Gang of Four - intimate gig (The Macbeth 24/8/09) + Three More Sleepless Nights (National Theatre 24/8/09) 26 August 2009

At first glance it would seem that would seem that these are two very disparate events, but in reality they have one big thing in common, they both were about observation, one of society in general and one of human interaction and romantic entanglements.

I stumbled across Three More Sleepless Nights at the National Theatre when the flyer came across my desk one day. To be honest it was seeing that Ian Hart (Backbeat, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the American TV series Dirt) was in the cast that really interested me as well as the price (£10) and the author. It's an early play by Caryl Churchill who's best known for writing Top Girls and the more recentish A Number which I saw in it's original incarnation at the Royal Court with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig. (It's the play about the clones which was made into a TV version either earlier this year or last)

On the whole, I have a hard time keeping up with what's on at the National - three theatres, each with multiple productions that perform in what I see as random repertory. Productions overlap start and end dates, some seem to pop back after you assumed they were over. This production seemed to make the situation even more complicated. Just a handful of performances, stuck in the middle sized National space, the Lyttlelton, over Helen Mirren's Phedra set. Litterally. Pushed as far downstage as possible, the set of an ordinary bedroom, was placed directly on the Phedra set. The back bedroom wall was almost nonexistent so the vista above and beyond was Phedra's grey stone set.

The majority of the start times for these handfull of performances were 6pm, with the occasional 8pm second show. At a short 50 minutes long, this seemed reasonable but I have been wondering what was in it for the National. All tickets were £10. You had to reserve your seat but no matter where you sat you paid £10. Very reasonable. I assumed at first that the early start time meant that they could still do Phedra later, but I don't think it could really have been an option as that would mean less than an hour to get the audience out, tear down the Sleepless Nights set and dress Phedra. Possibly, having not studied Phedra's performance times, there was a gap in the rep schedule and it wasn't feasible to remove Phedra.

I did study the cast and crew biographies for a clue. In addition to the wonderful Ian Hart (who by the way will be appearing soon in the West End with John Simm in Speaking in Tongues - the play version of the film Lantana - I'll be seeing it), the other actors were all, judging by their credits, accomplished and always working. They were Lindsey Coulson, Ian Hart, Hattie Morahan and Paul Ready. Maybe the clue was with director Gareth Machin. This was his first directing project on the National stages. He is associated with the National Studio and prior to that was the Artistic Director of Southwark Playhouse after Thea Sharrock (Equus). Maybe all the elements came together at the right time to make it possible to do a low risk piece. Great idea. Maybe not the right piece for the space though.

Here's the National's description of the play - 'An explosive play abouth human interaction and love tangled relationships'. I'd agree with everything except 'explosive'. As the title hints, the play is divided into three sections. Each section concentrates on a couple, either getting ready for bed or trying to sleep. The first features Ian Hart and Lindsey Coulson in tour de force performances of a bickering couple. A loudly bickering couple. Accusations are thrown, then thrown back, the tables turn, the characters intentions blur. It's a great feat to pull that one off. It was very believable, entertaining, funny and recognisable. Within the fast paced, overlapping dialogue you can hear truths, their truths, emerge, used as artillary to obliterate the other. Loved it - it kept me transfixed.

The second scene was the downfall. There were alot of silences as this couple slowly fall apart - literally and figuratively. This particular scene brought any shortcomings the production had to the forefront. I was in the second row as I had heard it was an intimate play and although it helped being closer it was still evident that it would have worked better in a smaller theatre. The enitre scene moved in and out of being very static. Many silences, including extended 'in bed not doing alot' moments.The scene started very much in contrast to the first scene. Any communication was passivly aggressive and only audible through series of grunts and groans as they tossed and turned. Interesting, for a second. Once you got it, you got it. I'm not sure if it was the actors but maybe more the direction and the space. How do you play silence? Especially when a couple are lying in bed with dimmed lights? Honestly, even at 6.30pm or so, I had difficulty keeping my eyes open.

It all comes to a good conclusion with the third scene, which effectively takes elements from the first two scenes and puts them into a scenario which makes everything that came before more clear. (I wondered, more than a few times, what the second scene was all about while I was watching it).

Overall I enjoyed it. It was interesting and I liked the structure. It was very much about observation as I doubt anyone would come away really caring for any of the characters. That would be almost impossible to do in 50 minutes. It was a good unpretentious evening, which is always welcome. Too bad it wasn't in the the smaller Cottesloe Theatre.

Directly after the performance I was on a bus, headed to Hoxton for an intimate pre Anniversary tour gig by Gang of Four. They are my 'friends' on MySpace which I use for keeping up with my favourite bands, and they had a competition for free intimate gig tickets. I didn't enter as you had to buy tickets to the main gig at the HMV Forum to win. I hadn't planned on going so I didn't enter. They posted another link about a week later through NME, this time no strings attached. I have to say that I hesitated for a moment thinking that they were having a difficult time shifting a few tickets to a small gig. Could that be a good omen? I knew that there were only two of the original four remaining. I went through that before when in the late 90's I saw The Brothers Johnson open for Isaac Hayes, Or should I say the Brother (singular) Johnson. As there were only two originally, this was a huge disappointment. Anyway, I took the chance, and was rewarded by being put on the list.

My exposure to Gang of Four was initally limited to the first couple of albums, YEARS ago. I won't say how long in order to protect the innocent. I wasn't living in the UK at the time and there never seemed to be much to be found about the band at the time, especially as this was pre internet. My interest was then revived when they released the excellent Brief History of the 20th Century, sort of greated hits, more overview album in 1990. Anyone wishing to get into their music should start there. For some time I sort of wrote them off after their foray into the more populast sounds of 'I Love A Man in a Uniform' (the irony was lost on popular culture as the song was adopted by any TV show, hen night or gay party as the anthem for oggling men in uniforms). After this they sort of disappeared from my radar. Every so often I'd play the Brief History CD, now with ipod it rotates more frequently. it wasn't unitl My Space that I really began to look more carefully at the band and what they were all about. To say all that prepartion in no way prepared me for how amazing they are live is an understatement.

Doors opened at 8pm and it stated in my email - get there early, band starts 8.30ish. I didn't have too much control over how long it took to get there. I arrived at The Macbeth pub in Hoxton Street around 8ish. There was no queue outside and only a handful of punters once inside. The Macbeth is a smallish pub dominated by the bar and at the far end of the room they built a stage complete with lighting rig. 8.30 came and went. By this time it was pretty full. The only thing that kept me sane during the wait (I was on my own) was the great music they were playing. A real mix from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Real quality. As those of us in the middle jostled for a good view without a supporting pole in the way as we reached 9pm. It was getting mighty hot in there and I wondered how long I would be able to hold out. Overall it was a great crowd. Mix of ages - obvious fans from day one mixed in with newer, younger fans. No uber fans in sight which was a relief.

They finally hit the stage close to 9.30pm and it was worth the wait. To an extent I find it difficult to describe a bands music with any justice. I never, ever consider descriptions that compare bands - I don't think it does anyone any good.Imagine chainsaw guitar, wall of sound guitars often using a rhythm guitar pattern, sometimes staccato mixed in with thumping r&b tinged basslines and powerhouse rhythmic drums. Vocals have a punk edge to them, conveying, thoughts in less of a sing-songy way than as statements - sometimes lyrical, sometimes authoritative and sometimes matter of fact. That's the best I can think of to describe it.

My fear of them being elder statermen trying to relive their youth was soon dispelled. The two original members - Jon King and Andy Gill - performed like their life depended on it. Jon King with his sometimes demonically possessed look (not forced) and Andy Gill's guitar playing were spot on, lifting what could have been a quick trip down memory lane to a first rate live music experience. It helps that their music has not dated. It sounds as fresh as it ever did. Live, great songs and musicianship is transformed into a energetic, visceral, heart pounding, and body bobbing good time.

They played all their well known tunes (with the exception of 'I Love a Man...' and the other song from that album which never really made sense to me within the Gang of Four canon - 'Is it Love?') - 'To Hell With Poverty!', 'Damaged Goods', 'Anthrax' and the fantastic 'What We All Want' being my highlights.

I love Jon's lyrics, very politically aware and wonderfully observational. He plays with words and references literature. Also, what I had to keep reminding myself that this sound was being made by only three instruments - Guitar, bass and drums. It was so full. A sound that many bands could not even begin to replicate with more. I must give a shout out to the two newest members of the band - Thomas McNeice on bass and Mark Heaney on drums (who became a father the day before - that's dedication). Both exceptional and integrate seamlessly into the band.

All in all, 90 minutes of excellent music. I have found of late that one could easily forget what a great live gig really is. This was the real deal.

During a few breaks Andy entertained questions from the audience. My favourite - 'Is it true you hate Coldplay (sic)?' - Andy 'Music for bedwetters'. I think that pretty much sums it up.