26 February 2015

The Last of the De Mullins at Jermyn Street Theatre was powerful and charming too

I had originally planned to see The Last of the De Mullins on 4 February and I had a ticket for that evening ready to use but work kept me in Reading until around 11pm which was just a little too late for the theatre. Work were reasonable and let me claim back the money for the unused ticket but that still left the problem of finding the time to actually see the play.

The solution came with the addition of a Thursday matinee performance just a few days before the end of the run. Even that was not straightforward and I ended up on the day waiting for the production team to return one of their complimentary tickets, which they did at lunchtime, just a couple of hours before the sold out show started.

In anticipation of this I had come into the Central London office that day and was able to get to Jermyn Street for the 3:30pm start. I walked all the way from Kings Cross and went via Liberty to collect some furnishing fabric that I had ordered. It may have been a hastily rescheduled plan but it came together nicely.

Claiming the last seat in the house meant that I was not in the front row, for the first time I believe. Instead I was in the second (back) row of the odd little row of seats in the back-left corner as viewed from the stage. This was almost a bar stool type seat to allow people there to look over the heads of those in front. I was grateful for any seat that I could get but this one was actually quite good and I had a clear view of the stage.

The Last of the De Mullins was a period piece from 1908 and took as its theme the then growing independence of women who had been used to doing whatever their fathers told them to do, including who to marry.

Janet had left the comfortable family home a few years ago having become pregnant outside of marriage by a man she would not reveal. The split between her and her family was very deep but not quite completely broken and she came back, at her mother's request, when her father was very ill.

The relationships remained very frosty but there was some sign that time had healed some wounds. The father was especially pleased to see Janet's son, now eight years old. The boy had grown up well and the father lacked an heir.

Complications came from Janet's sister who was less forgiving and a chance encounter with the boy's father who was about to be married.

The play focused on the cosy countryside life and the role that Janet could play in it if only she would agree to move back and carry on as before. The father thought that this was the obvious thing to do, Janet had other ideas.

The many relationships involved made this a charming story and it could have ended sweetly if not for the powerful independence of Janet, masterfully played by Charlotte Powell (who I had also liked in The Duchess of Malfi at the Southwark Playhouse). In a play about personal relationships the acting really mattered and the cast were strong throughout.

I was also delighted to discover that the play was set in Dorset. I think the actual village was fictional but Weymouth got lots of mentions and some of the key historical events had happened there.

The Last of the De Mullins easily managed to defy its considerable years and it had both a good story to tell and an important message to give.

25 February 2015

Happy Ending at the Arcola Theatre was very human

As the posters says, Happy Endings was a musical about dying well and I could not miss something as tempting as that. Besides, any excuse to go back to the Arcola is a good excuse.

I booked myself a desk in our Kings Cross office for the day to make getting to the theatre easier (and cheaper) and as the weather was good enough I walked there. I took a slightly different route, walking more north before heading east, and that took me though some new and interesting places, such as the pretty gothic Lonsdale Square in Barnsbury.

Despite taking this longer route I still got to the Arcola bar in plenty of time to eat and drink before the show. It took me a moment to get used to the new set-up introduced since my previous visit in December. The bar had moved from the long wall to the short one and the food and drink offerings had changed. Both were an improvement on the previous set-up which was already good.

The front of house area at a theatre is important to me because I spend a fair amount of time there and so it is a significant part of the evening. My favourite theatres all have good bar/cafe areas with a welcoming atmosphere, in addition to the Arcola these include Bush, Park and Theatre503.

I had some very tasty falafel type thing with salad and stew. It seemed an odd combination and I was not really sure what it was (not that  cared too much as long as it was vegetarian) but it was very tasty and astonishingly good value. I hope they are still doing it the next time that I go.

I had managed to be organised enough to book a seat in the front row of the small central block, A14 for a bargain £19, where I sat facing three reclining beds.

These were soon occupied by three women who were there for a chemotherapy session as part of their ongoing treatment for cancer.

Another woman, fifty-something, joined them. She had just been diagnosed and this was her first session. She is recognised by the other women as being a famous actress.

The main theme of the play was this woman's reaction to her diagnosis and the ultimate decision she made about how to handle it. Adding to the complexity were the hospital staff's behaviour (especially the super-star doctor) and the lives of the other three other patients and the ways that they approached their treatment.

One was born in Auschwitz and was determined not to let cancer win, one was a very devout wife and mother studying to be a Rabbinical Judge and one considered cancer a kind of gift which reunites parent and child. These very different situations and approaches gave us varying perspectives on cancer and what it means. For example, the young mother's family seemed to be ignoring her condition and they frequently phoned for household advice or bedtime stories.

Despite being billed as a musical it had just a few songs so it was pushing the definition a bit. Not that I would hold that against it, a play about dying well is as valid as a musical about dying well.

The heart of the play was the four very different women brought together, physically but not emotionally, by their cancers and the stories that they told us about themselves. These stories took us into anger, happiness, regret, sadness, love and confusion. It was all very human and I loved it for that.

23 February 2015

Little Light at the Orange Tree Theatre ended well but lacked depth

The new direction at the Orange Tree Theatre is still taking shape but seems to be carrying on the old plan of mixing little known period pieces with band new ones. So after a George Bernard Shaw play from 1892 came something brand new. I kept to my old plan too which is the simple one of seeing everything that the Orange Tree Theatre does.

Unusually I went for a Monday evening and as usual I booked a seat in the front row, A2 for £15 (A1 had been taken). The new regime of having numbered seats meant that there was no incentive to get their early and with my current healthy thinking I was cutting down on drinks a little too so I timed my arrival to go straight to my seat and skipped the bar.

The stage was simple set with a kitchen table and chairs in the centre of the stage. The plastic sheeting around the upper level was different and this was a part of the staging that the new Orange Tree team had been making an effort on.

In to this room walked a youngish couple. Their dialogue was strange and it was clear that something unusual was going on. There were signs of ritual and poetry.

They were soon joined by another couple, the wife's sister and her much older new boyfriend. He was not expected by the couple but had forced himself into the ritual without knowing that there was one let alone what it was about.

The ritual took for hold when everybody was there and we were made fully aware that this is what it was by the repeated use of phrases like, "we always say that". It was also clear that it was not a happy ritual though its purpose was not clear. The older boyfriend swung between bemusement and frustration at being forced to play a role he did not understand or want. Emotions within the group were high and almost engulfed me in my front-row seat.

I was as engaged in the ritual as the new boyfriend was and that was the strength of the play.

Its weakness was the plot. Somewhere very near the end we finally found out what the ritual was about (I was right, it was not happy). It was not that much of a surprise and was not the first (or second) time that theme had been covered at the Orange Tree in recent years. In the context of a first watching the surprise worked well enough but now I know the surprise there was not enough in the rest of the play for me to want to see it again.

I only had to see it once though and that one seeing was fine if not exceptional. The real-time story bobbed along nice and mysteriously to draw us into the ritual and the emotions around it. Joining us as a bemused participant, Paul Hickey was superb as the older boyfriend and his performance gave the show the zest it needed to counterbalance the slow and painful ritual. Hickey looked familiar too which is not surprising as Google suggests that he has been in lots of things.

Little Light was hardly the best thing that the Orange Tree has ever done but it filled its place in the season quite nicely and comfortably did its job of keeping me entertained for the evening.

22 February 2015

Alluring Orchids at Kew Gardens 2015

I do not need much of an excuse to go to Kew Gardens but if one were needed then the annual orchids display is as good as they come so I made sure that one of my regular Sunday morning visits happened while it was on.

Previous experience of the orchids had told me that it would be very busy and that it would be hard to take distance shots without hordes of loudly dressed people in them, which meant that I made a special effort to get there for 9:30am when the gardens opened.

And the plan worked!

The 65 bus arrived at Victoria Gate on the stroke of 9:30am and I was one of the first to get in. That allowed me to take this picture of the Palm House as I walked past. It looked even better than usual because it had nobody in front of it.

The Palm House was quickly forgotten as I headed to Princess of Wales Conservatory and the orchids. One or two people had beaten me there but, apart from them, the place was empty but not quiet. The absence of chatter allowed the noise of the water to take its rightful place in the tropical environment.

I immediately set about my task of taking close-up photos of the more attractive orchids, which was almost all of them.

The layout of the Princess of Wales Conservatory was still a mystery to me despite my many previous visits. It was a confusion of rooms, steps, doors and paths. If there is a simple way to go through it seeing everything only once then I have yet to find it.

The upside of that is that I got to see some of the displays more than once and from different angles. This is where the varying heights are useful as each step climbed offers a new perspective.

The orchids display was complimented by some colourful animals made from flowers and trees. There were bees flying over the pond, a beetle crawling along a branch, some butterflies and two very colourful humming birds.

There were a few formal arrangements of orchids too. The floral archways on the path above the pond were there again but the display that impressed me the most was hanging above one of the paths.

The orchids made rather a point of showing off by thrusting their flowers well forward from the foliage so that only they would be in focus. A clever trick and it worked. Normally in Kew Gardens I make a point of taking pictures of the gardens rather than the plants in them but here I had no choice other than to take lots of close-ups.

I have left the main display until last. This is the large pond in the middle of the main section of the conservatory. This is where most people congregated, especially the children eager to spot the fish, and where most photos were taken. This year there were also easels and paper for those who preferred to take their pictures the old-fashioned way.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is not that large but it still managed to trap me for over an hour before the call of coffee and cake was finally heard over the siren song of the orchids.

That then was enough of Kew Gardens for me on that visit and I headed out of the main gate on to Kew Green but not before I had a good look at the International Garden Photographer of the Year Exhibition in the Nash Conservatory by the main gate. I liked some of the photos, thought others were dull or pretentious and was surprised that none of them was taken at a jaunty angle.

The orchids exhibition was a great success, as always. I have been every year for the last few years and I hope to carry on doing so.

21 February 2015

Bungles Finger quickly back to the Fox and Duck

Having seen the New Year in at the Fox and Duck, Bungles Finger were soon back for another night of superb music.

Not for the first time I had to miss the miss the first half due to a theatre date and I got to the pub just after 10:30pm when they were just into the second half of their set with a selection of punk songs, starting with Teenage Kicks. I slipped into the left side of the bar (a common spot to find me) and ordered my first Doombar of the evening.

I loved the familiar punk songs and was very satisfied with the more recent songs which I mostly knew from covers bands, but the highlight of the evening was the closing medley of easy-listening songs Can't Take My Eyes Off You (with some new lyrics!), I'm a Believer, and Delilah. And in recognition of the group of men dancing vigorously to all these they closed with Gay Bar, which was danced to with equal gusto.

Another great night that demonstrated the magic that live music can bring to a pub.

Happy Days at the Young Vic was bemusing and brilliant

I missed this production of Happy Days when it first came to the Young Vic but was aware that it was getting good reviews and so I paid more attention when it came back for second run. So much so that I bought my ticket for a performance in February 15 way back in March 14.

The original plan was to take in an exhibition in the afternoon, eat somewhere nice and then go to the theatre but the clock got the better of me and the plan got adjusted to a lovely walk along the South Bank from Waterloo to the Tate Modern where the only display I saw was of cakes in one of the coffee bars.

I did manage to get to The Refinery Bankside for a foodie treat. The helpful staff also went and found me a Oyster Card holder when I pointed out that there was not one with the bill and I showed them that I was using one from a previous visit. Every time that I go there I moan to myself that there is nothing like it in Richmond or Kingston where I find eating out more of a challenge than a treat.

From there it was a short walk to the Young Vic and I timed my arrival well to get there after the theatre doors had opened and so resisted the temptation for a beer and missed the hassle of queueing for one.

Inside the theatre the camera police were busy and attentive so I was unable to take any photos but the internet provided me with the picture below which was more-or-less the view that I had from my seat (B36 which cost me £35). For this production the stage was set in thrust-mode with seating on three sides. Given that Juliet Stevenson was stuck in position throughout the play the central section was definitely the place to be.

My knowledge of Beckett was somewhat limited, I had only seen Waiting for Godot many years ago and the adapted short story First Love more recently, so other than strange, I did not know what to expect. I got plenty of strange!

It is possible to over simplify Happy Days in the same way that it is Godot. A woman, Winnie, is buried in the sand and talks at length to us, herself and her mostly hidden husband Willie. Despite being buried and unable to move, Winnie is relentlessly happy. And that's about it.

With Winnie immobilised and Willie either out of sight or absent most of the time, there was very little physical action. The exception was the methodical way that Winnie gets things out of her bag and arranges them before her. These things included a toothbrush and a gun.

What drove the play, and drove it brilliantly, was the rich dialogue and Juliet Stevenson's brilliant delivery of this. This was essentially a one woman show and it was one hell of a show with one hell of a performance from the woman.

Winnie told us about her hopes for the day, it was always expected to be another happy one, and she also told some tender stories from her past. Her conversation flit between times and subjects and that kept it fresh and engaging. When Winnie spoke we wanted to listen.

There were some big themes at play, she was buried in sand after all, but Happy Days is not a play that I would pretend to understand. Some of it seemed more obvious than other bits but that may have been my misunderstanding.

The lack of an obvious plot or message only added to the play's interest and left the dialogue and Juliet Stevenson's performance at the heart of everything. I have seen some mighty fine performances over the years and this was right up there with the best of them.

Grey London still sparkles

I was in Southwark for a theatre date and chose to walk along the south bank of the Thames, something that I have done many times, for the sheer joy of it. I wanted a coffee (and cake) and was very disappointed to find that all the cafes along the Thames Path belonged to bland chains, so I avoided them all and headed for Tate Modern instead.

There are several cafes in the Tate and I thought that my best chance of getting a quick coffee and a seat would be the Espresso Bar on the 3rd floor, and proved to be a good plan.

Coffee and cake consumed I went out on to the short balcony there to take in the view. Most people were looking straight ahead at St Paul's and the Millennium Bridge but I looked to the far right where three of the City's icons stood guard over quiet offices.

The sky was an ominous grey and the light was  fading quickly which made the lights stand out but not yet dominated. I had seen this view, and others very like it, many times and still it had the power to captivate me. London is good at doing that.

20 February 2015

Hidden Ham

For eight years now I have been compiling the Ham Photos blog. This basically consists of me walking around the place that I live and taking photos of the things that I like.

I do a lot of walking and I take a lot of photos and so far just over 2,000 photos have been added to the blog. I once thought that I would run out of things to photograph but that is clearly not true and there are enough changes happening for me to find new interesting things.

Thanks to this blog, I was asked by the Ham Amenities Group (HAG) to do a presentation on Hidden Ham. The title was their suggestions but I liked it as it gave me a means of selecting photos. I took a wide-definition of the word "hidden" and used it to mean things that are hidden because they are out of site, in plain site but easily overlooked or are now gone.

It took me a little while to decide on the precise structure of my presentation but I liked the way that it developed, I started with a few slides explaining what a blog is, what I am trying to do with Ham Photos and the mechanics of producing it. Over the eight years I have used three cameras so far.

I then did a quick-fire run through of eighty of the photos with brief stories of why I took each one and where it was before opening it up with a quiz of twenty more photos.

One of the early photos was of these elephants and I was very surprised that several people in the room did not know about them. They were pretty well hidden but were so unusual that I just assumed that word of them had spread everywhere.

Normally the only way to see them is from the top deck of a 65 bus where they are still heavily obscured by trees but I was so desperate to get a picture of them that I held my camera above the front gate and took the picture blindly.

I picked this photo because I liked the story that went with it.

I assumed that the unusual box-like structure was part of the chimney and said so when I posted the picture. Then, much later, I got an email from the man who used to live there who explained that he had built the structure to house a water tank. I duly updated the description.

One of the nice things about running the blog is that I get emails from people who have moved away from Ham or who had family who lived here and who are delighted to find photos of the place. Usually it is the common things that they like, things like shops they used to go to, rather than the grand buildings.

This anglo-dutch sign was in the quiz and I was not surprised that nobody recognised it. The sign is quite small and is around knee-height so is very easy to miss.

I enjoyed producing and giving the presentation and I was thrilled with the reception that it got. The meeting room at Ham Library was full and there were many comments and questions as I went through the 100 photos.

I've posted the presentation on slideshare and it has had a few reads already.

I could be tempted to do something like this again. I just need to take another 2,000 photos first!

19 February 2015

The Separation at Theatre503 was funny, touching and ultimately sad

My plan to see everything that I can at Theatre503 has never let me down yet, or even come remotely close, and The Separation was another triumph.

On first looks this was "just" a domestic story about a bad separation set against the introduction of divorce laws into Catholic Ireland. That alone would not have been enough to get me there but the reputation of Theatre503 was.

I managed to be in Kings Place that day which made for a nice journey to the theatre after work, though my short-cut across part of Clapham Common was somewhat muddier than I had anticipated. On the other hand, the walk up from Clapham South station was a good distance and plenty of steps to add to my daily count.

I went to the pub beneath the theatre, the Latchmere, first for some food and a beer. Having struggled to find a sensible veggie option there before I was pleasantly surprised this time. Everything was well set for the main event.

The upstairs waiting area was buzzing, always a good sign, and some careful positioning and staying alert got me a central front row seat. I did not even mind the couple that pushed in to the queue to get central front row seats before me. Well, not too much. Queueing at Theatre503 generally works well and I have no complaints about how it works.

The simple set was a living room and that is where all the action took place.

We first met two work colleagues, an older man and a younger woman, who had come back to his place after a night out. We soon learned that they had had a tryst previously at a works Christmas Party. We also learned that he was married but separated.

They talked about the sorts of things that people getting to know each other a little better talk about, things like his new job and his desire for her to accept a job working with him.

All was going reasonably well until his wife turned up. She was looking for their daughter who had gone missing. The lady left and the married couple talked about their daughter and their responsibilities towards her with the wife accusing the husband of not seeing enough of her, which he admitted.

The wife left and the daughter tuned up soon after which took the conversations in yet another direction.

And that was the point of the play. Through these various conversations, which were at times touching, humorous and aggressive, we learned a lot more about the relationships and the expectations of the society that they lived in. It was gripping edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Then we learned why the marriage had fallen apart as the story took a dark turn. Story wise it was a perfectly logical and natural ending though also a sad one.

There were just the four characters and all were acted with conviction and I was particularly impressed with Roxanna Nic Liam as the daughter because of her young age and the way that she handled the range of emotions required of the role.

The Separation was very much the sort of play that I have become used to seeing at Theatre503 and long may that continue.

18 February 2015

Matthew's Manifesto for the Kingston upon Thames Society

When I took over as Chairman of the Kingston upon Thames Society in January I agreed to give a talk to one of our monthly public meetings about what I wanted to do in my new role and circumstances dictated that I would do this at the very next meeting in February!

This was challenging for a couple of reasons, it did not give me much time to get my thoughts together and I had already committed to giving another talk a couple of days later that also need quite a bit of preparation.

I managed to find an afternoon to work on this the weekend before I had to give it and after some juggling with ideas I was pleased with the structure that emerged. I knew most of the things that I wanted to say but the trick was to say them in the right order (and in the right way) to make a coherent and relevant story.

I started with just a few words about myself that were relevant to my new role, followed that with a few examples of places and building that I liked (a good excuse to dig out some holiday pictures) and then a few comments on what I found good, bad or indifferent about Kingston. Having set the context I then explained how I saw the role of the Society, how this could develop and what we would need to do to achieve that.

As is my strong preference, my slides had few words and as many pictures as possible. They were more there for my benefit, to remind me what to talk about, than to give the audience something to look at.

So, using the simple prompt "I moved to Kingston in '87" I was able to talk about why I chose Kingston, why that area and that house, and how I came to be a member of the Society soon after moving here.

I explained that a big influence on the way that I plan to operate as Chairman is my work, training and natural inclination for the structures approach of Management Consultancy, and this presentation was an example of that. Later I would say more about People, Process and Technology.

I made the section on some of the places and buildings that I like a little quiz and asked the audience is they recognised the places. There were a lot of correct shouts for Bruges and Portmeirion but nobody knew the amazing Python Bridge in Amsterdam.

The point of this part of the talk was to highlight the things that I like to see when travelling that could be applied to Kingston. I like exploring cities and finding little squares with fountains, or well designed public square or quirky buildings, and I like trams.

As a resident of Kingston I wanted to be able to have the sort of day out there that I have had in places like Hannover, Antwerp and Girona. That meant lots of interesting places well connected to each other.

I said some more about this in a quick summary of my thoughts on Kingston though my score on the good, bad and indifferent at 5, 2, 1 was probably more positive than I felt about the town.

Again the pictures allowed me to say more than just the words on the slide so when saying what I did not like about Kingston Station I mentioned the lack of routes and the way that the station is surrounded by the relief road so getting to or from it any any direction requires crossing several lanes of traffic where the lights are all phased to ease the flow of traffic to the hindrance of pedestrians.

Having set the context, I then talked about the purpose and activities of the society. I said that I think the Society is here to: Protect the things we like about Kingston, Celebrate them so that they can be appreciated by more people, which in turn helps their protection, and Enhance Kingston to make it a better place to live.

I had evolved the Protect/Celebrate/Enhance framework some time ago and this was the first chance that I had used it in anger and it lived up to the task. I used it to structure the activities that we already did and to show some of the additional things that I would like us to try, e.g. protect more through listing Assets of Community Value, celebrate more by arranging more visits and enhancing more by supporting relevant community projects.

Identifying things to do was the easy part, the hard part was working out how to do them, and the only way was to use more resources from within the Society or from other organisations.

The Management Consultant in me wanted to use the word "stakeholder" but I think that I managed to avoid it.

Having identified the main groups of people that we deal with I then went through each of them in turn suggesting how I thought we could work better with them. For example, we could do far more with our members than send them one email a month and invite them to one meeting. I said that I would like us to have more meetings of more sorts in more places, e.g. a semi-formal meeting in Tolworth to review plans for the former government offices site or a social gathering in New Malden to discuss local issues.

People was a large part of my manifesto but Process was significant too.

I closed the presentation with the summary, Matthew’s Manifesto means building our own capacity and using that of other groups so that we can do more things, improving our ways of working so that we can do things better and, above all, it means communication, dialogue and co-operation.

You can read the presentation on slideshare.

We then went in to an extended Q&A session that, I felt, worked very well. The questions showed that the members had understood what I was saying and were broadly supportive of it while understanding that it would be difficult to achieve. The questions were mixed and detailed and I enjoyed answering them, or rather participating in the conversations that followed.

I went into the lion's den confident on what I wanted to say but with some trepidation on how it would be received and I was delighted with the response that I got. I know it is not going to be easy making these changes to the Society but at least I know that a good number of our members are happy with the direction I am taking.

My next "state of the nation" address will be at the AGM in January 2016 and it will be interesting to see how much progress has been made by then.

17 February 2015

Whistle Down the Wind at the Union Theatre was glorious

All that I knew about Whistle Down the Wind previously was that it was the name of a song by Nick Heyward from the eighties and I guessed that it had nothing to do with this show. But there was something evocative about the title and my previous experiences of the Union Theatre had all been good (or better) so I decided to go.

I managed to work in Kings Cross that day and as I am on a health kick at the moment and I had plenty of time, I walked all the way down to Southwark arriving there just in time for a coffee before the box office opened at 6:30. The first target was to get one of the first ten tickets, which I managed comfortably.

That then gave me a almost an hour to go across the road to the Union Jack for some food and something to eat. I went for the Nachos as I had on my two previous visits as I like nachos and I like sticking to things that I like.

Then, armed with my top-ten ticket, I went back to the Union to join the queue to make the most of that ticket. It is just possible that the man who got in to the theatre ahead of me had been in the box office queue before me so I did not begrudge him taking my favourite seat too much. I took one next to him.

The stage was set out as on my previous two visits with the performance area on the right and the seats arranged in a wide horse-shoe on the left. As I sat facing the stage the small band of musicians were in the corner on the far right.

The story of Whistle Down the Wind was almost silly, some children find an escaped convict hiding in a barn, convince themselves that he is Jesus Christ returned and conspire to hide him from the adults. But there was far more to this than the story.

The heart of the piece was the many emotional relationships between the children, their friends, their father and his sister, the convict and the other adults. This was a slow moving piece that wallowed in the emotional highs and lows of the unusual situation and the usual hardships of the time.

The music and singing heightened the emotions with slow powerful tunes and plenty of group singing of the sort that I enjoy. I also liked the mix of combinations of singers with solos, duets, small groups, larger groups, larger groups and mixes of male and female voices. I think I prefer musicals where the singing roles are shared widely rather than given to just a few lead singers, but do not quote me on that.

A particular favourite scene of mine was towards the end when all of the children formed a line around the barn to keep the adults out and sang loudly and proudly. It was a magnificent moment in an excellent musical.

Whistle Down the Wind really surprised me. I went there with few expectations and hoping just to be reasonably entertained but I left in absolute awe of what I had just witnessed. It moved me in a way that I did not expect to me moved and in a way that very few musicals have. Would definitely see it again.

16 February 2015

Islands at Bush Theatre was compelling, political and weird

Island told me that it was going to be a play about tax exiles and so it was, sort of. It turned out to be more than a play and to be about more than just tax exiles.

But let's start at the end, jump to beginning and then fill in the gaps in the middle.

A couple of days after seeing Islands I came across The Guardian's review of it on one of my RSS feeds and the headline was, "grotesque drama about tax havens avoids the real issues". I did not read the rest because of the conceit of the reviewer in stating that they knew what the "real issues" of the play before. I have read too many reviews of good plays that I have seen where the reviewer has criticised the play for not being what they wanted it to be, rather than for what it was. That is one very good reason not to read reviews.

I had chosen this Monday to go to the Bush on the expectation that I would be working in central London but it proved easier to work from home so I had the easy trip up from Richmond to make. I was still very much counting my steps so I got off the tube at Goldhawk Road and walked the last leg through the empty Shepherd's Bush Market that follows the tube line up to the station that it shares its name with.

I still got there earlier and anticipated and settled down with a leisurely coffee. The queue, of one, had already formed by then but I remained seated until just before the doors opened by which time the queue had grown to about five and so I was still one of the first ones in.

Once again the Bush surprised me with its layout. This time the main part of the performance area was a rectangular pit with seating close by on the two long sides and a little further back on the short sides. I grabbed a seat in the front row on the far side.

For reasons that totally escape me, The Bush has more people looking out for photographers per audience member than any other theatre that I have been to and they take their job seriously so I was unable to get a view-from-my-seat shot but it was not unlike this one that I found on the internet.

The picture also tells you an awful lot about the play and why the adjective "grotesque" was used earlier. The characters and the set made Islands feel like a crash between Rocky Horror and Jerusalem, and that had to be a good place to start.

Islands was more a fusion of ideas and themes to than a story. The elements included strange characters in strange costumes, moving around and through the audience, words and songs, the Garden of Eden and old news recordings. To use just one example, there was a short interval which was announced by the lead character, Mary, by saying that the cast were going to have a short rest, which they did while remaining on the stage.

Tax exile was the theme of the story (though the story was only one of the many themes of the play) which had Mary (played by Caroline Horton who also wrote it) and her two helpers, apparently called Agent and Swill, on an island of land floating just a few feet above the mainland. Mary ruled this land with arrogance and disdain and made slaves of two people, Adam and Eve, captured from the mainland.

The play was about the mood it created, a mood of strangeness, surprises and surrealism. It was a mood that I found engaging and enthralling. Whatever Islands was I liked it, and I liked it a lot.

14 February 2015

Bad Penny at the Fox and Duck

Bad Penny describe themselves as a classic rock tribute band and that is plenty good enough reason to see them play. I thought that I had seen them before but I cannot find any proof in my blog so perhaps I am mistaken. They are certainly the sort of band that I should have seen play before.

I missed the first part of their set due to being at an opera recital (as you do) and so the pub was already full and lively when I arrived sometime around 10:30pm. It was good to see some familiar faces there, especially one of the younger ones who could tell me what some of the more recent songs were. I had no problems recognising Neil Young's Rocking in the Free World and resisted all caution to sing along to it. And some other songs that I knew too.

It was a very pleasant night spent listening to good music, played well in a nice pub with a friendly and lively atmosphere. That is what Saturday nights at the Fox and Duck are all about.

L'Elisir D'Amore at Normansfield Theatre was delightful

A careful look at the poster will reveal that it is for a performance in 2013 but I could not find the one for this year online (I do have a paper copy of it) so this will have to do.

This was familiar territory in several ways. I had been to Normansfield Theatre a few times, had seen Villa in Canto there before and had seen the full opera at Glyndebourne. That was all good territory so it made perfect sense to combine all three in one evening.

The weather was kind this time and it was a pleasant and reasonably long walk there. I timed it to get to the theatre around 7pm, for a 7:30 start, and I was not far off. But I was still to late to get a close seat in the front row but there was a front row seat in the centre a little further from the stage and so I went for that. That proved to be a brilliant decision as the view was excellent especially after I moved my chair a little, which I was able to do as there was nobody behind me.

Having bagged my seat with my coat, as is the customer there, I went to the downstairs bar for a beer, as is my custom. As always, I justified this on the grounds that it was more money for the charity.

L'Elisir D'Amore was presented the way that I had seen them do opera before with a narrator taking us to certain scenes in the story and then moving to the piano to play the music for the singers who came on to play that scene.

This approach has a lot going for it,  there is no need to read a programme or sur titles during the performance, the boring bits can be skipped and what is left is the heart of both the story and the music.

L'Elisir D'Amore is a light opera that almost follows George Bernard Shaw's rule that opera is when a tenor and a soprano want to make love, but are prevented by a baritone. The slight difference in this case is that the soprano is initially reluctant and so the tenor tries the elixir of love in some desperation, while the baritone relies on his army uniform. In the end money solves the problem.

The semi-staging was very effective with the cast making full use of all of the space, including the seating area and the stage. They also roped some of the audience in at times, e.g. to hold on to a hat. All these little touches added to the fun of the evening.

Another thing that helped the evening on was the glass of Prosecco that I had in the interval.

But the thing that helped the evening the most was the music and the singing. All of the small cast were excellent and L'Elisir D'Amore was littered with good tunes.

This was yet another splendid evening of good music well presented at the Normansfield Theatre.

13 February 2015

Very disappointing Three Men in a Boat at the Rose Theatre

This should have been a sure-fire hit but it was not because they made the simple mistake of forgetting the book.

I do not normally have much expectation of the plays that I see as by the time I get to see them I have forgotten what it was that made me want to see them but there was no chance of that happening with Three Men in a Boat because it is a book I have read a few times and loved every time.

Their journey along the Thames started at Kingston so it was an obvious thing to go to the Rose Theatre in Kingston to see it. In my keenness to see it I booked early enough to secure a seat I have probably been in before A28 for the perfectly reasonable price of £18.

The evening got off to a bad start as I ran out of time to eat beforehand and the cafe at the Rose does not do evening food, apart from cake which does not really go with beer. Somewhat frustrated I joined the frustratingly long queue for the bar for a bottle of Czech lager (I forget which one, they sell two) and the all too regular packet of peanuts.

The mood was lightened by bumping in to Richard Stickney (who knows a thing or two about boats on the Thames) and by spotting Steve Punt.

There are several ways that a book can be turned in to a play from straight narration to full reinterpretation and this fell somewhere towards the narration end, much as I had seen First Love done. There was a set that was a bar most of the time in which the three men acted out some of the scenes and narrated some others in the "do you remember the time that?" style. A simple approach but there is nothing wrong with that.

The first major sign of a problem came when they were packing for the trip and in suggesting things to take one mentioned an iron and when asked "which one?", replied "any old iron". Queue the bad pun and the song intro. The joke was lame and unsubtle when compared to the gentle nature of the book and the song, the first of several, just did not fit in to my idea of three idle young men drifting along the Thames.

The scenes that I liked the most were those that I remembered from the book but even these had their faults. The Hampton Court Maze story was shorn of much of its detail and the Tin of Pineapple Chunks story must have been very confusing to anybody who did not know it as the written punchline was lost in the visual translation.

I was not a happy bunny at the interval though it is fair to say that the show picked up considerably in the second half and I chuckled a little and even laughed out loud when the pianist got shot. You do not remember that from the book?, well that is my point - the play was reasonably entertaining but that owed little to the genius of the original work. I was hoping for something that captured the mood and the style of Jerome K Jerome's writing but, instead, I got something that veered toward period pantomime. Obviously pantomime has its points and most of the audience around me seemed to be having a jolly time and I heard several of them saying how much they had enjoyed it afterwards.

But not me, I was judging the play against the book that I love and on those grounds it fell well short.

At least I got the chance to have a very quick word with Steve Punt afterwards, even though that amounted to little more than me admitting to stalking him in various radio studios and John Lewis. They say that you should never meet your heroes; that's why.

12 February 2015

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland at Battersea Arts Centre was engrossing

A play called The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland is obviously going to pique my interest and the description of it only made me more determined to see it.

The venue for this event was the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) which has a reputation for doing different things and doing them well, as my visit there only two days previously had shown.

I had to work in Reading that day but that proved not to be a problem as the train I get back to Richmond goes on to Clapham and the show was not due to start until 8pm so I had plenty of time to get there. The only risky bit was leaping off the train at Richmond, the limit of my return ticket to Reading, to check in on my Oyster card. Luckily, planning had nothing to do with it, there was a red Oyster card reader just by where my coach stopped and so I was able to check in and get back on to the same train.

Arriving at BAC in good time for the show also meant that I had plenty of time to eat something first. I went for something small and spicy which was good and good value. I had a beer too.

Then it was time to go upstairs to the former Council Chamber for the show. The excitement started on the way up as we were split into two groups with half of us going into one side of the chamber and the other half into the other side. The two sides were separated by just some boarding and some curtains. There was a door in the flimsy wall.

The story started on our side of the wall with a strange conversation between a mother and her two grown-up sons. They talked about domestic things like food but in an odd way and with repetition.

Then one of the sons went through the door to the other side and started talking to a doctor that we could not see but could hear clearly. This new conversation was unrelated to the previous.

The word "schizophrenia" was a clue as to what was happening but it was more complicated than that.

The two rooms may have represented two sides of one person but if we were looking at somebody's mental illness then it was not clear whose. Three of the four characters exhibited multiple personalities.

Things were complicated further when the doctor / patient conversation in the other room mentioned schizophrenia and the patient said that he knew that the proposed treatment had eradicated schizophrenia in Western Lapland because that was the name of the play that they were acting in.

There was a break after which we swapped sides so  moved from the house to the surgery. The story repeated some of what we had heard in the first half and then went further without becoming any clearer, and I am sure that was the point.

The conversations had some funny moments as well as strange ones, especially when the patient (if that is indeed what he was) told presumably delusional stories about his genius that included going to university aged nine. These conversations grabbed my attention while the confusion weaved its web around me.

It was quite some experience though quite what sort of experience it was I am finding hard to say. There were some characters and some fragments of a story but they were deliberately kept apart to create a mood rather than a narrative.

Whatever The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland was, it worked. I found it thoroughly engrossing and excitingly different.

11 February 2015

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (February 2015)

February's BCSA "Get to Know You" Social was much like the others, and here's a photo like all the others to prove it.

I've played around with it a little just so that it is a little different from all the other pictures of Smazeny Syr but it tasted like all the others, as I hoped it would. The beer was all that I hoped too.

The conversations followed some familiar lines as well as some unusual ones. I kept out of a loud but friendly one between a friend I had taken with me and a former ambassador on some aspect of European politics. I think my friend lost that one but he probably thinks otherwise.

As usual, there were a few fresh faces amongst us regulars and that opened up more topics for conversations, often around "where are you from?" or "what are you doing in the UK?". Like good chat-up lines (which these are not), these simple questions opened the options up and led to more interesting and less predictable things to talk about. And we did a lot of talking, which is the siple point of these socials.

The only bad news of the evening was that our usual date in March, the second Wednesday, clashed with another BCSA event and after considering some alternatives we decided that the easiest option was to miss a month so we'll next be doing all this on Wednesday 8 April.

10 February 2015

The Paper Cinema's Odyssey at Battersea Arts Centre was magical

I have been fed a steady drip of Greek theatre in recent years and each interpretation has had its own flavour of quirkiness. The Paper Cinema's version of the Odyssey was as quirky and inventive as they come.

I went to see it at the Battersea Arts Centre and, as with Orpheus the previous year, the seating was arranged with cabaret seats at the front with normal tiered seating behind. This time I went for a cabaret seat and the cabaret package of food and drink that went with it.

But first I had to get there. I arranged to work in London that day and took the Northern Line down from Kings Cross to Clapham North which gave me a nice walk to BAC and the justification for a beer. With two shows on that night the bar was busy and the staff were struggling to cope. It was a long wait to get served (being English we had formed a queue but they insisted that we changed this to a free-for-all along the bar).

In addition to my beer I also ordered my food and drink for the show and took great care to use the word "vegetarian" as much as possible. It did not work and I got the standard meat and fish version of the meal anyway and by that time it was too late and the bar was too busy to try and do anything about it, so I have the best of a bad job.

I am not sure what I expected from The Paper Cinema but if I had thought about it then I could probably have worked it out from the name.

The main technique used to tell the story was to move paper cutouts in front of a background drawing and this was projected onto the large screen on the stage.

This picture, taken after the show, shows the performance area in the bottom-left corner and the final image on the screen.

The technique was similar to that used by TV animations like Captain Pugwash but with a lot more sophistication.

There were no spoken words and the few projected on to the screen were chapter headings and character introductions. Music took the place of words and there was a small band playing along to the action, much as in the silent movie days (so I am told!). There were also sound and lighting effects, for the storms etc.

These were all simple components but they meshed together neatly to make a compelling storytelling environment.

The paper figures were the star of the show and there were two people keeping everything moving along at a brisk pace. Seated as I was near them, it was fascinating to see them at work constantly changing and moving the paper cutouts to produce a visually stunning and very attractive show.

I liked the story too, especially as it had an unexpected happy ending - my knowledge of Greek legends is not that great and most of the ones that I know are tragedies of the greatest order.

The Paper Cinema's Odyssey was very effective entertainment and it was impossible not be captivated by the storytelling. I left very happy.

1 February 2015

Back to Kew Gardens to see sheep, glasshouses, water and a few plants

This was another grey day but that was no reason not to go back to Kew Gardens.

As usual, I had decided to go the day before having first checked the weather to ensure that it would not be raining in the morning and having a reasonably early finish to be ready for the early start. Setting the alarm for 8:30 at a weekend seems harsh but it had to be done to be at Kew Gardens when it opened at 9:30.

I started at Lion Gate, as I usually do, and followed the path clockwise around the edge of the gardens which took me initially through the heavily wooded part. Having got to west side of the garden I took a slight detour into the children's area, which I had not been to since I had small children, and that was a little while ago.

There I was delighted to find these sheep. There was a badger too. And some trees to scramble over which I may just have had a go at.

I continued clockwise around the edge all the way the Orangery on the north side of the garden for the mandatory coffee and cake.

A little further round I came to the grass garden, always a favourite of mine, and it did not disappoint.  The greenhouse behind helped with a nice contrast of colours and lines.

From there it was but a short step to the Alpine Garden which was rich with colour, albeit in very small doses.

The main waterfall in the garden could not have been more different. The flowers were small, delicate, colourful and quiet whereas the water roared brashly over the rocks.

Looking back at the Davies Alpine House I was reminded just how weird it is. I have no idea why plants so small need a roof so high but I am sure that there is a good reason. Perhaps it is just because it looks good, which it is.

Leaving the alpine garden I had a quick look at the Plant Family Beds. These looked bare but neatly regimented as they waited for Spring. The healthy grass helped to make the scene look very attractive.

Finally, I just had to visit the Palm House. Not only was it warmer it had lively plants when most of the rest of the plants in the garden were fast asleep. By then the unexpected Sun had come out too turning the shy from grey to blue.

Kew Gardens once again gave my Sunday an excellent kick-start with the traditional fresh air and exercise in a special place.