20 February 2018

Strangers on a Train at Richmond Theatre was well conceived and expertly delivered

I went to Richmond Theatre expecting Strangers on a Train to be the usual high standard touring show that I am used to seeing there. It was much much better than that.

I had seen Strangers on a Train before, also at Richmond Theatre but that was some years ago and I had forgotten most of the story. The touring shows that come to Richmond are usually pretty good so it was an easy decision to go to see this one, particularly as my ATG Theatre Card meant that I could get seat Dress Circle A7 for a remarkably cheap £24.

One of the features of touring shows is that they tend to have slick staging and this was no exception. This is how the stage looked before the show started and if you look closely you can see a faint image of the Stars and Stripes. As the show started more colour was added to the picture and the flag became obvious.

That trick was done with projection and projection was used throughout to create different scenes with the boards sliding apart to reveal different rooms behind. It was in some ways quite simple and it was also very effective. I had seen projections used before but never as well as this.

Of course the staging is nothing without a story to tell and characters that engage the audience. Strangers on a Train was a decent enough story, again as is common with touring shows it was fairly middle-of-the-road, there were no dead babies, with enough twists in it to keep everybody interested for a couple of hours.

Leading the strong cast was Christopher Harper as the rich, heavy drinking and boisterous Charles Bruno who set the dark events in motion. Alongside him Jack Ashton was the ideal foil as Guy Haines, his quiet and submissive partner in crime. Hannah Tointon added a nice spark as Guy’s fiancĂ© Anne Faulkner. Their performances also helped to lift an already good show up another notch or two.

Strangers on a Train knew was well conceived and expertly delivered which made it a thoroughly entertaining evening.

19 February 2018

Black Mountain at Orange Tree Theatre was tense and satisfying

Recently I seem to be moaning about Orange Tree Theatre more often than I have be praising it but I keep going there anyway. Black Mountain reminded me why.

Being in the round is the distinctive feature of Orange Tree and that means that any front-row seat downstairs will do for me. This time I found myself in A31 for just £22.5. That sort of price encourages experiment,

Black Mounting was in a season with Out of Love which meant sharing the same minimalist set (there was just one prop) and the same small cast. The stories were very different though.

Here a couple were staying in a holiday cottage in the middle of nowhere trying to repair their relationship after he had a fling. The flingee followed them there.

What followed was a dark psychological drama where the truth was always questioned and rightly so. It was all very tense and the tension was nicely magnified by the lighting and sounds. This was a mighty fine production all round.

The story developed darkly and interestingly while I tried to work out what was going on. I was interested in all three characters and was struggling to choose whose side I was on. I may have chosen the wrong one.

Hasan Dixon again shone though Katie Elin-Salt was far from eclipsed and Sally Messham did the little she had to do well enough.

At seventy minutes Black Mountain only just about crept into full-length but it was the right length for the drama. It would have been hard to increase the tension even further and any let off in the mood would have been a mistake.

Black Mountain was my sort of play and I was delighted that Orange Tree chose to present it.

18 February 2018

The Honeyslides at The Half Moon (18 Feb 18)

The Honeyslides have officially become a tradition on my fourth time of seeing them at The Half Moon in Putney since April 16. Now, as with Kew Gardens, the blog posts have the date in the title to differentiate the similar entries.

Things went much the same as usual this time, a 85 bus from Kingston at 6:45pm got us to The Half Moon just before 7:30pm. The doors were due to open at 8pm and there were already three people in the queue. We grabbed a couple of pints of Ordinary and joined them.

The wait was uneventful and we passed some of the time attempting the pub quiz questions. The biggest excitement came when a heavily laden and slightly flustered bass player turned up at 8pm. He obviously did not need to be part of the sound check!

The doors opened more of less on time. As previously one of the two central tables was reserved and the group in front of us claimed the other so we took the one on the left of the stage, as we had done in September.

The Honeyslides started just after 8:30am with just Tom Billington on stage doing an acoustic set. As expected this was very much a greatest hits selection and the mood of the evening was very much Live Rust, which is still the best introduction to Neil Young's music. That meant that it was not too long before we had the full band on stage and the acoustic guitar was swapped for a black electric one.

I did not attempt a set list this time, nor did I take any notes, as I wanted to concentrate on the music and I was not expecting surprises. While there were no surprises there were some changes. The most obvious omission (to me) was Words which was balanced, I think, by a couple of new songs including Farmer John. Some of the absolute classics seemed to be longer and even more energetic before, particularly Cinnamon Girl. There were some sequence changes too with Like A Hurricane and Cortez The Killer both coming almost at the end just as I was starting to worry that we might not hear them.

As before there was a pretty hard curfew at 11pm and if you do the maths that was almost two and a half hours of uninterrupted Neil Young music played with a lot of skill and even more passion. That's why seeing The Honeyslides at The Half Moon has become a tradition.

17 February 2018

Two Towers

The saga of The Old Post Office (TOPO) in Kingston which started in 2014 still continues. The main decision to approve the scheme was made in 2016, despite the significant objections to it, but there was always a question over the main tower.

The Council wanted a visually striking building to mark the southern entrance to the town centre while residents wanted something as small and discrete as possible.

In the very proposal it was shown as 12 storeys tall and after the initial consultation it went up to 16, despite all the feedback saying it was already too tall. It kept changing slightly in size and quite a bit in shape and we finally got the scheme on the left.

There was considerable criticism of this and so a working group of the developer, residents, architects and others were asked to come up with something better. That's the tower on the right.

Over the week a number of drop-in consultation sessions were held where residents could give their views on the new proposal. I suspect that my views will be in a small minority but I prefer the original scheme to the new one.

The original scheme looks more modern and, I think, fits in better with its neighbours. There is also a lot more going on and I like that, one of the joys of the Lloyds Building is that there are things everywhere.

To me the new tower looks like it was designed by a committee (which obviously it was) and we have got a bland compromise. I presume that this scheme will go ahead so I just hope that it looks better in real life than it does in this drawing.

14 February 2018

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (February 2018)

After missing January's British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) "Get to Know You" Social due to an unwanted business trip to Calgary it was good to be back in the groove in February.

The regular second-Wednesday slot happened to fall on Valentine's Day but that did not deter a healthy number of people from choosing to spend the evening in a group rather than a couple.

There were several of the regulars there, including myself obviously, and it was good to have the opportunity to catch up with Ruzena, Richard and Colin.

It was also good to see a couple of semi-regulars, Mirek and Veronika, who had not been for a while. One of them had last been there just after the Brexit vote, I do not know how Ruzena remembers things like that, and that started the evening off with one of our regular topics.

After that the conversations went all over the place; somehow we spent a long time talking about driverless car with the young computer professional making the case for human drivers and a trio of oldies arguing for robots to do all the work.

Somehow we got on to a possible maximum age for driving which led to the reasonable suggestion of having a maximum age for voting. That could have stopped Brexit!

At one point Ruzena produced some hand cream, which several of us used, and that changed the direction of conversation.

Along the way I had a few pints of Pilsner Urquell to drink and the now mandatory smazeny syr to eat.

It may not have been a traditional Valentine's Day celebration but it worked for me.

13 February 2018

Carmen 1808 at Union Theatre was a bold experiment that really worked

Carmen is probably my favourite opera, it ought to be given the number of times that I have seen it, so I was always going to be interested in seeing Carmen 1808 at Union Theatre, particularly as it was at Union Theatre where I had seen so many excellent musical shows and it was by The Phil Willmott Company of which the same is true.

There was only one date in the run that I could make which made the decision easier and I duly booked myself a place for 13 February for £22.5.

The evening did not get off to a good start and a late running meeting meant that I missed the usual 5:43 train from Teddington which would have got me there spot on 6:30 when the box office opened. Instead I caught a train soon after 6pm and got there at 6:45pm. That put me in the third batch for entry, the first time ever that I had not been in the first.

Then my luck changed and despite my late admittance to the theatre I was still able to claim a place in the front row.

The first thing that struck me was the similarity to the stage design for Heartbreak House, which was understandable as it was in the same season. There were differences but the basic design of a raised section in the middle and steps up on both sides was the same.

Carmen 1808 was billed as a musical rather than an opera and running at ninety minutes straight through it was considerably shorter than the opera so I had no real idea what to expect. Admittedly I could have read the details online beforehand but doing that is almost cheating.

I am sure that there is a word for this that I do not know but Carmen 1808 was a companion piece to Carmen sharing some of the characters, locations,  themes and songs but it was also had a very different plot. More than a homage but less than a remake.

The main story was about Napoleon's victory over Spain and the efforts of the resistance. Alongside that we still had the love triangle/square/pentagram between Carmen, a soldier, a woman from his past and Carmen's other lovers. There were several other elements from the original Carmen, like the reading of the cards. All nice to see if you knew Carmen but also understandable if it was new to you.

The music followed the same plan, some songs were copied and changed along the way. Toreador had to be in there and it appear as a song about swearing allegiance to the Spanish flag. There was no toreador.

One thing that worked very well was using the overture as a big dance number to open the show and to reprise it at the end. I also loved the comic song that was inserted along the way. This was the one time that the French featured and they told us in song just how good they were. The song produced my favourite line of the night, "Did we mensh, we are French?".

Carmen 1808 was a nice mix of a dark story, France's subjugation of Spain, with the light human foibles that drive so much of life, particularly when there are people like Carmen around. And being a new story I was keen to see how it ended. I was engrossed.

The concept of changing something as familiar as Carmen into a musical and playing around with it so much may sound sacrilegious but it really worked and I had a lot of fun watching it unfold in front of me.

12 February 2018

Outland by Jim Steranko - a lost masterpiece

It took a tweet from Cory Doctorrow to remind me of Outland by Jim Steranko which is a little surprising as it is truly spectacular, possibly his most striking work visually.

One reason that it got lost is that, unlike his work on characters like Nick Fury and Captain America, it was never that obvious in the first place. It was serialised in Heavy Metal in the early 1980's and I was lucky to be reading it then.

I recall that the story, an adaptation of the film of the same name, did not impress me that much but the art work most certainly did. These two pages show why. They speak for themselves and I will not attempt to explain why they are brilliant.

The other reason it is lost is that it is out of print, physically and digitally. All of his Marvel work is available digitally, and I think that I have bought all of it, but Outland is not despite the obvious demand for it from the many Steranko fans like myself.

I did look on eBay to see if there were any copies of the book available and there was just one, in America and it cost 150 USD. It's in French.

10 February 2018

Satyagraha at ENO is a delightful tradittion

ENO have got into the habit of staging Philip Glass' opera Satyagraha every few years and I have gladly fallen into the habit of going to see it every time. This time I made it a real treat and went for Dress Circle A29 for £106.25.

The evening got off to a less than brilliant start as once again Pizza Express failed to live up to the Express part of the name but we were served eventually and the Pizza was nice.

My seat in the Dress Circle was very nice too with an excellent view. The first thing that struck me was how small the orchestra was, they used up about half of the pit. I realised later why that was, the music in Satyagraha was relatively quiet throughout with the noise coming, when there was noise, from the large chorus. A great deal of the time there was not much noise and the mood was very gentle, as you would expect when the subject is Gandhi.

Satyagraha did not tell a story as such, though there were some narrative elements. It consisted of three tableau, each about fifty minutes long, showing scenes from the period that Gandhi lived in South Africa. This was actually quite a long period, from 1893 to 1914, during which he secured significant legal concessions for the local Indian population.

For the best part of three hours, punctuated with a couple of short breaks for ice creams, we had images of newspapers, shoes, cellophane, jackets, beats, houses all of which were presented in almost slow motion to the famous rhythms of Philip Glass and the sumptuous singing of the soloists and chorus.

It was every bit as delightful as it had been when I saw it before and as I hope it will be when I see it next time.