30 November 2011

Forgotten Spaces at Somerset House

Forgotten Spaces is just my sort of exhibition, and I came across it by chance.

I was planning a visit to RIBA recently and found out about Forgotten Spaces on their website. I could not see it when I went to the RIBA buildings because this is being held some distance away at Somerset House, which is worth a visit by itself.

And, even better than it, the exhibition is in disused tunnels and coals holes under the cobbles courtyard that now plays host to one of London's many ice-rinks.

I would have enjoyed exploring those spaces even if there had not been an exhibition on.

To add to the amusement and sense of exploration Somerset House does not exactly go out of its way to show how to get to the exhibition, or even that it is on.

For future reference you go to the entrance nearest the river and head downstairs. There you find a world of brick and dark corridors. Think Gormenghast.

In the Stygian depths there are spots of soft light to draw attention to posters and models.

These illustrate some of the forgotten spaces of London, the theme of the exhibition.

Each forgotten desolate and derelict space has the prospect of a bright useful and sustainable future and the posters and models show how this could be achieved.

One of the nice things about the proposals is their variety. There are spaces for bees, vegetables, games, walking, resting, sleeping and working.

One of my favourite ideas, and one I really want to see built, is for an Urban Climbing Tunnel in Clapham where you climb, or abseil, down a shaft then crawl your way back to the surface.

There is something especially delightful about seeing this idea when underground. It kind of makes the point of how attractive that space could be.

One of the ideas is to rebuild the former BR station at Highgate that sits above the underground station there.

This came as some surprise to me as on my few visits to Highgate this year I've used the tube without realising that a forgotten space was there.

But that's what being a forgotten space means.

The exhibition starts in former coal holes that sit on the edge of the courtyard but then it gets braver and heads into a broad tunnel that goes right under the courtyard.

In the tunnel there are further recesses that could have been coal holes but it is more exciting to think of them as former prison cells.

Large pipes, sturdy pillars and weak lighting hark back to the tunnel's industrial past. These spaces once had a real purpose much like warehouses did before loft living was invented.

The sunken passageway around the courtyard does its best to join the exhibition by showing you how a forgotten space like this can be brought to life.

Perhaps the most positive thing about the exhibition was the number of people who were clever enough and interested enough to find it.

The place was really busy, mostly with twenty-somethings, and that bodes well for the future of all forgotten spaces, not just those on display here.

Forgotten Spaces is an exciting exhibition housed in an exciting place and it tells a positive story of regeneration and reuse. This may be the best exhibition on in London at the moment.

28 November 2011

Discovering the Cartoon Museum

It is to my eternal shame that I had not been to the Cartoon Museum before.

I love comics and cartoons, I have books on their history, I go to talks about them and I have been notified of special exhibitions there. Yet somehow I never quite got there.

And it was by accident that I got there this time.

After a visit to the British Museum I was in The Plough and was using Foursquare to let Twitter know that I was there when it helpfully pointed out that the Cartoon Museum was nearby.

Very nearby. It's next door. And it's free if you have an Art Fund card.

Inside is a small but busy gallery spread over two floors charting the history of cartoons with the occasional foray in to comics.

You are more likely to find Andy Capp here than Superman. And I like that as characters like Andy Capp are part of our culture and my history.

Rupert Bear was a much larger part of my history so it was good to see him here too and his anthropomorphic rival Teddy Tail.

Punch also featured in my formative years and I was reminded of this by a Honeysett cartoon.
I still recall vividly some of the things that he did for Punch such as the old bloke passed out on the floor in a pub during a drinking competition with one of his equally old friends saying that was odd as he had been all right during the lunchtime practise session.

The Cloggies are in there too.

If you like cartoons and comics as much as I do then this is not a museum that you can browse quickly, every drawing demands and deserves attention. That means reading the helpful note that goes with each one too.

A minor detour from the pub turned in to a forty five minute quick browse that left me keen to return soon to wallow at a more leisurely pace.

I regret not having been to the Cartoon Museum before, and missing the Dr Who exhibition was a serious fault, but I have learned my lesson and I left the museum older and wiser. And happier.

27 November 2011

Japanese collection at the British Museum

I have worked near to the British Museum at times for a total of some years yet it has never managed to pull me in to its clutches in any meaningful way.

Most of the times that I have been there have been to use it as an attractive route when walking north/south in that area.

These walks take me through the central courtyard that always gives pause to the journey and compels an upward glance or two at the geometric beauty of the new roof that crafts a gorgeous room below.

I wanted to pay a serious visit to the museum as I have been visiting several museums and galleries recently and the final spur was an informal guided tour arranged by the Arts Link Meetup Group.

One of things that kept me away from the British Museum was the daunting task of where to start and what to see. Going with an arranged tour solved that.

Twenty or so of us headed up to the fourth floor and the Japanese collection which is spread over three rooms.

Welcoming you in to the first room is a life-size standing Buddha.

Luckily there is also a large diagram and notice that give a summary of Japanese history that I knew little about apart from the Samurai stories and the invasions of China that I heard so much about when in China.

The defining feature of Japanese history is that they have deliberately kept the rest of the world at arms length and so their culture developed almost completely independently, the ingress of Buddhism and the excursions in to China being two notable exceptions.

Japan is also the place where the earthenware pot was first invented.

A year or so ago that would have been a complete surprise for me, I would have guessed the Middle East, but the secret was let out in the landmark Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects.

The oldest pots are 7,000 years old.

Most of the pottery on display is functional rather than decorative with a notable exception being a pair of white elephants. These were enhanced by our guide explaining that white elephants were considered sacred and so were not worked, hence the phrase a white elephant meaning something that has no worth.

There were decorative arts on display in the form of drawings and prints.

The summoning of a skeletal ghost may not have been typical of the drawings on display but it was the most eye-catching. Actually it was the second most eye-catching but while I lived the Astro Boy poster I felt it more appropriate to feature something a little older.

The three rooms are a little Spartan and lacking in the expected samurai relics, there is only one suit and that is an amalgam of several suits from different ages and styles, and the display verges on disappointment. It was rescued from this by our guide and somehow the scant relics kept us entertained for forty minutes or so.

An unexpected treat was to be found in the floor below.

Manga at the British Museum, drawings by Hoshino Yukinobu is a display of some of the original drawings from the manga series Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure.

The story includes famous exhibits from the museum, such as the Rosetta Stone, and I am hoping that the book may give me suggestions for other parts of the museum to visit on future occasions.

All I need to do know is to persuade somebody to buy me the book.

The slight detour over I rejoined the rest of the group that had moved on from the museum and taken up residence in the upstairs room at The Plough.

I am still not completely convinced by the British Museum and it may take another guided tour to get me there, however, this visit did all that I hoped that it would and it has made it more likely that I'll return.

25 November 2011

The Unrest Cure at Pentameters

I came to this by a circuitous route.

A Space Rock contact told me about a Robert Calvert play that was being performed at Pentameters, a small theatre in Hampstead unknown to me at the time.

Sadly I was unable to go but being very interested in small theatres that are unknown to me I kept an eye on what else they were doing.

When I saw The Unrest Cure announced the clincher was that it was set in Chickerell, West Dorset. This is where I went to secondary school and having lived in Weymouth for around 25 years it's a part of the country that I know very well.

I later discovered that one of the plays co-authors, Rob Groves, went to the same school and while we never met there he does remember my Dad who taught him Geography at some point.

The scene set, I headed for Hampstead for the very first time. It's quaint and hilly but I fail to see what all the fuss is about. Give me loft living by a dock any day.

The theatre is above The Horseshoe, an absolutely typical gastro pub with high-end prices. A nice enough place to savour some cauliflower soup and a beer before the show.

The entrance to the theatre is from the side of the pub and is through an impressive doorway with Pentameters above it. Things take a turn towards student accommodation after that as you climb a narrow wooden staircase up to a cluttered landing and enter the small room via the ticket booth.

There before you is a period reception room assembled on a slightly raised stage. It is free seating and I was early enough to get the usual front-row seat.

The play is a light whimsical tale of an middle-aged brother and sister who have settled too early in to their ways running a hotel.

A chance overheard conversation on a train suggests to an younger upper-class brother and sister that they should provide the hotel owners with an unrest cure to add some excitement to their lives.

The unrest comes from acting the part of royal aides and claiming the the Prince of Wales (who is the area opening a new power station) will be staying at the hotel for the night. The PoW also has some unusual demands such as no meat on the premises, no cats and no Cornish people.

The young couple's plans to scarper before the anticipated arrival of the PoW are thrown in to disarray by the unexpected arrival of somebody else, pandemonium follows and is followed by a happy ending.

The Unrest Cure is a delightful comedy of characters and circumstances. The plot is believable, simple and twists nicely. The characters are bold and bright, from the overwhelmed hotel proprietor to the lordly Lord Abbotsbury, and all the cast play their parts well in bring the diverse characters to life.

The story is a treat with gems like the disposal of the cat and rose-petal dance to greet the PoW's arrival.The dialogue delivers a steady stream of gentle mirth punctured with plenty of laugh out loud moments, such as the announcement by Lord Abbotsbury that he much prefers the works of Wodehouse to (local hero) Thomas Hardy because Wodehouse writes about real people, "people like us".

The Unrest Cure is marvellously entertaining and is a heartening example of what smaller theatres can do with unfamiliar writers and actors. A joy to watch.

23 November 2011

Exploring the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection describes itself as A Free Destination for the Incurable Curious. And that sounds like me.

I had been there before. I used to work more-or-less across the road from it and did pop-in on a couple of lunchtimes but then the collection had to compete with the need to buy some food and the desire to stretch the legs in pastures new.

So, perversely, my first proper delve in to the collection was on a day's holiday rather than on one of the many days that I worked nearby.

The visit started well. The entrance is open and bright like it really wants you to come in. There's a nice posh cafe at the top of the stairs where I had a reasonable latte and a stunning carrot cake.

From there you get an excellent view of the Antony Gormley stuck to the ceiling above the entrance.

There are two temporary exhibitions on currently. One, Felicity Powell - Charmed Life:

The objects, are, as the name suggests, a collection of medical charms. These are interesting but are hard to photograph because they are small, under glass and the no photography rule is enforced by cctv cameras and strolling staff.

The rule was much easier to forget/avoid in the other exhibition, Infinitas Gracias: Mexican miracle paintings.

I had absolutely no interest in this before I went because of the religious aspect but the incurably curious got the better of me and I found it compelling.

The collection is of painting, and other tributes, posted on churches in Mexico to give thanks to some miracle.

These miracles include getting better in hospital and only being hacked half to death rather than killed.

But if you forget the cynicism over the messages on the pictures and see them just as cultural and artistic objects then there is much to appreciate.

The two things that I found most interesting in the pictures were the range of things that thanks were given for and the artistic merit of the pictures.

At the top-end there were pictures commissioned from professional artists giving thanks for children surviving serious illness and at the other there were stick-men giving thanks for a nice cup of tea. OK, not quite that but you get the point.

Moving upstairs is the Medicine Man exhibition that shows some of the many objects collected by Henry Wellcome.

This is weird.

I quite liked the models that show how the body is constructed but was less impressed by the metal instruments used to cut that body apart.

There are jars, charms, paintings, prosthetics and then it gets stranger with things like very small models of people having sex.

Probably not for the prudish or the squeamish but ideal for the incurably curious.

The Wellcome Collection is unusual, quirky and unpretentious, which makes it my sort of place.

22 November 2011

Art Deco and more at RIBA

RIBA is a place that I go to far too infrequently given that I love architecture and exhibitions about architecture.

I visit the small architecture display at the V&A regularly but I believe that this was only my third visit to RIBA. And one of those was for a Knowledge Management event.

The excuse this time was an exhibition on Art Deco and the enabler was a day off work.

RIBA has a relaxed friendly atmosphere and it feels a little odd to walk in to the building unchallenged by any of the uniformed staff on the front desk.

From there a wide staircases leads you up to the first floor where you'll find the cafe and dining room. The later was reserved for a graduation event which explained the large number of young people in gowns surrounded by their smarty dressed and proud parents.

A narrow elegant staircase takes you up to the second floor where the Art Deco exhibition began.

The gallery is a horse-shoe shape wrapped around the atrium and the outer walls were thick with black and white photographs of gorgeous Art Deco buildings, rooms and features.

Helpful notes explain when and where the photos were taken and often lead to thought along the line of "I must go there one day".

Of course a lot of the nice stuff has gone but the photos are there to remind us of what we've let go and what we have managed to keep.

The exhibition continued in the library on the floor above. The sign outside said that photo-id was required but smiling nicely, and not looking like a thief, vandal or terrorist, I was waived in.

Down the middle of the room old postcards and extracts from old books and magazines were presented under protective glass. That and the stern warnings and the CCTV cameras dissuaded me from taking any photos. You'll just have to trust me that it was worth the climb to see the pictures.

Heading back down and out I paused at Gallery 1 on the first floor.

This is across the front of the building and has large windows on to Regent Street.

There I found a simple exhibition on the RIBA Manser Medal 2011, a competition to find the best new house in the UK.

The large displays gave a great deal of information about the houses, their sites and the ideas behind their construction.

The gallery looks almost empty but there was a surprising among to see and read.

The houses were all very different, due to the uniqueness of each site, yet each had managed to take a sympathetic approach to their surroundings.

There were some models too.

This house is clearly barmy but if you want a floor with a window then this is the sort of thing that you have to go for.

Another house was similarly cantilevered which enabled it to get close to a river.

Normally when I look at pictures of houses there is a price tag on them somewhere and I would have loved to know how much some of these are worth just to see how far out of my price range they are.

RIBA manages to pack a lot of interesting things in to small exhibition spaces and is a wonderful place to wallow for an hour or two.

20 November 2011

V&A: Inspiring, Beautiful, Free

The posters for the V&A that call to you as you jostle with the hordes through the tunnel from South Kensington station proclaim that it is inspiring, beautiful and free. That is so true.

Having finished at the Postmodernism exhibition it was time for a rest and refreshments. Which meant a short stroll past the stained glass to the cafe.

I remember the days, surely not that long ago, when the cafe was confined to two small rooms off a corridor now it has grown in to the corridor and claimed a whole wing of the museum.

And judging by how busy the cafe always is, that was a good decision.

Another good decision is to fight for a table in one of the side rooms rather than one in the corridor as the corridor looks like, well, a corridor and the side rooms look like this.

The coffee and fruit cake were excellent too.

Rested and refreshed I headed up to the top floor, for no particular reason.

There I found the paintings collection. These are squeezed in to one corner of the museum and in one of the rooms the point seems to have been to get as many pictures on to the walls as possible.

This is a small display that gives you a taste of Constable, Turner, Blake, Burne-Jones, etc. all of whom have more space elsewhere in London but the V&A is happy with that as giving small tastes of lots of things is all that it is trying to do.

There are portraits and landscape but, perhaps surprisingly, nothing abstract, strange or starling.

The galleries are presented like the rooms in a grand house, there is even a piano in one (by Burne-Jones), and the choice of pictures goes with this mood.

You can imagine that the portraits are of the family. One set of three young women catches the eye because of their beauty and vitality.

Most of the pictures are neutral or happy but two of my favourites are very dark.

Here a young woman grieves over the end of a relationship and has torn his letters up and thrown them in to the water at her feet.

This is just part of the picture (Disappointed Love by Francis Danby); the rest of it is basically black.

The other dark picture that I loved (The Upas also by Francis Danby) shows a man, a condemned criminal who has been sent to collect poison from a tree. That is very black too.

The corridor leading to the picture gallery houses the silver collection. Here large elaborate old pieces compete for attention with small simple new ones.

The green decorative roof adds to the sense of unreality while the windows contest this and suggest that this might once have been a normal room with a different purpose.

Around the corner there is a surprise and a collection of small boxes that I am sure were not there last time that I walked that way.

They are pretty, delicate and placed behind glass which defeated my camera.

Moving on to a former library (still replete with books and ladders) I discovered the modern English collection which always delights in its normality.

Alongside the old children's toys and an early iMac is a stack of three bog-standard plastic chairs. This makes us look again at the things that surround us and to see the design in them.

Outside the library was a display from the V&A Illustration Awards 2011 where the winning entry, Olivier Kugler's A Tea In Tehran, got added to my Xmas list.

Then it was time to find a staircase and to call it a day. A long and tiring day but very enjoyable, instructive and rewarding. And soon to be repeated.

19 November 2011

Postmodernism at the V&A

It had been far too long since I had been to the V&A so I took a day off work to make amends.

The V&A is a sufficient draw by itself but the temporary exhibitions are always excellent so I went to see the current one on Postmodernism.

My knowledge of the subject was (very) limited to architecture, and that would have done me, but the breadth of material in the exhibition was staggering. Much as it is in the rest of the museum.

Sadly (but understandably) photography is prohibited so I have to rely on my memory. Perhaps I should have taken notes like all the students did.

Going to a V&A exhibition is like shopping in Ikea. You are made to walk the long way round, you have no idea how far you still have to go and there are unexpected things around every corner.

Unlike Ikea those unexpected things are also interesting and you want them madly. Especially the teapots. And there were lots of tea pots along the way.

The highlights were as eclectic as you would hope them to be.

A section on performance had short videos (and costumes) by, amongst others, Devo, Grace Jones, Visage, Klaus Nomi, Kraftwerk and Laurie Anderson.

The later was a loop from O Superman with a large close up of her face and the hypnotic huh huh huh pulling your attention away from the lyrics. I spent several minutes in the small display area for this and could have spent quite a while longer. Simply wonderful.

Blade Runner got several mentions, as did the word "bricolage". I suspect that the curator was playing games with those of us who read most of the notices. I like games.

One of the rooms had a collection of gorgeous album and magazine covers from the late 70's and early 80's.

Elsewhere there was a coffin in the shape of a car, models and photographs of exotic buildings and complexes (the Italian piazza in America was mental), tables and chairs, jewellery, more costumes, etc. etc.

The final visit to dystopic Blade Runner was a clip from the opening section put to the comforting repetitive strains of The Grid by Philip Glass.

The exhibition took me an hour and a half to walk round, and that's probably the best way to show just how enthralling it was. 

18 November 2011

One Man, Two Guvnors at the Adelphi

When I first heard about One Man, Two Guvnors I was rather dismissive seeing it as simply a comedy vehicle for James Corden (who I am not a fan of) and so I refused all the offers thrown my way to see it at the National Theatre.

But the excellent reviews kept pouring in to my Twitter stream and so when the chance for cheap tickets at the Adelphi came through I finally acquiesced.

And everybody was right; it is really very funny.

Missing it at the National was a mistake because that is a much better theatre than the Aledphi where the cheap seats in the Upper Circle have scant room for any superfluous extras, like legs.

Getting everybody in and out of their seats was such a palava that I even missed the usual half-time ice cream to save the bother of getting out of my seat.

The show is a riot because it teases humour out of every facet of the play.

The story is a true farce, one where identities are mistaken, doors are opened and closed regularly and nobody has control of the situation.

The dialogue is excellent. There is a stream of one-liners (e.g. "love goes through marriage like shit through a dog"), several catch-phrases (e.g. "In Parkhurst") and some staged word play that the Two Ronnies would have been proud of (e.g. the alliteration around diagnosed with diarrhoea but died of a damaged diaphragm in Didcot).

There's some slapstick too, such as the accidental waiter who gets repeatedly banged on the head and who also falls down the stairs a lot. And he's 87 years old. The slapstickiest moment comes courtesy of a member of the audience but I won't spoil that one for you.

The large cast of characters each plays their comic part.

To pick just a few of them; there's the young man who wants to be an actor and who hams it up continuously, his dim girlfriend who does not understand anything that is going on, the ex-public school boy who goes beyond any other exaggeration of the stereotype, and there's more ...

It goes without saying that these roles are funny not just because of the characters, all the actors are excellent in their roles.

Amongst the panoply of talent James Corden is still very much the front man. In some ways his is the simplest characters and he is witness to most of the story rather than part of it (his main motive most of the time is simply to get food) but that gives him the freedom to be the comedian and to play with the audience.

James Corden is very good and very funny but the rest of the cast are excellent too and the dialogue is the real star of the show.

17 November 2011

Lysistrata at the Rose

The theatre's blurb for this mentioned "Aristophanes’ no-holds barred comedy" and "absurdist masterpiece" which has got to be good enough for any theatre goer looking for something that is both fun and unusual.

It didn't exactly work out like that.

It is based on the original Lysistrata, where the women of Greece try to stop the war by denying their men sex, but any claims that this is anything substantial, subtle or innovative are unfounded.

A better description would be Carry On Greece with a big dollop of Viz.

The humour, and there is a lot of humour that draws genuine laughter, comes from the many crude references to sex. It's a one trick pony and that pony gets flogged near to death.

If I had gone expecting a romp I probably would have enjoyed it more (or, more probably, not gone) but I was lead by the references to Aristophanes' original to expect more.

To over promise and under deliver always guarantees disappointment.

13 November 2011

Blind Date and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton

Everything that I've seen at The Riverside in Hammersmith has been rewarding and that encouraged me to take bit of a punt and go and see the double-bill of short plays Blind Date and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton.

It also helped that 27 Wagons carried Tennessee Williams' stamp of authority.

Working away during the week meant opting for a weekend performance and so I found myself in the unusual position for going to the theatre at 5pm on a Sunday. The strange timing meant that my pre-theatre drink was a cup of tea.

In Blind Date (Horton Foote 1985) a teenage girl, who is staying with her aunt and uncle, is the subject of her aunt's attempts to find a date for her.

The aunt is not helped by the girl's attitude to boys. She has been rude to previous dates and it is getting harder to find somebody prepared to call.

Enter Felix. Felix is floppy but earnest. Their encounter reaches fever pitch and before long he is reciting all the books of the Bible while Sarah Nancy sneaks away.

We then explore behaviours, manners and that society's expectations as the aunt firmly but kindly rebukes her niece for her behaviour and tries to rescue the situation while Felix's mother also interferes for similar reasons.

The end is indecisive but happy and the play oozes goodness all the way there.

After the break (and a beer) we have a complete contrast with 27 Wagons Full of Cotton.

we are transported to the struggling cotton fields of Mississippi where desperate times call for desperate measures.

To be precise, a farmer burns down the cotton processing plant of his neighbour so that he gets the work of processing his neighbour's cotton.

The farmer's wife gives the scheme away and while the farmer gets the extra work to do his wife has to pay the price.

The end is cruel and nasty as is much of what leads to it. Only the wife is good and she suffers horribly at the hands of both men.

The plays are both set in the time and country of John Steinbeck and their similarities are reinforced by using the same actors to deliver both.

But the point of the plays, and of pitting them against each other, is their contrasts. The first is about love and goodness in the town and the second is hate and cruelty in the country.

Both plays are strong enough to stand up on their own but combined like this produces something that has more of an impact.

11 November 2011

A Walk in the Woods at the Tricycle Theatre

An annoying bought of something flu-like kept me indoors for a few days and in that time I managed to miss two ghostly tours, a play at the National and, most depressingly, a John Watts / Fischer-z concert. My cultural duck was finally broken with A Walk in the Woods.

This was both a first and a second. It was my first time at the Tricycle Theatre in the lesser known Brondesbury (conveniently, for me, located on the North London Line from Richmond)but my second time at this play. I first saw A Walk in the Woods in 1988 in what proved to be Sir Alec Guinness' last part in the West End. Clearly a hard act to follow.

The Tricycle is another neat small theatre that has its idiosyncrasies.

The reception area, shared with a cinema, is excellent. It's lighting, colours, decor, menu and selection of drinks are distinctly modern, comfortable and welcoming. I like that in a theatre as I usually arrive in good time for a drink and so its nice to have something drinkable behind the bar and somewhere to sit and drink it.

The theatre is very different. It looks recently and hastily constructed (much as the Arcloa does) and has a quirky seating arrangement imposed by the narrow space that it has been squeezed in to.

The first few rows are free seating but they are below stage level, then there are a few rows that can be booked and then a few more rows of free seating.

There is one row of seats on the right side and three on the left but these look straight ahead at the stalls, rather than towards the stage, and these filled last. There is an upstairs too but I did not climb up the scaffolding steps to see what this looks like.

The stalls were OK but the pitch is not that great and I was grateful when a small couple sat in front of me.

The play consists entirely of the conversations of two arms reduction negotiators as they take breaks from the formal talks to walk in the woods and sit on a bench.

The set changes little during the play, doing just enough to suggest the passing of seasons. This is good, the play is not about the set and could be delivered without one.

There are only two actors, an older man representing Russia and a younger woman batting for the USA. He wears a thick coat of cynicism gained from years of fruitless negotiation and she is fresh and enthusiastic, new to the role she is keen to be successful.

It's enthralling to watch the debate and relationship between them develop as they try to reconcile their differences in style and position. It's a battle between East and West, young and old, fatalism and hope, familiarity and professionalism, hare and tortoise, and so it goes.

What they share is the unfair spotlight on their performance and the personal consequences for their careers if they fail.

External politics intrude and at times they both have to explain why their governments are taking unreasonable positions in the negotiations.

Neither actor would claim to be Sir Alec Guinness but Myriam Cyr and Steven Crossley are more than competent. They are completely believable and lovable. We come to care as much about their futures as the safety of the world.

As is the modern trend, we watch the story unfold without a break but a good play easily keeps your attention and to stop for an ice cream while a nuclear holocaust is threatened would somehow seem immoral.

A Walk in the Woods attacks a difficult subject with intelligence and charm while managing to entertain as it does so. A real delight.

10 November 2011

A Halloween Banquet at Petersham House

I had several excellent reasons for wanting to go to A Halloween Banquet at Petersham House, it promised seasonal entertainments, I fancied the opportunity to look around one of the grander local mansions (though there are quite a lot of these) and then there was the decadent feast by Petersham Nurseries` Michelin Star Chef Skye Gyngell.

The promotion said little more than that but it was enough to convince me to fork out £80 for a ticket. Ideas started to develop on what the evening might include, almost all of which proved to be completely wrong.

Far more people were there than I expected, something like a hundred (it was rather hard to count in the dark). We entered the garden by a small gate and congregated around a shallow pool with a glass of something bubbly while waiting for the official start.

I've been in the gardens at Petersham House a few times and was not surprised that we approached it from the long border and large iron gate than once released riders and horses on there way to the hunt.

The house itself was ready for us too with coloured lights and strange balconies on the balcony. More lights and roaring braziers guided us around the garden and kept us warm too.

Strange things were stirring inside the house.

Peering through the main door to the garden revealed a woman in white gently rocking in her chair all alone in the near dark.

Entering the house through one of the large conservatories that flank it started a trail of horror and shock.

Some of this was a simple as a man dressed in black suddenly jumping up and saying "Boo".

This worked remarkably well as the frequent screams confirmed.

Winding through the house we found several strange and disturbed people. And a lot of blood.

The bloody trail led to a bedroom in  a side-house where the white bed was empty and the room strewn with decorative and childish objects.

The effect reminded me immediately of the set of the Dolls House at the Arcola Theatre but I am sure that was co-incidental.

The memories of terror from the play only helped to heap on the tension of the night.

Just off the bedroom was a small bathroom where, it is safe to assume, the foul deed took place.

Just to confirm this, the duck in the bath looked rather distressed.

The trail continued outside where there were strange men doing strange things and graves being dug in the garden.

Elsewhere a bride was hanging over the bridal feast.

The strangeness continued for while, eased by more drinks, and then culminated with some form of exorcism.

And then the band began to play.

We were treated to half an hour or so of passable easy rock but I would have liked Monster Mash. The wind decided to become annoyingly brisk and cold at that time but the braziers were up to the task and were kept well fuelled with chopped wood.

The last act was the banquet and for that we moved on to the restaurant in the Nurseries.

It was clearly not geared up for such numbers and ten of us were squeezed on to a table that I suspect is normally asked to cater for no more than six.

The food was different from what I am used to in that there were unusual vegetables, unusual flavours and even more unusual combinations of the two.

However the unusualness had to battle against the cold and the crowding and lost. Not that there was anything at all wrong with the food but it was not up to my expectation of a £80 banquet.

The evening ended weakly with people drifting away once they had finished their meal, a coffee would have been nice, and we made our way the long way round back through the garden and along the torch-lit lane to the bus stop.

It was definitely a mixed evening overall and I'm generous enough to appreciate the best bit and to allow these to offset some of the disappointment. In the end, the uniqueness of evening won through and just about lived up to its promise.

5 November 2011

How to be Happy at the Orange Tree

The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond has its ups and downs but there are far more ups than downs, and the few downs are not that severe anyway, so I continue to go to every play that they put on. This remains a good plan.

The latest show, How to be Happy, was a real gem and a great advertisement for what the Orange Tree can do.

Encouragingly this seemed to be recognised by the punters at large as the night that I went was very busy and there was a good mix of people in. It does worry me when I go to the theatre and I'm about the youngest person there, which can happen at the Orange Tree.

How to be Happy is about Paul who wrote the successful book of the same name but who has left fame, fortune and happiness behind him.

He is split from his former wife and both have remarried, her to a successful marketing executive and him to a (unusually sexy) nursery teacher. His first wife has a new baby which we do not see but we do hear quite a lot of via the baby alarm.

They have a teenage daughter who lives with Mum but visits Dad frequent, often playing one off against the other as teenagers are meant to do.

He has also been diagnosed with lung cancer which is one reason why he watches late-night TV while drinking neat whiskey.

The first wife's second husband's latest idea is to use brain imaging to discover what is really going on when people, say, eat chocolate or have sex. The later example is one that his wife refuses to participate in.

We follow the two linked families from the vantage point of their front rooms which, conveniently, have the same suite of furniture.

To keep the pace of the play going we sometimes see both rooms at the same time and have to follow two parallel but related conversations.

It's a fairly simple trick, and one used at the Orange Tree before, but it works very well.

Once the domestic scene is set (to the confusion of the people behind me) the action unfolds in a myriad of directions none of which Paul is able to actively engage in, to his growing frustration. He is not happy, does not know how to become happy but can see that everybody else is (more or less, there is some teenage angst and matrimonial wobbling but no real unhappiness).

While Paul is the centre of the story all that goes on around him is important and these are five strong roles all played very well and very differently. Paul bumbles along lost, his daughter struts and storms, his first wife plays the good wife and mother, his second wife oozes sex appeal, and his first wife's new husband is like a child with a new toy.

The five characters fizz and sparkle off each other through perky dialogue and deft plotting. The end result is swell and I'd recommend it to anybody.

And to make the evening even better, Paul Kemp (who confusingly plays Paul) is married to Natalie Casey, who was Donna Henshaw in the much watched Two Pints ..., and she was there to see him. I managed to grab a few words with her during the break and then she came across to say goodbye at the end. I was very chuffed.

3 November 2011

Why I don't believe in capitalism

Politics has been a great interest of mine for as long as I can remember and so it is no surprise that I tweet about it regularly. Which makes it even more of a surprise that I do not blog about it that often. That's about to change.

There are a few themes that I have evolved positions on over the years that tweets can only expose part of but a longer blog can give them the space to grow to their full size. I'll start with economics.

We've been in an economic mess for several years, at least from 2008, and every day since then we have been bamboozled by armies of economists with their suggestions for what we need to do to get out of this mess. Broadly speaking, the right wants to cut taxes and spending to encourage supply while the left wants governments to inject cash in to the system to promote demand. There are as many different point of view between these two extremes as there are economists.

And that's the point. We simply do not know how to make capitalism work. We have invented a monster that we do not understand and cannot control.

There are things like the weather and earthquakes that we cannot understand either but they are natural systems and so have an good excuse for being chaotic but capitalism is a man-made phenomenon and so its chaos is of our making.

That chaos leaves government with just a few weak economic levers that they can pull, e.g. tax rates, and they pull them with little certainty of whether they will work or not and even less certainty of any other impacts they may have, the problematic law of unintended consequences.

Even the impact of a simple measure like the 50% tax rate on those earning above £150,000 in the UK is disputed with some claiming that it brings in more taxation because the rate is higher and others claiming that it brings in less taxation because it has scared top-rate tax payers oversees.

I have my view on which argument is right but that does not matter, what matters is that even on a very simple measure like that we simply do not know what the effect will be. Nor is there any way that we can run a test to see.

I don't think it makes any sense for us to live in a system that we cannot control. Seriously, why would we do that?

Capitalism controls everything that happens to money and that has a major impact on everybody's lives. So we need to rein it in. I don't mean rein in the fat-cats etc. but rein in the system that allowed them to be created in the first place.

I'm not sure how to do that but we have to do it and I'm sure that we will one day. Places we could start, and that would only be a start, include banning all automated trading, setting maximum wages, abolishing tax havens, abolishing casino banking, mandatory transparent cost-plus pricing, etc. etc.

The only purpose of these changes would be to introduce more levers in to the system so that it can then be controlled to a greater extent, though those unintended consequences would still be there. Who then controls these levers and to what end is a separate conversation in the world of real politics.

Until we have these controls then any debate on the economy is false as we really do not know what we are talking about.