28 December 2011

A quick trip to the London Wetland Centre

It is a fair point to argue that not visiting the London Wetland Centre in Barnes for almost two years is making poor use of my membership but at least my recent quick trip there helped to reduce the cost per visit ratio.

The main purpose of this visit was to try out some binoculars, they have an excellent shop in the upper level of the shop, but I was not going to miss the opportunity to stretch my legs in the wild.

The Wetlands are, broadly, laid out in a U shop with the entrance, shops and cafe at the base of the U.

Heading up the left side first took me along a series of curved paths through tall reeds and past ponds and canals.

Here you can get quite close to ducks, geese and swans, though there are not that many still around in December.

This area is zoned with large gates to keep the birds in their proper places.

For some reason flying over the fence does not occur to them.

The paths divide and reconvene at intervals extending a short walk in to a reasonable one. The end is marked with a hide that peers over the still water and on to Barnes.

The other side of the U has a different character with straighter paths and no fences. The end is the same though except that the hide at the end, the impressive Peacock Tower, is three stories high to provide more commanding views of the area.

All of the hides are more-or-less the same, and there are several across the centre. They are basic sheds with little attention to the comfort of the human inhabitants who probably would not notice them if they were there anyway as they are all well prepared with all you need to survive a day in a shed looking at birds.

At least the hides are well-equipped for bird watching with an abundance of shallow windows that can be opened in sections to remove the unwanted obscurity of the glass.

This is the view from the Peacock Tower across the grazing marshes and with the incongruous Barnes behind.

The restrained animation from the hide's inhabitants indicated that there were several birds worth looking at from here but you needed rather moor zoom than I was carrying at the time to see them.

Not that the birds particularly interested me, I was happy enough with the marshes and the walk required to get there.

The London Wetland Centre is a unique and valuable habitat that successfully holds at bay the city that surrounds it. I am lucky to have it on my doorstep and a bus to take me there. Must do that more often, perhaps in Spring when there are more birds around.

27 December 2011

La Traviata at the Royal Opera House

Once upon a time I had season tickets for the ballet at the Royal Opera House but that was about twenty five years ago and the Royal Opera House has rarely featured in my plans since then.

The last time I was tempted out to Covent Garden was to see The Bartered Bride (because of it's Czech/Slovak origins) and that was before this blog started, which makes it more than six years ago.

It is not that I have been especially avoiding the place, more that it has not done quite enough to attract me, whereas the likes of Glyndebourne and the English National Opera have.

What finally overcame my reluctance was an offer, through work, to see that most quintessential of operas, La Traviata.

As with other work offers, the tickets were on the cheap side, a mere £32, and that meant being several levels up and back in row K.

The seat was in the central section so the height was not much of an issue, like it's not at Glyndebourne either, and I could see the whole stage.

That said, row K is probably about as far as I would want to push my luck and those further back in the even cheaper seats, it climbs up as far as row W somehow, must have struggled to see parts of the stage even if they had the excellent eyesight required to cope with the extra distance.

La Traviata has a simple poignant story and who would not be swayed by the tale of boy meets girl, they live happily together, they split up for noble reasons, they are eventually reconciled and confirm their undying love for each other. Then she dies.

The split is manufactured by the boy's father, a mistake that he too regrets at the end.

The opera rotates around the three lead roles of the girl (La Traviata), boy's father and boy, in that order, with at least one of them on stage at all times and usually carrying the main singing duties.

There are some other notable roles, such as the boy's rival for the girl's attention, but these are much lesser parts and were delivered with less bravado. To be honest, the story and the opera would have worked without them.

The chorus too played its part in the two party scenes but it seemed a little timid at the first time of asking and only rose to the occasion at the second. Indeed the support singing was so weak at the start that I had to strain to hear it, something that I have never had to do at Glydebourne.

The opera improved quickly when the main soloists were given a chance to show off and either the support got better or I got more forgiving of it.

Hell is other people, as they say, and the other people in the cheap seats tried to live up to this with their whispering, drinking, rustling, unrestrained coughing and incessant clapping whenever the music paused for breath.

At times it felt more like being at a musical, or even a circus, than at a major opera in what would like to think of itself as the country's premier opera house.

But the best efforts of the inexperienced audience did little to diminish the beautiful music radiating from the orchestra pit and stage and their distractions were easily ignored.

La Traviata was delivered considerately and professionally leaving the music to tell the story and to convey the considerable emotion that defines the opera. There may have been nothing specific to mark the performance out as exceptional but neither was there anything specifically wrong with it and that left us with a good opera well presented.

24 December 2011

Willoughby Pub Quiz (December 2011)

I had been avoiding the Willoughby Pub Quiz because they finish late on Sunday night and I'm often up at 6am the next day to catch a train to Cardiff, but a Monday working at home meant that I could afford to be a little late for once.

Even so I was not that keen on the quiz and decided not to go out until after ten in the hope that it would be well under-way by the time that I got there. It wasn't.

I got roped in to play with Rick, the landlord. The questions were kind to us and we won quite comfortably, despite getting 2/10 in the last round and 4/10 in another one.

It is always nice to win something, even if the prize is some freebie from a brewery (which is much better than the usual something-from-the-pound-shop), but after the win comes the pressure to run a quiz yourself. I weakened and agreed to do one the following week.

The proposed round on opera failed to work but eventually I managed to craft something challenging from cities relative position north and south of London, shipwrecks, museums and galleries in London, film sequels, elections in 2011 and sitcom couples.

I even did two picture rounds instead of the customary one. The first was on recent UK stamps (very easy) and then this one on cats in cartoons and comics.

This proved to be a fairly high-scoring round, as expected, but there are a few hard ones in there and none of the teams got full marks.

I had a lot of fun compiling and running the quiz and may be tempted to do another one. If asked.

22 December 2011

Big Ideas for a Christmas Social 2012

The Big Ideas Christmas social was a blast despite, or because of, its simplicity.

The venue was the same as for the monthly meetings, the upstairs function room at The Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia with its fake but cute Tudor windows, the people were the same and the eagerness to talk was the same.

The only difference was that we did not have a theme for the evening or somebody to guide us but we did have a good finger buffet that I visited more often than I probably should have.

Seasoned conversationalists need no encouragement to mix and that's what we did but this time I did not take any notes.

Without a set theme the talk veered in several disparate directions, most of which I've forgotten.

The ones that I do recall were the crisis of capitalism (always a good choice at Big Ideas), our relentless animalistic pursuit for sex (always difficult discussing that one with women) and the architecture in Minsk.

In the middle of all this we had time for a quiz on philosophy and mathematics. We formed ourselves in to small teams and attacked the questions with vigour.

Round One was on logic and that meant using lots of algebra to work out the agree of five brothers and their cats. This should have been my strong point but the forceful Alicia insisted in taking control. Luckily she is good at this stuff.

Round Two was anagrams of philosophers names with helpful pictures of them all as clues, if you had any idea of what they looked like. Somebody on our table, Sam maybe, did and we got most of them. Examples included bent gift idolizer, exam brew, impale glacial, magicians or not, much facile lout, and, sweet indulging twit.

Round Three was DitLoIDs, a combination of letters and symbols that represented a philosophical saying. For example, G = D meant God is dead. Simples. Other clues included H = OP, M = by N a PA, M = the M of all T, and, B that S which 1Tl. I was pretty useless on these due to a weakness in all areas philosophical but as a team we were OK.

Round Four required us to draw lies that did not cross on a torus (ring-doughnut). This should have been a cinch for somebody who studied Topology at university, like I did, but I failed miserably. Luckily none of the other teams could do it either.

And so we won. The prize was a large tin of Celebrations chocolates which we promptly shared with everybody. It seemed appropriate.

The quiz over we returned to our conversations and drinks until the pub quietly told us that we had to go home as they were closing.

I love Big Ideas for its thought-provoking discussions and the Christmas social was just a bolder brasher and slightly less structured evening of what they do well. A great event.

21 December 2011

Hoaxwind, Hawkwind and Hoaxwind

One set of songs, two bands and three concerts proved to be the recipe for a great evening. As expected.

The catalyst was the annual Hawkwind Christmas Concert which still feels a little homeless after the untimely demise of the Astoria.

Having tried the Shepherd's Bush Empire two years ago and then the HMV Forum last year it was back to the sprawling mess of West London.

At least it is easier to get back from there late at night.

Hoaxwind took advantage of the date and the location to play in O'Neill's next door.

This is the nearest pub to the Empire and so was full of receptive Hawkwind fans when the fun kicked off around 7:15.

I had not long arrived by then but the quick service had already provided the first Guinness of the evening.

The pub is laid out for food and drink but there is a raised area that makes a reasonable stage and it's wide enough to accommodate the many members of Hoaxwind with some comfort.

Hoaxwind did what Hoaxwind do and that's a brisk Calvert-era Hawkwind songs like Kerb Crawler and Ejection. There is slightly more emphasis on the "rock" rather than the "space" but the air is still thick with weird electronics to show that they've not strayed too far from the Mother Ship.

They kept us well entertained until 8:30 and then it was time to head next door.

Hawkwind fans obviously do not like walking very far and the area just inside the entrance of the Empire was packed but after some forceful squeezing spaces appeared and it was possible to get pretty close to the front on the left.

Judging by the photos, I was in almost exactly the same spot two years ago.

And Hawkwind did what Hawkwind do too.

They've mellowed with age and in a nice way. The song selection favours the long ballad over the quick thrash and these are extended with riffs, warbles and subtle references to other songs.

That's not to say that they do not rock, because they do, and loudly, as you would expect with a band featuring three guitarists.

It's just that their sound changes as the band changes and the current line-up makes a lot of Tim Blake's keyboards with the guitars playing complementary roles rather than all pounding out the same beat at the same time.

A slight change this year is that Mr Dibs has assumed the mantle of lead vocalist for most songs rather than just those that he wrote.

The ability of Team Hawkwind and their confidence in it means that they can throw in new songs and leave out established crowd favourites and still make it an excellent concert.

New this time was Seasons and notably absentees included Master of the Universe and Brainstorm. Yes, we really had a Hawkwind concert without Brainstorm.

What we did get was around fifteen songs smoothly stretched over two hours.

It was all good but the ending was magic. Closing the main set was Silver Machine, complete with heavy audience participation (even from me) and then came the encore of The Psychedelic Warlords and Spirit of the Age. Two of my favours songs from one of my favourite bands. Nice!

That would have been a great end to a great night but the pub next door was still open and Hoaxwind were playing again.

This time the lights were low and the audience warmed up, musically and drinkingly, and ready for more of both.

Hoaxwind delivered more Hawkwind songs in their own manner that differed from both their original incarnations and the way that Hawkwind play them now.

And that's how it should be. There has to be more to a tribute band than straight copies otherwise you might as well stay at home and play the originals.

The fun went on to Midnight when the curfew came in to play and it was time to catch a tube or two back to Richmond.

Hawkwind were polished, professional and pulsating but Hoaxwind held their own in comparison and helped to make a great evening even better.

18 December 2011

Christmas with LIKE

For various reasons, I do not have a works Christmas Do this year but that is OK as the people I work with are (mostly) just people that I work with and there are other Christmas Dos to go to. Such as the one with LIKE.

The LIKE Christmas Party shows just what can be achieved if you get a few well-motivated and well-organised people together to do the planning and the on-the-day running around. It was a team effort but Nova Dobb led the way.

Much of the event was fairly standard, but still needed to be sorted. We held the party in the function room of the Rugby Tavern who did an excellent job in preparing the room and providing the food and drink.

A couple of little things made it a LIKE party.

Once we had all arrived and settled in with our glasses of bubbly we had a networking game to play.

Each person going had revealed something unusual about themselves, such as having a GCSE in Welsh, and everybody had a card with nine of these on and the aim was to mix and find the nine people on your card.

To add a little twist, I was given the scoring to do and was told I could award prizes on any basis that I liked; there was one main and five lesser prizes to distribute.

I was fair and reasonable  in my approach and awarded the main prize to the first completed card that I received that did not have as one of the answers the person with the card. Other prizes went to people who found more than one correct answer to some of the questions, getting them all right despite one of the answers not being in the room and for taking the networking more seriously than the game and so getting the lowest score.

We also had a Secret Santa with a difference - it had to cost no more that £1. That took several of us into pound shops for the first time. I went to Poundland in Cardiff and felt horribly out of place in a suit.

The presents were distributed simply by putting your present at a place setting on any table other than your own.

There were other traditional trappings of Christmas parties, such as hot mince pies and short speeches, that made it Christmassy but this was a LIKE Christmas and was all the more fun because of that.

17 December 2011

Kew Gardens (December 2011)

After a spell of disappointing weekends the sun finally came out and dragged me back to Kew Gardens.

It was cold too, which is good for me too as it kept the less hardy away and made it easier to get around and to take photographs without bright red or yellow coats in them.

Sitting on the top deck of the 65 I decided to go in via Victoria Gate prompted by the desire to keep away from the woodland areas that were keeping the sunlight and sunwarmth at bay.

Heading east (away from the trees) took me past the large (and strangely unnamed) water that separates the Palm House from the exhibition centre. Here the people are very obvious by their absence as it is normally impossible to take a picture here without inappropriate clothing featuring in it somewhere.

I may have been braver than some in facing the cold but the thought of being indoors was still tempting so I made the short walk to the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

It is my least favourite of the Kew greenhouses because it is not Victorian and does not have an upper walkway but it does have an elegant geometric roof that hints at the different areas and levels underneath it.

I still find it confusing inside which is how I found myself next to some small water features in a corner on a lower level that I am certain that I had not see before.

The large water feature I see every time, though this is a place where it is especially hard to avoid people. And children. The water can be appreciate from several angles and I took this picture from the ramp that bisects the water as it takes you between the two levels.

The waterlillies are always impressive in their roundness and I like the way that the straight lines from the reflections of the roof challenge that orthodoxy.

A similar contrast can be found in one of the small rooms that cluster in the north-east corner.

There is no roundness here but the bold straight lines of these plants burst from points whereas the construction has parallel lines and squares.

I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the orchids in the greenhouse were in flower providing unusual colours for the season.

A reminder that this greenhouse comes into its own early in the year when the orchids are in full strength.

Elsewhere bananas were thriving and other large leafed plants had take advantage of the reduced number of visitors to try and reclaim some of the walkways by shooting across them.

Venturing outside again via the east exit I headed to the grass garden nearby and I hope that this picture shows why.

The variety and profusion of grasses here is a joy. They look like a crowd at a concert or in a night club having a marvellous time swinging to the music borne by the wind.

13 December 2011

Dark London

Night crawls in to London.

The black seeps relentlessly along the streets, through the towns and across the Boroughs uniting them in their gloom.

But London is the city that never sleeps and it shrugs nightfall off as it would a breeze, a frisky shower or the unexpected arrival of a confused whale.

The sole concession made is to switch a few lights on and even this casual act goes beyond the mere functional provision of illumination and London grabs the opportunity to show another side of its character, to change it shape and to slow things down just a little.

Taking the familiar walk along the South Bank reveals the truth of this. Even with the assistance of turbulent clouds and a tar-black river it is the lights of London that win the futile contest.

The lights on the far bank bounce across the water from grand buildings while on the south side the lights are more frivolous playing among the trees and resting on the footpath as they guide you safely towards Waterloo and home.

11 December 2011

The Thin White Duke in Petersham (Dec 2011)

After a heavy run of theatres and exhibitions it was good to go to a concert again with The Thin White Duke returning to the Fox and Duck. This was the fourth time that I had seen them there and, as always, it was a total blast.

The Fox and Duck likes The Thin White Duke as much as I do and turns out in force to sing and dance to the music of David Bowie.

I'll admit to joining in on the singing bit, how can you not shout out "Hot Tramp, I love you so" during Rebel Rebel, but I draw the line at dancing, to the relief of those having a good time.

The Thin White Duke have a wide repertoire of Bowie songs to call upon and they like to mix the selection and the order a bit.

This time the first half was a bit ChangesOneBowie featuring some of the older classics like John, I'm Only Dancing, Oh You Pretty Things, Life on Mars and Space Oddity. All classics, all delivered superbly and all enthusiastically received.

After a short break to allow band and audience to refresh we moved forward a few years with songs like Fashion, Fame, China Girl and Boys Keep Swinging. If anything these were even better received which is probably more a reflection on the relative youth of the audience than anything else.

The thing that I like most about The Thin White Duke is that they are happy to stray boldly away from the hit singles on to territory like Moonage Daydream (the opener), Diamond Dogs, Breaking Glass and Hang on to Yourself. A little something for the purists there to enjoy.

The two hours or so that The Thin White Duke played just whizzed past in a whirl of good tunes, good humour and good times.

Afterwards I managed to collect a set list (which they more or less followed) and snatch a few words with some of the band. The best news there is that they are looking to improve their technology so that they can extend their repertoire to include songs like Station to Station. I hope to witness this soon, even if I have to trek to Berrylands to do so.

10 December 2011

William Morris at Two Temple Place

The temptation to go to the William Morris Gallery has been there for some years but it is in a part of London, Walthamstow, which my version of the A-Z leaves blank apart from the warning "here be dragons".

Actually, if I believed the dragons story I would have gone but I take it as a metaphorical warning rather than a literal one and that is still good enough to keep me away.

Deprived of the primary source of matters William Morris I have had to settle for the Arts and Crafts section at the V&A and the fabrics department at Liberty.

Then a stroke of luck.

The William Morris Gallery is closed for a while for refurbishment and some of the exhibits have been moved to Two Temple Place. As the name suggests, this is next to Temple station (District Line) in central London on the north bank of the Thames and so is easy to get to. And so I got to it.

Two Temple Place is a late Victorian mansion built by William Waldorf Astor and while its ownership and role has changed a few times over the years the original grand designs are still very apparent.

The Gothic revival is clearly at play on the outside. Inside the theme continues with lashings of wood lining the walls and decorating the rooms.

This is also redolent of Liberty which has its own beautiful staircases.

The house has two large rooms along the riverside of the house and these make ideal galleries. Also helpful is the way that the other rooms link so that you can walk from one to the other without having to repeatedly return to the hall or landing.

The inaugural exhibition at the recently revived building is William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth and is on until 29 January 2012.

This showed several sides of William Morris' work that were completely unknown to me having previously associated him almost exclusively with fabrics and wallpapers.

What we see spread through the house are tapestries, ceramics and books as well as the expected designs for furnishings.

The other surprise for me was that a lot of this work was done in collaboration with Edward Burne-Jones who I also love and who also has a notable presence at the V&A.

The title of the exhibition, Story, Memory, Myth, gives a good clue of what is on display. All the images presented to us are from stories and these are usually based on myths.

A stunning example hit you in the first room with the depiction of Love Leading the Pilgrim through the Briars which is taken from the Morris/Burne-Jones tale The Romance of the Rose. Like many of the exhibits, this is large and rich in detail and so a photograph does it little justice. You need to be in the room with it, stand back to comprehend the full scope of the picture (there are more figures in the scene) and stand close to appreciate the detail of the craftsmanship.

The smaller rooms shows us some ceramics and the familiar floral designs. What is nice that many of these are shown as work in progress with, for example, only some of the patterns coloured.

The Great Hall upstairs has some more large tapestries including my absolute favourite, Pomona, the goddess of fruits and harvests.

A google search reveals that this is a figure that Morris/Burne-Jones interpreted more than once. The figure (Burne-Jones) is the same but the background (Morris) varies significantly.

Also in the Great Hall were some illistrated books. Not only was Morris responsible for the typography and illustrations but he did the words too.

One of the books of poetry was in its fifth edition so they must have been popular at the time.

Another, The Volsunga Saga, a translation by Morris of a 13th century Icelandic epic poem could yet find its way on to my Christmas list (I'd like the copy on display but an ebook is more practicable).

William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth is a sumptuous exhibition that surprises and delights in equal measure.

9 December 2011

Next Time I'll Sing To You at the Orange Tree

After a run of fairly safe plays the Orange Tree did the decent thing and offered us something more challenging with Next Time Ill Sing To You by James Saunders (1963).

Sadly Richmond does not react well to challenging and the Friday evening performance that I went to was poorly attended. That may have been the competing attraction of the Victorian Evening but, as a rule, the Orange Tree audience is on the old side balanced (I'm in my mid-fifties and I usually feel young there) and like safe.

I always feel more comfortable when a theatre audience has a healthy mix of ages, nationalities and genders. The central London theatres generally do well in this respect being able to call upon large numbers of residents, visitors and students and Richmond is a lot more provincial in comparison.

Even more reason to be grateful to the Orange Tree for trying to push the conservative people of Richmond beyond their comfort zones.

Next Time I'll Sing To You makes it's intentions clear from the start when the first two actors on stage make it clear that they know that they are actors in a play following a script.

So we get lines like, "You said that last night" followed by "And you said that."

Lizzie is the exception claiming that she was not there the previous night, that was her twin sister.

This is a humorist view rather than an existentialist one so while themes of existence are explored it is done so with a big smile on its face.

As the play develops so the cast grows and we end up with five characters trying to make sense of the situation they find themselves in.

Or rather most do, one, Meff, treats the whole thing as a joke refusing to participate in the main theme (if there is one). For example, at one point he sits in the corner of the stage and swats pretend flies making exaggerated fly noises as he does so.

Gradually a main theme does emerge and we join one actor's quest to learn more about the character he is playing, the hermit of Great Canfield.

He is helped in this by Rudge, the director, who may not be what he seems. There are suspicions that he may have written the play but he denies this when asked.

Spoiling the party is Dust (a great Gormenghastian name), the cynic, who is, well, very cynical about the quest and the play itself. It may be because I liked his disinterested dead-pan demeanour that I found Brendan Patricks to be the stand-out actor but that is a little unfair as the five roles were very different and all five played their part very well.

Richmond may not have delivered the crowds for this performance but those of thus who chose drama over late night shopping and mulled wine were warmly appreciative of the treat we were served.

Next Time I'll Sing To You is very good theatre aimed at people who love theatre. People like me.

7 December 2011

Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre

The long list of 5-star reviews made seeing Jerusalem an obvious choice. Having done so I am not sure what the other reviewers saw.

Yes it is good but I am not convinced that it is that good but let's start by saying what it is.

Jerusalem is Shameless set in Dale Farm.

Johnny Byron is lives in a caravan where he holds wild parties, sells drugs and holds court over a mixed group of other people living on the edge of society. "No hopers" may be a cruel but accurate description.

 All the action, such as it is, takes place in and around the caravan in the woods. Having just one scene to play with means that the set designers can go to town, and they did. The caravan is surrounded by thick trees, the yard is appropriately cluttered, a large water tank keeps the beers cool and chickens scratch around under the caravan.

The large cast of secondary characters (they are all secondary to Johnny Byron, despite being strong characters in their own right and are all portrayed by good actors) comes and goes and through their banter we learn more about them and a lot more about Johnny's past, present and possible future.

There are some plot lines but these hardly matter, what engages us is the dialogue. And a word of warning here, the language is very strong throughout.

The mood changes as we discover more about the situation. At first the impression is of a lovable Gypsy living the hippie dream (free love and drugs) who draws kindred spirits to him but there are some dark moments too with, just to name a few, a missing child, a broken marriage and a few acts of cruelty. We also have a heady mix of humour and hope to add to the concoction.

The mood-swings keep us guessing whether we are heading towards a happy or a sad ending until we realise that does not matter either, just as we do not need Godot to arrive to make that play work.

The ending that we are led to reminded me of The Lady or The Tiger except here the choice is between bulldozers and giants. My money is on the bulldozers, but that's just a guess.

The play is all about Johnny Byron and its abiding strength is Mark Rylance's magnificent performance in that role. We care for him, are jealous of him and are shocked by him.

Jerusalem grips and enthrals you and showers you with a mix of strong emotions. It's both a draining and a rewarding experience, which is entirely appropriate.

6 December 2011

The Lady Killers at the Gielgud

If you know Father Ted, The IT Crowd and the film of The Lady Killers (and most people do) then you will have some idea of what to expect from the stage play. And you'll not be disappointed.

The play is well crafted in every respect and knows how to draw the comedy out of every situation, character, plot twist, object, scene and speech.

I'll try to explain some of that, starting with the easy ones.

The story is not quite the film but it's close enough for you to know what is going to happen. Sort of. It's the familiar story of an old woman up against a group of hardened criminals with only one possible outcome.

There are some nice scenes along the way, starting with the very opening with the old lady in conversation with her local Police Constable regarding her suspicions about her newsagent.

The set is bit of a star. For most of the time it is like looking in to a damaged doll's house with the rooms leaning at odd angles. Of course the main reason for this is to make the main parts of the house visible to us the audience and if the result is quirky and distinctive then that's a nice bonus.

The set twists and rotates occasionally to reveal the outside and the roof when the action moves that way. The depiction of the robbery is pure genius and was one of the very many points that compelled us to laugh out loud.

The heart of the play is the characterisation and the way that this is portrayed in the dialogue and acting.

Peter Capaldi leads the way as the maniacal Professor Marcus, the gang leader. He stalks the stage like a discordant stork with a touch of Dr Who (it's the scarf). He has to think on his feet to keep the truth from the old lady and you can see his brain whirl as he does so. It's all his fault basically.

Ben Miller is fantastic as the Eastern European tough guy who likes to talk with his knife that he brandishes frequently. A favourite moment of mine was his dead-pan delivery when trying to explain what he wants his share of the money for - no spoilers though, you'll have to see it yourself.

We also have James Fleet as the Major with an unnatural interest in dresses, Clive Rowe who has little clue as to what is going on and Stephen Wight as the young career criminal who has more enthusiasm than ability, he's also the butt of a stream of slapstick jokes (like the old waiter in One Man Two Guvnors).

The dialogue is crisp and purposeful delivering its humour with subtlety rather than taking the easy route with obvious punchlines or swearing (other plays take note).

The story and players change pace cutely building tension and humour and then gently releasing them, like in a good song. This is class writing.

The sum of all this craft and cleverness is a play that is seriously funny and with plenty of depth to warrant repeat visits.

BCSA Annual Dinner 2011

The British Czech and Slovak Association's Annual Dinner is one of the two social highlights in its calendar. The other is the Summer Garden Party.

Bad planning on my part has meant that I have missed two out of the last three but this year I was organised enough to get the date in my diary early and to keep it free from encroaching concerts, theatre trips and other nefarious nights out.

The format of the Annual Dinner is simple and effective.

Around 150 people with an interest in things Czech/Slovak (not all of whom are BCSA members) meet at the Radisson Edwardian Bloomsbury Street Hotel at 7pm for a drinks reception.

We are then ushered in to the dining room where around twenty tables are laid out formally.

Seating is prearranged so it helps to know the organiser. There we have a set three-course meal with wine.

There is an after dinner speaker, as you would expect.

Usually it is one of the four ambassadors but this year, for reasons that I do not quite understand, we had Greg Hands MP for Hammersmith and Fulham who did something Czechoslovakish when at university but who has had no significant contact in the region since then.

It was a functional rather than a stirring speech but it was generally well-received. Not by me obviously as he is a Tory MP. And unbelievably smug too.

The one thing I will say in Greg's favour (just to show how fair, balanced and reasonable I am at all times) is that when I tweeted that I was on the table next to the "ultra-obnoxious Greg Hands" he retweeted the comment to his followers. Perhaps he thought it was a joke.

We also had the annual award for the BCSA's writing competition, a raffle and some time to mingle. And suddenly it was well past 11pm and time to head home happy.

The Annual Dinner is very much a British part of the BCSA and the traditional format is appreciated by everybody, including me.

5 December 2011

TFPL Connect: Achieving Prosperity

The last TFPL Connect event of the year was a little different from the usual and was the better for it.

It was billed as "Achieving Prosperity, how to grow with what you have" and promised an entertaining but insightful look at best practice for making a difference through utilising the soft skills of negotiation, and that is a pretty fair description of what we got.

We got it in the Crowne Plaza City hotel, a familiar haunt for TFPL events as it is close to their former offices in Blackfriars (TFPL are on their third office since I came across them).

The familiar venue was balanced by the unfamiliar format. Gone was the usual panel of speakers and instead we had just one.

Nick Davies of The Really Great Training Company was our guide for the evening and he delivered a lucid, flowing, insightful and entertaining talk on the 4 - 6 - 2 of persuasion.

And as you can see from the photo, he did this without the overused crutch of a PowerPoint presentation.

First we had the 4 mistakes that people make: being too tough, being too logical, treating it as a once-off (rather than part of a relationship) and trying to satisfy (stated) wants rather than (unspoken) needs.

These fail because buying is an emotional decision made by people. The success of the John Lewis Christmas ad is a case in point and an example that most of us are familiar with are making a major purchase like a house or car on emotion (it has character) and then trying to justify it on logic afterwards (it's close to a good school).

The 6 things you can do to influence the decision are to provide social proof (other people are doing it), show authority, sell scarcity (this offer is only available to you, exploit their consistency (once they have bought a little of something it is easier to sell them some more, e.g. increasing a standing order to a charity), be likeable (a hard one to fake but people only but from people they like) and offer them something first so that they offer something back in reciprocity.

And finally, the 2 things you need to build above all else are creditability and trust.

We had a short Q&A session at the end and I asked one about the Dark Side of faking interest in the buyer's interests and the steps some companies go to to find out what those interests are.

Then it was an extended session of wine, nibbles and networking. I managed to spend some time talking to various people I know from these and similar events and had some really good conversations. KM people know the value of conversations and allow plenty of time and space for them.

This was an excellent evening and I am now eagerly awaiting details of the TFPL Connect programme for 2012.

4 December 2011

Edits by The Featherstonehaughs

An opportune visit to the South Bank Centre around eight years ago introduced me to the dancing delights of The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs and left a lasting impression of what modern dance can do.

And I do not mean the sort of dancing that you see on Strictly or X-Factor. I mean dance that stretches the mind in unusual directions.

Sadly Featherstonehaughs have called it a day and I was there for their very last performance at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, a venue I find myself returning to with some regularity.

The show they presented was Edits, based on the drawings of Egon Schiele.

Though, to be honest, I know little about how dance is constructed and I am sure that much of the meaning and intention passes me by. I have to content myself with the movement and the music. That's usually enough, and so it proved here.

The artist's theme was clear from the dark stage with the only props being three hanging frames that were reflected on the floor.

This created six separate areas of dance with the dancers moving almost invisibly between them.

The music was equally Spartan. It was reassuringly repetitive throughout and varied between three different moods.

The most musical sections featured a guitar and saxophone but for most of the time we were left to harsh electronics. Some of this sounded like an old vinyl album jumping at the end of the side and at other times it sounded like Concert Industriel Pour Metronome (title stolen from VladimĂ­r Hirsch).

I love minimalist industrial music but I appreciate that some do not. Their loss.

The dance matched the mood of the music. It was a succession of short pieces where just a few of the dancers were in one of the dance frames and your attention moved from one to the other.

The movements were bold, exaggerated and unnatural (as you can see from the poses in the pictures). The scene was painted across the whole stage and carried through to the smallest detail such as the movement of fingers.

The tableaus and costumes changed (the male dancers wore dresses all the time as they had the last time that I saw them) while the mood remained the same.

It had the flavour of mechanical but was always beautiful too.

Without an obvious simile to call on or a working knowledge of dance vocabulary I'm struggling a little to describe the experience and all I can do is describe how it impacted me.

I was entranced, mesmerised, immersed, captivated and enthralled. This was a very rich experience with so much to watch and to try and understand.

It was also hugely enjoyable and the best part of an hour and a half skipped by.

The show ended with a short piece by, presumably the founding members of The Cholmondeleys. This was slow and lyrical, rather like eating an ice cream after eating a curry. Not a bad end to the evening but the memory is of the main course.

It is good to see that dance can be difficult and challenging in the same way that theatre can be. This was an exceptionally good show. It is just a shame that it is all over.

Fear Itself 7.1: Captain America

Fear Itself is the latest "epic" from Marvel following in the manner of Civil War and Secret Invasion.

It is somewhat the lesser cousin of those stories that both ripped the Marvel Universe apart, setting hero against hero, with ramifications that are still felt today.

Instead Fear Itself introduces seven mystical weapons to up the power of seven established characters, e.g. Juggernaut and Grey Gargoyle. You know that the goodies are going to win and so the story becomes little more than a seven issue slug-fest.

Anticipating this I avoided all the spin-offs apart from those in the comics that I read regularly already, e.g. Iron Man and Avengers.

In contrast I bought just about every Secret Invasion story going and while some were weak (e.g. Thor) some were excellent (e.g. Black Panther).

The good news about Fear Itself is the epilogue. Issues 7.1, 7.2 and 7.3 show the impact on Captain America, Thor and Iron Man respectively. This both ties the story up and hints at where future stories may lead. The not-very-subtle aim is to encourage you to read the individual characters' books.

It could work because Fear Itself 7.1: Captain America is excellent.

I loved the story but I loved the Butch Guice art work more.

I have seen many examples of his work over the years, starting with his first work for Marvel on Micronauts (great book) in 1982, but this is a bit special because there are strong hints of Jim Steranko in the movement,bold lines and page construction.

3 December 2011

Building the Revolution at the RA

First a clarification, this is not about a revolution at the Royal Academy (that is not going to happen).

Rather it is an exhibition there on, to give it its full name, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935.

The main exhibition at the RA is on Degas and there was a long queue for this but my interest is architecture so I headed to the top floor of the Sackler Wing where the exhibition is being held in one reasonable size room that is divided up to make more walls to hang things on.

Those things are mostly photographs of buildings though there are a few sketches too. The geometric drawings did interest me a little and they helped to set the scene for the time that the buildings were designed but it was the buildings that drew me around the room.

The buildings were grouped by type, e.g. housing, industry and leisure, and were accompanied by just enough text to inform and cause a reasonable pause.

The buildings were chosen for their architectural merit and were mostly modest unassuming buildings that you could easily walk past without noticing that was anything special about them.

Unless, like me, you do not walk past buildings without noticing their style and features.

The leisure section revealed a sumptuous retreat on the Black Sea. It's a little worn now but I'd still like to go there.

Perhaps it will be restored when the Winter Olympics go to Sochi in 2014.

I have a weakness for industrial buildings and there were lots of them in the exhibition.

One was a large power station, another was a bakery and others were a mix of light and heavy industries.

A particular favourite was a garage with a large circular section to represent a wheel.

Sadly I was unable to get a picture of this as photography is not allowed in the exhibition and there were always two or three red shirted guards patrolling and the opportunity to bend the rules never arose.

So here's the Central Institute of Aerodynamics and Hydrodynamics instead. This building also helps to prove the point about the subtlety of architecture as a casual glance would miss the curved walls, the tall window with the round window above, the roof balcony, and all that's just in one corner.

Building the Revolution is a near-perfect.

The subject matter is a nice mix of mainstream (architecture) and unusual (Soviet) that makes it approachable yet stimulating.

The photos (all by Richard Pare) are bold and tease out the point of the building.

The words tell you what the building is, where it is, who designed it and a little about the concept, and that's it. No poetic twaddle here.

These elements produce an exhibition that turns a room in to a captivating experience that swallows an hour or so of your time with practised ease.