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Behzti (Dishonour) by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti - birmingham repertory theatre, 20/12/2004

simon gray - 2004-12-20, 01:34:09

I was hoping to be able to write a review of the young Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's playBehzti (Dishonour) playing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, but unfortunately I was unable to because it was cancelled before I had chance to see it. So this article is unfortunately going to be on the basis of 'what I've heard about it' rather than what I know to be the facts about it. 

The play is a black comedy set around a Sikh community, focussing on the relationship between Min, an unmarried woman ('past her prime') & Balbir, her sick mother. It was their first trip out together for some time. Min was hoping to meet up with a friend whose birthday it was, but Balbir had other ideas - a trip to their nearby temple. When Balbir meets old friends there a past shocking event is revealed... 

The shocking event in question is an act of murder & of sexual abuse which took place within the confines of the temple - & it was this aspect of the play which provoked such controversy. 

Members of the Sikh community in Birmingham felt this mocked Sikhism, & had been campaigning to have the play cancelled since before it started - in fact, the Rep, together with co-promoter of the play Sampad (the nationally respected South Asian arts agency based in Birmingham) & the writer had been in dialogue with the community since before it went into production. However, accomodations were not reached, especially the crucial request to change the setting from inside the temple to place it instead within a community hall, & since the play opened a peaceful protest had been taking place outside the theatre. 

This protest erupted into violence & rioting a few days into the run when over 400 protesters gathered in the currently cramped Centenary Square, & attempted to storm the theatre, also currently showing in the other house Roald Dahl's The Witches, a play for children. Over 800 people had to be evacuated, windows were smashed, security guards were attacked, & some demonstrators entered the backstage area & smashed equipment. As a result of this, the Rep has reluctantly cancelled the play on the grounds that it cannot guarantee the safety of members of staff & the general public. 

I have always been a passionate advocate of the principles of freedom of speech, & as a principle actually go as far as having the opinion that speech should in an ideal world be absolutely free. As a realist however, I accept that there do have to be some boundaries to that freedom - my free speech ends at the end of your nose, & I accept that speech which actively incites real violence has no place in a civilised society. I fully support the right of the people who were offended by this play to peacefully protest about it - but I also fully support the right of the theatre to perform the play & for the audience to see the play. I cannot support a situation where a mob is able to use violence to silence the voice of another, on any grounds whatsoever, & will always support the voice over the fist.

Parallels have been drawn with Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses. I read that book (it is a very gripping science fiction-esque story, with a slant of black humour in it itself), & with the very basic knowledge of Islam I have was able to see just what caused offence - but cannot see what might warrant the removal of it from the library shelves or the publisher's catalogue, let alone the removal of the author from the earth. I'm also reminded of the similar controversy which surrounded Martin Scorsese's 1988 production of The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus during his torture contemplates whether he really is following God's plan for himself & has a vision of what his life might be if he gives up his mission & settles down to a quiet life with Mary Magdalene (notwithstanding the claims made in the book The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail that he did just that). That film provoked similar violent scenes this time by Christian protesters, most of them having never seen it & unaware that it emphasised the humanity of Jesus in a way entirely keeping with Christian orthodoxy. 

The government is currently pushing through a controversial bill to criminalise religious hatred along similar lines to the existing laws against racial hatred, & some members of Birmingham's Sikh community felt this play (written by a Sikh herself) was an example of the kind of religious hatred this bill is intended to prohibit, though Sikhs as it happens are already protected under existing race relations legislation. Ostensibly to protect minority ethnic cultures, the bill, together with recent events in Birmingham, may well actually provoke far more hatred than it seeks to prevent, as reductio ad absurdam 'political correctness gone mad' arguments are brought up by the political right & as some members of some religions feel the law will feel they will be criminalised by expressing their own faiths - most holy books have passages in them which decry those who don't believe in them in terms which are far from loving, including the Bible & the Qu'ran - & as people who might normally be of a moderate opinion are driven further to the right on the basis of 'what they've heard' & not been able to hear the true facts. The government is right to legislate against acts of hatred, but it must do so very carefully - it should not do so in a way which risks provoking the very kind of hatred it claims to be wishing to prevent, & it should always allow room for people to criticise aspects of any religion which they feel are unwholesome. 

The test for the recent case in Birmingham might be, 'how might people feel if the play was set in a mosque, a Quaker meeting house, a synagogue, or a church' ? The play did not accuse all Sikh religious leaders of committing murder or sexual abuse as part of their faith, it highlighted the conspiracy of silence which can occur in close-knit communities. I think such highlighting is as valid & even essential whatever the colour of that community, & whatever it's faith.

#birmingham #reviews #censorship #theRep

In group Birmingham

Mitch Benn & the Distractions - the glee club, 26/11/2004

simon gray - 2004-11-26, 01:25:00

"Mitch Benn is one of the foremost exponents of musical comedy in the U.K." - so opens the biographical notes in the press material for his current UK tour. 

I'm always somewhat dubious when I see an artist's own publicity manager make such bold claims about their clients, but in the case of Mitch Benn, the statement is more than justified. 

Is he a stand-up comic, is he a singer/songwriter, is he an impressionist, is he a guitarist, is he a bandleader ? For most people, to be able to do one of those well is an acheivement in itself, but Benn is one of those rarities who can actually do all five at once, & do it excellently. 

For his performance at the Glee Club he was unable to provide his usual gimmick, that of an all-female backing band because unfortunately his usual drummer Tasha Baylis was ill that night. A stand-in (male) drummer was hastily recruited for the night, with apologies in advance just in case anything went wrong. Although it was quite sweet watching bass player Kirsty Newton clearly helping him out all evening, the apology was not required as he filled the role almost perfectly with only one minor fluff which was turned into part of the act anyway - a feat made all the more commendable considering the complexity of some of the songs. 

Most of the material from the evening was drawn from Benn's current album, too late to cancel, a mix of satire, parody, & straight comic song. Benn switches seamlessly between different genres - sometimes even within the same track in the case of the Interactive Comic Song Machine where musical genres are matched with comic ones, so you get slapstick in the style of James Brown, or one-liners in the style of U2. In the Please don't release this song, not only does the soundworld sound like a perfect clone of late period John Lennon (remarkable enough considering there are only three members of the band), but if you shut your eyes it could be the man himself singing it. 

Nothing is sacred - if you were a Smiths fan in the 80s (or even at all) taking yourself as seriously as all the Smiths fans I knew did, be prepared to be upset ready to flounce off inSmiths Phase; but no English graduate or fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company could fail to be impressed by The Tale of Macbeth in the style of Eminem.

Benn himself loathes pretentiousness, & the performance was entirely unpretentious - no big entrances, no poncey stages costumes, & no rushing off backstage immediately at the end of the show led to an evening which very much made the audience feel they'd gone round to a mate's house to listen to his band play a few songs & tell a few stories rather than the all-too-often situation of going to a gig by somebody who considers themself a rock legend. 

Whenever I go to a concert I always like to pay a bit of attention to the audience as well as the band, to see what they are made up of; Benn put it best himself saying "I see I've got the usual eclectic mix of bewildered Radio Four listeners, representitives from 'da kidz', & rapidly ageing thirtysomethings". I myself fit into two out of those three categories... 

The show closed with what seems to be rapidly becoming an anthem in itself - Let's have a minutes noise for John, Benn's aposite tribute to John Peel first heard on Radio Four's The Now Show. All in all, an excellent night out - but if you've not bought the album yet I would recommend leaving it until after you've had chance to see it live. 

My last comment is on the venue itself: strangely, it's the first time I've been to the Glee Club, & I can't say enough how impressed I was what a thoroughly friendly place it is, from the bouncers to the box office staff to the bar staff, all with smiles on their faces as you enter & speaking to you as if both you & they are normal human beings; a far cry from what I've got used to of walking into other places feeling like I'm being treated like a troublemaker before I've even got through the door. I look forward to going again. 

Further information: www.mitchbenn.com

#birmingham #reviews #GleeClub

In group Birmingham

the australian pink floyd - symphony hall, 02/10/2003

simon gray - 2003-10-02, 01:21:03

Just before the show started my colleague recounted an anecdote from an old Pink Floyd interview – “The time will come one day with technology when we’ll be able to just set the equipment up, press a button, & go. In fact the time will come when we’ll be able to send another four people out to do the gig instead of us!”. I don’t think when they said that they envisaged the modern day popularity of tribute bands... 

I’m not sure I really ‘get’ tribute bands; OK, we’ve all been there, from sitting in the music shop with the guitar we can’t afford to buy playing the opening bars of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (or ‘Purple Haze’ if you’re of a different bent), through to your first few bands from school and college playing mostly other peoples’ songs. But when you’ve developed your ability a bit, you start exploring your creative talents into your own material. So if you have the talent to play another band’s songs so well, why not play your own? 

But on to the gig; the first thing I noticed was that the Aussie Floyd seem to have a bit of a following of their own, with plenty of people walking around with t-shirts sporting pink kangaroos & beams of light refracting through a glass map of Australia. There were a few seats left inside Symphony Hall empty, but it was as near to full as makes no odds which made for a good atmosphere, & compared to Earl’s Court where you might expect the real thing to play turns it into quite an intimate venue, considering. 

The band opened with Wish You Were Here, and I was immediately impressed with the sound the band made together. And just like a real Floyd show, there was a circular bit of scaffolding with a screen behind it onto which animations were projected – with the occasional kangaroo replacing a hammer head or whatever. No lasers, but the spotlights through the smoke-haze I tend to find more interesting anyway. Plenty of strobes abound (& particularly evil putting it on the mirror ball during the encore) – possibly exceeding health & safety guidelines, but imagine how dull a rock concert would be if it complied completely with health & safety guidelines.

Moving on through the rest of the first half, I think I could say ‘mostly good’. The Wish You Were Here material seemed to work the best, & on reflection I think the reason for this is that it was mostly instrumental – some of the singing could be described as OK, but frankly some of it was a lot less than that, to the extent that employing a separate singer & giving him a guitar to pretend to play would have been a good idea; though that said the bass player managed to have difficulty getting some of the notes in The Fletcher Memorial Home quite authentically. The full spectrum of Floyd’s era was covered ranging from Astronomy Domine through One Of These Days, which for a supposed note-for-note recreation missed out the crucial quote from the Doctor Who theme tune, up to The Division Bell. The post-Waters Floyd songs were a bit tedious, but then I’m reliably informed the real thing gets tedious at that point as well. 

The second half was a different matter; we were presented with a complete performance of The Dark Side of the Moon (go on, admit it – you’re saying how seminal it was, but 30 years on just when was the last time you listened to it?) which my colleague, a Floyd expert with a number of books under his belt, described as ‘spooky’. The pace was a little rushed at first, but soon settled down, & became a most excellent performance. DSOTM should always be performed as one complete work rather than songs from it, I always feel, because it’s the only way you can get the true spine-tingling effects. For an encores we were treated to Comfortably Numb, which was also truly excellent. 

Was it Floyd? Well, despite the quotes from other press reviewers, no it well & truly wasn’t, especially at a ticket price approaching what you’ld expect for the real thing. But it’s all a matter of expectation really – do you go to a symphony orchestra concert & expect to see Beethoven himself raised from the dead at the conducting stand, or do expect Sakari Oramo to reinterpret it? If you go into it with the latter point of view you’ll have a good time, with a fraction of the equipment Aussie Floyd do put on a cracking show, but if you want to see the real Floyd, go see the real Floyd. 

#birmingham #reviews #SymphonyHall

In group Birmingham

psychemodo - flapper and firkin, 17/08/2003

simon gray - 2003-08-17, 01:15:05

it's been a long time since i've been to a gig at the flapper - about five years ago, when the band i used to engineer for ended its monday night residency. i couldn't have ended my flapper drought with a better night ! 

according to their website at www.phuncrecords.comPsychemodo are a Midlands-based rock band... equally at home with plaintive melodies and kick-ass riffs. They have already been likened to bands as diverse as XTC, Ultrasound, The Flaming Lips and Foo Fighters. after last night's gig i'd be inclined to add 'the who' to the list of dignitaries (some of the sounds being a bit reminiscent of quadrophenia) & bar-room jazz to the list of skills. 

psychemodo have been going for about a year, starting off mainly as a covers band, but they've been quietly working on some original material of their own for the last nine months, & this was its first outing - they well & truly proved themselves with it, & i look forward to hearing more. songs which are real stories & proper compositions rather than intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-guitar-solo-on-the-fadeout - although they sound like neither, if you like what pulp or the divine comedy do you'll like psychemodo. 

i tend to like my guitar bands loud & grungey rather than 'clean; i also like loud bands who also know when it's good to play quiet bits as well - & i got what i like for sure ! 

due to... 'technical difficulties' the traditional support band was replaced by a stand-up comedian (whose name i'm sorry to have forgotten). although you don't normally get cabaret with a rock band i thought the two complemented each other well; a couple of jokes i thought a bit risky, a couple of points where he'd forgotten where he was up to - but i'd rather comedians offend me so long as it's genuinely funny than have the kind of blandness you get in safer venues. rather than apologising for it i think the two should work together more often, & make a feature of it. 

for a band who've only been together for a year, they are amazingly tight - starting & finishing together so you can hear the reverb & not having four clicks on the drum sticks is always more impressive than the alternative. sadly their drummer is set to emigrate early next year, so i hope they find somebody else as good to replace him soon. 

one area it would be good for them to work on a bit more is stagecraft, though - as somebody once said once, "never apologise, never explain", & on stage doubly so. guitar strings always have the annoying habit of breaking in a gig & not in rehearsal, & guitars get out of tune as a matter of course - we in the audience like to hear the anecdotes whilst you fix it, but don't need to be made to think you've screwed up (especially when you haven't), so there's no need to make us think you have; the confidence shows through in the music, so carry it through everywhere else as well ! but all this takes is more gigging experience, which will come. 

they've got a four track ep for sale on their website, & it's well worth the three quid. in short, a band who should be going places !

#birmingham #reviews #flapper

In group Birmingham

ghosts of the abyss - imax, millennium point, 17/08/2003

simon gray - 2003-08-17, 00:54:01

this was my first visit to millennium point, which considering it has been open for just over two years now is quite telling - but more on that later. 

ghost of the abyss is a documentary by james cameron taking us back to the site of the rms titanic, scene of his 1997 oscar winning success, shot in imax 3d. if you've got any prejudices about any of those aspects of it - think again. 3d cinematography has come an awfully long way since those terrible films of the 50s where the red & green tinted aliens loomed into your lap, & imax as a cinema format is considerably more than 'just a big screen'. 

the publicity blurb (& the somewhat cold-ridden announcer...) goes to great pains to tell you it "immerses you & pulls you right into the centre of the action". "yeah, right" was my admittedly cynical initial reaction, but that was blown away the instant the adverts finished & we moved into the trailers - it might sound like marketing guff, but it's actually genuinely true; you as an individual really are literally put right into the middle of things rather than a member of an audience watching them play out on a screen 50 feet away ! there's the inevitable cheesy 3d-for-the-sake-of-it effect of a robot arm grabbing menacingly three inches from your nose, but for the most part it is highly tasteful, the idea being to give you the experience of being a member of the dive crew yourself rather than being a bystander, whether exploring the ship's wreck or sat in the office round a table discussing the plan. do be warned though if you're somewhat claustrophobic - the scenes in the submersible emphasise just how little space there is inside in a way even an hour squatting in the cupboard under the stairs could not convey. there were actually one or two shots which were slightly uncomfortably close to you, which could just as well for the point they were making be a few feet further back. 

although documentary has a strong pedigree in the cinema, somehow it's never really occurred to me as something to go to as an evening out to the pictures; even the excellent bowling for columbine was one i preferred to watch on dvd at home rather than going out to see.

this is where imax 3d comes into its own, because although you do indeed get the same pictures on your telly, such would be a poor fourth class substitute for literally being there. although critically aclaimed, james cameron took a fair amount of flack for mixing the the history of the titanic disaster up with a mere play, so with ghosts of the abyss he well & truly redresses the balance - this isn't a jolly jaunt down to the sea bed to get a few snaps, this is a proper scientific dive in order to research & document an historic archeological site, the detail is tremendous, with the stories & the heroism of the real people involved woven in to give you a hook to hang your coat off. & for those who still need a bit of drama in their cinema, there's even a real life search & rescue event near the end to keep you on the edge of your seat ! 

so, back to millennium point - people, you've really got to get your publicity act together a bit more in order to pursuade people to go down there, & i mean more than just lots of posters & hanging penants scattered over the place. i went down on both saturday & sunday afternoons, hot august days at the height of the tourist season, & the place was deserted - i would have expected it to have been heaving. of course, the location can't help, as you have to walk down into the less salubrious edge of the city centre to get there (& know exactly where to walk to). hopefully once the masshouse circus redevelopment is finished it will become more seemlessly part of the passing trade, but that's a long way off & still no guarantee - in the meantime you've got to not only tell people you exist but really emphasise just how people can benefit from going there in a more tangible way than 'it'll blow your mind'. 

& to the people of birmingham - having an imax cinema in your town is very much a rare privilege which few people outside of capital cities get the benefit of, which you very much don't know what you've missed until you've experienced it. as the old cliche goes, use it or lose it !

#birmingham #reviews #MillenniumPoint

In group Birmingham

grand union orchestra - the call of paradise - symphony hall, 11/11/2002

simon gray - 2002-11-11, 00:48:13

n a nutshell, far too many people missed what was definitely one of the best jazz-world concerts the city has seen for a good few years. 

since those first experiments in the 60s, a number of people have worked on the fusion of different musical cultures in the small band setting, mostly with some success even if often a little derivative. the grand union orchestra have succeeded in doing so as a big band with a flair which in a just world would earn them at least a page in any half-decent history book on the development of contemporary music ! 

the work they are currently touring is 'the call of paradise' (by leader tony haynes), taking much of its vocal texts from various diverse religious sources. it describes itself as 'a kind of musical journey - but through emotions rather than a literal one', & as well as showing us how religion is linked to much of the world history's misery & violence also reminds us of its inspiration of so much beauty, using texts which speak of love & devotion as well as of warfare & hate - opening with a passage from the old testament's 'song of solomon' (or 'song of songs'); if you thought the bible had a bit of a downer on love & sex, think again & go & read that passage ! 

the music well knew when to do the 'fusion bit', & also when not to - the big band sound worked well, & in moving into the quieter, more straight-ahead sections the tabla was integral & essential - & if you didn't know otherwise, you could be forgiven for thinking that a saxophone is just as much a traditional indian instrument as the sitar, it blended so eloquently.

the second part of the concert was what a cynic might describe as 'the community music bit', with grand union being joined on stage by the birmingham conservatoire jazz orchestra, the vocal ensemble aa'shiq al-rasul performing qawali inspired by sufi mysticism, basil gabbidon & friends, & the babatunde live african drumming group.

throw your cynicism in the bin, because every one of these groups were worth a concert in their own right. each one of the groups showed us what they could do on their own, as well as the whole stage being united in performing together for a couple of pieces - which was remarkable enough even if you didn't stop to think about how little opportunity for full rehearsal together they must have all had. i was disappointed to not see any birmingham conservatoire staff in the audience - not only would it have been nice for them to have been supporting their students give an outstanding performance, but they might have learned something themselves from the experience... 

the only niggles i had about the show was a sense of unbalance - the first half was much longer than the second half (indeed, the length of a full concert in itself); my feeling was 10 minutes could have been shaved off the main work & it would have still have said what it needed to say & made the programme more balanced. also, the end of the first half was a bit of an anticlimactic "oh, has it finished then ?" - the closing contemplative sitar could have been a few minutes longer to wind us down better, i thought, & maybe actually having the two halves of the show swapped around. but these really are niggles on an otherwise outstanding performance ! 

there were far too many empty seats in symphony hall for this concert - make sure you're there next time they tour, & in the meanwhile, go & buy the cd's from the website !

#birmingham #reviews #SymphonyHall

In group Birmingham

The Divine Comedy - Birmingham Academy, 30/09/2002

simon gray - 2002-09-30, 00:42:37

'courageous' is probably the best adjective to describe the divine comedy. 

where many other successful british bands seem to be content to rest on their success & stick to a nice safe line-up playing the same nice safe songs in the same nice safe style, the divine comedy can always be guaranteed to take risks, to keep their listeners on their toes, & to rarely play safe neither with line-up, set list, nor sound. 

indeed, i've always considered them to be very much just as much a "musician's & poet's" band as an "audience's" band - if you're a musician & you're neither inspired by them to keep at it nor so blown away you want to give up, you're not really a musician; & likewise, if you're a poet & aren't moved by neil hannon's lyrics, your very soul itself must have been stolen. 

tdc's gig at the academy last night was, in the taking risks department, no exception. but.. erm... i'm sad to say it, but i don't think they shone as much as they should have done. sure, neil as lead singer rather than taking the traditional ego-position in the centre spent much of the gig at the side of the stage, simon played double bass rather than bass guitar for i think the whole gig, & rob had his drumkit on the opposite side rather than on a riser at the back - 'rock ensemble' might be a better description than 'rock band' ! 

i spent much of the evening with the nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right. were the musicians themselves bored ? no, once i'd got closer to the stage i could see from their faces that they were surely enjoying themselves as much as they must have done the first time they played together. was i put off by the number of people behind me who spent most of the gig jabbering loudly rather than listening ? well yes, but that wasn't really it. was it the sound spoiling it ? true it didn't help; you could properly hear neither neil's conversation between songs, nor the lyrics of the songs themselves - which, for tdc, is much more fundamental to 'the point' than most bands. but that wasn't really the problem either.

they started off well - few bands can open a gig with a purely instrumental track ('here comes the flood') & get away with it, & they got away with. second up was 'national express' - the song so well known that all the 'missing' parts were filled in so well by the crowd that you wouldn't have realised it was just a quartet on stage ! 'charge' was so-so, but it was 'alfie' which i think worked the least well - it actually sounded more like a band doing a cover of a divine comedy song than tdc themselves. & 'sunrise', arguably one of the most moving songs there are, just completely fell flat due to being unable to make out a single word. 

the poppy songs, such as 'national express', 'the happy goth', 'bernice bobs her hair' (which had ben folds, who was the support act, join in on drums), & 'a drinking song' did come over the best, but much of the rest was sadly lost in the crowd. ironically, i think perhaps the best performance came in the encore with neil & ben doing a duet of 'raindrops keep falling on my head' ! 

by the end i realised what was wrong - it was just the wrong venue for the band to show themselves off in. had they had an orchestral backing, symphony hall would have been the ideal location, but this line-up would probably have been lost in there too; really, with such an intimate ensemble, they really needed to have been playing in an intimate venue such as the adrian boult hall, or the midland arts centre theatre - but there you find the problem all successful 'thinking' bands get sooner or later, of outgrowing the size of venue they should play in purely because of the number of people who want to see them. "a great gig, struggling to get out" is perhaps the phrase which best sums up the night.

#birmingham #reviews #BirminghamAcademyIn group Birmingham

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