31 March 2016

Bad Girls was another excellent musical from the Union Theatre

I had never seen the TV show Bad Girls and I am not sure that I had even heard about it so that was not my reason for going to see the musical based on it. My excuse was the usual one, I wanted to go to the theatre that evening and in looking through the listings of my favourite theatres I came across Bad Girls at the Union Theatre. I had seen many good musicals there, and other plays too, so it was an easy decision to part with £20.

I had been at the Park Theatre in the afternoon and that worked brilliantly as that finished early enough for me to have a coffee there before walking for an hour of so down from Finsbury Park to Southwark arriving there just before 6:30pm when the box office opened enabling me to get a coveted first ten ticket.

That then left me with an hour to eat something in the pub across the road and to enjoy a well deserved pint of beer to refresh me after the walk.

It is always a surprise to see how the seats are arranged at the Union Theatre and as one of the first people in (that's what a top ten ticket gets you) I had to make a quick assessment on which seats are likely to be the best. This time the seats were arranged in two long rows with the performance area in the middle. I took a seat in the front row half way down on the right hand side. It proved to be a good choice.

Bad Girls told the stories of several women in prison and of some of the people charged with looking after them. There were a lot of characters to engage with and several plot lines to follow and that made it a rich experience. I was really interested to see how things would work out for them all.

This was not a sympathetic look at prison life either. The women definitely deserved to be in there because of the seriousness of the crimes that they had committed, though there were sometimes some mitigating circumstances that the legal system was not able to make much allowance for. Some of the prison officers were not very nice either, particularly the man who thought he was entitled to sex with the women prisoners and got his entitlement regularly.

This was a women's prison so it was expected that there would be a relationship between two women somewhere, though which two it was came as something of a surprise, and for the second musical in a row at the Union the prettiest song of the evening was a gay love song.

The rest of the music was pleasing too and there was a good mix of solo, group and chorus singing which utilised all of the voices and played with their combinations. The balance between the songs and also between the songs and the speech worked very well; the songs were part of the story and there were enough of them for this to be a true musical (rather than a play with songs).

All of the story threads progressed nicely and I was quickly engaged with both the plots and the characters. This was set in a prison after all so there was lots of grimness and there was never going to be a fairy-tale level happy ending but it still managed to be uplifting and refreshing.

The Union Theatre has a wonderful habit of finding unusual and little-known musicals and staging them brilliantly. Bad Girls was simply excellent.

25 March 2016

The Merry Wives at the Rose Theatre was a laugh out loud riot of a play

Whatever the thinking was behind renaming The Merry Wives of Windsor to just The Merry Wives it managed to confuse me and so I almost missed a Shakespeare play being performed in my nearest theatre.

The Rose Theatre is still pretty terrible at publicity, obviously they have either not read my previous moans on this subject or they have chosen to ignore them, and so it was rather late in the day that I discovered that this was on and despite the new name was with the original Shakespeare text.  This is a play that I was always going to want to see at a theatre that I try to see as many things as I can to support it and it frustrates me that I find out about some of the shows there very late and it worries me that I am missing some altogether. They seem to put all their publicity effort into their productions and little into anything else.

I have booked to see something else there in April, Ockham's Razor Tipping Point, and I also found out about that show by accident and I saw nothing to promote it at the theatre on this evening, just a few weeks before the show.

I suspect that I was lucky with a cancellation and I managed to buy a seat in my preferred area, Stalls Row A Seat 44 at £25, just a couple of days before the performance. Being Good Friday would not have helped but I suspect that other people were misled by the publicity or did not see it and the audience was fairly small with the central section almost full but few people on either side. This was a shame as both the theatre and this production deserve better and a Shakespearean comedy should have been ideal fare for the Easter holiday period.

I had not seen The Merry Wives (of Windsor) before but I had seen the operatic version, Falstaff by Verdi at Glyndebourne, so I knew something of the story. It mixes a comedy about love and a straight love story.

In the main story Falstaff tries it on with two married women and writes them identical love letters. Unfortunately they are close friends and share the letters, they then plan to get their revenge by staging incidents where Falstaff would come to see one of them then a husband would return unexpectedly and he'd leave by an ignominious and embarrassing method. Meanwhile one of the husbands, using an alternative name, was asking Falstaff for his advice about his suspicions over his wife's infidelity only to have Falstaff boast about the assignations he had lined up with his wife.

In the other lesser story a young heiress is promised by her two parents to two different suitors but is in love with a third man who is earnest but penniless (relatively).

The two stories collide in the final scene and, no surprise, everything ends happily. But it was not the ending that mattered it was the journey there and that was a journey rich with bawdy humour and strong personalities.

The production did lots of things well and cleverly used the same simple set throughout with just a few tables and chairs coming and going to denote the different scenes. A great exception to the no-prop rule was the use of a forklift to carry out the basket of washing in which Falstaff was hiding after the two men charged with the task were unable to lift it.

Making it all happen delightfully was a large cast headed by Barry Rutter as Sir John Falstaff, he also directed it. The Merry Wives, Supporting him Nicola Sanderson and Becky Hindley were splendid as they planned and set their traps for Falstaff. The rest of the cast all played their parts well in teasing the most from the situations and the personalities.

The Merry Wives was a laugh out loud riot of a play which entertained mightily and in so many ways. The perfect antidote to a wet and windy Bank Holiday.

24 March 2016

German Skerries at the Orange Tree Theatre was enjoyable but pointless

I am still going to everything at the Orange Tree Theatre and it is the only theatre which I can say that about so, despite some reservations about the programme, it must be doing something right.

This was a work in London day which gave me the problem of where to eat first and I made the easy if unspectacular choice of the Railway. It was very busy in there but I managed to get a table and my veggie burger arrived in good time; it was quite nice too.

Now that they have moved to allocated seating at the Orange Tree I normally arrive just before the play, preferring to loiter in the pub rather than in the theatre bar, so it was a change to get there in time for a cup of tea before the show. I did not fancy another beer at that time and my intention was to have one during the interval. Only there was not one. A lot of the plays I saw around that time ran for around an hour and a half with no break and German Skerries was one of them.

The allocated seating also made me think a little about where to sit when I had been used to being in the queue early enough to secure a seat on the far bench. When I booked that bench was taken so I went for the middle of the bench immediately on the right as you go in via the main entrance, A31 cost me £20.

The stage was raised a little and it consisted of a simple square of rough ground with the lower part of a shed in one corner. This was a spot of land at industrial Teeside where people came to do some bird spotting (it was not called birding then), some peace and also some courting.

Soon on the stage were two regulars, a young man who worked in a low skilled job at ICI and an old man (59!) who was a teacher. The young man was recently married while the one of the reasons that the old man came to this spot was to get away from his wife. Later we met the young man's wife and, briefly, a friend of the teacher.

The story started gently with the two men watching a large ship being guided into port by a tugboat, passing the dangerous rocks known as the German Skerries. These rocks made other appearances in the story as a resting place for birds, the place where some divers were rescued and as the planned destination for an hot water outflow pipe from the ICI works. But the Skerries were not the point of the play, the small patch of land that formed the stage was. This was were people met, talked, planned and reminisced.

There was one moment of high drama but even then the main action happened off stage and was reported back to the people waiting on this modest patch of land.

The conversations told us something about the people's lives and the time that it was set, the late 70s, before Thatcher removed the large industries from Teeside - even the brands names ICI and British Steel have gone. There were interesting things to hear about but nothing of any real substance. It was a soft dip into other lives and other lifestyles which did not scale any heights because it did not try to.

The character who dominated the drama was the young man's wife, Carol, who was played masterfully by Katie Moore. She was strong and purposeful while the two men were content to let things just happen to them.

I enjoyed German Skerries though I failed to see what the point of it was. There was little to get hold of in the plot or the characters and the interesting parts of the social commentary came more from its now historical setting than from any insights noted at the time.

22 March 2016

Reasons to be Happy at the Hampstead Theatre

Having rediscovered the Hampstead Theatre with Rabbit Hole I was quickly back there to see Reasons to be Happy. I had chosen to see this because it was written by Neil Labute and I had enjoyed his In a Forest Dark and Deep and The Shape of Things. Both were intelligent and disturbing.

I repeated my pre-theatre ritual from my previous visit as that had worked so well. I walked to Swiss Cottage (which is where the theatre is) by following the Regent's Canal and then crossing Primrose Hill. This was a pretty walk and took an ideal 45 minutes. I had booked a table downstairs again, or rather I thought that I had but I could not find one with my name on it so I took one of the few unclaimed ones, an advantage of being early. Their kitchen was closed, they had warned me of that when I made my table booking (!), and so I went for an artisan sandwich - luckily one of the three options was vegetarian (but not vegan). I also had some cake which I justified with the long walk there. I would have had a beer too but they admitted that they were not cool enough to have any craft beers brewed in a Hackney lockup and they had run out of the only ale that they did, Coopers.

The small theatre was set out in its normal form, that is with no seats at the sides of the stage, and I went for a seat in the area they call the Stalls Arcade which is just behind the front stalls. My seat, L19, cost £35 and had an excellent view. It was comfortable too. There is a lot to be said for new theatres.

The set was simple yet clever. The container opened and rotated to create the few settings that were required. Not that the settings, or the movements between them, were that important as this was a play about people and the things that they said to each other.

The simple premise was that a couple had drifted apart and gone their separate ways. The man had subsequently started a relationship with a friend of his former partner which she found hard to cope with. The new woman, in turn, had thrown her husband out for drunken and abusive behaviour.

The crux of the play was the relationship the first man had with the two women and this, sort of, developed into him having to make a choice between them. Each option came with implications far beyond who he lived with and there was the tricky job of trying to resolve the separate aspirations of each of them.

The fourth man (played by Warren Brown who is famous with most people for being in Luther but familiar with me for being in Grownups, the follow-on to Two Pints...) was a blue-collar distraction in a white-collar contest which gave a different perspective to the main story.

I say main story, but really this was four stories with each of the four characters looking for happiness, hence the title of the play, with varying degrees of understanding of what was required to achieve this and varying degrees of success.

Compared to the (few) other Neil LaBute plays that I had seen this did not have the I-did-not-see-that-coming plot twist at the end, though there were plenty of little twists along the way, like a pregnancy and other things that would be spoilers if I mentioned them.

Given that the play was all about the four characters and their feelings for each other this was heavy with emotion and while it was thoroughly engaging it was quite draining too. Or, in other words, the interval and the chance to grab an ice-cream were most welcome!

Reasons to be Happy was full of well crafted dialogue that was delivered well by all of the cast (Lauren O'Neil's Steph was the one that I had the most sympathy for) while the stage design skillfully created the spaces for this to happen.

19 March 2016

Bouncing to Bungles Finger at the Fox and Duck

It had been a while since I had seen Bungles Finger at the Fox and Duck and I had forgotten just how good they are. If I had remembered I might have got there earlier but other things stole my time and it was around 10pm that I arrived at the pub.

I got a pint of the usual Doom Bar, all the bar staff know what I drink, and made my way to a gap in the bar near the front and to the left, a usual spot.

I was there just in time to hear Pulp's Year 2000 from the seminal album Different Class released in 95. I bought it then and love it now. This was followed by a lively version of Mrs Robinson and I was already starting to bounce and, heaven forbid, sing a little. A surprise return to Pulp gave us their greatest hit, Common People, and more singing.

There was a break for the band to rest and for us to talk and then Bungles Finger returned for another hour of classic songs including Pretty Vacant, Teenage Kicks and Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've) for Punk Rock fans (I think that was everybody there) and other rock favourites like Sex on Fire which I suspect covers bands only play because of the title.

Bungles Finger are a rock band and they rocked to the delight of a packed pub. There were plenty of people dancing but I resisted the temptation to join in lacking the energy and the confidence of those that were dancing at the front. I was very happy just to bounce a little at the side.

It was a brilliant evening and I think I know why. The musicians in Bungles Finger are very good but you can say that about a lot of the covers bands that I see; what lifts them above those other bands, in my view, is their more interesting and more varied set-list and having a front-man who acts as a front-man and not just as a singer.

And just to prove that we all had a great time, here is a photo of the happy regulars taken at the end of the evening.

18 March 2016

Akhnaten at ENO was magnificent, as expected

There are very few things that I want to see more than a Philip Glass opera and, of those, Akhnaten is one that I am most keen to see. So much so that last year I went to Ghent to see a production.

So when I heard that ENO were staging it in London I leaped to buy tickets for the whole family. They were the best seats too, in the front row of the Dress Circle. These had a cover price of £115 but, for some reason, I was only charged £80.5 for two of the five tickets so the damage was slightly less than it could have been.

The five of us were arriving from separate directions, and some of us needed to eat, so we booked a table at the nearby Pizza Express for 6:15pm and, with only a couple of minor hiccoughs, everybody managed to find the place. PE, as we have called it for years, lived up to its usual non-express standard and it took some earnest cajoling of staff to get the bill and using their app to pay it to get out of there in time. But we did and the food was as good as always so that part of the evening was fine.

Our Dress Circle seats were every bit as good as I hoped and the view was terrific. All we could see initially was a multi-coloured safety screen and while I took a picture of that the one I took of the curtain call at the end was far better as showing what my view was like.

The photo also reveals that the stage was arranged on three levels. It is an approach I had seen used a few times before and it works very well in a production like this which has a large chorus on stage a lot of the time as they can be seen clearly too which would not have been the case had they been squeezed in at the back of the stage.

The costumes were a mix of mostly Ancient Egypt with a touch of Victorian England to reflect the time Akhnaten ruled and when the ancient tombs were rediscovered. The rest of the production was a healthy mix of ancient and modern and that was a healthy balance between when the story happened and when it was told. In many ways it was a "traditional" telling, if a new opera can have a tradition, except for the jugglers; these are the people at the back at the stage level.

The jugglers were used throughout the opera and what may have started as a wacky idea over a glass of wine turned out to be a compelling feature. Phil Glass' music consists of short phrases that are repeated many time while being gradually modified. The juggling reflected this with its own phrases and changes. What could have been a circus gimmick was actually a brilliant physical representation of the music. I particularly liked the way that the juggling started to fall apart, with balls being dropped. as Akhnaten's world fell apart.

That music, the main point of the opera, was wonderful. As far as I could tell, the words and music were just as in the original production, i.e. the version that I have on CD, whereas the version I saw last year had played around with the languages (admittedly this was in Belgium). The singing was excellent too, soloists and chorus. I was nodding my head and (quietly) tapping my feet to the music throughout. I was also constantly smiling with pleasure.

It was a phenomenal evening and the three hours flew passed fuelled only by one ice cream during the second interval.

Just when I thought that the evening could not get any better, Philip Glass himself came on to the stage for the final curtain call and the noise in the audience got even louder. I was not the only person who whooped. I only hope that other opera houses were listening to the adulation, and paying attention to the ticket sales, so that we might get more Glass operas in the future.

Jeff Lowe: Object Lessons at Pangolin London

Pangolin London is one of the two galleries at Kings Place and is the one that I pass every time that I go in or out of the building. It has a prominent position at the front of the building and with its large windows it gives me a nice shot of art as I go past.

Of course I go in sometimes too and this tends to be during the day when events at work make a more intense shot of art a welcome boost. I visit the larger Piano Nobile Kings Place gallery on the lower ground floor for the same reason but their exhibitions are on for longer and so going there repeatedly gives diminishing returns.

And that is why I was in Pangolin London on this Friday afternoon. It was a bad day in the office and I had already decided that this shot of art would need to be followed by further shots of coffee and cake from Green & Fortune Cafe.

The current exhibition Jeff Lowe: Object Lessons had a mix of objects that could be broadly categorised as lines, blocks or lines and blocks.

The big pieces, like the one below, were all about lines and the joins between them. This piece looks like a pile of bent tubing that was found somewhere and welded together almost randomly whereas the similar sized piece on the floor next to it looked more like a large wire basket with thinner pieces of metal and everything in parallel straight lines.

There were several smaller pieces made of layers of metal welded together to make rectangular blocks which could have been models for modern buildings. But it was the large block piece that demanded attention as it filled most of the wall at the far end.

This single piece consisted of 36 cast iron plates arranged in a 3 x 12 grid that measured approximately 1m by 5m.

The designs on each plate reminded me of hieroglyphics but that was probably because I was going to see Akhnaten that evening. A closer inspection of the shapes suggests that at least some of them represent countries or territories, if you look at them upside down then the one in the middle appears to be North America and the one diagonally up and left from it is Africa.

This was my favourite piece because of the visual impact that it had from a distance and the images on the individual plates that drew me towards it.

The lines and blocks came together with a series of woodblocks. The structural lines from the metal work were repeated and the colouring of the spaces between them repeated the blocks.

I liked these too because I almost always like modern art that consists of simple shapes and a few colours.

Pangolin London is quite a small gallery which makes it ideal for a quick visit and there is always enough interesting stuff in there to make it a rewarding visit.

13 March 2016

Revisiting Zenith, and loving it

I am rereading Zenith by mistake.

The book that I really wanted for Christmas was the first volume of the collected Dan Dare stories from 2000AD but nobody picked up on my unsubtle hints, not even the shop, so not only did nobody buy it for me I was unable to buy it for myself.

I still needed a present and so I chose Zenith Phase One, the first of four volumes collecting the Zenith stories that appeared in 2000AD between 1987 and 1992, which I read at the time.

They were written by Grant Morrison who was virtually unknown at the time and this was his first ongoing series. Since then he has become a comics superstar and an MBE. It is Grant Morrison's name that has brought the series back into print in this collection of high quality hardback books.

The artist, Steve Yeowell, is also notable but mostly for this and other work that he has done at 2000AD, including the long running saga The Red Seas that ran from 2002 and 2013.

Zenith is one of a small few British superheroes in Thatcher's Britain, Thatcher makes some appearances and one of the other superheroes is in her Cabinet. He's also a pop star and something of a spoiled brat. Unfortunately there are significant threats to Britain and the World and Zenith's help is needed.

Zenith did not make that much of an impression on me the first time around, which is why I had not rushed out to buy the collected editions earlier, but rereading Zenith now has been a joy. So much so that Phases Two, Three and Four were immediately put on my birthday list, together with Dan Dare.

One of the things I like about Morrison's writing is the amount of detail that goes into his prose. To give just one small example to make the point, when Chimera becomes the solar system (don't ask) she mentions "the tortured rock of Venus, the metal dry sands of Mars". That is poetry. Incidentally, it also reminded me of some other poetry, "the vermillion deserts of Mars, the jewelled forests of Venus" by Hawkwind legend Bob Calvert.

The stories are fast paced with lots of action and lots of large (and irregular) panels. At one level it is a simple, but satisfying, read and then there is the poetry in it that slows me down as I savour the word craft that delights on another level.

The book itself is a work of art with top quality paper and crisp printing. I understand that I lot of work went into creating the new pages from the original artwork which was created in the days before comics were produced digitally and the effort was worth it.

I have just finished Zenith Phase Two and will wait a little while before continuing to the other two volumes so as to prolong the pleasure.

12 March 2016

Enjoying more Sabbatage at the Fox and Duck

There were two heavy rock bands that dominated my school years, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Led Zeppelin were not in consideration.

This taste was largely set by the albums that other people bought and shared and these included albums like Machine Head (72) and Master of Reality (71). While I liked Deep Purple I liked Black Sabbath even more and that was mostly down to two albums, Black Sabbath Vol. 4 (72) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (73). Deep Purple did some great tracks, like Lazy, but I felt that Sabbath Albums were more consistent.

The corollary of this long prelude is that I am always going to be interested in seeing a Black Sabbath tribute band especially if they are playing locally and even more so if I have seen them before and enjoyed the experience.

And so I went to see Sabbatage on their return to the Fox and Duck.

They started promptly and I was a little late, around 9:30pm, and I arrived just as they got in to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. A fine start to the evening. What followed was a couple of hours of classic songs from N.I.B. (from the first album, Black Sabbath, in 1970) to God is Dead? (from the 2013 album 13), with a strong leaning towards the early material. That was just the music that I wanted to hear.

There was just one excursion into the Dio period with Children from the Sea from 1980's Heaven and Hell. We were told that there was more Dio material being rehearsed and I look forward to hearing that someday, hopefully when they are next at the Fox and Duck in September.

What I liked most about Sabbatage is the sound that they made. Lead singers and drummers have come and gone but the core of Black Sabbath's sound has always come from Tony Iommi on lead guitar and Geezer Butler on bass and Sabbatage covered these two roles very well with Mark Sayers (right) and Andy Tunstall (left).

Doing a creditable job of sounding like Ozzy (and a touch of Dio) was Elvin Cole (centre) and keeping everybody on time was Claudio Cafolla (back).

Put that all together and it was evening of head shaking, leg stamping and a bit of air guitaring as the familiar tunes powered their way through the bar. It was a lot of fun and it was a sad moment when it had to end. At least we got a couple of encores as we refused to let the band leave.

Black Sabbath may have been big in Weymouth Grammar School in the early 70s but they did not trouble the singles charts very much and so do not have the immediate recognition that most covered bands do. Sabbatage did a good job of entertaining the crowd some of whom only knew one or two of the songs, Paranoid and Iron Man. Those of us who knew all, or most of them, had a great time.

Kingston Council Go developments drop-in session was a waste of time

Just over two years ago Kingston won £30 million from Boris "to deliver transformational change for cycling in the borough, bringing benefits to everyone whether or not they cycle". That quote comes from The Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames A cycling vision for everyone Kingston Council’s Stage II submission to the Mayor’s Outer London Cycling Fund December 2013.

Since then not much has happened.

Plenty of staff have been working on the programme, I've met over half a dozen of them at various times, and several documents have been produced, including a 1cm thick booklet on the proposed Riverside Boardway that I was not allowed a copy of.

Then we heard that the Mini-Holland scheme had been included in the broader Go Kingston programme that is looking at all transport improvements, not just cycling, and Kingston Council announced a series of drop-in events, inviting residents, businesses and organisations to learn more about the ‘Go Programme’.

So I went to one but was bitterly disappointed by it.

What the exhibition confirmed was that very little had been achieve to date, unless you count rebranding as progress, the definition of the scheme had got much broader and the emphasis was now more on the public realm than on improving provision for cyclists.

To make things worse, there was no information on the main schemes, just a map of where they were which we had seen many times before. Even the drawings we had seen for the Kingston Station and Riverside Boardway schemes previously were missing.

The exhibition had very little information and none of it was new so I could not see what the point of it was. I did not stay very long.

11 March 2016

A riotous A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith

Having rediscovered the Lyric Hammersmith with Herons I was quick to get back there to see A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Shakespeare is quite a pull for me but I had seen Dream not that long ago, and a musical adaptation too, so it needed to be something special to get me to see yet another version and YouTube convinced me that this was special. The short clips showed Oberon in his superhero outfit with a large "O" on the front and were heavy with slapstick. It also helped that this was a return of a popular show.

I decided to work at home that day and finished promptly to eat (and drink) in the cafe there. As on my previous visit I had the excellent veggie burger and a bottle of a craft ale. Neither was cheap but both justified their price.

I chose a seat in the top price bracket, Circle A18 £35. This was just two seats away from where I sat for Herons so I knew that the view would be good. One reason why I always log my seat number and take a picture of the view is that it helps me to choose my seat the next time that I go to a theatre I am not that familiar with.

The show opened with an Irish announcer setting the scene. This quickly set the tone and the mood; he made some very topical and political (anti-Tory) jokes, swore at some young men in the front row for talking, and explained that Dream had a play within a play like Shakespeare's other play The Matrix.

What followed was an incredible amount of fun that remained very true to the original while embellishing it with lots of visual humour. As an example of this, the tears in the walls, roof and floor show where characters made unexpected entrances and exits.

Also added to the original script were some pieces of music and some colourful language. The age guidance was 14+ but the girls behind me looked quite a bit short of that. One of them asked there mother, "What's that?", when Puck picked up a condom packet and that's a conversation that might be a little awkward. I'm not sure that they got the hung like a donkey references either.

And then there was an all-cast food fight that got some of the audience involved too.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was imaginative in design and skillful in execution. It was a Shakespeare for the modern age that I loved immensely and recommend heartily (for those aged 14+). 

9 March 2016

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

Another month and another opportunity to post a picture of Smazeny Syr taken at the Czechoslovak Restaurant London where the monthly gatherings of the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) "Get to Know You" Socials are held.

The meeting in March got off to a roaring start and kept going. I took the scenic walk from Kings Cross to West Hampstead, walking all the way to Baker Street before catching the Jubilee Line. I arrived early, just after 6:30pm for an official 7pm start, and was very quickly joined by two other regulars and two occasional visitors. I was on my second pint when the 7pm start time came.

I spent most of the evening sitting between two committee members of the BCSA and, as a former committee member myself, we spent some time talking about the BCSA and from these conversations came the beginnings of an idea to hold topical discussion meetings that would sit in our schedule somewhere between the anarchy of the monthly socials and the formality of the speaker events. I have been to many such discussions events with LIKE, Big Ideas and SW London Humanists and so I think I have a good idea of what works and why it works. We'll be working more on this idea in the coming weeks.

Other people joined and, as always, a new face meant the opportunity to talk about shared places and shares times. It is always nice to have somebody new to tell my, "When I lived in Prague ..." stories, even if everybody else in the room has heard them all before!

Despite the early start it was still a late finish and I caught the Overground Train back to Richmond just before 11pm. Luckily the bar closed at 10:30pm or it could have been even later.

Another good evening of good conversations and another good reason to go back again next month.

5 March 2016

The Lamb Lies Down in Putney

Somehow I never really got into Genesis in the way that I got into bands like Yes and Pink Floyd. Most of that was probably down to lack of exposure during my formative years and the first time that I really listened to them was at university in 76 with the Trick of the Tale album which I absolutely loved, and still love.

This prejudice has carried forward to the present day and when I see prog rock tribute bands like secondSight or INdisciplineD I enjoy the Genesis songs but I enjoy the other songs more.

That said, I did go and see Genesis tribute act Carpet Crawlers at The Peel in 2010 and that was alright.

It was through secondSight and INdisciplineD that I was persuaded to go and see ReGenesis. The common link was bassist Nick Loebner who has been in all three bands. It is Nick playing the double neck guitar in the photo below.

While Carpet Crawlers covered the whole of Genesis' career, including the later middle of the road stuff, ReGenesis only cover the early period when Peter Gabriel sang and Phil Collins just played drums. Oddly, that period included the concept double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway from which the song Carpet Crawlers comes from. And this concert by ReGenesis was The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in its entirety.

The venue for their first performance of their new show was The Half Moon in Putney, conveniently close yet far enough away from the station for me to get some steps in. I got there not long before the advertised 8pm opening time and fought my way through the busy pub to get a pint of something wet before going in to the concert area. The gig had sold out and the pub was very busy, lively without being unbearable. Unfortunately it was far too busy to wander around looking for familiar faces, I am sure that there were a few there, but I did manage to exchange a few words with Nick when he popped out to test the mood.

Without trying too hard I managed to get, and hold, a spot somewhere near the door to the concert room and so I was one of the first in. It surprised me that the very first ones in ran for some seats against the wall on one of the wides and so the space next to the stage, where I wanted to be, was free. I chose a spot just to the right of the centre.

I had not been there long when somebody came up and said hello. He followed this with, "You do not recognise me, do you?", which I had to confess was true. He quickly admitted to being formed secondSight lead guitarist Norman Leader, then resident in Dorset, who I failed to recognise despite having seen and spoken to him many time simply because he had gained a significant amount of hair and lost a significant amount of weight since I last saw him. We talked for quite a while about music and Dorset and that was a fine way to fill the gap before ReGenesis came to the stage.

I was not entirely sure what to expect. I had bought The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, eventually, but I knew it much less well than the albums either side of it. I deliberately avoided doing some research beforehand by playing it a few time as I was quite content to go into the concert knowing just the general sound of the piece, i.e. early Genesis, and some of the highlights.

ReGenesis tried to recreate the original sound rather than reinterpreting the songs their way and that meant matching the original band man for man. Obviously Peter Gabriel was the hardest role to fill because of his distinctive voice and with Tony Patterson they had an able frontman who sounded like Gabriel, engaged well with the audience and even wore a little makeup. ReGenesis also do full costumes concerts, this was not one of those but Tony's effort was appreciated.

For the next hour and a half or so we got The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and everybody in the packed room loved it. It was what we had all come to hear and that is what we got skillfully delivered to us.

There was an encore of two songs and the final one had to be I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) from 73's Selling England by the Pound. My first exposure to Genesis may well have been seeing this on The Old Grey Whistle Test. We were encouraged, not that we needed much encouragement, to sing along and that was when by position in the front row became a liability and Tony's mike was thrust at me as I delivered the line "Getting better in your wardrobe" badly.

That one badly sung line apart it was a brilliant evening and while I am not yet fully converted to the Genesis faith I am enough of a fan to go and see ReGenesis again. Good music played well is always worth going to see.

2 March 2016

Buoyed by an emotional and skilful Road Show at the Union Theatre

I am not a great Sondheim fan so Road Show might not have appealed to me had it not been on at the Union Theatre where I had seen plenty of good musicals that I had known nothing about beforehand.

The story sounded interesting and that helped. It was the story of two brothers living at the start of the twentieth century when the USA offered the American Dream.

Besides, after seeing a few excellent but dark plays a musical seemed like a good way to spend a Wednesday evening.

So I paid my £20 and got the final ticket for that day. Several other days were already sold out. That was good to see both as a recommendation for the show and for the health of the theatre.

By coincidence, that health was confirmed the same day when I got an email from them saying that they would soon be moving to new premises in another railway arch on the other side of the road. It will be bigger and better, they mentioned hot water!, and I am looking forward to going there. I'll also be contributing towards their supporters' fund.

My routine for the Union Theatre is well practiced and very effective. I left the office at 5:45pm and walked down from Kings Cross to Southwark arriving at the theatre just as the box office opened at 6:30pm and that got me one of the desired first ten tickets, it was actually number one! That left me a comfortable hour to stroll along to Culture Grub for some Chinese food. I got back to the theatre in time to get a coffee to take in with me.

Around 7:25pm the first ten ticket holders were invited in and I politely let an elderly couple in before me. They took two seats at the end of the front row of the central block that left the centre seat free for me.

The stage was set much as it had been for Fear and Misery of the Third Reich with the seating along one of the long sides, the musicians in the far right corner and a large picture frame with a gauze-like material at the centre back of the stage.

The story started with the death of the brothers' father which caused them to venture out to seek their fortunes, starting with a gold rush in Alaska.

One of the boys was hard working and the other spent most of his time in the local bar, which he subsequently won in a card game. The boys fell out and went their separate ways.

We followed those separate ways through their ups and downs and the occasional reunions. Along the way we discovered that one of them was gay and one of the nicest tunes of the evening was a love duet made all the more poignant by the context, this was 1930's USA not 2010's Brighton.

There were plenty of other good tunes and I unexpectedly found my foot tapping throughout the evening. I had expected a few good songs but I had not expected the music to be as consistently enjoyable as it was.

Helping the songs immensely was the large cast all of whom sang, acted and moved well. It frustrates me that so many theatre websites do not do proper cast lists, though I accept that many have programmes that they want to sell that would give me the information I am after, so I'll only mention Andre Refig as the older brother, Wilson Mizner, who had the voice that I liked the most.

I also liked the young woman who blew me a kiss at one point though I'll have to admit that as a rare male in a female dominated front row I was an obvious target. This was during one of the all cast singing and dancing numbers that were interspersed between the more personal songs by and between the three male leads.

Road Show was fairly short, around 100 minutes and so it dispensed with an interval. I approved as even though the show was episodic, often leaping forward a few years, there was no obvious break and to insert one would have broken the flow of the journey.

There was lots to enjoy in Road Show and while there was sadness and anger in it the overall impression was a positive one and I left the theatre buoyed by both the story and the skill of all the people who delivered it. It was indeed a great way to spend a Wednesday evening.

1 March 2016

A Steady Rain at the Arcola Theatre was taut, brutal and gripping

The Arcola is one of my few regular theatres but there are lots of theatres and not many evenings so I do not automatically see everything that is on, there still has to be something to entice me.

A Steady Rain came with the writing credentials of Keith Huff who wrote for House of Cards and Mad Men which I did not know that well but I knew that they both had excellent reputations. It also helped that the original production starred Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig who were unlikely to have chosen to work in anything poor or even just ordinary.

I had got used to the Arcola moving from free seating to allocated seating and had booked my seat in good time, so good that I got favoured seat A14 in the middle of the front row of the small block of seats at the front of the stage for a ridiculously cheap £19. I am not sure what their pricing policy is but that price seems too low to me; the Arcola is not a pub theatre.

One thing the Arcola definitely gets right is the front of house stuff and a easily filled the hour before the performance with some hot food, a coffee and then a beer. I had the Hot Stew Pot, served with 3 risotto balls, organic pearl barley and mild chutney, which was another bargain at £5.25. The beer was more reassuringly expensive at £4.80 for something crafty from somewhere local.

We entered the theatre to find a dark stage, the assistants had torches to show people to their seats like cinemas used to, with one man sitting on a chair and another standing by the water cooler. at the back. It started dark and moody and stayed like that.

The two men were middle aged police officers who had been friends since childhood. One was going through hard times and was living with the other and his family. They were hard cops in a hard city. They bent the rules a bit, quite a bit at times, but they were still the good guys.

Then one of them got mixed up with a prostitute and a pimp and their battle against criminals intruded into his private life and the battle became a lot more personal. And tense. And brutal.

The presentation matched the story in its tension and brutality. The men spoke slowly, carefully and with menace. Tap shoes and the metal table were used to produce the sounds of gunfire. The lights shone dimly.

There was a moment of relief in the middle when the interval allowed me out into the light and to get another beer. Then it was back underground for another hour or so of some of the most immersive and effective theatre that I have ever seen. It was astonishingly good.

For once I have no hesitation in citing the whole cast for excellence. Vincent Regan and David Schaal were both perfect.

The story was told as if in a book with the men wither talking to each other as colleagues or to us as narrators. Again I found that to be a very effective technique and far better that inventing artificial dialogue to fill in the gaps in the story. Saying things like, "Do not forget the time when we ..." is not what normal people say when they both clearly do remember the time when one saved the life of the other, or whatever.

A Steady Rain was powerful and gripping and left me feeling that I had just witnessed something extraordinary. There is a high bar for what I call good theatre and this sailed well above that.