Dangerous to Know / Johnny Flynn and Robert Macfarlane: reviews

Dangerous to Know / Johnny Flynn and Robert Macfarlane: reviews

I’ve been very quiet over the past week or two, mostly because I’ve been away. For once it wasn’t a history or research trip although it isn’t going to surprise anybody to find that history found its way onto the itinerary very quickly. It’s been a while since I had a trip to the UK on my own, although most of it was spent with family and friends. It was very relaxing and I’m hoping to get over again in the summer.

I also got the opportunity for a bit of culture, so I thought I’d combine two reviews into one blog post. They’re very different but I thoroughly enjoyed both the play and the concert.

Dangerous to Know: a new play about the life and loves of Lord Byron

Lord Byron coloured drawing (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve written before about my love of Newstead Abbey, once the home of Lord Byron. My sister lives close by and I’ve visited a lot over the years. I will admit that I’m not a huge fan of Byron, either as a poet or a person but love him or loathe him, the  man is definitely interesting. 2024 is the 200th anniversary of his death, and there have been a number of commemorative events, largely organised by the Byron society.

It was pure coincidence that my visit was planned for this week, but it gave me the opportunity to attend one of these events. Dangerous to Know is a short play by Deborah Clair and is set in 1841, seventeen years after Byron’s death, with a meeting of Clair Clairmont, Byron’s former mistress and Mary Shelley, her half-sister.

The play was preceded by a Byron quiz. There were no Byron experts in my small group of family and friends; in fact I was the only one with a history background. That really didn’t help much as the quiz was designed for hard core Byron fans but it was fun to guess some of the answers and we discovered that Byron’s story was often far more unlikely than anything I could make up about him.

The play itself was excellent; well-written and brilliantly acted by the Clair Obscur Theatre. It was only about an hour long and consisted of a conversation between the two women who had each been close to Byron and who each saw him and his life from a different perspective. The historic building formed a wonderfully spooky backdrop to an intelligent play. I’d like to make special mention of the peacock who joined us at the window quite early on and punctuated the performance with its mournful cries. It definitely added a nice gothic touch.

I have to confess that the tragic story of Clairmont’s youthful affair with Byron and the subsequent death of their daughter in childhood didn’t really cause me to warm up to the man, but it was very well portrayed. I think having a good background knowledge of the story and the characters involved definitely helped. With a short play like this there’s no time to fill out the back story and I do wonder if it would have been as enjoyable if I hadn’t known at least an outline of Clair and Mary’s story. This was a preview performance and I would strongly recommend anybody who has the opportunity to see it in the future do at least a little background reading if you don’t already know who the characters are.

Having said that, I highly recommend that you do see it. In addition to the cleverly managed supernatural atmosphere, it is a touching story of love, loss and old friendships and it left me wanting to learn more about Byron and his inner circle. My only complaint was that on this occasion, it should have been held in a bigger room. It was extremely hot and crowded and there weren’t really enough seats. I suspect there was more interest than anticipated but it did detract a little from my enjoyment of the play. That was a minor point however and overall it was great.

I also recommend a visit to Newstead Abbey if you find yourself in the area. At present it is only open at weekends, although I have a feeling that changes during school holidays. The house is fascinating, the grounds are stunning and they run a really good programme of events throughout the year. It’s one of my favourite places and I suggest you give it a try.

Johnny Flynn and Robert Macfarlane Tour May 2024

Johnny Flynn by Drew de F Fawkes (Wikimedia Commons)

This brings me to the real reason I was in the UK last week. My daughter, who now lives near my sister, knows how to keep on the right side of me and managed to get tickets for the short tour of Johnny Flynn and Robert Macfarlane. They were performing songs from their two collaborative albums: Lost in the Cedar Wood and The Moon Also Rises.

Those who know me well have a lot to say about my tendency to get carried away on the subject of the talent of Johnny Flynn. Since a large number of them had never heard of him until I started boring them senseless on the subject, it’s possible my readers haven’t either. This is a pity because he’s amazing.

Flynn is a folk singer-songwriter-actor who seems to have an extraordinary ability to move between concerts, stage acting, TV comedy and film parts. I was first impressed with his deadpan performance as William Dobbin in Vanity Fair and then was introduced to his music by my daughter. Since then he’s gone from strength to strength. He’s one of those character actors that few people seem to have heard of and yet he pops up in everything.

I adored his portrayal of Mr Knightly in the most recent film version of Emma and loved him in the short comedy series the Lovers but I hadn’t realised just what a good actor he was until I saw him play Richard Burton on stage in London last year, opposite Mark Gatiss’ wonderful portrayal of Sir John Gielgud. The Motive and the Cue was completely brilliant and the two leads received rave reviews. I’ve only just discovered that there is a filmed performance of the play doing the rounds and I’m going to watch it again at King William’s College next month. If any of you get the opportunity to see it, I really recommend it. It’s an excellent play with a hugely talented cast.

To move on to his music, I spent a large part of lockdown discovering Flynn’s early albums and they’re now a regular background to my writing. More recently I’ve loved both his collaborations with Robert Macfarlane who is a travel and nature writer, a poet and a campaigner. Their first album, Lost in the Cedar Wood, was written during lockdown and their second, The Moon also Rises, was released earlier this year.

Flynn and Macfarlane’s 2024 tour has very few dates and I feel privileged to have managed to go to the opening concert at the Leeds Project House. At my advanced age I’m not much of a concert goer any more, but this one was so worth it. The show featured a full band along with the gorgeous vocals of Holly Holden. Flynn performed songs from both albums interspersed with Macfarlane reading related poems or stories.

This was so much more than just a concert. Setting aside the sheer brilliance of the music, this was storytelling at its best. The lighting was wonderful, creating an impression of green forests, deep rivers and mysterious caverns as the artists took us on a journey through the natural world, the past and the present. The music was haunting and exhilarating by turns and the audience gave the impression of being completely drawn in to a magical world in which themes of light, dark, life and death are skilfully woven together.

Concert goers in action…

I love Flynn’s voice as well as his song writing but I was genuinely amazed at just how good he sounded live. His voice and his playing are equally outstanding and his vocal range and control are wonderful. I really enjoy good music and I also appreciate a master story teller and according to my daughter I spent much of the concert bobbing about with an idiotic grin on my face. I suppose that’s an indication of a good night out. I’d really like to thank my girl for organising it, managing to take a few snippets of video for me to remember it by and for being an all round amazing human. 

I heard a few of the fans bemoaning the fact that he doesn’t tour more often but given his burgeoning career as a film, TV and stage actor I don’t suppose the man has time. I recently saw him play the young Nicholas Winton in One Life and I’m looking forward to watching him in the new Ripley series on Netflix. All the same, I think it’s as a singer-songwriter that I appreciate Johnny Flynn the most and I’ll be watching out for future concerts. If you like folk music and want a fantastic performance from a very talented artist I strongly recommend you do the same.

My adventure didn’t end here, as I managed to fit in some pottery painting, a visit to a children’s farm (at my age) and then to take the time on the way home to visit Heysham Village. That will all feature in my next blog post.