30 March 2013

In The Beginning was The End at Somerset House

I found out about In The Beginning was The End more or less by accident.

News did not come through one of my many theatre related emails that I get every week (or if it was, I did not notice, it came from the always entertaining and informative Robert Elms podcast of highlights from his BBC Radio London show.

Two things about the show piqued my considerable interest; it was a promenade performance and, despite wearing the badge of the National Theatre, was performed in the lower levels of Somerset House. That combination was simply too interesting too miss.

By then the show had been running for a little while and was proving to be extremely popular. Luckily it was so popular that it had been extended by a few weeks and I was able to get tickets for the very last evening. At 9:35pm.

The day took some planning, and that included another show in Hampstead, a walk through Regent's Park (where it snowed), a curry at the India Club and a coffee and cake at Fernandez and Wells in the courtyard of Somerset House.

We entered In The Beginning was The End in groups of ten after a short briefing that did little more than warn us that there was some nudity and the photography was strictly prohibited. I wish that I had ignored the later as a trawl of the internet has failed to reveal any of the images that I was hoping to find, such was the secrecy around the show.

The theme of the show was the technology firm Fusion International.

Some of their technology was real and simple fun, such as the lemon-powered lights and the toy that shot soft missiles at you when you walked past. The fictional technology included Petbot (a small Metal Mickey) and a device to calm you down and (Tension Negating Technology). These went wrong.

The other theme was corporate life and we encountered, among many other things, a boardroom that flooded while the people in it calmly put on breathing gear, and another that tilted and slid the participants out of view.

There was a great deal going on across a lot of different media that the show defies classification. I've called it "theatre" and there was theatre, i.e. real actors, in it but there was also film, photography, music and installations, such as the large and dangerous looking Petbot hidden in a dark room.

There was a sense of direction through the performances but not a prescribed route as such and I soon lost contact with the other in my group while other paths criss-crossed. The sense of not know where I was, or how far through the promenade I was, or even whether I had seen all of it (probably not) all added to the mystery and excitement. 

With such a rich mix of things on display the evening is remembered as a series of fragments, of which these were two of my favourites.

A customer service department is racked with pressure. One colleague takes his clothes off and leaves. The others then do the same. Reading their PC monitors we can see the letters of complaint that they are having to deal with. These are both fu
nny and sinister.

My favourite room was empty apart from a loudspeaker playing a Bach cello concerto on continuous loop while through the large windows we could see two men repeatedly slowly falling down past the windows. It was hypnotic and beautiful. I could have stayed in there for ages rather than the long while that I had time for.

In The Beginning was The End was a unique experience that stimulated in so many unexpected ways. An evening to treasure.

Longing at the Hampstead Theatre

My first visit to the Hampstead Theatre was prompted by the names Greig, Glen and Chekov.

Tamsin Greig has been in many good things including Black Books, Love Soup, Green Wing and The Archers. Iain Glen is now a major star thanks to Game of Thrones. Chekhov wrote a few classic plays, all of which I like.

Hampstead Theatre is bit of a star too. Built in the sixties it is comfortable and well laid out. The auditorium seats 300 people but still feels intimate and cosy, and there is a bright welcoming reception area with a cafe.

The theatre is also conveniently placed next to Swiss Cottage underground station and that is not too far from the cutely named Finchley Road & Frognal station on the London Overground, where I arrived from Richmond.

Longing is something of a cheat but an acceptable one. Chekhov wrote only a few plays but dozens of short stories and Longing is the merger of two of these. The joins are obvious, i.e. there are clearly two stories being told,  but they are sewn together neatly and effectively.

In familiar Chekhov territory we find a Russian country estate that has fallen on hard times.and he family face ruin, largely due to the husband's unwise investments. Tasmin Greig, a doctor (another Chekhov regular), is visiting the family and they are joined by Iain Glen another childhood friend who is now a successful Moscow lawyer. The family hope that he can find some way out of their predicament.

He tries to help and while he does so feelings develop between him and two of the girls. The possible love story between Tasmin and Iain is the main story.

The summer house Glen is living in needs painting and so we are introduced to the two men whose job this is. One is a young man who is entitled to a higher station in life but who wants to live as a labour and to do proper work.

He is thwarted in this by being engaged to the coarse daughter of a newly-rich man (John Sessions) who intends to buy the estate.

The young man discovers that one of the daughters heard some of his poetry once and he begins to think that perhaps his impending marriage is not what he wants. This relationship is the second story.

The two stories share the theme and Longing is a good summary of that.

This is Chekhov so we get lots of examples of the tensions between the classes, town and country, and new and old money. What is missing though is the expected gravitas of decline. Indeed we get the opposite and the financially inept husband is cheery throughout. Like Billy Bunter he is always expecting something to turn up.

I liked the play a lot. Not as much as a genuine Chekhov but quite a lot none the less. What I liked even more was the acting. The two stories required a few strong characters to carry them and this it had. Everybody in the cast played their part very well and the rousing reception from the sold-out house was well deserved.

Longing was well thought out and delivered. Everything from the theatre to the set to the direction to the acting worked and worked well. The script was good too, it was just a shame that it had the Chekhov name to try to live up to.

29 March 2013

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown at the Borderline

I go to see Arthur Brown in concert whenever I can and it seems that I am not the only one. The stories of strong ticket sales for this gig proved to be true and the venue was packed.

The other encouraging thing about the gig was the number of young things there amongst us older 'uns in our regulation leather jackets.

Of course one of the oldest there was Arthur himself who is now seventy. Yes, seventy.

As always Arthur's technical age is a mirage confounded by his vitality on stage and his deep resonant voice.

His frequent leg-shake dance meant that he needed a lot of space to himself and the rest of the band lined up around the edge of the stage.

An early mention must be made for Lucie Rejchrtova on keyboards who parried with Arthur through the evening. They exchanged glances frequently and Arthur often wandered across in an attempt to play the keyboards. He managed this a couple of times, even playing with his foot once, and he knocked the keyboards on the floor too. Lucie carried on playing through all this and her distinctive sixties-style sound was the defining  mood of the music.

The other musicians played their parts very well too though they were mostly content to stay at the back and let Arthur do the theatricals.

Arthur was magnanimous in introducing each of the band members and giving them solos in which to shine. There was a loud cheer when Nina Gromniak came to the front of the stage to give hers.

And there was Ms Angel too. She danced with Arthur on three of four songs, wearing a different outfit for each one.

The set was much as expected, e.g. Kites, Spell on You, Devil's Grip and Fire. There were one or two new (to me) songs in there too but as they had the same funky feel as the rest the mood was not broken.

One of the songs was almost Reggae, and that worked too.

Of course the band can only do so much and the performance was really about Arthur who entertained as he always does. This time wearing more make-up than I have ever seen on him before.

Arthur plays a shortish well-rehearsed set that entertains joyfully throughout, such as his elongated and completely untrue intro to Fire that almost stumbles along, complete with funny voices, before bursting in to the much anticipated, "I am the God of Hellfire!"

Things got even better after the gig.

While we were still shouting for "Arthur!", "Arthur!" in a vain attempt to coax him back for a second encore, Lucie came through the crowd to the front and spoke to me. Well, not just me but she spoke to me first and I am still beaming. Later I got to speak to Nina and Arthur too and got a hug from Ms Angel who flit around the fans like a demented bumble bee. Arthur, on the other hand, played the role of the grandee (justifiably) and stood still while hoards of people came to him.

I do not have another Arthur Brown gig in my diary until September. That is a cruel amount of time to have to wait.

Trapped by the tide

I really should have known better.

I have been to the river at high tide many times even getting up very early in the morning to catch a particularly early one with my youngest son. On one memorable occasion we stood on one of the benches while the tide abated.

On this day the tide was due to be 5.1m, which is high for this stretch of the Thames. We got there as the tide was still coming in and watched it claim more and more land from the water meadow in front of Ham House.

I may even have smirked at the visitors who were oblivious to the tides and arrived at the tow-path only to find it under water and impassable.

However I had underestimated the tide and it continued to rise and blocked the path behind me. My salvation was a sturdy and large bridge that just about remained above the water.

I was stuck there for half an hour or so, the water comes in quickly but leaves slowly. Almost desperate to get away I took the squishy route along the tow-path that started to clear of water first. It was not an easy escape as my muddy shoes and trousers can testify.

The two lessons I learnt that day were that even locals with good local knowledge can get caught out and that trying to escape from a flood can be fun.

26 March 2013

Big Ideas on Social Sciences and The Arts

I must admit that a debate on how Social Sciences can support The Arts is not the sort of thing that I would normally go to. I am a heavy consumer of The Arts, especially theatre at the moment, but my exposure to Social Sciences goes little beyond Radio 4's Thinking Allowed and that merely confirms my view that there is very little Science in the Social Sciences.

What convinced me to go was that the debate was organised by Big Ideas who have a deserved reputation for staging good discussions. The social aspect was another plus and I chose to sit at the front table with two of the Big Ideas regulars.

Our guide for the evening was Dave O’Brien, Lecturer in Cultural and Creative Industries in the Centre for Cultural Policy and Management at City University London.

Dave started the debating ball rolling with an introduction to the topic which we, the eager listeners, then took in all sorts of vaguely related directions.

As is my customer, what follows is my notes from the debate which include comments made by various people and also my thoughts sparked from these.

Why we fund The Arts has been an issue for many years and various approaches have been tried to determine which Arts to fund given the almost limitless opportunities to do so.

At different times The Arts have been funded because they were a "good thing" and because they were thought to generate economic benefit, e.g. through improving the education of the public.

Cost / Benefit analysis now in vogue with the Treasury. The language has moved from artistic terms (excellence) to financial (benefit). The Government sees its role to interfere when market fail.

One approach is to argue that people who don't go to the British Library, for example, would still pay for it and so it has a nominal value that can be estimated, if not actually calculated.

These approaches are now seen to have failed. For example, providing free swimming did increase the amount of swimming that was done but this was mostly existing swimmers. Similarly cheap theatre tickets are not taken up by new people, they just benefit people who already so yet, to the bean counters, the benefits seem to have materialised.

Art segregates people on social grounds, e.g. music is now very tribal. The label "classical" is too wide but if we consider the classical mainstream (Beethoven et al) then young people are not consuming it and it will die (at this rate). Modern classics, like Reich will survive for longer.

The headline claim from when Liverpool was European Capital of Culture that every £1 paid generated £8 for the city is often quoted but is widely disputed. Even if true, this does not mean that every £1 spent on The Arts generates that sort of financial return.

If we move away from the dubious financial arguments then we can use the Social Sciences to help us to understand genres and segregation, but not the politics of making choices.

The question, What are we funding arts for?, still remains unanswered.

We need to explain why museums are good to encourage more people, being free is not the factor.

The Royal Opera House is the biggest recipient of funding, but why is it sacrosanct? Glyndebourne, a far better opera house, thrives without any state funding.

A lot of art is under the radar of the Arts Council and Local Authorities, e.g. local bands and arts fairs. Is Eastenders art? Funding bodies tend to assume a consumption model of art, i.e. we watch it rather than make it, and this is not what happens at the local level.

There has been some stealth privatisation, e.g. paid exhibitions within the Tate and the V&A. Boundaries are blurring as a result, is the V&A a museum, an exhibition space or a restaurant?

If we cannot use financial arguments to justify supporting the arts then perhaps we can use time as an alternative currency. This is a better, more equitable, measure than money, as we all have the same amount of it.

23 March 2013

Rutherford & Son at the Rose

There were some very obvious reasons for going to see Rutherford & Son at the Rose. The play came with the cachet of a Jonathan Miller director's credit and a raft of good reviews plus I am trying to support the Rose at is one of my most local theatres.

It was a sheer coincidence, and a bonus, that it was written by Githa Sowerby (1912) who also wrote The Stepmother (1924), which I saw at the Orange Tree recently.

I tried a Circle seat this time. That was fine for watching the play but the view over the stalls just reinforced how silly the pit area is.

Rutherford & Son is a northern industrial business. The second Rutherford is now running it and is planning its succession on his approaching retirement. He has three adult children, a son who is a priest, a daughter who is sitting firmly on the shelf and another son who is both useless and has married below his station.

At the time of the story the whole family are back in the family house, though for different reasons. Rutherford rules his family firmly and in keeping with this he ignores his son's wife because of her social standing.

There is a strong similarity there with The Stepmother who also rose unexpectedly (in that case  through an inheritance), was treated badly and then managed to engineer some sort of victory.

Rutherford & Son explores various aspects of social class, not just his son's marriage.

Theirs is new money and not everybody gives the Rutherfords the respect the father thinks they deserve.

The daughter is lonely because she is not allowed to mix with people in the village, though she has started to form a relationship that would also be seen as unsuitable.

The play is rich in characterisation with Rutherford leading the way ably supported by the rest of the cast. The acting is good throughout. I thought that the direction was a little static at times with the non-talkers standing unnaturally still but the play is all about dialogue, there is almost no physical action in it at all,so the stilted movement did not matter much. If the purpose of the direction was to not get in the way of the dialogue then it worked.

Their are various stories in play as we learn the fate of each of the Rutherford sibling, learning much more about the social rules of the time as we do so. The Rutherford succession also gets resolved in a slightly surprising and very effective way dramatically.

Rutherford & Son was a fine play well presented. That may seem like scant praise but that's not my intention. Not all plays can be sensational, and I do not expect that, but I do want an "average" performance to entertain me and Rutherford & Son did that with some style.

21 March 2013

Mies Julie at the Riverside

I really liked Mies Julie but the evening was slightly spoilt by the reviews, which is one reason why I tend to avoid them.

The reviews promised a five-star performance  whereas I would have scored it at no more than four, and probably not quite that, not that I do scores for much the same reason as I don't read reviews - they give misleading expectations.

The reviews are doing their job though and the place was packed and I had to join the queue early to get a reasonable seat in the front row.

Mies (Miss) Julie is the young daughter of a white landowner in apartheid South Africa. He is away and she is left bored at home with the (black, obviously) housekeeper and her son whose main job seems to be cleaning shoes.

The story of the play is tension. This is most obvious in the physical tension between the young man and woman and is echoed in the tension between their ancestors who fought over the land. This tension erupts in to violence, as it had in the past. Some of this violence is almost playful, like bear cubs playing, but some has a nasty edge and a lot of history to it.

There is some light in the dark and that comes from the, presumably ethnic, music that comes from a continuous sound track played on a ubiquitous Apple Mac and is supplemented by a saxophonist who played some odd sounds occasionally and an elder woman who walked across the stage from time-to-time chanting.

The music was a real bonus and was fundamental in setting the tone of the slow dark drama.

What worked less well was the direction.

For some reason that did nothing to help the story and which looked completely unnatural the motion of the two main players, particularly the man, was far too animated. This picture shows an example of that, why on earth is he on the table? Not only was there too much jumping and climbing over the limited furniture but there was far too much arm waiving and pointing too.

Back to the story. The playful violence between the two young people develops in to something more. She briefly harbours ideas of a new life away from the lonely farm but that never looks like anything other than a dream.

Some things come to an unexpected violent end and others continue as they had for centuries. The lasting memory of the play is of the sexual tension, confrontation, violence and history. For that I can forgive the over exuberance in the directing.

20 March 2013

The Kingston Society learns about Kingstonfirst

The speaker at the March public meeting of the Kingston upon Thames Society was Lou Raggett of Kingstonfirst, the brand name used for the Business Improvement District (BID) of Kingston Town Centre.

In a highly informative talk she took us through the breadth and depth of the myriad activities that go on to promote Kingston as an attraction, many of which go on unnoticed.

The aim of Kingstonfirst is to "improve the trading environment for our levy paying businesses by animating our streets and creating high quality experience that draws visitors to the town and keeps them coming back."

The intention is simple, to get more people to come to Kingston, to spend more time here and to come more often.

Footfall is the name of the game and Kingstonfirst is winning. Before the BID was created visitor numbers were falling and now they are rising.

To attract more customers Kingston needs to be more than just a shopping destination and visitors need to be able to find the attractions when they get here. A common question asked by people arriving by train is, "Where is the river?" Kingstonfirst produces digital and pocket guides to the town and has visitor helpers, modelled on the Olympic Games Makers, who go out of their way to find and help visitors rather than waiting for visitors to find them.

The work that Kingstonfirst does comes under four broad headings; more customers, better experience, cleaner streets and safer streets.

One of the things that the helpers do is greet coaches to explain what attractions Kingston has and where they are. One of Kingstonfirst's objectives is to get more coach visitors, possibly as a shopping or lunch break for tours that take in Hampton Court or Kew Gardens.

Part of the better experience is making sure that there is always something going on in Kingston. These events range from the familiar flagship occasions like the markets, May Merrie and switching on the Christmas Lights down to street buskers and the Thumbs Up Its Thursday events for Children.

Kingstonfirst operate the Market House on behalf of Kingston Council and they see this as an attractive event space that can be used for exhibitions etc.

Cleaner streets is a major initiative to keep Kingston attractive.

Kingston Council cleans the streets in the town centre and Kingstonfirst washes them. It also removes stickers, graffiti and chewing gum.

Other cleansing includes fly-tip removal, alleyway cleansing and urineoff (it does what it name suggests) application around the town. Additional toilets are also planned to cater for the weekend surge of nightclubbers.

Safer streets is all about making visitors, customers and employees feel safe in Kingston. The town centre has a high crime image but the statistics show that it is not that bad. Initiatives here include the businesses working together to identify and track people causing problems and this can lead to a ban from the town, it's Behave or Be Banned.

The talk was, rightly, well received and led to many questions from the audience on topics ranging from trees to street pastors and cycle racks to Town Guides. There was a genuine exchange of information and ideas and Lou promised to follow-up on some of the issues raised.

It was an incredibly interesting and useful talk very well delivered by somebody who clearly knew their subject and was passionate about it.

19 March 2013

Collaboration at the Gurteen Knowledge Cafe

The Gurteen Knowledge Community returned to the Westminster Business School to discuss collaboration.

This was my second time there and that last was with Gurteen too. Unfortunately that was a few years BB (Before Blog) so I do not know exactly when that was or what we discussed.

I do remember enough of the venue though to notice some of the changes that had been made in the intervening years. This time we were in a large room of the main reception area with glass wall on two sides. That made us very visible and apparently that had taken some getting used to by some of the staff but I have worked in open plan offices for many years so the visibility did not matter to me.

Our host for the evening was Gurteen Cafe stalwart Keith Patrick, as it had been the last time that we were there.

Keith opened by saying a little about Westminster University and I was surprised to hear that it was celebrating its 175th birthday.

We were then given our topic for the evening - collaboration.

Keith made the point that in recent years new technologies have brought us more tools to collaborate with but these had not made collaboration more natural or more common.

We were asked to consider how we could encourage collaboration, and to do this with our own organisations in mind rather than treating this as an academic exercise.

As is usual at Gurteen Cafes, we discussed this in small groups of 4 to 6 people for about fifteen minutes or so then we moved tables to mix the conversations for another fifteen minutes and then swapped again to mix some more for a further fifteen minutes. This cross-fertilisation of ideas by moving people around is a key element of the evenings and is instrumental to their success.

These are some of the notes that I took during these conversations.

The new technologies can be useful but they are not a prerequisite. Old technologies can work too, e.g. email. We should use what is available and what people are comfortable with.

Whatever tools we use we need to be prepared to seed and moderate conversations until momentum builds and the conversations become self-sustaining.

Two motivators for collaboration are learning and boasting.

There needs to be a purpose for collaboration and this needs to be understood by everybody in the conversation. This could be as simple and specific as saying what information is required (e.g. examples of good practise) or as broad as a framework for contribution explaining the scope of the conversations and the rules that apply, e.g. it must be work related and behaviour must be professional.

One approach is to create a place to share, e.g. a group of experts. There is prestige of being seen to be an expert.

It is not always down to the facilitator, we could all Invite people to participate, e.g. by asking, "Why don't you blog?", or by asking questions to get somebody to answer.

Must be realistic about what you can achieve, even with a lot of pushing not everybody will join in.

If collaboration is seen as an important part of corporate culture then companies should explain the ground rules during recruitment.

Should also be prepare to criticise bad behaviour, e.g. knowledge hoarding, use sticks as well as carrots.

Seeking is as important as sharing, receive as well as give.

We make sharing and collaboration decisions all the time, but we do not always recognise them as such.

The value of sharing can come from the connections that are made. Connections make conversations that build trust.

Collaboration is a selfish activity. All parties have personal motivations for asking for and giving information.Why are we all collaborating at the Knowledge Cafe tonight?

Sharing is the same as learning. It helps us to understand what we know.

We must be a really nice group of people. Almost all our ideas for encouraging collaboration are carrots, there are few sticks.

In a slight change from the usual we collected our ideas on post-it-notes which we then clustered on one of the walls. I am not sure that this step added much value from the table conversations but most people seemed to get involved in this so I may have been in a minority in thinking this.

The evening ended with a whole group session where we exchanged our main learnings from the evening. This part was facilitated by David himself.

That ended the Cafe as such though a few of us went to the Wetherspoons across the road to have some more conversations, they are addictive.

This was another highly interesting Gurteen Knowledge Cafe and it managed to shed some new light on an old topic. There were real lessons learnt that each of us could take back to our organisations.

17 March 2013

Kew Gardens Again (March 2013)

It was yet another cold grey day and still the lure of Kew Gardens was able to pull me from my warm bed for a brisk walk on a Sunday morning.

The aim was to keep moving to keep warm and exercised and not to linger too long in any one place so while I still took quite a few photos, 44, that was much less than usual and they were snatched with little effort spent on composing them. To compose was to freeze.

I went in through the Lion Gate, i.e. the first one that you come to on the bus from Richmond, as that gives the best options for walking. The Pagoda waits just inside the gate and points the way along two avenues, one leads to the Palm House and the other to the end of the lake and then the river. That's the path that I took.

Despite the weather I was hoping to see a few brave flowers that had emerged early and they were there, though not in any great numbers.

That section of Kew Gardens is mostly woodland and that provides some shelter for the small delicate flowers that barely stuck their heads above the fallen leaves.

The colours there came in small doses and I was hoping for a little more from the rhododendrons. These are collected near the river just beyond the lake in a little dip that delights in the evocative named Rhododendron Dell. My optimism proved to be largely unwarranted and there were only one of two bushes in any sort of flower.

Luckily I only needed one or two in bloom to justify making that my destination and to capture a reasonable photo of one. Yes the flower is lovely but it is the dark green of the leaves setting it off that I like.

These few flowers were a welcome change from what had gone before. Even the Waterlily Pond was almost devoid of interest. The vegetation was shapeless and wan so all the excitement came from the reflections in the still water.

Even the heron on the far side looked bored with it all, but then they always do.

The rhododendrons meant that the visit was mission accomplished so it was just a matter of deciding which gate to head for, there is quite a choice at that point. I chose Victoria Gate as that seemed to be the quickest way to a bus stop and warmth. The Palm House was in the way and it never fails to impress despite the dozens of times that I've walked past and through it.

The Parterre in front of the Palm House was a shock of colour after an hour or so desperately seeking anything in bloom in the rest of the gardens.

The only other flower that I had found earlier was a lone Magnolia. Its flowers were a faint pink, almost no colour at all, yet so grey was everything else that they were easily spotted at distance.

So there you have it, a cold grey day with almost no flowers out and still Kew Gardens provided plenty to look at.  And, of course, the space to walk for an hour or so.

Every visit to Kew Gardens is different and that's why I keep going.

It would be nice to see a few more flowers next time though the current cold spell suggests that may be unlikely. We'll see.

16 March 2013

Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House

It was a late decision to see Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House that was prompted by good reviews on Twitter and supported by a description that promised something different, I like different.

The day was complicated by a date at the Arcola Theatre in the afternoon and the important Wales v England rugby match in the early evening.

Luckily it all worked out and I had a pre-opera dinner at Tuttons, just across the road, while watching the game on my iPhone. This was my first time in Tuttons and I'd go again. It's very much in the Browns/Cote mode, which is fine. Those two are better placed for ENO at the Coliseum and Tuttons is ideal for the Royal Opera House.

The other options would have been to eat at the Royal Opera House itself but other people had thought of that and it was fully booked. I am tempted to try and eat there in the future but not for the food or convenience, it's the architecture that appeals.

Sadly that impressive architecture is confined to the bar/restaurant area and the main house is as old-fashioned as always.

I spend more time in theatres watching the performances than I do easting and drinking so I find it odd that so many have refurbished the waiting areas and left the auditoriums untouched. The Lyric Hammersmith is much the same.

The proper way to do it is to rebuild everything as Glyndebourne and Saddlers Wells have done.

I did not want to take a risk with expensive tickets for an unknown opera so I headed for the amphitheatre. This stretches further back than seems sensible or comfortable but Row D in the central section was fine.

I was hoping for different and I got different.

The main difference was the very modern music that did its best to avoid anything approaching a tune. Instead we were served with a collection of disconnected musical sounds. I've made that sound worse than it was as I actually liked the music because of its weirdness. It just wasn't something that you could hum afterwards.

The staging was different too and I never really worked out what was going on. Of course I could have bought a programme or something but that would be against my basic principles, you should not have to be told how a performance works to enjoy it. In this case I enjoyed it without understanding it.

The stage was set on two levels with two or three sections on each (they moved). The main story, set in period, took place on the lower level while at the side of them people living in today got their costumes and props ready and on the upper level people walked through an office very slowly. It was all very weird but also engaging.

The short story told long was an old one featuring a warlord/king, his wife and an author, he who writes on skin. The wife and the author have inappropriate relationships and things end badly. Typical opera, and nothing wrong with that. Telling the story slowly allowed all the emotions to be displayed carefully one after the other.

The music may have been dissonant but the singing on top of it was lovely. The music popped, fizzed and banged in short bursts while the singing was steady, slow and sweet. The contrast worked and the sheer quality of the singing banished any lingering doubts about the music.

It ran for about 90 minutes without a break (increasingly fashionable, I'm pleased to say) and pulled me along with it nicely. There were no arias to speak of and the music was much the same all the way through so I cannot recall any specific highlights as such. Instead it was the steadiness of the atmosphere that I loved, exemplified by the slow walkers on the upper level.

Written on Skin was rather beautiful and I would certainly go to see it again, but I would prefer to do so at somewhere more modern, somewhere like Glyndebourne.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Arcola Theatre

One of the things I find charming about the Arcola Theatre is that it is always changing and is different every time that I go.

It has been going through substantial renovation most of which has finished since my last visit there. The most obvious result of this is the large bright bar area on the ground floor. Studio 2 may have changed too but as the route down to it has changed it was hard for me to tell.

Inside the theatre there was an obvious difference with  the seating arrangements. Previously there had been two sets of around eight rows of Meccano style seats either side of the stage and this time there were just three or four rows raked less steeply and arrange on three sides of the stage. The end result is probably more intimate overall but as I am almost always in the front row that makes little difference to me.

I had heard of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari but had not read, or had forgotten, the story so, also as usual, my expectations were not constrained by any prejudices.

The story, and it's a real story, concerns mania, murder, mystery, mistakes and magic. A fair arrives in town where it attracts a well-to-do engaged couple and a hapless young man who is in love with the lady.

They go to see a mysterious man who is permanently asleep and in this state can perform acts of seemingly magic. One of his tricks was to write down on a blackboard what is going to happen next, much as Derren Brown does. When asked by the wealthy young man when he was going to die he reveals the message that he will be dead by dawn. Interesting things then happen.

Telling the story is a mixed troop of actors and musicians who each play multiple roles in the production. Music features heavily, as it should in a show about a fair. The cabinet was almost the sole prop used, and was the only one needed. Simple is often best and it certainly was here.

The production was warm and engaging, despite the story matter, and the show was an utter delight. A telling observation was the number of people humming the main refrain to themselves after the show. I even heard it when walking down the street a little while later.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was exactly the sort of theatre that I enjoy the most and the Arcola is exactly the sort of theatre that I like going to the most. It was a perfect afternoon.

14 March 2013

The Man Who Pays the Piper at the Orange Tree

I do not have the time, or enough interest, to do it myself but I would quite like to see a chart of when plays performed at the Orange Tree Theatre were written. I suspect that the year that The Man Who Pays The Piper was written,1931, would be pretty close to the centre of that chart.

If there was another chart of where I sit then the front row opposite the entrance would be the clear winner but somebody beat me to it this time so I had to settle on a front seat on the opposite bench. The view is just as good from there but I like my traditions.

The play was (almost) contemporary which makes it period now, and that is some of its charm. What was seen at the time as a shocking view of women working in powerful jobs is now seen as a quaint reminder that women have not always been as liberated as they are now.

The story has three parts with three different people paying the piper. First a true patriarch provides for all his family and expects obedience in return, on his death his eldest daughter, she with the job, takes over and finally she gets married and her husband takes on the mantle.

Most of the play concentrates on the middle period and examines the immediate post-war period when women had to rise to fill the positions left by a generation of men killed on the battlefields. We see the consequences of this from several angles including the successful woman, her mother, her younger siblings and their friends, her boyfriend and her mother's new husband.

Most of these people seem quite happy to have an alternative bread-winner in the house and the exception is the woman herself who feels that the need to keep such an large family imposes on her life, in particular it makes her reluctant to get married.

The story develops logically, twists nicely a couple of times and (literally) ends on a question mark.

The substance of the play comes from the multiple relationships and the strength of this production is the cast that teased the most out of the myriad characters and their interactions.

There is much to appreciate about the acting and I'll be unfair and just mention a couple that I particularly liked. Stuart Fox, an Orange Tree stalwart, plays the step-father as an honest, simplistic and likable chap who knows he's lucky to be kept and is not embarrassed by that. Jennifer Higham, also an Orange Tree regular, was delightful as one of the daughters who gleefully helped to organise the house while her elder sister was out earning money.

The Man Who Pays The Piper is (another) play that fits comfortably in to the Orange Tree repertoire, possibly a little too comfortably, and the ensemble deliver a vibrant performance that entertains greatly.

Walking through St James's Park

One of the nicest things about working in Victoria again, as opposed to a business park outside of Cardiff, is that there are places to go and things to do at lunchtime. Walking through St. James's Park is one of these.

The Park is mostly grass with sporadic trees which makes it ideal for sitting in when the weather is good.

In the bleaker times of the year, like now, then the lake comes in to its own as it provides a focus and an obvious route for a fresh-air capturing walk, even if that walking pace has to be moderated by the number of foreign students who litter the park.

The weather is just starting to turn, Spring has sprung after all, and some of the planted beds are starting to reveal their colour. These formal beds are on the edge of the park, facing Birdcage Walk, leaving the centre to be more natural.

And nothing could be more natural than a pelican.

On all my previous visits to the Park the pelicans have kept to their sanctuary in the centre of the lake so it was a pleasant surprise to see one on the mainland and totally unconcerned by the tourists walk past just a couple of metres away.

For some reason most of them seemed more interested in taking pictures of the squirrels and pigeons. Perhaps they all had pelicans as pets at home.

A lone bridge crosses the lake more or less in the centre. The bridge is of little interest itself and it justifies its existence from the views that it offers of the Y-shaped lake. The Y has a long stem and a narrow body so walking along the side there is a short view to the other bank but from the bridge there are long views in both directions along the length of the Y.

Buckingham Palace sits at the base of the Y. The view towards it is interrupted by a small island at the end that is covered with trees.

I am not a fan of Buckingham Palace, I never look at it as I walk past and I have no plans to ever go there, but I do appreciate how it sits in this landscape. Its height and colour make it a fitting backdrop for that end of the lake. The view to it along The Mall impresses me less.

Looking east towards the top of the Y is a far more rewarding experience. The buildings in Horse Guards Road are closer to the lake and seem to climb on top of each other desperate for a better view. The lake is more interesting too with some trees along the water's edge and more trees on the pelican sanctuary that lies between the two sections of the top of the Y.

The little fountain is a nice feature too. It does just enough to be interesting and not too much to draw attention away from the rest of the Park.

The seagull was just a bonus. I cursed it for daring to intrude when I took the photo and I took another one immediately afterwards without it. On reflection I prefer the one with it in so that's the one that you get to see.

Easing off the zoom a little shows the shape of the lake with one part of the Y heading towards Horse Guards Parade and the other to the EDF Energy London Eye (to give it its full name).

The other plus of the bridge is that it provides alternative routes of alternative distances around the park.

On this day I made a figure S doing half of the lake on the south side and then crossing to the north before leaving the park in the south-west corner.

St James's Park is little more than 500m long and about half that wide so its only takes 15 minutes or so to walk all the way around it briskly, though an allowance has to be made for getting past other people and pausing to take photographs. That makes it a nice place to include in a lunchtime stroll that also has to include one of the local sandwich shops.

Having places like St James's Park on the doorstep gives me a reason to get out at lunchtimes and I am extremely grateful for that.

13 March 2013

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (March 2013)

I get to the monthly BCSA "Get to Know You" Socials whenever I can, and in March I could.

My current project has me working in London (Victoria) most of the time and that is a lot more convenient for mid-week events than Cardiff was. Now I have a gentle walk to Westminster station and then the Jubilee Line takes me directly to West Hampstead.

From there the social took a familiar and friendly route through the evening. The first step is a pint of draught Pilsner Urquell. This cost a ridiculously cheap £3, the pint I had the night before in Richmond was £4.20.

Somewhere in the evening I had smazeny syr (fried cheese in breadcrumbs) with chips and tartar sauce. I keep thinking that I must try something else but I never do. A few more Pilsner Urquells were had too.

The evening ended with a large bottle of Zlaty Bazant, confusingly delivered in a small Pilsner Urquell glass.

Around the eating and drinking the evening was richly filled with conversation. Mostly this was held in English but sometimes it lapsed in to Czech/Slovak leaving me to converse with some of the other Brits there. These were typical pub conversations that were warm and interesting at the time yet are ephemeral too and little of what is discussed carries forward to the next day. Almost all that I can remember from the evening is that Veronika is not engaged despite wearing a ring on the appropriate finger.

The mix of people and the open conversational atmosphere make these evenings what they are and the Czech/Slovak food and drink are just nice touches that compliment them. At the end of the night we agreed that the best word to describe it was "gay", having first explained its original meaning to the young Czech and Slovaks.

12 March 2013

Compass: Plan B+1

Work has kept me away from Compass events for almost two years so it was good to get back in to the groove again. My current office is something like ten minutes walk away from the Houses of Parliament where Compass meetings are often held.

The subject this time was Plan B+1, Compass' analysis and response to the current economic climate. The panel consisted of Howard Reed (Author of Plan B+1), Claire Annesley (Women's Budget Group) and Chuka Umunna MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills) with Deborah Hargreaves (High PayCentre) chairing.

As is typical when MPs are involved, Chuka could only be there for part of the evening hence his absence from the photo. He had a good excuse though as the Division Bell could be heard clearly.

The three panellists each spoke for about ten minutes and then the discussion was opened to the floor. What follows is my usual mix of notes taken at the time so some of the points came from the panellists, some from the audience and some from me.

Plan B+1 was written because the predictions in Plan B proved to be too optimistic.

The Government's plans, like funding for lending, have had minimal impact, and some of those impacts have been bad.

Plan B is still to increase Infrastructure investment, tax reform to make it more progressive, e.g. wealth taxes, a bargain for labour through enhanced employee rights, and fiscal reform and reform of capital markets.

Is that still too little? Big capital will still win unless we take it through wealth taxes, Cyprus has the right idea.

Austerity is bad for people, especially women. There have been cuts on benefits paid to women and eligibility rules changed. Lone parents are particularly hard hit. Softening measures, e.g. raising tax allowances, do not benefit those at the very bottom. Job cuts in public sector hitting women more. Their employment is not rising.Go for Plan F; increase taxes more and reduce benefits less. Bring in the Tobin tax and a mansion tax. Invest in social infrastructure, e.g. child care, schools. Gender voting gap increasing as the political awareness of the impact rises.

This is a key moment. Budget in March and spending review on 26 June last chances to make a difference before the General Election. We have a demand problem but the government is just trying to increase supply. Demand is suppressed by a lack of cash in hand now but some is fear for the future, e.g. pensions, student loans etc.

We need a different model. The crash is just one symptom but so is inequality etc.New Labour's plan worked for the time and made significant social change, but not secured by significant reform. We need to pay a decent wage for a decent job, e.g. Living Wage. We need an industrial strategy, with strategic investment and a reform of corporate governance.

There were calls for a Big Bang - but is that a big enough bang?

We need to define what a good society is first so we know what the economic policy is trying to achieve. Need to look at redistribution of work, but should we also reclassify it, i.e. to include anything that delivers value to society including raising your own children.
The social recession is harder to fix than the economic one. The cultural issue to fix we need some sort of Cultural Revolution (!). The Tories have simple messages that we have not been able counter. So why is debt a problem? Just don't pay it back!

Time is the new currency, that's why we retire as soon as we can, but we are still measuring success in financial terms.Go for land value taxation. Stop corporate tax avoidance. Need to be careful about asset realignment, e.g. sell house and buy yacht.Need to be clever over tax havens. Should try and close the havens altogether, e.g. refuse to trade with companies established there.

Trident?? Nobody has mentioned it yet ...

Taxation is not free money. If Starbucks pay more tax they put up prices and customers have to pay so we have a transfer from corporate to personal taxation.

And that was it. An interesting and useful debate even if it went around the houses a bit and failed to nail any specific points down, not that it would have been fair to expect that. Most of my political debates these days are on Twitter so it was good to raise the bar and talk to real people with brains. Looking forward to the next one.

11 March 2013

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: March 2013

March's Committee Meeting covered the usual range of topics and while there were some debates and disagreements there were no difficult subjects and no new major topics.

Penny School

Much had been done since the last meeting, including a major piece in the Comet by June Sampson.

The Society wants to retain the school building for architectural and historical reasons. There were some mildly dissenting voices but the vote in favour of formally supporting the campaign was passed comfortably.

Market Place

Kingston Council wants to improve visibility of the Market House by moving the stalls, which means arranging them back-to-back. It is not clear whether the traders understand this or, if they do, whether they have objected to the proposal. but this is not supported by the traders as it causes problems for supply and waste.

A working market brings vitality to the town centre and we want to keep it.

The Council is currently seeking a developer for the project and the work needs to be completed by 31 March 2014 for funding reasons.

Gala Bingo

Some members of the Committee had put on their hard hats and visited the former Gala Bingo site. There was lots of damage, as expected, but some of the Art Deco original features remained.

The building is listed and some features will be resorted.The Auditorium will be retained but not sure what it will be used for yet.

The developer will build flats on top to pay for the work.


There have been several iterations of the design of the Richmond Park Visitors' Centre and George Rome Innes has been helping with this.

The Thames Landscape Strategy had held their AGM and despite some issues over finding they seem to be continuing. They had a speaker on the Royal Pageant.

Ride London will be on 3 and 4 August. 4th in Kingston. Expecting 20,000 cyclists. Good time to avoid the town.

81 Cambridge road becoming a student hostel.

We are looking to do a London walk on 7, maybe 14, August. The route will take in the British Museum, ROH, Covent Garden, Apple Shop, National Portrait Gallery. It sounds good to me.

Will will start to put a few major stories in the monthly newsletter which at the moment just advertises the next meeting.

9 March 2013

Imago at Glyndebourne

Imago is a community opera staged at Glyndebourne which means that is was on well before the festival season and the pricing was so friendly that I could afford a seat in the middle of the front row of the Circle, probably the best seat that I will ever have there.

I went simply because it was Glyndebourne and I trusted them to put on a good show, as they had in the two other off-festival operas that I had seen there.

Other than the Glyndebourne brand I had no idea of what to expect so it was all a surprise, and a jolly one it was too.

The story is fairly simple and uses a common sci-fi trope of people using technology to enter an alternative reality. Two of the characters form a relationship that impacts their lives in the real world.

There is a slow dark theme running through the opera on top of which bounces a series of jaunty songs that would not sound out of place in a light frippery musical. The combination works well as it delivers a story with a bite and a number of sing-along tunes.

The production made full use of the width and height of the stage and when the action is focused on one part of is, such as when two people are talking to each other, there were things happening on the other levels.

Sometimes these were images of the real world where we saw some of the people connected to Imago sitting quietly in their Imago headgear while their alter egos danced in the other realm.

The singing was as clear and as beautiful as you would expect from Glyndebourne making sur-titles irrelevant. My favourite singer was the care assistant who invented Imago and introduced the main players to it. His voice was crystal clear, gentle and easily carried over the Stalls to the Circle.

Imago is not the sort of opera that I am used to seeing at Glyndebourne, it seems more appropriate for Tete a Tete or Grimeborne (though both of these usually do short operas rather than full-length ones), and I wish they did more things like this. The music in Imago fizzed and skipped delightfully and was ably supported by the fresh staging and direction.

Imago was delightful in every respect. I would go and see it again tomorrow and would bring some friends with me. And that is the highest recommendation I can give.