30 August 2013

Strange Interlude at the National Theatre

Most of the theatres that I go to are small and do free seating so there is no great point in booking a long time ahead. The National Theatre is not like that so when it finally dawned on me that they were staging a Eugene O'Neil play that I had not seen I was very lucky to bag a seat in the centre of the circle, my favourite seat in the house. The God of Returns was obviously smiling on me.

Strange Interlude, we learn, is that awkward period between the past and the future and the play takes us through a series of strange interludes in the life of Nina.

We start following here in her early twenties when World War I has just ended and taken the life of her love. The tale ends by the grave of her husband some thirty years later.

The story is all about Nina and the men in her life, her dead love, her father, an avuncular family friend, a doctor she works for, a man she is persuaded to marry and her son named after her lost love. The story takes over three hours to tell but never ceases to engage and captivate.

It is a not untypical life. There are scenes of tenderness, sorrow, neurosis, love, happiness, despair and gentle companionship.

The darkest moments are not shown to us but are mentioned and the big secret (that I'll keep a secret) is told to us in the audience but not shared with many of those on stage, especially not the two people most impacted by it. The little secret, the inherited madness, does become known to most people but not to the one who has it.

There is a lot of direct address to the audience and while some have accused this as lazy writing (i.e. the easiest way to show what a character is thinking is to get them to say it out loud) it works very effectively in the hands of a good playwright like O'Neill. Or Shakespeare.

Strange Interlude is mostly a play about dialogue between well defined characters and so the set has little to do except become different rooms and it does this without a fuss. The bigger job is with the actors who have to convince us that they are those well defined characters and without exception they do.

It is a remarkably good production. Everything about it is excellent. The bedrock of a solid O'Neill script is done justice by everyone involved, especially the cast. This was the National Theatre showing us just why it is the National Theatre.

29 August 2013

Strekoza i Muravej at Grimeborn

Having discovered Grimeborn in 2012 I was keen to feast on it heavily in 2013 but the nature of the programme changed from unusual to safe and so I eventually went only once.

And that was to see a production that I could not fit in to my schedule when it was on as part of the Tête à Tête Festival at the Riverside. There it was called The Ant and the Grasshopper but Arcola preferred the Russian title, it is based on a Russian fable apparently.

I have my routines for most theatres that I go to regularly and at the Arcola I always sit in the front row at the front of the stage. Except this time when somebody but a small orchestra in there. I went for a seat on the far side instead to get a good view of both stage and orchestra.

That revised plan fell apart slightly when the opera started and the middle of the stage was used to project the English text on to. This meant that I had to read it side-on, as most people did, and the action was limited to the back of the stage which was one reason why the performance was physically static.

Strekoza i Muravej was only on for one night and it looked as though not enough thought had gone in to how it should be presented in the Arcola's unusual space.

That is enough of the gripes, time for the good news.

The music was lovely and very approachable, clever without being difficult.

The singing was very good too, especially the two leads the Ant and the Dragonfly (I have no idea what happened to the Grasshopper). Their voices were clean and strong, unusually so for fringe opera.

This was one time when I did not have to sit in the front row to hear clearly, though what I heard clearly this time was in Russian so it made very little sense. My flimsy knowledge of Czech got me the odd "Good evening" but that was about it.

I do not know the original fable but it had clearly been updated and whatever jeopardy the original grasshopper/dragonfly faced had been replace with a topic debt problem; she lived well beyond her means with a flamboyant party lifestyle.

Meanwhile the Ant slaved as a junior architect, working hard while the woman he secretly loved lived the life of Reilly.

In the middle was the (female) banker who took great delight in calling in the debt and forcing the dragonfly to give up her nice flat and her lifestyle. Her friends left of their own accord.

Meanwhile the Ant's hard work gets him promoted and he moves up in the world.But this is opera and things do not end well.

The staging was problematic and made the story hard to follow so the evening never quite reached the potential inherent in the music and singers. Which is a shame as there was clearly a lot of potential in that music and those singers.

28 August 2013

Putting myself forward

In the past I have held several positions in my Local Labour Party (Kingston upon Thames). I was on the General Committee for a few years, then the Executive Committee and was even Chair of the local party until I disqualified myself by taking a project in Prague.

All that was twenty years and more ago and I have not (often) felt tempted back into the organised fold, which is a little odd as I have taken on roles with other organisations like the British Czech and Slovak Association, Kingston Area Travellers Association and the Kingston upon Thames Society. My political activity has been limited to a few marches, signing lots of online petitions and tweeting furiously during programms like Question Time.

A call from Compass for members to volunteer for their Management Committee for a year fell on receptive ears and I have put myself forward. I do not for one moment expect to be elected but standing is a sign of interest and commitment and also gives me the opportunity to put my message to all members of Compass. This is what I said in my 150 words.

There is less than two years to go to the General Election that Labour must win to reverse the cuts and privatisations of the Con Dems and with the might of the media opposed to the Left, witness all the weak leader stories about Ed Miliband, it is vital that the Left finds a strong, clear and convincing voice to persuade the electorate that we do not need to live like this; there is an alternative.

I believe that Compass has an important part to play in countering the simplistic arguments of the Right, such as you cannot borrow your way out of a debt crisis, that they have been repeating so often that many people now believe them.

We need to be bold, loud and positive in putting the argument for the Good Society and that should be our priority for the next year.

DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks: 28 August 2013

I like Jae Lee's clean style that produces something spectral and haunting. I've chosen this page both for the drawing, it is hard not to love the anguished mouth in the middle panel, and the unusual composition of three vertical panels and a looking-upwards perspective.

The Unwritten has featured here a few times before. That's because it has spectacular covers like this. Everything about the picture is right and the art deco effects around the title and credits make it even better.

27 August 2013

Dial H was fun while it lasted

When DC relaunched all of its comics as the New 52 in September 2011 it bravely included several fringe titles.

One of these was Dial H written by China Mieville who boasts of writing "weird fiction".

It took as its genesis the previous title Dial H for Hero in which the dial could be used to summon a range of different heroes. China digs in to that legend to explain more about what the dials are, what they do and what types of dials there are.

Over fifteen issues China has taken us to other worlds and introduced us to many suitably weird characters. Even the main Hero is an out of shape man who comes across a dial by accident.

The ride has been a lot of fun but something as non-mainstream as this was never going to last forever. It reminds me of some of the short-run titles that I loved in the 70s, like Claw, Killraven, Deathlock and Warlock. A year or two was enough to tell the story and a timely end was better than a slow lingering death. Of course a few did last longer, e.g. Tomb of Dracula, but these were the exceptions that proved the rule.

With Dial H, DC seem to have got things about right. I would have liked it to run for longer but I guess that the sales did not warrant that and fifteen issues is enough of a legacy to be remembered in forty years the way that I remember Claw etc.

A bonus has been the Brian Bolland covers that have graced every issue. I've picked issue #11 mostly because it is double sized but also because I love the way that summoning the Flash's powers is not revealed on the front cover which just shows the hand holding the dial.

Dial H was also the first monthly comic that I bought exclusively in its digital format and it is an experiment that has worked.

23 August 2013

A Doll's House at the Duke of York's

Ibsen and I do not always get on that well, which is a shame as theatres keep putting his plays on and I keep going to them despite my previous experiences.

They have not been all bad, A Doll's House at the Arcola was wonderful and Love's Comedy at the Orange Tree was fine. The productions that I felt misfired were the more mainstream The Lady from the Sea at the Rose and Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic.

When I've been disappointed I've felt that the weakness was in the play and it may be that the fringe theatres are more willing to play around with this to make it work.

I felt that this version of A Doll's House suffered from the script and lacked creditability as a result, whereas the modern interpretation at the Arcola was hauntingly beautiful.

I decided to see this production, having avoided it twice at the Young Vic, because of the reviews and I let them sway me over having seen it just a couple of years earlier.

A Doll's House is a one-trick pony. It tells the story of Nora Helmer, apparently happily married, with three children, to a banker who is rising up the ranks. But she has a dark secret in her past, to do with money, and that secret is bubbling towards the surface.

The climax of the play comes when the secret finally emerges and we have the husband's strong reaction and then the wife's decisive reaction to that.

The build towards the climax is slow, tense and believable but, just like in the The Lady From the Sea, the climax itself is rushed and unconvincing.

The cast make the most of what they have to work with and I have no complaints about their performances. The set was good too with a simple rotation takings us to different parts of the house.

There was much to appreciate in the play and in this production, it is just that I felt that having taken us skilfully towards the ending the play then took a different direction and ended on a weak note. If I ignore the last five minutes then everything was fine. unfortunately it is the memory of how the play ends that lingers the most.

22 August 2013

Walking around Cardiff Bay

I have found myself unexpectedly working back in Cardiff, for a while at least, and there while the weather is still pretty decent.

I took advantage of that one evening to walk down to the Bay early evening to eat at the Wagamama there rather than the one in the city centre.

My intention was to walk along Bute East Dock but weaving my way through a housing estate towards the dock I found some other water and decided to follow that instead.

It was all very prettily done with the canal changing  shape and direction as it sloped between the houses and under the bridges. It reminded me of the waterways around Limehouse where James Bond raced a powerboat in The World is Not Enough.

The area was almost eerily silent. I did see two other people but we never got that close to each other and seemed content to deny each others existence. A place like this should have life with people having places to walk to and places to sit and enjoy the surroundings. It was great to walk through there but I am not convinced that the canal makes much difference to the people living there.

I hit the dock about half-way down and continued south toward the Bay.

Reaching the far end and looking back showed the extent and mixed environment of the dock.

All of the right-hand side is still undeveloped. Behind the thin veil of trees are industrial buildings and the sound of heavy traffic leaks through too.

The main development is at the south end though there are lump of it elsewhere. Part of the left-hand side is still wild too and the vegetation growing along the dock needs cutting back to make the path more passable and more attractive.

The development and the south end looks the most salubrious and has great views along the dock. These flats are touching the main Bay complex which means that there are plenty or restaurants and cinemas on hand but it lacks the basic infrastructure of shops and pubs. i would not want to live there either.

I started walking back to the city along Lloyd George Avenue which has a wide promenade built just for that purpose. It is a long straight road and I got bored after a while and headed back to the dock having been drawn away by an invitation of a narrow path through greenery.

I rejoined the dock almost at the place that I joined it the first time making the route a figure of 8. I could claim that I planned that.

There is bit of an open space here and a large pub that makes use of it. This looks as though it was once a busy place with relics of machinery. The ghosts of the boats have been silenced by the roar of the traffic on the hidden road opposite,

The development at the north end looks enviously across the water at the crisp blocks opposite and wishes that it was as impressive. These flats look a lot cheaper and they lack the cache of being in the Bay, this part of Cardiff, south of the main railway line, is not pretty.


It is clear from the housing and landscaping that this part of Cardiff has come on a long way since being abandoned by industry and it is a nice place to explore on a warm August evening. I am not convinced that I'll still want to walk through there when the evenings get colder and darker and I am even less convinced that I would want to live there.

21 August 2013

DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks: 21 August 2013

This Catwoman cover looks seriously creepy, like a pulp fiction horror comic. I love it for the complexity of the picture, the simplicity of the colouring and the eerie mood it generates.

I picked cyborg Supergirl last month and she is now back to normal but pursued by a cyborg Superman. The angular line work gives this cover its edge and the splash of red from Supergirl's cape adds contrast and action.

Last week I chose a woman with two swords so I could hardly ignore a woman with two axes. Wonder Woman's stride is purposeful and the flowing red hair suggests that something strange is going on.

The Engine on Madefire is a good comic in an interesting form

I have nine apps for reading comics on my iPad. Most of these (seven) use comiXology technology to display comics and the only difference between them is the publishers that they link too, for example I have separate apps for Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse.

This is somewhat confusing as these publishers comics are also available via the Comics app produced by the people who developed comiXology.

Madefire are one of the organisations trying to do something different and comics built with Madefire can use special effects like gradual reveals, moving panels, limited 3D by having these panels move relative to each other, sound and rotation.

The end result is still sequential but it looks little like a conventional comic. The closest equivalent that I can think of is the cartoons produced by moving paper cut-out images, e.g. Capt. Pugwash. Madefire does far more that that.

The technology is interesting but that alone does not a good comic make. Far from it. I've dabbled with most Madefire titles, they are all free at the moment, and most are OK, but only OK. There are three titles that have me hooked; The Engine is one of them.

The Engine is an industrial robot in Soviet Russia.

Already there are two things to like about this, Steampunk and Constructivism.

The Engine is pure Steampunk. Built to show the Soviet Supremacy the robots perform simple mechanic tasks independently using technology  that looks as though it would struggle to make a train.

The Constructivism style of the time is reflected in Jimmy Broxton's art giving the comic a distinctive look, and one I like.

Guy Adams' story (so far) is simple but with depth. A group of political dissidents exiled to a mine are buried in an accident and The Engine is their only hope of escape. A lot is made of the political climate at that time that had led to writers being turned in to miners. The politics is very much part of the story but it does no occlude the escape attempt that is the main theme (so far).

I've chosen to share another page of the art only because it is so good that it demands to be shared. In the comic it is even better as this is a 360 degree panorama and one finger is all that it takes to move left/right and up/down. It is incredibly effective.

The Engine has just reached issue #5 and has reached an interesting point (no spoilers) that promises to take the story in an unexpected direction, i.e. I have no idea what is going to happen next.

There are times with Madefire when I think that the stories are a little over-engineered, and I usually read them with the sound off, but all experiments are good and the evidence today suggests that this is a technology with a future.

And it helps to have a comic as good as The Engine to showcase it.

20 August 2013

Vivienne was even better the second time

I liked Vivienne so much when I saw it the first time just a couple of weeks previously that I jumped at the opportunity to see it again.

This time the logistics were much less favourable as it was at The Forge in Camden, a venue new to me, and did not start until 9:45pm. I filled the time by having a few drinks with a friend by London Bridge and then heading to The Forge to eat in the associated The Foundry Bar and Restaurant where the vegetable tempura skewers, olive oil mayonnaise did the job. I had another pint of beer there too.

Then it was quite a bit of waiting round while looking casual about being determined to be near the front of the queue to secure a good seat. This became more urgent when I learnt that the seating was not raked and I risked being behind somebody taller than me (most people are).

It was Clare McCaldin herself who told me this when I built up the courage to have a quick word with her before the performance. Meeting the stars is one of the attractions of small venues and while I like to do this I am also acutely aware that they have better things to do.

The plan worked and I got a seat in the front row next to the aisle. Position A.

I struck up a conversation with the lady next to me and we swapped artistic tips by email while we waited for Vivienne.

The raised stage and flat seating meant some minor changes to the performance, such as the tarot cards being read on a chair rather than the floor. Other than that it was the same as before and even better than before.

I found it better as this time I knew the story and was able to pay more attention to the detail of the words and the beauty of the music rather than just trying to work out what was going on. The libretto is long with very few repeats and while it is easy to follow there is so much going on that it is easy to forget some of the detail. Second time around I often found myself hearing lines that I had forgotten.

Vivienne is a monologue delivered in a mix of styles as fits the mood of each story. We Were the Dancing Girls is a cabaret song, Betrie's Not There is a poem and the closer, Drunken Sailor, is a nursery rhyme. It also gives the piece a very neat ending with the final words "It's all over".

The mood of the piece is generally upbeat, despite Vivienne's rejection by her husband, and it is very lively too with Clare using all of the square and a healthy set of props like a rhythmic gymnast. It is all rather jolly and pleasing to watch.

That I was able to watch Vivienne twice in a couple of weeks and enjoyed it even more the second time is testament to the richness and quality of the work. The music and words are enthralling and Clare McCaldin's performance is astounding.

Vivienne is so good that I am hoping to see it again later this year.

Walking through London

I love walking, I love London and I really love walking through London. I have gone for exploratory walks wherever I have worked and there are parts of London that I know well because of this.

One of my favourite places for walking is around the CGI/Logica office in Kings Place which sits on the Regent's Canal just north of Kings Cross. For the last couple of years I have been mostly banished to distant parts (e.g. Cardiff and Retford) and have missed my regular walks. A carefully planned day in London to see a friend in the evening and the lucky happen stance of it being a gorgeous day meant that I was out and about again.

The Regent's Canal next to Kings Place was somewhat green and very still. The birds did not seem to mind so nor did I and the change of colour made a familiar view look unusual.

Heading west I soon got to St Pancras Lock. This is a small lock, though not the smallest that I have seen, yet despite its smallness there are a lots of parts to it, such as this cascade of water. I presume that's there to aerate the water but that is just my guess.

Whatever the purpose of the various parts, together they make a machine that is pretty to watch and restful to listen to.

A little further along I came to St Parncras Old Church in its pretty shaded garden. I've taken many pictures of the garden over the yeas so I thought that I would have one of the church for a change.

I am not a great fan of churches, hence the lack of previous photos, but, considered just as a work of art, the scale, colour and design of this one suit its surroundings perfectly.

Nearby Camley Street Natural Park sat green wild and natural while the area around it was being ripped up as part of the largest building scheme in the country (it's so large that a new postcode region, N1C, has been created for it). It takes but a few minutes to walk all around the park and these are refreshing and rejuvenating minutes.

Exiting from the park brought me in to direct contact with the regeneration work. The old industrial buildings had been marked with a silver flash that grew to cover the whole of the Central Saint Martins campus.

I quite like the silver flash but the green artificial turf on the steps down to the canal looked too artificial without being interesting enough to justify this. 

The work there was continuing at a hectic pace and there will be a lot more to see the next time that I get there.

In the evening I walked down to London Bridge to meet a friend for a few pints on the river. Crossing London Bridge gave me this largely uninterrupted view of the Shard. It is not my favourite modern building in London, that is still Lloyds of London, but then there is nothing wrong with it either.

18 August 2013

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2013 Day Six was magical

All too quickly it was my sixth and final visit to Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2013 and, by my reckoning, these were my fifteenth and sixteen operas in just over two weeks.

The Hidden Valley was the closest thing to a full opera that I saw during the festival. Not only did it tell a complete story but it also ran for about an hour and a half.

It was a fairy story about a river goddess who falls in love with a human against her father's wishes. He turns her in to a series of animals but despite this, years later, the lovers are reunited.

The story teller was a crow, just to reinforce the magical element.

There was a cast of nine with a breadth of voices that gave a richness to the sound. In contrast there were just three musicians (piano, harp, percussion) who provided a light almost staccato background.

Some effort was made with the staging though I never expect much in a festival like this. There were some perfunctory trees on stage but we had to imagine the river, which was fine. It was all neatly done.

The Hidden Valley is the story of Ariene, the river-goddess, and Laura Pooley was superb, especially when mimicking the various animals that she was turned in to including a beetle and a when.

It was all rather magical, as it was meant to be.

Dart's Love had a similar theme (though I had forgotten that), which made it the idea companion piece.

Put simply, the story was river meets man and falls in love, man falls in love with woman, river kills woman, man runs away never to be seen again.

The tale had a strong touch of the ancient myth about it but the music was fresh and modern. The four musicians were placed in the four corners of the river and plucked and blew in short bursts to make a series of sounds rather than a continuous piece. It was still music, rather than sound effect, and added to the atmosphere of the piece.

Dart was played by three women on swings. It was original and effective with their swaying suggesting the movement of the river.

Dart's Love was a lovely short story, it lasted about half an hour, that was enchanting to watch. It was one of my personal highlights of the festival and an excellent note to end on.

I was not in a rush to get home and was loitering in the bar area, as you do, when I was invited to the after party by one of the organisers who recognised me from my frequent visits.

I could not stay long, just long enough to finish my beer, but that was enough for a couple of final operatic flings.

First we had a repeat of one of the Lite Bites that were performed around the festival. These lasted about five minutes and were usually performed in the reception area. The blood on her apron reveals that this was not a happy story.

The final final piece was Nancy's Lament, this being the Nancy of Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist. This was meant to be unusual, and was. The music was provided by a lone guitarist who was then joined by a Dixie Band and a parade that moved through the audience.

It was a shame to have to leave though I left with a happy heart, delighted at what I had seen over the previous two weeks and already anticipating what Tête-à-Tête might do next.

17 August 2013

Kick Ass 2 lived up to expectations

I do not venture to the cinema so often these days, mainly because films get to DVD so quickly now, so it was a little strange to find myself back there watching Kick Ass 2 so soon after watching Red 2.

There are a lot of similarities between them, and some notable differences too. Both are based on comics (Red much less so) and both feature comic violence and comedy. Red is not Die Hard and Kick Ass is not Batman.

Both sequels copied the mood and style of their originals and, therefore, gave their fans just what they expected and what they wanted.

Whereas Red 2 just reused the characters from Red, Kick Ass 2 continued to retell the story of the comic. That made Kick Ass 2 more like Kick Ass Chapter 2 than a Second Kick Ass as it continued where Kick Ass finished off and took the main characters in some new directions, such as Mindy coming to terms with being an orphan and a teenage girl.

The story is a key part of Kick Ass 2 but I'll not say much about it because that's what spoilers do.

Otherwise it is much the same as Kick Ass with ludicrous violence, none of which feels remotely real, and strong language, though I only spotted one c-bomb and that was in Russian (with a helpful English text translation).

That there is more of a story this time around makes the film more gripping and engaging, there were several threads where I really cared about what happened next.

Jim Carrey is (almost) the only name actor in it, taking this role from Nicholas Cage who died in Kick Ass. Carrey is surprisingly good and un-Carrey-like, a view derived from only seeing him previously in films like The Mask and The Grinch. This Carrey may be a little weird but he is not wacky. There is also a brief spot for Iain Glen, which was a pleasant surprise having seen him on stage earlier this year staring in a Chekhov play.

Hit Girl provides some of the best moments as there is something enchanting and cute watching a young teenage girl cut a team of tough baddies in to shreds (literally).

Kick Ass 2 builds on Kick Ass with skill, flair and a story. That makes II better than I and raises the bar for III.

Deke at Dorset County Council

I was not intending to do any own-trumpet blowing but a story on Facebook about the musician Deke Leonard reminded me of the days in the 1980s when I worked at Dorset County Council (DCC) and led a team developing an information retrieval package called "Deke".

When I started work at DCC as a Trainee Programme in 1978 they were using a ICL 1904 mainframe running George. Cobol was the main programming language with some stuff written in a lower-level language called PLAN. FILETAB was used to do quick and simple reports, often once-offs.

Soon after I joined, DCC moved on to a ICL 2900 under VME/B. We still used Cobol but there was no equivalent to FILETAB; so we wrote one. I was the main designer and led a small team of developers that included, at various times, Alan Fowler, Martin McMeeken, Steve Crook, Chris Whitley and Vince Pomagalski.

To submit a query in Deke, users completed a few easy screens, e.g. select "rateable value > £500" and "district = Purbeck", print "address" and "rateable value" and sort by "rateable value". This generated a Cobol programme to run the query.

The whole point was to make it easy and we boasted of never having to train anybody in how to use it. They key was to use terms like "rateable value" and "rv" that users were familiar with and to build the query in a few simple screens.

To provide this level of simplicity for users we had to do some work up-front to define each of the files to Deke. This took around half a day even for an application that had several related files. Once set-up this way there was nothing else that we needed to do and the users could generate reports and queries to the hearts' content.

We developed Deke for in-house use and we started to promote it to other organisations when we realised that other people moving to ICL 2900 would have the same problem. This was a few years before Query Master and Report Master appeared.

Prompted by the other reference to Deke, I did a quick search for "deke dorset county council" and found these two extracts from BIIRISA the Newsletter of the British Urban, and Regional Information Systems Association.

BIIRISA 62, February 1984

Operating STRATPLAN consists of two distinct ,stages :-
(i) Data entry and maintenance, using up to five standard data entry VDU screen displays (including a menu screen);
(ii) Data retrieval and analysis using the DEKE inquiry package.
DEKE is a powerful but very easy to use general inquiry programme generator which has been developed by Dorset County Council.*
••• DEKE is available for ICL 2900 series machines running under the VME operating system. For further details write to : County Treasurer, Dorset County Council, County Hall, Dorchester DTI 1XJ, or telephone Ridiard Goodridge on (0305) 63131, ext. 4078.

BIIRISA 78, May 1987
File interrogation will be via Dorset' s DEKE report. writing package. This is not only exceptionally easy to use, but also is already familiar to a wide spectrum of administrative staff in the Colleges.

16 August 2013

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2013 Day Five was extreme

My fifth visit to Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2013 was limited to two performances due to the timings of the shows. There were three operas that I fancied seeing but, luckily, one of them was moving on to Grimeborn (at the Arcola Theatre) and I bought tickets to see it there instead.

The two shows that I did see, Lament and Crocodile, were about as different as two operas could be, and I liked them both.

Lament tells you from its name that it is not going to be a bundle of laughs and so I went expecting slow mournful music, which is what I got.

What I was not expecting was the heavy use of electronics. The music was clearly a lament and there were the sounds of people chanting but the presentation was in the ambient/trance area and it had police sirens too.

Between them the two musicians had one sparsely used keyboard and three computer screens. I am used to this for bands like dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip (not my usual thing but I saw them supporting Sparks) but to see an opera delivered digitally was something of a surprise. A good surprise.

In addition to the two musicians there was one singer, Katie Slater, playing the role of Ariadne. She wore a microphone and for most of the time her voice was amplified and modified, e.g. with added echo.

There were a few light effects and Katie walked, sat and lay down but visually this was a minimalist performance performed by a minimal group. And I loved it.

My CD collection has things like Portishead, Sigur Ros and Michael Gordon so electronic music and classical music done electronically were not new to me. It was just that this was the first time I had seen it done as a live show billed as an opera.

Lament had the haunted sound that I expected and wanted, and the presentation built on that mood to produce something quite lovely.

The ending was nice too with the performers walking off in the dark while the computers finished doing their thing and then the lights came on and we all clapped an empty stage.

The Crocodile, based on Dostoyevsky short story of the same name, could not have been more different.

It was bright and bouncy, had a large cast supported by a large group of musicians, and it finished with a party that had balloons and silly-string.

The crux of the story was simple, some Russians had got hold of a crocodile that they thought will propel them up in the world of Russian High society, only for it to eat one of them.

Some deep ideas are then explored around what this means, and I should read the story to find out what direction that takes, but the mood of the opera is resolutely funny.

The band set the tone for this playing a series of light jazzy tunes.

There was a life-sized crocodile too, luckily it was a puppet and it was kept well under control by its handler. Clearly the crocodile was a metaphor for something else pertinent to Russian life in the last 19th Century but here it was mostly played for laughs.

The amusing side of the story was emphasised by the costumes with a stereotypical mad professor, a German with goggles, a woman with an electric blue wig and another woman wearing enough make-up to start a shop.

The whole thing was enjoyably silly and smile inducing, much a children's party. There were some laughs too but the Crocodile was not farcically funny in the way that The Secretary Turned CEO was, nor was it trying to be.

Of course there was also plenty of singing and most of the cast had a reasonable amount to do and they all did it reasonably well. There were only a couple of significant singing roles and these were nicely done.

The Crocodile was frivolous and fun and made a packed house very happy.

14 August 2013

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

Careful planing on my part meant that I could make the BCSA "Get to Know You" Socials in both July and August.

As always there was combination of the familiar, bordering on tradition, and the new.

The familiar elements included starting the evening on the draught Pilsner Urquell and finishing it with a bottle of Zlaty Bazant, eating Smazeny Syr somewhere in the middle, and friends like Richard, Ruzena and Jana.

The new elements were the new people, there are always new people there, and the new conversations. It's the conversations that these evenings are all about and they flowed effortlessly for four hours until bar's closing time, 10:30pm, brought proceedings to a close.

Next month I'll probably be working in Cardiff again but I'll be working on a scheme to be back in West Hampstead on the second Wednesday.

DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks: 14 August 2013

I like this cover of Demon Knights because of its action and strangeness. It starts with a medieval fighting force, adds balloons to confuse the time and place and then adds a yellow horned demon to make it stranger still.

DC are getting Batman right at the moment and that is why I keep selecting Batman covers in my weekly pick. I like the action in the mob, and the use of colour with grey in the foreground with dark reds in the background but the cover is all about Batman.

Katana has come close to featuring here previously but I try to limit myself to four (and only then if there are four pages interesting enough) and it has never quite made it. This month it has crossed swords and that is good enough for me, the reflection in one of them is a bonus.

Another non-superhero cover gets selected this month. What I like about it is the juxtaposition of the two faces, one small and one large, one black and one blue, both looking out at the reader. Simple but effective.

12 August 2013

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: August 2013

August's Committee Meeting covered the usual range of topics and with the usual degree of agreement, except for the first topic.

Student accommodation at 64 - 80 Cambridge Road (13/12571)

There were two parts to this application that we considered, the design of the new building and its potential impact on the surrounding area.

The building looked reasonable at first glance and it was arguably prettier than the jumble of buildings that were there then. However, it was not without flaws and, for example, a closer look revealed that the building fronts directly onto the pavement with no space for landscaping.

We spent longer discussing the impact on the communal spaces of the Cambridge Road Estate that surrounds it on three sides.

The residents were improving these areas through planting etc. and we were concerned that adding 272 units would add too much demand for parking and just walking across the grass for this space to handle without considering the possibility of increased inconsiderate use.

We understood that the residents were investigating whether they could get the area designated as an Asset of Community Value. We would support them if they did.

We agreed to oppose the planning application on the grounds that it represented over development of the site.

The developers of the Richmond Park Tavern (13/12322) had been working with the Council on the fine details of the application, such as the shape of the windows, but the Council then said that they were likely to refuse the application (no decision had been made formally at the time of the meeting).

The developer was considering other options and planning permission would not be required to change use from a pub to a food store, so this may happen.

One of the political parties had gone for some political opportunism and had rushed a leaflet out warning of the arrival of a Tesco. Our reading of the mood of the area from our members who live locally is that a local convenience store would be convenient.

The Council had refused the application for H S S Hire, 117 London Road (13/12235), next to Tiffin School, which we had supported. This was a Committee decision made against officers' advice on the grounds that the accommodation would be "sub-standard", that is the one bed flats were too small and there was insufficient amenity space in the three bed flats.

We welcomed the Council's decision to use this reason for refusing applications. It was just a shame that we had not thought of it first.

While we supported many of the ideas of improving cycle facilities in Kingston, as recently announced by the Council, we were not impressed with the idea of using floating pontoons to make a cycle path along the river.

The Old Post Office in Eden Street was covered in mysterious scaffolding; should we be worried?

There was nothing new to say on Seething Wells but we spent some time saying it anyway. The appeal was going ahead and we were awaiting the outcome. In the meantime there were complaints that the site was not being maintained properly, which is much as we predicted.

The Market Place debate moved on to the subject of toilets and there was general agreement that it ought to have some.

I became the new Webmaster following the resignation of Mary Watts from the Committee.

The August Newsletter was almost ready to go out, it had been delayed due to having a July meeting to report on.

11 August 2013

The Drowned Man at Temple Studios was grand but oversold

I went to see, or participate in, The Drowned Man with unusually high expectations.Not only did I see some reviews beforehand for a change but they were all very positive too. City AM, admittedly not known for its arts reviews, went as far as to call it "The year’s most spectacular theatrical extravaganza". I guess they do not get out much.

There is certainly much to admire. The scale is beyond impressive and the attention to detail is obsessive.

The event takes place over four floors (I think) that are divided into several dark and confusing places that you can walk around and through in any order that you like.

Some of the spaces are just bonkers. Places like the caravans in the woods which had several full-size caravans, lots of trees and enough bark on the floor to be a convincing woodland. Another space had sand and elsewhere there were some cars.The buildings I encountered included shops, bars, a kitchen, barbers, and studio dressing rooms. There were a lot more places that I found and a lot more that I am sure that I did not find. It was vast and hugely impressive.

Equally impressive was the intention to detail with all the spaces crammed full of things in the smallest detail from tins of peas to letters and from chess sets to drugs. To give just one example of the many many, in the doctor's surgery there were a lot of questionnaires on clipboards that had been completed, and on one of these the answer given to "what do you do after sex?" was "watch Grandstand". Just brilliant.

The vast size of the place and the masses of things to look at meant that the three hours of the performance was nothing like enough to see, or even to find, everything and so we all had to be selective on what we did and what we watched.

The one part that seemed to make any sense was the bar. A real bar where we could have a drink and relax with our masks off (we were all wearing Viennese masks, as you do). That semblance of reality slipped a little when one of the actors recognised me as one of the stars of a musical, Love Boat, and announced my presence to the whole bar.

We encountered several other actors in our wanderings, easily recognisable because they were not wearing masks, and they played out several little scenes for us, often passionate dances that veered towards fights.

What I found missing from this was any semblance of a narrative, let alone the double-murder one the brief guidance notes led us to expect. If The Drowned Man was trying to tell a story then it fell miserably but if it was just trying to immerse us in different worlds then it worked fine.

For scale it easily outclass the similar show In The Beginning was The End that I saw at Somerset House in March but I much preferred the earlier show because of its narrative, humour and sheer beauty in one of the scenes.

The Drowned Man had scale, complexity and a wealth of detail but it lacked direction and it lacked variety. It was still very impressive, just not as impressive as I expected.