29 December 2016

London lights (2016)

I was in London for other things, a fun theatre matinee and then the disappointing Liberty Sale, and took the opportunity to see some of the Christmas lights. I had seen the lights in Carnaby Street in other years and had been impressed by them and had heard good things about this year's display in Regent Street.

My little journey started conveniently enough in the Liberty Cafe were I consoled myself with a pot of tea and a toasted tea cake having failed to buy any Liberty print shirts in their sale on the simple grounds that there were none. They had plenty at full price on the shelves and on the racks but none in the sale. I am not aware of this happening before and I have no idea why their sale was so restricted this year.

From there I just had to walk to the side of the shop and I was in Carnaby Street. I don't think that I have ever bought anything there and I have only ever been in one or two of the shops but I have always liked walking down the street because of the buzz.

A lot of that comes from the tourists, foreign and domestic, who make no attempt to hide their delight in being in this iconic street and who take copious pictures of it and of themselves.

This year the lights were words of Love and Hope which were uplifting as well as pretty.

Regent Street was spectacular and even better than my high expectations of it.

I walked up the middle of the road (there is an island) to get the best view of the angels and while a few other people were also doing that I was surprised that there were not a lot more.

This picture shows the angels in full wing. The tableaux went through a cycle with the wings lighting one at a time from the bottom until they were all lit then they all went out and the cycle started again.

They made the fight through the heavy human traffic to Oxford Circus a pleasure.

Luv at Park Theatre was fun

Luv had been on my want-to-see list for a while, just because it sounded like fun. It also helped that it won a number of Tony awards and nominations, among them Best Play and Best Author of a Play when it was first produced on Broadway in 1964.

It moved to the want-to-see list to the booked-to-see list only a few hours before I went to see it as I toyed with my schedule for the day, eventually choosing the matinee performance over the evening one.

Park Theatre may be some distance away from home but it was a simple enough journey with a train to Vauxhall and then a tube to Finsbury Park. The only hassle was that the north exit at Finsbury Park was closed leaving me with a 500m walk to the theatre rather than a 100m one.

I arrived just before 3pm for a 3:15pm show and a short queue had already formed, as I had expected. I grabbed a tea and joined the queue some of which dissipated when people realised that they were in the wrong queue as they were there to see the other show in Park200. We did not have long to wait and we were soon allowed to go in.

I was surprised my the layout. On all my previous visits there had been seating on two or three sides of the stage but this time it was laid out traditionally with the stage across one end of the room and then several straight rows of seats.

My good timing got me a seat in the middle of the front row where I faced a bridge and two benches. There a man was contemplating suicide until an unexpected encounter with a school friend from fifteen years earlier.

The two mens lives had gone very differently since school, one had struggled to find any direction and that was why he was not contemplating suicide and the other had become a financial success and he even showed us his silk underpants to prove it. The underpants reveal was a taste of the humour that ran through the play, quirky and unexpected. To give another example from early on that I liked, the successful man said that he was more in love than he was when he got married the only problem was his wife would not let him get a divorce so that he could marry the woman he loved. End of spoliers.

Then the wife joined the two men on the bridge and the triumvirate was complete. And what a strange and complicated triumvirate it proved to be as it morphed into a play about three very different characters each frustrated with aspects of their lives.

As the story developed the witty dialogue continued. It was something like a long episode of Frasier with some distinct, and distinctly odd, characters finding themselves in an unusual situation and trying to get the best for themselves out of it. And like Frasier the humour was solid and steady but more inclined to conjure broad smiles than audible laughs. If you liked Frasier then you would like Luv. I liked Frasier.

The only slight disappointment was they all played their parts with American accents (and rightly so) which meant that it was hard to tell which one was Rex Fairbrother in The Archers. I looked it up afterwards and it was the successful man, not the failure as I had thought as he looked more like Rex.

Luv was an ideal seasonal tonic. Light and fluffy enough to lift the spirits with enough intelligence in there too to keep the brain ticking over.

23 December 2016

Thebes Land at Arcola Theatre was extraordinary

I'll start at the end.

Below a picture that Arcola Theatre posted on Twitter at the end of the final performance of Thebes Land. I'm one of the people standing, clapping and cheering on the far side of the cage.

I have never taken part in such a quick, enthusiastic and universal ovation. Only a very special play could do that, and Thebes Land was.

Thebes Land was a play about the making of a play. There were only two players, both pictured, Trevor White played the author and Alex Austin played both the subject and the actor playing the subject.

The author wanted to do a play about patricide and so had several meetings with a convict and these were always held in a locked basketball court. Because of that, so were the rehearsals for the play.

The play consisted of four distinct elements; firstly the author came out of the cage regularly to tell us some of the story about how the play was put together (such as the permissions that he had to get from the MoJ to see the prisoner,) secondly we saw some of the the meetings between the two men in prison and then, thirdly, the rehearsal sessions where the author and actor adapted those meetings into scenes from the play. These scenes were based on the meetings but were not exact copies with the author looking to tease specific ideas from a scene and the actor helping him to do so. Finally, the author looked to other references to patricide and a large part of this was the Oedipus legend, which is where the title of his play came from.

The intelligent structure of the play was a large part of the success of the play, as was its skillful delivery. The production was stuffed with clever theatre craft but kept well short of the line where craft become gimmick. I'll give just one simple example, just before the intermission the author read out a list of basketball terms given to him by the murdered to use in his play; the last one in the list was "half-time". We all clapped immediately because we were in tune with the play and recognised the signal for what it was and appreciated its construction.

Then there were the stories of how one man came to murder his father and how that became a play. Both stories were interesting, well paced and took a few unexpected turns. When the author talked about the murder being in the audience it just seemed right that he would be. There was a play called Thebes Land and I am sure that some of the story about how it came into being was true, including some of the things that the author said about himself, but just how much I have no idea. That blurring between fact and fiction was one of the other things that made the play work and it also made the fiction (if there was any!) believable.

Thebes Land was a superb play in every aspect, and I must mention the excellent performances from Trevor White and Alex Austin again. It was an extraordinary play.

20 December 2016

Benighted at Old Red Lion Theatre was neatly done

Without intending to, I found myself in something of a JB Priestly run and while this was with mixed results I was keen to see Benighted because it was billed as the original version of the story of a couple looking for shelter from a storm and finding themselves in a strange house which has been most famously used by The Rocky Horror Show.

It was also an excuse to go back to Old Red Lion theatre and pub. It was the pub first and that meant one of their pies. Nice it was too. So was the beer.

Having eaten I joined the queue that was starting to form at the bottom of the stairs and I was near enough to the front to get a good seat in the front row. It was an L shapes front-row and it was not obvious which were the best seats because of the shape of the stage and I settled for somewhere around the middle of the long side of the L.

The stage was suitably dark (I had to enhance the image below so that you could make any sense of it) and very woody.

It also quickly proved to be very flexible too as a few movements transformed part of it into a motor car. In this car, a typical 1920's open-top, were a young couple and a friend. They were lost somewhere in Wales and it was raining so they were looking for shelter. Any port in a storm they say and so they chose to go to a spooky gothic house where, after some reluctance, they were admitted.

What followed next was much as anticipated with unfriendly hosts, hints a plenty of mystery and moments of light amusement. I've never seen The Rocky Horror Show but I have seen plenty of episodes of Scooby-Doo and there were some obvious similarities. Benighted may not be original but it certainly predated those.

Another couple came to the house looking for shelter, a middle-aged businessman and a young chorus girl that he had adopted for the evening to provide some company and other pleasures.

Then the plot veered sharply from the standard Scooby-Doo script.

A relationship developed between the couple's friend and the chorus girl, there really was something weird going on in the house, and there was real menace about. Somebody died.

The play ended on a satisfying note that was both poignant and definitive, though far from happy.

The story did more than I expected, especially at the end, but the staging did much more than exceed expectations. I knew that it had Offie nominations for lighting and staging and I could see why. The small room became many places, inside and outside, and those places were filled with corridors, doors and stairs. A lot happened skillfully in a small space.

Benighted was a decent enough play and the masterful production lifted it several notches to make it a rewarding and entertaining evening.

14 December 2016

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (December 2016)

The only disappointment in December's BCSA "Get to Know You" Social evening is that I managed to compose my usual picture of my food almost exactly the same way that I did in November. I'll have to try harder next month!

Other than that it was a fabulous evening. There were about fifteen people there at one stage and while I did not get to talk to all of them I managed to speak to quite a few and had another evening of excellent conversations on a range of subjects with intelligent and interesting people. That is why I go every month.

The food and drink are a nice addition to the evenings too. The food was the mandatory smazeny syr (the clue is in the picture) and the drink was the usual Pilsner Urquell topped off with a final Zlaty Bazant. I was thirsty for some reason and was on my second pint by 7:15pm and I bought the Zlaty Bazant after 10pm and still finished it comfortably by the time the bar closed at 10:30. Don't worry though, I did drink a lot slower in the middle of the evening!

9 December 2016

Sheppey at Orange Tree Theatre was a timely political drama

As I go to everything at Orange Tree Theatre I do not pay much attention to what each play is about when I book it and the only thing I was sure about Somerset Maugham's play Sheppey as I sat down waiting for it to start was that it was not a comedy. From what I had read of his works, I expected a light period drama.

I got a political comedy set in London.

I was obviously in a barber's shop and not on a South Sea island.

Sheppey was the nickname of one of the barbers in the shop and this was his story.

He was in his late fifties (my guess) and lived with his wife who he had been happily married to for many years and their early twenties daughter who was engaged to a school teacher with aspirations.

Sheppey was the life and soul of the shop and was very popular with all the customers. He also had the gift of the gab and proved this early on by selling a customer a bottle of anti-grey lotion while pretending not to. The play started with a lot of laughs.

Almost as an aside we hear that Sheppey had been a witness to a criminal act and had felt sympathy for the criminal because of his poverty which Sheppey though was what had driven the man to criminality.

They Sheppey won some money and things changed. His daughter saw it as an opportunity to give a solid start to her married life, the owner of the barber's shop though it was a change for Sheppey to become a partner and Sheppey was thinking of giving of it away to those who needed it more than him. The stage was then set to explore both politics and religion from several angles with Sheppey being compared to Jesus and also being called bonkers.

The lightness of touch remained and there was some tenderness too as Sheppey's wife stood by him as he decided what to do with his money. The politics and religion became important parts of the story but they never swamped it.

Sheppey was a long play lasting almost three hours and requiring two intervals. A weaker play would have dragged but this did not and I was engaged and entertained throughout. It was an undoubted success and was warmly appreciated by the near capacity audience.

Sheppey (1933) was very much in the Orange Tree Theatre tradition of finding forgotten plays by well known writers and this one very much deserved to be found. It was a fine play with a message that was relevant today.

3 December 2016

Memento at The Old Moot House got me dancing

On almost any other night Memento would have been my first choice band but on this evening there were three good bands to choose between and Memento came a very close second to Nursery Cryme. Luckily the two gigs were close to each other and one was due to finish an hour earlier so I was able to see all of Nursery Cryme at The Oak before dashing to The Old Moot House to catch the end of Memento.

I arrived just as they were into Child In Time, which was an astoundingly good time to arrive. This was followed by Stargazer and I was singing along. It did not take much to get me dancing too.

There were a few familiar faces there and I had some pleasant conversations in between the songs. I went for the music and the social element was a nice bonus.

All too soon it was over. Memeno were, of course, called back for one more song and they finished with Highway Star. An excellent way to close an excellent set.

Nursery Cryme at The Oak

Nursery Cryme are obviously doing something right.

When I saw them play at The Oak in July the fans were enthusiastic but not that numerous and I our group of five easily got good seats at the music end of the bar. This time the place was packed and the best two of us could do was grab the final stool at the beer end of the bar, where we could hear but not see the band, for the first half and then stand at the far edge of the music end for the second half.

Those two halves were long halves too with Nursery Cryme playing from 8:30 to 9:30 and then from 10:00 to 11:00.

The Oak played its part too. I have had unfavourable experiences with their beer in the past but I had no complaints this night. They had four bitters on with a genuine choice to make (and something I would not dream of touching). I settled for the Adnams Southwold and that proved to be a good choice and one I repeated a couple of times over the evening.

Having seen Nursery Cryme twice before I had a good idea of what to expect though there were some new songs, including one from Wind and Wuthering (1976) which we referred to as Wuth and Windering at university for reasons that made sense at the time. My roommate and I also recorded a version of Your Own Special Way which was called Your Own Obvious Way and was dedicated to Mr Obvious who won that nickname for standing next to the pinball table (Big Ben) and saying obvious things. One lyric that I recall was, "I'm almost there my score's 53, He tells me I just need a G".

Nursery Cryme also seemed to have done a little on their presentation with the lead singer dressed all in white and everybody else all in black. Note a massive change but a noticeable one and it helped.

The Nursery Cryme mission is to play early Genesis songs as they were originally recorded and that requires skillful musicianship in all departments, which they have, and part of the joy in watching them perform is seeing the way that they play together and flourish individually. They play (generally) long complex songs to people who appreciate that sort of thing, not everybody does but those who do had a great time. And the growing following that they have quickly established shows that there are lots of fans for this sort of music played this well.

Nursery Cryme are obviously doing something right.

1 December 2016

Martin Turner ex Wishbone Ash at The Eel Pie Club

Somehow it had been a year since I last saw Martin Turner's version of Wishbone Ash play (at the Boom Boom Club in Sutton) and that was so good that I was clearly going to see them play at an even close venue, The Eel Pie Club in Twickenham.

I had been to The Eel Pie Club a couple of times before and found it something of a frustrating venue with its sunken stage area and restricted view for people of modest height. Knowing that I got there a little before the doors opened at 8:30pm.

Even so, all the prime seats had been taken by the time that I got in but I was not interested in seating and I was pleased to get a good standing position by the top of the stairs down to the pit. You can tell how good my view was from the photos.

With the doors not opening until quite late that gave me time to do a few things first. My evening started with a walk to the Eel Pie pub (nothing to do with the club) to meet a friend before we went to a curry house nearby for a couple of vindaloos. A good start to the evening.

I quickly came to appreciate my vantage point not just because of the uninterrupted view but also because I was well positioned to hear the band being a little way back from the stage. Normally I have to sacrifice the sound for the view but this time I had both.

The top photo shows what Martin Turner ex Wishbone Ash are all about, three guitars playing off each other while the drums keep them in order. The sound they made was the one they always have, blues inspired rock, whether it was a classic song from their 1972 album Argus (which Martin wrote most of) or a song from their most recent album Written in the Stars. These were long songs with plenty of guitar solos and we all loved them.

Somewhere along the way they played the whole of Argus, as they had done on a previous tour but not the last time that I saw them.

There were few surprises, even the joke Martin told was one he had told before, and that was as it should be. We had gone to hear classic Wishbone Ash and that is what Martin Turner ex Wishbone Ash delivered with panache and good humour. A happy band is a good band and they were both. I was very happy too.

28 November 2016

Aida at Richmond Theatre was greatly entertaining

Somehow in many years of opera going I had only ever seen Aida once before and that was eight years ago and so when it came touring to Richmond Theatre is was an easy decision to make to go and see it, despite this coming at the end of a busy week that included three other visits to theatres, a formal annual dinner and a night out on the beer and curry with friends. On the night it was almost tempting to stay at home and rest but I made the effort to go and was well rewarded for doing so.

I was late booking because of the other commitments that week and that meant that I could take advantage of a ticket offer which landed me Dress Circle  Row A  Seat  1 for £18.75. Row A is my favourite place but the seats at each end (1 and 26) have a handrail that obscures the view slightly. Luckily with Aidi the action was very much front and centre so that did not matter.

This was a touring version of the opera and the producers obviously felt that it needed beefing up a little for audiences more used to musicals and family-friendy plays. This came in the form of some extras just on stage to add a touch of glamour, a group of young cute dancers and a circus artist swinging balls of fire during the one tune everybody knows, the Grand March. I found all of that slightly distracting, but only slightly.

I was pleased to see that there was a live orchestra and quite a good sized one too. I was also pleased to see that the singers were not using microphones, nor should they being decent singers. With a full orchestra to be heard over the singers had to have good powerful operatic voices and most did, only Amneris (the Egyptian princes) struggled a little at times but most of her pieces were to quieter sections of music so, again, no real problem. The two stars of the show, Aida and her lover Radam├Ęs, did most of the singing and did it very well.

The plot was unknown to me. I was expecting something very operatic and I got that. Aida, a captured Ethiopian slave, was in love with an Egyptian guard who lover her back, He was also loved by the Egyptian princess. Then to make matters even more interesting he led the Egyptian troops in a battle against the Ethiopians were Aida's brothers were killed and her father was captured. Cue some heavily divided loyalties. It was clear not going to end well and the only real question was how many would die and how. The final death scene was a surprising twist and it all ended conclusively if not happily.

The staging was simple in construction and decorative in appearance, as was fitting for a grand opera pretending to be a family musical.

The only negative of the evening was having fooled some people into thinking that they were at a family musical they behaved like that and I head quite a few conversations during the show and several small voices asking questions. Again there was enough disturbance to be noticed but not enough to spoil the experience.

Aida entertained me greatly for the best part of three hours (including two intervals). It was a fitting end to a demanding week.

Visiting the Huf Haus UK Show House

The success of Peter Huf's talk to Ham Amenities Group (HAG) was such that we were invited to visit the new Huf House UK Show House in Brooklands on a day that it is not normally open to the public and Peter Huf was there to guide us around.

The talk had been very good but it was far better to see the reality and to have Peter there for two hours, with his colleague Jack Eddy Architectural Technologist and Environmental Advisor, to go into more detail about the approach and the philosophy and also to answer all the detailed questions that we had.

The wide entrance hall set the scene beautifully. It was spacious and bright and you could see right past the dining area to the garden beyond. Just behind that hedge was a busy road but we could only hear the traffic when Peter opened a window to make a point about the sound insulation.

A Huf Haus connects with its setting and this was most obvious in the master bedroom suite with its large windows and the trees almost in touching distance.

The Show House was arranged as a three bedroom house with the master bedroom taking all of one side of the upstairs (to the right) and two good bedrooms on the other side.

The dining area was double height which produced this impressive view. The dining table is a good size with eight chairs around it yet it almost looks small in the space allocated to it. No squeezing past chairs here.

The landing was far more than a corridor. There was space for a substantial wall unit along one side and sitting areas with several chairs at each end.

The Show House is on an industrial estate, The Heights, and part of it faces on to a car park. Most of the house looks the other way and on the car park side there is the kitchen and an office.

The section of wall hides the plant room. This would normally be in the basement but this house is close to a stream and is raised above normal ground level to keep it safe from flooding so a basement was out of the question.

One corner of the house had this outside area. That is the main living space on the other side of the glass wall. The river is just off to the left, as indicated by the trees.

Looking the same way but from inside shows how wonderful that living area is with its natural views and huge spaces. The dinning area is just off to the right.

Beyond the wall with the paints on is a conference room which, with the office on the other side, enables the house to function commercially. If this was a wholly domestic property then those two rooms could have been more bedrooms or something like a gym or music room.

Huf Haus is designed to make you happy with good light and views and with all the annoyances, like heat and noise, dealt with by state of the art technology. This house operates without mains gas or electricity and because it is so efficient it only need around 10 Kw to keep it going.

We spent a lot of time talking about the technology of the wood and the glass and the energy systems while also appreciating the way that the design of the house makes the most of the sun and the least of the rain. That is why it can claim to be the best house in the country.

23 November 2016

Drones, Baby, Drones at Arcola Theatre was good politics and great theatre

While the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen get some media attention it is normally only when a massive mistake is made, such as blowing up an innocent wedding party, and so a play about drones was always going to interest the political animal in me. Particularly when it came with the Arcola brand behind it.

I was a little worried beforehand that this would be a trivial play over simplifying the issue, something along the lines that these are all young men playing war games but with real victims. I was happily wrong on both counts, this was good politics and great theatre.

The two plays told one story, the before and after of a specific drone strike. In the first we met the people making the decision to strike and in the second the operatives who piloted the drone. Focusing on the people, rather than directly on the politics or the technology, gave a fresh perspective on drone strikes and also made for better theatre.

The strike decisions are made early every Tuesday morning and we saw the people in the hours leading up to that meeting; one had been called to a hospital because her daughter had been in a serious accident, another was with his mistress and a military man was being urged by a colleague during a gym session to go for a incursion force instead to grapple control back from the CIA to the Army. All of the people had personal issues that impacted how they approached the strike decision they were about to make. The mistress summed it up best is saying that her lover was about to make a life or death decision yet could not decide whether to walk to work or take a taxi.

At the end of the first play they all went into their room to make their decision and I went to the bar to get the now traditional bottle of Foundation Bitter from East London Brewing Company.

After the short break, the second play looked at the aftermath of the strike. This had been heralded as a big success as the high profile target was killed and at a time and place when he was on his own. Apart from a kid. Or, as one of the operatives put it, "It was a kid. Now it's collateral". There was much more to this part of the play than just the impact on civilians as the two operatives and their partners reacted to the incident, and other big events in their lives. The play ended with a monologue from the wife of one of the operatives putting an argument that I could not possibly agree with but she gave it with sincerity and emotion. These are the people who voted for Trump.

Another injection of politics came at the start of each play with an introduction by Reprieve giving some of the context. My main take-away from this is the the USA tries very hard not to kill American citizens but the UK only targets British citizens. I'm not proud of that.

Drones, Baby, Drones managed to inform, entertain and provoke. That's proper theatre.

22 November 2016

The Red Barn at National Theatre was a tense treat

For several years I paid little attention to National Theatre seeing as rather expensive and somewhat mainstream and that is probably still true but I am now more willing to spend over £50 for a theatre ticket and am more appreciative of the mainstream, provided it is done well.

That lack of attention caused me to miss The Red Barn when it was first announced despite it being adapted by David Hare from a Georges Simenon story and staring Mark Strong which should have been enough to make me leap at it. As it was I only paid it attention when I was at NT to see something else and by then the run was sold out. And then the run was extended and I was quick off the mark for the additional tickets and helped myself to Lyttelton Circle A21 for £60.

The Red Barn started in a heavy snow storm and it was the best representation of a storm that I had ever seen on a stage. It was an excellent start and early indication of the high production values that I had come to expect from the NT.

In that snow storm two couples were battling to get to the safety and comfort of a house. Only three made it. One of the men lost contact with the other three and was left behind. Once in the house the others quickly realised that he was missing and the other man went out to look for him but returned after several hours having failed to do so. His body was found the next day.

The story then became more psychological than physical with the remaining man growing closer to the dead man's wife while flashbacks revealed more about the complicated emotional route that had led to the scene at the house. The plot weaved and jumped and so did my feelings towards each of the characters as flaws and strengths were shown.

A play that relies heavily on the nature of the characters also relies heavily on the actors and The Red Barn had a storming cast led by Mark Strong, Hope Davis and Elizabeth Debicki. Expect award nominations.

To say that I was engrossed in the drama was an understatement and I was desperate to learn what had gone on in the past (including some doubts over the death in the storm) and what would happen next. And what happened next was a big surprise.

I was enticed to see The Red Barn because of the big names involved and they all delivered to create a drama that was tense and also a treat.

18 November 2016

The Magic Flute at Normansfield Theatre

The opera events at Normansfield Theatre have been good to me in the past so it was an easy decision to go and see The Magic Flute there.

I chose to go on a Friday as it was easy to walk there after work. I took a slight detour via the Tide End to get something to eat and their Asian Vegetable Burger came up trumps again.

The evening was sold out, all three evening were, and I did well to get a seat in the second row. A bargain at £15.

This was an amateur performance so I was not expecting that much and, to be honest, a few of the singers were a little off tune at times and/or lacked the strength of voice required to fill the room. The star of the show, Pamina, was either professional or professionally trained and her performance was sparkling. The Queen of the Night also had the power to suggest she had good credentials and while the male lead, Tamino, started a little weakly he grew into the role and his solo later on a highlight of the show.

The orchestra was also amateur but hid that well and their fine playing meant that the music easily carried the opera and made any weaknesses in the singing irrelevant.

There was an interval of course and that was an opportunity to give more money to charity, the Down’s Syndrome Association, by buying a glass of Prosecco. It was also an opportunity to say hello to some old faces, Richard who ran the chess club that the boys went to when at Primary School and Roger and Lucy who abandoned the beauty of North Kingston to live close to the A3 about twenty years ago.

After the performance I went to The Anglers for a final drink only to find it ridiculously shut at just after 11pm on a Friday. The Tide End was still open so I had a pint there instead. I prefer it there anyway.

This production of The Magic Flute was never going to compete with the likes of Glyndebourne but that was not the point. This was a very pleasant night out with some excellent music and some decent singing.

15 November 2016

Two days near Chicago

While I quite enjoyed my last trip to Chicago, sometime in the late 1990s, I was not that keen to get back there and so I manage to restrict a business trip there to just two working days with a day travelling either side of that. I caught a flight Sunday lunchtime that arrived in Chicago Sunday afternoon, I worked two full days on Monday and Tuesday, then caught a flight back late on Tuesday arriving back at lunchtime on Wednesday.

One of the reasons for my reluctance was that, unlike last time, I was not in central Chicago but about 45 minutes north of there in a suburb galled Grayslake and I do not like suburban America as it is designed solely for the car and I insist on walking. There was a pavement by my hotel but that ran for a full 20m before disappearing. I have no idea why it was there.

The hotel was on the crossroads of two busy multi-lane roads (IL 120 and US 45) and the only interesting things that I could see were in the opposite corner and to get there I had to cross 12+ lanes of traffic with no pedestrian lights and only a narrow refuge in the middle of each road.

It was there that I went each morning for a long walk as part of my £14k steps a day regime. Because of the six hours time difference I was working on a three hour time shift which meant getting up at 5am Chicago time / 11am UK time instead of 8am UK time. As a plan that worked well and it gave me a good hour of walking time before breakfast and the drive to the office for an 8am start.

Grayslake is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of small lakes made by glaciers scraping the ground during the last ice age, a geology I had also seen in Finland. Many of the lakes are small and ugly while others have been used to centre housing developments around. One of these is Grays Pointe and I did a lot of walking there.

Grays Pointe has two unnamed lakes and on my first morning, the Monday, I walked around the main one (150m long) half a dozen times waiting for the sun to come up. This lake had a fountain. On my second visit there, a very misty Tuesday morning, I found a second smaller lake. This one was more natural and had a bridge over it. This is the photo I took approaching the bridge, one of a very few photos that I took on the trip.

Other walks were less interesting. I did about 5km doing loops in the hotel and neighbouring hospital's car parks on Monday evening and a similar distance walking up and down Concourse C (500m long) at the airport on Tuesday.

On the plus side, the work went well, relationships with the customer were reinforced and all the travel plans worked out fine so I consider the trip to have been a success.

12 November 2016

Madama Butterfly by Ormond Opera was magnificent

Madama Butterfly is a genuine classic so I was obviously interested in seeing it performed locally even though I had seen an excellent production of it at ENO not that long ago. I had only recently come across Ormond Opera at a local charity event and I was keen to see them in a more formal setting.

This production was obviously going to be a somewhat different deal with an amateur chorus supporting professional singers in a small church hall. The price tag was different too, this was only £20 and that price I could afford to take a risk but with this being Madama Butterfly it was not much of one.

I was almost the first person to arrive, because the buses were kind to me, and that gave me a seat in the middle of the long front row (of two). There was further seating along the two sides but even then the venue held only around seventy people.

I do not know how Ormond Opera gets its singers but I suspect it is from a small pool and that would explain some of the casting; Madama Butterfly looked nothing like a fifteen year old Japanese woman/girl, her maid (Suzuki) looked even less Japanese and the American Counsel was too young. And none of that mattered in the slightest.

What did matter was the singing and that was superb. All of it.

Butterfly is slow moving and emotional and so it relies heavily on the singing of the four main characters and when they work the opera works. I will give a special mention to Caroline Carragher as Suzuki for the beauty of her voice but only on the understanding that there was not much to choose between all of the main roles.

A surprise, only because I had not read the details beforehand, was that the music was all provided by one piano and one pianist, Jakob Rothoff. That worked exceptionally well and I did not miss the orchestra at all. I do not know the opera well enough to comment on the score but I thought that some bits were shorter (e.g. Prince Yamadori's proposal to Madama Butterfly) and others longer (e.g. the waiting overnight for Pinkerton to return) than in the production at ENO.

The other big difference was the language. ENO performs in English (hence the "E") while this was sung in the original Italian with a helpful translation displayed on the screen above and behind the performing area; in the picture above it says, "Madama Butterfly Giacomo Puccini".

I was expecting this production of Madama Butterfly to be a bit rough and ready, and I would have been very happy with that, but it was so much more. The professionalism oozed over all aspects of the show adding to the strengths of the fabulous music and the sweet singing. It was a complete joy for me and a triumph for all involved in making it.

9 November 2016

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (November 2016)

This was such a busy and fun evening that I did not even have time to do an Instagram of my smazeny syr as I always always do. This is what it looks like when you do not apply any filters of effects. It certainly looks good enough to eat!

Despite this being just a couple of weeks before the BCSA Annual Dinner there was still a good turn out and that meant that there were plenty of good conversations for me to join in and to enjoy.

It was a typical BCSA "Get to Know You" Social evening and that is why it was so good. I go every month for a reason.

8 November 2016

Blue Heart at Orange Tree Theatre was a great disappointment

Orange Tree continued its flip-flop between old and new plays with a revival of two one act plays written by Caryl Churchill twenty years ago. I went because I go to everything at Orange Tree Theatre. This time my tour of the front row took me to seat A34 for £20.

The Orange Tree Theatre website was honest in its description of the two plays:
  • Heart’s Desire sees a family awaiting their daughter’s return from Australia, though in a series of alternative scenarios, the play collapses as it keeps veering off in unexpected and ridiculous directions.
  • Blue Kettle tells the story of conman Derek and the five women he misleads into believing he is their biological son. Try as he might, Derek’s plans are scuppered as the play is invaded by a virus.
It also said "the plays pull apart language and structure in a way that is theatrically remarkable" and that was my problem with them - it was all structure and no substance. They struck me as plays that somebody might have written at drama school when told to experiment with a specific technique to learn how to use it before putting it in a proper play, one that tried to entertain.

I had no complaints with the staging or the acting. Just the plays. I was only relieved that I had seen them locally and had not wasted much time getting there.

4 November 2016

The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatre is one of the many that I am on the mailing list for and it is only because it is a little harder to get to for me than many other theatres that I do not go there more often. The lure this time, somewhat simplistically, was the title, the play really was "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures" though the theatre also used the abbreviation "iHo" and prompted the hashtag #iho.

Another lure was that Tamsin Greig was in it. I've been watching her on TV since Black Books, and still do in Episodes, and listening to her on the radio as Debbie Aldridge in the Archers for many years. I had also seen her on the stage once before, also at Hampstead.

iHo was a long play, basically three acts of an hour each separated by two intervals, and that meant an early, 7pm start. And that left little time to get there or to eat beforehand. I got round the first by leaving the office at 5pm, and believe me that is early, and around the second by having a sandwich at the theatre before the show. They used to have a restaurant there but that had been closed down and there was just the cafe that was long on drinks but short on food.

On of the reasons that I like Hampstead Theatre is that all the seats are good and so having to be somewhere near the back did not worry me at all. I ended up in L17 for £35.

The story revolved around Gus Marcantonio, a retired former trade union organiser, who lived in a New York brownstone (that he owned) with his sister and his daughter's ex-husband. He had three siblings all of whom were visiting him; his daughter and two sons were there because Gus had tried to kill himself and they were concerned that he might do so again.

You might need to take notes now. Gus's sister had been both a nun and a terrorist with Golden Path. His daughter was now married to another woman who was expecting a bay. One son was also gay and also married but he also spent a lot of time, and money, with a gay prostitute. The other son, something of the odd-one-out, was a builder and also married. That's ten main characters, no wonder it took three hours to tell this chapter of their story.

With five of the nine main characters openly gay that's the "homosexual" part of the title explained. The "capitalism and socialism" came from Gus' union background which is family had been immersed in, the "scriptures" from Gus' sister's time as a nun and the "intelligent" from the education and careers of most of the siblings and their partners.

That is a heady mix of characters and themes made for an intense and engaging play. There was so much going on that at times there were several conversations going on at once, much like a Mozart opera. Those conversations went all over the place as several big themes were kept in play, like the infidelities and not forgetting the attempted suicide.

It struck me that this was very much in the vein of an Arthur Miller play, I had seen All My Sons the previous day, with a patriarchal figure and a family troubled both by his legacy and by their own problems. I was very pleased that Michael Frayn agreed with me on that when I spoke to him briefly in the second interval
iHo did so many things well. The stories and the characters that were at the heart of them were believable and gripping. Many big themes were touched, including a very factual look at suicide, there was a lot of human frailty and passion, and some lovely lighter moments too especially from the seen-it-all ex nun and terrorist played brilliantly by the scene stealing Sara Kestelman. I also liked the ending a lot and preferred it to Miller's because of its lack of certainty and use of a minor character to deliver the final line, a question.

The main thing that iHo did well was the acting. On the theatre's website three actors were called out, including Greig and Kestelman, and while they were undoubtably excellent they were but three among nine and all ten had plenty of time in the spotlight and all ten shone when they had to. The eleventh only had a cameo role and that was excellent too as she described how to commit suicide in a wonderful deadpan and practicable way.

iHo was magnificent and I loved every one of the 180 minutes of it.

3 November 2016

All My Sons at Rose Theatre was a triumph

I always use the Swarm app (formerly FourSquare) to check in to cultural venues that I go to as I like to keep track of when I was last at a place and how often I've been there. This evening my phone informed me that I had been to the Rose Theatre (since getting an iPhone) forty times. This was one of the very best of those forty evenings.

I am keen to support Rose Theatre as much as I can and so I need an excuse not to see something rather than to see it. Normally the best excuse Rose gives me for missing something is failing to tell me about it in time but that did not happen with All My Sons and I was able to get a seat in my preferred area on one of my preferred days, A42 which cost me £36.

If I had need an excuse to see All My Sons then the name Arthur Miller would have been good enough.

I went knowing nothing about the play and so I sat down in my seat, with a pint of Black Sheep Bitter, keen to learn. We were in the garden of a decent American house just after the last World War, and there we stayed.

The main players were the occupiers of the house, Joe and Kate Keller and their thirty-something son Chris. Joining them in the garden were Ann, a young friend of the family who had recently returned after a year away, two neighbouring couples and the memory of their other son, Larry, who went missing a few years ago during the war.

Larry's absence, or death, was the opening theme of the play with a tree planted in his honour having been blown down in the night and Chris trying to persuade Ann to help him to convince his mother that Larry was not just missing and was not coming home.

The other talk was general catching up with Ann on things that had happened in the last year or so and some thoughts about the future. It was not far off being a typical relaxed and meaningless discussion between family and friends. There were a few hints of resentment and disdain but, as I said, it was a typical discussion between people who knew each other well.

Then the word "murderer" was dropped like a bombshell.

The theme of the play suddenly changed to an incident in Joe Keller's past where, as the owner of a munitions factory, he had allowed some faulty parts to be shipped and these had led to the deaths of twenty odd American servicemen. He had been found to not be directly responsible and had been released after a trial while an engineer, Ann's father, had gone to prison, and was still there.

To complicate things further, Ann had been in a relationship with Larry and was now planning to marry Chris (nobody had told Kate). Then there was Ann's brother George who was still angry at his father's imprisonment and blamed Joe for this.

The main story came to dominate the play and there were more bombshells to shunt the story forward, including a letter from Larry to Ann and a defining decision from Joe. It was a strong and gripping plot but it was just the backbone of the play and there was a lot hanging off it with all of the characters adding interest and colour to the drama. Making this work was a simple set and a magnificent ensemble cast with Penny Downie as Kate impressing me the most.

My only reservation, and it is an odd one, is wondering why Rose Theatre is doing plays like this which are very much Richmond Theatre territory. Rose seems unsure if it is modern and imaginative or classic and traditional. Luckily I like both sorts of plays and both theatres.

All My Sons had the dark themes and intense dialogue that I expected from my limited exposure to Arthur Miller (Crucible and Salesman) and it lived up to their reputations. This skillful production turned a good play into a triumph.

29 October 2016

Parsifal by Elemental Opera

Despite going to several operas a year for many years I had seen little Wagner and had never seen Parsifal before so there was never any question of going to see a local production be Elemental Opera.

I learned about it via the Fulham Opera in one of those "from our friends" things on one of their emailings which just goes to show that cross-promotions do work.

The local venue was St Michael and All Angels church in Turnham Green, literally across the road from the Tabard theatre and pub. A chance to get inside the church, a landmark in the famous Bedford Park, was another reason for wanting to go.

The only drawback, and it was an obvious one, was that Parsifal lasts for four hours and with two intervals that made the production just over five hours long. There was a risk that it could be something of a battle of endurance but that I was a risk that I was prepared to take. I also took a cushion in case the pews were not up to the job.

I skimmed the synopsis of Parsifal beforehand and took in just enough to know that the main theme has something to do with the Holy Spear/Grail and there was not much of a story. That was fine with me as I was content just to listen to the music and the singing without understanding anything of it very much.

The construction of Parsifal was much like Tristan und Isolde, and probably other Wagner operas, that I don't know in that the music almost seemed to be one piece and while the mood and the tempo changed there were few, if any, well defined arias. In structure it was something like a classic Yes track that filled one side of an LP with one song in several sections, some of them with words. Only Wager was not constrained by the physical size of vinyl albums and his pieces were much longer.

This was music to immerse yourself in and to experience, not to hum to yourself afterwards. The lasting memory is not of tunes but of grand moods created by those tunes. It was a very different experience from, say, your average Mozart opera, and I enjoyed that experience for different reasons.

The singing was well up to the task and my favourite character was Amfortas, ruler of the Grail kingdom. Hi voice was wonderful and he acted every inch the aged king.

What could have been a test of endurance proved to be a good evening of music and singing. It certainly encouraged me to try and see some more Wagner sometime and, hopefully, Parsifal again in a proper opera house.

15 October 2016

Octopus at Theatre503 was a little gem

Octopus was only on at Theatre503 for one week and with four other theatre dates that week I struggled to find time to see it, but struggle I did and I made time on Saturday evening to see the final performance. That made it five theatres in six nights.

I was keen to see Octopus as it was billed as a political play looking at immigration. Besides, I like to see everything at Theatre503 because everything that I have seen there has been good.

The lateish start of 7:45pm worked well for me. I could spend the day doing weekend things like shopping for buttons, have tea at home then head out to the theatre around 6:30pm. That got me there just before 7:30pm which would normally be time for a beer but the antibiotics meant it was another dry evening.

It was busy in the waiting area but I was alert enough to be one of the first into the theatre and so was able to claim what I now think of as my seat, the one in the middle of the front row.

Octopus was set in the near future where the UK had left the EU, Scotland had left the UK and England was trying to manage its "immigration problem".

As part of this three people, all women incidentally, were in a waiting room prior to seeing an immigration officer. One looked Middle Eastern, one Indian and one indecency white. They talked about why they were there and they all thought that they had good reasons to be in England.

But the two non-white women had some worries. The Persian heritage woman was an artist so was well under the £50k earning threshold, £50k under in fact, and while the Indian heritage woman earned more than that she was concerned that her earnings would fall if, for example, she had to stop working to care for an elderly relative.

They took it in turns to go into the office to see the immigration officer. The three actresses took it in turns to play the officer, a transformation they achieved simply by wearing a headscarf. The officer's nationality became an issue for the other women who were expecting more sympathy from her.

At the heart of the play was a discussion about national identity. All three women had reasons for being worried about having their nationality questioned and were naturally worried about what happened to them. A year ago we would have happily accepted all of them as British but Brexit changed that.

It was a simple message to give but it was not a simple play and the giving of the message was smartly done. The scenarios were convincing, the characters were realistic and related to each other very well and there were plenty of nice touches like the little snatches of music. Any play that ends with the cast singing the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen gets my vote.

Octopus was a little gem. Just the sort of play that I expect from Theatre503 and just the sort of play that I love to see.

14 October 2016

Confessional at Southwark Playhouse was immersive physically and emotionally

Confessional described itself as a "semi-immersive production" that "reimagines Tennessee Williams’s play", and there is a lot in those few words to like. "Tennessee Williams" would probably be enough and adding "semi-immersive" tipped any balance that needed tipping. Any production that has an immersive element is going to appeal to me.

And it was on at the Southwark Playhouse which is one of my favourite venues. Admittedly that is a fairly long list but the Playhouse is probably in the top ten and that's a good position.

One of the nice things about having regular theatres is that I can build regular evenings around them, i.e. how to get there and where to eat, and I have a good plan for the Playhouse.

This started with catching the 17:43 train from Teddington to Waterloo but being pulled into a late meeting with the CEO meant I missed that and the next and had to rush to catch the 17:58. Luckily the fifteen minute delay was not a big problem as the play was not due to start until 8pm.

After Waterloo, the next step was a curry at Culture Grub on The Cut. This has become my pre-theatre venue of choice for four local theatres. That is because the food is excellent, their is a wide choice for vegetarians, the service is unbelievably quick and the price is ridiculously cheap. I made a quick choice of the Schezwan style curry with fried rice. It was delicious. I had been in Wagamama the day before and they do not come close to this.

From there it was about a twenty minute walk to the Playhouse and I arrived about 7:30pm, a good thirty minutes before the show.

So I was surprised to see the door to the little theatre already open. I needed no further invitation and I so went in only to find myself in a pub. The semi-immersive element was obvious with some of the cast already at the bar drinking. I claimed a seat at a table in the middle of the room.

 I had been given a wristband saying "Admittance Monk's Palace" on the way in and I took advantage of the to go out to the normal theatre bar to get a coffee. The bar in the theatre was selling drinks too but I was still off the alcohol (antibiotics).

The play began with a disturbance outside of the pub which led to a woman running into the pub and locking herself in a cubicle in the ladies. She was shortly followed by another young woman, Leona, played by Lizzie Stanton. It quickly emerged that the cause of the violent dispute was the other woman's under the table (literally) antics with Leona's boyfriend, though current man in tow might be a better description as it was little more than one in a string of holiday romances.

The other characters in the bar included an alcoholic doctor, a chef infatuated with the young woman with the hand skills and the landlord. They were soon joined by a couple of gay men, one very young and one middle aged.

I presume that the play got its name, Confessional, from its format with each of the characters given a chance to say something about their lives and aspirations. These confession type speeches peppered some intense dialogue between the people in the bar who were the sort of people I believe you find in Eastenders (I never watch it) and who did not like each other. Even those having sex together did not like each other. Love and tenderness were strangers in that bar.

Monk's confession was made from a seat next to mine, making the semi-immersive experience really quite immersive. He told us that he was against having gays in the bar not for any religious or moral reasons but because gays attracted other gays and the pub would become a popular gay bar and would attract the attention of local gangsters and policemen. He wanted a quiet pub. Monk also walked around the tables collecting the empties and he took my coffee cup when I had finished.

It was not all words, fights and hands under the table either. In the biggest incident a child died. Probably. This echoed the death of Leona's brother which this was the anniversary of. It was not a light play in subject matter or mood.

There was a lot to take in from the many stories and conversations/arguments and having the actors move around us added immensely to the experience. I have had night in the Hand and Flower not unlike that, but not quite as dark.

In the centre of this was Leona, brash, confident and sassy without being vulgar or slutty. Incidentally it was only afterwards that I realised that there had been little or no swearing, very unlike the similar pub conversations that I had witnessed. Anyway, back to Leona; Lizzie Stanton played her perfectly. She was a young woman we could understand but not love.

Confessional was immersive in both a physical and an emotional sense. I like immersive theatre and I loved Confessional.

13 October 2016

When We Are Married at Rose Theatre was modestly funny

Somehow I found myself seeing three J B Priestly plays in short succession and as an experience this one fell somewhere in the middle of the three.

There was no compelling reason for me to see this but it was at my local theatre, Rose Theatre, it was by J B Priestly and it was presented by Northern Broadsides. That was enough for me to fork out £26 for Seat A43.

The stage was set fairly simply as the lounge in a reasonable house in 1930's Yorkshire. There three couples were celebrating their shared 25th wedding anniversaries when they receive the news that they were not properly married.

This caused a lot of consternation, not being married was called "living in sin" then, and also forced each couple to consider if, now they were single, they would marry the partners they thought that they were married to.

There were some strong stereotypes in the group, such as one henpecked husband and one really boring one, and these were joined by a surly housemaid and a drunk photographer. These characters, rather than any plot, were  the root of much of the play's humour. This made the humour a little simplistic at times but it was funny none the less. Just not as funny as The Roundabout had been a month earlier.

When We Are Married was pleasant enough, and easily worth the price of the ticket and a night away from other things, it was somewhat dated (that was reflected in the average age of the audience, why would any young person want to see a play like this?) and somewhat simple.

12 October 2016

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (October 2016)

This month's picture of my smazeny syr consumed at the monthly BCSA Get To Know You Social is actually a little different for a change. The food is just the same but my drink is different. Being on a course of antibiotics forced me off the Pilsner Urquell and onto the Vinea, a Czech lemonade.

That was the only change, unless you count Ruzena's absence as significant, and the evening was filled with good conversations with interesting people. We had the usual spat over technology but nobody believed the luddite who was looking forward to the next Windows phone.

We dabbled with some other technologies more connected with the BCSA, I bought a ticker for the BCSA Annual Dinner using the Eventbrite app on my phone, tweeted about it on my account and then used the BCSA Twitter account to retweet it. I also liked Sonia's post on LinkedIn about the dinner which she then responded too. It was all about starting to build a buzz around the Annual Dinner on social media and this blog post is a small part of that.

It was another excellent evening despite the lack of alcohol.

11 October 2016

Great drama with The Last Tycoon at Tabard Theatre

Having discovered Tabard Theatre only in the last year I have managed to get back a few times and I it is now one of the few theatres that I need to find a reason not to go there rather than the other way round. The theatre space and the quality of the performances is the main reason for that and it helps a lot that it is very close to Turnham Green station, only three stops from Richmond, and is situated above a decent pub.

I was looking forward to visiting the pub again, it is also called the Tabard unsurprisingly, as I knew that it had had bit of a refresh and the public bar needed it. I was somewhat shocked to see that the pubic bar had been untouched and the only refurbishment had been to the main dining area, called the Library. This had been the best part of the pub and the refurbishment had made it much worse. It was less attractive without the library motifs and most of the tables had been replaced with high benches and stools without backs. Not a welcoming or comfortable place to eat. Like everybody else in the room, I avoided one of the benches and found a small old-fashioned table to eat my vegetarian fish (halloumi), chips and mushy peas.

The company behind The Last Tycoon were Ruby in the Dust and anybody who takes their name from a Neil Young lyric gets my vote. I had seen a few of their shows before, which also helped.

One of these, Gatsby (seen twice) was also based on a F Scott Fitzgerald book, another good omen.

The Last Tycoon took us into the world of the movies where a high profile and very successful producer, Monroe Stahr (conveniently pronounced "star"), was juggling commercial pressures with his desire to make a film of Romeo and Juliet (a happy ending was requested!) while fighting off the advanced of two women with mixed success, and dealing with possibility of the screenwriters forming a union and going on strike for better pay and recognition.

This heady mix of plot elements gave the play its richness, the character of Stahr gave it its heart. and the large cast of interesting characters gave it its strength. There were so many characters that most of the actors played several roles.

Bouncing off Stahr were love interest Kathleen Moore who was on the rebound from an affair with the King of England (!), his business partner Bradogue Brady who veered more towards the financial than the artistic, and Brady's young daughter Cecelia who had known Stahr since she was seven and now fancied that she loved him. One of the scriptwriters loved her. There was a lot going on.

The story unfolded nicely in a beautifully crafted play that maintained the tension while allowing some romantic moments to soften the mood. I was engaged and entranced.

The Last Tycoon knew what it was trying to do and succeeded in every aspect to produce a play that thrilled, entertained and then shocked.

10 October 2016

Sarah Milton impressed in Tumble Tuck at Soho Theatre

As excuses for going to the theatre go, a chance meeting on a train with a pretty young woman is one of the more romantic (in a 1950's black and white film way, where older men treated younger women like their nieces). I was on a train out of Waterloo after Spine when I got into a short serendipitous conversations with Sarah Milton. In this she mentioned that she had a show on at Soho Theatre the following week. It would have been churlish not to go.

Getting there proved to be harder than it should have. I made the mistake of talking to somebody on the way out of the office, got delayed by a couple of minutes and missed my train by a handful of seconds, unable to get on thanks to the crowds coming out of the station. The subsequent train was delayed by over ten minutes which made the third train on the timetable the second one due and my best option, then that started getting later and later. It got so late that the delayed second train became the second train again. It arrived to some confusion as it was announced as stopping at Waterloo only. That did not suit the many people heading home to places like Wimbledon but it suited me just fine.

In the end I got to the theatre just in time to collect my ticket before they opened the doors. I was the second person up the stairs and took a seat in the centre next to one that was reserved. The first person up, a young woman, having sat somewhere else changed her mind and came and set in the chair next to me. We had a nice chat about theatre while waiting for the show to start; Tennessee Williams was mentioned. By then the place was pretty full.

There was no set and very few props. I like that.

On to that empty stage walked Daisy played by Sarah Milton, she was the sole performer as well as the playwright. She was wearing a swimming suit, hence the title Tumble Tuck. She had unexpectedly found herself in a swimming team and it was about to be her leg of the relay. She did her best and they got a medal.

Then the story exploded in several directions and we explored Daisy's relationships with her mother, her best friend, her former boyfriend currently in prison, and the star swimmer on the team. Sarah played all of these roles as Daisy told us her story. It was an emotional story too with pressure to perform, a house devoid of food, a murder, body pride, a secret relationship maintained through letters, and a young woman trying to come to terms with all that life had thrown her. She did remarkably well.

Sarah Milton did even better. The play was nicely crafted with plenty of drama, a few justifiable twists in the story and dollops of humour, often from Daisy's representation of other people. Sarah made Daisy somebody that I cared about.

After the show I nursed a coffee in the bar (I'm on antibiotics) in the hope that Sarah would come in. She did and was swamped by admirers. I waited for the frenzy to die down a little before going across to add my praise to all the rest, all well deserved.

6 October 2016

Steve Howe at Landmark Arts Centre

Having paid a reasonable amount of money to see Yes play the Albert Hall a couple of times in recent years I was not going to miss the chance of seeing Steve Hose play at a small local venue for little more than the cost of a pizza.

I had been thinking about seeing Steve Howe in Central London or even Farncombe when the gig at Landmark Arts Centre popped up. I walk past it to and from work every day so it is about as local as you can get. That locality also meant that I was able to go there in my lunch break to buy tickets. I was the first person to buy any so I chose three next to the central aisle in the front row. Steve made a strong plea for no photos so You'll have to settle for one showing how the stage was set but without him in it.

There was a food offer too, aubergine curry, which readily solved the where to eat beforehand question. With that in mind I arrived promptly, i.e. just before the advertised time for the doors to open, only to find nobody else there and no sign of doors about to open. I was a little worried that it had been cancelled and I'd missed the email (it happens) but there were soon some signs of life and the doors eventually opened and everything was fine.

The curry was nice enough and they got lots of decent beers in, e.g. Twickenham's Naked Ladies,  so the evening was set.

Not knowing any of his solo work, apart from that which appeared on Yes albums, I was not sure what to expect. It was quite a varied performance and Steve introduced each song to tell us its history and why he wanted to play it.

There were quite a few fragments from Yes, including a song that he described as buried somewhere deep in side three of Tales of Topographic Oceans (I was glad to hear that he still thought of it as a double vinyl album too). There were a lot more of his compositions for solo guitar and I was surprised to hear that some had made their way into the music curriculum.

With just one guitar, and sometimes a voice to go with it,  it was a gentle evening and a very pleasant one too. The room was packed and everybody sat in respectful silence punctured with loud applause at the end of each song. We were watching a legend at close quarters and behaved accordingly.

It was a thoroughly entertaining evening with plenty of good music and interesting stories about it. I left with even more regard for Steve Howe than I started with, both as a musician and as a person.

4 October 2016

Spine at Soho Theatre was fast, intense and tender

I loved Spine so much when I saw it in November 2014 that I eagerly took the opportunity to see it when it returned almost two years later. It meant skipping one of my regular meetings to see it but that was an easy price to pay.

The urge to see it came partially from it being a provocative and political play and partially because it was a one-woman tour de force by Rosie Wyatt. I first saw her in Blink which was the spur for me to see Spine the first time around. I also saw her in the The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas so this was my fourth time seeing her on stage in two years. I'm a fan.

Spine was back in the upper space at Soho Theatre, which was good, and because there was another show on later in the evening, it started at 7pm which was less good. I had hoped to escape from work early but an important meeting with champagne kept me there beyond 5:30 and I had to make hasty excuses to catch the 17:43 from TED to WAT. Things worked well after that and I had just got myself a beer when we were called upstairs. It was a long walk and many of the seats on the front row were reserved for guests but I managed to find one for me pretty close to the centre. Job done.

Spine is narrated by Amy, a young woman (still a girl really at the start of the story) who tells us her recent story about how she ended up in a room full of books, which is all that there was on the stage. The other main character in the story was an elderly lady who Amy mimicked when telling her story. We also heard about Amy's family and a recent boyfriend.

The story was told naturally with Amy leaping to different parts of her life to tell us about episodes what she was telling us about at the time. That gave us a heap of small stories within the main one and while I remembered the main story I had forgotten many of the small ones, such as her criminal career and the toilet incident that caused her to be sacked from a job.

The deluge of quickly little stories made Spine an intense experience and Rosie Wyatt's skillful deliver brought out the humour, brutality and tenderness. One summary could be that this was a coming of age play with a happy ending but that summary leaves out all the rich detail that made Spine such an enjoyable play.

I was a little worried about seeing it again so soon after the first time but I should not have been. Spine was excellent (again).

I needed to unwind after that so hit the bar for a second pint. I was on my way out after that when I noticed Rosie in the bar so I went up to do some hero worshipping. She recognised me from my tweeting which made the introduction a little less daunting. I like to give direct feedback when I can, and I try not to intrude too much or to be too fawning. I am always grateful when creatives respond positively.

That would normally have been a good end to a great evening but there was another incident after that which lifted the evening. I was on the train home talking about theatres I love when a young woman interrupted to ask if I was talking about Blink, I was, and when I mentioned Wink! she said that she knew the playwright. A brief but deeply rewarding twitter exchanged followed later that evening. I love theatre and theatre people.