13 April 2017

The Lottery of Love at Orange Tree Theatre was fluffy fun

I may be less enthusiastic about Orange Tree Theatre these days but it still the easiest theatre for me to get to and I am always going to be tempted by a play described as Marivaux’s greatest comedy translated by John Fowles to the Regency England of Jane Austen.

That period chimed well with my listening at that time with BBC Radio Drama broadcasting (or rebroadcasting) many classics including works by Jane Austen that I had not read previously. These were mostly stories of class and love which set my expectations for The Lottery of Love.

These expectations were quickly met.

The thin premise of the play was that a well to do couple, who had never met, were being steered towards each other by their parents but both wanted to be sure of the other first and both came up with the plan of swapping places with their maid/manservant to observe the manners of the other from a more lowly position.

This was explained to us at the start of the play so there were no surprises for us. The only other people in on the double deception were the woman's father and brother.

I had anticipated the plot even before its early announcement and it maybe that I had seen the play before or, possibly, another play with a similar theme. No matter either way, the plot was largely immaterial, which was just as well as all that happened was that the two couples (the two gentlefolk and their two servants) spent an hour and a half confessing their undying love between them despite the clash in positions that they all that there were.

The minimal plot was supported by a minimal set. The cast wore period costumes, which I think they had to as the class conflicts would not have worked in modern dress, but there was no furniture and no props. The circle on the floor may have meant something to somebody, if so I missed the clue.

So far it does not sound as if The Lottery of Love had much in its favour, and that was true, so it is just as well that the acting was sumptuous.

These were simple characters with simple emotions so the actors were not called upon to do very much but what they did do was ham it up magnificently.

The father skipped in delight at the mischief, the women fanned their faces in awe of attractive men, the servant come gentleman was outrageously extravagant in his movement and gestures. In stark contrast the gentleman come servant was calm and resolute to a degree that no human being ever could be.

The acting lifted the light production and made it something genuinely and constantly entertaining. A welcome jolly end to the week.

The Lottery of Love was fun but it again left me wondering why Orange Tree was putting on plays like this. I go to the theatre to be entertained and I also go to be stimulated and challenged and The Lottery of Love was far too fluffy to do that. I expect fluffy entertainment at places like Richmond Theatre (and they do it well) and I expect more from Orange Tree.

After many years of being an Orange Tree regular I have reluctantly decided not to go to every show there automatically, each play has to win my time on its merit and has to compete with the more consistent offerings from places like Theatre503.

11 April 2017

The Goat at Theatre Royal Haymarket‎ was both disturbing and funny

There seemed to be a steady stream of A-List actors appearing at the West End in the early part of 2017 and all were appearing in interesting plays so I just had to go and see a lot of them.

With A-List actors there is usually a hefty ticket price to pay and to see The Goat I had to fork out £45 for a front row seat (A14) in the Upper Circle. I was happy with that deal.

Perhaps because of the pricing, or perhaps because of the less familiar play, or perhaps because Damian Lewis is not quite at the top of the A-List, the theatre was busy but not full.

A sign on the way up warned that the play was an hour and fifty minutes without a break. This was a little on the long side (though ninety minutes is common) and suggested that there was no natural break in the story to insert an interval. That meant missing out on the ice cream and that was probably a good thing.

The play was similar in structure to several other American plays I had seen in that everything happened in one room and more or less on one day. The time period was slightly longer this time but not much. The core of the play was the intense, and often funny, dialogue between a long-time married couple, Martin and Stevie (played by Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo), with some contributions from their late teenage son and a long-term friend of the family.

Early in these discussions Martin revealed his adulterous love for Sylvia and things escalated rapidly from there. In the long scene while Stevie tries to understand the situation (but not to come to terms with it) she destroyed ornaments almost with glee.

The Goat tested us by presenting Martin as an intelligent man and a good husband/father who just happened to have fallen in love unexpectedly. It was easy to be sympathetic to his plight despite the extent of his moral crime. Martin remained calm throughout and is almost bemused by everybody else's disgust.

Sophie Okonedo had the more interesting role as the injured wife and she was magnificent.

The play managed to be funny throughout despite the serious nature of the story and without going for cheap jokes. It also managed to make an hour and fifty minutes speed by such that when the lights went out it was hard for me to believe that we had got to the end, a confusion helped by the distinct lack of resolution to the story.

The Goat may not be the classic that Virginia Woolf is and Damian Lewis may not have the stage presence of Imelda Staunton but that would be to unfairly compare it to something staggeringly good which almost every play will look paler against. Considered on its own merits The Goat was an intelligent play that managed to be both disturbing and funny, often in the same sentence.

10 April 2017

The Plague at Arcola Theatre was harsh, harrowing and hopeful


I do not need much encouragement to go and see something at Arcola Theatre, despite its relatively distant location that requires three trains to get to, and an adaptation of an Albert Camus story was easily sufficient.

I was quick off the mark and was able to claim my seat in the middle of the front row, unusually numbered B15, for a modest £22. Row A had been replaced for the evening to make more space for the stage.

The set consisted simply of two tables, some chairs and a few microphones. Originally set for an enquiry panel, these moved around to create a variety of rooms in a variety of buildings including a block of flats, a doctor's surgery and a hospital.

The simple props were ably enhanced by some striking lighting, such as heavy use of spots during key moments, and some vividly atmospheric sounds, such as a swarm of rats.

The Plague was not a happy story dealing, as it did, with a town that is hit by a plague carried by rats and which was put into quarantine by closing the town gates for several months.

The story was told by five inhabitants of the town who were all impacted by, and responded to, the plague differently. There was much sadness, some despair, some greed, some resistance, some bravery and even some hope, The situation was tense with emotion and that was carried into the audience expertly.

For the second time in a few days the leading male role, a doctor, was played by a woman (Sara Powell) with no pretence and for the second time in a few days it did not matter. Even when he/she spoke about his/her wife everything seemed quite normal. Good acting does that. The rest of the cast were good too and it was a nicely balanced performance with the spotlight literally moving between them.

The Plague was a powerful drama and the technically rich production added to the power and heightened the drama. It was harsh, harrowing and hopeful, and also entertaining despite the subject matter.

4 April 2017

An open letter to the Royal Park Gate Residents Association

Royal Park Gate Residents Association needs to improve

It is now over two months since the inaugural meeting of the Royal Park Gate Residents Association and I am deeply irritated at the lack of progress since then. All of the enthusiasm shown at the meeting has been allowed to dissipated and in two months there has not been one email from the Association. This is unacceptable.

I am also angry at the way that work has continued along the footpath through Royal Park Gate without consulting residents. The meeting made it clear that there were mixed views on whether the wildlife friendly planting should be replaced with flowers. I do not know where the balance of opinion lies, I am firmly in favour of keeping it wild myself, but I do know that the nature of the area where I have lived for twenty years is being changed without me having any say in this. To create a Residents Association and then to refuse to consult with it before undertaking works like this is also unacceptable.

At the meeting we also talked about the state of the footpath and the way that the vegetation restricts the width severely in a couple of places. The path needs to be kept clear to allow buggies and bikes etc. to share it and if the Council is not going to do this then it makes sense for the Residents Association to do so. In desperation, my wife and I cut back the vegetation on the junction with Northweald Lane to the edge of the path so now people can pass on both sides of the bollard.

I am disappointed that nothing has been done to the section just north of Debden Close. This, combined with the planting of flowers, suggests to me that some people on the committee are acting in their own interest while paying no heed to the needs of other residents.

The lack of consultation on the works done and the complete lack of any communication on anything else prove to me that the current committee is not functioning properly. I strongly urge the current committee to stand aside and let those prepared to make the Association a success to do so.

3 April 2017

Lots of laughs with Out of Order at Richmond Theatre

Not everything that I see at the theatre is experimental, challenging or intellectual. Some of it is just fun. And that is exactly what I was hoping from from Ray Cooney's Out of Order.

I took advantage of an opening day offer to get Dress Circle  Row B  Seat 17 for £19.50. At that sort of price I just had to go.

I had some idea of what to expect having seen a sum total of one Ray Cooney play previously, Two Into One at Menier Chocolate Factory, which also made me laugh a lot.

The premise was simple enough; a Tory minister planned to miss an important debate and to spend the night with a Labour secretary in a swanky hotel nearby instead. Things went wrong quickly with the discovery of a dead man in their room. From there on deception led to another as the situation got more and more complex with the arrival of vexed colleagues, anxious spouses and curious hotel staff. Each new arrival and each new event needed a new lie to explain it until the tower of lies had to collapse under its own weight.

The scene was simple enough too; a hotel room with three doors and a window out to a balcony. Standard farce fare, and it is a standard because it works so well and in Out of Order the exits and entrances were frequently unexpected and always neatly timed.

I was hoping for a farce and that is what I got. It was a laugh out loud farce that lifted the spirits that were starting to wilt at the start of another working week.

2 April 2017

Letter to Surrey Comet on removal of houseboats

While some people may rejoice in the removal of houseboats from the river (Letters 31 March) this is not a view shared by everybody who uses the towpath regularly. I walk along it every day to and from work and I miss the boats.

The section of the river by Teddington Lock has the weir, which nobody could accuse of being pretty. In contrast, the boats brought life to the area and reminded us that the Thames has been a working river for centuries.

We have also paid a high price for the removal of the boats with the removal of the trees along the riverbank that they were moored to. These trees used to screen the ugly weir so that it was often heard before it was seen. Now that whole section of the river is barren and blighted.

And, of course, the highest price has been paid by those who lived on the boats who have been driven away and forced to seek somewhere else to live. I find it impossible to rejoice in taking somebody’s home away from them.

27 March 2017

E15 at Battersea Arts Centre was a brutally honest look at the Housing Crisis

I had not been to Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) for a few months and I was happy to correct that error with E15, an overtly political play with the strap-line Social Housing Not Social Cleansing.

The £12.5 price tag suggested a shortish play and at around 75 minutes that was clearly good value. For that I got seat A11 in the middle of the front row, my favourite spot.

Despite being banished to work in Teddington BAC was still easy to get to with a mainline train taking me to Clapham Junction which just left me the short walk up Lavender Hill.

I got there in good time, about an hour or so before the show, which gave me time to enjoy some of the delights of the Scratch Bar which include an interesting and satisfying meal, a bottle of beer with a nice label and a window seat to spy on the world from. Later I had a coffee too. Front of house is important to me and is one of the strengths of BAC.

E15 was staged in the former Council Chamber, basically a large room with some stadium type seating in one half and the other used as a performance area. The staging was dramatic with the three walls festooned with political banners and the floor covered in chalk slogans that the cast were busy adding to as we entered. Someone else was shouting more slogans through a portable loudhailer. We were immersed in the action from the very start.



The story of E15 was based on the Focus E15 campaign which was started in September 2013 when a group of young mothers were served eviction notices by East Thames Housing Association after Newham Council cut its funding to the Focus E15 hostel for young homeless people.Four young mothers and a young man told us how they came to be in the hostel. All were vulnerable, all relied on benefits to live and all had strong connections with Newham. All were decent honest people who deserved the help they needed.

The play took us through their campaign, which had its ups and downs. Driven by need they had come together to fight for the right to live locally, rather than joining the 68,000 people rehoused outside of London every year, away from the places and people they know and away from whatever support structures they had. It was a brutal story with some brighter moments such as when they decided to hold a children's birthday party in a developer's show home.

I went to see E15 for the politics and there was plenty of this. In particular we could see the impact on real people of the government's policies enacted by local councils. I also hoped to be entertained and E15 did that too with a well constructed story and a good cast who made me care about what happened to them.

I signed their petition on the way out, I think everybody did, and would have thrown some paper at them if they had had a bucket to collect donations in but I failed to find one so I made sure to give them some money online.

It is a crime that plays like E15 are necessary in this day and age but they are necessary and more people should see them. These stories need to be told.

22 March 2017

Dark Vanilla Jungle was just as scary the second time

My Google Alert did its job and alerted me to a new production of Dark Vanilla Jungle and I made my booking immediately, £14 for an unreserved seat.

I would have gone to see it if it had been in N16 (which lies just north of  Arcola Theatre) but Theatre N16 had been on its travels and had landed much closer to home in Balham where it has taken up residency above large and rambling Bedform Arms.

I had never been to Balham before (other than passing through on a train) and was looking forward to doing a little exploration too. The exploration was somewhat limited by the pub being next to the station and the difficulty in crossing several busy roads to get there.

The Bedform Arms did its job reasonably well providing a decent, if not very full, pint (eventually) and a pretty good vegetarian burger from its limited menu.

Immediately above the pub was a large function room but that was used for some sort of keep fit class and the theatre was another floor up in a modest room, much like other pub theatres such as Pentameters and the White Bear. The stage was a simple white rectangle with normal dining chairs on three sides. There may have been some more theatrical type seating behind these but I headed straight from the front row in the central block and did not pay much attention to the other seats. I was not surprised by the limited set as The Cockpit had been much the same, if rather larger.

Dark Vanilla Jungle was a monologue, told by a young woman called Andrea, that jumped in various directions, threw in a few shocks and told some stories that might not have been true. In construction it was similar to Donny Stixx but that means little more than saying all Beethoven's string quartets used the same instruments as the same techniques were used to different effects.

And like a work of classical music, Dark Vanilla Jungle had distinct sections with one story following another but told in such a way that there was no gap between them. These stories covered Andrea's early years living with her parents, being in an exploitative relationship as a teenager and then (possibly mad, possibly dreaming) her relationship with a seriously injured soldier.

Being Philip Ridley these stories were thick with prose that demanded a close listen just as poetry does. Each sentence could be appreciated for its own form as well as for the narrative that they helped to construct.

Dark Vanilla Jungle lasted about 75 busy minutes after which both performer (Emily Thornton) and audience had reached a summit that it was too exhausting to try and go beyond. I have seen plays that last twice as long do half as much.

It is because of plays like Dark Vanilla Jungle and of evenings like this one that I have a Google Alert for Philip Ridley.