30 November 2012

BCSA Annual Dinner 2012

The publicity blurb (that I wrote) says that the BCSA Annual Dinner is the main event in the British Czech and Slovak Association's year, and so it is.

The format is simple, which is why we stick to it.

Over a hundred of us go to the Radisson Edwardian Hotel in Bloomsbury for an evening of food, drink, conversations, a speech and a raffle.

We start at 7 with a drinks reception where the generosity of Budvar is much appreciated. That is where the conversations start flowing, and they never stop.

At some point we are called in to dinner which is usually the contentious part of the evening with equally strong preferences among the quests for Czech/Slovak or English food. I escape all that by being vegetarian, hence the orange spot on my name card.

The seating arrangements are more important to me than the food and the organiser did well for me this year putting me on a table of Slovaks and Brits most of whom I already knew quite well.

The after dinner speaker was HE Miroslav Wlachovsky, Slovak Ambassador in London, who gave us an insight to his posting here. It was very well received.

Somehow what was 7pm soon became 11pm and the dinner was over. A few of us drifted to the hotel bar for a nightcap before consulting timetables to find a way home.

And that's where things went wrong for me. I was too late for the mainline train but, I thought, in plenty of time for the tube only it had decided not to run because of signal failures somewhere and I had t join the boisterous crowds at Trafalgar Square fighting to get on a Night Bus. I managed to get on the second one.

That got me in to Kingston not long after 3am (and boy was it busy then) and some extreme luck with a 65 got me home about twenty minutes later.

Even that journey home failed to dampen my spirits for the evening. It was a fine dinner, as always, and I'll be back for more next year.

29 November 2012

TFPL Connect International 2012

The last TFPL Connect event in another good year gave us a personal perspective on the changing balance of power in communication and information delivery.

But first we had an introduction from TFPL supremo Darron Chapman which gave us his view of some current trends. He also reminded us that we lost Angela Abell earlier in the year. She was a regular at TFPL events and I spoke to her many times.

Our guide for the main part of the evening was Jonathan Charles, former BBC reporter and now Director of Communications at the EBRD.

His main message was to compare and contrast his two roles and to explain how in both he tried to be a trusted source of the truth.

What follows is a mix of his comments and my reactions to them.

There used to be very few sources but they were all reliable in 1987 (25 years ago). The only people who provided the news were qualified journalists working for reputable organisations.

Now information is faster and there is more of it, more sources, but reliability is less.

In the news we are reading the first draft of history, but it will change over time when it, and its implications, is understood better. Nobody in Spain has forgotten which side people were on during the Franco regime.

The digital revolution needs trusted guides - such as the BBC. Corporate communications now better funded than journalism and is placed to fill this role, if the job is done properly.

We were shown a video of work done by the EBRD in Slovakia. I felt that we were only being told part of the story, in particular the children looked very white.

Is it really a more complex world than 25 years ago or do we just understand more about the complexity?

Can you only be trusted by being safe? By that I mean sticking to facts that are easily verifiable and lack a complex context. What is the truth about Syria?

Are the BBC really to be trusted? There have been many times when I have found it to be outrageously biased in favour of "the establishment".

Information is always seen through the somebody's biased eyes. Perhaps we should be honest and recognised our own biases, rather looking fr an absolute truth that does not exist? Are trusted guides just myths?

I think we can trust guides by making allowances for their bias when this is obvious but the BBC pretends not to have one.

As usual at TFPL Connect the main session was followed by an long networking session slightly charmed with wine and nibbles. A good group of people go to TFPL Connect and the conversations always flow widely and easily. That is why I go whenever I can.

Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain

The Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain was just the sort of tempt me back there, even though it is a little off the beaten track to be a regular haunt.

Previously I had only seen the free permanent exhibitions at Tate Britain so this was my first chance to see a faulty curated show.

I went on a Thursday evening late in to the run to avoid the worst of the crowds. That worked but it was still busy, which is clearly a good thing.

The works are spread cross seven themed rooms (or is it eight?). Each room's theme is explained clearly and so is the contribution of each work to that theme. There is plenty to read and plenty to learn.

There is some thinking to do to work out the best way round each room and there are no clues to help you so half go clockwise and half go anti-clockwise with the resultant confusion that causes.

The works include a few expected favourites, such as Sir John Everett Millais' Ophelia, that has simply been moved from the free part of the gallery to the exhibition. It is a classic and so deserves its place as one of the major works on how. It also has some local interest for me as the background is taken from the banks of the Hogsmill that enters the Thames at Kingston.

Unsurprisingly there are large dollops of Dante Gabriel Rossetti too.

Paintings dominate the show but there are smatterings of other media such a sample of Morris wall paper and one of his carpets. The later is called Peacock and bird, which is enough to tell you that you will like it.

The big surprise and the undoubted high-light for me was the number, variety and size of works by Edward Burne-Jones that were the main attraction in the final gallery.

I had seen plenty of Burne-Jones at places like Two Temple Place and the V&A but nothing quite on the scale of this.

So much to see and so much to love.

Yet, somehow, the exhibition failed to spark in the way that, say, Hockney did earlier in the year. It was informative and luscious but it lacked the wow factor. It felt more like a school trip to museum than a day out in a gallery.

As if to prove the point, I ventured briefly in to the main part of Tate Britain and soon found several pieces that grabbed my attention in a way that non of the Pre-Raphaelites had.

Perhaps they are too familiar now and perhaps they are just a little too similar to sustain a show on their own.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy the afternoon, because I did, not just as much as I expected.

To end on a plus note, I did take advantage of my Arts Fund card which meant that it cost me about £7 to go rather than the full price of £14.

And some of the money saved on the entrance fee was ploughed back in the cafe on a coffee and a cake. Again the reward of giving something extra back outweighed any guilt from the calories consumed.

I think that I will go back to Tate Britain before too long because of the promise of the few rooms I went in to on the way out rather than the expectation of another exhibition.

25 November 2012

Kew Gardens on a sunny November morning

The sunshine pulled me out of bed at some ridiculously early hour for a Sunday morning, it was before 9am, and made me go to Kew Gardens.

The 65 bus helped me on my way and threw me out at Kew Bridge so that I could go in to the gardens through the main gate on Kew Green, which is now called the Elizabeth Gate.

Getting in was a problem at first but was soon resolved when I showed my Kew Membership Card rather than the the National Trust card that I had tried to get in with.

Just inside the gate is the Conservatory. I do not know what it was originally used for, now it is occasionally home to works of art and at the moment that means one of the pieces in the David Nash collection that is littered across the gardens.

Turning right takes you to a hidden lake and another interesting glasshouse that I also know nothing about. This one is more interesting architecturally so it's a shame that visitors are not allowed in there.

From the lake decisions had to be made and I chose to go for an extended walk roughly following the river with the intention of then heading towards Lion Gate and home.

After crossing the top of the lake I took the Cedar Vista towards the Pagoda, this is the longest of the seven vistas that radiate out from there.

Along the way I paused at the Waterlily Pond simply because it is very pretty. Obviously the peacocks think so too and they are usually found in that area. There were a couple on the bank but I preferred to take pictures of the magnificent grasses.

The walk was going so well that I changed my plans and instead of continuing on to Lion Gate I turned left again and went along the Pagoda Vista towards the Palm House.

I rarely walk along the Vistas because they are usually too full of people so it was a treat to find them empty. Going fairly early on a cold day helped.

As did the persistent rain over the last few months that drove most people on to the drier tarmac paths.

I took a slight detour from the Vista to walk through the Temperate House.

This is my favourite building in Kew, despite some fierce competition, and it would be ridiculous to be near and not go in. First though, I had a good look at it from the outside as the architecture is stunning. All greenhouses should look like this. Sadly my garden is not quite up to it.

Inside the greenhouse is being refreshed and replanted so there are changes to see on every visit. At the moment it is looking a little bare due to the work that is going on.

Surprisingly it also boasts some of the very few colours on display in late November. And most of those colours were orange, like these.

From there there it was a short walk, back along the Vista, to Victoria Plaza where they have cleverly placed a coffee bar with cakes ready to trap the weary walkers, like myself. As always, I consoled myself that these were not unnecessary calories but a way of giving thanks to the Gardens by making another small financial donation.

I had started my walk at the Main Gate (about 1pm on the clock) and had walked anti-clockwise close to the edge of the gardens all the way round to Victoria Gate (3pm).

Walked at pace, and not stopping too often for distractions, Kew Gardens seemed surprisingly small. I spent around 90 minutes walking around most of it, on other days I've spent that long in one greenhouse. Such is the magic of Kew that is can expand and contract space and time to suit the needs of each visitor's mood and intent.

24 November 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress at the ENO

I like to go to performances unprepared and this time I was doubly so.My knowledge of Vaughan Williams' music is limited, the only thing I have on CD is the Antarctic Symphony (his seventh), and I have never read John Bunyan's book that provides the inspiration and title.

I was not taking much of a risk this time as I booked a seat up in the Balcony for a modest £25. At that price it did not have to be that good.

The Coliseum was packed so I guess that some people had some idea of what to expect.

The opera opens in a prison where we meet John Bunyan completing his book. He starts to read from it and the protagonist, Pilgrim, then appears. Bunyan fades from view and Pilgrim starts his journey that is the narrative.

The music is as wonderful as I had hoped. It is very similar in mood to the Antarctic Symphony which is not that surprising given that the symphony premièred in 1952 just one year after the opera. The music sweeps through long passages slowly, grandly and beautifully.

This beauty is not matched by the story.

Pilgrim is beset by challenges and temptations and the production reflects this with bleak industrial colours and staging.

The main element of the stage is a set of metal components that, like Meccano, combine in multiple ways to make prisons, bridges and other structures that defy categorisation.

I like industrial stuff and I liked this, though I normally associate such a look with the harsh rhythmic music of, say, Rammstein or Vladimír Hirsch. Not the slow symphonic sounds of Williams.

The bridges were a neat trick creating processional routes for the journey. There was a strong whiff of Victorian railways here, and that is not a bad thing either.

The one uplifting moment and the one splash of colour comes when Pilgrim visits Vanity Fair.

The characters that he meets here include Lord Lechery and Madam Wanton. These are all people off ill-repute who try to tempt Pilgrim who resists and gets jailed for his refusal.

In pantomime the baddies wear black so that you know that they are the baddies so it seems at odds to have everybody in grey apart from the baddies. If this is meant to be an advertisement for Christianity then it's a strange one as the only people who have fun all evening are the children of Beelzebub.

Pilgrim escapes from prison and resumes his journey but I had lost interest in the thin plot by then. The music easily sustained my interest though.

The piece feels more like an oratorio than an opera, something more along the lines of The Dream of Gerontius than Billy Budd, to pick two notable works by other English composers. And I think it would have worked just as well, if not better, as a concert performance where we could all have focused on the music and ignored the metal cages.

Political tweeting with the BBC

Twitter has enlivened the watching and listening of political programmes as now you can shout at the world and not just at your telly.

The BBC actively encourages this on its main audience participation programmes Any Questions (Radio 4) and its young upstart Question Time (BBC One).

Even better, Any Questions is followed by Any Answers which has moved over the years from the paper post (the answers were broadcast a week after the original debate) to the telephone to email and now to Twitter.

I have had a few tweets read out on Any Answers but this week was even better as I got retweeted BBC Radio 4 and so my comment, on the lasting legacy of capitalism, was picked up by more people than usual leading to more retweets, more followers and some bizarre replies.

All that is much better that ranting at a box that can't argue back.

For the record, this is what I tweeted during this week's programmes.

Any questions?

Apart from petty vindictiveness, what actually is the point in denying prisoners the right to vote? #bbcaq

We should back down and let all prisoners vote as is their human right and we'll forget what all the fuss was about in a few weeks. #bbcaq

In my children's lifetime we will lose Holland to the sea but all the Tories will talk about is the short-term cost of renewables. #bbcaq

The mistake is only counting the financial cost of energy and ignoring the environmental cost that will critically damage the planet. #bbcaq

The lasting legacy of capitalism will be that it made us destroy the planet because that's what the numbers told us to do. #bbcaq

Anybody who thinks that economically and politically that GB is anything like CH is clearly bonkers. #bbcaq

Question Time

IDS grandstands that Parliament is sovereign and not one person clapped. #bbcqt

Prisoners are still human so they still have human rights. The clue is in the name. #bbcqt

If the UK Parliament flaunts the law will they lose the right to vote too? #bbcqt

Prisoners should be allowed to vote. To restrict democracy in this way is inhumane and is a dangerous route to take. #bbcqt

Don't forget that Charles Kennedy sacked an MP (mine) for just saying she understood why Palestinians are angry. #bbcqt

Kind of guessing that posh boy in the audience has never been to Gazza. #bbcqt

It's a false question; Hammas are responding to the continual growth of illegal settlements and the blockade. #bbcqt

Why a referendum on Europe and why now? We cannot relive all our major political decisions every thirty years. #bbcqt

I'd rather have a tighter relationship with Brussels and weaker one with Westminster. Our MPs are nothing to be proud of. #bbcqt

Don't forget that there is a woman bishop in the Anglican Church already, Ellinah Wamukoya in South Africa. #bbcqt

21 November 2012

What is the Kingston Society for?

The Kingston upon Thames Society took a brave step in it's November meeting to start a root and branch review of the Society's objectives and methods by asking the simple question, what is the Society for?

Various members of the Committee (including myself) took it in turns to make a short statement on a part of the Society's activities and then opened the debate up to the whole room.

I was trying to participate in the debate, take notes, tweet and take a few photographs at the same time so my notes are even less comprehensive and comprehensible than usual. I offer them here more of less uneditted.

Brian Godding, the Planning Secretary, opened by reminding members of the three objectives stated in the Society's constitution:
  1. To promote high standards of environmental design, planning and architecture in or affecting the area of benefit.
  2. To educate the public in the environment, history, natural history and architecture of the area of benefit.
  3. To secure the preservation, protection, development and enhancement of features of historic or public interest in the area of benefit.
He added that the Society's relationship with the Council (RBK) was not as strong as it was, e.g. we were no longer invited to private briefings.

The Society is not just about protecting the old and we will support modern schemes we approve against public perceptions, e.g. Huf Haus.

At this point the Surbiton Filter Beds got a mention and for a while threatened to derail the meeting. There was much cross-purpose discussion with the Committee trying to defend the decision whereas the question they were being asked was how the decision had been made.

That then led us in to another discussion on the role of the Committee and its relationship with members, e.g. is it autocratic with an all-powerful Committee or should we be looking for ways to involve members more in decisions like this.

The basis on which applications are judged good is not clear, should we harden the guidelines on which we use to do this, i.e. try to define "good"?

Our membership recruitment leaflet lists some areas of concern in the Borough but the Society does little to address some of these, e.g. streets.

There was a general feeling that the Society is too reactive, e.g. responding to planning applications or RBK policy statements, rather than setting out what we want to achieve and then working to bring this about.
There was a brief, and fairly unanimous, discussion on whether the Society should expand its sphere of interest beyond the physical world of planning and in to how the Borough works, e.g. licensing and traffic. I think we should not but almost everybody else thinks we should.

Similarly members agreed that heritage is important, despite not being specifically mentioned in the constitution, though preservation is. It was also noted that the Coronation Stone is not mentioned in RBK's core strategy.

Various suggestions were made on how we could involve members more, e.g. bring controversial matters to monthly meetings, do more consultation by email and publish committee minutes so that members can comment.

If the Society does take on a wider role then the number of groups that it could work with will also grow to include Residents' Associations and the other local societies with interests in heritage etc.

There was strong interest in the Society establishing sub-committees or working parties to cover specialist topics and there were some volunteers from the audience to get more involved in the Society's activities. In particular Jennifer confirmed that she was no longer able to continue to manage the Heritage Open Days and a few people offered to take this on as a group.

We all want a better "environment" whatever that means to each of us. Wholeness matters, it's not just the buildings we appreciate in our locality.

Should we be active in helping and encouraging people to get things changed, rather than trying to do everything ourselves?

Our mission could be summarised as Protect, Celebrate and Improve. We protect through responding to planning applications and celebrate through HODs and talks but we do little, directly, to improve.

The Society can take a lead in developing a sense of place, which begs the question on what places we have, what their characteristics are and how we want them to develop. There will be conflicts here with different groups of users having different needs. For example, should North Kingston be a quiet area for residents only or does it also have a role in supporting the Town Centre through, say, parking and social life?

Some key points

The Society has yet to consider the results of the meeting so this is all very unofficial, but these are the main messages that I took:
  • The Society should widen its remit and that will require changes to the way that the Society is organised and the other groups that we work with.
  • We need to engage with members much more. Our Facebook page and this blog are small steps towards this.
  • We need to define what we mean by "good" in each sphere and each place that we are interested in, e.g. traffic in the Town Centre and licensing in New Malden.
  • This is a significant change for the Society and will take a lot of time and effort to complete but the membership are very supportive and are willing to play their part.

20 November 2012

A selection of songs and operatic arias at the Slovak Embassy

Two things that feature here regularly are things Czech/Slovak and opera so I was bound to go to an event that combined the two.

The event was a recital by Peter Berger (tenor) and Lada Valesova (piano), and the location was the Slovak Embassy in London. And that's a winning combination.

I've commented before on the suitability of the Embassy for social events and this was another good example. The room is large, high and open but, somehow, it does not echo at all, which may be down to the design of the wooden ceiling.

The other guests were somewhat timid and avoided the front row so I bagged a set there where I could see the keyboards being tinkled. I was just a couple of seats away from the Ambassador so I was in good company.

There were a few familiar Czech/Slovak faces there too and I was able to say a few hellos before the concert started.

The recital was mostly powerful operatic aria, both happy and sad, with some piano pieces to let the tenor rest and a Slovak folk song as an encore.

Lada introduced each piece, telling us much about the story of the opera as she did so. From this we learnt that (at least) two of the men died shortly after singing the songs we heard.

For the record, we had excerpts from the popular operas Eugene Onegin, Bartered Bride, L'Elisir d'Amore, Tosca and La Traviata, plus a couple of unusual pieces.

The two piano pieces were the first performances by Lada of works she has selected for a soon to be released CD featuring Czech and Russian composers.

It was a very lovely recital and was warmly appreciated by the packed room and we were rewarded for our loud clapping with two encores.

There was, of course, an interval and the Embassy treated us to a range of drinks including some sparking wine. That was my choice.

There was a second hit at the bar after the concert which was also an opportunity to mingle more and to snatch a few words with Lada and Peter.

It is always nice to get to meet the artists after an event like this as a personal "thank you" says so much more than even the most enthusiastic clapping can. Of course it is also nice to be able to put a question or too though the difficulty there is to avoid the obvious that everybody else asks.

The only negative was that the drink was not accompanied by any food, other than a few small plates of snacks like crisps and Cheesy Wotsits. And this was only a negative when judged by the usual high standard of catering at events at the Embassy. It was my fault for relying on this for my evening meal having rushed back from Cardiff to attend the concert.

In summary, this was delightful evening filled with beautiful music delivered in an intimate setting and shared with friends. And this is why I love being on the Slovak Embassy's mailing list.

17 November 2012

Così Fan Tutte at the Normansfield Theatre

I like it when I have easy decisions to make, and this was as easy as they come - a Mozart opera in a quaint local theatre in aid of charity.

The opera was the easy comedy Cosi Fan Tutte (a.k.a. Women are Like That), the theatre was the Normansfield, part of the Langdon Down Centre in Teddington, and the charity was the Down's Syndrome Association.

In case you missed the connection, Down's Syndrome is named after Dr John Langdon Down whose house has become the Langdon Down Centre.

This was a semi-concert performance in that the set did not change but the singers did move around the stage a little and acted out the scenes as well as sing them.

I like this halfway-house approach and, to be honest, often think that the elaborate sets, fancy costumes and abundant extras add little to the experience.

The music was provided by a solitary piano, that's the black blob at the bottom of the screen. I was in the front row and found the piano a little loud at times but the people at the back had to be able to hear too. I was still able to follow the singing easily and, through that, the story.

It felt a little odd watching an opera without surtitles even though they were not needed.

Cosi Fan Tutte tells the tale of two pairs of lovers. A friend of the men says that all women are fickle in love and says that he can prove it. A large bet is made. The men then say that they have to go to war only to reappear in disguise. They then try to seduce each other's girlfriend with some degree of success, though it all ends very happily.

The performance was marvellous.

The small cast of six all sang and acted well. I particularly liked the women's chambermaid, who was part of the plot to trick them, as the mischief shone through he face. She won the acting prize (or would have done if there had been one) while the older of the two ladies won the singing prize (ditto).

It was all rather nicely done, a humorous story played to make the most of the comedy while also letting the music show off its beauty.

RO-BUSTERS in 2000AD Prog 1810

I am a subscriber to 2000AD as that is the easy way to get every issue and it is a nice bonus that subscribers get their comics a few days before the official publication date. The latest issue has just been delivered and what an impact it makes!

The cover is by Clint Langley, who has been mentioned here a few times before, and features RO0-BUSTERS in a menacing mood. I can't wait to read Pat Mills' story inside.

This is why 2000AD is still the galaxy's greatest comic.

16 November 2012

Twisted Candy at The Maypole

I've been trying to see Twisted Candy for some time and I finally got the chance, previous efforts having been thwarted by working away and theatre bookings.

So determined was I to see them that I was even prepared to go to The Maypole in Surbiton.

There was a time, in my active Labour Party days, when I would go there after meetings but it never really appealed then and it has not changed in the meantime. It's as old fashioned as pubs get these days.

But somebody likes old fashioned and the place was packed and it took some effort to get served despite the four staff behind the bar.

I also had to squeeze in to a corner of the bar in order to see the band, hence the very side on shot. The line-up is fairly standard with lead guitar, bass guitar, drums (hidden behind the bass) and lead vocals. The three men play well but seem to delight in moving the minimum amount required to play their instruments. That means all the focus is on the leading lady who dresses the part and uses a wireless mike so that she can move the part too.

Twisted Candy are something of the wrong age for me. They are too young of play the early classics, the one exception being a Led Zep song, and are too old to play the more recent harder rock of Linkin Park et al.

Instead they play stuff like Guns n' Roses, and I only know that because they told me.

I was in a confused minority though and there was a great deal of dancing and singing-along, and too much for it just to be the family of the band.

Their exuberance was infectious and encouraged me to stay later than the choice of music otherwise would.

The pub was not much of a draw either with a below-average Youngs Ordinary the only decent beer on offer.

The band were good though. The playing was tight and skillful, and the lead singer led and sang well.

Twisted Candy are playing again soon and in another Surbiton pub. I'll be there.

12 November 2012

Freedom at Sadler's Wells

Freedom is decidedly strange and that is why I like it.

This was my second visit to Sadler's Wells in as many weeks and i was almost in the same seat too, near the centre of the front row of the vertiginous Upper Circle. The big picture below shows the view from there (taken after the performance, I'm not Bianca Jagger.

I think this is a great place to to watch dance from as you can see the depth of the stage and, therefore, the patterns the dancers make on it. The view from the Stalls lacks this depth and costs a lot more.

It is mostly a series of dances, all be it some unusual ones, to which a couple of surprises have been added in the shape of two light puppet stories.

The stage is suitably weird too looking like something out of a science fiction movie, a mash between Alien and the Cybermen. The white plastic pipes do little other than rotate a little and hide dancers but their weirdness is enough to justify their presence.

The music is unusual too. After a short piece of quiet mood music to open the show we are assaulted by a very loud Immigrant Song from Led Zeppelin. There was a lot of musical mood changes after that, and a even a tune or two that I recognised.

The dance was episodic with some common themes. There were scenes of violence, or the threat of violence, and others of tender love.

In possibly the most dramatic scene, and I think may favourite, three dancers flee from sky monsters projected in black across the stage while the music thundered dangerously. On each thunderclap the dancers were thrown violently on to the floor.

Falling, rolling and crawling on the floor were one of the dance memes that reappeared throughout the evening.

Also making a few appearances was the group dancing that bled off to the side of the stage or in to the white pipes ignoring the supposed boundaries of the stage. A simple technique but very effective.

The curiosity scenes are worth a mention for their oddness that intruded in to the mainstream dance.

In the first a male dancer mimed surfing on the waves. The oddness came from the female dancer who played the surfboard. We laughed.

In the second shadow puppets told the story of how a rabbit managed to capture a mermaid.

And in the final one a male dancer played with a small green animal that was projected on to his body. More laughs here.

Back to the main dance and the last two memes. The show's poster gives away the first, women bending over backwards to an extraordinary degree (and without falling over). The second was dancing with the arms, waving and twisting them to make unexpected shapes but doing so with smooth grace and elegant style.

Freedom was a mixed bag, deliberately so, and from that bag the dancers pulled a series of gems that delighted, surprised and excited.

10 November 2012

Good Morning Midnight at Jermyn Street Theatre

As usual I cannot recall why I chose to go to the show, or even how I found out about it in the first place, and also as usual, it proved to be a good decision at the time whatever the reason for it.

This was my first time at the Jermyn Street Theatre and it was rather hard to find! There was a small door with steps leading down to a basement in a building that was surrounded in scaffolding. I walked all the way around it before I found the way in on the second pass.

The theatre is squeezed in to a small and unusual space, as such theatres often are. I was reminded of Pentameters and Trafalgar Studios. The stage is wide and not very deep. The seating slopes back from the long side and a little around the side.

The stage was set simply with six bar stools across the back. These and the lighting gave the impression of a night club. This soon showed itself to be appropriate.

The show opens with a radio DJ welcoming us to her programme that runs from Midnight through to morning. The music selection that follows is jazzy.

The six dancers, three men and three women, take their places on the stools and the dance begins. Each song brings a new dance.

From the beginning the dancing is energetic and raunchy. The wide stage is used to good effect as the dancers throw themselves, and each other, with the passion and fury of the late stages of lust. There is plenty of lifting and carrying too. At times it feels more like a circus act or a gym session set to music than a dance, and I mean that in a good way.

Sitting in the front row was to be immersed in this frenetic activity and almost to intrude is someone else's foreplay. There are some undies on show, coloured knickers for the women and grey boxers for the men, but this is naked lust without the nakedness. You have to go somewhere posh like Sadler's Wells for full nudity.

There are some lighter and quieter moment too, such as when one of the men fell asleep sucking his thumb.

My abiding memories are of exuberance, energy and funky jazz. These are good memories to have.

Comica Comiket Autumn 2012

It has been a couple of years since Grandville the badger detective made a Christmas appearance with Bryan Talbot being busy on other things. This year he has returned in Grandville Bete Noire and I needed to get a signed copy to go alongside my signed copies of the first two volumes.

The ideal opportunity came at the Comica Comiket Independent Comics Fair. I have been tempted to go to previous fairs yet somehow I have managed not to get to one. This time the pull of Grandville and the need to be in London for something else later in the day was enough to get me there.

The venue was the Bishopsgate Institute near Liverpool Street station. The journey should have been easy enough but the new Lord Mayor of London had decided to have some sort of parade through the City which meant that I had to walk up from Bank.

That was not all bad news as I used to work in the NatWest Tower (now Tower 42) so this was a welcome chance to retread some familiar pavements.

Arriving at Comiket I almost immediate walked in to Paul Gravett, the driving force behind so many events and books that bring comics to the attention of the public. He is also incredibly enthusiastic and the wearer of some of the brightest and boldest shirts that I have ever seen. I'm jealous.

One of Paul's jobs that day was to introduce the artists who came up on to the stage to draw under the probing eye of a camera that relayed everything on to a screen for us all to see.

Bryan was soon on the stage, I had timed my arrival with this in mind, and he gave us a variation of the opening panel of the first book.

As soon as he had finished I rushed off to the Gosh stall to buy a copy of Grandville Bette Noir and then went to Bryan's table to get it signed. Sadly tradition says that I have to wait until Christmas Day to receive it officially. And that is when I'll read it too.

The hall was full of other tables with other creators and publishers selling other comics. I had no great intention of buying much but there was so much good stuff around a lot of which I was already aware of thanks to my many comics related RSS feeds.

I was also gently nudged towards a couple of titles by Paul and that nudging worked.

Grandville Bette Noir was swiftly joined by several other books including Hildafolk, Hilda and the Midnight Giant, Everything We Miss, The Yellow M, Scars and Ruptures. And those are just the books that I bought from the Nobrow and Cinebook tables. There were more tables and more books.

I managed to escape with credit card not too damaged and a pile of books hopefully small enough to plough through over the next few weeks. I'll prove it by reviewing them as I read them.

One thing that Comiket did for me was ensure that I make it to another one such was the buzz and the passion for comics. It also helped to rekindle my love for the medium that had been slightly dented by Mavel's and DC's incessant relaunches.

9 November 2012

Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith

It is little over a year since I made a conscious connection to the works of playwright Eugene O'Neill with a faultless production of Anna Christie at the Donmar Warehouse. I have taken every opportunity since then to see more of his works and Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric, Hammersmith was the fourth play in the fourth theatre.

This was my first visit to the Lyric, despite its convenient location being easily reachable from Richmond by tube and bus. It's always nice to have a choice of routes in case one is disrupted for some reason.

The Lyric impressed me as I had a beer and a snack pre-theatre. The waiting areas are large, open and fresh. The refurbishment and redecoration are recent and stylish. It reminded me of the Lost Theatre that has also been refreshed recently.

Soaking up the modern ambiance only increases the shock of going in to the theatre. Nothing prepares you for the Victorian theatre entombed in a modern building.

I must admit that I would have much preferred a modern theatre that matched the modern spaces outside.

I am not against history but we have too many Victorian theatres that are too similar to each other to be interesting individually and which do not provide modern facilities such as leg-room and a guaranteed view over the heads in front.

I got over the second potential problem in the usual way, by securing a seat in the front row of the circle.

Desire Under the Elms is set on a small farm in the American Mid-West. Life is hard but reasonable. Living on the farm are the aged father who built it, his two late-twenties sons from his first marriage and his late-teens son from his second marriage. Both wives are now dead.

The future of the farm is a hot topic of discussion as the old man can only pass it on to one of them. This future is thrown in to turmoil when the father returns with his third bride and new natural heir to the farm.

The two elder sons leave to seek their fortunes in California leaving just the old man, his young bride and his youngest son.

The play turns sharply in this scene where the bride makes it abundantly clear that she is interested in the son. He is young and, frankly, has no chance and they are soon embroiled in an affair that everybody in the nearby village is aware of but which the old man is oblivious too.

There is a nice scene when a party is held to celebrate the arrival of a baby and the villagers do a strange but wonderful dance that they brought with them from somewhere in Europe.

The play speeds towards its expected gloomy end though which end and how gloomy is not apparent until you get there.

The play ends with a passing comment about the beauty of the farm. And that is as it should be as the farm is the central character in the play. Its history and future are what drive the story and lead the characters to do what they do.

The production is rather neat. Most of the scenes take place in various rooms in the house, the kitchen, parlour and two bedrooms, and these are wheeled on and off the stage as if they too were actors, reinforcing the idea of the farm as a character in the story.

The acting is pretty good too though the youngest son did have a tendency to shout when that was not necessary or appropriate. There was nothing to complain about in the other two main roles. The old man was proud and domineering and his new wife was sultry and scheming.

There was a lot to admire in this production and in the play itself. It made for an emotional and enthralling evening, which is what I hoped it would do.

5 November 2012

Skyfall is the Bond film you always wanted to see

If I am not mistaken, the last Bond film that I went to the cinema to see was The Man with the Golden Gun and that was back in 1974. I would normally wait for the DVD these days but I was tempted in to the Odeon Richmond by the overwhelmingly positive reviews, mostly from friends on Twitter, and a free Monday evening.

The reviews are essentially right. Skyfall is a positive restart for Bond. Gone are the sillier gadgets and the incessant womanising, though these are not lost completely, this is still Bond after all.

Similarly a lot of the action takes place in the UK rather than gratuitous foreign beauty spots, not that they are completely absent either. There is a believable baddie and a coming-of-age plot that kills off a few current themes and sets up some new ones.

It is all rather neat and tidy and sets Bond up nicely for the next fifty years.

All that is very good but there is one serious drawback. This is Bond as Batman. To be specific this is Bond as Batman in The Dark Knight. If you do not want to know why then stop reading!

Raoul Silva is the Joker. He thinks and moves like the Joker and, more importantly, he makes the "two rats" analogy just like the Joker claims that he and Batman are like each other and so are natural opponents. Bond's mother, M, is killed. Bond's ancestral home is destroyed.

The deliberate copying, and it is hard to believe that it could be anything else, is a negative that the film struggles to overcome. It does that well enough for the copying to be forgiven if not forgotten. It is still a very good film and I will be buying the DVD.

3 November 2012

Three Sisters at the Young Vic

Chekhov seems to be back in fashion at the moment, and that suits me.

Three Sisters is one of his four last plays which are the four that he is best known for. The Young Vic's performance had got good reviews but the run clashed with my late Summer holiday so I ignored it for a while. Then the run was extended and I took the plunge. Even then I was not able to get there until the last day.

I like the pre-theatre area at the Young Vic though you usually have to fight to get a seat. I managed to find one upstairs. Unfortunately they do not sell bean coffee from the upstairs bar so I had to have a beer.

Taking my seat in the front row it was apparent that this was going to be a modern production. The square performance are was filled with grey tables that made a raised stage. There were a couple of props and that was it.

Gradually we are introduced to the cast and the three sisters took up positions around the edge of the stage, i.e. close to the audience. Again the modernity was blatant. The language of the translation was contemporary and reasonably fresh and, sitting almost in my lap, Masha sang Bowie's Golden Years to herself.

Olga, the eldest sister, is a teacher and a spinster by accident. Masha married young and regrets it. Irina wants to escape the rural home and return to Moscow where she had lived as a small girl.

Add to the mix some local soldiers, a doctor who has forgotten everything that he ever knew about doctoring, and ageing housekeeper, a geek brother and the bibmo who becomes his wife, and a few other local characters. It is a large and diverse cast.

The play is about an ending, as common theme with Chekhov. The ending here is the departure of the army that had been stationed there for some years.

Their departure takes the town back to rural solitude and has a direct impact on each of the sisters, and it is not a happy one.

It was vintage Chekhov.

This production was superb in all respect. The acting made the most of the diverse characters bringing out their differences while keeping them believable. We feel deeply for some, dislike others and find others amusing.

The staging was aggressively modern in a good way. This is not a safe production that lets the established script play out on its own. It adds energy and friction and, like a grain of sand in an oyster, it produces a pearl.

One scene summed it up. There is a party and somebody sits down at the piano to play a folk song. That turned out to be Nirvana's Smells like Teen Spirit that everybody sung along to with gusto pausing only to drink copiously. The atmosphere that created was exactly right.

After the ice cream break the plot themes developed in a downward spiral. There is a fire, a shooting, an affair, a large gambling debt and a broken clock.

The decay is emphasised as the tables that made up the raised stage are slowly removed one at a time. This, and all the other carefully planned parts of the staging and direction, made this a stunning production. It was easy to see why the run was extended and why it was sold out.

2 November 2012

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! at the Riverside

I am going to stop claiming that I do not like musicals as I keep going to them and I keep liking them.

That said, I am still not in to the Mamma Mia type musicals and I found the extremely popular Les Miserables to be laughably bad. The musicals that I like are more quirky, musicals like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!

The musical is a series of endearing and  humorous sketches on the theme of love; falling in love, dating, getting married, not getting married, living with small children, living with older children, living after a partner has died, and growing old together.

Telling these stories were a cast of just four, two men and two women. They were helped by a few black-clad assistants who moved the many simple props around to define each scene.

And there are many scenes. Too many scenes for me to recall them all, and I refuse to take any sort of notes during a performance, but there were several that made a strong impression.

Early on we see a couple on their first date who agree that they do not like first dates so decide to treat it as a second date. They do not like second dates either. After several false starts they decide to jump to the point where they had been a couple, had split, he had a new girlfriend and they had a chance meeting to their mutual embarassing.

In an other date, a man gets taken reluctantly to a soppy film where the hero's wife is dying of cancer. He tells that he would much rather be watching an action film but he gets sucked in and ends up shedding a few tears.

Later we meet a family where the father's only comfort is his car as he is berated by his back-seat-driving wife and squabbling kids in the back. At one point she sings, "Keep your eyes on the road", to which he replies, "Keep your thoughts in your head".

And, finally, toward the end we meet an elderly Jewish pair, not a couple, who meet at a funeral having been introduced at another funeral. Funerals are a large part of their lives. He pursues her with some success while they both confess that they will always love their departed partners.

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! was a nicely put together show that made you care about the characters and share their pains, joys and embarrassments.