24 August 2014

The Fuse is another good read from Image Comics

My continuing experiment with digital comics in general and those from Image in particular has led me to The Fuse, a crime story set in space. I do not normally read crime fiction, apart from The Saint of course, and I was tempted in to this one by the creative team of Antony Johnston and Justin Greenwood.

It has just finished its first arc, The Russia Shift,and I read it in one shift on the slow train journey back home from a day's work in Reading. I had started reading the individual comics when they came out but the complexity of the plot got to me and I needed to read it one go to keep all the threads connected in my head.

The three stars of the book are two newly twinned police officers and The Fuse itself. The officers are a "cynical, foul-mouthed" and "fresh-faced idealist" which makes for an interesting clash of styles, ages and genders. The Fuse is an orbiting energy platform that has gradually expanded to house a "five-mile-long jury-rigged steel city stuffed with a half million people". It has a frontier town feel to it.

The three interesting characters make it more than a whodunnit and its a good whodunnit too.

14 August 2014

A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic

A Streetcar Named Desire came to the Young Vic heavy with the weight of expectations. It lived up to some but not all. Those expectations came from the reputation of the playwright Tennessee Williams, lead actress Gillian Anderson and director Benedict Andrews, the later returning to the scene of his triumph with Three Sisters.

This was a must-get ticket and the whole run sold out quickly. I was on the ball the morning the tickets went on sale and managed to get second row seats on a preferred date. The day worked out well too. I arranged to work in London that day and was able to get to the Young Vic early enough to bag a seat and table in the upstairs bar and to get something decent to eat for a change.

As soon as I sat down the set was a worry. We were sat in the round and in the middle of the stage was a solid cage, making three rooms of a house, and the uprights restricted the view.

The solution to this was bizarre and ineffective. The stage rotated. Yes the annoying uprights swung out of the way (and then briefly back in again) but the whole thing was unnatural and distracting.

To prove the point, at several times when the main actors were seated round the kitchen table talking one of them turned their back on the others to speak to the audience through the invisible wall. I expected better than this.

What was better, much better, was the play and the acting.

A Streetcar Named Desire was a slow simmering drama that chartered the fanciful world of Blanche DuBois, played by Gillian Anderson, as she slipped slowly from reality over three enthralling hours.

The production kept the temperature steady and warm and my just have kept it a little too steady. The rape scene passed almost unnoticed.

Gillian Anderson has got lots of praise for her performance and it was deserved. The other two main actors, playing her sister and brother-in-law, were good too but the story was all about Blanche DuBois and the performance was all about Gillian Anderson.

13 August 2014

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (August 2014)

It is never good to work away from home for any period of time but at least when I am in Reading I can get back to London for evening events, which I very much like to do. One of those events that I like to get back for is the monthly BCSA "Get to Know You" Social and I planned things at work so that I could get there in August.

The Social had a minor setback in that Facebook had stopped letting me invite all members to BCSA events, I could only invite friends of mine who were in the group. So that was 34 invitations sent rather than 1,144. Also the Czech and Slovak Language Meet-up Group that we shard the monthly social with had fallen in to something of a lull with the departure to foreign parts of their most active member.

Despite all that, and it being the middle of the holiday season, we managed to attract eight people including some first-timers.

The evening followed its usual course for me with a routine that has become so ingrained that it is almost a superstitious fear that stops me from breaking it and trying something new. The old things that I did yet again were to start off drinking draught Pilsner Urquell, eating Smazeny Syr and finishing with a bottle of Zlaty Bazant.

The other thing that followed its usual course was the conversations and these are the main reason that I go there.

8 August 2014

Strange combination at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 Day Five

My fifth and final visit to Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 was the least rewarding. I expect a few lows to go with the many highs when seeing so much experimental opera and, therefore, while a relatively uninteresting evening was disappointing it was not unexpected to have one at some point during the festival. The surprise was that it was this evening.

The Thursday and Friday programmes were the same and I chose to see what sounded like the best operas on the Friday. I also went on the Thursday, because I could, to see the second-choice operas and these were all rather good.

Life from Light was a strange beast.

It was staged in Hall 1, my first time there. There was some confusion over the seating as (I presume) Kings Place had insisted on numbered seating because that is what their system does but Tête-à-Tête told us on entry that it was free seating as normal. This caused some minor disputes as people tried to get in to seats they thought they had reserved only to find them occupied. I sat somewhere close to the seat on my ticket but not actually in it.

Life from Light was a long piece, around an hour, composed of several sung sections on the theme of love (with words by the likes of Wikipedia, William Shakespeare, Barack Obama and Edgar Allan Poe) with bird song filling the gaps between them. That sounds something like a 70's concept album and the music did too. It was pleasant enough and I was tapping my feat at times, especially when the trumpet was playing which kept reminding me of Moby's Extreme Ways, the Bourne theme tune.

The three singers and all the musicians played their parts well and it was a thoroughly entertaining hour. It just lacked substance.

Your Call… Part 1 was stranger.

We were back in Hall Two for this and this did not do it any favours. Your Call was an intimate piece with just one performer and would have worked much better in a smaller space. I would have liked to have seen it performed in a small shared space as Flat Pack was.

The performance consisted to recorded words and music which the woman interacted with. It was about the telephone and how we use it which meant that she was often in a conversation with the recording. The different conversations, help on her many different phones, provided variety in subject matter and tone.

It sort of worked but it was bit of a struggle to work out where it was going, or why. I found the balance of speech, singing and movement difficult to categorise and this was often closer to theatre than opera. And I would have liked it to have been more operatic with more music and more singing.

That is not to say that I did not like it, because I did, it was just that I am not sure what it was that I liked and I am sure that I would have liked it more in a more intimate setting.

It was a shame that my experience of Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 ended on a relatively low note but did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for modern opera or for the festival. If anything it taught me that I should go to more evenings, I caught the good Thursday evening almost by accident, and that is what I will try and do at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2015.

7 August 2014

Entertaining evening at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 Day Four

For its third and final week Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2014 shifted slightly from Central Saint Martins to Kings Place. I work at Kings Place, on the top floor. Omens like that cannot be ignored and worked in the office (rather than at home) on the Thursday and Friday so that I could go straight to the festival.

That proved to be a good plan as on the Thursday I found myself working until after 6pm and so the only way that I could have got to Kings Place in time was to already be there. The bar and cafe on the ground floor were open, as usual, so I helped myself to a pint of Becks Vier and an egg roll before going down two levels to the opera zone.

Despite having worked at Kings Place since it opened I had never been to any performances there and I was looking forward to seeing this side of the building in action.

I almost fell at the first hurdle as I tried to use the online booking system (it was cheaper that way) only to have it fail on me, so I went downstairs to book it there. They could only book me in to one of the two shows that night as the other was sold out. Luckily the Tête-à-Tête was also at the desk and she explained that online booking stopped at 12:00 on the day of performance as they had to print off and sort out the tickets then and she was about to do them for the sold-out show and if they had a spare then I could have it. They did.

Women Box by Size Zero Opera was my first show. This was in Hall 2 which was just a room with a raised stage and some chairs.

The performance was actually four separate pieces.

Opening and closing it were String Quartet I and II by Mauricio Kagel. These were decidedly weird and the main point seemed to be to find out how many ways you can make noise out of a traditional music instrument. At one point a cello was played upside down. This was music that demanded attention and never let you relax.

In the middle were two operatic pieces that looked at the role of women in what were traditionally men's roles, boxing and conducting.

The boxing piece made quiet an impression on me with its movement. The singer had been coached by a female boxer and it showed. Her foot and head movements were particularly convincing. She could sing too and it was a nice little piece,

In the second a woman conductor first disguised herself as a man (not very convincingly) and then decided to be proud of her femininity and stripped down to a somewhat distracting negligee. That may be why I have largely forgotten the music.

The four pieces worked well together and I had a fun hour watching them.

On the Axis of This World was almost a filler, chosen just because I was there and it was on, but it proved to be one of my favourites in the Festival.

The blurb said that it was an operatic meditation on the vast perspectives of Antarctica so I was expecting something Vaughan Williams-ish, and it was.

The slow gentle music was joined by two male voices, an interesting combination of countertenor and baritone, and an actor/narrator.

Stylistically it reminded me of Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which is a favourite of mine.

It was a gentle, strong and distinctive opera which I enjoyed immensely.

I found the communal spaces at Kings Place less welcoming than Central Saint Martins, there was no draught beer and the acoustics made it very noisy, so I did not linger long looking for people to talk to. Instead I headed home happy and satiated.

Welcome to the new Museum of Architecture at Kings Cross

Kings Cross keeps getting better. The canal was always nice, Kings Place is a good place to work, Central Saint Martin is an exciting venue and now these have been joined by the Museum of Architecture.

Actually, it may have been there for a while as it is well hidden and it was only the recent addition of a large sign pointing to it that told me that it was there. And I work just a few metres away.

The museum is part of the Filling Station complex that sits on the south side of the canal in the little space between Central Saint Martin and Kings Place. It was once a filling station in the petrol sense and now it fills workers with trendy snacks.

It is hidden from the busy road by an intriguing wall of corrugated plastic that is there to hide the busy road from its customers. That in itself is a bold architectural statement.

The museum is small is small, just a couple of rooms, but it manages to pack a lot of punch in to that space. The current exhibition, Vertical Urban Factory, looks at the changing role of factories within our cities.

The display in the first room has a history of factories and their relationship with people and places. So, for example, it shows when some major new technologies were introduced, when significant factories were built and important changes in labour relationships, e.g. strikes. Each theme has its own colour to make the interwoven stories easier to follow.

The second room explores some of the ideas about factory design and illustrates this with examples. It also starts to look at the future and how new mixed complexes are being built.

There is a lot of detail there and that make it a rich place to delve into. It also means that a second visit will be worth while and I will be sure to make one before the exhibition closes in September.

The waterside location and unexpected discovery reminded me of the ARCAM Architecture Centre in Amsterdam, and that was a good thing to be reminded of.

The Museum of Architecture is a very welcome addition to the area. I hope that it likes it there and stays for a long time.

The Dark Knight Returns (again) to make me happy

It is difficult to remember who much an impact The Dark Knight Returns had when it came out in 1986 because the hard Batman persona that brought in has become standard since then.

But if you consider the camp 60's TV series you get some idea where the transformation started. Of course he was not still camp by 1986 but at that time a lot of emphasis was on the detective side of his character and the stories were about his brain power not his physical prowess.

I, of course, bought the books when they came out and now I have them safely bagged and boxed. Somewhere. I just do not know where that somewhere is.

When DC put 750 digital Batman comics on sale and that included the four issues of The Dark Night Returns at only 69p each then I bought them again just to read them again.

I have always liked Frank Miller's artwork (possibly because we were born on the same day)  and I still found it visually striking after the best part of thirty years. Other artwork from that period has aged much less well.

The story is also familiar now but was fresh then. Superheroes had gone bad (that was mostly Batman and Green Arrow) and had disappeared when they were no longer seen as heroes. Some had been locked up. In the meantime the world had gradually become a worse place and heroes were needed.

There are other nice themes running through the book like the hopeless American President (based on the then President Raegan) having to deal with a Cube-like crisis.

Two Face and the Joker play significant roles but the story is really about Batman dealing with general lawlessness rather than supervillains. And he deals with it using extreme physical force and psychology. He hurts people to make his point. That means that is return is seen as a double-edged sword, some think he is doing good in tackling crime while others think that he is the criminal.

I had not read the book for a couple of decades but large chunks of it had stuck with me. A lot of it had gone though and that made the rereading almost as much fun as it had been the first time.

One scene that had stuck with me was the confrontation between Batman and Superman in the fourth and final book. One of the tricks Batman had was some synthetic Green Kryptonite. I wonder where that came from?

I really liked the idea that Batman had put so much effort in to preparing for a fight against Superman, even when they were friends and colleagues.

The Dark Knight Returns was a great book in 1986 and it still is.

5 August 2014

Delightful La Traviata at the Soho Theatre

I was very keen to see OperaUpClose's production of La Traviata at Soho Theatre because I loved their version of Tosca at the same venue last year.

Normally the complexities of my diary mean that I get to see shows just before they close, and far too often that is on their last day, but this time those complexities meant that the best chance that I had to see it was on their opening night.

This time I came heavily armed with friends. They managed to eat and drink in comfort before the show but I had to rush back from Reading which left me only enough time for a bagel from the bar, but then I am used to living off just peanuts so this was a significant improvement.

Confusingly the Soho Theatre had changed their queueing system again and rather than cluster around the door to the bar we were allowed upstairs to wait in the disused bar on the second floor. Fortunately I was clued up enough to get the front row seat that I wanted. The place was sold out and soon we were being asked to shuffle along the bench seats to let more people squeeze in.

I had seen La Traviata before so I knew the basic story but hearing it in English was so much better and let me discover some of the subtleties in the lyrics, like the recurring themes, that I had missed with surtitles.

It was the first night and it took some of the singers a little while to get going properly, the second half was better than the first.

One singer who delivered from beginning to end was James Harrison, baritone, who I had been lucky enough to see twice before. He was my star on the night because of his strong clear singing and also the way that he played the role of the father with grandeur and grace.

The production was fairly minimalistic, as their Tosca had been, and that worked well, as it had with Tosca. There were three or four musicians hidden in a room off to the left and the set was quite shallow with, for most of the time, just one significant piece of furniture in it. I like my opera like that as nothing gets in the way of the story or the singing.

The slow start apart, there were no other obvious signs that this was a first night. The only minor slip that I noticed was that a couple of people had not learned how one of the doors opened. Nothing to get worried about.

La Traviata is a simple story of emotional ups-and-downs and this production captured the mood changes well to create a delightful evening, one that opera purists and novices could both appreciate.