I’ve moved!

I recently decided to merge a couple of my blogs to make things a bit easier for myself. You’ll now find all the cultureLEEDS posts plus more on art, theatre, dance, books and food over at their new home, Leeds&me.

See you over there soon, I hope!


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Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby at Leeds Grand Theatre


Gatsby has never been a character I especially get on with: I find him weak, dull and obscure. I know F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is a classic and a favourite book for many, but the great unrequited love and the life spent trying to get closer to a lost woman doesn’t really do much for an unromantic pragmatist like me.

What the book does well though, is paint a teasing picture of the twenties, hinting at silks and pearls and champagne and swimming pools and mansions, leaving me lost in reveries of fabulous parties and all night dancing. I hoped that this Northern Ballet production of Gatsby would help to recreate that feeling and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The costumes in particular are gorgeous. Gatsby sports an impeccably tailored cream suit that looks closely fitted but allows for an astonishing range of movement, while Daisy graces the stage in a series of fantastic beaded, floaty or feathered drop-waisted dresses. The party scenes are all I could ever dream of: raucous, riotous, crowded, sexy and fun.

Gatsby isn’t the most simple of stories to tell and I was unsurprised to hear a few people around us googling the storyline in the interval. Despite being fairly familiar with the book I struggled a little, and thought it could have done with pruning down a little to keep the key themes cleaner and clearer. Still, the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy is beautifully done and leads to two incredible duets. Tobias Batley as Gatsby is good (although perhaps lacking a little vulnerability), but Martha Leebolt as Daisy is mesmerising. She plays the rebellious socialite perfectly, and the control she has over her body is astonishing to a ballet newbie like myself. I didn’t appreciate it at first, but when I saw her skid across the stage then stop abruptly en pointe, calf muscles taut and body erect, my jaw almost hit the floor. I can’t even imagine the physical condition she has to maintain to pull off moves like that! Other highlights were the burly Kenneth Tindall as jocular Tom, and Benjamin Mitchell as the spurned George Wilson, who pulls off some impressive moves with a car tyre (it’s ballet folks, but not as we know it).

You’ve only got a few more days to go see this, but I’d highly recommend it. Make sure you have at least a passing familiarity with the story before you go, to make sure you enjoy it as much as possible.

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Opera North’s Otello at Leeds Grand Theatre

Ronald Samm as Otello and David Kempster as Iago. Photo by Clive Barda

Ronald Samm as Otello and David Kempster as Iago. Photo by Clive Barda

Well, lately I’ve been a pretty shoddy blogger. Since I changed jobs, I find that working evenings and weekends is incredibly prohibitive when it comes to covering the kind of things I love to write about. There’s also a temptation to relish my few evenings in, especially over winter, by shutting myself in the flat with the heating on full and a stack of books. But, when Emma, aka the Culture Vulture tweeted about the event she was running in conjunction with Opera North for bloggers to see their production of Otello, which was on my night off, I forced myself to sign up.

I’ve dabbled in opera before, having  attended a night of opera duets, which I loved, and a new opera that I wasn’t so keen on. This was my first full length, ‘classic’ opera, and if I’m honest I completely loved it. Everyone I spoke from the PR at Opera North to the lady I was sat next to for the performance said it was the perfect opera for a beginner and I agree. Because I knew the story, I didn’t have to focus too much on the subtitles (which can be distracting, and sometimes read a little strangely after translation) and I could enjoy the music, which was gorgeous.

The opening act is huge, with about thirty performers on stage, blending their voices to create a wall of sound that’s beautifully controlled. The second and third acts see Iago capitalising on every possible opportunity to act upon his scheme to drive Othello crazy and usurp his power. They’re full of intense solos that perfectly capture the character’s mood, as well as a few confrontations that were acted as well as they were sang. The fourth and final act was a complete contrast to the first, featuring Desdemona, alone in her marital bed, singing a heartbreaking song that her mother’s servant used to sing after she was abandoned by her lover, praying, and then being confronted and killed by Otello. These final scenes were an absolute highlight and so moving that I did find myself blinking really hard.

At the time I felt I’d enjoyed the performance, but not exactly been wowed by it. As time has progressed, though, I’ve found myself dwelling on it a lot, and realised I really loved the experience. I loved the way the story was compressed but still full of emotion and narrative, and the gorgeous staging really helped. I actually thought this was more accessible than watching a Shakespeare play, thanks to the plain English subtitles and streamlined plot. I’d liken it to a good film adaptation of a book – tailored perfectly to the medium, taking the key scenes that will work best in opera and making the most of them.

I’d absolutely recommend Otello to anyone who thinks they might be interested, as I had a fantastic time and can’t wait for my next Opera North production. I’m thinking it might be their upcoming double bill of Dido and Aeneas/La Voix Humaine which looks fab!

Here are opinions from a few other of the attendees from the blogger event, if you fancy reading a few different views:

@junrussell: ‘It started with a bang and ended in tears.’

@emglobetrotter: ‘I felt myself literally on the edge of my seat’

@craftyblueberry: ‘would I go to the opera again? I’m quite surprised to find that yes, I would’

@jon_cronshaw: ‘something really needs to be done about the shushers and the tutters’

@leedsjourno: ‘I never fail to be amazed by the three-dimensional nature of live opera’

@jamesagrayson: ‘opera and theatre organisations need to look at attracting younger faces’

@salliex: ‘I found it inaccessible and outdated’

@littletinykate: ‘To enjoy opera, you’ve got to like the music and I just don’t, really’

@theotleyguide: ‘too much bitter scheming, death and anguish and not enough sweetness’

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Now that I have to work in the evenings, I’m seeing a lot less theatre than I used to. I’ve spent a lot of time moaning about it, but not that much time actually finding ways around it, until last week when I plucked up the courage to attend a weekday matinee alone – and I couldn’t have picked a better show with which to start this tradition.


It was an afternoon of firsts, actually: my first time seeing a matinee, my first time attending alone, my first time seeing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and my first time sitting on the front row at the theatre. It was also the first time I literally gasped as I walked in to the theatre, taking in the lavish set designed by Francis O’Connor. It seemed to pulse with potential – something was about to happen here. It’s a great testament to the skill of the cast that they managed to outshine that gorgeous stage. (My photo, taken hurriedly with an iPhone, does not do it justice in the slightest.) 

The play opens with Brick and Maggie, who are at Brick’s family’s plantation in Mississippi to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday. The second Maggie (Zoe Boyle) appeared on stage, I judged her in a kind of bored way. Ah, I thought, you’re the spoiled, vain girl with a lesson to learn. But as she sparred with the unresponsive, emotionally absent Brick, her façade crumbled and I started to see the desperate, ruthless and vulnerable person beneath. She certainly captured my attention where other characters failed. Meanwhile Jamie Parker’s Brick was a very powerful kind of negative presence, a black hole on the stage sucking in energy and emotion and giving nothing back. Their arguments – primarily Maggie monologue – were so real I found myself cringing back in my seat from the anger and heat.


As the night continues, we learn that it’s not only Brick and Maggie dealing in lies and subterfuge. Big Daddy, the smart but cruel and misogynistic patriarch of the family, believes he has received a clean bill of health, while his two sons know he has less than a year to live. Brick’s brother Gooper claims to want to help his father, but secretly has his eye on the plantation. As the pretence of a good natured family birthday party crumbles, both careful lies and careless truths come pouring out. The result is intense, gripping and richly rewarding. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this play since I saw it! (It’s also been pretty tricky to shake the Deep South-style accent, which added an extra layer of claustrophobic tension on stage but just sounds ridiculous in Boots.)


I can’t help but recommend this beautiful production by Sarah Esdaile. It’s only on until Saturday 27th, so you don’t have much time! Book your tickets here, now – even if you have to go alone on a Thursday afternoon, you’ll be glad you did once you emerge, blinking from the theatre.


The Guardian are running a little project about theatre criticism alongside this production. You can read more about it here and if you’ve seen the play, tweet your thoughts and read other people’s reviews using the #catreview hashtag. You can also let me know what you thought about the production below – I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

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Ondine rehearsals at Northern Ballet

After reading this lovely blog from Anna at angel in the north about her visit to the ‘try before you buy’ sessions at Northern Ballet, I knew I had to get myself booked in. The try before you buy scheme is a brand new initiative by Northern Ballet to let people get a little taster of what they can expect from a ballet. For £5 you got to watch the dancers in their rehearsals for an hour, with the added bonus of a packed lunch at the afternoon sessions or a nice glass of wine/Pimms/beer at the evening sessions. Finally you also got a voucher for £5 off any ticket when the show opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. If the crowd when I popped in was anything to go by, it’s a successful initiative; the benches were packed with about 150 people and I was lucky to find a seat. Although all the Ondine sessions are over now, it’s to be hoped that Northern Ballet consider running this scheme again – it’s a genuinely unique experience that was more than worth what I paid.

Proceedings started with a little introduction from Daniel De Andrade, Northern Ballet’s witty and charismatic Ballet Master, detailing the plot and giving us a little information about which scenes we would be watching.

The dream sequence between Brand and Ondine

The difficult thing about the speech was that as interesting as it was, I kept getting distracted by the dancers warming up in the background. They were limbering up, practising their moves and just casually contorting themselves into increasingly graceful but unattainable positions. So although I caught the gist of the story, here it is more coherently from the Northern Ballet website:

“As a child, water sprite Ondine is rescued from the shore and raised as a daughter by the fisherman who saved her. Regardless of her mortal upbringing she maintains the mysterious allure and eternal youthfulness of her species.

Years later when nobleman Brand stumbles upon Ondine he is mesmerised by her, and she by him. Despite his betrothal to the mortal Beatrice his attraction to Ondine is too strong to resist. When forced to choose between them he marries the breathtakingly ethereal nymph and swears his eternal loyalty to her.

Through their union Ondine develops a soul and is transformed from sprite to woman, opening her heart to the joy and pain of human emotion. Nevertheless, in time Brand grows fearful of the alien and otherworldly creature he has married and finds himself again drawn to Beatrice.  However, he knows that should he break the bond between mortal and water sprite, nature decrees that a watery grave will seek him out.”

Daniel told us how Ondine was inspired by the same folk tale that inspired The Little Mermaid. There is a similarity between the two, in the way they deal with the human obsession with and fear of the sea.

We watched three different scenes being rehearsed: a dream sequence with Brand and Ondine, some wedding dances, and the final scene which I won’t spoil for you. They were all really different: as Daniel explained to us beforehand, Ondine boasts a wide variety of both classical and more contemporary dances, so it’s very challenging for the dancers. The difference between the two styles was apparent even to my extremely untrained eye – they’re both executed with immense skill and grace, though. The dancers are just absolutely beautiful people, every single one of them, with incredible chemistry, and the atmosphere once they started moving was electric. I couldn’t help but think forward to how much more intense it would be on a stage with the lighting and costumes and everything. At the same time, though, I loved the way this was treated as a normal rehearsal, so if something wasn’t right, the dancers were stopped and made to do it again. It was fascinating to watch this process and learn more about how everything comes together backstage to make the spectacular shows that the audience sees.

The hour of rehearsal absolutely flew by, and left me wanting more! Luckily I was able to have a quick chat with Daniel before I left, to ask him a couple more questions. We talked about the try before you buy scheme, which he was really pleased with, but what I really wanted to know was, why should new audiences, previously uninterested in ballet, come to see Ondine? “It’s a true British classic”, Daniel says. “The choreography is incredibly rich, it’s musically rich and it has a very strong narrative. The characters really come alive.” He also adds that the story really plays to that mythological relationship between humans and other worlds. I also ask him what stories within popular culture bear a similarity to Ondine. After a brief mention of the Colin Farrell film version of the story,  Daniel describes Ondine as a “more tragic, more sensual” version of The Little Mermaid. This seems about right to me, although the story also brings to mind Romeo and Juliet – except they’ve both survived, the novelty has worn off for Romeo and he starts remembering that Rosaline chick a lot more fondly.

I can’t wait to go see this production for real – the costumes, the set and the lighting are all bound to be fabulous and I can never resist a trip to the West Yorkshire Playhouse at the best of times. Ondine runs from the 8th to the 15th September, and you can get tickets here. Also see Northern Ballet’s gorgeous publicity photos here.

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The Imposter at Hyde Park Picture House

One of the absolute best things about Leeds is the cool unique places and businesses (often run by very cool, independent people) that make it actually feel like Leeds and not some other, faceless, impersonal city. Every city has a few of these gems and I always try to seek them out on a visit, but there’s nothing like the ones back home that have weaved themselves into the fabric of my life and memories, but still feel special and exciting.

One such place for me is the Hyde Park Picture House, a gorgeous art house cinema which opened in 1914 and was saved from closure by Leeds City Council in 1989. The moment I glimpse the lit up façade of the Grade II listed building as I walk down Brudenell Road, I’m ready for a genuine cinema experience. It’s just streets ahead of anything with seventeen screens, lino floors and a fleet of teenagers asking if you’d like a large popcorn for just £18.26. Instead, you’ll find smiling faces, plush red carpets, bowls of sugar cubes and free biscuits with your tea, and fair trade chocolate for sale. Our tickets were a measly £6, compared to Vue’s £8.15, or £9.85 if you want a seat bigger than those on aeroplanes. Sure, there’s only one film on, but it could be literally anything – a cult classic with a live orchestra, the latest Bollywood offering, or the brilliant documentary I saw last night.


 The Imposter tells a remarkable true story. When 13 year old Nicholas Barclay goes missing in 1994, his family are devastated, and instantly launch a search campaign. His picture is plastered to the wall of every diner in Texas, but without any leads at all the case soon turns cold. When a young man claiming to be Nicholas turns up on the streets of Spain, it seems like a miracle – but is it too good to be true? Would three years away from home give Nicholas a noticeable foreign accent, and how have his eyes changed from blue to brown?

Director Bart Layton plays his cards close to his chest for the first hour, but the stunning denouement left me breathless. I walked out of the cinema questioning every missing person documentary I’d ever seen, and asking myself questions about identity and lies and bias and secrets and empathy and denial. For the main part, the film was made up of reconstructions with actors and interviews with the original cast of this bizarre story – the American ambassador to Spain, an FBI agent, the Barclay family and the young man at the heart of the drama, who is captivating but completely untrustworthy. There were also just one or two home videos that slammed this whole thing home for me, that were almost painful to watch and difficult to understand. As the story moves forward, I start to find myself feeling confused, uncomfortable, a little foolish.

I can’t really say more: it’s a film that should be experienced with as little fore-knowledge as possible. It’s on at the Hyde Park Picture House until 30th August, so move quickly!

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Opera North: It Takes Two

I’ve been thinking about attending my first opera for a while now, but the cost, combined with my uncertainty that I’d enjoy a full two hours of a story that I possibly wouldn’t be able to follow or understand, put me off a bit. When Opera North tweeted about their free summer event It Takes Two: Opera’s Greatest Duets, I leapt at the chance to sample a little opera without breaking the bank – which is remarkably easily done, this close to the end of the month!

The Howard Assembly Room was set out beautifully; a simple space in the centre of the room held a piano and a white armchair, and was surrounded by rows of eclectic wooden chairs and benches for the audience. We were all handed programmes on the way in, listing the ten duets that would be performed, with a few details about the operas that they come from. There were also voiceovers or introductions before each song, giving some background about the storyline, and what the song was about. Obviously in the low key setting, there were no subtitles, but as each performance was just four or five minutes long, so the background explanation was enough to keep me engaged.

The whole experience was fantastic: the four performers acted as well as they sang, and dashes of humour had the audience laughing out loud several times. There was a great variety of duets, trios and quartets, sung in English, French and Italian. The Flower Duet from Lakme was a real highlight as one of the few female only performances, and the Quartet of the Defeated from Paul Bunyan was incredibly atmospheric. The pianist was jaw droppingly good – his fingers flew across the keys in a total blur. In a smiling nod to the perceived inaccessibility of opera, the last number saw three of the singers each holding up a sign to convey the essence of what they were singing; one read simply, “Well, that couldn’t have gone worse.”

If you think you’d like to try a taster opera session, then I can’t recommend Opera North’s events enough. Keep an eye out on their events page for details of upcoming performances. If you’re expecting 300-pound singers and people dressed in ballgowns, think again!

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