30 January 2018

Things I know to be True at Lyric Hammersmith

Something about this show appealed to me so I went. It certainly helped that it was on at Lyric Hammersmith which is both convenient and has good front of house facilities, including decent beer and tasty mushroom burgers. This time I went to the right side of the Circle, just for a change, and happily parted with £35 for seat A6.

Thinks I know to be True was a set of family dramas. That family were two parents and their four grown-up children, two women and two men, and each had their own drama. These dramas were revealed sequentially making the play deliberately episodic.

The dramas were more dramatic than those that most families have to deal with. One or two could be expected but all six was a lot to bear. The father was made redundant at 56 and had not worked since. He had spent so much time working in the garden that there was nothing left to do. He was frustrated and bored. His was by far the least dramatic of the dramas.

To mix things up a little, though of no direct relevance to the plots, there were frequent touches of physical theatre such as sliding furniture onto the stage or lifting and spinning one of the characters. These short pieces created breaks between the dramas and gave us all a chance to breath.

While never hitting any exceptionally high notes Things I Know to be True maintained a high level of interest and entertainment. This was down to the excellent cast and the skillful production.

The one negative was not the play's fault. There was a school group sitting immediately behind me and some of them spoke constantly, despite being asked politely at half-time not to, while the others were content just to eat noisily. This was particularly annoying during the several quiet scenes. Theatres could and should do more to encourage good audience behaviour.

Luckily Things I Know to be True was a strong enough show to keep most of the audience engaged and to combat the disruption from the less than attentive audience members.

27 January 2018

Amadeus at National Theatre was a seriously nice birthday treat

January 27 was Mozart's birthday and it is also mine so going to see Amadeus on that day was an obvious thing to do. And being a special occasion I put my hands further into my pockets than usual and paid £58 for my seat Olivier Circle A71. At least I got a very good seat for that whereas in the West End that only warrants a restricted view seat in the Balcony.

The treats started before the show and I have the Terrace Restaurant there a try. Normally I only have time for a sandwich but this time I had an hour and a half to fill and eating a good meal was a good way to fill it. It's a tapas restaurant with plenty of veggie options and the hardest part was deciding what not to have. It was not cheap, just over £70 for the two of us (we did have Champagne), but I would definitely go there again.

I was aware of both the play and the film of it but had managed to see neither so went with few preconceptions, other than it was about Mozart and would be a spectacle in the way that Follies was. Both turned out to be true.

Mozart's fictionalised story was told to us by his rival Antonio Salieri (Lucian Msamati) who is featured in the poster because the story was more about him than Mozart. Mozart made up for being the second-string in his own show by being outrageous in dress and manner and I was absolutely delighted to see Adam Gillen play this role building on the character of Liam in Benidorm.

There was a second Benidorm bonus with the appearance of Hugh Sachs, the fourth time that I had seen him on stage altogether and the third in the last year and a half.

The staging of Amadeus was as I hoped and expected being both on a grand scale and with lots of attention to detail. I loved the movement of the orchestra and singers who shared the stage with the actors and also the way that Mozart seemed to spend more time standing, sitting or lying on top of the keyboards rather than playing them. Adam Gillen led the over the top antics to Lucian Msamati's straight man and other joined in the spirit to make this a highly entertaining show despite Mozart spending most of it worrying about money.

There was less music than I expected, it was in no-way a musical, but the music that was used was used wisely. It probably says more about my preferences than anything else that the two pieces that stood out were Il Commendatore's aria from Don Giovanni when he returns and the several segments from Requiem.

Amadeus was, like Follies, a modest story made exceptional by a production that pulled out all of the stops in every department from cast to costumers.

Into The Numbers at Finborough Theatre was a powerful and intense drama

Into The Numbers was one of those plays that I really wanted to see but struggled to find a slot to do so. In the end I chose to go for a Saturday matinee when I already had theatre booked for the evening. It was also the last day of its run.

The 3pm start time was later than I am used too but worked well as it allowed me to have lunch at my usual time (1pm precisely) before heading into West Brompton.

The entire run of Into The Numbers had sold out and the room was already pretty full when I went upstairs through the myriad of complex doors. The stage was set more or less as a square with seating on two sides and I grabbed a place in the front row on the narrow side. On the stage was a lectern and two bench like seats. Above it hung some lamps.

This was January 27, my birthday and also Holocaust Memorial Day. The later was more relevant than the first as Into The Numbers started with The Nanking Massacre of 1937 in which soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army murdered between 40,0000 and 300,000 Chinese civilians in just six weeks. In the play, the events were described in a book called The Rape of Nanjing and the story was about its author Iris Chang. Both the book and the author are real (so Wikipedia informs me) but I have no idea how true the story was, not that it really mattered.

We followed Iris on a book tour in which she summarised her book, was interviewed, answered audience questions and discussed the event with a Japanese official (acting unofficially). Away from the stage she talked to her husband. A lot came from all of these threads in a short time.

I had not heard of the Nanking Massacre nor, to my shame, several of the other similar events. Holocaust Memorial Day is meant to cover some of those, i.e. the ones after 1945, but they tend to get overlooked and Nanking was too early to qualify. If nothing else Into The Numbers was a harsh reminder of just how much harm man has done to man and how little attention we often pay to this.

On the lecture circuit the role of modern Japan was a useful examination of countries' response to their pasts. In the UK we have faced similar questions over the general issue of slavery and also specific incidents across the Empire like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the  Mau Mau Uprising. Here Japan's simple arguments were that modern Japan was not the same thing as the pre-war Japan and so it made no sense for old Japan to be judged by the standards of modern Japan or for new Japan to apologise for something that old Japan had done. Both arguments have merit whether you agree with them or not.

Finally, in Iris' personal life we saw how the messenger can become the victim from being immersed in the tragedy and in having to face criticism of her portrayal of it.

It was a powerful and intense drama.

Adding to the intensity was the remarkable production. Elizabeth Chan was powerful as Iris Chang and Timothy Knightley was the perfect foil playing most of the other main roles. The lighting that was prominent at the start remained important in setting the mood.

It was a difficult hour and a half, as it should have been with such a difficult subject, but it was an important subject too and the exemplary theatre craft helped the bitter pill to be swallowed.

25 January 2018

Debating Labour and the Unions with Kingston Momentum

Despite being very Political, especially on Twitter during BBC Radio 4's Any Questions (#bbcaq), I had not been to a Political meeting for a long time so when Kingston Momentum held a meeting to discuss Labour and the Unions on a night that I was free I took the opportunity to.

Trade Unionism was something that I had not thought that much about. I joined NALGO on my first day at work at Dorset County Council in 1978 and have been a union member for most of my working life, I am currently in Unite, but this has always been a default position rather than one I have had to give much attention too.

I am a union member now partially because of the insurance of having a knowledgeable organisation behind me should I fall foul of employment practises (it has happened) but also because I want other people to have that insurance too, especially those in more need of it than me, an in paying my union dues I hope that I am doing a little good elsewhere.

It was a good turnout on a miserable day and the room was full. If you look carefully I am in the middle of the picture at the back.

We heard three speakers on various aspects of the Unions and then a Q&A session to close the evening. That filled the best part of two hours quite comfortably.

As usually at thinking type events I did not take notes as such, more impressions of what was said and how I felt about that.

My tweets were quite positive and I finished with, "Brilliant to be in a meeting where the key words are working class, struggle, Marx, rights, exploitation, comrade, ...".

My main conclusion from the meeting was simple and unexpected, but probably should have been obvious. Trade Unions do a lot of good in individual cases either supporting individual workers who are being abused or negotiating improved terms for a group of workers. They also act on the political stage, often through the Labour Party, to promote the welfare and rights of workers in law. In this they are quite like charities, such as Shelter, that look after homeless people as well as trying to address the political causes of homelessness. It's a good model and I deliberately support charities that take a political stance in trying to solve the problem rather than just dealing with the symptoms.

Trade Unions are that natural home for the development of ideas to protect and improve workers rights; it is what they do. Therefore I would expect them to be to the left of the Labour Party on employment matters, just as I would expect Greenpeace to be to the left on environment matters. This is not a fault of the Labour Party, it would be odd if a political party was more extreme in its ideas that an organisation set up to address a single topic.

The only negative thoughts were around the Union's failure to get the messages of their individual successes and political campaigning across, though they are clearly hindered by a very hostile media. We are almost all workers, just as we are all humans, so organisations that fight for workers rights are our natural friends and it is a tragedy that more people do not understand that.

16 January 2018

Sill Ill at New Diorama Theatre gripped, interested and impressed

I had been meaning to go to New Diorama Theatre for some time and, for some reason, Still Ill was the one that swung it. I think it was because it was about Functional Neurological Disorder which seemed like an interesting topic. It was the third or fourth play I had been on brain disorders, no idea why that is!

The theatre is close to Euston Tower a part of London stuffed with offices which means that it is busy during the day but dead at night. That meant that by best food option was whatever the theatre cafe had left which proved to be sufficient.

The theatre was reasonably large and pretty full, possibly sold out, but the usual good planning got me an unreserved seat in the front row. That cost me a very kind £15. At that sort of price I can afford to take risks with unknown plays and companies.

The stage was set with just a medical bed. Sophie Steer climbed on to it and was given a physical examination of the legs by Hamish MacDougall and then a similar one by Harriet Webb. Sophie played the patient throughout but Hamish and Harriet played multiple roles so you had to keep your wits about you.

Adding a touch more complexity, the patient was an actress who was trying for a part in a medical drama so we had art mimicking life. The play within the play went down particularly well with the audience, particularly when Sophie was given ridiculous stage directions, so I suspect that many of them were drama students. Personally I found the pretend medical theme a little distracting from the real medical one, but I could forgive it as it was a lot of fun.

In the main story Sophie developed symptoms such as a permanently clenched fist, that she had no conscious control over and for which there was no obvious physical cause, lots and lots of tests but all with negative results. Driving the agony of the search for a reason was the recent death of Sophie's mother who had had a brain tumour that had gone unnoticed until too late.

The approach taken by Kadinsky, the production company, reminded me a little of Analogue who also used things like TV screens to great effect in Beachy Head but then got carried away and let the theatre get in the way of the story with 2401 Objects. Here I think that Kadinsky kept to the right side of the line but it got a little close at times.

Minor gripes aside, Still Ill was a gripping story made the more powerful by it's medical accuracy and the more relevant by the large number of people who suffer from some form of Functional Neurological Disorder and the little that can be done to address it.

The story gripped me, the subject matter interested me and the performance impressed me. Still Ill was a fine evening in the theatre-goers office.

15 January 2018

Drained and delighted by Hanna at Arcola Theatre

Hanna was a word of mouth thing. I was tempted, most things at Arcola tempt me, but Dalston is bit of a trek from home and office and so I would probably have missed this if my eldest son had not shown an interest following favourable comments from a friend of his. Besides, it was on a Monday night and a lot of theatres were closed for the night.

It helped that is was in Studio 2 as that meant a slightly later start time, 8pm, which meant I could get various trains across from Teddington and still have time for some pretty nifty tapas in La Ventana in Dalston Square, the modern development across the road that is still trying to fit in with its Victorian neighbours.

Hanna, I quickly learned, was a one-woman show with just Sophie Khan Levy to entertain us for an hour and a bit as Hanna. Her CV suggests that I may have seen her in Fracked but that would have been a minor role and no bells were rung.

Hanna sat in the chair and told us the story of her marriage and her daughter Ellie. It was frightening like being in a real conversation and I had to work hard not to join in, especially as Sophie worked assiduously to engage us all by holding eye contact and talking directly to us.

The Arcola website gave a big spoiler away, Hanna is not actually Ellie's biological mother, but that did not matter as that was only setting the scene. The real story started then when the two mothers tried to come to grips with what happened to them. The two husbands, in their different ways, were both somewhat unhelpful in this.

The story developed with real tension, real drama of the flashing blue lights variety, and a great deal of in your face real life. I was not sure where it was going, got emotionally drained on the way there, and had to swear a little at the end. It was that good.

 If I had done any research beforehand then I would have been surprised as Sam Potter, the woman with the words, also wrote Mucky Kid which I loved to bits a few years ago. Sam writes brightly about dark things and I love her for it.

I needed a beer after that and luckily the Arcola Bar had some. Towards the end of my pint I had recovered enough to speak to Sophie and to tell her mow much I had enjoyed the show. I hope that Sam and Sophie do well and that I am there to see some of it.

1 January 2018

I averaged 18,047 steps a day in 2017

Hitting 18k steps a day was never my plan and I am somewhat surprised that I managed to walk so much. Doing 20k steps in a day every so often is one thing but to average 18k is quite another.

My target on my Pedometer app is just 14k steps a day and I achieve that easily on most working days by doing 3.5k each way to/from work and 7k at lunchtime.

That means that any additional walking is a bonus. To pick one example, if I go to Rose Theatre in the evening I walk there and back and that is around 4k steps each way, turning a 14k day into a 22k day.

The walk to/from walk and my insistence on taking a lunchtime break in all weathers is the bedrock of my step counting and at weekends I often have a challenge to hit even the daily 14k target. Many a time I have had to go for a walk around 9pm to get the final 3k or 4k steps in for the day. Luckily I love walking and I have plenty of podcasts and BBC Radio dramas to keep me company.

I have not set myself a target for 2018 but I am not expecting to average 18k again. 16k would be nice though. I'll see how things go.