Kooza, Cirque du Soleil Premiere, Royal Albert Hall

Sitting in the great Royal Albert Hall on 8th January with Jeremy Clarkson on my right, Darcy Bussell on my left and Holly Valance (avec Candy Bro Beau) behind,  I felt sure that I had the hottest ticket in London. Next morning I was reassured further by my mother’s reports from the Daily Mail website… celebrities turned up in their masses to the Cirque du Soleil premiere… well why would you turn down a golden ticket to see the greatest circus show in the world?

Kooza is a story of opposites: love and hate, life and death, fear and wonder. Loosely based around the world of a clown, the narrative begins and ends with notions of innocence and trickery. Like most of the Cirque shows, the storyline is enigmatic and rather nonsensical and soon becomes lost. In fact it is impossible to focus on anything logical when your eyes and ears are so involved in the acts on stage, praying silently they’ll survive the next jump.

As ever the production is beautifully realised, perfectly poetic and looks magically surreal from start to finish. They create another world that feels so far removed from everyday life, and gives every audience member a few hours of euphoric escapism. Music is played live on stage by an energetic band of musicians, adding to the dramatic climaxes. The Royal Albert Hall provides an epic canvas for the production and the stage has been customised wonderfully to allow for the extensive set design. Stephane Roy evokes memories of colourful carnivals and circuses of yesteryear, claiming it is “a genuine return to the roots of Cirque du Soleil”.

There is a good mix of talents exhibited in Zooza with the familiar ‘circus’ traditions all displayed through the acts: mind-bogglingly strange contortionists, a daring trapeze artist and miraculous tightrope walkers/ cyclists/ dancers. The clowning around became a little tiresome, especially at the start while we waited for the final arrivals from the red carpet to take their seats. When you consider the virtuosic gymnastics, it is hardly surprising that the comical acts pale in comparison.

The most electrifying act of the show is undoubtedly the huge ‘wheel of death’. A staggering, scary, revolving metal contraption balanced and set in motion by two incredibly brave men. As one runs faster the other jumps, twists and clings to the spinning wheel, seemingly moments away from a distrastrous fall. The crowd gasped and I felt my palms grow sweaty and my throat dry as each turn increased in difficulty and danger. I loved the final Teeterboard act too. A talented group of performers take it in turns to catapult from a giant seesaw, hurtling up into the air, sometimes with precarious stilts attached to their feet, they land immaculately after numerous flips and turns.

Cirque du Soleil continues to push the boundaries of human capability with yet another hit show of fantasy, thrills and breathtaking acrobatics, all whilst creating a display that is visually inspiring and musically exquisite. I never fail to be amazed by this impossibly brilliant company. Bravo.

Kooza continues until 14th February, more information and buy tickets here.

Prom 70: Desert Island Discs 70th Anniversary, Royal Albert Hall

I try to attend at least one night of the Proms each year… this annual festival of music is one of the many things that makes London so special in the summertime. The line-up this year featured a glorious list of high calibre performers and delicious programming. On September 3rd fans and followers of Desert Island Discs assembled in the great Albert Hall to listen to an evening of the famous radio show’s most popular castaway choices.

Most people have some kind of affection for Desert Island Discs. The show is a permanent Sunday morning fixture in my family household, and it truly makes me smile, wince or weep every weekend. Kirsty Young manages to successfully extract touching stories alongside an album of beloved tracks from the world’s most familiar names. The show is unique as it is purely for enjoyment with no endorsements or advertising for the guests, no one gets paid instead it is an honour to be invited on the show. I always thought, when I was younger, that the ultimate dream was to be successful enough to be on Desert Island Discs, only then have you really ‘made it’ in your field!

The audience were treated to a star studded evening of guest appearances and Desert Island favourites. Shipwrecked celebrities included Darcy Bussell, David Attenborough, Sir Michael Parkinson, and Patricia Routledge. Each voicing their passion for music, recalling memories and chatting to presenter Kirsty Young. We listened to classic pieces like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, tracks which have been chosen frequently on the show.

The compilation was played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by the energetic and joyful Keith Lockhart. The orchestra played with compassion, effortlessly excelling in every style of music. Soloists included the stunningly voiced Ailish Tynan who sung two Puccini arias exquisitely, and virtuosic pianist Peter Donohoe who illustrated complete command over the instrument and played with a relaxed and confident tone.

As an added bonus for the night, we welcomed Bryn Terfel as a last minute performer; due to illness Sir Willard White had to drop out. He was a witty addition to the night, singing Coleridge-Taylor’s scenes from ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ filling the auditorium with his rich and captivating voice. The night finished with the jubilant world premiere of ‘Desert Island Hits’ and Coates’ ‘The Dam Busters’.

Unlike most Prom evenings, the selection of music was not specialist, instead we listened to a diverse collection of compositions from every era. It was the best way to celebrate this wonderful radio show’s 70th anniversary and to remember it’s incredible legacy.


Aida, Royal Albert Hall

Verdi’s Aida is epic in every way and requires a grand production to do the story justice. The Royal Albert Hall is the ideal venue for this large scale work, Raymond Gubbay is currently presenting a glorious staging in the round. I have never seen Aida before, but learnt a little about this famous opera at University in a Verdi module and remember wondering at its grandeur then. Set in Ancient Egypt, this is not an easy production to create visually but set and costume designer Isabella Bywater has done a remarkable job with an evocative backdrop behind the orchestra and a dusty archaeological site covering the stage.

This is a typical Gubbay performance (I sang in several at RAH as a child): atmospheric, dramatic and exciting, making full use of the huge amphitheatre, with characters running through the audience from every entrance, choruses singing up in the Gods, and various props lowered from the ceiling. It is an extraordinary spectacle, the nonstop action makes it utterly thrilling. The production feels strangely foreign and I couldn’t quite figure out why: the concert hall setting? the massive cast? or most likely, the obvious amplification. With the singers all mic-ed up, it feels like the show is being filmed and relayed to a digital audience. It unfortunately removes the viewer slightly from the immediacy of it all.

The cast is huge, and the lead characters are triple cast to avoid over-stretching the star singers. I watched Indra Thomas as Aida, she looks beautiful in a green gown but I was sadly disappointed with her over-acting and under-singing. Her voice is wispy round the edges, vague and indirect, and though she did warm up during the show she wasn’t very believable as the story’s heroine. Aside from that slight reservation, the cast is wholly impressive… Tiziana Carraro gives a stunning performance as the bitter and jealous Amneris and Marc Heller is strong and heroic as Radames. I was particularly impressed by David Kempster who plays Aida’s father: he has a rich and lyrical voice, a joy to listen to, and he acts well too, bringing a sensitive aspect to the role especially when he sings to his daughter while imprisoned.

This production of Aida is overwhelmingly powerful. Act I Scene II in the Temple is particularly enchanting, the large hooded chorus assemble singing a cappella in close harmony, it is a magical moment that stuck with me long after the show had finished. Although I could find minor faults with this production, the night of entertainment will be remembered as one of the most hypnotizing shows I have ever seen.

Aida continues until March 11th, book here.