30 November 2014

Space Ritual implode beautifully at the Borderline

Any Space Ritual concern is a special event and that was especially true in a year that I had not seen them at all (the last time was in December 2013) and this concert was made even more special by being billed as their last.

Their final concert was billed as The Space Ritual Implosion and was planned as a long event, running from 5pm to 10pm, featuring two support bands with Space Ritual members. Plans were changed late in the day as Nik Turner's Project 9 were dropped which put the start time back about an hour. That suited me as it gave me time to walk up to EAT for a snack and a coffee before the gig.

I got to the Borderline in good time to squeeze in to a spot on the front left before the other expected support act, Thomas Crimble's Inevitable, took to the stage. I also impressed myself by not getting the usual beer first.

Thomas plays keyboards for Space Ritual but here he was on rhythm guitar and lead vocals. The band's construction (lead, rhythm and bass guitars and drums) and Thomas' checked over-shirt suggested Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and the music did too, especially when there were songs about living on a farm. The songs were all original though and the band made a good noise playing them. Inevitable were the sort of support band that you paid attention to and enjoyed listening to, rather than talking through while waiting for the main act. They went down well.

After Inevitable we were treated to some jazz mixes from the decks of Sam Ollis. That was a good sign as he had a history of appearing with the band but had been missing from recent engagements.

As the rest of the band took to the stage it was clear that this was the Space Ritual A-Team with Nik Turner, Mick Slattery (lead), Thomas Crimble (keys), Terry Ollis (drums), Sam Ollis (more drums), Chris Purdon (noises), Gary Smart (bass) and, of course, Ms Angel (movement). Space Ritual have played with different and more people but this was my favourite line-up.

The set-list was a best of Space Ritual too, though this is Mick's copy and for some reason it had some songs missing from it. At one point Mick asked Ms Angel why she had come on stage and she said that it was for D-Rider which you will notice is not on the list. That mattered not, they played D-Rider and Mick joined in just as though he knew it was coming.

The music was typical, and wonderful, Space Ritual with familiar songs bent in to extended riffs before gradually returning to where they started. The thirteen songs were each extended from their original four minutes or so to about twice that. It was bouncy, funky, spacey, fun stuff.

Amidst all the familiarity there were a couple of things that I noticed. Gary Smart was so involved in the music that he spent a lot of time jumping on the spot as he played. That may have made him tired as he also sat down cross-legged for a couple of songs. Ms Angel had been shopping and had three outfits that I had not seen before (I last saw her with Arthur Brown). They were all sexy without being rude though a minor wardrobe malfunction on the gold outfit did show a little more that usual until she managed to fix it.

The place was very busy and the audience reaction was loud and enthusiastic. This may have been what tempted Nik to veer away from the "last gig ever" line towards "we'll see what we can do", which brought even more loud cheering. Obviously I hope that Space Ritual can continue in some form even if some of the current line-up are unable to continue.

Space Ritual's version of the Hawkwind legacy is different from the others who still carry the space rock torch and it's a sound that begs to be heard; and I'll be there to hear it if they do keep the magic going.

29 November 2014

Back to see more Bungles Finger at the Fox and Duck

For no particular reason, other than I am very busy with lots of things, I have been going to the Fox and Duck less frequently in recent months and I almost did not go this time.

I had spent most of the day (a Saturday) at home in front of one of my computers trying to catch up on my various commitments to the likes of Ham Amenities Group, Kingston upon Thames Society and the British Czech and Slovak Association, as well as struggling to order opera tickets for Glyndebourne and Ghent. I had not got as far as I had hoped at 10pm and faced the options of carrying on (despite being quite tired), collapsing with some comics, or going down the pub. Comics were winning the argument until I read the review of my previous (and first) encounter with Bungles Finger and that swayed things in favour of the pub.

The 65 bus conveniently arrived at the bus stop at the same time as me and I was in the pub just before 10:30pm.

The band were on their break then which made it easier to get to the bar and order the usual pint of Doombar (it was the only draught bitter they did) before finding a place to settle. That turned out to be one of my usual spots near the band just where the bar curves away towards the loos. It was a bit side on there but it is generally a fine place to watch bands from unless the dancing gets too manic. I later moved to the main standing area by the main door just to see the band from a different angle.

Bugles Finger do not have, or did not bring, their own lights so the only illumination for the stage was a basic table lamp on the shelf behind them. This is exactly what I did not want for my photos and this picture was about the best that I could do.

The band opened the second half of their set by saying that they would be playing some livelier numbers. Livelier than what I did not know but lively I like. I took no notes but some of the songs that I recall from their eclectic mix were Teenage Kicks, Ever fallen in love, Walk like an Egyptian, Sex on fire and Highway to Hell.

They ended the evening on a singalong note with I'm a believer, Can't take my eyes off you (!) and Delilah, which I tried to sing to in the style of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band when everybody else had Tom Jones in mind. Their loss.

The band finished just before the midnight curfew which gave me just enough time to catch up with some of the regulars in the sports bar before being nicely asked to leave. And I left very happy.

Bungles Finger ended my busy and tiring day on a welcome high note thanks to their good playing and interesting mix of unusual songs. Next time they play the Fox and Duck I'll try to get there for the first half of their set.

28 November 2014

BCSA Annual Dinner 2014 was another delightful evening

The BCSA Annual Dinner crept in to my calendar a few years ago as a duty, I used to be on the BCSA Executive Committee, and has quietly become an important part of my busy social schedule.

This year's was possibly the best one yet.

The basics of the dinner were the same as usual; traditional even. The venue was the Radisson Blu Edwardian Bloomsbury Street Hotel which while retaining its basic shape and character has improved a little here and there and also refined its name a little. The dining room we use had gained a darker due a few years ago but seemed lighter this. We also had a modern clear plastic lectern to use instead of the old-fashioned wood one. Only minor changes but indications of a commitment to quality and to keeping competitive.

The festivities were due to start at 7pm and I arrived a little before that in case any last minute help was required. In previous years I have done things like putting names to places but this year everything was done when I got there. So I went for a Budvar instead. People soon arrived in good numbers and I had plenty of friends to talk to.

Soon after 7:30 we made our way in to the dining room. My table was a little out of the way in a corner by a window but the location of the table was not important, it was the people sitting at it who mattered and I had Ruzena to thank (as always) for putting me on a table of interesting people, most of whom I knew, with Zuzana on one side and Katerina on the other.

The conversations flowed as well as the wine. The food was very good too. The blue spot on my card had me marked as a vegetarian, Zuzana managed to swap for the vegetarian option too and we had somebody else on the table who was lactose-intolerant. The hotel coped easily and with a smile.

Our after-dinner speaker was Dr Monika Gullerova, a Slovak scientist currently based at Oxford University. She was the other side of the room and the lights were down for her presentation, which is my excuse for this not very good photo, she is prettier than that. The camera does a better job of showing off her stunning dress.

Monika spoke about her work which had taken her to several institutions in several countries until she returned for a second spell at Oxford University.

She was amusing, such as pointing out that she was the one with the red hair in a photo of a room full of Japanese people, and instructive on the life of a scientist which seemed to consist of a series of short horizons with one research project following another. I got lost on some of the actual science, and I suspect that I understood more of it than most people there, but that did not matter; this was her story and she told it well.

I was pleased to be able to catch a few minutes with her after the dinner and to discover that we had a mutual friend through the Czech and Slovak Society at the university.

The food was good and I did not mind too much not winning one of the great prizes in the raffle, such as luxurious breaks in Slovakia. All of the components of the dinner worked well and either added to the pleasure of the evening when they were meant to or were unobtrusive when they were purely functional.

There were other friends to catch up with after the formal part of the dinner and there was still some beer left to encourage me to stay. As always at good events like this, the time whizzed past and I was soon rushing to catch the last tube home having missed all of the trains.

It was the people that made the evening such a fantastic success and it was the efficient and unfussy service from the hotel that created the ideal atmosphere for us to mix in.

We bill the BCSA Annual Dinner as the main event in our calendar and this year it certainly lived up to that billing.

26 November 2014

The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic was gripping but missed the point

I do not like to miss Chekhov plays and as I managed to miss two Uncle Vanya's this year (one because it finished early and the other because I could not find the time to see it) I was pretty keen to see this acclaimed version of The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic.

And I almost missed this one as well. I was very late booking and the only time I could find to see it was a Wednesday afternoon. I was very lucky as when I went online to book it there was a single seat in the second row (B28 for £35) so I grabbed that eagerly. Somebody up there obviously wanted me to go.

Being a mid-week matinee the audience was an odd mix of students and retired people with just a few people, like myself, somewhere in the middle. Being a matinee also meant no beers beforehand so I was able to time my travel to arrive about 15 minutes before the show started.

On entering the theatre I was surprised to see it laid out as a proscenium (traditional) theatre with all the seating to the front of the stage. I had been to the Young Vic several times before and while the layout was always different it usually had seating on three sides, i.e. a thrust stage.

There was nothing to see initially as a jet black blind hid the stage. There seemed little point in taking my usual "this is what I could see" picture as all I could see was black. I thought about taking a photo at other times but the staff were always sharp, a few people were caught trying to use their phones, and the black blind returned to hide the stage at the end too. I've settled for this picture found on the web as it more or less shows the view that I had. I guess that I was one row further back and about four seats to the left.

I had a comfy seat with a good view, which is just as well as the play was scheduled to run for two hours without a break. We actually got a break for a medical incident in the audience (I did say it was full of pensioners) but it was short and we stayed in our seats.

The Cherry Orchard had one broad theme, decline and renewal, that was played out through a sizeable cast who each faced the decline in their own way.

The range of characters used to tell the story was almost pantomimic with goodies, baddies and clowns. The main clown was Leonid, the matriarch's brother, who got carried away whenever he spoke, and knew it. He brought a smile to my face every time. Also clowning was the governess Charlotta, though I am not sure why she had to walk through the room naked after a swim.

The young servant Yasha was a very convincing baddie and, as so often happens in real life, he prospered. The matriarch, Madame Ranevskaya was the goodie and the main loser. Her goodness of heart was not matched by he financial acumen and she lost the family's money on a lavish lifestyle and imprudent loans.

A lot of attention was paid to portraying the individual characters and I felt that this was at the expense of the main theme. The production seemed to recognise this and it used mood music, such as used in film, to indicate the wood of the theme that was lost in the trees of the characters.

That said, the characters and their lives were absorbing and the two hours flew by. The thunderous reception at the end showed that this was a good Cherry Orchard, it was just not quite the Cherry Orchard that I wanted to see.

25 November 2014

Big Ideas on What is Normal?

One of the attractions of the monthly Bid Ideas discussions, and one of the reasons that I keep going to them, is the variety of topics that are covered. I also like the way that most of them are on something that I know something about so that I can contribute to meaningfully but they are also something that I know sufficiently little about so that I can learn something too.

Writing these blog posts is part of the learning process and is where I can restructure, reprocess and rethink my notes from the evening. These write-ups are never a historical record of the evening and they are not meant to be.

What we mean by "normal" is something that I have thought about at various times over the years, usually prompted by a news story, so I was looking forward to this discussion.

Our thought leader for the evening was Richard Barnett (on the right) who describes himself as a writer, teacher and broadcaster, mostly on the cultural history of science and medicine, and a poet. This is what he said, what others said, what I thought at the time and what I thought (much) later when I wrote this up.

The word normal derives from mathematics and most people will be familiar Normal / Gaussian distribution from school mathematics. This was derived from coin tosses and demonstrated that while a 50/50 split is expected a range of results close to this are also common and, for example, 100/0 splits are also possible these happen very rarely.

The question posed here is where to draw the line (if it can be drawn) between normal/expected results and abnormal/unexpected results.

Other distribution models exist each of which poses the question as to what a normal result is.

The mathematical normal can lead to results that need further explanation. For example, the average (mean) number of children per family is 2.4 but nobody has 2.4 children. Some of this depends on the units of measurement. If we measure people's height to the nearest centimetre then we will find thousands of people of average height but if we measure it to the nearest nanometre then we might find nobody of average height.

Normal has other linguistic usages. It can mean to mean mediocre, conformity etc. Here normal means not special when special is something good that we aspire too. In other circumstances normal is what we want to be, especially when we are comparing ourselves to abnormal people like terrorists or paedophiles.

While the definition of normal is fairly static, what counts as normal changes all the time. It used to be normal to drink and drive and, until recently, it was normal for young men to shave. Normal moves slowly and it is not usually obvious when what was normal has become unusual or abnormal.

Normal becomes even harder to define when the thing being described is not easy to measure. You can count coin tosses, heights of people, pints drunk and beards worn but what is a normal book or a normal face?

The more we talked about normal the more that I thought that normal is not a good word to use, especially when there are often better alternatives, e.g. average/mean (mathematical) or commonplace (mediocre). Similarly, it is better to say "I am not a paedophile" than to say "I have a normal sex life"; the first is clear and unambiguous but the second is loaded with context, assumptions and interpretations, all of which change over time.

It was an interesting talk on the various uses of the word "normal", and the issues around each use, which made me realise how poor a word it is and I resolved to try and curtail my own use of it. It was also another win for the certainty of Mathematics over the vagueness of Language.

24 November 2014

Labour make a more enticing offer

When it comes to tempting the electorate, the Conservative Party does not have a clue.

Their big offer in their attempt to get ordinary people to donate to their campaign is a bog-standard mug (the offer to rich people is somewhat different and includes peerages). I already have far more mugs than I'll ever need, or could fit in my cupboard if they were all clean at the same time, and many of them have some emotional value. I have no reason to get another one.

If I liked the party I would donate £19 to avoid getting the ugly and pointless thing.

The Labour deal is far more attractive.

To quote from the email that they sent me, "Donate £19 towards a Labour victory now, and you'll get your very own, special-edition Grayson Perry canvas bag/work of art."

It could be argued, with justification, that I also have more bags than I'll ever need but there's always room for another special one. The nice thing about bags is that you can store them in other bags.

And it's by Grayson Perry. Everybody loves Grayson Perry.

I had donated some money to Labour only a few days earlier for no immediate reward, in response to a tweet, but I was warned that "numbers are strictly limited" on the bag so I jumped on the donation site and gave them some more.

Now I have another bag to look forward to and Labour has another £19 to fight the Tories with. That's a Win-Win.

21 November 2014

Girlfriends at the Union Theatre was a very musical musical

The first two shows in the Howard Goodall season at the Union Theatre, the dreaming and Love Story, were very lovely and so I made sure that I got to see the final show, Girlfriends.

Not unusually (sadly) the best that my careful planning could do was the final Friday evening of the run. At least the planning was good enough to get me a seat for the show which sold out soon afterwards.

I was able to work in London that day and that was a big help. I can get back to London from Reading in time for evening performances but that is fraught with risks (delayed trains etc.) and allows little time for food. The people in the pasty shop on Reading Station are starting to recognise me. So it was nice to be able to hop on a 63 bus which took me straight from Kings Cross to Southwark Station.

My plan was to dive into the nearest pub to get some food (and a beer!) but the nearest ones were several people deep outside and looked busier than the average rush hour tube inside. Slightly worried I walked away from the station along Union Street toward the theatre and was delighted to find The Union Jack opposite. It was busy but there was enough space to get inside and I managed to get a table towards the back. The food was excellent, well price and delivered with great care. I'll be back.

Having got used to how the Union Theatre works, I collected my ticket from the box office when it opened at 6:30pm before going to the pub. There was a short queue already but I was able to secure ticket number 10 which meant that I would be in the first group let in. Job done.

Entering the Union Theatre is rather like entering Narnia from a wardrobe and it always takes a moment or two to make sense of the layout after entering from the darkness. This time the stage was set up almost traditionally with all the seats arranged in three rows along the left-hand side. I was first in and eagerly grabbed the middle seat in the front row.

Girlfriends, as the poster honestly suggested, was the story of a group of women in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during WWII. This premise made for an unusual musical with ten female voices and only two men (pilots). These were used to good effect and there was a lot of group singing throughout the show.

There was also a lot of group movement, like squad bashing, and the choreography was a defining feature of the show. This came to a delightful head in a duet between one of the girls and a pilot that was a neat mix of dancing and acting (while singing), i.e. the dance helped to tell the story rather than just being there for decoration.

That story was a fairly simple one of an assortment of young women thrown together, for different reasons, during the war and of two young men who faced the high possibility of death every time they took to the skies. The women reacted and adjusted differently to the situation and there were several running plot lines about their personal lives, such as the Scottish woman who was desperate to go home when she heard about the bombing of Glasgow.

The simple plot left space for the music and movement, space which they gleefully filled. Good music does not need a plot, as Tristan und Isolde proves. There is always a balance between the various components of a musical or opera but that does not mean that they all need to have the same weight, only that the total weight is enough to satisfy the intellect and the soul. Girlfriends got it right.

One thing that I did find a little hard to get used to was that all the women wore identical uniforms and they all had identical 40's hairstyles so it was hard for me to tell some of them apart! I caught myself looking for distinguishing features in hands and legs.

The music was the, by then, familiar Howard Goodall sound with lots of catchy well-structured tunes that were repeated in snatches as themes to the story and also to improve their familiarity. It's a simple trick and it worked (again).

While there were clearly, and expectedly, some musical similarities between the three shows they proved to be a colourful combination; Girlfriends had a large group of women, Love Story was about one couple and the dreaming had a large and diverse cast of characters. That variety helped to make the Howard Goodall Season the success that it was.

Girlfriends was a fitting finale to the excellent season that was only let down by being so short! I was completely unaware of Howard Goodall's musicals beforehand but now I will make more of an effort to seek them out.

20 November 2014

An emotional musical tale that has lasted twenty years

Music has played an important part in my life for many years, much of which is reflected in this blog, because it has the power to do things with memory that not much else can.

Correspondences by The Tea Party is a case in point.

Back in 1993 when The Tea Party's second album (that's twenty years ago!) Splendor Solis came out I was buying all my vinyl from the imaginatively named The Record Shop in Fife Road, as did everybody else. I can remember clearly going in to the shop and hearing something playing that I really liked, asking the long-haired man behind the counter who it was and being told that it was The Tea Party and they were a mix of The Doors and Led Zeppelin. I bought the album and agreed with his description.

And two years later I bought their next album, the edge of twilight. The cover says it all really, you do not need to hear the album to know what it sounds like.

For some weeks the anthem Correspondences fuelled my daily dashes down to Winchester where I was working at the time. The lyrics chimed with my circumstances and the music was very powerful. I sang along very loudly and felt much better for doing so.

Then other music came along and, apart from the occasional flash-back, that was it. Until tonight.

One of the bands playing at the Grey Horse Open Mic Night did a song that reminded of the Tea Party and thanks to the technologies in my pocket, iPhone with iTunes, I was able to download Correspondences immediately. Being a cheapskate I paid 79p for a live version from 2012 rather than 99p for the original. The live version is also a little longer at 8:19 minutes.

I've played it three times so far this evening.

19 November 2014

Open Mic Night at the Grey Horse (19 November 14)

My walks home from Kingston often include a slight detour to the Grey Horse and that is how I found myself there on this Wednesday evening. I was hoping that it was an Open Mic Night, and it was.

The set up was much the same as ever and that is no bad thing. One slight change was that the pub ran out of Young's Ordinary after my first pint and I had to move on to the Naked Ladies, which was fine.

The music was fine too. Having popped in for a quick pint I ended up having a slow three to enjoy more of the music and to talk to more people. It was another jolly evening and I will miss them when the Grey Horse comes under "new management" in the new year.

Discovering art on the Caledonian Road

It has been a while since I have had the opportunity or the time to go for a lunchtime walk around our Kings Place office and I was not intending to do so this day either but the Kings Place Gallery was being used for an event so I was forced outside.

At first I headed for the obvious place, Central Saint Martins, where the cranes were busy on the next stage of work that that will include a Waitrose and a Cookery School. I'll have to wait until late 2015 to see what that looks like.

From there I headed for the disused York Road tube station. I hope that features in the redevelopment plans for the area and it would make my journey to work easier if it were to reopen as a Piccadilly Line station.

I could have walked straight down York Way to the office but I was enjoying my rare time outside so I went along Copenhagen Street instead.

Where Copenhagen Streets meets Caledonian Road I found this work of art. It was in the tarmaced area around a block of flats on the corner. Some of the space on the ground floor had been converted to an arts club and I presume that they were responsible for the work; local art by local people for local people.

Buoyed by my artistic discovery I ended my lunchtime stroll by heading down the scruffy Caledonian Road and then along the tranquil Regent's Canal back to Kings Place.

It was a short but good walk and I've learned a lesson from it. I need to get out more.

18 November 2014

Glare at the Linbury Studio Theatre was as strange as I expected, and hoped

I am starting to love the programme of new opera at the Linbury Studio Theatre. That is mostly because it is edgy but it also helps that the theatre is excellent (comfortable seating with good views and acoustics) and that it is reasonably priced.

This is in stark contrast to the Royal Opera House upstairs which I think of as safe, old and prohibitively expensive. Yes, Glyndebourne is expensive too but going there is an event not just a concert.

That means that I am tempted to take a punt on something that I do not know, as was the case with Glare. I chose a seat in Row M again (M16) which set me back a miserly £25.

Getting to the theatre on time proved to be something of a challenge and ended with me walking out of Tuttons, the brasserie across the road, without paying my bill. This was because having failed to deliver all of the food in time then they failed to deliver the bill at all despite several desperate attempts to get one from various members of staff. Finally, having stood by the door in my coat for a few minutes I simply walked out.

The next curious incident was inside the theatre where an odd looking contraption was occupying a seat near me. Questioning revealed that it was a collection of sensors (volume, heat, humidity, etc.) used to assess the audience's environment.

Following all that the opera was almost normal.

Well, as normal as any opera that begins with a man dumping a body into a dumpster could be.

The story revolved around a young man and his passionate relationships with women, he had recently left one for another.

A twist comes when a friend suggests that he could try an android and we are asked to think whether his previous girlfriend was one and that was a machine that we saw being dumped. Later his friend suggested that androids were still some years away making us think again about what we had witnessed. We also met the old girl friend so who or what was that in the dumpster? It was all nicely ambiguous.

Despite the inherent uncertainty in the plot there was a coherence that propelled it forward through a series of strong scenes, many of which were set in his bedroom (front-left of the stage) and were quite raunchy. These scenes let us explore the in-the-now aspects of relationships while the twisting story showed how quickly and confusingly these nows can change, and how little influence we usually have over them.

The music was surprisingly traditional with a layer of unusual sounds on top, rather like the way Hawkwind use electronics to turn Rock into Space Rock. The songs were mostly conversations so there were a lot of duets. I liked all of the voices too. One one listening I am struggling to describe the music, and lack the formal vocabulary to do so, but what I can say is it was melodic and was structured as a series of reasonably long pieces; that is what I meant by traditional.

Glare was a very strong opera that entertained gloriously. More like that please.

14 November 2014

Cans at Theatre503 was funny, intelligent and dark

Theatre503 in Battersea has become important to me through the sheer quality of the plays that I have seen there, all of which have been intelligent and absorbing.

It also helps that it is just a short hop from home and is situated above a pub. That is particularly helpful when trying to squeeze another play into a busy schedule as it does not take that much time away from other things, like ironing, and the evening is that much less tiring. And so it was that I was able to go there on a Friday evening to see Cans.

I went to the pub first and played with some cheese and beer, both good though I could have done with more biscuits to go with the cheese, before climbing the awkward stairs up to the theatre. I was first person up there (intentionally) and that ensured that I got my favourite seat in the middle of the front row. There I sat looking at two empty chairs in a garage.

The chairs were soon filled by a young woman (played by Jennifer Clement) and her uncle (Graham O’Mara) who were busily engaged in the act of drowning mice that had been caught in humane traps.

The language and subject matters were fruity from the start and their dialogue employed both the F and the C Scatter Bombs. Like Shakespearean English that took a moment or two to get used to but quickly seemed natural.

The garage had belong to the girl's father and the man's brother, who had recently died. He had been a chat show host, had been knighted and had climbed Mount Everest in a Yeti suit for Children In Need, but had also been hit by scandal and had apparently killed himself despite protesting his innocence. There were many direct references to recent scandals and that helped to give the play an immediacy.

We quickly learned a lot about the woman and the man, and the dead man too, as they cleared the garage, though the woman shrugged off the question from the man about her personal shaving habits, it was that sort of thing they talked about.

Cans was just the sort of dark comedy that I love in that parts of it were really dark and other parts were really funny. The dark parts included the woman talking about abuse she had had at university and the funny parts included the man's ability to conjure cans of cider from various parts of the garage.

Their conversations took place over several months during which things happened outside of the garage as the dead man's affairs unravelled. That made the future as uncertain as the past. Things reached a point where some decisions had to be and the play addressed that with a clever ending that I am not going to spoil.

Reading the reviews now (I never read them before going) I see words like "intelligent", "humane" and "complex", all of which I agree with. I also see a consensus around four stars which I would agree with if I did stars.

The evening ended well as I met the cast (both of them) afterwards and was able to tell them personally how much I enjoyed their performance and it was good to hear from them that they liked having people in the front row as they could not see much beyond that.

Cans is my sort of play and Theatre503 is my sort of theatre.

13 November 2014

The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre had me laughing all the way

The Rivals is the only play that I can remember studying at school, though I cannot remember what that studying taught me. I'm sure that we did lots of Shakespeare too but I cannot recall which ones.

Depressingly, almost the only clear image I have from five years of studying Eng. Lit. (I passed!) was sitting by the window in Mrs Vickery's class identifying malapropisms in The Rivals, a task made easier for me by a previous owner of my text book who had underlined them all.

If that tender memory was not enough to make me see the show then staging it at the Arcola was.

I had planned to work in London that day and to walk to the Arcola, it's a pleasant 45 minute stroll, but work took me to Reading instead and I had to leave promptly to catch the bus to Reading Station, train to Paddington, Hammersmith and City line to King’s Cross St. Pancras, Victoria line to Highbury and Islington and, finally, the London Overground to Dalston Kingsland. It all worked well and I was in the comfortable Arcola Bar in good time for a bottle of red beer and a roll that had humus in it.

Getting drinks was bit of a problem all evening as whenever I asked for a Red they unaccountably reached for the wine and I had to remind then that I drink beer.

The Arcola's new policy of allocated seating (still not sure about that one) meant that I could take my time over my food and drink and did not have to worry about the lengthening queues for the theatre. The policy also meant that I was in the corner of the stage in seat A2 (there was no A1, which confused me) as I was late booking and had to choose between a more central position or a closer one. The front row always wins that contest. At £18 the seat was a bargain.

Some of the cast were milling about the stage area as we went in and they talked to some of us. This was a little weird as the conversation I had was with the actor not the character, we talked about the theatre and we agreed that Visitors was excellent.

The Rivals was a hoot from the beginning mainly thanks to the silly characters though the twisting plot helped too.

The rivals in love were very unusual. In one relationship they were the same man assuming two identities, in another the rivalry was a fiction created by one of the couple to tease and test the other, one man's rival was his inner devil that could not accept that his lady really loved him and another relationship that should have led to rivalry did not because the man's letters were being diverted to another woman. That may sound a bit complicated, and it was a little, but it did not take long to get in to the characters and their relationships.

The production included lots of audience interaction, always a good thing (even in the blood-strewn Sweeney Todd), and we were asked to hold on to cloaks when no pegs were available, to hide books, to help one character back on his feet after a failed dance move and the group of young women next to me were hit upon by one of the sillier men.

There were many other nice touches too, like the music during some of the (limited) scene changes, the stage hand who frankly lost interest in spreading leaves on the stage and the actor playing two parts who had to throw himself out of the room, which he did noisily.

But, as I said earlier, it was the characters that made most of the comedy and there were many of them and they were all good. The ones that made me laugh the most (an entirely personal and subjective view) were Lydia Languish a wealthy teenage heiress in love with Ensign Beverley/Jack Absolute (the same man), Sir Anthony Absolute a wealthy baronet and Jack's father, and Faulkland a friend of Jack Absolute. All three had me stitches throughout due to their ridiculous posturing and the brilliant faux-overacting by their players.

Their thoughts and actions were not that out of place today and that helped the humour greatly as that helped us to appreciate and relate to what they were feeling.

The Rivals was a very funny play delivered intelligently and lovingly. It was sold out for a good reason and the loud cheering during the curtain calls confirmed this.

12 November 2014

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

Another month, another BCSA "Get to Know You" Social, another good evening.

The ingredients were much the same as usual. My chosen food, Smazeny Syr, was the least surprising thing and the waiter had written my choice down before I told him what it was. I started the evening on the usual Pilsner Urquell but managed to vary from the plan by getting a special Pilsner Urquell glass (pictured) rather than the usual jug.

The mix of people was much the same too though I was glad that we spent more time talking in English this month. The mix included some regulars, e.g. Lubo and Ruzena, as well as some people joining us for the first or second time. This mix is one of the reasons that these evenings work so well.

The only negative part of the evening was hearing how one of the people there was being subjected to some racial harassment having moved slightly out of London to a town where foreign nationals are not commonplace.

The other conversations were more positive and the evening flew past. I am not sure why the bar closes at 10:30pm (what did happen to the 24 hour drinking that Tony Blair promised us?) but that is probably a good thing as it takes me just over an hour to get home from them.

And, as usual, I went home happy and invigorated. The BCSA "Get to Know You" Socials are simple in idea and execution and yet they always manage to be a lot of fun. I like fun.

9 November 2014

I managed to escape the home office to take a walk across Ham Common

This was a sunny Sunday and I was almost house-bound with a work deliverable due by 9am on the Monday morning (I was not impressed with the client for coming up with that idea!) but the lure of the sunshine and the desire for some fresh air and some limb stretching was just too much temptation for me to resist, so I popped out for an hour or so just before the Sun gave up for the day.

Before it went to bed, the Sun produced bright colours and long shadows to give the familiar place a different look.

The avenue of trees here continues for almost a mile until it meets the back gates of Ham House. Along the way it uses some interesting names, including Melancholy Walk which always seems very inappropriate as it is a lovely place.

8 November 2014

Christmas lights on Oxford Street 2014

I never go out of my way to see Christmas decorations and so it is always a pleasant surprise when I come across some that make an impact. This does not happen that often but I did like the displays in Carnaby Street in 2007 and 2009.

This year it was Oxford Street that impressed.

I was there for musical reasons (Hawklords at the 100 Club) and had to walk along Oxford Street (never a good idea) to get to/from the tube. The battle through the slow pedestrians moving in Brownian Motion was eased by the bright display above.

I particularly liked the way that the lights were deliberately not arranged in rows and so they looked like a lot of fairly lights falling slowly to the ground. Or invading spaceships.

Hawklords at the 100 Club

I had seen several bands that had grown out of Hawkwind, including Space Ritual and Psychedelic Warlords, as well as several Hawkwind tribute bands like Hoaxwind, but I had never seen Hawklords before.

I had the opportunity to rectify that mistake when they played the 100 Club on the last night of their Infinite Loop tour.

I was not sure what to expect as I knew that they wrote their own music and would obviously be playing a lot of this. What I did not know was how much Hawkwind they would also play, if any. In the end it did not matter very much as there was a common feel to all the songs that they played; I just assumed that the ones I recognised were by Hawkwind and the rest by Hawklords.

I took my usual position at the front and to the left of the stage early on and managed to maintain a good view throughout the concert despite a few incursions by enthusiastic alcohol-fuelled dancers. What I did not know until the band came on was that my chosen position would place me more or less next to lead guitarist Jerry Richards.

Jerry was a revelation!

I knew of Jerry from his Space Ritual days and then he was a timid bass player who hid at the back except when called on for a few vocals. I recall speaking to him briefly once at one of the Notting Hill gigs (in 2009, probably) when he went to the bar to ask for a cup of tea, which he almost apologised for. Here he played lead guitar like a proper lead guitarist. His intricate playing added texture to the music and his bent-knee stance made him look the part.

The other key ingredient for the sound was Harvey Bainbridge keyboards which he played almost motionless in the comparative dark on the far-left of the stage. Not everybody wants to play the rock star.

The line up was completed by Ron Tree on vocals, a ridiculously young bassist and a drummer. If Hawklords had a decent website I could tell you who they were.

The Hawklords album from 1978 was celebrated with a version of Flying Doctor and the other Hawkwind songs that I recognised were (mostly) from this period if not this album. One of my highlights of the show was a spacey instrumental that somehow morphed into Uncle Sam's on Mars from PXR5 (1979).

Adding to the evening was a suitably psychedelic light show. I know the music is the important thing but a good light show always helps and the lack of one is my main complaint against the Borderline.

The few manic dancers aside, everybody was well behaved and there was a good atmosphere in the audience, as there always is when everybody if having a good time. And everybody did have a very good time. All the music, be it by Hawkwind or Hawklords was excellent, and was delivered in a style that was all Hawklords.

Unsurprisingly, Hawklords have now been added to my must-see list of bands.

6 November 2014

Made in Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre was good but lacked heart

Made in Dagenham was another of those musicals that I was tempted to go to by the offer of a cheap seat via work. The ticket pricing went something like this; the face value was £60.50 (!), the group discount brought this down to £39.50 and my company's subsidy lowered it further down to £20. At that price I did not have to think about the cost/benefit, at £60 I would not have gone.

Group bookings are never the best seats, though they are usually reasonable, and this time I was in the Stalls a little way back and to one side. My view of the stage was fine.

Unusually I knew something of the plot this time as it was based on a true story though I knew nothing of the details so most of the story was new to me.

Perhaps it was because I saw it earlier in the year but the first thought that came to was The Pyjama Game, another musical set around a workplace dispute over money. It's a comparison that Made in Dagenham never quite lived up to.

A lot about Made in Dagenham was good and it was a very well constructed musical in all departments. The tunes were good and were repeated, the set did interesting things (it reminded me of Matilda in that respect), the cast were lively and well choreographed and there were some good jokes (and some bad ones).

Some of the deviations from the true surprised story surprised and worried me and, for example, I found nothing clever or funny in the pantomime version of Harold Wilson and I thought that having him devalued the core story by making it less real.

While the play was brilliant technically but, like the Tin Man, it lacked heart. While I was very sympathetic to the cause of the women collectively I cared little for the strained marriage of the leading lady and even less about her colleague who died.

I had a minor gripe at the end when they tried to sell the success of the ladies of Ford Dagenham in saying that they helped to end unequal pay for women when it has not ended, it is just disguised better.

Even with these faults, the technical excellent of the production meant that it was thoroughly entertaining and I expect it to run for a long time.

I've fallen in love with Tooth And Claw already

This is another good example when lots of digital things came together to my great benefit.

Digital comics have become important to me, more so than the paper ones now, because of the ease of discovery, purchase and reading. Playing a big role in this are Image Comics and I now read seven of their titles regularly, which is about the same number that I read from Marvel.

One of the many ease of use features of digital comics is that I can browse new titles on my iPad from the comfort of my armchair or bed. All of the big brands (Image, Marvel, Vertigo, etc.) have their own stores that show new issues and then there is ComiXology which shows all those and the smaller brands (e.g. Oni Press, Boom!) too. Finding new comics to read has never been easier.

Of course that does not mean that everything is perfect and it is still quite possible to miss good book, the cover and summary description are not always enough to tell you what you need to know. For example it took me a while to plunge into Sage and I also overlooked Tooth and Claw initially.

The main way that I find new comics to read is via recommendations on Twitter. I follow several people in the comics and most of the main brands who are very good, understandably, at retweeting good reviews that they get. It was a Tweet linking to a review that made me buy Tooth and Claw #1.

I had looked at it briefly when it came out and the author's name, Kurt Busiek, lept out at me as I had loved his run on Marvel's The Avengers at the turn of the century that had ended with the Kang Dynasty saga, but that was not enough at the time ot make me add another title to my reading list. Then the review came and I bought the first issue.

Tooth and Claw is beautiful.

It is a full-blown fantasy story in the swords and sorcery vein (mostly sorcery so far) with animalistic characters.

In the introductory forty four pages we are introduced to a new world facing a major problem and a host of characters. The problem is that magic is fading and ambitions plans are made to bring it back but these go wrong and everything changes.

The story sets off a lot of threads and seems to have ambitions of being as complex and compelling as Game of Thrones, and it has the advantage of being able to invent more fantastical things as it is not constrained by physical places and people.

I was quickly hooked to the story by its freshness and I fell in love with it because of Ben Dewey's art. You can see for yourself just how good it is. I love the detail that he puts in and the way that he constructs his pages. The story flows at the right pace and in the right direction. It's an effortless and pleasant read, as it should be.

The rest of the team play their parts well too. Jordie Bellaire's colours give depth and mood to the art. This one example shows the first, not the later which is achieved by applying different washes to different panels. John Roshell's lettering is clear and unobtrusive, and I like the way that it is in mixed case rather than the uppercase that is the rule in superhero comics.

Everything about this comic is fantastic and I am completely hooked.

2 November 2014

Rosie Wyatt was magnificent in Spine at the Soho Theatre

I often pick my theatre on the flimsiest of reasons because I have to make quick decisions on which ones to see from the myriad of temptations. The main reason for going to see Spine was that it starred Rossie Wyatt who had impressed me in Blink at the start of the year.

Rosie also impressed the audiences for Spine at the Edinburgh Festival where she picked up some acting awards.

I like the Soho Theatre too so my flimsy reason was starting to look pretty strong.

Not for the first time, the only performance that I could make was the final one and that meant driving back to Kingston from Dorset on a Sunday afternoon and then taking the bus/train/tube to Oxford Circus.

I got to the theatre in time to get a beer before positioning myself strategically by the door where the queue is always more of a huddle than a line. That good positioning and alertness meant that I was the second person up the stairs, the young lady who ran past me was obviously even keener than I was. It was a long way up to as we were in the rehearsal space on the top floor, Soho Upstairs, which is where we had been for Blink. The lady's rush was somewhat unnecessary and I sat next to her in the middle of the front-row in the central block.

Confronting me was a simple set adorned with piles of books. That was my first clue as to what Spine could be about.

Once everybody was settled in to the packed room, it was pleasingly sold out, Rosie walked on stage dressed casually and started to tell us her story. She was Amy a young woman with a difficult past, involving men and crime, and a brain.

Feeding that brain was pensioner Glenda (who we never saw) whose house this was with all the books.

Amy was the only character in the play and she spoke directly to us.

Her story swept swiftly from moments to simple humour (well, I found the idea of Glenda's husband dying while looking at a lingerie catalogue amusing) to darker times arguing with her family and committing burglaries with her boyfriend. Rosie captured these changing moods precisely with her voice and her loud body language.

Amy's story was, obviously, a reflection of the society that she lived in and this gave the play a welcome political edge. Glenda was particularly angry at the closure of libraries and Amy was unable to find a decent job.

The personal and the political stories combined to produce an ending that while quite predictable was also very satisfying.

Clara Brennan's play was clever, human and engrossing and Rosie's magnificent acting made it deeply personal and completely immersive. It was absolutely marvellous and easily worth all the effort it took to get there. My only regret was that Rosie disappeared at the end before I could tell her personally how much I had enjoyed her performance.

Spine was that good that I am tingling writing about it a few weeks later.

1 November 2014

Imelda Staunton shines in Gypsy at Chichester Festival Theatre

Gypsy was another musical that I got dragged to because friends who live in Chichester wanted to see it and I was interested enough to give it a go.

I booked it some time in advance for a time that looked convenient (an empty Saturday afternoon) and then my diary filled up with a foreign holiday that finished on the Friday and a trip down to Weymouth on the Sunday. That made the trip to Chichester a flying one.

Reasonably prompt booking got me a good seat (Stalls C47) at a good price (£25) for a performance that was sold out, as much of the run had been.

I knew even less about Gypsy than I do about most of the shows that I go to. When booking I knew that it was by Sondheim and on the day I learnt that it was about Gypsy Rose Lee. And I thought that it might have been based on Carmen!

The arrangements at the Festival Theatre were significantly different from my previous visit and this time the orchestra was in a pit at the front of the stage. I do not know whether that is common practice there but I had mixed feelings about it; it helped the music but took the front of the stage out of play and made it more like a normal proscenium stage rather than a thrust stage.

The staging was bit of a problem throughout. I was just about OK in my seat, you can see the view I had below, but those more to the sides than me, and there were about ten seats to my left, would have missed some of the action. This production may have started at the Festival Theatre but it had clearly been designed for the London stage with a transfer in mind.

The story of Gypsy was a fairly simple one. A showbiz family with a reasonably popular vaudeville act, something like the Partridge Family, struggled to survive as fashions changed and the children grew up.

Driving the family and trying to keep the show on the road was their mother, Rose, played by Imelda Staunton.Somewhere along the way she picked up a man, Herbie played (unexpectedly) by Kevin Whately.

Gypsy Rose Lee only emerged from the act toward the end of the play and then by accident.  Gypsy was the story of how Gypsy Rose Lee was created and, as such, was a story about her mother, Rose. It was almost a one woman show.

And what a woman. Imelda Staunton was absolutely blistering as Rose as she rode the ups and downs of both a struggling showbiz life and a difficult family life. She could sing too. In one of her more optimistic moments she sang, Everything's Coming up Roses, the one song that I recognised.

I found Gypsy to be a fairly slight musical that was light on plot and on memorable music and it may even have been a disappointment if not for Imelda Staunton who made it something special with her mesmerising performance.