31 July 2016

Black Road by Brian Wood and Gary Brown

My time available for reading comics is still very limited, though the new job is helping with the shorter commute making more free time in the day some of which spills though into more time for reading, and that means taking care over what I buy. The days when I bough almost everything that Marvel published and a lot from DC too have long gone.

I am also looking for different things to read. There are still some good superhero comics out there but the overall standard has fallen with the proliferation of titles (there are three or four different Avengers books every month) and the interest in the characters has gone with the innumerable relaunches and resurrections. I have no idea who DR Henry Pym is these days and I do not care anymore.

On the plus side, the rest of the comics market is very vibrant, particularly Image Comics, and it is easy to find and buy new things on the internet. My current reading list includes Trees, Injection, Sage, Autumn Lands, Midnight of the Soul and Fuse. To that list I have just aded Black Road.

The Black Road leads to the north of Norway and this is a medieval world with a powerful church, waring lords and wolves. Travelling the hazardous road are a warrior and a young woman who grew up as a slave in Rome.

The blurb sounded interesting and I had liked Brian Wood's work on one of the (many) X-Men books and that was enough for me to take a punt on issue #1. Having read that I immediately bought the other published issues (#2 to #4) and then subscribed to the series to get all future issues (#5 is due on 17 August).

There is a lot to like the book. It has lots of familiar themes, the journey, the companionship, the church, the primitive setting, the mysterious ast, etc. and they are brought together skilfully to make something new and interesting, much as Game of Thrones does.

The main narrative is the journey, hence the title of the book, and that drives the story in a clear direction, unlike Game of Thrones!, and makes it a compelling read.

I do not often fall in love with books as quickly as I did this one and not only have I got a new title to read every month I've also been encourage to try some other new titles.

29 July 2016

Cargo at the Arcola Theatre

I do not get to the Arcola Theatre as much as I would like. That is mostly my fault for living on the other side of London a problem made worse by me now working in the south-west too and no longer having the sort of job that I could sneak out of for a matinee performance. Despite those obstacles I still keep a close eye on their programme and Cargo attracted me as soon as I read about it. Then the reviews started to come in and I had to go.

A Friday suited me and I left the office in Teddington very promptly, slightly before 5:30pm, to catch the slow train to Vauxhall (all the trains that stop at Teddington are slow), the faster Victoria Line to Highbury and Islington and then the London Overground for the last two stops to Dalston Kingsland. I made good time and arrived there about 80 minutes after I left the office. It was much better when I could walk up from Kings Cross.

Arriving early gave me plenty of time to eat and drink before the performance, and I did both. The menu had expanded since my previous visits but they still had a risotto balls and salad thing that was much like the dish that I used to have, except it no longer had a warm stew at the bottom. The beers were a couple of crafty ales from the east end, a Shoreditch Blonde then a Foundation Bitter.

Then about a quarter to eight I headed downstairs to start the queue to Studio 2 only to find that it had been started by somebody even keener than me. Still, third place was fine.

I had been in Studio 2 many times but had never seen it like this. It was lined with metal to make it look like the inside of a container and the seating was two benches along each side. It was dark too.

I took a seat around the middle of a long side. In the darkness I could just make out some packaging in front of me. There was also a scruffy looking woman sitting on the bench opposite me who had to be one of the cast.

Then the lights went out and in the pitch black the play started. With us in the container and on the ship were two stowaways and young but street-wise woman and her younger brother who had little grasp on what was going on. When they were sure that they were at sea and had not been detected they were brave enough to put a light on and discovered that there was another young woman in there with them.

All nervous, scared and untrusting they quizzed each other about where they had come from, how they had got on the boat and what their plans were. Answers were cautious because of the lack of trust and we were not certain that we were being told the truth.

After the scene was set several surprising things happened but I'll avoid the spoliers and not say what they were. I can say what they did and that was make us look at the "problem" of refugees from different perspectives. I half expected a simplistic story that showed us that refugees are normal people too and, done well, I would have been happy with that but Cargo was more intelligent than that. It also explored the motives, ways and means that people get involved in various aspects of moving across borders. It was engrossing and entertaining as well as intelligent.

The characters with us in the container were very different people and that sparked all sorts of reactions as they parried with each other for the best outcome. Helping the sparks were some excellent performances. I'll, possibly unfairly, pick on Milly Thomas for praise as much as anything because I did not recognise her despite being very close to her only a year previously when she appeared in Animals at Theatre503.

Cargo was a good play and staging it in a dark container helped the experience and made it an event as well as a story. It appealed to me artistically and politically so it is no surprise that I really liked it.

23 July 2016

Most of my "fans" are in Russia

I run Google Analytics on this blog and while I take them with a huge pinch of salt I do find them interesting.

For example, I can always tell when certain events are coming up, such as the open days at Watergardens on Kingston Hill, as my write ups of those start appearing in the most popular stories list.

The pinch of salt comes from the places that people read my blog from. Some foreign readers are to be expected as I often write things about other countries, especially the Czech and Slovak Republics, and some of my stories are not about any country, e.g. those I write about comics.

However, none of that explains the current high interest that I am getting from Russia. I am pretty sure that they are all spammers, cyber-crooks or members of some other nefarious groups.

If you are from Russia and you are a real fan then please leave a comment to let me know why. I'll understand if you are shy. Or a bot.

19 July 2016

Ivanov at the National Theatre

Sometimes deciding to see a play is easy, but rarely as easy as this.

There are four playwrights that I have Google Alerts set up for an Chekhov is one of them. These adaptations are by David Hare who has possibly been the biggest playwright in the UK for the last few decades.  They were staged at the Nation Theatre that has the infrastructure, and budget, to stage large productions.

I had thought about going down to Chichester to see the plays when they were first staged there last year but I was too disorganised to book tickets in time. I was not that worried as a London transfer seemed certain.

There were three plays in the season, Ivanov which I had not seen before and The Seagull and Platonov both of which I had only seen once. I was half tempted to go for the three plays in a day option but decided that would risk the three plays blurring into one. Obviously, That was not a problem when I saw Henry IV Parts I and II in a Shakespeare marathon.

My seat for Ivonov was Olivier Circle A23 for which I paid £32. I do not recall now if this was a preview price but it could have been as this was the first performance, a sign of how keen I was to see it.

The stage was superb and the photo does not do it justice as it is hard to make out the water flowing around the front of the stage and it does not show how parts of the stage went up and down to provide and remove props that transformed the stage, for example, from a garden to a dining room.

The central plot of Ivonov was simple enough. Nikolai Ivonov is a junior governor official fed up with his prospects and his wife of five years who he had fallen out of love with. She was ill with tuberculosis which increased his guilt. He spent most evening with his friend Paul Lebedev who hates his own wife, Zinaida, with a barely concealed passion. They had a twenty year old daughter, Sasha, who is infatuated with Ivanov and, understandably, he is interested in her too. Things developed from there.

I had not seen Ivanov before so could not tell how much was Chekhov and how much was Hare but the combination worked. The dialogue flowed briskly and smartly with a contemporary but not overly modern lilt. That dialogue took as deep into love, misery, power, deceit and bigotry (Ivanov's wife was a converted Jew). It was heady stuff with a few light touches added, as in Dickens some of the supporting characters were frivolous, which stopped the mood from getting too melancholy.

It was a large and top quality cast which included the magnificent Nina Sosanya as Ivanov's wife and the endearing Peter Egan as a bumbling uncle of Ivanov. There were some sixteen people in the cast and they all performed magnificently. The stage played its part too by being clever but not distractingly so. Likewise the lighting.

The whole production was professional without being cold, far from it actually. That left the play with plenty of space to breathe and to do what it wanted to do which was to emerge us deeply into the lives of a group of friends as they lived through some momentous events. It was enthralling to witness.

This may have been billed as an early Chekhov but it was very familiar Chekhov and that was what I was hoping to see.

16 July 2016

Nursery Cryme at The Oak

I have admitted several times in recent years that I was never was much of a Genesis fan and now, finally, I might be beginning to change my mind.

I probably would have gone to see Nursery Cryme at The Oak anyway, as long as I had found out about it, and a couple of good nudges meant that I had to go.

The first nudge came from their bassist, Oran Halberthal, who I first came to know when he played with Echoes then came to know better when we bumped into each other regularly at the Fox and Duck.

The second nudge came from various friends who were also interested in going to the gig.

I took the opportunity to walk to The Oak, steps were still being counted, and arrived there pretty close to 9pm and just a few moments before the band was due to start, time enough to get my first pint and join the others at one of the high tables at the back of the seating area.

Nursery Cryme take their name from Genesis' third album released in 1971 and that sets them very much in the "early Genesis" phase, though there was some discussion on our table when this was stretched to include 1978's ...And Then There Were Three... Personally I'd draw the line at 1976's A Trick of the Tail, though I recognise that including the first, and only the first, post Gabriel album is hard to justify. At least we all agreed that the early proggy stuff was better than that later dancey stuff.

They opened with Watcher of the Skies and took it from there with songs like Get Em Out By Friday, Squonk, The Musical Box, The Return of the Giant Hogweed, Carpet Crawlers, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), In the Cage and Trick of the Tail. There were more songs than that but you get the idea.

Despite claiming not to be a Genesis fan I found that I knew almost all of the songs reasonably well, though nothing like as well as Kate who seemed to sing along to every word of every song and to enjoy herself mightily while doing so. The rest of us were very happy too.

The songs have their merits but they need good musicians to tease the merits out and that is exactly what Nursery Cryme did. To be honest, I expected less from a pub band who were only just getting out on the circuit and I was exceedingly impressed by their playing. They sounded like early Genesis and that is just what I wanted to hear.

Nursery Cryme are a band well worth seeing and making something of an effort to do so. I might not admit to being a Genesis fan but I'll gladly admit to being a fan of Nursery Cryme.

Some Girl(s) at Park Theatre was thoughtful, classy and surprising

I was always going to be keen to see Some Girl(s) because it is by Neil LaBute and even more so because it was on at the Park Theatre which is one of my very favourites. As always the problem was finding the time and I used a comics signing which had brought me into London on a Saturday as an opportunity to see a matinee performance.

The signing finished later than I hoped and there was a mandatory detour through Liberty to check the end of sale offers (no more shirts for me sadly) and so I did not get to the theatre until 2:45pm for a show that started at 3:15 and without a ticket. Luckily I was able to get one and it must have been one of the last as the theatre was happily packed.

I also helped myself to a coffee, a humus and avocado roll and a beer before joining the queue for Park90 early enough to get a seat in the front row.

The set was a hotel room in Seattle, the first of four that we would see. In this room was a thirty-something man, Guy, waiting for a visitor. This was Sam, a woman the same age.

We soon learned that they had been a couple at High School but he had left her. He had come back after fifteen years to make amends for his past.

Of course it was not as simple as that and in their crisp dialogue we learned that she had gone on to have the sort of life, married to a local guy in a steady average job, that he was scared of and had run away from (his excuse).

As their conversation continued we found out more about both of them and things got more complicated as we did so. Typical LaBute.

Next we moved to Chicago. It took a while to model the new hotel room and we watched an aerial flypast of Chicago as we did so. It was good to see the Mies van der Rohe tower that I visited when working at IBM in the 90s.

Joining Guy in this room was Tyler. They had had a very physical relationship back in the day and she was still living that lifestyle with no regrets, just the opposite in fact. After the why are you here? part of the conversation was out of the way Tyler seemed keen to carry on where they had left off, despite being told by Guy that he was engaged. That scene was left ambiguously as the lights dropped for the end of the first half and I went out for another beer.

We came back to Boston and to Lindsay. She was an older (only slightly) married woman who Guy had an affair with when they were both teaching at Harvard. They had been discovered after two terms (semesters) and Guy had fled leaving Lindsay to suffer the consequences. This time the tables were slightly turned and when Lindsa met Guy her husband, who had stayed with her, knew all about it.

Finally, Los Angeles and Bobbi, the girl who not so much got away as was abandoned by mistake. Perhaps Guy's attraction to her twin sister had something to do with it. More crisp dialogue, more revelations.

Then, in a minor altercation, a plant pot fell and the plot twisted sharply and unexpectedly. I was expecting a twist but had not seen that one coming. This was followed by more explanations, more regrets and another surprise.

The four acts fizzed past and somehow it was quickly 5:30pm. The intervening time was consumed by the dialogue which demanded close attention and repaid that investment many times over with it's fluidity, honesty and the little barbs that revealed more about the players and their pasts. These were people that I cared about and I wanted to hear their stories.

My interest in the people was heighted by the action and, unusually, I want to mention all of them; Elly Condron, Roxanne Pallett, Carolyn Backhouse, Carley Stenson and Charles Dorfman. I was particularly pleased to see Carolyn Backhouse again having seen her several times at the Orange Tree.

Some Girl(s) was an intelligent and rewarding play delivered skilfully. Great theatre in a great venue made for a great afternoon.

Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Uncensored signing at Gosh!

I do not often go to signings by comics creators despite my deep love for the form. I am not entirely sure why that is but I suspect that part of the reason is that many comics professionals make other appearances, e.g. at talks and conventions, and so I have had the opportunity to meet several of my heroes over the years.

The last signing event that I went to was also at Gosh! Comics and that was for Sally Heathcote, Suffragette. Unfortunately that was not a good guide for what to expect this time.

This signing was for a new high-quality printing of Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth which carries the "uncensored" label as it had been impossible to reprint some of the issues previously. The reason was some copyright issues and the poster for the event hints at what those were. The people behind the Jolly Green Giant were not too amused either. Since then laws have changed slightly and common sense has prevailed and the full story can now be retold.

I have the story in another collected edition (I was not reading 2000AD in Summer 78) and while it is clearly worth rereading and it is always nice to have a high-quality comic book to read, the reason that i wanted to be at the signing was because of the people.

Brian Bolland went on from 2000AD to become an even bigger comics legend at DC Comics famous for many covers and for 1988's Batman: The Killing Joke written by Alan Moore. Almost thirty years later and the book still sells well, and rightly so.

Mike McMahon was the main reason that I went to the signing. His art defined what was best about 2000AD for me and I am a major fan of his. I got into 2000AD via Starlord when the two merged in 1978, oddly enough in the issue after Cursed Earth concluded.  At the time I associated him most with Ro-Busters, which later morphed into ABC Warriors, but he drew several stories for 2000AD and I loved his art on all of them.

And that is why I found myself in Soho on a Saturday afternoon queueing in the sun.

There was far more queueing than I, or Gosh!, expected. I arrived at 12pm for a 1pm start to find the queue already well established and most of the copies of Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Uncensored already sold. I wanted to buy two but was only allowed one. They had also stopped taking online orders a couple of days earlier.

I left the shop and joined the queue. Because of the high demand they started the signing a little earlier than planned, around 12:45, but it was still almost exactly 2pm until I got back to the shop door and a few minutes after that before I got to the table. It then took just another couple of minutes to get my things signed and to say a few nice things to the artists. I got a bit star-struck with Mike McMahon, which was fine.

I also got somebody in the shop to take this picture of me basking in their greatness.

Queueing for two hours to spend two minutes getting two signatures may sound like a poor deal but when it means meeting these two gentlemen then it was a bargain.

15 July 2016

Sherlock Holmes and The Invisible Thing at the Tabard Theatre

Having discovered the Tabard Theatre not that long ago it has become one of the theatres that I check the What's On section for regularly. The two main things that it has going for it are its location, Turnham Green is ridiculously close to Richmond, and the decent pub downstairs that does a good range of beers and a fine veggie version of fish and chips.

Of course the plays are important too and the one that lured me there this time was Sherlock Holmes and The Invisible Thing, a new story with some very familiar characters.

But first there was the pub. That worked well despite being unable to find a socket with square pins. It is a big pub and was busy and that gave it a lively atmosphere at the cost of slightly slower service that I was used to. No problems though, I was still able to get upstairs early enough to claim a seat in the front row. A sign by the box office said that the performance was sold out and that certainly seemed to be the case.

The set was laid out as a room in a country house where Lucy Grendle had invited Holmes (and Watson of course) to solve a murder mystery involving an apparent invisible murderer. Lucy and Sherlock had some history involving a disputed card game where Sherlock had accused her of cheating.

That quickly set the mood of the story with a more human Sherlock than in some interpretations, more human but still the consummate detective and still very sure of himself.

There was the usual Sherlock deductive showing-off of the I know what you had for lunch kind and this took a lighter touch when he refused to shake a policeman's hand, after Watson had done so, because he "pleasured himself". That became a running gag with Watson showing distaste every time he shook hands and Holmes taking great pains not to do so.

There were other humorous touches like that and it was quite a jolly play as well as having a serious story with a murder mystery to solve.

A lot was made of the characters too and this was far from being a Holmes-only story. This was a confident Watson who knew when to let Holmes do his thing but also when to make his own contribution. Lucy Grendle was playful and the maid, Mrs Rochester, was enigmatic (which later proved to be important).

The story developed neatly as more things were discovered about the murdered and the possible murders which led to more theories being tested and developed. The truth, when it came, was unexpected, as it should have been.

The overall impression was of a play neatly done with a good story embellished by some nice little touches and some distinctive characters all played well. It never tried to be anything other than entertaining and having set entertainment as its target it hit it with aplomb. Sherlock Holmes and The Invisible Thing proved to be an ideal Friday evening play.

13 July 2016

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

I was pleased to find my run of being able to make the monthly BCSA "Get to Know You" Socials stretch nicely into July. In many ways it was a wonderful night for the usual reasons but there was something very different about it too.

The similar things included the Pilsner Urquell, the Smazeny Syr, the excellent company and the conversations that grew from all that. There were a few new faces and a few less familiar ones plus the stalwarts like myself. It was a healthy mix and the conversations were the better for it.

The big difference from previous meetings was Brexit and its aftermath.

The mostly Czech and Slovak people there were shocked that the UK had voted to leave the EU and were trying to work out what it meant for them. Some were lucky and already had dual nationality, others wanted a British passport to be able to stay here and some UK people were envious of those with EU passports and wondered how to get one.

Overall the Czech and Slovaks felt sorry for us and our centuries of assumed superiority had been washed away. They were looking down on us.

Then we learned that Boris Johnson was our new Foreign Secretary and we went even further down in our friends' estimation. They were now laughing at us and us Brits there were forced to admit that they were right to do so. All pride in being British had gone.

Luckily the camaraderie was at a high level and even the Breix/Boris gloom could not blight the evening and I had a marvellous time. Most people stayed until chucking out time, 10:30pm, so I think that they had a good time too. These socials just work.

11 July 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream in art

One of the newest attractions at Glyndebourne is a White Cube gallery, a diminutive version of the franchise that can also be found in Bermondsey and St James's.

This seems to be something of a change of direction because for quite a while art at Glyndebourne meant statues, and some big ones. There was a large horse's head pointing nose down on the lawn by the lake for several years and then there was an equally large statue of Artemis the Hunter beyond the ha-ha among the sheep. The woman diving into the lake and the Henry Moore are still there, I am pleased to say, but the seasonal sculptures have gone.

Last year Glyndebourne's White Cube had pictures of shoes that failed to inspire anything in me but this years exhibition of three paintings by Raqib Shaw are very much my thing.

They are clearly Glyndebourne's thing as well and one of the paintings has been chosen as the cover for this year's programme, an honour shared with Hockney.

The fantastical works are inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream and are set in Glyndebourne itself. The building on the horizon is the main house with the opera house next to it and the magical creatures are having a picnic in the garden.

I love the picture immensely because of its playful nature, vivid colours and great detail.

That combination reminded me of another picture from many years ago.

When I was young and rich (i.e. in the early 90s, before I had kids) I was seriously tempted to pay £14,000 for this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Sergei Chepik. It was in an exhibition of his work at the Roy Miles Gallery in Mayfair which I visited several times in my lunchbreaks when working at Logica in Great Marlborough Street.

I now regret not buying it but at least I had the good sense to keep the exhibition catalogue.

6 July 2016

2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal? left me underwhelmed

I think 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal? was meant to be an opera, a clue was that it was produced by Tête à Tête but it felt more like an oratorio, or even a concept album.

It was though Tête à Tête that I heard about it. I am a big fan of theirs and have seen, and loved, many new an innovative operas at their Summer festivals.

This was a once-only performance and so I found myself in St James's in Piccadilly on a Wednesday evening, which is not a usual night out for me. I was pleased to be there as my only previous experience of the venue was witnessing some rehearsing for a concert when I was in the area to see something at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

St James's is a proper church and we sat in pews facing the small orchestra and medium sized choir at the front. I got a seat in the fourth row which gave me a decent view of proceedings.

Those proceedings did not start well. The music opened with some New Age ambient wailing and never really progressed from there. I struggled to think of musical similes during the performance and, not being a big fan of New Age music, the best I could come up with were things like Enya, Michael Quatro and Future Sound of London. Some of the bouncier sections had the sort of dance beats of a band like Royksopp so it was not all bad. One section also got dangerously close to Sting's Fields of Gold.

Being generous I would say that the music wore its influences on its sleeve. I can forgive that but I found it harder to forgive the structure of the piece that went nowhere and varied so little in mood, pace or texture.

The concept album feeling was reinforced by the spoken word excepts. Unfortunately this was New Age twaddle of the first order. I had never heard of "philosopher" Alan Watts before and with good reason, anybody who wrote silly things like, "If you happened once, you could happen again" fully deserves to be unknown.

Luckily there were some saving graces. The two soloists, Meeta Raval (soprano) and Oliver Gerrish (countertenor) had lovely and clear voices. And while I found the music unoriginal and unexciting it was pleasant enough at times.

Overall I suppose that the evening was OK, it's just that I was hoping for more than that.

5 July 2016

Madam Butterfly at the ENO was magnificent (again)

I loved Madam Butterfly so much when I saw it back in 2012 that it was an easy decision to go and see it again on its return in 2016.

Four years ago I did not record my seats numbers, which is a shame as I like to know where I've sat before when making a new booking at any theatre. This time I went for a reasonably expensive seat in the Upper Circle, A23, which cost me £52. This was actually somewhat cheaper that the advertised price as I got a discount for Undressed Member Year 2. I do not understand why somebody who goes to the opera as often as I do and who is fairly comfortable financially qualifies for a discount but I am not complaining.

My seat was practically in the centre, which was good, and shows the value of noting my seat numbers. Next time I will know that A23 is good but A24-26 may suffer a little from the screen used to show the cast the conductor during performances.

It was the production that brought me back and I enjoyed it even more on a second viewing. It was all very stylish from the traditional Japanese costumes, to the set with its sliding paper walls, to the back and side lighting to the puppet characters - especially the puppet baby and its three handlers who got their own encore. The poster gives a good clue as to what the mood of the production was like.

The crowning point of the production is also indicated in the poster with the red sash around Madam Butterfly's waist bookending the story being wound up at the start and unwound at the end.

Of course style is not sufficient to make an opera a success and this production of Madam Butterfly had all of the other essential agreements too. Puccini's music was evocative and tuneful while the plot was, in turns, uplifting, haunting and desperate. The singing was excellent too. Madam Butterfly and her companion, Suzuki, held the stage beautifully throughout and were more than ably supported by B. F. Pinkerton (husband, louse, American) and the American Consul who, as the plot dictated, were absent for a long period in the middle of the opera.

I am not sure that I would rush to see another version of Madam Butterfly but I am certain that I would like to see this one again.