30 June 2017

The Ferryman at Gielgud Theatre was a complex tapestry of rich stories

I was impressed by Jerusalem, if not overwhelmed by it, and so a new Jez Butterworth play was always going to attract my attention. Adding the name Sam Mendes made it almost mandatory.

I still had my reservations though and my reluctance to pay full west-end prices so I went for a restricted view seat in the front row of the Grand Circle, A26, which set me back an inconsequential £24.50. I reasoned that the important part of the play would be the dialogue and so a good view did not matter. The best tickets were over £100 which is well above my theatre limit.

The view I got was looking through the handrails which actually worked well.

The Ferryman was a very busy play with an awful lot going on for three hours. The main plot concerned the discovered of a body of a man killed by the IRA ten years previously (1972) for, supposedly, betraying them in some way.

The main characters in the story were his brother and his wife who had moved into her brother-in-law's farm with his large family, they had seven children at the time of the play. Add to these an assortment of uncles, aunties, friends, helpers and some members of the IRA. That large cast bred a multitude of stories many, but not all, of which were wound up with the Troubles in Ireland. To give just two examples, an aunt had been at the Dublin GPO Riots in 1916 (part of the Easter Rising) and she later recited all of the names of the Hunger Strikers. Some of them had been at Bobby Sands' funeral and he was mentioned many times.

My Mum was an Irish Catholic from Straban on the border and many of the stories here resonated with things that Mum told me about her family. When we moved house in 1964 she wrote "Up the IRA" in large red letters on the hall wall before it was covered in wallpaper. She also sang me to sleep with rebel songs like, my favourite The Wild Colonial Boy. I believe that several members of her/my family spent time in the infamous H Blocks.

Around this large and dark theme of Irish political history there were lots of other things going on including an escaped goose, some rabbits, tales from Ancient Greece (where The Ferryman came from), fortune telling, teenage bragging, an affair, a proposal, a death, a harvest, some dancing and an awful lot of drinking and swearing.

To tell stories like this needed a good cast and there was one. Paddy Considine (hapless Guardian journalist in Bourne Ultimatum) led the family and the cast with notable help from Laura Donnelly (his sister in law) and from, to be honest, far too people for me to mention or to look up. The only one I had seen on stage before was Carla Langley.

It was the complex tapestry of stories and emotions that made The Ferryman such exceptional theatre. It's mood and pace swayed unpredictably as we followed the large and extended family through little more than one day. In doing so it followed other classics like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Long Day's Journey into Night in allowing us to see the story unfold in almost realtime.

I came to The Ferryman a little sceptical and left a firm fan. I hope to see a revival in a couple of years or, as things stand, this production again as it is already running through to January 2018.

29 June 2017

Sometimes Apple Maps is better than Google Maps

The consensus seems to be that Google Maps are god and Apple Maps are bad but, despite this, I persevere with Apple Maps as the default mapping system on my iPhone and, because of that, on my iPad and iMac too. So I was pleased to find an example where Apple Maps was clearly better.

I am going to see a flat this evening and while I know the route very well I wanted to check the distance so that I could time the walk; 1km is a convenient 10 minutes for planning purposes.

I am actually travelling from Teddington but I redid the planning from Northweald Lane as that demonstrates my point better.

Apple Maps shows a quick and easy route.

On the other hand, Google Maps wants to take me on a large detour, taking 9 minutes instead of 4.

The reason for this is that Google Maps does not know about some of the local footpaths that Apple Maps does know and so it takes me along the roads instead.

That is not my only grips with Google Maps either; it insists in showing me distances in Miles (their default for the UK) rather than in km (my preference). This is despite me having a Google Profile where it could hold details of my preference.

And that is not my only gripe with Google either! I wrote something about the accuracy of online maps back in 2009 and somehow in all the changes with Google Photos (remember Picasa?) they have managed to lose some. Update 30/6/17: Google have found my old photos and they are now shown on the previous blog post.

25 June 2017

Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne (2017)

I had seen Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne before, in 2013, and I said then that "it was all very pretty, even if it did not make a lot of sense" so I was happy to see it again when it was revived for this year's festival.

Some friends wanted to see it too and I managed to get seats Red Upper Circle C38-41 at £100. Good seats in a good part of the theatre for a good price.

The traffic was kind so we arrived there just after 3pm, the official opening time but we were by no means the first people there. The weather was kind too so while we bagged a table in the marquee out of convenience we were able to spend a long time walking through the gardens before the opera started.

The production was much as I remembered it from earlier, though to be honest I did not remember that much, just general themes and concepts. Of course I could have read the synopsis in the programme or even my notes from the last time but that is not the sort of thing that I do. I prefer surprises.

I found Ariadne auf Naxos just as confusing the second time round and, just like the first time, that had no impact on my enjoyment of the opera at all. The first scene-setting half was nice enough but the second surreal half was gorgeous. Obviously Richard Strauss knew how to write a good tune and Glyndebourne know where to find good singers. The combination was dazzling.

I know I say the singing is good, or better, every time that I go to Glyndebourne but I only say that because it is true and this year I think that the singing has been even better than usual.

Ariadne auf Naxos was all very pretty, even if it did not make a lot of sense

23 June 2017

HAG talk: Ham's Modern Architecture

My involvement with Ham Amenities Group (HAG) is not that much to boast of but I do get to produce the posters for the events. An upside of this is that I get to know about the talks early and can be one of the first to book.

I was very keen to hear this talk for several reasons. I am interested in Ham and in Modern Architecture so this talk could have been made for me, and in a way it was. I had heard Richard Woolf talk about local architecture before and it was that which made me suggest him as a speaker for HAG.

I did not know beforehand that Richard also does lecturing and that came though in a superbly composed and delivered presentation.

The content was both detailed and authoritative. Richard certainly knew his subject and was enthusiastic about it too. That enthusiasm had taken him all over Ham and down no-through-road, like Sheridan Road, which I thought that only I walked down (for my Ham Photos blog).

Richard hit all the right buttons for me in the talk, and I would have been delighted with it whatever opinions he had, so it was a bonus that he seemed to agree with me on almost everything and as he was the expert that was even more gratifying.

The aim of the HAG talks is to interest and inform residents in some aspect of Ham and Richard Woolf did that magnificently. We are already trying to find a way to get him to do another talk.

22 June 2017

Punts at Theatre503 was powerful and entertaining

Punts, like Clickbait, was one of those plays that addressed an overtly sexual subject intelligently while skilfully avoiding the trap of becoming voyeuristic or pornographic. The poster says that quite well, it is clearly sexy but there is fun in there too.

The play was about the sexual awakening of an autistic boy who got a lot of help from his parents in that they bought a high class sex worker for him. It opened with his mother matter-of-factly preparing him for this encounter which included checking that he had washed under his foreskin. That got a laugh as did a lot of other things.

But this was not Carry On Prostitute, it quickly grew in to a lot more than that as we learned more about the boy, his parents and the sex worker. They all had reasons for doing what they did, things that they feared and aspirations for the future.

Punts became a play about empowerment as each of the four tried to take control over some aspect of their lives. There was a good story too and some important things happened which had an impact on the four and the relationships between them. It was powerful and entertaining too.

Given that all four parts were equally important to the play and that all four actors played their roles admirably, it is only fair that I name-check all of them, so take a bow Christopher Adams (son), Clare Lawrence-Moody (mum), Graham O'Mara (dad) and Florence Roberts (sex worker) for bring to life four people that I cared about.

Punts was exactly the sort of theatre that I expect from Theatre503 and that is why I keep going back there.

20 June 2017

Incident At Vichy at King's Head Theatre

I fancied Incident At Vichy because it is by Arthur Miller and I was also keen to go to King's Head Theatre which I had somehow not managed to do previously, despite working within easy walking distance for a while.

I was feeling generous and pushed the boat out a little and went for a Premium seat, C8; this cost £25 which is heading towards pricey for a pub theatre. I would not have minded that if the premium seat was good but the first few rows were at the same height so I has two rows of people in front of me. None of them was ridiculously tall or wide but my view was impacted. The view I had was something like the picture above but with some heads in the way.

The evening had not started that well either. The unusual 7pm start meant something of a mad dash from Teddington which left no time for food beforehand. The pub foresaw this and did not provide any anyway. They did provide some reasonable though and while it took a little queueing to get some the first pint went down in under five minutes and I took a second in with me.

Incident At Vichy was a procession of men waiting to be called in for nationality checks by the Nazis. These checks apparently consisted of examining papers and foreskins and took place in a consulting room off to the right. This was in the early 1940s when the Vichy Regime was the nominal government of France while the Nazis occupied the north of the country.

As the men waited they talked. Some were sure that everything would be fine, others were worried about their papers and others shared stories of what they had heard happened to those who failed the tests. In one, of many telling exchanges one man said that it did not make economic sense for the Nazis to kill so many people when they needed workers and another commented that was exactly the sort of remark that a Jew would be expected to make.

As with other war plays I had seen recently the othering of Jews, Gypsies and gays etc. had uncomfortable resonances with current times where blame for woes was laid at the doors of Muslims, Remoaners and Fake News Media. We seem determined not to learn those lessons.

Incident At Vichy was tense but it was also illuminating and stimulating thanks largely to the simplicity of the production that let the characters do all the work and to the strong cast that made all of those characters realistic and interesting. 

19 June 2017

Loving The Old Guard

It has probably been forty years since I've loved comics as much as I am now. Then the two main publishers, Marvel and DC, published a host of off-mainstream books like Warlock, Claw the Unconquered, Deathlok the Demolisher, The Warlord and Killraven, all by top class creators many of whom rose from these humble starts to become genuine stars, including Jim Starlin and P. Craig Russell.

This golden era is different in that it is the fringe publishers, notably Image, that are doing the interesting books while Marvel and DC are mired in constantly trying to refresh the dying superhero books. Another difference is that this time a lot of the good books are coming from established stars, like Brian Wood and Brian K. Vaughan.

The Old Guard appealed to me because it looked interesting visually and as a concept and because there was a lot of buzz around its launch. The barrier for entry to new comics is now very low, as soon as I hear about something that I like I can go online to buy it and the iPad means that I can read comics in any free moment. I currently have 89 books on my iPad waiting for free moments but that does not stop me buying more.

The Old Guard is very old in some cases. These are people who have lived for centuries, or millennia, simply because they cannot be killed very easily. Being almost immortal has brought them all together and made then successful mercenaries. Not a unique concept by any means but there is a lot more to the story than that and the story telling, words and pictures, is excellent. It is both a fun book and one that stands up to critical scrutiny.

The good news is that it is coming back for a second series, the bad news is that is in 2018.

17 June 2017

Excellent Hamlet at Glyndebourne

I did reasonably well in the ballot this year and got decent seats for all five operas that I applied for.

First up was Hamlet, a brand new opera by composer Brett Dean
and librettist Matthew Jocelyn. I was keen to see this because it was a new opera and, of course, with Hamlet at the core it was a dramatic story.

And Hamlet was the real winner here. I see a version of Hamlet probably at least once a year and some have been very different with, for example, a female lead or being set in a prison in Liverpool, and this version was as dramatic and as powerful as any of them.

This Hamlet, as many of them are, was somewhat abridged to fit into an opera a shade under three hours long and that produced a story with a succession of strong scenes with some of the frippery removed. Of course that frippery still works well in the spoken word through the poetry of the language but was not missed in a musical adaptation.

The strongest scene, and one of the most visually pleasing, was Ophelia's decent into madness as she sung of Hamlet's abandoned love while distributing flowers to everybody.

The music was as different and as startling as I had hoped, aided in no small measure by the unusual layout which included musicians on the top level who added both height and width to the sound. Sitting more-or-less in the middle I was impressed by the stereophonic effect of drum beats moving from left to right.

The tone was set at the very start with an abrupt opening, no promenade by the conductor first, that rumbled more than it sang. The music continued to be a succession of uncommon sounds and while it lacked the tunes that some may have been hoping for it carried the mood superbly and stayed well within the approachable limits of modern music.

The singing was exquisite as is the custom at Glyndebourne. Hamlet has a large supporting cast of strong characters including his father, Gertrude, Laertes, the previously praised Ophelia and, obviously, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who survived the English in this version. All of the soloists, were superb, not just the roles listed earlier. It was a beautiful performance.

Glyndebourne played its usual role in the excellent day with everything from a new pond in the garden, lots of new art and a jug of Pimms from the Long Bar.

It is precisely because of days like this that I keep going to Glyndebourne.

14 June 2017

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

The months seem to be whizzing past at the moment and every month has a second Wednesday and every second Wednesday there is a British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) social and I always go for the Czech and Slovak beers, the Czech food (always smazeny syr) and the conversations and camaraderie with the other people there.

June was just like every other month and that is a good thing. If it's not broken, don't fix it.

13 June 2017

Jane Eyre at Richmond Theatre

For some reason Richmond Theatre started promoting this event many months before it was on and so I bought my ticket, Dress Circle  Row A  Seat 22 Price £31.50, many months in advance.

By the time that the show came around I had, as I often do, forgotten precisely why I had booked it. Obviously Jane Eyre is a classic story so that helped. I had forgotten which classic story it was until about half way through but that did not matter, it was still a classic. I went to the theatre thinking it was a ballet, and understandable error given that Northern Ballet were touring their version of Jane Eyre around that time.

It turned out that this was a National Theatre production that had been on at NT and was then being toured prior to a return to NT. That explains why I booked it.

The staging was the defining feature of this production. The stage was arranged like an assault course with the various levels, ladders and walkways becoming rooms, corridors and paths as required. All that was needed was a little imagination and some good acting.

And the acting was another strength of the production. It was an ensemble production with some of the actors playing multiple roles. One was even a dog at times and a very lovable dog he was too. There were constant looks, gestures and movements that filled the stage and enriched the story.

The final string in the bow was the music (did you see what I did there?). You can see some musical instruments at the back of the stage. This was far from a musical but the incidental music and the odd song certainly helped to make the production entertaining.

With all those strong supports in place the drama of Jane Eyre's story was able to flourish in a thoroughly entertaining way.

8 June 2017

Stunning Richard III at Arcola Theatre

I go to see quite a lot of Shakespeare and I also go to Arcola Theatre quite a lot so this production of Richard III was an obvious temptation, despite having seen a good Richard III at Almeida Theatre less than a year ago. It helped that this version had been getting good reviews, mostly for the performance of Greg Hicks, and also had Paul Kemp in the cast, an actor I knew originally from Orange Tree and who I had managed to speak to after a couple of shows.

As always, the main problem was finding a free evening and I finally managed to find a slot on a Thursday just before it closed. I was on my own, which always makes finding a decent seat easier, and I was able to get a front-row (A23) seat in one of the corners of the stage for a paltry £20.

Intimate spaces make for intimate theatre and Arcola is adept at exploiting that intimacy. Richard III is about a man driven to extremes by the lust for power and being in touching distance of that lust and malevolence was powerful and intoxicating.

Richard III is also very much about one man and so this production relied heavily on the skills of Greg Hicks and, as the quote on the poster shows, it was an excellent performance. The deformity was there but it was the constant menace that defined the character and the play.

Helping the play along was the simple and flexible set and a good ensemble cast. I was a little concerned when Paul Kemp died as Clarence (Richard's brother) at the start of the play and was please to see him return later as Stanley. The rest of the large cast, others of whom also doubled up on roles, were very good too and this was one of the significant pluses of this production.

This was my sort of Shakespeare. The story moved fluidly, the characters were distinct, the set concentrated on the overall mood rather than specific details, and the star starred.

Richard III is one of Shakespeare's more enjoyable plays (in my opinion), which is why I have been to see it so often, and this was possibly the most enjoyable production of it that I have ever seen. Other productions have had bigger budgets and bigger stars (Kevin Spacey was outstanding in 2011) but these have also had bigger stages and the intimacy of Arcola made the drama more tangible.

7 June 2017

Chummy at White Bear Theatre was a gripping tale brilliantly told

The new White Bear Theatre had forced itself onto my short list of regular theatres (others include Theatre503, Bush, Arcola, Union and Park) partially because of its proximity, it is a modest walk from Vauxhall, but mostly because I was enjoying the shows there. Chummy sounded like my sort of thing and so I made a fairly last-minute booking for a skimpy £15.

Chummy called itself a "gripping psychological thriller", and it was. And more than that, it was presented brilliantly with a good production (staging, movement, lighting, music, etc.) and an excellent cast of just three.

Jackie Straker (Megan Pemberton) was a Private Investigator with some familiar tropes; ex-police, single, hard drinker and with a disturbed background. It is no surprise that the writer, John Foster, has written a documentary on Raymond Chandler.

Jackie got a strange job from a nameless man who she called Chummy, a police nickname for criminals they were hunting. He wanted her to stop him from killing and he phoned her many times to explain how he felt and what he was planning to do.

The play revolved around the relationship between Jackie and Chummy as she tried to work out who he was, whether she knew him from a previous case, and how she could stop him. She spent most of the time in her small office on the phone to Chummy or going through papers looking for clues. He moved around unknown locations purposely, slowly and menacingly, lurking in the dark dressed entirely in black.

There was a dark sting in the story's dark tail and while I saw it coming it still stung hard when it came. The story was a proper thriller where I was keen to find out who Chummy was and why he wanted to kill. It was also genuinely gripping and deeply psychological. The dark creeping mood of the piece was as powerful as the story.

Chummy was rich and immensely satisfying theatre.

2 June 2017

Life of Galileo at Young Vic sparkled despite an exaggerated production

On a few occasions I have found productions at Young Vic a little bit pretentious to the detriment of the play and Life of Galileo was a case in point. Others include Street Car Named Desire and The Trial. Despite the overblown production there was so much good stuff in Life of Galileo that the good significantly outweighed the bad and overall it was a fine production, it is just a shame that it could have been more.

Oddly I felt much the same about another recent Brecht play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Donmar Warehouse, but this was much stronger and managed to overcome the overblown bits.

Every time I go to Young Vic there seems to be a different layout and this one was more different than most. Playing to the Galileo theme the stage was a circle with some of the audience sat on cushions in the centre while the cast moved around them on a walkway. Above the stage the ceiling was a dome on to which moving images of the stars were projected. It was very effective.

Also effective was the incidental music by a Chemical Brother. I particularly like the sections where the music and the projects combined to show something of the majesty and wonder that Galileo was discovering with this telescopes and calculations.

Some of the other gimmicky things worked, or at least did not detract, and these included the puppet reciting a short poem before each scene and the interactions between the cast and the audience, particularly those that they had to move between in the centre. What did not work for me were some of the bigger set piece such as the carnival scene and the steps with bright lights behind them used for the arrival of senior religious figures.

This pomposity was a shame because at its heart Life of Galileo was a fine play that showed us one of the origins of science and the impact that it had on people. The story telling was made exceptional by Brendan Cowell as Galileo who sparkled at the centre of everything. He bounced, skipped and clapped a lot and he also played the slower scenes very well and one of my favourites was towards the end when he was locked away to stop his ideas spreading and had a touching conversation about the role of science and scientists. I actually disagreed with Galileo's view on this but I liked the passion in his argument.

This production of Life of Galileo (I had seen it before but too long ago to remember the details) was certainly something special and the few moments of exaggeration could be forgiven.

1 June 2017

Babette’s Feast at Print Room was achingly gorgeous

I fancied Babette’s Feast for several reasons. Having heard of but never read the story I heard a dramatisation of it a few months previously and loved the almost English charm of a story in which not much really happens.

I also liked Print Room on my first visit, for The Tempest, and was keen to be back in their quirky spaces. Their bar is one of the very best despite the limited range of beers.

I remembered that the front row (where I sat last time) was sunk to almost stage height and so I went for a seat in the second row, B9, for a fair £28. I was pleased to see all the seats around me taken and most of the seats in the theatre taken too. This on a Wednesday evening.

Babette’s Feast made the transition from novel to play in a neat and pertinent way. A group of refugees hiding from armed forces, in Syria maybe, kept their spirits up by telling the stories that make up the narrative of the book. Early on the main narrator leaves and others take over believing in the power of the story.

The first narrator became Babette, one of the many times that the cast doubled up in their roles. We also had different members of the cast playing the same role as, in the story, the characters aged. This was best done when the two sisters aged thirty years or so.

There were many other nice things to enjoy too including music and singing (one of the characters was an opera singer and sounded like one too), fluid changes between scenes, subtle lighting and delicious acting. I genuinely cared for the characters and that made the stories the more engaging.

Babette’s Feast was a delightful story told delightfully and I smiled in delight all the way through it.