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.

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.