11 February 2017

The Pirates of Penzance at ENO was delightful despite the poor view

I had largely managed to avoid Gilbert and Sullivan and was only persuaded to see The Pirates of Penzance by other people.

Having decided to go on a Saturday I made something of a day of it by popping into the V&A on the way and then into Govinda's where a Large Thali had morphed into an Unlimited one, not that I went back for seconds.

Being relatively slow off the mark for Pirates I failed to get my usual front row seat upstairs and instead had to settle for Upper Circle  B25 at £‬40.

A reasonable price for the seat until two tall people sat in front of me and limited my view to the middle third of the stage. That is ridiculous for a seat at that price and has vastly reduced the chances that I will go back to The Coliseum except for mandatory events, e.g. Philip Glass operas.

Luckily most of the action happened in the middle third of the stage.

That stage was simply constructed and boldly coloured, like a young child's toy. The opera opened with a large blue screen through which a bright orange ship emerged. This was, of course, the pirates' ship on which Frederic had just reached 21 and with that completed his indenture to the pirates. Freed of his bond he was leaving them to start a new life. Leaving with him was a maid who was responsible for his indenture to the pirate originally and in mistake.

What followed was a jolly romp with pretty young ladies, their Major-General father and a group of not so bold policeman. What also followed was lots of jolly songs. I knew I am the very model of a modern Major-General and A Policeman's Lot Is Not A Happy One and they were fairly typical of the feast of around thirty songs. There was a lot of humour in there and the tunes were pleasant too.

The story was helped a lot by some strong acting both by the principle characters and the large supporting cast. One high point was the increasing timidity of the policemen as others remarked on their valour in doing battle with the pirates where they faced certain death,

I left the singing to last because it had been a problem at my previous exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan it had been bit of a problem and so I was delighted that the singing was good this time. Again that included both the principles, there were several, and the supporting cast.

The story ended happily and the journey there was a lot of fun. I had a delightful evening and was able to forgive the poor view.

10 February 2017

Winter Solstice was another great disappointment at Orange Tree

It is tempting to cut and paste parts of my review of Blue Heart because there were large dollops of deja vu. Winter Solstice suffered fatally from trying to be clever for cleverness sake and forgot to entertain while doing so.

There were too main gimmicks used both of which started off as amusing but soon became tired cliches. The play had large sections of narrative with the cast taking in turns to be narrator which meant that they sometimes spoke about themselves in the third person. I've seen this devise used effectively in small doses, House of Cards does this excellently as did Shakespeare, but here it was overused and did nothing to aid the story.

The second gimmick was the use of props of the office meeting type for other things, so a pencil became a cigarette and a highlighter became a lipstick. Again I failed to see the point of this and did it noting to aid the drama. I would have preferred it if no props had been used at all.

The play's title came from its setting, Christmas Eve. All the events took place in the house of a couple of well-to-do intellectuals (she made films, he wrote books) and the daughter. They were soon joined by her mother and later a friend of hers and, finally, a friend of the family. There was little action but a lot of talking. Some skeletons rattled out of cupboards but were gently put back again and forgotten. Hints of affairs were glossed over, unbelievable hints of Nazi collusion faded away and hints of a serious illness were not developed. Basically nothing happened.

I felt sorry for the cast at times. They did reasonably well with the material that they had to work with  and that was all that they could do.

I loved Sheppy but Winter Solstice made it two disappointments out of three for me and with the Bush reopening soon (I have tickets) and the Riverside reopening next year there is the real possibility that Orange Tree will drop off my must-see list. Sad days.

On the plus side Orange Tree was packed and apparently the run was sold out so there is clearly a market for plays like this. It's just that I'm not in it.

6 February 2017

Silver Lining at Rose Theatre was passably entertaining

In the end it was loyalty to Rose Theatre that persuaded me to go and see Silver Lining. Other people were probably attracted by the playwright, Sandi Toksvig, and some of the actors familiar to TV addicts, such as Sheila Reid (Benidorm).

Whatever the reason people went they did so in good numbers so much so that the upper circle was open (it rarely is) and all but the very edge seats downstairs were sold. I was late to the game and while I was able to get a seat in my preferred Row A it was very much at the sides, A6, for which I paid a modest preview price of £21.

The poster almost tells you all that you need to know. Silver Lining is set in an old people's home which is gradually being flooded as a large storms rolls in and the tide rises.

In structure it was much like a sit-com with lots of humorous, sometimes funny, one liners often making fun of each other. It was a reasonable sitcom too but only reasonable. You would not change the channel if you came across it but then you would probably not change the channel to catch it either and you would certainly not be buying the box set.

Towards the end, once we knew the characters a little better, there were some moments of pathos as some of the ladies told us more abut themselves, how they felt and what happened in their pasts to influence them. This was a welcome change of pace from the unrealistic snappy dialogue but that is all that it was, nothing meaningful or memorable came from these revelations.

The direction was somewhat artificial too. The five ladies spent most of the time speaking to each other yet they did so sitting in a straight line facing the audience. Their movement was as unnatural as their dialogue.

That all sounds like a relentless stream of negativity, and it largely is, so it is worth remembering that I started off by saying that Silver Lining was like a sitcom that was often humorous and sometimes funny. Overall the humour rescued the play and what could have been a disaster was passably entertaining.

20 January 2017

An excellent Three Sisters at The Union Theatre

I have seen Chekhov's Three sisters five times in recent years and all of the performances were good or better. This was possibly the best.

I go to all the Chekov that I can and The Union Theatre is one of my favourite theatres so this was unmissable. Stick a £15 price tag on the ticket and it would have been a crime.

It was good to get back to The Union Theatre again after a gap of a few months. That was nothing personal, just a lot of competition from other theatres for my evenings. I know what I am doing at The Union and that meant being there by 6:30pm when the box office opened to collect my ticket, popping along to Culture Grub for a Sichuan style curry and then back to the cafe to take into the first half of the performance.

I was first in to the theatre (after careful positioning by the door) and was pleased to see the stage set more or less in the round. It had been set traditionally on my previous visit to the new venue. I chose a seat in the middle of the row on the far side.

The stage was set as a living room with drinks out ready for a celebration, it was the 20th birthday of the youngest sister, Irina. Apart from the piano there were a couple of seats and that was about it. I like productions that use props sparingly so this was a good sign.

The cast were introduced to us gradually and carefully with each new arrival being name-checked for our benefit. Each character looked right to me and that continued throughout the play and the casting proved to be the play's main strength and that is why I thought so highly of the production.

The three sisters' lives were changed by two arrivals, the new army commander, Vershinin (Ashley Russell), and their brother's girlfriend Natasha (Francesca Burgoyne), and they were my two stars of the evening in what was a strong cast overall with no weak points.

The production played on the strength of having the large cast and there was often more than one thing happening at once. This was particularly true when relationships were forming between two of the sisters and two of the army men.

Every version of Three Sisters that I have seen has been a little different but without the chance to study the scripts it is difficult for me to say what and where the differences were. This was certainly a shorter version than some others and seemed to be faster paced because of that. In this edit the main theme was Vershinin refrain, "Happiness is not for us", though there was still space for Itina and Tusenbach to debate the virtue of work and to cosy up to each other a little.

I knew the story and yet I was still captivated by it. It was a rich story with significant threads for each of the sisters and their brother plus quite a few dramatic things happening elsewhere.

Above all this was an entertaining and rewarding production; entertaining because of the story and the characters, and rewarding because of the human themes covered.

19 January 2017

Thoroughly Modern Millie at New Wimbledon Theatre was thoroughly entertaining

I was obviously aware of the Julie Andrews' film Thoroughly Modern Millie but I never saw it. Likewise I was aware of Strictly but had never seen that either. Despite that I was drawn to their coming together at New Wimbledon Theatre and was drawn enough to pay £44 for a premium seat, Dress Circle Row A Seat 18.

My plan was not to have a drink beforehand because I remembered just how expensive they are there but my resolve melted when I saw the large bottles of Budvar (i.e. the Czech version of the otherwise undrinkable Budweiser). I was either charged a lot for the tap water that I had with it or that pint cost me over £8. Still, it was a good pint.

It was just going in to find my seat that I asked one of the staff what the running time was and was a little surprised, and worried, to hear that it was the best part of three hours with a first half lasting 80 minutes, a decent interval and then a second half of another 60 minutes. That is not a lot longer than the usual two hours plus interval but my attention can drift in the first half and 80 minutes is a long time to struggle with a slow show.

The seat proved to be a good one with a fine view, no problems with safety rails and a decent amount of legroom.

The show opened with Millie arriving in New York from Kansas seeking bright lights and excitement. She sang the only song I knew from the show, the title song, which helped to warm the crowd up.

Then she was robbed and lost everything and, in separation, tripped up a passing man to try and get some help. Through him she found some lodgings for young actresses which was also the front for a white-slave operation led by the boarding house's owner Mrs Meers. Things got better for Millie as she got a job as a stenographer (remember shorthand?) and started to make a play for her rich boss.

The story had lots of elements to it and while some of the main threads were obvious, as they should be in a Rom Com, there was plenty in the story to keep me engaged.

At the centre of it all, of course, was Millie and Joanne Clifton sparkled in the role. Her pedigree was in dancing and while there were not many showboat dances there was dancing throughout. I especially liked the tap dancing that the office workers did while sitting at their typewriters as their desks slid around the floor.

It was this attention to detail, and Joanne Clifton's performance, that made the show. There were plenty of songs, all of which I've now forgotten, and while they did not make much of a lasting impression they did add to the mood. The comedy came from the characters and Graham MacDuff was brilliant as Millie's stuffy boss. Mrs Meers, who was supposed to be the main comedy character (I think) was somewhat less successful partially because I did not get on with her stereotypical Chinese accent. Thankfully Mrs Meers was one little setback in a long show that had a great deal going for it otherwise.

Thoroughly Modern Millie was a well crafted show that made the most of the story and the music. Throw in lots of dancing and some good characters and it was a thoroughly entertaining evening.

10 January 2017

Lots of laughs with Men From The Ministry at White Bear Theatre

I had seen a few shows at the old White Bear Theatre in Kennington and was keen to get back there after their extensive refurbishment which, amongst other things, I knew had moved the theatre from the back of the pub to upstairs.

My change came with Men From The Ministry, a radio programme that I enjoyed from the days of the BBC Home Service in the late 60s and early 70s. Then it starred Deryck Guyler as One and Richard Murdoch as Two, a couple of useless civil servants in the useless Department of Administrative Affairs which must have owed some of its inspiration from Dickens' Circumlocution Office. It is still on Radio 4 Extra sometimes and I listened to an episode not that long ago.

This was going to be fun.

The big surprise was the refurbished pub. It had been very old fashioned and almost empty before but Youngs had expanded it enormously, added the usual kitchen with a pretty usual menu, and added the sort of clutter that first became popular in pubs about thirty years ago. It looked more like a refreshed Harvester than anything else and that was working as the place was busy with eaters and drinkers. I joined the drinkers with a pint of Winter Warmer and the eaters with some baked Camembert (veggie options were limited).

The upstairs theatre suffered a little from having no milling space. Old Red Lion gets around this by having the box office downstairs. Tabbard has the same configuration but has a little bit more space to play with. There was a slightly awkward five minutes where half a dozen of us waited to enter in a small space with several doors that kept opening and closing.

Another group squeezed into the theatre before me but I was still able to claim a good seat in one of the front rows. The new theatre was slightly L-shaped, as was the old one with the stage in the corner and seating on two sides. I think that were about 70 seats, slightly more than before.

The stage was arranged as a BBC Radio studio complete with the old logo and old style microphones. The cast fell into the mood with suits and bowler hats.There was an announcer and a sounds effects person too (pictured) which all added to the atmosphere.

We were presented with two episodes either side of an interval which allowed me to get another Winter Warmer. As far as I can tell, not that it matters that much, the two episodes were Watch This Space and Ban the Wotsit, both from the 14th and final series.

Like Scooby-Doo, every episode of Men From The Ministry has the same plot, they are given a new task to perform, they mess it up mightily but somehow, more luck than judgement, escape intact at the end. The humour comes from the characters and their strict adherence to petty civil service rules.

There is a reason that Men From The Ministry ran for 14 seasons, it is really funny and these performances were too. 

9 January 2017

On the fifteenth day of Christmas ...

It is perhaps more traditional in Britain to get your Christmas presents on Christmas day but one of mine had been put safely away a couple of months ago and could not be found on Christmas Eve which is when we dig out the presents we bought for each other from their hiding places and wrap them.

Like most of my presents I knew (or at least hoped) that this one was coming as I had dropped large hints earlier. Those large hints included a link to this specific shirt.

It is, of course, another shirt by 1 Like No Other which are becoming an increasingly large part of my collection simply because they look stunning and are very well tailored. I love the little features like those inside the collar and cuffs.

Despite being a classy shirt this one is destined to be worn to work. After many years of wearing a dark suit and a white shirt with a colourful tie it is nice to be wearing smart casual and to give the pretty shirts that I have always bought, mostly from Liberty, more outings.

It's my birthday later this month and I am already dropping similar large hints. I just hope that I do not have to wait fifteen days again.

6 January 2017

Hedda Gabler at National Theatre was stunning

This picture is so good I almost do not need to say anything else about the play.

Ruth Wilson plays the title role and she is an established star thanks to Luther and The Affair. Her name and face are the crowd-pullers in this production. She is the main reason that I wanted to see the play too because she impressed me mightily when I saw her in Anna Christie in 2011.

The poster also hinted at a minimalist production, in marked contrast to the last time that I saw Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic in 2012 when it was played as a period drama. That approach worked but generally I prefer sparse productions.

Hedda Gabler was obviously going to sell well (it is completely sold out) and so I took advantage of a colleague's Amex card and shared love of theatre to get him to book tickets a day or two before general booking opened. The keen NT members had already feasted on the best seats and we had to settle for Circle Row D. That was fine if a little unusual not to be in the first row.

The stage was set as one large bare-walled room with just a desk, sofa, piano and a few chairs.

As is the fashion, there were people on the stage when we entered, including, it transpired, Ruth/Hedda herself at the piano with her back to us.

Having people on stage but not in the scene was a technique used a few time throughout the play and it worked, as it had the last time I saw that trick used.

Another nice trick was the repeated piano motif, the introduction to Nina Simone's version of Wild is the Wind, that was used in the same way that film music is used to set the mood.

The clever thing about these tricks was the way that they were almost invisible at the time and it is only thinking about the play afterwards that I can begin to understand their importance. Being clever for clever's sake is always a risk, and I think some plays do that, but everything about the design and direction of this production was spot on.

The main beneficiary of all this was Ruth Wilson who had all the space she needed to show us her interpretation of Hedda Gabler, Hedda who could be funny, spiteful, demanding, sultry, morose and stroppy. The incident with the flowers, hinted at in the poster, was brilliant and typical.

The ending, like the three hours before it, was stunning and a fitting end to a fantastic production. I knew the story so knew what was going to happen but I was surprised by the manner in which it happened, the reactions to it and then the way the play itself closed. There is often a "that must be the end" feel to plays and I like to be among the first (or THE first) person to clap, but not this time and the ambiguity added to the experience.

I've not mentioned Ibsen yet and I am not sure how much of this production came directly from his words and how much was reinterpretation. I am usually uncertain on Ibsen (as I find some of his characters too simple) but there was no doubt this time.

This Hedda Gabler is one that I would gladly see again. It was that good.