29 April 2012

BCSA AGM 2012, talk and social

The Annual General Meeting of the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) was a superb three-in-one event.

The evening started with the formal part, the AGM. As always there was no controversy, no motions from the floor and the Executive Committee was re-elected.

The highlight was Sir Michael's report on the previous year when he went through all the society's activities, the talks, the socials, the garden party, the annual dinner, the magazine, the writing competition, the charitable donation and the website.

I wrote the few words about the website and so introduced most of the audience to the word "retweet" for the first time.

Once the formalities were over we were treated on a talk on Prague, Past and Present by Ivan Plicka who was a member of the team charged with preparing city development plans from the 1950s to the 1990s.In his illustrated talk he explained how the city’s distinct quarters evolved, particularly since the fall of Communism.

I should have paid more attention beforehand and then I would have known how good the talk was going to be. Essentially he covered a favourite topic of mine (town planning) in relation to one of my favourite cities (Prague). I loved it.

Ivan explained how three factors had accidentally protected Prague's historical. Firstly it had no major disasters, e.g. fires, since 1571, secondly it was never the centre of commercial development and investment (unlike, say, London) and finally the Communist era inhibited change.

All this led to an Old Town that grew out gradually and gracefully to include new carefully designed areas.

The talk covered the development of housing, industry and transport and was thick with detail. There was a great deal of information all carefully absorbed by the packed house.

The evening closed with a social session that, if this was a conference, would be called a networking session. And that's what we did.

There were many people there that I knew, some for several years, and I skipped from one conversation to the next pausing only to pick up a fresh bottle of Pilsner Urquell.

I also managed to grab a few handfuls of peanuts that were to pass as my evening meal and kept me going until I got home and hand the traditional supper of cheese on toast.

As usual the conversations were ephemeral and the fact that they happened at all is far more important than the actual content.

There were so many people to talk to and so little time that it is just as well that the Garden Party is coming up in June.

28 April 2012

Here at the Rose Theatre

First a confession. This poster is for another production of Here at a different Rose Theatre, I've used it simply because the Rose Theatre in Kingston does not put images of its posters on-line for reasons that escape me.

The big pulling power for the play comes from the name Michael Frayn who is enjoying a surge in popularity at the moment mostly thanks to a west-end revival of Noises Off.

I also like it that Frayn is a local guy, he went to Kingston Grammar School and lives just up the road from me in Petersham. I've been in his garden on open days and have seen him around locally including a recent shared journey on a 371 bus.

And it's a local theatre too which gives it a sense of homecoming for Frayn and makes the travel easy for me.

This was the first time that the Rose was set out as I always expected it to be with the stage thrust out towards the bench seats, filling "the pit" where people usually sit on cushions. The whole point of the Rose was to have an exciting stage, not to have exciting seating.

The play is set in an apartment within a house and begins with a young couple viewing it. They were just passing, saw the sign and thought that they would take a look.

The mood of the play is set immediately by the couple's dialogue. She likes the place but cannot really explain why and he wants to explore the decision making process between them to see if they have reached a decision on the flat and, if so, when and how they made it.

And so it goes on. They are clearly deeply in love and there is never a row, or even that much friction between them, but there is an incessant good natured battle of words.

Adding to the mix is the old woman who is letting the room. She appears at intervals to regale them with tales of former inhabitants and her family.

I'm not quite sure what the point of this character is. She adds nothing to the plot and adds little to our understanding of the couple who are the centre and purpose of the play. It does not help either that this is played by a known actress, Alison Steadman, as this risks making it a cameo role further deflecting from the play's mission.

So let's get back to the couple.

It's no surprise that they move in to the flat and they stay there for some and then leave when she becomes pregnant.

The four stages in their story are decision, arrival, settled-in and departure.

The third scene scene seems a little pointless, the story does not progress and we learn nothing new about the couple from their dialogue. I was definitely drifting off at times, not helped by the half-time bottle of Becks.

The middle sluggishness aside, the play fizzes through its dialogue. It's not quite the relentless one-liners of American sit-coms but it's heading that way, and in a nice way.

The play needs a convincing couple and this production has one. Alex Beckett is pedantic, awkward and a little intense while Zawe Ashton balances this with her enthusiasm, patience and good humour. Together they make the play work.

24 April 2012

The Old Vicarage in Petersham

The Open Gardens season started with a visit to The Old Vicarage, just up the road in Petersham.

I was especially keen to pay it a visit as it is the first time that it has been open to the public.

It also belongs to the area covered by my Ham Photos Blog so I was keen to get a few photos of it to publish there.

The house is set well back from the road and is protected by a high wall so there was little clue as to what to expect until the gates were opened and we were allowed in.

The building itself is plain but not without charm. It is nicely proportioned and has a few subtle decorations, like the coloured line of bricks between the ground and first floors. All of this helps to make it feel smaller and more cottage-like than it actually is.

The area around the house is laid out formally with rows of rectangular flower beds and wide brick paths between them.

There is a white picket fence around the outside which I suspect is more to protect the flowers from stay footballs etc. than for any decorative effect.

The flower beds are thick with tulips. These are arranged by colour and that gives it the appearance of a nursery.

Beyond the picket fence lies a different world. There is a large lawn leading towards a tennis court, other flower beds with other purposes, patches of wild grasses punctuated with bluebells, and a small hillock that gives the impression of being left to its own devices.

On the top of the hillock is a large tree house with a combination of ropes, ladders and bridges that any young child would love.

Nearby there is a whimsical collection of deer ignoring all that goes on around them.

More of The Old Vicarage can be seen in the background to remind you just how practicable a house this is.

Climbing back down from the hillock and crossing the lawn takes you to an enclosed wildlife area.

It is enclosed because it is home to a few very round and very orange hens who are allowed to roam free.

They share this area with some ducks who seem to be very contented with their pond.

All of the garden looks very new and this area looks like work in progress so it will be interesting to see what it looks like next year.

The garden at The Old Vicarage gives every impression of being carefully planned and executed. Each part of the garden has its own purpose and they fit together sensibly and pleasingly. Above all, it feels lived in and loved.

23 April 2012

Hitting the read pile

My read pile of comics has been getting depressingly long while I spend the weeks working in Cardiff and the weekends going to the theatre and doing a few mandatory household chores.

I got the opportunity to attack the problem on a rare Saturday morning off having paid a visit to Ace Comics in Richmond the day before to get all my latest issues.

This is what I read, starting from the bottom and working to the top.

Mark Millar has been on scintillating form in recent years (Fantastic Four, Ultimates, Wanted, Kick-Ass, etc.) and I started off with three of his.

Kick-Ass is probably most famous for putting very rude words in to the mouth of an 11 year old girl who kills lots of people so the end of book 2 comes as a shock and sets up the Hit Girl comic nicely.

I've read The Avengers for more years than is probably sensible and now, like the X-Men, I find I am largely reading it because I have always read it. The current run is competent enough but lacks the excitement of, say, the Englehart years. The Avengers have also spread in to three or more monthly comics but I stick with just the main title.

X-Factor (nothing to do with the tv show!) is completely different. I read this just because it is good. Peter David has been writing it forever and he mixes characterisation and complex plot twists excellently.

I've recently picked-up New Mutants again now that Dan Ablett is writing it. Dan writes more than anybody else I know and he sure knows how to craft a story. That's why I read it.

Iron Man also has several comics to his name, thanks to the films, but I read just the original title that is now steered confidently by Matt Fraction. Here we see Tony Stark the genius at work, rather than just some guy in a powerful suit. Yes, there is fighting but it is not all physical, some of it is political or commercial. It now has the same cool feel it did during the unsurpassed era of David Michelinie and Bob Layton.

The read pile is not any noticeably shorter than it was before but I had a lot of fun digging my way through some of it.

22 April 2012

Easter at Pentameters

I'm not convinced that doing two plays in a day is a good idea, a gallery and a play seem to work better, though it does have the clear attraction of making the most of the travelling.

And so a few short hours after leaving A Clockwork Orange in Dalston I was in the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead for Easter, a play by August Strindberg.

In between there had been a walk across Hampstead Heath to Kenwood House, a very nice vegetarian curry at Woodlands and a decent beer at the Horseshoe (conveniently located under the theatre).

Easter gets its (English) name from the time of year it is set in, nothing else.

We discover a small family in a state of some turmoil. The father is in prison for embezzlement, a creditor is circling and is threatening to take everything that the family has, and one of the daughters is struggling to overcome a problem in her past that saw her committed to an asylum.

On the positive side the man of the house (while his father is indisposed) has a fiancée and with Easter comes Spring and the first opportunity of the year to open the windows to the fresh air.

The action takes place over a couple of days as the gloom deepens and the snow eases.

Conveniently is all happens in one room in the family house, which seems to be the default set for the theatre.

The plot is rather Dickensian (though Swedes might call Dickens' stories Strindbergian) with a tale of morality intertwined with a tale of misfortunes.

And, as it would in Dickens, the misfortune is suddenly reversed at then end due to an unexpected benefactor. This is where the morality wins and old debts are repaid.

The resolution is sudden, but not unexpected, and merely provides the happy ending to a story that is about a family coping with misfortune and misadventure and with the pressure as their expected downfall approaches.

The cast were a little uneven in convincing us about their plight and the son's dialogue flowed a little unnaturally but the not-so-mad daughter made up for that with an excellent performance.

Pentameters deserve credit for taking a risk with a play like this and the fact that it did not quite come off is no shame on them, that's what happens with risks. And I'd much rather take that risk with them than take one of the safe options that stuff the west end.

21 April 2012

A Clockwork Orange at the Arcola Theatre

The Arcola Theatre in Dalston continues to deliver exciting theatre and that is why I keep going back there despite living on the other side of town.

Normally that is an easy, if long, journey around the North London Line but weekend maintenance works forced me along the more complex, and expensive, route through the centre of London using the Northern and Victoria Lines.

It was still comfortably worth the effort.

I have never read the book and have only seen the film a couple of times following its withdrawal in the UK and the subsequent reluctance to show it that frequently and before midnight.

The play both copies themes from the film (which probably came from the book originally) and also distances itself from it. So we get lots of milk and strange words but whereas the film is relentlessly white at time the predominant colour of the play is back.

And that's my excuse for failing to take a decent photo of the set.

All I could manage is this murky shot taken on my phone as the audience settled down.

The mood was set immediately with the five cast on a dark stage, dressed identically and behaving strangely, e.g. some blundered around blind-folder while others polished shoes excessively.

The story was as I remembered it from the couple of times that I have seen the film but the delivery was very different and much more theatrical.

The story was told through a series of short scenes each introduced by one of the actors to tell us where we were and what we were witnessing, all very necessary when the cast and stage do not change.

The cast kept busy even when they were not the focus of these scene. What Kept them busy did not always seem to have anything to do with the story, such as the memorable feat one of them performed by walking with a pint of milk balanced on the side of his head and then getting down on to the floor with the milk still in place.

I liked the way that they portrayed the infamous extreme violence that gave the film its problems. The victim cavorted on the floor as if being severely beaten without any of the assailants doing anything violent or even being that close.

That also cleverly put the focus on the violence and the victim and so heightened the sense of dystopia.

Indeed the dystopia runs deep throughout the play and is the point of the play. The story strings the scenes together but I suspect they would work just as well if they were played in a random order.

And work they do. A Clockwork Orange is not just different it's different in a very good way. It's a rather special show that haunts, disturbs, confuses and overwhelms.

There is so much to see and so much to think about but so little time to do either as the show continues its relentless pace without even the luxury of an intermission in which to catch your breath.

The Arcola theatre helps with the total immersion by bringing you close to the action and involving you in it. The marriage between play and theatre is perfect.

18 April 2012

Portland has changed

The Portland that I grew up near (Weymouth and Portland may be the name of the Council but they are two very different places) had a large Naval Base, a Prison and a lot of rugged rocks.

Now the Naval Base has gone and the area around the harbour that used to require a security badge to get to is now freely accessible.

From there the other changes to Portland are apparent.

Verne Prison is still on the top of the hill, or rather built in to it, but the area around it has been transformed, first by the departure of the Naval Base and then by the arrival of the Olympics.

Former naval accommodation has been remodelled for people with smaller, slower and less deadly boats, and other buildings have sprung up to serve the same market.

The change is even more apparent when you look at the harbour which has been colonised by hordes of small boats looking for all the world as if they had always been there and the days of drunken sailors in the Harbour Club being escorted back to base by the Military Police had never happened.

But around the corner there is one memento of the life that Portland used to lead.

This is a Lynx helicopter built not too far away by Westland, the company famously supported by Michael Heseltine when Thatcher wanted the USA to own this part of our defence industry. She won and he resigned.

The other type of helicopter that used to be seen regularly above and around Portland was the much bigger Sea King, also from Westland.

When the Navy was in Portland its presence was obvious from the uniforms in the town, the occasional fracas in the pubs  and the buzzing above your head. Now that has all gone and the people and machines that have replaced it are all but invisible. Portland seems to be asleep, waiting for an other event like the Olympics to wake it up.

16 April 2012

At the Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft and Culbard

Lovecraft has been a noticeable gap in my culture for a too long a time now.

His name kept cropping up in other things that I was reading, as did that of his creation Cthulhu,and I may even have read a short story or two in general collections but until recently I had never knowingly read a Lovecraft story.

The perfect opportunity came to fix this error with the publication of At the Mountains of Madness as a graphic novel coming with a good review from Forbidden Planet.

It's a classic Boys Own adventure story with a large dollop of imagination and a hint of menace.

It is set in Antarctica at a time when it was largely undiscovered and the people doing the discovering when men with stiff upper lips adorned with moustaches.

The Mountains of Madness, as it explains helpfully on the back, is a good stepping in point for the Lovecraft mythos as it is self contained and has large chunks of back-story.

The art sympathetically reflects the mood of the story with its bold simple, but not simplistic, style. It carries the grandeur of the scenery and the tension of the moment wonderfully.

The artist, I N J Culbard, was unknown to me beforehand but that is going to change quickly. He has just started The New Deadwardians with Dan Abnett and is soon to appear in the hallowed pages of 2000AD.

There is so much to like about this book, the story, the art and the strange world that it takes you in to, and like it I did. A lot.

15 April 2012

The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar Warehouse

Farces have had a good showing in the West End recently with big shows like One Man, Two Guvnors and Noises Off so it is no great surprise to see The Recruiting Officer make another appearance.

The play is now a shade over three hundred tears old, as revealed by the language, but the themes and plot are as familiar today as they were then and the age is no barrier.

This was only my second visit to the Donmar and my first downstairs and my first chance to appreciate the cosiness of the space.

There are four rows of seats up close to three sides of the stage. I was in the third row near to one of the corners with a good view of the stage despite the shallow slope in the seating and the tall young woman in the front row.

As now seems to be common practise in theatres without curtains, the action starts while we are all settling down.

This time we were entertained by a small group of players and then some of the cast appeared to light the many candles that formed the main part of the decoration.

It worked well despite the unwillingness of some people to see the pre-play as part of the show and, therefore, took it as an opportunity to carry on talking. Why do these people even go to the theatre?

As the play opens we meet Sergeant Kite played by Mackenzie Crook, one of the several big names littered across the cast.

He is in Shrewsbury with Captain Plume to recruit men in to the army by any means possible. They also have ambitions with the local ladies. This is one of the rewards of a travelling solider and Sgt. Kite produces a long list of all his wives that he keeps to remember them all.

Capt. Plume's intentions are more serious and he has his eye on Melinda who plays hard to get with an impish vengeance.

Rachael Stirling was Melinda and won the acting accolades despite some very tough competition.

The actors all played to the crowd brilliantly, even involving a lady in the front-row several times by giving her things to hold etc.

They moved to the edge of the stage regularly to speak directly to us about their thoughts and plans.

There were lots of great moments along the way and the one that sticks with me the most was in the scene where Sgt. Kite was disguised as a German fortune teller tricking people in to joining the army.

The flamboyant Captain Brazen (Mark Gatiss) paid a visit and on his way out ignored the prop door and walked off through what was meant to be a wall with an I-can't-be-arsed shake of his head.

And it was the frequent moments like that that made the play. The story was farcical but fairly simple and needed more than the script to carry it, hence the star-strung cast and the strong direction.

The sign of a good craftsman is that they make difficult things look easy and that is just what all the creatives do here. It's a team performance that delivers a steady stream of fun.

12 April 2012

Isabella Plantation on a wet day in April

It was the prospect of rain that tempted me to Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park on the grounds that the rain would be a deterrent to most people and so it would be peaceful as well as pretty.

And so it was. There were a few other hardy souls braving the constant drivel but they passed fleetingly and were quickly forgotten.

The main benefits of this were the constant quiet (no unhappy or overly happy children being intrusive) and the absence of brightly coloured Cagouls blighting photographs.

As usual I started by the main gate at the bottom of the gentle slope. The main ditch leading into the pond was wet (for a change) and lined with subtly coloured heathers. Breaking the calm were the yellow flowers along the edge of the water. 

It was between times for a lot of the other flowers with some heralding fresh buds and others well past their best..A few fresh flowers could be found among their dead comrades adding spots of colour against a background of mixed greens under a grey sky. 

Most people follow the main path that borders the water straight down the centre of the garden but there are other paths and other water.

In one corner is an oasis of calm, even on busy days, with its own water that takes a more natural route down the slope where the pond waits.

This looks like a plantation with many trees of the same type and size suggested that they were planted together.

The pond is the start and end of the journey.

Normally it is ringed by children will bags of bread, as the ducks well know. With the rain keeping this distraction away the ducks could get on with their normal business for this time of year, which is fighting each other over the females.

I tend to keep away from Richmond Park simply because it is too popular and it is impossible to find the peace that you would expect to find in a large open space, Going in the rain solved that problem.

11 April 2012

Alien Easter Eggs in Covent Garden

The tourists looked to be having a lot of fun trying to track down all of the gaily decorated Easter Eggs spread across Covent Garden, but I was not fooled. I have seen the Alien films often enough to know that rows of eggs like this can only lead to bad things. I managed to escape, I just hope that some of the tourists did too.

10 April 2012

Not quite the Beatles

This chronicle of evenings spent at the theatre, opera and concerts may suggest that everything I go to is either fantastic or merely good so it is fair to redress the balance and to mention an evening that went less well.

I was never the biggest Beatles fan in the world but I've played most of their albums a few times over the year and, like everybody else, I love a lot of their singles.

So a Beatles tribute band in a local pub should have been a good idea but it wasn't.

The band were a little scratchy with some missed lines, some weak singing and some false playing. Not that they were bad but they were certainly not very good.

Not very good should have been good enough with an excellent catalogue of songs to choose from if only they had managed to craft the songs in to a set with a purpose and direction. Instead it was like listening to a poor recording of a greatest hits collection on random play.

To compound the errors they all wore black roll-top jumpers and stood in the darkest part of the pub with only a normal wall light to illuminate them.

This is a band that needs a critical friend who can honestly point out where they are going wrong and nudge them back in the right direction. With a little improvement in each department they could be worth watching.

Still, the evening was not totally wasted. I left the Fox and Duck around 10:30pm, caught the 371 and spent the next couple of hours in the Willoughby.

9 April 2012

New Art from Germany at the Saatchi Gallery

I was going in to Town for some theatre in the evening and thought I'd make a day of it by visiting the Saatchi Gallery first.

This was my first visit there (my bad) and so it was the gallery that I was interested in seeing rather than any specific exhibition that was on at the time.

The gallery is within spitting distance of Sloan Square in a large old building that has had its innards ripped out and replaced with a few large rooms uniformly decorated with white walls and bleached wooded floors - exactly how you expect a modern gallery to be.

It's a private gallery but it is still free, which makes it even easier to give modern art a try.

The New Art from Germany (Gesamtkunstwerk) occupies the whole gallery which consists of 14 galleries spread over 3 floors in a 5-5-4 formation.

Gallery 1 opens the show with works by Markus Selg and makes an immediate impression.

This picture is called Traum der Sarazenin (Dream of the Saracen) yet it is the echoes of Britannia that made me dwell on this for so long. And at over 2m x 3m it fills one wall.

Each of the galleries is different and each door crossed brings new surprises.

A wide range of materials are used even for the traditional pictures.

This is a small section of a works by Gert and Uwe Tobias that is woodcut on paper on canvas.

The full picture is 2m by 12m and is rather jolly.

The size and method of construction mean that you need to stand some distance back to see everything and then to get up close to appreciate the parts that make the whole.

The same is true of the next picture.

From a distance you see the larger image of the trees and the river and when you get up close you see all the little elements that make this a series of pictures on a common background.

It is such a busy picture that you can look at for ages spotting new things all of the time.

The colours grabbed me at first with this painting and I could appreciate it as a piece of abstract art before noticing some of the detail hidden in it.

It is probably about something else but it evokes in me a couple having a quiet drink in a bright and busy city, say Tokyo.

The colours and noise of the city are outside but where they sit is calm.

Another picture that evokes quiet is this one of an urban garden.

Here there is no movement and only a few red flowers break the gentle greens and yellows.

Again approaching the picture is rewarding as there is a lot more detail than an initial look suggests. Up close you can see, for example, more flowers with each leaf and petal picked-out.

There is a lot more to the exhibition than pictures, and here is just one example to prove the point.

I chose this one simply because it is colourful and fun, like so much in the exhibition.

The motley assortment of desk lamps is drawing attention to the cartoon in the centre that shows a couple on a desert island hiding from a passing boat.

Elsewhere there was some odder things, like the installation chosen for the exhibition poster above, a large vibrating mirror and cloth stuck in expanded polystyrene.

While these installations used more exotic materials and could, therefore, be considered less mainstream they were equally interesting.

One of the more useful things I did while there was to sign off for their mailing list so that I keep informed about their exhibitions and events. I'll be going to the Saatchi again.

7 April 2012

Mary Rose at the Riverside

Mary Rose is a dark ghost story that thrills and chills expertly.

This is a little surprising as it is written by J. M. Barrie who brought us Tinker Bell and Never Never Land.

This unexpected conjunction happened at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith which is working hard to remain its title as my favourite theatre that it won precisely because it puts on unexpected plays like this.

Having changed my free-seating preference from the first row to the third I was thrown in to confusion by finding both the third and first rows occupied. So I found myself in the second row. Two is the new three which was the new one.

It always pays to look at the stage in picking a seat and this time the layout suggested a left of centre seat and that was duly taken.

The dark stage showed an abandoned room with dust sheets over the few pieces of furniture.

The play started as it went on. Weirdly.

The first sign that it had started was some wordless singing from both wings. This grew in volume and the figures responsible slowly eased in to view.

They were dressed in primitive clothing and markings suggesting that they belong to a previous time.

The story begins near its chronological end with a young man returning to the empty house where he had lived as a small bot before running away to distant places to seek his fortune.

Alone in the house is the housekeeper who is reluctant to explain why the house is empty or to let the young man explore some of the rooms.

She departs to make a cup of tea leaving him to sit in the room. The mysterious figures appear through the walls and windows and surround the man as he sits but unseen by him.

And that sets the tone of the play. It remains dark and mysterious throughout. You know bad things have happened, or will happen, or both, but you do not want to move from your seat or avert your gaze from the stage.

We then travel back to almost the beginning of the story when the house is bright, airy and occupied. We meet a middle-aged married couple about to welcome a prospective suitor for their young daughter Mary Rose. They agree that any prospective husband must be told of Mary's past, a past that she herself does not know.

Once the suitor makes his intentions known the father explains that as a young girl Mary Rose disappeared when on holiday in Scotland only to reappear in the same spot days later without any recollection of having been away.

The story builds from there becoming darker and stranger. Along the way we learn more about Mary Rose and her family but little about the events on Scotland or the figures that seem to be associated with that place.

There are some lighter moments along the way, even some giggle-inducing humour, especially when the father is discussing his collection of prints with a friend which always ends with an argument that his wife has to resolve.

These lighter moments are incidental to the main plot, other than to show that Mary Rose's home life was normal. The light moments also help to make the more frequent dark moments seem darker.

It's the dark moments that make the play and it's the staging and direction that turn them in to something rather special. The mysterious primitives and their chanting are part of this but there is more to it than that. A lot of effort has been spent pulling the parts of the production together and the whole works magnificently.

Mary Rose is an unusual tale told unusually. It scares, delights and thrills. You leave drained, relieved, confused, unsettled and immensely satisfied.

6 April 2012

British Design at the V&A

No excuse is ever needed to go to the V&A, it's my absolute favourite museum, and the siren call to go there becomes impossible to escape when there is an exhibition like British Design from 1948 on.

The welcoming poster skilfully hints at the delights inside with the usual eclectic mix of objects from the mundane (e.g. road signs) to the high art (e.g. Henry Moore).

As usual, the exhibition consists of a few large rooms that are divided in to a number of smaller themed areas that move you from topic to topic as you try and negotiate your way around the confusing spaces without missing anything.

So, for example, there is a selection of drawings, stained glass and photographs about the building of the new Coventry Cathedral and next to this is a collection of the then new format road signs with their colour coding for road classes.

The expedition takes as it's starting point the immediate aftermath of the World War, a period that included three great events; the London Olympics in 1948, the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the Coronation (1953).

These events are celebrated with posters, models of some of the key buildings, and a few typical artefacts. This would not be a V&A exhibition if it did not have lots of tea pots and chairs.

One section that I spent some time admiring early on in the procession was that on architecture and town planning with the story told through models and plans.

The large model of the University of East Anglia was most impressive though I am sure that the original building (it was conceived as one long teaching wall) has been added to over the years and the original design is probably lost in the resultant jumble.

Street plans for the housing estates showed a strong commitment to large gardens and to communal spaces and the artists' impressions showed the familiar happy people walking around with very few cars to spoil the view. How times change.

Gardens got their own mention too as gardening moved from being a means of producing food to becoming a hobby. Here a looped video showed the prominent use of gardens in British films. 

Fashion gets a fair mention though I failed to see why anybody would ever want to wear an early Mary Quant dress. More exotic are the stage costumes worn by the likes of Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Brian Eno. It was called Glam Rock for a reason before the likes of Garry Glitter belittled it to just sequins.

British icons feature throughout. Most memorable for me were the machines like Concorde (sadly, only a model), E-Type Jag, Mini, Moulton bike and Topper dinghy.

Also recognised were the British achievements in computing, such as the Sinclair Spectrum and the multi-coloured Apple iMac.

I liked the section on computer games which showed different versions of Tomb Raider and GTA running alongside each other so that we can see the improvement in gaming technology over the last twenty years or so.

Put simply, we've moved from lumpy graphics with few things moving at any time to almost realistic pictures in which every part of the picture seems to be moving at the same time.

Other favourites from the exhibition include a scale model of the still fabulous LLoyds of London building, a snatch of the film Blow Up, a marvellously silly Alexander McQueen dress, sillier hats, industrial steel doors and a mock-up of Pharmacy (Damien Hirst's restaurant).

I've lost the guide to the events that I picked up so I cannot be forensic and make sure that I give every section a mention but it is suffice to say that I've only given a flavour of the delights on offer.

It took me two hours to get around everything which is a better indication of how much good stuff there is in there.

As always with the V&A there is a lot more to the visit than just the main exhibition and part of that extra includes a little downtime in the splendid cafe.

Refreshed by tea and carrot cake I headed in to the museum proper.

Unusually I had a destination in mind and it was the related display On Eagle's Wings: British adventure comics, 1950-1969.

Here, spread around an atrium were about half a dozen display cases of comics that are a must-see for anybody who has been reading British comics for the last fifty years or so.

Eagle gives the display it's name, and probably it's drawing power, but I already know the Eagle very well (I have every Eagle Annual) so it was the others that I had come to see.

For reasons that I do not understand, there were some large No Photography signs so I had to be careful in taking mine.

That is careful not to use a flash and also careful to avoid one of the many museum staff monitoring the area.

A lot of what was there I had expected to see, and enjoyed seeing it, such as this Thunderbirds spread.

Elsewhere the definition of "adventure comic" stretched a little (then a lot) as we had a copies of Mandy and Bunty, and then a whole cabinet on romance comics like Dinah and Jackie. My sister used to get Jackie and I used to read it (and Bunty before that) so that also rekindled some old memories.

With the main exhibition, tea break and the comics, I was in the V&A for about three hours and that's a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

4 April 2012

Walking around St Mellons

St Mellons Business Park is on the edge of St Mellons which, in turn, is on the edge of Cardiff, so much so that it used to be in Newport.

Being in the middle of nowhere means that there is little to do lunchtime other than carry on working over a sandwich and a smoothie.

If the time and weather allow then I like to stretch my legs around the park which has been well designed for people like me with a pretty collection of paths and some careful planting.

Water is a key feature here, as it is throughout St Mellons.

There are ditches and ponds a plenty, and that means water-loving plants like reeds.

The ditches cut erratic green swathes throughout the area but, sadly, when they reach the housing estates they become collecting grounds for rubbish.

This is despite obvious signs of care and attention with the reeds being cut back in Winter and the grass being mown regularly.

The short-loop that I, and several others, do is around the nostalgically named Fortran Road and Cobol Road.

The later forms one of the boundaries of the business park and there is an active farm on the other side of the road.

The fields here are clearly, and expectedly, wet so they are mostly used as grazing for a few cows and horses.

There is something surreal and exciting about being able to see real cows in a real field just a couple of minutes from your sterile office.

The ditches need bridges to cross them. These were once brightly painted (no idea why) but have now been softened by sun, wind and rain in to more delicate hues that have been further tempered by encroaching rust.

This eclectic mix of paths, water, fields, flowers and farm-life makes St Mellons Business Park an in interesting place to work and one that gives you a good reason to get outdoors when you can.

3 April 2012

Play House and Definitely the Bahamas at the Orange Tree

There is something deeply reassuring about having an evening at the Orange Tree theatre to come home to when working away.

Of course I had to go to the original Orange Tree, the pub across the road, first for a couple of excellent pints of Ordinary and a cute wire-basket of chips to eat - such is the lot of the travelling worker.

Sadly there are no pasties at Richmond Station.

Play House and Definitely the Bahamas is a double bill of plays written by Martin Crimp at either ends of his career to date.

Play House is first-up and it is the newer of the two plays (2011).

As is the fashion these days, the action starts while the audience arrives. The set has just two long bare benches at either side and the two actors gradually load them with the props required for the play.

The two actors are a young married couple and we see them in a series of short scenes that highlight different aspects of their fragile, confusing and unusual lives.

The scenes may or may not be chronological, and I am not sure that it matters either way.

From their interactions with each other we learn about her abused childhood that still scars her heavily today, his mundane job that offers security and progression, their drug-supplying hedge-funded neighbour, and the dirtiest fridge that I have ever seen.

There are ups, downs and a lot of strangeness in the middle. My half-time tweet was that this is the funniest play about incest that I have seen.

The second play, Definitely the Bahamas (1987), was originally a radio play and that is how it is presented here.

In one corner of the studio sits Milly and in the opposite is Frank, her husband. In an other corner we have the sound effects guy and in the last the student staying with them sometimes appears.

Frank and Milly (mostly Milly) talk about their successful son Michael who now lives in South Africa with his wife.

Milly reminds you of Joyce Grenfell (I'm sure that's deliberate) as she goes off on her long monologues pausing only to seek confirmation from Frank or to ask him to fill in some of the blanks in her memory.

The dialogue is lyrical and flows sweetly but some of the content starts to worry us, especially when we learn more about Michael and his relationship with the young student.

It's witty, captivating and fascinating. It is just people talking quietly about family affairs yet it sucks you in and keeps you there.

Another superb evening at the Orange Tree and another reason that I see everything that they do.