26 February 2016

Uncle Vanya at the Almeida Theatre

I knew of the Almeida Theatre mostly through my extensive lunchtime walks around Islington and I was looking for the opportunity to see something there when they duly obliged by putting on Uncle Vanya.

There is a risk that I might be coming something of a Chekhov completist but I have yet to find a good reason not to see a production of one of his plays and so I went to see this one. Besides, I had only seen Uncle Vanya once before and that was at the Arcola Theatre way back in May 2011. Since then there had also been the BBC drama production on radio but that only partially counts.

I did not know the inside of the theatre at all so I tried to play safe and went for the front row in the Circle where seat A18 cost me £38, the top price.

The seating was a little awkward as it was in benches of four people which meant that it was harder to get in and out of. It did not help that my bench was at a slight angle to the bench next to me as that reduced the limited legroom even more. I spent most of the evening touching other men's legs. The view was not brilliant either, though it was OK, and the lighting rig was less distracting when there was action on the stage to watch.

The stage was a black cube which made for a duller than usual picture, all you can really see is the rigging and some of the people downstairs.

This Uncle Vanya was almost an endurance test running for 200 minutes with, unusually, three 10 minute intervals. That is even longer than Scarface (170 minutes) and Wolf of Wall Street (180 minutes). The radio version of Uncle Vanya was 110 minutes.

The seating discouraged me from leaving at all, though I would have loved a beer or three, so I sat there for the full 200 minutes trying to keep my blood flowing to my feet.

A play that long was going to have some ups and downs and several parts of Vanya did not work for me. Some of the humour, such as the constant retuning of a guitar, seemed out of place. Some of the emotional heights were reached too quickly, especially in the first part, and what was probably meant to be reaction came across as over reaction. The stage slowly rotated which I hated in Streetcar Named Desire and which I hated here too. Vanya was renamed Jimmy for no apparent purpose and to no great effect. The ending was far too slow.

Fortunately there was much that did work, and worked very well.

The play revolved around three strong characters all played superbly. Paul Rhys as Vanya took most of the credits though, for me, he was outshone by Tobias Menzies as the doctor, being in Game of Thrones probably helped here, and my star of the show was Vanessa Kirby as the young married woman, Elena, who they both fancied. It was only afterwards that I realised that I had seen her, and had loved her, before in another Chekhov, Three Sisters at the Young Vic. She was the vivacious centre of the story and beautiful with it, which made the three men's desire for her completely believable.

At some point they sung Lust for Life which seemed entirely appropriate and that idea may also have been borrowed from Three Sisters.

One of the techniques used that I thought worked well was that each of the main characters spoke directly to the audience at some point and, to reinforce that that was different from the main play, they stood down from the stage to do so.

I found Uncle Vanya to be something of a curate's egg but with enough good bits in it to keep me enthralled and entertained. I will continue to see Chekhov plays but am less sure about going back to the awkward Almeida.

25 February 2016

Open Mic Night at The Oak (25 February 16)

On this Thursday evening I happened to be in Kingston to watch councillors approve a major development on The Old Post Office site despite it not meeting the conditions they had imposed on it previously (that's another long and painful story) so it made good sense to wander up to The Oak afterwards to see some of the Open Mic Night.

The other meeting finished around 9pm so I got to The Oak earlier than usual. This meant that I could catch more of the music than usual, which was good, and I could drink more than usual, which was possibly less good.

My first job was to video Maria and support do a lively rendition of the Chaka Khan hit Ain't Nobody. Maria asked me to do this and trusted me with her phone to make the recording. I resisted the temptation to do a few Facebook updates but not the temptation to play around a little with the filming, I even tilted the camera at one point as is my habit.

It was brilliant to see Catherine Paver there again after not having seen her for quite a while. She has a refreshingly different style helped by writing her own songs. I recognised Mexico from before but the comic Evil Kingston was a new one on me.

There were friends there as well as performers, notably Colin and Peter, so it was a sociable evening as well as a musical one. A good evening all round.

23 February 2016

South West London Humanists: Discussion on Effective Altruism

I go to the monthly South West London Humanists monthly meetings for intelligent conversations on topics that interest me and in February that was Effective Altruism.

The conversations were seeded by a TED talk given by Peter Singer.

In this he made three main points:
  1. We should give more money away than we do
  2. We should give it where it has most impact, and that means saving lives in underdeveloped countries
  3. We should check that our money is spent wisely.
In his talk he gave several examples to make his point, such as for the cost of rearing and training one guide dog to help one blind person in the USA we could do 2,000 simple eye operations to restore sight to people in Africa.

He also cited the Gates Foundation several times for the amount that they had given and the effectiveness of how it was being spent, e.g. in tackling malaria which kills thousands each year (an estimated 438,000 in 2015).

The arguments having been made we split into small groups and started the conversations. As is my rule, what follows is a mix of comments made by various people and edited by me after the event; it is my summary of the topic and not a record of the evening.

I was not convinced by the praise heaped on the Gates. Despite giving a vast fortune away they still had a fortune left. They had only given away money that they could not spend. Jesus got that right with the Widow's Mite.

While it is easy to say that we should give away all the money that we do not need the problem is we do not know how much money we may need in the future, particularly if we, or somebody else in the immediate family, has a long term illness. Most of us in the room were saving money just in case and would die relatively rich.

I was also concerned about the democratic aspect. Why should the Gateses get to decide where large sum of money should be spent? If we had more taxation and more foreign aid then the process would be both more democratic and more inclusive, i.e. we would catch all the very rich people who are not doing what the Gateses are.

I was interested in the politics behind the initial assumptions. Rather than address altruism I was more interested in addressing the inequality that makes it an issue, i.e. why are we rich while they are poor?

Most, if not all, of the people in the room gave to charities that deal with quality of life issues, e.g. the arts, as well as those that deal with health and well being. While one person said at the end that they might change their mix of giving to spend less on arts most of us felt that quality of life is as important as quantity of life and that we should remain members of the National Trust, Kew Gardens, etc.

In talking about the efficiency of charities Peter Singer wanted as much money as possible to go to the needy but I deliberately give to charities that also do political campaigning, e.g. Shelter, as we need to fix the problems not just help the people caught up in them.

I also felt that charities were under more scrutiny to be efficient than most organisations. I can see waste all around me at work but nobody is monitoring us.

It was an interesting and lively set of conversations but I left with the view that Effective Altruism while much better than no altruism at all fails to address the real point which is the inequality of wealth and health.

22 February 2016

Bend it like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre was a feel-good musical on steroids

I had heard of the film on which the musical is based but that was about it and from that little knowledge I had concluded that Bend it Like Beckham was a simple crowd-pleaser of a musical that was best avoided, which I did.

The little nagging doubt came from knowing that Howard Goodall had written the music and I had seen and loved several of his musicals.

What finally persuaded me to go was a ticket offer that coincided with a special day. And to celebrate that special day and also to keep in the spirit of the musical I first went for a curry, at Woodlands just of Piccadilly where I had been a few times before. It was a good start to the evening.

The Phoenix Theatre was on the other side of Soho so there was a nice walk through the back streets to get there. Soho is vibrant and lovely and should stay just as it is.

Somehow I had not been to that theatre before so I had little idea what it looked like inside. I assumed, correctly, that it was like most other traditional theatres in the west end and so I went for a seat in my usual location, Dress Circle Row A  Seat  15, which was a friendly £35.

If I had any preconceptions about Bend it Like Beckham it was that it would be a full-on family musical with an Indian twist to the story, music and dancing. Which it was, and it had so many great things going on around that. I liked the way that the story included elements of class, sexuality and inter-generation conflicts as well as the expected gender elements.

While the young woman keen on playing football, Jess Bhamra, was at the centre of the story she was surrounded by many other strong characters, such as her sister Pinky Bhamra, her determined English football playing friend Jules Paxton, Pinky's boyfriend and Jess' male school friend who is secretly gay. To that list you can add assorted parents, other family members, friends and, of course, the girls' football team. It was a very large cast which was just what was needed for the many ensemble scenes of singing and dancing.

There were some nice technical touches too, such as the way that the two main girls' bedrooms slid in an out on raised platforms on either side of the stage. Tricks like that meant that the action could move from scene to scene quickly without breaking the flow too much, something that film makers do not have to worry about.

There were plenty more nice touches in the script too such as, and these are just two little examples to prove the point, the football skills shown by Posh Spice and the Jules' forty-something mum being called a granny by a young man.

The overall effect was wonderful. The main plots were obvious, as they should be, which meant that we got the happy endings that we all wanted and we also got lots of other happy, funny and jolly things along the way.

Bend it Like Beckham was a feel-good musical on steroids with a great cast. I absolutely loved it.

19 February 2016

The Master Builder at the Old Vic

The poster tells you why I went to see The Master Builder; it has the impressive names Fiennes, Ibsen and Hare on it.

The Ibsen name was the more problematic of the three and it had taken me some effort (two viewings and one listening in a short period) to appreciate Ghosts. But The Master Builder was just the sort of play that I should be seeing and The Old Vic was just the sort of place to see it.

It's an expensive theatre, certainly when compared to most of the ones that I go to, so I headed up to the top level, as usual, and claimed my place in the Lilian Baylis Circle Seat A24 for an acceptable £30. The view there was fine, as the photo shows. The leg room was somewhat limited but not really a problem except for when trying to get past people to get to my seat.

The Master Builder of the play is an architect, Halvard, who had risen to become the leading builder in his locality. In rising he had trampled over some people, the son of one of whom, Ragnar,Apple Store now worked for him as a junior. Also working for him was that man's intended fiancee, Kaia. Halvard and Kaia had a thing going on which Halvard's wife, Aline, suspected.

Playing the steadying influence was the Chekovian Doctor Herdal and making everything even more complicated was Hilde, a pretty young woman from a nearby town who had come to visit Halvard in response to a promise he had made to her to build castles in the air when she was a young girl ten years earlier.

The play then wrestled with several psychological ideas including Halvard's relationships with the young women, his legacy and his relationship with God, another Master Builder. Pointedly, Halvard was addressed as The Master Builder throughout.

The tension in the plot came from Halvard's possible futures which included scandal, contented retirement, overthrow by a young contender, success and failure. Elements of the past were uncovered which helped to explain somethings and to darken the mood further. Halvard was, to put it simply, trapped between his joyless wife and the childish dreams of Hilde.

My frustration with Ibsen is that there was clearly a lot going on in all of the relationships and I felt like I was missing a lot of the detail, rather like going to a party where you do not know anybody else there, things were said but meanings were missed. I am sure that I would appreciate The Master Builder more on a second or third viewing but I would have liked to have got more from the first.

The other thing that slightly spoiled it for me was the way that Fiennes portrayed Halvard. He spent a lot of time standing up with his hands on his hips and I simply could not get the image of Leonard Rossiter as Rigsby out of my mind. Even Halvard's waistcoat seemed to be a homage to Rigsby's cardigan.

Those gripes aside, it was still a decent enough play and I thought that Sarah Snook was excellent as the playful Hilde. There was plenty in the characters and their stories to get to grips with and it was an enthralling couple of hours of drama.

16 February 2016

Private Lives at Richmond Theatre

I do not just do edgy modern theatre, sometimes I do gentle classics, things like Private Lives.

Noel Coward is something of an English legend, and rightly so,  and his name was all I needed to see this play.

The other name used to tempt people in was Tom Chambers who had appeared in a number of TV shows that I never watched, like Waterloo Road, and he also won Strictly, which I never watch either. I did, however, see him on stage in Top Hat in 2012.

I had yet to find a regular place to eat prior to going to the theatre pub and after trying The Railway a few times and The Sun Inn once I thought that I would give The Prince's Head on the Green a go. I had eaten there a few times and drunk there many more but never pre-theatre before. It worked well and even though I had to wait a little while for the food, which meant that they were actually cooking it instead of just warming it up, it arrived in good time and was delicious. From pub to theatre was only a three minute walk.

This time I went for a seat in the front row of the Dress Circle, my preferred location, Row A  Seat 5 for which I paid £36.90 (face value £34). A fair price for a good seat.

From there I could see the balconies of two posh hotel rooms. They were in Deauville in northwestern France in the decadent inter-war years.

A newly married couple appeared on the balcony on the left. She was married for the first time and him for the second. She asked questions about his first wife, Amanda, which he got somewhat rattled at. Then they went in.

Another newly married couple appeared on the balcony on the right. She was married for the second time and him for the first. He asked questions about her first husband, Elyot  which she got somewhat rattled at.

It not take much intelligence to work out that Amanda and Elyot had been married to each other. They soon discovered each other and the scene was set for the four protagonists (and three couples) to interplay with love, venom and humour.

But with no songs though, these were cut from the production. This was odd, not least because one of the songs, Some Day I'll Find You, is one of his most popular.

Without the missing songs the play had to rely on the dialogue, and a little bit of slapstick. The dialogue was typical sharp Coward whether people were being kind or unkind to each other and that was the source of a lot of humour. I did not know before that this is where the line "Very flat, Norfolk" came from. Helping that to come to life was the performance of Laura Rogers as the quixotic Amanda with a myriad of mischievous faces.

The story ebbed and flowed as did the passions and it was uncertain which of the couples would end up together, the reunited Elyot and Amanda rowed as violently as they wooed with memories of how they had loved and argued when married to each other and of why they were no longer married to each other. Their new partners added more changing emotions to the pot as they alternately forgave and condemned their spouses.

Apparently all this playing around between married couples was very racy for the 1930s censors where relationships outside of marriage were taboo. Modern times may be different and the situation no longer seems so scandalous but relationships are much as they ever were and couples arguing is always fun.

Something that stood the test of time less well was the approach to domestic violence. Now hitting women is seen as very wrong but then Elyot was allowed to say "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs", and to do so. The line got a laugh but it was a nervous one. On the other hand, those period differences gave an interesting insight into our society of less than a century ago.

Private Lives was great entertainment thanks to great characters and great dialogue.

Avedon Warhol at Gagosian Gallery

I would have discovered the new exhibition at Gagosian Gallery at some point anyway but it was a mixed pleasure to be notified of it through a Facebook friend who went to the opening evening. I do not get invited to things like that and so I make do with visiting it during a lunch break.

Gagosian Britannia Street, one of a few Gagosian galleries in London, is about a ten minute walk from our London office and is slightly hidden between Gray's Inn Road and Kings Cross Road.

The gallery had changed slightly since my previous visit with the introduction of a glass door between the reception area and the galleries. Like the glass door at the entrance this had somebody standing by it to open it for visitors. With two doormen and a watchful guard in each room there were about as many staff there as there were visitors when I arrived. I have no idea how their funding works.

I had heard of Andy Warhol, obviously, but Richard Avedon was a new name for me. I learned that they were put together because they were contemporaneous and their paths had crossed, one of the large Avedon photographs was of Warhol's crowd of friends and associates.

Some other Avedon photos were facial portraits, of people like Marilyn Monroe and Bridget Bardot, and so were similar in style to some of Warhol's paintings and this also helped to make the pair a good match.

The picture above of the largest room in the gallery shows how the works of the two artists were displayed alongside each other.

The Avedon photo on the left were individual pictures of a large family. They were all taken with the people standing and almost all were waist-up shots. The identical compositions made the pictures more interesting for me and it also drew my attention to the variances in the ways that the arms were posed.

The photo above also shows how powerful Warhol's portraits are and they stole the show for me. However, I was less impressed with some of his more abstract works, like Red Skull.

My favourite Warhol portrait was of Liza Minnelli but for some reason it was one of the few works in the exhibition that we were not allowed to photograph. What makes that doubly odd is that it is easy enough to find copies on official sites on the internet, such as the Sunday Times.

With Liza out of bounds I have chosen Mao to represent the portraits. I would like to have it in my house but it was not for sale and would have cost more than my house if it was. Mao was behind me when I took the picture of the room.

The only slightly annoying thing about the visit was that the pictures were not labelled on the walls and so I had to carry the two page laminated guide around with me. That was fine on my first two passes through the rooms when I was just looking at the pictures but was something of a hindrance on my third pass when I took the photos. I could have gone back to reception to return the guide but that would have meant going through the gallery door twice more and I would have felt awkward having it opened for me again.

The big positive for me in the exhibition was the number of Warhol portraits. I had seen several of them before in places like Tate Modern and the Rijksmuseum but never as many in one place. I also liked the way that Gagosian presented them with some in groups and then others, like Liza and Mao, on their own.

Avedon Warhol is on until the end of April so I shall be going back there for a refresher before it closes. That is what lunch breaks are for.

12 February 2016

Herons at the Lyric Hammersmith was astonishing

I had not been to the Lyric Hammersmith for quite a while, I was last there for Metamorphosis in February 2013, and it had dropped off my radar slightly. It got back on with Herons as that was written by Simon Stephens who, among other things, also wrote ChristmasPortThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and an adaptation of Three Sisters.

The Lyric Hammersmith has the advantage for me of being in Hammersmith, the clue is in the name, as various tube lines lead there from Richmond, where I live, and Kings Cross, where I work. On this occasion I was at work and took a stroll to Great Portland Street where I took the Hammersmith and City line.

I knew from my previous visit that the Lyric Hammersmith did food so I made my plans to eat there before the show. That plan worked extraordinarily well despite the vegetarian options being limited and unimaginative sounding as the vege burger that I went for was almost certainly the best vege burger that I had ever had. The burger itself was delicious and the meal was elevated to its leadership position by the salad that went with it, avocado always works for me, and the use of pitta bread rather than the bland burger standard roll. I'll have that again next time. They had a nice expensive craft beer too.

I had gone for a seat in the front row of the Circle, A20, which was a modest £30. Sitting there waiting for the play to start the most obvious feature on the stage was the video of monkeys playing on the large screen at the back. That should have alerted me that something unusual was going to happen but I failed to pick up the clue.

Normally I would say something about the plot and the characters at this point but there was just so much in Herons that focusing on them would be to miss several big points.

For starters, the stage was flooded with water to the depth of around 10cm and stayed that way all through the play. The actors got quite wet, as did some of the people in the front row.

And that video of monkeys kept playing.

Things happened on stage that seemed to have no bearing on the story. For example, at one point the mother (who was not really present in that scene) was sitting on the small swinging horse on the front-right of the stage and she carefully took her wellington boots off and laid them sideways on the stage where they got filled with water. A while later she put them on again.

At other points some of the children went around the roundabout slowly in unusual positions, a another child sat in the water with shock etched on his face and children blew soap bubbles from the top of the lock. All of this happened away from the main action in the centre of the stage but complimented it by adding more textures, rather than diverting from it.

The story started with a boy blowing up an inflatable doll to celebrate, his word, the death of a girl who had been murdered a year ago by, it turned out, his older brother. The play remained violent throughout and had the language to match. There was some love too, though that got swamped by the violence and the threat of violence.

In the eye of this weird and energetic hurricane was Billy (Max Gill) who not just accepted that he would be bullied and abused but almost encouraged it by asserting his intellectual superiority over his bully. He also had to cope with severely dysfunctional and separated parents.

The main characters were school children and were played by young people. It would be tempting to make allowances for their ages but that was unnecessary as all played their parts well.

The combination of everything going on was something like the famous Phil Spector Wall of Sound where to pick out the sound of just one instrument was to miss the point. The glorious richness came from all the parts moving together and was absorbed at a primitive level rather than being consciously consumed.

Herons was theatre craft at its very best.

11 February 2016

Open Mic Night at The Oak (11 February 16)

I seem to have slipped into the habit of going to the Open Mic Nights at The Oak (just north of Kingston Station) on Thursday nights but have yet to fall into the habit of writing them up regularly as I did when they were held at the Grey Horse (just down the road and even closer to the station).

The reasons for both habit changes are connected. One reason for going to The Oak is for the 5,000 steps it gives me and rather walk aimlessly for forty minutes it is nice to have a destination in mind, especially when that destination has friends, music and beer. The change in motive means that I now get to the pub nearer to 10pm than 9pm which means that I miss more of the music and so have less to write about.

This Thursday was fairly typical. I could be simplistic and say it was the usual people, the usual songs and the usual beer but it was more than that and every night there is different in an interesting way.

On the people front, Tony, Eugene and Maria were there and performing as usual and Pete was the unusual factor. Musically I did not recognise any of the acts, apart from the trio already mentioned, and I paid most attention to a young American woman who did a decent version of Hallelujah. The beer choice was limited and unimaginative but a respectable pint of Young's Ordinary is always satisfactory.

The evening ended with Tony and Eugene leading assorted musicians and singers on stage and also the audience in a reggae version of Knocking on Heaven's Door. It was a sign of how much I was enjoying the evening that I joined in.

Toast at the Rose Theatre entertained and surprised delightfully

The two main reasons that I went to see Toast are given in the poster, it starred Matthew Kelly, who I last saw in The Seagull, and was written by Richard Bean, who also wrote One Man Two Guvnors which was very funny. The other reason was that it was on at the Rose Theatre and I like to support my local theatres, the Rose is one of the three that I can walk to and is the closest of those.

With a local theatre to go to in the evening I made it a Work At Home day. I could have got there from work but that would have meant the slow train to Kingston whereas being at home I had a leisurely walk along the river instead.

I went for my usual area, the first proper row, named appropriately Row A, where seat 14 was a very reasonable £26.

The stage was set as the rest area of a large industrial bakery in Yorkshire on a busy Sunday.

We met them one at a time as they either came in ready to start their shift or to take a break. There was the usual sort of friendly banter between people who have worked together for years. Through this banter we learned something about them, one was in debt and was trying to see his car, one was in a marriage that had lost its lustre and another had ambitions for a promotion to another factory.

What was quickly apparent was that this was nothing like One Man Two Guvnors with the humour coming more that from the interplay between the characters than from any farce-like comic situation set-up. About the only moments if slapstick were the many failed attempts by all of the men (they were all men) to throw rubbish into the waste bin. The floor around it was littered with used teabags etc.

There was a serious side to the story too. The plant was on its last legs mechanically and a serious incident meant that there was a real risk that it would be closed down in favour of another newer factory. The men talked about what this would mean and it was bad news for all of them.

Toast was something like an Alan Bleasdale's TV plays in the Thatcher years, plays like Boys from the Blackstuff, that mixed politics with humour. The balance in Toast was more towards the humour than the social commentary but both played a part.

Another element came into the story with the arrival of a mature student on his first day of work there. The others were sceptical about his chances of survival given the experience of previous students. Then things took a strange turn when the student suggested that he was actually something else and was there for another reason.

There were other things going on in the play too and it was never clear where it was going until right at the unexpected end. The journey there took several twists and turns and piled on the laughs while it did so.

Being a character play put the emphasis on the actors and luckily they were all good. It was very much an ensemble performance. Matthew Kelly may have been given the main billing, and was the best known name in the cast, but he was absent from several scenes, he had some dough to mix, and so did not dominate the show.

Toast gave us humour, social commentary and a few surprises in a play that entertained easily.

Ham and Petersham Neighbourhood Forum: Sustainability workshop

The third Ham and Petersham Neighbourhood Forum Drop In Draft Policy Workshop was on Sustainability and asked residents for their views on issues relating to energy and water.

In some ways this was a difficult subject to cover because not many people are against sustainability and those that are have a problem making a convincing argument for that viewpoint. Consequently I spent most of the hour posting thumbs-up stickers on the questionnaires though I did find a couple of points to argue against.

The first table considered domestic energy. The obvious proposal was that the Neighbourhood Plan should have policies that demand local generation, e.g. solar panels, and strong measures to control energy loss, e.g. insulation. Obviously I agreed with all that.

There were more controversial policies to retrofit these standards on to existing buildings and I agreed with those too.

Drainage was the next issue and there were several suggestions for ways that rain water could be held or slowed down rather than being allowed to run straight into drains. These include things like water butts and permeable hard surfaces and I agreed with all those suggestions too.

Flooding was the final topic and this time I had something to disagree with. I supported all the ideas to let Ham Lands flood and to look at ways at introducing vibrant wetlands while doing so but I disagreed with the suggestions that dry routes should be built through the flooded areas. There already are dry routes, e.g. along Riverside Drive, and I saw no need to build more. If the tow path is flooded then either take another route or wear wellies. Flooding is one of the things that I like about Ham, it is an attraction to promote not a problem to solve.

My final comment is on what was missing from the debate. We had micro and macro discussions on water but energy was only considered at the micro level, e.g. what individual houses could do. We are (hopefully) getting a small hydro-electric generator at Teddington Weir and I would like the Forum to consider other local generation schemes, such as managing Ham Common Woods for biomass or using local waste to feed anaerobic digestion.

10 February 2016

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

February's British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) "Get to Know You" Social was remarkable even by the event's normal high standards.

It may have helped that I was able to get there very early, I arrived soon after 6:30pm which is half an hour before the official start, and so was able to sneak an extra pint of Pilsner Urquell into the evening. Richard was there just before me, we had been on the same tube apparently, and Ruzena arrived soon after so the evening had started to swing along nicely before the people who paid attention to the published start time arrived.

A lot of the evening was as it always is and so I am able to present the now customary picture of my Smazeny Syr (cheese fried in breadcrumbs). I have posted so many pictures of this that I deliberately went a bit manic on the Instagram filters to get a different look. It tasted grand, as always, and several of the people there followed my lead.

I was slightly more organised this time than usual and took just a few notes on my phone during the evening to remind myself of some of the conversations that we had as these are the real point of the socials. This time remembering them was easier than usual as I had two very good conversations, with the same woman.

When I learned that Denisa came from Zilina in Slovakia I moved across to speak to her. One of my au pairs from twenty years ago, Iveta, came from Zilna and I had visited her there a couple of times and knew the town and the surrounding area reasonable well. It transpired that Denisa used to live just a few hundred metres from Iveta. I told Denisa of another coincidence that I had had some years ago when at a friend's party I spoke to their Slovak au pairs only to discover that they also came from Zilna and they knew Iveta as she had taught them English.

Then the small world got even smaller. Denisa said that she used to live and work in Kingston upon Thames, where I live. She had worked for the mayor's office and through my political and educational activities at the time I knew the people she worked for, one was in the Labour Party with me and another was a governor at the same school as me.

There were other conversations with other people and the topics covered included petro-chemical engineering, the different ways that local authorities collect waste and recycling (I think I had more bins that anybody else) and the way that some other languages, like Portuguese, sound a bit like Czech.

There were other beers too as the evening drifted smoothly towards the 10:30pm close forced on us by the venue. I left something over four hours after I arrived and I left very happy.

7 February 2016

Kew Orchids 2016

I go to the Kew Orchids festival every year though this is the first time that I was organised enough to go there on the opening weekend. It was a cold day but a bright day too and when I go of the 65 bus at Victoria Gate at just after opening time, 10am, there was already a substantial queue to get in.

The longest queue was for Friends of Kew which I joined and I was soon in as our membership cards were quickly swiped. Then, like everybody else, I headed straight for the orchids in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. We split into two streams as we rounded the lake in front of the Palm House and then rejoined on the other side.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is a complex building and I have yet to find an easy way to walk around it that takes in every space without too much retracing of routes. That complexity actually helped this time as I wanted to walk through some of the places more than once and the variety of spaces was used to good effect.

The buildings complexity includes several different levels and several ways of moving up and down between them which gives lots of different angles to see things from. This is especially useful when the orchids are on display as some of them are hung up high.

Orchids win on two counts, their shape and their colour, and putting lots of them together is both a rich feast for the eyes and an opportunity to study their similarities and differences, such as the marking on their petals.

The orchids were displayed in a variety of settings and it was hard not to be entranced by the arches on the upper level of the main section.

I had to take this picture carefully to avoid the red hat that a woman was wearing. There should be laws against wearing bright clothing in places where people are taking photographs, and people were taking a great deal of photographs. I even wondered to myself if Apple could see the photographic hotspot on the data they collect from iPhones.

The temptation was there to take lots of close-ups, and so I did though I used the camera's zoom a lot rather than suffering the indignity of stooping or stretching.

This example was settled among some rocks in one of the cooler zones in the north-west corner of the conservatory. There the orchids were a subdued yellow, green and brown while in the next room they were bright pink, red and orange.

Having found a reasonable route through the conservatory and, I think, visited every room I went round most of the rooms again. It was getting harder to move as it had got even busier but that was ok as I was not in any sort of rush.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is not that big but it still took me best part of an hour to get around it all. After that I was ready for some coffee and cake, and so was everybody else and the queue in the Orangery was longer than I had ever seen it before. Luckily there were plenty of staff on and the queue moved fairly quickly and I was soon seated with my Banana Cake.

After that it was time for a walk and I took the scenic route (ok, I got lost) to the lake, through the bamboo garden towards the river before curving slowly back towards Lion Gate and the bus home.

Kew Orchids impressed me, as I knew they would, and because I managed to get there on the first weekend there is time for me to go back and see them again. And that's my plan. 

5 February 2016

Rabbit Hole at the Hampstead Theatre covered a painful subject with sympathy and skill

Having been to Hampstead Theatre three times in fairly short succession it somehow dropped off my radar a little, few plays there caught my eye while plays at other theatres did. What brought me back was a Pulitzer Prize winning play with a good cast, notably Claire Skinner the mum in Outnumbered.

I also like the theatre as a facility and welcomed a reasonable excuse to go back there.

As always, I left the detailed planning until much nearer the time and I was delighted at how well that worked. I like to have somewhere to eat lined up for each regular theatre and had yet to find one for the Hampstead. I looked at what they themselves did and discovered that they do main meals, with two vegetarian options, in addition to the snacks that I knew they did.

They also did table bookings so I booked one for 6:15pm reasoning that even with slow service there would be no problem in finishing in time for the performance at 7:30pm. Then I looked at the map and discovered that I could walk to Swiss Cottage in 45 minutes from the Kings Cross office so that worked out spot-on too.

The table turned out to be on the lower level which I did not know existed. I was one of the first there but it quickly filled up and proved the necessity of booking. I've already booked for my next visit in March. I went for the mushroom risotto which did the job nicely. As did the cake, coffee and beer that I also had.

Hampstead Theater has a flexible configuration and this time the stage was thrust forward with seats on three side of the protruding section. I was in the front-row on the left side. only a couple of metres away from the sofa in the living part of the open-plan house.

The play opened with two sisters talking in the kitchen. They were very different characters, one was a steady housewife and the other, for example, had just had a small fight in a bar over a man.

It was a funny opening to a play that had several moments of humour, mostly from the irreverent attitude of the younger sister, but at its core this was a dark play.

The reason for that darkness emerged quickly, the older sister had lost a child. Her four year old son had run into the road following a dog and had been run over. The rest of the play was about the aftermath of that incident and how everybody responded to it.

Completing the main cast was the older sister's husband, Howie, and their mother, Kat. Howie was played by Tom Goodman-Hill who the Hampstead Theatre website tells me appeared in Mr Selfridge, which meant nothing to me. If they had mentioned that he also starred in Humans then I would have been far more interested!

The story moved along slowly, emotionally and painfully as any story that starts with the death of a child probably should. This sadness was intruded on by other people who brought in humour and some good news in to the mix. To complicate things further there was more sadness (another death) and somebody else seeking reconciliation. It was an emotional mess that we were asked to swim through.

Making it an rewarding effort to witness the pain was the excellent acting, especially from the two stars Claire Skinner and Tom Goodman-Hill. Claire looked to be in tears at the end because of the emotional turmoil she had just been through, and that is always a sign of good acting. The only minor  distraction was their American accents that took some getting used to simply because I had not expected them to sound like that.

Rabbit Hole demanded my attention throughout and repaid me for that with a story that gripped me with its depth and uncertainty.

3 February 2016

Lovely Swan Lake from the Moscow City Ballet at Richmond Theatre

Once upon a Time I had a season ticket for the Royal Ballet and went to see everything that the English National Ballet did too then kids came along and the time and the money went on them instead.

In recent years I have been seeing a fair amount of dance (not enough) but surprisingly little "traditional" ballet. The closest I have come to that was Mark Morris' Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican over seven years ago!

So going to see Swan Lake should have been an easy decision to make and it was, eventually. Swan Lake was only on for two nights, Nutcracker was on the rest of the week and that was quite missable, and by the time that I made the obvious decision the front row of the Dress Circle had been taken so I went even further up and went for the front row of the Upper Circle (seat A16). Even that lofty perch cost me £26 as ballet is an expensive business, Swan Lake has a large cast and this production had a good sized orchestra too.

The front row seats have a bar in front that threatens to block the view of the stage, unless you are tall enough to see over it easily, which I am not. The solution was to sit forward on my seat and use my screwed up coat as a cushion to keep me upright and comfortable. It worked very well.

The audience worked less well, often a problem in the "cheap seats", and there were conversations all evening, some sweet bag rustling and also one mobile phone call. Fortunately this kept below the infuriating level and while it distracted at moment it did not do so enough to ruin the show.

There were lots of other things that I did not like about this performance. There were some plot changes that I did not comprehend (I did not buy a programme), such as the additional appearance of Odette/Odile in a black and white outfit. There was an additional male role and I could not tell which one was Sigfriend until Act 2 (and my guess was wrong). Siegfried spent more time dancing alone that with Odette/Odile and his dancing did not wow me. Odette/Odile danced better but did not quite look the part. The cast milked the applause ending each short dance with a spectacular pose and then coming to the front of the stage for more applause.

If that all sounds like a bad night at the theatre then you are wrong. I loved it immensely. Possibly not every single minute of it but not far off it.

Even with the problems that I listed earlier it is hard to get Swan Lake wrong as it is Swan Lake and its strength comes from the music that throws one tune after another in the two set dancing scenes in the castle and that builds the drama in the two scenes at the lake. Here the full orchestra came in to their own and carried the evening along magnificently.

The second great strength of Swan Lake is the set dance pieces, especially those choreographed by Lev Ivanov in Act 2, including the arrival of the swans with their flat footed hops and the dance of the cygnets with their tightly synchronised leg movements. I may have lost some of the plot but this was familiar territory, even after several years, and it was much loved territory too.

Other things I enjoyed in this Swan Lake were the ensemble dancing, the sumptuous costumes and the simplicity of the set that made lots of space for dancing and did not over-engineer the dramatic finale.

Writing this a few days later some of the tunes are still bouncing around my head where they collide with images of the production. Swan Lake is a tremendous ballet and even a slightly flawed production like this one is still a fantastic experience.

2 February 2016

Sumptuous Jekyll & Hyde at The Cockpit

Jekyll & Hyde was on my interest list for a while and I just needed to find a free night on a day that I was working in London, not a trivial matter. In the end it came down to a bad day at work which made going to the theatre the best of the various options I had for that evening.

I was attracted to Jekyll & Hyde by the story, which I knew from various film and TV adaptations rather than the book, and also the prospect of a version that included "sultry Jazz standards with a live pianist". The prospect of going to the Cockpit Theatre attracted too because of the friendly atmosphere there and the decent walk I have from the office to get there.

That walk took me through Marylebone Station where I helped myself to a wholemeal vegetarian pastie, as I had done previously. Unlike previously, I remembered that the road outside the station was two-way and I failed to get myself almost run over. Another difference was on arrival I found that the Cockpit had a choice of Czech lagers, I went for Budvar mostly because it was a bigger bottle.

The theatre was not that busy, but then it never has been in my experience, so I had a good choice of seats. Being first in helped. I went for the middle of the second row.

We were in a jazz club, the music was already playing and a waiter was tending to the tables. The set remained like that throughout the show despite the action moving to several places. A little bit of good acting from the cast and a little bit imagination from the audience was all that was needed for part of the stage to become somebody's house and for a door to appear.

Similarly a slight change of clothes enables the story to be told by just five people, plus the pianist. The waiter here was also a police inspector and the father of Jekyll's fiancee.

The story, the details of which I had forgotten, moved along briskly and I was quickly drawn into it. I cared for Jekyll's fiancee and also for the club singers that Hyde abused. After Hyde made his first appearance we saw little of Jekyll and so Hyde's menace filled the story and made it gripping. Oliver Hume was superb as Jekyll/Hyde.

Adding a pleasant lighter touch were the easy listening classics that the two women sang. These were familiar songs like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and were sung in short pieces to help to set the mood without turning it into a musical as such. They worked very well despite of, or because of, the contrast to the dark happenings.

Jekyll & Hyde was a real joy and a prime example of what a few people can do with some good ideas and a lot of talent.