30 August 2014

Guys and Dolls at Chichester Festival Theatre was a treat

This is probably the point that I ought to stop saying that I do not go to musicals generally as I seem to have been to rather a lot of them recently and even went as far as Chichester to see this one.

Guys and Dolls was similar to the last two musicals that I saw, Carousel and The Pyjama Game, in that I did not know it very much (if at all) beforehand but I was tempted by its reputation to give it a try.

This was only my second visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre, the previous one was in 1987 to see Wilde's An Ideal Husband with Joanna Lumley. Another visit was overdue.

Apparently the theatre had been refurbished since my previous visit but I had little recollection of what it had looked so comparisons were difficult.

The cafe was popular and I was lucky to get a seat. I would normally have stood but I needed to have something to eat and a vast slice of cake did the treat. The weather was good so a lot of people milled around outside which they must have been expected to do as the space inside was limited, and the seats even more so.

I had remembered that the stage and seating were arranged unusually and they still were. The stage had seating on three sides and the seating was arranged in oddly shaped sections around it.

The stage itself was more horse-shoe shaped than rectangular which helped to explain the unusual seating arrangement.

A late booking meant that the four of us were spread a little as I had had to book four separate seats, B40, B43, C47 and D50, all at £25 each. D50 turned out to be directly behind C47 and the couple sitting in B41/42 moved one seat along to allow us to take B40/41, so it all worked out rather well. This is the view I has looking towards the back of the stage waiting for the show to start.

I was there on the recommendation of one of the friends that I went with and knew nothing of the show beforehand other than having heard of it. I had not heard to the author, Frank Loesser, either. I was relying a lot on that recommendation.

Guys and Dolls was a neat little story of those perennial wars between goodies and baddies and, not surprisingly given the title, men and women.

The baddies were gamblers looking to take part in a large illegal Craps game and the goodies were the local chapter of the Salvation Army keen to recruit these lost souls to their cause.

The main players in the men v women battle were the man trying to organise the Craps game and his fiancee who were taking a rather long time to get to the altar, and the second pair were a top gambler and a young Salvation Army officer who came from different worlds but found themselves attracted to each other.

Adding to the tension were some seriously hard gamblers who would take very unkindly to the Craps game not taking place as planned and a local policeman keen to catch them all in the act. And then there was the senior Salvation Army officer looking to close that section down as it was not making any progress.

These tensions brought a lot of humour and the two main relationships added tenderness to the equation. So, despite the gangsters and ruffians, this was a light and happy story. The only song from the show that I knew, the uplifting "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat", was typical of the mood of the show.

That good mood was maintained by fine singing, good acting and a slick production that kept the story moving at a healthy pace with just a few props being used to define each location. It was all very professional in a good way.

The story duly reached its happy endings to the delight of the packed audience who had been thrilled with the spectacle. It was a jolly fine way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

J D Fergusson and more at Pallant House Gallery

I've been to Chichester many many times, not least for my wedding, but it is not a town that I have ever explored, apart from some of the pubs. And so it was that it took me over thirty years to get around to visiting the Pallant House Gallery.

I rectified that mistake when returning to the town to see a show at the Chichester Festival Theatre. It was a matinee performance and that gave me a couple of hours for the gallery and some lunch.

I first went to the second floor of the new extension (above). This was a typical modern gallery space with white walls and subtle artificial lighting.

The collection was varied in style and subject and among the busy collection there were quite a few things that I liked, such as the large painting on the far right which captured the violence of the Dorset sea brilliantly.

Most of the second floor was given over to an exhibition by John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961) who was one of the pioneers of modern art in Britain. I know that now because I went to the exhibition, I had not heard of him previously.

Is art was very varied and very influenced, especially by French painters like Cézanne. Some of it meant absolutely nothing to me but two sets of paintings I liked a lot.

The exhibition was spread over half a dozen rooms, each covering a period of his life that was busy spent moving between Britain and France. Each period has its own style/s and so each room in the exhibition was quite different. I did not spend much time in the one full of portraits.

There were several bold pictures of health men and women enjoying the sun of the French Riviera. These had a simplicity of compositions that while focused on the figures also had interesting shapes in the background. I loved the simplicity, colour and serenity of these.

The other set of pictures that I liked were those with a distinctly Impressionist edge to them both in composition and theme.

These were much smaller pictures too, around A4 size, and I had to stand quite close to them to appreciate them. They made nothing like the impact that the large portraits did.

And the large portrait that made the most impact was this one.

A lunchtime spent Googling for "nude woman" failed to find its name but may have hurt my career prospects. Strangely it did not appear when searching simply for images by Fergusson either so my posting it here may be something of an internet first. I find that odd as it was stunning, despite not being strictly anatomically accurate.

I found Fergusson very much hit and miss. That was fine as I could just walk past the misses and there were plenty of hits to keep me happy.

The other displays in the gallery were even more hit and miss. These were in the original Pallant House and part of the attraction was visiting the old rooms that were laid out in period style. These were quite small rooms (especially when compared to the new gallery extension) and so the displays were small too, often just three or four objects or paintings. It had something of the random feel that the V&A does so well.

One of the pleasant surprises was this drawing by Henry Moore. I did not even know that he had done drawings. I like the way that this picture has the simplicity of his famous statues but with the unexpected burst of detail in the faces. It was good to see drawings by the likes of John Piper too.

Another pleasant surprise was that the "no cameras" rule had been abandoned only the previous week. Discovering this I went back through the galleries quickly to add to the photos that I had taken guiltily earlier.

When on holiday I make a point of visiting modern art galleries and I am almost always delighted with what I discover. The Pallant House Gallery showed me that I can to that at home too.

29 August 2014

Return to the Voice at Battersea Arts Centre was reassuringly haunting

The Battersea Arts Centre is my sort of place, I just wish that it was a little closer. The main hall is host to a wickedly diverse range of shows, I've not been to a "normal" play there yet, and the lovely building also has a welcoming bar area that is the ideal place to go before a show. This time I had a beer and a burger both of which hit the required spots.

I was there to see Return to the Voice, which I had forgotten was a concert. What attracted me to it was the promise of a work inspired by ancient Gaelic and Scottish music, including laments for death and love, psalms and songs of exile. It helped that the group behind it were called Song of the Goat Theatre and they came from Poland.

Every show I've seen at Battersea has been different and so has the seating arrangement. This time it was surprisingly standard with normal chairs laid in slightly curved rows on the flat hall floor facing the raised stage. No racked theatre seating for this one. I managed to grab a decent chair in about the fourth row just to the right of centre.

The show opened with a solo song presented from the platform built at the front of the stage. They were joined musically by a solo musician playing something like a Uilleann pipe, i.e. a small single pipe fed from a bag inflated with bellows.

Then the other singers. I did not count them very carefully but I think that there were ten of them, five men and five women. They sang a series of short ballads, mostly a cappella, in a language that I did not recognise, not that that mattered. What did matter was the mood of the music and that was as lyrical and haunting as I had hoped it would be. I am not at all familiar with modern Gaelic music so the only near comparison I can give is Enya.

There were a succession of songs, each I would guess at around the standard album track length of four minutes. There was a lot of group singing, some more soloists and the pipes made a reappearance too. There was even some movement but nothing like enough to be called dancing, it was more a readjustment of the pieces on the stage as the music changed.

It was well off my usual beaten track musically but I enjoyed it immensely none-the-less. Perhaps it was my Irish heritage reminding me that it was there.

Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern

Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern was probably THE "must see" exhibition of the Summer in London and despite being fully aware of this is still took me until almost the end of its long run to find the time to go to see it. And then I had to take a day off and combine it with an evening event to make space for it.

I went in with few preconceptions as I claim no great knowledge of painting and while I had heard of Matisse I could not name anything by him or even describe his style.

My original plan was to go there for 2pm but when I went to buy tickets that morning the earliest slot that I could get was at 4pm, so I went for that. That still left plenty of time for the exhibition before moving on to the theatre, even allowing two and a half hours for the tour, which was how long Paul Klee took last year.

I arrived not long after 3pm, as intended, and started with a coffee and some cake in preparation for spending a long time on my feet.

The exhibition opened by showing how Matisse got in to cut-outs almost by accident. He first used them to plan his paintings, e.g. when doing a still-life he could arrange the objects on the canvass to see how best to position them. From there they grew to become the picture. This step was encouraged when ill health made painting difficult.

Being cut-outs there was a strong physical element to the work even though they were two-dimensional. Looking at the pieces carefully revealed  the many pin holes created as the pieces were tried in different positions, the way that the pictures will built up with layers of colour and the way that the pieces of paper were cut and torn to work and rework the shapes.

Broadly speaking there were two kinds of work, those that relied solely on shape and colour, such as the large piece above and those that portrayed something physical, such as the work on the right.

This is The Creole Dancer from 1950 when Matisse was 81, he died just three years later. It stood an impressive 2m tall by just over 1m wide and grabbed my attention. It was my favourite piece by some distance.

What the exhibition made up for in scale of the works it lacked in the variety. There was no great progression in Matisse's style and little change in his subject matter. It was not quite "if you've seen one, you've seen them all" but the familiarity between the works made it a quicker journey than it was for Paul Klee. I had allowed two and a half hours and it took one and a half. That was still a fair chunk of time and it was still a good exhibition, it just paled a little in comparison to Klee.

That comparison continued in to the shop which was packed with Matisse goods (I pushed the boat out and bought a postcard of The Creole Dancer) but at the end of the Klee run it looked like Old Mother Hubard's cupboard.

The slight misgivings were only slight and Matisse Cut-Outs was a jolly fine exhibition. It was informative, engaging and, at times, striking.

28 August 2014

Wasteland by Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten

Wasteland was another step in my continued immersion in to the world of digital comics. I had been aware of the title for some time and while I had helped myself to the free first issue (something that I often do) I had gone no further. There was nothing "wrong" with the title it was just that I had so many other titles waiting to be read, as I always do.

And then ComiXology had a snap sale.

This is a common tactic of theirs and it obviously works. It made me buy some Batman books that I already had and it made me buy some issues of Wasteland too. There are over fifty issues now but I managed to restrain myself to just six, to complete the first story arc and also get the free-standing issue #7.

This is what the first seven issues look like on my iPad.

The big appeal was the creative team of Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten, the guys behind Umbral. Antony Johnston also write The Fuse that I also read.

The first thing to notice is that Wasteland is black and white. I am comfortable with this having been brought up on British comics and also having read several Marvel black and white magazines in the late 70's when Rudy Nebres was a hero of mine. Incidentally, that is also when and where Star Lord made his début.

Wasteland is a post-apocalyptic story set in the heart of America after the Big Wet which destroyed civilisation and left the remaining people living in small towns and villages with technology from the middle-ages. It has the frontier feel of a cowboy story set somewhere in the south-west.

That sort of reminded me of A Canticle for Leibowitz but only for the setting, not the story.

One of the main players in Wasteland is Michael, pictured here. He is a loner, a scavenger and it is his desert-smarts that help to keep a small group of other survivors/settlers alive.

The other main player (so far) is a mad-king type, Marcus, who runs the town Newbegin. This is the biggest settlement that we have seen so far.

Then there are the Sunners and the Sandeaters. There is a lot going on in this story!

I chose this interior page to illustrate the art work because it is so dramatic. Its layout is not typical though and most pages are constructed from square panels in an irregular grid. Each page looks different as the panels change shape and position to match the flow of the story.

The first story-arc completes nicely but also leaves open lots of threads that I am sure are developed in future issues. Not least is the mystery of the Big Wet and the machine in a trader's store that Michael found that may help to solve this.

It is tempting to plunge in and read the other fifty-odd issues but I have one issue with the comic. The type used in the lettering is slightly indistinct in the digital editions and that makes it somewhat hard for me to read. I can read it but slower and with more effort than I would like. It could be that reading glasses would help but I do not need them for any other digital comics so there is something about Wasteland that is causing the problem for me.

That is only a minor gripe and I am sure that I will be back for more Wasteland before too long to find out what happens next and also what happened previously.

The Long Walk*

I have done variants of this walk a few times but, for various reasons, last did one in 2008 (one of the reasons that I do this blog is so that I can keep a record of what I have done when).

This time the walk started at Vauxhall just because that seemed an interesting place to start and that is where the train stopped, and it did not stop at Queen's Town Road Battersea where I have started some of the previous walks.

There is a complex of flats and offices to the west of Vauxhall Bridge that almost mimics the MI5 building on the east side.

The flats are on the north side of the block facing the river and the offices are on the south side facing the bus and railway stations. Lambeth Council had some offices there when I worked for them and I visited them a few times. This time though I marched straight past following the Thames Path west towards home.

The first part of the walk is the part that I find the most interesting because of the variety. Historically this was a heavily industrial area, and parts of it still are, with the busy river on the north and dense social house to the south. More recently brash blocks of flats have punctured the area providing incongruous clumps of prestigious looking housing surrounded by much less salubrious buildings.

I presume that the developers hope, and they may be right, that if they build sufficient expensive housing then this will change the character of the area so that the industry and social housing becomes the exception rather than the norm. This has not worked yet as most of the ground floor commercial units hoping to be coffee shops etc. are still empty and there is little sign of the happy residents walking long the rover path that are featured in the publicity materials. This part of the walk has many tall blocks of flats but the area is eerily quiet.

One area that is working particularly hard to come up in the world is that around the famous Battersea Power Station which, after many false starts, is finally being converted in to something useful, even if it is exceedingly expensive flats. It should all look very different the next time that I do this walk.

As with some other industrial parts, I was forced to leave the river for a while as the Thames Path took a detour around the obstruction.

I was able to rejoin the river at Battersea but rather than head there directly I took a route through Battersea Park. It is easy to see why.

From then on the Thames Path stuck pretty well to the Thames and that meant that walking under a lot of bridges. I always forget how many of them there are. The rod bridges are fairly easy to remember but there are a lot of rail and tube bridges too.

The Albert Bridge, at one end of Battersea Park, is probably the prettiest, though it does not look at its best at low tide. Nor on a cloudy day.

The Wandsworth section was one of mixed use. There was industry here too but it was smaller scale and so easier to walk around and it did not take me too far from the river, unlike at Battersea.

There were a couple of minor tributaries and cuttings seeping slowly in to the Thames, notably the Wandle which always reminds me of the lines "Where the waters of the Wandle do, Lugubriously flow" from John Betjeman's South London Sketch.

Wandsworth was also where I saw two armies prepare for battle. In one corner of Wandsworth Park an army of mums and toddlers prepared themselves with some form of extreme yoga while in the far corner the army of elders preferred the elegance of Tai Chi. The battle of technique and experience against fitness and youth would have been good to watch but I had a walk to do and so I move on.

It is around this point that I realised that I had left the London City behind and had escaped to the (mostly) low-rise sub-urban towns of  Clapham, Wandsworth, Putney, Barnes and Richmond. The scale was a lot more human and the places were too with more people out and about doing things that needed, or wanted, to be done.

The spaces between the towns grew too, especially around the Barnes Bump, and for periods there were few, if any, buildings in sight. This was a very peaceful part of the walk but visually uninspiring so I have no pictures of it.

The former Harrods Furniture Depository was something of an intrusion in to the rural landscape but it was such a pretty intrusion that I easily forgave it.

The Barnes/Mortlake conurbation brought me back in to the world of bricks and cars for a while before I ventured off again around the Kew headland with just the occasional bridge for distraction.

I also had lunch in the Barnes Pizza Express, as is the rule with these walks.

The mix of areas is one of the nice things about the route. There are times when I am walking slowly, taking the sights in and photographing a lot of them, and other times when all I have is an empty path in front of me and the opportunity to up the pace and to make it a proper walk.

I had planned to walk all the way home, as I usually do, and while the legs were willing the feet objected and I decided to stop at Richmond. I probably should have work some better shoes (not walking shoes, obviously, because I would not be seen in a pair) but even if I had, the long curve past Kew Gardens is cruel to feet with its hard uneven surface. It is even worse to cycle on.

For the first time I was able to use MapMyWalk on this walk, that is where the route map at the top comes from, and that tells me that I walked 25.3km in 4 hours 22 minutes. That was an average pace of 1km every 10:20 minutes, just a shade under 6km/hour. I was quite pleased with that. I normally manage to walk at just under a 10 minute pace so managing a pace of 10:20 on a long walk with several pauses for photographs seemed good.

*PS. The Long Walk is, of course, a reference to Judge Dredd.

26 August 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Gielgud Theatre

I had not read the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time but I was aware of it and the critical acclaim that it had received so the play had been on my "must see one day" list for some time. Its place there was reinforced by a tweet from TV and radio presenter Evan Davis who said that he had liked the book but thought that the play was even better.

There seemed to be no rush as the play was set for a long run in the West End then the ceiling in the theatre collapsed and it stopped for a while. Luckily it reappeared after not too long a break at the Gielgud Theatre just across the road from the ill-fated Apollo. Even luckier somebody at work organised a block booking with a company subsidy so all was set.

This was another Reading day so I looked for somewhere to grab a beer and possibly some food beforehand. The White Horse, a Samuel Smith's pub nearby, did the trick nicely.

Group booking seats are never the best but they are generally reasonable and mine was this time. I was in seat O4 which had a face value of £39.50, I think that I paid around £20.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a simple story of a teenage boy caught up in his parents' marital problems. What made this simple story interesting was that it was told through the eyes of the boy and he was autistic.

That singularity of voice was carried forward in a clever production that retained the narrative style and complimented it with short acted scenes and with graphics displayed on the large grid on three sides of the stage. It was something like an illustrated book with some video clips thrown in. Indeed there was a book and one of the actors read to us from it.

To give just one example to show how it worked. In one short scene the boy had to get to a specific destination that he had not been to before. The map was shown on the back of the stage and we could all see that there was a quick and easy route but the boy told us that he knew that if he kept turning left until he got back to where he started and then turned right once before taking left turns again that we would cover all of the roads and ultimately find his destination. His progress was shown as a red dot on the digital map while he shuffled around the stage.

That sounds a little clumsy but it was not and the effect was very engaging. Not knowing the story may have helped but I was completely enthralled. It was all very human without being schmaltzy and clever without being fussy.

The Curious Incident ... was one of those plays where everything had clearly been thought through and testing in rehearsals so that all the words, movements and props gelled to make a rich and consistent whole. It was as wonderful as it was unique.

25 August 2014

Madame X at the Arcola Theatre

August was Opera Month. Not only was it the annual Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival but two of my four visits to Glyndebourne fell in to that month. On top of that, I booked to see some other operas to fill in the gaps.

And that is how when I went to see Madame X at the Arcola Theatre it was my third opera in five days. Madame X was part of the Arcola's Grimeborn season of new opera. Grimeborn sat somewhere between, say, Tête-à-Tête (new operas) and Glyndebourne (traditional operas) in that it had new operas in a traditional mould.

Madame X fitted that bill neatly being a new opera with a traditional plot and music. It also felt as though it was set in a historical period and it was only things like the use of iPhones that revealed that it was set in the present day. If the aim was to make something timeless then that worked.

This was only my second visit to the Arcola since they brought in allocated seating and being reasonably late to book meant that I could still get a front-row seat but only one at the side towards the back (A3). For that I paid a measly £15.

I could see why the seats in the centre had gone when I entered the theatre as that area had been cleared to make way for the orchestra. And that made my possibly dubious seat into an ideal one.

Madame X told the story of an artist struggling to make his way despite the popularity of the work. The opening scene, a private viewing, introduced us to the main characters and the relationships between them that shaped the story. The artist had a fiancee who loved him devoutly, an agent who did well at the artist's expense, a wealthy art collector with designs on the artist as well as his art, and another wealthy art collector who was only interested in the artist's fiancee. This was familiar operatic territory and it led to a familiar operatic ending.

The characters were all very distinctive, well acted and beautifully sung. I hated the agent for the way that he behaved but loved him for singing an endless stream of proverbs, things like "a stitch in time saves nine". This added an element of humour to the story (there were others) and was built on when one of the art collectors mocked him with mimicry.

There was a fair amount of spoken dialogue to move the story along and most of the songs were dialogues and most of these dialogues were either arguments or difficult conversations. This was a love story without many love songs.

The music was Handlean with contemporary twists. It was very easy on the ear and suited the drama perfectly.

Madame X was a fabulous opera and I loved every minute and every aspect of it.

24 August 2014

Rinaldo at Glyndebourne (2014)

I had seen this production of Rinaldo at Glyndebourne when it was first put on in 2011 and I was keen to see it again. So were other people and a group of four of us went, which is just as well as I had bought four tickets.

The vagaries of the booking system that conspired to deny me some of my booking requests this year also gave me two visits to Glyndebourne in four days. Hardly ideal but needs must and I was happy to take any tickets that I could get.

To make the second visit of the week slightly different from the first we went for one of the tables on the terrace on the second floor of opera house, by the Upper Circle where our seats were. The advantages of being there, rather than in the marquee where I had been on the previous visit, was that it saved the reasonably long walk and also I could get a fresh coffee from the long bar.

This time my seat in the Upper Circle was Blue B10, a little closer than the previous visit but also a little further to one side. It was a fine view for £85 especially as during the performance everybody sat upright and so the prominent head seen here all but disappeared from view. I could see both stage and orchestra clearly. That is why I chose to sit in this section.

Seeing Rinaldo again some things caught me eye that either I had forgotten or which had been changed since the first run.

Overall there was more humour in it that I was expecting, most of it slapstick, e.g. two soldiers struggling to climb over a low wall. These moments were very well received in general and there was much laughter. I was something of an exception and I found that some of these lighter moments detracted from the serious drama. Rinaldo is a story about love and war after all.

The music was as good as you would expect from Handel and the singing was every bit as good as you would expect from Glyndebourne and with those basics right it was a fine performance. I had also forgotten that several of the main male roles, including Rinaldo, where at the high-end of the coal range, e.g. countertenor. That was the fashion of the time and it has also been the fashion in the new operas that I have seen this year so Rinaldo sounded strangely modern.

The main theme of the production, merging the Crusades with St Trinian's, worked as well this time as it did last time. A clever idea well executed. There were lots of nice touches such as the broken bicycles on the stage at the start of the third act.

This also happened to be the last night of the season so we got the traditional end of Festival talk reviewing this year and introducing the next. We also got a baroque rendition of the national anthem which we all stood up for, even me, before exiting the theatre.

It is at the very end of the evening that having a table on the terrace is the most advantageous and I had a little cheesy nibble with another espresso from the Long Bar while waiting calmly for the car park queue to die down.

Rinaldo was a fine production and a fitting end to another fine season. I'll be back at Glyndebourne next year (health, wealth and the ballot willing) for more of the same.

The Fuse is another good read from Image Comics

My continuing experiment with digital comics in general and those from Image in particular has led me to The Fuse, a crime story set in space. I do not normally read crime fiction, apart from The Saint of course, and I was tempted in to this one by the creative team of Antony Johnston and Justin Greenwood.

It has just finished its first arc, The Russia Shift,and I read it in one shift on the slow train journey back home from a day's work in Reading. I had started reading the individual comics when they came out but the complexity of the plot got to me and I needed to read it one go to keep all the threads connected in my head.

The three stars of the book are two newly twinned police officers and The Fuse itself. The officers are a "cynical, foul-mouthed" and "fresh-faced idealist" which makes for an interesting clash of styles, ages and genders. The Fuse is an orbiting energy platform that has gradually expanded to house a "five-mile-long jury-rigged steel city stuffed with a half million people". It has a frontier town feel to it.

The three interesting characters make it more than a whodunnit and its a good whodunnit too.

21 August 2014

La finta giardiniera at Glyndebourne

My third visit to the Glyndebourne Festival in 2014 was to see an early Mozart opera, La finta giardiniera, which I had not heard of previously. It was not exactly my choice to see it, a friend wanted to go, but I was happy enough to see something by Mozart and so I applied for some tickets.

The day was warm and dry but windy so the marquee seemed the best option for picnicking. The weather meant that my first drink was a decidedly unbubbly cup of tea. I had some cake too before taking the customary walk around the gardens.

The bubbly did, of course, make an appearance before the opera started and a reappearance during the long interval.

I was up in the Blue Upper Circle in the second row from the very back (F23) where I had this fine view of the stage and, importantly, also of the surtitles. At £85 I thought that this was excellent value.

La finta giardiniera was a love story with a difference. The difference being that when we first meet the central couple he has just stabbed her and left her for dead. Not many relationships recover from something like that but this one did.

Oddly the stabbing was not the main obstacle to their ultimate reunion, that was the various other people who they were either engaged to or who were in love with them. The story was thick with unrequited love.

There were lots of moments of comedy too and in one riotous scene the arguing couple literally tore down the room that they were in. It helped that it was made of paper.

The plot was very light-operatic and the music was too. Mozart knew how to write a pretty tune and this had several. And this being Glyndebourne, the singers all did an excellent job with both the music and the acting.

La finta giardiniera never threatened the intellect or did very much emotionally but it never tried to either. It was perfectly happy being a light-operatic rom-com and I was perfectly happy to see it.

14 August 2014

A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic

A Streetcar Named Desire came to the Young Vic heavy with the weight of expectations. It lived up to some but not all. Those expectations came from the reputation of the playwright Tennessee Williams, lead actress Gillian Anderson and director Benedict Andrews, the later returning to the scene of his triumph with Three Sisters.

This was a must-get ticket and the whole run sold out quickly. I was on the ball the morning the tickets went on sale and managed to get second row seats on a preferred date. The day worked out well too. I arranged to work in London that day and was able to get to the Young Vic early enough to bag a seat and table in the upstairs bar and to get something decent to eat for a change.

As soon as I sat down the set was a worry. We were sat in the round and in the middle of the stage was a solid cage, making three rooms of a house, and the uprights restricted the view.

The solution to this was bizarre and ineffective. The stage rotated. Yes the annoying uprights swung out of the way (and then briefly back in again) but the whole thing was unnatural and distracting.

To prove the point, at several times when the main actors were seated round the kitchen table talking one of them turned their back on the others to speak to the audience through the invisible wall. I expected better than this.

What was better, much better, was the play and the acting.

A Streetcar Named Desire was a slow simmering drama that chartered the fanciful world of Blanche DuBois, played by Gillian Anderson, as she slipped slowly from reality over three enthralling hours.

The production kept the temperature steady and warm and my just have kept it a little too steady. The rape scene passed almost unnoticed.

Gillian Anderson has got lots of praise for her performance and it was deserved. The other two main actors, playing her sister and brother-in-law, were good too but the story was all about Blanche DuBois and the performance was all about Gillian Anderson.

13 August 2014

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

It is never good to work away from home for any period of time but at least when I am in Reading I can get back to London for evening events, which I very much like to do. One of those events that I like to get back for is the monthly BCSA "Get to Know You" Social and I planned things at work so that I could get there in August.

The Social had a minor setback in that Facebook had stopped letting me invite all members to BCSA events, I could only invite friends of mine who were in the group. So that was 34 invitations sent rather than 1,144. Also the Czech and Slovak Language Meet-up Group that we shard the monthly social with had fallen in to something of a lull with the departure to foreign parts of their most active member.

Despite all that, and it being the middle of the holiday season, we managed to attract eight people including some first-timers.

The evening followed its usual course for me with a routine that has become so ingrained that it is almost a superstitious fear that stops me from breaking it and trying something new. The old things that I did yet again were to start off drinking draught Pilsner Urquell, eating Smazeny Syr and finishing with a bottle of Zlaty Bazant.

The other thing that followed its usual course was the conversations and these are the main reason that I go there.

11 August 2014

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: August 2014

August's Kingston upon Thames Society Committee Meeting was mostly concerned with internal affairs and we made good progress on most of them.

Reviewing Planning Applications

We spent some time discussing my proposed changes to the way that we assess Planning Applications.

The main changes were to send the weekly lists to all Committee members, and some others, to give them a chance to comment on any that interested them and for the Planning Secretary (me!) to co-ordinate the Society's response from all the inputs received. The aim was to get input from people who live across the Borough and also from people with specialist skills and knowledge.

It was already recognised that time would be a constraint as the weekly lists are quite long and it would never be practicable to look at more than a few of them in any detail. The problem was working out which ones these should be.

We will also be tracking committee meetings more closely to see when key applications are coming up for discussion.

Development Control Committee

I gave some feed back in the previous Development Control meeting which had approved both variants of the Latchmere House proposal and also the controversial fortress on the former gas holders site.

I described the meeting as laughably bad as these meetings floundered to make a decision without the key information available, i.e. a map of the new access road for Latchmere House and in-context pictures of the fortress to show the impact of its height.

I will be asking the Society to follow up on this as bad decision making leads to bad decisions.


We discussed a proposed letter to RBK re how some of the mini-Holland money should be spent. As usual when we discuss cycling I was something of a lone voice defending the rights of lycra-clad louts to mow down pensioners, or that is how it seemed.

In the end we got some words that while I did not agree with I was happy for them to be sent under the Society's name.

New Chairman

Our efforts to find a new Chairman were not proceeding that smoothly and every name suggested to date had attracted some strong opposition.

After some discussion it was agree that we would write to all our members asking for their suggestions, which could include nominating themselves.

Public Meetings and Visits

There was a full programme of activities lined up with a visit to the new Quaker Centre in August and the monthly Public Meetings starting again in September. An additional meeting had been scheduled for 10 December because of the number of topics that we wanted to cover.

8 August 2014

Strange combination at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 Day Five

My fifth and final visit to Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 was the least rewarding. I expect a few lows to go with the many highs when seeing so much experimental opera and, therefore, while a relatively uninteresting evening was disappointing it was not unexpected to have one at some point during the festival. The surprise was that it was this evening.

The Thursday and Friday programmes were the same and I chose to see what sounded like the best operas on the Friday. I also went on the Thursday, because I could, to see the second-choice operas and these were all rather good.

Life from Light was a strange beast.

It was staged in Hall 1, my first time there. There was some confusion over the seating as (I presume) Kings Place had insisted on numbered seating because that is what their system does but Tête-à-Tête told us on entry that it was free seating as normal. This caused some minor disputes as people tried to get in to seats they thought they had reserved only to find them occupied. I sat somewhere close to the seat on my ticket but not actually in it.

Life from Light was a long piece, around an hour, composed of several sung sections on the theme of love (with words by the likes of Wikipedia, William Shakespeare, Barack Obama and Edgar Allan Poe) with bird song filling the gaps between them. That sounds something like a 70's concept album and the music did too. It was pleasant enough and I was tapping my feat at times, especially when the trumpet was playing which kept reminding me of Moby's Extreme Ways, the Bourne theme tune.

The three singers and all the musicians played their parts well and it was a thoroughly entertaining hour. It just lacked substance.

Your Call… Part 1 was stranger.

We were back in Hall Two for this and this did not do it any favours. Your Call was an intimate piece with just one performer and would have worked much better in a smaller space. I would have liked to have seen it performed in a small shared space as Flat Pack was.

The performance consisted to recorded words and music which the woman interacted with. It was about the telephone and how we use it which meant that she was often in a conversation with the recording. The different conversations, help on her many different phones, provided variety in subject matter and tone.

It sort of worked but it was bit of a struggle to work out where it was going, or why. I found the balance of speech, singing and movement difficult to categorise and this was often closer to theatre than opera. And I would have liked it to have been more operatic with more music and more singing.

That is not to say that I did not like it, because I did, it was just that I am not sure what it was that I liked and I am sure that I would have liked it more in a more intimate setting.

It was a shame that my experience of Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 ended on a relatively low note but did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for modern opera or for the festival. If anything it taught me that I should go to more evenings, I caught the good Thursday evening almost by accident, and that is what I will try and do at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2015.

7 August 2014

Entertaining evening at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 Day Four

For its third and final week Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 shifted slightly from Central Saint Martins to Kings Place. I work at Kings Place, on the top floor. Omens like that cannot be ignored and worked in the office (rather than at home) on the Thursday and Friday so that I could go straight to the festival.

That proved to be a good plan as on the Thursday I found myself working until after 6pm and so the only way that I could have got to Kings Place in time was to already be there. The bar and cafe on the ground floor were open, as usual, so I helped myself to a pint of Becks Vier and an egg roll before going down two levels to the opera zone.

Despite having worked at Kings Place since it opened I had never been to any performances there and I was looking forward to seeing this side of the building in action.

I almost fell at the first hurdle as I tried to use the online booking system (it was cheaper that way) only to have it fail on me, so I went downstairs to book it there. They could only book me in to one of the two shows that night as the other was sold out. Luckily the Tête-à-Tête was also at the desk and she explained that online booking stopped at 12:00 on the day of performance as they had to print off and sort out the tickets then and she was about to do them for the sold-out show and if they had a spare then I could have it. They did.

Women Box by Size Zero Opera was my first show. This was in Hall 2 which was just a room with a raised stage and some chairs.

The performance was actually four separate pieces.

Opening and closing it were String Quartet I and II by Mauricio Kagel. These were decidedly weird and the main point seemed to be to find out how many ways you can make noise out of a traditional music instrument. At one point a cello was played upside down. This was music that demanded attention and never let you relax.

In the middle were two operatic pieces that looked at the role of women in what were traditionally men's roles, boxing and conducting.

The boxing piece made quiet an impression on me with its movement. The singer had been coached by a female boxer and it showed. Her foot and head movements were particularly convincing. She could sing too and it was a nice little piece,

In the second a woman conductor first disguised herself as a man (not very convincingly) and then decided to be proud of her femininity and stripped down to a somewhat distracting negligee. That may be why I have largely forgotten the music.

The four pieces worked well together and I had a fun hour watching them.

On the Axis of This World was almost a filler, chosen just because I was there and it was on, but it proved to be one of my favourites in the Festival.

The blurb said that it was an operatic meditation on the vast perspectives of Antarctica so I was expecting something Vaughan Williams-ish, and it was.

The slow gentle music was joined by two male voices, an interesting combination of countertenor and baritone, and an actor/narrator.

Stylistically it reminded me of Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which is a favourite of mine.

It was a gentle, strong and distinctive opera which I enjoyed immensely.

I found the communal spaces at Kings Place less welcoming than Central Saint Martins, there was no draught beer and the acoustics made it very noisy, so I did not linger long looking for people to talk to. Instead I headed home happy and satiated.

Welcome to the new Museum of Architecture at Kings Cross

Kings Cross keeps getting better. The canal was always nice, Kings Place is a good place to work, Central Saint Martin is an exciting venue and now these have been joined by the Museum of Architecture.

Actually, it may have been there for a while as it is well hidden and it was only the recent addition of a large sign pointing to it that told me that it was there. And I work just a few metres away.

The museum is part of the Filling Station complex that sits on the south side of the canal in the little space between Central Saint Martin and Kings Place. It was once a filling station in the petrol sense and now it fills workers with trendy snacks.

It is hidden from the busy road by an intriguing wall of corrugated plastic that is there to hide the busy road from its customers. That in itself is a bold architectural statement.

The museum is small is small, just a couple of rooms, but it manages to pack a lot of punch in to that space. The current exhibition, Vertical Urban Factory, looks at the changing role of factories within our cities.

The display in the first room has a history of factories and their relationship with people and places. So, for example, it shows when some major new technologies were introduced, when significant factories were built and important changes in labour relationships, e.g. strikes. Each theme has its own colour to make the interwoven stories easier to follow.

The second room explores some of the ideas about factory design and illustrates this with examples. It also starts to look at the future and how new mixed complexes are being built.

There is a lot of detail there and that make it a rich place to delve into. It also means that a second visit will be worth while and I will be sure to make one before the exhibition closes in September.

The waterside location and unexpected discovery reminded me of the ARCAM Architecture Centre in Amsterdam, and that was a good thing to be reminded of.

The Museum of Architecture is a very welcome addition to the area. I hope that it likes it there and stays for a long time.

The Dark Knight Returns (again) to make me happy

It is difficult to remember who much an impact The Dark Knight Returns had when it came out in 1986 because the hard Batman persona that brought in has become standard since then.

But if you consider the camp 60's TV series you get some idea where the transformation started. Of course he was not still camp by 1986 but at that time a lot of emphasis was on the detective side of his character and the stories were about his brain power not his physical prowess.

I, of course, bought the books when they came out and now I have them safely bagged and boxed. Somewhere. I just do not know where that somewhere is.

When DC put 750 digital Batman comics on sale and that included the four issues of The Dark Night Returns at only 69p each then I bought them again just to read them again.

I have always liked Frank Miller's artwork (possibly because we were born on the same day)  and I still found it visually striking after the best part of thirty years. Other artwork from that period has aged much less well.

The story is also familiar now but was fresh then. Superheroes had gone bad (that was mostly Batman and Green Arrow) and had disappeared when they were no longer seen as heroes. Some had been locked up. In the meantime the world had gradually become a worse place and heroes were needed.

There are other nice themes running through the book like the hopeless American President (based on the then President Raegan) having to deal with a Cube-like crisis.

Two Face and the Joker play significant roles but the story is really about Batman dealing with general lawlessness rather than supervillains. And he deals with it using extreme physical force and psychology. He hurts people to make his point. That means that is return is seen as a double-edged sword, some think he is doing good in tackling crime while others think that he is the criminal.

I had not read the book for a couple of decades but large chunks of it had stuck with me. A lot of it had gone though and that made the rereading almost as much fun as it had been the first time.

One scene that had stuck with me was the confrontation between Batman and Superman in the fourth and final book. One of the tricks Batman had was some synthetic Green Kryptonite. I wonder where that came from?

I really liked the idea that Batman had put so much effort in to preparing for a fight against Superman, even when they were friends and colleagues.

The Dark Knight Returns was a great book in 1986 and it still is.

5 August 2014

Delightful La Traviata at the Soho Theatre

I was very keen to see OperaUpClose's production of La Traviata at Soho Theatre because I loved their version of Tosca at the same venue last year.

Normally the complexities of my diary mean that I get to see shows just before they close, and far too often that is on their last day, but this time those complexities meant that the best chance that I had to see it was on their opening night.

This time I came heavily armed with friends. They managed to eat and drink in comfort before the show but I had to rush back from Reading which left me only enough time for a bagel from the bar, but then I am used to living off just peanuts so this was a significant improvement.

Confusingly the Soho Theatre had changed their queueing system again and rather than cluster around the door to the bar we were allowed upstairs to wait in the disused bar on the second floor. Fortunately I was clued up enough to get the front row seat that I wanted. The place was sold out and soon we were being asked to shuffle along the bench seats to let more people squeeze in.

I had seen La Traviata before so I knew the basic story but hearing it in English was so much better and let me discover some of the subtleties in the lyrics, like the recurring themes, that I had missed with surtitles.

It was the first night and it took some of the singers a little while to get going properly, the second half was better than the first.

One singer who delivered from beginning to end was James Harrison, baritone, who I had been lucky enough to see twice before. He was my star on the night because of his strong clear singing and also the way that he played the role of the father with grandeur and grace.

The production was fairly minimalistic, as their Tosca had been, and that worked well, as it had with Tosca. There were three or four musicians hidden in a room off to the left and the set was quite shallow with, for most of the time, just one significant piece of furniture in it. I like my opera like that as nothing gets in the way of the story or the singing.

The slow start apart, there were no other obvious signs that this was a first night. The only minor slip that I noticed was that a couple of people had not learned how one of the doors opened. Nothing to get worried about.

La Traviata is a simple story of emotional ups-and-downs and this production captured the mood changes well to create a delightful evening, one that opera purists and novices could both appreciate.

1 August 2014

Revisiting Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne (2014)

I had seen this production of Don Giovanni twice before, in 2010 and in 2011, but it is such a great opera, possibly the definitive opera in the same way that Swan Lake is the definitive ballet, and a three year gap between performances is quite a long one so I was keen to go back for more.

Luckily Glyndebourne agreed and while I was unlucky in other aspects of the ballot (I only got four of the requested six operas) I did manage to get decent seats for this one. I was in Red Upper Circle D44 which was a great deal at £85.

It was a warm day so most people flocked to the grass for their picnics which left plenty of the of tables just outside the opera house free and I claimed one on the upper floor.

I did, of course, go for a walk through the gardens and I did, of course, pick up a glass of Pimm's along the way.

I was starting to learn the opera and so this time I was able to pay more attention to some of the details that I had missed previously when trying to follow the plot. Two things struck me; there were more strong solo pieces towards the end than I remembered and it should end earlier. Don Giovanni's loud decent is the natural end of the story and the epilogue that follows tells us nothing that we want to know.

Glyndebourne did what it always does and made the most of the opera and of the experience around it. The singing was magnificent and that is what mattered the most. The clever moving set was indeed clever and successfully completed its main task of easing the transition between scenes to keep the action going.

There could be no surprises with a known production of a known opera in a known setting but that was not the point. Both Don Giovanni and Glyndebourne are exceptionally good and so the combination was always going to be delightful. And it was.