30 September 2016

Burning Bridges at Theatre503 was crisp and entertaining

Theatre503 was on such good form, and had been for a couple of years that I made a concerted effort to see all of their main shows (missing only a few of the one night only things), the only theatre that I could say that for. So I was always going to see Burning Bridges.

It helped that one of the subjects it covered was living with people on the autistic spectrum, which had been an interest of mine since the time when I was a governor at a school with a small unit for ASD children. I will confess that it also helped that it was written by Amy Shindler who is better known to many as Brenda Tucker in The Archers.

The basic premise of the story was a young American woman, Sarah, on the autistic spectrum who had been living in an institution in the USA and who had come to visit her older sister, Kate, who lived with her husband, Dan, in London.

That visit became a stay and led to several tensions between the trio; Sarah blamed Kate for having her institutionalised, Kate blamed Dan for taking a job she should have had at work, Dan blamed Sarah for taking his wife's attention. And there was more going on than that.

I felt that the play started a little uncomfortably with some people in the audience laughing at the antics of Sarah as she was meticulous over things like the way she drank her coke. That went quickly though as the story built in complexity and seriousness and took all of our attention.

As the three people's lives changed we learned more about their past to and more about the bridges that they had burned and would burn. Autism played a part in the story, a key part in relation to one incident, but it was not a play about autism, it was a play about decisions, assumptions and consequences. Those consequences were on the three people and the three actors were all excellent with Rae Brogan catching my eye the most because Sarah was at the centre of the action and a very distinctive character. She was also, as she herself said early on, quite hot.

Burning Bridges was crisp and entertaining. It packed a lot of plot in without it getting too squashed and played an emotional merry-go-round as the three relationships evolved in response to changing circumstances. It was another good evening at a great theatre.

23 September 2016

The Woman in Black at Richmond Theatre was nicely scary

My continuing interest in Richmond Theatre and a free evening led me to see The Woman in Black when I had no other obvious reason for doing so. Richmond Theatre usually does established safe theatre whereas I usually go to modern challenging theatre but there are times when I fancy something a little different and this was one of those nights.

The theatre's web site promised "an evening of unremitting drama, transporting the audience into a terrifying and ghostly world" which appealed to the part of me that likes Alien films today and read Ghost Stories for Boys as a child. Initially it did not appeal enough but a flash sale offer allowed me to get seat A22 in my favoured Dress Circle for a delicious £17.10.

The Woman in Black was actually written in 1983 but very much in the Gothic tradition. That in itself was a good recommendation, you just have to remember how good the two Tim Burton Batman films are.

It was a fairly simple tale with just two actors to tell it. A neat device was used to keep the cast down with one of the men telling the other a story and then they both became characters in that story.

A junior solicitor was summoned to a small market town on the north east coast of England, to attend the funeral of an elderly and reclusive widow who lived alone in a desolate and secluded house that could only be reached at low tide. That meant that he had to stay there overnight while doing his job of going through all of the widows' papers.

Those papers revealed more of the woman's history which included the expected deaths that precede ghosts.

Then things started going bump in the night and with such violence and surprise that we all jumped in our seats and yelped a little. The stage did something clever to reveal another room that had been locked and we were all on edge as the young solicitor went in to explore it, certain in the knowledge that we would not have been that brave or that foolhardy.

The story developed nicely, and scarily, with little fuss and lots of tension. I wanted to be scared a little and I was. I also enjoyed the theatre craft of the production which achieved so much with a simple stage and a small cast. It was also nice to see something in a different genre, horror is a rare commodity on the stage. I think that last scary play I was was Haunting Julia way back in 2011.

The Woman in Black was an unexpected pleasure when perhaps it should not have been given Richmond Theatre's reputation for consistently delivering entertaining shows.

22 September 2016

Lots of laughs with The Roundabout at Park Theatre

My only problem with Park Theatre is that they built it in the wrong place. It lives next to Finsbury Park in north-east London while I live and work in south-west London. Luckily there are plenty of trains to take me into Vauxhall where the Victoria Line can whisk me through London. The journey is about an hour door-to-door, which is fine.

One reason for loving Park Theatre is the front of house facilities and atmosphere. This time I started with an excellent mushroom quiche and salad accompanied by a bottle of decent Chelsea Blonde. I also made use of the free wifi to do a little bit of tweeting. The Park Theatre has everything I need.

The Roundabout was almost a speculative choice of plays to see. My main reason for seeing it was simply because I had not been to Park Theatre for a while and this looked like a good enough reason to go, It was written by Northern Legend J.B. Priestley which helped despite me not being a major fan of his, I saw this as a chance to learn more about him and perhaps to change my mind. The final reason for seeing it was that the cast included Benidorm Legend Hugh Sachs who I had last seen on stage in Anything Goes at the New Wimbledon Theatre.

The decision made, I helped myself to seat A3 for a derisory £20 plus my usual small donation.

The story was set in the familiar territory of a reception room in a large country house. Here we met the master of the house and struggling financier, Lord Kettlewell, and his idle friend of many years Churton (Chuffy) Saunders. There were, of course, a butler and a maid on hand and also there was a young artist composing designs for the dining room. Expected to add to this group was the Lord's colleague who was on his way, at the weekend, to try and help with the financial problems.

And that was just the beginning, four other people also arrived all either unexpectedly or at short notice and each brought further confusion to the household and more comedy to the situation. This was especially true of Lord Kettlewell's daughter, Pamela (pictured above), who was played admirably by Bessie Carter in her first professional role. Pamela soon had everybody else playing to her tune and steered the story towards its satisfying conclusion.

With a cast of eleven there were plenty of character types and their interactions for Priestly to play with and he did so adroitly producing a steady stream of smiles, giggles and laughs. The woman directly opposite he had a very broad grin on her face all the way through and I suspect that I did too.

The Roundabout was never going to challenge the intellect, and nor was it trying to. What it did do was entertain mightily with a story that skipped and jumped in different directions, a cast of interesting characters all played with conviction and panache, and some crisp dialogue to mesh everything together. It was delightful.

20 September 2016

The Threepenny Opera at National Theatre was brutal and stylish

The National Theatre was featuring more in my plans because while it was west-end expensive it was delivering the quality that justified that price tag. Even so, it was only a few of the productions that I found myself attracted to.

The Threepenny Opera attracted me because it was one of the classic plays that I owed myself to see and because it was by Kurt Weill. It was a significant bonus that this adaptation was by Simon Stephens who did the same job on the highly popular and very excellent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, though, to be honest, I prefer seeing his own plays to his adaptations.

The final plus was that it starred Rory Kinnear as Macheath, a.k.a. Mac the Knife.

All that was enough to make me fork out £40 for my seat Olivier Theatre Circle A52 £40.

The play opened with Mac the Knife in which we learned how Macheath earned his nickname. That set the tone for the evening with Rory Kinnear looking every inch the brutal and stylish gangster.

The other notable star of the evening was the stage that moved in all sorts of wondrous ways to create interesting spaces for the drama to unfold in. When you have a stage that can do clever things then it makes sense to do them as long as it enhances the drama, which it did her. Oddly it reminded me of the tricks the stage did in Port, a Simon Stephens written play.

Also worth a mention in a large and excellent cast was Haydn Gwynne as Celia Peachum, the wife of a gangster and the mother of Macheath's wife following a brief and unexpected relationship. I still thought of Haydn Gwynne as Alex Pates in Drop the Dead Donkey in the early 90's and she looked no different to me as she did then. She was superb in her role.

The Threepenny Opera took us through the criminal underworld with its strong characters, sleaze, petty machinations, rivalries, violence and changing loyalties. It was a compelling world and the characters' stories quickly drew me into it. The large cast was used skilfully and there was always a lot going on, a lot of stories to follow and a lot of characters to worry about.

The Threepenny Opera remained brutal and stylish throughout and was utterly entertaining too.

17 September 2016

Good Canary at the Rose Theatre

The biggest impediment to me seeing things at the Rose Theatre is their woeful publicity so it is lucky that Good Canary was one of their own productions and so did get some publicity. Visiting shows are less fortunate.

I suspect that many people will go to see this because of the John Malkovich name, even though he is "only" directing and does not appear on stage, I went because it sounded interesting, the sort of play that I am used to seeing at places like Theatre503 and if I'd go to Clapham to see a play like that then clearly I would go closer to home.

The Rose is a nice walk from home which takes slightly under an hour at a leisurely pace along the river. I left home soon after 5pm intending to eat something at Wagamama but got tempted in to The Gazebo by the vegetarian Korean Curry on the menu. It was also good to have a pint of Old Brewery Bitter again. It was my staple diet when I first started working in London but Sam Smiths pubs are few and far between and so I have few opportunities to get to one.

I got to the Rose in good time for a glass of Prosecco despite the traditional long queue for the bar. Looking around I was pleased to see that so many people had dressed up for the evening, though none had a shirt to match mine. Especially not John Malkovich who walked past me a couple of times dressed like a presenter on Scrapheap Challenge.

The first impact that Good Canary made was with its staging. Extensive use was made of back projection to change the set from scene to scene as the few props came on and off the stage as if by magic, but which was probably wires. Both techniques allowed the scenes to change quickly and that maintained the pace of the story.

That story concerned a young married couple. He was on the verge of a promising career as a written while she took industrial levels of drugs, mostly speed, in an effort to cope with her depression. That tension between hope and despair drove the drama and I was entangled in their emotions as I watched the couple swing between ups and downs.

Annie, as the person with the mental issues and the strong drug habit, was at the heart of everything that happened and ridiculously young Freya  Mavor was sensational. Not just good, sensational. She went from playful, to loving, to desperate, to angry and took us with her every step of the way.

With a decent story, great staging and a sensational actress Good Canary was an excellent production. I hope that the Rose will have the courage to put on more plays like this and leaves the quaint period dramas to Richmond Theatre to do.

My new best shirt is also by 1 Like No Other

I have a new best shirt and it is also by 1 Like No Other, my third. If this shirt was in a Lewis Carroll novel then it would have a prominent label on it demanding "Buy Me", which I did.

I cannot recall now how I stumbled across it, and there was nothing remotely pressing about my need for a new best shirt (I have about six Division 1 shirts), but once seen I had no option but to buy it. I did think about it for a couple of days, because of the cost, until simple arguments like "you cannot take it with you" and "you deserve it" won the day.

It got its first outing to the Rose Theatre and did its job magnificently. I wonder what John Malkovich made of it when he walked by.

If there was any doubt of the standing of 1 Like No Other then this was dispelled when I saw Peter Huf (yes, the Huf Haus guy) wearing one at a talk this week. I was only upset that I was not wearing one of mine, though I have not yet got to the stage where 1 Like No Other shirts have become normal day-wear, that's Division 3 and these shirts are Division 1.

16 September 2016

No Man's Land at Wyndhams Theatre lived up to its billing

You only have to look at the poster above to see why I was keen to see this, the names McKellen, Stewart and Pinter were compelling.

Obviously the theatre thought so too and the seats were not cheap. I reasoned that the dialogue would be the main point of the play and that did not require me to be that close so I went to the top level, the Grand Circle , where seat A19 cost me £45. Hardly a bargain but reasonable (just). Lots of other people seemed to think the price was OK and the place was packed.

No Man's Land was an ideal vehicle for two elderly acting legends as it consisted mostly of them sitting in a room talking to each other. The main physical movement was going to the little bar to get even more drinks. Ian McKellen did move from one modest chair to another sometimes, both on the edge of the room, but Patrick Stewart spent most of the time in a plush leather chair in the middle.

Much like The Caretaker which I saw earlier in the year (or even Waiting for Godot) this was a play about discovering people and their histories through their conversations. Some things happen, not just lots of drinking, but they were just normal every-day things, like having breakfast, and were not material to the plot.

Unlike The Caretaker though, this was very much a play of two halves, evening and morning, and the mood was very different in each; in the first half they were strangers sharing a late-night drink and in the second they were old friends trying to out do each other with stories of women in their shared past.

Pinter played his part, and played it well, but No Man's Land was all about McKellen and Stewart. McKellen seemed to have more of the lines and also had to move around the mostly seated Stewart a lot and because of this he shone a little brighter than Stewart but they were both superb and it is more important to recognise that than to try and tease out differences between them.

I went to see No Man's Land because of three names and those three names all performed well to make this an evening to more than justify its exulted price tag.

Another 1 Like No Other shirt joins my collection

I got my first 1 Like No Other shirt as a Christmas present in 2013 and it immediately won me over to the brand thanks to both the pretty pattern and the quality of the construction. It also helped me to re-categorise my shirts with the creation of an upper division of shirts for special occasions only, the sort of shirt that gets worn once or twice a year.

The division below that has my newer Liberty shirts which I am still buying at the rate of one or two a year. As these get worn they drop a division where they can be worn to work.

Wearing flowery shirts to work at my new job gives me the excuse to buy more of them in all categories and so I treated myself to this one from 1 Like No Other. It is individually numbered and limited to 500 pieces, mine is number 18.

The special occasion it made its debut for was seeing the play No Man's Land. This would not normally be grand enough to justify a shirt as exceptional as this but I wanted to wear it once before it took its place alongside the other Division 1 shirts in my wardrobe.

Wearing it to the theatre in the evening also meant wearing it to work during the day where it got a suitable reception, the other exotic shirt wearer complimented it and everybody else accepted it as the sort of shirt that they are used to seeing me in.

15 September 2016

Traditional Craftsmanship Meets High Technology to produce outstanding houses

If ever I was going to go to a talk then this was it. In Traditional Craftsmanship Meets High Technology Peter Huf told the story of the Huf Haus with a strong slant towards the house almost completing construction less than a minute away.

The talk was arranged by Ham Amenities Group (HAG) which I find myself the publicity for, This meant that I got to do the poster for the event that was on display at the library, where the talk was given, and also the community noticeboard on Ham Parade. I like to think that my publicity contributed to the room being full to overflowing with a few disappointed people left outside. They should have paid attention to the notice at the bottom of my poster recommending that people book.

I should have read my own poster too and then I would have arrived for a 7:30pm start rather than the 7:00pm I was expecting.

The plus side of being ultra-early was a seat in the front row and a chance to have a quick word with Peter Huf in which I was able to compliment him on his 1 Like No Other shirt which I had recognised from some distance.

I had seen Peter Huf talk before, way back in 2011, and expected something similar and was very pleasantly surprised about how different it was this time.

Because I had seen some of it before, and also because I was paying lots of attention to what was being said and shown, I took only a few notes. These are them.

Design the house for the plot. A Huf Haus is built around the trees and because it is made of timber it talks to them. The point of the garden is to appreciate it from the house, not from the street.

Design features like roof overhangs and automated external blinds that follow the sun help to keep the houses very comfortable to live in while providing remarkably high levels of sustainability, far more than any existing standard requires.

The heavy wooden beams (they support concrete floors) use structural protection rather than chemical protection. For example, they do not touch the ground or the concrete floors. This also stops sound travelling through the house.

The electric cables in the house are shielded (Cat 7) to prevent electromagnetic radiation leaking into the house. There were several examples like that which showed just how much care and attention Huf Haus pay to the quality of life of those living in their houses.

Planner like Huf Haus as they are built exactly to plan.

Peter said that the planning system in the UK is too democratic leading to mediocrity as bold schemes are opposed. We have had an example of this locally with the third Huf Haus being delayed by an appeal being lodged by two residents against the planning permission granted by Richmond Council. They lost the appeal but it added an unnecessary delay to a simple project that will replace a very average house with a special one.

It was a very informative and uplifting talk that prompted many questions from the (mostly) friendly audience and, just like the last time, left me wondering what I had to do to get my own Huf Haus. I've not worked out how to do that yet so I'll just have to settle for visiting them whenever I can.

You can see more about the coming of Huf Haus to Ham and Petersham on my Ham Photos Blog.

14 September 2016

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

Another month, another BCSA Get To Know You Social, another smazeny syr and another few Czech and Slovak beers.

For whatever reason, September brought out more of the politically opinionated than usual and I am never one to shy away from a good political discussion. Again Brexit was the main driver and there was a heavy mix of Corbyn in there too. I was delighted to be able to tell everybody that I would be voting for Corbyn as Labour Leader, a position that caused some comment!

Of course we talked about lots of other things too and the sharpness of the political exchanges was not typical and had no lasting impact, which is just how civilised conversations should be. And it is the civilised conversation that I keep going back for.