29 June 2015

FFS (Franz Ferdinand Sparks) at the Troxy easily exceeded my high expectations

Few, if any, bands have the capability to surprise as much as Sparks.

For many they are just the odd electronic duo that had their fifteen minutes of fame in the early seventies with songs like This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us. For those of us that stayed following them we have seen them take their pop songs in several directions and have seen them tour with various band formats and as just a duet.

Then they announced that they were working with Franz Ferdinand.

The first fruits of this was the album FFS, the deliberately provocative combination of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. Then even better news and FFS became a band too and they started touring to promote the album.

I have a simple rule for Sparks concerts in London - Go.

Sparks have also surprised with their concert venues in recent tears and I have seen them as place as geographically and physically diverse as Barbican, Union Chapel and Bush Hall, amongst others. The venue this time was Troxy, a converted cinema in Stepney, a part of London that I knew little about and had only been too on a few lunchtime walks when based at a project at Aldgate East.

Citymapper showed all sorts of interesting ways to get there but in the end I took the easiest option of the District Line all the way from Richmond to Stepney Green. From there it was a fairly simple walk more or less due South, past an unexpected city farm.

Troxy was easy to find and a lot of other people had found it too and there was a long queue down the side of the building. It moved pretty quickly and I was inside within ten minutes or so. Obviously all the best places had been taken so I settled for a central position about six "rows" back.

There was a support band and  they helped to pass the time but while they were harmless they were also largely forgettable.

As promised FFS hit the stage at 9pm.

I had the album and had been playing it so I had some idea of what to expect musically though I had little idea of what their stagecraft would be like.

It was obvious from the very first number, Johnny Delusional which was also the first track on the FFS album, that FFS were one band, not two bands playing together. The synergies and the energy were amazing.

Leading the charge, so to speak,  were Russell Mael (ex-Sparks) and Alex Kapranos (ex-Franz Ferdinand) who matched each other line-by-line and  step-by-step, much like the walk-off in Zoolander. They swapped lines and swapped moves like twin brothers that looked a little different. The voices had the same timbre too so the sound they produced was consistent no matter who was singing.

Russell cannot keep still on stage and, if anything, Alex out did him. Russell probably bounced a little more while Alex put in more dramatic crouches and arm salutes.

There were plenty of other antics from the rest of the band too. There was the Ron Dance, of course, and we also had some crowdsurfing from Nick McCarthy while he carried on playing guitar, a few swapping of positions and instruments and massed drumming for the introduction to the Number One Song In Heaven.

From that you will have gathered that they played a few tracks from their previous bands as well as most of FFS. Everybody there seemed to know the FFS album well and also all of the songs by one of the original bands, Sparks in my case. I worked on the assumption that anything that I did not recognise was a Franz Ferdinand song. I did recognise their biggest hit single Take Me Out but I had forgotten that it was by them.

The music was poppy and bouncy so we bounced along with them. It was hardly a mosh pit but everybody was dancing, even me (just a little bit).

I do not know how FFS wrote their songs but there were a few that had the easy repetition of more recent Sparks albums and these were my early favourites from the album, songs like Little Guy From The Suburbs ("You'll know I didn't, I didn't make it like I hoped we would...") and Save Me From Myself (er "Save Me From Myself"). Of course I liked the very poppy songs too and had to sing along to things like Call Girl ("Why don't you call, girl?") and Police Encounters ("Bomp bom diddy diddy").

There was much to like about the new FFS material but my highlight of the evening, as it often is, was When Do I Get to Sing "My Way".

Every time I see Sparks I marvel at just how good they are live and FFS more than lived up to my very high expectation of the evening. The sell out dates and the five star reviews are all easily deserved.

27 June 2015

Now This Is Not The End at the Arcola Theatre

I do not need much of an excuse to go to the Arcola Theatre but this time I conjured something of one. My eldest son was flat hunting in Hackney and we decided to spend a day exploring the area to try and learn something of its character and also to look at some specific properties along the way.

The flat hunting was mixed though we did end up putting an offer in on a flat in Clapton, almost opposite the station, but we were outbid on that and did not think it worth raising our offer.

Going to the Arcola theatre in the evening was always part of the plan. We had intended to eat there too but our plans had drifted somewhat and we had had our lunch just after 4pm so were not that hungry at 7pm.

Still, the bar and cafe area at the Arcola was a good place to relax after a day's walking, and they also did cake.

There were two plays on that night at the Arcola and I had chosen Now This Is Not The End because it sounded the most interesting. It's description said, "Six decades ago, Eva lived in Berlin. She remembers her house on Essener Straße. It used to have a blue door. Now her granddaughter Rosie is making the city her home. But just as she begins to plan for her future, Eva's oncoming dementia causes Rosie to question her family's past." It sounded just a little bit unusual and I really like unusual.

Now This Is Not The End was downstairs in Studio 2 where the seating is unreserved but I know how the system works well enough by now and was able to secure my preferred location in the middle of the front row for which I had paid a miserly £17.

The scenario for the play was the relationship between granddaughter, Rosie, and grandmother, Eva, and their shared connection with Berlin. Rosie was keen to learn more about Eva's past, she had fled Nazi Germany, but Eva refused to talk about something and was forgetting others due to her dementia.

The memories could have been assisted by Eva's diaries but they had gone missing and, of course, she could not remember what had happened to them.

Moving was a theme of the play too. Rosie was looking to settle with her German boyfriend who she had met while studying in Berlin and that led to some animated discussions about choosing between Germany and the UK. Rosie had moved once from Germany to the UK and was now moving into a care home.

Places and relationships were also important themes that wove through the evening adding texture to an already interesting story. There was a consistent light tension throughout, e.g. as the strengths of relationships were tested, and that got me totally enmeshed in the happenings.

As always, I had done next to no research beforehand so it was a huge, and pleasant, surprise to see Brigit Forsyth play Eva. For my generation she will always be Thelma from the early 70's sitcom Likely Lads.

Now This Is Not The End was intelligent and emotional, just the sort of play that works well in a space as atmospheric as Arcola's Studio 2. It was a beautiful experience despite the brutal reality of dementia at the heart of the story.

26 June 2015

The Two Noble Kinsmen at the White Bear Theatre showed that unknown Shakespeare can still be good Shakespeare

I am often tempted to the White Bear Theatre because I like the range of original performances that I have seen there and the location is reasonably convenient but The Two Noble Kinsmen made my "mandatory" list by the presence of the name William Shakespeare.

I had not heard of the play before so naturally I was a little suspicious but Wikipedia reassured me that The Two Noble Kinsmen was indeed part of the Shakespeare canon, albeit that it was co-written with John Fletcher. The asking price was just £14 which, if anything, almost put me off by being too cheap!

The evening went much as planned and followed a familiar routine with a long and rewarding walk from Kings Cross to Kennington where I had a beer and some grub in the Dog House before walking around the corner to the White Bear.

The play was a simple tragedy (despite Wikipedia listing it as a comedy). The two noble kinsmen were very close friends who had been captured after a battle and were sharing a prison cell where they were taunted by their jailer.

From their one small window they caught a glimpse of a young woman in the garden below and they both fell immediately and passionately in love with her. Very Shakespearean.

Once friends they became fierce rivals, something that their captor played to his advantage leading to them fighting to the death for the lady's hand. The tragedy was compounded with another plot involving the jailer's daughter who was in love with one of the two kinsmen and was distraught when rejected. Very Shakespearean.

The dialogue was very Shakespearean too so the whole thing worked very well in that respect.

The staging was very simple, as it usually is at the White Bear (it really is quite small) and, simple as it was, it did the job perfectly and we moved from prison cell to forest with effortless ease.

I have to mention the actors playing the two noble kinsmen, Cavan Clarke and Richard Blackman, as they were both stupendous. Their general acting was excellent and then they excelled themselves in a big fight scene, possibly the most realistic and energetic fight that I had ever seen on stage.

The Two Noble Kinsmen was a cracking production of an almost-Shakespeare play that deserves to be better known.

Sprayed at Gagosian Gallery was playful and provocative

There is something invigorating about modern art that makes me love it. The Shock of the New is part of the attraction but a good exhibition delivers more than that.

I also love the way that exhibitions, unlike scripted events such as plays and operas, let you enjoy the experience in any order and at any pace and with the opportunity to revisit sections.

On my most recent visit to the Gagosian Gallery (in Britannia Street by Kings Cross) I went around the exhibition three times; firstly to see how it was laid out and where I needed to spend most of my time, secondly to enjoy the art and thirdly to take some arty-farty photos of the pieces that I liked the most.

The title of the exhibition was Splayed which, their press release informed me, spanned four generations exploring the myriad ways in which artists have employed the impulsive yet de-personalised and non-gestural forces of spray.

I got off to a bad start by walking on the first one which had the utterly clear title Two Minutes of Spray Paint Directly Upon the Floor From a Standard Aerosol Spray Can. The floor it was sprayed on was just inside the entrance and I missed the attendant's warning because I still had my earphones in. Luckily I appeared to do no damage to it.

The gallery was not that large with just four rooms and the corridor that connected them. The works were presented as is the norm these days, far apart against white walls. It may be conditioning but that is how I like it.

Modern art needs big bright rooms but it does not need many of them, as places like White Cube also demonstrate. Big galleries, like Tate Modern and Saatchi, are great for days out and it is nice to also have a collection of smaller galleries available for shorter visits.

The pieces varied in form and format and it was the large paintings that had the immediate impact with me despite them being very different, they are both shown here. One was mostly black and arranged in horizontal lines (like a landscape) while the other was a riot of colour and curves.

To prove that it was not just the size that impressed me, the third large painting left me completely cold and to show how subjective art is that was the painting selected to advertise the exhibition.

Another surprise came from the inclusion of a small work by Paul Klee. This was little more than a few lines, something like a geometry lesson, but it was good to see it there. As if to make the point, on the wall next to it were some pieces drawn on graph paper. I liked those more.

There was little disputing the most popular pieces as almost of the pictures posted to Instagram of the exhibition, including mine below, were of the same ones. There was plenty of variety in the angle of the shots and the distance that they were taken from but they all included the remarkable inflatable animals trapped in stacking chairs, Seal Walrus (Chairs) by Jeff Koons, in front of swirling colours, Abhorrence by Albert Oehlen. Two works of art working as one.

I found Splayed to be a playful and provocative exhibition and Gagosian was an effective space for it. This is what lunch breaks are for and this is why I like working in London.

25 June 2015

Constellations at Richmond Theatre did a lot of nice things with a simple idea

There were lots of good reasons to see Constellations at Richmond Theatre but I discovered most of them after I had booked.

I had simple reasons for booking; I was free that evening, Richmond Theatre was convenient for me to get to, the play sounded interesting and there was a last-minute offer. It was not so much the price that tempted me but getting an offer made me look at the performance again and when I did looked a better deal to go than to miss it. As always, the main investment was my time, not the money. In this case the money was £15 and for that I got Dress Circle  Row A  Seat 16.

This Thursday was a work in Reading day which was fine for getting to the theatre but not so good for eating beforehand. Thankfully there was a pastie shop at Reading station that had a reasonable range of veggie options. I did have time for a beer in Richmond though and I had a quick pint in the Duke near to the theatre. I was there just long enough for the loud music to really annoy me.

The premise of Constellations was set early on when, in a party conversation, a woman explained to a man that one of the theories of physics means that new universes are created whenever a decision is made with each universe following a separate option. That gave us a framework to explore the possible relationships between the woman and the man.

They met at a party and in a succession of quick-fire conversations we had a wide range of scenarios from  him chatting her up with fervour to him moving on quickly to rejoin his wife.

From there they separated, got married, started seeing each other, had affairs, met up again after several years, had violent arguments, and all points in between. The brief scenes moved quickly between the scenarios and between times. It was like somebody had written all the possible relationship events on separate pieces of paper then pulled them out of a hat randomly. That sounds a little weird but it worked.

Making it work were the excellent cast of Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong who moved seamlessly from scene to scene and mood to mood. I had forgotten that Louise Brealey was Sherlock's love interest, which is one of the good reasons for going that I did not know at the time.

The other good reason for going was that it was written by Nick Payne, who also wrote Incognito which I had seen and loved at the Bush Theatre. That connection was obvious once I had made it as both plays jumped around time and space relying on good actors to take us with them.

The speed and intensity of the ebb and flow of emotions was exhilarating and also exhausting so it was just as well that the play ran for a modest seventy minutes. It did a great deal in that time and an interval would have just broken the spell.

Constellations worked for me on several levels. The construction of the play was innovative but that would not have been enough on its own, it also needed the emotional stories to fill the structure and the wonderful acting to create believable characters that the audience cared about. And we did care.

Constellations was something rather special.

22 June 2015

Ockham's Razor return to the Rose Theatre for another magical show

Having caught Ockham's Razor almost by accident on their previous on their previous visit to the Rose Theatre I was quick to book to see them on their return.

I would have been even quicker if not for the poor way that the Rose advertises shows that are not its own productions. All there was on the website was a thumbnail picture and the title "Triple Bill" and the emails were much the same. On my initial scan I missed the show and I think it was only thanks to a comment on Twitter that I learned that this was Ockham's Razor and so was a show that I had to see.

They were only playing for a few nights and so I found myself going on a Monday evening, not a usual theatre night. I worked at home that day (often a good idea on a Monday after the pub quiz on Sunday) and that made it an easy walk in to town for the evening show. I timed my walk to get there just before the show started as experience had taught me that there was no point trying to get a drink there beforehand as the queues are too long and the bar staff too few. Something else the Rose had to fix.

I do not understand the pricing policy at the Rose, or even who decides it, but at £10 my seat in my favoured Centre Stalls Row A (47) was a steal. I would not have thought twice at paying double that and would not have had to think for too long to pay more than that.

The arrangements were very different this time. Previously they had performed in the round with the audience free to roam and while that added to the excitement they worked just as well on a traditional stage. There was not a lot on that stage, just their equipment and that was not very substantial.

Ockham's Razor do something unique, as far as I am aware, in producing shows that combine gymnastic skills with the beauty of dance and the structure of story-telling.

The opening piece, Arc, typified all of this. It was performed on a grid suspended above the stage and to make things harder the grid swung and spun. The movement was smooth and balletic rather than energetic and circus-like. The story of the three people stuck together had moments of tension, tenderness and humour - I loved the little section where they played "It".

The photograph was taken at the start of the second half with the piece Every Action that used robes to connect four people. In the simplest form one person going up meant another one coming down. The actions were more complex than that and the four performers moved together in interesting and clever ways.

The final piece was a duet on a trapeze like metal frame. Despite the name, Memento Mori (The Dance of Death) this was a slow and gentle piece where the two people flowed around and over each other beautifully.

The three pieces were quite different in the mood they created and in the equipment they used which all added to the interest and entertainment. I am still not sure how to categorise Ockham's Razor so I will just settle for saying that it is physically clever, visually exciting and thoroughly entertaining.

21 June 2015

Gardens at Ormeley Lodge (June 2015)

The gardens at Ormeley Lodge are not open very often, only once or twice a year, and it is always a special day thanks to the range of beautiful things on display. The large gardens are divided into several good-sized zones so it is like visiting several gardens at the same time.

My favourite part is the wild flower garden in the orchard which is the section furthest away from the house. There are several paths through and around it and I walked all of them several times.

The garden next to the house is the most formal and is designed more for sitting in than walking through. I took the hint and sat and had a cup of tea while enjoying the way that this hedge had been allowed to grow around a stone planter capped with large flowers.

Returning to the wild orchard I renewed my acquaintance with the friendly rhinoceros. It has been living there all the years that I have been going to the gardens, and I suspect for a good few years more, and I still delight at the way that it stood patiently in the long grass waiting for a naughty child to play with.

The many gardens at Ormeley Lodge are linked by many paths and these have seats planted in strategic locations to allow people to rest and savour another aspect of the garden. One of the grander seats lies under a spider's web of a pergola which is definitely worth spending some time under.

The rhinoceros may be my favourite animal in the garden (there are also lots of lions, dogs and birds) but the gorilla is special too. It lives far away from its African colleague in the front-right corner of the garden hidden from the formal lawn and borders by a tall hedge.

This was just a few highlights from an excellent garden. I've just checked the times on the photos and there is just over an hour between the first and last ones shown here which gives a good idea of just how much there was to see. And I hope to see it all again, plus a few new things, when the gardens open again next year.

19 June 2015

Flight at Opera Holland Park was astonishingly good in all departments

Opera is not my favourite art form, I would rather go to the theatre, see some dance or wander a gallery of modern art, but it is high enough up my list for me to go to it probably once a month or so, though most of that is clustered around the Summer festivals of Glyndebourne, Tete-a-Tete and Grimeborn. So it was something of a surprise that I had not been to Opera Holland Park before. I was aware of it and had momentarily considered going to it but had never got further that that.

Opera Holland Park were also reluctant to tell me much about what they were up to (mostly because I had not asked) and so they disappeared under the radar. Then Twitter came to the rescue, as it often does.

The good people at Tete-a-Tete tweeted that they were off to see the opening performance of Flight and that made me squeal. I had seen Flight twice before, at Glyndebourne in 1999 and 2005, and was keen to see it again. I leaped on my PC and had a look at Opera Holland Park, starting with the basic stuff like where is was.

There were only a few performances of Flight scheduled and I could only make one of them, so that was an easy choice. The ticket prices were a lot lower than Glyndebourne's and the top price was only £60 so that was an easy choice too.

The harder choices were what to wear, how to get there and what to eat first.

I spoke to a cultured and refined lady that I know at a BCSA event and she assured me that there was no dress code and that she had seen people there in t-shirts. I chose to wear a bow-tie though I was not brave enough to wear it all day so I took it with me and changed after work. It does not seem that long ago that I used to wear a bow-tie to work most days, and I have a lot of them, but fashions change and what was once unusual but acceptable now gets you stared at by the public and watched closely by the police.

Opera Holland Park is, understandably, in Holland Park which has its own tube station on the Central Line but the District Line was a lot more convenient for me so I headed for High Street Kensington which left me with a comfortable walk of under ten minutes to the opera which was situated towards the southern end of the park, just above the cricket pitch.

On a recommendation I ate in the food hall in Whole Foods Market which was less impressive than I hoped. The opening made-to-order fruit juice was good but I struggled to find some easy vegetarian food, multiple-choices are the enemy of a person in a hurry, and in the end I settled for the unbelievably boring choice of two slices of pizza. It was food.

Opera Holland Park tried to copy something of the Glyndebourne experience. I queued for a Pimms and eventually got a glass that was mostly full of ice.

The opera house itself was a large tent with temporary seating. It looked fairly basic but it was comfortable enough and I had a good view.

The shape was slightly unusual in that it was much wider than most stages. This may have been to accommodate the orchestra but had the lucky consequence of being ideal for Flight because that was set in a spacious airport departure lounge and had clusters of people spread across it.

The story was framed by that of the refugee (the part played by Tom Hanks in the film The Terminal) who was trapped in the airport. At the end of the story we found out why and this involved a stowaway falling to his death as the plane he was on came in to land, something which had happened (again) at Heathrow just a few days previously.

The middle of the opera was filled with the stories of other passengers like the middle-aged couple going on holiday to try and rekindle a cold marriage, an older woman there to meet her much younger "fiancé" who she had met on holiday and who had promised to come for her, and a diplomat and his pregnant wife heading off to a prestigious new assignment in Minsk. And then there were the stewards who were more interested in having sex with each other than anything else.

A storm confined them all to the terminal  building for far longer than expected and  this created lots of space  for their stories to develop. The directions they went were often tender, sometimes sad, occasionally funny and always interesting. More importantly they were all sung wonderfully.

The music matched these moods beautifully and tripped along in a fresh modern style that had an English Romantic feel to it, more Grainger than Glass.

There was an interval. Getting a drink looked too hard again and the ice cream required something of a walk but that was better than queueing so I had an ice cream. I also grabbed a quick hello with a lady I recognised from various evening  as Tete-a-Tete and during our quick exchange I was pleasantly shocked to learn that she had been involved in the original production of Flight at Glyndebourne. Something I will want to find out more about when we next meet at an opera.

That chance meeting was a cherry on the top of a very delightful, rich and fruity cake. Flight was an astonishingly good opera in all departments and was an excellent example of what the form can do. Having seen it three times now I want to see it again.

16 June 2015

Death of a Salesman at the Noël Coward Theatre

My theatre-going has two main strands, gorging myself on new plays in small theatres and feasting on the classics in large ones. The later is sometimes to revisit some favourites but more often it is to fill in embarrassing gaps in my theatrical experience. Gaps do not get much bigger that Death of a Salesman, though recently seen The Crucible came close.

That meant that I would have been tempted by almost any old version of Death of a Salesman that came my way so I was very lucky that the first one to do so came from the RSC and came with a formidable reputation. A lot of that formidable reputation came from Antony Sher who I had spent the best part of six hours watching on stage last December in Henry IV 1 and 2.

I can afford to pay for expensive theatre tickets but it irks me to do so when so many West End shows are average at best. What pay £80 for an average West End show when you can see one average, two good and one excellent shows in small  theatres for the same price? That means that when I go to West End theatres I normally go high up and that is what I did this time. My Grand Circle seat A16 still cost me £37.50.

The view from there was excellent and I much prefer to look down at the stage from up on high than to look up at it from the stalls. Looking down also means you can see the depth of the stage better. This time it also meant that I could see the upstairs bedroom clearly though not a lot happened there.

The view was obscured by the safety rail, another reason why the ticket was so "cheap", but this was not a huge problem and all I had to  do was sit up a little  when the action was in the house (which it was most of the time) and slide down a little when it moved to the front of the stage  which was, at times, a  street, a bar and an office.

The play was a slow moving tale of an American family, not unlike Long Day's Journey into Night, and it was the telling of the tale that mattered, not how it ended. Which is just as well as the main element of the ending was given away in the play's title and the secondary element was suggested shortly into the play. And that is how I like things. Endings are relatively short and while they are important the much longer journey to get there is more so, especially as a cute ending is only really cute the first time whereas a great journey rewards repeating.

This journey was led by the salesman, Willy Loman, who at 63 years old was looking to swap his travelling role for one based in New York where he lived. He was encouraged in this by his wife Linda. They also had to contend with their two sons, Biff and Happy, who were both living at home and struggling to get a start on life. Complicating the picture was Willy's older brother, Uncle Ben, who had made his fortune in Africa and who appeared, ghost like, to talk to Willy.

This combination of generations and circumstances allowed Arthur Miller to explore the American Dream from several angles and in some depth, which he does passionately but without prejudice - there are winners as well as losers and the losers made their choices along the way.

While by no means dominating the story Willy Loman filled large chunks of it and so the performance of Antony Sher was central to the performance and he was utterly magnificent. It was hard to believe that Willy Loman had once been Falstaff. The rest of the small cast had very important roles to play to and they were all very good.

Death of a Salesman had been collecting five star reviews with ease and while I do not award stars myself I can easily see that they were justified. This was an iconic production of an iconic play.

14 June 2015

St Michael's Convent on Ham Common (June 2016)

I like to visit the gardens at St Michael's Convent on Ham Common when they open for the National Gardens Scheme because the gardens are so large and varied. One section of the garden is a vegetable plot and one corner of that has a neat lean-to greenhouse that looks all the better for being a little shambolic.

It is not a particularly architectural garden and it prefers the more traditional delights of flowers. I like flowers too so this garden and I get along fine. This bright selection is in the border at the far end of the lawn from the building. The lawn does little, as lawns often do, but that does not matter when it ends with a display of flowers like this.

A few of the flowers prefer to be nearer the building, wanting some shelter perhaps, and these red beauties seem determined not to be out done by their relatives in the garden proper.

A large part of the central section of the garden was once a nursery as a few remaining trees testify. The grass here is given more purpose by having lazy paths cut through it. At another time of the year the grass is peppered with tulips and looks even better.

Finally, some more flowers this time accompanied by a path, one of the many paths that lead around and through the garden allowing residents and visitors to get among the flowers, which is the best way to appreciate their fragrances as well as their colours.

Sadly these gardens may becoming off-limits, or even disappearing, as the convent is moving away from Ham and I doubt if the new owners will be as generous with the garden.

12 June 2015

The musical version of Duncton Wood at the Union Theatre was lovely, if somewhat bloody

All that I knew of Duncton Wood when I saw the musical announced was that it was a popular book with animals in it. I assumed that it was rabbits or a mix of species but that would have been something like Watership Down or The Animals of Farthing Wood. Duncton Wood was about moles.

I picked a Friday performance to be reasonably sure that I could work in London that day and so could make the gentle stroll down from Kings Cross to Southwark and still have plenty of time to eat beforehand.

I had to go to the theatre first for the opening of the box office at 6:30 were good planning got me there first and so I was able to secure one of the all-important first ten tickets which would get me into the theatre as part of the first group. It is a slightly unusual ticketing system but I think that it works very well. I wish places with awkward queueing systems, like the Bush, would it.

For food I went to one of my new favourite places, Culture Grub on The Cut close to the Young Vic, where I had my new usual Chinese style curry. One of the reasons for going there was to avoid having a beer in a pub and I went for a grapefruit and honey juice instead. The food at the restaurant was very good and came very quickly, just what I wanted before a theatre date.

I got back to the Union Theatre around 7:15pm, in good time for the play. There was a little jostling for position from the people who knew how things worked there but I am not unskilled at jostling and I was the first one in. It is always a surprise walking into the theatre there as the performance area is always laid out differently and a quick decision has to be made on where to sit. This time the seating was L-shaped, running along two sides of the stage. I chose a seat in the middle of the long leg of the L. It proved to be a good choice.

I might have been alone in the audience in not knowing what to expect; it even took me a few minutes to work out that they were all moles.

The story, in case you do not know it either, was steeped in fantasy with one group of moles seeking to return to the old ways when they worshipped seven stones and another group wanting to retain their power over the moles. These were both groups of stones moles and there were also pasture moles involved.

What followed was a tense drama with groups of moles fighting each other, individual rivalries between some of the moles and some love affairs between others. It was somewhat bloody too with one of the elders and one of the pasture moles being killed before the break. I thought that might have been it for the violence but in the second half it got worse and several children were amongst those murdered.

It was not all violence, there was a fair amount of sex too. Who knew that moles bonk face-to-face like humans do?

I liked the story because while there were some obvious bits (the goodies beat the baddies in the end) there were quite a few surprises and diversions along the way and so while the general direction was clear it was always uncertain what would happen next.

The musical side of the performance worked very well. There was a large cast with several important roles and that meant lots of loud choruses, plenty of solo ballads and several cosy duets. The music was reassuringly approachable with some of the themes repeating, as they should in a musical.

I was impressed by the singing in all its combinations though in my view the baddies had not only the best tunes they had some of the best singing too, and the one who impressed me the most was second-in-command baddie Rune, but that is just me being my usual unfair self and picking one when all were good.

The rest of the production was good too with plenty of movement, atmospheric lighting, a simple set, evocative costumes, striking make-up and good use of sound effects for rain etc. This was another example of when being in a small theatre works best as the total effect was very immersive with all of the elements of the play set out just before me. It is hard to tell what colour a mole's toenails are painted from several rows back in the stall.

Duncton Wood was my sort of musical as it had a good story touched with darkness, fine music well played and sung, and a rich production that teased all the strengths out of both.

10 June 2015

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

I was frustrated, and annoyed, that work kept me away from the May British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) Social at the last moment and I was relieved to be able to get there for the June Social, the last one before the Summer break. I was working in Reading again but this time I was able to leave at a sensible time, just after 5:30pm, and so was able to get to the Czechoslovak National House in West Hampstead just before 7pm.

There were a couple of BCSA Social regulars there already and soon as I had got my first pint of Pilsner Urquell I joined them in talking about the previous weekend's Garden Party and going though the photographs that they had taken.

We were soon joined by other people, some regulars and quite a few first-comers too, and the conversations flowed with short interruptions for food and drink. I had Smazeny Syr which came as no surprise to anybody. Nor was the bottle of Zlaty Bazant which I finished the evening with.

The conversations that filled the evening with casual ease covered the usual wide range of topics of communal interest to British, Czechs and Slovaks meeting in London, and these included public transport, house-hunting, the difference in English between the place Reading and the verb reading, budget airlines and many other things that I have since forgotten because conversations are like that.

It was yet another successful BCSA "Get to Know You" Social, which is why I keep going to them and why, I presume, that other people go too. 

9 June 2015

Carmen at Glyndebourne (2015)

My second visit to Glyndebourne in 2015 was a rather obvious visit to see Carmen. There had been much interest in this from the people that we take with us and I took the arbitrary decision to let the people who had not been to Glyndebourne before come to Carmen with us.

As first-timers they were not sure how much they wanted to pay and had no idea on where to sit so they had to get some advice and guidance on this. Initially this did not work well and Glyndebourne were not able to offer us the tickets we wanted, a combination of our place in the ballot and the popularity of the opera were to blame. After some discussion with guests and box office we ended up with two pairs of tickets with each pair having different priced seats. This is what we settled for: Red Upper Circle B46/47 £150/£60 and C47/48 £150/£60.

The £90 difference between adjacent seats was due to restricted views but the interference was minimal, as you can see from the photo that I took from my seat, and that made seats B47 and C28 excellent value. I might try and get them again!

There is a semblance of a routine, if not a ritual, about going to Glyndebourne and that includes divvying up the catering duties for the four food courses (cakes, starter, main, cheeses). Our guests suggested making a flan from their home-grown asparagus and it was easy to say yes to that.

On the day the weather was fine and that meant we could do the usual walk around the grounds (once we had consumed some tea and cake, of course) but it was not quite warm enough to entice us towards the Pimms tent. The gardens at Glyndebourne are always enjoyable to walk around and they are even better when you show them to somebody for the first time. The lake with the diving sculpture is still the highlight with the border by the house a close second.

The two hours or so before the opera always goes faster than I think it should and it was soon time to go in for the performance.

I have seen Carmen quite a few times, in various disguises, despite it being far from my favourite opera. The plot is reasonable but with the couple exceptions that you can immediately think of I find the songs lacking. They are generally quite pretty but none of them grab me.

Glyndebourne compensated for the slight deficit in music by constructing impressive sets and putting lots of busy people in them, including what looked like a whole class of children who were obviously very pleased to be there. The singing was excellent, as always.

The production lifted my spirits and despite the almost relentless gloom of the story (the end is clearly prophesied early on) it proved to be the ideal opera to take first-timers to and not a bad one for regulars either.

7 June 2015

Gardens at Petersham House and Stokes House

The garden at Petersham House is not my favourite locally and I had been to Stokes House several times before but it was a nice day, it was for charity and I had nothing better to do so I went to see them both again. If nothing else it was a good excuse for a walk.

My favourite part of the garden at Petersham House is the border on the far side of the large lawn that faces back towards the house. This is divided by hedges in to  small sections that are all thickly planted. It the the variety and randomness of the planting that I like the most though having an old brick wall as the background helps too.

The kissing bench on the lawn is another favourite. There were other old, and nearly as quint, benches and seats around the edge of the lawn where I could sit and appreciate other perspectives of the garden,

Sadly those perspectives included the bushes dotted across the lawn and they were looking a little the worse of wear, as if they were all recovering from a night out on the town. A trim was needed and without it the garden looked a little unkempt and unloved.

Off to the side of the main garden was the vegetable garden, this was also were the gate to Petersham Nurseries that we used to get in and out was. I often find industrial gardens, and industrial buildings, more interesting than their residential counterparts and so it was here.

The pretty brick wall continued from the main garden and this time it was neatly decorated by a ladder. Here the plants were grown for purpose rather than for shape or colour which made those shapes and colours more natural and more interesting.

The garden at Stokes House was different in scale and approach with smaller plants and more flowers. A low border surrounded the house with a profusion of colours.

The delicate plants were found in all sorts of homes and I found this small bunch snuggling up to the house delightful.

Another border had some bigger and bolder plants, and I was always a sucker for floppy flowers. Behind them was a seat which proved to be an ideal place to sit and enjoy the garden and also a cup of tea and a slice of cake, all in the name of charity.

Neither of these gardens would make my "best of" list but between them they made for a lovely afternoon of beauty, walking and cake. I like days like that.

6 June 2015

BCSA Garden Party 2015

There is not a lot to say about the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) Garden Party 2015 that I have not said about previous years, and that is because there is no point in changing a successful formula.

As a Garden Party it always looks to the weather to play its part and this year it did with plenty of sunshine and no rain. The last time that the Slovak Embassy hosted the event, in 2013, the rain kept us indoors for most of the afternoon but this time we were able to enjoy the garden that the two embassies share for the whole event.

The successful formula that was repeated was based around the opportunity to talk to lots of people with food and drink at hand to keep the energy levels up, music and dancing to entertain, and raffles and stalls to tease money out of our pockets for the BCSA's charitable purposes.

I had notable conversations about Compassion in World Farming, Holland Park Opera, the newly opened Prague of twenty years ago which was new and exciting but vegetarians had to survive on smazeny syr, cherries and tomatoes, ferrets and chinchillas, Ibsen's Ghosts and, of course, that evening's Champions League Final between Barcelona and Juventus.

I did not win any of the t-shirts that I fancied in the raffle and was one ticket away from winning a cake but I never expected to win anything with my miserly £2 investment and everything else about the afternoon was wonderful.

5 June 2015

INdisciplineD were progtastic at the Scream Lounge in Croydon

Since secondSight morphed into INdisciplineD that fates had not been kind to me and I had only managed to catch them once, at the Fighting Cocks in December 2012, so when they played the Scream Lounge in Croydon I jumped at the chance.

I had seen secondSight at the Scream Lounge twice but it took me a little while to work out that a) the Scream Lounge had moved slightly and b) the way in was via a nondescript door in a nondescript alley. I even thought that I had the wrong place at first as another band were playing when I arrived around 8;30pm and the doorman denied all knowledge of INdisciplineD. Then he checked his piece of paper and came after me to confirm that this was indeed the right place and I duly paid my £3 admission.

I caught the last song of a laddish metal band who were loud, energetic and quite pleasing and then watched a Jamish three-piece play a softer style of rock backed by a harsh staccato drumbeat.

Then it was time for INdisciplineD.

The line-up had changed since I last saw them. I remarked then how well they did without a keyboard player and they ignored that and went out and got one. I had to admit that he made a big difference to songs like ELP's Karn Evil 9 (Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends) and Genesis' Supper's Ready (A flower!).

INdisciplineD only had time to play a shortish set, a little over an hour, so they sensibly mixed it a lot and we had one song each from the likes of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, The Cardiacs and Porcupine Tree. Of course as one of those songs was Supper's Ready we got rather more Genesis than anybody else, not that anybody minded at all. They closed with Aqualung.

INdisciplineD played the familiar songs with professionalism, style and a sense of fun which was echoed in the outfits of the two central men, Chris on vocals and Nick on bass. The venue's lighting was not kind to the rest of the band and even the other front men, lead guitar and keyboards, were almost invisible. At least they could be heard clearly.

It was a lovely set from INdisciplineD and even the atrocious two and a half hour journey home did nothing to disturb my happy mood. There had been too little progressive rock in my life at that time and it was good to hear those songs again, especially when they were played so well.

2 June 2015

buckets at the Orange Tree was funny, thoughtful, tender, provocative and sad

These things always go in phases but my two previous visits to the Orange Tree theatre (for Play Mas and Each His Own Wilderness) had been more disappointing than exciting so I was a little concerned for my next visit to see buckets. I booked it anyway because the Orange Tree will have to do a lot worse than that for me to stop going to everything.

My plan of finding a suitable place to eat close to every theatre that I go to regularly seemed to be working in Richmond with the discovery of the Pig's Ears which did light food quickly and had great beers to go with it. Choosing a beer was the hard part.

Travel was with me this time, after two recent occasions when I ran into the theatre just as the performance was starting, and I escaped from Reading in good time to catch the 17:12 train that got me into Richmond at 18:15 and into the Pig's Ears just before the 18:30 cut-off for the £10 meal deal. My plans do not always work that well and it is great when they do.

From the Pig's Ears to the Orange Tree was a reasonable walk, about 1km, past Richmond Green, giving me some more steps towards my daily target (then 12k) and also a pretty place to walk.

buckets was unusual for the Orange Tree in that it was a shorter play, only eighty minutes, and had no interval. This seems to be an increasingly common format and I had seen it used with many other new plays in the last couple of years. Some plays use intervals to change direction, The Conquering Hero did this brilliantly, but far too many seem to have intervals just because they think it is an expected part of formula and others as an excuse to sell more unnecessary food and drink. If an interval is not needed then I would rather not have one.

Another unusual thing was that the small cast played multiple roles in quick-fire succession with little change in dress to indicate the change. Good actors can make that work, as they did in Radiant Vermin, and they made it work this time.

buckets, I soon learned, got its name from the sort that you kick. It was all about death and dying, though it was nothing like as morbid as that sounds.

In structure it was like the Fast Show with a sequence of quick-fire scenes played by the same people with the main characters appearing several times.

The speed was important as soon as one idea was planted the next thing was happening and there was something new to think about. This approach meant that there many ideas were thrown at us and not all stuck for that long, something like a shotgun rather than a rifle, but what remained was the impression of all the ideas being shot out, a shotgun makes a distinctive noise even when it does not hit you.

Some of the ideas that did stick included some around the things to see/do before you die and whether to tell a terminally ill child that they are dying. These, any many other themes were explored from several angles in different scenes. For example, we met the parents of the terminally ill child first and then the child appeared later to give us her views.

Like the Fast Show, some of the scenes were funny and, unlike the Fast Show, others were thoughtful, tender, provocative and sad.

It needed a good cast to cope with the speed and the variety and they were all good. Sarah Malin stood out for me but that just may have been because I had seen her not that long previously in The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic.

After the slight disappointments of the two previous plays it was great to see the Orange Tree back on top form with a new, different and exciting play. The sort of play that I was more used to seeing at trendier theatres. It was good to see a packed house too, perhaps there really is an audience for trendy theatre in an old-fashioned town.

It was a strong end to the first season of the new era and I hoped that was a good indication of things that I could expect next season.