30 November 2017

Pleasingly gripped by The House of Bernarda Alba at Cervantes Theatre

I discovered Cervantes Theatre by happy accident. I was going to Union Theatre and with some time to kill I went for a short walk (I am still counting my steps) and I discovered Cervantes Theatre almost next door, just a little more away from the main road.

The next day the internet told me that they stage Spanish language plays with the productions performed in both Spanish and English. I was not very interested in plays performed in Spanish but I was interested in Spanish plays and so I joined their mailing list. Soon after I did that they told me about The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca who is probably most famous in the UK now as the author of Yerma which has had two recent runs at Young Vic. It was written in 1936 and was his last play; he was killed in the Spanish Civil War in the same year.

It took me a while to find a date to see it and by the time that I did so all the Spanish dates were sold out, including an extra week added to the run. I hope that success continues.

I did my usual thing and went to Culture Grub which is just as well as the bar above the theatre was limited to packets of crisps etc. I also had to make do with a bottle of San Miguel but that was understandable.

The theatre itself was small and neat with comfortable individual seating on three sides of a slightly L-shaped stage. The seats in the middle of the central row were marked as best but I only had a standard ticket so I chose a seat in the front row on the base of the L. It was an excellent position, possibly better than the best seats.

Bernarda Alba was a fierce matriarch bringing up her five daughters, aged between 20 and 39, in rural Spain in the 1930's. Also in the all-women house was Bernarda's elderly mother and a housekeeper.

The play started after the funeral of Bernarda's second husband and, being deeply religious, she imposed strict mourning on her daughters, one of them got scolded for carrying a blue fan rather than a black one. She had been fiercely protective of her daughters and the period of mourning intensified this with the family having little contact with the outside world. One consequence of this was that any man who came into view, such as the farmhands, caused something of a stir. This stirring and its consequences was the main story of the play.

The main construct of the play was the interaction between the women and it was a play mostly of dialogue. Most of the physical action was the women going about their daily routines, such as washing and sewing. It was a compelling view of a family of diverse characters trying to live by the hard rules set by the head of the house.

The House of Bernarda Alba was a gripping and satisfying play and it was easy to see why the run had been extended and it is being brought back for another run in 2018.

The evening had a happy ending as I spent a few minutes talking to one of the actresses, Carolina, who is a friend of the woman who sits next to me at work. It's nice when things like that happen.

29 November 2017

The Dark Room at Theatre503

Like most things (if not everything) at Theatre503, The Dark Room sounded interesting. This time it was the news that it had won the Best New Australian Work in the Sydney Theatre Awards that most intrigued me. That was more than enough to get me to part with £15. Lots of other people were convinced too and the theatre was packed.

Wednesday is not a normal theatre day for me, those are Tuesdays and Fridays, so there was a slight change from my usual routine. I was able to escape the office early, at 5:15pm, and walk the scenic route home via Jaflong Tandoori to pick up a pre-ordered takeaway, arriving home just before 6pm. That gave plenty of time to eat before heading out to the theatre. Travel worked well and I got to the pub around 7:30 and I took a pint of Meantime Yakima Red with me upstairs to the theatre. I finished it before the play started at 7:45.

I was not quite the first one in when the doors were opened but I was in early enough to get my usual place in the middle of the front row.

The stage in front of me was set as a basic hotel room. Later they players called it a motel but I'll not argue over semantics. First two appear were a middle aged woman and a teenage girl. The girl had a bag over her head and was in some distress. The woman was a social worker and she was taking the girl to the hotel for her protection but the girl was not happy about it. Some hard talking followed on both sides before they reached some sort of calm.

Then another couple entered the room, oblivious to the two people already there. The couple were at a wedding party and he, a policeman, wanted to go out for more drinks with his colleagues while his pregnant wife wanted to go home having had an unhappy time at the party. This was a second story and this was either another room in the hotel or the same room but at another time. Then a third man entered the room and he was on his own.

The stories of the three sets of people then unfolded in the same room (or identical rooms) through a series of scenes the timings of which had to be worked out. It was something like putting a jigsaw puzzle together and, also like a jigsaw puzzle, the more pieces that were added the clearer the overall picture became. It was a neat trick and neatly done.

Some memes helped to string everything together, such as the many references to dogs, hence the dog in the poster. It was the intelligent touches like that which helped to make The Dark Room special, and it was special. And making sure that the story came to life as planned was an excellent cast.

The Dark Room fitted the Theatre503 house-style superbly and that meant that it fitted my needs too.

27 November 2017

Poison at Orange Tree Theatre was steady if unspectacular

It had been a while since I had genuinely looked forward to a performance at Orange Tree Theatre rather than going out of a sense of loyalty.

The reason for that was that Poison sounded slightly difficult and I like difficult. I also liked that it was written by a foreigner as I like to see other perspective.

My enthusiasm was converted into seat Lower Floor A5 for £22.50. That was in the middle of the front row just off to the left of the picture. I was pleased to see the minimalist set when I went in, carrying a bottle of Punk IPA because there was no interval. The picture also shows the entire cast.

We quickly learned that the two people had been married but had split not long after the death of their son and had not met or spoken for nine years. Now a poison in the ground meant that their son's grave might have to move and they were at the graveyard to meet the authorities to discuss options.

For the next eighty minutes they spoke, argued and joked about their son, their parting and their lives since then. Their different reaction's to their son's death and their different reactions to their reunion drove the drama and drove it to some interesting, if not very surprising, places. The emotions fluctuated, but not a lot, and the pace was deliciously slow with many long pauses which all helped to keep a steady tension that was, thankfully, never quite relieved.

It also helped that both Claire Price and Zubin Varla delivered fine performances.

Dead children is something of a theatrical meme at the moment (which probably says more about the sort of plays that I choose to see than anything else) so many of the themes of loss and coping I had seen explored before but they were explored skilfully here which made up for a lack in originality.

I am old enough to remember Once we were Mothers (Orange Tree 2007) which handled the death of a child with more emotion and more of an impact, which is why I remember it ten years and hundreds of plays later.

Poison was a steady if unspectacular play and steady is good enough.

25 November 2017

Carmen by Ormond Opera was wonderful

I first discovered Ormond Opera in 2016 with their production of Madama Butterfly and that was so good that when they announced that they were doing Carmen then booking it was one of the easiest decisions that I have ever made.

It was still an easy decision when they announced that due to illness the performance that I had booked for had been downgraded to a full dress rehearsal.

This time I brought some friends with me and there were six of us altogether.

I have seen Carmen many times, so much so that it warrants its own tag in this blog (and I've left some performances out), so the story was never going to surprise me which meant that I could largely ignore the English translations displayed at the side and could focus on the music, the singing and the acting, all of which were superb.

The music came from just one piano and that was plenty enough sound to fill the church hall. We were warned that the singing might not be quite right but I found the exact opposite to be true, all the voices were good and many were superb. Carmen was one of those.

The acting made the performance and there were many nice little touches, several of which happened away from the centre of the action so I had to keep an eye on every part of the stage all the time. Worth a mention in this respect were Carmen's two companions who carried on their role playing when they took the curtain calls at the end.

In some ways Carmen is an easy opera to get right because it has so many good tunes in it, and it has a pretty strong story, but that is no excuse to take things easy and Ormond Opera put the work in to make this a memorable performance.

Whatever Ormond Opera do next I hope to be there to see it.

After the opera five of us retired to the Dukes Head for some serious conversations and a few beers until they threw us out at half past midnight. It was a fine and fitting end to a wonderful evening.

24 November 2017

Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse was both bleak and heart-warming

The poster makes it clear that you are meant to see Mother Courage and Her Children because Josie Lawrence is in it but I went because it was written by Bertolt Brecht. That was plenty enough to get to to part with £20 for seat A37 in The Large.

I know I am relatively well off and that theatres are trying to encourage young people to get into the theatre-going habit but that seems to cheap to me. Almost everybody there looked to me as if they could easily afford another £5 or so.

I had done my customary research (none) and while I was expecting something with a war theme I had not expected it to the the Thirty Years War that raged across Europe between 1618 and 1648 between (mostly) various Protestant and Catholic states. My first encounter with this war was when I started working in Prague in 1992 and learned that Charles Bridge was the scene of a battle between Bohemia and Sweden (!).

Mother Courage followed the war trading with the armies as they travelled across Europe. She bought and sold items that she carried in a cart which was pulled by hand, initially by her two sons. Her other child was a mute which meant that she was not much of a marital catch and was likely to remain single.

The war raged around Mother Courage and while she was not directly involved, she traded with both armies as circumstances dictated, the war had a profound effect on her, her children and the many people they met. Many people suffered (it was a brutal war) and a few, like Mother Courage, survived. None thrived. The war brought many deaths, hardship as farms were abandoned, looting of captured towns and oppression of civilians. The war was a relentless dark presence.

The stage was set for movement being a traverse (or corridor) stage with seating along two long sides and the entrances at either end. I was sat in the middle of the front row (no surprise there).

The play told Mother Courage's story over several years in a series of scenes often several years apart. Survival meant putting up with some hard situations and also enjoying the few good times, like sharing a drink and a song with friends around a camp fire. Mother Courage's good humour provided several points of comedy too and she grabbed my knee knowingly while making a "chopper" joke.

Audience interaction like that was a feature of the performance and several people were brought into the story at various times. Another good feature was the songs. This was far from a musical but the half a dozen or so songs littered through the performance added to the variety and the entertainment.

Josie Lawrence was magnificent as Mother Courage taking full command of the stage without unfairly dominating it - the superb supporting cast were given space to flourish too. She was resolute, tender, powerful and funny. Her last act was possible her best, as she left the stage for the last time, still pulling her cart, she reached out for the hand of one of the audience and she got a warm and genuine response back.

Mother Courage and Her Children was a moving play about war that managed to find some humanity amongst the brutality. It was both bleak and heart-warming.

23 November 2017

Thoroughly entertained by Jamaica Inn at Tabard Theatre

The combination of Tabard Theatre and Daphne Du Maurier was the sort of temptation that I am not good at resisting so I willingly parted with £20 for Row A Seat 7.

I was not sure what to expect as I had not read the book and if I had ever seen a film or TV adaptation then I had forgotten it. So it came as a complete surprise to find that it was a story about smugglers, the sort that I was familiar with as a child growing up in Weymouth where Moonfleet was read by everybody.

It was a good story too with a cast of interesting characters from the brazen horse thief to a studiously pious priest. Unexpectedly finding herself caught up with dubious people and dubious activities was a young woman and orphan Mary Yellan who had been forced by her parents' death to go to Jamaica Inn to live with her aunt and her husband, the pub's landlord.

In an impressive cast Kimberley Jarvis was brilliant as Mary, the lost girl who developed strength and found a purpose. Helen Bang also shone as Mary's aunt who suffered under the bullying of her husband but somehow managed to find solace in that.

The story had me gripped and while some of the plot turns were not a great surprise the final ending was always in doubt until we got there and the tale was told with lots of drama. There were a few songs thrown in too which was a fine addition.

Jamaica Inn was a thoroughly entertaining evening thanks to a good story, a cast of strong characters all brought to life by fine acting and a production that provided plenty of action and kept the pace going.

14 November 2017

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham's Theatre

One of the Google Alerts that I have is for Simon Stephens so I got an early warning of his latest play, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, and duly paid £39 for seat A15 in the Grand Circle.

It was ninety minutes straight through which allowed an 8pm start and that gave me plenty of time to go to Govinda's for a curry and Pret for a coffee beforehand.

Surprisingly the theatre was not full and that meant an upgrade from the Grand Circle to the Royal Circle. This has happened to me a few times at theatres and while the upgrade is always nice I would rather that the theatre were full.

The feedback on social media had given me little clue on what to expect so I sat down ready to be surprised.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is the tale of two people and they are the only two people who appear in it. He was a traditional seventy year old and she was a flighty forty-something. In almost her first sentence she apologised for he foul language which set the scene for some of Stephens' trademark swearing though there was a lot less than in some other plays.

In some ways it was a simple story about the two people told chronologically but it was delicately spiced with some surprises. The play's title comes from the principle that if you observe an elementary particle you cannot know both where it is and where it is going and the woman remarked that she watched her son so closely as he grew up that she always knew where he was at that time but could not see the direction that he was travelling.

That principle applied to us too, as we played close attention to the characters' words and actions it was not possible to see where their story was going.

Their journey through the hour and a half had a mix of emotions and moods. Most of them were happy and light and there was a lot of proper laugh-out-loud humour along the way. This was especially true at the beginning when they clumsily got to know each other.

Both the stars, Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham, were excellent and made me care about them. I wanted them both to have a happy ending and I was interested in everything that happened to them along the way.

The staging was neat with just a few props, things like benches and tables, rising out of the floor while the walls moved and the lighting changed to show us the different places that the story took us to. It appeared simple, though I am sure that it took clever mechanics and electronics to achieve that, and it was very effective.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle was an interesting and unusual tale told in an engaging way. I loved every minute of it.

10 November 2017

Hawklords at 100 Club (2017)

Hawklords are one of the select few bands that I try to see whenever they play a local venue, which in recent years has been once a year in November. I saw them at the 100 Club on 8 Nov 14 and 6 Nov 16. They played a different venue in November 15 but I had to miss that as I inadvertently booked a holiday for that time.

All the chatter on social media before the gig was about the absence of long time Ron Tree from the tour and I was curious to see what the line-up would be. In the end there was no surprise and the remaining four band members (Jerry Richards, Tom Ashurst, Harvey Bainbridge and Dave Pearce) shared the duties with Jerry doing the lion's share of the work.

Despite leading the team on both vocals and guitar, Jerry took his usual position on the right of the stage with bassist Tom taking the central position and Harvey on the left. The use of a projector meant that only the centre of the stage was lit and that meant only Tom.

Presumably as part of a deliberate plan, Jerry, Tom and Dave all wore black allowing Harvey's psychedelic shirt to stand out even more than usual despite being in relative darkness.

I took a photo of the setlist before the performance and the only tracks I recognised were Right Stuff and Ejection, both oddly from the Bob Calvert side project Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters which none of Hawklords worked on. There were four (out of seven) tracks from their latest album, Six, and three from their previous album, Fusion.

Not knowing the songs did not matter as the sound and construction were familiar enough. Each new tune and rhythm was quickly learned and enjoyed. This was music to dance to or, in my case, sway slightly from side to side to. At times they sounded more like seventies Hawkwind than Hawkwind do these days.

Hawklords played sixteen songs altogether in a set that lasted almost two hours. You do the maths. It was a mighty fine two hours too with Hawklords doing everything that the enthusiastic (and well behaved this time) audience expected and hoped for. It was a very loyal following too and there was an impressive number of Hawklords t-shirts on show.

I suspect that it will be another year before I will be able to see Hawklords again. Not ideal but far better than not seeing them at all.

9 November 2017

Rules for Living at Rose Theatre was an entertaining romp

Rules for Living sounded like a simple comedy and while I would not normally travel very far to see a play like that Rose Theatre is only a pleasant forty minutes away so I decided to go. I managed to get a seat in the dead centre of the first proper row, A37, for £30.

The situation was simple and familiar, two thirty something sons and their two wives/girl friends and one daughter were visiting their parents for Christmas day. There were a lot of family issues, a failing relationship, jealousy, expectations, abandoned dreams, etc. etc. that were gradually exposed as the day progressed.

The main trick of the play were the rules for living; these were real rules, such as Matthew has to sit down to tell a lie, and they appeared on a display board above the stage. These rules were a good source of humour in their own right, for example, when Matthew was asked an awkward question and he looked around for somewhere to sit then you knew that he was about to tell a lie and that anticipation was part of the fun.

Like a good farce, Rules for Living started fairly slowly as the characters were introduced and the situation was set and then things escalated quickly and deeply. The pictures on the far left and right in the poster above gives some idea of how bad things got, but the journey there, shown in the middle two pictures, was where most of the fun happened as the rules became more complicated and the characters became more extreme. Carrie's robot dance was a joy to behold.

Rules for Living was an entertaining romp through a family's strained relationships given an added twist by the use of real rules.

8 November 2017

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

This new job (if it still is a new job after eighteen months) is working well for me in that I am working almost exclusively in London and so there is little disruption to my social life. This means that I can go to a lot of theatre and also that I can attend the BCSA "Get to Know You" Socials almost every month. I like that.

It was a smaller group than usual this month which meant that for a lot of the time we could have just one conversation. For reasons that social scientists can probably explain, when we have a dozen or more people we break up into conversational groups of two, three or four people but with seven people we remained in a single group. I liked talking in a larger group as it added more perspectives to the conversation and also meant that I had to do less talking!

This month we talked a lot about bad weather, prompted by various people travelling to Czechia or Slovakia in the next few months. One of those was a first-timer to the socials and Ruzena did a fine job in persuading him to join the BCSA and to come to the following week's Annual Dinner.

Everything else about the evening was enjoyably familiar from the Pilsner Urquell to the Smazeny Syr. I'll be going back on Wednesday 13 December for another helping.

4 November 2017

Brutal Cessation at Theatre503

I had seen Brutal Cessation before, and not that long ago, but circumstances then had not been ideal and I wanted to give it another chance, particularly as it was playing at Theatre503 which is one of my very favourite theatres and is also where I first encountered Milly Thomas (as an actress in Animals). It was a late booking made on Saturday morning for a Saturday matinee performance. £12 secured the deal.

I got to Theatre503 the interesting way which meant catching a slow train to Queenstown Road Battersea then walking back through Battersea Park. The walk was leafy and damp and somewhat directed by the miles of crash barriers assembled for the fireworks display that evening.

The nicely timed walk got me to the theatre about ten minutes before the performance started. Time for a pint and I felt pleased with myself that I avoided that temptation.

Careful positioning in the waiting area got me my usual seat in the middle of the front row. The couple were already on stage but asleep. I kept quiet until the play stared.

Brutal Cessation was a series of scenes between a couple with no sense or suggestion of chronology. They could be played in almost any order. They change in mood from the playful to the threatening to the near absurd. Themes, words and attitudes are repeated, swapping from one person to the other as they do so. It is a study in how two people behave with their loves, fears, humours and failings.

Keeping it all together and making it utterly believable were the two excellent performances by Alan Mahon and Lydia Larson. The little movements and expressions made all the difference.

Without a story, Brutal Cessation required an appreciation of theatre-craft which the audience clearly had and the performance was roundly cheered at the end.

It was the sort of play that I enjoyed but found hard to articulate why afterwards. There is no simple conclusion to the sentence, "You must see Brutal Cessation because ..." but a long sentence would go on to mention the construction, the characters, the dialogue and the relevance.

Despite crossing Milly Thomas' path a few times I had never had the opportunity to speak to her before so I made the effort to do so after the performance. Sadly I was somewhat in awe of her and in a few brief sentences I think that all I did was convince here that I am either an imbecile, a stalker or even both. I hope that I'll get an opportunity one day to try and correct at least one of those impressions.

3 November 2017

Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson Vol. 1

It was in 1983 that Walter Simonson began his legendary run on Thor with issue #337.

I was readying Thor at that time simply because I was reading everything published by Marvel and DC that was distributed in the UK and Simonson's work blew me away from the start.

I've culled my comics collection a couple of times since then but I have kept all the Simonson Thor issues. He kept on as both writer and artist until issue #367 and as a writer until issue #382.

When Marvel (through ComiXology) had a sale of every issue of Thor I had to get some Simonson issues just to read. The easy way to do it was to buy Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson Vol. 1 which collects the first year, issues #337 to £348. That is 283 pages of comics genius for a pittance.

Indeed the money was not even a remote consideration. My only concern was whether I would ever find the time to read them again. I hope that I do.

In the meantime I am toying with the idea of buying the next volumes in the Thor Visionaries series. I am particularly keen to read issues #360 to #362, The Death of the Executioner, because that story has stuck with me for over thirty years.

Update: Writing the above left me with no option other than two buy the next two collected volumes which gives me the run from #337 to #369 to reread.

2 November 2017

For Love or Money at Rose Theatre

This is another one that I almost at Rose Theatre because of their bad publicity. I was in the theatre cafe for something else when I saw a pile of leaflets for the show and I recognised Barrie Rutter immediately. I had seen a few Northern Broadsides' touring productions in recent years and that was enough to convince me to see another one. I went for my usual place, A32, and paid £30 to do so.

For Love or Money was an adaption of a French farce, Lesage’s Turcaret apparenty, which meant that I knew what to expect, something funny that would not be too demanding on the intellect. And it was just that.

The situation was a young woman living beyond here means and surviving on the generosity of one admirer, a dubious banker much older than her, while being fleeced by a younger man, a rascal at best, that she had fallen for. That man had a partner in rascality and there were a few other maids and such like.

Most of the humour, and there was a lot of it, came from the larger than life characters who behaved extravagantly and ridiculously. The situation got more interesting too as wives turned up, people pretended to be other people and illicit encounters were recalled.

I went to see For Love or Money for some simple good humoured entertainment and that is exactly what I got.

1 November 2017

I am an ESTP

I had to do a Myers-Briggs test for work and while I am extremely sceptical of such things I took it seriously and answered honestly. As when I did a Belbin test ten years ago, I found the simplicity of the questions difficult given the complexity of real life and in many questions the correct answer would have been, "It depends on the situation", but I had to give one simple numerical score. I tried to answer for an "average" situation but I am not sure that I succeeded.

The end result is that I came out as an ESTP.

As with the Belbin, I recognise some of this but less so. Thinking and Perceiving I have no quarrel with. Sensing is not bad but the word "traditional" surprises me a little. Extraverted I do not get. Some of that is true some of the time but I do not see that as a fair summary.

It did not help that the evaluation tool helpfully listed some famous ESTP people that I could compare myself to.

This was not a good day to be linked to Kevin Spacey.