30 June 2013

Van der Graaf Generator at the Barbican

I guess that it says something about Van der Graaf Generator that they now play plush seated venues like the Barbican and it says more about their fans that we will happily go there to see them. This is a far cry from the make-shift stage I first saw them perform on at Southampton University in 1975 (October 15).

Van der Graaf Generator do not tour much these days and it was two years since I last saw them play. That was also at the Barbican and I also had a front-row seat in the circle then but this time it was because I was in quick enough to get the seat I wanted rather than having to rely on returns.

The set-list was fairly different but the sound and the experience were the same.

Now a three-piece, VDGG created an enthralling wall of sound which the sound system and acoustics of the Barbican Hall did full justice to.

As before, the set-list was mostly new to me and as before that did not matter one jot, it all sounded like VDGG should sound; glorious, complex and rhythmic.

There were two songs that were instantly recognisable, Man-Erg, which seems to be their most played live song, and the pre-announced classic A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers that was one side of 1971's Pawn Hearts.

VDGG are still evolving and still doing miraculous things live. I just wish that they did them more often.

Kew Gardens Early (June 2013)

Kew Gardens have decided that some of their members would like to be in the gardens early in the morning and have opened at 8:30 on some days instead of at the customary 9:30.

I often go there at 9:30, or soon after, on a Sunday morning so I am clearly one of the members that Kew has in mind in opening even earlier. I agreed with them and gave it a go.

My first attempt was a complete failure and instead of getting up at 8:00 I finally stirred at 10;00 so missed both the early start and my normal start. That visit was aborted but I tried again the following Sunday and this time I got there just as it opened.

From Victoria Gate I decided to walk all the way round the outer boundary of the gardens in a clockwise direction. It took me less time than I expected, because it was shorter than I expected. The perimeter is only 5km or so and that meant a walk of under an hour before I was back at Victoria Gate.

Having done the walk for the sake of doing a walk I then went back around the north-east corner at a more leisurely pace to take in some of the sights, such as the Rose Pergola.

I am not a great fan of the Princess of Wales Conservatory though there is nothing wrong with this view of it from the north-west corner where a subtle water feature mirrors the angles of the glass.

Summer means flowers and after a few grey trips to Kew it was wonderful to see so many flowers in bloom. Possibly the best garden to see them is in the Duke's Garden that keeps itself hidden on the north side behind a high brick wall.

This is also from the Duke's Garden and is part of the border that curves around the lawn. It is the architecture of the picture that I like with the exotic providing jagged dark green shapes that compliment but do not match the leaves in the foreground and in the centred curved white flowers contrast nicely with both.

Heading back to Victoria Gate for the third time that early morning meant passing the Aquatic Garden again and it is such a lovely spot that I took some more photos of it.

I am not yet completely convinced that getting up at 8am on a Sunday is a good idea but if I am going to be up at that time then Kew Gardens is a great place to be.

29 June 2013

Our Share of Tomorrow at Theatre503 (tense)

Theatre503 is a small intense space, especially for those of us addicted to sitting in the front row, and so it is the idea place to stage small intense dramas like Our Share of Tomorrow.

There were similarities to Desolate Heaven that I saw there in February, and it was the brilliance of that which brought me back for this. Both featured a small cast with strong regional accents telling the intense story of young adults. The outcomes were quite different though.

A young girl, 15, arrives at a coastal town looking for somebody. She finds him working on his boat. He is in his early thirties and he immediately sees a former girl friend in the face of this girl.

It is no surprise that she is the daughter that he never knew he had but the point of the revelation was not to be a surprise, it was to set the scene from which the drama flowed.

The girl's mother had recently died and it was that which had driven her to look for her father. She had questions that she wanted answers too, and so did her father who wanted to understand why his girl friend had left him suddenly all those years ago and why she had not told him about his daughter.

There is a third character involved, a middle aged man who met the girl in hospital and who offered to help her. This looked at first like a touch of lechery but we learnt that he also had issues of loss having separated from him wife and also from his daughter in the process.

Father and daughter share some fond memories of her mother and they go out on his boat together just as the young couple had sixteen years earlier.

The play jumps forward through intense conversations between the girl and her father and the girl and her helper. All share a loss but none of them really knows what they want to happen and that leaves just accusations about the past to talk about without any positive plans for the future to provide an emotional balance.

It was all very tense and quite sad, but nothing like as grim as Desolate Heaven was. It was also superb theatre with the three actors being spot-on with their characters and the set doing enough to be a boat and a harbour but not doing too much to get in the way.

Theatre503 is on something of a roll at the moment and it really knows what works in their space. This was my third visit there this year and all three performances were excellent.

A walk through Battersea Park

Much as I love going to the theatre, the afternoon or evening can always be made even better by using the journey to the theatre as an opportunity to do something else, something different.

This often involves a fair amount of walking as that is the best way to explore and when going to Theatre 503 in Battersea the obvious place to walk is through Battersea Park, starting at Queenstown Road and then walking the length of the park back the way the train went.

Entering via Queen's Circle in the south-east corner brought me almost immediately to the lake which occupies that corner of the park. The boats and cafe were both made popular by the good weather and this was the most crowded part of the park.

I was walking, not lingering, so I avoided the temptations around the lake and headed down one of the main promenades towards the bandstand that marks the centre of the park. It has clearly seen better, and busier, days but it still carries a lot of grandeur thanks to its artful design and prominent position.

Just to the north, and slightly to the west, of the bandstand is the Festival Garden. The period charm is extensive even when the fountains are quiet. It's a marvellous folly in the joyful post-war style that also spawned Portmeirion.

Exploring is about discovering new things and even though I had been to Battersea Park a few times previously I had not encountered the Old English Garden before.

My excuse is that it was well hidden among the trees just to the west of the Festival Garden.

It is a small garden, but then the show gardens at Chelsea are much smaller and they work.

Its setting keeps it tranquil and it is designed to encourage rest with seats, shade and gentle water. The borders are typically English, the garden lives up to its name, with heavy flowers jostling for position.

Battersea Park manages to achieve a great deal with its space and is able to cater for a wide range of sports as well as the sun-seekers and the walkers. I am sure that I have not discovered all of its mysteries yet but I hope to have the opportunity to do so.

28 June 2013

The Perfect American at ENO (sparkling)

Sadly there are not that many chances to go to Philip Glass operas and whenever one comes along I jump at the opportunity. This usually means visiting the ENO at the Coliseum, as it did when I went to see The Perfect American.

The American in question was Walt Disney and the opera explored the motivations of the man behind the empire.

Disney are one of the World's most enthusiastic litigants so this meant telling the story of Mickey Mouse's creator with only the barest hint at the famous iconography.

The Perfect American is Glass' latest opera so musically it is more melodic and less relentlessly rhythmic than his earlier works. This is an evolution in styles and it is still instantly recognisable as Glass. Which is good, because I love glass.

The staging had some of the same elements as Satyagraha (staged at ENO in 2007 and 2010, and it will be again in 2013) with fluttering papers, projections and flowing cloth but the impact was quite different. Satyagraha is almost a fantasy and the imagery reinforced that whereas The Perfect American is firmly set in the real worlds of Small Town America and Disney's workshop in Hollywood.

The opera covered Walt's last days with him in hospital remembering, justifying and trying to secure his legacy.

The main other character was his brother Roy, a constant companion. Other people drifted in an out of his life, such as a disgruntled artist from the Disney studios and a terminally ill boy in the hospital.

Nothing particularly dramatic happens but through Walt's reminiscences and those of others we learn more about the legend. The end result was that Walt came across as an unpleasant man if not a nasty one. I am not sure if a prejudice was intended or whether it was just mine.

A recurring theme, echoed in the music, was Walt's past in Marceline, Missouri (population, not a lot) and one of the highlights was when the full chorus representing the townspeople were on stage singing.

Both lead singers sang beautifully, clearly and eloquently. That combined with Glass' music was enough to make this a good opera. Add the other voices and the staging and it was superb.

The Perfect American was another excellent night at the opera with Philip Glass. I can only hope that there are many more to come.

27 June 2013

Kew Gardens Late (June 2013)

As if I did not go to Kew Gardens enough it is now experimenting with early and late opening for members on some days.

One of the late openings was on Thursday 27 June and I was able to pop-in on my way home from another few days in Midlands power stations.

Kew Gardens re-opened at 6:30pm and that is when I arrived thanks to some careful planning and all the rail services running on time.

First stop was the cafe in the Victoria Centre as I needed something to eat and a small tomato and broccoli tart did the job nicely. The Sam Smiths organic larger was appreciated too.

The late June weather was not behaving itself and instead of a gently setting sun I had to contend with a grey sky that flickered between wet and dry.

So I went to the nearby Palm House.

The advantage of the open evening was immediately apparent as the place was fairly deserted and most of the people there were settled on benches eating picnics and so were not in the way of my photographs.

Taking photos in the Palm House is normally a challenge due to the large number of people squeezed in there and the bright jackets that a lot of them insist on wearing.

The Palm House is a brilliant idea. The Victorians built an extraordinary building and then filled it with extraordinary plants and it is this clash between design and nature that I love so much. My photo libraries must have hundreds of pictures taken of large leaves against a background of metal and class and still I took a few more.

I did look down at the beds too and that is where I spotted these unusual plants.

I have no idea what they are, which is true of most things in Kew Gardens. Of course I could read the helpful labels but I'd only forget what they said and have to read them all each time so it is better to accept it will not work and not bother to read any of them ever.

I had to leave the Palm House at some point and the rain was still waiting for me when I did. Not much rain admittedly but enough to deter me from venturing further in to the gardens so I called it a day and headed home happy.

My first foray in to Kew Gardens Late was just an experiment and one that worked. It was only meant to be a little diversion on the way home and an opportunity to eat and drink somewhere different, which is exactly what it was.

Of course it would have been better if the sun had made an appearance, perhaps it will next time.

26 June 2013

DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks: 26 June 2013

The Unwritten is getting picked for my highlights every month at the moment. It should be obvious why.

Composition and colour get this cover in to my selection. There is a Green Lantern Corps and a Red Lantern Corps and the clever use of these colours makes that point without appearing unnatural or forced. But what makes the cover stand out is the contrast between the powerful and triumphant Guy Gardner and the defeated foe at his feet.

What I like most about this Batman Superman splash page by Jae Lee is that it took me a while to notice that Catwoman is in it. The action is dramatic and it is very black, both of those are good.

The shock impact of Aquaman out of his element, with his back to us and in the middle-distance makes this a interesting cover and the force of the weather, the main feature of the picture, makes it special.

22 June 2013

BalletBoyz at The Rose (beautiful)

The BalletBoyz have a new home and they now live in Kingston upon Thames with me. To celebrate this they put on a special performance at The Rose.

I was there in Row A.

The Summer Gala, as they chose to call it, took us through some of the Balletboyz' history in the first half and then gave us a recent work in the second. One of the nice touches was that meant that the show was bookended by two pieces by Russell Maliphant.

Critical Mass was danced by the Balletboyz' founders. It is possible that they are less athletic than they once were but that did not matter here as Critical Mass is dance as close combat with the two bodies flowing around and in-between each other. Technically brilliant with flawless timing and so much to enjoy in the movement and the interactions between the performers.

The other pieces came thick and fast with quite a few surprises along the way, not least the appearance of women in some of them.

The Rite of Spring was another highlight despite being cruelly chopped to fit in to the gala.

The pieces were all different and all modern. And that meant lots of tumbling, rolling and sliding rather than the athletic leaping that used to dominate male ballet dancing.I much prefer dancers on the floor to dancers in the air - it looks better and there is more that the dancers can do in transitioning between positions. Once launched in to the air the only option is to come down again.

After the break we were treated to a full-length work, Fallen by Russell Maliphant. I had seen Fallen earlier in the year at Richmond Theatre and was delighted to be able to see it again. It is a beautiful piece of dance and seeing it in the context of the history of the BalletBoyz was a bonus. It shared some of the delicate close moves of the opening piece and added strong group work. Being simplistic and unnecessarily stereotypical, it was like a mix of female and male dancing performed brilliantly by just men that the absence of women was not noticed and was not relevant.

Now that BalletBoyz have moved to Kingston I hope that they will be appearing at the Rose regularly. Some pre-tour previews would be very nice.

21 June 2013

Knee Deep at the Riverside (circus with heart)

Knee Deep is not the sort of show that would normally attract me as it sounded like a circus act and I do not do circuses (normally). This one though came with some good reviews, it was on at possibly my favourite venue, the Riverside Studios besides the river at Hammersmith, and I had a free Friday evening when I would be passing anyway.

Riverside Studio 2 was set up in the square, not unlike a boxing ring without the ropes, and despite a slow start I was able to secure one of the last front row seats. The down side of that was that I had one of the Riverside staff just in front of me guiding people to their seats and so I was unable to take any photographs of the stage and have had to make-do with official photos gleaned from the web.

Knee Deep are a circus act and the two pictures that I have chosen are typical of what they do. The stunts, tricks and routines that they performed were all technically excellent, who would have guessed that one small woman could lift three bigger men?, and they were presented with great grace, tenderness and heart.

The music that came with it growled and bounced in to unfamiliar territory; Portishead's Third was the closest comparison that I could think of. There was a blast of recognisable music from fellow Australian Nick Cave at the end but that was just to see us out.

Knee Deep was a beautiful experience that while firmly rooted in the circus successfully rose above the merely technical proficient by adding a lot of heart.

19 June 2013

DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks: 19 June 2013

My first selection this week is the opening page from the first issue of Brother Lono, a story within 100 Bullets by writer Brian Azzarello, artist Eduardo Risso and colourist Trish Mulvihill. The appeal comes from the simplicity of the drawing, the striking use of contrast and the subtle use of colour.

Here J.H. Williams III enlivens the familiar concept of a monster threatening the hero by twisting the angle slightly (I heartily approve) and using red to both frame the picture and to suggest blood.

This page from Green Lantern New Guardians gets noticed because of the shark and the way that the rest of the story has to be positioned around it. I like the detail too, such as the markings on the shark's tail rocket.

Another strong heroine and lots more red only this time it is not the heroine who looks to be in danger but whoever it is that she is up against. It is her power and determination that makes this a striking image.

18 June 2013

Getting lost in and around Barnby Moor

Spending months away from home is part of the life of the Consultant for Hire and since March I have been spending a lot of time at two coal-fired power stations on the Trent in Nottinghamshire.

That means spending two to four nights a week in a hotel and with not many to choose from I find myself encamped in Ye Olde Bell in Barnby Moor, jut outside of Retford.

The hotel is charming and to a high standard, it caters for the events market, e.g. weddings, as much as it does us corporate regulars.

The big down-side is the location. Barnby Moor is just a hamlet and there is nothing there apart from Ye Olde Bell. There is another pub but that looks a mess from outside so I have not been tempted in.

I have managed to get out for a few early evening walks, rain permitting, and these have all have a familiar theme. West Barnby is bounded by the A1 on one side and the main East Coast railway line on the other. This severely restricts the walking options, but I have managed to find some.

On my usual route the railway line has to be crossed twice and there are not many places to do this. I was hoping for a footbridge, or even a foot level-crossing, but I have to settle for the two traffic crossings that are a couple of miles apart.

Once off the roads and away from the railway I am plunged in to rural walks like this.

And this is exactly what I am looking for in a rural walk. The path is well defined so there is little risk of being stuck in the corner of a field looking for a way out (it happens), there is no physical construction in sight and no people either.

One route takes me in to the Daneshill Lakes built from old gravel pits.

Here I have got lost but only because you cannot head in your preferred direction when there is a lake in the way.

The views can be quite spectacular and I do not mind walking around in circles to see them.

The lakes are good but the fields are better. Which is just as well as I spend most of my time in fields following the yellow arrows and wondering if some of the other unmarked paths might be other ways back.

Not that long ago these fields were bare and ugly, now a touch of Spring and a hint of Summer have teased the crops in to healthy colourful growth.

The reward is obvious. The solitude and the absence of buildings are still there only now they are complimented by the beauty of flowing grasses and bright red poppies.

I always walk late in the day, the target return time is usually 7;30 and I usually miss it, so the shadows are another important part of the experience. I like contrasts and the natural world is full of them.

Perhaps I should be a little bit more honest and explain that these walks start with a 2km yomp up the Great North Road which is busy, straight, boring and has a "pavement" that is so overgrown in places that I prefer to walk on the road towards the speeding traffic.

Barnby Moor may not be the best place to be stationed for a few months but it is not without its merits and I intend to do more walking there to see if I can find some more.

16 June 2013

Unmissable garden at Ormeley Lodge

The National Garden Scheme gets me in to several local gardens and the best of the bunch of those in walking distance is Ormeley Lodge.

The house sits proudly on Ham Gate Avenue, the road that runs from Ham Common to Richmond Park's Ham Gate.

It is the Goldsmith's family home and local MP Zac Goldsmith is sometimes there to mingle with his electorate. He does not live in the house any more but his mother still does.

The garden has a large formal square lawn at the back of the house with thick borders stuffed with flowers on three side. It is separated from the rest of the garden by high and impressively trimmed hedges. These hedges are a strong theme in the garden and there are several of the dividing the garden in to sections and providing shady corridors between them.

My favourite part of the garden is at the back beyond the hedge in the picture above. This was an orchard and it still retains some of the apple trees. It is what is between these trees that I live the most.

The grasses are allowed to grow as tall as they like and they are peppered with meadow flowers like daisies and poppies.

Broad curving paths have been cut through the wilderness so I was able to get up close to the flowers and to delight in just walking aimlessly through them.

The trees are now alone in the wilderness and in one corner lurks a very patient and very still rhinoceros.

The hedge-lined corridors make exploring the garden a lot of fun and there is still a sense of mystery when going round for a second time with some knowledge of what lies ahead.

Some of the paths lead nowhere other than to brash white seats that demand that you sit on them a while and look back in to the garden.

There are seats and vantage points everywhere, this is a garden to savour at leisure.

One of the quieter paths runs behind one of the borders around the main lawn with one of the ubiquitous hedges on the other side. Looking over and through the border gives a fresh and interesting perspective on the main lawn.

I have mentioned the flower beds around the main lawn a few times and now it is time for a closer look at them. The planting is carefully planned to not look carefully planned and produces a lovely jumble of shapes, colours and heights.

In the middle of the picture is the door to the wilderness guarded by two lions, one of which is hidden. These lions are companions to the small group of lions next to the house, kinsmen to the rhinoceros and gorillas hiding in the garden and relatives to the budgies and canaries in the garden's two aviaries.

There is also a side garden now arranged for children to play in with a pet's cemetery in a shady corner and a neatly clipped box hedge. And on the other side there is a swimming pool and a tennis court. All of this goes to show that the garden is still lived in and used.

There is so much to see in Ormeley Lodge that even having gone there a few times I am still sure to go again.

The highs and lows of Kew Gardens (June 2013)

The original plan was to take advantage of the early opening for members and to get to Kew Gardens in time for opening at 8:30. Instead I overslept mightily and got there around 10:30.

The lateness helped me to decide to enter via Lion Gate as that is the quietest part of the gardens.

The trees were in full leaf and the undergrowth was in rude health so wandering around on the random grass paths was a joy. The joy of being among wild untamed trees and grasses.

The purpose of exploration is to find new things, not to get somewhere, and I like exploring new paths in Kew. There were several times that I found myself on a path that I had not travelled before, and that is quite some achievement given how many times I have been there.

Kew Gardens has several places-to-go and the Treetop Walkway is one of them.

I wanted to go there, despite being unsettled by the height, the way it sways in the slightest breeze and the increasing number of places where the flooring pings as you walk over it, because it does what it is meant to do and takes you in among the leaves.

And here are lots of different types of leaves crowded together.

This was taken on the north side of the walk looking toward Brentford. Looking above these trees I could see some unimpressive tower blocks on the other side of the river and, behind them, a glimpse of the Wembley Arch. That was interesting to see but the trees were better.

Moving round to the south I had an excellent view of the Temperate House. It will be out of action for a couple of years for a substantial refurbishment so for a while the best views of it will be of the outside.

Moving on from the walkway I vaguely headed towards the west end of the lake only to find myself at the east end.

One of the main avenues runs alongside the lake from the Palm House to the river. A line of daisies show where a pipe runs beneath the avenue also heading for the river.

The daisies were some of the first flowers that I saw that day, most flowers keep away from the woods, but I was after the more colourful and grander flowers in Rhododendron Dell.

Some of the flowers were well past their best, and they were not even out on my last visit in April.

Thankfully there were still enough in bloom to put on a decent display and my walking pace slowed markedly as I paused to take a few photos. Altogether I took around fifty photos which is about half my usual number and that is as good a measure as any of the absence of flowers and the dullness of the weather.

Further on the Azaleas were even limper and the Rose Garden behind the Palm House had just a few spots of colour.

On days like this, and I have had days like this, my meanderings around Kew are driven by the most interesting thing in view at that moment. And having got there I walk to the next interesting place irrespective of direction. That way I see lots of interesting things and have fun getting lost too.

I'll end on this bright note even though I have no idea what these flowers are or where I found them. Not that I care about either. The walk and the beauty is what I get from Kew Gardens and I do not need to add labels to them.

As with every visit to Kew Gardens, it ended with me thinking about the next one. Perhaps I will manage to make one of the early starts or perhaps one of the late openings will be easier.