29 December 2016

London lights (2016)

I was in London for other things, a fun theatre matinee and then the disappointing Liberty Sale, and took the opportunity to see some of the Christmas lights. I had seen the lights in Carnaby Street in other years and had been impressed by them and had heard good things about this year's display in Regent Street.

My little journey started conveniently enough in the Liberty Cafe were I consoled myself with a pot of tea and a toasted tea cake having failed to buy any Liberty print shirts in their sale on the simple grounds that there were none. They had plenty at full price on the shelves and on the racks but none in the sale. I am not aware of this happening before and I have no idea why their sale was so restricted this year.



From there I just had to walk to the side of the shop and I was in Carnaby Street. I don't think that I have ever bought anything there and I have only ever been in one or two of the shops but I have always liked walking down the street because of the buzz.

A lot of that comes from the tourists, foreign and domestic, who make no attempt to hide their delight in being in this iconic street and who take copious pictures of it and of themselves.

This year the lights were words of Love and Hope which were uplifting as well as pretty.



Regent Street was spectacular and even better than my high expectations of it.

I walked up the middle of the road (there is an island) to get the best view of the angels and while a few other people were also doing that I was surprised that there were not a lot more.

This picture shows the angels in full wing. The tableaux went through a cycle with the wings lighting one at a time from the bottom until they were all lit then they all went out and the cycle started again.

They made the fight through the heavy human traffic to Oxford Circus a pleasure.

Luv at Park Theatre was fun

Luv had been on my want-to-see list for a while, just because it sounded like fun. It also helped that it won a number of Tony awards and nominations, among them Best Play and Best Author of a Play when it was first produced on Broadway in 1964.

It moved to the want-to-see list to the booked-to-see list only a few hours before I went to see it as I toyed with my schedule for the day, eventually choosing the matinee performance over the evening one.

Park Theatre may be some distance away from home but it was a simple enough journey with a train to Vauxhall and then a tube to Finsbury Park. The only hassle was that the north exit at Finsbury Park was closed leaving me with a 500m walk to the theatre rather than a 100m one.

I arrived just before 3pm for a 3:15pm show and a short queue had already formed, as I had expected. I grabbed a tea and joined the queue some of which dissipated when people realised that they were in the wrong queue as they were there to see the other show in Park200. We did not have long to wait and we were soon allowed to go in.

I was surprised my the layout. On all my previous visits there had been seating on two or three sides of the stage but this time it was laid out traditionally with the stage across one end of the room and then several straight rows of seats.

My good timing got me a seat in the middle of the front row where I faced a bridge and two benches. There a man was contemplating suicide until an unexpected encounter with a school friend from fifteen years earlier.

The two mens lives had gone very differently since school, one had struggled to find any direction and that was why he was not contemplating suicide and the other had become a financial success and he even showed us his silk underpants to prove it. The underpants reveal was a taste of the humour that ran through the play, quirky and unexpected. To give another example from early on that I liked, the successful man said that he was more in love than he was when he got married the only problem was his wife would not let him get a divorce so that he could marry the woman he loved. End of spoliers.

Then the wife joined the two men on the bridge and the triumvirate was complete. And what a strange and complicated triumvirate it proved to be as it morphed into a play about three very different characters each frustrated with aspects of their lives.

As the story developed the witty dialogue continued. It was something like a long episode of Frasier with some distinct, and distinctly odd, characters finding themselves in an unusual situation and trying to get the best for themselves out of it. And like Frasier the humour was solid and steady but more inclined to conjure broad smiles than audible laughs. If you liked Frasier then you would like Luv. I liked Frasier.

The only slight disappointment was they all played their parts with American accents (and rightly so) which meant that it was hard to tell which one was Rex Fairbrother in The Archers. I looked it up afterwards and it was the successful man, not the failure as I had thought as he looked more like Rex.

Luv was an ideal seasonal tonic. Light and fluffy enough to lift the spirits with enough intelligence in there too to keep the brain ticking over.

23 December 2016

Thebes Land at Arcola Theatre was extraordinary


I'll start at the end.

Below a picture that Arcola Theatre posted on Twitter at the end of the final performance of Thebes Land. I'm one of the people standing, clapping and cheering on the far side of the cage.

I have never taken part in such a quick, enthusiastic and universal ovation. Only a very special play could do that, and Thebes Land was.

Thebes Land was a play about the making of a play. There were only two players, both pictured, Trevor White played the author and Alex Austin played both the subject and the actor playing the subject.

The author wanted to do a play about patricide and so had several meetings with a convict and these were always held in a locked basketball court. Because of that, so were the rehearsals for the play.

The play consisted of four distinct elements; firstly the author came out of the cage regularly to tell us some of the story about how the play was put together (such as the permissions that he had to get from the MoJ to see the prisoner,) secondly we saw some of the the meetings between the two men in prison and then, thirdly, the rehearsal sessions where the author and actor adapted those meetings into scenes from the play. These scenes were based on the meetings but were not exact copies with the author looking to tease specific ideas from a scene and the actor helping him to do so. Finally, the author looked to other references to patricide and a large part of this was the Oedipus legend, which is where the title of his play came from.

The intelligent structure of the play was a large part of the success of the play, as was its skillful delivery. The production was stuffed with clever theatre craft but kept well short of the line where craft become gimmick. I'll give just one simple example, just before the intermission the author read out a list of basketball terms given to him by the murdered to use in his play; the last one in the list was "half-time". We all clapped immediately because we were in tune with the play and recognised the signal for what it was and appreciated its construction.

Then there were the stories of how one man came to murder his father and how that became a play. Both stories were interesting, well paced and took a few unexpected turns. When the author talked about the murder being in the audience it just seemed right that he would be. There was a play called Thebes Land and I am sure that some of the story about how it came into being was true, including some of the things that the author said about himself, but just how much I have no idea. That blurring between fact and fiction was one of the other things that made the play work and it also made the fiction (if there was any!) believable.

Thebes Land was a superb play in every aspect, and I must mention the excellent performances from Trevor White and Alex Austin again. It was an extraordinary play.

20 December 2016

Benighted at Old Red Lion Theatre was neatly done

Without intending to, I found myself in something of a JB Priestly run and while this was with mixed results I was keen to see Benighted because it was billed as the original version of the story of a couple looking for shelter from a storm and finding themselves in a strange house which has been most famously used by The Rocky Horror Show.

It was also an excuse to go back to Old Red Lion theatre and pub. It was the pub first and that meant one of their pies. Nice it was too. So was the beer.

Having eaten I joined the queue that was starting to form at the bottom of the stairs and I was near enough to the front to get a good seat in the front row. It was an L shapes front-row and it was not obvious which were the best seats because of the shape of the stage and I settled for somewhere around the middle of the long side of the L.

The stage was suitably dark (I had to enhance the image below so that you could make any sense of it) and very woody.

It also quickly proved to be very flexible too as a few movements transformed part of it into a motor car. In this car, a typical 1920's open-top, were a young couple and a friend. They were lost somewhere in Wales and it was raining so they were looking for shelter. Any port in a storm they say and so they chose to go to a spooky gothic house where, after some reluctance, they were admitted.

What followed next was much as anticipated with unfriendly hosts, hints a plenty of mystery and moments of light amusement. I've never seen The Rocky Horror Show but I have seen plenty of episodes of Scooby-Doo and there were some obvious similarities. Benighted may not be original but it certainly predated those.

Another couple came to the house looking for shelter, a middle-aged businessman and a young chorus girl that he had adopted for the evening to provide some company and other pleasures.

Then the plot veered sharply from the standard Scooby-Doo script.



A relationship developed between the couple's friend and the chorus girl, there really was something weird going on in the house, and there was real menace about. Somebody died.

The play ended on a satisfying note that was both poignant and definitive, though far from happy.

The story did more than I expected, especially at the end, but the staging did much more than exceed expectations. I knew that it had Offie nominations for lighting and staging and I could see why. The small room became many places, inside and outside, and those places were filled with corridors, doors and stairs. A lot happened skillfully in a small space.

Benighted was a decent enough play and the masterful production lifted it several notches to make it a rewarding and entertaining evening.

9 December 2016

Sheppey at Orange Tree Theatre was a timely political drama

As I go to everything at Orange Tree Theatre I do not pay much attention to what each play is about when I book it and the only thing I was sure about Somerset Maugham's play Sheppey as I sat down waiting for it to start was that it was not a comedy. From what I had read of his works, I expected a light period drama.

I got a political comedy set in London.

I was obviously in a barber's shop and not on a South Sea island.

Sheppey was the nickname of one of the barbers in the shop and this was his story.

He was in his late fifties (my guess) and lived with his wife who he had been happily married to for many years and their early twenties daughter who was engaged to a school teacher with aspirations.

Sheppey was the life and soul of the shop and was very popular with all the customers. He also had the gift of the gab and proved this early on by selling a customer a bottle of anti-grey lotion while pretending not to. The play started with a lot of laughs.

Almost as an aside we hear that Sheppey had been a witness to a criminal act and had felt sympathy for the criminal because of his poverty which Sheppey though was what had driven the man to criminality.

They Sheppey won some money and things changed. His daughter saw it as an opportunity to give a solid start to her married life, the owner of the barber's shop though it was a change for Sheppey to become a partner and Sheppey was thinking of giving of it away to those who needed it more than him. The stage was then set to explore both politics and religion from several angles with Sheppey being compared to Jesus and also being called bonkers.

The lightness of touch remained and there was some tenderness too as Sheppey's wife stood by him as he decided what to do with his money. The politics and religion became important parts of the story but they never swamped it.

Sheppey was a long play lasting almost three hours and requiring two intervals. A weaker play would have dragged but this did not and I was engaged and entertained throughout. It was an undoubted success and was warmly appreciated by the near capacity audience.

Sheppey (1933) was very much in the Orange Tree Theatre tradition of finding forgotten plays by well known writers and this one very much deserved to be found. It was a fine play with a message that was relevant today.

3 December 2016

Nursery Cryme at The Oak


Nursery Cryme are obviously doing something right.

When I saw them play at The Oak in July the fans were enthusiastic but not that numerous and I our group of five easily got good seats at the music end of the bar. This time the place was packed and the best two of us could do was grab the final stool at the beer end of the bar, where we could hear but not see the band, for the first half and then stand at the far edge of the music end for the second half.

Those two halves were long halves too with Nursery Cryme playing from 8:30 to 9:30 and then from 10:00 to 11:00.

The Oak played its part too. I have had unfavourable experiences with their beer in the past but I had no complaints this night. They had four bitters on with a genuine choice to make (and something I would not dream of touching). I settled for the Adnams Southwold and that proved to be a good choice and one I repeated a couple of times over the evening.

Having seen Nursery Cryme twice before I had a good idea of what to expect though there were some new songs, including one from Wind and Wuthering (1976) which we referred to as Wuth and Windering at university for reasons that made sense at the time. My roommate and I also recorded a version of Your Own Special Way which was called Your Own Obvious Way and was dedicated to Mr Obvious who won that nickname for standing next to the pinball table (Big Ben) and saying obvious things. One lyric that I recall was, "I'm almost there my score's 53, He tells me I just need a G".

Nursery Cryme also seemed to have done a little on their presentation with the lead singer dressed all in white and everybody else all in black. Note a massive change but a noticeable one and it helped.

The Nursery Cryme mission is to play early Genesis songs as they were originally recorded and that requires skillful musicianship in all departments, which they have, and part of the joy in watching them perform is seeing the way that they play together and flourish individually. They play (generally) long complex songs to people who appreciate that sort of thing, not everybody does but those who do had a great time. And the growing following that they have quickly established shows that there are lots of fans for this sort of music played this well.

Nursery Cryme are obviously doing something right.

1 December 2016

Martin Turner ex Wishbone Ash at The Eel Pie Club



Somehow it had been a year since I last saw Martin Turner's version of Wishbone Ash play (at the Boom Boom Club in Sutton) and that was so good that I was clearly going to see them play at an even close venue, The Eel Pie Club in Twickenham.

I had been to The Eel Pie Club a couple of times before and found it something of a frustrating venue with its sunken stage area and restricted view for people of modest height. Knowing that I got there a little before the doors opened at 8:30pm.

Even so, all the prime seats had been taken by the time that I got in but I was not interested in seating and I was pleased to get a good standing position by the top of the stairs down to the pit. You can tell how good my view was from the photos.

With the doors not opening until quite late that gave me time to do a few things first. My evening started with a walk to the Eel Pie pub (nothing to do with the club) to meet a friend before we went to a curry house nearby for a couple of vindaloos. A good start to the evening.

I quickly came to appreciate my vantage point not just because of the uninterrupted view but also because I was well positioned to hear the band being a little way back from the stage. Normally I have to sacrifice the sound for the view but this time I had both.

The top photo shows what Martin Turner ex Wishbone Ash are all about, three guitars playing off each other while the drums keep them in order. The sound they made was the one they always have, blues inspired rock, whether it was a classic song from their 1972 album Argus (which Martin wrote most of) or a song from their most recent album Written in the Stars. These were long songs with plenty of guitar solos and we all loved them.

Somewhere along the way they played the whole of Argus, as they had done on a previous tour but not the last time that I saw them.

There were few surprises, even the joke Martin told was one he had told before, and that was as it should be. We had gone to hear classic Wishbone Ash and that is what Martin Turner ex Wishbone Ash delivered with panache and good humour. A happy band is a good band and they were both. I was very happy too.