Film, theatre, book and general arts reviews plus cultural commentary by Anna Chen.
SATURDAY 8TH NOVEMBER 2014
Doctor Who: Death in Heaven season finale — an ideological battleground.
SPOILER ALERT Cybermen meet zombies in the second half of this A Matter of Life and Death nick in which our intrepid heroes hissy-fit around a lot. There’s so much that could have worked beautifully in this series. How can you have those great production values and Peter Capaldi on board and still make such a hash of it? The problem, as always, is the script. The writers’ caprice runs through the Doctor Who reboot like Nick Clegg’s election promises. It’s all Patrick Duffy in the Dallas shower, a dream, a mish-mash of half-remembered images and tropes, mis-threaded backstory lurches (a sudden retro-fit and Gallifrey exists, the Doctor’s nemesis conveniently telling him where). Characters don’t so much arc as teleport to whichever position the writers decide suits the script du jour. …
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MONDAY 25TH AUGUST 2014
Dr Who “Deep Breath” review: Why is Peter Capaldi flashing his red bits like a lady baboon, and other questions.
The Dalek was eyeing up some poor bastard on the far side of the room. It hadn’t yet seen me, so I backed away. Far scarier in the actual metal than on screen, its presence only three feet away sent my heart pounding to 11, so loud it was sure to hear me. It swung round and I froze, skewered by its cyclops stare. Me and a Dalek. Eyeball to eyeballs. An inhuman rorschach inkblot of a creation, sucking out all the dark matter in my soul and planting it into this single embodiment of EE-vuhl. …
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SATURDAY 22nd FEBRUARY 2014
Feng Xiaogang in conversation at the BFI: holding a mirror up to Chinese society.
Last night’s pre-screening gala talk at the BFI by film director Feng Xiaogang climaxed the Spectacular China season of his films while launching the year-long Electric Shadows collaboration between the BFI and China. After a start as slow as wet cement, it livened up considerably once Feng and his adroit translator bypassed a disappointingly dull interviewer and some stunningly tedious questions such as, “What inspired you?” “Who were your mentors?” elicited a dry, “I’m sure I had mentors but I can’t recall who.” Feng covered the basics of his early career, which began over 20 years ago in the 1990s. …
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SATURDAY 15 FEBRUARY 2014
The Day of the Locust review: this is us. Now!
The Day of the Locust is a superbly intelligent movie about the madness of crowds and the nightmarisation of the American Dream, which increasingly resembles a documentary about today’s collective id. Director John Schlesinger’s film adaptation manages to be faithful (if over-literal) to Nathanael West’s coruscating book, set in early Hollywood’s Sodom and Gommorah. Tod Hackett (William Atherton) is an artist employed by one of the major studios in 1930s Hollywood. While he’s working on the lavish epic, Waterloo, he meets and hangs out with (“befriends” is too strong a word for such an alienated world) the local characters, mostly deluded and in the gutter but jealously looking up at the stars. …
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SATURDAY 12 OCTOBER 2013
The Fu Manchu Complex: a boisterous romp through the yellow peril canon
I’d already expressed my delight in seeing Daniel York’s lively satire, The Fu Manchu Complex, at the Oval House Theatre last week, but a rash of resentful mainstream reviews prompts me to expand on my response. In particular, the Guardian’s theatre reviewer Maddy Costa seemed completely out of her depth, writing a stunningly superficial piece that simply did not geddit.
To be fair, York has a fine line in jolly-japes one-liners and crude national insults: the Scottish woman dismissed as a “moronic haggistani”, the Irish man ridiculed as a “potato-nosher clover-face”. But having a character acknowledge that events on stage are “dashedly dramatic” does not postmodern irony make: without it, the play feels weirdly anachronistic.
This is, at best, mischievous. Daniel York has deftly demolished a slew of stereotypes, setting them up and bowling them down like skittles in a boisterous romp through the yellow peril canon. He dredges up every unpleasant racist colonialist epithet and then, when you think he must have exhausted his supply, he goes and finds some more. As Artie in The Larry Sanders Show once said, he hits rock bottom and then breaks through to a whole new bottom no-one ever knew existed — much how racist ideology burrows into language. …
Oval House Theatre until 19th October
WEDNESDAY 14 AUGUST 2013
HUGO mini review: a dramatic turkey with brass knobs on.
Steampunk aesthetics and the history of cinema: what could go wrong? I watched Martin Scorsese’s Hugo last night and, although the visuals are stunning (I’d have loved to have seen this in 3D) the script was one of the worst things ever. Snobby middle-class preciousness (the cute kids with Rank starlet accents nearly gave me diabetes) and dramatic ineptitude killed for me the story of one of the fathers of cinema, George Melies (Ben Kingsley). Sir Ben’s muted appearance in the same film as Ray Winstone who played Hugo’s evil drunken uncle had me longing for the last time I saw them paired up in Sexy Beast and wishing Melies would blurt Don’s immortal line, “I’m sweating like a cunt”. This would have given the lagubrious script a much-needed cheering up.
MONDAY 8 JULY 2013
Extraordinary opium exhibition deserves a visit: my South China Morning Post column
My latest City Scope column for the South China Morning Post: Mayfair exhibition hits a high note
Nestled in deepest Mayfair, where the recession has never struck, is the unlikeliest of venues for the most surprising of exhibitions. Ensconced on Berkeley Square – where, according to the song, a nightingale once sang – and neighbouring the exclusive Annabel’s and Clermont clubs, antique book dealership Maggs is currently displaying the most comprehensive collection of opium paraphernalia I’ve come across. Here in the city that was the command post for Britain’s opium wars with China, such seductive decadence is considerably more attractive than the needles and stained spoons of your common or garden druggie.
FRIDAY 7 JUNE 2013
My Morning Star interview with David Henry Hwang, whose play Yellow Face launched London’s new Park Theatre last month.
‘We’re pretty good on race sometimes but terrible on class’
East Asian playwright DAVID HENRY HWANG talks to Anna Chen about issues of cultural assimilation and equality of opportunity
ONLY six months before I finally meet David Henry Hwang, the Western world’s most famous playwright of east Asian heritage, the British East Asian Artists (BEAA) led an international protest when the Royal Shakespeare Company gave a miserly three — minor — roles out of 17 to east Asian actors in their first Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao. Now we’re enjoying the British premiere of Hwang’s play Yellow Face which launches London’s brand-new Park Theatre, a mere quarter of a century after its Tony Award-winning author first had a play performed here, the Broadway and West End mega-hit hit M Butterfly. … Hwang isn’t just the first ethnically Asian playwright to succeed in the West. He’s got 20 plays, 10 musicals, plus film credits and writing galore on his CV and is recognised as one of the leading US playwrights and as a Grand Master of the theatre there.
TUESDAY 28 MAY 2013
Yellow Face at the Park Theatre, London N4
Review for the Morning Star: This smart and savvy comedy delivers a knock-out blow to any still-entrenched belief in certain crepuscular crannies of theatre land that east Asians can’t produce culture. Racism no longer has an outlet in blackface performance but yellowface lingers as a method of corralling an ethnic minority into a ghetto, depriving them of jobs and creative participation. That’s the context of the Obie award-winning Yellow Face, an admittedly autobiographical indulgence by David Henry Hwang which tells a funny and fast-paced story of his perennial war against the surreptitious devices used to keep Asians in their place, in particular the 1990s yellow-peril hysteria targeting President Bill Clinton and threatening to engulf American-Chinese people.
FRIDAY 24 May 2013
Ellen Gallagher, fat ladies and Pan sex with goat: my week of London kulcher
POMPEII, HERCULANEUM AND ICE AGE ART In the cultural whirl that’s been my life this past week, I’ve seen not only the sold-out sexily titled Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition (on until 29 September), I also caught Ice Age Art now in its final weeks: both at the British Museum. Some of the ice-age artefacts go back 31,000 years and, as the curators blast out from the posters, it does indeed mark the arrival of the modern mind.
FRIDAY 10 MAY 2013
In the Ai of the beholder: THE ARREST OF AI WEIWEI at Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Review for the Morning Star: If martial arts function by using your opponents’ weight against them, then artist Ai Weiwei must be the Bruce Lee of annoying the hell out of the Chinese government. He’s transformed dissidence into performance art, rendering him embarrassingly effective in resisting official persecution. Howard Brenton’s play The Arrest of Ai Weiwei adds more art-fu to the mix, dramatising Ai’s account of an 81-day incarceration following his 2011 arrest at Beijing airport. Bored into near-submission by paralysing inactivity punctuated only by shouty interrogations, Ai’s struggle to rebut charges of undefined “crimes” is complicated by his accusers having no idea what they are either.
SATURDAY 23 MARCH 2013
DAVID BOWIE IS V and A launch party review: music event of the year
Review for the Morning Star: The vast lobby of the Victoria and Albert Museum had been turned into the sort of joint where beautiful young men and women press cocktails and bubbly onto you as soon as you walk in. Mini canapés appeared transported on futuristic illuminated platters like something out of the Korova Milk Bar in Clockwork Orange. Yes, here we were at the David Bowie Is launch party, surely the music event of 2013.
V and A MUSEUM until 11 August 2013
THURSDAY 14 MARCH 2013
WILKO JOHNSON at Camden Koko: review
Review for the Morning Star: Squeezing through the throng at the second of Wilko Johnson’s farewell gigs in London, it’s hard not to imagine those men of a certain age – outnumbering the women six to one – in their youthful glory. Portly blokes who’d shared Johnson’s career from his early days with pub-rock kings Dr Feelgood to his emergence as a bona fide TV star in Game of Thrones crowded into the mosh pit and allowed their inner skinny selves one last pogo with their doomed hero.
WEDNESDAY 13 MARCH 2013
MEDEA at ENO review: misogyny, “Other” and “a devilish disturbance in the cosmic balance”
Review for the Morning Star: The dusky woman outcast mistrusted for her talents is an old, old story that’s still around today. It’s curious how many operas feature women who are outcasts in some way. Carmen, Turandot, Violetta in La Traviata and Cho Cho San in Madam Butterfly transgress social norms and have to be punished for it. ENO presents the first British production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 17th-century French baroque opera Medea, which has perhaps the ballsiest tragic outcast heroine of them all, bringing intellect and magical powers to the mix.
SUNDAY 3 MARCH 2013
DREAMS THAT DIE: misadventures in Hollywood by John Wight book review:
In Dreams That Die, lefty journalist John Wight tells a good yarn very well, which is to be expected from a budding screenwriter who had the nerve to take off for Hollywood Mecca with nothing but a script and a few hundred quid to his name. He’s punched out bullies at the Mondrian Skybar; been trapped in an enclosed space with Matt LeBlanc and his methane emissions without so much as a “how d’ya do?”; worked as Ben Affleck’s movie stand-in; and guarded Jimmy Hoffa Junior in the midst of a Teamsters union war. He’s been an extra in Friends, Alias, ER and CSI among a slew of TV series.He also got stuck into the American anti-Iraq war movement after 9/11, helping to organise events, culminating in the huge 70,000 strong San Francisco demonstration in 2003.
FRIDAY 22 FEBRUARY 2013
East Asian actors show the way forward in Border Crossings CONSUMED
Review published in the Morning Star: A tale of lost love, miscommunication, betrayal and money, Consumed is theatre for grown-ups. It stands light years above the usual rinky-dink ghettoised east Asian offerings seen in British theatre, with layer upon layer of meaning suffusing this devised multi-media play. Director Michael Walling, whose conception this is, brings a delicate Tarkovskyesque pace to the stage; its slow full emptiness is a refreshing palate-cleanser for audiences bored with productions that skitter along the surface. Set in modern-day Shanghai where fortunes are to be made through ruthless enterprise, British businessman John Bartholemew (Serge Soric) strikes up a fancy for Su Chen (Song Ruhui) and pursues his “shanghai dot beauty” on Skype with the connivance of business acquaintance Tong Zheng (Ning Li) acting as interpreter.
THURSDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2012
The Orphan of Zhao: theatre review
Sometimes it’s useful being the barbarian at the gate. This “outsider” role has been imposed on British east Asians by top-ranking arts institutions for far too long, so don’t blame us when we warm to it. “Normal” roles are denied us unless they’re race-specific with a “Chinese connection”, and sharp white elbows mean we often don’t even get those. The welcome policy shift towards cross-racial casting — intended to give ethnic minorities a fair share of parts, representing British society in all its glorious variety — has led instead to one-way traffic and exciting new opportunities for white actors to scarf up the juiciest Chinese parts. … Aladdin for middle-class grown-ups.
ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: SWAN THEATRE
SUNDAY 28 JULY 2012
Well done Danny Boyle: reading the London Olympics opening ceremony 2012
I’m not so sure Danny Boyle’s expected establishment gong is as much of a dead cert as pundits assume now we’ve had a chance to unpack the movie director’s critical state-of-the-nation London Olympics narrative. Last night’s £27m opening extravaganza temporarily won me over from furious cynicism following the games’ hijacking by Locog’s pet corporations and their civil rights clampdown.
LONDON OLYMPICS 2012
THURSDAY 17 MAY 2012
Smoke and mirrors: The Opium War by Julia Lovell, book review
It’s difficult to relax into the rollicking story that’s fighting to get out as you are constantly poked in the ear with the author’s “they made us do it” mantra. Lovell is much stronger when she tells the story straight and without pro-imperialist spin, but it is largely marred by an unfortunate sneering tone which plays to a gallery of prejudice and jingoism, a Great Wall that will keep out any reader whose bigotry is not being fed. This is a shame because she has done a formidable job by laying out the story in so much riveting detail.
WEDNESDAY 16 MAY 2012
Titus Andronicus at the Globe: review
With the scarcity of east Asian faces in British culture, this past week has been a revelation for London’s theatre-goers. An appetite for Chinese performance yielded almost capacity audiences and praise for both the National Theatre of China’s Richard III in Mandarin and the Hong Kong Titus Andronicus in Cantonese at the Globe Theatre’s Shakespeare festival. Director Tang Shuwing’s minimalist physicalised approach eschews the Mandarin production’s Beijing Opera and kung-fu, bringing us a pared-down version closer to Tang’s Parisien theatre training.
Thursday 3 MAY 2012
Richard III from China at the Globe: theatre review
Their stunning costumes may have been languishing in a container ship just off Felixtowe, but even if the cast had been wearing sackcloth, rather than a wardrobe hastily assembled from the bowels of the Globe Theatre, it wouldn’t have diminished the fire of Wang Xiaoying’s exhilarating production of Richard III. The National Theatre of China makes Beijing-Opera-meets-Shakespeare every bit as exciting as you could imagine this history refracted through Chinese sensibilities and performed in Mandarin.
Friday 27 April 2012
Ai Weiwei’s cactus and crab packs political punch
Ai Weiwei has another work on show in London: a living sculpture, “The Box”, consisting of a crab and a cactus in the small confined space of a white box (the artist has been incarcerated for months at a time in China) is at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery from today. As with the box, the significance of the prickly cactus is fairly easy to work out but what some Western commentators may me missing is what the crab may mean, especially if it turns out to be a river crab.
PIPPY HOULDSWORTH GALLERY
Thursday 19 April 2012
Black T-Shirt Collection: National Theatre Cottesloe
In Inua Ellam’s 75-minute monologue about how to be successful whilst keeping your soul unsullied, Matthew and Muhammed, two Nigerian foster-brothers from across the Muslim-Christian divide, set up their eponymous Black T-shirt Collection, a hip clothing venture which begins with a kick in the chest and ends with something far nastier. Their upwardly-mobile journey takes them from the streets of Nigeria, (via the swanky scotch-and-Ribena set) to Egypt, consumerist Europe and sweatshop China.
NATIONAL THEATRE COTTESLOE
Friday 23 March 2012
Reading art: Li Tianbing exhibition
I quite fancy going to see the exhibition of Li Tianbing’s paitings being shown at the Stephen Friedman Gallery. … What struck me is what he’s saying in the picture. Where are the official pamphlets being held? Think of the Three Wise Monkeys and see how the paper is held, left to right, over the mouth, the ears, almost over the eyes which are almost obscured, and then, adding a new figure, the boy who is standing holds his pamphlet over his head: think no evil. Or just: don’t think.
STEPHEN FRIEDMAN GALLERY
Saturday 25 June 2011
Takeaway: Theatre Royal Stratford East
The cast were fab, the energy level of the production was sky-high, but why was all that talent wasted on a heartless non-story about such an unsympathetic character? Takeaway, a musical touted by some as a long-awaited breakthrough for UK Chinese, is a delight in so many ways that it’s sad to report that where it failed, it bombed big time. … Lee has cast his net across the culture and trawled a haul of lurid clichés which he plonks almost wholly unmediated on the stage. As I’ve said before, restating stereotypes is not the same as subverting them, and the show shoves one long tidal-wave of negative depictions at us, albeit dressed up cute. It’s not the size of the stereotypes, hun, it’s what you do with them.
THEATRE ROYAL STRATFORD EAST
Thursday 10th March 2011
Working for the clampdown: Niall Feguson’s testosterone theory of history
‘Dominate, dominate, dominate.’ No, not an S&M dalek, but Niall Ferguson on the telly. I lost count of how many times this word, or variations thereof, came up in the first five minutes of Episode One of Ferguson’s Channel 4 series, Civilisation: Is the West History? … READ MORE
CHANNEL 4 TELEVISION
Thursday 27 January 2011
Militarised Hamlet at the National Theatre
A fighter plane roars overhead. Lights come up on a bleak black-and-white Elsinore Castle. Soldiers in camouflage strike the familiar high-shouldered automatic rifle-toting power-pose so beloved of army recruitment ads, sorry, TV & movies. Who needs a bare bodkin when a Bullpup SA80 can do the job? …
Wednesday 17 November 2010
Hungry Ghosts theatre review: China from the outside
Director/playwright Tim Luscombe sets out his agenda in the programme for Hungry Ghosts, his new play about human rights in China. Whatever you may think of the Chinese government, not even the hardest-hearted of cold warriors considers the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest a serious threat to the continuing power of the ruling Communist party. …
ORANGE TREE THEATRE, RICHMOND
Monday 25 October 2010
Gauguin at the Tate review: Derek & Clive go to the pictures
I finally saw the Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) exhibition at the Tate Modern yesterday and, yep, it had more breasts than a Bernard Matthews turkey farm. It’s an interesting look at a former impressionist who predates Matisse in his use of colour and the surface plane of the canvas. Murkier than the great colourist or even Van Gogh en masse, the subject matter was also a bit more, er, limited? A tiny tad “one note’, shall we say? All T & A, or, for variety, T or A. As my lovely companion observed, the arses follow you around the room. …
ART, TATE MODERN
Sunday 1 August 2010
Sherlock and wily orientals: The Blind Banker, Episode 2
I did wonder why a modern young Chinese Miss would be wearing a chipao frock in present-day London, but Loved One sniffed that she needed it for her job entrancing the tourists and demanded to know why didn’t I do tranquility and ancient wisdom like writer Stephen Thompson’s creation? After yelling that I am frikkin’ peaceful when not being wound up, I admiringly noted her noble struggle with the accent … A sort of error of the tongues. …
Saturday 31 July 2010
Call Mr Robeson review: a Black star in Britain
British-Nigerian actor/writer/singer Tayo [Aluko] tells the story of the black hero to perfection. Excelling at whatever he touched, this son of a former slave went from sports luminary to law graduate before achieving recording success as a singer in the 1920s and graduating to major roles in movies including Show Boat, Sanders Of The River and Emperor Jones. There’s not one ounce of fat in this well-paced tale of the first black American singing superstar, scholar, socialist and internationalist. …
RICH MIX THEATRE
Sunday 4 July 2010
Undercover Boss and Gok Wan’s Fashion Fix TV
Watching Alan Sugar and Donald Trump treating their employees like bad pets as they compete for the right to serve their masters like the most loyal hounds ever is pretty sickening, but at least it’s honest. Now the Masters Of The Universe are slipping in beneath our defences as they try to win over the hearts and minds of any remaining doubters. … the programme presents the Boss as someone on our side, whatever their real priorities as revealed in the blurb. …
CHANNEL 4 TELEVISION
Friday, 18 June 2010
Karate Kid does kung fu: 2010 remake courts China
Jaden looks cute as a button and brought a lump to my throat (no, not used food!) as this little underpuppy, out of his own safe US home environment, has to vanquish the Chinese bullies who are making his life such a misery. Whacks on, whacks off. …
Monday, 26 April 2010
What A Carve Up! review: ‘a point where greed and madness can no longer be told apart’
It’s this lunacy that drives the plot engine of Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up!, and about which he is so viscerally angry. In his 1994 novel, Coe compresses the criminal class running the country — and the world — into one sociopathic, homicidal, fratricidal family: the Winshaws. …
Tuesday, 30 March 2010
1000 Ways To Die review: lurid, shocking, gruesome TV
Has anyone else stumbled across the Bravo cable TV show, 1,000 Ways To Die? It’s a sweet little offering from the US, re-enacting the weirdest ways people have met their end — usually prime contenders for the Darwin Awards.
BRAVO CHANNEL, CABLE TELEVISION
Friday, 26 March 2010
Alice In Wonderland review: Disney and the Opium Wars
Laid on with a shovel, Alice’s anachronistic feminist feistiness may have been irritating as an unconvincing attitude which was not so much seeing the age refracted through modern eyes, as completely rewriting history. But, in a great Tim Burton sleight-of-hand, there was something else going on which seems to have bypassed the studio execs. …
Saturday 6 March 2010
Spirit Warriors review: Chinese talent alert
“Since the creation of Yin and Yang there has been the Spirit World filled with magic and myth, protected by five warriors,” so quoth the dragon laying out the show’s franchise in its opening moments. Their quest is to collect twelve jade McGuffins and save the universe along with the girls’ mother, who has sent them into the other world in Episode 1. …
Friday, 19 February 2010
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
Writers: Tom Stoppard, André Previn (music)
Dir: Felix Barrett and Tom Morris
This may have been cold-war commie-bashing but it was superior cold-war commie-bashing. … [Stoppard} can flip from axioms of Euclid to some wonderfully bad puns about harps being “plucky” and throwing a trombone to the dog, and all within an informed argument on the brutality of the Soviet state towards dissenters. …
Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Wilko Johnson gig and Oil City Confidential premiere at Koko’s, Camden
Video and review
Last night’s premiere of Julien Temple’s Dr Feelgood documentary, Oil City Confidential, was stunning, a combination of movie screening and Wilko Johnson gig simultaneously beamed from a packed Koko’s in Camden to 40 plus venues across the UK. …
KOKO’S CAMDEN, MUSIC, FILM
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Apocalypse Wow! 2012 film review
Caught the blockbuster disaster movie 2012 last night having been attracted by the wall-size cut-outs of California tipping into the sea on display at my local Odeon. Hollywood does the date-sensitive apocalypse predicted by various sects and dishes up a full meat feast for the eyes. …
Wednesday, 28 October 2009
The Noisettes review: “Atticus” and Shingai’s death-defying balcony scene at Shepherds Bush Empire
Video and review
The band opened with Don’t Upset the Rhythm and singer Shingai Shoniwa cavorting on top of a silver-draped platform in an explosive blaze of light under a giant scarlet love-heart. A wild leap onto the stage began Wild Young Hearts, then Don’t Give Up, the first track off their first album. …
SHEPHERDS BUSH EMPIRE, MUSIC
Friday, 9 October 2009
Chinese serial killer tamed: Turandot first night review
Puccini gives us the other half of his Orientalist pairing in the opera Turandot, first performed in 1926. Having sweetened up audiences with Madama Butterfly’s selfless lotus blossom character, he shocks the bourgeoisie with a tale of a wicked serial-killer Princess who kills her innocent male suitors when they fail to answer her three riddles. …
ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA, LONDON COLOSSEUM
Tuesday, 6 October 2009
Mott The Hoople Hammersmith Apollo review: Madam Miaow ligs backstage
But what got me bopping along was when they reached the poppier favourites — All the Way From Memphis, Roll Away The Stone, and that glorious hit written by Bowie, All The Young Dudes. Note that Ian (a lively 70) has Billy rapping “about his suicide, how he’d kick it in the head when was ninety-five,” and not twenty-five any more. Tee, hee! …
HAMMERSMITH APOLLO, MUSIC