by Martin Green
The Theatre, Poole Lighthouse
Friday 28th October 2015, 7.30 pm
Martin Green (Lau) – accordion, Mellotron, synthesizers, narration
Adrian Utley (Portishead) – guitars, synthesizers, percussion
Dominic Aitchinson (Mogwai) – bass
Becky Unthanks (The Unthanks) – vocals
Adam Holmes (solo singer-songwriter) – vocals
Composer / Director – Martin Green
Animation – whiterobot (Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson)
Dramaturg – Ruth Little
Lighting designer- Ben Everett
Set designer- Barney George
Video designer – Simon Wainwright
FLIT appeared at the Edinburgh Festival 2016, and is now on tour. What a tour … the next gigs after Poole are straight up north to Leeds, then all the way back south to Brighton, then all the way back up to the Shetlands.
In a first for Poole, they had a solo support act, Rhona Dalling performing and singing to her own banjo accompaniment in the lobby before the doors opened … Spiers & Boden had a similar idea once.
It’s going under concerts. Oh, and linked from theatre.
QUOTE: Flit is inspired by first-hand stories of human migration, some heart-warming, others heartbreaking, and features songs and original music by Green with lyrics from Karine Polwart, Anaïs Mitchell, Sandy Wright and Aidan Moffat. Set within a captivating animated world, these exquisite songs are performed live by a world class band fronted by the inimitable voices of Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes.
- It has a dramaturg, a director, a set designer, which veers into theatre.
- It has live music all the way, so I’d say it’s a concert.
- The animation is a major event, and the cast … sorry musicians … have to move screens on and off, so I’d say that’s closer to theatre.
- The men are in brown dustcoats, so that’s theatrical costume.
- It uses a great deal of recorded spoken voice.
- It has a lighting plot of extraordinary intricacy, which is concert, but some of it, such as when Becky Unthanks is lit as if suspended in a cage of laser beams, is theatrical.
- The story is more what you’d expect from lyrics than written drama. But then Opera North are co-producers. So is it folk-opera?
- Martin Green does linking narration, but at the end when he talked about his Jewish parents fleeing Austria and the pre-war kindertransport, and then child refugees today, building into shouted fury (and getting major applause) this would be defined as a theatrical performance.
- It ends with a blackout, then projected credits as if a film.
- No encores, so … film?
The things it brings to mind is Unthanks Shipbuilding tour, where they performed in cinemas in front of a projected film with recorded voices and real sounds. Then the ranks of synthesized sounds here makes me think of Man Jumping in the 80s, with six syth keyboards in a row.
It was 85 minutes but I couldn’t note a set list with all new material, nor did I try. I assumed it was about the same track list as the album, but clearly not. Track 2, Strange Sky, the only one I’d heard in advance on Youtube, came right near the end. A few minutes with the CD this morning reveals it’s nowhere near the sequence.
There are other instruments. Becky Unthanks had a large wheel on a box, which was some kind of modulator. Adam Holmes had what looked like shelves which could be slapped to effect. Some stuff on stage was invented by Martin Green, who also got loud percussion by thumping the amplified accordion case.
They’re described as a folk supergroup. However if you think of Terry Riley or Philip Glass keyboard minimalism, with loud distort bass as well as bass loops, all possible sorts of guitar work, an accordion and two superb folk singers, you’d have to describe it as avant-folk. Maybe no … that was The Unthanks doing the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons. This is more avant than that. Avant-avant-folk-minimalism? With loud electronic bits?
The advertised start is 7.30, though we got our banjo player from 7.15. Once we filed in there was 15 minutes of recorded electronic soundscape stuff before it started. It seemed part of the show in a way, easing you in.
The animation was not only unusual, it was genuinely moving. The way paper figures of an old man, a girl and so on crumple into paper then the crumpled papers become birds. Bird migration is part of the theme, not just people movement. There was one section on the 20th century extinction of the American passenger pigeon, explained by Martin Green first. I’ve done this in a book myself … he could have explained it further and better, I thought. But then he had the animation to do the work.
We enjoyed Martin Green’s relaxed narration and interaction very much. He’s a natural, and the “acting” performance when he builds up to rage, carefully framed by the V of mic stands was outstanding. Mind you, I’d love to have ten minutes with him on how to fake eye contact with an audience in a large hall. He hadn’t studied the simple but effective techniques that solo speakers should know. As it’s a teacher training topic I’ve conducted often myself, I noticed it sharply. He was looking down, away or fixing on a point too often. So easily remedied, though not when you have the dual role of performer and director.
Adam Holmes & Becky Unthanks … from the Edinburgh Festival original production. Martin Green and Adrian Utley in the background.
I’d love to describe the music more, but I need to get into the CD, which I bought at the concert. Becky Unthanks’s voice is the main reason for buying the CD. She works so well with Adam Holmes.
The Suitcase (fifth on the CD) came early. The “packed suitcase” theme runs all the way through the show. It starts with narration but opens out to reveals the vocal blend of Becky and Adam after two minutes. Narration was very much part of The Unthanks shows around the Shipbuilding era.
Adam Holmes really got through to me on Roll Away, (YOU TUBE LINK) in the last ten minutes of the show, though fourth out of nine on the CD. It’s a beautiful melody with traditional sound. It’s punctuated throughout by a repetitive single piano note from Martin Green. I’m listening to it right now. I think it sounded even better live … the piano more resonant, and his voice louder, soaring more. The bass guitar is better on the recording though. Live, he had more Becky Unthanks in the background.
When we were chatting afterwards, the best bit of the evening was Becky Unthanks singing solo, without accompaniment, in a conical cage composed of laser beams. I’m trying to find it on the CD, but everything is accompanied. I’m wondering if it’s The Smallest Plant but that has backing and Adam singing behind her. If that is it, it was ten times better live than on the CD. If it was something else, well, it was still by far the best song of the evening.
A minor gripe afterwards was a lack of variation in the melodies (my companion … who found parts deeply moving too). I was a bit dubious of the bass simplicity and distort and mixing with syth bass.
FLIT at the Buxton Opera House four days earlier … in Poole., Martin Green was stage right, and Dominic Aitchinson on bass, was stage left.
While the lighting was state of the art and brilliant, we felt we had to cover our eyes during two long (and too long) strobe effect sections … way too long to use a strobe, I thought. The UV lighting was stunning in sections. The lighting was at Royal Shakespeare Company / National Theatre / major rock concert levels. This and the set, more than anything reveal the credited funding from the Arts Council, Opera North and Creative Scotland and Edinburgh Festival (and other theatres). A lighting set up like this could not be sustained by a commercial tour at this level, nor by most provincial theatre or dance productions. In other words, our tickets were subsidized at a modest £17.50 each, and it’s good that funding goes to artistic efforts on this scale.
The audience size was disappointing at the newly refurbished Poole Lighthouse. Poole has had a past tendency of selling out its classical concerts in the large hall, then putting lots of brochures for theatre, dance and other music in the foyer, assuming punters will negotiate the dual carriageway from the shopping area and pick them up and book. I reckon they’d have done better in audience numbers at the Tivoli, Wimborne or Regent, Christchurch, but those old converted cinemas could never have held the lighting rig.
If you have a chance, see it. I’m not sure whether FLIT is a one-off show, or a new supergroup.
THE ALBUM TRACKS ARE:
The Living Wind
Laws of Motion
The Singing Sands