Not the Olympics: The critics’ pick of the best non-Olympic events

The eyes of the world are on the London Olympics, but the sporting events don't have all the stars. Radar's critics present a guide to the best cultural events across the country in the coming weeks

Click to follow
The Independent Culture


Comedy, by Julian Hall

For comics, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival means that every year is an Olympic effort. The comedy gold on offer could be anything from beating a personal best performance, jumping the required height for a TV deal or, for those eligible, scooping the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award.

Among the runners and riders I will be watching there this year is Mark Watson (Assembly George Square, 1-27 August), a previous purveyor of marathon comedy shows. Post-Games, Watson will also bring his Edinbrolympics to the Pleasance (15-21 August), pitting international teams of comedians against each other in activities that the International Olympic Committee would be unlikely to recognise.

In the remaining seven lanes I would place Daniel Kitson (if indeed you can catch him: he's already sold out at The Stand, 5-26 August); Andrew Maxwell (Assembly George Square, 1-27 August); Marcus Brigstocke (Assembly Hall, 2-25 August); previous Foster's Comedy Award gold medallist Russell Kane (Assembly Rooms Fringe, 13-24 August); Phill Jupitus (1-27 August at The Stand); the return of Lucy Porter (3-26 August at The Stand); and the ever more confident contender Susan Calman (1-27 August, Underbelly Bristo Square).

If comedy's own Olympics seems too competitive, too busy and too expensive to contemplate, then the best "alternative alternative" is to be found at London's Soho Theatre. This year, two comedians recently feted in Australia, Matt Okine and the American-Singaporian Ronny Chieng, are over to test the water. They are joined by the underrated homegrown talent of Paul Sinha, who this year takes a well deserved rest after putting together a string of intelligent Fringe shows.

Dance, by Zoe Anderson

Einstein called dancers "athletes of god". If you've had enough of the sporting kind, dance offers trained bodies moving in search of something other than medals. There's fairytale romance in English National Ballet's appealing production of Swan Lake. Returning to the London Coliseum, it has swans flocking by the lakeside and Tchaikovsky at the ready (3-11 August). There are several casts, including ENB's star couple Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov.

Dance at the Edinburgh Fringe goes to other extremes. Having fled Riverdance and found fame on YouTube, cabaret dance duo Up & Over It are now dancing Back on Our Feet. Their pop response to the Irish dance juggernaut mixes comedy, contemporary dance and hand-dancing (Assembly George Square, 2-26 August). Flash Mob (Assembly Hall, 2-27 August) brings together stars of various reality dance shows – including the marvellous, Olivier-nominated Tommy Franzé*. Dance at the Edinburgh International Festival kicks off with Tatyana, a contemporary dance retelling of Eugene Onegin by the athletic company of Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker (Edinburgh Playhouse, 11-14 August).

Matthew Bourne's Play without Words (Sadler's Wells, London until 5 August; Theatre Royal, Norwich, 7-11 August) shows dance at its most character-driven. Based on Joseph Losey's film The Servant, and drawing on other early-1960s British films, it depicts London in upheaval, with class certainties crumbling under the pressures of sex and ambition. There's worlds of repression and lust in the way Bourne's dancers stand or look at each other. The staging is brilliantly witty, with clever period detail in Lez Brotherston's designs and a haunting jazz score by Terry Davies. The movement tells you everything, from the abandon of love duets to the eloquent shift of a fingertip.

Films, by Geoffrey Macnab

The Hollywood studios are largely keeping their powder dry throughout the next fortnight, leaving the stage to the Olympics and to The Dark Knight Rises. (The Bourne Legacy and Pixar's Highland romp Brave will both blitz cinemas on 13 August, hours after the Olympic closing ceremony). However, there are still plenty of new releases and film-related activities, including children's movies (Dog Days is the latest in the ever improving Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise) and plenty of independent films. In London, the Curzon Cinemas are introducing their Curzon Twelve with the logo "Enjoy a break from sport this summer". Films they will be releasing include Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about the Chinese artist and activist, and Eames: The Artist And The Painter, a profile of Ray and Charles Eames. Also hitting British cinemas is Hong Kong director An Hui's A Simple Life, a tearjerker about an elderly maid who falls sick and is tended by her former master.

The BFI's ongoing season, The Genius of Hitchcock, continues with screenings of some of his greatest movies and there are outdoor screenings throughout August – for example Silent Cinema London at St Martins Courtyard (8-9 August) and outdoor film screenings at Syon Park (9-12 August). Meanwhile, forget Bolt v Blake, on 1 August, Sight and Sound Magazine announces its once-in-a-decade critics' poll, "The Greatest Films of All Time."

Television, by Gerard Gilbert

Capitulation might be the word for the other channels' response to the BBC's Olympics monopoly. Perhaps they thought it unpatriotic to take the limelight from London's Games, or, more likely, this is what broadcasters' late July/early August TV schedules usually look like. As far as new drama is concerned, you might as well break open that box-set you've been saving, although there are some good documentaries over the coming weeks. In James Fox's ongoing series A History of Art in Three Colours (Wednesdays, 9pm BBC4), we learn that the Ancient Greeks didn't have a word for blue. Next they'll be telling us they didn't have a word for Monday.

The Midwives (Tuesdays, 9pm BBC2) goes inside one of Britain's busiest labour wards – at St Mary's in Manchester – where desperate women wander about groaning, while seen-it-all-before health professionals say things like "she needs to have some more pain before labour starts". Amish: a Secret Life (2 August, 9pm BBC2) throws up questions of broadcasting ethics. If filming Amish people might result in their exclusion from their community, should you go ahead and do it? Soham: a Parents' Tale (3 August, 9pm ITV1) marks a sombre anniversary – the tenth since Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells were murdered – as Wells' parents tell how they have tried to rebuild their lives.

Comedy is thin on the ground unless you happen to have a satellite dish, in which case Veep, Alan Partridge's Mid-Morning Matters and This Is Jinsy continue on Sky Atlantic. Cookery TV is well served by Channel 4 newbie Simply Italian (Mondays at 8.30pm) in which Welsh-Italian Michela Chiappa takes the fear out of homemade pasta, although The Hairy Dieters: How to Love Food and Lose Weight (Thursdays on BBC2) may be a case of having your cake (and pie and chips) and eating it. And last, but not least, the Olympics is not the only global festival in town. Although there are no special motorway lanes open for the Proms, selected concerts continue on BBC2 and BBC4.

Theatre, by Paul Taylor

For those in search of a thoroughgoing antidote to the Games, the Royal Shakespeare Company has just the ticket. It may feature Ancient Greeks, but Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare's brilliant and most cynical play, is comprehensively devoid of the Olympic spirit, as both sides fight dirty in the Trojan War. This Anglo-American co-production – in which the RSC will join forces with the famed New York-based experimental Wooster Group – is at Stratford's Swan Theatre.

Meanwhile, for those of us suffering from a surfeit of booming Boris, Soho Cinders at Soho Theatre from 3 August, will provide a relief of sorts. This new musical is a satirical modern makeover of the Cinderella story. Prince Charming is re-imagined as a closet gay mayoral candidate with a fiancee; Cinders is the struggling law-student and part time male escort with whom he becomes romantically involved. Expect fur to fly.

I am looking forward to seeing how, in his new adaptation in the Cottesloe, the ubiquitous Simon Stephens takes on the extraordinary brain of the 15-year-old boy who narrates Mark Haddon's bleakly humorous novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I am also highly intrigued by the latest RSC Much Ado About Nothing, staged in the Courtyard Theatre, set in India, and with Meera Syal (below) as Beatrice.

Lastly, I intend to catch Terry Johnson's revival of his own brilliant 1993 play, Hysteria, starring Antony Sher, at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

Classical Music, by Michael Church

Getting to the Proms may be difficult through gridlocked streets, but they will offer sweet relief from the general madness. The one I most look forward to is of Bach's Mass in B minor (1 August), partly because it's the greatest choral work ever written, and partly thanks to its stunning line-up of soloists, including tenor Ed Lyon and that peerless counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. Other Proms highlights will take place at the Cadogan Hall (whose acoustic is infinitely better than the Albert Hall's): theorbo-queen Christina Pluhar will lead her L'Arpeggiata ensemble in a concert of Baroque music composed in the Tarantella mode (30 July), and Kristjan Jarvi will lead seven Welsh choirs in a performance of Bernstein's Mass (6 August).

I also intend to make a trip down to idyllic Dartington Hall (21 July-25 August) in Devon, where the annual summer school will be in full swing; amateurs rub shoulders with top professionals in the instrumental master-classes, with formal concerts late into the night. And I hope to catch a new Opera North production of Janacek's The Makropoulos Case at the Edinburgh Festival (11 August): with Ylva Kihlberg as Emilia Marty, Paul Nilon as Albert Gregor, and Tom Cairns directing, the omens are excellent. Meanwhile, at Glyndebourne, Laurent Pelly's new Ravel double-bill – L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortileges (4 August) – vaut le voyage.

Like many Londoners, I'm getting the hell out for the first few Olympic days, and will watch the runners and jumpers between attending concerts at the Verbier Festival in the Francophone Swiss Alps (to 5 August), where Alice Sara Ott, Yuja Wang and Pink Martini will be doing their stuff.

Gigs, by Elisa Bray

The bulk of this fortnight's most enticing gigs are taking place in Hyde Park as part of the Olympics celebrations, with giant screens so nobody misses out on the activities. But some are taking place as normal without such distractions. Converse are running a series of big-name gigs at the 100 Club in London, including Plan B (30 July), Blur (2 August), the dream trio of Paul Weller, Spiritualized and rockers Japandroids (1 August), Nas (10 August) and the rightly-hyped psych-pop quartet Django Django (7 August), among others.

Morrissey returns to Manchester for a rare show (tonight) before playing Edinburgh, and there's a chance to hear Eugene McGuinness playing songs from his excellent new album at London's Corsica Studios (3 August). Otherwise, north London's Forum is where it's at, with dub reggae seven-piece Fat Freddy's Drop (4 August) and Public Image Ltd (11 August), where you're certain to be safe from any Olympian celebrations: John Lydon snubbed the Games when he refused to play with the Sex Pistols at the closing ceremony because they would have been censored. "We didn't want nothing to do with them," he told Billboard.

Radio, by Fiona Sturges

Radio producers may have missed a trick in not hitting the "Waffling Sports Commentary" button, filling a suitcase with factor 50 and hot-footing it to Magaluf for the next three weeks. But their decision to stay at work is good news for those of us who have decided to tough out the Olympics by refusing to leave the house.

Among the many rescue packages on offer is Amanda Vickery On… Men (6.30pm, 6 August, Radio 4), in which the historian explores masculinity through the centuries, starting with the armour-clad archetype of The Knight. Matthew Sweet will resume his place behind the bar at The Philosopher's Arms (9am, 6 August, Radio 4), the series in which big questions are tackled in a relaxed, accessible manner. In A Long, Long Time Ago (9pm, 1 August, Radio 2), Paul Gambaccini looks at the life of Don McLean, a man destined to a lifetime of talking about his epoch-making song "American Pie".

6 Music and Radio 1Xtra will begin a season of programmes marking 50 years of Jamaican independence. Colin Grant's documentary Wheel and Come Again (12pm, 5 August, 6 Music) will look at the evolution of Jamaican music, while on 6 August, the day of the anniversary, 1 Xtra will be devoting the entire schedule to all things Jamaican. Elsewhere, in Indian Britain (9pm, 8 August, Radio 2) Hardeep Singh Kohli embarks on a road trip to gauge how British and Indian cultures have integrated since Indian independence 65 years ago, beginning his journey in Southall, affectionately known as "Little India".

Visual Arts, by Adrian Hamilton

Sunny days, a countryside green from the rain and a world departing on holiday. The Olympics are just an added reason to leave the capital. I will hie me to Bath, where the excellent Holburne has an exhibition on three dimensional portraits, Presence: The Art of Portrait Sculpture; the undervalued American Museum has a fine show of photographs, By Way of These Eyes: The Hyland Collection of American Photography; the Theatre Royal has Anthony Sher in Terry Johnson's comedy about Freud, Hysteria; and little, pretty Lyford Manor has Handel's Susanna as part of its opera season.

If the weather holds, there are days out to enjoy the playfulness of art with the wit of Joan Miro in Miro: Sculptor at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; Stanley Spencer's even quirkier works at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham; and Peter Blake's brash and stirring designs for the Beatles and others in Peter Blake: Pop Music at Pallant House in Chichester.

Not much on television if the rain returns, particularly as the BBC (spiteful things) have ended the best programmes for non-sporting viewers, Shakespeare's Henry plays and the astonishingly violent but gripping In the Line of Duty, just as the Olympics start. Still, there's the Swedish Wallander, with the original actor, Rolf Lassgard, returning to BBC4 on Saturday nights to remind one just how these dark police dramas should be done.

Festivals, by Andy Gill

If getting as far away from both the actual Olympics™ and the Olympic Spirit™ in general is your aim over the next few weeks, then the Bloodstock Festival (10-12 August) near Chesterfield may be just the thing for you: a weekend of depraved dissipation in the company of metal giants Alice Cooper, Sepultura, Dimmu Borgir, Behemoth and the lovely Deicide. If you're less antagonistically inclined, the Wilderness Festival that same weekend in Oxfordshire's Cornbury Park might be preferable, offering the relaxed delights of the always-brilliant Wilco, plus Spiritualized and Fatoumata Diawara, in rustic surroundings. Or maybe you'd prefer to hang ten with Ed Sheeran, Dizzee Rascal, The Ting Tings, Maverick Sabre and Maximo Park down at the Relentless Boardmasters Festival in Newquay, also that same weekend?

For capital-bound punters, two other festival seasons provide the most enticing alternatives to strenuous sporting endeavour. The Jamaica 50 Festival, celebrating the island's independence, offers a series of shows between 31 July and 6 August at the Indigo2, featuring authentic reggae royalty – Toots & the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, John Holt, Mutabaruka, Mighty Diamonds, The Abyssinians and Leroy Sibbles from The Heptones – along with homegrown talents Benjamin Zephania and Natty. The Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre, with a programme curated by Antony Hegarty, meanwhile, is particularly notable for its outstanding line-up of strong female performers who don't need skintight lycra to exercise their power – among them Joan As Police Woman, Laurie Anderson, former Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, oddball duo Coco Rosie, Diamanda Galas and the omni-talented Buffy Sainte-Marie (Southbank Centre, 3-12 August).