Brighton Festival 2021
Originally commissioned by Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Eliza Carthy curates an intriguing line up of guest appearances for an Eastward-looking night of music, tall tales, poetry and clogging.
One of the benefits of watching this show on the livestream is, as Eliza says, that you can do so in your pants. Another, which she may not know, is that we can see her say this in tight close-up and get a proper look at her broad grin and gothic make-up.
The downside of course is that you have to focus where the camera takes you and this has ruined many filmed events for me. Fortunately Apple & Biscuit Recordings get the balance just about right, and most of the night is captured well-enough to give a good idea of the whole. If we don’t always see Marry Waterson’s nicely colour-balanced graphics projected (by Slim Verhoef) above the performers, at least they are not distracting from the show. The sound mix is great too, though you lose the air and volume around the vocals; Eliza going full throttle in the Dome acoustic must sound pretty special.
Folk music is intimate in nature. Songs passed down and sung often unaccompanied with traditional acoustic instruments. On the broad Dome stage the assembled supergroup works hard to create an atmosphere across the gulf of the stalls (in Covid restricted capacity). Folk songs from the East of England come alive to the backing of Sheema Mukherjee on kora and Barney Morse-Brown’s cello, with Martin Carthy on guitar and Eliza on fiddle. Versatile dancer and musician Ewan Wardrop provides percussive clogged feet, plus banjolele and harmonica. His rapier dance gets a big cheer – unfortunately much of it missed by the cameras. The band’s backing of Wilko Johnson’s two songs, one new, one old, both great, is particularly effective with Ewan’s feet beating the rhythm and the kora an elegant melodic line.
The theme of East is felt most strongly in Fenrir, a Norse myth story written by Eliza and delivered in a Chaucer-ish accent by actress Miranda Richardson, who adds wolf howl of her own at the end. Eastern England had Vikings and also thousands of men conscripted, which perhaps inspired the inclusion of poems by Kipling about everyday soldiers, recited with quiet intensity by actor Kenneth Cranham. Elsewhere we have some snippets of folklore illustrated on screen and songs from the eastern canon, including by Wilko, an outlier from Canvey Island.
Noel Coward’s “There are bad times just around the corner,” an ironic choice for the finale, is given a jaunty rendition by the whole cast with audience singalong encouraged but not noticeably voluble. From my sofa the night looked like it was great fun for everyone on stage and a memorable way for Martin Carthy to spend his 80th birthday.