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.