29 August 2017

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story at Grimeborn did thrill me

The premise of Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, child killers, may not be an obvious one for a musical (that is more opera territory) but it intrigued me and the promise of a "multi-award-winning, five-star production" was enough to get me to find £30 for seat G16 in the first row of the Balcony.

I would have gone for a decent seat downstairs but other people were as attracted to the show as I was and my favourite seats there had gone by the time that I was organised enough to buy tickets so I thought I would try the Balcony. I may have been up there before but only once and that would have been quite a while ago.

The seat was OK though there was a slight disadvantage in having a safety rail (I would rather see than be safe!) and a bigger one in not being allowed to take drinks up there. I will try and be faster off the mark in future to get a downstairs seat but the Balcony is a fair alternative.

I had not done much (i.e. any) research before hand so the minimalist production was a pleasant surprise. There were just two players, Harry Downes and Ellis Dackombe who were Leopold and Loeb funnily enough, and just one musician, a pianist.

The story started in the 1920's as the music reflected that with an easy-listening lounge style. Not usually my sort of music but it worked very well here and the music was a strength of the performance.

We met Leopold and Loeb just after they left High School. They had been very close friends and were almost lovers, though the partnership was very unequal with one of them universally popular and outgoing and the other shy and a loner. They were both rich and looking for thrills. They committed petty crimes just for the excitement. Things developed badly from there.

The story was important but more important was the evolving relationship between the two young men and that was portrayed sensitively and intelligently. The singing was spot-on too emphasising the changing emotions expertly. It was pure joy to watch and to listen to.

The set was simple but clever too with, for example, a car conjured from a few pieces of wood. Beds and desks came and went quickly too and that nicely maintained the pace and, through that, the emotional connection with the young men and their situation.

 Thrill Me was a sumptuous production all round and it did indeed thrill me.

25 August 2017

Delilah delighted in Samson and Delilah at Grimeborn

Grimeborn is an interesting opera festival run every Summer at Arcola Theatre in Dalston. It compliments the Tete a Tete festival, which unfortunately is on around the same time, as that focuses on new opera (and many variants thereof) and Grimeborn largely does new productions of old operas. These are rough boundaries and they often overlap and a few operas appear at both.

Samson and Delilah fitted the Grimeborn brand neatly as it was written by Camille Saint-Saëns in 1877 but is not performed that often, By that I mean that I had not heard of it before. I had heard of Saint-Saëns and was interested to hear some of his works.

That was enough for me to fork out £22 for a good seat (A12, on the end of the central block) on a Friday night.

That night started well with a simple journey to the theatre, despite the partial closure at Waterloo Station, giving me enough time to hit the salad bowl beforehand. At £6.50 it is the most interesting and best value meal at any theatre that I know. The obligatory pint of Foundation was nice too.

The opera started on a high. We walked into a dark theatre, as usual, to find a group of people lying on the floor at the far end of the stage and a man dressed in Mad Max: Fury Road gear standing still just in front of my chair. It was something of an effort to get around him, which i liked as it brought me into the story at the very start.

The group lying down began to writhe and sing and we were off on the familiar story. Actually it soon transpired that I was not that familiar with the story (who was Dagon?) and I had to rely on the surtitles to help me a long as my skills with French were on a par with my knowledge of the Bible.

The story soon mattered very little as Delilah made here entrance. Not only was she stunning, as she should be as a femme fatale, she sung beautifully too, which was just as well as she had a lot of singing to do. The opera could have been called Delilah and Samson.

The music came from a single piano and that was lovely too. It flowed continuously rising when called upon to provide more colour during the frequent arias.

Samson and Delilah was everything that I would have hoped from at Grimeborn, a good classic opera delivered as if it was a new brash one. Everything about it was right.

21 August 2017

Bob Dylan shines in Girl from the North Country at Old Vic

It took quite a lot to get me to see this as, apart from the promise of some Bob Dylan music, nothing about it appealed to me. It sounded bland and I do not like bland.

Then the good reviews flooded in and that was still not enough. Finally a friend said it was so good she was considering going again and that forced me to consider it. I was lucky and was able to get a single seat on its own, A30, in the front row of the Lillian Baylis Circle (my usual place) for a not to be argued over £21. I got a safety rail in front of me for that but I knew from previous experience that I could live with that.

I was still not sure what to expect, which is how I like it, and I settled into my seat with no preconceptions.

I think Girl from the North Country was a musical. There was certainly plenty of music in it but little (if any) of it seemed to be directly related to the story. This was not just an excuse to play some greatest hits either and I did not recognise most of the songs despite owning, and playing, several Dylan albums.

The songs were the highlight of the show and all were delivered with energy and panache. The singing roles were shared widely and successfully, leading to much clapping after every song, just like at a more obvious musical. Those not singing the lead in a particular song were usually dancing, providing some backing vocal, playing instruments or some combination there of. These were long songs too and they filled the performance with their exuberance and, thanks to Dylan's Nobel Prize winning lyrics, intelligent wit.

The songs led the way and the story flowed around them. It flowed nicely too. The simple premise, a guest house, allowed us to follow the fortunes of many people who lived, worked or stayed there. These were generally unsetting stories which was not surprising given that this was set in 1934, just a few years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 when America was wallowing in the Great Depression. There were tales of love and humour in the mix but there were more about despair and unhappiness.

Girl from the North Country (I never did work out why it was called that) was an undoubted success and an affirmation of humanity and it's ability to survive large setbacks. The large cast was excellent and deserved all the cheers they got but the undoubted star of the show was Robert Zimmerman.

20 August 2017

Kew Gardens (20 August 17)

Kew Gardens opens over the Summer at 8am for members and I decided to take advantage of that even though it meant getting up earlier on a Sunday than I would normally do on a working day. The breakfast and buses worked to plan and I was at Victoria Gate about five minutes before opening time. There were people there before me.

Going early means that less of the day is taken with the visit but the most important benefit is that the garden is relatively empty and do it is possible to take pictures like this without worrying about the people in it.

My plan, such as it was, was to walk round anti-clockwise sticking more or less to the outer path. That was only a rough plan and I went through the Rock Garden rather than the Plant Family Beds. This is one of the areas that benefits most from fewer people as the sounds of the several waterfalls can be heard more clearly and the main view, next to the biggest waterfall, is peaceful.

The Grass Garden, close to the Rock Garden, is always one of my favourite parts of the gardens at this time of year when they are in full growth. The variety and majesty of the grasses never fails to delight me.

It was quite a long walk round from there to Log Trail in the south-west corner. It had been many years since I had last seen, let alone tried, the trail and it was much longer than I remembered. I presume that was because it had been added to rather than a fault of my memory.

This is just a section of it, perhaps a quarter, and you can see that it has a wide variety of balance challenges. I suspect that it is intended for children but I had great fun completing the course.

I finished my tour of Kew Gardens just before 10am as the gates were opening for the regular visitors. It had been a wonderful two hours.

18 August 2017

boom at Theatre503 was entertaining and surprising

I go to all the main shows at Theatre503 these days, not out of some loyalty but because they have a consistent track record of delivering unusual plays that are both stimulating and entertaining.

And so I eagerly forked out my £15 for boom.

First I had to feed and water myself and I did that in the pub downstairs, The Latchmere. I am not much of a foodie so I had the nachos, yet again, and a pint of Landlord, yet again.

The premise of boom is in the poster. A gay geek is studying fish and from this he concludes that they know that the world is about to end due to a collision with a large asteroid. The fish are right.

The geek makes plans, he prepares a bunker and entices a woman into it just before the collision. She is studying journalism and her motive in going was to write a piece on him.

boom is the story of one man's attempt to save the human race.

Except it is more than that. There is a third player, a narrator and our guide. She is in a uniform and it soon becomes clear that the play we are watching is some sort of historical reenactment taking place in a museum for our education.

Balancing this sci-fi element is the story of the two young people as they try to come to terms with the new world and with each other. They had been thrown together by circumstances and were not really suited which generates a lot of humour. The play (the couple) within the play (the history lesson) is nicely entertaining in the way that sit-coms should be.

The history lesson is a surprise. I've had to delete several attempts where I have tried to explain why it is surprising without spoiling it but the clues were too obvious. Just trust me on that one.

boom was a delightful treat and ideal fare for a Friday evening.

17 August 2017

Socks Do Shakespeare at Camden Fringe

If this blog is to be believed it was almost five years ago that I had last seen the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre. That was five years of bad luck with the occasional Socks gig in the London area always clashing with something I had already booked.

So when a date was announced that there was a chance that could make I jumped at it. The start time (6:30pm) and location (Islington) were far from friendly but needs must and I sneaked out of work early, grabbed a train and a tube, then walked the final mile or so down from Highbury and Islington to the Bill Murray, which is a little off the beaten track.

There was a bar so I grabbed a pint while somebody wrote "15" on my hand in green pen.

The club room was small, dark, packed and hot. That was far from ideal but the discomforts were forgotten as soon as I heard Kev Sutherland say the familiar, "Hello, we are the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre. And so am I. And so is he."

The only other material that I remembered from previous shows that I had seen was the I am a Sock song, which I guess is mandatory. The Socks do tours, or seasons, on a theme and this was all about Shakespeare so it was new material to be, apart from the odd clip that I had seen on YouTube, though Kev tries to keep his live act and YouTubing separate so there is not much opportunity to see the live show except by going to it.

For the next hour the Socks did what the Socks do and, I believe, better than I had see them do it before. The hour simply whizzed past and I spent almost all of it laughing. The only times I was not laughing at jokes I was groaning at puns.

Socks Do Shakespeare was simply far funnier than it had any right to be. Kev Sutherland is an artist who knows his craft and his audience. It had better not be another bloody five years before I see the Socks again.

15 August 2017

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Apollo Theatre was blistering

There are several names on the poster for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the one that made me buy a ticket was Tennessee Williams. I love modern theatre but I like seeing the classics too, especially if I have not seen them before, and so this was an obvious choice to make.

It was a Young Vic production at a west end venue so it came with eye watering west end prices and so I found myself up in Grand Circle, seat B12, with part of the safety rail obstructing my view and still paying £35 for the privilege (top price was £99). The play had to be pretty good to justify that.

It was pretty good.

In a format I am beginning to think of as American Standard we watched a family in almost real time across an evening in one room.

In what felt like the first of three acts (and the internet suggest that it might be that) there was a long conversation between Maggie (Sienna Miller) and Brick (Jack O'Connell) where Maggie did most of the talking and Brick did a lot of drinking. His drinking was one of the things they discussed. Sienna Miller rose highly in my estimation (admittedly from a position of obscurity).

There was also a fair amount of nudity which felt unnecessary to the story and a little distracting. They were in their bedroom, and Brick was having a shower, so the nudity was natural but unhelpful.

In the second act the main conversation was between Brick (still drinking heavily) and his father, Big Daddy Pollitt (Colm Meaney). Colm I did know because he had appeared in several great films including Layer Cake and, or course, Under Siege. This was a more equal conversation about the future. Big Daddy was celebrating his 65th birthday and had big plans for the future. Women featured in these.

In the final act all the family dramas came together and the other people at the party became more prominent, including Brick's mother, brother and his wife who had designs on Big Daddy's substantial wealth, and a couple of old family friends.

The plot helped to move things along and gave a point to the conversations but, as with other American Standard plays, it was the conversations themselves that mattered with the crisp use of language to convey emotions and ideas. The dialogue fizzed because Tennessee Williams wrote a great play and the cast did it full justice.

11 August 2017

Sumptuous evening at Tête à Tête Festival 2017

Tête à Tête took a gap year last year and there was no festival in 2016 so I was keen to get back in the groove with Tête à Tête Festival 2017.

This year the Festival was based around RADA Studios (the former Drill Hall) near Goodge Street which would have been ideal if I were still working at Kings Cross but I had changed jobs and was in distant Teddington with a train service disrupted by major works at Waterloo. All that is my thin justification for not getting to the Festival until the final week. Still, better late than never.

The first performance that I saw was Albatross.

This was a work in development that was exploring the mystery and majesty of the albatross using The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as the guide and pulling on other voices, such as Herman Melville.

This was a sparse piece with just two actors, the mariner and the albatross, one other voice off stage and an accordion providing all the music. The accordion also provided some pretty impressive wind noises in a way that I did not know that it was capable of.

One of the creatives behind the piece introduced it by saying that movement was a key part of what they wanted to achieve and this was obvious from the beginning. This worked particularly well when the two actors used two white rods each to summon images of a wild sea.

We were presented with a series of scenes, i.e. the ones they had managed to write and rehearse, that were sequenced in the way that made best sense.

It could have been clunky but was nothing of the sort. While pushing the boundaries of what opera is (one of the things Tête à Tête does) with only a couple of what could be called songs it easily managed to be poetic, musical and engaging. I enjoyed it a lot.

An excellent start to the evening.

The second performance that I saw was The Winter’s Tale, an interpretation of Shakespeare's play. The picture gives a good idea of what it looked like.

This was a fully formed piece lasting about an hour. There was a substantial cast with the musicians stepping into roles when not playing their instruments.

The music was composed by the man who also wrote Albatros and had the same short sharp sounds, more like sound effects than tunes, though that is an oversimplification. The singing was in the same mode with sounds rather than words. The story was told in spoken word.

If I had to classify it I would say that this was a play with a musical accompaniment. That music was constant and was important in describing the mood of the story. As was the movement.

It was a nice version of the story and even though I knew it I was caught in the mood of it as if hearing it for the first time.

Again I would have been pushed to call The Winter’s Tale an opera but it was a fine piece of something and I would happily see it again.

I ended the evening with ‘i’. To be honest, I was at the Festival that day anyway and it was the only thing on at that time so I booked to see it too.

I love it when accidents like that happen. "i" was my highlight of the evening.

"i" was very different again. It was much more like a traditional opera than the other two works and it was a lot weirder and a less structured story too.

It had plenty of songs which sounded like "normal" songs, with a clearly modern twist. The lyrics were heavily repetitive, for example the princess said "I" many many times before she completed the sentence "I am not happy". Musically and lyrically it was an excellent opera.

Making the good something special were the costumes and the touches of humour. The costumes were extraordinary and then some. The story teller who opened the opera by singing on her back is only a clue as to what they wore. Note the makeup too.

"i" was delightful in every way and for every minute and it was all the more pleasing because it was such a surprise.

Adding to the pleasure of the evening were the opportunities to mix with some of the Tête à Tête crew and friends in the breaks. That's why they call it a festival.

9 August 2017

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

The second Wednesday in August 2017 was ridiculously wet in south-east London but a few hardy souls still made it to West Hampstead for an evening of talking, drinking and eating at the regular BCSA "Get to Know You" Social.

There were a few new, or rare, faces there which helped the conversations take a different tack this time. There was no mention of politics and it was nice to have a long chat with Jana about dance at Saddler's Wells instead.

Other things were much the same; I started the evening on Pilsner Urquell, topped it off with a bottle of Zlaty Bazant on last orders and had some smazeny syr somewhere in the middle.

Another excellent evening and only five weeks to the next one.

8 August 2017

The Hired Man at Union Theatre was beautiful

The Hired Man was one of those easy choices. I had seen three Howard Goodall musicals at Union Theatre a couple of years ago and loved them all and that was more than enough to get me back there for a fourth helping.

Having the story based on a book by Melvyn Bragg only made it more attractive.

A bargain at £22.50.

Normally a trip to a theatre in that area (there are four that I go to fairly regularly) means eating at Culture Grub first but they were closed for refurbishment so that meant looking for a Plan B. That was an easy too and I stayed in the theatre cafe and had a halloumi wrap with some interesting accompaniments and, er, chips.

My usual good planning got me a top ten ticket which got me in the first batch of people let into the theatre and that got me a middle seat in the front row in what proved to be a full house, they even brought a couple of chairs through from the bar.

The Hired Man told us the story of a casual agricultural worker, his two brothers and their friends and lovers in the early part of the twentieth century. They were people at the bottom of the economic tree, the sort of people Thomas Hardy also wrote about, and their lives were never settled, never comfortable. There were plenty of moments of happiness, times spent with lovers, time at the races and drinks with friends in the pub but there was also the discomfort and danger of working in the pits and the even worse discomfort and danger of the trenches in the Great War.

It was a grim story that was, somehow, never bleak.

Holding everything together was the music which did everything that I hoped it would do from my previous experiences of Goodall's work. The mood and the structure kept changing with soloists, diets, trios and choruses providing different soundscapes while some themes were repeated to make new tunes sound familiar. There was clearly a Goodall approach at work here and I felt he could write musicals in the way that other people write episodes of The Archers and they would all be good.

Sitting in the front row proved to be a good choice and I felt totally immersed in the story. That story gripped me because I did not know it, it was not obvious where it was going and there was always something interesting going on.

There was a lot of activity too with the large cast dancing quite a bit and generally moving around a lot. It was an ensemble performance and everybody played their part well.

With story by Melvyn Bragg and music by Howard Goodall my exceptions were clearly set and The Hired Man sounded exactly like that. It was beautiful (and grim!).

4 August 2017

Yerma at Young Vic was a powerful story

I am not sure why I skipped Yerma when hit first appeared at Young Vic last year but it got plenty of good reviews then, and won some prestigious awards, so I was in the queue early when it returned. That alertness secured me seat A36) in the stalls for an unbelievable £10. At that price it did not matter what view I had or even if the play was not particularly good.

Young Vic seems to delight in extreme productions and this was no exception. The stage was arranged as a rectangle with seating on the two long sides, it was raised about 1.5m, had glass walls and the actors communicated with the audience through speakers. None of this had anything to do with the story and all seemed rather pointless and gimmicky.

That was a shame because Yerma was a really good play and the cast did a great job with it. Of course Billie Piper as the mother trying to get pregnant was the star, and many people seemed to have come just to see her, but there were equally strong performances from her husband, sister and mother.

Yerma started with a raunchy conversation about sex between the couple. I am not sure if it was done to shock us at the very start or as a way of raising the issue to childlessness early but the conversation started with bum sex (as they called it). No other conversations in the play were as crude.

There were many other strong conversations though as the story developed. Possibly the most shocking was the sister talking about her baby in angry terms. The complaint about exploding nappies rang a bell! It was always a tense story and while there were many light touches, particularly from the mother, it was an emotionally draining story to hear and a happy ending never looked likely.

There was no interval and that was as it should be. This was not a story to drop and pick-up again.

Despite the nature of the story I loved it for its realism, grittiness and pace. It dragged you along brutally pausing for breath occasionally.

I love dark challenging theatre and so Yerma suited me well. I liked it a lot and was only prevented from loving it by the somewhat ridiculous staging.