29 May 2012

Top Hat at the Aldwych

I am or a certain age and that's the age that grew up watching classic black and white films. My favourites were the Marx Brothers but I also had a soft spot for some of the musicals and another one for Fred Astaire's dancing.

And that's my excuse for going to see Top Hat at the Aldwych Theatre.

The immediate impression was that I had walked in to a convention of some sort. Almost everybody there was the same age and colour as me, which does not usually happen at the theatres that I go to.

The second impression was of daylight robbery as I paid £4 for a bottle of ordinary Carlsberg (the best of a poor choice).

My interest in Top Hat was not that great so I had gone for Plan B. Plan A is an expensive seat in the front row of the circle whereas Plan B is a cheap seat somewhere near the back. Actually the view from there was OK and was made even better in the second half when I moved to one of the few empty seats nearby that also had an empty seat in front of it.

The story opens with a song and dance routine featuring the leading man, Jerry Travers, performing on Broadway for the last time before going to England to appear in a show there.

The transportation back to 1935 is immediate with the period costumes, tap dancing (when did anybody last do tap dancing?), and pretty formations formed by the dancers.

It was a very happy start to what proved to be a very happy evening.

In England, Jerry meets Dale Tremont, and equally rich and supercilious person. He falls in love, she sort of does too but mistakes him for the husband of a friend so she runs away to Venice. Jerry follows, more misunderstanding ensue, more songs are sung and more dances are, er, danced.

And then it all ends happily ever after.

The story is told with dollops of humour and a lot of charm, everybody is good and everybody is happy. This is the good life as only extreme wealth can lead it.

The songs play a backing role to the plot and act almost like advert breaks on TV by breaking the story up in to more manageable chunks.

Some of the songs are very famous and Dancing Cheek to Cheek is probably the high point of the show.

There is dancing too but less than I expected and less extravagant than I expected, but then this was not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers.

To balance this there was far more humour that I expected both in the plot and in some of the characterisation.

The two leads were pretty bland, that's the characters not the actors, but a manservant and a frustrated lover in particular were superb and were responsible for most of the laugh out loud moments.

The dialogue was pretty weak with a lot of old jokes poorly worked into the script (including at least one from Groucho Marx that I noticed). Luckily the dialogue was almost inconsequential and was never meant to be taken that seriously so no real harm was done.

Taken as a package, Top Hat exceeded expectations and provided a fun-filled and jolly evening.

I rounded the experience off with a pint of Sam Smith's Old Brewery Bitter in the nearby Lyceum, a pub that I've spent many an evening in. The beer was much nicer than the Carlsberg and much cheaper too.

28 May 2012

The Dark Judges are back in 2000AD Prog 1781

It has been far too long since I mentioned 2000AD and even longer since I said anything about Judge Dredd so it is good to redress the balance with a look at the cover story Prog1781.

2000AD has always had the courage to run long Judge Dredd stories alongside those that stretch for just one, two or three issues and the current storyline is literally mega.

Mega-City One is being attacked by Russians in revenge for Dredd destroying East-Meg One in a massive nuclear strike at the climax of the Apocalypse War (another epic tale). Their weapon is a lethal and virulent virus that has so far killed hundreds of thousands of people and which is spreading quickly.

That is the main plot line but there are lots of side-shows like a civil war, the destruction of the Justice Department's flagship building and the escape of the city's former major and mass-murderer PJ Maybe.

This is epic and then some.

And now we have the Dark Judges too dispensing their instant justice, "The crime is life. The sentence is death." Epic just got epicer.

To make the point Henry Flint has drawn this exceptional cover.

The Day of Chaos, the tile of this epic, is now just days away and even if Dredd somehow "wins" the city will still be largely destroyed and millions will have died.

The story has been gripping me for over forty weeks now (it started in Prog 1742) and I hope it carries on doing so for quite a few more weeks yet. Then I'll need a rest.

27 May 2012

Cardiff reflections

A cock-up on the hotel booking front (my fault) meant that I had to use a different hotel for a couple of days and due to another cock-up (not my fault) I ended up in one that claims to be in the city centre but which is actually in a commercial area beyond the main roads to the south and east.

The good news is that the hotel was close to a former dock, was not that far from the Bay, the weather was nice and I only had to put up with it for two nights.

Spotting the dock on the map was easy, getting there on foot was much less so. People are not meant to walk in this part of town and either the roads have no pavements or they have substantial barriers that prevent you from crossing where you want.

Jay walking is a serious hobby of mine so I took the busy roads on and headed for the dock. The immediate reward was this view down the length of the dock towards some new flats in the Bay area.

Walking down the west side of the dock I came across several predictable signs of attempted urban regeneration.

There were a couple of bars, one restaurant and the expected industrial sculptures to remind us that this used to be a working dock, as if the expanse of water was not enough.

Also typical was the new offices for Cardiff City Council in one corner. You could say that the Council was leading by example in showing its faith in the area or, equally, you could say that no other large company wanted to move there.

What let the area down was the considerable number of empty plots and the few empty offices, both suggesting that the regeneration had run out of steam.

The other part of the boiler-plate urban regeneration is the upmarket waterside flats and these are a good example with their mix of colours and angles.

What really makes them stand out is the way that they reflect in the still water of the dock.

This reflection is about as perfect as you can get with free water, though I did cheat and hold the camera upside down (which is much less of a cheat than simply rotating the photo).

Between the dock and the Bay the magic disappears for a new moments and I got lost among ugly commercial buildings and busy roads.

At one point I found myself trapped in the corner of a car park and could only escape by making my way through the hideous Dragon Centre with its cheap attractions (bowling and amusements, etc.) and cheaper fast food outlets. And I was wearing a suit and tie.

Making it out safely on the other side I was welcomed by a side view of the Wales Millennium Centre with its luscious stripes of local stone.

Equally pleasing is the way that the walls are staggered and the stones left with a casual finish that belies the care and attention that went in to their design and construction.

The Centre is most recognised by the large lettering above the entrance.

That and the mirrored Torchwood pillar in the courtyard in front of it. The pillar does not look that impressive without Captain Jack Harkness appearing out of the ground in front of it, so I'll stick with the lettering.

After a brief walk around the Bay area, where I discovered the excellent Moksh Indian restaurant, it was time to turn tail and head back the way I came. The dock was still pretty in the failing light with only the occasional jogger to break the silence and solitude.

Even the final scramble across the pedestrian hostile roundabout and under the harsh concrete flyover back to the hotel failed to erase the sense of calm instilled by the gentle walk along the still dock.

26 May 2012

Four Kew gardens

Having dipped a quick toe in to Kew Gardens it was time to move on towards the Green to see a series of private gardens open as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS).

The four gardens all stretch from the Green to the river and that makes them all long and thin. Some are a little wider than others but that is a marginal difference and they are all much much longer than they are wide.

This means that there are lots of similarities between them, so much so that going through the pictures now I have no idea where each one is taken (I could use the GPS settings but that sounds like too much effort) but that does not really matter. I prefer to think of this is one large garden that just happens to have four owners.

Being long and thin means that each garden is divided in to several distinct areas with paths connecting them. Sometimes these paths are straight, sometimes winding, sometimes paved and sometimes grassy.

The sequence of the gardens within the garden is the same in each case.

Nearest the house the garden is most formal with a patio and pots then a lawn, after that come borders of flowers, then the larger bushes are tress take over before we get to the working part of the garden with its vegetables and compost heaps.

This variety is what makes these gardens interesting, rather than any one section of any one garden.

That said, there are plenty of places where you are forced to stop to appreciate the scene. Here it is the mix that I like with the small tree in a central bed where it is joined by some flowers, the narrow path that curves past it and the glimpse of the garden beyond.

Elsewhere we see a wide grassy path curving past wide borders before disappearing out of sight.

As with the other gardens, once you step away from the house you are so deeply immersed in trees and bushes that it is easy to forget that you are in a busy city.

The effect is reinforced by all the gardens adopting the same formula of having mature trees at the river end of their gardens.

The peace and tranquillity is almost amazing due to the absence of noise from cars and people and you are only reminded of the real world by the constant stream of jets heading for Heathrow. Boris Island is a bonkers idea but if it takes planes away from West London then I am all for it.

In all the gardens it was the less formal areas that I liked the most, which is why they feature so highly here, and there is something magnificent about the apparently chaotic planting in this border that produces an unusual combination of shapes and colours.

I'll end with a picture that (in my opinion) encapsulates what all for of the gardens are about.

The planting is mixed and interesting, the red brick wall is a boundary and a background, and a path leads you onwards.

The National Garden Scheme does an excellent job in encouraging garden owners to open up their gardens and in enabling us voyeurists to enjoy them.

Like most of the gardens that I have seen through NGS these four Kew gardens are not necessarily that grand or that special but they are different, and interesting, and that's why it is well worth spending an hour or so to explore them.

It's a pleasing bonus that these adventures also raise money for charity.

24 May 2012

Oddities in Kew Gardens

I celebrated renewing my membership of Kew Gardens for another year by visiting some of the lesser known attractions.

To be honest, some of them are so little known that I had not come across them in my many previous visits.

I was alerted to their existence by Kew's excellent iPhone app which listed some of them in their list of things to see that day. So I did.

My destination was the north-east corner so I entered via Victoria Gate and headed around the pond and around the mound housing the Temple of Aeolus surrounded by a woodland garden.

From their the path leads on to the Rose Pergola that I have walked through many times.

What I had not done before was walk to the north end of the pergola because I thought that it came to a dead-end at a working section of the garden.

I was wrong.

Yes, this is a working area but the path continues and takes you to a small greenhouse with a collection of even smaller bonsai trees.

Most of them are maples and are around thirty years old. No explanation is given for this though the obvious answer is that this was somebody's hobby once and Kew has been diligent, and helpful, in keeping them alive.

Emerging from the working quarter I arrived by the sunken Aquatic Garden.

This garden is functional rather than decorative and has lots of lilies, reeds and other water plants arranged in small groups and neatly labelled.

Most of these plants are attractive so the garden is decorative by accident if not by design.

With the grasses low at the this time of the year the view extends a long way until finally halted by a line of trees.

Moving west and a little north leads to the Secluded Garden that is so secluded that I had not found it before.

It is stretching the point a little to call this a garden as it is more a collection of plantings and objects that are united by their geography rather than a common theme.

One of these objects is a little pond with steps leading down from it and thick vegetation all around it.

There is also another small greenhouse here. It is struggling to find a purpose and seems content to be home to a few unrelated plants that appreciate the extra warmth.

The centre-piece of the Secluded Garden is a circular grove with seats around the edge looking towards a wonderful stone sculpture in the centre.

This looks as though it is meant to have water running over it but there was none on the day that I went. I hope that the sudden onslaught of Summer that we have had since then has caused the taps to be switched on.

From there it is but a small step to the Orangery where coffee and cake was waiting for me.

The lawns outside of the Orangery now pay homage to the impeding Olympics with the intersecting circles drawn with flowers.

Thoughtfully a few gaps have been left in the rings to allow people to walk among them, which lots of small children were doing so it took me quite a while before I could safely take a picture without any of them in it.

Coffee and cake consumed, it was time to head for home via the main gate on to Kew Green.

And this produced the last surprise of the day.

There is an exhibition of sculptures by David Nash on at Kew starting on 9 June and some of them are in position already.

This likeable collection of rocks is installed by the (nameless) gallery on the main route in to the gardens.

The other sculptures that I saw were made from wood and were, to my taste, much less likeable. One looked like nothing more than a burnt tree.

I am open-minded though and will give the exhibition a fair chance when it opens.

And that will give me an excuse to go back to Kew in June, not that I really need one any more.

23 May 2012

The Cherry Orchard at the Rose

Another gap in my cultural capital was plugged when I went to see Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard at the Rose Theatre.

My only previous Chekhov I had seen was Uncle Vanya at the Arcola last year and that was certainly good enough to tempt me to see more of the same.

This time I was even organised well enough and early enough to get an aisle seat in the Row A.

There are some seats in the Pit in front of this (rows AA, BB, etc.) but the seat in front of me in AA was empty so I had a perfectly clear view of the reassuringly unfussy stage.

The scene is a old country house in Russia that is waiting for the return of the Lady of the house who has been having a bit of down-time in Paris that involved some sort of relationship that did not go too well.

We gradually meet the rest of the large cast that includes her brother, her children, some family friends and the staff of the house.

There is a lot going on. Relationships are being made and not made, money is borrowed, lent and given away, and hanging over all this is the scheduled auction of the house to clear the debts on it.

The main roles are played beautifully. Julia Hills stars and sparkles as the skatty Lady of the house who has trouble taking anything seriously.

The two main men, her brother and a former peasant who had worked for the family and then had made his fortune, were excellent too.

Together the three of them carried the play with their speech, mannerisms and expressions. It was wonderful to watch.

Less wonderful was the play itself which struggled to justify the five stars that the Guardian had given it. The characters were very entertaining and there was a lot of laughs along the way but we did not engage with them and when the story ends with the axes in the orchard (the non-stop moronic talkers next to me thought it was a clock) this was just another step in their complex lives rather than some sort of tragedy that it was probably meant to be.

The play ends not with a bang but with a whimper and that makes it a little bit of a disappointment, which is a shame because the journey to get there is a lot of fun and is skilfully delivered.

22 May 2012

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: May 2012

We had a another busy meeting in May and this is some of what we discussed.

Heritage Open Days

Planning for the Heritage Open Day is in the final stages. Something that is likely to attract a lot of interest is the proposed architectural tour of filter beds.

Kingston Council is being slow in approving (or rejecting) the small grant needed to publish the advertising brochure.

Bishops Palace House

Bishops Palace House pushing for large advertising display this will be on the river and will advertise, er, the river. Not too surprisingly the Committee thought that this was a mad idea.

Bentalls Centre

The Bentalls Centre proposing to replace arched entrance with square fronted cafe. This will continue the classical look with columns.

This small change led to a long discussion in which sanity prevailed, in that we agreed to support the scheme though not as enthusiastically as I would have liked.

The proposal makes little difference to the appearance of the Bentalls Centre but makes a big difference in linking it to the rest of the town, instead of turning its back on it.

Barge Dock

There are some major plans for Barge Dock by the entrance to Canbury Gardens. This uses some Metropolitan Open Land so is not without controversy.

We were quickly against the idea despite the other substantial changes in the area that means that this proposal will have less impact than may be imagined. There was some support for the proposal on the committee, and I was not against it in principle, but we agreed to support the Thames Landscape Strategy's position in opposing the scheme.

The deciding factor was not being seen to support another scheme that built on MOL.

1 Penrhyn Road

There was a lot of discussion about some proposed student housing at 1 Penrhyn Road, which is currently a garage.

We' wee against this for some reason that seemed to be related to over development. I was not convinced by that however I would have liked more to have been made of the Hogsmill River that flows behind the site. Dense student housing would hide it even more than it currently is

21 May 2012

Madam Butterfly at ENO

Madam Butterfly is an opera that I've somehow missed until now and it is only because some friends wanted to go that I caught the current production at ENO.

I was avoiding a popular opera on the grounds that it was popular and I prefer difficult and quirky but popular can be good too, and Madam Butterfly most definitely was.

It is a slow lyrical piece with a simple story that has an unhappy ending if you consider Madam Butterfly's point of view but which works out quite well for her husband and son.

It's the familiar story of man meets ridiculously young girl in a foreign country, gets married on a whim, goes back to sea for a few years, returns with another wife and takes his son from his first marriage away with him. First wife takes this badly.

The action is slow and measured and most of the singing is about how Madam Butterfly feels, which is deliriously happy, expectant and distraught in that order.

The rest of the cast are there mainly to nudge the story forward and to give Madam Butterfly something to sing about or somebody to sing with.

The production is simple, clever and sumptuous.

Sliding screens allow us to move through the house where Mr and Mrs Pilkington (as they become) live.

Figures in dark robes manipulate the props which include a doll that plays the part of the Pilkington's son and white lanterns that mark the passage of time.

While the set is simple the costumes are rich, vibrant and colourful.

The stage slopes upward and the players mostly have their exits and entrances from the back processing slowly and majestically as they do so.

Madam Butterfly is not far off being a one trick pony in that it hangs on the performance of the singer in the title role and Mary Plazas is an excellent pony.

The ending is sad (this is an opera after all) but the lasting impression is of the show's beauty.

There was much to savour and applaud about the design and while it is unfair to do so I'll pick just one example to try and make the point. The show opens with a solitary Madam Butterfly on stage and four dark robed people took two long pieces of red silk and slowly wrapped this around her waist to complete her costume. At the end the process is reversed except this time the red silk is the blood flowing from her body.

It seems that there is a good reason why Madam Butterfly is so popular, especially in a production as luscious as this one. It's faultless. More that that, it's sublime.

19 May 2012

The Conquest of the South Pole at the Arcola Theatre

The Conquest of the South Pole is an insightful look at life in modern Britain. So it is something of a surprise to learn that it was written over twenty years ago by a German.

The story is simple in concept, clever in design and stunning in execution.

Four out of work young men turn to an account of Admundsen's conquest of the South Pole for inspiration and decide to re-enact the historic expedition in the attic of one of their houses, stealing some Winter clothing along the way to do so.

The story is the easy part but there is a lot more to the play than that, and probably a lot more to it than I caught on a first viewing.

The Arcola stage was as bare as I have ever seen it, which is good because I love minimalist sets and the sunken theatre looks just like an attic anyway.

The play is neatly structured as a series of short scenes delivered staccato like one after the other. The scenes varied in length and pace, as they do in real life.

The dialogue flowed the same way with a mix of short ensemble pieces alongside longer solos. The mood varied too with some short sharp nasty exchanges and some long lyrical ones that almost drifted in to Dr Seuss territory, e.g. Moose in a noose.

The Arcola plays its part too. The intimacy of the theatre means that the cast could easily engage with the audience and at times they talked to us directly to, for example, explain some of the history.

The play is coming to The Rose in Kingston soon (my nearest theatre) but I chose to travel to Dalston to see it simply because I much prefer the layout and atmosphere of the Arcola.

Most of the story swims along with us enjoying the lovable rogues having a bit of fun but we are always aware of the real world outside and sometime this punctures the dream in an uncomfortable way, such as when a visiting couple argue violently over her inability to stop smoking.

(Incidentally, when did it become mandatory for every play to include smoking?)

The journey to the South Pole continues in fits and starts with the explorers having to face the hard challenges of Job Centre interviews, childless wives and shift work.

The dream all but crumbles then the decision is made to re-enact the last leg of the journey and they make a crocodile through the theatre counting out the kilometres in unison before returning in triumph to the stage.

That could be the end but it isn't, because life is not like that. The journey ends, the dream ends and real life reclaims them with work, emigration and uncertain fatherhood.

The Conquest of the South Pole is complex on several levels and that makes for a stimulating, rewarding and testing hour and a half.

One day I'll get around to compiling that list of special shows that I have seen and this will be in it.

17 May 2012

Circus of metal at Royal Victoria Dock

Going back to ExCel for an exhibition gave me another opportunity to savour the majesty of Royal Victoria Dock, and that was an opportunity that I was not going to miss.

Leaving ExCel by the West exit brings you straight to the magnificent footbridge that takes you to Silvertown, should you want to go there.

The vast sweep of water brings an uncommon stillness that most of London's parks fail to deliver due to joggers, dog walkers and other sorts of annoying people. The centre of the bridge has been adopted as an impromptu skate park but even that does little to shatter the calm.

The point of the bridge is not to get to Silvertown, rather it is to appreciate the views West to the City and East towards the sea.

Just beyond the South-West corner of the dock the sky is punctured by the distinctive yellow metal supports that hold up the roof of the Millennium Dome.

Challenging the Dome for attention are the still cranes allowed to rest in peace around the dock now that they have nothing purposeful to do.

For years they drove the economy of an empire and now they have been put out to grass as works of art. I hope that they are happy.

Zooming in on the corner more metal can be seen against the troubled sky, metal that was not there a year ago when last I was there.

Three more metal towers claim the sky. They are taller and wider than their neighbours who must now learn to deal with the competition.

But the new towers are not the victors in this metallic battle.

Strung between the new towers are the cable cars of the Emirates Air Line that will soon transport people from Greenwich Peninsula (by the Dome) to Royal Victoria DLR station by the North-West corner of the dock.

Like the bridge that I took these pictures from, the Air Line seems to be much higher above the water than is strictly necessary to allow ships pass beneath and, I presume, for the same reason, to provide spectacular views for its passengers.

I am absolutely awful at heights but with views like that on offer I think that even I might be tempted to take a ride on the Air Line. One day.

16 May 2012

Grand Designs Live 2012

I have deliberately avoided exhibitions like the Ideal Home Show for many years because the thought of spending a day surrounded by sofas and table lamps is frightening. So it took something special to tempt me to go to Grand Designs Live.

Well, two special things actually.

Firstly there was an offer of cheap tickets via work. OK, so my experience from similar shows is that everybody there has got cheap tickets but gamification works and the thought of having won something is always good.

Secondly I actually had a reason for going. My boiler is on its last legs and only made it through the last Winter by resting for a few days in the middle so I was interested to see the latest options for deploying reusable energy at home.

The show was vast, occupying five (I think) sections on the North side (Zones N3-7).

It was zoned, as the advert above implies, into four quarters covering interiors, gardens,  build and kitchens/bathrooms.

I was only interested in the build area really and only strayed out of this to look for drinks and the technology section where I watched far more of Avatar on Blu-Ray than I needed to.

The aisles were narrow and packed with people (what were their excuses for going there?) so getting around was not easy or comfortable. It also meant that the sight-lines were bad and you could not see a stall unless you walked directly past it, if then.

The good news is that I did find several stands on domestic renewables but the bad news is that they were (mostly) more concerned with making appointments to install their product than in explaining to me why I should install them. One even had to rely on an iPhone picture to show me their solar panels.

The technology also because more complicated and I am still not certain whether I need solar heating, solar electricity, a heat pump or some combination of these. The one hard fact was that a solar photovoltaic (PV) panel generates 250W and so a standard installation providing 4kW needs 16 panels. That's a lot of panels. And it's even worse if you want some solar heating panels too.

At the moment I'm thinking that PV is the way to go as electricity is more flexible in its use than hot water - there's a limit to how many showers you can take in a day.

The big disappointment was to find only one stand offering grey water solutions (using scarce food to flush toilets is just mad) and that mean installing a completely separate plumbing system and a burying a large water tank in the garden.

What did work was the things that I did not go there to see, such as the small display of some of the Grand Design houses and some of the architects' and house-builders' stands. I expected to see Huf Haus there, and I did, but I did not expect to see so many similar products with such similar names. None impressed anything like as much as Huf Haus though.

I spoke to a couple of the architects and am thinking again about options for the North side of my house which has been empty since the climbing frame went.

I left Grand Designs Live with more questions than I went in with, which is not what I expected but probably counts as a success. Now I need to read all the brochures, visit all the websites and fend off all the sales calls.

The one undoubted success was adding two new canvass shopping bags to my already impressive collection. It would not be a proper exhibition without one.

15 May 2012

The Conquering Hero at the Orange Tree

The Orange Tree is never bad, is usually very good and is sometimes excellent. The Conquering Hero is excellent.

We start the story in a country house on the cusp of the First World War. The father of the house, retired from the service in which he never saw action, and his peers are looking forward to the war to come as a chance to show the might and right of Britain.

His daughter, who is married to a soldier is equally convinced, but his two sons are not. One, Steven, is a priest and does not see how Jesus could support the war and the other Christopher, is an artist and feels more affinity with the artists of Germany than with other Britains.

Chris struggles to understand the war and struggles harder to explain his antipathy to it to the others.

One by one everybody falls under the war's spell, even Steven does his part by joining the Red Cross. When the loyal family footman signs-up for service Christopher makes a sudden and unexpected decision to sign-up too.

Then it's time for a short break and a Becks.

We return to a darkened theatre that has been transformed from a comfortable home to a miserable (German) trench where Christopher staggers lost, captured and then recaptured.

The war ends and Christopher returns home to a hero's welcome that he avoids by taking another route to the house - the brass band that was appropriate at the recruitment fair now seems inappropriate.

Not everybody makes it home.

The family find it as hard to deal with a shell-shocked and battle weary Christopher as they did with a pacifist one, and their reaction is much the same. They try to understand him but ignoring him is easier. His now proud father suggests that he will be better after a little rest but as the play ends their is little doubt that this is untrue.

I made the bold claim earlier that The Conquering Hero is excellent. This is why.

The before-and-after structure of the play allows us to explore anti-war themes, and people's reactions to them, from two different perspectives. Beforehand it is an intellectual and spiritual argument against the concept of two countries, once friends, going to such extremes to resolve a dispute. Afterwards it is the impact on individuals that is highlighted, the killed and the killers.

Christopher carries this change with him while the other characters remain the same throughout (or die). And so the play relies an awful lot on the actor who plays Christopher.

Simon Harrison is blinding. He is equally convincing as an effete artist and as a broken soldier. There were genuine tears on several faces in the audience at the end. The actress playing his girl friend looked fit to blub too.

I'll say it just one last time, The Conquering Hero is excellent.

14 May 2012

Garden of Reason at Ham House

I go to Ham House several times a year because it is close, has an interesting garden and I can get in for free with my Art Card. And so I found myself there on a wet weekend looking for a quick respite from the stifling indoors.

I expected nothing more that the familiar garden but found myself at an art exhibition.

Garden of Reason is a display of modern art spread all around the gardens. The most striking piece is a pyramid of bright red metal staircases on the large lawn at the rear of the house, which looks on as if unsure of what is going on.

In the Wilderness, my favourite part of the garden, there is a central oval where all the paths meet and decisions are made on where to explore next.

Distracting you from this decision is a series of plinths with completely different art works on each one.

I picked this one because it is the most outrageous but I could also have picked what looks like a buckled road sign.

Exploiting the length of one of the straight paths is an optical feature flanked by hedges. Unfortunately when I was there any clever effect was destroyed by a combination of the rain that had clouded the lenses and (I presume) small children who had knocked some of the lenses out of line.

Nothing to do with the exhibition, but it was good to see another drinks area on the rear terrace giving the opportunity to sit and enjoy the garden over a coffee and, let's be honest here, a slice of cake.

Moving to the north side and the former Cherry Garden, the ornamental lavender (recently replanted) and conical hedges have been joined by a set of blocks.

The sign clearly says that they are not to be climbed on but I had to wait some time to take this picture while a small boy had to be coaxed down by his not overly concerned parents.

The small boy thought that their attitude was "ridiculous" and that touch of unknowing child-speak made the wait worth while.

Completing the tour of the house brings us to the front where we discover two large balloons in the alcoves either side of the front door. I've always found the front of the house to be a little too fussy (the back is much better) but somehow the addition of the balloons make it look simpler.

Despite their patterning, I could not get the idea of Rover from The Prisoner out of my mind and kept expecting one of the balloons to head towards me while making an unnatural wailing sound.

Elsewhere in the garden there was an interesting sound installation on the subject of tulip bulbs - rather hard to photograph that one.

Garden of Reason is a series of events as well as installations so I am sure to be going back.

13 May 2012

Garden Open Today

The parents were very keen gardeners (my Dad still is) and when I was around five years old they built one garden from scratch (a brand-new bungalow in Maiden Newton) before moving on to transform a much larger garden in Weymouth.

For a few years Dad belonged to a gardening book club and once a month he would receive an impressive hard-backed book through the post. Many of these were on specialist topics like fuchsias but he also got all of the Beverley Nichols books and the title and cover of this one made a strong impression on me.

And then, some fifty years later, I find myself living not a mile away from the very garden that Nichols wrote about.

Sudbrook Cottage lies on Ham Gate Avenue, the road that leads from Ham Common to Richmond Park. It is one of a series of small cottages once serving Sudbrook Park Mansion that now survives as the home to The Richmond Golf Club. Next door one side is Ormeley Lodge, where Lady Annabel Goldsmith lives, and on the other is Sudbrook Lodge, so the cottage is in grand company.

The cottage has been extended over the years but very much retains its charm and none of these changes are visible from the road where the impressive line of brick remains.

While the cottage is somewhat lesser than its neighbours its garden is as grand as any and grander than most.

I took over a hundred photos on my recent visit there (it was open for an afternoon to raise money for charity) and managed to whittle those down to just 48 for the album that I posted on Facebook.

That still made it a very difficult job to select just a few to show here so I decided to pick just pictures that showed the overall design of the garden and rejected all of the close-ups of flowers and ornaments.

The garden has several distinct areas defined by their shape and construction while the garden as a whole is unified by a common planting scheme.

The pond above is the most obvious construct but there are many others.

Here a path links two lawns and as you cross you feel that you are walking through history. The stone ornaments and metal benches are clearly very old and you can but hope that some of them date back to Nichols' time.

The planting here is typical of most of the garden in that it looks unplanned. The flowers and shrubs are very mixed and there are no straight lines to betray the hand of a designer.

Completing the crossing to the east and then turning north the garden changes character.

In a section sunk just a little lower than the rest of the garden are some formal beds with regimented planting.

In the centre is a statue that looks at peace in the garden.

There are also large wooden benches at each end and an assortment of stone ornaments, like there are throughout the garden, but the garden is sufficiently large to carry all these artifacts without looking the least cluttered or messy.

If you look carefully you can see that next to the bench is a cute hour-glass shaped plant-pot. It is this sort of detail that I like about the garden.

It is not all old stuff though, alongside the old and battered stone pots there are several modern ones made from galvanised steel. They are a bit too ubiquitous for me these days, pubs chips always come in them now, and I much prefer the unusual charm of the old against the familiar new.

Moving a south and back towards the house we can look back over the lawn towards the sunken garden we have just left. From here the white statue that was so prominent earlier is hardly visible thanks to its sunken setting and the hedge in front of it.

The long wall along the east side is magnificent.

It is high to keep deer out as this was once part of Richmond Park.

Again the ornamentation is old, large and unfussy, much like the planting along the wall.

I love this long bench and I love it even more for it being left alone for the moss to colonise.

The bench has been repaired since last year but that was done without disturbing the moss. The new concrete looks a little white but that cannot be helped and all the rain we have had this Spring will help it to darken.

Two more stone balls give the seat a sense of grandeur that the moss does not take away. This is growing old gracefully.

Sweeping back towards the garden gate gives us our final view of the garden for the moment. Here tulips play, as they do through the garden, and in the background you can see one of the four or five sets of table and chairs that are laid out waiting for guests to take a rest.

This is an exceptional garden and I have only given a hint of its beauty in these few pictures. I'll have some more to show you the next time that I go there.