Friday 3 November 2023

An evening of wit, delight and magic: Silent Slapsticks at The Ritzy with Brixton Chamber Orchestra

Matthew O'Keeffe and the Brixton Chamber Orchestra at The Ritzy, Brixton
Matthew O'Keeffe and the Brixton Chamber Orchestra at The Ritzy, Brixton

Film Orchestrated: Silent Slapsticks, Misha Mullov-Abbado, Matthew O'Keeffe; Brixton Chamber Orchestra, Matthew O'Keefe; Ritzy Cinema, Brixton
Reviewed 2 November 2023

Classic silent films from the 19th century through to the 1920s, provided with vividly engaging live soundtracks including some improvisation in an evening of wit, delight and sheer magic.

The Ritzy cinema in Brixton was built in 1911, one of England's first purpose-built cinemas and as such, designed for films to be shown with live music. We are used to modern blockbuster films appearing in the concert hall with live orchestral scores but the era of Thames Silents, with Carl Davis conducting a huge score to accompany a major silent film, seems to be over. The Ritzy's Film Orchestrated series aims to reclaim that. 

For the latest instalment, Silent Slapsticks, the Brixton Chamber Orchestra, music director Matthew O'Keeffe, was on hand to provide accompaniment to a compilation of early shorts, Buster Keaton's The Goat, Charlie Chaplin's Behind the Screen, Douglas Fairbanks' The Mark of Zorro and a surprise addition that brought the programme into the present day. Misha Mullov-Abbado, who played double bass in the orchestra, provided the new soundtracks for the compilation of shorts and for the Chaplin, Matthew O'Keeffe provided the new soundtrack for the Buster Keaton, and the Fairbanks' film had an improvised accompaniment. The comedian Darran Griffiths was compere, providing a lively introduction and link passages, as well as giving an improvised mis-commentary for The Mark of Zorro. But his role was rather increased due to technical problems and he rose to the occasion.

The orchestra numbered around fifteen, single strings, woodwind and brass, plus keyboard, and percussion, filling the pit and overflowing onto the stage. We began with a lively account of the Dance of the Comedians from Smetana's The Bartered Bride, a chamber account of the piece but full of character.

The reel of early shorts included some seriously early ones, including some from the late 19th century and ones made in the the UK. There was Lambeth-born Charlie Chaplin's first appearance as The Little Tramp (and he might be a tramp but his clothes were very stylish), but also footage of Little Tich doing his Big-Boot Dance (filmed at the Phono-Cinéma-Théatre, France in 1900 and thought to be the only footage of Little Tich on stage). Mullov-Abbado's score was delightfully lively and varied, not calling too much attention to itself and providing witty and imaginatively scored commentary and soundtrack.

Little Tich midway through a performance of the Big-Boot Dance
Little Tich midway through a performance of the Big-Boot Dance
For Buster Keaton's The Goat (the name referring to scapegoat rather than animal), made in 1922, a loose thread of plot held together a series of disparate scenes including the usual chases. Matthew O'Keeffe's score brought in a series of witty contemporary musical references to underscore the action. And with all the soundtracks, the music and the musicians had to turn on a pin as the films kept a dazzling pace with a bravura element in the way mood could change quickly. Having live music really brought a depth and excitement to the film.

Mullov-Abbado also provided the score to Charlie Chaplin's Behind the Screen from 1916, a satire on film-making itself and something of a dig at Chaplin's previous boss Mack Sennett, including the first ever mass custard pie fight, as well as a strike by the film workers, and an amorous dalliance for Chaplin's The Little Tramp and Edna Purviance. A visual and aural delight.

The Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks and Noah Beery was the first film version of The Mark of Zorro (with a screenplay adapted by Fairbanks). It was the first film released through United Artists, the company formed by Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith. 

The presentation at The Ritzy drew on early Japanese experience of cinema where benshii would provide live commentary. Here Darran Griffiths provided a witty mis-commentary, complete with a Brummie accent for Fairbanks' Zorro, alongside colourfully improvised music from the orchestra. 

We finished with a little delight that brought things into the present. A modern, black-and-white silent film shot in and around The Ritzy and starring Darran Griffith, The Electric Flea Pit. This was a lovely, witty reference to those early silent films yet using modern Brixton tropes, all with another improvised score.

The players of the orchestra worked hard throughout the evening, providing a vivid array of styles and effectively giving us an ensemble of soloists. A big word for conductor Matthew O'Keeffe who not only had to cope with the technical problems, but deftly kept music and films in complete synch.

An evening of wit, delight and magic. I certainly hope that they do it all again. 

Brixton Chamber Orchestra is back next month for an evening of Christmas Musical Bingo at Brixton Brewery Taproom (5/12/2023), and its annual Christmas Estates Tour, 13 free concerts across Lambeth from 8 to 21 December.

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