29 October 2016

Parsifal by Elemental Opera

Despite going to several operas a year for many years I had seen little Wagner and had never seen Parsifal before so there was never any question of going to see a local production be Elemental Opera.

I learned about it via the Fulham Opera in one of those "from our friends" things on one of their emailings which just goes to show that cross-promotions do work.

The local venue was St Michael and All Angels church in Turnham Green, literally across the road from the Tabard theatre and pub. A chance to get inside the church, a landmark in the famous Bedford Park, was another reason for wanting to go.

The only drawback, and it was an obvious one, was that Parsifal lasts for four hours and with two intervals that made the production just over five hours long. There was a risk that it could be something of a battle of endurance but that I was a risk that I was prepared to take. I also took a cushion in case the pews were not up to the job.

I skimmed the synopsis of Parsifal beforehand and took in just enough to know that the main theme has something to do with the Holy Spear/Grail and there was not much of a story. That was fine with me as I was content just to listen to the music and the singing without understanding anything of it very much.

The construction of Parsifal was much like Tristan und Isolde, and probably other Wagner operas, that I don't know in that the music almost seemed to be one piece and while the mood and the tempo changed there were few, if any, well defined arias. In structure it was something like a classic Yes track that filled one side of an LP with one song in several sections, some of them with words. Only Wager was not constrained by the physical size of vinyl albums and his pieces were much longer.

This was music to immerse yourself in and to experience, not to hum to yourself afterwards. The lasting memory is not of tunes but of grand moods created by those tunes. It was a very different experience from, say, your average Mozart opera, and I enjoyed that experience for different reasons.

The singing was well up to the task and my favourite character was Amfortas, ruler of the Grail kingdom. Hi voice was wonderful and he acted every inch the aged king.

What could have been a test of endurance proved to be a good evening of music and singing. It certainly encouraged me to try and see some more Wagner sometime and, hopefully, Parsifal again in a proper opera house.

15 October 2016

Octopus at Theatre503 was a little gem


Octopus was only on at Theatre503 for one week and with four other theatre dates that week I struggled to find time to see it, but struggle I did and I made time on Saturday evening to see the final performance. That made it five theatres in six nights.

I was keen to see Octopus as it was billed as a political play looking at immigration. Besides, I like to see everything at Theatre503 because everything that I have seen there has been good.

The lateish start of 7:45pm worked well for me. I could spend the day doing weekend things like shopping for buttons, have tea at home then head out to the theatre around 6:30pm. That got me there just before 7:30pm which would normally be time for a beer but the antibiotics meant it was another dry evening.

It was busy in the waiting area but I was alert enough to be one of the first into the theatre and so was able to claim what I now think of as my seat, the one in the middle of the front row.

Octopus was set in the near future where the UK had left the EU, Scotland had left the UK and England was trying to manage its "immigration problem".

As part of this three people, all women incidentally, were in a waiting room prior to seeing an immigration officer. One looked Middle Eastern, one Indian and one indecency white. They talked about why they were there and they all thought that they had good reasons to be in England.

But the two non-white women had some worries. The Persian heritage woman was an artist so was well under the £50k earning threshold, £50k under in fact, and while the Indian heritage woman earned more than that she was concerned that her earnings would fall if, for example, she had to stop working to care for an elderly relative.

They took it in turns to go into the office to see the immigration officer. The three actresses took it in turns to play the officer, a transformation they achieved simply by wearing a headscarf. The officer's nationality became an issue for the other women who were expecting more sympathy from her.

At the heart of the play was a discussion about national identity. All three women had reasons for being worried about having their nationality questioned and were naturally worried about what happened to them. A year ago we would have happily accepted all of them as British but Brexit changed that.

It was a simple message to give but it was not a simple play and the giving of the message was smartly done. The scenarios were convincing, the characters were realistic and related to each other very well and there were plenty of nice touches like the little snatches of music. Any play that ends with the cast singing the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen gets my vote.

Octopus was a little gem. Just the sort of play that I expect from Theatre503 and just the sort of play that I love to see.

14 October 2016

Confessional at Southwark Playhouse was immersive physically and emotionally

Confessional described itself as a "semi-immersive production" that "reimagines Tennessee Williams’s play", and there is a lot in those few words to like. "Tennessee Williams" would probably be enough and adding "semi-immersive" tipped any balance that needed tipping. Any production that has an immersive element is going to appeal to me.

And it was on at the Southwark Playhouse which is one of my favourite venues. Admittedly that is a fairly long list but the Playhouse is probably in the top ten and that's a good position.

One of the nice things about having regular theatres is that I can build regular evenings around them, i.e. how to get there and where to eat, and I have a good plan for the Playhouse.

This started with catching the 17:43 train from Teddington to Waterloo but being pulled into a late meeting with the CEO meant I missed that and the next and had to rush to catch the 17:58. Luckily the fifteen minute delay was not a big problem as the play was not due to start until 8pm.

After Waterloo, the next step was a curry at Culture Grub on The Cut. This has become my pre-theatre venue of choice for four local theatres. That is because the food is excellent, their is a wide choice for vegetarians, the service is unbelievably quick and the price is ridiculously cheap. I made a quick choice of the Schezwan style curry with fried rice. It was delicious. I had been in Wagamama the day before and they do not come close to this.

From there it was about a twenty minute walk to the Playhouse and I arrived about 7:30pm, a good thirty minutes before the show.

So I was surprised to see the door to the little theatre already open. I needed no further invitation and I so went in only to find myself in a pub. The semi-immersive element was obvious with some of the cast already at the bar drinking. I claimed a seat at a table in the middle of the room.

 I had been given a wristband saying "Admittance Monk's Palace" on the way in and I took advantage of the to go out to the normal theatre bar to get a coffee. The bar in the theatre was selling drinks too but I was still off the alcohol (antibiotics).

The play began with a disturbance outside of the pub which led to a woman running into the pub and locking herself in a cubicle in the ladies. She was shortly followed by another young woman, Leona, played by Lizzie Stanton. It quickly emerged that the cause of the violent dispute was the other woman's under the table (literally) antics with Leona's boyfriend, though current man in tow might be a better description as it was little more than one in a string of holiday romances.

The other characters in the bar included an alcoholic doctor, a chef infatuated with the young woman with the hand skills and the landlord. They were soon joined by a couple of gay men, one very young and one middle aged.

I presume that the play got its name, Confessional, from its format with each of the characters given a chance to say something about their lives and aspirations. These confession type speeches peppered some intense dialogue between the people in the bar who were the sort of people I believe you find in Eastenders (I never watch it) and who did not like each other. Even those having sex together did not like each other. Love and tenderness were strangers in that bar.

Monk's confession was made from a seat next to mine, making the semi-immersive experience really quite immersive. He told us that he was against having gays in the bar not for any religious or moral reasons but because gays attracted other gays and the pub would become a popular gay bar and would attract the attention of local gangsters and policemen. He wanted a quiet pub. Monk also walked around the tables collecting the empties and he took my coffee cup when I had finished.

It was not all words, fights and hands under the table either. In the biggest incident a child died. Probably. This echoed the death of Leona's brother which this was the anniversary of. It was not a light play in subject matter or mood.

There was a lot to take in from the many stories and conversations/arguments and having the actors move around us added immensely to the experience. I have had night in the Hand and Flower not unlike that, but not quite as dark.

In the centre of this was Leona, brash, confident and sassy without being vulgar or slutty. Incidentally it was only afterwards that I realised that there had been little or no swearing, very unlike the similar pub conversations that I had witnessed. Anyway, back to Leona; Lizzie Stanton played her perfectly. She was a young woman we could understand but not love.

Confessional was immersive in both a physical and an emotional sense. I like immersive theatre and I loved Confessional.

13 October 2016

When We Are Married at Rose Theatre was modestly funny


Somehow I found myself seeing three J B Priestly plays in short succession and as an experience this one fell somewhere in the middle of the three.

There was no compelling reason for me to see this but it was at my local theatre, Rose Theatre, it was by J B Priestly and it was presented by Northern Broadsides. That was enough for me to fork out £26 for Seat A43.

The stage was set fairly simply as the lounge in a reasonable house in 1930's Yorkshire. There three couples were celebrating their shared 25th wedding anniversaries when they receive the news that they were not properly married.

This caused a lot of consternation, not being married was called "living in sin" then, and also forced each couple to consider if, now they were single, they would marry the partners they thought that they were married to.

There were some strong stereotypes in the group, such as one henpecked husband and one really boring one, and these were joined by a surly housemaid and a drunk photographer. These characters, rather than any plot, were  the root of much of the play's humour. This made the humour a little simplistic at times but it was funny none the less. Just not as funny as The Roundabout had been a month earlier.

When We Are Married was pleasant enough, and easily worth the price of the ticket and a night away from other things, it was somewhat dated (that was reflected in the average age of the audience, why would any young person want to see a play like this?) and somewhat simple.

12 October 2016

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


This month's picture of my smazeny syr consumed at the monthly BCSA Get To Know You Social is actually a little different for a change. The food is just the same but my drink is different. Being on a course of antibiotics forced me off the Pilsner Urquell and onto the Vinea, a Czech lemonade.

That was the only change, unless you count Ruzena's absence as significant, and the evening was filled with good conversations with interesting people. We had the usual spat over technology but nobody believed the luddite who was looking forward to the next Windows phone.

We dabbled with some other technologies more connected with the BCSA, I bought a ticker for the BCSA Annual Dinner using the Eventbrite app on my phone, tweeted about it on my account and then used the BCSA Twitter account to retweet it. I also liked Sonia's post on LinkedIn about the dinner which she then responded too. It was all about starting to build a buzz around the Annual Dinner on social media and this blog post is a small part of that.

It was another excellent evening despite the lack of alcohol.

11 October 2016

Great drama with The Last Tycoon at Tabard Theatre


Having discovered Tabard Theatre only in the last year I have managed to get back a few times and I it is now one of the few theatres that I need to find a reason not to go there rather than the other way round. The theatre space and the quality of the performances is the main reason for that and it helps a lot that it is very close to Turnham Green station, only three stops from Richmond, and is situated above a decent pub.

I was looking forward to visiting the pub again, it is also called the Tabard unsurprisingly, as I knew that it had had bit of a refresh and the public bar needed it. I was somewhat shocked to see that the pubic bar had been untouched and the only refurbishment had been to the main dining area, called the Library. This had been the best part of the pub and the refurbishment had made it much worse. It was less attractive without the library motifs and most of the tables had been replaced with high benches and stools without backs. Not a welcoming or comfortable place to eat. Like everybody else in the room, I avoided one of the benches and found a small old-fashioned table to eat my vegetarian fish (halloumi), chips and mushy peas.

The company behind The Last Tycoon were Ruby in the Dust and anybody who takes their name from a Neil Young lyric gets my vote. I had seen a few of their shows before, which also helped.

One of these, Gatsby (seen twice) was also based on a F Scott Fitzgerald book, another good omen.

The Last Tycoon took us into the world of the movies where a high profile and very successful producer, Monroe Stahr (conveniently pronounced "star"), was juggling commercial pressures with his desire to make a film of Romeo and Juliet (a happy ending was requested!) while fighting off the advanced of two women with mixed success, and dealing with possibility of the screenwriters forming a union and going on strike for better pay and recognition.

This heady mix of plot elements gave the play its richness, the character of Stahr gave it its heart. and the large cast of interesting characters gave it its strength. There were so many characters that most of the actors played several roles.

Bouncing off Stahr were love interest Kathleen Moore who was on the rebound from an affair with the King of England (!), his business partner Bradogue Brady who veered more towards the financial than the artistic, and Brady's young daughter Cecelia who had known Stahr since she was seven and now fancied that she loved him. One of the scriptwriters loved her. There was a lot going on.

The story unfolded nicely in a beautifully crafted play that maintained the tension while allowing some romantic moments to soften the mood. I was engaged and entranced.

The Last Tycoon knew what it was trying to do and succeeded in every aspect to produce a play that thrilled, entertained and then shocked.

10 October 2016

Sarah Milton impressed in Tumble Tuck at Soho Theatre

As excuses for going to the theatre go, a chance meeting on a train with a pretty young woman is one of the more romantic (in a 1950's black and white film way, where older men treated younger women like their nieces). I was on a train out of Waterloo after Spine when I got into a short serendipitous conversations with Sarah Milton. In this she mentioned that she had a show on at Soho Theatre the following week. It would have been churlish not to go.

Getting there proved to be harder than it should have. I made the mistake of talking to somebody on the way out of the office, got delayed by a couple of minutes and missed my train by a handful of seconds, unable to get on thanks to the crowds coming out of the station. The subsequent train was delayed by over ten minutes which made the third train on the timetable the second one due and my best option, then that started getting later and later. It got so late that the delayed second train became the second train again. It arrived to some confusion as it was announced as stopping at Waterloo only. That did not suit the many people heading home to places like Wimbledon but it suited me just fine.

In the end I got to the theatre just in time to collect my ticket before they opened the doors. I was the second person up the stairs and took a seat in the centre next to one that was reserved. The first person up, a young woman, having sat somewhere else changed her mind and came and set in the chair next to me. We had a nice chat about theatre while waiting for the show to start; Tennessee Williams was mentioned. By then the place was pretty full.

There was no set and very few props. I like that.

On to that empty stage walked Daisy played by Sarah Milton, she was the sole performer as well as the playwright. She was wearing a swimming suit, hence the title Tumble Tuck. She had unexpectedly found herself in a swimming team and it was about to be her leg of the relay. She did her best and they got a medal.

Then the story exploded in several directions and we explored Daisy's relationships with her mother, her best friend, her former boyfriend currently in prison, and the star swimmer on the team. Sarah played all of these roles as Daisy told us her story. It was an emotional story too with pressure to perform, a house devoid of food, a murder, body pride, a secret relationship maintained through letters, and a young woman trying to come to terms with all that life had thrown her. She did remarkably well.

Sarah Milton did even better. The play was nicely crafted with plenty of drams, a few justifiable twists in the story and dollops of humour, often from Daisy's representation of other people. Sarah made Daisy somebody that I cared about.

After the show I nursed a coffee in the bar (I'm on antibiotics) in the hope that Sarah would come in. She did and was swamped by admires. I waited for the frenzy to die down a little before going across to add my praise to all the rest, all well deserved.

6 October 2016

Steve Howe at Landmark Arts Centre


Having paid a reasonable amount of money to see Yes play the Albert Hall a couple of times in recent years I was not going to miss the chance of seeing Steve Hose play at a small local venue for little more than the cost of a pizza.

I had been thinking about seeing Steve Howe in Central London or even Farncombe when the gig at Landmark Arts Centre popped up. I walk past it to and from work every day so it is about as local as you can get. That locality also meant that I was able to go there in my lunch break to buy tickets. I was the first person to buy any so I chose three next to the central aisle in the front row. Steve made a strong plea for no photos so You'll have to settle for one showing how the stage was set but without him in it.

There was a food offer too, aubergine curry, which readily solved the where to eat beforehand question. With that in mind I arrived promptly, i.e. just before the advertised time for the doors to open, only to find nobody else there and no sign of doors about to open. I was a little worried that it had been cancelled and I'd missed the email (it happens) but there were soon some signs of life and the doors eventually opened and everything was fine.

The curry was nice enough and they got lots of decent beers in, e.g. Twickenham's Naked Ladies,  so the evening was set.

Not knowing any of his solo work, apart from that which appeared on Yes albums, I was not sure what to expect. It was quite a varied performance and Steve introduced each song to tell us its history and why he wanted to play it.

There were quite a few fragments from Yes, including a song that he described as buried somewhere deep in side three of Tales of Topographic Oceans (I was glad to hear that he still thought of it as a double vinyl album too). There were a lot more of his compositions for solo guitar and I was surprised to hear that some had made their way into the music curriculum.

With just one guitar, and sometimes a voice to go with it,  it was a gentle evening and a very pleasant one too. The room was packed and everybody sat in respectful silence punctured with loud applause at the end of each song. We were watching a legend at close quarters and behaved accordingly.

It was a thoroughly entertaining evening with plenty of good music and interesting stories about it. I left with even more regard for Steve Howe than I started with, both as a musician and as a person.

4 October 2016

Spine at Soho Theatre was fast, intense and tender

I loved Spine so much when I saw it in November 2014 that I eagerly took the opportunity to see it when it returned almost two years later. It meant skipping one of my regular meetings to see it but that was an easy price to pay.

The urge to see it came partially from it being a provocative and political play and partially because it was a one-woman tour de force by Rosie Wyatt. I first saw her in Blink which was the spur for me to see Spine the first time around. I also saw her in the The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas so this was my fourth time seeing her on stage in two years. I'm a fan.

Spine was back in the upper space at Soho Theatre, which was good, and because there was another show on later in the evening, it started at 7pm which was less good. I had hoped to escape from work early but an important meeting with champagne kept me there beyond 5:30 and I had to make hasty excuses to catch the 17:43 from TED to WAT. Things worked well after that and I had just got myself a beer when we were called upstairs. It was a long walk and many of the seats on the front row were reserved for guests but I managed to find one for me pretty close to the centre. Job done.

Spine is narrated by Amy, a young woman (still a girl really at the start of the story) who tells us her recent story about how she ended up in a room full of books, which is all that there was on the stage. The other main character in the story was an elderly lady who Amy mimicked when telling her story. We also heard about Amy's family and a recent boyfriend.

The story was told naturally with Amy leaping to different parts of her life to tell us about episodes what she was telling us about at the time. That gave us a heap of small stories within the main one and while I remembered the main story I had forgotten many of the small ones, such as her criminal career and the toilet incident that caused her to be sacked from a job.

The deluge of quickly little stories made Spine an intense experience and Rosie Wyatt's skillful deliver brought out the humour, brutality and tenderness. One summary could be that this was a coming of age play with a happy ending but that summary leaves out all the rich detail that made Spine such an enjoyable play.

I was a little worried about seeing it again so soon after the first time but I should not have been. Spine was excellent (again).

I needed to unwind after that so hit the bar for a second pint. I was on my way out after that when I noticed Rosie in the bar so I went up to do some hero worshipping. She recognised me from my tweeting which made the introduction a little less daunting. I like to give direct feedback when I can, and I try not to intrude too much or to be too fawning. I am always grateful when creatives respond positively.

That would normally have been a good end to a great evening but there was another incident after that which lifted the evening. I was on the train home talking about theatres I love when a young woman interrupted to ask if I was talking about Blink, I was, and when I mentioned Wink! she said that she knew the playwright. A brief but deeply rewarding twitter exchanged followed later that evening. I love theatre and theatre people.
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3 October 2016

Relatively Speaking at Richmond Theatre was very funny

I was reluctant to see Relatively Speaking for several reasons; I had seen it not that long ago (June 2013), my diary was rammed and while Ayckbourn plays are funny they are not challenging.

On the other hand, it was on at Richmond (one of my regular theatres), it starred Robert Powell and I knew that it was funny.

In the end that fine balance was swayed by a ticket offer (band A seat for the price of band B) and me having a free evening on a Monday, not normally a theatre day. That was enough for me to go for seat B25 in the Dress Circle for £28.50. A good seat at a good price.

One reason that I was going to Richmond so often was because I was working in Teddington and the helpful 33 bus had me in Richmond by 6:20pm despite me not leaving the office until just before 6pm. I got off at Cresswell Road to enjoy the walk over the bridge. I took a slight detour to walk along the river, past the White Cross, to enjoy those views too. The tide had recently slipped away leaving a damp muddy stain, a profound reminder of its reach.

I had still not found somewhere decent to eat regularly pre-theatre so I went to one of my usual places, The Prince's Head, where I sat at my usual table, drank my usual beer (Oliver's Island) and ate one of my usual meals (Halloumi burger). Not very exciting but it did the job.

The humour in Relatively Speaking, and there was an awful lot of it, came from misunderstandings of the relationships between the two couples that built on each other to make a complicated situation complex.

The first mistake was when the young man thought that his girlfriend was going to visit her parents in the country when she was actually visiting her boss. Most of the action took place in the garden of the older couple's impressive house.

As people's understanding changed of either the true situation or of the role that they were meant to be playing so the actors had to change mood frequently, almost mid-sentence, and they all did so splendidly. It was no surprise that Robert Powell shone as the older man and the rest of the cast were excellent too, including Liza Goddard as his wife. Shamefully the ATG website does not name the actors playing the young couple. The chemistry between the four of them was just right.

Of course the other big name involved was Alan Ayckbourn who knows how to write a comedy. After a minute or two of scene setting we were plunged into the maelstrom of misunderstandings and the laughter came loud and often. It was possibly even funnier the second time around.

Relatively Speaking was very funny and a great way to start the week.