Friday, December 22, 2006

Pirates at the Orange Tree

Thursday was my last day at work before Christmas and my last trip to the theatre of 2006. Lisa and I made the trek out to Richmond (trek is perhaps overstating a 15 minute train journey, but hell, it was cold, really cold) to see the Orange Tree's festive staging of Chris Monks' The Pirates Of Penzance. And it was worth the trip. Monks' production rejigs the Gilbert and Sullivan classic to included black-suited wiseguys and abseiling posh girls, a wonderfully myopic heroine and a Major General in a wetsuit and flippers. Preposterous, yes, but fantastic fun. The production had a delightfully ramshackle quality - it was silly, sweet and didn't outstay its welcome. The perfect way to round up my theatrical year.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Much Ado about Something


It’s mid December and, along with Christms present panic (two weeks to go and shamefully little done), come those inevitable end-of-year round-ups in the papers, all the critics busy picking their best plays and whatnot, summarising a year’s worth of theatre in a few snappy paragraphs.

I’m not sure I like the process - though I read them all of course, I always read them – it seems to leave little room for the plays that moved you on some level but that might not have been the most polished or successful of productions, the interesting failures, the guilty pleasures. So I’m not going to inflict my top five on you here, (not yet anyway – I may cave). Having said that, the play I saw last night may well be a candidate for such a theoretical list. I was at the lavishly revamped Novello for the opening of the London transfer of the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing. Being one of about three people in the UK who found Green Wing terminally unamusing (all those little speeded up bits did nothing to make it any funnier) I wasn’t overly thrilled at the casting of the angular Tamsin Grieg as Beatrice, but though I thought she overplayed wildly at times, she gradually won me over. As did the entire production. Set in pre-revolutionary Cuba, Marianne Elliot’s production was a wonderful, uplifting affair, full of music and dance, and brilliantly performed - especially, I thought, by Patrick Robinson as the Prince, an actor I first saw on stage some ten years ago when my A Level class went to see a touring production of The Country Wife at Woking Theatre. (Christ, my A Levels were ten years ago? Now I feel old).

All of the supporting cast were excellent and were it not for the large gentleman in the seat next to mine who slept (and snored) pretty much through the entirety of the first act, it would have been almost perfect. Still, it was definitely the best Shakespeare production I’ve seen this year.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Dark Night at the National




Have decided my failure to engage with Love Song last week was a 50/50 split between my bad mood and the play’s inherent not-very-goodness. Because, despite the persistence of a certain sense of malaise throughout the remainder of the week, I found myself really enjoying Coram Boy at the National on Friday.

Melly Still’s production is an incredibly dark piece of theatre: dead babies and onstage birth, child trafficking and hard-hearted fathers, yet it somehow works as a family-targeted show (though certainly not for very small kids). Lisa loathed it last year, when it first played at the National, and even I shuddered slightly when they started producing little baby skeletons from the floor, but the plot drags you along and the sheer bombast of the play keeps you hooked. I found myself all tense and trembling during the end of the second half and all the people around me seemed rapt. (Except for the two women sitting directly beside me, who though they seemed to be enjoying it, felt the need to discuss every plot point in some detail, with only vaguely lowered voices; it was as if they were watching television in their own living room, no acknowledgement of the people around them who might not want each dramatic exchange pointlessly reiterated and in case you haven’t gathered, it was very, very annoying).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Love Song Leaves Me Cold


I’ve written before about how very often I arrive at the theatre, tired and in a flap and not really in the mood for engaging my brain with anything, but then I take my seat and the lights dim and slowly I’m swept up in another world. All the stresses of the day fade into the background. It doesn’t always happen of course, it takes a certain kind of production I guess, something in tune with what you’re feeling; but last night was the first time I can think of when quite the opposite has occurred. I had tickets for Love Song at the New Ambassadors, John Kolvenbach’s quirky, (kind of) romantic comedy, starring Neve Campbell and Cillian Murphy.

I’d heard mixed things, but was eager to see it – to make up my own mind. The play focuses on Murphy’s loner Beane, an extremely introverted character whose life is opened up by Neve Campbell’s urban ‘liberator’ – a kind of cat burglar on a moral mission, who steals his only spoon. Everything was so determinedly offbeat, and while I could see how some would find it sweet and charming, I just found myself sinking deeper into my seat until, by the end, I was enveloped in some dark malaise of my own making – unmoved and actually a little dejected. This wasn’t completely a result of the play itself which was often very funny in places – but I think you had to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate it and for whatever reason I just wasn’t. I found it overly whimsical and quite the opposite of uplifting. Indeed I scowled all the way to Waterloo. Go figure.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Strange Coincidences

I was at Hampstead Theatre on Tuesday night for the opening of Ryan Craig’s (of What We Did To Weinstein notoriety) new play The Glass Room. The play was about a human right lawyer with Jewish roots who takes on the case of holocaust-denying historian. The issues were pertinent and some of the arguments powerful, but the play itself was rather sloppily constructed, relying too heavily on narrative contrivance and characters that just didn’t ring true. For every gripping exchange of dialogue there was a scene of such awkwardness it was impossible to excuse (most obviously the scene when Sian Thomas, the icy academic at the heart of the case, lets her mask slip to reveal her rabid anti-Semitism). Having said that the play succeeded in making me laugh and making me think, but its plot holes and dramatic failings were too large to ignore.

It did lead to one of those odd coincidences that happens sometimes in London. I was walked past an oddly familiar man in the street yesterday, on one of my lunchtime wanderings through Soho, and was forced to do one of those slo-mo double-takes people only do in films. I was staring at him for a good minute or so as I tried to figure out whether we’d been at school together or met at university when I realised he was actually the chap who played Myles the lawyer in the play the night before. Then after I’d stood gawping at him for a while in what was probably a quite intense and scary fashion, we ended up walking down the street in the same direction. Poor sod probably thinks he has a stalker now…

The Time Of My Life?


Last week’s theatrefest concluded with a corker. Yes, it had to happen at some point – I went to see the Dirty Dancing musical at the Aldwych Theatre. We’d booked tickets months in advance (as had everyone else – the place was rammed and there were, literally, coachloads of people pumping into the auditorium). I met with Laura, Caroline, Ann and Sarah B for a hasty bite beforehand, before taking our seats in the upper circle.

The production was the oddest thing, a scene by scene re-enactment of the film, every snippet of dialogue reproduced, every corny montage re-created (including the bit with the log and the bit with the watermelons and the bit with the lake – you get the picture). There had been barely any attempt to re-imagine it as a musical in any real sense, instead it worked more along the lines of a porn movie, only with a two hour build to the money shot: “No-one puts baby in the corner!” – delivered with as much emotional resonance as the aforementioned log, by the well-muscled but distinctly wooden Patrick Swayze stand-in.

Laura, bless her, loved every cheesy minute of it and I’d forgotten how nice it can be to go to the theatre with a group of friends. (It also provided another reminder of how distanced the whole press night hoopla can be from the real post-opening night experience of going to the theatre; Michael Billington very rarely shouts at the leading man to get his kit off.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Unexpected Pleasures

Some kind of train snarl up at Waterloo meant I was running late for the theatre yesterday (though not quite as late at I had been for my last visit to the Bush). So I arrived at Theatre 503, at the Latchmere in Battersea, flustered and tired, not really in the best mood to see a play. I had very little idea what Jason Hall's GBS was about and didn't even skim the programme notes beforehand preferring to skulk in a corner with a book and recover from my trip. However it turned out to be one of the nicest things I've seem all year, a touching two-hander about two brothers reuniting after their father falls ill. It took that rather unoriginal idea and spun it into an incredibly entertaining duologue about two very different people, united by family, if little else. As a study of sibling relationships it was very well observed and the plot had a believable randomness to it, these were people that seemed to have lives that went beyond the confines of the play, the characters' reactions were human and understandable even if the situations they were in were sometimes absurd.

And it made me laugh, that's the important thing. It wasn't the most accomplished or daring of plays, but I was tired and frustrated, and it picked me up and it left me smiling.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Two Down, Two To Go

Tempting as it is to employ some sort of bus-related metaphor here I can't quite be bothered, all I'm going to say is that after a few thin weeks theatre-wise, I've now hit a spurt - four plays this week. Two down, two to go.

On Monday, Lisa and I went to see Peter Hall's revival of David Hare's Amy's View, an interesting character study rather undermined by stuffy, conventional staging (ironic in a play that makes such a big deal about the virtues of theatre vs. other forms of media). I almost felt myself agreeing with the deeply unsympathetic son-in-law character when he explained what he disliked about theatre (productions that don't even try to transport you anywhere new, now that would be one of my dislikes). The relationship between Felicity Kendal's charismatic matriarch and her daughter was well done, complex, believable. But the play left me cold and the final seen which should have been quietly devastating left me unmoved.

Yesterday's play couldn't have been more different. A micro-budget musical in Islington's Rosemary Branch Theatre (a lovely above-a-pub affair with scatter cushions on the seats, but a complete arse to get to). The Big Ending had a neat concept, that a man's unbalanced brain chemistry could result in all the trappings of musical theatre - with people slipping into song in the street and at work - just with it happening all in his head. It was clever and well sung, but once this tricksy premise was established they didn't seem to know where to take things next. It was a short play, just over an hour, but it still dragged in places and (ironically) didn't know how to end things. Still, with its 5p budget and committed performances, it felt braver than the previous evening's offering.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Thundercats!



I noticed my blog was looking rather text-heavy of late so I thought I'd rectify things. This is the best of the pictures from the halloween party. Rather pushing the literary/mythological theme to its limits, but hey, they made their own weapons, so to complain would be churlish.

Adventures in Vintage

With all the fuss over lateness and its consequences (see below) I completely forgot to mention the coolest part of my weekend. On Saturday, Lisa and I went on a shopping jaunt to the King's Road and she introduced me to the wonderful place that is Steinberg and Tolkein, a vast cave of vintage goodies. I was particularly taken with a 1930s burgandy evening dress and saw the most amzing 70s velevet coat, that looked just about my size (I didn't dare try it on, down that road temptation lies.)

Had I money to spend I could easily have spent it in there, and almost would have had I slightly more slender hands, as I spotted a pair of gorgeous finned, black leather gloves on the ground floor that almost provided the solution to this winter's Great Glove Hunt.

Buoyed by the experience I devoted my lunch break today to exploring another emporium of vintage goodies, the new Soho branch of Beyond Retro, just five minutes from my office. Though I was momentarilly distracted by a green jacket with a fur collar (far too big for me unfortunately, plus there's the whole fur/veggie dilemma, even if it is second hand) I was actually rather let down. Age doesn't automatically bestow beauty on things and there was a lot of shoulder-padded eighties tat on display. As I was leaving a couple of leather belts caught my eye, but then I realised that my favourite belt of the moment has been purloined from my mother's wardrobe and hails from the late 70s - which makes it vintage! And without having to part with any money or worry about any patches of suspicious yellowing. Hurrah!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Running Late

Saturday was a first for me. I was late for a show for the first time ever. I could blame the central line engineering works that added twenty minutes to my journey or the BT helpline operator, with whom I had a frustratingly circular (and, it turns out, pointless) conversation, that caused me to leave home later than I intended - but it comes down to the fact that I was late. And not just dive into my seat as the two minutes to curtain-up bell rings late, but actually "no, the show has started and you'll have to wait until the interval" late. I was so annoyed with myself. Fortunately the staff at the Bush theatre were lovely about it (it's a tiny venue with a no admittance policy to latecomers so I guess they're probably used to it) and I met another girl in the same boat as me, so we were able to slink guiltly to a nearby pub for a very necessary G&T during the remainder of the first act. Equally fortunately, the Bush supplied us with a plot synopsis and a copy of the play text so it wasn't difficult to catch up with what we'd missed.

Steven Thompson's Whipping It Up is a sharp political comedy very much in the vein of the Thick Of It with shades of Yes Minister. It's set in 2008 when the Tories have returned to power, presenting a believable portrait of the casual backstabbings and machinations of the chief whip's office. I enjoyed it to a point, but it felt like it belonged on television rather than on stage (though I gather a West End transfer is already being discussed, whic makes sense given the pedigree of the cast - Richard Wilson plays the Chief). I doubt my overall impression of the piece would have been much altered by me seeing it all the way through, though that still doesn't alter the fact that I misjudged the journey time. I expect I shall be turning up to things ridiculuously early for the next few weeks, thumbing a book in the empty stalls, reading the programme from cover to cover or sinking one too many gins in the theatre bar.

Sunday was less fraught. Finally trained it down to Winchester to visit Neil and Jo and their lovely, lovely new house. We spent the morning wandering through the town before raiding the local farmers' market for goodies. Fantastic bread, cheese and brlliantly fresh cherry tomatoes. Lunch was a long and rambling affair, pretty much ideal.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Let Down By Donkeys Years


Last night I went to see Donkeys' Years at the Comedy Theatre in the West End, Michael Frayn's farce about a group of university friends meeting up for their twenty five year reunion.

I usually see plays on or around opening night, so it made a refreshing and enlightening change, going so late in the run. The most obvious difference was the make-up of the audience, grey predominated, I'd say 75% of people there were over 50 and there were a lot of Americans in, a hell of a lot, several of whom spent the bulk of the play explaning the jokes to each other (and not quietly either). It was interesting in a way, as I suppose this is a true reflection of just who actually keeps these West End shows afloat once the critics have departed. And the production itself seemed tailor-made to cater to such a crowd, with its Oxbridge setting, nostalgic overtones and frantic but unthreatening comedy.

The cast were great, it has to be said, with the ever-excellent David Haig standing out amongst them as the harrassed government minister worried about potential scandal, but there was just an air of so-what about the whole thing. It kept me vaguely amused for a couple of hours but left me unmoved. It just seemed so unadventurous and bland; it's not like I expect every West End show I see to push theatrical boundaries and break new ground but I do expect to be moved or uplifted in some way, and this just didn't cut it. A big disappointment.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Theatre, Finally - And A Return To The Roundhouse

My theatre drought finally came to an end last night, after a rare fortnight without a single show to see. I went to the little downstairs venue at the Trafalgar Studios to see a production of Not About Heroes, Stephen MacDonald's two-hander about the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It's a play that's quite popular with fringe companies as it's well-suited to being performed in a small space; I've seen it performed before actually, last year, at the teeny subterranean Baron's Court Theatre. This time around I found the staging quite laboured and it took a while to warm up, but it's a nicely written piece (despite the slightly creaky moment when Sassoon helps the younger Owen compose one of his more famous poems: "Anthem for Dead Youth? No that doesn't sound quite right...") and I found myself getting caught up in it all over again.

Despite the lack of theatre-going opportunities, the last couple of weeks have been pretty cool. The weekend just gone was dominated by the Halloween party at Laura and Lisa's (and the subsequent mulled wine hangover). Once again the costumes were amazing. There are pictures on Lisa's blog if you're interested. And last Thursday I went back to the Roundhouse for the first time in almost a decade (I saw my first proper gig there, with Texan Claire and Sarah B. It was a Suede concert and we were moshpit virgins; some poor bloke probably still has a dent in his head care of Sarah's steel toe-capped DMs as she was hoisted over the crash barrier.) This time round I was there to see the Divine Comedy, harking back to a similar era. They were great - Neil Hannon still has the most amazing baritone and I'd forgotten how cool their lyrics can be when they're on form. I had a fantastic time, especially seeing as I haven't been to a proper gig in ages. I miss it, the whole live music thing, must make the effort to go more often.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Escape to Dorset

Have had a rare theatre-free week, which is probably for the best as I have some kind of winter lurgy at the moment and would just be one of those serial coughers who annoys everyone sitting around them in the auditorium.

Went down to Dorset for the birthday of Dan last weekend and had a fantastic time. Drove down on Friday with the Gin Soaked Boy and Matt-in-need-of-a-nickname and were joined later by L&D. On Saturday we went to Lulworth Cove and had smoked salmon sandwiches and prosecco on the beach. Dubious as I was about this expedition, it was actually rather wonderful, the beach was truly beautiful, an amazing palette of blues, the kind of which you just don't get in the city. We found a sheltered spot and spent an hour or so staring out at the water (not to mention Toby's ill advised but highly entertaining rock-juggling). The evening was predictably boozy but also very agreeable. On Sunday, a few us drove down to rainy Weymouth and spent the afternoon wandering around the harbour, one of the more creative ways of shaking off a hangover and actually pretty cool in its own aimless way.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Tale Of Two Musicals


Two very different theatrical experiences this week. On Wednesday night I caught a performance of Monty Python's Spamalot at the Palace Theatre. I must confess I was looking forward to this, having rather fallen for all the Broadway-related hype, but I was really let down by the show. Though I did laugh in places, on the whole I found it overlong, repetitive and a little boring. It's not that I dislike Python, the opposite in fact, but everything that made them interesting is absent from this retread through the Holy Grail. I know they make no claims otherwise, tagging it as a "loving rip-off" but it seemed so lazy. The (very American) audience were applauding before half the characters even spoke, people were chanting along with the lines and a crowbarred-in rendition of Always Look On the Bright Side turned into a very cheesy sing-along. I was talking to Mark Ravenhill on the interval and he seemed as bemused as I was so at least I wasn't alone in feeling like the only sober guest at a very rowdy party.

Far, far better was Caroline, Or Change at the National last night. Lisa and I went along to the opening night, neither of us with particularly high expectations - Tony Kushner's musical about a black maid and her Jewish employers in 1960s Louisiana sounded very worthy on paper. But we were both completely blown away. This is that rarest of things, a musical that deals with social issues in an intelligent and engaging way, with characters who are well-rounded and believeable as people. It was a euphoric and intense production, with a cast who were truly faultless, not a mediocre vocal performance among them. Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic. Very tempted to see it again.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Brownies at Borough Market

Friday evening saw me at the White Bear in Kennington for a production of a rarely staged Polish play, The Police. Written by Slawomir Mrozek, it's set in an unnamed state where the populus have become so loyal and unquestioning that the police are forced to stir up dissent to keep themselves in business.

I've never been to the White Bear before - it's a proper pub theatre, attached to a proper pub - boozy regulars and a mist of cigarette smoke. The production was rather ambitious for such a small space, especially at the start, as we were grudgingly given permission to enter the venue by an unsmiling, uniformed woman who herded us through the pretty grim corridor beside the gents toilets - much to the befuddlement of one of the aforementioned regulars. Unfortunately nothing in the play itself quite lived up to this inventive beginning. Though the satire still felt fresh, and I found myself laughing more than I expected, the staging felt rather stiff and the performances were only so-so.

The day after I made my first ever visit to Borough Market - and, oh my God, what have I been doing with my Saturday mornings before now? It was as brilliant as everyone says; Lisa and I stocked up on cheese and olives and bought some excellent walnut bread (and a large slab of chocolate brownie which I was compelled to consume in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral). Then we strolled back to Waterloo along the river walk, past the Globe and the Tate. Pretty perfect as days go. In fact the last few weekends have been really lovely, I hope the pattern continues for the pending excurison to Dorset for Dan H's birthday.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Young Vic Reopens


The last time I went to the Young Vic I was still at university and the main draw, I must admit, had little to do with the fact that I'd studied Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus in some depth on my course, and everything to do with the fact that the title role was being played by Jude Law. Yes, I know - I'm not proud of myself, I'm not usually such a name-whore - but he was still an on-the-rise talent back then, with less bad movies and nanny-shagging incidents under his belt. And it was an enjoyable production as I recall, Law was on good form, despite sporting some rather curious facial hair. (Proper, I'm-an-actor-me beardy business).

Returning to the theatre on Wednesday for the opening performance in the newly refurbished space was interesting. After a lengthy period of refurbishment, the Young Vic is now equipped with a very Shoreditch-esque bar area in which we were treated to champagne and speeches.

The show itself, Tobias and the Angel, was billed as a 'community opera' - two words in conjunction that set alarm bells ringing in my head - but with its huge choir and big stage-filling set pieces it was actually a rather joyous affair, engaging and inclusive. I found myself really caught up in the piece and I loved some of its creative touches, like the great, green fish in the fantastic underwater scene. On paper what sounded worthy and a little off-putting was in fact accessible, entertaining and uplifting. An unexpected treat.

Future productions look exciting too, with Rufus Norris' adaptation of DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little topping my how-the-hell-are-they-going-to-do-that? pile.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Inside a South London Icon

Though I've been living in the new place for about six weeks now, my intention to spend the weekend doing exciting London-y things that had not been possible before, hasn't quite come off. Open House weekend and several rep cinema screenings have both fallen by the wayside in exchange for the combined pleasures of croissants, tea and a long trawl through the Sunday papers. So I was doubly glad I made the effort this weekend to walk over to Battersea Power Station for the current Chinese art exhibition.

To be honest I wasn't that fussed by the art installations themselves, bar the strange display of slowly rotting apples which seemed in keeping with the general decay of the place. What I found genuinely thrilling was the opportunity to see up close such an iconic - and vast - building. I've always had a thing for secret spaces, hidden corners of the city and the way they work on your imagination, abandoned tube stations and the like (which is why I loved the production of Dido, Queen of Carthage at the House of St Barnabas in Soho earlier this year). After traipsing through Battersea Park and gawping at the considerable queue, the first thing that hits you is the scale, it's quite dizzyingly huge. And for someone accustomed to low-rise European cities it throws your sense of perspective completely out of whack. Unfortunately we weren't let loose to explore on our own terms, but then the building is derilict and unsafe, so that's probably wise. I couldn't quite understand why they'd employed some burly chap to shout at people who attempted to take photos of the interior though.

The building is pretty much a shell now, but you could see the differences between the part that was built earlier - heavy on art deco tiles - and the parts that were added later in the 1950s. The tour took us through damp, disused corridors, stripped and eerie. The art felt like an afterthought, though the juxtaposition of the shiny animation detailing the proposed development with the Chinese video art was rather cool. By the time we left the sun was setting and the building was silhouetted by the twilight, an oddly striking and beautiful sight.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Three Plays in a Week


Been an incredibly busy week theatre-wise. On Tuesady night I traipsed out to the Yvonne Arnuad in Guildford to see the new adaptation of Jerome K Jerome's Three Men In A Boat. The gentle, anecdotal comedy of the novel is well suited for the stage but the rather creaky production was the most regional-theatre of all the regional theatre productions I've yet seen, pandering unashamedly to the mostly grey crowd, even pausing for a rather cringe-worthy but seemingly popular sing-along in the second act. (They couldn't keep everyone happy though, and one chap with a booming voice, and probably though I couldn't see him, a nice bushy moustache, kept loudly proclaiming his displeasure every time they veered even slightly away from the events of the book).

Wednesday night's show couldn't have been more different if it tried. The production of Kafka's Metamorphosis at the Lyric, by Icelandic company Vesturport, was intense and often very striking. Some critics seem troubled by the liberties it has taken with the text but my main problem was that alot of these physical theatre techniques already feel over-familiar, from the company's own Woyzeck (which played again in London earlier this summer) to the superb Nights at the Circus in which lead actor and director Gisli Orn Gardarsson also starred. My expectations were high and while I could see what they were aiming for, and could certainly admire some aspects of what they achieved, I ultimately felt rather let down.

I'm still mulling over last night's show. it was the opening night of the new production of Bent at the Trafalgar Studios. It was a glitzy affair, as these things go, with Graham Norton, Maureen Lipman and - apparently, though I didn't see her - Monica Lewinski amongst the audience. And though the play feels in many ways dated, it still has real power. I was less convinced by Alan Cummings central performance though. As Max, a man who, when arrested and sent to a concentration camp in wartime Berlin, would rather wear the yellow star of a Jew than the pink triangle of a homosexual, I found him rather mannered and tic-driven. His co-star Chris New, as fellow prisoner Horst, was stronger, he felt far more confident despite his relative inexperience.

It's very much a play of two halves. The first is a very OTT affair, bombarding you with broad comedy, sudden, brutal violence and dramatic sheets of flame, while the second half is altogether more subtle and successful. But though the tension was often unberable, I thoughht some crucial connection, some vital, human something, was lacking - I still can't quite put my finger on what.

After all that I'm looking forward to tonight, a laid-back evening at the flat with friends, movies, and maybe the odd cocktail. No, make that definitely, the odd cocktail...

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Night at the Lyric

Went back to the Lyric (one of my favourite London theatres) on Thursday, after a too-long summer hiatus. Their main house programme doesn't kick off until Wednesday (with a version of Kafka's Metamorphosis, that I'm really quite excited about seeing) but their studio theatre is playing host to an Anglo-Iranian production called The Persian Revolution - a surreal, dramatic essay on the 1906 constitutional revolution in Iran. What this meant in practice, was a five-strong cast, clad in matching purple suits, playing multiple roles and fleshing out the complicated social and political background to this pivotal episode in the history of the Middle East. A lot of this I found genuinally interesting but I thought the director was often trying to hard to make things work in a theatrical context, overwhelming some fascinating material with a lot of shouting, singing and unnecessary dashing about.

Other then that, Mum came to visit the flat on Tuesday, and took Lisa and I out for dinner at great local Italian. And, even better than that, bought us new wine glasses. Finally we can cease drinking wine out of huge tumblers (or, worse, mugs!)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Voyage to the West End


Another West End transfer on Thursday, this time the Donmar's production of John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father. The play is an entertaining and affectionate study of Mortimer's own father, a successful barrister, blinded in middle age. Derek Jacobi plays the main role and it's as superb a performnace as you expect: charismatic, powerful, yet not without vulnerability. Yet the play is a very soft-centred affair, which imparts no real insight into what made the man tick. He remains something of a 'character,' a collection of quirky habits, not really a man you ever understand.

Jeins and I were sitting next to Mortimer himself throughout the play and various people kept coming over to pay their respects. As did Dominic Rowan, during the curtain call. It made the production that much more moving, the awareness that this wasn't just a series of comic scenes but a very personal piece written by the man sitting besides us. I just wish what was happening on stage could have supplied that extra emotional kick on its own.

The following night I had the Gin Soaked Boy over for dinner - there was meant to be more people but it all fell apart at the last minute - and got hopelessly tipsy, subjecting the man, I suspect, to a lot of finger-jabbing and general ranting. Ah well, while I would rather I had not got quite so specatcularly inebriated, the bits of the evening I remember were great fun! Cooking is so much more enjoyable when done with someone else.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The 39 Steps

After a week with comparatively little on (bar a visit to the Spitz to see the idosyncratic howlings of Bat For Lashes), Lisa and I went to see the Tricycle's production of The 39 Steps last night at the Criterion in the West End.

It was a sweet, slight confection - John Buchan's classic thriller tackled by just four people who play all the roles (they even occasionally play bits of the scenery.)The production contained some lovely touches, including the obligatory - and rather ingenious - Hitchcock cameo, but it was essentially a one trick show and the idea of a small cast multi-tasking in such a way is hardly a new one. Still it kept me entertained and laughing for much of its length, which given this has been a particularly stressful week, is hardly something I'm going to complain too much about.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Orange Tree Misses the Mark

In Richmond on Friday for The Madras House at the Orange Tree. Having seen The Voysey Inheritance by Harley Granville Barker at the National earlier in the year, I was eager to see another work by this rather radical playwright, but unfortunately Sam Walter's production left me feeling...educated, but not particularly entertained. Granville Barker's take on the position of women in early 20th century society is fascinating in places but at three stately hours the play felt interminable at times and I was checking my watch a great deal in the last act. A shame as the cast were excellent and the play was robust enough, I believe to stand a less reverential handling. Still a trip to the Orange Tree is alays enjoyable, it's such a great theatre, friendly, willing to stage unexpected and difficult work, and unique among London's fringe venues with its in-the-round set-up. However attending non-press performances, especially matinees, it's easy to feel like the youngest person in the room, bar the actors, by several decades. It needs to work on attracting a more rounded crowd.

On Saturday, the Gin Soaked Boy and Matt-in-need-of-a-nickname came over to the flat for Mexican food and Margaritas. We ended up talking into the early hours of the morning and went through a large amount of wine in addition to those margaritas. A great night, but I sloped off back to Sunbury the next morning with my second hangover in as many weeks.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

More Lorca - and an Impromptu Party

Back at the Arcola last night for the concluding production in the Viva Lorca festival. A very different prospect from the vibrant take on Yerma that I saw there recently, When Five Years Pass is a surreal tragedy influenced heavily by Dali. This kind of surrealist approach, full of dancing clowns and dead cats, at times feels incredibly dated and alienating and yet I was often drawn along by it. The core of the story, about a man who waits five years to marry his young fiancee only to be rejected, had a genuine emotional impact, helped by some good performances. Yet the piece was difficult to connect with, more of interest as a depiction of a certain cultural movement of the time, then as a drama. As difficult as it is to get to, I like the Arcola a lot, it's a theatre with ambition and a great artistic resource for its local community.

Though we didn't plan it as such, Saturday turned into something of an unofficial housewarming. One of those evenings when the consumption of some apple schnapps the colour of Fairy Liquid suddenly seemed like a really great idea. Lisa and I were both feeling a tad fragile the following morning, though S&C's generously donated double-chocolate cookies (home-baked, no less) went some way to taking the edge off.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Viva Lorca - and a New Home

Last Friday, after a busy and stressful week, I was due to see Yerma at the Arcola theatre, the second production in the theatre's Viva Lorca season. To be honest, I was very tempted to make my excuses and get out of it. I was so tired and just wanted to head home, but I'm so glad I didn't pull out - it was a fabulous show, vibrant and lyrical. Kathryn Hunter was compelling as the tormented and childless Yerma, scuttling about, husky and hunched - you could feel the desperation radiating from her. The flexible Arcola space had been split down the middle with the audience on either side, adding to the production's unsettling but effective atmosphere. I was particularly taken with the scene where a group of washerwomen beat their sodden clothes against the ground sending water everywhere, their ritual accompanied by onstage drumming.

For such an essentially bleak drama this was vibrant and exciting stuff. And its energy was infectious. I was on such a high by the time it reached its tragic conclusion, a feeling inhanced by the Spanish guitar music and flickering candles in the Arcola lobby. For two hours I was able to forget all the little niggling worries that had followed me about all week and get lost in the spectacle. That's why I love the theatre - that feeling - it doesn't happen often, but this production hit all the right buttons.

As for the flat, after much faffing and fussing, we have finally moved in. Tall Matt, Ann and Sarah B were all good enough to lend a hand and the place is slowly starting to feel like home, though the walls are still rather bare - we need art! Lisa however won't be joing me until her course at the Institute of Education begins - it feels a bit odd having the place to myself.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Not Long Now...

Just returned from a little celebration at what is, as of today, our new flat. We sat in the empty living room, knocked back some well deserved bubbly and plotted how we would arrange the furniture when we finally moved our stuff in. I'm so excited about the move, it's going to make such a difference to my life, being so centrally located - I can't wait!


No theatre this week, not had the time, nor is there much opening in London at the moment - but I did manage to catch the outdoor screening of Howl's Moving Castle at Somerset House. The weather was kind to us, thankfully, letting us spread a blanket on the ground and partake of some M&S nibbles and our smuggled-in gin without being rained on. And Miyazke's beautiful animation really benefited from being seen on such a big screen - I think I enjoyed the film even more this time then when I watched the DVD. Definitely going to have to repeat this experience next summer.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Rock 'n' Roll


So, Rock'n'Roll...

It took a while to digest this one, to work out exactly how I felt about it and how it made me feel - which is a good thing surely.

It's actually very hard to describe what it's about - because while it encompasses so much, it never really settles on any one theme, it hops from one idea to another. For those it don't know, R'n'R concerns Jan (played subtly and quite superbly by Rufus Sewell) a Czech student with a passion for rock music whose life gets overtaken by the politics of his country. This enables Stoppard to touch on numerous themes, communism, the power of music, academia, identity, and so on.

I can see why some people react against Stoppard, the play is very cerebral, at times seemingly rather proud of just how clever it is, and in the first half in particular there was little to engage with emotionally. Sorcha Cusack's tearful breakdown is meant to be the big moment of revelation in this part of the play, but it was just so jarring and inorganic, I couldn't buy it. In fact I found her performance difficult to get to grips with throughout.

Things warmed up considerably in the second half however and when the middle-aged Jan (having remained stoic and passive throughout everything, despite being imprisoned under the communist regime and having his record collection destroyed by the police) finally cracks, I did find find myself welling up. It was a well judged moment - and it made me think about the fact that my grandfather too spent time in prison under similar circumstances under Tito, something I've long known but if I'm honest never given much thought before now. The play needed that emotional hook or it wouldn't have worked for me (and I would have liked to know a lot more about Syd Barratt and the Czech band The Plastic People Of The Universe, just hearing the songs wasn't really enough - at times it just felt like a trawl through Stoppard's record collection).

It's a play that will stay with me certainly, though I didn't adore it with same passion as Lisa, who was seeing it again after already catching it at the Royal Court earlier this year.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Cocktails & Capoeira

Fate conspired to prevent me from seeing A Right Royal Farce, which I was supposed to see last week, and as it turns out I am entirely grateful to fate, though I must admit part of me was curious, in a rather grubby voyeuristic, way to discover how terrible it actually was.

I did get to the theatre on Friday though, when I took my mum to see Brasil Brasileiro at Sadler's Wells. We had a lovely day - we wandered up into town in the afternoon, saw the World's Most Beautiful Pair Of Boots in a shop in Covent Garden (ridiculously expensive, no way I can even think about having them) before floating over to Islington on a cushion of watermelon martinis. The show was fantastic - vibrant, energetic and colourful. I was especially taken with the display of capoeira and the noisy, percussive finale. It could have done with dropping a couple of the songs, but other than that it was a great night. So much fun.

Saturday was given over to an OMH gathering, now something of a bi-annual tradition, down by the riverside in Hammersmith. It was lovely to see everyone, though Lisa and I slunk off for a bite at Browns at a very civilised point in the proceedings. It's Rock'N'Roll tonight - my chance to see if it lives up to all the critical praise.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Melting at the Chocolate Factory


Laura and I went to see The Last Five Years at the Menier Chocolate Factory on Wednesday. This is a venue I really like, they stage interesting work and have a good track record with small scale musicals (the current production of Sunday in the Park With George started life in the Menier) but they really need to do something about the air con - or rather the lack of - in the theatre. They were handing out battery-powered fans in the cafe beforehand (and I'd brought a fan along with me anyway because I remembered how stuffy it was when I saw Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick...Boom! there last summer). But this was something else. I know it's a fringe venue with limited resources but there are limits to what people will put up with.

Shame, as in many respects it's a great space and the show, while often problematic, is worth seeing. It's an account of a five year relationship - told forwards by the man and backwards by the woman, dueting only once in the middle for their wedding scene. Apparently it was based rather closely on composer Jason Robert Brown's own marriage (his ex-wife even brought a law suit against him as a result). It definitely favoured the male character's perspective and because, due to the show's quirky structure, the couple rarely interact, it's difficult to empathise overly with either of them.

Still it had a very New York sensibility to it, which I liked - I'm a sucker for jokes about Random House and the agony of searching for an agent (though I can understand why some people might find that kind of thing insufferably smug and elitist) - and I enjoyed Brown's lyrics particular in the Shiksa Goddess song about his parents' desire for him to date a nice Jewish girl. I'm glad I went along to see it but won't be going back to the Menier in the summer again if I can help it!

As for the flat, we had a second viewing and made an offer on it. We're swimming in paperwork at the moment but hopefully this is the one.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

On The Move

Where to start? Been a packed couple of weeks, a lot happening. First there was Paris. Three days in the French capital; having visited the city before we didn't feel the pressure to cram in tons of cultural trips, to zip around the sights, instead we took things easy, eating long lunches, stopping for coffee, traipsing through the shops. We ate at a couple of wonderful restaurants and stayed in cosy but stylish hotel on a Left Bank side street, near the Luxembourg Gardens. We did spend a morning in the Rodin museum, sheltering from the heat in its tranquil sculpture garden. The whole trip was lovely and over far, far too quickly.

Since getting back everything has revolved around sorting out a place to live (though Lisa and I did find time to see the messy but entertaining Under the Black Flag by simon Bent at the Globe last week). We want to be in by September and have been trawling the internet for suitable flats. Lisa made dinner (and sublime cheese cake) for Matt, Sarah and I on Wednesday and we chose a few to arrange viewings for. We looked at the first four yesterday and surprised ourselves by liking two very different places; we hadn't expected to see something that good so quickly. They're very different places but I think one had the edge on the other, better location and a quirky charm, lots of odd angles, whereas the other was big and airy but kind of soulless.

It was an incredibly tiring day and sitting with L&D and the Gin Soaked Boy at the Hope on Wandsworth Common later that afternoon I felt absolutely shattered. I think the magnitude of what we're doing finally hit home. Today Lisa and I chilled out with a double bill of noir influnenced movies at the Richmond Filmhouse, including the fabulous Brick which really warrents a repeat viewing. We'll find out more about the flat situation tomorrow. Trying not to get too excited until Lisa speaks to the estate agents.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Puppets and Acrobats


Finally had the pleasure of seeing Avenue Q on Tuesday – and it was a pleasure. I can’t remember laughing that much in the theatre for a long while. Yes, a lot of what the critics had to say is true; it is hopelessly slushy, about three songs too long and it does lose something in the second half – but so what? A warm-hearted send-up of Sesame Street was never going to contain razor-sharp satire or relentless narrative drive. It does exactly what it set out to do, keep its audience entertained and send them happily out into the streets. I had a great time as did Laura, who came along with me.

The following night I went to check out the return of Vesturport Theatre’s Woyzeck to the Barbican. I remember being rather intrigued by this production last year when it was part of the Barb’s Young Genius season but never got around to going along. Since then Lisa and I saw, and adored, Kneehigh’s wonderful Nights At The Circus with the Icelandic Gisli Orn Gardarsson as the sceptical journalist Walser. That closing scene of Fevvers and Walser spinning in midair - reaching out to one another - was one of the most beautiful things I have seen on the stage this year.

Well, Gardarsson directed Woyzeck and the production contains many of the circus-influenced elements that Vesturport are renowned for and that, obviously, featured a great deal in Nights. This was the main draw for me - I love the gleefully physical nature of their work. I knew very little about Georg Buchner’s play before I went, and if I’m honest don’t think I came away from it knowing much more. The production contained some stunning moments, but it felt very episodic – perhaps inevitably given that Buchner died aged 23, before Woyzeck was completed, leaving only a series of fragmented scenes – and the whole thing was rather bemusing: the podgy Cupid character with a bow and arrow? The Godlike Elvis-impersonator chappie with the giant inflatable globe? I’m still none the wiser as to what they were there for. Still, the tragedy of the central story eventually shone through the oddness and the final scenes were rather disturbing - powerful and unsettling to watch. In other words, the antithesis of Avenue Q.

Woyzeck may have been dark and ambitious and pushed its performers to their physical limits, but if I were going to sit through either again it would be the one with the puppet porn!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

More City Bliss

The National’s new production of The Seagull was one of the productions I was most looking forward to this summer. I really relished the prospect of seeing Juliet Stevenson on stage and was intrigued to see Ben Whishaw especially as I now know he’ll be playing the lead in the upcoming film of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. But, once again, I went to the National with high hopes and came away feeling rather underwhelmed.

I’m a bit of a novice when it comes to Chekhov. I’ve not seen The Seagull performed before so it was difficult to appreciate what I gather was the radical nature of Katie Mitchell’s production. The play had been set in some vast warehouse like space, with peeling paint and an air of decay. Servants zipped back and forth constantly and doors slammed with regularity. I could kind of see what she intended, life progressing while these characters were content to stew in their own self-induced torment, oblivious to all else. But all the running about ended up muffling a lot of the dialogue, which grew to be irritating in the end.

Thursday’s excursion was more successful. Matt and I went to see Matthew Todd’s play Blowing Whistles at the Sound Theatre, a cold, curious space in a club off Leicester Square. The play started off as pure sitcom, but slowly evolved into something darker and more contemplative. It was a bit formulaic but it had some great lines, and realistically recreated the repetitive and painful nature of a relationship in meltdown.

The flat-hunting has progressed no further but Lisa and I, and some of her work colleagues, had a nice, long gin-sprinkled lunch in Covent Garden last weekend, followed by a bit of shopping – another of those blissful city afternoons that makes me long for the autumn, when all this will be possible without an hour’s journey each way on the Shepperton train.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Coffee, Ice Cream & London in the Summer


Yesterday I had one of those perfect London afternoons – affogato (black coffee over vanilla ice cream) and book browsing on the South Bank, followed by dinner and an evening at Sadler’s Wells. I was there to see a production of Carmen by the Catalan Compania Metros. The choreography was a blend of modern dance and flamenco accompanied by extracts from Bizet’s opera. It was intense and alluring and quite beautiful, even if a clear emotional narrative never really emerged.

The dancing was very striking and compelling to watch especially when the rhythm was beaten out solely in handclaps, finger-clicks and the stamping of feet. The costumes were vibrant and the set created a suitably sultry atmosphere. The ending however was curiously underwhelming, with water cascading over the stage but none of the impact of real tragedy.

In other news, the search for a new place to live continues slowly but surely. Lisa and I have a rough idea of our budget and our preferred location. We had a cursory look at estate agents’ windows a couple of weeks ago (an excursion that happily gave way to another of those perfect sunny, city afternoons, lounging in a Clapham cafĂ© for hours) and we will begin looking in earnest when I get back from Paris.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Easy Targets

Alecky Blythe's company Recorded Delivery specialise in a kind of documentary theatre where the actors wear headphones and draw on the vocal tics and speech patterns of their subjects in their performances. Their new show, Cruising, forgoes the broad canvas approach of their previous productions for a more intimate approach, focusing on the life - well, the sex life to be exact - of 72 year old widow Maureen.

Maureen was quite a character - played superbly by Mirandra Hart - but the whole concept of the show could be condensed as: "Gosh, old people enjoy sex too." It was a pretty slight idea, and often you seemed to be invited to laugh at these characters - real people interviewed by Blythe - rather than with them. It was funny in places but as sometimes happens, I was swept along with the laughter of others. It was only when I thought about it on the way home that i started to feel rather uneasy about the production. Plus there was some rather dodgy 'old person acting' from the cast. Not great.

This was my first visit to the Bush Theatre in ages, but I saw a couple of my favourite fringe shows of last year in the place (Dennis Kelly's tense After the End, Amelia Bullmore's superficially conventional but hilarious Mammals) and it's usually worth the schlep over to Shepherd's Bush, even on a sticky summer evening. This just wasn't up to their usual solid standards and, though Hart's sympathetic performance kept me entertained, I found the experience disappointing.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Free Market

I've been looking forward to Market Boy at the Nationalfor a while now. I loved David Eldridge's adaptation of Festen, love it, loved it, and was intrigued by his faith in the idea of 'Monsterist' theatre - big themes dealt with in a big way.

Well Market Boy is big, there's no doubting that. A big cast that completely fills the Olivier stage. Eldridge's play is set in Romford market in the 1980s and takes on every excess of the decade, but some of its targets were awfully broad - the bad hair, the bad clothes, the bad music. The plot was non-existant and it was difficult to care about the thinly sketched characters.

The humour was pretty crude as well, though admittedly very funny. I did laugh a lot. So I guess that's something. Especially at the cartoonish Maggie Thatcher who occasionally interrupted proceedings in her blue suit and gravity defying hair do. But, having only recently seen Festen, as part of its UK tour, and having its intricacies still fresh in my mind, I was expecting so much more from this and was disappointed. I seem to be in the minority though. Most of the major critics have given it rave reviews.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Secret Spaces

On Thursday night I met with Jeins for Japanese food followed by a stand-up show from a deceased comedian. The Venue, the ramshackle subterranean theatre next to the Prince Charles cinema, is currently showing a pre-Edinburgh run of Bill Hicks: Slight Return, where the late comic returns to offer his views on the 21st century in the body of a “little known British actor.” I was quite a fan of Hicks and found the whole idea slightly unsettling, especially given the accuracy of Chas Early’s impression, yet because the writers showed an awareness of the weirdness of the enterprise, raising questions about the whole dead comedian theatrical sub-genre that’s currently prevalent (while admittedly being part of it) I thought they pulled it off. I spent a good chunk of Friday listening to my cassettes (yes, cassettes) of Hicks’ live shows, so something clearly clicked.

I was back in town on Friday night to see the new production by Angels in the Architecture, a company that specialise in putting on plays in unusual spaces. They were staging Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen Of Carthage in the House Of St Barnabas in Soho. The building is a former refuge for homeless women, and its chapel is tucked away on Manette Street opposite Foyles. I’ve been intrigued by this place for years and was very pleased to finally get a chance to look inside. I have an inherent dislike of audience participation so was rather unsure about what to expect as we were plied with wine and handed playing cards by the cast on arrival, but once the play was underway I found the production incredibly inventive, especially in its little details: the ‘Gods’ who hovered on fire escapes and rooftops. An unusual but very enjoyable experience, and there was something rather thrilling about watching a play in a secluded courtyard in the hidden heart of Soho.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mayhem & Murder


To the Globe yesterday, for Lucy Bailey's production of Titus Andronicus, the second play in Dominic Dromgoole's Edges Of Rome season.

It's been a couple of years since I was last at the Globe and before now I've always stood in the yard, as a 'groundling.' This was different, middle tier tickets and an evening showing, the sky slowly darkening above the theatre. I was looking forward to seeing what designer William Dudley would do with the space but found the results rather disappointing. Swathing everything in dark cloth didn't really create the intense and funereal atmosphere intended.

Bailey's production was more exciting, making better use of the theatre's unique space, than any other production I've seen there. The crowd in the yard regularly had to scatter as actors and musicians moved through them, on foot and on moveable wooden platforms. But for all its invention, this is a productin of one of Shakespeare's most difficult and dramatically unwieldy, brimful with blood and violence. Bailey tried to temper all this with humour, to send up the play's excesses but she only partially suceeded. Still, a performance at the Globe is always an experience. And it was a lovely - if very chilly - evening, the sky full of soft orange clouds, the city shining, the river still.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dark Clouds

Dodged hailstones yesterday to make my way to Theatre 503 in Battersea. It was my second visit to this cool studio space above the Latchmere pub. Last month I saw Chris Lee's excellent, compelling play The Ash Boy, this time I was there to see Owen McCafferty's Cold Comfort, a gripping one-man show starring Patrick O'Kane.

Basically it's just an hour and fifteen minutes of drunken rambling, the kind of conversation you'd loathe to be stuck in on the train journey home. But O'Kane makes it something more, draws you in to this man's life, his losses, falling apart before your eyes.

It's an appallingly bleak piece of drama, the lyricism of the language only just disguising a somewhat formulaic story. But you can't take your eyes of O'Kane and when he crumbles and howls at the end of the play, it's incredibly distressing to watch. I wouldn't have wanted it to go on any longer but, despite the scowling sky, I'm glad I made the trip into town to see it.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

War Stories


My week took a slightly surreal turn on Thursday. The play was Immortal at the Courtyard at Covent Garden, down in the bowels of the Theatre Museum. I noticed a couple of photographers at the door as I arrived and thought nothing of it, but then once in the bar I heard a very familiar Scottish accent. There was Ewan MacGregor, motorcycle helmet in hand, looking decidely dashing (and also Richard O’Brien in alarmingly tight white trousers, and a gaggle of well-groomed diary page types). And me, feeling decidedly unglam, a little sticky from the rush hour train, with pinenuts in my teeth from a hasty preshow stop-off at Pret A Manger. Fringe theatre press nights are never usually this glitzy. Someone in the cast must have been very well connected…

The play itself, Ciaran McConville’s claustrophobic Second World War drama about five RAF officers holed up in an old schoolhouse after being shot down over Holland, was a pretty mediocre affair, adequately acted but nothing special – and saddled with a crass final scene reveal from the M. Night Shymalan school of twisty surprise endings.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Stage Magic


The Hammersmith Lyric is probably my favourite theatre in London at the moment. Miss Hunt and I saw our favourite show of the year to date there, Kneehigh's superb Nights At The Circus, and their programme of inventive, frequently magical productions is unrivalled by any other venue.

I was there again last night to see Aurelia's Oratorio, an occasionally beautiful, often just bizarre, series of stage illusions performed by Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter Aurelia Thierree.

The show was a unusual blend of circus and dance, visual jokes and strange vignettes. It was inevitably quite episodic and at less than an hour and a half it still felt overstretched, but when it worked it was quite wonderful. In one scene a curtain of lace falls across the stage and behind it Aurelia is menaced by puppets. It doesn't sound that exciting but it was one of the most visually inventive things I've seen. Like everything the Lyric does, Oratorio play's to the audience's sense of wonder - it allows a little magic to enter your life.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Still, Small Voice


I had every intention of going to see Dr Vesna Goldsworthy give a talk at Kingston University today about her fascinating memoir Chernobyl Strawberries. I really did. But it was scheduled for a Saturday morning, for God’s sake, and neither body nor brain was particularly willing.

It’s a shame as Goldsworthy’s book is quite brilliant. One of the most perceptive and interesting books I’ve read about what it means to be a Serb, and though its twin themes are cancer and civil war, it’s never bleak. I reviewed it last year for ReadySteadyBook.com, Mark Thwaite’s engrossing literary blog site. For a more objective look at a similar subject, With Their Backs To The World: Portraits From Serbia by Asne Seierstad is also worth a look

I’ve gone way off topic; the reason for this post (and possibly the reason for my oversleeping) was yesterday’s opening night of Shared Experience’s production of Jane Eyre at the Trafalgar Studios. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time. I saw After Mrs Rochester, Shared Experience’s play based on Wide Sargasso Sea and the life of its author Jean Rhys, a couple of years ago and was familiar with the company’s layered, psychoanalytical approach.

Many of the same traits and techniques make a reappearance here – in fact this production actually predates After Mrs Rochester. Director Polly Teale once again has adult actors playing children (and in some cases animals) but the main, and defining device, is the constant onstage presence of Bertha Mason, played by Myriam Archarki, moaning and rolling in the attic, and the suggestion that she and Jane are not dissimilar in spirit, that Bertha represents the passion that Jane has had to suppress in order to survive as a plain but intelligent woman in Victorian society.

This approach is occasionally heavy-handed – and the play inevitably races through the scenes from Jane’s childhood – but Monica Dolan’s spiky and emotive performance as Jane holds things together and James Clyde makes a suitably shaggy and caddish Rochester. It makes me want to run straight back to the novel and re-read it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Seas Too Far To Reach

I go through phases of listening to albums quite obsessively. A current obsession is Black Sheep Boy by the Austin-based Okkervil River – I’m a sucker for the novelistic scope of their lyrics and I’ve been aching to see them play live for a while now.

I got that opportunity on Monday when they played Cargo in London. The Gin Soaked Boy and I went along, though I suspect they’re more my thing than his – they have this literary quality that, perhaps predictably, appeals to me hugely.

They didn’t quite live up to my expectations, the intricacy of the songs got lost a little bit in a live setting, but there was an endearing, rough around the edges energy to their performance. I could however have done without the sub-Couplandian spoken interlude that frontman Will Sheff crow-barred into the proceedings. Still they played A Stone, which is one of my favourites, a quite beautiful piece of song-writing. I read a review somewhere that described these songs as “stories of people trying to find out if they need each other,” and that, I think, sums them up more eloquently than I could have.

We didn’t stay until the end, which is a shame as I’d quite like to have seen how they brought things to a finish, but the Gin Soaked Boy was practically asleep on his feet and I’m less keen on waiting around for the last train now that I’m 9-to-5ing it again.

My rather ponderous review of Black Sheep Boy is on display in the usual place but, fear not, I shan't repeat it here.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Dance Class


Just surfaced from a sea of Sunday papers and, trust me, wading through that lot is about the most strenuous thing I plan to do today.

Met up with Miss Hunt again last night to see the CanDoCo Dance Company at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I’ve not been to the South Bank venues in ages, except for the Hayward, where I went to see the Dan Flavin exhibition with the Gin Soaked Boy a couple of months ago, so it was nice to return.

I’ve never really followed contemporary dance and the show both confirmed and confounded my expectations. CanDoCo are renowned as an integrated dance company, two of the performers were wheelchair users, but this did not prove to be a limiting factor in the slightest, instead it allowed for, if anything, a greater range of expression.

The evening was divided into two sections, a more conventional piece called The Journey and a more theatrical piece called In Praise Of Folly. I must admit I enjoyed the first piece more. I found the injection of heavily-accented dialogue in the second half distracting though I enjoyed the rather manic ‘rag doll’ dancing that one of the women engaged in. Lisa had the opposite response, she was very moved by this second piece whereas I enjoyed the evening as an experience of something new, something I’d seen very little off before, but my overriding feeling was the same as with my brief brushes with ballet: An admiration of the technical proficiency of the dancers and the beauty in their movements, without ever connecting with it emotionally. Not totally.

Afterwards Miss Hunt, her friend Hugh, and I headed over to the National for a post-show coffee. I know this rather brutal building has its detractors, but I love everything about it; all that era-specific concrete I find quite comforting. It’s a nice place just to hang out and we sat there chatting until the theatres emptied out and locating a train home became a necessity. A lovely evening.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A Bitter Kiss


Escaped work an hour early yesterday and spent the time in the sun on Richmond Green, reading my book and not watching the cricketers.

I was meeting the senior Hunt sister to see Tosca’s Kiss at the Orange Tree, Kenneth Jupp’s intriguing new play about journalist Rebecca West and her coverage of the Nuremberg trials. From the general press blurb I had anticipated more of a biographical drama about West herself, and this is what attracted me to the play in the first place – I only really knew of her as HG Wells' mistress and was eager to learn more about her – but instead it was more focused on the trial of Third Reich economist Hjalmar Schacht, one of only three to be acquitted for war crimes at Nuremberg.

It was an undeniabky interesting work, but was trying to do too much, I think, reducing its potential impact in the process. The details of West’s 10 year affair with Wells felt like afterthoughts that just clouded the play’s real narrative. The highlight, if you can call it that, was Schacht’s speech in his own defence - both chillingly persuasive and alarmingly prescient. The cast was very strong as well, particularly Steven Elder as US prosecutor Tom Morton, providing a powerful reminder of the obscene reality behind the political machinations.

Despite its flaws, it was genuinely thought-provoking theatre; I didn't exactly enjoy it in the obvious sense, but I certainly took a lot from it. However, on balance I still preferred the Orange Tree’s previous production, Larkin With Women. Oliver Ford Davies was magnificent as the deeply cynical and unarguably selfish poet. Yet what struck me most, I remember, was the perverse but rather comforting optimism in what it had to say about the enduring nature of love.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

One Flew East...

Back to work after the bank holiday weekend and straight back into database rearrangement. Not as bad as it sounds, there’s a soothing quality to the repetition of the task; I can attach myself to my iPod (current listening: Arcade Fire, Pavement, Portishead) and just float.

On Monday night, I trekked (and, oh boy, is it a trek) up to the Arcola in East London to see 15 Minutes, a new play by Christine Harmar-Brown - an intriguing but ultimately flawed production. The main idea, that the truth often gets sacrificed in favour of sensation and ratings when it comes to TV, was hardly an original one. But instead of opting for flimsy satire, the writer has chosen a more straightforward dramatic route. She focuses on the relationship between Toni, a mouthy 17 year old, fresh out of a young offenders institute and the documentary-maker who wants to make a film out of her life.

This central relationship is interesting and layered, they develop an almost mother-daughter bond at times – the filming brings them together but also sets up a barrier between them, the camera always comes first – but the whole thing gets weighted down by needless debate about media ethics

There’s a twist at the end, but it didn’t sit well with went before, it felt forced and awkward. Besides, I found the production overlong and repetitious, and my interest had dwindled somewhat by that point. Still I liked the energy of ex-Eastender Carly Hillman as the volatile Toni.

It was my first trip to the Arcola and though Hackney’s a little out of my comfort bubble, I’m glad I made it up there. It’s a surprising space, a former textiles factory, all bare brick and concrete. The whole place has a (very) rough, unfinished feel but also a buzz of potential, a real sense of excitement and creative passion.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

White Noise


Right, day two and I’m still surprisingly excited by this new creative outlet/way of avoiding real work. You wait, a couple months down the line and my blog will be in the cupboard, so to speak, with my set of half-used oil paints and my Teach Yourself Russian textbook.

I’ve spent far too much time playing with databases this week then I would like, so I was glad of the opportunity to catch the UK premiere of Don DeLillo’s Valparaiso at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre on Thursday.

My relationship with Mr DeLillo to date has not exactly been amiable. I read the first few chapters of Libra and gave up; I tried again with Underworld, read the baseball game scene that everyone reads – and gave up (I expect I am not alone in this respect). I gave it my very best shot, I really did, but we just couldn’t get on together. So I was a tad apprehensive about what I was letting myself in for.

Not unexpectedly the play was very verbose; the dialogue full of repetition and rhyme – occasionally very poetic with it but, more often than not, just odd. An American businessman takes the wrong flight and a planned trip to Valparaiso Indiana instead takes him to Valparaiso Chile. This seemingly silly error bizarrely makes him the subject of a mini media frenzy. Everyone suddenly wants a piece of him and his cute little story: journalists, film crews, talk show hosts. His life becomes camera-fodder.

The satirical content is pretty broad, but this play isn’t aiming to be straight-up satire. It tries for something darker, harder, rattling towards a bleak conclusion – but I was left unmoved. DeLillo himself described it as “a very strange play” and, well, I can’t argue with that. It makes a lot of noise but doesn’t really say very much. Still, the cast and crew clearly believed in their material; it was well acted and technically inventive – and, to be fair, the play was frequently very amusing. I’ve seen far, far worse of late.

Plus it was nice to revisit the Old Red Lion, a proper pub theatre with black lacquered pews and the odd red velvet cushion scattered about. One of my favourite fringe venues.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Dogme Days

Right. OK. Some words would be good.

I'll start on a high note. Just returned from seeing the touring production of Festen at Richmond Theatre. This was one of those shows that just seemed to escape me while it was in the West End. I was dying to see it but things never quite came together. Innate laziness had something to do with it I suspect.

Fortunately a ticket came my way courtesy of the lovely Miss Hunt and I'm very glad that it did. Truly one of the most gripping, strange and uncomfortable productions I've seen in a long while; I think I forgot to breathe for the last few minutes. These are good things. Honestly.

The play is based on the Danish film of the same title, one of the more successful products of Lars Von Triers Dogme Initiative. In a country house hotel, a well-off family gathers together for their patriarch's 60th birthday celebration. But the singing and the drinking and the general merry-making are fairly short-lived. With a clink of fork against glass, one of the sons makes a speech that hauls a nasty family secret into the open. The fall out is chilling and exhilerating to watch.

This is sharp and brutal theatre, though not without humour of the very darkest kind. And it's been years since I visited Richmond's red-carpeted playhouse; something of an error on my part I now realise.

So, yeah...my first post. It's uphill from here, I promise. I'm telling you stories. Trust me.