31 January 2014

Fallen Angels at the Rose Theatre

My mixed views towards the Rose Theatre took a marked upswing after seeing Fallen Angels which was a pitch-perfect comedy.

It came from the pen of Noël Coward which is always a good start. Not only does he have a high reputation but performances that I have seen of Blithe Spirit and Hay Fever justify that reputation.

The director was Roy Marsden which may not have seemed an obvious choice for those who remember his as the cold Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgliesh but the only time I saw him on stage was in a hilarious Jacobean farce at Richmond Theatre, so he had a comedy heritage too. I recall his often repeated refrain, "Stab me vitals".

The Rose was laid out slightly differently from what I was used to with there being four rows (AA to DD) in the Pit area with a much reduced space at the front for those on cushions. I guess that the Rose thought (rightly) that this was not the sort of play to attract the youngsters who normally use this area so it made sense to put more seating in.

I was in the proper front row (A34) which mean that I had a comfortable view over the heads of those seated below in the Pit.

Fallen Angels was a comedy and morals. The two angels had been happily married for twelve years when they heard from a man who they had both had flings with before they met their husbands. He said that he was coming to London (from Paris) and was hoping to see them.

Most of the play then deals with the angels' anticipation and preparation for the reunion. Both are happily married but both are also tempted by the thought of the excitement of an illicit relationship. There was also some competition between the two and each suspected the other of trying to exclude them from the reunion.

And that's about as far as the plot went. There were the husbands off on their golfing weekend and the new maid who had been everywhere and done everything but the pay was all about the angels as the contemplated and planned their fall.

To work, the pay needed good angels and both Jenny Seagrove and Sara Crowe were fantastic. They made the situation, Coward's words and Marsden's direction all utterly believable and it was the fine attention to detail in the expressions and movements that wrung every ounce of humour out of the script.

Just three examples to show how this worked. There was a step across the room (you can see it in the picture) and when the angels got drunk they tripped on it every time, not in a slapstick way but just enough to show you how drunk they were. The maid only walked in straight lines, like an Etch-a-Sketch, and made violent turns whenever she had to change direction. In a magical moment, one of the angels tells the other not to be melodramatic and does so in the most melodramatic way.

Fallen Angels was very funny, delightful and endearing thanks to the great skill of all involved who made it all seem very casual and natural despite all the hard-work and careful planning involved.

29 January 2014

Ciphers at Bush Theatre

Having discovered Bush Theatre only recently it has quickly established itself as one of my favourites thanks to it's programme, cafe/bar area, atmosphere and proximity.

They still need to fix the queueing though. I was in the queue good and early just behind a group drinking wine who were not really in a queue but then decided that they ought to be. No problem there. What did annoy me was the small group that decided to stand near to the door when the queue clearly ran along the bar. By doing so not only did they queue jump but they got in the way of the ticket collection desk and the toilets. They were American.

The theatre surprised me. I was used (after two visits) of it being laid out as a thrust stage with the audience on three sides but this time it was arranged as a normal proscenium stage.

I grabbed a seat in the front row, next to the Americans who had bagged the centre three seats.

The reason for using a proscenium stage soon became apparent as the scene changes were achieved by sliding screens across the stage (hence the grooves) with people and objects appearing and dispersing as they did so.

Ciphers was a good old-fashioned spy thriller in the mode of Spooks. And being a spy thriller I was never quite sure if what I was watching was real, or staged for the benefit of the "other side".

The plot was complicated by a little time switching and by using all of the actors in two roles.

The bits of the story that are, I think, not disputed are that a young woman is recruited in to the espionage services of the UK and Russia and is then killed. Whose side she was really on and why she was killed remained something of a mystery, or at least was open to interpretation, though we did learn who killed her.

The story moved on at a brisk pace with lots of short scenes; an interview, a date, an encounter, an interrogation, a meeting, a murder. These jumped between locations, times and characters so it was always an interesting challenge to keep up.

As with any realistic spy story there may have been an end but there was no ending.

It was fun to see a spy story for a change and this one was pleasingly done. I liked the construction of the play, the use of actors in dual roles and the acting was neat. Ciphers was another feather in the Bush Theatre's impressive cap.

28 January 2014

Big Ideas on Generationalism

I have been really missing the Big Ideas debates while working away from London so I went to the one on the Battle of the Generations, despite having so previous interest in the subject.

Our guide for the evening was Jonathan White, Associate Professor of European Politics at the London School of Economics. He is pictured here on the left sitting on the dais with Nathan Charlton who chaired the event and who is one of the masterminds behind Big Ideas.

Jonathan spoke for about half an hour framing and posing some questions then we had a lively debate for an hour around those. It was a very broad subject and we Bigideasians are seasoned veterans at wandering off topic so it was hard to reach any significant conclusions, not that we expected to as we were interested in the journey more than the destination.

I took a reasonable amount of notes, and managed to tweet some during the debate too, but rather than present these with my subsequent analysis, which is what I usually do, this time I'll just post my main learnings.

The use of "generations" to describe a group of people who shared experiences just because they happened to be there at the same time is useful. For example, the generation that lived through World War II share things with each other that are not shared with subsequent generations.

Generations can be thought of as the equivalent of geological eons, eras and periods. When we talk about the Jurassic Period we know that we are talking about a period of time with some characteristics that apply just to this period.

Generations are also a useful way to personalise time. We may not care too much about the future world that we are creating but we do care about what happens to our own future generations, at least the next three or four who may know something about us.

Future generations will always have reasons to complain about previous generations as we always make mistakes, and there are also unintended consequences, that do not become apparent until much later.

It has always been assumed that the next generation would be better off than the previous but this is seen as natural progression rather than any inequality against the previous generation that has lost out in this comparison.

There are active and passive generations. Active generations make the change that defines them (e.g. the increased personal debt in the 80's and 90's) while that passive generations just live through them (e.g. those who lived through the post-war austerity).

Those comments go some way to show why I enjoy going to Big Ideas. Topics like this can be covered in, say, Thinking Allowed, but it needs the intellectual rigour of debate to tease the details out and to make the learning personal.

27 January 2014

Humanist Debate: Fair Admissions

My second debate with South West London Humanists took me in to familiar territory. Not that long ago I was on Kingston Council's Schools Admissions Forum, I was Chair of Governors of an LEA Primary School at the time, and the issue of faith schools came up there when a local boys' school wanted to become a C of E school and was denied (twice) by the Forum with me voting against both times.

The debate was led by Richard Thompson, a BHA Education Officer who is working on their Fair Admissions Campaign. He started off by giving us some information to explain the problem.

One third of. Schools are faith schools, circa17% of primary and 13% secondary applications are faith base. As an example,London Oratory has 9 different Categories of Catholic in their admissions policy, this is followed by other Christian groups then, er, nobody. Children cannot go to one Jewish school if have a TV in the house.

Some church schools maintain their ethos without a religious slant to their admissions.

The BHA opposes faith based admissions as segregation reinforces divisions. It also gives non-religious people less of a choice and, in some cases, no real choice at all. If you live in a village with just one school and it gives preference to, say, Christians then other people have no local school to go to.

Faith schools are state funded so this inequality is being done in our name as tax payers.

The BHA have produced a map of faith schools that show just how big the problem is.

Only three other countries allow religious selection, these are Ireland, Israel and Estonia. This is not a club that the UK can be proud of belonging to.

Some faith schools vastly skew intake when looking at the demographics of the local area, e.g. FSM or EAL.

Free Schools can only have 50% faith selection and the Government could easily make this apply to all schools. That would not completely solve the problem but would go a long way towards it and would be a relatively minor change of policy, i.e. something that politicians should be argue for easily.

The scene having been set we then had the debate, first in groups around our tables and then, having gathered our thoughts, we shared the main points with the whole room.

After pursuing several avenues, our table kept coming back to one basic principle, state-funded schools should not be allowed to select children on the basis of the alleged faith of their parents.

Other good points were made but we kept coming back to this one and there is a risk that by arguing against lots of little points in the schools' admissions policies that we win some of those but lose sight of the big one.

26 January 2014

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells

I have seen Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake a few times, including a previous performance at Sadler's Wells, and there is always room to see it again.

This time I deliberately caught the very last performance of the series as it was almost perfectly timed for my birthday on the following day.

Knowing Sadler's Wells reasonably well I was happy to go for the cheap seats (£32) in the front row of the Second Circle (A5). I was perfectly happy with that as I had a good view of the full stage and no heads to look over.

The last time that I saw Swan Lake, at Wimbledon, was with recorded music so it was nice to have a proper orchestra this time. There were not that many of them, and the pit looked quite empty, but they made plenty of noise. Another advantage of being up high was being able to see them.

Swan Lake was magical from the well-known opening bar. The long success of the ballet is largely due to Tchaikovsky's music.

Matthew Bourne's version of the story has become familiar too and so there were no surprises there.

The richness and the variety of the movement is what had brought me back for another dose. There is so much going on all the time so there is lots of dancing that I had either missed previously or had forgotten.

Of course there was much that I remembered, and loved, too. Things like the frantic dancing in the Swank nightclub and the perky little dance with the four cygnets.

Bourne's choreography is all about arms. They swoop and sway around the head and torso, pulling the upper body in to dramatic shapes with them as they do so. It's quite different from the traditional leaping or the contemporary tumbling and that adds to its interest. The dancing also looks deceptively simple, because it lacks the physical pyrotechnics, and if I had the slightest dancing ability I would like to learn one of their pieces and use it next time I get invited to a ball (not that I ever get invited to balls).

The other feature of the choreography is the ensemble work with so much going on all the time. Again this is a big change from the traditional ballets that I grew up with where only the soloists moved so as not to distract you from them.

Swan Lake was as beautiful and dramatic as I remembered and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Familiarity most definitely does not breed contempt in this case and I'll be going to see it again sometime.

25 January 2014

NeMeSiS at the Fox and Duck

The previous, and only, time that I had seen Nemesis before (also at the Fox and Duck) I missed the first half due to a clashing theatre date so I was pleased to be able to get there just before the official 9pm start this time.

The prime seats were already taken but I managed to get a decent vantage point on the curve of the bar where I could both see the band, despite the best efforts of Ian Morris (bass) to hide, and could also reach my Doombar.

Nemesis started to play dead on 9pm.

The set was much as expected in the main but there were quite a few surprises along the way, such as 20th Century Boy, Mrs Robinson and Radar Love. Generally it was a selection of singles and shorter tracks though there were a few longer things in the mix too, such as the classic Smoke on the Water.

The songs were (mostly) familiar but always played in Nemesis' style. And that style is head-on fast relentless rock with each of the three instruments playing their full and distinctive part.

At one point there was a short discussion on what song to play next and Ian helpfully suggested that they play what was next on the set list so lead guitar Jonny D. started playing the opening refrain from House of the Rising Sun which caused Ian to modify his advice to playing the next song in the style that that usually played it in.

Actually I liked their fast rocky versions of slow songs like that but it was a little hard to get The Dickies out of my mind as they did so.

With a reasonable break of half an hour or so, Nemesis played until midnight, closing with Smells Like Teen Spirit. The set list that I saw had five songs after that including Neil Young's Rockin' in the Free World which I loved the last time that I saw them.

There was plenty of good stuff to sing a long to and there may even be some photos somewhere of me dancing but these would obviously be Photoshopped.

It was good to catch some time with Chris York (drums) after the gig while he demolished his substantial kit. I was pleased to be able to tell him that Nemesis reminded me of Cream in that everybody knows that Eric Clapton played lead guitar but everybody also remembers Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Nemesis are a power trio of three equal parts.

24 January 2014

Cuckoo at the Unicorn Theatre

I discovered the Unicorn Theatre on a visit to the Southwark Playhouse that used to be more-or-less across the road from it until it headed south last year from London Bridge to the Elephant and Castle.

I am always willing to give new theatres a try and there was something about the edgy nature of the play Cuckoo that attracted me.

I ate at The Brigade next door which was a good start to the evening. I had been there before and if I every find myself near London Bridge in the evening then I'll go again.

I had no idea what the regime was like for the Unicorn so I went in early, around half an hour before the start of the performance, and was delighted to find a cosy cafe where I could sit and have a latte prior to the show.

Wanting a good seat I headed for the milling zone with about ten minutes to go only to have a group of young people go to the front. The queue was very informal and they seemed good natured enough so I do not think that there was any malice in this, it is just that they were not as experienced at queueing as some of us older ones.

In the end that did not matter as they headed straight for the front row and while I was initially tempted to join them I took a second row seat instead as the stage was raised up high and the floor of it was at about eye-level for the front row.

The stage was set as a general purpose room which with a little movement of the central unit became a kitchen, a bedroom and even the seaside.

The play told the story of a quiet school girl, her aid-working mother and the bright wild-child who first became the quiet girl's friend and then her mother's project; she's the cuckoo.

To simplify, the quiet girl got a little wilder, e.g. she smoked and drank, the wild girl started to take education more seriously and the mother was caught between the two.

A crisis in the cuckoo's life forced her to move in with her adopted family and a second crisis forced everybody, especially the mother, to think carefully about the situation and where they needed to go next.

It was a funny, tender and sad story that rode a gentle roller-coaster of emotions. It was not a farce and not a tragedy either, it was just real life.

The performance featured, not surprisingly, two young actresses as the two schoolgirls and they were both good. Obviously they both had a lot of experience to gain but this was a good start. The mother I had seen before, at The Orange Tree in Unrivalled Landscape, and she did a fine job of being the calm in the eye of the storm.

The story was far more than the usual teenage angst and the production and action were significantly above average too, and that made for a highly entertaining and satisfying evening.

Paul Smith and more at the Design Museum

The Design Museum in its current location, somewhat to the east of Tower Bridge, is a little off any of my normal routes so I have only been there when I have had another cause to be in that area, i.e. a theatre.

This time it worked well as the show that I was going to see was not enough to get me to go to that part of London by itself but when combined with the museum the two made a good bill.

The main show at the Design Museum was Hello. My name is Paul Smith. I was only mildly interested in this as a topic but I had faith in the museum to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, if necessary, so it seemed a reasonable thing to go and see.

My expectation was rows of men's suits which just goes to show how little I knew of Paul Smith or his work beforehand.

The exhibition was as much about Paul Smith's life and working methods as it was the actual works.

Part of this was a mock-up of his main office in Covent Garden which looks like a burgled garage but which is actually a collection of colours and shapes that are used to inspire.

That approach to design, taking inspiration from anywhere, meant that there was not a uniform style to his works but there were some themes, such as stripes. These appeared on clothing, either as the main theme or as little flashes, and also on a range of other items, including an original Mini.

What surprised me was the range of things that Paul Smith put his name to and clothing was a small part of the exhibition. There were lots of things to do with cycles, shoes, pottery and even a Dunny.

There was also a feature on his shops around the world. He has taken the exact opposite approach to that of Apple etc. and every shop is deliberately very different.

There was some clothing, of course, and while I liked some of it there was more that I did not see the point of and there was nothing that I could identify as a Paul Smith style or meme.

One of the more interesting rooms was a large room full of prints, pictures and photographs from Paul Smith's private collection.

As elsewhere in the exhibition, these said more about the man than his work and given my views on his work it is probably not surprising that I found this room one of the more interesting.

Here there were some repeating themes among the chaos, such as the several photographs and drawings of airplanes.

The Paul Smith exhibition occupied the first floor of the Design Museum which is a reasonable but not large space. It took me about an hour to get around and that included a couple of stops to watch videos, I especially liked the one on the show during Paris Fashion Week in 2013 though that did nothing to convince me that bright pink trousers are a good idea.

With some time to spare I headed up to the second floor and the exhibition on Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things which used objects from the museum's collection to tell the stories of familiar objects like the anglepoise lamp, road and rail signs and plastic chairs.

There was much to enjoy here with dollops of good design mixed in with interesting stories and a dollop of nostalgia.

I loved the Imperial Airways map for its historical view of the British Empire and, in particular, for the detailed route map across Africa where Dad flew in the 1950's.

Closer to home there was a display on the early days of modernism in London which featured the Finsbury Health Centre (Lubetkin, 1938) and Highpoint in Highgate (Lubetkin, 1935).

Included in the display was furniture and other items from one of the flats as it was originally. Lovely stuff.

Also in this exhibition were other icons such as a Sinclair C5, a telephone box, an Apple iMAC G3. These were all good things to linger over.

The final exhibition, also on the second floor, was In the Making which, as its name suggested, showed the making of a diverse range of objects including a tennis ball, a coloured glass marble, a London Olympic torch, a cricket bat an a £2 coin.

There was a short film showing the part of the manufacturing process for each and there were eight showing at once so it was easy to watch the more interesting ones and skip the rest, but I think that I watched all of them at least once.

In the display section was an example of each of the objects as they were during that stage of the manufacturing process shown in the film. For example, there was a column of glass with coloured paint in where a marble had been formed at one end and was almost ready for separation.

This was a small but engaging exhibition and between them the three exhibitions kept me in the Design Museum until the staff started to ask people to leave as it was closing time. I could ask for no more.

22 January 2014

Othello at Riverside Studios

There seems to have been a lot of Othello in London recently, always with a big name in the title role, but none of those tempted me while this production did.

I was probably persuaded by the "Film Noir" description but, as is always the way with these things, by the time I got to the theatre I had forgotten what the particular motivator was for seeing this production.

The main nod to Film Noir was in the setting with Othello moved to the 1950s. That time-shift and a song given as a prelude were the only concessions to modernity and this was the original script complete with all the familiar language, rhythms and references.

Despite the recent flurry of Othellos this was my first time apart, possibly, for some long-forgotten films or TV adaptations that I may have caught all or part of. I was aware of the gist of the plot but all the detail was refreshingly new to me.

Othello is a tense drama with much intrigue, passion and violence so it is well-suited to a theatre like the Riverside where the action happens almost in stabbing distance.

The play revolved around (in order of guilt) Desdemona the completely innocent victim, Othello the victim who is guilty of unfounded jealously and Iago the schemer who steers the drama towards its messy end for his own ends.

There were several other players along the way, some of whom became collateral damage.

The cast was uniformly excellent, including all the supporting characters.

Obviously most of the attention fell on the three protagonists and, for me, Peter Lloyd's Iago stood out, which was only right as he did drive all the action. Othello was beautifully played by Stefan Adegbola and he successfully made the transition from a proud and powerful general to a vengeful husband but he fell to Iago's spell and that made Iago the star.

The mechanics of the play, the set, costumes and transitions, were all neatly done, always doing enough to help the story along and never too much to distract from it.

It was an utterly fabulous performance on all fronts. I chose the right Othello to go and see.

20 January 2014

Theatre In The Pound at The Cockpit (January 2014)

My experiments in theatre have given me some pretty unusual evenings but not many as weird as this one.

I found out about this from one of the actors in one of the performances and that is how I found myself in the unfamiliar territory of Marylebone on a Monday evening.

The actor was Eva Gray and I joined her group for the evening. This included husband Rob Groves who went to the same school as me (Weymouth Grammar), though sometime after me,  and who was taught by my dad there. Rob also wrote the rather fine The Unrest Cure.

I was expecting some sort of a reading evening of works in progress but it proved to be rather more and rather stranger than that.

The first piece set the scene for the evening.

Dust told the story of two very different women, Joey and Sarah, in words and dance. One is about to be engaged and is fearful of the big step she is about to make and the other is a carefree caterer. Opposites attract and they have a passionate affair.

After the performance Miriam Margolyes opened the short discussion session with the comment that it was erotic, in a good way. I had to agree. It was also good theatre, a nice simple story well told. The dancing could have been better, to be fair this was only an early try-out, but there was real passion in the movement and the two women worked very well together. I loved it.

Whether by accident or design, On a Diet of Tinned Mackerel was almost more of the same. This told the real story of the relationship of two young women written and performed by themselves. No words this time, just movement.

It charted the various moods that every close relationship goes through and, just to give you a feel for how weird and erotic this was too, in one long scene the women slowly scraped foam off each other with kitchen knives.

I found it hard to categorise the performance. It lacked the formal narrative of a story, though it has scenes and moods, and while the movement included some dance the dancing was not the main component of the piece. It was strange but in a nice way. I enjoyed it.

After a short interval and another Budvar it was time for the piece that I went there to see, Someone's Lost the Plot in which Eva played a woman with strong hippy tendencies, especially in the area of alternative healing.

This was an extract from a longer play and we saw the start of the second half where a group of writers come together to discuss their projects.

It was a comedy of characters told through dialogue. It made me laugh out loud quite a few times, and everybody else too. It was funny and well acted but it also seemed very traditional after the first two performances and, as a general rule, I prefer quirky. That is why I do not go to see plays like Duck House.

The final piece was Miss B B Hoops who did tricks with hula-hoops while wearing a 50's style pink gingham bikini. It was impressive, entertaining and surprising.

Then it was back to the bar for the serious work of talking to as many creatives as possible. I managed to talk to a dozen or so people, one of whom asked me "Are you famous?", which made me smile.

The main point of these conversations were to pass on my compliments on the performances and there were also some discussions on how performances could be improved. A consensus seemed to be that Someone's Lost the Plot needed more physical action and I was something of a lone voice in disagreeing with this - Vicar of Dibley made Parish Meetings funny without much movement and I've seen plays ruined by extraneous activity.

Only a few times did the evening come close to what I had expected and it was all the more fun because of that. I saw four very different performances and had the opportunity to talk to the creators and performers about them. And all that for a quid.

18 January 2014

Hoaxwind at The Fighting Cocks

Hoaxwind are one of those bands that I see whenever that I can so it was disappointing to have not seen them for almost two years (is that true!!).

At least this time they were at a local venue, The Fighting Cocks, and I could walk there.

I got there as the support band, the Resuscitators were in full swing. They were a young band dressed rather like the bad lads in The Simpsons with black t-shorts and beanies. They also had their guitars down around their knees as is the fashion.

So not the sort of thing that I go for but they did what they do with much enthusiasm and, as far as I could tell, some skill.

I found myself liking them and was pleased to tell them that afterwards.

Then it was time for Hoaxwind.

As usual it took them a little while to set things up because there were so many of them to fit on to a small stage and they all had equipment to squeeze on to. But they've played there before and know where they all fit.

The last job they had to do was to put on their traditional outfits. These guys like dressing up for the show even though only two of them, Julian and Phil wore something that had anything to do with Hawkwind. But then they are not Hawkwind and I like that they have their own look.

They have their own sound too and that is quite different from what Hawkwind sound like these days and more like what they did in the late 70's. This is when I first got in to the band seriously so it is a sound that I know and love. That sound is largely due to the line-up with the guitars supplemented by a saxophone (dropped by Hawkwind when Nik Turner left), keyboards and twiddly sonics.

The set-list reflected their sound and relied heavily on the albums of that period, albums that Hawkwind have largely forgotten.

That meant tracks like Angels of Death, Kerb Crawler, Hassan-i Sabbah (on the set-list as Hassany Sabha) and Urban Guerilla.

There was also a lovely Assault and Battery which, sadly, was not followed by The Golden Void, as it is on the album.

There were a couple of old classics too, Orgone Accumulator and Masters of the Universe, and it is always good to hear those.

This was, I believe, the best that I have heard Hoaxwind play and I enjoyed their set immensely. It helped having a good crowd there with many familiar faces among them.

Hoaxwind really need to get out and play more often. They owe it to the world.

A walk on the wet side

The weather was reasonable again this weekend so I was able to get out for about an hour and a half for a serious leg-stretch and a chance to catch-up with some podcasts.

On my last walk I had kept to roads but this time I followed the footpath all the way around the long bend in the river. Ham gets its name from the word "hamme" meaning place in the bend in the river.

It is a long bend and there s nothing except grass and woodland for most of it. Even Ham House  does not make much of a dent in the natural order.

Parts of the tow-path are subject to frequent flooding, especially the section east of Ham House, and I have been trapped on the path before, but this time the tide was kind to me.

The rain was less so and the path often looked like a series of large puddles kept apart by the squishiest of muds. I expect my shoes to recover in a day or two. Of course the mud was part of the fun and I knew that it would be there, though I must admit that there was more mud than I expected.

On the bend there was no way to go except to carry on or turn back. In some places a turn right in to Ham Lands was possible but that was wetter and muddier than the path so was not much of an option. This area is a flood plain, hence the lack of roads, and the water runs in to Ham Lands through culverts in the man-made bank that carries the tow-path.

People seem to have been deterred by the mud and the tow-path was very quiet despite the dry weather and decent sunshine. That just made my walk all the more pleasant as there was no jostling to do with the large slow-moving groups that can block the narrower sections of the path.

My route back was (mostly) along roads and across the two terrains I managed to keep up a healthy pace of under 10 mins/km, taking just 80 minutes to walk 8.3km.

17 January 2014

Prezence at the Fox and Duck

Somehow two years had passed since I last saw Prezence at the Fox and Duck. I do not think that was anybody's fault and it was certainly nothing deliberate on my part, it is just the way that these things happen.

This time was not easy for me either. I had a theatre date earlier in the evening and so could not get to the pub until around 10:30pm. The band were on their mid-session break then so I was able to catch all of the second half.

It was also somebody's birthday party (I suspect that was why the gig was on a Friday instead of the usual Saturday) and that meant that the pub was filled with her friends as well as rock fans, like myself, and also the locals.

That made it bit of a challenge to get to the bar to get served and even more of a challenge to find somewhere to stand to watch the band. I spent most of the evening off to the left at the front in the prime position next to the entrance to the Ladies.

I managed to steal a set-list at the end to see what I had missed and to find out what the songs were that I did not recognise. There was a distinct difference between this set and the one from two years ago with more American Hair Rock (White Snake, Van Halen, Bon Jovie) at the expense of the classic British Rock (Deep Purple, Black Sabbath).

A surprise was the two guest vocalists. Firstly birthday-girl Natalie sang Sweet Child of Mine (with a little help on the lyrics from her phone) and then Holly did Whole Lotta Love. This was not karaoke and both women did an excellent job.

My highlights from the second half were Run to the Hills and Freebird, which they closed with. In the first half I missed Stormbringer, Catch the Rainbow and Tom Sawyer. But these highlights were only slightly better than the rest of the set which was consistently wonderful, even Living on a Prayer.

With that performance Prezence went from a band that I would not mind seeing again to a band that I must make an effort to see again.

Putting It Together at the St James Theatre

Going to events with friends means that sometimes I get to go to things that I would not normally have chosen. Things like an evening of Sondheim songs.

This was also my first visit to St James Theatre in Victoria.

I have worked in an office block just 100m or so away so I knew the area quite well. That meant that I knew that there was a pub next door, but what I did not know, or anticipate, was just how busy or how loud it would be just after work on a Friday evening. I took about three steps inside before giving the pub up as a bad idea.

Luckily St James also has a bar and I got there just in time to claim one of the last seats. The beer came out of a bottle and was very expensive but that was OK and so was the food (Welsh Rarebit). I was perfectly happy to have a seat, a beer I liked and some food that I could eat.

Inside St James Theatre reminded me very much of Trafalgar Studios that I had been to just a couple of weeks previously with its rows of steeply sloped and high-backed red seats.

Our seats were somewhere near the middle of Row J and I took this picture from there as the audience filed in.

I had even fewer expectations of this show that I usually have. I had heard of Sondheim but that was about it.

The show was a collection of Sondheim songs (obviously I had no idea where they were from) that were used in the first half to tell a story. Two couples and another man were at a cocktail party and that was a good excuse for lots of songs about love, jealously and breaking up. The songs while unfamiliar were pleasant enough and they that they were brought together was very effective.

There was a short interval during which I managed to avoid eating any ice cream.

The second half was slightly different with more group singing from all five. There was a little dancing too. It was all rather jolly.

The singing was pretty good overall though I do not like singers who are amplified, as these all were. I am used to opera where singers can easily fill much larger halls without any aid. Amplification also flattens the sound, that is why we can tell it is amplified.

I did not know any of the cast but I got the impression that Jackie Dee was meant to be star and she was. She had the best voice and also had the most stage presence.

The small, and surprisingly young, orchestra did a good job too.

I would not go as far as to say that I am converted to Sondheim, or to musical reviews as a format, but this was a pleasant enough evening. I am glad that I went.

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the V&A

It was a late decision to go and see Masterpieces of Chinese Painting and I got there with just a couple of days to spare, and had to finish work promptly on a Friday afternoon to do so. It was the constant stream of positive comments on Twitter that forced my hand.

The exhibition had all the usual V&A hallmarks of interesting items laid out in carefully each with enough annotation to inform but not too much to bore.

The exhibition was sold out for almost all of its run. And it showed. It was busy all the way round and I had to queue for some of the displays. This was not helped by there being several long scrolls on show that could only sensibly be viewed right-to-left which meant that we all had to flow in the same direction and had to stick close to the display to see all of it.

The paintings were much as I expected (and hoped) with lots of exotic costumes, magical landscapes and dragons. The subjects of the paintings were as much interest as the techniques and materials used to produce them.

Also as usual at the V&A the rules said no photographs and as usual I kept to them but a few people did not. So these pictures have all been borrowed from the V&A site. That limited my choice somewhat but I did find a few that I both liked a lot and which, I feel, give an honest feel for what the exhibition was like.

Here I have fallen for the crisp white storks performing the aerobatics against a bold blue sky while a typical building just about manages to peak above the clouds.

I found these dragons irresistible.It is a detail from a long scroll called Nine Dragons(you can guess why).

Like most of the painting in the exhibition is was seriously old. In this case it dated from1244 and there were paintings there much older than that.

The red stamp is a personal mark of a creator, owner, curator or somebody else with an official interest in the painting. On a picture this size there were thirty or forty of them, all carefully placed so as not to disturb the picture.

My final choice is the most typical. This green/blue style was very popular in several periods.

The composition was also very typical with the picture dominated by the landscape of hills and water and with the action confined to small figures.

The combination of the quantity and quality of the exhibits and the busyness meant that it took me two and a half hours to get around, and that was taking the last small room at some speed. By my own highly scientific measure of an exhibition, anything approaching two hours means that there was plenty to see so this was most definitely a very good exhibition.

Small theatres in London

It was thanks to Londonist that I discovered this tube map of London with all the small theatres marked.

I have been to many of them, especially those close to home like Orange Tree, Normansfield, Theatre503, Lost, Riverside, and even some a little further away like Pentameters, Tricycle and Arcola, but it is clear that I have a lot more to try.

That has the makings of some sort of New Year's Resolution and I already have plans to visit St James and Unicorn.

16 January 2014

Ham United Group Meeting: January 2014

I am not yet an active member of Ham United Group (HUG) but I like to go to their meetings to find out what is going on locally. My Master Plan is to get involved in some of their many projects and probably to run some of my own later on.

This is what I learnt in January.

New garden at Ham Library. A competition about to start to pick a design for the shady part of the garden. The winning scheme will require funding for plants etc.There will be other category prizes too, eg. under 20s. The ball-park estimate c£1500. Will be other funding and, possibly, sponsorship.

HUG is looking for more interesting venues for meetings to mix things up. It was suggested that we combine a meeting at St Peter's Church with a graveyard tour. Apparently the graves include a Napoleon descendant and 4 MPs.

Green Screen will be starting soon.

Cleaning materials have arrived and we will do clean-up of Ham Lands later this year, to be organised by the FoHL sub-group. Other ideas are being considered, such as a new pond.

The Ham and Petersham Association are planning more, unrelated, work on the pond by Ham Gate. Personal view: this is something else that the H&PA has got completely wrong and the pond was better before they started to interfere with it.

Latchmere planning application is due soon. The amount of affordable housing is an issue and it does not help that the site crosses borough boundaries and so two separate applications are required.

Affordable housing is also an issue on the Star and Garter Home too.

The new Russell School application is also due Spring, with the school due to be open in September 2015, but likely to be controversial. The consultation led to no changes; no surprise.

The Ham and Teddington Hydro. public meeting in Teddington was difficult. Minor changes will be made to the design as a result, to reduce height.

The Neighbourhood Forum was due to be approved by LBRUT that evening. The target for referendum on the Neighbourhood Plan is still the date of the 2015 General Election, despite delays to process.

The Ham Close workshops were happening that week to be followed by a public meeting at Grey Court next Monday. It was not clear how this work fitted in with the Neighbourhood Forum.

Concerns were expressed that it might be difficult to meet the changing standards for social housing and this could force them to become private housing eventually.Not sure how much money is available for this. The consultation questions are blue-sky, lacking a framework or options to make it meaningful.

The body that owns Cassel Hospital is about to become a foundation trust. The attempt to let it appears to be bogus, it's just an attempt to show that the site is not viable as a clinic. The badger area cleared against LBRUT agreement.Want to include this site in the Neighbourhood Plan.

15 January 2014

Open Mic night at the Grey Horse

Back in 2010 I got in to the habit of going to folky open mic sessions on Tuesdays at the Grey Horse in Kingston but these stopped.

Now there are slightly rockier/popier sessions on Wednesday nights. I learnt about these a while a go but diary conflicts (mostly working away from home) meant that this was my first chance to go. I was impressed.

The format is much the same. People just turn up with their instruments and somebody organises the slots and keeps everybody on plan. The music is as varied as the musicians but on the night that I was there there was little that I would call popular. There was, for example, a nice rambling Dylan song (all his best are long and rambling) and quite a lot of self composed music.

Making the evening work as much as the music was the people. There was quite a buzz in the bar and there were a few people that I knew there too, notably a couple of musicians from Hoaxwind.

It proved to be a rather jolly way of passing a couple of mid-week hours and I'm sure that I'll be back for more. Diary permitting.

Kingston Society Public Meeting: Marketing Kingston's markets

Our speaker at January's Public Meeting, following the AGM, was James Kennedy, Commercial and Marketing Director of Kingstonfirst, who told us about the new promotion activities for Kingston's markets. He also took lots of questions and we had a long and interesting discussion.

James started with some information about the customers of the markets. They see the markets as serving three groups of people; residents who do some of their regular shopping there, the 18,000 people who work in Kingston and the many visitors to the town. At the moment only around 1 in 10 visitors to Kingston buy anything from the markets.

All of Kingston's markets are being brought under one brand. This look-and-feel will be used mostly for Kingston's Ancient Market and Kingston's Monday Market but will be extended to other special events, such as the night markets. The look that they have gone for reflects the chalkboards used by many of the traders. A new website is being developed to promote the markets and this will have a piece on each of the traders that will include a short video.

In addition to the website there will also be a free quarterly magazine and extensive use will be made of social media like Facebook and Twitter. There will also be branded merchandise, and I quite liked the cheeseboard.

Kingstonfirst want to make the Ancient Market a cultural and creative space, making it the heart of Kingston again, and it needs one as Clarence Street is soulless. They hope to be able to use the Memorial Gardens occasionally as well but only if they get approval from the British Legion. I am not sure what this will mean in practise, and I suspect that it will not be my sort of thing, but anything that breathes life in to Kingston outside of the shopping and nightclub hours has got to be a good thing.

The night markets are successful but are expensive to arrange.

The Market House is an important part of the market but this is under the control of Kingston Council rather than Kingstonfirst. This was also the case with the renovations to the market place over the Christmas period.

James' talk was very interesting and very well received as the level of questions and comments showed. Kingstonfirst have clear and realistic plans for developing Kingston's markets and the Society supports them in this, as do I.

14 January 2014

Woman in the Dunes at Theatre503

Woman in The Dunes was only on for five nights and I was free for one of them so I made a late decision to pop along to Theatre503 in the borderlands of Clapham and Battersea to see it.

I was hoping for something unusual and it was.

The play opened with three figures in sackcloth ropes telling us about a teacher who disappeared and after that we met him and learnt what happened to him.

He had taken a bus to a remote desert location to collect and study insects only to miss the last bus back. The villagers who were watching his strange, to them, behaviour offered him a place to stay and he accepted. From the very beginning they spoke of this as a permanent arrangement but be kept correcting them and said that he would be leaving tomorrow.

The village was built in deep holes in the sand to protect them from the wind. The only way down was by rope ladder and once this was pulled up there was no way out again.

In the house he met the woman in the dunes. She was busy digging sand out from her house, it fell from the walls of the pit constantly, and she asked him to help, the villagers had kindly provided him with his own spade for that purpose.

He was trapped, though it took him a while to realise that, and the rest of the play was an examination of his response to being trapped and the reasons for it.

There was a story to the play but, rather like Animal Farm, that was not its point. The play made me think about the role of work, structures in society and how we adapt to new situations.

Work was the main theme.

The sand that was dug out of the houses was used to make (poor quality) cement and this paid for the food, water and other provisions that were passed down to the workers from their masters above - these were confusingly called the Union though they bore no relationship to trade unions in the UK.

The mood of the play was dictated by the clever set. Sackcloth covered the walls and floors to represent the ubiquitous sand and there was some real sand on the floor too. The clever bit was the sound-track of continually falling sand. It felt as though I was at the bottom of the hole in the sand with them, especially as I was in the front row (as usual).

Another nice touch was the way that they handled the vertical aspect of the pit. The front-right of the stage was the top of the hole and the ladder ran from there to the front-left. So, for example, when the teacher first climbed down to the house he crawled right-to-left across the stage while on the right one of the Union at the top of the hole looked down (actually down, not to where down was pretending to be) and the woman in the sand-house looked up. That may sound a little complicated and/or weird but it worked well.

There was a cast of just three Felix O'Brien (the teacher), Roslyn Paterson (the woman) and Niall Kerrigan (the Union) and they all did a sterling job of maintaining the mystery and the mood.

Most credit must go to Micha Colombo who both wrote and directed the play. It was based on a novel by Abe Kobo but neither the book nor the author were known to me so I cannot say where the creative boundaries were drawn.

Woman in the Dunes was an immersive dip in to a strange world. There normal things happened (like working) but were given an unusual perspective by happening in this strange world. These new perspectives made the play intellectually rewarding and the strange world made it interesting.

I loved it.

13 January 2014

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: January 2014

This was another Committee Meeting where we spent most of our time discussing our internal affairs, which is what the purpose of these meetings is, and we made some good progress.

Tracking Planning Applications

We continued the discussion from the previous meeting on two planning applications that we had objected to going to a Council Committee Meeting without us being notified. We will pick up the general principle with RBK but also, not relying on this, will monitor committee papers more closely in future.

Tesco (12/10141)

The latest plans for the controversial Tesco scheme at the former Toby Jug site in Tolworth were due to be considered at several RBK committees over the next couple of weeks.

Heritage Open Days (HODs)

Having transitioned to a new team last year, this year we are building on that success and starting early.The first part of this will be to issue a call to members for their ideas on what else to include and to find volunteers for the stewarding roles that are required.

We will also work to improve our relationship with the Council, officers and members, and will contact them soon to try and ease the passage of our grant application in the short-term and to embed HODs and Coombe Conduit in their heritage thinking long-term.

Gas Works Development

RBK having recently presented a vision for the whole area around the former gas works site in North Kingston were now faced with a housing application for just part of it. We were concerned that piecemeal development would prevent the vision being realised.

Out of Order

There were views for and against the seasonal decorations applied to the work of art but we were all opposed to it being used to advertise a commercial organisation. Our opposition was somewhat mollified by the information that the artist, David Mack, had approved the work and that left us with little that we could do.


RBK had submitted their Stage 2 proposal for improving cycling in Kingston. The pontoon remained our biggest concern because of its visual impact on the river for other users.

English Heritage changes

English Heritage planned to become a charity and proposed that each site should be self-funding. We agreed to write to EH to say that we did not think that Coombe Conduit could pay its own way and if it were forced to try then the Society would not be able to be part of that.

Members' Newsletter

The next Newsletter was due in April. We discussed what should be included and it was agreed that we would include a summary of our committee meetings to inform members of the work that is done on their behalf.

I agreed to write a communications process that included the different needs of the Newsletter, website and press.

11 January 2014

Blink at Soho Theatre

Blink was those one in twenty or so theatre performances that I see that was truly exceptional.

It had sold out most of its return run to the Soho and looked sold out on the night that I was there. The Soho Theatre does not do queueing very well and we all jostled for position in the bar before being allowed upstairs, then it was something of a scramble.

I was surprised to find that we were going all the way upstairs, passing the main theatre as we did so. Our destination was Soho Upstairs which is billed as a rehearsal space. It was laid out as a square stage area (not raised) with seating on three sides, most of it to the front. I was able to claim a seat in the front row in one of the corners. A reasonable result for my earlier jostling.

Blink claimed to be an unusual love story about two slightly unusual people, and so it was. It was a great deal more than that too, which is why I found it exceptional.

The young couple are both unemployed but do not need to work (for different reasons) and end up in the same house, him renting the downstairs flat from her while she lives above him.

Their relationship develops without them meeting, it is all conducted via technology, and without him knowing that the woman he is in  relationship with is living upstairs. By chance he discovers who she is and their relationship becomes even stranger with them going to the same places at the same time but without talking to each other, as if the gap that had been breached by technology was still there.

A serious accident brings them together and their love blossoms. What happens after that I'll keep to myself.

The strange story had some lovely strange moments in it. For example, in the early days when they are conducting their relationship remotely one of the things that they do is watch the same TV programmes and we were treated to a detour in to the plots of a soap opera that they are watching.

There are many memorable moments like this in the script but its main strength, and beauty, comes from the richness of the dialogue and narration. There are an awful lot of clever ideas and nice touches crammed in there. The script demands, and gets, your constant attention.

Of course a good love story requires a couple that the audience cares about and I really cared about Jonah (Harry McEntire) and Sophie (Rosie Wyatt). They were both realistic and lovable and both actors were excellent in showing all the details of their characters through their movements and expressions.

The set and few props were used imaginatively too.

Everything about Blink was cleverly constructed and brilliantly presented without ever forgetting that it was an unusual love story about two slightly unusual people.

2000AD Prog 1864: Mek-Quake v Mongrol

I have been following these characters for almost thirty five years and still they excite me. This is especially true when they are drawn by Clint Langley. This cover is phenomenal.

Clint Langley is the latest in a long and very prestigious line of illustrators of these battling robots and my other favourites are Kevin O'Neill, Mike McMahon, Bryan Talbot and Simon Bisley.

Pat Mills has written all of their stories which is am amazing achievement.

10 January 2014

And Other Stories at the Orange Tree

And Other Stories was a once-off event at the Orange Tree Theatre in response to their production of Middlemarch. The Writers Collective had adapted short stories by some of George Eliot’s contemporaries and these were presented as early rehearsals with the actors reading from scripts and moving only a little.

This sounded rather like a writer's event that I went to last year and that was a lot of fun so I expected this to be too. And overall it was.

The Shadow by Amber Hsu and based on Hans Christian Andersen opened the evening.

A man who had lost his shadow (we learnt late how this happened) is surprisingly reunited with it only to find that the shadow has grown in stature and importance. The shadow is now greater than the man and he proposes a change of roles.

I liked the story but it was hard to imagine from the reading how it could be staged. The strength of the piece was the narrative and this worked well enough in prose.

Next was A Cross Line by Keely Winstone based on George Egerton.

This is where I should have taken notes as with four different stories to recall the memories of this one have dimmed. I member thinking that it was OK but the content has has gone so I cannot say anything about it.

The third piece was Cornered by Brian Mullin based on Henry James.

This was a ghost story, possibly. A man returns to his childhood home, now vacant, to refurbish it. He meets the next-door neighbour who used to babysit him. She troubles him a little.

Thanks to problems with the security alarm he is forced to stay in the house overnight and is disturbed by footsteps. He finally meets the intruder, but we do not. It was all neatly tense and mysterious.

The final work was The Knot by Amy Neilson Smith based on Edgar Allen Poe.

This was the most complete (i.e. longest) piece and was also the most successful, possibly because of its completeness. It was a proper play with a story and also more acting than the others we saw. A couple play a fantasy game where she is called Morella. They have some arguments but stay together and have a daughter called Morella. This is based on Poe and things do not end well.

I liked the evening a lot and I liked even more that the Orange Tree staged the event in the first place. I hope they do more of the same.

Green Park under water

From time to time I need to work in our UK head office which is based in Green Park to the south of Reading next to the more famous Madejski Stadium.

This is something of a pain for me as the journey there is terrible, if things work well the door-to-door journey takes two and a half hours.each way, and the only redeeming factor is that I get to walk around the landscaped grounds of Green Park at lunchtime.

I am fairly certain that I've posted pictures of Green Park somewhere before and this was meant to be a then-and-now piece but I cannot find the then so I'll just describe the now.

Green Park is built around a large irregularly shaped lake with a path around the outside and a few bridges to let people get around more easily.

This works well usually and the path around the lake is pretty but when there has been as much rain as we have had recently then the lake rises to change the mood of the place.

The lakeside path is easily consumed by the rising water with only the railings on the bridges to show where the path used to go.

That meant that my walk instead of being around the lake was instead a series of walks up to it, so that I could take pictures like this, and then turning around to go back to the road to look for another path to take me up to a different part of the lake.

This disjointed walk was still very much worth it though because it gave me views like this.

More water also meant more reflections, and I like reflections.

The final picture shows another sunken bridge, this one was meant to cross the middle of the lake, and also a very lonely looking lifebuoy. Its one contribution is to add a splash of colour to a scene that is otherwise dominated by dull greys and browns.

Green Park is still far from my favourite work location but I have tried to be fair to it and show off some of its good points. It can be pretty.