30 September 2011

Heart of Empire by Bryan Talbot

It has been a little while since I've said anything about comics and even longer since I said something nice about Bryan Talbot so it is time to make amends.

My comic reading is progressing less well that I hoped, mostly because I have been working away, but I suspect that I am just about reading more comics than I buy. Tomorrow's trip to Ace Comics in Richmond may prove me wrong!

I was able to take advantage of one of the long train journeys from Cardiff to Richmond to read my signed copy of Heart of Empire by Bryan Talbot, the follow-up to The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.

I bought this back in February at SFX Weekender so, by my standard, it got to the top of my read pile quite quickly.

At first glance it is a very different animal from Luther Arkwright. For a start it is in colour. And that brings other artistic changes with it as the fine detail of the black and white line drawings is replaced with the bolder coloured block.

The story follows on from the original but can be ready without it. It's a few years later and Great Britain is at a crossroads with several parties vying to push things their way.

Central to all this is the Princess Royal who is approaching her twenty third birthday.

Some of the previous themes are reprised, such as the machinations of foreign powers and the real lives of the poor but that is almost stretching the point as the story is a different beast with a different cast in a different society, but in the same country and the same multi-verse.

The story reads a little easier than its predecessor that, in-line with its underground heritage, had some pages and panels that were thick with text that took some effort to get through.

If anything, Heart of Empire rebounds a little too far the other way and the size of the text in the speech balloons sometimes looked a little large for the panel but that really is being picky.

The story itself sweeps along, throws quite a few surprises, gives us some strange characters and situations, says (or implies) a lot about injustices under the British Empire, and pleases in all the ways that stories should please.

Good though the story is, the art work is even better.

I picked page 22 as an example simply because it is fantastic.

There are obvious hints of Grandville here but it's the richness of the image that makes it so special.

And if you think you've understood all the references, you haven't.

To prove it, you can read what Bryan himself says about this page.

I get the impression with pages like this that Bryan simply cannot stop drawing things - there is much much more in this picture than the story needs.

My favourite unnecessary flourish is the sign for the tram stop that is based on the Art Nouveau ones of the Paris Metro stations.

But whether you understand all the thinking behind the pages or not does not matter as it's easy to see that this is the work of a master.

The version of Heart of Empire that I have has a bloody awful cover (it's not the nice one shown above) which is a real shame as it hides a work of genuine class. I just hope that I've done a little to prove that.

26 September 2011

Celebrating Huf

Wild horses could not have kept me away from a talk by Peter Huf from the German company of the same name that makes the legendary HUF Haus.

The talk was the first in the new season from the Kingston upon Thames Society and is exactly the sort of thing that the Society should be doing.

Peter Huf is part of the third generation that now runs the business started by their grandfather.

While other brothers run the main company back in Germany Peter lives and works in the UK as their architect.

This means that he designs every Huf Haus in Britain.

We began with a brief history that started with the first wooden post and beam house in 1912. A hundred years late the basic principles and materials are the same but the technology and construction techniques have changed beyond all recognition.

Driving a Huf Haus are the individual design and off site production (in Germany).

Peter's passion really came through as he described how he approaches each project trying to make the very most of the site he has to work with. And that's another key point, every house is a commission.

The off-site construction allows Huf to control the quality, something that they are very determined on. That is also why they do every part of the construction.

The main material is still wood for the frame with more modern materials used for the walls. These continue to evolve to improve energy efficiency but Huf Haus are already exceptional in this respect.

Huf likes to include a basement in the house to maximise the use of the plot without having to build up high, which is not always possible in the UK anyway.

The key point to the design is understanding how the house is lived in so, for example, it may be best to put bedrooms in the basement and living rooms on the top floor.

This seems to obvious that you start to wonder why we continue to build carbon-copy small houses when we have better examples to learn from. This theme developed during the talk with Peter several times expressing surprise, and even exasperation, at the way that we do some things here. I agreed with him on every point.

The talk was very well received and there was a good Q&A session at the end. Most interest seemed to be on the question of the price, which is typically around £800k. And you need to get a plot first. I think that's a bargain.

We also spent some time discussing the stupidity of measuring houses by the number of bedrooms rather than their floor space.

I sat there smugly as I had used floor space to compare houses and flats when I first moved up to Kingston around twenty five years ago. For the record, the 1930s flats in Surbiton are enormous that the Tudor style houses in North Kingston are tiny. They all have three bedrooms.

The only disappointment was that we had to move on to another item and Peter left before I could speak to him directly to thank him for the talk and the inspiration. At least I've got the Huf Haus iPad app to play with.

24 September 2011

Hoaxwind at The Fighting Cocks

Hoaxwind's long overdue return to The Fighting Cocks was a triumph.

The venue seems to have improved, since I was last there, or perhaps Hoaxwind just use it better.

This was demonstrated by the richness of the sound and the intelligent use of lighting.

The downside, and let's get that out of the way now, is that the space is an odd shape making it difficult to find a good spot to view the band, particularly when a couple of lively men dominate much of the centre with their boisterous dancing.

I was feeling a little meh anyway so rather than fight for my usual spot front and centre I retired quietly to one side and concentrated on the music and my Guinness.

The Guinness was so-so but the music was excellent.

There are no surprises from Hoaxwind, I'm fairly certain that there were no new songs, but I was not there for surprises.

What I wanted, and got, was solid versions of some of my favourite Hawkwind songs, such as Spirit of the Age and Hassan I Sahba.

Hoaxwind are increasingly putting their mark on these classics with arrangements that are very much their own and make best use of their large and mixed line-up.

I was not clock watching but it seemed a very short set, possibly just over an hour, before the venue curfew dictated that all good things must end. The fleeting time is as much a testament to the quality of the performance as it is to the time allowed for it.

The next time I am due to see Hoaxwind is in December when they play either side of Hawkwind but in a neighbouring venue. Then I am hoping that the venue and my mood will be a little better but the music remains the same.

22 September 2011

Halcyon Days at the Riverside

Whatever I was expecting from Halcyon Days what I got was rather different. And much better.

What was an impromptu decision to go to a weird sounding play proved to be inspired.

It's exceptional.

Let me explain why.

The blurb says, "Halcyon Days is a dark comedy that follows the story of three people and one ghost who meet on a suicide website."

Intriguing though that sampler is the situation quickly become more complex and surreal than that.

We discover that the person who called them together, Massa, has no recollection of doing so and he flits between moods and fantasies. The one genuine suicider, Hello Kitty, is seen by the world as a happy family man but in reality he is gay (think Julian Clary) and has large debts.

Kazumi (the women) does not really want to kill herself (she pretends to the others that she does) but wants to study people who do. She brings with her Akio, the ghost (or vision) of a young man that she was counselling who killed himself.

The plot develops unexpectedly from there and we end up living Massa's fantasy that they are human shields in some global conflict and are rehearsing a classic story, The Red Ogre and the Blue Ogre, to present to the nursery school across the road.

OK, so this sounds a little mad, and it is, but we get there step by believable step so it all makes sense at the time; much like a JG Ballard disaster novel.

And we have a lot of fun getting there and being there. I especially loved Kazumi's West Country accent when she plays the part of a peasant.

Then it all comes together magnificently.

The story of the Red and the Blue Ogres (a fantasy within a fantasy) becomes the means to understand the real world.

It's a very satisfactory ending to a wonderful journey.

Making it all possible are the cast who wallow playfully in the possibilities of each role as their characters change with each fantasy or realisation.

The play itself is solid with good dialogue, movement and progression. That's all down to Shoji Kokami who wrote and directed it. He's big in Japan apparently.

It's a minimal set too (my favourite kind) and that allows the play to flow quickly between scenes. Which is just as well as there are thirteen of them altogether.

The scenes have evocative names like "How do you spell conscientious?" and "Maybe he was a social worker". These are projected on the stage as sur titles and their meanings become clear at some point.

This play has everything. Truly exceptional and truly fun.

Then things got even better. Loitering with intent I was able to speak to the cast (Dan Ford, Mark Rawlings, Abigail Boyd and Joe Morrow) afterwards and tell them how good they were and how much I enjoyed the play.

Speaking to Dan was a double treat as he had also been in Beachy Head that I saw and loved earlier in the year. That play was all about his suicide too.

The only mistake I made was not seeing the play earlier in its run. Leaving it to the penultimate day, to tie-in with an anniversary, meant that I could only go and see it once. Big mistake.

21 September 2011

An echo of a distant time

Echoes are a band that I am happy to see at any time and so its was that I found myself back at the Fox and Duck for another evening of excellent music.

It may be almost forty years since Dark Side of the Moon started its World Domination in album sales but the memories are long and pleasant and so the pub was packed to relive the music of Pink Floyd.

I've said before that the pub is not really the right shape for them, the stage area is too narrow and is in the main bar, but they manage to overcome these obstacles.

The narrow stage means that the saxophonist, Guy Smith, is banished to the corridor that leads to the toilets and then outside but this works fine. Guy even manages to wander in to the centre towards the end as the climax approaches.

Being in the bar means contending with bar chatter but that's an easy problem to solve. Just play loudly.

The mark is set at the very beginning with a raucous, "So ya, Thought ya, Might like to go to the show" that demands attention the same way that a two year old child does.

From there things progress much as expected with large dollops of Dark Side and The Wall mixed in with a smattering of other songs from See Emily Play through to Sorrow, the closing track from A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

In that blend a particular favourite of mine was the track that we were informed that Pink Floyd named after the band.

That may not be true.

Great Gig in the Sky was another highlight mainly thanks to the clever use of the sax to do the female vocal line. It was magic.

Somehow the pieces came in to place from my vantage point behind a bench and I managed to get all the band members in one photo. I don't think that I've managed that before.

They are (L-R): Guy Smith (Saxophone), Peter Bamford (Keyboards), John Vassar (Lead Vocals), Simon Melvin (Drums), Oran Halberthal (Bass) and Lee Deal (Lead Guitar).

And it's good to be able to name-check them all as the whole point of Echoes is that they play as one unit.

There were no surprises in the evening but I went expecting to thoroughly enjoy myself and so no surprises was a good result.

It really was a very good evening. Again.

19 September 2011

Cycling to Kew

What started out as just a cycle for the exercise turned into yet another excuse for going to Kew.

This Summer's weather had hardly been encouraging for cycling and, for whatever reason, the local Open Garden events did not fall on convenient days so I had to reason to go out before.

In the end it was the realisation that Summer was slipping quickly past without waiting for me to get on my bike that made me get on my bike.

I live between the river and Richmond Park which means that the obvious routes are to follow the river or to cross the park. I followed the river.

Heading North takes you quickly to Richmond and then the river swings slowly round Kew before taking you to the Kew Gradens' Brentford Gate.

This is not a gate I use often, I think I've only gone in that way once before, so it seemed sensible to break the journey for a while and explore that part of the garden.

The iPhone app proved its use again here as it pointed me towards Minka House and the Bamboo Garden around it.

And I like really bamboo.

This is a quiet corner of Kew, away from the main entrances and the main attractions, which is an attraction itself for those of us who value tranquility and space. Here the garden looks more natural and only the glimpse of the occasional bench reminds you that this is a tightly managed environment.

This is wild Kew at its majestic best with cleverly planted trees revealing how evolution has shaped the natural world around us while also creating paths through them where the light can play gleefully.

A circular route took me back towards the gate and the White Peaks cafe for a coffee and a cake.

I'd cycled and walked a reasonable distance so I deserved that cake.

Before heading back home the way that I came I made a quick visit to the Queen’s Garden behind Kew Palace.

The well-ordered hedges and borders are in stark contrast to the earlier woodlands but are no less pretty or interesting.

Finally it was time to remember the real point of the day and get back on the bike and fight with the walkers on the tow-path home.

It's hard to think of a better way of spending a Sunday morning.

18 September 2011

The Conspirators at the Orange Tree

The new season at the Orange Tree starts in familiar territory with a play by Vaclav Havel.

Somehow it is three years since the Orange Tree had a Havel season.

Then they introduced his latest play, Leaving, to us with its humour and ridicule and combined that with two double-bills steeped in dissent and rebellion.

This time the Orange Tree has dug up another unknown play for us.

The Conspirators dates from 1971 but this is the first time that an English Language version has been performed.

Despite being written not long after the arrival of the Russians in 1968 the play is set in an entirely different context and one that has contemporary echoes.

A colonial power, unnamed but with hints of Africa, was overthrown and replaced by a dictator who has, in turn, been replaced in a revolution.

In the early days after the revolution it is not clear whether the new government will be any better than the old and there are already demonstrations and political prisoners.

The conspirators are five powerful figures representing the police, army, law, intelligence services and the rich.

Their stated aim is to protect the recently won democracy but their main motivation is self interest.

Libya is the modern reference point for this drama while we wait to see what emerges from the wreckage of the civil war that has deposed Colonel Gaddafi.

The play is not very hopeful in this regard as we get to learn more about the conspirators.

Going clockwise around the table from 9pm; the police commander is cruel and delights in torturing his prisoners, the chief prosecutor cannot cope with his domineering wife, the security chief is dimwitted and the army major is vain.

The only one with any intelligence is Helga, the rich socialite. She uses her sexuality to manipulate the men around her, all of whom have, or have had, a relationship with her.

As such, hers is the pivotal role in the play and Lucy Tregear rises to the challenge with consummate ease.

The conspiracy evolves as we hear more about the deposed dictator and see more of the people's reaction to revolution as revealed to us through the actions of the large supporting cast.

The political scheming and current resonances carry the story forward but the heart of the play is the conspirators, not the conspiracy. And there is a lot in those characters for the strong cast to play with and for us to enjoy.

16 September 2011

Les Miserables at the Queens Theatre

The run of excellent shows that I've been to recently had to end sometime and it ended with a thump with Les Miserables.

I had three credible reasons for going to see Les Miserables; the show had been running a long time with many good reviews, Matt Lucas was appearing in it for a while and I got an offer of cheap tickets through work.

So I went with reasonable, but modest, expectations of a good show delivered professionally. This is my default for any established west end show.

Some of that happened but a lot did not and the show at times disappointed or even amused because of its awfulness with very few highlights to compensate for the many weak points.

A musical needs a good score to carry it and I found nothing in Les Miserables to grab hold of and love.

The music was simply bland. I was not expecting Rodgers but I was hoping for at least one memorable tune and a few other pleasant ditties along the way but the music was so bland it was almost invisible for most of the show.

Sadly the same cannot be said of the lyrics. The librettist seemed determined to find the most obvious rhyme every time which gave it a childish predictability of the moon/spoon type and I started playing the "guess the rhyme" game to keep myself amused.

Neither the music nor the lyrics were helped by the singing which varied from average to poor.

This aspect of the show was particularly difficult to bear coming so soon after The Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne where the singing had been sensational.

There were a couple of parts that were all right, such as the leader of the rebellion, but when Fantine died early on that was a relief.

A decent plot could have kept the evening together and covered over the cracks elsewhere but the story creaked too.

The problem with the story was that it wandered aimlessly and it was never clear what it was meant to be about. The main themes were Cosette's love story (she is the girl in the iconic poster), the long-running battle between Cosette's guardian (an ex-con) and his jailer, and the gap between the rich and the poor that lead to the Paris Uprising.

These themes fought for attention and it was not clear what the main story was until the end (even then it was something of a guess). The plots added nothing to each other and so one theme only detracted from the others. It was a bit like watching the ads rather than the main programme.

Added to that mix was an unnecessary and unexpected comedy line, which is where Matt Lucas comes in. At this point I had suspend all belief in whatever part of the story I was trying to follow at the time.

The compensation was that Matt Lucas was actually funny and he provided the one touch of class in the entire show. That a story featuring death, poverty and civil war was rescued by a touch of comedy speaks volumes for the rest of the show.

To be fair to the show, this is a minority view. When the show ended the Saga coach tourists stood and cheered wildly, even though they had probably seen it several times before, while I sat there head in hands trying to understand what had just happened to me.

I guess that if you have never seen great theatre or great opera then Les Miserables could appear to be a good show but I have and it wasn't.

12 September 2011

The Thin White Duke (Sept 2011)

The Thin White Duke's third visit to the Fox and Duck in a year was just as good and just as well received as the others.

I managed to get there promptly this time (despite working in Cardiff that day) and grabbed a seat on the bench by the wall on the right-hand side of the pub. This had the advantages of being more comfortable than standing for three hours and of reducing the temptation to dance but the down-side is that all the pictures that I took were from the same angle.

So there are lots of shots of the lead singer and bass guitarists but none of the lead guitar, keyboards or drummer. There time will come another day.

The Fox and Duck filled quickly with a surprisingly wide age range of Bowie fans.

The age gaps became apparent as the set progressed with us oldies most eager to mouth the word to the songs from Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust while the youngsters were keener on the Let's Dance era.

One of the reasons that The Thin White Duke are so popular is that they trawl large swathes of the extensive Bowie back-catalogue and carefully extract a mix of songs that sound quite varied but which are united in their quality.

They also play the songs with a lot of love and skill. They bill themselves as, "The tribute band made by Bowie fans, for Bowie fans", and it shows.

The full set kicks in with Rebel Rebel from Diamond Dogs. A rocking song and a single too. The singing-along starts immediately and legs start to twitch expectantly.

As the evening progresses we get large chunks of Ziggy Stardust, fair smatterings of Hunk Dory and snippets from most of the other albums from Space Oddity (1969) to Let's Dance (1983).

The Berlin period was previously represented by the lone Heroes but was joined this time by Breaking Glass and Be My Wife from the musical medley that is the first side of Low.

You can always argue about the songs left out of the set but with some thirteen original albums in this period to choose from there is always going to be more left out than included in.

And while I'd love to hear all 9 minutes and 33 seconds of Cygnet Committee, I suspect that would not be a popular choice with everybody else. One day.

The Thin White Duke return to the Fox and Duck on 3 December and you know that I'll be there too.

10 September 2011

Richard III at the Old Vic

Richard III has got a lot of attention thanks to the combination of Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes so I jumped at the opportunity to go provided by the theatre club at work.

The impact is immediate.

Kevin Spacey stands in the middle of an almost bare set and thunders in to "Now is the winter of our discontent ". And the next three hours continues in a similar vein.

Kevin Spacey is simply magnificent and dominates the large stage with his diction, movement and small gestures.

The leg brace and badly angled foot confirm his deformity while the raised eyebrows and little smirks to the audience confirm his malevolence. We can see his evil clearly while those around him are often blinded to it by his clever words.

The staging is appropriately brutal too (an awful lot of people die in this story). The main set remains the stark row of doors on either side with just a few props added when necessary.

The dress is modern in the style of South American Dictator. Brutal clothes for brutal times.

The story unfolds unrelentingly as the foul deeds and resultant bodies pile up. Each death is marked with a red cross on one of the doors. More doors have to be added during the interval.

The heralded combination of Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes delivered exhilarating and exceptional theatre. 

The sweat on Spacey's faceat the end is a testament to the effort put in to the role and the long standing ovation was the much deserved reward. This was stunning theatre at its very best.

7 September 2011

Anna Christie at Donmar Warehouse

I'll start with an overdue credit.

One of the reasons that I have gone to so many more plays this year is thanks to the efforts of Elaine Bodenitz of the Logica Sports and Social Club.

She arranges the group bookings that take me to see things that I would otherwise have missed or overlooked. Thanks Elaine :-)

And it was thanks to her that I found myself at the Donmar Warehouse (my first time there) to see Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie which won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

It was the play's heritage that attracted me and the presence of Jude Law that clinched it.

I'm not quite sure where Theatreland is meant to be as you never seem to be that far away from a theatre in London but the Donmar Warehouse feels a little bit off the beaten track for theatregoers sitting as it does among the high-style and high-cost shops just to the North of Covent Garden underground station.

The theatre is in a warehouse, as its name promises, and that is good. Inside it reminded me of places like the Young Vic, Arcola and Orange Tree.

It is bare, functional, industrial and charming because of all that.

And, as you might have deduced from the photo of the stage, it has a gallery and I was sitting in it. Downstairs the stage is surrounded by the audience on three sides making it intimate in just the way that I like.

The picture also shows the simplicity of the staging with the wooden floor and walls providing the framework for a bar, the deck of a boat and the inside of a boat moored in a harbour.

All that is required to complete the transformation from one to the other is the placement of a few props such as a few bar stools or a bed.

All looked set well at that point; an award-wining play, a good theatre and a simple stage, all things that I like. Good omens.

The first of the main characters that we meet is Chris Christopherson who captains a small coal barge plying its trade on the East Coast of America.

Chris, we soon learn, is Swedish but gave his life to the sea many years ago. He had a wife back in Sweden but she had died. He was left with a five year old daughter who he palmed off with relatives in the farming communities of Minnesota.

Chris fatalistically blames the sea for everything that happens to him. The sea has killed many people that he knew, including members of his close family, but he cannot escape from its lure and nor does he want to.

He lives from day to day but generally happy with his lot. He has a loose relationship with a woman when we meet him but they are just ships passing in the night and she moves on. Their is no rancour or regret, this is just how things are.

David Hayman plays Chris brilliantly carrying the Swedish heritage and the fatalism with absolute conviction.

Then we meet Anna.

She has come looking for her father who she has not seen since she was abandoned as a five year-old. The bar is the only address she has for him and she writes to him there and arrives soon after Chris reads the letter. He's not in the bar when she arrives so we get to see a little of her before he does.

Anna is smartly dressed but sits comfortably in the sailors' bar drinking whiskey. That seems a little surprising at the time but becomes less so as we learn more about her.

She had had a very rough time growing up being treated as a slave by the family and being raped by one of the sons.

Ruth Wilson plays Anna with quiet emotion and grace.

Anna joins her father on the coal barge and during a storm they pick up some shipwrecked sailors, including the proud Irish stoker Mat Burke.

Mat is a simple (but not stupid) worker. He is proud of his strength developed from hard years of shovelling coal and has a girl in every port. Like Chris he is captivated by life at sea but does not share Chris' fatalism about it.

Mat (understandably) makes an earnest play for Anna as he recovers from his ordeal and after a few weeks he decides that he is going to marry her (she is not expected to have any choice in that). The rest of the play resolves around that decision.

Jude Law is sensational and is only prevented from dominating the show by the equally good performances from David Hayman and Ruth Wilson.

He could have been born for the part with his stoker's physique, curly ginger hair and thick Irish accent.

I could go on heaping praise on the play, production and acting but it's sufficient to say that it is faultless in every respect.

5 September 2011

Glyndebourne gardens

It is the quality of the opera that makes Glyndebourne so special but the glorious gardens add greatly to the day through their beauty and diversity.

The further you go from the main building the more that the purpose of the garden changes from simple pleasure to the production of food and flowers for the house.

This is soon apparent if you enter the garden via the path next to the marquee where you are greeted on the left by a wild field, a disordered gaggle of trees, a functioning greenhouse and, if you look closely, some beehives.

The long lake lies quietly behind the trees with a lawn packed with picnickers beyond that but you do not know that yet and can only assume that you have taken a wrong turn and entered a farm by mistake.

Turning to the right reinforces the farmyard view with a busy kitchen garden delivering vegetables and flowers.

This is the only ordered part of the garden. Nowhere else will you find plants neatly arranged in lines or groups.

Moving slowly towards the main house soon brings you to one of the characteristic features of the garden, a high hedge with a jumbled border in front.

I am sure that these borders are planted with great care and attention, it takes great knowledge and skill to grow a garden that looks as though it has grown all by itself.

Behind this hedge is the croquet lawn which boats one of my favourite signs ever that politely asks visitors not to picnic there. Glyndebourne is not the place for a simple "keep of the grass" notice.

On the other side of the main lawn is another hedge and another border, both of which have come under the gardeners' spell in recent year as part of the continual change in the garden.

I like the way that the tops of the hedges are cut in sections to slightly different heights and angles. I suspect that this is done for artistic effect but I like to think that there is a touch of laziness in there too as it would be a lot more work to keep them all level with each other.

Finally we turn our gaze to the right away from the border and towards the house to reassure ourselves that we are indeed in Glyndebourne.

The house has its own charm, thanks to its fluid shape and subtle colour, and the modern roof of the opera house somehow adds to it.

This is also one the garden's finest moments.

A terrace runs along the house with thickly planted borders on either side.

Here the plants are encouraged to grow as tall and wide as they like as if trying to hide the house completely but all that does is make the visage even more attractive.

There is even more to the Glyndebourne garden than I have shown here with even more diversity which is why any visit has to allow plenty of time for a leisurely stroll through it.

4 September 2011

Kew Gardens in late August

Going to Kew Gardens regularly gives me the chance to explore different parts of the gardens, the same parts in different seasons and also different ways of keeping a record of what I see and do.

My usual routine is: 1) check-in to Kew Gardens on FourSquare, 2) take about a hundred photos with my Canon Ixus 80IS, 3) put about forty of these on Facebook, 4) put about eight of these on Flickr, 5) add five to the Kew Gardens group there, 6) select my four to six for a blog post (like this one), 7) tweet that I've written a new blog post, and finally, 8) add a link to the blog post to the Kew Gardens page on facebook.

This time I did all that and also experimented with Instagram. This takes photos on your iPhone, applies a choice of filters to them and lets you post it quickly and easily to a range of sites including Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. The two main differences from what I usually do are the choice of filters and the ability to post at the time rather than, which is often the case, a week or so later.

This visit, on the last weekend in August, started at Lion Gate, ending a run of visits that had started at the more popular Victoria Gate.

The first thing to greet you there is the Pagoda but, regrettably, that is closed so I carried on towards the little Japanese Garden with its small decorative plants and swirls of neatly raked grey gravel.

At the top of a short gentle ride sits a small squat building looking over it all and confirming the Oriental nature of the garden with its distinctive architecture.

The garden is tranquil and restful both through deliberate design and also the relative lack of visitors to this corner of Kew.

From there it is a short walk to the Redwood Grove and then on to then Waterlilly Pond.

The redwoods do what you expect redwoods to do, stand tall and silent. It's hard to gauge their height and their even greater potential when standing amongst them but one of the educational displays that Kew provides helps to put everything in context.

The Waterlilly Pond is just pretty. This is the ideal spot to linger for a few minutes of rest before heading further in to the garden.

The good people of Kew have thought about this and have provided plenty of benches for that purpose. There is also lots of vibrant planting around the pond in case you ever get tired of looking at just the pond itself.

I came across the Woodland Glade by accident (it's not on the iPhone app) and that added a little more interest to the walk around the compost heap towards the Xstrata Treetop Walkway.

This is an impressive and effective structure that I am now getting used to despite my (sensible) fear of heights and the obvious fact that the floor of the walkway is full of holes.
Luckily the design means the the holes point away from you as you take the prescribed route round clockwise but if you look behind you at any point then the holes reveal the ground far below and remind you why you are uncomfortable about being so far up.

The vertigo is worth it though as the walkway takes you up close to the trees and also offers unparalleled views across the garden. The Temperate House is clearly visible through the trees and looks large even from a reasonable distance.

Having seen it from above the next thing to do was to see it from inside.

The Temperate House is probably my favourite place in Kew Gardens.

It has that special combination of being a large decorative and unusual building stuffed full with large decorative and unusual plants, several of which threaten to bust through the flimsy roof.

A tight spiral staircase takes you up a level to a narrow walkway that circles the large central greenhouse (there are five green houses linked together). From here you can appreciate the size and variety of the plants and also the Victorian splendour of the roof.

To be honest, I prefer the roof more than the plants which is why it features more in the picture than they do.

Having traversed the length of the Temperate House I found myself closest to Victoria Gate so headed out that way.

That is a jolly route taking in the formal Cherry Walk and the Mediterranean Garden that mirrors the earlier Japanese Garden by having a slight slope and a building on the top.

Just before Victoria Gate the Times Eureka Chelsea Garden waits for you.

Having spent the morning amongst the trees at the southern end of the garden the colourful flowers here give a jolt that can only be relieved by walking and sitting among them for a while.

I still have no idea what the wooden construction is meant to be for but, as a piece of abstract design, it has grown on me and it looks at home here.

Another Sunday morning, another few hours in Kew and another set of pictures and words to remember them by.

3 September 2011

Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne

When I first saw the programme for the Glyndebourne Festival 2011 I was disappointed at the number of revivals of recent operas that I had already seen. Far from disappointing was the return of The Turn of Screw that I last saw, and loved, in 2007.

The opera tells the story of a governess and the two children she is hired to look after by a mysterious guardian who we never see and whom the governess is instructed not to contact.

She approaches the grand house in the country with some nervousness but this is soon dispelled when she meets the children, Miles and Flora, and the housekeeper.

This happy mood does not last long.

A letter arrives from Miles' school saying that he has been expelled for doing something very bad. The governess and housekeeper find this hard to believe it.

Then the governess sees a figure in the tower and later outside. When she describes the man to the housekeeper we are told that this is Peter Quint, a former valet at the house. Quint had had asexual relationship with Miss Jessel, the previous governess. Miss Jessel; went away and then died. Quint dies too soon later.

The housekeeper also suggests that Quint and Jessel had an unusual and unnatural relationship with the two children.

And so the mystery and the tragedy start to unfold.

The opera thrives on the menace in the story that is conveyed passionately by the typically quirky Benjamin Britten music delivered expertly by the London Philharmonic Orchestra slimed down to chamber orchestra size.

The singing was sublime throughout and could be heard loudly and clearly even in the cheap seats (£75) in the Upper Circle. All four of the main roles were superb though if forced to pick one it would be Susan Bickley as Mrs Grose the housekeeper.

I loved the staging as much for what it did not do as much as for what it did. There were a couple of nice touches, like the moving train effect at the beginning, but mostly the set did very little and let the actors and musicians tell the story with their actions, words and music.

Glyndebourne seems to favour the fancier productions these days, e.g. the elaborate and complex sets used in Fairy Queen, Hansel and Gretel, Don Giovanni and Rusalka (possibly driven by the increasing use of ex-theatre directors), but I much prefer the simpler sets that do not distract attention away from the music.

The Turn of the Screw was dramatic, melodic and immensely satisfying. This is exactly the sort of thing that I go to Glyndebourne to see.

1 September 2011

A Woman Killed with Kindness at the NT

Some good reviews and an offer on the tickets persuaded me to go and see A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National Theatre.

I had done my usual pre-theatre research, i.e. I had just seen it mentioned in some tweets, so it was something of a shock when the Upstairs Downstairs characters starting speaking in a Shakespearean manner with the prose containing old words and phrases as well as having a steady rhythm to it.

Another surprise was soon to come to me,
As the dialogue rhymed occasionally.

The play opens with a high-society wedding.

We meet some of the groom's friends and in their friendly banter a high-stakes bet is arranged concerning fine country pursuits involving horses and dogs.

The scene shifts to the other half of the stage where we see the house of the friend with whom the bet was made.

He arrives back from the wedding very drunk and is put to bed by his sister and staff. This is clearly something that they are used to doing.

The story starts with wedding bliss
But soon things start to go amiss.

The happy couple start off happily enough (though the wedding night itself was graphically grim) and soon the bride becomes a mother.

The trouble starts when a friend of the husband is invited to stay in their house for a while.

He fancies his chances with the bride,
And his advances are not denied.

Disturbingly this relationship starts when she is heavily pregnant.

Nearby things are not going much better.

The alcoholic brother has money troubles and the house is only kept going thanks to the careful management of his sister.

This includes selling some paintings.

A rich friend offers to clear the debt,
But only if wedding demands are met.

And so the tragedy unfolds. In one house a woman is cursed by her illicit relationship and in the other a woman is cursed by the need for money.

Seeing the two stories unfold side by side is very effective and the two hours slides past easily and the now out of date custom of having an interval is not noticed.

The twin tragedies (and the larger one in the title) may come as little surprise but its a good yarn carried along at a decent pace, delivered superbly by the cast and staged intelligently but not fussily.

There may be nothing exceptional about the play but there is nothing at all wrong with it either and what you get is a good solid show. And that's good enough any day.