10 January 2017

Lots of laughs with Men From The Ministry at White Bear Theatre

I had seen a few shows at the old White Bear Theatre in Kennington and was keen to get back there after their extensive refurbishment which, amongst other things, I knew had moved the theatre from the back of the pub to upstairs.

My change came with Men From The Ministry, a radio programme that I enjoyed from the days of the BBC Home Service in the late 60s and early 70s. Then it starred Deryck Guyler as One and Richard Murdoch as Two, a couple of useless civil servants in the useless Department of Administrative Affairs which must have owed some of its inspiration from Dickens' Circumlocution Office. It is still on Radio 4 Extra sometimes and I listened to an episode not that long ago.

This was going to be fun.

The big surprise was the refurbished pub. It had been very old fashioned and almost empty before but Youngs had expanded it enormously, added the usual kitchen with a pretty usual menu, and added the sort of clutter that first became popular in pubs about thirty years ago. It looked more like a refreshed Harvester than anything else and that was working as the place was busy with eaters and drinkers. I joined the drinkers with a pint of Winter Warmer and the eaters with some baked Camembert (veggie options were limited).

The upstairs theatre suffered a little from having no milling space. Old Red Lion gets around this by having the box office downstairs. Tabbard has the same configuration but has a little bit more space to play with. There was a slightly awkward five minutes where half a dozen of us waited to enter in a small space with several doors that kept opening and closing.

Another group squeezed into the theatre before me but I was still able to claim a good seat in one of the front rows. The new theatre was slightly L-shaped, as was the old one with the stage in the corner and seating on two sides. I think that were about 70 seats, slightly more than before.

The stage was arranged as a BBC Radio studio complete with the old logo and old style microphones. The cast fell into the mood with suits and bowler hats.There was an announcer and a sounds effects person too (pictured) which all added to the atmosphere.

We were presented with two episodes either side of an interval which allowed me to get another Winter Warmer. As far as I can tell, not that it matters that much, the two episodes were Watch This Space and Ban the Wotsit, both from the 14th and final series.

Like Scooby-Doo, every episode of Men From The Ministry has the same plot, they are given a new task to perform, they mess it up mightily but somehow, more luck than judgement, escape intact at the end. The humour comes from the characters and their strict adherence to petty civil service rules.

There is a reason that Men From The Ministry ran for 14 seasons, it is really funny and these performances were too. 

9 January 2017

On the fifteenth day of Christmas ...

It is perhaps more traditional in Britain to get your Christmas presents on Christmas day but one of mine had been put safely away a couple of months ago and could not be found on Christmas Eve which is when we dig out the presents we bought for each other from their hiding places and wrap them.

Like most of my presents I knew (or at least hoped) that this one was coming as I had dropped large hints earlier. Those large hints included a link to this specific shirt.

It is, of course, another shirt by 1 Like No Other which are becoming an increasingly large part of my collection simply because they look stunning and are very well tailored. I love the little features like those inside the collar and cuffs.

Despite being a classy shirt this one is destined to be worn to work. After many years of wearing a dark suit and a white shirt with a colourful tie it is nice to be wearing smart casual and to give the pretty shirts that I have always bought, mostly from Liberty, more outings.

It's my birthday later this month and I am already dropping similar large hints. I just hope that I do not have to wait fifteen days again.

6 January 2017

Hedda Gabler at National Theatre was stunning

This picture is so good I almost do not need to say anything else about the play.

Ruth Wilson plays the title role and she is an established star thanks to Luther and The Affair. Her name and face are the crowd-pullers in this production. She is the main reason that I wanted to see the play too because she impressed me mightily when I saw her in Anna Christie in 2011.

The poster also hinted at a minimalist production, in marked contrast to the last time that I saw Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic in 2012 when it was played as a period drama. That approach worked but generally I prefer sparse productions.

Hedda Gabler was obviously going to sell well (it is completely sold out) and so I took advantage of a colleague's Amex card and shared love of theatre to get him to book tickets a day or two before general booking opened. The keen NT members had already feasted on the best seats and we had to settle for Circle Row D. That was fine if a little unusual not to be in the first row.

The stage was set as one large bare-walled room with just a desk, sofa, piano and a few chairs.

As is the fashion, there were people on the stage when we entered, including, it transpired, Ruth/Hedda herself at the piano with her back to us.

Having people on stage but not in the scene was a technique used a few time throughout the play and it worked, as it had the last time I saw that trick used.

Another nice trick was the repeated piano motif, the introduction to Nina Simone's version of Wild is the Wind, that was used in the same way that film music is used to set the mood.

The clever thing about these tricks was the way that they were almost invisible at the time and it is only thinking about the play afterwards that I can begin to understand their importance. Being clever for clever's sake is always a risk, and I think some plays do that, but everything about the design and direction of this production was spot on.

The main beneficiary of all this was Ruth Wilson who had all the space she needed to show us her interpretation of Hedda Gabler, Hedda who could be funny, spiteful, demanding, sultry, morose and stroppy. The incident with the flowers, hinted at in the poster, was brilliant and typical.

The ending, like the three hours before it, was stunning and a fitting end to a fantastic production. I knew the story so knew what was going to happen but I was surprised by the manner in which it happened, the reactions to it and then the way the play itself closed. There is often a "that must be the end" feel to plays and I like to be among the first (or THE first) person to clap, but not this time and the ambiguity added to the experience.

I've not mentioned Ibsen yet and I am not sure how much of this production came directly from his words and how much was reinterpretation. I am usually uncertain on Ibsen (as I find some of his characters too simple) but there was no doubt this time.

This Hedda Gabler is one that I would gladly see again. It was that good.

4 January 2017

Pielarks present a jolly evening of seasonal songs

This is the time of year for jolly evenings filled with seasonal songs served with good cheer and so I went to see the Pielarks at the Canbury Arms. I knew about the event from two friends, Peter and John, who were part of the around twenty singers collected to entertain us and their presence was another encouragement to go.

It seemed easiest to eat there beforehand and while the veggie options were somewhat limited, as is the rule in gastro pubs these days, the curry was excellent. All three of us who were eating at that time chose it. The beer was fine too and by the time the band started I was comfortably fed and watered.

The music was, as expected, reassuringly folky like the songs we all learned to sing at primary school  thanks to Singing Together on BBC Radio. I knew none of them which mattered not one whit as the style of the songs was familiar and there was plenty of repetition to breed new familiarity with the words.

Each song was introduced with a short story saying something about the origin of the song and how it had been rediscovered and/or kept alive in recent times. There was a variety of soloists, choruses and musical instruments that kept the evening lively and interesting as well as simply enjoyable.

We were in the covered overspill from the main bar and that was packed with people who had come to see the Pielarks and that produced quite a buzz in the room and lots of applause after each song.

The combination of the songs, the people, the food and the drink made it a rather jolly evening and I had a great time.

29 December 2016

London lights (2016)

I was in London for other things, a fun theatre matinee and then the disappointing Liberty Sale, and took the opportunity to see some of the Christmas lights. I had seen the lights in Carnaby Street in other years and had been impressed by them and had heard good things about this year's display in Regent Street.

My little journey started conveniently enough in the Liberty Cafe were I consoled myself with a pot of tea and a toasted tea cake having failed to buy any Liberty print shirts in their sale on the simple grounds that there were none. They had plenty at full price on the shelves and on the racks but none in the sale. I am not aware of this happening before and I have no idea why their sale was so restricted this year.

From there I just had to walk to the side of the shop and I was in Carnaby Street. I don't think that I have ever bought anything there and I have only ever been in one or two of the shops but I have always liked walking down the street because of the buzz.

A lot of that comes from the tourists, foreign and domestic, who make no attempt to hide their delight in being in this iconic street and who take copious pictures of it and of themselves.

This year the lights were words of Love and Hope which were uplifting as well as pretty.

Regent Street was spectacular and even better than my high expectations of it.

I walked up the middle of the road (there is an island) to get the best view of the angels and while a few other people were also doing that I was surprised that there were not a lot more.

This picture shows the angels in full wing. The tableaux went through a cycle with the wings lighting one at a time from the bottom until they were all lit then they all went out and the cycle started again.

They made the fight through the heavy human traffic to Oxford Circus a pleasure.

Luv at Park Theatre was fun

Luv had been on my want-to-see list for a while, just because it sounded like fun. It also helped that it won a number of Tony awards and nominations, among them Best Play and Best Author of a Play when it was first produced on Broadway in 1964.

It moved to the want-to-see list to the booked-to-see list only a few hours before I went to see it as I toyed with my schedule for the day, eventually choosing the matinee performance over the evening one.

Park Theatre may be some distance away from home but it was a simple enough journey with a train to Vauxhall and then a tube to Finsbury Park. The only hassle was that the north exit at Finsbury Park was closed leaving me with a 500m walk to the theatre rather than a 100m one.

I arrived just before 3pm for a 3:15pm show and a short queue had already formed, as I had expected. I grabbed a tea and joined the queue some of which dissipated when people realised that they were in the wrong queue as they were there to see the other show in Park200. We did not have long to wait and we were soon allowed to go in.

I was surprised my the layout. On all my previous visits there had been seating on two or three sides of the stage but this time it was laid out traditionally with the stage across one end of the room and then several straight rows of seats.

My good timing got me a seat in the middle of the front row where I faced a bridge and two benches. There a man was contemplating suicide until an unexpected encounter with a school friend from fifteen years earlier.

The two mens lives had gone very differently since school, one had struggled to find any direction and that was why he was not contemplating suicide and the other had become a financial success and he even showed us his silk underpants to prove it. The underpants reveal was a taste of the humour that ran through the play, quirky and unexpected. To give another example from early on that I liked, the successful man said that he was more in love than he was when he got married the only problem was his wife would not let him get a divorce so that he could marry the woman he loved. End of spoliers.

Then the wife joined the two men on the bridge and the triumvirate was complete. And what a strange and complicated triumvirate it proved to be as it morphed into a play about three very different characters each frustrated with aspects of their lives.

As the story developed the witty dialogue continued. It was something like a long episode of Frasier with some distinct, and distinctly odd, characters finding themselves in an unusual situation and trying to get the best for themselves out of it. And like Frasier the humour was solid and steady but more inclined to conjure broad smiles than audible laughs. If you liked Frasier then you would like Luv. I liked Frasier.

The only slight disappointment was they all played their parts with American accents (and rightly so) which meant that it was hard to tell which one was Rex Fairbrother in The Archers. I looked it up afterwards and it was the successful man, not the failure as I had thought as he looked more like Rex.

Luv was an ideal seasonal tonic. Light and fluffy enough to lift the spirits with enough intelligence in there too to keep the brain ticking over.

23 December 2016

Thebes Land at Arcola Theatre was extraordinary

I'll start at the end.

Below a picture that Arcola Theatre posted on Twitter at the end of the final performance of Thebes Land. I'm one of the people standing, clapping and cheering on the far side of the cage.

I have never taken part in such a quick, enthusiastic and universal ovation. Only a very special play could do that, and Thebes Land was.

Thebes Land was a play about the making of a play. There were only two players, both pictured, Trevor White played the author and Alex Austin played both the subject and the actor playing the subject.

The author wanted to do a play about patricide and so had several meetings with a convict and these were always held in a locked basketball court. Because of that, so were the rehearsals for the play.

The play consisted of four distinct elements; firstly the author came out of the cage regularly to tell us some of the story about how the play was put together (such as the permissions that he had to get from the MoJ to see the prisoner,) secondly we saw some of the the meetings between the two men in prison and then, thirdly, the rehearsal sessions where the author and actor adapted those meetings into scenes from the play. These scenes were based on the meetings but were not exact copies with the author looking to tease specific ideas from a scene and the actor helping him to do so. Finally, the author looked to other references to patricide and a large part of this was the Oedipus legend, which is where the title of his play came from.

The intelligent structure of the play was a large part of the success of the play, as was its skillful delivery. The production was stuffed with clever theatre craft but kept well short of the line where craft become gimmick. I'll give just one simple example, just before the intermission the author read out a list of basketball terms given to him by the murdered to use in his play; the last one in the list was "half-time". We all clapped immediately because we were in tune with the play and recognised the signal for what it was and appreciated its construction.

Then there were the stories of how one man came to murder his father and how that became a play. Both stories were interesting, well paced and took a few unexpected turns. When the author talked about the murder being in the audience it just seemed right that he would be. There was a play called Thebes Land and I am sure that some of the story about how it came into being was true, including some of the things that the author said about himself, but just how much I have no idea. That blurring between fact and fiction was one of the other things that made the play work and it also made the fiction (if there was any!) believable.

Thebes Land was a superb play in every aspect, and I must mention the excellent performances from Trevor White and Alex Austin again. It was an extraordinary play.

20 December 2016

Benighted at Old Red Lion Theatre was neatly done

Without intending to, I found myself in something of a JB Priestly run and while this was with mixed results I was keen to see Benighted because it was billed as the original version of the story of a couple looking for shelter from a storm and finding themselves in a strange house which has been most famously used by The Rocky Horror Show.

It was also an excuse to go back to Old Red Lion theatre and pub. It was the pub first and that meant one of their pies. Nice it was too. So was the beer.

Having eaten I joined the queue that was starting to form at the bottom of the stairs and I was near enough to the front to get a good seat in the front row. It was an L shapes front-row and it was not obvious which were the best seats because of the shape of the stage and I settled for somewhere around the middle of the long side of the L.

The stage was suitably dark (I had to enhance the image below so that you could make any sense of it) and very woody.

It also quickly proved to be very flexible too as a few movements transformed part of it into a motor car. In this car, a typical 1920's open-top, were a young couple and a friend. They were lost somewhere in Wales and it was raining so they were looking for shelter. Any port in a storm they say and so they chose to go to a spooky gothic house where, after some reluctance, they were admitted.

What followed next was much as anticipated with unfriendly hosts, hints a plenty of mystery and moments of light amusement. I've never seen The Rocky Horror Show but I have seen plenty of episodes of Scooby-Doo and there were some obvious similarities. Benighted may not be original but it certainly predated those.

Another couple came to the house looking for shelter, a middle-aged businessman and a young chorus girl that he had adopted for the evening to provide some company and other pleasures.

Then the plot veered sharply from the standard Scooby-Doo script.

A relationship developed between the couple's friend and the chorus girl, there really was something weird going on in the house, and there was real menace about. Somebody died.

The play ended on a satisfying note that was both poignant and definitive, though far from happy.

The story did more than I expected, especially at the end, but the staging did much more than exceed expectations. I knew that it had Offie nominations for lighting and staging and I could see why. The small room became many places, inside and outside, and those places were filled with corridors, doors and stairs. A lot happened skillfully in a small space.

Benighted was a decent enough play and the masterful production lifted it several notches to make it a rewarding and entertaining evening.