13 April 2017

The Lottery of Love at Orange Tree Theatre was fluffy fun

I may be less enthusiastic about Orange Tree Theatre these days but it still the easiest theatre for me to get to and I am always going to be tempted by a play described as Marivaux’s greatest comedy translated by John Fowles to the Regency England of Jane Austen.

That period chimed well with my listening at that time with BBC Radio Drama broadcasting (or rebroadcasting) many classics including works by Jane Austen that I had not read previously. These were mostly stories of class and love which set my expectations for The Lottery of Love.

These expectations were quickly met.

The thin premise of the play was that a well to do couple, who had never met, were being steered towards each other by their parents but both wanted to be sure of the other first and both came up with the plan of swapping places with their maid/manservant to observe the manners of the other from a more lowly position.

This was explained to us at the start of the play so there were no surprises for us. The only other people in on the double deception were the woman's father and brother.

I had anticipated the plot even before its early announcement and it maybe that I had seen the play before or, possibly, another play with a similar theme. No matter either way, the plot was largely immaterial, which was just as well as all that happened was that the two couples (the two gentlefolk and their two servants) spent an hour and a half confessing their undying love between them despite the clash in positions that they all that there were.

The minimal plot was supported by a minimal set. The cast wore period costumes, which I think they had to as the class conflicts would not have worked in modern dress, but there was no furniture and no props. The circle on the floor may have meant something to somebody, if so I missed the clue.

So far it does not sound as if The Lottery of Love had much in its favour, and that was true, so it is just as well that the acting was sumptuous.

These were simple characters with simple emotions so the actors were not called upon to do very much but what they did do was ham it up magnificently.

The father skipped in delight at the mischief, the women fanned their faces in awe of attractive men, the servant come gentleman was outrageously extravagant in his movement and gestures. In stark contrast the gentleman come servant was calm and resolute to a degree that no human being ever could be.

The acting lifted the light production and made it something genuinely and constantly entertaining. A welcome jolly end to the week.

The Lottery of Love was fun but it again left me wondering why Orange Tree was putting on plays like this. I go to the theatre to be entertained and I also go to be stimulated and challenged and The Lottery of Love was far too fluffy to do that. I expect fluffy entertainment at places like Richmond Theatre (and they do it well) and I expect more from Orange Tree.

After many years of being an Orange Tree regular I have reluctantly decided not to go to every show there automatically, each play has to win my time on its merit and has to compete with the more consistent offerings from places like Theatre503.

11 April 2017

The Goat at Theatre Royal Haymarket‎ was both disturbing and funny

There seemed to be a steady stream of A-List actors appearing at the West End in the early part of 2017 and all were appearing in interesting plays so I just had to go and see a lot of them.

With A-List actors there is usually a hefty ticket price to pay and to see The Goat I had to fork out £45 for a front row seat (A14) in the Upper Circle. I was happy with that deal.

Perhaps because of the pricing, or perhaps because of the less familiar play, or perhaps because Damian Lewis is not quite at the top of the A-List, the theatre was busy but not full.

A sign on the way up warned that the play was an hour and fifty minutes without a break. This was a little on the long side (though ninety minutes is common) and suggested that there was no natural break in the story to insert an interval. That meant missing out on the ice cream and that was probably a good thing.

The play was similar in structure to several other American plays I had seen in that everything happened in one room and more or less on one day. The time period was slightly longer this time but not much. The core of the play was the intense, and often funny, dialogue between a long-time married couple, Martin and Stevie (played by Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo), with some contributions from their late teenage son and a long-term friend of the family.

Early in these discussions Martin revealed his adulterous love for Sylvia and things escalated rapidly from there. In the long scene while Stevie tries to understand the situation (but not to come to terms with it) she destroyed ornaments almost with glee.

The Goat tested us by presenting Martin as an intelligent man and a good husband/father who just happened to have fallen in love unexpectedly. It was easy to be sympathetic to his plight despite the extent of his moral crime. Martin remained calm throughout and is almost bemused by everybody else's disgust.

Sophie Okonedo had the more interesting role as the injured wife and she was magnificent.

The play managed to be funny throughout despite the serious nature of the story and without going for cheap jokes. It also managed to make an hour and fifty minutes speed by such that when the lights went out it was hard for me to believe that we had got to the end, a confusion helped by the distinct lack of resolution to the story.

The Goat may not be the classic that Virginia Woolf is and Damian Lewis may not have the stage presence of Imelda Staunton but that would be to unfairly compare it to something staggeringly good which almost every play will look paler against. Considered on its own merits The Goat was an intelligent play that managed to be both disturbing and funny, often in the same sentence.

10 April 2017

The Plague at Arcola Theatre was harsh, harrowing and hopeful

I do not need much encouragement to go and see something at Arcola Theatre, despite its relatively distant location that requires three trains to get to, and an adaptation of an Albert Camus story was easily sufficient.

I was quick off the mark and was able to claim my seat in the middle of the front row, unusually numbered B15, for a modest £22. Row A had been replaced for the evening to make more space for the stage.

The set consisted simply of two tables, some chairs and a few microphones. Originally set for an enquiry panel, these moved around to create a variety of rooms in a variety of buildings including a block of flats, a doctor's surgery and a hospital.

The simple props were ably enhanced by some striking lighting, such as heavy use of spots during key moments, and some vividly atmospheric sounds, such as a swarm of rats.

The Plague was not a happy story dealing, as it did, with a town that is hit by a plague carried by rats and which was put into quarantine by closing the town gates for several months.

The story was told by five inhabitants of the town who were all impacted by, and responded to, the plague differently. There was much sadness, some despair, some greed, some resistance, some bravery and even some hope, The situation was tense with emotion and that was carried into the audience expertly.

For the second time in a few days the leading male role, a doctor, was played by a woman (Sara Powell) with no pretence and for the second time in a few days it did not matter. Even when he/she spoke about his/her wife everything seemed quite normal. Good acting does that. The rest of the cast were good too and it was a nicely balanced performance with the spotlight literally moving between them.

The Plague was a powerful drama and the technically rich production added to the power and heightened the drama. It was harsh, harrowing and hopeful, and also entertaining despite the subject matter.

4 April 2017

An open letter to the Royal Park Gate Residents Association

Royal Park Gate Residents Association needs to improve

It is now over two months since the inaugural meeting of the Royal Park Gate Residents Association and I am deeply irritated at the lack of progress since then. All of the enthusiasm shown at the meeting has been allowed to dissipated and in two months there has not been one email from the Association. This is unacceptable.

I am also angry at the way that work has continued along the footpath through Royal Park Gate without consulting residents. The meeting made it clear that there were mixed views on whether the wildlife friendly planting should be replaced with flowers. I do not know where the balance of opinion lies, I am firmly in favour of keeping it wild myself, but I do know that the nature of the area where I have lived for twenty years is being changed without me having any say in this. To create a Residents Association and then to refuse to consult with it before undertaking works like this is also unacceptable.

At the meeting we also talked about the state of the footpath and the way that the vegetation restricts the width severely in a couple of places. The path needs to be kept clear to allow buggies and bikes etc. to share it and if the Council is not going to do this then it makes sense for the Residents Association to do so. In desperation, my wife and I cut back the vegetation on the junction with Northweald Lane to the edge of the path so now people can pass on both sides of the bollard.

I am disappointed that nothing has been done to the section just north of Debden Close. This, combined with the planting of flowers, suggests to me that some people on the committee are acting in their own interest while paying no heed to the needs of other residents.

The lack of consultation on the works done and the complete lack of any communication on anything else prove to me that the current committee is not functioning properly. I strongly urge the current committee to stand aside and let those prepared to make the Association a success to do so.

3 April 2017

Lots of laughs with Out of Order at Richmond Theatre

Not everything that I see at the theatre is experimental, challenging or intellectual. Some of it is just fun. And that is exactly what I was hoping from from Ray Cooney's Out of Order.

I took advantage of an opening day offer to get Dress Circle  Row B  Seat 17 for £19.50. At that sort of price I just had to go.

I had some idea of what to expect having seen a sum total of one Ray Cooney play previously, Two Into One at Menier Chocolate Factory, which also made me laugh a lot.

The premise was simple enough; a Tory minister planned to miss an important debate and to spend the night with a Labour secretary in a swanky hotel nearby instead. Things went wrong quickly with the discovery of a dead man in their room. From there on deception led to another as the situation got more and more complex with the arrival of vexed colleagues, anxious spouses and curious hotel staff. Each new arrival and each new event needed a new lie to explain it until the tower of lies had to collapse under its own weight.

The scene was simple enough too; a hotel room with three doors and a window out to a balcony. Standard farce fare, and it is a standard because it works so well and in Out of Order the exits and entrances were frequently unexpected and always neatly timed.

I was hoping for a farce and that is what I got. It was a laugh out loud farce that lifted the spirits that were starting to wilt at the start of another working week.

2 April 2017

Letter to Surrey Comet on removal of houseboats

While some people may rejoice in the removal of houseboats from the river (Letters 31 March) this is not a view shared by everybody who uses the towpath regularly. I walk along it every day to and from work and I miss the boats.

The section of the river by Teddington Lock has the weir, which nobody could accuse of being pretty. In contrast, the boats brought life to the area and reminded us that the Thames has been a working river for centuries.

We have also paid a high price for the removal of the boats with the removal of the trees along the riverbank that they were moored to. These trees used to screen the ugly weir so that it was often heard before it was seen. Now that whole section of the river is barren and blighted.

And, of course, the highest price has been paid by those who lived on the boats who have been driven away and forced to seek somewhere else to live. I find it impossible to rejoice in taking somebody’s home away from them.

27 March 2017

E15 at Battersea Arts Centre was a brutally honest look at the Housing Crisis

I had not been to Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) for a few months and I was happy to correct that error with E15, an overtly political play with the strap-line Social Housing Not Social Cleansing.

The £12.5 price tag suggested a shortish play and at around 75 minutes that was clearly good value. For that I got seat A11 in the middle of the front row, my favourite spot.

Despite being banished to work in Teddington BAC was still easy to get to with a mainline train taking me to Clapham Junction which just left me the short walk up Lavender Hill.

I got there in good time, about an hour or so before the show, which gave me time to enjoy some of the delights of the Scratch Bar which include an interesting and satisfying meal, a bottle of beer with a nice label and a window seat to spy on the world from. Later I had a coffee too. Front of house is important to me and is one of the strengths of BAC.

E15 was staged in the former Council Chamber, basically a large room with some stadium type seating in one half and the other used as a performance area. The staging was dramatic with the three walls festooned with political banners and the floor covered in chalk slogans that the cast were busy adding to as we entered. Someone else was shouting more slogans through a portable loudhailer. We were immersed in the action from the very start.

The story of E15 was based on the Focus E15 campaign which was started in September 2013 when a group of young mothers were served eviction notices by East Thames Housing Association after Newham Council cut its funding to the Focus E15 hostel for young homeless people.Four young mothers and a young man told us how they came to be in the hostel. All were vulnerable, all relied on benefits to live and all had strong connections with Newham. All were decent honest people who deserved the help they needed.

The play took us through their campaign, which had its ups and downs. Driven by need they had come together to fight for the right to live locally, rather than joining the 68,000 people rehoused outside of London every year, away from the places and people they know and away from whatever support structures they had. It was a brutal story with some brighter moments such as when they decided to hold a children's birthday party in a developer's show home.

I went to see E15 for the politics and there was plenty of this. In particular we could see the impact on real people of the government's policies enacted by local councils. I also hoped to be entertained and E15 did that too with a well constructed story and a good cast who made me care about what happened to them.

I signed their petition on the way out, I think everybody did, and would have thrown some paper at them if they had had a bucket to collect donations in but I failed to find one so I made sure to give them some money online.

It is a crime that plays like E15 are necessary in this day and age but they are necessary and more people should see them. These stories need to be told.

22 March 2017

Dark Vanilla Jungle was just as scary the second time

My Google Alert did its job and alerted me to a new production of Dark Vanilla Jungle and I made my booking immediately, £14 for an unreserved seat.

I would have gone to see it if it had been in N16 (which lies just north of  Arcola Theatre) but Theatre N16 had been on its travels and had landed much closer to home in Balham where it has taken up residency above large and rambling Bedform Arms.

I had never been to Balham before (other than passing through on a train) and was looking forward to doing a little exploration too. The exploration was somewhat limited by the pub being next to the station and the difficulty in crossing several busy roads to get there.

The Bedform Arms did its job reasonably well providing a decent, if not very full, pint (eventually) and a pretty good vegetarian burger from its limited menu.

Immediately above the pub was a large function room but that was used for some sort of keep fit class and the theatre was another floor up in a modest room, much like other pub theatres such as Pentameters and the White Bear. The stage was a simple white rectangle with normal dining chairs on three sides. There may have been some more theatrical type seating behind these but I headed straight from the front row in the central block and did not pay much attention to the other seats. I was not surprised by the limited set as The Cockpit had been much the same, if rather larger.

Dark Vanilla Jungle was a monologue, told by a young woman called Andrea, that jumped in various directions, threw in a few shocks and told some stories that might not have been true. In construction it was similar to Donny Stixx but that means little more than saying all Beethoven's string quartets used the same instruments as the same techniques were used to different effects.

And like a work of classical music, Dark Vanilla Jungle had distinct sections with one story following another but told in such a way that there was no gap between them. These stories covered Andrea's early years living with her parents, being in an exploitative relationship as a teenager and then (possibly mad, possibly dreaming) her relationship with a seriously injured soldier.

Being Philip Ridley these stories were thick with prose that demanded a close listen just as poetry does. Each sentence could be appreciated for its own form as well as for the narrative that they helped to construct.

Dark Vanilla Jungle lasted about 75 busy minutes after which both performer (Emily Thornton) and audience had reached a summit that it was too exhausting to try and go beyond. I have seen plays that last twice as long do half as much.

It is because of plays like Dark Vanilla Jungle and of evenings like this one that I have a Google Alert for Philip Ridley.

17 March 2017

Low Level Panic at Orange Tree had little going for it

Low Level Panic was another play at Orange Tree Theatre that I failed to see the point of. It may have made an impact when first performed thirty years ago but the only thing that the play seemed to be trying to do was give us the professional ladette's view of life which is now not new. It was not even the first play this year that I had seen that had a naked woman in a bath in it.

In trying to shock us with tales of casual sex and masturbation the play did not bother with any sort of a story or with much characterisation. At the end of the play we knew very little about the young women or their circumstances, nor did we care. Low Level Panic, I presume, referred to the women's feelings of trepidation towards aspects of their lives which while accurate also confessed that the drama was mild.

I felt sorry for the three competent actress for having so little to play with. Only the deliciously Welsh Sophie Melville had anything interesting to do as she told us about a recent sexual assault that had led her to being very wary of going out. This change of pace and tone was very welcome but was not developed and the darkness was allowed to lift.

The one redeeming factor which made the play bearable was the humour. It was never very funny but it made me smile often enough to sit through the eighty five minutes in comfort if not in pleasure.

14 March 2017

Well crafted and hilarious Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at The Old Vic

As the poster suggests, the main draw for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic Theatre‎ was meant to be Daniel Radcliffe but my main reason for going was that this was a play that I had heard of but had not seen and the name Tom Stoppard suggested that I should. I was in the queue for tickets promptly and so managed to get hold of Lilian Baylis Circle (the top level) B23 for £39 which was towards the top end of what I was prepared to pay.

The Old Vic is well situated close to Waterloo Station and so I was able to leave work soon after the end of the working day (5:30pm), but well before anybody else, to get to Culture Grub for 6:30pm where I am recognised as a regular. I went for the Chinese style curry with boiled rice, which I may have had once or twice before, and will have once or twice again.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead entertained from the very start as the two leads undertook the tasks given to them by King Claudius in Hamlet in a bumbling and uncertain manner. So uncertain were they that even they could not work out who was Rosencrantz and who was Guildenstern. Their Mr Bean like antics were a core of the play and that was a very solid core.

On a few occasions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern crossed into the world of Hamlet and we had some familiar scenes from that play embedded into this one. A simple device that was very effective.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern crossed paths a few times with The Player, a harlequin character played with great gusto and aplomb by David Haig, who will always be one of the marks in The Hustle to me. His performance had been described as show stealing in some reviews that I had seen and while I could understand why that had been said I think that the strongest performance was Joshua McGuire as Guildenstern (or was it Rosencrantz?).

The production did a lot to emphasise the fun of the story and the play was two hours of relentless light entertainment that brought many smiles and much laughter, the antithesis to the Hamlet that inspired it.

12 March 2017

Another brilliant evening with The Honeyslides at The Half Moon

It was almost a year since I last (and first) saw The Honeyslides at The Half Moon in Putney and it was an easy decision to see them play there again when they finally returned. A lot of the details were the same as my previous visit and perhaps the most significant difference was that I dug out a check shirt for the occasion, as did several other people. No jeans though as I do not own any.

Again I was too busy enjoying the music to do anything other than note a few words, words that will mean a lot to any Neil Young fan; Cinnamon, Pocahontas, Words, Alabama, River. Cowgirl, Ohio, Cortez, Hurricane, Southern. To which I would add the word Brilliant.

The Honeyslides played for the best part of two and a half hours until the 11pm curfew meant we all had to leave and find another pub to drink in (Willoughby was still open, of course). It was a stupendous two and a half hours and while I occasionally wanted some of the songs to last a little longer that would have meant playing fewer of them and I think that they got the balance right.

The Honeyslides were somewhere between sitting at home alone listening to Live Rust on headphones and being in the front row of a concert with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and that was a might fine place to be.

Update: 18 hours later and I'm still singing Cinnamon Girl to myself, and sometimes to the rest of the office too.

11 March 2017

Josef Frank Patterns Furniture Painting at Fashion and Textile Museum

It was not much of a loose end but I had a few hours to fill between theatre appointments in Shoreditch and so I made another visit to the Fashion and Textile Museum (FTM) in Bermondsey, a short hop on the Northern Line from Old Street to London Bridge with a refreshing walk at either end.

Any visit to a museum starts or ends with a coffee and some cake. This time it started that way.

All I knew about Josef Frank beforehand was what FTM had shown me in their regular emails which was enough to tempt me to the exhibition but did little to inform me about the man or his works so I went in with some expectations and a lot of curiosity.

I soon earned that Josef Frank was Austrian by birth but moved to Sweden in middle-age to escape anti-Jewish persecution where is work in architecture extended to other forms of design.

Those expectations were quickly met too with large displays of fabrics in the style of the poster. The scale of the patterns with their large repeats and their lack of symmetry made them quite different from the floral patterns that I was familiar with from the likes of William Morris and Liberty. Somewhere along the line I remembered that I had some Ikea chairs with a pattern not unlike these, perhaps it a Scandinavian style.

Upstairs was something of a surprise as it was mostly paintings. Frank liked painting but was not terribly good at it, his cars looked very amateurish and his sense of perspective was unusual. That said, he often painted interesting scenes and their natural beauty and interest survived his artistic interpretation.

The paintings and other displays were interesting but it was the fabrics and furnishings that made the show special for me and there were lots of them to enjoy even in the relatively small space that is the FTM. I had to walk past them all again as I came back downstairs to leave and I enjoyed seeing them the second time almost as much as I had the first. It was a slow and pleasant exit.

The FTM is a remarkable place simply because it continually does exhibitions as stimulating this one.

8 March 2017

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (March 2017)

Even by the usual high standards of the monthly BCSA monthly Get to Know You Socials, March was a great evening. It was not just that it was busy, though that helped, but something about the combination of people there made the conversations flow even better than the beer did, and that flowed well.

One highlight of the evening was a discussion on Physics that moved onto a Czech physician who I had become Facebook friends with ten years ago to the day and who was known, surprisingly to me, by a few other of the people there. I had a quick chat with her on Facebook to let her know that we were thinking about her. These evenings are called socials for a reason.

The hardest part of the evening was finding a different way to photograph my smazeny syr and in the end I settled for playing around with the mayonnaise. The smiley face is exactly how I felt.

1 March 2017

The Complete Steranko SHIELD Collection

I have written before about the comics legend that is Jim Steranko but that was mostly in relation to his Captain America work whereas it is Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. that he is rightly most famous for.

I had read and bought various collections of his later episodes, and I may even have the occasional single issue in a comic box somewhere, but there was much of the run that I had not seen before, or even knew much about.

The ComiXology made me an offer that I could not refuse.

I am not sure what the occasion was but they had the completion collection in one of their sales and I did not hesitate to take the bait. The prize was almost 500 pages of comics for around £5.

Unexpectedly, and welcomely, the complete collection included complete copies of Strange Tales where Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD first appeared and which it shared with Dr Strange.

Both artists seem to have been told to try and emulate the styles of those that preceded them with Jim Steranko looking very like Jack Kirby (who did some of the layouts) and Dan Adkins like Steve Ditko. One of the joys of the comic is to see how the artists' styles evolved as they developed their own styles.

Elements of the Steranko style were there from the beginning, especially in the high-tech equipments, but it was a while before he was able to throw of the constraint of the six panel page to create stunning compositions.

The detailed line work with heavy contrasts that had been used sparingly became the signature of Steranko's work and why he is a legend.

The storytelling developed nicely too and I love the way that the panel above has no words, something that Warren Ellis also does very well. This is a marked contrast to Stan Lee who filled panels with lengthy speech balloons and explanatory texts. Comics were growing up then and Steranko was one of the people helping them to do it.

It is many years since I first came across Steranko's work and it still gives me a thrill. 

23 February 2017

Killing Time at Park Theatre was slightly dark and very delightful

Killing Time had caught my eye partially because it starred Brigit Forsyth (who I last saw in Now This Is Not The End at the Arcola Theatre in 2015) and partially because it sounded an interesting show with a mix of live cello music, played by Bridgit, and modern technology. Despite this initial interest I was not able to find a free evening to see it until another event was cancelled and I was able to make a late booking.

I used to be able to walk to Park Theatre from work but moving to Teddington meant a journey from south-west to north-east London. Thankfully the main railway line to Vauxhall and then the Victoria Line to Finsbury Park made this journey simple and fairly quick. So much so that I was there by 6:45pm leaving me plenty of time for some quiche, coffee and then a beer before the 7:45pm show.

I took the beer with me into the queue around 7:15 only because it made as much sense to stand there and play with my phone as to sit somewhere else and do so. Despite this keenness some people got into the queue in front of me simply by redefining where the start of it was. Previously theatre staff had defined the start of the queue as where I was standing on the landing between the two floors but this time people were allowed to go down the corridor to the door to the studio. To be fair to the queue jumpers I did not look much like a queue standing there on my own, but it still irked me a little.

Luckily the people who jumped me in the queue did not sit where I wanted to sit and I was able to claim a seat in the middle of the front row in he central section. This time there was seating on two sides of a slightly raised circular stage.

Killing Time opened with Bridgit playing part of Elgar's Cello Concerto which everybody knows from the Jacqueline du PrĂ© version. A good start.

The cellist, Hester, was an elderly woman at home alone dying of cancer and surrounded by crisp packet wrappers and empty bottles of wine as she lived her final days as she wanted to live them. Her only contact with the outside world was a friend who she spoke to on Skype (with her view projected on the back of the stage so that we could see it too) and a social worker who did he shopping and basic household duties.

The play was billed as a "hilarious and irreverent brand new comedy" so I was expecting something light with plenty of laughs. Killing Time was not like that. There was humour but calling it hilarious was something of a stretch. What was there was a dark edge that gave the story, and the characters, real substance. This was a play with depth and a heart which, for me, made it far better than the light relief that I was expecting. A play to recommend as well as to enjoy.

Adding to the emotion was knowing that the play was written by Bridget's daughter, Zoe Mills, who also played the social worker. The conversations that they had on stage about age and death were ones they could have had at home.

Killing Time ended on a heart-warming and satisfying high, despite what had just happened to Hester and her social worker. Their journey there had been amusing, slightly dark and very delightful.

11 February 2017

The Pirates of Penzance at ENO was delightful despite the poor view

I had largely managed to avoid Gilbert and Sullivan and was only persuaded to see The Pirates of Penzance by other people.

Having decided to go on a Saturday I made something of a day of it by popping into the V&A on the way and then into Govinda's where a Large Thali had morphed into an Unlimited one, not that I went back for seconds.

Being relatively slow off the mark for Pirates I failed to get my usual front row seat upstairs and instead had to settle for Upper Circle  B25 at £‬40.

A reasonable price for the seat until two tall people sat in front of me and limited my view to the middle third of the stage. That is ridiculous for a seat at that price and has vastly reduced the chances that I will go back to The Coliseum except for mandatory events, e.g. Philip Glass operas.

Luckily most of the action happened in the middle third of the stage.

That stage was simply constructed and boldly coloured, like a young child's toy. The opera opened with a large blue screen through which a bright orange ship emerged. This was, of course, the pirates' ship on which Frederic had just reached 21 and with that completed his indenture to the pirates. Freed of his bond he was leaving them to start a new life. Leaving with him was a maid who was responsible for his indenture to the pirate originally and in mistake.

What followed was a jolly romp with pretty young ladies, their Major-General father and a group of not so bold policeman. What also followed was lots of jolly songs. I knew I am the very model of a modern Major-General and A Policeman's Lot Is Not A Happy One and they were fairly typical of the feast of around thirty songs. There was a lot of humour in there and the tunes were pleasant too.

The story was helped a lot by some strong acting both by the principle characters and the large supporting cast. One high point was the increasing timidity of the policemen as others remarked on their valour in doing battle with the pirates where they faced certain death,

I left the singing to last because it had been a problem at my previous exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan it had been bit of a problem and so I was delighted that the singing was good this time. Again that included both the principles, there were several, and the supporting cast.

The story ended happily and the journey there was a lot of fun. I had a delightful evening and was able to forgive the poor view.

10 February 2017

Winter Solstice was another great disappointment at Orange Tree

It is tempting to cut and paste parts of my review of Blue Heart because there were large dollops of deja vu. Winter Solstice suffered fatally from trying to be clever for cleverness sake and forgot to entertain while doing so.

There were too main gimmicks used both of which started off as amusing but soon became tired cliches. The play had large sections of narrative with the cast taking in turns to be narrator which meant that they sometimes spoke about themselves in the third person. I've seen this devise used effectively in small doses, House of Cards does this excellently as did Shakespeare, but here it was overused and did nothing to aid the story.

The second gimmick was the use of props of the office meeting type for other things, so a pencil became a cigarette and a highlighter became a lipstick. Again I failed to see the point of this and did it noting to aid the drama. I would have preferred it if no props had been used at all.

The play's title came from its setting, Christmas Eve. All the events took place in the house of a couple of well-to-do intellectuals (she made films, he wrote books) and the daughter. They were soon joined by her mother and later a friend of hers and, finally, a friend of the family. There was little action but a lot of talking. Some skeletons rattled out of cupboards but were gently put back again and forgotten. Hints of affairs were glossed over, unbelievable hints of Nazi collusion faded away and hints of a serious illness were not developed. Basically nothing happened.

I felt sorry for the cast at times. They did reasonably well with the material that they had to work with  and that was all that they could do.

I loved Sheppy but Winter Solstice made it two disappointments out of three for me and with the Bush reopening soon (I have tickets) and the Riverside reopening next year there is the real possibility that Orange Tree will drop off my must-see list. Sad days.

On the plus side Orange Tree was packed and apparently the run was sold out so there is clearly a market for plays like this. It's just that I'm not in it.

8 February 2017

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (February 2017)

I was disappointed to have to miss the monthly British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) in January due to illness and delighted to be back at the The Czech and Slovak National House in West Hampstead in February.

I have a settled routine from my new workplace in Teddington that starts with a decent leg stretching walk to Strawberry Hill Station where I catch a train to Richmond and then the London Overground to West Hampstead. Simple enough though the connection at Richmond does not have much contingency. When things work, as they did this time, then I get to the venue just before the official start time of 7pm. As always there were already some people there.

The rest of the evening went to plan too with a few Pilsner Urquells concluded by a Zlaty Bazant, some smazeny syr to eat and to immortalise on Instagram, and lots of interesting conversations with interesting people. I do not keep track of numbers, it is not that sort of evening, but I think we had a higher proportion of new faces than usual which was a great excuse to repeat some old stories from my Prague days, which were 24 years ago now.

The evening had everything that I expected, and like, from the monthly BCSA socials. No more, no less.

6 February 2017

Silver Lining at Rose Theatre was passably entertaining

In the end it was loyalty to Rose Theatre that persuaded me to go and see Silver Lining. Other people were probably attracted by the playwright, Sandi Toksvig, and some of the actors familiar to TV addicts, such as Sheila Reid (Benidorm).

Whatever the reason people went they did so in good numbers so much so that the upper circle was open (it rarely is) and all but the very edge seats downstairs were sold. I was late to the game and while I was able to get a seat in my preferred Row A it was very much at the sides, A6, for which I paid a modest preview price of £21.

The poster almost tells you all that you need to know. Silver Lining is set in an old people's home which is gradually being flooded as a large storms rolls in and the tide rises.

In structure it was much like a sit-com with lots of humorous, sometimes funny, one liners often making fun of each other. It was a reasonable sitcom too but only reasonable. You would not change the channel if you came across it but then you would probably not change the channel to catch it either and you would certainly not be buying the box set.

Towards the end, once we knew the characters a little better, there were some moments of pathos as some of the ladies told us more abut themselves, how they felt and what happened in their pasts to influence them. This was a welcome change of pace from the unrealistic snappy dialogue but that is all that it was, nothing meaningful or memorable came from these revelations.

The direction was somewhat artificial too. The five ladies spent most of the time speaking to each other yet they did so sitting in a straight line facing the audience. Their movement was as unnatural as their dialogue.

That all sounds like a relentless stream of negativity, and it largely is, so it is worth remembering that I started off by saying that Silver Lining was like a sitcom that was often humorous and sometimes funny. Overall the humour rescued the play and what could have been a disaster was passably entertaining.

31 January 2017

Sex with Strangers at Hampstead Theatre was LaButesque in a good way

Sometimes the way that I choose to pick which plays to go to confuses even me. For Sex with Strangers there was not one thing that made me go, rather it was an accumulation of small things including respect for Hampstead Theatre, intrigue at the title and the chance to see Theo James who played Four (that's a name) in Divergent (a young adult science fiction film that I quite like).

One of the things that I like about Hampstead Theatre is that everywhere that I've sat I've had a good view and that has encouraged me towards the back of the theatre into the cheaper seats where N18 cost me £28.

Hampstead Theatre had stopped doing full meals and I had not found anywhere else to go nearby so I settled for my usual sandwich and craft beer, which was fine.

The stage was set as a rather dated living room. I took this to be 1970's UK but it turned out to be contemporary USA in one of those rural areas that style has not got to yet. This was a retreat for two authors one, an early middle-aged woman had been there for a while and she was joined by a man in his late 20s. As they introduced themselves to each other we learned that she was a teacher with writing ambitions and he had been in the best sellers lists for a couple of years with his somewhat salacious and factual book Sex with Strangers but was trying to become a serious author.

The rest of the play was all about them and they were the only people that we saw, though we saw them in more than one location and at more than one time.

Trying to simplify the situation without giving too much of the story away; the man was clearly somewhat unpleasant in his recent past, as writing a factual account of your life called Sex with Strangers suggests, but the question was how much he had changed. And had he changed enough to form a proper relationship with the woman, to write a worthy book and to not exploit the written works of others. I am not sure that the questions was answered but then I would not say if it was.

The structure of the play was just the two people talking which made me think of a couple of Neil LaBute plays, In a Forest Dark and Deep and The Mercy Seat, and the subject matter reminded me of another of his plays, Some Girl(s). That is a compliment; I like Neil Labute and he himself built on the traditions of the likes of O'Neil and Ablee. It was actually written by Laura Eason who is probably most famous now for her involvement with House of Cards.

Making the dialogue work and the relationship fizz, Emilia Fox and Theo James did a superb job. The play sparkled and captivated as a result.

Sex with Strangers, apparently, will be one of the was one of the Top Ten most produced plays in 2015/16 and I could see why that could be true. It is a simple enough play to put on in terms of staging and casting and it is rich in content. And I liked that simplicity of presentation and complexity of content (that's the right was round).

25 January 2017

Mary Stuart at Almeida Theatre made a dark history entertaining

Mary Stuart escaped my attention when it first went on sale, mostly because I had never heard of it or of its author Friedrich Schiller. My interest grew with the flood of good reviews it got but by then the run was completely sold out.

Then some more dates were added and some repeated checking of the theatre website on the day when they were announced got me seat Circle A7 for £38.

Almeida is not the easiest theatre to get to for me so I left work promptly (i.e. early) to get the train to Vauxhall and then the Victoria Line to Highbury and Islington before walking the last kilometre to the theatre.

I needed some food and was satisfied, if not exactly ecstatic, to get the last cheese sandwich in brown bread that they had in the theatre cafe. It had some exotic salad in it but it was just a cheese sandwich. Still, it did the job as did the coffee that I had with it.

I climbed the familiar steep stairs from the road up to the circle and looked down at a fairly standard round wooden stage. I was expecting, and hoping for, something modern like the poster and was disappointed not to see this. The dress code was better and reasonably contemporary, e.g. the men all wore suits though some of the colours were from another decade when other colours than dark blue and black were allowed.

The play started unusually with the spin of a coin. Lia Williams correctly called heads so she got to be Elizabeth I for the evening and Juliet Stevenson was Mary Stuart. That was more than a gimmick to show off both actresses' abilities; it also made the point at the very start of the play that they were similar people, both women and both queens in a time when almost all power lay with men.

Most of the action took place on one day, Mary's last. The plot was Shakespearean (though the play was written by a German three hundred years after Shakespeare) with various courtiers lobbying Elizabeth for and against Mary, but mostly for their own ends. Sometimes these aspirations were pecuniary and others religious with the queens being the proxies for a war between Christian sects. The two queens sat in the centre of this confusion without being drawn into it, both were calm and certain while plots were made and allegiances broken in their names. It was good dramatic stuff.

The play was all about the dialogue and that was rich, fluid and well delivered, especially by the two stars but not just by them.

The play also dealt with the politics well and made a strong point over the uncertainty of Elizabeth's intention in Mary's death. There was also some uncertainty over who had won the encounter between the queens with Mary dying resolute and certain and Elizabeth forced to behave according to expectations placed on her. We knew the ending so it was nice to see it approached in an unexpected and ambiguous way, though I was slightly fooled by the fake ending before the coda.

Mary Stuart was a fine historical play in the Shakespeare tradition and this production gave the actors the time and space to make the most of their characters and their words. It was an excellent night out.

24 January 2017

A Judgement In Stone at Richmond Theatre

A Judgement in Stone was one of those touring productions that I might have avoided had it not been at a very convenient theatre and had I not got an ATG Card that gave me a discount on the ticket price; but then that is the point in living near theatres and in having a discount card.

The main attraction of this play was in bold letters on the poster, the name Ruth Rendell. She is well known for her thriller fiction which includes the Inspector Wexford series.

The play opened with the police at the scene of the deaths of a family of four at their grand country home, it sounded something like a former manor house and was in the Gothic style with lots of wood panelling. It reminded me of Liberty.

A police investigation was in progress with the family of four all murdered. Suicide was ruled out by the position of the weapons (in another room) but there could have been more than one murderer and one of the murderers could also have been murdered.

Still alive to help the police with their enquiries was an odd assortment of house keepers, gardeners and other people from the village. Unable to help the police was a woman seriously injured in a car accident on the same night as the murders.

The story was gradually revealed through the police interviews and through flashbacks to relevant events. As expected, these uncovered a multitude of jealousies, suspicions, rivalries, criminalities and murderous possibilities. It was all nicely crafted and when we finally found out who done it, and why, I was genuinely surprised. I was also entertained along the way.

A Judgement In Stone was a neat story neatly presented and I was perfectly happy with that.

20 January 2017

An excellent Three Sisters at The Union Theatre

I have seen Chekhov's Three sisters five times in recent years and all of the performances were good or better. This was possibly the best.

I go to all the Chekov that I can and The Union Theatre is one of my favourite theatres so this was unmissable. Stick a £15 price tag on the ticket and it would have been a crime.

It was good to get back to The Union Theatre again after a gap of a few months. That was nothing personal, just a lot of competition from other theatres for my evenings. I know what I am doing at The Union and that meant being there by 6:30pm when the box office opened to collect my ticket, popping along to Culture Grub for a Sichuan style curry and then back to the cafe to take into the first half of the performance.

I was first in to the theatre (after careful positioning by the door) and was pleased to see the stage set more or less in the round. It had been set traditionally on my previous visit to the new venue. I chose a seat in the middle of the row on the far side.

The stage was set as a living room with drinks out ready for a celebration, it was the 20th birthday of the youngest sister, Irina. Apart from the piano there were a couple of seats and that was about it. I like productions that use props sparingly so this was a good sign.

The cast were introduced to us gradually and carefully with each new arrival being name-checked for our benefit. Each character looked right to me and that continued throughout the play and the casting proved to be the play's main strength and that is why I thought so highly of the production.

The three sisters' lives were changed by two arrivals, the new army commander, Vershinin (Ashley Russell), and their brother's girlfriend Natasha (Francesca Burgoyne), and they were my two stars of the evening in what was a strong cast overall with no weak points.

The production played on the strength of having the large cast and there was often more than one thing happening at once. This was particularly true when relationships were forming between two of the sisters and two of the army men.

Every version of Three Sisters that I have seen has been a little different but without the chance to study the scripts it is difficult for me to say what and where the differences were. This was certainly a shorter version than some others and seemed to be faster paced because of that. In this edit the main theme was Vershinin refrain, "Happiness is not for us", though there was still space for Itina and Tusenbach to debate the virtue of work and to cosy up to each other a little.

I knew the story and yet I was still captivated by it. It was a rich story with significant threads for each of the sisters and their brother plus quite a few dramatic things happening elsewhere.

Above all this was an entertaining and rewarding production; entertaining because of the story and the characters, and rewarding because of the human themes covered.

19 January 2017

Thoroughly Modern Millie at New Wimbledon Theatre was thoroughly entertaining

I was obviously aware of the Julie Andrews' film Thoroughly Modern Millie but I never saw it. Likewise I was aware of Strictly but had never seen that either. Despite that I was drawn to their coming together at New Wimbledon Theatre and was drawn enough to pay £44 for a premium seat, Dress Circle Row A Seat 18.

My plan was not to have a drink beforehand because I remembered just how expensive they are there but my resolve melted when I saw the large bottles of Budvar (i.e. the Czech version of the otherwise undrinkable Budweiser). I was either charged a lot for the tap water that I had with it or that pint cost me over £8. Still, it was a good pint.

It was just going in to find my seat that I asked one of the staff what the running time was and was a little surprised, and worried, to hear that it was the best part of three hours with a first half lasting 80 minutes, a decent interval and then a second half of another 60 minutes. That is not a lot longer than the usual two hours plus interval but my attention can drift in the first half and 80 minutes is a long time to struggle with a slow show.

The seat proved to be a good one with a fine view, no problems with safety rails and a decent amount of legroom.

The show opened with Millie arriving in New York from Kansas seeking bright lights and excitement. She sang the only song I knew from the show, the title song, which helped to warm the crowd up.

Then she was robbed and lost everything and, in separation, tripped up a passing man to try and get some help. Through him she found some lodgings for young actresses which was also the front for a white-slave operation led by the boarding house's owner Mrs Meers. Things got better for Millie as she got a job as a stenographer (remember shorthand?) and started to make a play for her rich boss.

The story had lots of elements to it and while some of the main threads were obvious, as they should be in a Rom Com, there was plenty in the story to keep me engaged.

At the centre of it all, of course, was Millie and Joanne Clifton sparkled in the role. Her pedigree was in dancing and while there were not many showboat dances there was dancing throughout. I especially liked the tap dancing that the office workers did while sitting at their typewriters as their desks slid around the floor.

It was this attention to detail, and Joanne Clifton's performance, that made the show. There were plenty of songs, all of which I've now forgotten, and while they did not make much of a lasting impression they did add to the mood. The comedy came from the characters and Graham MacDuff was brilliant as Millie's stuffy boss. Mrs Meers, who was supposed to be the main comedy character (I think) was somewhat less successful partially because I did not get on with her stereotypical Chinese accent. Thankfully Mrs Meers was one little setback in a long show that had a great deal going for it otherwise.

Thoroughly Modern Millie was a well crafted show that made the most of the story and the music. Throw in lots of dancing and some good characters and it was a thoroughly entertaining evening.

10 January 2017

Lots of laughs with Men From The Ministry at White Bear Theatre

I had seen a few shows at the old White Bear Theatre in Kennington and was keen to get back there after their extensive refurbishment which, amongst other things, I knew had moved the theatre from the back of the pub to upstairs.

My change came with Men From The Ministry, a radio programme that I enjoyed from the days of the BBC Home Service in the late 60s and early 70s. Then it starred Deryck Guyler as One and Richard Murdoch as Two, a couple of useless civil servants in the useless Department of Administrative Affairs which must have owed some of its inspiration from Dickens' Circumlocution Office. It is still on Radio 4 Extra sometimes and I listened to an episode not that long ago.

This was going to be fun.

The big surprise was the refurbished pub. It had been very old fashioned and almost empty before but Youngs had expanded it enormously, added the usual kitchen with a pretty usual menu, and added the sort of clutter that first became popular in pubs about thirty years ago. It looked more like a refreshed Harvester than anything else and that was working as the place was busy with eaters and drinkers. I joined the drinkers with a pint of Winter Warmer and the eaters with some baked Camembert (veggie options were limited).

The upstairs theatre suffered a little from having no milling space. Old Red Lion gets around this by having the box office downstairs. Tabbard has the same configuration but has a little bit more space to play with. There was a slightly awkward five minutes where half a dozen of us waited to enter in a small space with several doors that kept opening and closing.

Another group squeezed into the theatre before me but I was still able to claim a good seat in one of the front rows. The new theatre was slightly L-shaped, as was the old one with the stage in the corner and seating on two sides. I think that were about 70 seats, slightly more than before.

The stage was arranged as a BBC Radio studio complete with the old logo and old style microphones. The cast fell into the mood with suits and bowler hats.There was an announcer and a sounds effects person too (pictured) which all added to the atmosphere.

We were presented with two episodes either side of an interval which allowed me to get another Winter Warmer. As far as I can tell, not that it matters that much, the two episodes were Watch This Space and Ban the Wotsit, both from the 14th and final series.

Like Scooby-Doo, every episode of Men From The Ministry has the same plot, they are given a new task to perform, they mess it up mightily but somehow, more luck than judgement, escape intact at the end. The humour comes from the characters and their strict adherence to petty civil service rules.

There is a reason that Men From The Ministry ran for 14 seasons, it is really funny and these performances were too. 

9 January 2017

On the fifteenth day of Christmas ...

It is perhaps more traditional in Britain to get your Christmas presents on Christmas day but one of mine had been put safely away a couple of months ago and could not be found on Christmas Eve which is when we dig out the presents we bought for each other from their hiding places and wrap them.

Like most of my presents I knew (or at least hoped) that this one was coming as I had dropped large hints earlier. Those large hints included a link to this specific shirt.

It is, of course, another shirt by 1 Like No Other which are becoming an increasingly large part of my collection simply because they look stunning and are very well tailored. I love the little features like those inside the collar and cuffs.

Despite being a classy shirt this one is destined to be worn to work. After many years of wearing a dark suit and a white shirt with a colourful tie it is nice to be wearing smart casual and to give the pretty shirts that I have always bought, mostly from Liberty, more outings.

It's my birthday later this month and I am already dropping similar large hints. I just hope that I do not have to wait fifteen days again.

6 January 2017

Hedda Gabler at National Theatre was stunning

This picture is so good I almost do not need to say anything else about the play.

Ruth Wilson plays the title role and she is an established star thanks to Luther and The Affair. Her name and face are the crowd-pullers in this production. She is the main reason that I wanted to see the play too because she impressed me mightily when I saw her in Anna Christie in 2011.

The poster also hinted at a minimalist production, in marked contrast to the last time that I saw Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic in 2012 when it was played as a period drama. That approach worked but generally I prefer sparse productions.

Hedda Gabler was obviously going to sell well (it is completely sold out) and so I took advantage of a colleague's Amex card and shared love of theatre to get him to book tickets a day or two before general booking opened. The keen NT members had already feasted on the best seats and we had to settle for Circle Row D. That was fine if a little unusual not to be in the first row.

The stage was set as one large bare-walled room with just a desk, sofa, piano and a few chairs.

As is the fashion, there were people on the stage when we entered, including, it transpired, Ruth/Hedda herself at the piano with her back to us.

Having people on stage but not in the scene was a technique used a few time throughout the play and it worked, as it had the last time I saw that trick used.

Another nice trick was the repeated piano motif, the introduction to Nina Simone's version of Wild is the Wind, that was used in the same way that film music is used to set the mood.

The clever thing about these tricks was the way that they were almost invisible at the time and it is only thinking about the play afterwards that I can begin to understand their importance. Being clever for clever's sake is always a risk, and I think some plays do that, but everything about the design and direction of this production was spot on.

The main beneficiary of all this was Ruth Wilson who had all the space she needed to show us her interpretation of Hedda Gabler, Hedda who could be funny, spiteful, demanding, sultry, morose and stroppy. The incident with the flowers, hinted at in the poster, was brilliant and typical.

The ending, like the three hours before it, was stunning and a fitting end to a fantastic production. I knew the story so knew what was going to happen but I was surprised by the manner in which it happened, the reactions to it and then the way the play itself closed. There is often a "that must be the end" feel to plays and I like to be among the first (or THE first) person to clap, but not this time and the ambiguity added to the experience.

I've not mentioned Ibsen yet and I am not sure how much of this production came directly from his words and how much was reinterpretation. I am usually uncertain on Ibsen (as I find some of his characters too simple) but there was no doubt this time.

This Hedda Gabler is one that I would gladly see again. It was that good.

4 January 2017

Pielarks present a jolly evening of seasonal songs

This is the time of year for jolly evenings filled with seasonal songs served with good cheer and so I went to see the Pielarks at the Canbury Arms. I knew about the event from two friends, Peter and John, who were part of the around twenty singers collected to entertain us and their presence was another encouragement to go.

It seemed easiest to eat there beforehand and while the veggie options were somewhat limited, as is the rule in gastro pubs these days, the curry was excellent. All three of us who were eating at that time chose it. The beer was fine too and by the time the band started I was comfortably fed and watered.

The music was, as expected, reassuringly folky like the songs we all learned to sing at primary school  thanks to Singing Together on BBC Radio. I knew none of them which mattered not one whit as the style of the songs was familiar and there was plenty of repetition to breed new familiarity with the words.

Each song was introduced with a short story saying something about the origin of the song and how it had been rediscovered and/or kept alive in recent times. There was a variety of soloists, choruses and musical instruments that kept the evening lively and interesting as well as simply enjoyable.

We were in the covered overspill from the main bar and that was packed with people who had come to see the Pielarks and that produced quite a buzz in the room and lots of applause after each song.

The combination of the songs, the people, the food and the drink made it a rather jolly evening and I had a great time.