21 May 2018

Madama Butterfly at Glyndebourne (2018)

I did well in the Festival Ballot for 2018 and got decent seats for all the operas that I was interested in, and that was all of them. These included Madama Butterfly which was being staged at Glyndebourne for the first time. They must have their reasons. It was the third time that I had seen it in two years but it is such a great opera that repetition was never going to be a problem.

I was keen enough to see this production, and so was the rest of the group, that we went for the £160 seats in our usual area. This time we were sat in Blue Upper Circle E18 to E21.

Glyndebourne had a few surprises for us before the opera. There were no significant changes to the gardens, that I noticed, but the White Cube gallery had gone and been replaced with a River Cottage kiosk. Nearby there was a new, bookable, marquee nearby that nobody knew about and so nobody had booked. People were allowed in anyway and so we gave it a go. It will be £10 a seat once it is established but I think we'll be sticking to the original marquee.

In some ways Madama Butterfly is the perfect opera, which is why it gets performed so often. The story is simple and powerful, the tension is maintained brilliantly as the cruel ending gradually emerges and while all the music is good there is one stand-out aria, the prophetic One Fine Day.

This was a simple, almost modest production with the set consisting of little more that some furniture, a couple of walls with sliding doors, and some cherry trees outside. Those trees gave the set all the character that it needed, a simple touch brilliantly done. In contrast, the ENO production had been a lot more colourful and flamboyant, especially in the costumes.

The music was simple too and Madama Butterfly relied almost entirely on its soloists there was no Anvil Chorus or March of the Hebrew Slaves here. Glyndebourne always builds its opera around the singing and this was no exception with all of the main roles being sung and acted beautifully. As always, the American Consul was a key role for me with his baritone voice adding just the right amount of gravitas.

Of course Madama Butterfly is the main player with her handmaid Suzuki a not too distant second. The heart of the opera is the contrast between the two with Madama Butterfly looking towards the USA with hope and Suzuki relying on Japanese traditions and fearful for the future. The heart beat strongly and both singers were excellent.

I really enjoyed this production of Madama Butterfly for all the right reasons, the music and the singing.

17 May 2018

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain at Rose Theatre

Often the programming at Rose Theatre confuses me and this was a case in point. As an almost templated touring theatre production I would have expected to see it at Richmond Theatre but it popped up at Rose Theatre which does not really do that sort of thing.

One problem with it being at Rose was the ticket price. My usual seat Stalls A41 cost £35, somewhat less than most Rose productions these days, whereas I usually get a discount at Richmond, due to my ATG Theatre Card, which usually takes the price down below £30. The view is much better at Richmond too as the seats are adjacent to the stage whereas at the Rose they are placed some distance from it.

I went with few expectations other than to enjoy more fine performances by Robert Powell and Liza Goddard, which was good enough reason to venture out for the evening.

Sherlock Holmes is a difficult character to do well partially because of the expectations set by the recent TV series and partially because of all the other adaptations that had gone before. I felt this production struggled against those expectations a little, particularly in the short first-half, where not that much happened of a Sherlock nature other than his analysis of a corpse in the opening scene.

The second half was much better and I really got into both the main story (the ghostly appearance of Watson's dead son) and also Sherlock's musing on his age and life. Moriarty and Mycroft were in there too.

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain was never going to set the world on fire, nor did it expect to, and it was perfectly content being a solid piece of theatre that entertained. Average may be, but a high average.

8 May 2018

The Winslow Boy at Richmond Theatre

I could not remember having seen The Winslow Boy before but I was pretty sure that I had seen some version of it some where at some time. More importantly I knew of it and of Terence Rattigan and that was enough to convince me to go and see it at Richmond Theatre.

I went for a seat in my usual area Dress Circle Row A Seat 19 which was a shockingly low £24 thanks to my ATG Theatre Card.

One of the things that Richmond Theatre does is act like a regional theatre, it is just about far enough from the West End to do that, showing touring productions. These are almost without exception good, because the people who tour productions know what they are doing. The plays are solid, the actors first rate and the production (set, lighting, music, etc.) professional and slick. I went to see The Winslow Boy with just those expectations.

I expected good but got better.

It was better for all the reasons that I expected it to be good. The play engaged on several levels, the production was spot on and the acting was exceptional.

Aden Gillett and Tessa Peake-Jones got the main billing because of their relative fame and they were good but the two that stood out for me were Timothy Watson and the barrister Sir Robert Morton and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as the campaigning Catherine Winslow.

I was doubly impressed by Timothy Watson as I had hated him for several years in his most famous character Rob Titchener in The Archers.

I had forgotten the story, if I ever knew it, so that was a surprise. What was more surprising were all the other things going on some of which directly resulted from the case, such as the brother having to go out to work and earn money, and others which had nothing to do with it, such as the sister's campaigning work for women's rights. At the centre of all this was Mr Winslow who made all the decision with careful and purposeful deliberation and his wife who supported him all the way. This was a family living through a crisis but not being bowed by it.

The Winslow Boy was a perfect example of decent theatre done very well to make something a little special.

13 April 2018

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Lyric Hammersmith was hilarious

Two years ago I was tempted to see this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Lyric Hammersmith and loved it so when it came back for a couple of warm up dates before a national tour I was tempted to see it again. My Circle Seat A22 was just three away from where I had been the first time and, remarkably, at £21 was about £14 cheaper.

I had remembered some of the main themes, like the ones given away in the poster of Oberon in a superhero outfit bursting through a wall, and some of the detail but I had forgotten just how funny it was. Obviously I knew that it was going to be funny, that is why I went, but it was much funnier than I remembered and I was laughing almost all the way through.

That started with the announcer who did a stand-up comedy routine to introduce the show with lines like, "I hope that you all have a good night. Not this one, obviously, but one day." He set the tome for the evening and was an excellent warm up session for what followed.

What followed was a Shakespeare / Pantomime mash-up. A lot of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was in there, including a lot of the original language, to which the pantomime added slap-stick, music and some topical jokes. The Shakespeare element was also there in the acting which was excellent all-round and I particularly enjoyed the way the characters interacted when they were not the centre of attention.

And the food fight was just brilliant.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was a cunning combination of culture and comedy.

11 April 2018

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (April 2018)

The months continue to whizz by with the regular BCSA socials marking their passage. In some ways that is depressing but it also means that I am going to lots of BCSA socials!

April 2018's social was much like all the others, and that is a good thing. The evening was another pleasing mix of conversations, beer and food. It's a recipe that has worked for years and there are no plans to change it, I am glad to say.

7 April 2018

The Cherry Orchard at Union Theatre was sharp and satisfying

I am doing a pretty good job at seeing (almost) every Chekhov production in London even if it takes a bit of juggling to do so. To see The Cherry Orchard at Union Theatre I had to go into London on the weekend, a Saturday, and that was to catch the final performance.

I still think that Union Theatre undercharges a little and a ticket price of £22.50 meant a very full house. I was sitting in the front row, as always, so could not tell if it was completely full but it looked pretty close.

I had made something of a day of it in London going to Barbican Theatre for a matinee before walking down to Union Theatre in Southwark, taking in a visit to a Paul cafe and PokemonGo Raid along the way. The Millennium Bridge was ridiculously busy and needs widening.

I got to Union Theatre around 6pm and comforted myself with a pint of Kozel while waiting for the Box Office to open at 6:30pm. Once I had claimed my Batch 1 token I went to Culture Grub for my usual Szechuan style vegetable curry, returning to the theatre in good time to be at the front of the queue, i.e. to be number one not just one of the first ten.

The staging surprised me a little because in the first two shows in this series of three there had been stairs up on either side of the stage but this time is was set conventionally. And neatly. It just oozed faded Russian country house.

I had seen Cherry Orchard a few times, and as recently as the year before, and while I would not claim to be anything like word-perfect I did quickly spot a significant difference. Admittedly if I had looked at the poster I might have been less surprised.

This Cherry Orchard, written in 1903, was moved forward a few years to 1917 and the Russian Revolution. This added to the existing theme in the play where the landed gentry were losing out to the new merchant class. The Revolution took this redistribution of land a stage further. I think it worked well; The Cherry Orchard is partially a political play and to ignore the Revolution (which Chekhov obviously did not know was coming) left this thread effectively unfinished.

The rest of The Cherry Orchard is about the large cast of characters, their reactions (or lack of them) to the political situation and to each other and this Cherry Orchard covered this supremely. I got very frustrated with the people refusing to recognise what was about to happen to them, happy for the people who were unbowed by the changes and tearful for the couple who never quite came together. The non-proposal scene was the most poignant in the play.

Judging by the running time, something just under two hours with an interval, quite a bit had been cut here and there (much to the confusion of the man next to me trying to follow the script in Chinese) but Chekhov can be wordy and cutting a theme or two makes little difference to the totality of the play.

The ending was familiar enough though the thing that happens happened to another person. That change worked well too.

This was a very delightful and enjoyable version of The Cherry Orchard made sharper by its slight but significant shift in time.

Coraline at Barbican Theatre

I have no idea where the idea to turn Neil Gaiman's children's book Coraline into a opera came from but it was an interesting one, especially as the music was written by Mark-Anthony Turnage.

I was interested enough to fork out £37.50 for Seat A32 in the Circle. That interest came mostly from Neil Gaiman though I had only seen the film and had not read the book; I had read other books and shed-loads of comics. I was interested to hear Mark-Anthony Turnage's music too.

The timing of the performance meant that I had to have lunch at Barbican Kitchen and a sandwich with a coffee did the trick. I was a little worried but not surprised to see so many children around. I was worried that either they were in the wrong show and would be rowdy or I would be in the wrong show and would be bored. I was relying on the description "opera' rather than "musical" to give it a serious edge. I would probably not have gone to see a Coraline musical.

Somehow we were both right and Coraline managed to keep both the children and the grown-ups engaged. I cannot possibly comment on what children thought of the show (apart from the young girl who was screaming in terror in the interval that she wanted to go home) but I will try and describe how I felt about it.

I loved Coraline.

Firstly it was a proper opera that made little or no concessions to the children other than being a story that I presume they were all familiar with. All of the words were sung and there were no sur-titles to check against. Fortunately all of the singers were absolutely clear and could be understood perfectly. That is not always true for operas sung in English.

The music was modern without being experimental, and it sounded like an opera and nothing like a musical. The set was child-friendly but then Coraline is a child so that was fair. It also did some clever things as it became one room then another with doors to move between them.

And, of course, the story was a good one. I had forgotten the details of the story so I was interested to see what happened too. It was told in a mature way, as all the best children's stories are, and there was a genuine sense of menace about it; that girl was terrified for a reason.

At the heart of it all were Coraline and her two mothers and the both sang beautifully.

Coraline the opera knew what it was doing and did it all very well. 

6 April 2018

Lovebites at White Bear Theatre was pure gold

White Bear Theatre is one of my nearest theatres and thanks to its inventive and varied programming it is one of the ones that I go to most regularly. I had not seen a musical there before and it took the suggestion of something “hilarious and heartbreaking” to make me want to see Lovebites. At £16 there was no further discussion required.

The hard part proved to be getting there. Despite putting it my calendar correctly as a 7pm start I then forgot this and allowed myself to attend a work meeting that did not finish until 6pm (on a Friday!). Some panicking followed but thanks to some seriously brisk walking from Vauxhall station I got to the theatre with seconds to spare.

I called Lovebites a musical and while that is true it also called itself a song cycle which is more true. Lovebites told the story of several relationships in a series of songs; there was one song for each relationship showing how it started and another after the interval showing how it ended. There were no spoken words.

The many parts were played by a cast of just four, two men and two women, supported by a lone pianist. A small platform from which some lovely stories flourished.

There was a good mix to the stories too; a young woman pretended to be into rock climbing to be with a man she fancied only to confess to us that she could barely walk, two young men met at a book club, a film star hooked up with an air stewardess on a flight, a man fell in love with a woman on the day she married his boss, one woman bought a flower for the woman who owned the flower shop, and a woman did something deeply embarrassing after a one-night stand that she wanted to build on.

After the interval some of the relationships flourished, some faded, some died, one had a surprise happy ending and another had a very surprising happy ending. The stories were varied in tone and the "hilarious and heartbreaking" clam was easily justified. I would also add "charming" for the stories that ended somewhere between those two extremes and "realistic" too as these were very human stories not rom-com fantasies.

All of the songs worked well both as vehicles to tell the stories and as works of music in their own right.

Lovebites was an unusual and unexpected show that delighted me in everything that it did. It was pure gold.