28 November 2016

Aida at Richmond Theatre was greatly entertaining

Somehow in many years of opera going I had only ever seen Aida once before and that was eight years ago and so when it came touring to Richmond Theatre is was an easy decision to make to go and see it, despite this coming at the end of a busy week that included three other visits to theatres, a formal annual dinner and a night out on the beer and curry with friends. On the night it was almost tempting to stay at home and rest but I made the effort to go and was well rewarded for doing so.

I was late booking because of the other commitments that week and that meant that I could take advantage of a ticket offer which landed me Dress Circle  Row A  Seat  1 for £18.75. Row A is my favourite place but the seats at each end (1 and 26) have a handrail that obscures the view slightly. Luckily with Aidi the action was very much front and centre so that did not matter.

This was a touring version of the opera and the producers obviously felt that it needed beefing up a little for audiences more used to musicals and family-friendy plays. This came in the form of some extras just on stage to add a touch of glamour, a group of young cute dancers and a circus artist swinging balls of fire during the one tune everybody knows, the Grand March. I found all of that slightly distracting, but only slightly.

I was pleased to see that there was a live orchestra and quite a good sized one too. I was also pleased to see that the singers were not using microphones, nor should they being decent singers. With a full orchestra to be heard over the singers had to have good powerful operatic voices and most did, only Amneris (the Egyptian princes) struggled a little at times but most of her pieces were to quieter sections of music so, again, no real problem. The two stars of the show, Aida and her lover Radam├Ęs, did most of the singing and did it very well.

The plot was unknown to me. I was expecting something very operatic and I got that. Aida, a captured Ethiopian slave, was in love with an Egyptian guard who lover her back, He was also loved by the Egyptian princess. Then to make matters even more interesting he led the Egyptian troops in a battle against the Ethiopians were Aida's brothers were killed and her father was captured. Cue some heavily divided loyalties. It was clear not going to end well and the only real question was how many would die and how. The final death scene was a surprising twist and it all ended conclusively if not happily.

The staging was simple in construction and decorative in appearance, as was fitting for a grand opera pretending to be a family musical.

The only negative of the evening was having fooled some people into thinking that they were at a family musical they behaved like that and I head quite a few conversations during the show and several small voices asking questions. Again there was enough disturbance to be noticed but not enough to spoil the experience.

Aida entertained me greatly for the best part of three hours (including two intervals). It was a fitting end to a demanding week.

Visiting the Huf Haus UK Show House

The success of Peter Huf's talk to Ham Amenities Group (HAG) was such that we were invited to visit the new Huf House UK Show House in Brooklands on a day that it is not normally open to the public and Peter Huf was there to guide us around.

The talk had been very good but it was far better to see the reality and to have Peter there for two hours, with his colleague Jack Eddy Architectural Technologist and Environmental Advisor, to go into more detail about the approach and the philosophy and also to answer all the detailed questions that we had.

The wide entrance hall set the scene beautifully. It was spacious and bright and you could see right past the dining area to the garden beyond. Just behind that hedge was a busy road but we could only hear the traffic when Peter opened a window to make a point about the sound insulation.

A Huf Haus connects with its setting and this was most obvious in the master bedroom suite with its large windows and the trees almost in touching distance.

The Show House was arranged as a three bedroom house with the master bedroom taking all of one side of the upstairs (to the right) and two good bedrooms on the other side.

The dining area was double height which produced this impressive view. The dining table is a good size with eight chairs around it yet it almost looks small in the space allocated to it. No squeezing past chairs here.

The landing was far more than a corridor. There was space for a substantial wall unit along one side and sitting areas with several chairs at each end.

The Show House is on an industrial estate, The Heights, and part of it faces on to a car park. Most of the house looks the other way and on the car park side there is the kitchen and an office.

The section of wall hides the plant room. This would normally be in the basement but this house is close to a stream and is raised above normal ground level to keep it safe from flooding so a basement was out of the question.

One corner of the house had this outside area. That is the main living space on the other side of the glass wall. The river is just off to the left, as indicated by the trees.

Looking the same way but from inside shows how wonderful that living area is with its natural views and huge spaces. The dinning area is just off to the right.

Beyond the wall with the paints on is a conference room which, with the office on the other side, enables the house to function commercially. If this was a wholly domestic property then those two rooms could have been more bedrooms or something like a gym or music room.

Huf Haus is designed to make you happy with good light and views and with all the annoyances, like heat and noise, dealt with by state of the art technology. This house operates without mains gas or electricity and because it is so efficient it only need around 10 Kw to keep it going.

We spent a lot of time talking about the technology of the wood and the glass and the energy systems while also appreciating the way that the design of the house makes the most of the sun and the least of the rain. That is why it can claim to be the best house in the country.

23 November 2016

Drones, Baby, Drones at Arcola Theatre was good politics and great theatre

While the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen get some media attention it is normally only when a massive mistake is made, such as blowing up an innocent wedding party, and so a play about drones was always going to interest the political animal in me. Particularly when it came with the Arcola brand behind it.

I was a little worried beforehand that this would be a trivial play over simplifying the issue, something along the lines that these are all young men playing war games but with real victims. I was happily wrong on both counts, this was good politics and great theatre.

The two plays told one story, the before and after of a specific drone strike. In the first we met the people making the decision to strike and in the second the operatives who piloted the drone. Focusing on the people, rather than directly on the politics or the technology, gave a fresh perspective on drone strikes and also made for better theatre.

The strike decisions are made early every Tuesday morning and we saw the people in the hours leading up to that meeting; one had been called to a hospital because her daughter had been in a serious accident, another was with his mistress and a military man was being urged by a colleague during a gym session to go for a incursion force instead to grapple control back from the CIA to the Army. All of the people had personal issues that impacted how they approached the strike decision they were about to make. The mistress summed it up best is saying that her lover was about to make a life or death decision yet could not decide whether to walk to work or take a taxi.

At the end of the first play they all went into their room to make their decision and I went to the bar to get the now traditional bottle of Foundation Bitter from East London Brewing Company.

After the short break, the second play looked at the aftermath of the strike. This had been heralded as a big success as the high profile target was killed and at a time and place when he was on his own. Apart from a kid. Or, as one of the operatives put it, "It was a kid. Now it's collateral". There was much more to this part of the play than just the impact on civilians as the two operatives and their partners reacted to the incident, and other big events in their lives. The play ended with a monologue from the wife of one of the operatives putting an argument that I could not possibly agree with but she gave it with sincerity and emotion. These are the people who voted for Trump.

Another injection of politics came at the start of each play with an introduction by Reprieve giving some of the context. My main take-away from this is the the USA tries very hard not to kill American citizens but the UK only targets British citizens. I'm not proud of that.

Drones, Baby, Drones managed to inform, entertain and provoke. That's proper theatre.

22 November 2016

The Red Barn at National Theatre was a tense treat

For several years I paid little attention to National Theatre seeing as rather expensive and somewhat mainstream and that is probably still true but I am now more willing to spend over £50 for a theatre ticket and am more appreciative of the mainstream, provided it is done well.

That lack of attention caused me to miss The Red Barn when it was first announced despite it being adapted by David Hare from a Georges Simenon story and staring Mark Strong which should have been enough to make me leap at it. As it was I only paid it attention when I was at NT to see something else and by then the run was sold out. And then the run was extended and I was quick off the mark for the additional tickets and helped myself to Lyttelton Circle A21 for £60.

The Red Barn started in a heavy snow storm and it was the best representation of a storm that I had ever seen on a stage. It was an excellent start and early indication of the high production values that I had come to expect from the NT.

In that snow storm two couples were battling to get to the safety and comfort of a house. Only three made it. One of the men lost contact with the other three and was left behind. Once in the house the others quickly realised that he was missing and the other man went out to look for him but returned after several hours having failed to do so. His body was found the next day.

The story then became more psychological than physical with the remaining man growing closer to the dead man's wife while flashbacks revealed more about the complicated emotional route that had led to the scene at the house. The plot weaved and jumped and so did my feelings towards each of the characters as flaws and strengths were shown.

A play that relies heavily on the nature of the characters also relies heavily on the actors and The Red Barn had a storming cast led by Mark Strong, Hope Davis and Elizabeth Debicki. Expect award nominations.

To say that I was engrossed in the drama was an understatement and I was desperate to learn what had gone on in the past (including some doubts over the death in the storm) and what would happen next. And what happened next was a big surprise.

I was enticed to see The Red Barn because of the big names involved and they all delivered to create a drama that was tense and also a treat.

18 November 2016

The Magic Flute at Normansfield Theatre

The opera events at Normansfield Theatre have been good to me in the past so it was an easy decision to go and see The Magic Flute there.

I chose to go on a Friday as it was easy to walk there after work. I took a slight detour via the Tide End to get something to eat and their Asian Vegetable Burger came up trumps again.

The evening was sold out, all three evening were, and I did well to get a seat in the second row. A bargain at £15.

This was an amateur performance so I was not expecting that much and, to be honest, a few of the singers were a little off tune at times and/or lacked the strength of voice required to fill the room. The star of the show, Pamina, was either professional or professionally trained and her performance was sparkling. The Queen of the Night also had the power to suggest she had good credentials and while the male lead, Tamino, started a little weakly he grew into the role and his solo later on a highlight of the show.

The orchestra was also amateur but hid that well and their fine playing meant that the music easily carried the opera and made any weaknesses in the singing irrelevant.

There was an interval of course and that was an opportunity to give more money to charity, the Down’s Syndrome Association, by buying a glass of Prosecco. It was also an opportunity to say hello to some old faces, Richard who ran the chess club that the boys went to when at Primary School and Roger and Lucy who abandoned the beauty of North Kingston to live close to the A3 about twenty years ago.

After the performance I went to The Anglers for a final drink only to find it ridiculously shut at just after 11pm on a Friday. The Tide End was still open so I had a pint there instead. I prefer it there anyway.

This production of The Magic Flute was never going to compete with the likes of Glyndebourne but that was not the point. This was a very pleasant night out with some excellent music and some decent singing.

15 November 2016

Two days near Chicago

While I quite enjoyed my last trip to Chicago, sometime in the late 1990s, I was not that keen to get back there and so I manage to restrict a business trip there to just two working days with a day travelling either side of that. I caught a flight Sunday lunchtime that arrived in Chicago Sunday afternoon, I worked two full days on Monday and Tuesday, then caught a flight back late on Tuesday arriving back at lunchtime on Wednesday.

One of the reasons for my reluctance was that, unlike last time, I was not in central Chicago but about 45 minutes north of there in a suburb galled Grayslake and I do not like suburban America as it is designed solely for the car and I insist on walking. There was a pavement by my hotel but that ran for a full 20m before disappearing. I have no idea why it was there.

The hotel was on the crossroads of two busy multi-lane roads (IL 120 and US 45) and the only interesting things that I could see were in the opposite corner and to get there I had to cross 12+ lanes of traffic with no pedestrian lights and only a narrow refuge in the middle of each road.

It was there that I went each morning for a long walk as part of my £14k steps a day regime. Because of the six hours time difference I was working on a three hour time shift which meant getting up at 5am Chicago time / 11am UK time instead of 8am UK time. As a plan that worked well and it gave me a good hour of walking time before breakfast and the drive to the office for an 8am start.

Grayslake is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of small lakes made by glaciers scraping the ground during the last ice age, a geology I had also seen in Finland. Many of the lakes are small and ugly while others have been used to centre housing developments around. One of these is Grays Pointe and I did a lot of walking there.

Grays Pointe has two unnamed lakes and on my first morning, the Monday, I walked around the main one (150m long) half a dozen times waiting for the sun to come up. This lake had a fountain. On my second visit there, a very misty Tuesday morning, I found a second smaller lake. This one was more natural and had a bridge over it. This is the photo I took approaching the bridge, one of a very few photos that I took on the trip.

Other walks were less interesting. I did about 5km doing loops in the hotel and neighbouring hospital's car parks on Monday evening and a similar distance walking up and down Concourse C (500m long) at the airport on Tuesday.

On the plus side, the work went well, relationships with the customer were reinforced and all the travel plans worked out fine so I consider the trip to have been a success.

12 November 2016

Madama Butterfly by Ormond Opera was magnificent

Madama Butterfly is a genuine classic so I was obviously interested in seeing it performed locally even though I had seen an excellent production of it at ENO not that long ago. I had only recently come across Ormond Opera at a local charity event and I was keen to see them in a more formal setting.

This production was obviously going to be a somewhat different deal with an amateur chorus supporting professional singers in a small church hall. The price tag was different too, this was only £20 and that price I could afford to take a risk but with this being Madama Butterfly it was not much of one.

I was almost the first person to arrive, because the buses were kind to me, and that gave me a seat in the middle of the long front row (of two). There was further seating along the two sides but even then the venue held only around seventy people.

I do not know how Ormond Opera gets its singers but I suspect it is from a small pool and that would explain some of the casting; Madama Butterfly looked nothing like a fifteen year old Japanese woman/girl, her maid (Suzuki) looked even less Japanese and the American Counsel was too young. And none of that mattered in the slightest.

What did matter was the singing and that was superb. All of it.

Butterfly is slow moving and emotional and so it relies heavily on the singing of the four main characters and when they work the opera works. I will give a special mention to Caroline Carragher as Suzuki for the beauty of her voice but only on the understanding that there was not much to choose between all of the main roles.

A surprise, only because I had not read the details beforehand, was that the music was all provided by one piano and one pianist, Jakob Rothoff. That worked exceptionally well and I did not miss the orchestra at all. I do not know the opera well enough to comment on the score but I thought that some bits were shorter (e.g. Prince Yamadori's proposal to Madama Butterfly) and others longer (e.g. the waiting overnight for Pinkerton to return) than in the production at ENO.

The other big difference was the language. ENO performs in English (hence the "E") while this was sung in the original Italian with a helpful translation displayed on the screen above and behind the performing area; in the picture above it says, "Madama Butterfly Giacomo Puccini".

I was expecting this production of Madama Butterfly to be a bit rough and ready, and I would have been very happy with that, but it was so much more. The professionalism oozed over all aspects of the show adding to the strengths of the fabulous music and the sweet singing. It was a complete joy for me and a triumph for all involved in making it.

9 November 2016

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

This was such a busy and fun evening that I did not even have time to do an Instagram of my smazeny syr as I always always do. This is what it looks like when you do not apply any filters of effects. It certainly looks good enough to eat!

Despite this being just a couple of weeks before the BCSA Annual Dinner there was still a good turn out and that meant that there were plenty of good conversations for me to join in and to enjoy.

It was a typical BCSA "Get to Know You" Social evening and that is why it was so good. I go every month for a reason.

8 November 2016

Blue Heart at Orange Tree Theatre was a great disappointment

Orange Tree continued its flip-flop between old and new plays with a revival of two one act plays written by Caryl Churchill twenty years ago. I went because I go to everything at Orange Tree Theatre. This time my tour of the front row took me to seat A34 for £20.

The Orange Tree Theatre website was honest in its description of the two plays:
  • Heart’s Desire sees a family awaiting their daughter’s return from Australia, though in a series of alternative scenarios, the play collapses as it keeps veering off in unexpected and ridiculous directions.
  • Blue Kettle tells the story of conman Derek and the five women he misleads into believing he is their biological son. Try as he might, Derek’s plans are scuppered as the play is invaded by a virus.
It also said "the plays pull apart language and structure in a way that is theatrically remarkable" and that was my problem with them - it was all structure and no substance. They struck me as plays that somebody might have written at drama school when told to experiment with a specific technique to learn how to use it before putting it in a proper play, one that tried to entertain.

I had no complaints with the staging or the acting. Just the plays. I was only relieved that I had seen them locally and had not wasted much time getting there.

4 November 2016

The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatre is one of the many that I am on the mailing list for and it is only because it is a little harder to get to for me than many other theatres that I do not go there more often. The lure this time, somewhat simplistically, was the title, the play really was "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures" though the theatre also used the abbreviation "iHo" and prompted the hashtag #iho.

Another lure was that Tamsin Greig was in it. I've been watching her on TV since Black Books, and still do in Episodes, and listening to her on the radio as Debbie Aldridge in the Archers for many years. I had also seen her on the stage once before, also at Hampstead.

iHo was a long play, basically three acts of an hour each separated by two intervals, and that meant an early, 7pm start. And that left little time to get there or to eat beforehand. I got round the first by leaving the office at 5pm, and believe me that is early, and around the second by having a sandwich at the theatre before the show. They used to have a restaurant there but that had been closed down and there was just the cafe that was long on drinks but short on food.

On of the reasons that I like Hampstead Theatre is that all the seats are good and so having to be somewhere near the back did not worry me at all. I ended up in L17 for £35.

The story revolved around Gus Marcantonio, a retired former trade union organiser, who lived in a New York brownstone (that he owned) with his sister and his daughter's ex-husband. He had three siblings all of whom were visiting him; his daughter and two sons were there because Gus had tried to kill himself and they were concerned that he might do so again.

You might need to take notes now. Gus's sister had been both a nun and a terrorist with Golden Path. His daughter was now married to another woman who was expecting a bay. One son was also gay and also married but he also spent a lot of time, and money, with a gay prostitute. The other son, something of the odd-one-out, was a builder and also married. That's ten main characters, no wonder it took three hours to tell this chapter of their story.

With five of the nine main characters openly gay that's the "homosexual" part of the title explained. The "capitalism and socialism" came from Gus' union background which is family had been immersed in, the "scriptures" from Gus' sister's time as a nun and the "intelligent" from the education and careers of most of the siblings and their partners.

That is a heady mix of characters and themes made for an intense and engaging play. There was so much going on that at times there were several conversations going on at once, much like a Mozart opera. Those conversations went all over the place as several big themes were kept in play, like the infidelities and not forgetting the attempted suicide.

It struck me that this was very much in the vein of an Arthur Miller play, I had seen All My Sons the previous day, with a patriarchal figure and a family troubled both by his legacy and by their own problems. I was very pleased that Michael Frayn agreed with me on that when I spoke to him briefly in the second interval
iHo did so many things well. The stories and the characters that were at the heart of them were believable and gripping. Many big themes were touched, including a very factual look at suicide, there was a lot of human frailty and passion, and some lovely lighter moments too especially from the seen-it-all ex nun and terrorist played brilliantly by the scene stealing Sara Kestelman. I also liked the ending a lot and preferred it to Miller's because of its lack of certainty and use of a minor character to deliver the final line, a question.

The main thing that iHo did well was the acting. On the theatre's website three actors were called out, including Greig and Kestelman, and while they were undoubtably excellent they were but three among nine and all ten had plenty of time in the spotlight and all ten shone when they had to. The eleventh only had a cameo role and that was excellent too as she described how to commit suicide in a wonderful deadpan and practicable way.

iHo was magnificent and I loved every one of the 180 minutes of it.

3 November 2016

All My Sons at Rose Theatre was a triumph

I always use the Swarm app (formerly FourSquare) to check in to cultural venues that I go to as I like to keep track of when I was last at a place and how often I've been there. This evening my phone informed me that I had been to the Rose Theatre (since getting an iPhone) forty times. This was one of the very best of those forty evenings.

I am keen to support Rose Theatre as much as I can and so I need an excuse not to see something rather than to see it. Normally the best excuse Rose gives me for missing something is failing to tell me about it in time but that did not happen with All My Sons and I was able to get a seat in my preferred area on one of my preferred days, A42 which cost me £36.

If I had need an excuse to see All My Sons then the name Arthur Miller would have been good enough.

I went knowing nothing about the play and so I sat down in my seat, with a pint of Black Sheep Bitter, keen to learn. We were in the garden of a decent American house just after the last World War, and there we stayed.

The main players were the occupiers of the house, Joe and Kate Keller and their thirty-something son Chris. Joining them in the garden were Ann, a young friend of the family who had recently returned after a year away, two neighbouring couples and the memory of their other son, Larry, who went missing a few years ago during the war.

Larry's absence, or death, was the opening theme of the play with a tree planted in his honour having been blown down in the night and Chris trying to persuade Ann to help him to convince his mother that Larry was not just missing and was not coming home.

The other talk was general catching up with Ann on things that had happened in the last year or so and some thoughts about the future. It was not far off being a typical relaxed and meaningless discussion between family and friends. There were a few hints of resentment and disdain but, as I said, it was a typical discussion between people who knew each other well.

Then the word "murderer" was dropped like a bombshell.

The theme of the play suddenly changed to an incident in Joe Keller's past where, as the owner of a munitions factory, he had allowed some faulty parts to be shipped and these had led to the deaths of twenty odd American servicemen. He had been found to not be directly responsible and had been released after a trial while an engineer, Ann's father, had gone to prison, and was still there.

To complicate things further, Ann had been in a relationship with Larry and was now planning to marry Chris (nobody had told Kate). Then there was Ann's brother George who was still angry at his father's imprisonment and blamed Joe for this.

The main story came to dominate the play and there were more bombshells to shunt the story forward, including a letter from Larry to Ann and a defining decision from Joe. It was a strong and gripping plot but it was just the backbone of the play and there was a lot hanging off it with all of the characters adding interest and colour to the drama. Making this work was a simple set and a magnificent ensemble cast with Penny Downie as Kate impressing me the most.

My only reservation, and it is an odd one, is wondering why Rose Theatre is doing plays like this which are very much Richmond Theatre territory. Rose seems unsure if it is modern and imaginative or classic and traditional. Luckily I like both sorts of plays and both theatres.

All My Sons had the dark themes and intense dialogue that I expected from my limited exposure to Arthur Miller (Crucible and Salesman) and it lived up to their reputations. This skillful production turned a good play into a triumph.