8 April 2015

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (April 2015)

There was no BCSA (British Czech and Slovak Association) "Get to Know You" Social in March because there was another BCSA event on the second Wednesday and it was easier to skip the social for a month than to move it off it's regular day. That meant that I was even more keen than usual to go there in April.

I decided earlier in the day that as I am cutting down on my excessive consumption of cheese that I would break the habit of a life-time and not have the smazeny syr. That plan worked well.

Luckily the rest of the evening followed its usual pattern too; I had a few Pilsner Urquells before closing the evening with a Zlaty Bazant, there were some regular faces and some new ones there, and we talked about all sorts of things.

The conversations that stuck with me the most, for reasons that only the neurons in my brain can account for, were on skiing (not my favourite past-time), using your iPhone to count your steps (I'm an evangelist) and making aromatic candles in tea cups (I volunteered to provide some unwanted cups).

The point about these evenings are they are informal and anybody can come and go at any time during the evening. We normally have the hardcore, myself included, there by 7pm and the numbers gradually grow through the evening (sometimes people leave too) and there are a dozen or so of us there at 10:30 when the social ends (because that is when the bar closes). The change in people is one of the things that helps to stir the conversations.

The Zlaty Bazant may have been a pint too much as I left my bag in the room with some expensive stuff in it. Luckily I just missed the Richmond train, only by a few seconds, and in the fifteen minute wait for the next one some friends rescued it for me.

The near mishap at the end forgiven, this was another delightful BCSA "Get to Know You" Social and because of that we will keep having them.

6 April 2015

Hawkeye was a good read but not a great one

Hawkeye is one of those comics that I could have started reading earlier as it had got good reviews from the start and was written by Matt Fraction whose writing I had liked in Iron Man (among others). But things do not always work the way that they should and I let it slip.

What got me into the book was a snap sale on ComiXology, as is often the case these days. which offered the first few issues at 79p each. I bought the first five issues as they were the ones included in the first collected edition and so I knew that the story would end at a logical point.

This version of Hawkeye was less of the superhero fighting super villains with the Avengers and more a skilled man fighting petty criminals on the street. With a dog.

It felt very much like Daredevil to me and lacked originality and purpose because of that. The place to find Daredevil stories should be in the Daredevil comic.

There are other Marvel characters who could have fitted well into that world, people like Moon Knight and the Punisher, and I did not see the point of taking Hawkeye out of the Avengers and putting him on the streets.

Leaving aside my problems with the basic premise of the book, the stories themselves were neat and tidy. This Hawkeye was very human and far from the usual all-conquering superhero, he got himself into lots of scrapes and was beaten-up more than once. "It looks bad" was his catchphrase.

The artwork by David Aja, new to me, fit the gritty style of the book exactly. A little research tells me that he previously worked on similar titles like Iron Fist and, er, Daredevil.

I enjoyed the first five issues but the lack of originality in the scenario meant that I left it there and I have not bought any more issues.

4 April 2015

Hoaxwind get me dancing at The Old Moot House

I would have accepted the invitation to Anna's birthday party at The Old Moot House anyway but I was even keener to go as she had persuaded Hoaxwind to play for her and I had not seen them since they supported Psychedelic Warlords almost a year ago.

The Old Moot House had had a checked history and several names since I moved to Kingston and I had not seen it in its latest incarnation so that was another attraction in going.

I got there not too long after 8pm, the official start time, and the place was already busy. In addition to Anna, who I sought out straight away,  there were several other people there for me to say "hello" to, including most of Hoaxwind.

They hit the stage around 9pm and played two sets with a short break in the middle. The set-list was familiar with a mix of the long classics (Orgone Accumulator, Brainstorm, etc.) and some later and shorter songs from the Calvert period (Death Trap, Urban Guerrilla, etc.).

It was the familiar Hoaxwind sound too thanks to their large cast that featured all the spacey delights of keyboards, sax/flute and electronics, all backed by two guitars, drums and vocals. That was seven people working well together to produce a rich and bouncy sound. It got even better in the second half when they were joined by a violinist.

It was suggested to me by some of the band at half time that they were playing faster than usual so I looked out for that in the second half and, if anything, they seemed to have got even faster! I liked their sound (as always) and there is plenty of room for different interpretations in the Hawkwind universe.

I was too engaged with the music to take a full set-list and when I did note tracks I used just one word to save time and distraction. So my notes of the set were just Orgone, Brainstorm, Hassan, Assault, Spirit, Master and Silver. If you know Hawkwind then you will have no problem adding the missing words.

Many of these songs were absolute favourites of mine and I was singing loudly and badly throughout but it was Master of the Universe that got me dancing in the way that only dads can.

It was yet another fantastic evening from Hoaxwind. It was just a shame that there are not more of them.

31 March 2015

Borderlands at GRAD was provocative and thrilling

GRAD (the Gallery of Russian Art and Design) is my sort of gallery. I have always found the exhibitions unusual and stimulating, and the gallery's location and size make it an ideal place to pop-in to during a lunch break.

And so it was that I found myself there on a Tuesday lunchtime.

The exhibition was called Borderlands and it looked at the boundary between art and political comment, something that the V&A has also been looking at recently in exhibitions like All of This Belongs to You, the difference being that this was from a Russian perspective and it is always good to see things from a different perspective.

The front of the exhibition space was dominated by a brick wall with wallpaper on one side. I've shown the wall paper side but viewed from the other side it was more obvious that the shape of the wall was that of Ukraine and that the section of bricks lying on the floor away from the wall was shaped like Crimea, the obvious point being that this part of the country had split away from the rest.

You could argue that Russia was in the wrong over the breakup of Ukraine, and many people have, so it was a provocative and brave act to include a piece like that in the exhibition. That was a good thing as art should be provocative and brave.

There was a series of photographs, displayed on lightboxes, of demonstrations in Moscow. These were made arty by the way that they were taken and presented. They were taken over a short period, 41 seconds apparently, and that gave them a smudged look as some of the elements of the picture smeared in dramatic lines.

Another effect, not that obvious here, was to squash parts of the photos along vertical lines in the way that things like Apple's Photo Booth do. In the big picture above this was done by the grey post on the left. I found the combination of the contrasting effects of smearing and squashing very effective.

The final element was the original scenes and and these were colourful and powerful because they were what they were, i.e. demonstrations with lots of people carrying banners in large public spaces.

I did not get the connection between these outfits and protest but that did not matter as I liked them anyway. I did get that these were not meant to be normal fashion outfits so there was a question there as to whether these were clothes, art, both or neither. I would call then Abstract Fashion in that they were Abstract Art produced using Fashion.

Treated as a form of Abstract Art it was easy to appreciate their use of shape and colour.

This was my fourth visit to GRAD in just over a year and I was thrilled every time. That's why I'll keep going there.

21 March 2015

More Broken Bones at the Fox and Duck

The last time that I saw Broken Bones at the Fox and Duck was only a few weeks ago and then I commented that I hoped to see their next gig there on 19 July so it was something of a surprise to see them pop-up there again in March. Still, it had been a busy day watching Wales being robbed of the Six Nations Championship and I really fancied a few beers while listening to some good music.

I also needed the walk there, so much so that I took a long route along Dukes Avenue, Riverside Drive, Ham Street, Sandy Lane and Petersham Road. That got me just above my 12k step target for the day and also enabled me to listen to a few of my ten hours worth of unplayed podcasts.

I got to the Fox and Duck around 10:45 while the band were on their interval break so I could settle down with a Doombar before the noise and the dancing started.

I had called Broken Bones grungy before but they sounded more bluesy this time. That might have been their song selection or something to do with my mood. The songs that impressed me the most were certainly the longer slower bluesier ones like Sweet Home Alabama, Pleased to Meet You and Smoke on the Water.

There were some shorter faster rockier numbers too, numbers like Born to be Wild, Jailbreak and, of course, Ace of Spades. It was a good balance of songs and I liked the fact that they played some unusual ones as well as some of the more obvious crowd favourites.

Broken Bones finished on the stroke to midnight refusing the desperate please for another encore, using the completely reasonable excuse of the pub's curfew to do so.

That left me a little drinking up time to catch-up with some locals and I had some quick conversations on health informatics and the correct pronunciation of "Bosham" before walking home, taking a slightly longer route than necessary but a shorter one than I used to get there.

Another fine night at the Fox and Duck and just what I needed at the end of a gruelling day.

17 March 2015

Kevin Spacey's swan song with Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic

Occasionally I push the boat out and go for a west end production when my natural instincts are to live among the fringe theatres. Clarence Darrow was one such occasion and the clear reason for going was to see Kevin Spacey at his swansong as artistic director at the Old Vic. I has seen him as Richard III in 2011 and he had been brilliant in that.

Even so, there was still a limit to what I was prepared to pay for the experience and I went for a relatively cheap ticket (£35) up in the gods (Lilian Baylis Circle D15).

My expectations were given a little lift when I saw Twelve Angry Men a few days previously and somebody mentioned Clarence Darrow (the real person, not the play) in that.

On the day I worked in our Kings Cross office and walked the increasingly familiar road down to Southwark looking for somewhere to eat. I discovered Culture Grub, a small Chinese restaurant that seems to cater mostly for students and the poorer locals. The food was good, quick and cheap. I suspect that I'll be back there next time I am looking to eat before going to the Old or Young Vics.

My view from the gods was fine and my reasoning that the play would be all about the voice and little about the staging proved to be right. The stage, such as it was, consisted of a desk and a few cabinets in his office. Some unpacking and sorting out was going on but that was just an excuse to add movement to the play.

The other technique used to make the play more than just a speech was to engage with the audience in some of the exchanges. Nobody sitting in the front rows was ready for this and so it did not always work that well.

But that was just the froth on the top, the play was all about Kevin Spacey's delivery of Clarence Darrow's words. These fell into two camps, stories about his life and reenactments of court scenes. This approach worked very well and produced a variety of moods that a simple narration could have missed. In his personal life Darrow was funny, flippant and motivated and as a court lawyer he was passionate and loquacious.

And that was kind of the point, Darrow had his heart in the right place and he had the skills to help people.

Darrow explained several cases to us and, given the period that we were talking about, it is not surprising that these covered unionisation (a.k.a. communism) and race. Darrow was helping the people in real-life that Steinbeck was standing up for in his books. My sympathies were naturally with the people that Darrow was working for and that helped me to like him and, therefore, the play.

The mix of narration and re-enactment gave the play some mood changes while the pace stayed pretty constant with no twists or surprises. It was left to the skill of Kevin Spacey to breath life in to the words, and that he did. This was a fitting farewell for Spacey but more because it was a one-man show rather than because of the strength of the role. I'll remember his Richard III more.

14 March 2015

Counterfeit make a strong return to the Fox and Duck

I was lucky enough to catch the first ever Counterfeit gig, which was also at the Fox and Duck, in June 14 but the fates had conspired to make me miss their subsequent returns there. And it looked as though I would miss this one too and not only did I have a theatre date earlier in the evening but it was many miles away in Guildford.

Then a few things worked out for me. The play finished on time not long after 10pm and I got to the station with a couple of minutes to spare before the 20:20 train left, at Surbiton it was another short wait for a 281 bus to Kingston and there it was just two minutes before a 65 came along and took me briskly to Petersham. I arrived at the Fox and Duck just after 11:20pm which gave me forty minutes of music and enough time to drink three pints.

Obviously I cannot comment on the whole set as I only caught part of the second half but what I did hear was a slightly and refreshingly unusual mix of songs that included Pinball Wizard and Purple Rain as well as the more common Whole Lotta Love.

As before the musicianship was excellent from all four band members and even the slight technical difficulty at one point did nothing to spoil the infectious good mood. Just look at the grin on Dave's face in the photo above. I was smiling too.

The cause of the extra smiling at this point was lead guitarist Julia Kurzeja's jaunt into the bar area for her shoeless solo. She tried the table first but that seemed a little risky so she settled for the chair instead.

It was an invigorating and uplifting end to a busy evening and that is all that I could have hoped for. Counterfeit are flagged as one of my favourite bands on LemonRock and I hope to catch another full show before too long.

A confident and assured Twelve Angry Men at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

To be honest, I do not think that I would have considered either the play or the theatre were it not for the offer of cheap tickets through work. But there was enough to the reputation of the play and the temptation in trying a new theatre for the offer to sway that balance.

The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre was a nice walking distance from Guildford station so that meant getting there was fairly easy and I was able to spend a lot of time at home catching up with things before heading out to the theatre.

The play started at 8pm and I arrived in Guildford just after 6pm planning to eat first. Unfortunately everybody who had been shopping in Guildford that day had the same idea and all the restaurants were packed so I went on to the theatre in the hope that they had something. Luckily they did something snacky that I liked in the bar and I was there early enough to get a seat.

As the tickets were booked through work I had no choice in the matter and I was pleased to find myself fairly central about half-way back in the stalls. I was even more pleased when the couple in front of me did not show so I did not have a tall person's head to contend with. My view was excellent, as the photo below shows.

The plot of Twelve Angry Men was simple, jurors had retired to consider a case with the aim of getting a unanimous verdict but they started split 11 in favour of guilty and 1 against. The deliberations towards the final outcome were pertinent but the point of the play was the twelve characters and the way that they reacted to each other.

Twelve Angry Men was actually a very misleading title as only some of them were, or got, angry and there were a lot of other emotions on show. In particular, the Tom Conti character, he who started off by saying not guilty, was cool and calm throughout. Others were aggressive, timid, disinterested, phlegmatic, bigoted and other things besides.

The ending, the final verdict, was never really in doubt but the steps to get there were interesting enough while the conversations between the group were the core of the play.

A play about emotions needs good actors and this one had plenty. Each of the twelve jurors had a distinctive and believable personality. Tom Conti was in the staring role but all the other characters had their time in the limelight as we learned more about what they thought and why they though it, which was often based upon something that they had experienced. I was particularly pleased to see Robert Duncan on the stage as I had watched him for many years in Drop the Dead Donkey.

Twelve Angry Men never had enough in the plot to be stunning but it was certainly good enough and this was a confident and assured production which entertained with ease.