The Lady in the Van and Other Stories Review

Last night at the Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre, London, I attended a special one-off performance of film music by George Fenton, conducted by the man himself, entitled ‘Lady in the Van and Other Stories’. With the Philharmonia at his fingertips, pianist Clare Hammond as the soloist, and playwright, author and the man behind Lady in the Van, Alan Bennett as narrator, it looked like it would be a very interesting evening – and it certainly was that, but not always for the right reasons.

Many less film-score savvy amongst us will probably best know Fenton for his work as the composer to the original series of Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and Blue Planet, but from after yesterday’s concert it is clear that he is more than a one-trick-documentary-scoring pony. The theme of the concert was true stories, but this did not limit the scope of his music, with extracts of Fenton’s music performed in the concert ranging from animation (Valiant) to World War II documentary (Memphis Belle) to his latest project, BBC Predators (coming soon to IMAX cinemas in the UK). The concert also featured a collaboration with Alan Bennett, combining his spoken word readings with an orchestral underscore for the piece titled ‘untold stories’. Whilst individually I thought that both aspects of the composition had artistic merit, and were very interesting, I felt that combined they seemed somewhat disjointed from each other, like estranged brothers rather than twins.

That leads on to my main criticism of the concert – by combining extracts of music from a film over specially-edited montages, with both film footage and stills –  but not the scenes which the music was originally composed for, I felt that the two aspects of the compositions – the video and the music – did not gel in the way that the original score almost certainly did with the real films. The music for the most part was a triumph though, showing Fenton to be a true master of sweeping melody, orchestral timbres and thematic development, but the visuals left me slightly confused, as if trying to overhear two conversations at the same time, not knowing which to pay more attention to.

The Lady in the Van

Confusion aside, the finale of the first half of the concert, The Lady in the Van, was a fascinating story, with Alan Bennett regaling the audience with his experiences, in particular those with Miss Shepherd, aka the Lady in the Van. The snippets of dialogue interspersed with footage from the film scored by Fenton’s wonderful music, which sways from lighthearted to melancholic in the bat of an eye, was a pleasure to discover for the first time.

As a big fan of film music, I will always advocate for more film music concerts, but I think that there is scope for amending the delivery format, as for me I find film score extracts being performed live over original footage far more engaging. Having seen Fenton conducting live to film his Planet Earth and Blue Planet scores, for me this concert was a little disappointing, but this was mostly due to its delivery format rather than the content.

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