28 April 2017

Intense and compelling drama with Obsession at Barbican Theatre

My season of big-hitter dramss continued with Obsession at Barbican Theatre. This time the big-hitter was Jude Law who I had seen on the stage a couple of times before, Anna Christie and Henry V,  and that was plenty enough to make he want to see him perform again.

I was nimble on the booking and was able to capture seat Circle A12 for a respectable £60. Barbican Theatre has an unusual layout (matching the building it sits in) so I was pleased that the first row in the Circle gave me the view that I was hoping for.

The stage was vast and almost empty, the width I expected but the depth was a surprise. Obsession adopted several contemporary theatre tropes, e.g. smoking and nudity, and this included starting the play with people already on the stage. The heroine, if that is the right word, Giovanna was in the kitchen area on the left and was joined by her husband, Giuseppe, who worked on the car engine in the middle.

The lights dimmed, most people stopped talking, and Gino (Jude Law) appeared at the doors at the back of the stage playing a harmonica. He entered the bar/diner looking for food and having eaten but not having any money to pay for it he offered to use his engineering skills to fix the car. He identified the problem quickly, Giuseppe went out to buy that required part leaving Gino and Giovanna behind and that's when the obsession started.

Jude Law was the obvious draw and he was excellent but did not outshine Halina Reijn and Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Giovanna and Giuseppe.

Obsession ran for 110 minutes without a break telling its story with fabulous theatre craft. I loved the pace of the play most of all, there were short scenes of intense passion mixed with long scenes of slow reflection. Here the full width and depth of the stage was used to let the few players make sedate entrances and exists.

The mood was also tempered brilliantly with music. This started with the laconic harmonica playing, featured a full aria from la Traviata, had an automated accordion (it's the odd shaped thing just to the right and behind the kitchen) and included hefty dollops of This Land is Your Land.

Because of the way that Obsession superbly managed the mood of the play (which was the whole point of it) I was reminded of Hedda Gabler and Obsession shared it's final trope with that production with the play moving seamlessly from dramatic ending to curtain call. And a very raucous curtain call it was too.

Oddly, Obsession was probably the big-hitter play that I had the least expectations for and is the probably the one that had the most impact on me. I loved it to bits and then some.

22 April 2017

The last ever game at Kingsmeadow

I will be the first to admit that Kingstonian has never been a big part of my life but, even so, this was a sad occasion.

Kingstonian had got into financial troubles some years ago and thanks to an opportunist businessman managed to lose the ground that was built for them. They managed to stay on while the new owners, AFC Wimbledon, let them ground share but then Wimbledon found the home back in Wimbledon that they always wanted, the ground was sold and Kingstonian were forced to move out.

There was a double party that day as the K's fans were saying farewell to the ground and their opponents had hopes of winning the league, a draw would do it for them.

The sunny day helped the party atmosphere as did the game. It finished a scoreless draw but was actually a good game to watch and was a fitting end to the K's time at Kingsmeadow. We all went on to the pitch afterwards and did some chanting because that was absolutely the right thing to do.

A few beers were consumed before, during and after the game and it definitely felt like the end of an era. It remains to be seen whether I'll be tempted down to Leatherhead next season but that has to be unlikely. The hunt for a ground closer to home continues and I hope that they do make it back to Kingston before too long.

21 April 2017

HAG talk: The History of Ham

There was something of a mix-up over this talk. Originally it was going to be called The History of Ham and then we (I am on the HAG Committee) agreed that we wanted the speaker to do more than one talk and that we should ask him to focus on medieval Ham in hist first one. So I did the poster accordingly. But, somehow, the message did not get to the speaker and he delivered a talk on The History of Ham instead.

The room was packed and I ended up standing against a wall so as not to be in anyone's way. I do not mind standing at all and in doing so I could see the screen clearly.

The presentation was not so easy to listen to though because the alarm went off when somebody opened a window for fresh air and despite several desperate phone calls we were unable to turn it off. A few people left because of this but that just released some chairs for other people who were standing. The room was packed.

All that sounds like a disaster and it could have been were it not for the brilliant and entertaining talk. Gordon Elsden used the old border of the parish of Ham as the basis of his story and he beat the bounds and told tales of the places that we passed as he did so. The talk was rich with information , anecdotes and pictures. It was also very well presented and I was enthralled throughout.

Many of these stories and pictures will appear in Gordon's soon to be published book Remarkable Ham - The Untold Story which he showed us a copy of prompting much interest. I will be getting a copy when it comes out and so will many other people who, like me, loved his talk.

I also hope that Gordon has enough material for a second HAG talk one day.

18 April 2017

David Tennant sparkled in Don Juan in Soho at Wyndham's Theatre

David Tennant was the obvious reason for going to see Don Juan in Soho. I had seen him on stage a couple of times before, in two very different Shakespeare plays, and was pleased to have the opportunity to see him again, even knowing nothing about the play. My eagerness translated into a better seat than one that I would normally go for, Royal Circle A6 (the tier below my usual) at a price, £60, getting towards my upper limit.

Don Juan in Soho was a telling of the Spanish story that had been told many times and in many ways before. It was best known to me as Mozart's Don Giovanni. This was a contemporary Don Juan in a play from 2006.

The play had been updated a little for this production and an anti-Trump line got one of the best laughs of the evening; challenged over his womanising (3 a day for thirty years) Don explained that he loved woman and did not prey on them, "I am not a rapist. I don't grab pussy".

We followed Don Juan as he romped through his hedonistic life and skillfully deflected obstacles like an abandoned wife and her angry family. He was having a lot of fun and David Tennant skipped and bounced around the stage in obvious delight. He was at the centre of the play (obviously) and he commanded that space. It was a sparkling performance.

It was not all fun and frolics and Don Juan faced a dark end which he faced with the same bravado and flair as he faced everything else.

Don Juan was a reasonable play, nothing more and nothing less, and it became worth the price of the ticket thanks to David Tennant's sparkling performance.

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.

12 April 2017

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

For some reason the monthly BCSA social was especially busy and there was a struggle to get seats for everybody. A nice problem to have.

The conversations, as always, were the point of the evening and, as always, they covered a wide range of subjects. I was sad enough to take brief notes of some of the topics covered and these included the Rough Guide to Czechoslovakia, bottled beer and yoga. There were also several conversations about the internal mechanics of the BCSA ahead of the Annual General Meeting.

The BCSA "Get to Know You" Socials are always good and this one was a bit special.

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.

8 April 2017

Sumptuous Hockney at Tate Britain

I had been to a couple of Hockney exhibitions in recent years and that was more than enough to convince me to go and see another one. This time it was at Tate Britain.

Scheduling these things is always difficult and as the tickets were selling rapidly my choices were limited and becoming even more so. In the end it was easiest to go on a Saturday and add a theatre to the trip. I saw a matinee performance at Arcola Theatre and then headed to Pimlico for my 7:30pm date with Hockney. My Art Fund membership entitled me to a ticket for a very modest £8.85.

Time was a constraint and so my evening meal consisted of a sarnie from a Pret a Manger in Horseferry Road, Westminster, which was fine.

The Hockney exhibition was spread over a lot of rooms created within a rectangular space. Like IKEA, you had to go through all of the rooms one after the other and each room had a sequence to it which some people followed while others chose the easier option of moving to the least crowded spaces and taking the pictures in a random order. The exhibition was very busy but, generally, moving around was easy and the crowd did not get in the way of my enjoyment of the exhibition.

Photography was not allowed (they had a catalogue to sell) which was a mixed blessing; I would have loved to have taken lots of photographs (I managed just one sneaky one to prove that I was there) but then so would have everybody else and the circulation of people would have slowed dramatically and many of the more impressive pictures would have been swamped with people taking selfies.

What impressed me the most this time was the range of styles and materials he used. I was expecting, and saw, many large colourful paintings but these were complimented by sketches in graphite and iPad drawings that you could see being composed. I was reminded, as other exhibitions had shown me, just how good Hockney is technically.

It took me a couple of hours to navigate the exhibition simply because there was so much to see and I wanted to spend time appreciating each item. I am grateful that the fairly recent trend of having late openings for major exhibitions allowed me to see it.

7 April 2017

Seventeen at Lyric Hammersmith was charming and profound

The premise behind Seventeen was simple and intriguing. It was a play about seventeen year olds where all the actors were seniors. That was enough for me to find £30 for Circle Seat A19, a familiar part of the theatre for me.

Also familiar were the veggie burger and beer that I had in the Lyric Cafe beforehand. Lyric is definitely one of those theatres that gets front of house right and that makes a big difference to the evening and encourages me to go more often.

The stage was simple set, usually a good sign, with just a couple of pieces of children's play equipment.

The children congregated in the playground after school, and this was their last day at school ever. A time to reflect and a time to look forward.

What followed was, as far as I can recall of being that age, what seemed like natural teenage banter about loves, relationships and jobs. The conversations flew all over the place due to their short attention spans and different priorities. It was serious, coarse, tender, funny and trivial. And all engaging.

Seventeen was quick paced as the children moved in an out of the playground. Small groups formed and broke up and the mood and the subjects of their discussions changed as they did so. It was cleverly done and kept the play lively and interesting at all times.

The incongruous age of the actors was not an impediment to the story telling and I think that their experience as actors helped it. Using old actors may have been done as a gimmick or to make a point about ageism but, whatever the reason, it worked.

Seventeen was a lovely piece of theatre.

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.