29 December 2015

The Fabric of India and more at the V&A

There are those exhibitions that I chance upon, those are normally in small art galleries that I discover when walking, and there are a few that I make a determined point of seeing, many of which are on at the Victoria and Albert Museum, probably my favourite place.

The Fabric of India was something that I wanted to see as a coda to my holiday in India in November and also because I like exhibitions at the V&A even when they are on things that I do not know that I am interested in, things like wedding dresses.

Any visit I make to the V&A includes at least some time walking the main galleries for no particular purpose other than to discover, or rediscover, some of the many interesting things there.

This time I started of in the galleries covering recent English history (intentional) before drifting off into ceramics (unintentional). One of the pleasant quirky things about the V&A is its layout (partially caused by the way it has been added to) and so I got from the English gallery on the fourth floor to the ceramics on the sixth (with no fifth along the way) via an almost hidden staircase in the middle of one of the galleries.

The porcelain galleries ran across the long frontage of the V&A and, starting at the west end, the first two rooms had deep shelves running from floor to ceiling that were absolutely stuffed with all sorts of stuff from the useful to the decorative to the pointless.

Here there were more teapots than anybody could ever want. There may have been some changes as I am pretty sure that there was a pile of just red teapots last time that I was up there, or perhaps they were somewhere else.

Moving east I came to the main stairwell next to the Cromwell Road entrance and I think that is far as I went the last time so continuing into the east wing may well have been a first for me. Here the emphasis changed from household objects, cups and ornaments etc., to decorative pieces.

The first to catch my eye was this full-sized picture of a woman painted on tiles (above). I had to trim this picture a little as there was a south-facing window behind it which confused the camera and I did not have time to wait for the sun to move around.

In the final gallery was the biggest and best surprise which confirmed everything that I thought about the magic of the V&A.

In a display of plates based on the famous Willow Pattern there were two based on popular computer games, including this one based on Pok√©mon Yellow a 1998 Game Boy game. I recognised Snorlax immediately.

From there another half-hidden staircase took me down into the architecture section. I often go there on purpose so I was quite happy to find myself there by accident. Most of the displays were the same as last time, as far as I could tell, but there are always temporary exhibitions in a small side room and this time it was on Phillip Webb who worked with William Morris. I like looking at plans of buildings and these were nice plans to look at.

Another of my rules on visiting the V&A is to make at least one trip to the cafe.

This was Christmas week and it looked as though everybody else in London had the same plan and I had to queue for a while to get my curry (on the menu on account of the India exhibitions) then to pay for it and then to find a table. But it all worked out in the end.

Being packed meant sharing a table and I spent some time talking to a couple from Melbourne who were heading off to the Spain the next day with little idea of what their itinerary was, they were not even sure which airport they were flying to though it sounded like Seville.

The curry was followed by a coffee and some cake (more queueing but not quite as bad) and then I was ready for Fabric of India.

This was in the main exhibition space which meant that it would be a long session but I had plenty of time to take it steadily. Being the main exhibition meant that there was a bog book to sell and that meant lots of people around to stop photographs being taken. I expected that and was ready for it but after I had seen everything (it would not matter if they threw me out then) I went back to the beginning partially just to make sure that I had not missed anything (I had) and to take a picture if I could.

The thing I missed was very early on, due a crown of people in the area, was a small room covered in colourful wall hangings. There was a seat for a guard in it but he was away at the time (he came back soon after) and so I took the one picture that I wanted.

What I had also missed on the first time round due to the crowds was the bit explaining why the fabric trade grew up in India in the first place (cloth and dyes). Reading about that on the second time around helped the rest of it to make more sense.

The main message from this starting point was the constant flow of trade and ideas both east and west. Two examples of this were the import of designs from Persia and the export of chintz dresses to the UK where they caused a commentator to remark that it was becoming hard to tell a servant from a lady.

The centre piece of the exhibition was a large tent from around 1750 decorated with large floral patterns and a bench in the middle to sit and appreciate it. Elsewhere there were clothes of all kind, including some very cute outfits for small children and some modern reimaginings of classic themes, and more hangings. Most of it was dyed by hand using wooden presses, as I had seen done in Jaipur, but there was some needlework too.

It was a bold colourful assault on the senses which I was delighted to wallow in for an hour and a half. The V&A does this sort of thing rather well.

26 December 2015

Boxing Day walk though Kew Gardens

The plan to go to Kew Gardens on Boxing Day was hatched the previous day, i.e. Christmas Day. I was spending Christmas with relatives in Hanwell (East of Ealing) and that included several relatives up from Chichester for a couple of days.

The youngest of us, Amy aged , had got a decent camera for Christmas and was looking for an opportunity to try it out. As they were all coming to our house in Ham it made sense to go to Kew which is approximately half way.  Helping the idea were our Kew membership cards that let us each take one extra person in for free. That means that just the other seven people had to pay.

I went to Kew by bus and go there a little earlier than planned so killed some time by walking around Kew Green. This is unfairly split by the main road leaving the cricket pitch on one side and the pond on the other. I took the long route around the pond and took a picture of it, and the aptly named Pond House, as I went.

Years ago I released a mouse I caught in a humane trap in my house there but there was no sign of it this time.

The necessary time filled, I headed to Elizabeth Gate where I met the rest of the family once they had found somewhere to park their BMWs.

Some of them had not been to Kew Gardens before and none had been recently so I took them on a tour of the main sites, starting with the Princess of Wales Conservatory and then, probably the mainest site of all, the Palm House.

It always looks magnificent and on this day it was the grey building set against the grey sky that caught my attention.

It would have been easy to overlook the Waterlily House but I was a good guide and made sure that they saw this too. Having been replanted not that long ago the vegetation had already reclaimed most of the building, in the nicest possible way.

We walked around it slowly, the central pond in circular, and I paid more attention to the planting around the edge than I normally do. I was impressed, as I often am in Kew, with the variety of plants that can be easily overlooked with a casual look.

Going to the Treetop Walkway was somebody else's idea. It was further into the gardens than I had expected to do an also I was aware that some of them were much less good at heights than I am. This was quickly obvious when two of the young men refused to even try walking up there and reinforced when their dad gave up half way up the triangular staircase. That still left one of the nervous people in the group and he made it successfully to the top and all the way around.

From there it was a nice walk back to the Orangery to collect the oldest member of the group who had been left there with a coffee and a son for comfort before heading home for a late lunch.

Plans were then made to bring the young photographer back to Kew Gardens when the orchid festival is on as that is a fabulous time to take lots of colourful pictures. I'll do the same.

22 December 2015

Forget me Not at Bush Theatre told a sad story with sympathy and intelligence

The Bush Theatre is on my list of favourite theatres where I check the listings regularly and go to see quite a few of the shows. Competition for time is tough so while I see quite a few shows there I still need some sort of compelling reason to see a show to go. The compelling reason this time was Eleanor Bron.

One of the reasons that I like the Bush Theatre is the cafe which is a welcoming place to wait before the show and to grab a moment with the cast afterwards. This visit worked exceedingly well and I managed to both have something Christmassy (a mince-pie with my coffee on arrival) and a reminder of India (the stew of the day was spinach and paneer). All that remained was to get a beer to take into the theatre. A promising start to the evening.

For once I relaxed and did not fight to be near the front of the queue but still managed to be near enough to the front of the queue to get a seat in the middle of one of the two front-rows.

The seating is arranged slightly differently on each visit that I make and this time it was just on two sides of the stage. As usual the staff were on the look-out for people trying to take photographs of the set and as usual (but not always) I managed to take one anyway. I really have no idea why they do that when most theatres do not bother.

Starting the play with an actor on stage is a common trope and as we entered the main character, Russell Floyd as Gerry.

When the play started Gerry nervously entered a house in Liverpool for an emotional, and difficult, meeting with Eleanor Bron. His Australian accent and her Liverpudlian one suggested why they had not met for a long time.

The story then went back to Australia and we gradually learned about how the meeting came about and why it was necessary. This was the story of children deported to the colonies for their own good over a period of several decades. A lot of the details became public when Gordon Brown made an apology for the scheme in 2010. By telling us just one of the 130,000 stories Forget me Knot made the tale more personal and more dramatic.

The simplest way of interpreting the story was that Gerry was damaged by his harsh and unloved childhood, he had been a slave on a farm, and this had led to his broken life that included busts of rage and heavy use of alcohol. I think that there was more to the story than that and there were hints in the Eleanor Bron character that some of this may have been inherited; the old nature v nurture debate. Russell Floyd and I disagreed over this afterwards.

Whatever the truth of the story it was told with panache, wit and a little magic. The magic was the set changes that were made in the total dark and the last change was made with the lights still on to let us into the secret.

The only two other cast members played their supporting roles well, Sarah Ridgeway as Gerry's daughter Sally who helped to keep him roughly on an even keel and Sargon Yelda as the man who solved the mystery of Gerry's past. I was pleased to be able to grab a few words with Sargon at the station afterwards. It was only later when researching for this blog that I realised that this was the fourth time that I had seen him on stage, twice at the Bush and twice at the Arcola.

Forget me Not and the Bush Theatre did all that I could have asked of them all evening, an intelligent and thoughtful play in a good setting.

21 December 2015

Theatre In The Pound at The Cockpit (December 2015)

I had not been to Theatre in the Pound since March due to a series of clashes so it was good to get back there in December. I had missed it.

The Cockpit is conveniently situated just off Lisson Grove which makes it a decent walk there after work and convenient for the tube home afterwards. I walked there the fairly direct way behind Kings Cross, through Euston and then along Marylebone Road. The highpoint of the walk was getting a pasty at Marylebone Station and the low point was being very nearly run over very soon after in what proved not to be a one-way street after all.

No damage was done and I got to the Cockpit around 6:45pm in good time for the 7:00pm start. I headed for the bar and my disappointment in the lack of Budvar (they had sold out) was tempered by the presence of Staropramen. The bottles were smaller though and I was on my second when we went in. I took my usual seat in the front row of the central section ready for the six acts listed on the programme.

Nic McQuillan opened the evening with his monologue Arboretum which took a whimsical view of modern middle-class life, i.e. more or less exactly what Nic was living. The summary (I think!) was that while there is a stereotype that neatly fits 10 million people they are still all individuals with their own stories to tell. I liked it.

OddBod Theatre gave us The Rounds in which a brash American actor was interviewed by a TV presenter (a woman) who was keen to get at some of the darker aspects of his character, notably his anger. There was a sort of cat and mouse game where the cat ultimately won because he was the star and he had brought his lawyers with him. That part was also played very well and that was what impressed me most about this segment.

Sophia Leuner's Save and Quit took us up to the interval. It hit the ground running and never stopped. It told two different stories, a young woman just starting a teaching career in a challenging comprehensive school and a young man coming to terms with his father's death and the implications of that. The two actors were on stage all the time with the spotlight moving between them as they took turns to progress their stories. There was a lot in those stories, good, bad and funny, and I was gripped. In the final moment the two stories came together as she bought an xbox from him.

The script was packed with good ideas, shifting moods and clever construction and this was delivered superbly by the two actors. It was worth going just for those fifteen minutes.

While I did not find this in the least derivative it evoked memories of Blink at the Soho Theatre and Christmas at the White Bear Theatre, both of which I liked. My first, and somewhat clumsy, contribution to the after performance discussions was to say that I had paid good money to see similar plays and I would gladly pay good money to see the full version of this one.

The interval brought me another bottle of Staropramen.

Katarina Rankovic's Rosa and Lawrence Where Here opened the second half with another high point. Rosa and Lawrence were two characters in a script and they needed two performers to bring that script, and them, alive. Two volunteers from the audience came out to read while in the background we saw videos of some previous performances. Having three things to focus on (script, actors and video) made for a nicely layered presentation where we could argue about the relative merits of each, such as whether the characters in the script were more important to the performance than the actors.

As an example of this, one person in the discussion after the piece suggested that the text be simplified as the actors had stumbled over some of the words (they were reading the script for the first time) but then I said that I liked the mistakes as that reminded us that they were actors and not Rosa and Lawrence. There is no right answer to this and it was nice to explore other views on the performance with the rest of the audience.

You can find out more about Rosa and Lawrence on Katrina's website. Here you can see videos of people reading the script and even download the script to record a new video for the archive. I do not think that I will go that far but it was good to see other people have a go.

Dramango then gave us The Post Office, an improvised performance set in which a variety of characters visited the post office with consistent lack of success. They were normally ushered out with the advice to go to the main post office.

It was funny though I, and this is a personal choice, would have preferred some variety in the mood of the stories and I would also have liked them to be a little longer. There were something like ten visitors in the fifteen minutes so it tended to be quick-fire and to use obvious characters that we could appreciate quickly. I am also not much of a fan of improvised performances.

Despite these misgivings it was funny and I enjoyed it.

Letters to Centre Stage closed the evening with an excerpt from their play OLU in which the titular character is a fourteen year old girl arriving in Nigeria from England and starting in her new school. The section we saw included a discussion on why somebody would want to go from England to Nigeria, the reporting of Africa in the western media and the impact of colonialism. There were also some typical teenage rivalries.

I struggled a little bit with this one though some of those struggles eased in a chat over a beer afterwards. Seeing a small part of a full play made it hard to see the context and also to understand what its message was. I made a comment in the feedback session about the simple way in which some political arguments were presented (listening to Africa Today regularly helped me here) and it was only in the response that I learned that the girls were only fourteen (they were played by women in their twenties) and that politics was a very small part of the play and the simplicity of the arguments used was one of the points being made.

After a slow start when I said nothing about the first two acts, I joined in the discussions on all of the others and continued those discussions with cast and audience members in the interval and at the end. All of that is important to me otherwise Theatre in the Pound would just be six short shows that are all deliberately not quite ready for public display.

As somebody who is interested in the art of theatre and not just in the consumption of it, Theatre in the Pound gives me great insights in to how theatre happens and entertains me at the same time. It is a marvellous combination, and it only costs a pound!

20 December 2015

Hawkwind put lots of space into space rock at Christmas Solstice Party 2015

Hawkwind usually do a concert in London around Christmas time and I usually go to it. Often this is the only chance I get to see Hawkwind live (I first saw them in Southampton in 1976) so it goes into my diary as soon as the date is announced.

In recent years the home for this concert had been the Shepherds Bush Empire and it was due to be held there again until a structural fault in the roof meant a new venue was required and so I made my first trip to the Coronet in Elephant and Castle. I had walked around that area a few times, for example when going to the Southwark Playhouse, but I had no idea that the Coronet was there.

I went from home via Waterloo and walked the last leg down to the Elephant and Castle. Citymapper suggested that a bus might have been quicker but it was marginal and walking was more reliable and a healthier option too.

I knew that Elephant and Castle was going through significant rebuilding (regeneration as it is always billed these days in the bold assumption that the new will be much better than the old) and the first evidence for this came when I had to navigate the large roundabout that defines the area using temporary paths that crossed through the middle of it.

The venue was easy to find as there was a long queue of people waiting to go in. A much longer queue than I expected. It went a hundred meters or more and crossed the tube station as it did so. Security staff were positioned there to maintain gaps in the queue to allow people in and out of the station and also to prevent people from joining the queue at one of the gaps thinking that was the end of the queue, a mistake I myself also made. I spotted Ralph in the queue, much nearer the front than me, and not realising how long the queue was at that stage I missed that opportunity to join him.

I hit the queue at 7:30pm, that about half an hour after the doors were due to open which is why I was surprised at the length of the queue. The queue moved sedately due to the stringent security checks and by the time that I got in the support band, System 7, who Wikipedia describe as ambient dance. I have bought ambient music (e.g. ENO) and dance music (e.g. Prodigy) but neither is a genre that I am madly keen on and this combination did nothing for me. It was one long piece that had some interesting moments but no direction and no purpose. They were something of a Marmite band with a few people dancing along wildly and most of the aged rockers, like myself, deeply unimpressed.

Luckily we did not have too long to wait until Hawkwind came on. By then I had got myself reasonably close to the front and reasonable close to the centre, both of which I had not expected to do. It was still a struggle to see a.t times as everybody around me seemed to be a foot taller than me, as usual, and there were one or two idiots bouncing around, as usual. I almost retired to the bar towards the end when the idiots were being particularly idiotic but they went to the bar instead and never came back.

This was a spacier Hawkwind than I remembered with Tim Blake's various electronic devices, including his theremin, dominating the sound. This was more Space than Rock, though there was plenty of rock there too.

The spacieness meant elongated songs with long musical wanderings in the middle. Because of this they only played eleven songs all night despite being on the stage for a couple of hours. Most of the songs were familiar (Utopia, Motorway City, Born to Go, Shot Down in the Night, Lord of Light), a few were new (Prometheus, Hail to the Machine) and a few were bonafide classics, i.e. big favourites of mine, (Orgone Accumulator, Hassan I Sahba, Master of the Universe).

Note the absence of Brainstorm, Spirit of the Age and Silver Machine. These were not particularly missed though as the songs chosen were excellent and they clearly could not play all of their "greatest hits" in just two hours.

In one of his few announcements, Dave Brock said that the current line-up was the longest running in the band's history. That seemed surprising but if anybody knows then that would be Dave. That line-up was Dave Brock (guitars), Richard Chadwick (drums), Tim Blake (keyboards), Niall Hone (guitars), Mr Dibs (guitars), and Dead Fred (keyboards). They were joined by Steve Hillage (more guitars) for most of the songs. With four guitars and two keyboards you can guess what it sounded like.

We also had a dancer for a few songs. This cheered the audience up noticeably as young women tend to cheer up middle-aged men but I felt that she added little to the show. I suspect that the band felt that we needed something more to watch than swirling graphics during the long instrumental sections. The obvious comparison was with Ms Angel who enlivens Space Ritual's performances and this comparison grew when this dancer appeared in a glittery outfit with extended batwing sleeves.

This was Hawkwind on good form in front of a large and appreciative audience. Despite the late change of venue the sound quality was excellent, possibly helped by me being a little further back than usual and so getting a better balance from the two sets of speakers.

There were more pleasant surprises after the concert as on the way out I met a few more familiar faces from such concerts, people like Melissa.

As long as Hawkwind feel like touring and continue to deliver shows like this then I am going to continue to see them. It has been a happy tradition of mine for the last thirty nine years and long may it continue.

15 December 2015

Sumptuous Sleeping Beauty at Sadler's Wells

A recent Christmas tradition, and one that I heartily approve of, is to go and see a Matthew Bourne ballet and this usually mean a trip to Sadler's Wells. Of course there are other occasions and other theatres where his style of dance can be appreciated and I get to as many of those as I can, even when it means going to Wimbledon to do so.

I had been to see Sleeping Beauty almost three years previously and rereading that write-up now it almost reads as if I was damning it with faint praise so I was a little cautious when going to see it again. Being cautious did not extent to missing the show or even going for cheaper seats and so I went for my usual place, the Second Circle, and my usual front-row seat, this time it was A17 and it cost me £32. I had been there or thereabouts before and I like it there.

Sadler's Wells goes for the heavy safety curtain so there is nothing very much to photograph but I took a "my view" shot anyway. The safety rail looks prominent but it was not, I had the camera low to avoid attention and, even so, the bar was still below the stage.

Having seen Sleeping Beauty just the once, and then a few years previously, there was much about the performance that I had forgotten and so could appreciate for the first time again.

What was familiar to me was the Tchaikovsky music and the general flavour of the choreography, and I liked both so I knew that I was in for a treat.

Watching Sleeping Beauty again enabled me to appreciate from of the bigger things that I had missed the first time when trying to catch all the detail. The story was very well told. I like the way that Matthew Bourne tells stories with his dances whereas classic ballet often uses a simple story to stage set dances. The dancing, like the story, was split in two halves, before and after the long sleep. Before the sleep the style was Edwardian tea dance, though with Bourne's unusual movements, and after the sleep the dance was modern. The Sleeping Beauty spent a surprising amount of the time in the air being lifted, carried, thrown and (thankfully) caught.

I appreciated the little stuff again too. Bourne's choreography makes great use of arms, heads and legs to make angular shapes that if somebody on the tube made would make you laugh but here the shapes were joined by the movement to transition between them and the music to set the pace and the mood. The combined package was a thing of beauty. Humour played a part too, as it always does with Bourne.

All the little touches in the story, movement, set and costumes added to the richness of the experience and it is that richness that endears me to Bourne so much.

11 December 2015

Saying a fond farewell to Stackridge

Originally I was happy to see Stackridge twice on their farewell tour but the arguments mounted for seeing them a third and final time. The argument could be summarised as "what would be the reason for not going?". So I went.

I had already been to the two London concerts, at the Half Moon and the Borderline, so the third concert meant a little more travelling - to Farncombe (never heard of it) which seemed to be close to Guildford (heard of that). There were not many trains between there are Surbiton, only one or two an hour each way, but that was enough to make the travel possible.

Having decided to go, I bought my ticket, which was just as well as the place sold-out, and that was impressive for a venue in the middle of nowhere that takes 350 people.

The advice was to arrive early, with the doors opening at 6:45pm, but the unhelpful train times meant that I could not get there until 7:30pm and by then all the seats were taken and jealously protected. That meant that I ended up standing right at the back when every other time that I had seen Stackridge I had been standing at the front.

In the end my position worked well. Standing meant that I could easily see over all the people sitting in front of me (which I could not have done had I been sitting in the middle somewhere) and the balance of the sound was perfect (the mixing desk was just in front of me, that is the lights in the picture above). Standing also meant that I could sway a bit to the music, always a good thing to do.

The set was, as far as I can tell, identical to other concerts on this tour, as expected and wanted. Standing further back helped me to appreciate the quality of the sound and there was a lot of quality to appreciate. The acoustics were spot on too and while I am not a fan of church architecture aesthetically I do like what it does to sound.

The concert was fantastic and even the little bit of talking behind me could not spoil that. Stackridge played for almost two sublime hours.

I had another motive for attending this concert and that was to try and meet the band. I had not done that before, nor had I tried too, and this would be my last opportunity to say "thank you" in person. This time the train timetable helped and I had half an hour after the show before I had to make the short trip back to the station. In that time I was lucky enough to swap a few words with Glenn Tommey (keyboards), Andy Cresswell-Davis (lead guitar), James Warren (bass), and Clare Lindley(violin), only Eddie John (drums) escaped me.

Those words were mostly me saying thanks and how much I liked the current combination of set and line-up. In return I heard that the band were also very happy with the way the tour was going and that most of them would carry on playing in some form after Stackridge stopped and that some of them would be playing together. That is definitely something to look out for in 2016.

It was a sad occasion to see Stackridge for the last time but they left on a high-note, I had the opportunity to say a proper farewell and I have the memories of many wonderful concerts.

8 December 2015

Pride and Prejudice: The Panto at The Cockpit was a feast of frivolity

It is not often that I can unreservedly recommend a theatre production but I can with Pride and Prejudice: The Panto at The Cockpit. Of course you have to like panto, but who doesn't?

My diary leading up to Christmas was still a mess with several dates that ought to have had theatres in them still blank and one of those days was this Tuesday. A quick trawl around some of my favourite theatres (I keep a list of links) gave me Pride and Prejudice: The Panto and the simple idea of it was enough to get me to book it. At a miserly £14 it was a ridiculous bargain and an easy decision to make.

The Cockpit is not that hard to get to but it is a little out of the way when compared to most of the other theatres that I go to and, in particular, it lacks a decent local pub that does food. I knew that there was a Pakistani restaurant across the road (Original Lahore) but had never had time to go there before. This time I cheated and took a tube some of the way to give me time to eat. It was my first curry since India and I loved it. I'll be back there.

I slipped across the road to the theatre not long before the 7:30pm start but with enough time to get a bottle of Budvar, as I always do there.

It happened to be the first night (I am far more used to booking the very last one!) but I was not worried about any roughness as it was panto and things going wrong is all part of the fun. In the end the most serious thing that I noticed go wrong was when one of Elizabeth's shoes flew off and this situation was easily recovered by Mr Darcy disdainfully returning it.

For the first time that I can recall, I chose a seat in the second row as I remembered that the front-row seats are very low. The stage was already occupied as we settled down.

Pride and Prejudice: The Panto was many things. It was the story from the book and we had Jane Austen there to tell us about it. We also had a mischievous Charles Dickens trying to subvert things by making the plot more like one of his (Hard Times or Bleak House). We had a few songs, including classics like "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me". We had a pantomime dame, Mrs Bennet. There were two puppets for the younger daughters and a broom for one of the suitors.

Above all it was a panto with jokes, topical references, the audience shouting "Calm down, Mrs Bennet!" and booing Dickens, a Blind Date, a wet shirt, an unfair comment about my tie, and just enough bawdiness to make it edgy but not dirty.

It was fabulously entertaining throughout. A lot of this was done to the sheer number of fun things packed into the play and the rest of it was down to the excellent cast and creatives, I counted over a dozen people at the curtain call.

With so many stars it is a little unfair to highlight just a few of them, but I will anyway. James Walker-Black as Mrs. Bennet (and other roles, including Cilla Black) was always at the centre of action and the main responder to the audience which required a lot different skills including a few accents and some ad-libbing. Dannie Pye was wonderfully aloof as Mr Darcy and went above and beyond the call of duty in the wet shirt. Freya Evans was cute as Jane Austen and charming as Charles Bingley.

I will make the point again though, this was a panto and a panto relies on a large cast to all play their parts well and here they most definitely did.

The audience reaction was the best measure of the success of the production and everybody else there was laughing, cheering, clapping, shouting and applauding as much as I was.

Pride and Prejudice: The Panto was enormous fun and was exactly what an adult panto should be. Christmas was invented for shows like this.

7 December 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Ai Weiwei could be the most famous artist at the moment but I knew very little about his work. Obviously I was aware that he was a prominent Chinese dissident (the BBC delights in telling us stories about dissidents in China and Russia while ignoring stories about our own) and I would have gone to see his work, Sunflower Seeds, at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in 2010 if not for visitors being stopped from walking through it for health and safety reasons. That was not enough to make me want to go to the Royal Academy (RA) to see an exhibition of his work.

What swung it was the very positive reviews that I had seen, mostly via Twitter but also via the Art Fund app.

The popularity of the show meant that it was going to be busy whenever I went so I thought that I would go first thing (10am) on a weekday. I had some odd days of leave left to take and a day going to exhibitions was a good way to spend one of those days.

I took advantage of my Art Fund membership to get a ticket for £15.

The route to the RA was easy enough, bus to Richmond, District Line to Hammersmith, Piccadilly Line to Green Park and, finally, a short walk along Piccadilly. That takes about an hour without rushing so I was able to have bit of a welcome lie-in. On the day the lie-in overran slightly and I got to the RA around 10:15, still in good time for the first visiting slot for the exhibition.

The exhibition consisted of eleven connected rooms that I walked around once slowly and then went back around again to revisit my favourites. I took several pictures in each room and used a lot of self-restraint to pick just seven for this blog post.

Straight was in Room 3. The main story here was an earthquake in China which had killed a lot of people, including school children, and poor construction methods were blamed for causing many of the deaths. Ai Weiwei took the twisted and broken rebars (reinforcing bars) from the collapsed buildings, straightened them out and arranged them into this wavy pattern.

I deliberately took this picture with lots of people in it to show how big it was though, to be honest, it would have been impossible to take a picture like this without lots of people in it. It was busy and getting busier.

As with all of Ai Weiwei's work there were two aspects to it, the artistic impression and the political meaning behind it. I could appreciate Straight as a work of art but was unable to comment on the extent to which poor building construction caused deaths and even less able to comment on the Chinese government's role in this.

Next door in Room 4 were two pieces arising from a studio he built in Shanghai but which was never opened and was quickly demolished. Again, I've only heard Weiwei's side of the story so cannot comment on that meaningfully.

Souvenir from Shanghai was constructed from materials recovered from the demolished building. As with a similar piece in Room 1, I liked the way that the materials were put together to make something very solid and somewhat strange.

River Crabs, three thousand of them, represented the gallery opening after-party that happened despite the gallery not opening. I liked the absurdity of the piece and also the effort and skill that had gone in to making it.

Coloured Vases in Room 5 asked another set of awkward questions and again I was not entirely on Ai Weiwei's side. The questions were around antiquity and art, is an ancient vase improved if it is turned into modern art? In the most modest example, above, the vases were "improved" by painting them and in the most extreme one was "improved" by throwing it on to the ground to shatter as a piece of performance art.

I'm with antiquity on that one. If you want to destroy a vase then make a new one.

Room 7 had works made out of marble. In the background is Marble Stroller and the large piece on the floor is, unsurprisingly, Grass. As with others of his works, the construction was the thing that impressed me the most, then the appearance then the political point.

Possibly surprisingly after what I have said, one of the most overly political pieces was one that I liked the most. This was in Room 10. Ai Weiwei had been detained for dissent and he made six half-size models of this time.

Each of the cells had one small window on one side and another on the top so that we could look in. Each scene showed part of his simple daily routine, such as eating, having a shower or going to the toilet. Two guards watched him closely all the time.

The construction was, again, impressive but this time the political message shone through and seeing somebody incarcerated in a small room with two people watching over them was an easy message to understand.

The final piece, in Room 11, Bicycle Chandelier was the most approachable. It was what its name suggests, a chandelier made from parts of bicycles. It was commissioned for this exhibition and fitted the high domed room neatly.

The exhibition was very mixed in terms of the materials used, the sizes of the pieces and the motivations for producing them. Helping to make sense of all this was an audio guide and I made good use of this as I went round. There was a short audio for every piece which I listened to though I skipped the additional audio sections except for when I played them by mistake.

Ai Weiwei, for me, lacked the continual wow moments that the David Hockney exhibition had but there was plenty enough in there to demand an hour and a half of my time and to make me want to walk around for a second time to see some of them again. 

I am still not a great Ai Weiwei fan but the exhibition helped me to understand and appreciate his work, I also liked a lot of it. Straight was my clear favourite.

5 December 2015

Huf Hauser in Kingston Vale

I am interested in architecture and love Huf Hauser so I jumped at the opportunity to see inside a couple of them in Kingston Vale. The opportunity arose via the Kingston upon Thames Society - the houses (hauser) had won an award in their Townscape Awards and discussions with the owners over this had led to an invitation to visit them.

Each Huf Haus is carefully designed individually to meet the requirements of the owner and the features of the site. In this case the owner had gone for an Asian theme that was reflected in the landscaping, objects of art and the house names.

The first house was a single family home split over three floors. The impressive main living space was on the first (middle) floor which was also the level of the garden. This picture was taken with the kitchen area behind me, the dinning area immediately in front and the living area beyond that.

The room was very practicable, i.e. I could easily imagine myself living there, vast in size and had lots of glass to let the light and views of the garden to flood in.

This view of the approach to the kitchen/dining/living area gives more of an idea of how big that area was, that is quite a large dining table that is almost lost in the space at the far end, and also of how big the corridor space was; most rooms in most houses are smaller than that corridor.

Other rooms were more problematic. The house was littered with what were clearly bedrooms, i.e. they had en suite bathrooms, what could have been bedrooms and other rooms that could have been anything. This large room on the ground (lower) floor was a case in point. It was one of the larger rooms, even in this house, and had lots of light from the windows but I could not see how I would use it if I lived there. It could have been a home office, I suppose, but there were several other rooms that could have been that.

I said that Huf Hauser were designed to the owner's requirements so I am sure that each room had an intended purpose and that this would have been clearer had the construction completely finish and the rooms been furnished but impressed as I was by the enormous size of the building and the sleek design I just could not see how I could make use of all of that space.

The house next door was designed in the same style but for a different purpose and only over two floors. To be simplistic, it was like two family homes stitched together so that one of the halves could be given over to children, elderly relatives or even rented out as a self-contained property. It was much easier for me to see how all the rooms could be used in each of these scenarios.

The main space in the main part of the house was, again, the most impressive space. This time I took the photo from the far end of the living area which ran up to the first partial partition, the dining area next and the kitchen area at the far end with the units behind an island that ran almost the full width of the room. Add to this views of the garden on both sides and it was a living space that was both practicable and pretty.

I had already been a fan of Huf Hauser for many years and this visit just made me a bigger one.

1 December 2015

The Drunken City at the Tabard was a good introduction to a new theatre

Going to see The Drunken City at the Tabard Theatre was a late decision, and a good one. I had not got back into the swing of theatre booking after my two weeks' holiday and a lot of theatres had seasonal shows on that were of no interest to me so I had an unusually free diary and the burning desire to fill it.

I was feeling a little lazy (I seem to have had a strength-sapping cold for weeks) so I wanted a theatre close to a tube station and, preferably, fairly close to home too. I tried some of the obvious ones and was either not quite tempted or already had booked to go there, so I had to try something a little different.

I thought of The Tabard because the landlord of my local mentioned it, his daughter had done comedy classes there and, knowing I like small theatres, had been surprised that I had not been there. The theatre is above the pub of the same name and right next door to Turnham Green station so it was a good candidate. The Drunken City sounded like fun so play so the deal was done. A couple of minutes on their website just a few hours before the play started and the deal was done.

I got to the pub around 6:30 and helped myself to a rather tasty pint of Routemaster Red. Their website had promised all sorts of edible goodies but, for technical reasons, they were only doing burgers so it is just as well that their veggie-burger was tasty.

The pub itself was cute and interesting having been built originally on the border of the arts and crafts inspired Bedford Park and there was some pretty tiling that I hope was original.

The Tabard Theatre was directly above the pub but, for reasons that I never worked out, the staircase up there was outside, much as you would expect a fire escape to be.

The theatre surprised me by having proper raked seating. I counted around ninety seats which was another surprise as I was expecting it to be more on the scale of, say, the Old Red Lion or the White Bear.

Those seats were sturdy and thick with red velvet so they could well have been original. I sat near the middle of the front-row, the steps up were in the middle, which proved to be a good plan as there did not seem to be that much leg room behind judging by the way that the young woman behind me's legs stuck into the aisle close to my head.

Immediately in front of my seat was a cobbled street running at an angle across the shallow stage with black board on the left side on to which images of a city were projected. Gaps between the boards were roads that the cast used to enter and exit the stage.

We joined three young women on a night out in the city to celebrate their three engagements. They told us about their fiancees and luckily one of them had the foresight to bring photos of them to show us. They were all very happy and very girlie in showing us their rings. The mood changed when one of the girls spoke to us about the city and its character. The girls were away from home and they should take care when in the city.

They left and we met two men out for a quieter night mostly because one of them was still pinning over the girlfriend who dumped him ages ago and so had no heart for finding another girl, despite his friend's urging.

Then we met the three girls again, this time on a bachelorette party. This was sometime after we first met them and while one was about to get married another was no longer engaged. The girls then met the boys and the pinning boy and the bride-to-be took an unexpected shine to each other which everybody else tried to quash. The scene was then set for looking at the various relationships, old and forming, between the players set against a city with its foreign ways, strange temptations and lack of respect for the people within it.

That looking was done with a lot of humour, they were mostly drunk after all, a touch of anger, some tenderness and a few thought-provoking ideas. It was a lot of intelligent fun without ever being trivial or too heavy. And it had a happy ending (of sorts).

It was an ensemble performance with six actors in total. None particularly stood out for me in either a good or a bad way but that was largely because it was a play without starring roles. The production was pretty simple and again that suited the play. The projections of the city were all that were needed to take us there and the snatches of music helped to describe the mood.

The heady mixture of the good play, the decent pub, the fine beer and the reasonable food put the Tabard Theatre firmly on my map and I shall be looking to get back there soon,