31 October 2011

Driving Miss Daisy

When a play can be called a "Pulitzer Prize-winning classic" and stars Vanessa Redgrave then I am going to be interested.

So just a couple of hours after leaving a theatre in Piccadilly I found myself in another one, this time by Leicester Square.

As before I had gone for the cheap seats and they do not come much cheaper than the very back row of the theatre. That's Row D in the Balcony that hangs high above the Stalls, Royal Circle and Grand Circle.

From here the view is almost straight down but that's OK. I'm used to high seats and I like the way that you can see the whole stage and the movement across it. This is why sports coverage is always from a raised viewpoint rather than the touchline. One day theatres will realise this and change their pricing but until then I'll continue going up saving money.

The play has a simple construct. A Southern matriarch has a driving accident and so her concerned son arranges a chauffeur for her. We then follow their relationship develop over the weeks, months and years.

This starts in the post-war austerity of 1948 and well before the Civil Rights movement started.

The matriarch and chauffeur are both very clear on their position in society but the chauffeur also has self-assurance and happily shows this.

It takes a while for the ice to break but it does and the conversations between the two widen and deepen. Through this we learn a lot more about the society they live in and how it starts to change.

The story leaps forward and helpful signs tell us what year we have moved to. The changing cars are no clue here as they are all represented by the same bench and chair.

The other clue that we got were the occasional references to national news, particularly when the matriarch went to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. But that was given to us almost as a passing moment and it was up to us to recognised the historical importance of that.

The other conversations were appropriately ephemeral with stories of other local families and events. And that's as it should be; what else would you talk to your chauffeur about?

The relationship between the two develops too and they become closer while remaining well within the accepted bounds employer and employee.

It could be easy to think that lacking any significant plot or any stand-out moments that Driving Miss Daisy is a weak play but that would be to misunderstand it.

The dialogue is the play and this swings along like a good Glen Miller tune, rich in melody and fun. There is a little pathos too but that comes at the end and closes the play with a gentle contrast the earlier banter.

29 October 2011

Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden was another joy brought to me via an email offer.

These come think and fast. Some I accept, most I refuse. And the ones that I do accept are usually spur of the moment decisions, "I fancy that" moments.

So when the time comes to go to the show the spur is long gone and forgotten. Part of the joy of the show then comes from trying to remember why I chose to go there in the first place.

The "there" this time was the Harold Pinter Theatre, which I been to twice previously this year when it was called the Comedy Theatre, and I suspect that the reason that I went was the "Olivier Award winning" tag.

On my previous visits I sat in the stalls but this time I was up in the circle. Even cheaper than that I went for a seat at the end of a row which had slightly obscured view. Giving up the right to see part of the stage where nothing happened saved me £10 on the seat next to me. Result!

Death and the Maiden is set in an unnamed Latin American country (the author is Chilean) that has recently emerged from military rule and is now stumbling towards democracy.

Part of this is a truth and reconciliation committee established by the new president. A leading human rights lawyer is appointed to the committee and this is a major career break for him. Immediately after the announcement he returns to his beach house and his wife.

He is delayed by a puncture but is rescued by a good Samaritan, a doctor, who has a spare and a jack (the lawyer's wife gave his away to her mother). The doctor turns up at the beach house to return something to the lawyer and is persuaded to stay for the night.

Things take a sinister turn in the morning when the wife confronts the doctor accusing him of being part of a group that had detained and raped her under the old regime. She then tries to extract a confession from him, tying him up and brandishing a gun to do so, while her shocked husband argues that proper justice, of which he is now a significant part, should be allowed to take its course.

The three then discuss, debate and dispute the past and how to deal with it.

The doctor proclaims his innocence throughout but give a couple of hints that he may be guilty even though the evidence against him is little more than consequential, such as his having a tape of Schubert's Death and the Maiden in his car which the wife remembers from her captivity.

As the words fly between them we learn more about the past, how it has changed them all, and we confront the difficulties of reconciliation for a nation through this specific example with its representatives of the wronged, the accused and justice.

The play takes place in one scene, the beach house, and has just the three actors. Thandie Newton (MI: 2), Tom Goodman-Hill and Anthony Calf (New Tricks) are all superb.

Death and the Maiden skilfully combines a plot that grows and surprises with a close examination of the political and personal realities of oppression. It may have been written about 70's Latin America but it translates easily to today and to the recent conflicts in countries like Libya and the Ivory Coast.

25 October 2011

Ham Amenities Group and Cows

October brings the Ham Amenities Group (HAG) AGM and once again I went to hear the local talk given after the usual business matters, like the reports from the committee, were all put safely to bed.

This year was a real treat. We were given a first-hand account of the cows on Petersham Meadow from a volunteer cow warden.

But let's begin somewhere near the beginning.

The view from Richmond Hill south across the river has been revered, painted and photographed over the centuries and is now protected by law. For most of this time the water meadows at the bottom of the hill have been home to cows.

A few years ago it all fell to pieces until a local campaign, headed by Chris Brasher, successfully established a charitable trust to take control of the meadows. Then, a year ago, management of the site was handed to the National Trust.

The National Trust recruited several volunteers to work with them as wardens and one of them (I must find out her name) gave us a very informative and entertaining talk that far outshone most talks I've seen from people who talk for a living.

Her first lesson was, Never go in to a field of cows without a stick. She had brought hers with her and showed us how to wield it to make the cows move around you.

When the cows arrive in the meadow in spring this is their first experience of outdoors for the calves and they frolic around for a couple of hours exploring every corner of the field. They are always testing the (physical) boundaries and sometimes have to be prised out of hedges.

The north-west corner is there favourite spot, but you'll have to ask them why that is.

The cows act as a group, moving across the field, coming if for the evening and choosing a corner of the barn to settle in. They obviously communicate but it is not clear how.

They learn about the routine of the helpers and anticipate the arrival of apples and the opening up of parts of the field.

People also use the field and they are a bigger problem. They bring litter, noise, children, dogs and food, none of which are appropriate in a field of cows. People have no understanding of how cows behave or of the damage they can do.

There is a battle going on in Petersham Meadows between people and cows. I'm cheering for the cows.

23 October 2011

The Passenger at the ENO

The English National Opera (ENO) features rarely in my cultural calendar because I find most of its repertoire dull and I'd rather hear the words sung in their natural language. A new and unusual opera got me back there.

The Coliseum is a nice quaint venue too. I do prefer modern theatres (Glyndebourne is the obvious example here) but I am getting used to London's Victorian theatres with their rich decoration, waves of boxes and soft red velvet seats.

The lounge areas are reasonable to and I was able to get a Czech Budvar and a chair to sit in while drinking it before the show.

But the beer and the theatre were not what had pulled me there, it was the prospect of an opera tackling the difficult theme of the holocaust. This is not light opera but then I don't really do light opera. What attracts me to opera, and also plays, are words like dark, disturbing and difficult.

The simple premise of the story is that a woman sailing with her husband to start a new life in Brazil things she recognises a former prisoner from Auschwitz from her time as a guard there some fifteen years earlier. This leads her to think back to those days,

This set does this cleverly with the upper layers, in white, representing the cruise ship and the dark lower level representing the camp.

The story starts with the possible encounter on the ship but once the scene is set most of the story happens below and in the past. Not surprisingly some of this is quite harrowing. There is little direct cruelty on show but we do see some of the inmates being taken away and ashes being shovelled out of the furnaces.

Amidst this horror we get a little love story and also some camaraderie amongst the captives that leads to some singing of traditional folk songs and even a birthday celebration.

The story returns to the cruise ship and we get an uncomfortable chorus about never forgiving the Germans for what they have done. That might have been reasonable in 1959 when the original story was written but now it's an uncomfortable message that jars against the progress we have made in Europe over the last sixty six years.

Musically the opera is a little thin. It's only in sections of the second half that we get some memorable singing. Most of the time the music is slight and the singing little more than recitative.

Without the music to focus on our full attention is on the story and while I did not agree with some of the sentiments it is a powerful story that draws you in with awe and horror.

Somehow that is not enough though.

The Passenger is different and it is challenging and it does make for a rewarding night out but it lacks the spark that makes you want to repeat the experience.

22 October 2011

When Did You Last See My Mother?

When Did You Last See My Mother? is, apparently, Christopher Hampton's first play and recently returned to the West End after forty years.

The West End in this case being the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall. Or, to be more precise, the diminutive Studio 2 there.

This was my third visit to Trafalgar Studios but the first to Studio 2. It is, not surprisingly, much like other small theatres, it has just 100 seats, in its layout with rows of benches around the three sides of the stage but, unlike the others, it has numbered seating.

The usual rule of going for the front row in small theatres was followed and I booked a seat next to one of the aisles on the grounds that would guarantee legroom and might also mean being close to some theatrical exists and entrances. I was wrong.

The aisle was blocked by a chair on the stage which meant that some of the audience had to squeeze between me and the chair to get to their seats and I had to be careful to avoid interfering with one of the actors who spent a lot of time sitting in that chair.

I like being close to the action and this was really close. I was not watching people living in a bedsit, I was with them in the bedsit.

Some care and attention had been spent getting that bedsit right and it was realistically frugal and period. The furniture and furnishing were a joy to behold.

In this bedsit are Ian and Jimmy. Two young men, fresh out of school, desperate for sex and short of money. They are "living together" in the biblical sense but Jimmy also has lots of sex with other boys and girls.

Ian is left with his pain and confusion and it is this that drives the play forward with vigour, humour and pathos.

Ian talks incessantly and honestly. Rather like House, he says what he feels and care not one whit who this offends. There is no malice or snideness in his remarks, he is just saying what he things. He comes across as a nice enough fellow but the frustrations and jealousies cloud his thinking.

Jiimmy, in contrast, is smart, confident and is not worried by money or sex. Life flows around him and he takes what he can along the way. He's shallow and carefree while Ian is deep and in pain. They are also in love, of a sorts, though they never directly admit to that.

There dialogue sparkles and spikes in equal measure. Again one is reminded of House talking to Wilson, and that is a good thing.

Into this emotional pot descends Jimmy's mother for whom the phrase MILF could have been invented. She is mature, assured and smartly dressed. She also feels for Ian. This is, or becomes, more than maternal and they have sex.

Later Ian excuses himself for this by saying that he only did so because she reminded him of Jimmy. She does not understand what he means by this and you have to remember that the play was written well before gay became an accepted and public lifestyle.

But the play is not about the plot. It's about Ian's emotions and the way that he reveals them in his dialogue. And now it has the added attraction of being a glimpse in to the past.

The acting is excellent too. Harry Melling (who was in Harry Potter, apparently) plays Ian and dominates the play simply because that is the way that it is written and he does all that is asked of him in that role. I especially liked his Young Fogey look with Tweed jacket and thick black glasses.

As a result it's a fantastic performance that was genuinely appreciated and warmly received by the audience who were a reassuring mix of ages, genders and races. Theatre needs to attract a wide range of people to survive and it's good to see plays that can do this.

When Did You Last See My Mother? is an enthralling and exhilarating swim in young emotions. Excellent stuff.

17 October 2011

Frank Miller's Holy Terror (not good)

Frank Miller and I share a birthday and a we have a deal on comics; he writes and draws them and I read them.

I first came across Frank Miller by accident in 1979 when he started drawing Daredevil for Marvel Comics, which I was reading at the time.

Since then he has produced some iconic masterpieces, notably Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Sin City (1991).

Now we have Holy Terror but its not very good.

A lot of what you expect from Frank Miller is there. The landscape book is rich with black pictures with driving rain, spots of colour, a Batmanesque character, water towers on rooftops and a few terse sentences. What is lacking is a story to bind all this together.

This is odd as the spark for the story was the terrorist attacks on 9/11 so he has had ten years to think of one. But instead of a story we have rage.

Frank writes on his web site "I wish all those responsible for the Atrocity of 9/11 to burn in hell. I’m too old to serve my country in any other way. Otherwise, I’d gladly be pulling the trigger myself." I can understand the sentiment (though I do not share it) but it does not make a story.

We have no characterisation either. The man who gave Daredevil the passion to bring Elektra back to life serves up simplistic terrorists and even more simplistic vigilantes to fight them.

These are not heroes that we can cheer for. We have no love for the terrorists but it is hard to think that the cruel and violent response is any better. Frank rages about the 3,000 of his neighbours killed on 9/11 but cares naught for the many more killed, and still being killed, by his countrymen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Even his Robocop scripts had more subtlety and this.

The one redeeming factor of the book is the artwork and that is such a big factor that it makes it readable despite the story.

Conveniently the landscape format makes this a coffee table book rich in striking artwork that you can skim through without worrying about the script.

Here we see a barely disguised Batman and Catwoman swinging through Empire City.

It's a dramatic and vibrant picture and one I could look at for ages.

But comics are about words as well as pictures and it's impossible to forget Holy Terror's flaws. Much better to read Dark Night or Sin City.

16 October 2011

LIKE 29: Connecting Information with Innovation

My current project in Cardiff is hitting my events schedule in London but I am trying to keep my commitment to the vibrant London and Information and Knowledge Exchange (LIKE) going.

I was helped in this in that September's event was so popular that they ran it twice (the second time in October) giving me an opportunity to make it after all. A second chance was all I needed.

Our guide for the evening was John Davies, Head of Consulting at TFPL.

John took us through TFPL's recent report Connecting information with innovation that outlines the findings and conclusions from a survey they undertook to map knowledge and information management (KIM) responsibilities within organisations.

The session was run as a series of table discussions with John introducing each topic for us and then pulling together our responses.

First up we considered what comes within the KIM remit in our organisations. There are still quite a few traditional librarians and researchers out there but these have been joined by a pot pourri of new roles including content editors, intranet managers, and communications officers.

My thoughts on this were that there are two categories of people to consider; those that manage internal information and knowledge assets (e.g. librarians) and those that use these skills to interpret external assets (e.g. marketing intelligence).

In the summation of this section John gave us the startling statistic that there are approximately 25 million knowledge workers but only 25 thousand people with any directly relevant qualification.

Next we looked at the characteristics that employers look for. when recruiting KIM staff. Again the trend is away from specific skills or qualifications and growing emphasis is being placed on the so called "soft skills" of team working, collaboration, flexibility, logical thinking and pragmatism.

Within this environment the role of professional bodies is changing too. Less importance is given to the formal qualifications that they offer and more to things like the networking opportunities. Members see the value of membership but it can be hard to convince employers that this is something that they should pay for.

And, of course, there are groups like LIKE to consider too. These provide some (but by no means all) of the benefits of a professional organisation but without the costs or the barriers to entry.

The final topic we considered was the KIM diaspora. Once librarians and there like were stuck in corporate centres but now they are found across organisations. This is good in that they are closer to the business front-line but it also means that they can lack the professional development opportunities that working in a larger group can bring.

John led us through the evening with knowledge, passion and energy. This made it a very effective session, one of LIKE's best.

The rest of the evening was up to the usual LIKE standard with a cherubic mix of drink, food and conversations. And that's worth coming back from Wales for.

12 October 2011

A short walk in Kew

Sunday afternoon I fancied a walk to clear out some cobwebs accumulated over a week of work and early mornings watching rugby. Rather than just go around the block where I live I decided to go to Kew Gardens.

That's what the convenience of an annual membership card does.

A decision had to be made on the 65 bus and I chose Victoria Gate more or less by default. The original aim was to head to the main gate on Kew Green but plans change. Often..

Just inside the gate are the Palm House with the lake and parterre in front.

The temptation is always to head that way but I was looking for open spaces and exercise rather than busy areas and flowers so I headed behind the Palm House instead.

But I am not that immune to temptation to not turn back to see the magnificent building peering imperiously through a wide gap in the hedge that arcs around it and the rose garden.

That gap is the start of a long boulevard that heads almost due west and directly to the river.

And with no people in the way. This is the kind of place that I like to walk.

It's Autumn but most of the trees here are still desperately clinging on to their leaves, no doubt encouraged by the recent (if short) spell of warm weather than had us all reaching for our t-shirts again.

This was the first change of plan. A quick check of the map on the Kew Gardens iPhone app confirmed that there was little of interest between here and the main gate that I had not seen recently so I decided to head for the Lion Gate instead.

Hidden just behind the trees on the right is the large lake with the curvaceous Sackler Crossing bisecting it and that's where I headed.

The lake, like the rest of the garden, was refreshingly peaceful despite the efforts of some of the birds who refused to keep still.

There were even some youngsters, possibly the offspring of confused parents mistaking a late Summer for an early Spring.

The Lion Gate plan did not last long and as I crossed the bridge I decided to head back to Victoria Gate.

The Palm House that I dismissed so callously earlier would not be denied. And rightly so, it is a magnificent building.

From the outside it's the jelly mould shape that appeals but once inside the detail of the iron work is more apparent as are the smaller shapes within the larger whole.

Empty, this would be a wonderful building but stuffed full of impossibly tall and green plants it becomes ridiculously astounding. How did I ever think that I could walk past it without going in?

11 October 2011

The Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic

My current deep immersion in London's theatre scene, in all its guises, brought me back to the Old Vic to see The Playboy of the Western World.

But first I had to get there and as I am working in Cardiff at the moment that meant a well-timed train to Paddington, a rumble along the Bakerloo Line and a quick beer and a bowl of nuts at the Waterloo Theatre Bar.

Then it was time for Theatre Plan B. Theatre Plan A applies to small theatres with free seating and involves securing a seat in the front row. Plan B applies to larger (and more expensive) theatres and means going for a seat high-up. If you cannot sit right next to the action then you might as well save money and go for the Upper Circle. I also like the view from up there, something I've learned from Glyndebourne.

The Playboy (using a shortened title through laziness) is set in a small pub in a small village in Ireland about a century ago where we meet the landlord's lively daughter, Margaret, and her dull fiancée Shawn. They are Irish peasants and do the actors do their best to sound like Irish peasants which made following the dialogue a little difficult at times. I was grateful for my Irish mother and Irish colleagues for giving me lessons in understanding their accents.

The play is supported, carried and enriched by its dialogue (which is another way of saying that not much happens) so being able to follow (most of) it was very useful.

We meet a few more villagers, including Margaret's father, who are mostly as jolly as you would expect peasant in a pub with no obvious opening hours to be.

In to this genteel setting a young stranger, Christy, arrives in a whirl of chaos. He's agitated, voluble and bustling. The reason for this is that he killed his father "when last Tuesday was a week" and has been on the run and hiding in ditches every since.

Murder obviously had not quite the same sense of seriousness in 19th century Ireland that it does today and the upshot of this revelation is that everybody is captivated by Christy.

This is especially true of Margaret and a gaggle of village girls who find a pretence to come to the pub to see him. The old women are interested in him too and a widow flirts outrageously.

And there we have it. A young man with an exciting history and a small group of villagers reacting to it. The dialogue that comes from the encounter is fast and funny. It's a comedy of attitudes.

The story develops nicely too. Christy's becomes even more popular by winning a donkey race and Margaret resolves to marry him. Then his murdered father appears alive after all only to be murdered again. Now the villagers turn on Christy, a murder in another village brings notoriety but a murder in their own village brings the risk of them being implicated in the foul deed.

A couple of twists later and the story reaches its unexpected but very satisfactory conclusion.

I am sure that there are complexities and subtleties to this play that I missed (that's probably always true) and I consumed it gleefully as a work of entertainment rather than a work of deep meaning. And theatre that entertains as well as this is always worth seeing.

8 October 2011

Graham Leigh Pfeffer (GLP) Solicitors

Solicitors from Hell's mission is to let people who have a grievance against their solicitor to fight back by publicising their complaint.

This is freedom of speech pure and simple.

So, obviously, the solicitors are trying to close it down. I hope they fail and I have donated a little towards the cause.

Have a look at their website, it's good.

Just in case it does get taken down I am retelling my story here.

I used GLP & Co for an unfair dismissal case. I was very unhappy with their performance and wrote this letter of complaint (redacted).

"The GLP website claims, “GLP are confident that in a competitive market we can offer the very best of quality and service. We set our standards to the highest level and strive to offer added value to all our clients”, but my recent experience is that GLP fall far short of this.

In my claim for unfair dismissal against xxxxxx I was misled and my clear instructions were not followed.

I was fully prepared to appear before the Employment Tribunal to put my case and I made it clear several times that I was more interested in winning the case than any financial reward.

Yet it appears that GLP never intended to go to the tribunal and was always planning to settle out of court.

There is much evidence to support this view. In particular, GLP made little attempt to collect the information needed to support my case.

Despite having several months to prepare my statement, GLP only sent the first draft of this to me for checking a few days before the date set for the hearing - I sent my corrections on Monday 6 October when the hearing was set for that Wednesday.

No attempt was apparently made to contact the witnesses that I proposed in my email of 19 August.

No attempt was apparently made to get disclosure of the documents mentioned in that same email and in various telephone conversations.

As the date for the tribunal drew closer I asked, more than once, for confirmation of the location and time of the hearing (such as my email of 6 October) but got no reply.

The only conclusions that I can derive from this evidence is that either GLP had no intention of appearing before the tribunal or were doing a very poor job in preparing for it.

I was called by GLP the day before the planned hearing and was strongly encouraged to settle out of court. While this was not my wish it was clear to me that I could not proceed without the full support of my solicitor and that I did not have this. I was then told of weaknesses in my case which would not have existed if GLP had asked for disclosure of the documents that I suggested or had got statements from the witnesses that I suggested.

There then followed a series of conversations on the amount of compensation that I would be prepared to accept and we finally agreed on the amount of £xxxx payable to myself.

We discussed this in detail and there can be no doubt that my instructions were clear.

We discussed GLP’s VAT and fees etc. and we agreed that we would settle for £xxxx for myself; I was not interested in the total amount of the settlement. Against my clear instruction, GLP settled for just under £xxxx payable to myself.

To add insult to injury, GLP then claimed that the cheque would take ten days to clear when the clearing cycle is three days. And I have not received any breakdown of GLP’s fees and costs.

Following the settlement, I wrote to GLP asking for the return of the original documents that I had sent earlier. This has not been done.

In summary, GLP has consistently failed to follow my clear instructions in this case and, as a result, I have not had the settlement that I agreed to and my documents have not been returned."

Needless to say this complaint got no reply either.

5 October 2011

Big Ideas on Money

Being detached from academia (amongst other things) I had no idea who the Big Ideas speaker on How Much Money Do We Need To Lead A Good Life? was but I was assured when sitting in an almost empty room beforehand that he was a big draw.

And so he proved to be. The room was as full as I have ever seen it and comfortably exceeded any reasonable fire limit that might apply to it.

The speaker was introduced to us as Robert Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick, which enlightened me not a whit.

I deliberately sat at a table I'd not sat at before (the antithesis of Kermit's nephew) more or less in the middle of the room which was great for the talk and the subsequent debate but not so good for photography so you are spared the traditional picture of the bay window at The Wheatshef.

Robert Skidelsky started the evenings' discussion by outlining the arguments in a new book that he had just finished writing with his son.

The main point seemed to be that the love of money differs from other wants in needs in that it is finite whereas there are limits to, for example, how much you can eat. As a consequence we have Avarice and measures need to be taken to address this.

I felt that the argument fell at the first fence, and said so in the debate. Biological needs (food, drink, warmth, sex, etc.) are finite because they are immediate but the wish for money addresses future needs to food, drink, etc. and so has no limit.

Other people also questioned Avarice as more and more groups, e.g. the people in the room, were excluded from those considered avaricious.

In the debate we spent some time exploring whether Fear was more of a factor that Avarice, i.e. do some people work longer and harder because they want more money or are they just scared that they will lose their jobs if they don't. My vote goes for Fear.

I had problems with some of the proposed solutions too, such as unimposable rules on restricting advertising and unworkable nudges.

My mood on the evening can be gauged by my tweets:
  • Ten minutes in brings the first reference to Marx. #bigideas
  • Biological needs are now and finite (even sex) but money is future and insatiable. #bigideas
  • Poor analysis names Avarice as the guilty party and the subsequent arguments fail on this false premis. #bigideas
  • And now a plug for Nudge. This is an ill structured and inaccurate argument. Glad the Hobgoblin is on form. #bigideas
  • Claims that an insatiable desire for money is the problem then excludes many groups from having this. #fail #bigideas
  • Getting a bit heavy now with constant references to Aristotle, Plato, Hume, etc. #bigideas
  • The ghost of Stalin stalks the room. And not in a good way. #bigideas
The debate was lively and my assessment was that there were more debaters against the argument presented than for it but the speaker got a long and sincere round of applause when the more formal part of the evening and we were left to carry on the conversations by ourselves with just some more Hobgoblin to help.

I may not have been remotely convinced by the speaker's argument but it did trigger a good debate that I enjoyed being part of. That's why Big Ideas works.

4 October 2011

Phaedra's Love at the Arcola Theatre

It was a sudden decision suggested by an email then allowed by a free evening to go to the opening night of Phaedra's Love at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston.

My usual lack of preparation in reading nothing about the play beforehand was enhanced this time by knowing nothing of the myth either.

So when the story began with a bloke, surrounded by the sort of mess you associate with teenagers' bedrooms, wanking in to a sock I was a little surprised and also a little shocked.

It soon turned out that this was Hippolytus and that he is the step-son of Phaedra, putting us firmly in Greek mythology despite the modern setting and the rolling news of recent wars playing on the wall above the stage at the start.

We soon learn that Hippolytus is a nasty piece of work, extremely selfish and callous in his relationships and yet, despite this, he has an awful lot of relationships. And Phaedra loves him too, and not in a motherly way.

Having met Hippo and Phae separately we have the first big scene on Hippo's birthday when Phae comes to give him his present. A blow-job. Hippo is not the least bit surprised by this not is he grateful, asking for his promised birthday present afterwards.

The consequences of that act unfold and we have a suicide, a couple of killings, more sexual acts of various kinds and another suicide. It's really obvious when the play has got to the end.

Sitting in the front-row of the small (but cute) theatre made this uncomfortable watching at times but if I'd wanted comfort I'd have stayed at home and watched Downton Abbey.

The overall effect is a tumult and turmoil of emotion, the violent sort of emotion that leads to suicides and killings. Amongst this sits Hippo, the calm in the eye of the storm, almost devoid of emotion as the tragedies mount up around him.

Phaedra's Love is a short play, which is probably just as well given the battering you get from watching it, and it is performed without an interval so there is no respite in ice cream either.

The effect is rather like a Belgian fruit beer, a pleasant assault on the senses that can only be taken in small doses.

1 October 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest at The Rose

The Rose Theatre in Kingston is probably my closest, though the two in Richmond are not far away either, and there was quite a fight to bring a theatre to the town so as a regular theatre goer I do try to patronise it.

The Rose does not help me here by keeping to a fairly safe repertoire of well known classics where my taste is for more edgy new drama.

But the old classics are classics for a reason so it makes sense to fill some cultural gaps when the opportunity arises.

That is why my last three visits to The Rose were to see plays by Ayckbourn, Coward and Bennett, and why I returned this time to see a play by Wilde.

I have nothing at all against Jane Asher (I saw here in another Ayckbourn with Ian McKellen in 1988's Henceforward... at Richmond Theatre) but, despite the poster, hers was not the name that mattered to me, it was Wilde's.

This was my first time upstairs at the Rose in the Circle. This is much as the stalls but higher up. The view is fine and you are no great distance from the stage.

As befits a comedy of words, the set was pretty basic. The fashionable London reception room of the first scene requires just a couple of pieces of furniture to define it.

There is no curtain to rise as its a proscenium stage but the lights dim and we are introduced to the two young men whose words and deeds drive the play.

Not that the plot is that important either. It does give a flow, structure and purpose to the play but its main purpose is to be the hook on which to hang as many familiar Wilde bon mots on as possible.

These witticisms come thick and fast; these are just a few to give a taste.
  • "I don't play accurately - any one can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression."
  • "When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people."
  • "Oh, I don't think I would care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn't know what to talk to him about."
  • "London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years."
The words do what they are meant to and the theatre is full of giggles, smirks, chortles and laughter. This is a funny play.

The cast also do what they are meant to do, and that is not a lot. That's not to say that they are irreverent, far from it, it is just that they are there to deliver the words and not to detract attention from them.

In this context I do not see the point of having a star name like Jane Asher on the bill. Are people really that gullible when choosing whether to go to the theatre?

Being upstairs brought a pleasant surprise, the waiting areas on the first floor are so much better than the unfinished looking ground floor. There is also a nice view of the Guildhall to entertain you.

Good news, there is a bar there too; bad news, it was shut. But there were ice creams.

The Importance of Being Earnest is a nice play stuffed with the amusing dialogue you expect from Wilde, which makes it a satisfying performance but it remains safe and unchallenging and so satisfying is all that it can aspire to.