29 September 2014

Frans Widerberg: The Art of Re-Enchantment at Kings Place Gallery

I had not heard of Frans Widerberg before visiting this exhibition of his works at Kings Place Gallery, but that is true of almost all of the exhibitions that I have been to there.

The lure is the gallery, not the painter, and that is because the gallery is conveniently situated in the same building as my office.

The gallery space feels like something of an add-on to the corporate spaces above and the concert spaces below as it is little more that the wall around the atrium. That does have one advantage in that the entry down the steps from the ground floor can be quite dramatic.

The entrance was dramatic this time with the name of the exhibition displayed quietly above a large colourful picture called Rider: Northern Lights. This set the tone of the exhibition with its bold primary colours, fantastical theme and rough drawing style that eschewed detail.

Most of the lower ground floor was in the same vein with large pictures of simple figures in plain landscapes painted in unnatural colours.

A lot of the pictures had even simpler colour schemes using mostly just two of the primary colours, e.g. the centre one here is mainly red and yellow and the one on the right is mainly blue and yellow.

Several were of static single people, like the ones on the left and right here, and in these I found the subject matter almost irrelevant (as there was so little of it) and the pleasure that I got was from the use of colour. There is a very broad line between representative and abstract art and I often like pictures that play in this space.

The other characters to appear were centaurs, reinforcing the fantastical tone, and there was one in my favourite of the painting in this section.

This is Centaur Wedding and I love it.

The ad hoc nature of the gallery meant that the exhibition continued to the floor below. This can be a problem as corporate events are often held on that floor and so I chose to go down on a day when it was free.

With the change of level came an unexpected change of mood.

Having got accustomed to large fantastical paintings I had to readjust to small landscapes. This adjustment was helped a little by the these paintings also relying heavily on the primary colours and a simplicity of construction.

These pictures had less immediate impact because of their smaller scale, subtler colours and traditional subjects but they held up to closer scrutiny and had some noticeable charm. That said, their normalness and pleasantness were not enough to make up for a lack of noticeably artistic flair and these reminded me of the sort of pictures that I buy on holiday from street vendors.

It was easy to forgive the slight landscapes hidden in a corner of the lower level because the large fantastical paintings boldy strutting their stuff on the main floor of the gallery were so striking.

27 September 2014

No Lip bring some welcome Punk Rock to Petersham

It is something of a simplification to say that most of the Saturday night bands at the Fox and Duck play rock classics like Smoke on the Water and Sweet Child of Mine but it sometimes feels like that and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with rock classic it is always nice when something a little different comes along. Something like No Lip.

No Lip play Punk Rock and I sure like Punk Rock. I bought Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols on the day that it came out and still have a decent collection of singles from this time, despite not having anything to play them on.

Their selection was fairly mainstream for Punk fans but kept away from the more melodic and popular singles of the time. So we had several tracks from The Ruts but none from The Stranglers. It probably was not quite Oi! but it was getting there.

The mood of the evening was summed by their final encore, the Sex Pistol's Bodies. This was never a single but everybody in the busy pub knew the words and sung/shouted them with great gusto. It was a wonderfully loud, energetic and nostalgic evening. More like that please.

Freak at Theatre503 was warmly dark

Theatre503 has become one of my favourite theatres simply by putting on invigorating plays.

Their location helps too as they are just a short bus ride, or a moderate walk, away from Clapham Junction. And they are above a reasonable pub, The Latchmere.

This was my first visit to the pub after a significant refurbishment, it was closed for a couple of months, which seemed to leave the interior unchanged, though it was had to see the pub as it was full of people watching football on the many large screens. I think Arsenal were playing.

The food menu had changed too but, as with many gastro pubs these days, the vegetarian options were somewhat limited. I did find something nice to eat but with a limited choice I am not going to rush to eat there again.

Anyway, what I was really there for was the theatre.

Freak came to Battersea via Edinburgh where it had garnered the good review that enticed me to go and see it.

The play started with two women in two beds in two bedrooms, simplified for the stage to one bed.

One, Leah, was fifteen and starting to be seriously interested in boys and sex. This involved using industrial amounts of Veet.

The other, Georgie, was thirty, had just come out of a relationship and was struggling to find any joy or purpose in live. This changed when, on a whim, she got a job as a dancer at a men's club.

They both spoke to us directly, diary style, which helped with the intimate feeling of the play. As did sitting in the customary front row. The two stories were interesting individually and the contrast between them made the whole greater than the sum of the individual parts. There was a lot of emotion in those stories and the mood ebbed and flowed through joy, apprehension, sadness, regret and many more.

And then the older woman's tale took a very dark turn and the stories changed.

Then they became one story as we discovered how the two women were linked and the one bed on the stage became just one bed in the one story.

It was a very emotional play and the actress playing Georgie, Lia Burge, had trouble stemming her teams when she came back out for a thoroughly well deserved ovation. April Hughes as Leah thoroughly deserved her ovation too.

Fear was a provocative play about change and adversity told with simplicity, intelligence and some heart-breaking acting.

26 September 2014

Single Spies at the Rose Theatre

An Alan Bennett play is always going to attract my interest and when it's on at my local theatre then missing it is not an option.

I like to combine my theatre trips with other treats and this time I went to the nearby Riverside Vegetaria to eat before the show. I started with a soup that was so crammed with chick peas that it seemed more like a stew and I was a little worried that I would struggle with the main course. I didn't. I went for a curry, always a lazy option to make but the choice was bewildering, which was delicious with a broad range of flavours and textures.

I am still struggling to become comfortable with the layout of the Rose Theatre and I thought that I would give the Circle a try. This decision was helped by the lack of availability of my preferred seats in the Stalls and the opportunity to sit in the front row of the Circle, one of my preferred locations in several theatres. I sat myself down in A16 which had an excellent view and was well priced at £28.

Single Spies is actually two plays, or one play with two very different acts. That they have different names, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, suggests the former. They were also written at different times (1983 and 1991). Their connection is that the first is about Guy Burgess and the second about (Sir) Anthony Blunt both of whom were members of the Cambridge Spy Ring. The other famous spy in the ring, Kim Philby, got a mention but was not seen.

In An Englishman Abroad the Englishman was Burgess and the abroad was Moscow. Burgess had a chance meeting with a touring actress, Coral Browne.

They formed an unusual relationship (he was gay) and as part of this she did some shopping for him in London for some of the creature comforts that he missed. This showed us how England reacted to his defection and in the best scene his tailor was more than happy to make a new suit and to ship it to Moscow for him, the relationship between tailor and client being sacrosanct. Not all the shops took the same attitude.

An Englishman Abroad was a short whimsical look at Englishness. As a Slovak told me in the interval, this was how the English like to look at themselves, not as they actually are.

During the interval I spoke to several people that I bumped into including the previously mentioned Slovaks who I had bumped in to previously at many BCSA events, and also at the Young Vic. I like it when that happens.

The second play, A Question of Attribution, was a similar kettle of fish in one way in that the main theme was a chance conversation between Blunt and the Queen on the subject of the attribution of paintings in her collection but the story was made more complex by contrasting this, in a succession of quick changes, with his interrogation by MI5. Two sets of conversations with two sets of difficult questions.

The mood of the conversation between Blunt and the Queen was as whimsical as that between Burgess and Browne but the other conversation, being an interrogation, added a darker tone to the play.

Both plays relied heavily on the observation skills of Bennett and as that is what Bennett does best both plays worked well. The performances were assured and believable. The set did a few clever things in changing quickly from one room to another but that was almost unnecessary as the play was all about dialogue and that just required the actors and a stage.

As a subtle and gentle play I would have preferred to see it somewhere more intimate, somewhere like the Orange Tree perhaps. That said, The Rose played its part well enough and the view and the sound from the Circle were fine.

Single Spies was as charming and as English as you would expect from Bennett, and there is nothing wrong with that.

24 September 2014

Magnificent and bloody Sweeney Todd at the Twickenham Theatre

Twickenham Theatre was a new venture and I was keen to support them. It helped that they put on Sweeney Todd, another famous musical that I had not seen before.

The theatre is conveniently placed next to Twickenham Station which my train home from Reading passes through. It also has a large bar though I had to make do with a Guinness as there were no bitters on.

I joined the semi-orderly queue and waited to be allowed upstairs. The theatre has been created in a former office and while the use of it had changed the old purpose was still very evident. The theatre itself had a low ceiling and had been created simply by creating a raised stage against one wall with seating on the other three sides. A proper thrust stage.

Despite not being that near to the front of the queue I managed to claim a seat in the front row on one of the corners of the stage. The seating was close to the stage and close together which made it quite cosy. There was just enough space for my work bag too.

While waiting for the show to start one of the helpers warned me that being on the end of the row that performers would be squeezing past me sometimes to get on/off the stage and so I had to make sure that I kept all my stuff out of the way. That proved to be sound advice.

The music came from behind a black screen on the other side of the stage so it was hard to tell what produced it all but it was mostly keyboards.

The show started with a chorus explaining that we were about to hear the story of Sweeney Todd, and then we did so. Amongst the jumble of London life that we met was a prostitute with a remarkable turn of phrase, I had never heard "pushing the parsley" used as a euphemism before.

The tale of Sweeney Todd is well known so I shall not repeat it. What is less well known is how it was told in this case.

Several things made the show stand out. First among these were the performances of the two stars, David Bedella as Sweeney the barber and Sarah Ingram as Mrs Lovett the pie-maker who became Sweeney's landlady then partner.

They sang sweetly but it was the acting that won me over the most. It was little things like the way that Mrs Lovett casually wiped blood of her face when she had to see a visitor.

The production had a lot of audience interaction. I had a young "boy" offering to sell me hair restorer (no idea why), Sweeney called be a fop and following a heavy drinking session one of the men leant on me for a while. Still, I did much better than the man a few seats to my right who got a good splattering of blood from one of the many throat cuttings.

It was a lot funnier than I expected and all the cast did a fine job in teasing every ounce of entertainment out of the Sondheim script.

The proximity of the stage combined with the interactions from the cast made this a very immersive and engaging play. And not knowing all of the details of the story I was completely hooked.

I am lucky to see a lot of theatre and quite a bit of that is very very good but this was the first time for a long while that I leaped to my feet in rapturous adulation at the end. It is easy to see why it has been extended, sold out and has attracted people back for second helpings. It was just perfect.

22 September 2014

Holy Holy recreate The Man Who Sold The World joyfully at the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire

Bowie started his career with a succession of ground-breaking and totally different albums, including a pretty convincing heavy-metal inspired album The Man Who Sold The World in 1970. This was the year that Deep Purple gave us Deep Purple in Rock and Black Sabbath issued both their eponymous first album and Paranoid. Happy days.

Because of the heavier tone The Man Who Sold The World does not have the same general recognition as the mellow albums that came before and after it, Space Oddity (1969) and Hunky Dory (1971). I loved it though and have listened to it consistently over the years. I've bought it at least three times.

I am probably never going to see Bowie play live again but seeing some of the original performers do The Man Who Sold The World was a no-brainer. The two originals were bassist and producer Tony Visconti and drummer Woody Woodmansey. I still remember Charles Shar Murray writing that Visconti had cranked his bass up loud on the album and that was alright because it was a heavy metal album. I agree.

The logistics were bit of a pain as I had to work in Reading that day but I managed to get around that by wearing clothes to work that while they fell far short of our formal dress-code were both smart enough for the office and rough enough for the gig. I was not going to go there wearing a suit!

The other part of the logistics, the travel, worked well as the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire is a short-hop from Paddington which is where the train from Reading dumped me. In fact that worked so well that I got there much earlier than I expected, around 6:30, and rather than head for the pub I joined the queue. My original plan was to sneak in around 8pm but I reasoned that I might as well stand and have a beer in the venue as do so in the pub.

The queueing worked even better than expected as some of the other early birds headed for one of the other preferred locations, or the bar, and the front of the arena was not that busy. I managed to buy a beer and still bag a position fairly central in the second row, i.e. there were just the people against the barrier in front of me. I chose my space well and had a young lad and his short mum in front of me so I had a very good view, as shown by these photos.

Being early also meant that I had to endure the support bands but they proved to be OK, if not very distinctive. Tony Visconti's son, Morgan Visconti, was allowed an extensive run-out for which he was joined by another offspring, Jessica Lee Morgan. No I don't understand how they got their names.

The pending arrival of Holy Holy was signalled by some Beethoven music in the style of A Clockwork Orange and then we were off.

The other main players in Holy Holy were Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17) on vocals and Steve Norman (Spandau Ballet) on guitar and saxophone. There were others, lots of others, and the guest musicians were a major feature of the show.

I had only discovered a couple of days previously that these guests included Marc Almond. That was a special treat for me as I bought almost all of his albums between 1981 and 1989 when he recorded with/as Soft Cell and Marc & the Mambas as well as solo.

I expected Marc to do the title track, as Lulu had done, but he came out for After All, the quiet ballad that closed side one of the original LP.

By then I was singing along loudly to everything, as was everybody else. Music this good is infectious.

The Man Who Sold The World as received rapturously, despite its less well-known content.

Then we got a selection of more Bowie songs from around that era, though there were a surprising number from Aladdin Sane (1973). Marc Almond came back to do Watch That Man and there was a stonking version of fan-favourite Time.

Musicians came and went, but mostly came. I counted twenty people on stage at the end. The most prominent of these was Gary Kemp (also Spandau Ballet) who added his guitar to the three or four that were already playing.

The crowd were lapping it all up and the band seemed to be having as much fun as we were. There was a fair amount of interaction between us too with the audience joining in when asked (not that we needed much asking) and there was a loud cheer of shared joy and memory when Steve Norman talked about that Top of The Pops appearance on 6 July 1972. It changed many people's lives, including mine.

It was possibly the happiest concert that I have ever been too and even the eager photographers in the pit could not dampen my joy. This was an absolutely brilliant concert with excellent musicians delivering great songs that they had rehearsed with care and love.

The mood from the convert was so positive and uplifting that I hope that Holy Holy continue in some way.

21 September 2014

Radipole Country Primary School in 196x

I moved to Weymouth in 1964 and transferred to Radipole Country Primary School, which was then a short pleasant walk away through woods. Those woods went many years ago.

When I first went to the school the main site was being built so we went to school in the manor house next door. This was the stuff of children's books with vast high-ceiling rooms and a garden that looked even more like the Wild Wood that the wood I walked through to get there did. I'm sure that it would not be allowed these days but it was a lot of fun at the time.

We moved across to the new school when it was ready. It was roughly L shaped with Infant and Junior wings and the hall and offices in the centre. I was in the infant wing and it was around that time that this class photo was taken. It could have been taken at the end of that school year, which would make it 1965 and I would have been 8.

Just in case you had not worked it out, I am the completely relaxed boy on the far right at the back. I can remember some of the other names, Janet Greenway lived just around the corner from me in Roman Road and Dave Ellis was not a lot further away in Spa Road, but mostly they are ghosts of memories.

The Last of the Summer Flowers at Kew Gardens (September 2014)

For various reasons beyond my control I missed out on Summer at Kew Gardens being unable to get there for a couple of months. When the opportunity came to get back there I leapt at the opportunity, though at 9am on a Sunday morning it was a rather leisurely leap.

There were some striking autumnal reds and oranges and oranges near where I live so I headed to Kew looking for more of the same. That meant entering at Lion Gate because that is the end of the garden that most of the trees are.

I quickly discovered that the trees were stubbornly green and that many flowers had taken advantage of the warm and dry September to keep showing off their colours.

From the Pagoda I took the long path towards the river, Cedar Vista, and that lead me past the little Waterlily Pond where I found this clutch of flowers making the most of the sunshine.

I cannot walk past the top of the lake without taking a picture of the view back down it, and this time was no exception. That's the Sackler Crossing in the distance.

It was about then that I remembered that the grasses would be out and so I changed direction and went down Syon Vista along the other side of the lake and back towards the Palm House.

I avoided the Palm House and went to the nearby Waterlily House instead which was impressively protected by an army of pink flowers. This shock of pink against the white and grey background was enough to make anybody pause to wallow in the scene.

Inside the Waterlily House was as pretty as ever. I took lots of pictures of the lilies but I have shared many of those pictures previously so this time I have selected one of the plants on the edge of the greenhouse that looked all the better, I felt, for having the rhythmic construction behind them.

The big surprise came when walking along the Broad Walk from the Waterlily House to the Orangery, where I was aiming to get a coffee and some cake (there are rules about these things).

The kidney-shaped beds on both sides of the wide path were thick with colour with each bed having its own theme. I came to Kew Gardens looking for falling leaves and found bright flowers instead.

I loved the planting of the beds. The thematic colours revealed the hand of man but the, apparently, haphazard arrangement gave them the appearance of wild gardens.

There were several such beds along the Broad Walk and I stopped to admire, and photograph, every one of them. Eventually they ran out and I was at the Orangery were I had my expected coffee and cake. A treat within a treat.

From there it was just a short walk to the unimaginatively, but accurately, named Grass Garden.

This is one of my favourite places in Kew (there is stiff competition) but it always seems to me that it does not get the attention that it deserves as it is somewhat out of the way in the south-east corner beyond the main path that links the main attractions. I do not mind that it is quiet there as it makes it more peaceful and makes it easier to take photographs but its still a shame that it is often overlooked.

From there I took the route through the walled garden with the Plant Family Beds; you can just see the top of the wall above the mysterious orange plants.

The final step was to try and leave the gardens at Victoria Gate. This was harder than before as the system had been changed to force leavers to exit through the shop rather than heading straight for the gate. I am not sure that this was a good idea as all it did was frustrate me a little and the short-cut through the cafe misses out most of the shop anyway.

I have ceased to be amazed at how good Kew Gardens is every time that I go there and have given up on expecting familiarity to breed contempt. Instead I just accept that it does not matter when I go there or where I walk when I do, there will always be plenty there for me to see.

17 September 2014

Open Mic Night at the Grey Horse (17 September 14)

I was out in Kingston doing other things earlier in the evening (it was the theatre this time, usually it's a meeting) and fancying a pint I headed for the familiar Grey Horse. I was not sure if the Open Mic was on that night or not but it is a nice enough pub in its own right and it is on the way home, so I had nothing to lose.

In fact I gained plenty. Not only was the Open Mic in full swing but several of my friends were there too thus adding socialising to the music.

It was good to hear some different musicians play as well. I had not seen the lady above singing here before though I understand from friends that she has played previously, not just on one of my irregular evenings there. Maria Ahearn, the event's organiser, also played a set, which she does not often do, and this featured the ever popular Wuthering Heights.

I only stayed for a couple of pints but that was time enough to speak to several people, see a few acts and take a couple of photos. It was just the sort of thing that I keep going to the Open Mic nights for.

She Stoops to Conquer at the Rose Theatre

I think that I studied She Stoops to Conquer at school but that may just be a false memory from a long time ago. For whatever reason, I had heard of the play and as it was on at my nearest, The Rose in Kingston, I felt obliged to see it.

I've been to The Rose often enough now to know how things work there so I booked myself a seat in Row A near the centre (A38), which cost me a reasonable £25. This is the first proper row though there was some hard seating in the lower Pit area between the stalls and the stage.

I had to be in Reading for work that day and, unfortunately, sever traffic hold-ups between the office and the railway station meant that I missed the hoped for trip to the Riverside Vegetaria before hand and I barely got to the theatre in time to grab a beer before claiming my seat.

She Stoops to Conquer is, essentially, a romcom, though age has also made the society of the time something of a feature too. This was a time when class was more obvious than it is now and, possibly, even more important.

The plot is pretty simple, which is fine for a romcom as the story (which you know has a happy ending) is much less important that the characters and the way that they fumble against each other until things work out.

Two gentlemen making a visit are tricked into thinking that another gentleman's house is a pub and they treat it, him and his family accordingly. One of the young gentlemen, whose if expected to marry a woman he does not want, falls for the daughter who he believes to be a barmaid and so too far below his class for him to have any serious intent in (frivolous intent is, of course, all right). She plays along with this error to win him from his intended, she stoops from her social class to conquer her man.

There are other relationships and other characters to add to the richness of the story and it is all a lot of fun.

Making the most of the fun on this occasion was Oliver Gomm as the tricked young gentleman. He was vigorous in his torment while the young girl was calm in contributing to it. Oliver Gomm may be at some risk of being type-cast as a period Upper Class Twit as he played a similar role very well in The School for Scheming at the Orange Tree earlier this year.

I went to see She Stoops to Conquer for some light relief and that's what I got. It was all very nicely done and the laughter flowed long and hard.

16 September 2014

the dreaming at the Union Theatre was all sorts of beautiful

There were various reasons why I was keen to see the dreaming and the Shakespeare connection was the least of them.

My initial interest came from the composer, Howard Goodall. I would hardly claim to be familiar with his music, apart from the Red Dwarf theme obviously, but I had seen him talk about musing on TV often enough to know something about his character. My second interest came from the Union Theatre as I had seen a blistering version of Lear on by first visit there. I also liked the space, small intimate theatres are my thing.

My planning for the day went well and after some time exploring Somerset House I still had plenty of time to eat at The Refinery in Southwark Street before heading to the cafe at the Union Theatre for some coffee and cake, always a good start to an evening.

The routine had changed slightly from my first visit and this time they let people in according to the ticket number they were given when they arrived. Unaware of this, I had not claimed my ticket immediately on arrival so, sporting number 12, I was let in with the second group. That was good enough to get a front row (only row, actually) seat on the right-hand side, much where I had sat for parts of Lear.

Another difference this time was that the rows of seats were away from the walls rather than being up against them. This was to create space for the multitude of characters to move around. That made the main stage area even smaller and even more intimate. Lovely.

the dreaming was pretty much A Midsummer Night’s Dream but was also noticeably different. It had magic potions to make the wrong people fall in love with each other and had a play within the play but the lovers were gentlefolk in WWI era England and the play was about St George slaying the dragon.

There was a large cast and even then most of the actors had to double-up as gentlefolk and woodfolk to cover all the parts. A large cast meant a wide range of voices and the opportunity to combine them in various pleasurable ways.

The music was superbly constructed so that it flowed like one piece, much more like an opera than a play with disparate songs added. It was all very pretty and very English turn-of-the-century too and called to mind Butterworth, Parry and Bridge (from my limited knowledge of such things). The success of the music was seen in the way that it hung on the lips of the audience as we left.

The lyrics were poetic and more complex than is sometimes the case with musicals that prefer to tell simple stories with simple songs. The Shakespearean feel was maintained in the new words even down the the bawdy nature of some of them.

The production was amazing and accomplished so much with a few costumes and fewer props. When they wanted us to see a river they just told us that it was there are we saw it.

Everything about the show was magical; the music, the lyrics, the singing, the acting, the movement, the staging and the interaction with the audience. It was an immensely rich experience with so much going on all the time, not least some of the characters crouching behind me to hide from those on the main stage.

The best news is that the dreaming was just the first part of a Howard Goodall season of three musicals. I will also be going to the other two.

Lots to see in and round Somerset House

I was in the Aldwych area for an afternoon meeting which meant that I could go to the theatre nearby in the evening and could fill the time in between at Somerset House.

It was London Fashion Week which meant that the courtyard was full of strangely dressed people taking photos of people even more strangely dressed. I was wearing a suit with a Liberty tie (as always) so I felt very comfortable amongst the hipsters and weirdos. I even had my photo while having a coffee and cake in Fernandez & Wells, but that was just by a student so I do not expect to find my face on the cover of Vogue. I would not know if it was.

After the coffee I headed to the southern section of Somerset House, i.e. the bit next to the river, as that is where the small galleries were kept. I had no idea what was on and was very pleasantly surprised to discover three very different exhibitions next to each other.

I would not normally have gone to an exhibition called Time: Tattoo Art Today but I had the time to kill and it was free.

The exhibition was of specially commissioned pieces by tattoo artists on the subject of time. The only rule was that they could use their usual materials, i.e. skin.

I went in expecting to walk around quickly and then straight out again but I was struck by the drama in many of the works and I fell in love with several of them, despite their sometimes bleak character. Having to choose just one photo for the blog I eventually settled on a traditional dragon neatly draped over a shoulder.

The exhibition occupied just a couple of medium-sized rooms and was time very well spent.

I had been to Somerset House many times but had managed to learn nothing of its history before. I fixed that by visiting the exhibition on the lower level. This was so obscure that I had never noticed it before and even now it is hard to find anything about it on the Somerset House website.

It was a long, narrow and space with some posters and artifacts on one side and a boat on the other. The point of Somerset House when it was built was that it had one foot on the Strand and the other in the Thames, thus linking two of London's main thoroughfares. All that changed when the embankment was added and now a hideous main road separates the house from its natural home.

Somerset House is a large and extravagant building today and the exhibition helped to show how much larger and more extravagant it must have seemed when imposed on medieval London in 1547, that's pushing 500 years ago!

Filling one of the many entrance halls was a collection of photographs of Nick Cave.

The exhibition, A Little History: Nick Cave & Cohorts 1981 - 2013, was of photographs by all taken by Bleddyn Butcher.

Clearly the most interesting thing about the photos was the way that Cave's appearance changed over that time and through all those changes his hair remained an entertaining feature.

I was also interested to see that several of the photographs had been taken in fairly modest clubs in London. I have never seen Cave live, despite buying quite a few of his albums, but I assumed that he had always headlined at big venues.

Exiting by Victoria Embankment I walked up the steps at Waterloo Bridge and then crossed it heading towards Southwark and my theatre date.

The view from Waterloo Bridge is one of THE views of London, as evidenced by the number of people who select it as their favourite on the Robert Elms show, and it still enthrals me even though I have crossed that bridge many many times.

There are good views in both directions but in recent years I have tended to look eastwards towards the City simply because there has been so much change there. When I worked in the Nat West Tower in the late 80's it was the only tower there, now it is just one of a growing cluster.

14 September 2014

The good and the bad of modern architecture in London

Sitting on the top deck of a bus heading up Borough High Street toward London Bridge gave me a good opportunity to see three of London's new iconic buildings from a different viewpoint.

I like the Shard and it looked good from this angle too, rising majestically above the low brick Georgian buildings of Borough. I suspect that the design of the Shard took account of this view as its gentle angle matches that of the church in front of it.

A little further up the road and things took a turn for the worse.

I like the Cheesgrater (on the left) too and it looks fine from this angle. The villain of the piece is the Walkie-Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) on the right. This is a monstrous building that appears to tower over those in the foreground, despite being on the far side of the river.

13 September 2014

My last day at school (1975)

I have been looking through old photos recently and came across these two from my last day at Weymouth Grammar School some time in the summer of 1975. That is me second from the right.

The photos were taken at The Admiral Hardy where we went at lunchtime for a beer or two. The one above was taken on the children's play equipment in the garden, a sort of rocking horse that was just asking to be sat on.

We all went our separate ways after that, and we had no email or Facebook in those days to help us to keep in contact, so this was the last day that I saw most of them.

The world is a funny place though and about twenty years later I found myself working with one of them at Logica for a while and another I now see occasionally in the pub as he lives in the area and his role in Camra sometimes takes him to my local.

12 September 2014

The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd at the Orange Tree theatre was more of the same

With a new artistic director, Paul Miller succeeding Sam Walters after forty years, I was both expecting and hoping for more change than was apparent on the first production of the new season.

Changes had been made to the bar area with stools replacing the long bench, to the booking system with numbered sets replacing free-seating and to the theatre with a fresh coat of paint and a raised stage. I do not know if the raised stage was just for this show or whether it is a permanent feature but I am fairly certain that I do not like it because of the need to look upwards and the restricted foot space.

There was no change to the programme, however. The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd was a little known play by DH Lawrence set in the Nottinghamshire mining community in 1914. There is nothing wrong with historical plays per se but when the point of the play is comment on the then current times then this does not always translate well to modern times.

I started to struggle with the play in the first minute when Mrs Holroyd appeared with the washing and started to load the clothes horse. She was clearly not used to doing so and made something of a mess of it, something that should have been picked up by the director during rehearsals.

Mrs Holroyd was a much put-upon wife who was left at home to do the skivvying while her husband was out drinking and wenching. An admirer was floating around but she stuck to the social rules.

I spent some time working in Nottingham mining district (not in a mine, obviously) and so had some familiarity with the accent, which is not unlike the way that a Yorkshire accent is usually presented. That helped me to understand Mr Holroyd and the two children.As this was a small community I would have expected everybody to have the same accent but some of the cast struggled with that and there were even touches of Brum in the mix.

The play was very much in two halves, and deliberately so. In the first we saw the hard life led by Mrs Holroyd and they way she was dominated by her husband. They argued loudly and often but there seemed to be no hope for Mrs Holroyd and all our sympathies were with here.

After the interval came the expected Widowing of Mrs Holroyd with Mr Holroyd being killed in a mining accident.

The mood of the play changed too. We got new perspectives on Mr Holroyd from his colleagues and mother. They might not have excused his behaviour towards his wife but they came some way towards explaining it as we learnt more about the harsh and brutal life of a miner.

The point of the play seemed to be to explain how it was grim up North and while that may have been news when the play was written it was not to the Richmond audience and I think that made the play sort of pointless.

In its favour, accents apart, the acting was of the usual high standard and there was plenty of meat in the vigorous dialogues to chew on. The play was gripping and emotional, and that made it entertaining, even if it did not really go anywhere or say anything.

10 September 2014

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (September 2014)

I was not sure how many people were going to turn up to the regular British and Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) social in September as Facebook was still refusing to let me invite everybody in the group to the event, there was another event on at the Slovak Embassy that night and we were still just bout in the holiday season.

And when I got there I was on my own for a little while and then it was just one person who joined me. Luckily (for me) that was somebody who I knew and we had a good chat while waiting for others to join us.

And others did join us. It took a little longer than usual but we got to the dozen people that we usually have at these events. It was also the usual mix of old and new people and that is a good combination for getting the conversations going.

Sonia wanted me to take this picture of her and her Romanian friend but I have no idea why, or of what the newspaper says. At least it makes a change from my usual picture of my smazeny syr and Pilsner Urquell, both of which I had, as usual.

This was another excellent BCSA Social with the familiar good humour and refreshing Czech/Slovak food and drink. Only the people and the conversations were different.

8 September 2014

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: September 2014

September's Kingston upon Thames Society Committee Meeting led me to one very significant insight (I think!) and we covered some other useful ground too.


The topic of the proposed changes to cycling provision funded by the Mayor's Mini-Holland scheme continued to excite the Committee. A letter had been drafted to the Council calling for the emphasis to be put on safety measures like repairing pot-holes but this had not yet been sent because of internal procedural matters (e.g. holidays).

There had been a story in the Surrey Comet about a possible short-fall in funding, apparently RBK wanted to spend £41m having agreed a budget of £34m with TfL having originally bid for £30m. This increased the uncertainty over which of the suggested schemes would or would not, be included in the final proposals.

With nothing tangible to respond to we agreed to wait for RBK to announce what it was planning to do.

Public Toilets

This topic started with the refurbishment of the Market Place and had simmered at the Committee every since; having Matters Arising on the agenda can give small topics long lives. We regretted that Kingston did not follow Richmond in having a public toilet scheme, where some pubs, cafes and shops open the toilets to public use, but did not propose any specific action.

New Quaker House

The visit to the new Quaker House on Fairfield had gone well and had won over some doubters to the merits of the building. Actress Sheila Hancock was said to be the star of the day.

The committee

The Committee has somebody responsible for administering the membership, e.g. collecting subscriptions, but nobody was responsible for growing our membership or for making sure that they got the service that they wanted.

It was agreed that we would look to appoint somebody to this role when the new committee was formed after the AGM in January.

We also discussed the appointment of a new Chairman. Some nominations and suggestions had been made by members and these were still coming in. The next steps to be taken would depend on the number of viable candidates and one options, that I strongly favoured, was to ask the candidates to put their case to our membership at the AGM who would then make the decision.

The gathering storm

A number of large planning applications were due, or overdue, and the committee was expecting to be busy over the next few months. Plans were expected for The Old Post Office, Eden Walk, Tesco Tolworth, North Kingston secondary school, Tolworth Hospital, North Kingston development zone and Tolworth Girls' School.

The planning process

The prospect of a meeting with Councillor David Cunningham, scheduled for later that week, led to a long and useful debate on how we work with the Council, officers and members.

A range of views were expressed and there was no firm consensus on how we should proceed (other than to see how the meeting with Cllr Cunningham went) but some useful ideas were generated that could lead to something meaningful later on.

This is where I had my insight. I suddenly realised that we were the experts on how the planning system in Kingston works from the residents' perspective. This meant that we were best placed to suggest improvements to the process that would help us, and everybody else, to participate in the planning process.

A range of problems with the process had been raised previously that could all be covered in this approach. These included the difficulty in finding out about applications, the poor quality of information on the planning website (e.g. out of date statuses and drawings filed as lots of documents with meaningless names), the information gap between residents (experts on their locality) and councillors (usually novices), and the very limited opportunity for residents to participate in the decision making committees.

I think that there is a real opportunity for the Society to lead in the democratisation of the end-to-end planning process in Kingston.

5 September 2014

Stella cast for The Crucible at The Old Vic

The Crucible at the Old Vic was one of the "must see" plays of the Summer (the other was A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, just down the road) and I duly bought my ticket some months in advance. I was not entirely convinced though and I balked at paying anything like the top price and so I went for a seat (B26) in the Lilian Baylis Circle, i.e. the top level. Even up there I had to fork out £30.

It was another work in Reading day but the transport worked well (the main risk was the time it can take to get from the office to Reading station by bus) and I got to Waterloo in good time to try another tasty West Cornwall Pasty before diving in to The Pit Bar for a beer.

Fed and watered I trudged to the top of the building to take my seat. It was comfortable enough and the view was fine.

The stage was arranged differently from my previous visits being almost in the round with a few seats to the side of the stage and a few more at the back. To be honest I am not sure that the arrangement worked for everybody as it was a fairly static performance, it's a play of words not actions, which meant that some people would have spent some time looking at the back of the person talking. I had no such trouble up in the gods.

For all that Arthur Miller was a big name playwright I had never seen one of his plays before and had little idea of what to expect. The running time of over three hours, with an interval on top of that, was something of a clue that this could be a long smouldering American drama in the vein of Long Day's Journey into Night or, more recently, Dances with Wolves. And so it proved to be.

The Crucible told the story of the Salem Witch Trials where a bit of fun, girls dancing in the woods, leads to accusations of witchcraft and this is then blamed for everything bad that happens and suspicious eyes were turned on any behaviour deemed unusual. Behaviour like reading.

A group of honest villagers got caught up in this and were unable to protest their innocence against a tide of supposition and superstition. It did not end well.

As the poster at the top shows, this was billed as a vehicle for Richard Armitage and his appearances in Robin Hood, Spooks and The Hobbit had pushy mums bring their precious children by the truckload. They must have wondered why.

Armitage, as the main hero John Proctor, was convincing enough but he played it a little too close to his other roles, particularly his Spooks character Lucas North, for my liking as he was swept along by events and was powerless to stop them. Perhaps it was because of this type-casting that he was chosen for the role.

William Gaunt, who will always be super-powered secret agent Richard Barrett in The Champions to me, was superb as John's friend who was also entangled in the allegations and who faced them with steely determination and also acceptance of the inevitable.

The story turned when a senior cleric arrived in the village to investigate the witchcraft stories and this was a turning point in the production too. Jack Ellis was absolutely brilliant as Deputy Governor Danforth and, for me, stole the show. He was certain, strong and ruthless as he barked out his instructions. He was the enemy that the villagers had to fear despite his good office. He became the centre of the play that had been a collection of disparate narratives.

The rest of the cast deserve a mention too because, frankly, they were all good.

The Crucible told its long story with some style and would could have been a three hour trial for the audience passed by ridiculously quickly. The ending was a little obvious and was made the weaker for happening off-stage, shades of Chekhov there, but the point of the play was the journey, not the destination, and that was taut, tense and terrifying.

I enjoyed The Crucible a lot, and felt exhausted by the ride at the end, but somehow, as with Streetcar, it did not quite reach the heights that I expected of it and so a good performance ended up feeling a little disappointing.