27 September 2010

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Wimbledon Theatre

When I saw Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells at the end of last year I ended my review by saying that I was looking forward to seeing it again. Now I have.

Then I thought that it would be at Sadler's Wells again but Swan Lake is spreading its wings and is touring to places like New York, Milan and Wimbledon. The later is easily reachable by bus, a 65 or 371 and a 57 take me door-to-door. so that's where I went. Milan looks tempting though...

It was a late decision to go (only because I found out about it late) so the best seat left was some way back but it was dead centre so that was OK. The theatre itself was deeply unimpressive being almost a carbon copy of Richmond which I hate equally because of the way that they have preserved the uncomfortable seats, poor sight-lines and dead acoustics. Give me a modern theatre like Sadler's Wells, Glyndebourne or the Linbury every time.

But it's the show that matters and Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is one hell of a show.

The music helps, of course, and the familiar opening bars grab your full attention and immediately the theatre is (almost) forgotten and you are swept in to the story. The music plays an important role throughout and despite all that is going on the stage all the time the music seems to stand out more in this production than in the more traditional ones.

The richness of action on the stage is a Matthew Bourne trademark and one of the reasons why it is so rewarding to watch the the show again. An example that comes to mind is the scene in the night club (Swank!) where the patrons dance in pairs and it is frustratingly difficult to decide who to watch.

The choreography is sumptuous, vibrant and dramatic. The shapes the bodies make individually and collectively are exaggerated without being forced. You can get a good idea of this from the Swan Lake Tour photos on Flickr.

It's hard to heap any more superlatives on the performance than I have already done so I'll just say that the previous time I saw this I wanted to see it again soon and this time I was seriously tempted to try and get tickets for the evening show. It really is that good. It's one of the very very best shows of any kind that I have ever seen. I will be seeing again just as soon as I can and I recommend that you do too.

26 September 2010

Zac Goldsmith MP fails to impress

I am interested in and involved in my local community so it seemed a reasonable thing to do to go and see my new MP, Zac Goldsmith, at a question and answer session.

I had seen him a couple of times during the election campaign, we swapped "hellos" when I visited his ancestral pile during an Open Gardens events and we've exchanged emails on car parking charges in Richmond Park (I'm in favour, he's against) but this was the first opportunity to see him in action, so to speak.

Zac is a Conservative (no surprises there then!) and I've never voted Conservative (and never will) but was happy to give him the chance to impress. He fluffed it.

Beforehand I had the impression that Zac was well-meaning but not up to the mark and this was reinforced by the meeting.

The main topic of conversation was the new school in North Kingston which I thought Zac handled badly. Obviously as a mere MP there is not a lot he can do on the matter but he seemed to delight in his ineffectualness and was happy to let the local Tory councillors to do most of the talking.

I wanted Zac to move on to a topic where he had something to contribute but he was happy to sit on the sidelines and let the discussion around him.

Perhaps the reason for doing this was because when we did move on to national issues Zac was amazingly clueless.

He had bought the media hype about the tax system being too complex being the reason why so many people are being sent revised tax notices whereas the truth is it is people's lives that have got more complex, not taxation.

And the final comment on Trident was simply unbelievable. Zac said he supported an independent nuclear deterrent and cited the example of Iraq where we were able to invade safe in the knowledge that they did not have WMD!

I'm sure Zac will be a popular MP and he has a very good chance of being re-elected (particularly as the Lib. Dems. have decided to self-destruct) but I don't think it is going to be worth my while investing any more time with him.

25 September 2010

Putting the Government in the Cloud

My latest foray to the British Computer Society (BCS) was to learn more about Cloud Computing.

The Cloud is one of the big topics at the moment, e.g. it is one of Logica's three strategic themes, but there are many assumptions behind the terminology and I wanted to dig in to some of these.

Part of this was to try and work out what all the fuss is about as almost everything that I do with computers is in the Cloud already. All my photos are on Facebook, my bookmarks are on del.icio.us, my contacts are on LinkedIn and Google looks after my email, calendar and blogs. There is very little of importance on my hard drive.

Tony Heritage, of IBM's Central Government Team, kept a packed room enthralled with the story of the Government's adoption of the Cloud, the G-Cloud.

He opened with a warning about Shared Services, the Government's last attempt to drive down IT costs. This produced lots of providers of shareable services but no consumers.

However, the prospects of the Cloud are much better with, for example, Google able to run 2,000 servers per employee.

The G-Cloud has a fairly common layered approach with networks, data centres and applications.

Consolidation of networks and data centres is a no-brainer. There are some budgetary and governance issues to fix but the rewards are big enough to make them worth tackling.

Thinks get a little trickier after that as the promise of shared applications has never worked before because every organisation will claim vigorously and loudly that they are unique and need the applications tailored to them. With tailoring comes cost and then trying to share applications becomes even more expensive that keeping them separate.

The many questions and comments from the floor shared the cynicism, perhaps not too surprising given that most of the people there were from my generation and had lived through bureau services, outsourcing, software components, applications frameworks, etc. etc.

I was left with the conviction that the G-Cloud is an oversimplification of what is required to consolidate and share, in particular the market dynamics required to make it work (e.g. who could possibly bid to provide this, how would the government contact with them, how would they engage with the many user organisations). It won't work.

22 September 2010

An evening with maps

I like it when things come together.

I've loved maps for as long as I can remember, something I inherited from my Dad. I collect them carefully on my travels, admire them in museums and refer to them on those rare occasions that I get lost. So an exhibition of maps was always going to be an attraction.

I had planned to go to the current exhibition at the British Library, home not that long ago to an exhibition of London maps, but work has dragged me away from Kings Cross and I had not been able to get there.

Secondly, I also love to walk; oddly this is usually more fun without the hindrance of a map to guide you. My natural habitat is the city where I stroll down passageways that most people avoid with my ever-present camera for company and my witness to discoveries made.

The third thread to this tale is a little path locally that the Ramblers had done some campaigning work to keep open and they contacted me because they found a photo of this on one of my web sites and wanted my permission to use it.

And so it was that I found myself at the British Library at a campaign launch organised by the Ramblers.

The evening started with a guided tour of the exhibition Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art led by the curator himself. This was superb.

I had seen some of the related BBC programmes and somehow they managed to make maps seem boring. Unbelievable, but true.

This talk took us through the uses of maps at symbols of power, works of art and, er, maps in a way that both entertained and informed (always my two critical success factors for a talk!).

The fifty minutes sped past but I was grateful for the spare ten minutes at the end to quickly go round again to revist my favourite maps and even to take some illicit photos, as least I assume that photography was not allowed as everybody else who was talking photos looked as furtive and guilty as I'm sure that I did.

The second half of the evening was the press launch of the Ramblers' campaign for a definitive map of Central London.

A lot of the talk was a bit technical with reference to highways acts and the various types of highway that are recognised but the main point is simple; most of the country benefits from definitive maps that enshrine rights of way but Central London has been excused this responsibility and this needs to change as paths in cities matter too.

To which I can only add, "Hear. Hear.", and also my signature to their petition.

The presentations were followed by some networking with wine and peanuts (the staple diet of the regular meeting goer) which I enjoyed more than usual as I was talking about something I have a passion for with people who had detailed knowledge on the subject.

There was another coming together then too as in one of the conversations we soon discovered that we lived just a couple of hundred metres apart.

And so it was that I left the gathering with a spring in my step, some new ideas in my head and a rekindled passion in my heart.

18 September 2010

Legally Blonde (the musical) is OK, but only OK

I don't do musicals. Which is a little odds as I do opera and theatre, I love all sorts of music and many years ago I regularly listened to a Radio 2 series on musicals that may have been presented by Ian Carmichael.

Some good reviews for Legally Blonde combined with the presence of Sheridan Smith (she's still Janet from Two Pints for me) and a fondness for the original film tempted me to give musicals a try.

I was glad to have an excuse to visit the Savoy Theatre as it is rich with period charm, even if some of it had to be remade following a fire in 1990. However, the period charm is a double-edged sword and with the beauty comes drab and uncomfortable seats, very few facilities (to prove this point I failed to get a beer before or during the performance) and deadening acoustics that would make Black Sabbath difficult to hear.

At least a top-price ticket (£60) got a seat at the front of the Dress Circle where the sound could travel easily and the view was perfect.

I was expecting a play with songs (which just goes to show how little I know musicals) but Legally Blonde is sung throughout which means paying attention all the time or losing the plot. And, yes, there is a plot.

In fact the story bounces along quite nicely accompanied by lots of exuberance, large smiles, sexy outfits, vigorous movements, acting that playfully toys with over acting, cameo roles for dogs, and some decent songs.

It's a feel-good show that does everything in its power to ensure that the feel-good promise is delivered and you would have to be pretty determined not to enjoy yourself to come out of the show without a smile on your face.

This much feel-goodness requires a fairly large and very active cast and while there are several key supporting roles the two that stood out for me were Elle's hairdresser friend, Paulette, and the defendant in her first case, Brooke Wyndham. Both enter the show with strong solo numbers that draw deserved applause from the audience. It's disappointing that after such strong starts they disappear in to the background.

My highlight of the show was Brooke's song and dance routine in the prison. Helping this along was a stark set with a simple image of large oppressive bars.

But, once the artificial high has died down, the show's promise reveals itself to be modest with no great songs (a day later I can remember none of the tunes), no great performances (sorry, Sheridan) and no great drama either.

Legally Blonde is still a fine night out but it does not do enough to make me want to do it again.

14 September 2010

Big Picture: Britannia Hospital

Big Picture is the cultured younger brother of Big Ideas and the two have many good features in common.

Both events happen in London once a month and both allow you to stretch the thinking muscles in stimulating company. But Big Ideas struts its stuff flamboyantly in Fitzrovia whereas Big Picture prefers to lurk in Kensal Green. Thank the gods for Google Maps and the TfL Journey Planner.

The exact location is the marvellously exotic Paradise By Way of Kensal Green that has more rooms than seems sensible and which are put together in a way that most definitely isn't. These rooms are packed with what can only be called paraphernalia that somehow avoids looking cluttered. It's all a little odd and all the more attractive because of this.

The evening starts with a drink and a snack. Both are a little thin on the ground in a pub which seems to cater more for the volume consumer (a few of which are there to prove the point) than the connoisseur so its Becks Vier and a bowl of chunky chips for me.

Then as the clock strikes 7:30 the film begins and the twenty or so of us settle in to our chairs to watch.

This month's offering was Britannia Hospital a British black comedy from 1982.

Two minor things struck me immediately that I'll mention then move on to more serious things.

Like many British films it seems to delight in getting as many British actors as possible in to it and it took a little while to get used to seeing different versions of Robbie Coltrane, Leonard Rossiter, Robin Asquith, Thora Hurd, et al. Actually, some of the portrayals were not that unfamiliar possibly suggesting type-casting or limited acting ability.

The other surprise was the acceptably racist language of the age - it's a long time since I've heard words like "wog".

The film is somewhat hard to describe, as the post-film discussion confirmed, but it's safe to say that it includes belligerent trade unions, private medicine, class/royalty, police violence, colonialism mingled with racism, Frankenstein's monster and a very negative critique of the effect of humans on the planet.

The points are made mostly through humour and the violence is more Keystone Cops than SPG. Even the various heads coming off evoke more of a chuckle than a retch.

The discussion certainly helped me to appreciate the film tough there were, not surprisingly, some disputes among us as to what the film was trying to say and how it was trying to say it. I added a few comments to the mix, not letting my complete lack of knowledge of film get in the way of a good argument. Among these was the observation that the only winners in the film (if there were any winners and if winning mattered) were the two mobs.

The discussion and final beer over I headed home and was pleasantly surprised at how easy that was even if, to be completely honest, I ended up going on a slightly different route from the one I intended.

My first Big Picture was a great success on several fronts and did more than enough to tempt me back.

11 September 2010

Kick-Ass kicks ass (twice)

Kick-Ass, the comic, was a lot of craftily executed fun combining Mark Millar's fast-paced and irreverent script with John Romita Jr's. bold action style.

The extreme violence might not have been to everybody's taste but at least the covers gave fair warning of what to expect.

The comics was soon followed by the film and now it's on DVD.

The film's genesis in the comic is instantly recognisable and it follows the original plot for most of the way, unlike a previous Millar film, Wanted, that diverged rapidly and greatly. And both films have the advantage of being better than the comics.

Kick Ass the film expands on the original by giving us more of Hit Girl's origin (we already knew how Kick Ass started) and she becomes the star of the film. After all, what's not to like about a ten year girl old executing hordes of mafiosa?

Kick Ass is silly but it knows it is and delights in this as it bounces along effortlessly from one brisk scene stuffed with sharp lines to another. The natural reaction is to enjoy the sheer bravura of the story and appreciate the violence as if it were a Tom and Jerry cartoon. The ending is cute too.

9 September 2010

Making connections

September has thrown itself at my diary with vigour and determination claiming almost every evening for some important social, learning or political event.

One of the things to sneak in to my diary almost unnoticed was a social organised by The London Czech and Slovak Language Meetup Group. Clearly I fail to qualify for this group on the grounds that I do not speak the language but my Czech/Slovak connections are string enough for me to bluff my way in.

The meeting place was The Falcon just off Clapham Junction so getting there and home again could hardly be easier. And I like easy!

The highlight this month was meeting Mira who comes from Brno (where I spent three days during this year's Summer holiday) and used to work for Nokia Siemens Networks (who I did a couple of years of programme management for). It is because of unexpected connections like this that I like going to these events.

7 September 2010

Fun with socks

First a few words about the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre.

The socks are the creation of Kev F Sutherland, a comedian, writer, producer and comic artist whose comic strips appear in The Beano and Marvel comics. I discovered Kev a few years ago through the comics side of his work and have followed his work since then through comics forums, Facebook and Twitter.

And so it came to pass that I found myself in the Leicester Square Theatre with a copy of the Beano Annual 2008 in my bag.

I was there a little before the doors opened officially and, ignoring protests for the theatre staff, walked through and introduced myself to Kev. For the best part of half an hour we talked comics and comedy and I got my Beano Annual signed.

Then the show started.

I had some idea of what to expect from the YouTube videos but, even so, I was astonished with how quickly the act worked.

No warm-up act and no scene setting, it was full-pelt comedy from the very start and literally within seconds we were all laughing out loud. Not chuckling, smirking, chortling, or tittering. Laughing. Out loud. A lot.

You know it's just one man behind the curtain and the socks look just like socks but disbelief is immediately suspended and we are drawn in to the quick-fire verbal battle between the two socks.

We get current political references (e.g. William Hague) mixed with classics from TV and film and a splash of music. And the laughing never stops.

The set is roughly two sessions of forty minutes with a well deserved beer break in the middle (well, I thought that I deserved one).

The after show party (!) was held in The Imperial, the nearest pub, which added London Gold, a discussion on Dr Who and the hottest beans that I have ever eaten.

All too soon it was time to head back to Waterloo (walking because of a tube strike) and on to home. Time to reflect on what was sincerely the funniest show that I have seen in a long long time.

5 September 2010

The Rake's Progress at Glynebourne

My fifth visit to Glyndebourne this season was for The Rake's Progress and just happened to be on the very last night of the festival.

As usual I went with friends and also as usual for this year the weather was not as kind as I would have hoped and so, preferring discretion to valour, we chose to picnic in the marque.

The first order of the day was to consume some of the large volume of cake we took and to help it down with a bottle of champagne. This excess and decadence is not unusual for our picnics at Glyndebourne!

The weather then broke allowing us to take a long stroll around the gardens which is always worth doing and is very much part of what makes an evening at Glyndebourne so special.

Moving away from the house the lawns become fields with just a subtle ha-ha keeps the sheep away from the sandwiches and behind the trees on the left is a long pond that is a popular destination for the pre-opera walks.

Nearer to the house the garden is formal and planted extravagantly with bulging herbaceous borders and exotic plants more usually found in places like Kew Gardens.

The gardens circle around the house offering further delights like the cherry orchard that leads on to a small raised lawn complete with a Henry Moore entitled Draped Reclining Woman.

The gardens reach right up to the opera house and hide it successfully as you approach via the main route from the car park area. This, of course, also has the advantage that you see straight in to the garden from the opera house. The setting and surroundings of the opera house are other factors that add magic to the occasion.

But the music still comes first.

The Rake's Progress is a moral tale where a lazy young man engaged to a pretty lady inherits a fortune and quickly falls in to the temptation of the lavish and Licentious lifestyle that London offers.

It all falls apart and even the love of a good woman is not enough to save him, or rather his sanity, and he ends up in Bedlam.

The music, as you might expect from Stravinsky, is not the easiest to follow or, I suspect, to sing to. The music was almost staccato like at times and the broken tempo did not suit the Rake too much. His love had an easier job of it and he strong and rich voice shone out throughout.

I've said many times that I'm not a fan of elaborate sets but there are exceptions that prove the rule and Hockney's sets revived from 1975 are an example of this. They were simple in style but strewn with images drawn in that familiar style. And with costumes to match.

This was most effective at the start of the third act when the Rake has become bankrupt and his goods are being auctioned off. Here the set, the costumes and even the actors' faces were monochrome. The drama was increased even more when the chorus all came to the front of the stage and sang to the audience en masse.

And so the curtain fell on another season that while it had its ups and downs it never disappointed and it usually delighted. Next year should be more of the same.

3 September 2010

Big Ideas on tourism

There are few better ways to spend the evening than having a stimulating discussion in a pub. This time the discussion was on tourism and was arranged by Big Ideas at The Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia.

I got there early to get some food (Brie and Beetroot tart), a couple of beers (the marvellous Black Sheep) and to play with internet things on my iPhone4 and iPod touch (I carry both and The Wheatsheaf has wifi).

Fed, watered and FourSquared by the witching hour of 8pm I grabbed a fresh Sheep and headed upstairs to the meeting room.

I must quickly mention the room because it is very pretty with Mock Tudor windows with lead and coloured glass.

The discussion was initiated (rather than facilitated) by Nathan, one of the Big Idea founders, who soon demonstrated both his knowledge of the subject and of the latest academic thinking.

We started with the story of how Parliament Square, famous for its role in our history, has now been preserved for tourists because of that history and, therefore, has been excluded from being part of our history again.

More stories followed from throughout the room as we all added our perspectives and built on those of others. As usual at these sort of events, the questions proved to be a lot more interesting than the questions and I made a few notes of things that caught my attention during the debate. Some of these were...

What is a tourist and what is tourism? Does it define where we are (e.g. somewhere foreign) or how we feel about where we are (e.g. acting like a tourist in your home town)?

Is there any significance in our use of different terms like tourist, traveller, holiday maker, day tripper and migrant which seem to suggest differences in the relationship between the person and the place?

Is tourism colonialism by another, more acceptable, name as we bend the places that we visit to meet our needs?

If truth is the first victim or was, is authenticity the first victim of tourism as the victims of tourism exaggerate their culture and their history to become what the tourists want to see?

Do we really appreciate the impact tourism has on us in London, e.g. the colonisation of Covent Garden and the long queues to visit our local places of interest such as Westminster Abbey.

The evening ended, or rather paused, around 9:30 when we went down stairs for a refreshing drink. Most of the people stayed at least for one drink and the conversation carried on throughout the bar.

A corker of an evening.

2 September 2010

LIKE 17 - Posh Picnic

It is a testament to the success of LIKE that members flocked to a picnic on a wet August evening when the only entertainment on offer was each other's company.

And that proved to be more than enough.

The meeting point was the Gordon Ramsay branded York & Albany pub strategically situated on the edge of The Regent's Park.

Trapped inside by the bad weather, it seemed churlish not to try some of the many cocktails on offer so I chose one wisely on the grounds that it had a cool name and had mint in it.

We still had the picnic that we had ordered but were banished to the basement to have it.

The food was what you would expect from a branded restaurant, small portions, hideously expensive but delicious enough to overcome those sins.

I had one of the vegetarian options, a fritatta which, to be honest, I had to Google beforehand to find out what it was. It's a sort of omelet apparently.

The conversations flowed easily and naturally and the wet weather and subterranean location were quickly irrelevant. A find-the-person-who bingo game was played to encourage mixing and to introduce the first-timers to the other members group. Jennifer gets a big thanks for doing this and doing the research on the attendees to come up with the questions.

Food and bingo over, we bid adieu to the Albany & York and went round the corner to the Edinburgh Castle where the conversations flowed even more strongly and in the next couple of hours I talked about subjects as diverse and unexpected as falconry and swimwear.

In the end the clock won and it was time to consult Google Maps to find a way to the legendary Mornington Crescent and the tube south and home.

And LIKE meetings look like getting even better with the move in September to a bigger venue. Good news all round.