7 February 2016

Kew Orchids 2016

I go to the Kew Orchids festival every year though this is the first time that I was organised enough to go there on the opening weekend. It was a cold day but a bright day too and when I go of the 65 bus at Victoria Gate at just after opening time, 10am, there was already a substantial queue to get in.

The longest queue was for Friends of Kew which I joined and I was soon in as our membership cards were quickly swiped. Then, like everybody else, I headed straight for the orchids in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. We split into two streams as we rounded the lake in front of the Palm House and then rejoined on the other side.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is a complex building and I have yet to find an easy way to walk around it that takes in every space without too much retracing of routes. That complexity actually helped this time as I wanted to walk through some of the places more than once and the variety of spaces was used to good effect.

The buildings complexity includes several different levels and several ways of moving up and down between them which gives lots of different angles to see things from. This is especially useful when the orchids are on display as some of them are hung up high.

Orchids win on two counts, their shape and their colour, and putting lots of them together is both a rich feast for the eyes and an opportunity to study their similarities and differences, such as the marking on their petals.

The orchids were displayed in a variety of settings and it was hard not to be entranced by the arches on the upper level of the main section.

I had to take this picture carefully to avoid the red hat that a woman was wearing. There should be laws against wearing bright clothing in places where people are taking photographs, and people were taking a great deal of photographs. I even wondered to myself if Apple could see the photographic hotspot on the data they collect from iPhones.

The temptation was there to take lots of close-ups, and so I did though I used the camera's zoom a lot rather than suffering the indignity of stooping or stretching.

This example was settled among some rocks in one of the cooler zones in the north-west corner of the conservatory. There the orchids were a subdued yellow, green and brown while in the next room they were bright pink, red and orange.

Having found a reasonable route through the conservatory and, I think, visited every room I went round most of the rooms again. It was getting harder to move as it had got even busier but that was ok as I was not in any sort of rush.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is not that big but it still took me best part of an hour to get around it all. After that I was ready for some coffee and cake, and so was everybody else and the queue in the Orangery was longer than I had ever seen it before. Luckily there were plenty of staff on and the queue moved fairly quickly and I was soon seated with my Banana Cake.

After that it was time for a walk and I took the scenic route (ok, I got lost) to the lake, through the bamboo garden towards the river before curving slowly back towards Lion Gate and the bus home.

Kew Orchids impressed me, as I knew they would, and because I managed to get there on the first weekend there is time for me to go back and see them again. And that's my plan. 

3 February 2016

Lovely Swan Lake from the Moscow City Ballet at Richmond Theatre

Once upon a Time I had a season ticket for the Royal Ballet and went to see everything that the English National Ballet did too then kids came along and the time and the money went on them instead.

In recent years I have been seeing a fair amount of dance (not enough) but surprisingly little "traditional" ballet. The closest I have come to that was Mark Morris' Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican over seven years ago!

So going to see Swan Lake should have been an easy decision to make and it was, eventually. Swan Lake was only on for two nights, Nutcracker was on the rest of the week and that was quite missable, and by the time that I made the obvious decision the front row of the Dress Circle had been taken so I went even further up and went for the front row of the Upper Circle (seat A16). Even that lofty perch cost me £26 as ballet is an expensive business, Swan Lake has a large cast and this production had a good sized orchestra too.

The front row seats have a bar in front that threatens to block the view of the stage, unless you are tall enough to see over it easily, which I am not. The solution was to sit forward on my seat and use my screwed up coat as a cushion to keep me upright and comfortable. It worked very well.

The audience worked less well, often a problem in the "cheap seats", and there were conversations all evening, some sweet bag rustling and also one mobile phone call. Fortunately this kept below the infuriating level and while it distracted at moment it did not do so enough to ruin the show.

There were lots of other things that I did not like about this performance. There were some plot changes that I did not comprehend (I did not buy a programme), such as the additional appearance of Odette/Odile in a black and white outfit. There was an additional male role and I could not tell which one was Sigfriend until Act 2 (and my guess was wrong). Siegfried spent more time dancing alone that with Odette/Odile and his dancing did not wow me. Odette/Odile danced better but did not quite look the part. The cast milked the applause ending each short dance with a spectacular pose and then coming to the front of the stage for more applause.

If that all sounds like a bad night at the theatre then you are wrong. I loved it immensely. Possibly not every single minute of it but not far off it.

Even with the problems that I listed earlier it is hard to get Swan Lake wrong as it is Swan Lake and its strength comes from the music that throws one tune after another in the two set dancing scenes in the castle and that builds the drama in the two scenes at the lake. Here the full orchestra came in to their own and carried the evening along magnificently.

The second great strength of Swan Lake is the set dance pieces, especially those choreographed by Lev Ivanov in Act 2, including the arrival of the swans with their flat footed hops and the dance of the cygnets with their tightly synchronised leg movements. I may have lost some of the plot but this was familiar territory, even after several years, and it was much loved territory too.

Other things I enjoyed in this Swan Lake were the ensemble dancing, the sumptuous costumes and the simplicity of the set that made lots of space for dancing and did not over-engineer the dramatic finale.

Writing this a few days later some of the tunes are still bouncing around my head where they collide with images of the production. Swan Lake is a tremendous ballet and even a slightly flawed production like this one is still a fantastic experience.

2 February 2016

Sumptuous Jekyll & Hyde at The Cockpit

Jekyll & Hyde was on my interest list for a while and I just needed to find a free night on a day that I was working in London, not a trivial matter. In the end it came down to a bad day at work which made going to the theatre the best of the various options I had for that evening.

I was attracted to Jekyll & Hyde by the story, which I knew from various film and TV adaptations rather than the book, and also the prospect of a version that included "sultry Jazz standards with a live pianist". The prospect of going to the Cockpit Theatre attracted too because of the friendly atmosphere there and the decent walk I have from the office to get there.

That walk took me through Marylebone Station where I helped myself to a wholemeal vegetarian pastie, as I had done previously. Unlike previously, I remembered that the road outside the station was two-way and I failed to get myself almost run over. Another difference was on arrival I found that the Cockpit had a choice of Czech lagers, I went for Budvar mostly because it was a bigger bottle.

The theatre was not that busy, but then it never has been in my experience, so I had a good choice of seats. Being first in helped. I went for the middle of the second row.

We were in a jazz club, the music was already playing and a waiter was tending to the tables. The set remained like that throughout the show despite the action moving to several places. A little bit of good acting from the cast and a little bit imagination from the audience was all that was needed for part of the stage to become somebody's house and for a door to appear.

Similarly a slight change of clothes enables the story to be told by just five people, plus the pianist. The waiter here was also a police inspector and the father of Jekyll's fiancee.

The story, the details of which I had forgotten, moved along briskly and I was quickly drawn into it. I cared for Jekyll's fiancee and also for the club singers that Hyde abused. After Hyde made his first appearance we saw little of Jekyll and so Hyde's menace filled the story and made it gripping. Oliver Hume was superb as Jekyll/Hyde.

Adding a pleasant lighter touch were the easy listening classics that the two women sang. These were familiar songs like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and were sung in short pieces to help to set the mood without turning it into a musical as such. They worked very well despite of, or because of, the contrast to the dark happenings.

Jekyll & Hyde was a real joy and a prime example of what a few people can do with some good ideas and a lot of talent.

29 January 2016

A Taste of Honeysett at the Cartoon Museum

I was aware of the A Taste of Honeysett exhibition at the Cartoon Museum and was trying to find the time to see it when technology came to my rescue.

I was working in the London office on a Friday afternoon when we suddenly lost all communications, telephone and computer network. After half an hour or so it became clear that they were not coming back and so there was no point staying in the office unable to work. So I went out.

The Cartoon Museum is about twenty minutes walk away and so this was the ideal opportunity to go there.

I had been a Honeysett fan for many years. As a young lad I used to read all the cartoons in Punch and it was the Honeysett ones that made the biggest impact, I can still remember the double page spread on doctors holding their surgeries in pubs which included a drawing of a doctor lying on the floor and the nurse informing the waiting room that he was now only seeing foot disorders. Similarly there was one with two old men in a pub talking about a third who was lying on the floor unconscious. This was before a drinking competition and one of the men said to the other that he was surprised that the third man had collapsed so quickly as he had done well in the lunchtime practise session.

Admission is normally a paltry £7 but I got in for free with my ArtFund card. The Honeysett exhibition was on the ground floor with the usual exhibition upstairs.

The Cartoon Museum has an enlightened view of photography and bans close-ups as they infringe copyright but allows general shots, like this one, that give a general view of the galleries. From this you can see that it was, unsurprisingly, full of cartoons.

It was not a large rooms but the addition of a few partitions created more wall space and there were a lot of cartoons to look at. Of course cartoons cannot just be looked at, they need to be read and I read every one of them which took me the best part of an hour.

Like the cartoons that I remembered from Punch they were mostly of domestic situations, the one at the top (this is the cover of the exhibition catalogue) was typical, though politics did sneak in sometimes. There was one political cartoon that I would have photographed if allowed and that was a large coloured work commenting on the way that free capital was ripping up the Japanese landscape to build inappropriate skyscrapers. Where Japan led London is following.

The Cartoon Museum is a lovely place for anybody interested in comics or cartoons and I really should go there more often. I'll make even more of an effort to do so when they put on exhibitions as good as A Taste of Honeysett.

Thomas Newbolt: Drama Painting - A Modern Baroque at Kings Place Gallery

Working in a building that houses two galleries is one of the reasons that I pull myself into Kings Place when I could just as easily work at home. They are both conveniently bite-sized and can be consumed as part of a lunch break or an afternoon tea break. They also provide emergency relief when work is going badly.

The main gallery, which now appears to be called Piano Nobile Kings Place, is mostly spread across the level below the entrance and cafe area. There is little on that floor other than the gallery and a large hole in the middle which is the atrium space for the concert hall level below. The gallery flows down to that level to occupy a corner of that space too.

The combination of the atrium and the high ceilings creates a space that can do justice to large works and the exhibitions generally take advantage of this.

The exhibitions also tend to be somewhat quirky and modern in a way that appeals to me greatly.

The latest exhibition is Thomas Newbolt: Drama Painting – A Modern Baroque, which runs until 13 May.

They are all pictures of women, or perhaps it is just one woman, dressed and posed as if going to the opera.

They are interpretive rather than figurative and it is the presence of the woman that matters, not the details of her figure. The focus is kept on the woman by keeping the background dark and featureless.

The simple backgrounds, the plain dresses and the lack of any movement make the pictures as much about the colours as the woman. As is often the case, I appreciated the abstract nature of the art, i.e. the way the colours interact and the visual impact that makes, as much, if not more, that what those colours represent.

Similarly, I appreciated them more from a distance where their scale could be appreciated and full impact of the colours could be felt. Moving closer and the details started to intrude until eventually it was the brush strokes that I saw and the "big picture" was lost. Of course for some works of art the details and the brush work are worth exploring but I felt much happier exploring Thomas Newbolt's at a distance.

This exhibition was not completely to my taste but it was close enough to it to encourage me to go downstairs to see it a few more times before it closes.

27 January 2016

Clickbait at Theatre503 was original, sparkling and surprising

There was no better way to spend my birthday than going to the my favourite theatre, Theatre503 in Battersea. I would have gone to see Clickbait sometime anyway but having a birthday made picking the date easier. It also made deciding to eat a decent meal downstairs in the Latchmere beforehand easier.

But first I had to get my steps done and the way that I did that was to get off the Victoria Line at Victoria and walk the rest of the way, going over Chelsea Bridge and through Battersea Park. That was a pleasant route, even in the dark, though the bridge tugged at my vertigo tendencies.

I knew that Clickbait was about a young woman involved in the porn industry so I was a little concerned about being the dirty old man in the audience and that was not helped when while we were waiting to go in one of the cast came out to make a phone call dressed in school uniform. It reminded me of the Japanese Lolita fashion as seen in Kill Bill Vol 1 and the V&A.

Despite my worries I sat in the middle of the front row as usual anyway.

The simplistic summary of Clickbait is that a young woman reacts to some revenge porn of herself being posted online by taking it head-on and posting more porn but this time under her control.

As the demand for this grew she called on the reluctant help of her younger sister and the enthusiastic help of her youngest sister (it was her in the school uniform earlier).

Clickbait was written by Milly Thomas who I had seen not long before at Theatre503, playing the young girl in the very wonderful Animals.

To give just a flavour of the content and the humour I give you this little scene. The girls' porn business is constrained by supply as only the oldest girl, Nicola, is producing any material so the youngest, Chloe, made some herself only for her sisters to realise that as she was only 15 that was technically child porn and they were in possession of it. They urgently demanded that it be deleted and, once done, also demanded that Chloe remove it from Trash too at which suggestion she looked at them disdainfully and explained that she had already done that because she knows how to use a computer as she is not thirty.

Humour played a great part in the play but there were plenty of other riches such as the relationships between the three sisters and between Nicola and her boyfriend, the way that Nicola flipped between hero and villain as the story evolved and also as we learned more about what had happened earlier, and the alternative view of the porn industry in a story about young women in porn written by a young woman (Milly Thomas).

The story went in two surprising directions thematically and chronologically. As the business developed the women took it in a new direction, and the three teddy bears at the front featured in this, and their attitude to the business changed, and that's where the big teddy bear at the back came in. We also learned more about the revenge porn incident.

The storytelling was fresh and original and I liked the way that the social media aspects, such as the comments below the videos, were read by the cast while wearing animal masks and moving oddly.

There was a feeling of ambiguity throughout, and that was also manifested as tension, as the hero/villain conundrum was explored but never resolved, nor could it be as there was not an objective position to judge the women's behaviour from.

Despite the subject matter this was a very clean show that you could take your granny too, though some of the language might upset her. There was plenty of porn but only the people on the stage could see it, though we could hear it. Sitting in the middle of the front row was not a problem.

Clickbait was very thought provoking because of the subject matter and the way that it approached it, and it was also hugely entertaining because of the constant stream of funny lines. All three girls, Georgia Groome,  Amy Dunn and  Alice Hewkin, were excellent. The support from Barney White as all the men was excellent too.

I do not mind getting older when I get birthday treats like this one.

23 January 2016

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich at the Union Theatre

The Union Theatre is high up in my list of favourite theatres and that means that I see most of the shows put on there. Things go in phases though and after going there five time in the first half of last year I did not go at all in the second.

What brought me back was the name Bertolt Brecht. I am far from being  Brecht expert but I knew enough to know that I should know more.

I needed to be in that part of London to see an exhibition anyway so it made sense to plan a day around the two so the Saturday became domestics in the morning, galleries in the afternoon and theatre in the evening, with lots of walking along the way.

The weather was unkind late afternoon which made a great excuse to curtail the walking and seek refuge in the Union Jack pub opposite the theatre. The resting and recovering was greatly helped by a couple of pints to drink and vegetarian bangers and mash to eat. I was in there for almost an hour and a half so was able to do some reading too, I had my iPad with me and there are always lots of unread comics on it.

I left the pub briefly at 6:30pm to join the short queue for the theatre box office to collect my ticket (£20). I was in that queue early enough to secure one of the first ten tickets, I actually got number 8, so that I would be in the first group of people let into the theatre at 7:25. I went back to the pub to continue my rest before returning at the allotted time.

My careful planning got me the seat I wanted in the centre of front-row. Facing me was this pile of junk, the purpose of which I never established!

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was never going to be a comedy but, other than that, I did not know what to expect so I sat back and went along for the ride.

The story, in summary, was the well-known one of Nazi persecution of Jews in the period immediate before WWII. What made this telling more poignant was that it was written by somebody who was there at the time so the situations were described honestly and were not coloured by hindsight.

This was a time when the Jews as a collective were being vilified but a few individuals were still untouched because of their position in society or their usefulness to senior government people. It was an unholy combination of tyranny, suspicion and corruption. Of course in this case it led to an extreme outcome but it was hard not to see the similarities to the way that migrants and refugees are portrayed today, and that made the play even more relevant and compelling.

The message of the play was told though a series of short scenes, with repeating characters, where we saw the persecutors, the persecuted, the scared of being persecuted next, the unsure of how to behave and the carried along without thinking too much. The atmosphere that this generated was tense and dangerous, but also gripping.

The cast were excellent throughout despite the difficulties of some of the roles, it was uncomfortable enough for me to hear people say "Heil Hitler" so it must have been hard for them to say it and with conviction too.

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was a powerful play delivered with skill and care. It is hard to describe such an unpleasant story as enjoyable but there was enjoyment from the insights it gave.

The White Cube in Bermondsey disappoints

In looking to see how to get to the Fashion and Textile Museum I discovered that it was in the same street (Bermondsey Street), and was very close to, the White Cube gallery and so it made sense when planning the day to allow time to go to both.

I had heard of the White Cube but had never been there before, though I had been to its smaller cousin in Mason's Yard, St James and had been impressed by that so was looking forward to going to see the larger original. I was made even keener when the Art Fund app told me that it was the biggest commercial arts space in Europe which conjured visions of something even bigger and even better than the Saatchi Gallery, which I love.

Checking the gallery's website on the morning I learned that it was the last day of the Gilbert and George The Banners exhibition, which I had heard them talking about a few weeks previously on the magnificent podcast of the Robert Elms show on BBC Radio London.

I am not a massive fan of Gilbert and George's work but then I had only seen the odd example of it, such as one work at the Tate Modern and another in Cologne. Still, it was a good enough reason to go to the gallery.

The Banners were displayed in the White Cube itself, a gallery measuring 9m by 9m by 9m and called, imaginatively, 9x9x9. They were simple slogans written on what looked something like street signs with "Gilbert and George say:" at the top rather than the Borough name.

The slogans were first written in pencil and then gone over with ink. There were ten different slogans and several posters with the same slogan but all painted individually and so all original. I have no idea what they were selling for but signed prints were £10 each, though you can pay £50 for one on eBay if you are a mug.

I must admit that I could not see the point and The Banners did nothing for me.

There were two other gallery spaces, both of which were quite large and had interior partial walls to make for even more hanging space, unlike Saatchi which uses just the main walls. I prefer the Saatchi approach as the sense of the large open spaces is part of my enjoyment of the experience.

I prefer the art that I have sen at the Saatchi too. There were a couple of pieces that I quite liked, and some that I liked a lot, but not enough of them to make me think that I need to get back to the White Cube any time soon, though I will pop-in next time I am in the area, it is free to go in after all.