16 March 2018

Summer and Smoke at Almeida Theatre was beautiful

I had one simple reason for wanting to see Summer and Smoke and that was Tennessee Williams wrote it. Almeida Theatre is awkwardly situated half way between Angel and Highbury Islington so it takes something a bit special to get me there.

The layout of the theatre had been slightly different every time that I had been there so I was not sure where to book my seat. I was a little late so some of the options were taken from me. In the end I chose Circle A29 for a humble £32. I had not been on that side of the theatre before and the seat proved to be reasonable and there were only a few moment when the action took place out of site below me.

I loved the stage from the moment I took my seat. The centre was bare, apart from a old style microphone in the centre, it was ringer with pianos and the brick wall at the back of the stage was harshly lit to show every facet of its uneven surface.

The simplicity was maintained throughout the play with the only props allowed to make an appearance being some chairs, a few white pills and a child's jigsaw puzzle. I like simplicity.

I like music and light when they help a performance too and they both did here. The pianos were put to effective use at select moments throughout the evening in both quiet and noisy moments and the lighting change subtly, almost imperceptibly, to encourage the mood.

The centre of the stage was dominated by Alma and John and their story. They were neighbours with little in common, she was a nervous preacher's daughter with no expectations and the was a brash doctor's son who was expected to become a doctor too. Disturbing their story were their families and a few friends.

I thought that it was a nice touch to have some of the cast play multiple similar roles without changing their costumers; one actor played their two fathers and another played three of John's girlfriends.

It was a coming of age story, of sorts, filled with the loves, lusts and mistakes that we all make at that age. There were some moments of humour, sadness and anger and even more of acute embarrassment.

The pacing was superb too and I particularly liked the long slow scenes where little, if anything was said.

All that was very good but was as nothing to the performance of Patsy Ferran as Alma. She dominated the stage for two and a half hours with her touching performance that was packed full of little gestures and expressions. She was stunning and an obvious star in the making.

Summer and Smoke brought all the elements of theatre-craft together and made something quite beautiful.

15 March 2018

maliphantworks2 at Print Room was dramatic and lovely

Dance is all too rare a beast in the otherwise expansive cultural richness that is London. There is Sadler's Wells and that is about it. That alone would have tempted me to go and the name Maliphant made it compulsory. I had seen several of his pieces performed by other artists, notably Balletboyz, and was keen to see his own group do them so I promptly paid my £25 for Seat D6.

I had not been to Print Room for a few months (there are a lot of theatres in London!) and had forgotten that there were so many cafes nearby so I settled for a vegetable pasty from Wimbledon Station instead. Next time. I had remembered how good the par was there though and before going in I helped myself to a London IPA and had a look at the curiosities adorning the room.

There was a nice symmetry to the evening. There were four dancers, two men and two women, and four pieces and the evening went two men, two women, interval, first mixed couple, second mixed couple.

In Critical Mass the two men, Russell Maliphant was one of them, danced vigorously and closely. It was a display of technical excellence and deep trust. It was two men working together to a common end, co-workers not lovers. The working aspect was reinforced by their matching blue shirts. In it's mood it reminded me of the gorgeous wall scene in The Rodin Project.

Two Times Two was a study in light. The two women were dressed in black outfits with no sleeves that helped to hide their bodies and accentuate their arms. They danced separately in two blurs of whirling and stabbing arms.

Still (an ironic title) played more tricks with lights as bar-code like lines flew confusingly across the stage. The strobe effect was striking as it hid and illuminated different parts of the dancers in quick succession. It was an energetic dance too making full use of the stage.

Duet saw Russell Maliphant and one of the women dance a piece that was almost the mirror of the first except that this time they were definitely a couple and the dancing was slower and more tender.

Even with the interval it was a short show, not much over an hour, but I had no complaints about that.  All of the pieces were dramatic and lovely and they also worked together nicely to make it a sumptuous performance.

14 March 2018

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

The second Wednesday of the month keeps coming around with frightening speed and with it another trip to the Czech and Slovak Bar and Restaurant in West Hampstead for the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA)  Get to Know You Social.

I am scared to do the maths but I must have been to well over a hundred of these now and still I am keen, almost desperate, to go every month. March 2018 was no exception and I was at the club just before 7pm as usual.

I was the first one there which left me with a few moments to enjoy the Mucha prints on the wall, and my first pint of Pilsner Urquell, before some company arrived and the conversations started.

As usual I was too busy enjoying the conversations to make any notes as to what they were about but suffice it to say that those conversations went on beyond the bar's closing time, helped along the way by some more of that bar's wares, and he had to be gently eased out of the premises around 10:45pm.

It also goes without saying that somewhere in the evening I found time for some smazeny syr and posted the mandatory photograph of it on Instagram.

It was another great evening and only four weeks until the next one.

13 March 2018

Everything about Network at National Theatre was excellent

When National Theatre announced Network they assumed that they were on to a good thing as it was scheduled to run from November 17 to March 18. The run completely sold out so they were obviously right.

The show came with the reputation of the multi Oscar winning 1976 film and the even bigger reputation of Bryan Cranston who was everybody's favourite drugs dealer for several years when binge watching was something you needed DVDs for.

Those reputations were enough for me to push the boat out a little and pay £62 for Circle A17. I took the picture below just before the performance began and I think I had the best seat in the house as I could see everything from there and with a deep stage you need some height to do that.

That stage was an undoubted star of the show. The news desk was wheeled out onto the centre of the stage and Howard Beale gave his broadcasts from there while hand-held cameras recorded everything. The broadcast picture was shown to us on the large screen though, disconcertingly, a fraction of a second after the live action.

What you cannot see is that just off to the left was the glass walled production booth where all the producers and technicians worked during the broadcasts. There were also a few chairs used as offices and other meeting places. All that meant that the stage could be several locations with minimal fuss and no breaks in the action.

Two show-off bits were scenes were the action started outside on the waterfront and the roving cameras followed the couple into National Theatre and on to the stage and where Howard Beale stopped talking and the film of him carried on.

Clever things like that helped the show a lot.

A lot rode on Bryan Cranston as the central character and he was superb, as I think we all knew that he was going to be. He was more than ably surrounded by those around him and the two that impressed me the most were Tom Hodgkins as the president of the company and Michelle Dockery as the programmer keen to rise to the top quickly.

Network ran for two hours without an interval, respecting the construction of the original film. In that time we saw the fall and rise of Howard Beale and the impact that had on him and the people around him. It was also a very political film and it was depressing to see how many of the problems Howard railed against are still big issues today, such as the neglect of ordinary working people in the rust belt in the quest for new capital from overseas. All the would have been needed to make this a contemporary play would have been to change some of the news stories and change the capitalists of fear from the Arabs to the Chinese.

The political commentary, including the motivations for the company executives, were the core of the play and the characters' lives were almost incidental to that. We are all small fish.

Everything about Network was excellent and I loved it to bit.

11 March 2018

Kew Gardens (11 March 18)

A week after the Orchids Festival I was back at Kew Gardens for a normal visit and that meant going in at Lion Gate and heading first for the Japanese Landscape which looks gorgeous at any time of the year.

The stones are as important as the planting and I love the way that they are raked. This must be done regularly to remove leaves etc. and it always looks pristine.

Nearby a couple of peacocks were celebrating Summer by showing off. The other male was having more success at that time and was close to the hen leaving this one to groom his feathers.

I went up the treetop walkway, as I usually do when in that corner of the gardens, and with no leaves to look at yet I had a close look at the Temperate House that was due to open later in the year.

10 March 2018

Improving wildlife habitats with Friends of Ham Lands (10 March 18)

Friends of Ham Lands (FoHL) have sessions on the second Saturday of each month where we venture into Ham Lands to clear important sections of it to improve the wildlife habitats.  A focus of this is to keep the grasslands clear of scrub and connected to each other so that butterflies can move between them.

In March we tackled a section quite close to the junction of Riverside Drive and the footpath leading to Teddington Lock.

The map we were working to showed a path from the grasslands to that footpath but it was not very visible on the ground and I could see no sign of it at all from the Teddington footpath end. We had to go into the grasslands, find the path at that end and try and battle our way through.

The picture at the top shows what we started with. The path almost disappears under the twin challenge of brambles on the left and saplings on the right.

We tackled both and as I had some sturdy loppers I chose to tackle the saplings and small trees. The ground was very mossy on the left and I wanted to get more sunlight in there for the grass and, ultimately the butterflies.

The picture on the right shows some of the team in action. Some others were behind me and some of braver ones were beyond that group deep in brambles.

It was a very successful and rewarding session. I took this picture from about where the path disappeared in the top picture looking back to the open grasslands.

We even managed to cut our way through to the Teddington Lock footpath.

5 March 2018

Angry at Southwark Playhouse was a phenomenal evening

Philip Ridley is one of a select few playwrights for whom I have a Google Alert set up for. This is because I am keen to see everything of his that I can. So far his plays have taken me to places like Old Red Lion, The Bunker and N16 for the first time and to more familiar places too, like The Cockpit.

Southwark Playhouse is one of my favourite theatres so going to see Angry was a no-brainer and I booked it.

Then they announced a series of Q&A sessions a couple of which Philip Ridley would be at and that left me with no choice but to book for a second night, which I actually went to first. Luckily the nice people at Tramp thought of that and there were two versions of the play with the two actors alternating the parts.

Mary Stewart had the same idea but there the two roles were both women and they decided on a roll of a coin which meant that you did not know who was going to play what role. In Angry the two actors were of different genders and allocation of actors to roles was in the programme. That meant that I knew that this performance would be different from the one that I had already booked for.

I have a routine for Southward Playhouse which includes a curry at Culture Grub and then a nice walk up to the theatre. I got there in good time to buy a drink and then hang around the door to be sure of being amongst the first to get in. That plan worked well and I got what looked to be the best seat.

The stage was seat in the round (or square) with the performance area sung about a foot. The picture taken at the Q&A session shows me in the front row next to the steps.

While we waited for the show to star our ears were assaulted by All Drums Go to Hell from Two Steps From Hell. It was load and very industrial. I loved it, Shazam could not cope with all the chatter so I asked one of the crew what it was afterwards. It set the scene nicely.

The show started with people still talking, as they often do. The rule seems to be if actors are not actually talking then it's ok for the audience to talk. The two actors Tyrone Huntley and Georgia Henley entered the pit and stalked each other menacingly. Angry had started.

The music stopped and the words started. They were angry sweary words that were shouted with venom. Less a play, more a study on Tourettes. Huntley left the stage to leave the anger with Henley who directly confronted the audience with it before storing off.

Huntley returned for Okay in which he procrastinated through ever tightening and speeding circles which replaced anger with some solid humour.

Henley's second piece was Bloodshot. A somewhat dark and strange piece, i.e. typical Ridley, about teenage love. Then it was Huntley's turn for a spot of comedy in Dancing, a lament against poor security that allowed severed heads  to spoil a night out clubbing. Henley's third and final piece was just odd which, with the repetition, also marked it out as a Ridley piece. At one point she was in a spaceship being sucked into a black hole; you get the idea.

Air closed the show and lasted for about as long as all the other monologues put together, some 45 minutes. The endurance test for Huntley was increased by the nature of the story which was deeply emotional in two directions. It started as a tender love story then the helicopters came and the darkness came with them. It ended with a desperate fight for air in a sinking ship.

Air was undoubtedly the star of the show but I liked all of the monologues and the way that they gelled together.

The Q&A session that followed was a real bonus with some good questions getting some good responses. It was also good to see Terri Paddock lead the session. I knew from her Twitter feed that we had been to many of the same plays but never on the same night before.

When even that was over I just had to go and say something nice to Philip Ridley and I managed to show why they say that you should never meet your heroes as I bumbled almost incoherently. I think enough of my admiration came through and he seemed genuinely pleased and a little surprised to be approached by a fan.

Angry was a phenomenal evening for many reasons and I had it all to look forward to again four days later.

28 February 2018

The Weir at Richmond Theatre brought fairies and ghosts to the pub

Apparently The Weir was the winner of the 1997 Olivier Award for Best New Play, which was good enough to get me to see it. My ATG Card proved useful again and I secured seat Dress Circle Row A Seat 22 for just £22. At that price there was really no decision to make.

I was pleased to see the theatre fairly busy on what was a treacherous evening and for a play that had little history (i.e. I had not heard of it) and no established stars in it.

The play was fairly obviously set in a pub and the accents told me that it was in Ireland, though it was a reasonable time before anyone spoke. The play opened with one of the pub's regulars serving himself and that was comically fraught with difficulties. The slow cosy pace set the tone for the evening.

More people came into the pub until we had the five characters pictured.  The pub and the five people was all we had for an hour and three quarters. It was a fairly standard pub and fairly normal people too. The opening conversation was about horse racing.

The conversations changed direction when the woman, a newcomer to the area, came in with the rich landlord she was renting from. Looking at an old photograph on the wall of the weir led to conversations about the past and gave the play its name.

The normal conversations became first a little fantastic and then a little dark. There were fairies and ghosts in them but nothing to scary. And then the woman told her real story and things got darker still.

All to quickly the pub closed and everybody left. Nothing much had really happened but if you have to have a play in which nothing happens then this was the way to do it. A lot of clever things went on with the pacing, the interplay of the characters, the development of the stories that they told and the way that the lighting helped to massage the mood.

The Weir was a bit like listening to some ethereal ambient music, and that is a good thing.