30 November 2013

Middlemarch - The Doctor's Story at The Orange Tree

I thought that The Doctor's Story, the second in the Orange Tree's Middlemarch trilogy, was even better than the first, and I loved that one.

The basics of the play were the same. There was a very minimalistic set with just a couple of pieces of furniture and the actors spoke directly to the audience to fill in the gaps in the story that we could not see on stage.

We met the doctor in Dorothea's story and learnt some of his story then, especially his arrival in Middlemarch and his subsequent marriage.

In The Doctor's Story we heard more about his relationship with his wife but the main element of the story concerned his financial affairs.

His finances were dependent on Mr Bulstrode who we learnt last time acquired his money in less than decent means. We learnt a lot more about Mr Bulstrode this time and in some ways this was his tale as much as the Doctor's.

And I think that was the difference between the two plays and why I liked this one more.

The Doctor's Story involved more people, which kind of made it more interesting by itself, and that meant that more of the cast had the chance to show what they could do, and they could do lots.

It was good to see Dorothea again, this time playing a cameo role in a scene that we had seen before as part of her story.

Strangely, the Doctor was almost a passenger in his own story as things happened more around him than to him. The main players were, understandably, his wife and Mr Bulstrode but the whole cast were deeply involved and all were excellent.

Several of them played multiple parts too, including one who played three characters in quick succession without leaving the stage.

The Doctor's Story was a delight. It was a good story, interpreted nicely for the stage and delivered superbly by the cast.

Exploring Poplar

I was in Poplar (that is when Apple Maps says I was) for a political conference but it was a part of London that I had not been to before so I wanted to do some exploration too.

I was helped in this my the conference programme that included some walking tours and I chose to go on one of them for my lunch break.

The starting point was The Oval Space which is in the corner formed by Hackney Road and Cambridge Heath Road.

Behind The Oval, to its west, are the remains of four gas holders and these dominated the views as we walked around the area.

And just to the north of The Oval the Regent's Canal cuts a hard line through the area making exploration a decision of which bridges to use.

The interplay between the gas holders and the canal dominated my pictures as we headed for the bridge. Even in reflections the gas holders were determined to make their presence known.

Walking towards the road bridge I passed under the rail bridge and that was a framing shot that I could not resist. Nor could anybody else in our group of twenty odd.

The picture captures the mood of the area with its combination of industry and mass social housing.

Our destination was Broadway Market and our mission was to photograph people. I did not know this when I signed up and I made only a half-hearted attempt to take pictures of people. Not only do I not particularly like looking at pictures of people but I feel distinctly uncomfortable taking them.

Broadway Market surprised me.

I was expecting something like Ridley Road Market in not that far way Dalston but this was very different. Both the stalls and their customers looked more as though they belonged in somewhere like Hampstead. There were a large number of stalls selling unusual (for me) ethnic food presented for the middle-class and sold at middle-class prices. I bought something African with cheese and spinach in something bready. It was yummy.

Unfortunately the market stalls were tightly packed in to the narrow road and there was no way go get a perspective shot showing the size, layout and composition.

There was a lot of graffiti in the area and quite a lot of it was fairly arty but none more do than this impressive bird staring at the market. I think that it was made all the more interesting by the line of bikes parked safely under his gaze.

Turning back towards The Oval to resume the conferencing I was confronted with this sky and the silhouette of the road ahead. This is just as I took it though it was tempting to tweak it just a little and to make it completely monochrome.

I like the details in this, the shape of the clouds, the shapes of the protruding lamps and the unfinished looking building in the distance. This is why I take pictures of buildings rather than of people.

Compass Conference 2013 - Change: How?

Compass promised that this year's conference would be different, and it was.

Instead of being at the comfortable Institute of Education in the centre of London it was at the edgier and more industrial Oval Space in Cambridge Heath, Tower Hamlets. The location was one of the things that attracted me to the event as I like going to new places.

The big difference though was the structure of the day with more interactive sessions included at the expense of the standard panels, though these were still included.

Despite the remote location (and that's the view of somebody who lives in London) I was able to get there not long after registration opened at 9am. The 26 bus took me there directly from Waterloo along roads unfamiliar to me once we got past Liverpool Street station.

The venue had two main spaces, the large Oval Space itself that was used for the plenary and main sessions and the smaller Pickle Factory across the road for the other sessions. There were also some small spaces for stalls and escaping from it all. Overall we could just about fit in to the spaces but it was often cramped and I stood for some of the sessions.

We opened (a little late) in the Oval Space with three commentators responding to questions first from the host and then from the audience. Essentially this was a panel session with the panellists standing among us rather than sitting on a separate stage. I think that it worked well despite one of the panellists commentating on how scary the experience was for him.

The theme of that session was about the differing roles of campaigning organisations (like Occupy and Greenpeace) and elected politicians. Somebody said that you need the campaign groups to identify the problem and to build a solution (because they are on the ground and know what needs to be done) and then you need to politicians to implement the changes (because only they have the power to do so), but even if that is a fair representation of who things work today I am pretty certain that it is not the best way for things to work. Perhaps we should move to a more devolved system where campaigners could have knowledge and power.

We then had a short talk on the need for new models of (political) leadership that are based on collaboration rather than command and control. I have been reading this stuff for ages through work and I am still not convinced that we have a working model. Command and control works very well at times (e.g. the military and, to be honest, most organisations) and we need a predictable framework which says what is needed in each type of organisation.

The next session was more ambitious, interactive and did not work for me.

The aim was to fill the room with conversations (which it did) but it took too long to get there and was a bit shambolic when it did. People were asked to suggest topics for the conversations and then an elaborate process was followed to allocate the conversations to spaces and to restructure the spaces for group conversations.

People were asked to find move between the conversations as they liked.

I like the basic idea but doing it all on the day took too long and we ended up with some similar sounding topics. I would like to see something similar done next year but the topics should be submitted beforehand (to save the time it takes to find and announce 40 topics) and then they could be marked out clearly within the space (so that we can all find the conversations that we are interested in).

I failed to find the conversation that I was most keen on and the other interesting ones looked too cramped to join so I gave this session a miss and just stood at the side watching proceeding and trying to catch up with my note taking.

For the next session I headed across the road to the Pickle Factory for a panel discussion on some forgotten heroes who had made a difference and who could be useful examples for us to build on.

On reflection, this was the session that I found the most useful judging by the number of notes that I took. This is them.
  • An organisation's tacit knowledge lies with its workers.
  • Spencer - give land back to the people and organise at the parish level.
  • Inequality arises from theft of the land.
  • Hope comes through meeting, not meetings.
  • Combine labour value and land value, Marx and Spence (the weakest joke of the day).
The reason that I found this section so instructive is because it highlighted the need to land reform as well as labour reform. The Labour Party, working with the Unions, has done a lot on labour reform over the last hundred years or so but has not touched land reform and until this happens power will remain entrenched in the establishment that owns most of it.

Then it was time for lunch and my photography tour of the area.

After lunch it was back to the Pickle Factory for some stand-up comedy in a room so full that I had to stand-up for it behind the bar where I could not see it either. That was actually OK and I quite liked the session.

That was followed by a session on meditation which did not quite do enough to convince me to give it a go. I know that it works for many people but I am not one of them.

We then had a World Cafe session on lessons that we could learn from failure. Five people with a tale to tell sparked conversations of ten minutes each giving us time for two conversions each in the thirty minute session.

Again I liked the concept but some of the detail let it down. At ten minutes each conversation was too short and in the two that I joined we spent most of the time listening to the facilitator introduce the session and that left scant time for a conversation. And with a dozen or more people in each group I did not get to join in on either one, which is very unlike me at a debate.

For the final session we all went back to the Oval Space for, well, a panel session. I missed the start of this as the sessions across the road had run late so I am not sure what the theme was and what I caught was interesting but unstructured. It was also more intellectual, and hence less practicable, than the other sessions.

The only note I made was about the idea of creating platforms (or enables) for the Good Society that enable communities to implement their own local solutions, much like there are models for opening shops or banks.

It was a full, busy, varied and interesting day. Yes some things did not work as well as they could have done and I doubt that we actually found many new ways of implementing the change that needs to be made but there is always a great vibe when lots of people with the same interest work together. I left there feeling very positive and that is all that I wanted from the day.

29 November 2013

BCSA Annual Dinner 2013

The British Czech and Slovak Association Annual Dinner was described on the booking form (which I wrote) as "the main event in the BCSA calendar". And I was right.

The format has remained the same for all the years that I have been going, and that is part of its success. There is no need to change a successful formula.

The event was held at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Bloomsbury Street Hotel. It always is but the hotel seems to change its name subtly every year.

The evening started with a drinks reception at 7pm with, as usual, beer kindly provided by Budweiser Budvar. There was wine too but I did not try that.

At 7:30 we were invited in to the dining room where the starters were already out ready for us. Ruzena does the seating plan and she normally puts me, and regular companion Richard, on a table with people who go to the monthly socials in the Czechoslovak House in West Hampstead.

I was seated between Dagmar and Zuzana and many delightful conversations followed; in one I advised Zuzana to live in Slovakia rather than Chicago or Vancouver - wise advise.

The table next to us had some Very Important People on it.

Chief of these was Sir Nicholas George Winton, MBE who organised the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War.

Sharing the table was (Baron) Alf Dubs who was Labour MP for Battersea from 1983 to 87. I took some time off work to campaign for him in 1992. I grabbed a few moments to tell him this and he had the kindness to remember me.

The meal went very well and the wine and conversations kept flowing. Our table did quite well in the raffle winning three of the minor prizes, mine was a bottle of Peach and White Tatratea.

The after dinner speech by Sian MacLeod, former HM Ambassador to the Czech Republic, was pitched just right and was well received. The more cynical people there, like myself, might have suggested that this reinforced our view that life in the diplomatic corps is one long jolly.

After the dinner some of us lingered to talk to people on other tables. These conversations were considerably oiled by sampling the complete range of Tatrateas and this has slightly impaired my recollection of them.

Every part of the evening worked very well and I had a thoroughly excellent time. I hope the people that I harangued all evening managed to enjoy some of it too.

I will, of course, be going to the BCSA Annual Dinner again next year. It is in my diary already.

28 November 2013

The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne

The Rape of Lucretia was getting excellent reviews on the Glyndebourne Tour so I was keen to see it. Even if that meant going to Woking.

I do not know the theatre there so had no idea on the seating or sight lines but was prepared to take a risk and fork out £60 for a ticket. That plan came to an abrupt stop at the end of the online purchase process when Ambassador Theatre Group wanted to charge me an additional £9.50 for a ticket fee. I took a very dim view of their obscure pricing and abandoned my purchase.

There was a performance scheduled for Glyndebourne but that was reserved for under thirties so it looked as though I would miss out. Then the rules changed and us oldies were allowed in too.

I went straight for my favourite location, the front row in the Upper Circle. The bar is even less in the way than it appears here as I was keeping my camera low to avoid detection. The snatched nature of the picture means that it is somewhat blurred (I did not allow the autofocus time to focus) but it is sufficient to show the view that I had from there.

The Rape of Lucretia is a legend told by the Romans from around the turn of the millennium (BC/AD) on how they overthrew their Etruscan masters five hundred years earlier.

That meant that it was a well defined, and well known, story with an unhappy ending. For me that took some of the edge off it as one of the great beauties of Turn of the Screw is that it has mysteries in that are not resolved.

And, despite being performed at Glyndebourne, this was the touring version of the opera so the staging was light. I am generally happier with light staging as that leaves more space for the story but when the story does not fill up that space then the weaknesses are exposed.

The singing was fine, as always, and my distance from the stage was no barrier to understanding the words. But I knew that would be the case, which is why I chose those seats.

The interval was bit of a change. Instead of the usual long interval with a picnic and champagne on the lawn it was finding a bench in the Long Bar to eat the sandwiches that I brought with me. And a glass of champagne.

The second half took us to the tragic conclusion and then to an unexpected end when the two modern-day narrators of the legend who had shared the stage throughout told us that the tragedy was undone by Christ's love, or something like that. The tragic ending I could live with, the advertisement for Christianity I would rather have done without.

Fiona Shaw, who directed it, was there . I tried to grab a moment with her afterwards to tell her how much I enjoyed her The Rime of the Ancient Mariner earlier this year but she was a popular woman that night and I did not get a chance. I had to content myself with waving at her like an idiot when she walked by and she was kind enough to wave back.

27 November 2013

DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks: 27 November 2013

One of the things that I liked about Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing is that the man of moss grew to realise that he was connected to the plant world and that made him very powerful. We get a hint of that power in this dramatic cover.

I seem to feature a dark Batman picture every week, and this is no exception. There is power in the action yet the scene feels as if it could be almost silent and the lack of colour matches the lack of sound.

26 November 2013

Big Ideas for a Christmas Social 2013

The worst thing about working away from home as much as I have over the last couple of years is missing so many evening events in London.

One of the main casualties of this has been Big Ideas, the philosophy discussion group that meets in a pub on the last Tuesday of each month. However I planned my time away it was hard to be in London on Tuesdays. Luckily those days have passed (t least for the moment) and I was in London for the last Tuesday in November.

This was the date for this year's Big Ideas Christmas Social with its famously difficult quiz.

But first the social.

To keep things simple the Christmas Social followed the format of the monthly meetings, except without a speaker. So that meant meeting in the upstairs room of The Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia with each of us sorting out our own food and drinks, though these were supplemented by a significant number of mince-pies courtesy of the pub landlord.

Big Ideas had stretched it wings a little to include a philosophical reading group and a maths group. The organisation and membership of the three groups overlapped significantly so it made sense for them all to share the same Christmas Social.

Despite my recent absences I recognised enough of the people there to walk in to some interesting conversations.

Then the quiz game.

This page shows just how hard it was. None of the brain-boxes in the room knew that Madama Sousatzka, Batman and My Left Foot were the first three films given the new 12 rating.

I did know, or at least guessed, that the symphonies in question 9 are all No. 8. But that was the only one that I got. Others did better.

My one big success was in the maths section where I was the only person to get the right answer to one of the question, including the question-setter! The question was, how many distinctly different ways are there to make a cube with faces coloured either black or white. The official answer was 6 but clearly there are at least 7 as there can be 0, 1, 2, ... or 6 black faces. The question then becomes how many ways are there to arrange 2, 3, ... black faces on a white cube. I know.

Despite by (old) degree in Mathematics that was the only maths question that I got completely right and I got two of the four completely wrong. I did not win the quiz but I was not too embarrassingly off the pace. Not that anybody was taking it too seriously.

The quiz was a challenging diversion but the main point of the evening was simply to have intelligent conversations with intelligent people. I certainly managed that and I hope that the people that I spoke to managed it too.

25 November 2013

Humanist Debate: Irrationality in Healthcare

I joined the British Humanist Association (BHA) recently, too add my voice to those opposed to the inappropriate imposition of religion into many aspects of our lives, and have started to get involved a little by attending lectures and debates.

The BHA has a regional organisation and I am in the South West London Humanists Group which runs its own events, including a monthly discussion in the conveniently located Old Ship pub in Richmond.

The discussion in November was led by Dr. Ed Presswood from The Secular Medical Forum and was on Irrationality in Healthcare.

He described a range of non-scientific practices used by the NHS, from not having A&E beds numbered 13 through to performing circumcisions on babies.

Along the way we learnt that a hangman's noose has 13 knots, some Irish do not like to be discharged on a Saturday as "a Saturday flit is a short sit" and religion still interferes with health by, for example, blocking right to die campaigns.

We were then asked to consider where the NHS should draw the line on irrational behaviour and we did this in small groups before coming back together for a summary at the end.

What follows are some scraps of notes taken during the discussion embellished by some further thought.

Science and Religion have their own views of what is right and it is impossible for one to persuade the other of their version of the truth. Therefore we often have to work in the middle and accept that we are not going to agree. If you are worried about number 13, or any other superstition, then I need to respect that. I might want to convince you of your folly but, in a health situation, this is secondary to your wellbeing.

If we are to be intolerant of the number 13 then perhaps we should stop lying to children about the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas.

I am very much on the side of science but we have to accept that our science changes and what was right, say, ten years ago is not always right now. Thalidomide was right once.

Patients are allowed to refuse a good treatment but cannot demand a bad one. If the good treatment is refused this could be traced back to bad education in which case we have to consider whether the patient is truly making an informed choice. Does an informed choice ever exist in this context?

If scientific logic is important to the NHS then we should beyond the simple medical. For example why do they serve meat when this is a grossly inefficient use of the planet's resources and is unnecessary for wellbeing.

I was somewhat surprised at how often money was suggested in the discussion as a means of moderating behaviour, e.g. getting people to pay for things that the NHS would rather not do. This approach always means that the rich can (continue to) do what they like and only the poor have their behaviour moderated.

I guess that just because we were all Humanists that does not mean that we agree on everything else too.

I enjoyed the conversations but I think that the question we were asked to consider was a little to side for us to get anywhere near any meaningful conclusions. Not that that mattered, I was there for the ride not the destination.

I'll be back there for another ride on another topic when my diary allows me to do so.

Paul Klee at Tate Modern

Paul Klee is one of those artists that I had bumped in to a few times (notably in Hannover earlier this year), had liked each time that I had done so but had never seen that much of his work to understand its range and development.

That meant that the Paul Klee – Making Visible exhibition at Tate Modern was an obvious thing to see.

I like Tate Modern anyway and used the visit to the exhibition to approach it via the Millennium Bridge and to start the experience with coffee and cake in the sixth floor cafe with its excellent views over the river towards the ever-changing City.

The exhibition was spread across seventeen rooms on the third floor. Unlike the rest of the Tate, photography was not allowed (though there were the usual iPhone miscreants) and so I've lifted some pictures from various websites instead.

The exhibition was structured chronologically which was interesting in two ways. Firstly, it gave us the context of his work which included the distractions of both the First World War and the reign of Adolf Hitler. Secondly, it showed that Klee did not have phases as such but kept returning to similar themes and structures throughout his life.

Klee is probably most known for his colourful blocks of paint that were used in simple abstracts and also in landscapes. There were a few pictures like this in the exhibition but they were very much in the minority.

The variety of the work surprised me with, it seemed at times, every piece produced using a different technique.

Given such a wide range of styles and subjects to choose from it is hard to pick some pictures that are representative of Klee's work (especially as I was unable to photograph any) so I have just picked ones that I liked instead.

This tangled mess of blue and black lines hit me as soon as I entered the room because of its use of simple colour and abstract shapes. It was only when I got quite close to it that the abstract lines took the form of (benevolent) witches.

My usual judge of an exhibition is the time it takes me to pass through it and Paul Klee took two and a half hours. That is a fair reflection both of the amount of material in the exhibition (words and pictures) and of the amount of time that I spent on each one.

There was much in the exhibition that I did not like, or understand, and that is a positive too as it shows that Klee was experimenting and trying difficult things. It is easy to like simple works of art but it is not very satisfying.

There were quite a few pictures that I would gladly have on my wall at home if not for the lack of funds or burglary skills to do so. And the way that they were presented meant that their discovery was always a thrill.

Paul Klee – Making Visible was a rather good exhibition; something for Tate Modern to be proud of and for art lovers to enjoy.

Vivienne at Linbury Studio Theatre

This was the third time that I had seen Vivienne and every time she had got better. The differences this time were mostly down to the Linbury Studio Theatre and it was a delight to see Vivienne performed in a venue designed for operatic performance.

The basic set was the same. Vivienne told the story of her life from the confines of a white square. The differences were the size of the stage and the lighting.

The larger stage meant that Libby Burgess' piano could be hidden in a dark corner. I presume that this was very deliberate as the corner was kept unnecessarily dark and Libby wore black and so was almost invisible. In contrast, Clare McCaldin performed on a white stage under bright lights and wore white.

I discovered more about Vivienne on each hearing because the libretto by Andy Rashleigh was so rich. Each listening was like the first time with most of the words coming as unexpected surprises.

Of course, for Vivienne to work at all required a good score and Stephen McNeff's music was wonderful. The story was told through six songs with different moods but the same grounding in music hall. This made all of the songs approachable but it would be wrong to think of any of them as simple.

Vivienne was a one woman show and Clare McCaldin was fantastic (again). Without the video evidence to prove it, it is hard to say how/if her performance was different this time but I think that her growing confidence in the role and the chance to perform on a "proper" stage gave Clare the impetus to put even more in to her acting than before. For example, I thought that she was raunchier than previously in the scenes where she told us about her seductions by TS Eliot and Bertram Russell.

Vivienne is a marvellous production and it deserved to get this opportunity to shine on the big stage, and shine it did.

24 November 2013

Sparks: The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth at the Union Chapel

A Sparks concert in London is always a special event and this one promised to live up to that.

Firstly it was billed as The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth, and followed on from the success of Two Hands, One Mouth last year (which I saw twice). And secondly it was at the unusual location of the Union Chapel in Islington.

Sunday evening travel is always something of a gamble in London due to the mixture of a reduced service, planned maintenance and the things that go wrong on the day. My travel app suggested various ways to get there and I ended up taking another having first just missed a bus in Ham and then a London Overground train at Richmond. In the end it worked out OK and having left home at 4:45pm I was in the queue soon after 6pm.

An hour later the door opened and we all rushed in to claim our unreserved seats. The hour's wait proved to be good value and I was dead-centre in the fourth row. With Ron and Russell mostly ignoring each other on stage, they looked something like a weather house each in their own arch either side of the central pulpit, it worked well to be far enough back to see them both and also close enough to be fully involved.

We sat in pews which was both odd and useful. The bench seating was comfortable enough and the little ledge, designed for prayer books and Bibles, was a convenient place to put drinks and cameras.

Russell opened the show. He used a gizzmo (I believe that is the correct technical term for it) to record snippets of his voice and to repeat them to build up the layers of sound into a rhythm. This became the song Your Call's Very Important to Us. Please Hold.

Enter Ron to the traditional chant of "Ron! Ron! Ron!".

What followed for the next hour and a half was very much like Two Hands, One Mouth but with a different set list. It was good to see some of last year's songs make a reappearance, such as my favourite When Do I Get to Sing "My Way", but most were different and there were a couple that I did not recognise at all.

The set list I found on the web said they played; Your Call's Very Important to Us. Please Hold, How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?, B.C., Here in Heaven, Academy Award Performance, Those Mysteries, Good Morning, Falling in Love With Myself Again, Big Boy, What Would Katherine Hepburn Say, Excerpts from The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (different excepts from last year), Nicotina, Popularity, This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us, How Are You Getting Home?, Suburban Homeboy, When Do I Get to Sing "My Way"?, and for their encore; Tryouts for the Human Race, The Number One Song In Heaven (Part 2), and Revenge Of Two Hands One Mouth.

Somebody apparently famous and apparently called Thurston Moore appeared with them on This Town to play lead guitar laced with feedback.

Sparks did what Sparks do and delivered a succession of poppy and quirky songs that got everybody foot tapping and singing along. The audience absolutely loved it (I was no exception) and every song got a long and loud cheer that got even louder when they took their bows at the end.

Everybody left very happy.

23 November 2013

The Thin White Duke at the Fox and Duck, Petersham (November 2013)

I finally found something to keep me away from The Thin White Duke.

Their latest appearance at The Fox and Duck was on 23 November 2013 which has gone down in history as the day that the Dr Who 50th Anniversary Special was broadcast. That did not finish until 9:10pm so it was approaching 9:30 by the time that I got there.

Obviously other people had other priorities and the place was already packed and it took some effort to get to the bar and then find somewhere safe to stand. I tried to avoid the enthusiastic ladies at the front for mortal fear of being dragged in to a dance so I went to the side initially.

The Thin White Duke did what they always do and they did it much skill and style. and it was good to see Simon back on keyboards too.

A couple of friends arrived which forced me back in to the middle (I wanted to take some photos anyway) where I spent the rest of the evening fighting the temptation to dance.

The temptation to sing was irresistible and I joined everybody else in singing along to all the songs, apart from Reality which nobody seemed to know that well.

The pub was in fine mood and did its part to make the evening special. I was pleased that both of the young ladies behind the bar remembered that I drink Doombar (thought that is only because they have no other draught bitters).

The pub, beer and company were all good, my singing less so, but the solid heart of the evening was the music of David Bowie and the band that presented it to us in a way that made each song shine in its own way.

I would like them to add two songs to the set list though. They played just a few bars of Laughing Gnome at the end and the reaction was enough to proof that everybody was keen to sing along to it. And I still think that, in Petersham at least, they should do Helden, the German language version of Heroes.

The Thin White Duke always put on a great show and that is why I have already put their 2014 Petersham dates in my diary.

22 November 2013

West Side Story at the New Wimbledon Theatre

I'm still unconvinced by musicals as a genre but I keep giving them a try and I am enjoying most of them.

Without any of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics around West Side Story seemed like a good alternative.

I was a little cautious and went for a cheap seat in the front row of the upper circle at the New Wimbledon Theatre. The safety rail was bit of a pain but that was why the ticket was so cheap and I was happy to accept that compromise.

I knew beforehand that West Side Story was based on Romeo and Juliet with the feuding families replaced by the gangs Sharks and Jets, but that was about it, so I settled down (a little nervously given the precarious position of my seat) to follow the story and enjoy the music.

The first surprise was the number of songs that I recognised. I knew that America came from here but not the others like Maria and Something's Coming. The later was a big surprise as I had always associated it with prog rock band Todd Rundgren's Utopia having heard a live version of this on Radio 1 in 1975. I recorded the show and played it many times.

The songs that I liked the most were the ones that I knew and hence those that were the more popular. The others were fine if not special.

The singing was much the same though Maria (Juliet) was a notable exception and her voice rang out loudly, clearly and beautifully.

The dancing was neatly choreographed and made pretty patterns on the stage.

The stage did some clever things in a simple way and managed to be a street full of tenement buildings (with the metal pull-down ladders that action movies love so much), a dance hall, a bridal shop and a plot of derelict land under a highway.

The story surprised me. I expected Tony and Maria to die, though I have seen a ballet version of Romeo and Juliet where they both lived, so when something else happened it was unexpected. Probably not to most in the audience who seemed to know the show quite well and cheered each song enthusiastically.

I was also surprised, though only because I had not really thought about it, that the Sharks/Jets conflict was not just territorial, it was racial. These days, simplifying horribly, gang wars are shown as being between different Afro-Americans groups but this was between recently arrived whites (Tony's family were Polish) and even more recently arrived Puerto Ricans (referred to as PRs and Spiks).

Personally, I think that racist terms like that should be removed from shows where it is not central to the plot. The Montagues and Capulets are both from Verona and did not need racist arguments to hate each other.

Overall West Side Story did a lot of nice things rather nicely. It never dropped in to the mundane but then it never quite sparkled either and it left my ambivalent attitude towards musicals much as it was before.

Body Language and British Art Today at the Saatchi Gallery

Now that I am not working away from home for most of the week I am finding time to make quick trips to galleries. This time I was on my way to see West Side Story in Wimbledon and rather than take the easy route (train from Kingston to Wimbledon) I opted to take the tube from Richmond to Sloan Square and from there to Wimbledon, taking a couple of hours out in the middle to visit the Saatchi Gallery.

The Saatchi Gallery is relentlessly modern and that means that every work instils a reaction, asks questions and demands an opinion. It is never bland.

There were two exhibitions on. The first, Body Language, had works that featured people, a simple enough concept that allowed for a wide diversity of themes and methods.

I went to Gallery 3 first (an error I quickly corrected) as this was behind the reception desk and this picture, The Feast by Eddie Martinez, insisted that I go and see it. The picture filled the far wall in a visually striking way.

There was much more to it than the sheer scale and I stood back from it to admire the composition and the unusual line of heads then went up close to look at the things on the table.

Back on track in Gallery 2 I was impressed by several works by Makiko Kudo. They all had brash natural scenes and in them a person who looked a little out of place.

These pictures captured the mood of childhood brilliantly. I am that boy, proud to have climbed the tree.

If I could have sneaked out of the Saatchi with one painting under my coat it would have been this one. I would have needed a rather large coat though.

The graveyard room was one of the more unusual. The headstones scattered around the gallery (by Marianne Vitale) were all made from reclaimed wood while the pictures on the walls (by Denis Tarasov) were of tombstones decorated with (I presume) pictures of their inhabitants.

I was not sure whether putting a large picture of yourself on your tomb was some cultural idiom that I had missed or whether the artist had photoshopped them on afterwards. And I did not want to know, they were weird and interesting and so deserved to be true.

This is just a small selection of the many portraits by Chantal Joffe. The use of simple compositions and bright colours gave them a vibrancy and warmth.

The other exhibition that was on was New Order: British Art Today. This wider scope made for a more diverse collection of works.

Just to show that I do not "get" all modern art, this is a set of constructions by Sara Barker which did nothing for me at all.

Amanda Doran's Tattooed Lady was a jolly sight and while I would probably not want it on my living room wall I was very happy to spend a few minutes looking at it in the gallery.

I loved the blackboards by Alejandro Guijarro.

These were full-sized photographs from various universities that specialised in Quantum Mechanics and the boards had names like Cambridge and Berkeley.

I cannot vouch for the maths but it looked pretty real to me.

I also liked the way that one of them, Oxford, had been wiped clean leaving just a patina of chalk dust evenly spread across the board. Memories of school.

The Saatchi Gallery has lots of space and knows how to use it. The blackboards were generously spaced to allow them to be seen individually rather than as one large piece.

The perspex form on the red box in the corner was by Natasha Peel and was something else that I did not understand. I had more luck with Nicolas Deshayes' Soho Fats, the sheets of white polystyrene on the left edge of the photo. The sheets were weathered in some way to make interesting patterns that were reminiscent of sand dunes.

Steven Allan's We're All In This Together was a real highlight of the show for me.

The subject matter, dancing bananas, was imaginative and the use of just two bold colours gave it impact.

The shot of the gallery (with the picture on the left) shows both the size of the picture and how well the gallery was laid out.

And it needs a gallery like this to show off most of the works that I liked. They were either large or very large and needed the space to be seen individually and to step back from them far enough to appreciate their form. While I might have fancied the idea of having some of the works at home there are few people who have homes big enough for works like these.

What started off as a speculative visit to the Saatchi Gallery to add excitement to a tube ride became a very enjoyable immersion in to modern art. There were a few works that I did not like but even these did not offend and the vast majority of pieces I could either appreciate or love.

Who said Modern Art is rubbish?

The Firelight Isle by Paul Duffield is beautiful

The Firelight Isle is a new web comic by Paul Duffield, most known for FreakAngels. The first two issues came out today and they are beautiful.

Each segment is told in a series of pictures linked together vertically so the story is read top-to-bottom. This works very well as that is the way that computer and tablet screens scroll.

This is one of the fourteen linked pictures (it's number three). The connections between the images are subtle, or even invisible, and the overall impact is of one image. These are not the sort of panels that are seen in traditional comics.

The vertical approach also gets rid of the vertical constraint, that is each segment of the story is just as high as it needs to be; there is no fixed page size to work to.

It is early days to judge the story but the basic premise and the main characters look interesting and I am hooked. Updates are promised for every Friday though, as with FreakAngels, these will not always be new chapters.

The Firelight Isle is doing something interesting and Paul Duffield's beautiful artwork makes it more than that.

Metawhal Alpha is a classic horror story from Madefire

Madefire is a tool for making dynamic comics (they call them Motion Books) and, as with every tool, there are many ways in which it can be used.

Some of the early examples that I looked at were very graphic heavy and made a lot of use of the motion capabilities and the sound. These books were verging towards films. There is nothing wrong with that but I felt it was a bit gimmicky and gimmicks do not excite me.

I think that having stretched the tool to see what it can do, and having had some experience of it, the creators got better at matching the motion to the action and comics like The Engine and The Irons made it to my regular read list.

I explained why I like The Engine in an earlier post.

Metawhal Alpha is something else again.

It is written by Liam Sharp, one of the main people behind Madefire, and is a nice horror story in the traditional style. By that I mean it was the sort of thing I read in Ghost Stories for Boys in the 60's - and that is good.

Metawhal Alpha uses Madefire very differently. It is a text rich story and touching the arrow to advance moves both the art and the words smoothly to the next position. These transitions vary from complete changes (like turning the page of a comic) to just scrolling the text up or sideways to just changing the perspective of the picture slightly.

The experience of reading it is very different from anything else that I have tried, physical or digital. It is still sequential but it is not strictly Left to Right.

This structure suits the story very well and I liked the story a lot too. Even better, the ending was a complete surprise to me.

Madefire is one of the more interesting things happening to digital comics at the moment and Metawhal Alpha is a good example of what it can do and is an excellent place to start experimenting with it as a reader.

20 November 2013

Kingston upon Thames Society Townscape Awards 2013

The Kingston upon Thames Society Townscape Awards were last given in 2010 and 2012 was skipped because the Society felt that there were not enough developments worthy of an award. This year several schemes were nominated that were good enough for consideration and the six winning designs were presented with their awards at the Society's Public Meeting in November.

After each award was given the developer/architect/owner told us a little bit about the development and how it had come about.

I had not been involved in the decisions (I am not complaining about that) and these are my personal views on the winning schemes.

Whether you agree with the judges or with myself does not really matter. The important thing is to take good design seriously and to encourage debate on what that "good design" is.

Canbury Studios can only be partially glimpsed from Canbury Park Road, which is a shame as it is a rather nice building. It is typically modern, and there is nothing wrong with that.

The refurbished Keep on Kings Road won an award mostly, it seems to me, for looking the same afterwards as it did before. It is a listed building and so while extensive work was done inside to convert offices, jails and an armoury into flats, the work on the facade was mostly repair work. The repairs did need to be done and they have been done well.

Queens Wood Court sits on the junction of Kingston Hill and Queens Road. It is part redevelopment and part infill. Being on a corner the trick was to try and match the neighbouring buildings on both sides and it won an award for achieving that. A less flattering way of putting that would be to say that it is inconspicuous, and I prefer buildings that stand out.

The refurbishment and extension of St. Raphael's Catholic Church on Portsmouth Road is clearly deserving of an award as it both restores the grand original features and extends the building in a sympathetic way.

The new Innovation House at Latchmere School is another typical modern building with brick, wood and glass. There is nothing wrong with it but if there were more modern buildings in Kingston then perhaps one as standard as this one would struggle to get noticed.

River Island on Clarence Street won an award because of the attention to detail in its design. Superficially it looks much like any other shop in the road but it is better for having a consistent look across the whole frontage (rather than the more common new shop on the ground floor and an older building above) and windows that are recessed on one floor, protruding on another and filled in on the side.