive so far from the Himalayan snows.



What a great idea. A private train trundles around the UK, taking African and British musicians to different venues. Not only does it carry some of the countries’ top performers to concert halls up and down the land, but it stops at station platforms for impromptu jams. Then, at the end of the tour, it brings them to London’s King’s Cross for one big, farewell show….

The grand finale event began at around 6pm and I was there, ready to get into the groove. On stage came the flamboyant Fatoumata, Amadou and Paul McCartney, all providing a very different take on the guitar. I wondered whether 25 years ago any of the stars had ever imagined Sir Paul in their back up band, standing well behind them, strumming bass.

There were some great moments—especially when honey-voiced Rokia Traore came centre stage with her guitar. Bassekou Kouyate and Baaba Maal were other greats.

But as the evening wore on, electric sounds took over, and even began to grate. Where were the gentle, rippling melodies of the kora and ngoni? Why were all the traditional instruments often inaudible among the head-banging acid house beats?

Fusion at its best can take elements of different cultures up to a higher realm. But let’s not overwhelm African instruments with non-stop Western thrust. In the end I tired of straining to hear Africa make its presence felt. I left hoping that the vogue for “world music” won’t inadvertently result in drowning out traditional sounds.