7 December 2017

Young Marx at Michael Frayn Theatre was a successful experiment

Young Marx was something of an experiment for me as it was my first time at an NT Live broadcast. For some reason I had never been tempted to go to the local cinema to see shows but going to Michael Frayn Theatre, part of Kingston Grammar School's relatively new Queen Elizabeth II Performing Arts Centre, seemed more appropriate.

£10 was a modest price to pay for the experiment and that got me seat G3 which was more or less in the middle vertically and at the edge of the screen (not beyond it) horizontally. It was a perfectly good seat and the decent raking meant that the people in front of me were well clear of my sight line. In that respect the experiment was a complete success even before the show started.

Young Marx was broadcast live from the new Bridge Theatre. I had already booked to see a couple of shows there but Young Marx had not quite appealed enough for me to fork out theatre prices to see it in Central London. That was despite it coming from the team behind One Man, Two Guvnors and it starring Rory Kinnear. That combination was more than enough for me to pay cinema prices to see it locally.

Michael Frayn Theatre also had the advantage of being within walking distance though the early, 7pm, start time meant leaving the house around 6:25pm and walking briskly. That early start was to allow time for an interview with the director, Nicholas Hytner, to be broadcast before the show started. That was an interesting feature and it was also good to see a little of Bridge Theatre before my first visit there.

Young Marx was set in 1850 when a penniless Karl Marx and his family and maid were living in Soho. He was supported financially by Friedrich Engels but still hid from his many creditors, usually in a cupboard. Each welcome visitor to their small lodgings had their own distinctive knock that gave them access. These many visitors included their son's doctor and a syncopathic follower. Engles was keen for Marx to write but Marx was more interested in a visiting the eighteen pubs on Tottenham Court Road.

The story continued with lots of humorous dialogue and a fair smattering of slapstick. It was consistently funny if not outrageously so being constrained by historical facts from taking too fanciful liberties with the situation. The politics at times was used as a source of humour, such as in the opening scene where Marx questions the meaning of the word "value" with a pawnbroker, and at other times it was used to give us serious insights into Marxist philosophy, e.g. a worker is paid 1s but creates 3s value giving the exploitative capitalist 2s (he is right, of course). The accurate historical and political context gave the play an intellectual backbone that made it more satisfying than a simple comedy.

Young Marx was a lot of fun and and my experiment with NT Live was a great success. Future visits are being planned.

27 November 2017

Poison at Orange Tree Theatre was steady if unspectacular

It had been a while since I had genuinely looked forward to a performance at Orange Tree Theatre rather than going out of a sense of loyalty.

The reason for that was that Poison sounded slightly difficult and I like difficult. I also liked that it was written by a foreigner as I like to see other perspective.

My enthusiasm was converted into seat Lower Floor A5 for £22.50. That was in the middle of the front row just off to the left of the picture. I was pleased to see the minimalist set when I went in, carrying a bottle of Punk IPA because there was no interval. The picture also shows the entire cast.

We quickly learned that the two people had been married but had split not long after the death of their son and had not met or spoken for nine years. Now a poison in the ground meant that their son's grave might have to move and they were at the graveyard to meet the authorities to discuss options.

For the next eighty minutes they spoke, argued and joked about their son, their parting and their lives since then. Their different reaction's to their son's death and their different reactions to their reunion drove the drama and drove it to some interesting, if not very surprising, places. The emotions fluctuated, but not a lot, and the pace was deliciously slow with many long pauses which all helped to keep a steady tension that was, thankfully, never quite relieved.

It also helped that both Claire Price and Zubin Varla delivered fine performances.

Dead children is something of a theatrical meme at the moment (which probably says more about the sort of plays that I choose to see than anything else) so many of the themes of loss and coping I had seen explored before but they were explored skilfully here which made up for a lack in originality.

I am old enough to remember Once we were Mothers (Orange Tree 2007) which handled the death of a child with more emotion and more of an impact, which is why I remember it ten years and hundreds of plays later.

Poison was a steady if unspectacular play and steady is good enough.

25 November 2017

Carmen by Ormond Opera was wonderful

I first discovered Ormond Opera in 2016 with their production of Madama Butterfly and that was so good that when they announced that they were doing Carmen then booking it was one of the easiest decisions that I have ever made.

It was still an easy decision when they announced that due to illness the performance that I had booked for had been downgraded to a full dress rehearsal.

This time I brought some friends with me and there were six of us altogether.

I have seen Carmen many times, so much so that it warrants its own tag in this blog (and I've left some performances out), so the story was never going to surprise me which meant that I could largely ignore the English translations displayed at the side and could focus on the music, the singing and the acting, all of which were superb.

The music came from just one piano and that was plenty enough sound to fill the church hall. We were warned that the singing might not be quite right but I found the exact opposite to be true, all the voices were good and many were superb. Carmen was one of those.

The acting made the performance and there were many nice little touches, several of which happened away from the centre of the action so I had to keep an eye on every part of the stage all the time. Worth a mention in this respect were Carmen's two companions who carried on their role playing when they took the curtain calls at the end.

In some ways Carmen is an easy opera to get right because it has so many good tunes in it, and it has a pretty strong story, but that is no excuse to take things easy and Ormond Opera put the work in to make this a memorable performance.

Whatever Ormond Opera do next I hope to be there to see it.

After the opera five of us retired to the Dukes Head for some serious conversations and a few beers until they threw us out at half past midnight. It was a fine and fitting end to a wonderful evening.

24 November 2017

Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse was both bleak and heart-warming

The poster makes it clear that you are meant to see Mother Courage and Her Children because Josie Lawrence is in it but I went because it was written by Bertolt Brecht. That was plenty enough to get to to part with £20 for seat A37 in The Large.

I know I am relatively well off and that theatres are trying to encourage young people to get into the theatre-going habit but that seems to cheap to me. Almost everybody there looked to me as if they could easily afford another £5 or so.

I had done my customary research (none) and while I was expecting something with a war theme I had not expected it to the the Thirty Years War that raged across Europe between 1618 and 1648 between (mostly) various Protestant and Catholic states. My first encounter with this war was when I started working in Prague in 1992 and learned that Charles Bridge was the scene of a battle between Bohemia and Sweden (!).

Mother Courage followed the war trading with the armies as they travelled across Europe. She bought and sold items that she carried in a cart which was pulled by hand, initially by her two sons. Her other child was a mute which meant that she was not much of a marital catch and was likely to remain single.

The war raged around Mother Courage and while she was not directly involved, she traded with both armies as circumstances dictated, the war had a profound effect on her, her children and the many people they met. Many people suffered (it was a brutal war) and a few, like Mother Courage, survived. None thrived. The war brought many deaths, hardship as farms were abandoned, looting of captured towns and oppression of civilians. The war was a relentless dark presence.

The stage was set for movement being a traverse (or corridor) stage with seating along two long sides and the entrances at either end. I was sat in the middle of the front row (no surprise there).

The play told Mother Courage's story over several years in a series of scenes often several years apart. Survival meant putting up with some hard situations and also enjoying the few good times, like sharing a drink and a song with friends around a camp fire. Mother Courage's good humour provided several points of comedy too and she grabbed my knee knowingly while making a "chopper" joke.

Audience interaction like that was a feature of the performance and several people were brought into the story at various times. Another good feature was the songs. This was far from a musical but the half a dozen or so songs littered through the performance added to the variety and the entertainment.

Josie Lawrence was magnificent as Mother Courage taking full command of the stage without unfairly dominating it - the superb supporting cast were given space to flourish too. She was resolute, tender, powerful and funny. Her last act was possible her best, as she left the stage for the last time, still pulling her cart, she reached out for the hand of one of the audience and she got a warm and genuine response back.

Mother Courage and Her Children was a moving play about war that managed to find some humanity amongst the brutality. It was both bleak and heart-warming.

23 November 2017

Thoroughly entertained by Jamaica Inn at Tabard Theatre

The combination of Tabard Theatre and Daphne Du Maurier was the sort of temptation that I am not good at resisting so I willingly parted with £20 for Row A Seat 7.

I was not sure what to expect as I had not read the book and if I had ever seen a film or TV adaptation then I had forgotten it. So it came as a complete surprise to find that it was a story about smugglers, the sort that I was familiar with as a child growing up in Weymouth where Moonfleet was read by everybody.

It was a good story too with a cast of interesting characters from the brazen horse thief to a studiously pious priest. Unexpectedly finding herself caught up with dubious people and dubious activities was a young woman and orphan Mary Yellan who had been forced by her parents' death to go to Jamaica Inn to live with her aunt and her husband, the pub's landlord.

In an impressive cast Kimberley Jarvis was brilliant as Mary, the lost girl who developed strength and found a purpose. Helen Bang also shone as Mary's aunt who suffered under the bullying of her husband but somehow managed to find solace in that.

The story had me gripped and while some of the plot turns were not a great surprise the final ending was always in doubt until we got there and the tale was told with lots of drama. There were a few songs thrown in too which was a fine addition.

Jamaica Inn was a thoroughly entertaining evening thanks to a good story, a cast of strong characters all brought to life by fine acting and a production that provided plenty of action and kept the pace going.

14 November 2017

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham's Theatre

One of the Google Alerts that I have is for Simon Stephens so I got an early warning of his latest play, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, and duly paid £39 for seat A15 in the Grand Circle.

It was ninety minutes straight through which allowed an 8pm start and that gave me plenty of time to go to Govinda's for a curry and Pret for a coffee beforehand.

Surprisingly the theatre was not full and that meant an upgrade from the Grand Circle to the Royal Circle. This has happened to me a few times at theatres and while the upgrade is always nice I would rather that the theatre were full.

The feedback on social media had given me little clue on what to expect so I sat down ready to be surprised.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is the tale of two people and they are the only two people who appear in it. He was a traditional seventy year old and she was a flighty forty-something. In almost her first sentence she apologised for he foul language which set the scene for some of Stephens' trademark swearing though there was a lot less than in some other plays.

In some ways it was a simple story about the two people told chronologically but it was delicately spiced with some surprises. The play's title comes from the principle that if you observe an elementary particle you cannot know both where it is and where it is going and the woman remarked that she watched her son so closely as he grew up that she always knew where he was at that time but could not see the direction that he was travelling.

That principle applied to us too, as we played close attention to the characters' words and actions it was not possible to see where their story was going.

Their journey through the hour and a half had a mix of emotions and moods. Most of them were happy and light and there was a lot of proper laugh-out-loud humour along the way. This was especially true at the beginning when they clumsily got to know each other.

Both the stars, Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham, were excellent and made me care about them. I wanted them both to have a happy ending and I was interested in everything that happened to them along the way.

The staging was neat with just a few props, things like benches and tables, rising out of the floor while the walls moved and the lighting changed to show us the different places that the story took us to. It appeared simple, though I am sure that it took clever mechanics and electronics to achieve that, and it was very effective.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle was an interesting and unusual tale told in an engaging way. I loved every minute of it.

10 November 2017

Hawklords at 100 Club (2017)


Hawklords are one of the select few bands that I try to see whenever they play a local venue, which in recent years has been once a year in November. I saw them at the 100 Club on 8 Nov 14 and 6 Nov 16. They played a different venue in November 15 but I had to miss that as I inadvertently booked a holiday for that time.

All the chatter on social media before the gig was about the absence of long time Ron Tree from the tour and I was curious to see what the line-up would be. In the end there was no surprise and the remaining four band members (Jerry Richards, Tom Ashurst, Harvey Bainbridge and Dave Pearce) shared the duties with Jerry doing the lion's share of the work.

Despite leading the team on both vocals and guitar, Jerry took his usual position on the right of the stage with bassist Tom taking the central position and Harvey on the left. The use of a projector meant that only the centre of the stage was lit and that meant only Tom.

Presumably as part of a deliberate plan, Jerry, Tom and Dave all wore black allowing Harvey's psychedelic shirt to stand out even more than usual despite being in relative darkness.

I took a photo of the setlist before the performance and the only tracks I recognised were Right Stuff and Ejection, both oddly from the Bob Calvert side project Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters which none of Hawklords worked on. There were four (out of seven) tracks from their latest album, Six, and three from their previous album, Fusion.

Not knowing the songs did not matter as the sound and construction were familiar enough. Each new tune and rhythm was quickly learned and enjoyed. This was music to dance to or, in my case, sway slightly from side to side to. At times they sounded more like seventies Hawkwind than Hawkwind do these days.

Hawklords played sixteen songs altogether in a set that lasted almost two hours. You do the maths. It was a mighty fine two hours too with Hawklords doing everything that the enthusiastic (and well behaved this time) audience expected and hoped for. It was a very loyal following too and there was an impressive number of Hawklords t-shirts on show.

I suspect that it will be another year before I will be able to see Hawklords again. Not ideal but far better than not seeing them at all.

9 November 2017

Rules for Living at Rose Theatre was an entertaining romp


Rules for Living sounded like a simple comedy and while I would not normally travel very far to see a play like that Rose Theatre is only a pleasant forty minutes away so I decided to go. I managed to get a seat in the dead centre of the first proper row, A37, for £30.

The situation was simple and familiar, two thirty something sons and their two wives/girl friends and one daughter were visiting their parents for Christmas day. There were a lot of family issues, a failing relationship, jealousy, expectations, abandoned dreams, etc. etc. that were gradually exposed as the day progressed.

The main trick of the play were the rules for living; these were real rules, such as Matthew has to sit down to tell a lie, and they appeared on a display board above the stage. These rules were a good source of humour in their own right, for example, when Matthew was asked an awkward question and he looked around for somewhere to sit then you knew that he was about to tell a lie and that anticipation was part of the fun.

Like a good farce, Rules for Living started fairly slowly as the characters were introduced and the situation was set and then things escalated quickly and deeply. The pictures on the far left and right in the poster above gives some idea of how bad things got, but the journey there, shown in the middle two pictures, was where most of the fun happened as the rules became more complicated and the characters became more extreme. Carrie's robot dance was a joy to behold.

Rules for Living was an entertaining romp through a family's strained relationships given an added twist by the use of real rules.