Review: English Eccentrics, Ipswich School Festival, September 27

English Eccentrics, Ipswich School Festival, September 27

This enterprising festival concluded with an evening devoted to poetry and music from five significant artistic figures of the last century. John Betjeman, William Walton and Ivor Novello need little introduction (though Novello has rather dropped out of the picture, compared to his immense inter-war popularity). Edith Sitwell and Madeleine Dring are less mainstream figures, though both had their successes. Of the quintet, Betjeman and Sitwell were the most obviously eccentric, the former gentle, arch and determinedly English, despite his Dutch name while the latter had a sharper edge and more waspish persona.

The first section began with five settings of Betjeman poems from his collection Summoned by Bells by Madeleine Dring. They plumb no great depths but are quietly effective and Alison Daniels brought a bright, secure tone and clear diction to the pieces. Interspersed between the songs were clear, authoritative readings from Michael Hampel of some of the best known poems including, Death in Leamington, a particularly enjoyable visit to Bristol and Clifton as well as one to Felixstowe.

It was particularly pleasing to hear some of Novello’s songs (how often does that happen nowadays?) including the once almost universal ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’. Alison Daniels and Andrew Leach perfectly captured the music, the performances having the combination of sparkle and sentiment that distinguishes the best light music of that era.

Fa�ade: An Entertainment was helped on its way by the the succes de scandale of its first performance in 1923 when the noisy protests in the Chelsea house of Sitwell’s brother persuaded the neighbours to call the fire brigade. It remains a brilliantly original work, Sitwell’s pseudo-nonsense poetry cleverly married to Walton’s youthful capturing of the jazz idiom. The instrumentalists are integral and played so well that they must be acknowledged - Beverley Steensma (flute), Ian McKechnie (trumpet), Sandy Tate (saxophone), Cliff Whybow (clarinet), Melanie Woodcock (cello) and Sam Wilson (percussion). Michael Hampel, superb in Tango-Pasodoble and Mandy Griffin, giving excellent characterisation in Country Dance did extremely well with often virtuosic tongue-twisters and alliterations. The performance was kept well on track by Festival Director William Saunders, and was a fitting and entertaining finale to the week long festival.

Gareth Jones