Voices raised in protest - but ever so politely

CLASSICAL Passages Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Good idea in principle; naff in practice. For Wednesday's concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Women's Playhouse Trust had brought together a collection of women writers, composers, a visual artist, a director and sundry performers to create a contemporary response to the obscenity of war, racism, dispossession and displacement.

Passages, comprising 20 newly commissioned songs, was the result, performed end to end in two parts. But why should the effect have been so muted? Was it the dominating presence of an enormous, white, bed-like structure - slightly Ikea-style, but also reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg's soft sculptures - on which the five women singers swayed and tottered? Surely not the surface for angry protestation or passionate discourse. And the "politeness" of the QEH seemed so desperately at odds with the subject matter - isn't Passages a show for angry, empty warehouses where tickets are cheap and the communication simple? Two-foot-square programmes (at pounds 4 a shot) do nothing but aggravate adjacent punters, and text that requires a magnifying glass is not best served by low lights. In the Stygian gloom, poets' and composers' names were impossible to decipher and poems impossible to read - hardly the stuff of earnest protest. For this seemed to be the problem - the basics, like the need to hear words, had all been forgotten. Time and time again, into a black hole went those words, a pity since the poets included some well-known names: Katie Campbell, Jackie Kay, Deborah Levy and Jo Shapcott.

The roll-call of composers - Ruth Byrchmore, Jane Gardner, Priti Paintal, Roxanna Panufnik, Ilona Sekacz and Errollyn Wallen - should have provided considerable variation. But the final outcome, with scarcely an exception, was a deadening similarity. The estimable Endymion Ensemble, with whom the WPT has successfully collaborated in the past, provided a set sound - in the main jazzy - with clarinet/sax, percussion, piano/synthesiser, string bass/electric guitar, violin/viola and gamelan, which contributed to the monotony. Ilona Sekacz's "Eight Gallons of Water" (text by Katie Campbell) stood out for its melancholy, meandering round a slow waltz, picked out on synthesiser, as four women sang to each other atop the bales of the bed, like some perverse haystack.

"This Little Piggy" by Jane Gardner, again to a text by Katie Campbell, attempted to harness the terror and dislocated pain of confrontation with faceless bureaucracy; Jenny Miller was a touching proponent. "The Old Nag Explains Herself" (text by Jo Shapcott, music by Ruth Byrchmore) seemed heartfelt, but what was being sung? "Shit in Her Eyes", by the most gifted of the crowd, Errollyn Wallen, to a text by Deborah Levy, began the second half, raunchily sporting Angie Brown in high-energy rock mode. But lit in red? A little cliched, perhaps. And what standard props: battered suitcases, battered shoes, black trenchcoats, white head-scarves. Here was tabloid politics, bereft of satire, lacking in bite, a cry too far from the bitter worlds of Weill, Eisler or Shostakovich.

Wasfi Kani conducted; Jules Wright directed; other (able) singers were Ann-Marie Sands, Lynne Davies, Tinuke Olafimihan, Angie Brown and Hyacinth Nicholls.