11 February 2016

Open Mic Night at The Oak (11 February 16)

I seem to have slipped into the habit of going to the Open Mic Nights at The Oak (just north of Kingston Station) on Thursday nights but have yet to fall into the habit of writing them up regularly as I did when they were held at the Grey Horse (just down the road and even closer to the station).

The reasons for both habit changes are connected. One reason for going to The Oak is for the 5,000 steps it gives me and rather walk aimlessly for forty minutes it is nice to have a destination in mind, especially when that destination has friends, music and beer. The change in motive means that I now get to the pub nearer to 10pm than 9pm which means that I miss more of the music and so have less to write about.

This Thursday was fairly typical. I could be simplistic and say it was the usual people, the usual songs and the usual beer but it was more than that and every night there is different in an interesting way.

On the people front, Tony, Eugene and Maria were there and performing as usual and Pete was the unusual factor. Musically I did not recognise any of the acts, apart from the trio already mentioned, and I paid most attention to a young American woman who did a decent version of Hallelujah. The beer choice was limited and unimaginative but a respectable pint of Young's Ordinary is always satisfactory.

The evening ended with Tony and Eugene leading assorted musicians and singers on stage and also the audience in a reggae version of Knocking on Heaven's Door. It was a sign of how much I was enjoying the evening that I joined in.

10 February 2016

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (February 2016)

February's British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) "Get to Know You" Social was remarkable even by the event's normal high standards.

It may have helped that I was able to get there very early, I arrived soon after 6:30pm which is half an hour before the official start, and so was able to sneak an extra pint of Pilsner Urquell into the evening. Richard was there just before me, we had been on the same tube apparently, and Ruzena arrived soon after so the evening had started to swing along nicely before the people who paid attention to the published start time arrived.

A lot of the evening was as it always is and so I am able to present the now customary picture of my Smazeny Syr (cheese fried in breadcrumbs). I have posted so many pictures of this that I deliberately went a bit manic on the Instagram filters to get a different look. It tasted grand, as always, and several of the people there followed my lead.

I was slightly more organised this time than usual and took just a few notes on my phone during the evening to remind myself of some of the conversations that we had as these are the real point of the socials. This time remembering them was easier than usual as I had two very good conversations, with the same woman.

When I learned that Denisa came from Zilina in Slovakia I moved across to speak to her. One of my au pairs from twenty years ago, Iveta, came from Zilna and I had visited her there a couple of times and knew the town and the surrounding area reasonable well. It transpired that Denisa used to live just a few hundred metres from Iveta. I told Denisa of another coincidence that I had had some years ago when at a friend's party I spoke to their Slovak au pairs only to discover that they also came from Zilna and they knew Iveta as she had taught them English.

Then the small world got even smaller. Denisa said that she used to live and work in Kingston upon Thames, where I live. She had worked for the mayor's office and through my political and educational activities at the time I knew the people she worked for, one was in the Labour Party with me and another was a governor at the same school as me.

There were other conversations with other people and the topics covered included petro-chemical engineering, the different ways that local authorities collect waste and recycling (I think I had more bins that anybody else) and the way that some other languages, like Portuguese, sound a bit like Czech.

There were other beers too as the evening drifted smoothly towards the 10:30pm close forced on us by the venue. I left something over four hours after I arrived and I left very happy.

7 February 2016

Kew Orchids 2016

I go to the Kew Orchids festival every year though this is the first time that I was organised enough to go there on the opening weekend. It was a cold day but a bright day too and when I go of the 65 bus at Victoria Gate at just after opening time, 10am, there was already a substantial queue to get in.

The longest queue was for Friends of Kew which I joined and I was soon in as our membership cards were quickly swiped. Then, like everybody else, I headed straight for the orchids in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. We split into two streams as we rounded the lake in front of the Palm House and then rejoined on the other side.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is a complex building and I have yet to find an easy way to walk around it that takes in every space without too much retracing of routes. That complexity actually helped this time as I wanted to walk through some of the places more than once and the variety of spaces was used to good effect.

The buildings complexity includes several different levels and several ways of moving up and down between them which gives lots of different angles to see things from. This is especially useful when the orchids are on display as some of them are hung up high.

Orchids win on two counts, their shape and their colour, and putting lots of them together is both a rich feast for the eyes and an opportunity to study their similarities and differences, such as the marking on their petals.

The orchids were displayed in a variety of settings and it was hard not to be entranced by the arches on the upper level of the main section.

I had to take this picture carefully to avoid the red hat that a woman was wearing. There should be laws against wearing bright clothing in places where people are taking photographs, and people were taking a great deal of photographs. I even wondered to myself if Apple could see the photographic hotspot on the data they collect from iPhones.

The temptation was there to take lots of close-ups, and so I did though I used the camera's zoom a lot rather than suffering the indignity of stooping or stretching.

This example was settled among some rocks in one of the cooler zones in the north-west corner of the conservatory. There the orchids were a subdued yellow, green and brown while in the next room they were bright pink, red and orange.

Having found a reasonable route through the conservatory and, I think, visited every room I went round most of the rooms again. It was getting harder to move as it had got even busier but that was ok as I was not in any sort of rush.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is not that big but it still took me best part of an hour to get around it all. After that I was ready for some coffee and cake, and so was everybody else and the queue in the Orangery was longer than I had ever seen it before. Luckily there were plenty of staff on and the queue moved fairly quickly and I was soon seated with my Banana Cake.

After that it was time for a walk and I took the scenic route (ok, I got lost) to the lake, through the bamboo garden towards the river before curving slowly back towards Lion Gate and the bus home.

Kew Orchids impressed me, as I knew they would, and because I managed to get there on the first weekend there is time for me to go back and see them again. And that's my plan. 

3 February 2016

Lovely Swan Lake from the Moscow City Ballet at Richmond Theatre

Once upon a Time I had a season ticket for the Royal Ballet and went to see everything that the English National Ballet did too then kids came along and the time and the money went on them instead.

In recent years I have been seeing a fair amount of dance (not enough) but surprisingly little "traditional" ballet. The closest I have come to that was Mark Morris' Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican over seven years ago!

So going to see Swan Lake should have been an easy decision to make and it was, eventually. Swan Lake was only on for two nights, Nutcracker was on the rest of the week and that was quite missable, and by the time that I made the obvious decision the front row of the Dress Circle had been taken so I went even further up and went for the front row of the Upper Circle (seat A16). Even that lofty perch cost me £26 as ballet is an expensive business, Swan Lake has a large cast and this production had a good sized orchestra too.

The front row seats have a bar in front that threatens to block the view of the stage, unless you are tall enough to see over it easily, which I am not. The solution was to sit forward on my seat and use my screwed up coat as a cushion to keep me upright and comfortable. It worked very well.

The audience worked less well, often a problem in the "cheap seats", and there were conversations all evening, some sweet bag rustling and also one mobile phone call. Fortunately this kept below the infuriating level and while it distracted at moment it did not do so enough to ruin the show.

There were lots of other things that I did not like about this performance. There were some plot changes that I did not comprehend (I did not buy a programme), such as the additional appearance of Odette/Odile in a black and white outfit. There was an additional male role and I could not tell which one was Sigfriend until Act 2 (and my guess was wrong). Siegfried spent more time dancing alone that with Odette/Odile and his dancing did not wow me. Odette/Odile danced better but did not quite look the part. The cast milked the applause ending each short dance with a spectacular pose and then coming to the front of the stage for more applause.

If that all sounds like a bad night at the theatre then you are wrong. I loved it immensely. Possibly not every single minute of it but not far off it.

Even with the problems that I listed earlier it is hard to get Swan Lake wrong as it is Swan Lake and its strength comes from the music that throws one tune after another in the two set dancing scenes in the castle and that builds the drama in the two scenes at the lake. Here the full orchestra came in to their own and carried the evening along magnificently.

The second great strength of Swan Lake is the set dance pieces, especially those choreographed by Lev Ivanov in Act 2, including the arrival of the swans with their flat footed hops and the dance of the cygnets with their tightly synchronised leg movements. I may have lost some of the plot but this was familiar territory, even after several years, and it was much loved territory too.

Other things I enjoyed in this Swan Lake were the ensemble dancing, the sumptuous costumes and the simplicity of the set that made lots of space for dancing and did not over-engineer the dramatic finale.

Writing this a few days later some of the tunes are still bouncing around my head where they collide with images of the production. Swan Lake is a tremendous ballet and even a slightly flawed production like this one is still a fantastic experience.

2 February 2016

Sumptuous Jekyll & Hyde at The Cockpit

Jekyll & Hyde was on my interest list for a while and I just needed to find a free night on a day that I was working in London, not a trivial matter. In the end it came down to a bad day at work which made going to the theatre the best of the various options I had for that evening.

I was attracted to Jekyll & Hyde by the story, which I knew from various film and TV adaptations rather than the book, and also the prospect of a version that included "sultry Jazz standards with a live pianist". The prospect of going to the Cockpit Theatre attracted too because of the friendly atmosphere there and the decent walk I have from the office to get there.

That walk took me through Marylebone Station where I helped myself to a wholemeal vegetarian pastie, as I had done previously. Unlike previously, I remembered that the road outside the station was two-way and I failed to get myself almost run over. Another difference was on arrival I found that the Cockpit had a choice of Czech lagers, I went for Budvar mostly because it was a bigger bottle.

The theatre was not that busy, but then it never has been in my experience, so I had a good choice of seats. Being first in helped. I went for the middle of the second row.

We were in a jazz club, the music was already playing and a waiter was tending to the tables. The set remained like that throughout the show despite the action moving to several places. A little bit of good acting from the cast and a little bit imagination from the audience was all that was needed for part of the stage to become somebody's house and for a door to appear.

Similarly a slight change of clothes enables the story to be told by just five people, plus the pianist. The waiter here was also a police inspector and the father of Jekyll's fiancee.

The story, the details of which I had forgotten, moved along briskly and I was quickly drawn into it. I cared for Jekyll's fiancee and also for the club singers that Hyde abused. After Hyde made his first appearance we saw little of Jekyll and so Hyde's menace filled the story and made it gripping. Oliver Hume was superb as Jekyll/Hyde.

Adding a pleasant lighter touch were the easy listening classics that the two women sang. These were familiar songs like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and were sung in short pieces to help to set the mood without turning it into a musical as such. They worked very well despite of, or because of, the contrast to the dark happenings.

Jekyll & Hyde was a real joy and a prime example of what a few people can do with some good ideas and a lot of talent.

29 January 2016

Hangmen at Wyndham's Theatre was a modern Ealing Comedy

I went to see Hangmen on a recommendation. An actress I follow on Twitter (after seeing her on stage) raved about the first run of this new play and predicted that it would soon be in the West End so when it came I went.

Wyndham's is easy to get to/from as it is right next to one of the entrances to Leicester Square Underground Station. That is also conveniently close to Govinda's vegetarian restaurant so I went there first for my usual large thali.

Despite the recommendation I was not going to take much of a rick on the play and, as I usually do in west end theatre, I went for a front-row seat way up high. This time I was in the Grand Circle, seat A4, for which I paid a paltry £20.

Hangmen opened with a hanging, one of the last before hanging was abolished in 1965. It also opened with some funny lines letting us know in no uncertain terms that this was a full-on comedy despite the subject matter. The prisoner due to be hanged struggled while protesting his innocence. At one point one the warders admonishes him for his struggling and said that if he had not been messing about he would have been dead by then. He was hanged (not hung, as was repeatedly pointed out) soon after still protesting his innocence.

The hangings over, the Hangman returned to his pub where the rest of the play took place. There he was joined by several of the locals. They were quite a quirky bunch and helped to keep the laughs coming.

A stranger came into the bar and stirred things up by his words and behaviour. He spoke quickly and constantly as if thinking out loud. Some of this was just odd, such as suggesting that Scottish prostitutes were ugly, while some of it was more sinister with suggestions that the young man hanged at the opening of the play was innocent.

Things continued in that vein with a dark theme squirming its way through a set of funny characters. The clash between the light and the dark aspects of the play provided a meaty tension and turned what could have been something funny but light and fluffy, something like Dad's Army, into something with substance, something like The Lady Killers.

The dark theme to the play came to a dark end (an unexpected one) though it neatly left several questions unanswered. The humorous light theme remained strong throughout and the play was genuinely funny. This humour came from the characters and did not resort to slapstick for any cheap laughs, proving that intelligent humour is just as funny as any other humour.

I enjoyed Hangmen immensely though I would not go as far as to call it a 5-star play, for me it lacked originality for that. That is not to belittle it, rather I want to avoid over inflating it. It was very good indeed, just not exceptional. I would happily go and see it again if somebody offered me a ticket!

A Taste of Honeysett at the Cartoon Museum

I was aware of the A Taste of Honeysett exhibition at the Cartoon Museum and was trying to find the time to see it when technology came to my rescue.

I was working in the London office on a Friday afternoon when we suddenly lost all communications, telephone and computer network. After half an hour or so it became clear that they were not coming back and so there was no point staying in the office unable to work. So I went out.

The Cartoon Museum is about twenty minutes walk away and so this was the ideal opportunity to go there.

I had been a Honeysett fan for many years. As a young lad I used to read all the cartoons in Punch and it was the Honeysett ones that made the biggest impact, I can still remember the double page spread on doctors holding their surgeries in pubs which included a drawing of a doctor lying on the floor and the nurse informing the waiting room that he was now only seeing foot disorders. Similarly there was one with two old men in a pub talking about a third who was lying on the floor unconscious. This was before a drinking competition and one of the men said to the other that he was surprised that the third man had collapsed so quickly as he had done well in the lunchtime practise session.

Admission is normally a paltry £7 but I got in for free with my ArtFund card. The Honeysett exhibition was on the ground floor with the usual exhibition upstairs.

The Cartoon Museum has an enlightened view of photography and bans close-ups as they infringe copyright but allows general shots, like this one, that give a general view of the galleries. From this you can see that it was, unsurprisingly, full of cartoons.

It was not a large rooms but the addition of a few partitions created more wall space and there were a lot of cartoons to look at. Of course cartoons cannot just be looked at, they need to be read and I read every one of them which took me the best part of an hour.

Like the cartoons that I remembered from Punch they were mostly of domestic situations, the one at the top (this is the cover of the exhibition catalogue) was typical, though politics did sneak in sometimes. There was one political cartoon that I would have photographed if allowed and that was a large coloured work commenting on the way that free capital was ripping up the Japanese landscape to build inappropriate skyscrapers. Where Japan led London is following.

The Cartoon Museum is a lovely place for anybody interested in comics or cartoons and I really should go there more often. I'll make even more of an effort to do so when they put on exhibitions as good as A Taste of Honeysett.

Thomas Newbolt: Drama Painting - A Modern Baroque at Kings Place Gallery

Working in a building that houses two galleries is one of the reasons that I pull myself into Kings Place when I could just as easily work at home. They are both conveniently bite-sized and can be consumed as part of a lunch break or an afternoon tea break. They also provide emergency relief when work is going badly.

The main gallery, which now appears to be called Piano Nobile Kings Place, is mostly spread across the level below the entrance and cafe area. There is little on that floor other than the gallery and a large hole in the middle which is the atrium space for the concert hall level below. The gallery flows down to that level to occupy a corner of that space too.

The combination of the atrium and the high ceilings creates a space that can do justice to large works and the exhibitions generally take advantage of this.

The exhibitions also tend to be somewhat quirky and modern in a way that appeals to me greatly.

The latest exhibition is Thomas Newbolt: Drama Painting – A Modern Baroque, which runs until 13 May.

They are all pictures of women, or perhaps it is just one woman, dressed and posed as if going to the opera.

They are interpretive rather than figurative and it is the presence of the woman that matters, not the details of her figure. The focus is kept on the woman by keeping the background dark and featureless.

The simple backgrounds, the plain dresses and the lack of any movement make the pictures as much about the colours as the woman. As is often the case, I appreciated the abstract nature of the art, i.e. the way the colours interact and the visual impact that makes, as much, if not more, that what those colours represent.

Similarly, I appreciated them more from a distance where their scale could be appreciated and full impact of the colours could be felt. Moving closer and the details started to intrude until eventually it was the brush strokes that I saw and the "big picture" was lost. Of course for some works of art the details and the brush work are worth exploring but I felt much happier exploring Thomas Newbolt's at a distance.

This exhibition was not completely to my taste but it was close enough to it to encourage me to go downstairs to see it a few more times before it closes.