19 February 2020

Weekly Walk: Richmond to Harrow on the Hill

As with last week's walk, this route was directed mostly by curiosity and the transport network.

On previous walks we had gone through various parts of West London mostly travelling east to west so we wanted to go south to north to see different aspects of these suburbs.

The Overground was the most obvious route home so we set off at 8:30am heading for Harrow and Wealdstone. We had no firm route in mind but we did have a destination.

Initially we followed the river to Kew Bridge, a path well-travelled but it was better than going by bus or train. Once across Kew Bridge we were in new territory where we remained for (almost) the rest of the journey.

Between the M4 and several railway lines was a massive development of flats and the new home for Brentford FC. We were the only people there ot wearing hard hats and we had to wait for overhead operations to stop at one point.

Crossing under the M4 we came into Gunnesbury Park. We started by a pond and left by another. In the middle were a few playing fields and not a lot else.

From there we walked north to Ealing along minor roads that ran in parallel with the familiar 65 bus route. It was quiet on the streets and many of the houses were attractive Victorian brick-built. It was a pleasant enough walk though, being suburbia, there was little of substantial interest.

One of the features of the walk was finding ways to cross major transport routes that crossed ours. The first was the main line into Paddington and to cross this it was easiest to go through the centre of Ealing and to use the bridge by the railway station.

Immediately passed that we reentered side-roads. Here the housing went up a notch ot two.

It was not long before we hit the next obstacle, the A40. My phone kept advising me to turn right and to follow the North Circular but I was never going to do that so once we had got past Hanger Hill Park we turned left and were soon rewarded with a subway under the many lanes of thundering traffic.

That only delayed the problem and we were forced to follow the A4005 for a while, at least that was not as busy as the North Circular which turned towards the west at that point as we carried on going north.

At the first opportunity we came off the main road and headed east for a while into South Perivale before resuming our journey north.

We hit Perivale at a good time for coffee and headed to The Lunch Box where we had been a few months before when forced off the nearby canal due to resurfacing work. I think we both had the same as we had last time which for me was Set Vegetarian Breakfast No. 1 with brown bread and a latte. Good food and great value. Places like that are a highlight of our walks.

It seemed easiest to follow the A4005 after that as it was going our way and was not that busy. We veered off when we saw a sign for Harrow on the Hill and we started dreaming of expensive beers in ancient pubs. It was quite a long detour and as hilly as we remembered from the last time we were there.

Unfortunately we had forgotten, ot not realised, that there are no pubs along High Street in Harrow on the Hill. There may have been some on one of the side roads but they all fell away steeply from the High Street we were not tempted down in fear of having to come all the way back up again having failed to find a pub. At least Harrow on the Hill had given us several nice buildings to look at which was a pleasant change.

So we headed for Kenton.

Kenton is as nondescript suburbia as everywhere around it but at least it had a pub. Sort of. Next to the railway station was The Beefeater, as bland a pub as you could find and with no draft bitters available. I had to have a Staropramen which was OK but a long way off a first choice.

From there the Overground took us back to Richmond in about half an hour. Getting there had taken us a fraction under four hours of walking in which time we had covered almost 23km.

18 February 2020

Won over by The Sugar Syndrome at Orange Tree Theatre

As always these days I booked to see The Sugar Syndrome with some trepidation due to my mixed reaction to the current programming at Orange Tree Theatre. I did not help that it was written by Lucy Prebble who is famous for writing The Effect which I have listen to a couple of times on the radio and find the portrayal there of medical trials so wrong that it annoys me.

All that said, I do go to everything at Orange Tree Theatre so I booked a ticket for this too. Since my last booking, not that long ago, the system there had changed and they offered different price bands in different parts of the theatre - remember that there are only three rows of seating downstairs and one upstairs. My usual place in the front row was considerably more expensive that the second row so for the first time in many years I went for the second row and paid a ridiculously low £15 for seat B23.

The play did not get off to a good start either. I found the first scene to be too brutal (a couple having casual sex) and this was not helped by the harsh lighting and loud music.

I had problems with the aggressive staging throughout and that really hurt my enjoyment of the play

Luckily the story got much better and very quickly. Perhaps the first scene was just meant to shock us before the real story began.

The story was about psychologically troubled people trying to come to terms with the real world, whereas The Effect was about normal people trying to cope with a psychologically manipulated world. I think that this worked better.

The story wove around a young anorexic woman and a couple of people who she met in a chat room (the play was set in the near past when people used dial-up modems and had demon email addresses). One of these was a convicted paedophile and the other, never formally diagnosed, had problems forming relationships. Her mother also had absent husband issues so nobody in the play had an easy or a "normal" life.

From that fairly simple, if unusual, mix of ingredients Lucy Prebble crafted a story that gripped, enthralled, entertained, informed and stirred. It was powerful without being oppressive, dark without being gloomy and tense without being scary. For two hours I loved it.

Jessica Rhodes as the young woman did a great job but the performance that grabbed me the most was by John Hollngworth, the paedophile, who knew exactly who he was and how bad his life was always going to be because of that, and who had come to terms with this. He was a very sick man who you could feel a lot of sympathy for.

I felt that the final scene, like the first, let the play down. A natural conclusion had been reached and the dialogue ended with a nice simple every-day phrase. The play could have ended then. No more words were spoken but there was a final scene that I found to be too final and somewhat unfitting with what had gone on before, this was not a situation that you could have a simple ending. If this play makes it to the radio too then I guess it will have to end where I wanted it to end so that is something to look forward to!

The Sugar Syndrome was a fine play that managed to shine through the treatment it was given and through my preconceptions. I would like to see, or hear, another production of it one day.

17 February 2020

Blithe Spirit at Richmond Theatre missed the mark

I am always up for some Noel Coward and as it had been nine years since I last saw Blithe Spirit I jumped at the opportunity to see it again when a pre-west end production arrived at Richmond Theatre.

I jumped early enough to get my usual seat Dress Circle A25 for the opening night offer price of £31. That was a little more than I am used to paying there but the omens were good, not least the inclusion of Jennifer Saunders. I heard in the chatter beforehand that some other front-row regulars had been forced back to row E because of their tardiness and the Dress Circle looked to be sold out.

It was clear from the very begging that this was a different production from the one that I saw before as the opening scene was a maid having difficulty bringing a tray of drinks into the room. Elements of slap-stick pervaded the play from then on and to no good effect.

I think that what followed was an attempt to update the tone of the play and to complement the witty dialogue with less subtle humour. This was Blithe Spirit but not as Noel Coward wrote it.

Of course there is nothing wrong with updating or experimentation and the packed audience clearly loved this Blithe Spirit and Jennifer Saunders' role in it but while I found it entertaining it failed in comparison with my previous experience of it in every department. To give one specific example, in the 2011 production my star of the show was Ruthie Henshaw who played Elvira (a ghost) and in this production the actress playing that role does not even get a mention on the Richmond Theatre website.

I trying to improve Blithe Spirit, or to make it more accessible perhaps, this production lost almost all of the wit and charm that made the original play such fun and putting all the production eggs into the Jennifer Saunders basket meant that it dipped noticeably when she was off-stage, which was a lot of the time.

I did enjoy Blithe Spirit but not as much as I expected and it was not the play that I had gone to see.

14 February 2020

How to Save a Life at Theatre503 was clever dark fun

I like to see everything that I can at Theatre503 but there are only so many days in the week. I could easily have missed How To Save a Life because it was only on for a week and it took some effort to see it on Valentine's Day.

I went for my usual front-row seat A4 which was an amazingly cheap £5 because no-one else likes being in the front-row.

Also usual was the meal in The Latchmere (the pub downstairs) beforehand. As always the food there was excellent and the service clumsy.

My brief reading on the play's synopsis led me to expect a light comedy on a dark subject and that is more or less how it started with a couple of nice theatrical touches to the chronology with a short step taken back to a beginning and later a longer step back to the real beginning.

Then one word changed the story and the mood. A light comedy became a serious play peppered with some light comedy elements, particularly when the two female leads remembered their early days together. It became funny and unsettling at the same time, as a dark comedy should be. How do you laugh at cancer?

Along the way a life was saved, almost in passing, and a serious point was well made.

The comedy was as I expected and that would have been enough but the play was so much more than that with its serious elements, clever crafting of the timeline and three excellent performances by Heather Wilkins, Holly Ashman and Tom Laker.

How to Save a Life was clever theatre that remembered that entertainment is important too.

Weekly Walk: Richmond to Uxbridge

This week's walk came about following a discussion on exploring the outer reaches of the Underground network, places like West Ruislip. I said that I would play around with routes on Google Maps and see where we could walk to from there that was 15 to 20 km.

That did not really work so I tried from Uxbridge (one end of the convenient Piccadilly Line) instead and it quickly occurred to me that the obvious place to walk to/from was Richmond. Starting from home gave the added advantage of being able to start the walk early, say 8:30am.

The first part of the walk was familiar enough as we walked along the Thames to Iseleworth and then it was a new route to Osterley Park. We had walked through there before but then we were travelling south and this time we were going the opposite way. I preferred this approach because of the first views of the house across the lake.

Immediately afterwards we had to cross the M4 which took us into unexpected farming country with the smells to match. The village of Norwood Green looked decent too.

We then crossed Grand Union Canal for the first time. I made the decision to avoid central Southall, expecting it to be busy, and to stay in suburbia.

At first that worked though the area looked decidedly run-down and had the shop familiar to poor areas. It was not all doom and gloom though and there were some nice buildings amongst the neglect.

We crossed the canal again and wondered why Apple Maps had not suggested that we walk along the towpath.

Suburbia died quickly and we found ourselves on a main road in an area of large commercial buildings. This was not what we wanted so we came up with a new brilliant plan, rejoin the canal and follow it the rest of the way to Uxbridge. This meant sacrificing a little pace as we swapped tarmac pavements for a muddy path.

We soon found ourselves in Hayes (not that we knew that at the time) and what we could see from the towpath suggested that there might be a cafe nearby and we did well to find Pop-In Cafe. They did not do the cake that I was hoping for but I was very happy to settle for a Cheese Omelette Breakfast which came with beans, hash browns and tomato. A bargain at £6; one of the delights of our weekly walks is finding cafes like this. It was only 10:30am at that time and I was not sure if that counted as a second breakfast or an early lunch.

Following the canal from there was easy if not desperately exciting due to the limited views. At least the peace was appreciated.

My last visit to Uxbridge had been about thirty years ago so I had little idea of what to expect so it was a pleasure to find that we had a choice of what looked like decent pubs to choose from. We went for The Metropolitan which worked out ok despite the limited beer choice. We decided not to eat anything so the meal I had earlier was an early lunch after all.

Rested and repaired, the journey home was evasy enough though it was frustrating to whiz through three District Line stations before changing at Hammersmith and then stoping at each of them going the other way. I am sure there is a good reason why not all Piccadilly Line trains stop at Turnham Green but I wish that they did.

I used MapMyWalk this week and the key numbers from that are we walked 21.7 km in just under 4 hours. That is what I call a good walk.

12 February 2020

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (February 2020)

A few changes and a few familiar things at this month's British Czech and Slovak (BCSA) Get to Know You Social at the Czechoslovak Club in West Hempstead.

Firstly I had a meeting during the day in Bloomsbury so I walked to the club from there. The most direct route would have taken me through Regent's Park but I had gone that way a few times and so chose a longer route up through Camden Town and on to Hampstead before turning West to, er, West Hampstead. I arrived at the same time as Richard, almost spot on 7pm.

The beer was the same, thankfully.

The food was different. Despite not being on the limited menu they were able to do a smazak for me and this was more upmarket than the ones I had been eating there for years. Most importantly the breaded cheese was nicer and the boiled potatoes were a better option than chips. I missed the little bit of salad though. Overall this was quite a step up and the price reflected that.

Finally, the conversations were much the same. The topics were different, as were some of the people, but the friendly atmosphere and convivial batter were as they always were. And they were the main reason that I went.

11 February 2020

Blood Brothers are Richmond Theatre was predictably entertaining

There are lots of gaps in my Cultural Capital and Blood Brothers was one of them. I think that it had been avoiding me more than I had been avoiding it but, whatever the reason, our paths had not crossed until a new touring version arrived at Richmond Theatre and I duly paid £37.5 for my usual seat Dress Circle A25.

The first good sign was that the music was live though as this was coming from a couple of keyboards and a PC I guessed that it would be amplified. I quickly learned that the singers were too. I never like that because of the quality of sound that it produces and the way that the sound comes from the wrong places but I understand why it is done; basically properly trained good singers are too expensive for shows like this. Luckily they can still be found at places like Glyndebourne!

I knew nothing of the story, other than the brief marketing blurb, so I was disappointed when the play started at the end before proceeding to show us how that end was reached. That story was simple, verging on simplistic, with absolutely no surprises but it did enough to engage throughout, usually by exaggerating children's behaviours.

The music was OK without doing anything very much. There was one thing that I did like a lot though and that was the recurring "Marilyn Monroe" refrain.

Blood Brothers was more craft than art so was not really my sort of thing but the crafting was good and I was properly entertained if not moved.

8 February 2020

My Cousin Rachel at Richmond Theatre

Daphne du Maurier did not feature in my young reading years but has featured frequently in my old radio drama listening years and good listening it has been too. So when My Cousin Rachel was announced at Richmond Theatre, way back in August, I was quick in to get my usual seat, Dress Circle A25 and was very happy to pay an opening night discount of £22 with my ATG Theatre Card.

I rarely book that far ahead and it was nice getting this sorted.

All went well until I got to the theatre on the Monday evening. The show had been cancelled just as I arrived due to technical details with the stage. It was a busy week, including two other theatre dates, and so I was resigned to missing it. A few days later it transpired that I could make a Saturday evening performance and so I called ATG to see if I could rebook or have to settle for my money back. I was very lucky as I could get seats in my preferred area (A23) and at the original discounted price. Result!

The set was suitable dark and Gothic as I settled down to enjoy the show.

The basic story was about the mysterious Cousin Rachel, a former Italian Contessa, coming to Cornwall to visit the ward of her recently deceased husband. Throughout the play there were questions about her motives and her past.

These questions added more and more to the drama and kept the excitement high.

Other themes added colour to the story; these included Cornish language and legends, society's conventions on class and the sexes, and the power of the sea. Lines like "I am a woman so I shall always be a servant" peppered the play providing many moments of thoughtfulness and humour. It was a rich and rewarding experience.

Any story dominated by one character needs that actor to be believable and Helen George was every inch the femme fatale. She was gorgeous, mysterious, playful, wicked, scheming, kind and everything else that Cousin Rachel had to be. The rest of the show was well cast too and all of the characters were utterly believable.

I liked the staging too. Essentially it was the main room in the manor house with a large staircase curving out of it and when the stage rotated that staircase became the cliffs above the sea and all that we needed for the transformation was a change in lighting and some sound effects. Simple but effective.

My Cousin Rachel was exciting, entertaining, engaging and everything else that a good story well told should be.