30 April 2016

Leaving CGI after nine years

Just over nine years after rejoining I have left CGI (they bought Logica in August 2012). That is the longest time that I have spent at one company and while I could have been thinking about retiring I have chosen to go for a new challenge instead.

I have enjoyed much of my time at Logica/CGI and I look back fondly at my time at Nokia Siemens Network where I was able to combine interesting work with travel to some interesting places like Moscow, Kiev, Dubai and Rabat, being a project manager at EDF Energy in two challenging spells and spending a couple of years in Cardiff in a decent hotel close to a great curry house.

There were less good times and in the end that is why I left. When I rejoined Logica it was as a member of the UK Consulting team and it was the consulting role that had brought me back. I went through several reorganisations after that, spending time in teams with names like Professional and Technical Services (PTS), before drifting into internal roles first as an expert on the financial side of preparing bids and finally as an internal consultant on Continuous Improvement where I had no power or influence and nobody was really interested in making improvements.

When asked in job interviews why I was looking to leave CGI I came up with the boiled frog analogy, I had joined as a business consultant and through gradual changes had ended up in a job that I would not have applied for when looking for a job nine years ago. There were some specific pushes too, I was in almost continual conflict with my manager (insufferable micro-manager and patronising with it) and I had another concern that I cannot mention here.

Having come to the conclusion that I was in a job that I did not want, and did not need, I decided to leave. My final day was 30 April 16.

As it happens, I got another job soon after I resigned but there is a two week gap between me leaving CGI and starting there and I will wait until I have actually started before telling you about the new job.

29 April 2016

Emilia Galotti at The Space was engrossing drama well presented

I am on a lot of theatre emailling lists and I found out about Emilla Galotti from the production company, Ottisdotter, having subscribed to their newsletters after seeing their The Feast at Solhaug at Baron's Court Theatre last year. That was enough of a recommendation to make me want to see this.

The other attraction was that it was at a new theatre for me, The Space in the Isle of Dogs. The location proved to be something of a challenge partially because of my error and partially because the CityMapper app was being unhelpful. I got to Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line easily enough but then I made the mistake of going the last leg by bus rather than walking.

I got on the right bus (135) but got off it to early because of the app and then I got on another right bus (D3) but heading in the wrong direction so I got off in Limehouse and waited a couple of minutes for another D3 heading back the other way. This time I got off at the correct stop which, helpfully, included "The Space" in its name and was right next to the theatre.

The Space was in a very attractive former church from the Victorian period. The theatre was downstairs and upstairs was the Hubbub cafe/bar where I headed first. Thanks to the extra time I had spent on busses there was no time for a proper meal but the bowl of thick chips (more like wedges) and small plate of fried halloumi did the job. The pint of beer was much appreciated too.

I had been told that the doors to the theatre would open at 7:20 so just before then I made my way downstairs, out of the side door and round to the front where the theatre entrance was.

The interior looked more like a church hall than a church with the seats arranged in two rows along the two long sides, leaving the middle of the room empty, and a slightly raised dais at the far end.

The action started on the dais with a prince signing some papers in a casual manner. Then an obsequient painter came in to show the prince two portraits he had just completed, one was of Countess Orsina who the the prince was going out with at that time, though he had not seen her for a little while, and the other was of Emilia Galotti who the prince was beginning to fall in love with.

Having decided that we was in love with Emilia the prince then had the alarming news that she was due to be married that day. His aid, Marinelli, said that he had a plan to help the prince and the prince agreed without knowing the details. The story developed nicely from there and I was keen to see how it would all turn out, though a happy ending was never that likely.

The heart of the play was the scheming by Marinelli and Andrew Nance was excellent as the loyal but somewhat malevolent aid to the hapless and easily led prince. Equally good was Francesca Burgoyne as the wronged Countess Orsina and my highlight of the play was the confrontation between the two of them early in the second half of the play.

I was also impressed by Lucy Pickles as Emillia's mother, not least because she convincing played somebody much older than herself. It was also one of the more emotional roles as she got caught up in Marinelli's plans. The rest of the cast were all good and each characters was well defined, distinct and believable.

The staging worked well too with most of the action happening in the middle of the hall right in front of me and good use being made of all the entrances at either end. Few props were used, or needed, and that is just how I like it.

The story was appropriately tense, dramatic and a little tragic with some nice touches of humour along the way, especially from the prince's silliness.

Emilia Galotti was superb theatre in all aspects and was well worth the effort it took to get there to see it. It is easy to forget as we celebrate Shakespeare that other historical playwrights wrote good things that are still worth watching today.

28 April 2016

I have a few more Liberty shirts (almost)

My collection of Liberty shirts has taken a big jump in the last few weeks thanks to their tie-in with Uniqlo. I heard about this via my regular Liberty email notices and made a trip to my local Uniqlo, in Kingston, a couple of days after the launch.

Downstairs in the women's section there were all sorts of garments in all sorts of colours but upstairs in the men's section there were only four blue long-sleeve shirts. I do not normally wear blue so I limited myself to just two of them.

I had a change of mind soon after and went online to buy the other two styles. They had none left in my size. Reasoning that the Kingston might have more stock than the online store I went in there to have a look but they had no shorts at all and there was no evidence in menswear that the Liberty line ever existed.

Relief came with another email announcing that the Summer range would be on sale at 11pm on Thursday 28 April and the preview showed that there would be more shorts, with short sleeves this time.

So I went on line at 11pm on Thursday 28 April and bought a few; four to be precise. Still mostly blue so I'll just have to get used to wearing blue.

I hope to be starting a new job in a couple of weeks and the dress code is smart casual (I believe!) and my plan is to have the Liberty/Uniqlo shirts as part of my uniform and to keep back my original Liberty shirts for special events, like weekends.

24 April 2016

Wallowing in the music of Neil Young with The Honeyslides at The Half Moon

I have seen many covers bands in the last few years, mostly at the Fox and Duck, and while they do the occasional Neil Young song it is not that often and it is almost always Rockin' in the Free World. So when an opportunity arose to see a Neil Young covers band I jumped at the chance even though it meant paying £8 (the Fox and Duck is free), travelling to Putney and missing the Sunday night pub quiz.

The band in question were the Honeyslides who get their name from a mysterious concoction known as a 'honey slide' that was heavily consumed during the On The Beach sessions. A somewhat obscure connection, I will admit, but they made up for it by putting Neil Young on their poster and going for a Harvest album cover look.

The doors were due to open at 8pm so Pete and I arranged to meet at 7pm and let the 85 bus take us steadily from Kingston to Putney. We arrived in good time and that allowed us to look in the windows of a books and a comics shop as we passed. It also allowed us to grab our first beers before going in.

I dug out my t-shirt from the NYAS London Convention in 2005, celebrating Neil's sixtieth birthday, and there were a few other NY t-shirts in the bar and quite a few people who looked like NY fans either because of their lumberjack style checked shirts or their general age and appearance.

There were a few very keen people standing near the door waiting for them to open and we were among them and so were able to claim a good spot. I was expecting it to be standing at the front but the room was arranged with tables and chairs at the front so we claimed a couple of seats at the table in the centre. Speaking to a couple sharing the table with us it appears that this arrangement is not unusual and I must admit that it was nice to have somewhere to put my beer, which encouraged me to have more beers than I might otherwise have done.

The Honeyslides took the stage soon after 8:30pm in a formation akin to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, a good sign. In addition to the four band members shown below there was a female vocalist who provided backing vocals on most songs.

I was not interested in compiling a full set list, just making a note on my phone of the songs that made be happy the most, and it became quite a long list. Normally in Neil Young circles, and elsewhere, songs are known by their initials, e.g. Rockin' in the Free World is RITFW, but I preferred to use key words and my list was; Cinnamon, Hurricane, Words, Alabama, River, Helpless, Heart, Sugar, Powder, Cowgirl, Cortez, Ohio, Southern,  Tonight, Rockin'. Remember, these were just my favourite tracks and there were fifteen of them!

As expected with Neil Young there was a mix of the rock and the folk with a run of four acoustic numbers (Helpless, Heart, Sugar, Powder) in the middle. The songs were not as long as NY has been known to play them but I timed Like a Hurricane at around ten minutes and some of the other songs, e.g. Cortex the Killer, were string out to a similar length with the extended guitar solos over the sympathetic rhythms of the rest of the band.

I was absolutely delighted with both the choice of songs and the way that they were played. My feet were tapping, my head was shaking and my lips followed the words. I was in rapture. It was that good.

The Honeyslides played for the best part of two and a half hours and were only stopped by the pub's curfew, they had more songs to play and they looked to have the energy and enthusiasm to play them.  I managed to get a few words with main-man Tom Billington afterwards and he was still energetic and enthusiastic as I explained how much I had enjoyed the performance.

There was so much to love in the music and, for reasons that I do not understand or particularly care about, it was Words (Between the Lines of Age) that rattled around my head for the next few days. A fitting tribute to a great evening.

23 April 2016

High-Rise successfully captured the atmosphere of the book

I had wanted to see High-Rise for some weeks and I finally managed to get to a late showing on a Saturday night. My enthusiasm came from my love of the book by JG Ballard on which it is based.

High Rise was the third in his trilogy of contemporary dystopian novels Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975). I bought all of these as they came out and loved them all. Earlier novels had been set in dystopian futures, e.g. one with sever flooding (The Drowned World), but these were set in current times and twisted normal people and normal situations to create worlds that were both very recognisable and very strange. The opening line of High-Rise makes this tension obvious from the very start, "As he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months."

But this is about the film and not the book.

I was in the cosy Odeon Studios Screen 8 which my phone told me I was last in six years earlier to see Red. There were about thirty of us in there which I thought was a good turnout for a film released several weeks previously. When I saw V for Vendetta we were the only two people in a much larger cinema.

Ballard's dystopian novels are very much about how people think and the plot is a way of presenting his characters with different situations to contend with rather than a telling a story about events. The film took this approach too and concentrated on two characters Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) and TV documentary maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) with strong support from a stella cast that included Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy,  Keeley Hawes and Reece Shearsmith. An action film does not need a cast like that but a film about people does.

I do not know where they found the High-Rise block or how much of it was generated on a computer but the brutalist architecture and the interiors were perfect for the story. I would have wanted to live there too. I presume that at least some of it was false as the roof-top garden was unbelievably large. If it does exist then I want to go there.

It was a while since I read the book and while I think that there were some significant differences, possibly different emphasises rather than changes, I was pleased to see some of the original ideas appear, such as opening the film with the opening sentence.

The incidental music was a nice touch too and I nearly screamed with excitement when I heard Amon Duul's Fly United. This comes from their '73 album Vive La Trance which was right for the film. I've bought the album twice.

There were lots and lots of other nice touches throughout the film that either added to the psychological tension, highlighted some aspect of the period or provided a touch of humour. The horse and cheese-knife incident was but one example. 

Overall, like Crash had, I thought that High-Rise captured the atmosphere of the original book and that is what I wanted it to do. It was a highly entertaining film and the two hours flew by.

18 April 2016

I am loving the new Dr Strange

My relationship with Doctor Strange has been tenuous over the years and it has rarely been one of my regular books. Of course that is partially because it has not always been a regular book in its own right with Doctor Strange more often appearing as a supporting character in books like the Defenders.

When he has had his own title Doctor Strange has been reassuringly quirky rather than mainstream, more Tomb of Darkness or Werewolf by Night than Avengers and X-Men. This was particularly true in the late 70's when Tom Sutton was on pencils.

Now he is back in his own book as part of one of the many relaunches that Marvel and DC are doing these days. His reappearance has no doubt prompted by the upcoming film staring Benedict Cumberbatch which is giving this fringe character more publicity than ever before.

I subscribed to the new book, which means ordering a paper copy from Raygun Comics Richmond and then reading the free digital copy that comes with it on my iPad. I wish other publishers would follow Marvel's lead and let me have paper copies to collect and digital copies to read.

The main reasons that I subscribed were my historical interest in the character and the art work by Chris Bachalo who I have praised here a few times previously. It is written by Jason Aaron who has also been mentioned in dispatches before.

The result is every bit as good as I hoped it would be and I am loving every minute of it.

This is the Doctor Strange that I know, living on the edge of reality and being very comfortable there; he is the Sorcerer Supreme after all. He also deploys a lot of the old favourite spells from when he first appeared, spells to invoke the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak or to use the Eye of Agamotto. Fanboys like me like things like that.

The story is good too with the right mix of menace, weirdness and humour.

13 April 2016

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

Another month and another opportunity to eat, drink and be merry at the Czechoslovak Restaurant West Hampstead where the gatherings of the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) "Get to Know You" Socials are held on the second Wednesday of each month.

This time I got there even earlier than usual, just before 6:30pm (the official start is 7pm), as we wanted to try out arranging the tables and chairs in different ways to see how many people we could fit in for a discussion event that we are planning. Once we had agreed we could seat 30 people in that format we moved the tables into their usual format for the socials, six tables arranged in a long rectangle. Experience has taught us that is the best format for conversations.

The only business of the evening done we settled down to our first drink of the evening. Sonia had decided to go dry for a while and went for a Czeck/Slovak lemonade with grape juice that neither Richard nor I were particularly impressed with - we both went for Pilsner Urquell, as always.

Other people started to trickle in, including the ubiquitous Ruzena without whom these socials would not really work as one of her roles is to welcome new Czechs and Slovaks into the room, something which Richard and I are incapable of.

The other people who came had either not been there before or had only been once and the new people gave Richard the opportunity to retell many of his stories from our time in Prague over twenty years ago. I managed to stay awake for most of them.

The beers kept flowing, possibly a little too well, and around the same time we all decided to order something to eat. I had Smazeny Syr (fried cheese in breadcrumbs) because I had decided that having had it so often I was now determined to have it every time. It is somewhere between a tradition, a ritual and an obsession.

Towards the end of the evening the draft Pilsner Urquell made way for bottles of Zlaty Bazant. Another tradition.

There were fewer of us than usual which was nice in a way as it meant that we could have one conversation, rather than splitting into groups as we normally do. What most of those conversations were about is lost to me now due to the ephemeral nature of casual conversations and it is possible that the drink may have had an impact here. Such is the randomness of memory that the one hard point that I remember is a brief discussion on GRAD (Gallery for Russian Arts and Design) that two of us there had a fondness for.

We were politely thrown out at closing time, 10:30pm, which was probably just as well. It had been a great evening and even the signalling disaster on London Overground that forced me to go home via the Jubilee Line and Waterloo (after a long wait for trains that were clearly not coming for quite some time) did little to dampen my good spirits.

12 April 2016

Walking around Kings Cross with a camera

I will soon be leaving CGI and that means that I will soon stop working at Kings Place. I'll miss the Kings Cross area far more than I will miss CGI and I took advantage of a sunny lunch break to walk around some of the interesting places that have excited me many times in recent years.

These are all within a few hundred metres of my office in Kings Place. Several are part of the massive redevelopment that is still going on just north of Kings Cross while others are historical and there is even a patch that has escaped all attempts at industrialisation.

This is Lewis Cubitt Square, one of the new spaces on the Central St Martin campus. It is on the quiet north-west corner and has building works on one side so it is not very busy at the moment but I am sure that its time will come.

The graveyard and gardens next to the old St Pancras Church are somewhat unremarkable except for the one remarkable monument. Even more remarkably, it is a sundial.

Camley Street Natural Park is an oasis of natural calm amidst all the construction and usual city bustle. There is a loop walk around the edge of the small park which makes it an ideal place to take in during a walk.

The newest addition to the area is the Gas Holder Park which is based on the rebuilt and relocated Gas Holder No. 8. The steelwork is rendered almost invisible by the circle of mirrors that make walking around there slightly discomforting.

There is a little basin between the lock and the railway line that is home to a few colourful boats.

St Pancras Lock is small and I have never seen a boat go through it in all the many times that I have passed it while walking along the towpath. The trees at the top are in Camley Street Natural Park.

Just off Copenhagen Road, which parallels the Regent's Canal as it flows east from Kings Place, is Edward Square and by the entrance is the Tolpuddle Martyrs Mural on what was the wall of a pub. This is only a small section of it.

Granary Square is the centre piece of the area's regeneration and the fountains there are its main feature. There are four grids of fountains and each one if programmed to make interesting patterns. The square is always swarming with kids when it is hot, as it should be - public squares are for the public.

10 April 2016

The Character of Ham and Petersham

The Ham and Petersham Neighbourhood Forum (H+PNF) is a neighbourhood forum (as defined in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990) and so will have a big impact on the area that I live and so I am very interested in what it is doing.

What it is doing now is holding a number of consultation workshops with residents on various aspects of the neighbourhood plan that the Forum will produce and then oversee its implementation. I have been to all of the sessions so far and have submitted several comments at each of them.

The next consultation is on the Character and Heritage and heritage of the area. I was asked to produce a poster showing what I liked about the area to prompt some ideas. They asked me because of my Ham Photos blog in which I have been documenting the area for the last nine years through a collection of photographs that now numbers over 2,000.

It took a little while to come up with a format that I liked but once that was done it was a simple matter to find the 16 photos required to tell my story. I am quite pleased with the final result.

It occurred to me once I had done this poster that it very much focused on open spaces and said little about the buildings, so I did another poster of just that and they are going to use that one too as a reminder to people of the variety that there is locally.

This one was very quick to do as I could reuse the format from the first poster and the only challenge was deciding which 20 buildings to choose.

The top row are some of the many grand lodges and manors in the area, dating back to when kings hunted in Richmond Park. The second row shows some of the estate-like development in the area, including the standard 3-bed brick built social housing, the iconic Parkley's development and the Wates Estate. The third row shows some of the more exotic new buildings and the final row shows some of the old cottages that are littered across the area.

Even with 20 pictures there was much that I had to leave out but I think I met my personal objectives of showing the variety that exists and of covering the whole area. I hope that the people at the consultation workshop like it too. I will find out on Wednesday 13 April!

9 April 2016

Who Are You at the Fox and Duck (April 16)

I had seen Who Are You? at the Fox and Duck a couple of times previously and while they had entertained me they were never going to make my "A" list simply because they only play Who songs and I was never a big Who fan, I never bought a Who album. That said, live music is still live music and so I wandered down there to see them again.

This was a very different and a much better Who Are You? I did not catch all of the band changes but the most obvious one was that the lead singer had changed and had also been joined by a lead singeress. They both had good strong voices and made a very passable substitute for Roger Daltry.

I thought that the sound that the band made was more solid than previously which may have been because of the other band change, or the sound system, or my failing memory of the last time.

Whatever the differences were, they sounded pretty good to me and the numerous Who fans in the audience, easily identifiable by their t-shirts, were impressed too. There was much singing along and even a little bit of movement that was as close to dancing as 50-something men indulge in.

I still only knew about half the tracks, typically the singles though thanks to a roommate at university I also knew Squeeze Box all too well (it's from the '75 album The Who by Numbers), though that made little difference as most of the ones that I knew were pretty good, as always Won't Get Fooled Again stood out (some people were paused by the quiet bit and clapped too early), and the unknown songs were not bad either.

I was also pleased to hear so many of the early songs from the mid '60s, songs like I'm a Boy and, obviously, My Generation and Substitute.

They got their timing right and finished near enough spot-on midnight. By then we were all very happy as the end of evening group picture proves.

I do not think that I am ever going to fall deeply in love with a Who tribute band simply because they will play Who songs so it is something of an achievement for Who Are You? to entertain me as much as they did.

Revisiting Jim Steranko's Captain America

Timed for the release of the second Captain America film, Marvel are having a sale of Captain America comics. I learned about this on Saturday morning via a tweet from ComiXology and went to their website to see what was available, hoping to pick up some Jack Kirby copies leading up to issue #200 which I bought when it came out in August '76.

I might still do that but my casual searching first uncovered the short Jim Steranko run (issues 110, 111 and 113) from 1969. I was not reading the original American comics then, only the black and white UK reprints in comics like Pow!, and I have only managed to acquire one tatty original for my collection. I have bought most of his work in some form or another since then, sometimes more than once, and this was an opportunity to buy his Captain America issues in a digital form.

A few clicks later then all I had to do was wait for them to download onto my iPad. So much easier than going up to the top floor to look for a pint copy in one of the bookcases, I did not even need to get out of bed.

Jim Steranko is a genuine comic book legend, despite working on so few comics, because of his distinctive and original drawing style. Even today these comics look fresh even though they were drawn almost fifty years ago.

The obvious things to note are the use of panels, cropping, varied viewpoints including at an angle, heavy shading and rich detailing of machinery etc.

One thing that has changed, and for the better, over fifty years is the storytelling. These issues, written by Stan Lee, are verbose (note the additional text in the top right corner of the page above) and the story is full of gaping plot holes, such as when all the baddies leave Captain America alone in the assumption that one robot would finish him off.

Perhaps with another artist the story's weaknesses would have made it unreadable now (it was good for its time) but the Jim Steranko artwork did more than rescue the books, it made them classics that I was delighted to read again. A wonderful start to the weekend.

7 April 2016

Celebrating 150 issues of the BCSA Review

Probably the biggest reason for joining the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) is to get the Review magazine which comes out six times a year. The Review provides information about recent developments in British Czech and Slovak relations i.e. the sort of coverage that rarely features in the mainstream media in the UK. It has a trusty circle of expert contributors who report on and analyse important events.

And it has just celebrated its 150th issue.

The celebrations were held at the Czech and Slovak National House in West Hampstead which I know well as that is also where we hold the monthly BCSA Get to Know You Socials. I like the place and I like the people at the BCSA so I accepted my invitation to the party.

It was a good evening for much the same reason that the monthly socials are. I had lots of interesting conversations with interesting people during which, amongst other things, I learned about a scenic railway route in Slovakia that could well feature in my holiday plans for later this year.

Some cheesy and eggy nibbles were laid on which, with some chocolates, sufficed as my evening meal and kept me away from my usual smazeny syr. I did, of course, have a few pints of my usual Pilsner Urquell, preferring that to the free wine on offer.

The BCSA Review reaching 150 issues was a significant milestone worth celebrating and we celebrated it in the appropriate style.

Beacons at Park Theatre was a very human play that touched several emotions deeply

For the second week in a row I found myself at the Park Theatre for a Thursday matinee performance as the time and location fitted in well with what was going on elsewhere at the time and the shows there have always been good or better.

Another attraction was that one of the three actors was Paul Kemp who I had seen several times at the Orange Tree.

I was also interested in seeing another play about Beachy Head having seen and enjoyed a play of the same name some years previously.

As in the previous week I booked online just before setting off to the theatre and my unreserved seat cost me a friendly £18 for a show scheduled to run for an unbroken 1 hour 25 minutes.

I walked to the Park Theatre from Kings Place, as usual, taking an indirect route as my mood fancied, as usual, arriving in decent time for a coffee prior to going into the theatre. We were in the smaller space, Park90, and I joined the queue that was starting to form on the first floor. By the time that we were let in the queue stretched along the first floor corridor and down the stairs to the ground floor. Once again I found that older people, and I must include myself in that, like to queue to get the best seats whereas younger people are more content to leave everything to the final moment.

The stage was set as a cliff-top with a ledge in one corner. We were advised by the helpful staff to sit near that corner and so I did. I was in early enough to get a seat right in the front row and I chose my place just off the corner. The picture below shows the set and the excellent view that I had of it.

Beacons introduced us to three characters who were all,in some way
connected to Beachy Head and, through that, to each other. A middle-aged woman (Julie) sold ice creams but was losing out to a posher rival nearby. A middle-aged man (Bernard) came there for somewhere to be and to see the middle-aged woman. A young woman (Skye) was drawn to the place where somebody she knew had killed themselves.

They passed the time by talking to each other and through this we gradually learned more about them and they learned more about each other revealing more and deeper connections between them. The story developed through these revealed connections and there were a couple of surprises along the way.

On the way there were three rich and essentially decent characters trying to get along with each other and it was a real pleasure to watch them do so. The three actors were all excellent. I had gone to see Paul Kemp (Bernard) and I loved him as a somewhat shy and bumbling ex-alcoholic. Emily Burnett (Skye) moved convincingly between bubbly young woman and somebody with sad memories to content with. Tessa Peake-Jones (Julie) was the rock that they both relied on but with needs of her own. I cared about all three of them.

I must confess at this point that I spent ages looking at Tessa Peake-Jones trying to work out what play I had seen her in because she looked familiar only for Google to remind me afterwards that she had been Raquel in Only Fools and Horses for many years!

Beacons was a very human play with (basically) a happy ending though there never are endings in real life and there were several less happy parts along the way. It left me in a positive mood which has to be a good thing.

The afternoon ended well when I managed to grab a few words with Paul Kemp afterwards to tell him how much I enjoyed his performance in this and the other plays that I had seen him in.

6 April 2016

The Mercy Seat at Hampton Hill Theatre had rich dialogue delivered skilfully

This was one of those fortunate things that do happen from time to time. I was vaguely aware that there was a small theatre in Hampton Hill but had felt that it was too far out of my way to pay serious attention to. Then it looked like I might get a job in Teddington and so I looked for theatres that I could get to easily from there and discovered the Hampton Hill Theatre (sadly, little else).

Then things got better. I looked at their programme, which is intermittent, and saw that they had a Neil LaBute play coming up and that was a done deal. And the price of that deal was a miserly £12, well within the do-not-even-think-about-it range.

I had travelled through Hampton Hill many times by bus, on the way towards Heathrow, but had only been there a couple of times and that was to the same pub, the Bloated Mallard. Confident that there was at least one place that I could eat there I decided to make an evening of it. That began with a walk over the Teddington Footbridge and along the main road in Teddington before catching a bus for the last leg.

Having found the theatre easily enough I was advised by somebody going in there that the box office would be open later and that the pub next door was a good place to wait. That pub was the The Refectory and it did the job. It was a quirky pub split into different zones and I picked somewhere in the middle to have a beer and a snack.

Moving on to the theatre I was pleased to see that it had a small bar. It had a limited supply and nothing on draught but bottled beer was fine. There was a friendly feel in the bar and as the theatre was managed by Teddington Theatre Club I suspected that a lot of the people there knew each other.

There were two performance spaces in the theatre and The Mercy Seat was in the smaller space, the Noel Coward Studio Theatre, and it took a while and some questioning for me to work out which door we would have to go through to get there. Once that was established I hung around the door in question but not too close to seem over keen.

My positioning and alertness meant that I was among the first people to go through to the theatre and I followed a series of signs along some very business-like corridors to get there. The theatre was set up in an "L" shape with seating on two sides of the stage. On that stage was a sofa and I reasoned that this would be the centre of the action and I took a seat in the front row facing the sofa.

The premise of the play was fairly simple, if a little odd.

This was a few days after 9/11 and a couple had survived by being in her flat rather than in the office. The problem was he was married and was having an affair with a colleague. His wife kept calling him to see if he was alright but he was not answering his phone. He had reasoned that being missing presumed dead gave them the opportunity to start a new life together in a different place.

She was less convinced by this plan as she liked her job and wanted him to make a positive break from his wife rather than using this excuse to sneak away.

There were only two people in the play Abby (Amanda-Jade Tyler) and Ben (Nick Barr) and it was all about their conversations. These were about what they should do and also about how their relationship had formed and developed. Like real conversations do, it frequently veered off from the main subject and did not often get back there. Also like real conversations the mood changed too and the tense discussions about the difficult decision they had to make were balanced by lighter moments. One topic that particularly stuck in my mind was Abby explaining to Ben that his preference for having sex from behind and her lack of engagement in the act meant that she was used to reading the labels on the mattress and she wondered how his wife coped.

The construct of the play called to mind LaBute's In a Forest Dark and Deep which consisted solely of a brother and a sister talking to each other. Both plays also twisted sharply and unexpectedly at the end.

The Neil LaBute dialogue made The Mercy Seat a great play and the acting skills of Amanda-Jade Tyler and Nick Barr made this a great production. I was able to tell them that afterwards simply by loitering next to the changing area until they emerged.

If this is anything like typical for what the Hampton Hill Theatre has to offer then I will be going there regularly.

5 April 2016

Goodnight Mister Tom at Richmond Theatre generated laughs, tears, smiles and cheers

I got sort of suckered into this one having agreed to go without knowing anything about it at all, other than the review headlines chosen by Richmond Theatre to promote the event. I was growing to like the Richmond Theatre more and had enjoyed many of the other touring shows that had visited there so I took a punt and agreed to go.

I realised late on the actual day that it started at the earlier than usual time of 7pm, because child actors are not allowed to work late, but with some juggling (I finished work early) I was still able to get to the Pigs Ears beforehand for a pizza and a pint of raspberry beer from Belgium via Kirkstall. Both were delicious.

I had gone for a seat in my usual area, Dress Circle Row A Seat 21, which cost me a frugal £25. Having seats that good at that price was one reason that I was going to the Richmond Theatre regularly. The point was drilled home when I collected my ticket at the box office as the machine also printed out my tickets for the next two weeks, all in the same row.

Goodnight Mister Tom opened with a group of children being evacuated from London to Dorset days before the outbreak of. World War II which, for those of us who had no idea what to expect, immediately set the period, the place and the tone. One villager, the elderly Tom Oakley (the Tom of the title) took in William Beech, a boy aged around eight.

The boy was extremely shy, was scared of the dog, could not eat his food and when Tom looked in the small suitcases of possessions that William had brought with him he found a belt that he was meant to hit the boy with. We soon learned that William could not read or write either.

William settled down into his new home and, after some initial friction between the established village children and the newcomers, made a few friends at school. People gave him passed-on clothes to wear and Tom started to teach him to read and right. He even got on with Tom's dog, Sammy, though a squirrel scared him a little.

Everything seemed to be heading nicely towards an ending where William thrives with Tom's help but there was a lot more to the story than that. This was wartime and a few people died in the fighting. Other people died for other reasons so while there was a positive, Dunkirk spirit, running through the play there was also a lot to feel sad about or, as the woman in the box near me did, cry your eyes out to.

Goodnight Mister Tom had a lot going on with a lot of characters for us to care about each with their own stories to keep us enthralled.

Leading the way strongly was David Troughton (Tony Archer!) as Tom Oakley and he fully deserved his curtain call, as did his co-star the puppeteer who brought Sammy to life so expertly and entertainingly. The next two to take a well deserved bow were the two boys who played William and his best friend Zach. The rest of the cast, several of whom played several roles, deserved their cheers too.

Everything about the show was neat and professional without seeming contrived or becoming too sentimental. It was a good honest story about war, deprivation, hope, death and muddling through that made us all cry, laugh, smile and cry again.

2 April 2016

A fantastic night with Memento at the Fox and Duck

I got this one wrong.

I saw the listing for Memento on LemonRock, saw that they were a new band and so classified their gig at the Fox and Duck as one to go to late if there was nothing better to do, something like a Steven Segal film on ITV. There was no Steven Segal film on ITV that night so I went to see Memento late, getting there around 10:30.

My mistake was immediately obvious.

Not only was the pub packed but there was a lively and happy atmosphere with everybody singing and/or dancing. The picture below is the best that I could do to get one of the band. In that crowd there were several people that I knew, including the famous Ralph who I often see at Hawkwind gigs. Most of the Fox and Duck regulars were there too.

I suspect that, unlike me, some of the people there had paid attention to the poster or knew of the band through some other means. The key words to note include Prezence and Rush.

I had seen Prezence play at the Fox and Duck a couple of times, in 2012 and 2014, and had loved them. If I had known that they had largely been reborn as Memento I would definitely have been there at the start of the evening. Rush are a band that I have loved since Permanent Waves in 1980 and while they can still sell out stadiums they do not often feature in cover bands' set lists.

The one band member that you can see at all clearly in the photo is lead singer Tamas Csemez who also fronted Prezence. Most, if not all, of the cover bands that come to the Fox and Duck are competent, or better, musicians but if there is a common weakness it is in the vocalists. Not here. I thought that Tamas made all the difference to the band and I was pleased to be able to tell him that afterwards. Of course the rest of the band had to play their parts too and they all did so magnificently.

I did not attempt to keep a set list but a few of the songs stuck in my head. We did have some Rush with Tom Sawyer, Rainbow’s Kill the King, The Final Countdown by Europe and Deep Purple's Mistreated. There were lots more like that and that is why everybody was singing and dancing.

It was a fantastic night and next time they are at the Fox and Duck, Saturday 8 October, then I'll be there early. It is already in my diary.

A couple of quick notes to close. One of the Fox and Duck regulars gave the gig three "wow!"s on Facebook afterwards, a record, and another friend told me that Tamas had been the original singer with prog covers band secondSight who I had seen several times. A couple of little touches to make a great night even better.

It's nights like this that I live for.