2 July 2015

The Dead Monkey at Park Theatre was a story of love/hate and humour/tragedy laced with a touch of the surreal

I had been interested in going to see The Dead Monkey since it was first announced but other things in my life, like work and life, had conspired to keep me away. I came up with a brilliant to see it at a Thursday matinee and then see another play also in its last week in the evening. Sadly the brilliant plan failed when the matinee performance sold out.

That left me having to make a last minute decision on the Thursday afternoon which of the two plays to see. The Dead Monkey sounded more fun and I like the bar, food, wifi combination at the Park Theatre so it got the nod. It was a good nod.

The theatre is about 4km from the office and that was a good excuse for a nice walk. I varied the route from previous times. I knew the general direction and headed that way taking care to try new roads when I could. There were no startling discoveries along the way but a change is as good as a rest and it was a fine walk, despite the heat.

On arrival I helped myself to a latte and an asparagus and almond flan with salad. I also helped myself to their wifi and spent my time usefully updating the Kingston Society websites. Finally I helped myself to a beer to take into the theatre with me. It was still warm.

The Dead Monkey opened with a dead monkey, it was that lump under the blanket at the front of the stage.

It was owned by a couple who lived on the California coast and who had been married for fifteen years. He was away working as a salesman and she was distraught with grief at the monkey's death and also concerned about how her husband would take it on his return.

The vet helpfully suggested ways that the monkey could be disposed of. These included an expensive burial plot at the zoo, with an optional headstone, or the cheapest option of eating it.

And that very much set the scene for the rest of the play, a relationship that had love but not much trust, events that ranged from the funny to the tragic, and a heavy dollop of the surreal.

This ebb and flow of events and moods was redolent of the sea but that might have been heavily influenced by the play being set there and by the author, Nick Darke, having a close association with North Cornwall coast. It may have been an unintentional metaphor but I found it a useful one. The other thing about the sea is that it does not stop and the play did not stop either, it came to an end but was still in motion.

And it was this movement that was the point of the play. Each event had it's own importance but what was more important was what happened before and what happened next. These events were suffused with life, death, sex and water.

Riding the waves, literally and metaphorically, were the married couple Dolores (Ruth Gibson) and Hank (James Lance). He was big, brusque, loud and hairy while she was petite and something of a dumb blond. They were an unlikely couple brought together and united by the monkey. The only other character was the vet, Charles Reston, who was a deadpan foil to the emotional couple and also the source for most of the surreal elements. All three actors were good and were very warmly applauded at the end.

The Dead Monkey was an entertaining romp through emotional peaks and troughs which seemed not that big to us as we were all sitting on the same raft as it navigated the troubled seas. This flattened the experience a little and deprived it of shock value despite the shocking things that happened. Did I mention the bestiality? 

29 June 2015

FFS (Franz Ferdinand Sparks) at the Troxy easily exceeded my high expectations

Few, if any, bands have the capability to surprise as much as Sparks.

For many they are just the odd electronic duo that had their fifteen minutes of fame in the early seventies with songs like This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us. For those of us that stayed following them we have seen them take their pop songs in several directions and have seen them tour with various band formats and as just a duet.

Then they announced that they were working with Franz Ferdinand.

The first fruits of this was the album FFS, the deliberately provocative combination of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. Then even better news and FFS became a band too and they started touring to promote the album.

I have a simple rule for Sparks concerts in London - Go.

Sparks have also surprised with their concert venues in recent tears and I have seen them as place as geographically and physically diverse as Barbican, Union Chapel and Bush Hall, amongst others. The venue this time was Troxy, a converted cinema in Stepney, a part of London that I knew little about and had only been too on a few lunchtime walks when based at a project at Aldgate East.

Citymapper showed all sorts of interesting ways to get there but in the end I took the easiest option of the District Line all the way from Richmond to Stepney Green. From there it was a fairly simple walk more or less due South, past an unexpected city farm.

Troxy was easy to find and a lot of other people had found it too and there was a long queue down the side of the building. It moved pretty quickly and I was inside within ten minutes or so. Obviously all the best places had been taken so I settled for a central position about six "rows" back.

There was a support band and  they helped to pass the time but while they were harmless they were also largely forgettable.

As promised FFS hit the stage at 9pm.

I had the album and had been playing it so I had some idea of what to expect musically though I had little idea of what their stagecraft would be like.

It was obvious from the very first number, Johnny Delusional which was also the first track on the FFS album, that FFS were one band, not two bands playing together. The synergies and the energy were amazing.

Leading the charge, so to speak,  were Russell Mael (ex-Sparks) and Alex Kapranos (ex-Franz Ferdinand) who matched each other line-by-line and  step-by-step, much like the walk-off in Zoolander. They swapped lines and swapped moves like twin brothers that looked a little different. The voices had the same timbre too so the sound they produced was consistent no matter who was singing.

Russell cannot keep still on stage and, if anything, Alex out did him. Russell probably bounced a little more while Alex put in more dramatic crouches and arm salutes.

There were plenty of other antics from the rest of the band too. There was the Ron Dance, of course, and we also had some crowdsurfing from Nick McCarthy while he carried on playing guitar, a few swapping of positions and instruments and massed drumming for the introduction to the Number One Song In Heaven.

From that you will have gathered that they played a few tracks from their previous bands as well as most of FFS. Everybody there seemed to know the FFS album well and also all of the songs by one of the original bands, Sparks in my case. I worked on the assumption that anything that I did not recognise was a Franz Ferdinand song. I did recognise their biggest hit single Take Me Out but I had forgotten that it was by them.

The music was poppy and bouncy so we bounced along with them. It was hardly a mosh pit but everybody was dancing, even me (just a little bit).

I do not know how FFS wrote their songs but there were a few that had the easy repetition of more recent Sparks albums and these were my early favourites from the album, songs like Little Guy From The Suburbs ("You'll know I didn't, I didn't make it like I hoped we would...") and Save Me From Myself (er "Save Me From Myself"). Of course I liked the very poppy songs too and had to sing along to things like Call Girl ("Why don't you call, girl?") and Police Encounters ("Bomp bom diddy diddy").

There was much to like about the new FFS material but my highlight of the evening, as it often is, was When Do I Get to Sing "My Way".

Every time I see Sparks I marvel at just how good they are live and FFS more than lived up to my very high expectation of the evening. The sell out dates and the five star reviews are all easily deserved.

19 June 2015

Flight at Opera Holland Park was astonishingly good in all departments

Opera is not my favourite art form, I would rather go to the theatre, see some dance or wander a gallery of modern art, but it is high enough up my list for me to go to it probably once a month or so, though most of that is clustered around the Summer festivals of Glyndebourne, Tete-a-Tete and Grimeborn. So it was something of a surprise that I had not been to Opera Holland Park before. I was aware of it and had momentarily considered going to it but had never got further that that.

Opera Holland Park were also reluctant to tell me much about what they were up to (mostly because I had not asked) and so they disappeared under the radar. Then Twitter came to the rescue, as it often does.

The good people at Tete-a-Tete tweeted that they were off to see the opening performance of Flight and that made me squeal. I had seen Flight twice before, at Glyndebourne in 1999 and 2005, and was keen to see it again. I leaped on my PC and had a look at Opera Holland Park, starting with the basic stuff like where is was.

There were only a few performances of Flight scheduled and I could only make one of them, so that was an easy choice. The ticket prices were a lot lower than Glyndebourne's and the top price was only £60 so that was an easy choice too.

The harder choices were what to wear, how to get there and what to eat first.

I spoke to a cultured and refined lady that I know at a BCSA event and she assured me that there was no dress code and that she had seen people there in t-shirts. I chose to wear a bow-tie though I was not brave enough to wear it all day so I took it with me and changed after work. It does not seem that long ago that I used to wear a bow-tie to work most days, and I have a lot of them, but fashions change and what was once unusual but acceptable now gets you stared at by the public and watched closely by the police.

Opera Holland Park is, understandably, in Holland Park which has its own tube station on the Central Line but the District Line was a lot more convenient for me so I headed for High Street Kensington which left me with a comfortable walk of under ten minutes to the opera which was situated towards the southern end of the park, just above the cricket pitch.

On a recommendation I ate in the food hall in Whole Foods Market which was less impressive than I hoped. The opening made-to-order fruit juice was good but I struggled to find some easy vegetarian food, multiple-choices are the enemy of a person in a hurry, and in the end I settled for the unbelievably boring choice of two slices of pizza. It was food.

Opera Holland Park tried to copy something of the Glyndebourne experience. I queued for a Pimms and eventually got a glass that was mostly full of ice.

The opera house itself was a large tent with temporary seating. It looked fairly basic but it was comfortable enough and I had a good view.

The shape was slightly unusual in that it was much wider than most stages. This may have been to accommodate the orchestra but had the lucky consequence of being ideal for Flight because that was set in a spacious airport departure lounge and had clusters of people spread across it.

The story was framed by that of the refugee (the part played by Tom Hanks in the film The Terminal) who was trapped in the airport. At the end of the story we found out why and this involved a stowaway falling to his death as the plane he was on came in to land, something which had happened (again) at Heathrow just a few days previously.

The middle of the opera was filled with the stories of other passengers like the middle-aged couple going on holiday to try and rekindle a cold marriage, an older woman there to meet her much younger "fiancé" who she had met on holiday and who had promised to come for her, and a diplomat and his pregnant wife heading off to a prestigious new assignment in Minsk. And then there were the stewards who were more interested in having sex with each other than anything else.

A storm confined them all to the terminal  building for far longer than expected and  this created lots of space  for their stories to develop. The directions they went were often tender, sometimes sad, occasionally funny and always interesting. More importantly they were all sung wonderfully.

The music matched these moods beautifully and tripped along in a fresh modern style that had an English Romantic feel to it, more Grainger than Glass.

There was an interval. Getting a drink looked too hard again and the ice cream required something of a walk but that was better than queueing so I had an ice cream. I also grabbed a quick hello with a lady I recognised from various evening  as Tete-a-Tete and during our quick exchange I was pleasantly shocked to learn that she had been involved in the original production of Flight at Glyndebourne. Something I will want to find out more about when we next meet at an opera.

That chance meeting was a cherry on the top of a very delightful, rich and fruity cake. Flight was an astonishingly good opera in all departments and was an excellent example of what the form can do. Having seen it three times now I want to see it again.

16 June 2015

Death of a Salesman at the Noël Coward Theatre

My theatre-going has two main strands, gorging myself on new plays in small theatres and feasting on the classics in large ones. The later is sometimes to revisit some favourites but more often it is to fill in embarrassing gaps in my theatrical experience. Gaps do not get much bigger that Death of a Salesman, though recently seen The Crucible came close.

That meant that I would have been tempted by almost any old version of Death of a Salesman that came my way so I was very lucky that the first one to do so came from the RSC and came with a formidable reputation. A lot of that formidable reputation came from Antony Sher who I had spent the best part of six hours watching on stage last December in Henry IV 1 and 2.

I can afford to pay for expensive theatre tickets but it irks me to do so when so many West End shows are average at best. What pay £80 for an average West End show when you can see one average, two good and one excellent shows in small  theatres for the same price? That means that when I go to West End theatres I normally go high up and that is what I did this time. My Grand Circle seat A16 still cost me £37.50.

The view from there was excellent and I much prefer to look down at the stage from up on high than to look up at it from the stalls. Looking down also means you can see the depth of the stage better. This time it also meant that I could see the upstairs bedroom clearly though not a lot happened there.

The view was obscured by the safety rail, another reason why the ticket was so "cheap", but this was not a huge problem and all I had to  do was sit up a little  when the action was in the house (which it was most of the time) and slide down a little when it moved to the front of the stage  which was, at times, a  street, a bar and an office.

The play was a slow moving tale of an American family, not unlike Long Day's Journey into Night, and it was the telling of the tale that mattered, not how it ended. Which is just as well as the main element of the ending was given away in the play's title and the secondary element was suggested shortly into the play. And that is how I like things. Endings are relatively short and while they are important the much longer journey to get there is more so, especially as a cute ending is only really cute the first time whereas a great journey rewards repeating.

This journey was led by the salesman, Willy Loman, who at 63 years old was looking to swap his travelling role for one based in New York where he lived. He was encouraged in this by his wife Linda. They also had to contend with their two sons, Biff and Happy, who were both living at home and struggling to get a start on life. Complicating the picture was Willy's older brother, Uncle Ben, who had made his fortune in Africa and who appeared, ghost like, to talk to Willy.

This combination of generations and circumstances allowed Arthur Miller to explore the American Dream from several angles and in some depth, which he does passionately but without prejudice - there are winners as well as losers and the losers made their choices along the way.

While by no means dominating the story Willy Loman filled large chunks of it and so the performance of Antony Sher was central to the performance and he was utterly magnificent. It was hard to believe that Willy Loman had once been Falstaff. The rest of the small cast had very important roles to play to and they were all very good.

Death of a Salesman had been collecting five star reviews with ease and while I do not award stars myself I can easily see that they were justified. This was an iconic production of an iconic play.

12 June 2015

The musical version of Duncton Wood at the Union Theatre was lovely, if somewhat bloody

All that I knew of Duncton Wood when I saw the musical announced was that it was a popular book with animals in it. I assumed that it was rabbits or a mix of species but that would have been something like Watership Down or The Animals of Farthing Wood. Duncton Wood was about moles.

I picked a Friday performance to be reasonably sure that I could work in London that day and so could make the gentle stroll down from Kings Cross to Southwark and still have plenty of time to eat beforehand.

I had to go to the theatre first for the opening of the box office at 6:30 were good planning got me there first and so I was able to secure one of the all-important first ten tickets which would get me into the theatre as part of the first group. It is a slightly unusual ticketing system but I think that it works very well. I wish places with awkward queueing systems, like the Bush, would it.

For food I went to one of my new favourite places, Culture Grub on The Cut close to the Young Vic, where I had my new usual Chinese style curry. One of the reasons for going there was to avoid having a beer in a pub and I went for a grapefruit and honey juice instead. The food at the restaurant was very good and came very quickly, just what I wanted before a theatre date.

I got back to the Union Theatre around 7:15pm, in good time for the play. There was a little jostling for position from the people who knew how things worked there but I am not unskilled at jostling and I was the first one in. It is always a surprise walking into the theatre there as the performance area is always laid out differently and a quick decision has to be made on where to sit. This time the seating was L-shaped, running along two sides of the stage. I chose a seat in the middle of the long leg of the L. It proved to be a good choice.

I might have been alone in the audience in not knowing what to expect; it even took me a few minutes to work out that they were all moles.

The story, in case you do not know it either, was steeped in fantasy with one group of moles seeking to return to the old ways when they worshipped seven stones and another group wanting to retain their power over the moles. These were both groups of stones moles and there were also pasture moles involved.

What followed was a tense drama with groups of moles fighting each other, individual rivalries between some of the moles and some love affairs between others. It was somewhat bloody too with one of the elders and one of the pasture moles being killed before the break. I thought that might have been it for the violence but in the second half it got worse and several children were amongst those murdered.

It was not all violence, there was a fair amount of sex too. Who knew that moles bonk face-to-face like humans do?

I liked the story because while there were some obvious bits (the goodies beat the baddies in the end) there were quite a few surprises and diversions along the way and so while the general direction was clear it was always uncertain what would happen next.

The musical side of the performance worked very well. There was a large cast with several important roles and that meant lots of loud choruses, plenty of solo ballads and several cosy duets. The music was reassuringly approachable with some of the themes repeating, as they should in a musical.

I was impressed by the singing in all its combinations though in my view the baddies had not only the best tunes they had some of the best singing too, and the one who impressed me the most was second-in-command baddie Rune, but that is just me being my usual unfair self and picking one when all were good.

The rest of the production was good too with plenty of movement, atmospheric lighting, a simple set, evocative costumes, striking make-up and good use of sound effects for rain etc. This was another example of when being in a small theatre works best as the total effect was very immersive with all of the elements of the play set out just before me. It is hard to tell what colour a mole's toenails are painted from several rows back in the stall.

Duncton Wood was my sort of musical as it had a good story touched with darkness, fine music well played and sung, and a rich production that teased all the strengths out of both.

10 June 2015

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (June 2015)

I was frustrated, and annoyed, that work kept me away from the May British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) Social at the last moment and I was relieved to be able to get there for the June Social, the last one before the Summer break. I was working in Reading again but this time I was able to leave at a sensible time, just after 5:30pm, and so was able to get to the Czechoslovak National House in West Hampstead just before 7pm.

There were a couple of BCSA Social regulars there already and soon as I had got my first pint of Pilsner Urquell I joined them in talking about the previous weekend's Garden Party and going though the photographs that they had taken.

We were soon joined by other people, some regulars and quite a few first-comers too, and the conversations flowed with short interruptions for food and drink. I had Smazeny Syr which came as no surprise to anybody. Nor was the bottle of Zlaty Bazant which I finished the evening with.

The conversations that filled the evening with casual ease covered the usual wide range of topics of communal interest to British, Czechs and Slovaks meeting in London, and these included public transport, house-hunting, the difference in English between the place Reading and the verb reading, budget airlines and many other things that I have since forgotten because conversations are like that.

It was yet another successful BCSA "Get to Know You" Social, which is why I keep going to them and why, I presume, that other people go too. 

6 June 2015

BCSA Garden Party 2015

There is not a lot to say about the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) Garden Party 2015 that I have not said about previous years, and that is because there is no point in changing a successful formula.

As a Garden Party it always looks to the weather to play its part and this year it did with plenty of sunshine and no rain. The last time that the Slovak Embassy hosted the event, in 2013, the rain kept us indoors for most of the afternoon but this time we were able to enjoy the garden that the two embassies share for the whole event.

The successful formula that was repeated was based around the opportunity to talk to lots of people with food and drink at hand to keep the energy levels up, music and dancing to entertain, and raffles and stalls to tease money out of our pockets for the BCSA's charitable purposes.

I had notable conversations about Compassion in World Farming, Holland Park Opera, the newly opened Prague of twenty years ago which was new and exciting but vegetarians had to survive on smazeny syr, cherries and tomatoes, ferrets and chinchillas, Ibsen's Ghosts and, of course, that evening's Champions League Final between Barcelona and Juventus.

I did not win any of the t-shirts that I fancied in the raffle and was one ticket away from winning a cake but I never expected to win anything with my miserly £2 investment and everything else about the afternoon was wonderful.

5 June 2015

INdisciplineD were progtastic at the Scream Lounge in Croydon

Since secondSight morphed into INdisciplineD that fates had not been kind to me and I had only managed to catch them once, at the Fighting Cocks in December 2012, so when they played the Scream Lounge in Croydon I jumped at the chance.

I had seen secondSight at the Scream Lounge twice but it took me a little while to work out that a) the Scream Lounge had moved slightly and b) the way in was via a nondescript door in a nondescript alley. I even thought that I had the wrong place at first as another band were playing when I arrived around 8;30pm and the doorman denied all knowledge of INdisciplineD. Then he checked his piece of paper and came after me to confirm that this was indeed the right place and I duly paid my £3 admission.

I caught the last song of a laddish metal band who were loud, energetic and quite pleasing and then watched a Jamish three-piece play a softer style of rock backed by a harsh staccato drumbeat.

Then it was time for INdisciplineD.

The line-up had changed since I last saw them. I remarked then how well they did without a keyboard player and they ignored that and went out and got one. I had to admit that he made a big difference to songs like ELP's Karn Evil 9 (Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends) and Genesis' Supper's Ready (A flower!).

INdisciplineD only had time to play a shortish set, a little over an hour, so they sensibly mixed it a lot and we had one song each from the likes of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, The Cardiacs and Porcupine Tree. Of course as one of those songs was Supper's Ready we got rather more Genesis than anybody else, not that anybody minded at all. They closed with Aqualung.

INdisciplineD played the familiar songs with professionalism, style and a sense of fun which was echoed in the outfits of the two central men, Chris on vocals and Nick on bass. The venue's lighting was not kind to the rest of the band and even the other front men, lead guitar and keyboards, were almost invisible. At least they could be heard clearly.

It was a lovely set from INdisciplineD and even the atrocious two and a half hour journey home did nothing to disturb my happy mood. There had been too little progressive rock in my life at that time and it was good to hear those songs again, especially when they were played so well.