30 January 2016

Light opera comes to Ham with Seriously, Gilbert & Sullivan

Gilbert and Sullivan's style of light opera is not something that I go to far out of my way to see but when it's within easy walking distance then it's an easy choice to make.

I had never been inside St Richard’s Church before, though I had taken many pictures of its striking modern exterior, so that was another good reason for going.

Lots of other people thought so too and the church was packed by the time that I got there which showed that my plan of turning up just ten minutes before the start was not such a good one. I took a seat in the back row and that was fine.

We were presented with excerpts from four Gilbert and Sullivan operas starting with Mikado which was the only one I knew. There were about four songs in each segment which was enough to get the flavour of the story and of some of the main characters.

Telling those stories and being those characters were four singers, two women and two men. They were accompanied by a pianist who did his best with the church piano which must have been of a much lower standard than he was used to. The sound was a little rough but that was all that could be expected.

There was a half-time interval for drinks and nibbles and, as it was for a good cause, I bought a glass of wine in addition to the free one that I had had on arrival. I also spoke to quite a few people there, many of whom I knew from local groups like HUG and HAG. In one of these conversations came the idea for forming a local group for fans of the arts to publicise events such as this one and to arrange group visits. I really must do some more work on that idea.

The second half gave us more good singing about pompous characters and desperate lovers. It was all very jolly and very nicely done.

I loitered with some intent after the concert, first to help put the chairs away and then to talk to the singers. I had quick conversations with the two men of the "well done, you were very good" kind then two longer conversations with the two women one of whom I had seen sing before, as the Tete-a-Tete Opera Festival, and the other of whom I would be seeing twice at Glyndebourne in the coming season.

It was an evening of fine music in a local venue filled with familiar faces and that made it a good evening indeed.

29 January 2016

Hangmen at Wyndham's Theatre was a modern Ealing Comedy

I went to see Hangmen on a recommendation. An actress I follow on Twitter (after seeing her on stage) raved about the first run of this new play and predicted that it would soon be in the West End so when it came I went.

Wyndham's is easy to get to/from as it is right next to one of the entrances to Leicester Square Underground Station. That is also conveniently close to Govinda's vegetarian restaurant so I went there first for my usual large thali.

Despite the recommendation I was not going to take much of a rick on the play and, as I usually do in west end theatre, I went for a front-row seat way up high. This time I was in the Grand Circle, seat A4, for which I paid a paltry £20.

Hangmen opened with a hanging, one of the last before hanging was abolished in 1965. It also opened with some funny lines letting us know in no uncertain terms that this was a full-on comedy despite the subject matter. The prisoner due to be hanged struggled while protesting his innocence. At one point one the warders admonishes him for his struggling and said that if he had not been messing about he would have been dead by then. He was hanged (not hung, as was repeatedly pointed out) soon after still protesting his innocence.

The hangings over, the Hangman returned to his pub where the rest of the play took place. There he was joined by several of the locals. They were quite a quirky bunch and helped to keep the laughs coming.

A stranger came into the bar and stirred things up by his words and behaviour. He spoke quickly and constantly as if thinking out loud. Some of this was just odd, such as suggesting that Scottish prostitutes were ugly, while some of it was more sinister with suggestions that the young man hanged at the opening of the play was innocent.

Things continued in that vein with a dark theme squirming its way through a set of funny characters. The clash between the light and the dark aspects of the play provided a meaty tension and turned what could have been something funny but light and fluffy, something like Dad's Army, into something with substance, something like The Lady Killers.

The dark theme to the play came to a dark end (an unexpected one) though it neatly left several questions unanswered. The humorous light theme remained strong throughout and the play was genuinely funny. This humour came from the characters and did not resort to slapstick for any cheap laughs, proving that intelligent humour is just as funny as any other humour.

I enjoyed Hangmen immensely though I would not go as far as to call it a 5-star play, for me it lacked originality for that. That is not to belittle it, rather I want to avoid over inflating it. It was very good indeed, just not exceptional. I would happily go and see it again if somebody offered me a ticket!

Streets Ahead: The future of London's Roads at the Building Centre

Having escaped the office because of technical problems there I had an afternoon to fill and so one of the places that I went to was the Building Centre just off Goodge Street.

It somewhere that I go to fairly regularly, like RIBA, because it is easy to walk to at lunchtime and there is always much to see there. There were three exhibitions on at that time and I could have spent hours looking at all of them but I only had time to look at Streets Ahead, which had only just opened.

As with other things I had seen there, the exhibition was comprehensive, detailed, well structured and made good use of graphics and photographs. Because of that I learned a lot in a little time.

What I learned was a mix of good news and bad news. Very little progress had been made on improving London's streets for pedestrians and cyclists in recent years, despite the obvious success of Ken Livingstone's plan to create a walkway along the south bank that connects Trafalgar Square to St Pauls, but some small trial schemes were starting to show what could be done and there were examples in the rest of the world that London could learn from.

One thing that I would dearly love to see is some of Central London's main roads either buried out of site or just closed to cars altogether. An obvious place to do this would be on the north bank between Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge where a dual carriageway create a physical and emotional barrier between the city and the river.

The exhibition showed how Boston and Madrid had both managed to remove cars and to replace large roads with linear parks. This is the sort of city that I want to live and work in.

The river featured again on another of my favourite topic boards, on bridges. Looking at a map shows that there are quite a few bridges over the Thames but these are clustered with significant gaps between some of them, some are rail bridges so cannot be used by pedestrians and some of the road bridges are either quite narrow for pedestrians or are unpleasant to use because of the proximity to traffic.

It is no coincidence that the wonderful route from Trafalgar Square to St Pauls that I mentioned earlier has two new pedestrian bridges, the vastly extended Hungerford Bridge at one end and the iconic Millennium Bridge at the other.

We need more bridges like that and there are several good suggestions for them. One idea is to connect Rotherhithe with the Isle of Dogs, two peninsulas that are isolated by the river that almost surrounds them.

We do not need the Garden Bridge, however. It connects nowhere to nowhere, would be closed at night and for private functions, is not much of a garden and would interrupt the existing views from places like Waterloo Bridge.

There is scope to make London a much nicer place to be but it takes the imagination and leadership of somebody like Ken Livingstone to deliver it. All that Boris has given us is the fantasy cable car and the threat of the unnecessary and unwanted Garden Bridge.

I think that London needs to be a much nicer place too as it is dragging behind other major cities in creating nice spaces and pleasant routes between them.

A Taste of Honeysett at the Cartoon Museum

I was aware of the A Taste of Honeysett exhibition at the Cartoon Museum and was trying to find the time to see it when technology came to my rescue.

I was working in the London office on a Friday afternoon when we suddenly lost all communications, telephone and computer network. After half an hour or so it became clear that they were not coming back and so there was no point staying in the office unable to work. So I went out.

The Cartoon Museum is about twenty minutes walk away and so this was the ideal opportunity to go there.

I had been a Honeysett fan for many years. As a young lad I used to read all the cartoons in Punch and it was the Honeysett ones that made the biggest impact, I can still remember the double page spread on doctors holding their surgeries in pubs which included a drawing of a doctor lying on the floor and the nurse informing the waiting room that he was now only seeing foot disorders. Similarly there was one with two old men in a pub talking about a third who was lying on the floor unconscious. This was before a drinking competition and one of the men said to the other that he was surprised that the third man had collapsed so quickly as he had done well in the lunchtime practise session.

Admission is normally a paltry £7 but I got in for free with my ArtFund card. The Honeysett exhibition was on the ground floor with the usual exhibition upstairs.

The Cartoon Museum has an enlightened view of photography and bans close-ups as they infringe copyright but allows general shots, like this one, that give a general view of the galleries. From this you can see that it was, unsurprisingly, full of cartoons.

It was not a large rooms but the addition of a few partitions created more wall space and there were a lot of cartoons to look at. Of course cartoons cannot just be looked at, they need to be read and I read every one of them which took me the best part of an hour.

Like the cartoons that I remembered from Punch they were mostly of domestic situations, the one at the top (this is the cover of the exhibition catalogue) was typical, though politics did sneak in sometimes. There was one political cartoon that I would have photographed if allowed and that was a large coloured work commenting on the way that free capital was ripping up the Japanese landscape to build inappropriate skyscrapers. Where Japan led London is following.

The Cartoon Museum is a lovely place for anybody interested in comics or cartoons and I really should go there more often. I'll make even more of an effort to do so when they put on exhibitions as good as A Taste of Honeysett.

Thomas Newbolt: Drama Painting - A Modern Baroque at Kings Place Gallery

Working in a building that houses two galleries is one of the reasons that I pull myself into Kings Place when I could just as easily work at home. They are both conveniently bite-sized and can be consumed as part of a lunch break or an afternoon tea break. They also provide emergency relief when work is going badly.

The main gallery, which now appears to be called Piano Nobile Kings Place, is mostly spread across the level below the entrance and cafe area. There is little on that floor other than the gallery and a large hole in the middle which is the atrium space for the concert hall level below. The gallery flows down to that level to occupy a corner of that space too.

The combination of the atrium and the high ceilings creates a space that can do justice to large works and the exhibitions generally take advantage of this.

The exhibitions also tend to be somewhat quirky and modern in a way that appeals to me greatly.

The latest exhibition is Thomas Newbolt: Drama Painting – A Modern Baroque, which runs until 13 May.

They are all pictures of women, or perhaps it is just one woman, dressed and posed as if going to the opera.

They are interpretive rather than figurative and it is the presence of the woman that matters, not the details of her figure. The focus is kept on the woman by keeping the background dark and featureless.

The simple backgrounds, the plain dresses and the lack of any movement make the pictures as much about the colours as the woman. As is often the case, I appreciated the abstract nature of the art, i.e. the way the colours interact and the visual impact that makes, as much, if not more, that what those colours represent.

Similarly, I appreciated them more from a distance where their scale could be appreciated and full impact of the colours could be felt. Moving closer and the details started to intrude until eventually it was the brush strokes that I saw and the "big picture" was lost. Of course for some works of art the details and the brush work are worth exploring but I felt much happier exploring Thomas Newbolt's at a distance.

This exhibition was not completely to my taste but it was close enough to it to encourage me to go downstairs to see it a few more times before it closes.

27 January 2016

Clickbait at Theatre503 was original, sparkling and surprising

There was no better way to spend my birthday than going to the my favourite theatre, Theatre503 in Battersea. I would have gone to see Clickbait sometime anyway but having a birthday made picking the date easier. It also made deciding to eat a decent meal downstairs in the Latchmere beforehand easier.

But first I had to get my steps done and the way that I did that was to get off the Victoria Line at Victoria and walk the rest of the way, going over Chelsea Bridge and through Battersea Park. That was a pleasant route, even in the dark, though the bridge tugged at my vertigo tendencies.

I knew that Clickbait was about a young woman involved in the porn industry so I was a little concerned about being the dirty old man in the audience and that was not helped when while we were waiting to go in one of the cast came out to make a phone call dressed in school uniform. It reminded me of the Japanese Lolita fashion as seen in Kill Bill Vol 1 and the V&A.

Despite my worries I sat in the middle of the front row as usual anyway.

The simplistic summary of Clickbait is that a young woman reacts to some revenge porn of herself being posted online by taking it head-on and posting more porn but this time under her control.

As the demand for this grew she called on the reluctant help of her younger sister and the enthusiastic help of her youngest sister (it was her in the school uniform earlier).

Clickbait was written by Milly Thomas who I had seen not long before at Theatre503, playing the young girl in the very wonderful Animals.

To give just a flavour of the content and the humour I give you this little scene. The girls' porn business is constrained by supply as only the oldest girl, Nicola, is producing any material so the youngest, Chloe, made some herself only for her sisters to realise that as she was only 15 that was technically child porn and they were in possession of it. They urgently demanded that it be deleted and, once done, also demanded that Chloe remove it from Trash too at which suggestion she looked at them disdainfully and explained that she had already done that because she knows how to use a computer as she is not thirty.

Humour played a great part in the play but there were plenty of other riches such as the relationships between the three sisters and between Nicola and her boyfriend, the way that Nicola flipped between hero and villain as the story evolved and also as we learned more about what had happened earlier, and the alternative view of the porn industry in a story about young women in porn written by a young woman (Milly Thomas).

The story went in two surprising directions thematically and chronologically. As the business developed the women took it in a new direction, and the three teddy bears at the front featured in this, and their attitude to the business changed, and that's where the big teddy bear at the back came in. We also learned more about the revenge porn incident.

The storytelling was fresh and original and I liked the way that the social media aspects, such as the comments below the videos, were read by the cast while wearing animal masks and moving oddly.

There was a feeling of ambiguity throughout, and that was also manifested as tension, as the hero/villain conundrum was explored but never resolved, nor could it be as there was not an objective position to judge the women's behaviour from.

Despite the subject matter this was a very clean show that you could take your granny too, though some of the language might upset her. There was plenty of porn but only the people on the stage could see it, though we could hear it. Sitting in the middle of the front row was not a problem.

Clickbait was very thought provoking because of the subject matter and the way that it approached it, and it was also hugely entertaining because of the constant stream of funny lines. All three girls, Georgia Groome,  Amy Dunn and  Alice Hewkin, were excellent. The support from Barney White as all the men was excellent too.

I do not mind getting older when I get birthday treats like this one.

23 January 2016

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich at the Union Theatre

The Union Theatre is high up in my list of favourite theatres and that means that I see most of the shows put on there. Things go in phases though and after going there five time in the first half of last year I did not go at all in the second.

What brought me back was the name Bertolt Brecht. I am far from being  Brecht expert but I knew enough to know that I should know more.

I needed to be in that part of London to see an exhibition anyway so it made sense to plan a day around the two so the Saturday became domestics in the morning, galleries in the afternoon and theatre in the evening, with lots of walking along the way.

The weather was unkind late afternoon which made a great excuse to curtail the walking and seek refuge in the Union Jack pub opposite the theatre. The resting and recovering was greatly helped by a couple of pints to drink and vegetarian bangers and mash to eat. I was in there for almost an hour and a half so was able to do some reading too, I had my iPad with me and there are always lots of unread comics on it.

I left the pub briefly at 6:30pm to join the short queue for the theatre box office to collect my ticket (£20). I was in that queue early enough to secure one of the first ten tickets, I actually got number 8, so that I would be in the first group of people let into the theatre at 7:25. I went back to the pub to continue my rest before returning at the allotted time.

My careful planning got me the seat I wanted in the centre of front-row. Facing me was this pile of junk, the purpose of which I never established!

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was never going to be a comedy but, other than that, I did not know what to expect so I sat back and went along for the ride.

The story, in summary, was the well-known one of Nazi persecution of Jews in the period immediate before WWII. What made this telling more poignant was that it was written by somebody who was there at the time so the situations were described honestly and were not coloured by hindsight.

This was a time when the Jews as a collective were being vilified but a few individuals were still untouched because of their position in society or their usefulness to senior government people. It was an unholy combination of tyranny, suspicion and corruption. Of course in this case it led to an extreme outcome but it was hard not to see the similarities to the way that migrants and refugees are portrayed today, and that made the play even more relevant and compelling.

The message of the play was told though a series of short scenes, with repeating characters, where we saw the persecutors, the persecuted, the scared of being persecuted next, the unsure of how to behave and the carried along without thinking too much. The atmosphere that this generated was tense and dangerous, but also gripping.

The cast were excellent throughout despite the difficulties of some of the roles, it was uncomfortable enough for me to hear people say "Heil Hitler" so it must have been hard for them to say it and with conviction too.

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was a powerful play delivered with skill and care. It is hard to describe such an unpleasant story as enjoyable but there was enjoyment from the insights it gave.

The White Cube in Bermondsey disappoints

In looking to see how to get to the Fashion and Textile Museum I discovered that it was in the same street (Bermondsey Street), and was very close to, the White Cube gallery and so it made sense when planning the day to allow time to go to both.

I had heard of the White Cube but had never been there before, though I had been to its smaller cousin in Mason's Yard, St James and had been impressed by that so was looking forward to going to see the larger original. I was made even keener when the Art Fund app told me that it was the biggest commercial arts space in Europe which conjured visions of something even bigger and even better than the Saatchi Gallery, which I love.

Checking the gallery's website on the morning I learned that it was the last day of the Gilbert and George The Banners exhibition, which I had heard them talking about a few weeks previously on the magnificent podcast of the Robert Elms show on BBC Radio London.

I am not a massive fan of Gilbert and George's work but then I had only seen the odd example of it, such as one work at the Tate Modern and another in Cologne. Still, it was a good enough reason to go to the gallery.

The Banners were displayed in the White Cube itself, a gallery measuring 9m by 9m by 9m and called, imaginatively, 9x9x9. They were simple slogans written on what looked something like street signs with "Gilbert and George say:" at the top rather than the Borough name.

The slogans were first written in pencil and then gone over with ink. There were ten different slogans and several posters with the same slogan but all painted individually and so all original. I have no idea what they were selling for but signed prints were £10 each, though you can pay £50 for one on eBay if you are a mug.

I must admit that I could not see the point and The Banners did nothing for me.

There were two other gallery spaces, both of which were quite large and had interior partial walls to make for even more hanging space, unlike Saatchi which uses just the main walls. I prefer the Saatchi approach as the sense of the large open spaces is part of my enjoyment of the experience.

I prefer the art that I have sen at the Saatchi too. There were a couple of pieces that I quite liked, and some that I liked a lot, but not enough of them to make me think that I need to get back to the White Cube any time soon, though I will pop-in next time I am in the area, it is free to go in after all.

Liberty in Fashion exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum

I had not heard of the Fashion and Textile Museum before, otherwise I might well have paid it a visit, and once again I had the Art Fund iOS app for alerting me to it. It remains my main source of information about exhibitions that are on and this time it told me about Liberty in Fashion. Anybody who knows me remotely well will know that is an exhibition that I wanted to see.

National Rail had other ideas and closed the main line from Richmond at Clapham Junction and so another popular app of mine, CityMapper, advised me to take the District Line to Monument and walk from there. So I did.

That walk took me over London Bridge, through the redeveloped area around More London and then under the grimy railway arches in upper Bermondsey. The area got markedly better as I moved south along Bermondsey Street with some trendy cafes and craft shops appearing.

I was expecting the museum to be easy to find as my limited research (on the day) told me that it was a bright orange building in the Morocco style but it played a trick on me. The building is set back slightly from the usual building line thus hiding the orange frontage. What I could see from some distance was the pink entrance but I was not expecting that so it was a nice surprise to suddenly find myself there.

A lesser surprise was to find a cafe there, it is just to the right of picture, which is where I had a late lunch of a vegetarian quiche and two salads from a choice of four. It was a tasty treat and I hope that it was not responsible for the severe tummy troubles the next day.

The Art Fund helped again when I bought my ticket, giving me a 50% discount, so I paid just £4.50.

The museum is an unusual space and the exhibition was strung along several rooms on two floors. The layout of the rooms meant that it was hard to see the full extend of the exhibition (perhaps I should have accepted one of the guides!) and that added to the delight as each new display was a surprise.

The exhibition was a broadly chronological display concentrating on the fashion themes of each period and the main creators working with them for Liberty at that time. It was like walking through the Liberty shop as it moved through history, a pleasure doubled.

The final room, at least on the route that I took through the exhibition, was the study room that had displays of the original fabrics rather than clothes made from them. It was in that room that I took the pictures of the Bauhaus curtains above and the fabric samples below.

My parents had Bauhaus curtains in the front room when I was a teenager though that was in a less brash colour-way with more brown and less yellow. I have a tie that matches it.

The clothes on display in the rest of the rooms and corridors were mostly top-end fashion items, which is understandable as even the basic Liberty items, like shirts and ties, are not the clothes of everyday wear for most people. As a long-time Liberty wearer I sometimes forget that.

Obviously a lot of the clothes looked painfully dated, just because of their age, but that was always down to the cut and not to the fabric. So while this dress very much is of its time it is still easy to appreciate the way that touches of Ianthe have been woven into it and how well the jacket compliments it.

There were dozens of outfits to look at lovingly,  mostly dresses with a few jackets for me. There were a couple of outfits that I would have loved to have, and would have worn today despite their age. I particularly liked one with a Nehru collar, I had looked for something like that in India but had failed to find anything close. Luckily enough I am quite happy with my generous collection of Liberty shirts and ties.

When I bought my ticket I asked the friendly woman on the desk how long it would take to get around the exhibition and she advised that it would take about half an hour. On my way out a full hour later I was able to tell her how much I had loved it.

22 January 2016

The Rolling Stone at the Orange Tree Theatre

For the first time in forever I had missed the previous Orange Tree production on the not unreasonable grounds that it was a revival from the previous season and I had seen it then.

Normal service was resumed with The Rolling Stone, a band-new play by Chris Urch about the persecution of gays in present-day Uganda.

For reasons beyond my control that made it a series of three plays in a few days about persecution of groups, these being women, Jews and now gays. There were common themes and I'll return to that.

But first I had to eat and for that I gave the Sun Inn, just around the corner, a try. I had drunk in there many times but had never eaten As expected the menu was limited for vegetarians so I went for the burger and chips which were just fine. The Jack Frost beer was too.

The Rolling Stone was set in modern-day Uganda and showed something of the threats faced by gays there. I guess that might have been news to some people but as a regular listener to Africa Today on BBC World Service it was a story that I had heard.

Uganda was something of a basket-case at the time, despite the appearance of peace. Yoweri Museveni had been President since 1986 and was going to some lengths to keep his job, including jailing opposition politicians and journalists with great regularity. The gays had it bad but they were not the only ones.

The story was of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality in a community where his brother was trying to prove his worth as a pastor having just gained the position with the help of a local leader. There were lots of tensions in the community with everybody looking carefully over their shoulders, even the local leader.

And that was the common theme across the three plays, fear and surveillance. These were unpleasant places and times to live and that set the tomes for the play. All three plays got me more worried about our own society where it is increasingly common to blame groups like migrants and "benefit scroungers" for all our problems.

There was something of a seen it all before feeling to the first half of The Rolling Stone and I went out at the interval satisfied but not impressed.

The second half was a different and better matter.

Having set the scene rather slowly in the first half the second half picked up the pace and the tension. Various things came to a head putting the pastor in the centre of the controversy and leading him to make a powerful play-defining speech that lifted a simple story into something taught and emotional.

The Rolling Stone grew into my sort of play and I hope that there are more like that to come at the Orange Tree.

21 January 2016

Ham and Petersham Neighbourhood Forum: Opportunity Areas workshop

The second Ham and Petersham Neighbourhood Forum Drop In Draft Policy Workshop was on Opportunity Areas and asked residents for their views on issues relating new development.

The questions posed got to the heart of what defines Ham and, unsurprisingly, I had lots of comments to make on various forms provided for that purpose.

I said that I think that Ham Lands should remain sacrosanct with, just possibly, some minor exceptions for small sensitive buildings on the edges, such as a sports pavilion on St George's Field.

On some of the bigger potential sites, e.g. Cassel Hospital and St Michael's Convent, I was prepared to be more adventurous that most people. These are prominent brick-built buildings facing onto Ham Common with lots of open space behind them and there is an obvious temptation to try and leave things much as they are but I would be willing to see striking modern buildings take their place (apart from the section of Cassel that is listed) and to have more building behind them, subject to sufficient provision being made for wildlife habitats and corridors.

There are many examples of modern buildings sitting alongside old ones and I would much rather see a sensational new building that a bland old one or, even worse, a bland new one trying to look like an old one. We have enough of those on Ham Common already. Similarly, while the large gardens are attractive, or have the potential to be so, they cannot be seen from the road and are rarely open to the public. Ham has accepted and come to love new buildings in the past and can do so again.

I was was happy to support the suggestion of more social housing and would like this to look attractive and modern too. A display board showed some examples of what could be achieved.

Irrespective of the type of housing I wanted the character of the area maintained and that means good landscaping in the spaces between the buildings and lots of paths to make the area permeable. There are a couple of land-locked areas in Ham and I find these deeply frustrating.

Another area where I disagreed to some extent on the proposals was on building heights. This was related to the many small sites, often housing disused garages today, where it was suggested that low-rise buildings would be appropriate. I made that comment that mid-rise, say five storey, could also be suitable. There are taller buildings around, there is nothing wrong with a little height per se and we need to make the best use of the spaces that are available otherwise the pressure will be there to intrude into some of the green spaces.

I also wanted our existing good buildings recognised and protected and that includes some examples from the 20th Century, such as 59 Ham Street, and not just the historical hunting lodges.

20 January 2016

My final act as Chairman of the Kingston upon Thames Society

It was not an easy decision to make but after a year as Chairman of the Kingston upon Thames Society I descided to resign.

The reason was simple, there were many things that I wanted to do as Chairman but I had not found the time to do them and had, on more occasions than I would have liked, had not even found the time to do some of the basic things like setting agendas and reviewing minutes.

My final act was my report to the AGM and that was another symptom of the lack of time (and/or my ability to manage it) in that instead of reading a typed report I made some quick notes in the pub immediately before the meeting.

These were only a guide and I said a lot more than is written there. One of my colleagues in the audience took notes and from these wrote up the report that I should have written. Thanks, David.

I am pleased to say that it was well received.

I have since done a grant application (it is mentioned in the report) and that asked for a copy of our last annual report and this was the closest thing that we had to it so I took David's notes and added to them slightly. This is the final report, my final act as Chairman of the Kingston upon Thames Society.

Chairman's Report for 2015

Matthew Rees opened his report by saying that was not standing for re-election because of pressure of his full-time work which meant that he had not been able to devote as much time to the role as he had hoped and the role deserved.

He intended to still actively support the Society as manager of its website and would be involved with Julia Rees in the running of Heritage Open Days.

Planning Applications

In his review of the Committee’s scrutiny of planning applications, Matthew thanked Howard Shepherd for his timely and professional contributions.

While mixed views had been expressed on some of the applications, a consensus whether or not to give support generally had been obtained, sometimes after lengthy discussions. There had been several major schemes to consider during the year.

The Old Post Office (TOPO) application had taken up much of the Committee’s time and in Matthew’s view, while the latest revision of the plans was an improvement, the 16-storey tower block was still too tall.

The Eden Walk proposals were good in many respects, and the developers had put a lot of skill and effort in producing the proposals, but he felt that the buildings also were too tall and too massive for the site.

The Committee generally had supported Tesco’s proposals for the old government buildings site at Tolworth as housing was an appropriate use for the disused site but now that a new owner was involved, its future was unclear.

While the proposals for the Tolworth Tower area generally had gained the support of the Committee on architectural grounds, it was steadfast in its opinion that RBK needed to address the very real concerns of local residents.

Mixed views had been expressed on RBK’s ongoing Mini-Holland proposals, especially on the Boardwalk project, and it remained to be seen what the final scheme would be like.


A wide range of public meetings had been organized in 2015, and Jennifer Butterworth’s efforts on this were much appreciated.

He felt that the modification to the format to allow more time for discussion with members had been a success though that did not mean agreement was always reached and there had been some robust debates, particularly over the Tolworth sites. Matthew welcomed this as he wanted more people to be more engaged with what was happening in Kingston.

He also welcomed the emails that he had got from members during the year either to comment on applications or to make suggestions for the Society.

The website had got better with more information but it had been a struggle to keep this up to date. Matthew hoped that he would have more time to do this in the coming year.

Heritage Open Days

He regretted that, because funding from RBK was not available in time, it had been impossible to produce a printed brochure for the 2015 event. Despite this, the number of people visiting the various sites was about the same as in previous years and the feedback was encouraging. Matthew hoped that a leaflet would be available for the 2016 event.

Matthew also hoped to be able to expand on HODs next year though he was not yet able to confirm what these might be.

Townscape Awards

It had been worth running the Townscape Awards again this year and six awards had been presented, following nineteen nominations from the membership. Brian Godding and George Rome Innes were to be congratulated for the great deal of effort they had put into the selection process and presentation event.

Matthew said that with the Society spending much of the year opposing large schemes that would change the character of Kingston it was good to be able to celebrate some of the good things.

Closing Remarks

Matthew thanked all the outgoing members of the Committee for their work in the past year and wished them well for the challenges they faced in trying to protect the Borough from inappropriate developments.

He said that his main concern was that lots of extra housing and shopping was proposed which would bring more people in to the main centres but no new  infrastructure was proposed to accommodate this. A lot of hope was being put in Crossrail2 but that had limited scope and was many years away. There were also things like schools and hospitals to consider.

These major developments did little to accommodate the needs of existing residents. They provided no new facilities for them and were changing the character of the Royal Borough, which is the reason most of us moved here in the first place. 

19 January 2016

Lord of the Flies at Richmond Theatre

I am growing to love Richmond Theatre again. The reason for that is shows like To Kill a Mockingbird so when the people behind that returned with Lord of the Flies then obviously I was interested.

Like Mockingbird, I had never read this book either but unlike Mockingbird I had not the slightest idea what the story was about.

With Richmond Theatre featuring in my calendar more often the routine beforehand is becoming more settled and that means going to The Railway for a beer (a nice California Blonde from Conwy Brewery) and some food (nachos, again). There is nothing special about the pub but it is reasonable enough, I have to walk past it to get to the theatre and the food is quick.

Also routine is where I sat in the theatre, Dress Circle Row A Seat 17 which cost me a fair £37.50.

The book was obviously on the school reading lists and there were a lot of children there to revise the story.

With the safety curtain up the set was visible as I took my seat and either the few stewards there did not see me take several pictures or they were not bothered, I suspect the later. I like it when theatres let people take pictures like this and the more that they work to stop it the more I get frustrated with them. I simply do not understand why theatres actively fight to stop people promoting their shows.

That stage was largely filled with a wrecked plane, like the opening of Lost but without people being sucked into the engines. The front of the stage was littered with luggage and strands of green cloth filled the back to represent a jungle. On to this stage stumbled a few schoolboys, aged in their mid-teens.

If you have read the book then you will know what happened next but I had not so I had to try and make sense of what was happening on the stage. This was not trivial as the one set became many things and sometimes there were two sets of people on stage and the same time but oblivious to each other as they were in different places.

The story was more one of suspicion and suspense than of action (though there were some deaths) and this production made up for that by making the boys scramble and jump extravagantly whenever possible. That physical movement kept my attention when the movement of the story was more gently paced.

The boys soon realised that they were the sole survivors of the crash with little prospect of a quick rescue. What then started as a holiday was interrupted by the need to find food, tribal divisions and then a near-war. It was hard to tell how quickly this all happened but somebody with me who had read the book said that it was over weeks when, from the staging, it could have been thought to have been just days, or even hours. I think that the lack of an obvious time line was something of a weakness but it may be that everybody else had read the book and so did not have this problem.

Despite my failing to read the book, I found Lord of the Flies engaging and it had plenty of good moments, such as in the early innocent days when a group of boys first go hunting for food. Their enthusiasm and imagination reminded me of the adventures that boys like William and The Outlaws got up to when Surrey was littered with smugglers and pirates. It was that clash of fantasy and reality that gave Lord of the Flies its purpose. The clash was both violent and neatly presented to make an enthralling evening.

18 January 2016

Ham United Group Meeting: January 2016

I have been going to Ham United Group (HUG) meetings fairly regularly but have been much less good at writing them up afterwards and it is this tardiness that means my last post on HUG was two years ago, not my enthusiasm for the organisation.

I was keen to get to this meeting as it was discussing the proposed redevelopment of the Ham Close site and lots of other people were keen to discuss it too as the meeting room at Ham Library was full. I was not counting but there must have been around thirty of use there which is a good turn-out for a HUG meeting.

The main stakeholders in the Ham Close Uplift Programme are the landlord, Richmond Housing Partnership, and the other major land owner, Richmond Council, both of whom were represented at the meeting.

They opened by saying that the revised plans expected in early 2016 would not now be ready until the Summer and went on to say that almost everything in those plans was open for discussion. That was good news for residents who did not like the old plan but it made the discussion rather open ended.

For information only, this is what the previous scheme looked like. It redeveloped the whole site, encroaching on to the Village Green as it did so and it approximately doubled the number of units from around 200 to 400.

Current residents of the blocks in Ham Close (understandably) raised several issues of direct concern to them from the affordability of the new units and their size compared to the current accommodation. I am in no position to comment on the details of this but I think that securing the support of the current residents, leaseholders and tenants, is important.

Traffic was mentioned a few times by residents concerned about both the main Petersham Road that is the only way in/out of Ham and also the roads within Ham that already struggle with cars parked on narrow streets. There was a request that people be encouraged to walk, cycle or use public transport but not much in the way of ideas for how this could be achieved.

Design was the other main issue with comments like, "This is not Ham, this is just a land-grab." It was pointed out that Ham is rich with architects and one of them spoke about the architectural heritage which includes a lot of notable twentieth century development such as Parkleys and Langham Close. Several of us, including me, called for an iconic development rather than something bland like we had seen so far. It was suggested that the scheme should go out to architectural contest and that many imaginative firms would be keen to go in for this. I was reminded of a recent exhibition by Karakusevic Carson Architects at RIBA. Social housing can be exciting and I want that for Ham Close.

There were several comments made about the types of accommodation to be provided with calls for lots of social housing that is genuinely affordable and a mix of sizes to suit different families and also sharers.

It was a constructive and (generally) well-tempered discussion but while I generally support the idea of rebuild I was left with the feeling that there is a long way to go to get to a good scheme.

We ran through the other HUG news quite quickly. The Ham Hydro scheme has gone to appeal. This is an appeal against the Council so there is nothing we can do except sit back and wait. A Forest School was proposing to build a structure on Ham Lands. Not much information was known and views varied from it would only be a shed to there should be no more building on Ham Lands. St. Michael's Convent on Ham Common had been sold to a developer of retirement homes. While this suggested its new use but it was pointed out that in planning terms residential is residential so it could be any residential use, or mix of uses.

I left the meeting enlivened by the engagement with things that impact where I live and heartened that so many other people care about these things too.

17 January 2016

Circling a lightly snowed Kew Gardens

I was not going to let a light dusting of snow stop me going for one of my regular Sunday morning walks through Kew Gardens though the frequent rain meant that it was safer, and much quicker, to keep to the main paths rather than tromping along the grassy vistas.

I had done all of the glasshouses and the treetop walkway a few times on recent visits so this time I chose to go for a walk around the perimeter without detouring or pausing to see any of the main attractions. Out of curiosity I used MapMyWalk to see how far around it was and it came to just over 5km, which is what I measured it as last time I did this.

The map suggests that I did not stick to the perimeter and that is partially true as the paths do not follow it all the way around, especially in the north-west corner where it runs south of Kew Palace but the main reason is that the map is misleading and the green section at the north extends beyond Kew Gardens to Kew Green.

Following the main path meant that there was not that much to see (apart from all the trees, of course)  as all the main attractions are deliberately better placed away from the edge but I was very pleased to spot these three small snowmen. With so little snow around I was impressed that anybody had managed to make anything at all from it.

I took the usual break on the walk and went into the Orangery for the mandatory coffee and a slice of cake. My first choice would have been Bakewell Tart, my usual treat there, but there was none on offer so I had to settle for Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, which did the trick nicely.

On my way back to Lion Gate I walked around the imaginatively named Woodland Garden, the mound near to Victoria Gate that has the Temple of Aeolus on it, and saw the early daffodils that I knew were in the garden somewhere. There were a few other flowers out my knowledge of such things is so poor that I do not know whether they were meant to be out in the middle of January or not. I suspect that the Snowdrops were in season but the the Camellias were premature.

Not the best of weathers and not the prettiest of seasons to explore a garden and still I had a very enjoyable walk and saw some interesting things along the way.

15 January 2016

Overshadowed at Theatre503 was emotional, tense and excellent

Who would have thought that a play about Anorexia could be so compelling? There was enough in the brief description on the theatre's website to suggest that there might be and then there was the reputation of Theatre503 to rely on. It was my favourite theatre at the time for good reasons.

Overshadowed was only on for a week and sold quickly but I was quick too and managed to get a seat for the Friday show before it sold out. Being Friday I was Working At Home so it was an easy jaunt early evening from Richmond to Clapham Junction and then a brisk walk to the theatre. I got there around 7:15pm, for a 7:45pm start, which was enough time to grab a pint in the pub downstairs, The Latchmere, before moving up to the reception area for the theatre. This had been repainted since my last visit, though I am not sure that I would have noticed that if I had not heard about the refresh on Twitter beforehand.

Overshadowed gave us a very personal look at anorexia through the eyes of teenager Imogene, played powerfully by Roseanne Lynch. Helping to tell her story were her mother, younger sister and the disruptive boy at school who seems to be the only person who understand her.

The final player was Imogene's inner voice, the one urging her not to eat and to loose the pounds. She was played menacingly by a caterpillar like figure who crawled, comforted and cajoled. She also spoke in rhyme which was even more menacing. We and Imogene could see and hear her but nobody else could.

The play opened at the end in a hospital and then told us how we got there, which was a surprise. In the middle Imogene grew distant from her mother and sister and found solace, of a sort, in the casual indifference to life of the school bad boy, they met when they had both skipped school. He too had been dealt a bad hand in life but he accepted his future with equanimity.

Apart from the incident at the end which led to the hospitalisation, the story was carried by dialogue rather than action and that dialogue was frustrated, sad, angry, dismissive and even happy at times, all of the deep emotional swings you would expect from a teenager amplified by the anorexia. It was an emotional roller-coaster but one I was eager to stay on to try and understand the loops and swings and also to see whether it would end with steady braking or a sudden crash.

Overshadowed was typical of the sharp challenging theatre that had made Theatre503 my favourite. As long as they keep putting plays like this on I'll keep going to see them.

13 January 2016

Ockham's Razor's Tipping Point at the Platform Theatre was beautiful

Once again I have Twitter to thank for alerting me to this event and it would have been something of a disaster if I had missed it. I had seen Ockham's Razor twice previously, both times at the Rose Theatre in Kingston (where I live) and had loved them. This time they were performing at the Platform Theatre, part of the Central Saint Martins complex which dominates the view from my office window; the hardest part of the journey there is waiting for a lift down from the seventh floor.

It is only a two minute walk to the theatre unless you take a detour like I did. I had to eat something somewhere and nothing locally appealed to me that much so I walked a mile east to Angel Islington where there was a Wagamama and then a mile back again. Those steps were good for my daily count too.

The stage for Tipping Point was set (mostly) in the round and so it was easy for me to find a seat in one of the four front-rows. I went for one in a corner to get the longer view alone a diagonal.

It was one piece in several sections, running for a total of around 75 minutes without a break. Each piece used beams and used them in several different ways.

The mood was set with the first piece in which a beam full of sand (or something similar) was used to slowly draw a circle that defined the field of play. This boundary was treated with reverence by the performers who frequently had to pull themselves up short to avoid crossing it. Another game they played was to avoid the beams as they swung from their supports.

The performance was structured with a series of set pieces, usually with just one or two performers, exploring one specific aspect of working with beams and the ranges of movement that they allow.  These pieces were connected by group pieces that rearranged the beams and played a game with them.

The ending mirrored the opening with a suspended beam again spilling sand but this time it was allowed to swing to make a Spirograph like pattern.

Tipping Point was much as I expected (and hoped) with the movement being a combination of impressive circus skills and beautiful dance set to lovely music. It was gorgeous to watch and I was captivated by it throughout.

Then things got even better with the announcement that there would be a Q&A session with all the performers and the other creatives involved in Ockham's Razor's which obviously I stayed on for. This was very insightful in understanding how they approach their work. It all starts with the apparatus and each of their works has deliberately used different thinks. They then explore the physical capabilities of the apparatus and themselves to see what they can do. This creates the pieces of movement that are then put together to create the performance.

In this case the choice of beams also dictated the shape of the stage, a circle, and suggested that it be performed in the round. That information came in part from a response to my question. I had asked about the staging as the first time that I saw them we were able to walk around the apparatus and the second was presented in standard theatre mode. They liked the walk around mode, as did I, but that limited the number of people they could admit and the economics are always a consideration. We both agreed that performing in the round was a good compromise.

The other main insight was the use of the word "ritual" in response to another question. That helped to make sense of both their response to the sand boundary of the performance area and the way that they shared chalk powder between the main set pieces.

Ockham's Razor are a unique company and what they do is very wonderful.

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

It has been a quarter of a year since I last posted a picture of Smazeny Syr (cheese fried in breadcrumbs) on this blog so I am delighted to be able to rectify that.

There should be a photograph of this delicacy every month, taken at the BCSA "Get to Know You" Social on the second Wednesday, but I missed the socials in November (holiday in India) and in December (clashed with an XMas do) so the last time that I went was in October and that was three months ago, a quarter of a year.

It was good to be back in the groove of the monthly socials starting with a pleasant walk from Kings Cross to Baker Street where I caught the Jubilee Line up to West Hampstead. I was the first one to arrive at the Czech and Slovak Bar and Restaurant, mainly because I got there at 6:30 and the social was not due to start until 7:00. Richard joined me soon afterwards and we began with our first round of Pilsner Urqell's and set about arranging the tables in the room to facilitate conversations.

Those conversations built up as others started to arrive nearer to the published start time than I did. The social evenings are a sort of "open house" with people encouraged to come and go at times to suit them, it is only addicts like me that are there at the beginning and still there when the bar closes at 10:30.

This month I had several conversations about Glyndebourne because I had just got my order confirmed and was taking some of the people there with me. I also had a long conversation that started, "Where do you live?", "South-West London.", where we discovered that we lived just a few hundred metres apart in Ham so we talked about Ham for a while, including reminiscing about lost (but not necessarily missed) pubs in the area.

There were more conversations, more beers and the mandatory Smazeny Syr to fill another fun and fulfilling evening. And it's only four weeks until the next one!

Merete Rasmussen exhibition at Pangolin London

The Pangolin London gallery is by the entrance on the ground floor of Kings Place, which also happens to be the building that my office is in so I walk past in four times a day.

The large windows along the pavement (York Way) mean that I can see the exhibitions without having to go in. This is my (lame) excuse for not going in more often which is my error as I like art galleries even if sculpture is not my favourite forms.

I went in this time for less than artistic reasons. I was having a bad day at work, I do not respond well to micro-management, and wanted a short break. I had been to the exhibition in the Kings Place Gallery on the lower floors a few times so I went to Pangolin London instead. And I was glad that I did.

When looking at the sculptures on my way in and out of the building I had assumed that they were made from metal so I was surprised to learn that most of them were ceramic. Impressed by the technique I asked one of the helpful staff there about it and she explained to me how they were made. It was a complicated process and it included two layers of clay, one to form the shape and the second to hold the colour.

There were limits to the size of the kiln that restricted the size of the pieces and the largest piece, the red one at the top, was made of metal, so I was partially right after all. There were a few smaller metal pieces, similar in style to the twisted ceramics but with several stands rather than a single sheet and the blue piece in the top right corner is an example of this.

I found them interesting but more for the techniques and skills used to manufacture them than their artistic merit (art is an intensely personal thing).

My favourite piece, Morphogenesis - commissioned for this exhibition, is not pictured and was quite different. It looked something like packaging for tennis balls and it changed colour, from black to blue, and became less formal along its length. This was another ceramic work and had been made from three separate pieces because of its size and these were deliberately hung with a small gap between them to show how they were constructed.

Sculpture may not be my thing but my ten minutes or so walking around this small gallery a few times certainly perked me up and prepared me for the final session in the office.

10 January 2016

David Bowie 8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016

I was one of those many people who saw Starman on Top of the Pops in 1972 and Bowie has been with me ever since.

The first album I got was Ziggy Stardust in 1973. It was a birthday present and on cassette. I still have it even though I do not have a tape player to play it on.

I cut out all the Bowie stories in NME and I still remember Charles Shaar Murray's closing words to his review of Aladdin Sane, "Who will love Aladdin Sane? Easy one children, you will".

I saw Bowie live in Bournemouth in May 93, the Ziggy Stardust tour. I stood for the entire concert with one leg on the back of my chair and the other on the back of the chair in front.

I bought all the albums, some several times as cassettes and then LPs wore out. I bought them again when they first came out on CD with the extra tracks and original covers. I even bought the two Tin Machine albums, I was spurred into this by watching the video for Working Class Hero on MTV in Europe somewhere. I also bought the Philip Glass adaptations, e.g. the Low Symphony.

I bought Blackstar a couple of days ago and played the title track in the pub last night when testing the setup for my music round in the quiz. One of the songs I played in the quiz was Life on Mars.

I saw the David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A in 2013 and bought the t-shirt to prove it. That t-shirt gets worn whenever I go to see the excellent The Thin White Duke, a Bowie tribute band, play in my local pub. Those nights are always packed and everybody sings along to all of the songs.

My sister bought me Station to Station for a birthday present and my room mate at university described the title track as "ultra way above average ville". He was right.

When Julia and I started going out I made her a cassette of my favourite music and that included Always Crashing in the Same Car from Low. I felt the following track (Be My Wife) was a bit presumptive though it proved to be prophetic!

David Bowie has meant a lot to me for over forty years.

I am in shock.

9 January 2016

Ham and Petersham Neighbourhood Forum: Travel and Streets workshop

The first Ham and Petersham Neighbourhood Forum Drop In Draft Policy Workshop was on Travel and Streets and asked residents for their views on issues relating to cars, public transport, cycling and walking.

These are topics that I have strong opinions on and I made sure that they were known. Other views were expressed that opposed mine and most of these seemed to be from people who used cars complaining that other people were using cars and so were filling up the roads and parking spaces. I very rarely drive and had no sympathy with that view.

As we were talking about streets and paths there were lots of maps. I love maps.

I'll start with the topic that everybody seemed to agree with. The Thames rolls in a large S around Ham and Petersham and there is a large gap between the footbridge at Teddington Lock and the road bridge at Richmond. There was a strong consensus that we needed another foot/cycle bridge and that the obvious place to put this was somewhere near the end of Ham Street. A bridge there would open up Twickenham and beyond to those on the Ham side and give those on the Twickenham side easy access to the wild areas of Ham Lands and Richmond Park.

I was generally supportive of the plans for improving the streets for walkers but with two exceptions. I though that they were somewhat limited in scope, e.g. walk to school, and I was against any idea of "improving" the tow path to make it passable during flooding.

I love walking through Ham and exploring the little alleyways and twittens as I do so. I suspect that nobody has explored them as much as I have. This knowledge needs to be shared so that other people can make use of these routes. One of the things that I am doing is updating Open Street Map which is a better map than most for showing paths (Google is useless) but still has some significant gaps.

Once I have got the map right I want to work with the Forum on maintaining and publicising these routes. I think that we can do a lot of simple things quickly and easily which would all make a noticeable difference.

All my walking has also made me aware of places where the paths disappear or are unsuitable. For example, the route down Ham Street to the river and Ham House means taking to the road for about 50m. This is one of the main routes that should be made more pedestrian friendly, especially if a bridge is to be built at the end of the road.

I have spent many an happy hour on the tow path while it is flooding, often through deliberate planning and sometimes by accident. The rising and falling tide is a fascinating thing to watch, even if it means standing on a bench to do so. The tide and associated flooding is a nice feature of the area and I am against any plans to raise it or to make it more substantial during the short high tides.

One of Ham's problems is easy to see from the map above, the only way in or out of the area by road means using the main Kingston to Richmond Road that has a significant bottleneck as it goes through Petersham (turning sharply past the house where Tommy Steele used to live). We are not going to solve that problem so the only answer is to discourage car use and, preferably, take a few off the road.

Personally I would make it a one-way road, except for buses, and let cars find other routes, or have them left behind in the garage while the owner takes a bus or walks. We should assume that cars are a bad idea whose day has gone and plan for a future without them.

8 January 2016

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at the Arcola Theatre

The Arcola Theatre remains one of my favourites though there is a lot of competition out there and so it was five months between visits this time. The pull this time was the story aided by a free evening and, amazingly, a single free seat in my preferred location, seat A12 is on the corner of the central front row for which I was only charged £12. Sometime seat pricing is a mystery to me and this seemed like a ridiculous bargain, I guess is may have been a preview price but that was not my reason for choosing that theatre on that date.

The Arcola suits me in many ways. It's a good and pleasant walk from my office in Kings Cross and the cafe there is an excellent place to spend an hour or so before a performance. I was pleased to see that they still did that surprisingly good combination of falafel, stew, salad and other things all in one bowl. I loved it; again. I really must remember that they have moved the cafe next to the box office though and stop asking for coffee at the bar. The wifi helps to fill the time too, there is always something interesting happening on Twitter.

The play opened with the immediate aftermath of the hanging of a witch, that's the gibbet on the stage at the start of the play. With one witch discovered and punished the hunt is on to find more. Suspicion moves on to other women in the village especially Jane Wenham who lived outside the village and treated the locals with herbal remedies.

The witch's daughter is another suspect and one of her own making. She starts to convince herself that she must be a witch because her mother was.

The other main players were the local priest who led the witch-hunt with honest conviction and zeal, and the local magistrate who tried to take a more enlightened view. Add to the mix a few more locals and there was a basis of a good story.

And it was a good story with lots going on around the main plot of the accusations and then the trial of Jane. The gruesome bits included pricking Jane with big needles to see if she bled, one of the if you die you are innocent tricks, and the fun bits included the very ribald conversations between some of the village women.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern could have been a one-trick pony but it was far more than that. There were sub-plots a plenty, different insights from the different players and a surprise ending. I tweeted at half-time that the Christians were wining 1-0 and looked like romping it 3-0 or more but it did not turn out that way.

The richness of the play came from the strong characters and powerful events. A man in the pub has an affair, a young girl drowns, women meet in secret, plans are made to replace the magistrate and the landlady of the pub has an unexpected sexual encounter. There was lots to take in and to think about.

Helping the play along was a small cast some of whom doubled up roles so that the few looked like the few more. It was an ensemble performance and each and every one of them played their full part. While Jane was the subject of the story I thought that the priest, Crane played by Tim Delap, was the one driving the narrative with strength and clarity. He was on the wrong side from our current perception of values but he was sincere and honest in his desire to clear the village of witchery.

I did have one little niggle with the play. It used period language, like doxie for prostitute, but then let slip in some modern idioms like, "sorry for your loss" and "not fit for purpose". Little things maybe but they grated slightly in their passing because everything else was so genuine.

But I do not want to end on a low note, how ever trivial it is. Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern was a marvellous play delivered marvellously.

6 January 2016

Macbeth at the Young Vic was a bold experiment that did not quite work

London theatre must be doing well as I have not had the opportunity to see The Scottish Play for many years.

The last time I remember seeing Macbeth was (at least) twenty years ago at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, though I did listen to the BBC Radio 3 version last year and I also saw the opera at Glyndebourne in 2010.

I was aware that the Young Vic were doing a modern take on Macbeth but I was a little weary and did not book it immediately. I loved some modern versions of Shakespeare, such as Hamlet and Lear, so this did appeal to me. The doubts came from my recent experience of the Young Vic were some productions, e.g. Streetcar named Desire, seemed unnecessarily complicated while others, e.g. Happy Days, were excellent.

In the end the deciding factor was work with a bit of help from fate. Work was not going well and rather than rant loudly to my boss I thought I would go to the theatre instead, something to calm me down. Macbeth was an option and there were a few single seats left for that evening's performance so I bought one, Downstairs D5 for £27.50.

The play did not start until 7:30pm so that have me plenty of time to walk down to Southwark from Kings Cross, have by usual Chinese style curry at Culture Grub and then get a pint of something brown and yet to drink at the Young Vic. You are allowed to take drinks in with you so I did, mostly because there were no seats in the bar and the theatre opened very early at 7pm.

The seat was a little to one side but I could see all the way down the funnel stage so I was OK. It did not hurt that the person in the seat in front of me did not turn up, the show was sold out but there were a few no-shows. I managed to get my usual shot from my seat despite the close attention of the staff eager to stop photography. The official photo above gives a better idea of what the stage looked like.

My first thought was of Richard III at the Old Vic which had a similar dark set with a series of doors along either side of the stage.

This was a strange Macbeth. It was a new version but I did not spot any changes in the text, nor would I expect to, until I checked afterwards for one specific thing (more on that later). I assume that several other pieces were cut out to make Macbeth more approachable and to make room for the dancing.

Yes, dancing. The first hint of this came when the three sisters first appeared and the prophecies came with modern dance moves, hands around the head and that sort of thing. They were also wearing body coloured body stockings which was another departure from the norm.

There was much more dancing later on especially in a ball scene that involved everybody and was quite fun. Less relevant were the duets between Macbeth's henchmen, their dancing was good but I just could not see the point of it.

The sound and lighting were far more successful in defining the mood and I loved the way that they varied, especially the volume with moments of loud music contrasting against soft speech.

The play is called Macbeth but I think that Lady Macbeth is the main character as she is the one who urges him on when the early doubts come and once that first fateful step is made he is doomed. This Lady Macbeth, Anna Maxwell Martin, was suitably scary not least because she looked like a primary school teacher. She led the rest of the cast well and they followed her admirably with no weaknesses and plenty of strengths.

The staging was light. All the doors were used frequently, the final section slid sideways a few times to show us other rooms and the central section lifted to become a table. What the staging did it did well enough but I missed what it did not do, e.g. there was no visual hint of Great Birnam Wood.

Surprisingly the ending fell a little flat. I heard other people say that on the way out so I checked the play text and saw that the closing speech had been chopped. I have no idea why and the absence of this epilogue made the ending rather abrupt.

My first reaction was, that despite the blunt ending, it was an exciting and thrilling experience, as you would expect Macbeth to be, and I was even considering going to see it again. On reflection, and I like to reflect on things, many of thrills came from the music and dancing and they were somewhat ephemeral, like cream cakes, and the sugar rush was short-lived. The core of the play was still one of Shakespeare's best plays but I was not convinced that the additional elements added anything to the tragedy.

Macbeth was fun, a lot of fun, and I am happy with that even if there was not enough in there to tempt me back for more.

5 January 2016

The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios was tense, brutal and surprising

One look at the poster gives you some idea of why I was interested in seeing The Homecoming, it was the names.

John Simm was my biggest name in that list followed closely by Keith Allen, both of whom I had seen on stage before. Emma Chan was an attractive name also because I had enjoyed her performance in C4's Humans. And the Harold Pinter name helped too.

But is was Gary Kemp who swung it for me.

My interest in the names was not sufficient to make me fork out Trafalgar Studio prices to see it initially. Then Gary Kemp was on the podcast of Robert Elms' BBC Radio London show and what he said about the play, and his role in it, convinced me to see it. So much so that I went for top price seats in the front row, Row A  Seat 18 Price £69.50.

The main reason that I show a picture taken from my seat and give my seat number is so that I can judge which seat to go for next time I am at that theatre, At most medium or large sized theatres the front rows are to be avoided as they mean looking up at a raised stage but my last visit to the Trafalgar had shown me that the stage is not that high and the front row seats are set back a bit leaving something like a 2m gap between seats and stage. Plenty of room for my work bag too!

On that stage was a sparsely furnished living room.

The armchair belonged to Max an elderly man and head of the household. Living with him in the house were his camp brother Sam and his sons Lenny and Joey.

The homecoming was that of Max's other son, Teddy, who arrived unexpectedly with his wife, Ruth, on there way back to the USA from Italy where they had been on holiday.

The story that followed was dark and impressionistic, as if Edvard Munch had done My Family. This mad darkness was presented as if normal and that gave the play its edge, just like the Munsters' belief in their normality gave that show its comedy. To pick just tow examples, Lenny describes how be beat up an old woman in frustration at not being to help her to move a mangle and on first seeing Ruth, Max called her all sorts of nasty things that nobody batted an eyelid to, not even Ruth.

That was the canvas on which the characters roamed and those characters were the play's other main element.

John Simm as Lenny shone throughout. Immaculately dressed, slow speaker, touches of menace, great performance. Keith Allen as Sam was the one touch of brightness in the dark situation. He drifted above family matters camply enough for us to know why he had never married but not too camp for Max to catch on. Gary Kemp surprised me, pleasantly, as Teddy the prodigal child who did not fit in. Ron Cook's Max was aggressive, foul-mouthed and very much in charge. Gemma Chan as Ruth carried on from her role in Humans and showed little emotion when being sworn at or propositioned. She seemed a natural match for Lenny with their mutual calculating manners and menace. John Macmillan as Joey was dim-witted and happily did what he was told.

The Homecoming is a play that needs a strong ensemble and this production most certainly had one.

What happened in the play was of little importance, what mattered was the setting and the people in it. It was like a fly-on-the-wall documentary of an unusual and somewhat disturbing family. What they said to each other was sometimes funny, sometimes nasty and always fascinating.

With everything set in one room there could have been little for the backroom people to do but they contributed strongly to the evening. Obviously keeping the living room fairly dark all the time helped the mood but there were other neat tricks that I liked. In a play all but devoid of action it was the words that mattered and also the spaces between them. In one memorable tense seen Max and Lenny stood still staring at each other darkly for a long time before either of them spoke. The spaces added to the hint of menace and also regulated the pace of the play adding further to the tension.

The Homecoming gripped me from the beginning and never let go. It was quite an experience.