19 June 2017

Loving The Old Guard

It has probably been forty years since I've loved comics as much as I am now. Then the two main publishers, Marvel and DC, published a host of off-mainstream books like Warlock, Claw the Unconquered, Deathlok the Demolisher, The Warlord and Killraven, all by top class creators many of whom rose from these humble starts to become genuine stars, including Jim Starlin and P. Craig Russell.

This golden era is different in that it is the fringe publishers, notably Image, that are doing the interesting books while Marvel and DC are mired in constantly trying to refresh the dying superhero books. Another difference is that this time a lot of the good books are coming from established stars, like Brian Wood and Brian K. Vaughan.



The Old Guard interested me because it looked interesting visually and as a concept and because there was a lot of buzz around its launch. The barrier for entry to new comics is now very low, as soon as I hear about something that I like I can go online to buy it and the iPad means that I can read comics in any free moment. I currently have 89 books on my iPad waiting for free moments but that does not stop me buying more.

The Old Guard is very old in some cases. These are people who have lived for centuries, or millennia, simply because they cannot be killed very easily. Being almost immortal has brought them all together and made then successful mercenaries. Not a unique concept by any means but there is a lot more to the story than that and the story telling, words and pictures, is excellent. It is both a fun book and one that stands up to critical scrutiny.

The good news is that it is coming back for a second series, the bad news is that is in 2018.

17 June 2017

Excellent Hamlet at Glyndebourne

I did reasonably well in the ballot this year and got decent seats for all five operas that I applied for.

First up was Hamlet, a brand new opera by composer Brett Dean
and librettist Matthew Jocelyn. I was keen to see this because it was a new opera and, of course, with Hamlet at the core it was a dramatic story.

And Hamlet was the real winner here. I see a version of Hamlet probably at least once a year and some have been very different with, for example, a female lead or being set in a prison in Liverpool, and this version was as dramatic and as powerful as any of them.

This Hamlet, as many of them are, was somewhat abridged to fit into an opera a shade under three hours long and that produced a story with a succession of strong scenes with some of the frippery removed. Of course that frippery still works well in the spoken word through the poetry of the language but was not missed in a musical adaptation.

The strongest scene, and one of the most visually pleasing, was Ophelia's decent into madness as she sung of Hamlet's abandoned love while distributing flowers to everybody.

The music was as different and as startling as I had hoped, aided in no small measure by the unusual layout which included musicians on the top level who added both height and width to the sound. Sitting more-or-less in the middle I was impressed by the stereophonic effect of drum beats moving from left to right.

The tone was set at the very start with an abrupt opening, no promenade by the conductor first, that rumbled more than it sang. The music continued to be a succession of uncommon sounds and while it lacked the tunes that some may have been hoping for it carried the mood superbly and stayed well within the approachable limits of modern music.

The singing was exquisite as is the custom at Glyndebourne. Hamlet has a large supporting cast of strong characters including his father, Gertrude, Laertes, the previously praised Ophelia and, obviously, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who survived the English in this version. All of the soloists, were superb, not just the roles listed earlier. It was a beautiful performance.

Glyndebourne played its usual role in the excellent day with everything from a new pond in the garden, lots of new art and a jug of Pimms from the Long Bar.

It is precisely because of days like this that I keep going to Glyndebourne.

14 June 2017

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (June 2017)


The months seem to be whizzing past at the moment and every month has a second Wednesday and every second Wednesday there is a British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) social and I always go for the Czech and Slovak beers, the Czech food (always smazeny syr) and the conversations and camaraderie with the other people there.

June was just like every other month and that is a good thing. If it's not broken, don't fix it.

7 June 2017

Chummy at White Bear Theatre was a gripping tale brilliantly told


The new White Bear Theatre had forced itself onto my short list of regular theatres (others include Theatre503, Bush, Arcola, Union and Park) partially because of its proximity, it is a modest walk from Vauxhall, but mostly because I was enjoying the shows there. Chummy sounded like my sort of thing and so I made a fairly last-minute booking for a skimpy £15.

Chummy called itself a "gripping psychological thriller", and it was. And more than that, it was presented brilliantly with a good production (staging, movement, lighting, music, etc.) and an excellent cast of just three.

Jackie Straker (Megan Pemberton) was a Private Investigator with some familiar tropes; ex-police, single, hard drinker and with a disturbed background. It is no surprise that the writer, John Foster, has written a documentary on Raymond Chandler.

Jackie got a strange job from a nameless man who she called Chummy, a police nickname for criminals they were hunting. He wanted her to stop him from killing and he phoned her many times to explain how he felt and what he was planning to do.

The play revolved around the relationship between Jackie and Chummy as she tried to work out who he was, whether she knew him from a previous case, and how she could stop him. She spent most of the time in her small office on the phone to Chummy or going through papers looking for clues. He moved around unknown locations purposely, slowly and menacingly, lurking in the dark dressed entirely in black.

There was a dark sting in the story's dark tail and while I saw it coming it still stung hard when it came. The story was a proper thriller where I was keen to find out who Chummy was and why he wanted to kill. It was also genuinely gripping and deeply psychological. The dark creeping mood of the piece was as powerful as the story.

Chummy was rich and immensely satisfying theatre.

2 June 2017

Life of Galileo at Young Vic sparkled despite an exaggerated production


On a few occasions I have found productions at Young Vic a little bit pretentious to the detriment of the play and Life of Galileo was a case in point. Others include Street Car Named Desire and The Trial. Despite the overblown production there was so much good stuff in Life of Galileo that the good significantly outweighed the bad and overall it was a fine production, it is just a shame that it could have been more.

Oddly I felt much the same about another recent Brecht play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Donmar Warehouse, but this was much stronger and managed to overcome the overblown bits.

Every time I go to Young Vic there seems to be a different layout and this one was more different than most. Playing to the Galileo theme the stage was a circle with some of the audience sat on cushions in the centre while the cast moved around them on a walkway. Above the stage the ceiling was a dome on to which moving images of the stars were projected. It was very effective.

Also effective was the incidental music by a Chemical Brother. I particularly like the sections where the music and the projects combined to show something of the majesty and wonder that Galileo was discovering with this telescopes and calculations.

Some of the other gimmicky things worked, or at least did not detract, and these included the puppet reciting a short poem before each scene and the interactions between the cast and the audience, particularly those that they had to move between in the centre. What did not work for me were some of the bigger set piece such as the carnival scene and the steps with bright lights behind them used for the arrival of senior religious figures.

This pomposity was a shame because at its heart Life of Galileo was a fine play that showed us one of the origins of science and the impact that it had on people. The story telling was made exceptional by Brendan Cowell as Galileo who sparkled at the centre of everything. He bounced, skipped and clapped a lot and he also played the slower scenes very well and one of my favourites was towards the end when he was locked away to stop his ideas spreading and had a touching conversation about the role of science and scientists. I actually disagreed with Galileo's view on this but I liked the passion in his argument.

This production of Life of Galileo (I had seen it before but too long ago to remember the details) was certainly something special and the few moments of exaggeration could be forgiven.

1 June 2017

Babette’s Feast at Print Room was achingly gorgeous

I fancied Babette’s Feast for several reasons. Having heard of but never read the story I heard a dramatisation of it a few months previously and loved the almost English charm of a story in which not much really happens.

I also liked Print Room on my first visit, for The Tempest, and was keen to be back in their quirky spaces. Their bar is one of the very best despite the limited range of beers.

I remembered that the front row (where I sat last time) was sunk to almost stage height and so I went for a seat in the second row, B9, for a fair £28. I was pleased to see all the seats around me taken and most of the seats in the theatre taken too. This on a Wednesday evening.

Babette’s Feast made the transition from novel to play in a neat and pertinent way. A group of refugees hiding from armed forces, in Syria maybe, kept their spirits up by telling the stories that make up the narrative of the book. Early on the main narrator leaves and others take over believing in the power of the story.

The first narrator became Babette, one of the many times that the cast doubled up in their roles. We also had different members of the cast playing the same role as, in the story, the characters aged. This was best done when the two sisters aged thirty years or so.

There were many other nice things to enjoy too including music and singing (one of the characters was an opera singer and sounded like one too), fluid changes between scenes, subtle lighting and delicious acting. I genuinely cared for the characters and that made the stories the more engaging.

Babette’s Feast was a delightful story told delightfully and I smiled in delight all the way through it.

10 May 2017

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (May 2017)


Another month another excellent BCSA "Get to Know You" Social.

The evening started with a shock, the layout of the beer taps in the bar had changed. The main impact of this was that they could pour two pints of Pilsner Urquell at the same time, something that I asked them to do a couple of times. That apart, it was a fairly typical BCSA "Get to Know You" Social and I had a fantastic time.

The conversations were a little more serious than they sometimes are, inspired by me mentioning a picture that I saw on Instagram of a protest in Brno. We did not discuss the protest itself but we had a lot to say in how the Mainstream Media ignored events like this to leave most people ignorant of the situation in other countries, including some quite close to home. I pride myself that I am better informed than most in world news and I only learned about the Czech protests thanks to a photo from somebody by somebody that I follow because of their photos of pretty Czech towns.

Technology was talked about, as it often is, and I found myself alone in not wanting, or needing, to work surrounded by several large computer screens.

One person there was having major work done to her flay, about six weeks' worth, and it was fun to look at pictures of the plans and of the work in progress. The enthusiasm she had for the project was infectious,

I was there just before 7pm and left not long before 11pm, and loved every single moment in between.

9 May 2017

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Donmar Warehouse entertained but failed to excite


My main reason for going to see The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was Bertolt Brecht though, as is often the case, the main theme of the play's publicity was its star, Lenny Henry. His presence did help my decision to go and I forked out a meagre £30 for Circle  Row A  Seat  5.

It was obvious that something was different about the performance as soon as I arrived and was approached by one of the cast who engaged me in friendly conversation. Audience engagement was a large, and successful part of the production. The front row downstairs was set up with tables as if in a bar and during the evening a few people were enticed onto the main part of the stage, mostly to be killed or abused.

Arturo Ui dabbled with comedy, music and menace but never seemed quite sure what it was really trying to do and in doing many different things decently it did none of them brilliantly and it failed to find a winning spark in any of them.

I would have liked more menace and more music and more of the other things that made the recent production The Beggar's Opera at National Theatre such a success. Arturo Ui paled in comparison to that production and while it was undoubtedly fun it was never any more than that.