Wednesday, 31 December 2014

'To My Friends' by Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono has published a poem on her Imagine Peace website to coincide with the end of 2014 and the start of 2015. I can identify with this.

I am beautiful. I am intelligent. I am healthy in mind and body. I will follow my heart. Repeat.


My dear friends.
How was your year?
Mine was very trying.
But I came out of it smelling the sweet air.
I hope you did too.

I do get concerned, though,
how you will be doing over the holidays.
So here's what I want you to do.

Follow your heart.
And repeat:
I am beautiful
I am intelligent
I am healthy in mind and body

When you get depressed
Keep repeating this until you feel better
or fall asleep.
And let's have a great 2015!

I love you! 

Yoko Ono Lennon
Monday 22 Dec 2014
New York City

Thank you Yoko. And a happy New Year to all!

Be beautiful, be intelligent and be healthy in mind and body.

'Ming' at The British Museum

As an end-of-year treat I went to see the 'Ming' exhibition at the British Museum. I've been meaning to see it for a while now but finally found the time, a mere week before it closes. That's cutting it fine. It was nice to see it quite busy but not uncomfortably so.

It's billed as showing objects from 50 years in the Ming dynasty of Chinese emperors, between 1400-1450, the years when the capital moved to Beijing. The Ming dynasty lasted for around 300 years so this exhibition focuses on the artistic flowering of the dynasty at the same time as the early Renaissance was emerging in Italy. There's little to compare the two artistic 'movements' since they have very different roots but they do come together with the final exhibit.

There's a very wide range of objects on display, big and small, some directly impressive and others that you need to look at quite carefully. Some glittery and shiny and others quite plain. But mostly fascinating.

There were the expected Ming vases and other ceramics but the flowering of art in China at the time was so much more than vases. There was paintings, some with the simple brush strokes evoking cherry blossoms on long scrolls and others were portraits of emperors and senior courtiers. There was metal-work of various kinds, from swords to statues and religious objects. There were cloths and embroideries and lacquerware boxes and all sorts of stuff, something for everyone.

One of my favourite exhibits was a pair of generals guarding a tomb, with the detail in their clothes and boots and helmets, their grim facial expressions that say 'don't mess with me or else' that made me smile (for which I apologised since they're supposed to invoke terror). They're both about three feet tall and would've held a spear (see their hands linked around something no longer there). The detail of their clothes is astonishing and even the stitching of their boots can still plainly be seen. I'd love to have them guarding my front door, one on each side - they would keep the junk mail away most satisfactorily, I think.

One part of the exhibition was about religion at the time and held various religious artefacts from the time. One display case held examples t represent the main religions practiced at the time: a lovely bronze Buddha image, a Daoist tableaux showing a hierarchy of the gods and a small copy of the Koran with Chinese symbols. I had no idea that Islam was so widespread in China at the time but, given that China traded with a good portion of the world it's not really that surprising.

The final exhibit is an Italian painting - 'The Adoration of the Magi' by Mantegna - that stood out like a sore thumb in the exhibition. It was there to show the extent of Chinese influence. Look closely ad you'll see the bald Magi presenting a small white and blue porcelain bowl filled with gold for the Christ child. In a display case beside the painting was a small porcelain bowl with a similar floral design. The bowl in the painting has been identified as having been made in the imperial factory in Jingdezhen sometime between 1403-1424.  When Mantegna was working in Italy at the end of the 1400s the Ming porcelain was a treasure of such value and rarity that it was appropriate to show it as fitting gift for the son of God.

It's a fascinating exhibition but it closes on 5 January 2015 - go and see it if you can.

'Assassins' at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Our final theatre trip of 2014 was back to the Choccy Factory to see the new production of Sondheim's 'Assassins' and a less Christmassy musical would be hard to find. I saw a production of this play five or six years ago at the Union Theatre so I was familiar with the bones of the story but it's always interesting to see what the Choccy Factory does with its productions - several have transferred to the the West End and a couple to Broadway (both productions of Sondheim's work) so it has a good track record.

'Assassins' is loosely based on the stories of people who have assassinated - or attempted to assassinate - American presidents. It's an odd premise and probably makes more sense to Americans whose history this is (I hadn't heard of some of the presidents named).

It begins with John Wilkes Booth killing Abraham Lincoln and and he appears in subsequent scenes down the years persuading others to kill other presidents. The ensemble of assassins grows in the run up to the attempts on Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and then we flash back to 1963 with Booth and the others, including those yet to come, persuading Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot the president. He is the assassin that gives them meaning, that will inspire future assassins, that will take them all into immortality. He takes aim and fires.

I'm not sure what to make of the play, really. It's an interesting concept but I'm not terribly interested in a set of killers and would-be killers. I'm also not sure about this production. I liked the minimal staging but, as a musical, it doesn't really stay with me. I know they sang lots of songs but none of them seem particularly memorable and they seem to be more talk-singing than singing-singing (if you know what I mean). I sat there waiting for it to take off and it didn't. Maybe I wasn't in the right mood?

The star turns were Mike McShane (as the drunken Santa Claus assassin) who seems to turn up every now and then (as he has over the past three decades) and Catherine Tate who throws bullets at Gerald Ford. I've not seen Catherine on stage before so it was nice to see her but I'm not sure why she's doing this play at all since it's hardly a star turn role and she's only doing it for another week or two before handing over to someone else. Maybe the hint is that she'll be doing more theatre in future? I hope so.

Anyway, there you have it, my final theatre visit for 2014. Let's see what 2015 has in store...

Monday, 29 December 2014

Christ Stein/Negative at Somerset House

To celebrate Blondie's 40th anniversary Somerset House has put on an exhibition of Chris Stein's photographs from the 1970s-80s called 'Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk'. Chris along with Debbie Harry formed Blondie all those years ago and helped to change the face of music.

Chris has taken photographs along the way and this exhibition celebrates a series of previously unseen photographs from the mid-70s to early-80s, many, of course, featuring Debbie.  There was a glittering launch to the exhibition when it opened with people like Ray Davies and Marianne Faithfull all showing up but I've only just got round to seeing it.

In part, the exhibition is what you'd expect with snapshots of Debbie here and there, on this tour and that, and with various famous people like David Bowie, Andy Warhol and a lovely one with Joey Ramone. There are also photos of Blondie contemporaries like Richard Hell, David Byrne and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers (yes, the Thunders who injected Viv Albertine with heroin).

There are also photos of Debbie in strange situations, like being in a posh hotel and not knowing what to do with herself, of Debbie cooking in an evening gown with a flaming pan in her hands and Debbie smoking a joint with Joan Jett.

Some of the best photographs are the least expected. There's a strange photo of the first line-up of what became Blondie with long hair - now, Chris, I can imagine with long hair but Clem Burke? Where is he underneath that mop of long wavy hair? Ah yes, *there* he is… That was a shocker. And a lovely photo of the original Ramones which is even more poignant because they've all gone now (but at least I shook Tommy's hand in the mid-00s in New York).  There was also an atmospheric photo outside Chris's apartment on First & 1st with snow on the ground and part-covering a weather-beaten car. That's the old art student showing through in the photos but it does make for interesting viewing.

There's also a lovely photo of Debbie on one of Blondie's UK tours in which she's reading a copy of The Sun with the headline 'Women are just slaves' and you can see how un- phased she is by that headline from her expression. Being a slave isn't even part of her conceptual universe. It's also good that she's wearing black leather, including black leather gloves to hold the toxic newspaper. That photo says so much about - or at least my perceptions of - Debbie Harry.

The soundtrack accompanying the exhibition is also interesting with lots of Blondie, of course, but also their New York contemporaries. While I was there we were also treated to the war cry of 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!' by X-Ray Spex which was a delightful surprise. There are no pics of Poly or the Spex but at least they're part of the soundtrack to the exhibition.

It's an interesting exhibition and well worth the time if you're near the Strand with an hour to spare. It's free so pop along if you can.

'Treasure Island' at the National Theatre

My post-Christmas treat was a visit to see 'Treasure Island' at the National Theatre. My history with 'Treasure Island' goes back 40 years or so ago when I first read Robert Louis Stevenson's book about the adventures of young Jim Hawkins and the pirates. Robert Newton immortalised Long John Silver in the definitive film version of the book. For some reason it's considered a children's book but it wasn't written as such. I rediscovered the book a few years ago and fell in love with it all over again, with it's swashbuckling on the high seas and hunting for pirate treasure. Yo ho ho me hearties!

This version was written by Bryony Lavery, using the key elements of the book but adapting it to make an intriguing stage play. So, for example, Jim becomes Jemima in a change that worried me when I heard about it but it works very well. It's not a literal translation of the book onto the stage but it's pretty close in many respects.

I always assume that everyone reads this book when young but I heard one theatre-goer behind me say that he'd never read it so I'll briefly outline the story of the play…

Young Jim Hawkins and her grandmother run an inn on the south coast and are visited by Bill Bones who pays in advance for lodgings, food and rum. He's visited by Black Dog and then by Blind Pew, both wanting old Flint's treasure map, and Blind Pew throws the black spot at Bones and he dies. Jim has the map and takes it to Squire Trelawney and the Doctor who decide to go treasure-hunting themselves. The Squire buys a ship and hires a crew that includes many of Long John Silver's former crewmates as well as Silver himself and off they sail. When they reach the island the crew mutinies but the Squire, Doctor and Jim escape with the loyal crew and the map. Jim meets Ben Gunn who was the cabin boy on Flint's ship but was left ashore when it sailed away and he's gone mad since he hasn't seen anyone in three years. O, and he likes cheese (especially toasted if you have any). Battle and wily shenanigans take place between the pirates and the Squire's people and, of course, the Squire's side wins and sails back to Britain rich as Croesus and jolly pleased with themselves.

So there you are, the bare bones of the greatest pirate story ever but you really need to see it to experience the full story. The stage is a major character in itself, transforming from an old inn to a galleon with three levels and then into the mist-shrounded desert island. It's great what they can do with a simple stage these days and I was mighty impressed with its flexibility and ability to transform from one thing into another. And the lighting was pretty good too, atmospheric and haunting and, every now and then, the lighting extended out into the ceiling of the auditorium above the audience to show the constellations of stars the pirates use to sail by. It was all terribly well done.

The cast were top notch as well, with Patsy Ferran as our heroine Jim and Arthur Darvill as Long John Silver. Arthur played Long John as charming and cunning by turns, a clever pirate who can turn every eventuality to his own good. The only problem I had was that he didn't look like Long John or, indeed, a pirate. He should've been heavier and older and he didn't really have a peg-leg at all, just some 'wood' strapped to one leg that he referred to as his new leg. But I can forgive that because he did, at least, have a parrot on his shoulder some of the time.

I also quite liked Nick Fletcher as the bombastic squire with the loud mouth and Daniel Coonan as Black Dog who allows the prisoners to escape on the island by getting drunk on grog. They were all good really, and all great fun in their own, often dastardly, way.

I was looking forward to seeing this on stage and spent the morning with my pirate scarf tied round my head. Would I be disappointed like with 'White Christmas' the week before? Don't get your hopes up, I told myself, but I couldn't help it. Luckily I loved the production! It brought magic and wonder in its wake as it sailed the seas of the Olivier stage, and that's exactly what we need at this darkest time of the year in London.

The audience was a curious mix of older people who clearly love the book and parents (and some grandparents) bringing their children to see the play as a Christmas outing. I hope it worked its magic on those young eyes and shone a light on them to make them begin to love theatre. They might be the audiences of the future.

My major complaint was that there were no bottles of rum or grog to swig from at half time and no grog flavoured ice-cream. What an opportunity missed!

Oo ar Jim lad, let's have a rousing chorus of '15 men on a dead man's chest, yo ho ho and a bootle of rum!' Strike the sails and let's set off for an adventure on an island where X really does mark the spot...

Sunday, 28 December 2014

'City of Angels' at The Donmar Warehouse

We went to see the new production of 'City of Angels' at the Donmar Warehouse on Monday. I've seen a student production of this musical before at the Guildhall a few years ago (one of the graduation shows by the final year students) but other than it being about a private detective in Los Angeles in the 1950s I couldn't recall anything about it so I was seeing the show with fresh eyes.

There's a story within a story going on here, the tale of an American novelist transported to Hollywood to write his first  screenplay to one of his novels about a small-time private detective and the case he's asked to take on. The writer is having marital problems and his wife thinks scriptwriting is beneath him,  and his script keeps getting re-written by the film producer he's working for. The private detective faces problems with lack of work and being in debt until he's offered the case of a missing girl and a fee he can't turn down. And then the complications begin.

The action jumps back and forth between the two stories and the two leading men. Different characters are reflected in the two stories, such as the writer starting an affair with the secretary of the producer who also plays the secretary to the private detective in the sub-plot. Similarly, the producers wife plays the murderer in the sub-plot. As the story progresses the barriers between the 'real' world and the film story start coming down and the stories merge so that, in the final scene, the private detective takes over the typewriter from the novelist.

It's a fun production with lots of action, singing and dancing, twists and turns aplenty and great use of the set and stage. Peter Polycarpou (who I last saw in 'Guys & Dolls' at Chichester) played the producer, Tam Mutu as the detective and Hadley Fraser is the energetic writer, but much kudos goes to Rebecca Trehearn who plays the secretary in both scenarios. She has a nice, easy acting style and a lively rich, warm voice. Along with the vocal stylings of the Angel City Four, there were some nice sounds coming from the stage.

It's a fun musical, a solid production and hits all the right buttons. You could do a lot worse than grabbing a ticket to see it!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' at The Dominion Theatre

Last week we went to see 'Irving Berlin's White Christmas', a production I've been looking forward to since it was first announced in the summer. The Dominion Theatre is an odd venue for it - the former home of Queen's 'We Will Rock You' for so many years. The audience was definitely of 'a certain age' (i.e. older than me) and there were lots of walking sticks and people needing a bit of help up the stairs. Part of me likes being in the youngest portion of the audience and likes it that old folks want to go to the theatre.

Sadly, I didn't like this show and was deeply disappointed by it. Perhaps my expectations were too high but, if you're going to see 'White Christmas' then it's reasonable to expect to see 'White Christmas'. And that's not what we were given.

The play started off in the second world war as it should, but rather than give us the touching scene from the film we have a so-called comedy moment with Bob on stage in uniform with Phil standing close behind him and Phil asks, 'do you know how long it's been since I've seen a girl?' at which Bob pulls an OMG face and hops forward to move his backside further from Phil's crotch. It's 2014 and we get a 'backs to the wall lads' joke? Really? This is the tone of the thing we're going to watch? And this is within a couple of minutes of the thing starting. It seems to go downhill from there.

Now, I realise that some things might be covered by copyright so can't be reproduced but why play around with the basics of a great story? Why change 'Snow' from a  song of optimism, joy and hope into a comedy song? What's that about? Why have a housekeeper that just happens to be an old Broadway pro who thinks she's Ethel Merman? Why introduce a little girl as the grand-daughter to do a cutesy song and dance? Why turn 'Count Your Blessings' into the central theme of the show to the extent that the General gives a speech that could've come out of 'The Wizard of Oz' about no place like home at the end? Why give the song 'White Christmas' to the General to sing and then turn it into a sing-a-long?

So many things done wrong. Why not just take the easy route and follow the film?

So yes, I was disappointed. Aled Jones was the only name I recognised on the bill but even he seems to be trying to develop a 'stage voice'. Tom Chambers is a non-entity to me but, apparently, he did tap dancing on 'Strictly Come Dancing' so he gets an extended scene doing an endless tap-dance that isn't n the film. Just as Aled gets an extended remix version of 'Blue Skies' with a full tap chorus. Um? More songs from the Irving Berlin canon than you could shake a stick at but what's wrong with the songs from the film?

Betty and Judy were played by Rachel Stanley and Louise Bowden and both were ok at following direction but were awful singers, unnecessarily strident throughout, lacking any kind of subtlety. Rachel played it far too cynical and I couldn't believe the sub-plot of love for Bob at all.  There was no emotional connectional all because they'd changed the connections of 'Count Your Blessings'. The really cold version of 'Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me' was astonishing in its total absence of feeling. Disaster-level casting and story-telling.

And don't get me started on Wendi Peters as the housekeeper-cum-Broadway-star. No. Just no.

Yes, you've guessed. I really didn't like this show at all and feel really let down by everyone involved. I think it's virtually sold out for it's whole run so good on it, but I won't be returning.

Monday, 22 December 2014

'Love Lies Here' at the National Theatre

On Saturday we went to see the musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos, 'Love Lies Here' at the new Dorfman Theatre at the National. I had no idea what to expect other than shoes.

The Dorfman hasn't been open very long so it was nice to browse around. The public areas are bigger than the old Cottesloe and there's actually space to move, bigger toilets and bar and a well organised cloakroom (better organised than the bar). It was advertising an international investment company (which I won't name) so I assume it's had money poured into the place. From the looks of the place it's going to be a bit of a moveable feast when it comes to staging, built to be flexible with the stage and seats moving to accommodate the needs of the production rather than the other way round.

When we went in all I could see was a series of pink risers as the moveable stage and people standing in huddles around the floor. I could see that the staging was moveable within the production but had no idea how moveable or how herded around the standing audience would be - I was sensibly seated in the front row of level 1 beside the DJ booth.  Yes, DJ booth with a DJ (an actor, obvs) spinning banging choons and it was banging! It's set inside a disco with a giant, glittery disco ball and people in pink jumpsuits ushering people around every time the staging moved. It was all very well organised!

It's the story of Imelda Marcos growing up in a provincial town, entering a beauty pageant and moving to the big city where see meets rising politician Ferdinand Marcos. They marry, win the election and start ruling the Philippines any which way. He puts her on pills and has an affair, she just gleams up more and then takes power when he's ill in hospital. There are always shady people dressed in black and wearing shades hovering in the background. There's always that potential menace. We see scenes of Imelda travelling, building her arts centres, visiting Studio 54 and the years pass. With the help of America they stay in power until a popular and peaceful revolution forces them to flee to the USA.

It's a non-stop, full-on show with no dialogue, just song after song after song evoking different moods and spectacles. It was a lot of songs to take in at one go.  The lighting was excellent as were the many costume changes (some incredibly fast!). The moving stages kept everyone on their toes, especially the standing audience. I did find that a little bit distracting, sometimes watching the black-clothed stage hands pulling and pushing something rather than following the action but it was all very smooth. Quick transitions from one scene to the next, one musical style to the next and different singers appearing and disappearing. The pace was impressive and kept it feeling energetic and vibrant.

I particularly liked Natalie Mendoza as Imelda (with her many costume changes) and Dean John-Wilson as Aquino (in his perpetual white suit).  The whole cast were great and terribly athletic throughout the show.

It's a great show and I think it's now sold out for the entire run - I was hoping to see it again but I've missed my chance. If you get the chance for returns of extra ticket releases jump at them - this is a real theatrical and musical experience you really shouldn't miss.

'Edward Scissorhands' at Sadler's Wells

This evening we went to see Matthew Bourne's 'Edward Scissorhands' at Sadler's Wells. I like Sadler's Wells and a visit to a Matthew Bourne production is a mandatory pre-Christmas treat. I last saw 'Scissorhands' in 2008 and it was a delight to see it again. I'd forgotten about quite a few of the scenes so it was nice to be reacquainted with it again.

So, the story goes something like this. The boy Edward dies so his father creates another boy with scissors for hands (as you do). His father dies and Edward wanders into the All-American town of Hope Springs, is taken in by a family and falls in love with the daughter but she's hanging out with the bad lads from the wrong side of town. Edward becomes celebrated in the town for his skills with topiary and hairdressing but the bad lads get him drunk at the towns Christmas party and he accidentally cuts someone. Cue the townsfolk metaphorically picking up flaming torches and chasing him to his creators ruined house on the hill where he has a final dance with his sweetheart before being ripped to shreds by the townsfolk. That's a very rough précis but it's sort of all you need to know.

Of course, this is dance we're talking about and that's what's important. There was constant movement, no time to be still on that stage, but there didn't seem to be much dancing. The story unfolds excellently and you don't need to know the story to be able to follow it easily. The was lots of activity on the stage, much running from side to side, and something I like about Bourne's productions is that no-one is left standing at the back waiting for their turn again - even people not in the spotlights are doing things, being seen talking or picking up food from a buffet or something, no second is wasted. Minor characters are given their own chance to grow and shine and no-one in the cast is a second fiddle.

The first half seemed almost exclusively to be about storytelling and characterisation and there are a lot of people to be given a character. It's the second half where we see the true mystery and romanticism of the production, where the heart-strings begin to be tugged and it really comes alive. The Christmas party sequence that leads to Edward's downfall was a trifle long and that was when I was mainly looking to the sides and back of the stage to see what other people were doing.

And then Edward accidentally cuts someone. That's enough to turn the townsfolk into a howling mob, chasing him as he escapes the party. His beloved runs after him, finally realising that she loves him and they have a final moment together before the bad lad appears to start a fight, followed swiftly by the mob and that's the end of Edward. Or is it...?

This is a lovely production and it's been tweaked a bit in the years since I first saw it. The staging was magical, especially the snow, and there was some excellent lighting with great use of shadows. Dominic North was great as Edward and all of them were really good irrespective of how much time they had in the limelight. It was all great fun, very sentimental and perfect for Christmas (especially with the Christmas Tree and the snow). It was much better second time round and I'd recommend it to anyone as a great evening out. And a great start to Christmas!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

'Christmas Squirrel' by Kim Boekbinder

You know I mentioned that I was backing 'Instant Minute', the latest Kickstarter from Kim Boekbinder? She'll write a one minute song for every $100 raised and you can commission your own song. So I did and gave Kim two words to work with. Those were 'Christmas' and 'squirrel'.

True to her word, the song has arrived before Christmas so I now have my very own Christmas song.  Kim sent it last night along with the lyrics and here they are. It's lovely!

Dear readers, I give you 'Christmas Squirrel':

Twas the night before Christmas
and all round the world
not a creature was stirring
except for a squirrel

Shivering, quivering, 
fluffing her fur
burying presents 
just meant for her

Acorns and peanuts, 
a crust of old toast
Come Christmas she would be 
the squirrel with the most

She's a Christmas Squirrel
No boy or girl
In this great big world
Has it as good as a Christmas squirrel.

Friday, 19 December 2014

'OK Father Christmas' by John Otway

I've been bemoaning the lack of new Christmas songs this year and, as if my magic, up pops John Otway with his contribution to the festive season, 'OK Father Christmas' and three other Christmassy songs.

He proves you can be over 60 and still produce loud and raucous guitar music that forces you to move parts of your body you'd rather forget about. These songs mix the Christmas season, winter and his trademarked humour and manic guitar.

'Rocking with the Reindeer' is another song on his 4-track Christmas EP and it's great fun, starting with the words 'Christmas… jumping on a tube train to Piccadilly Circus…' and then slags off the horror of Christmas shopping in London.

Yes, John might have had one hit single 35 years ago but he's still going strong - thank you for the new Christmas music!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

'The Wind In The Willows' at The Vaudeville Theatre

This evening we went to see 'The Wind In The Willows' at the Vaudeville Theatre on The Strand, Kenneth Grahame's lovely book made into a stage production by the Royal Opera House. As soon as it started I became 11 years old again, rapt with wonder at seeing Mole, Ratty, Badger and Mr Toad brought to life in front of me. And it snowed!

But hold on, I'm getting ahead of myself. This production was put on a couple of years ago but I didn't get to see it so, when I saw it was opening I had to buy tickets. It's not opera in the slightest, but it tells the tale of the riverbank through dance and narration and it's so easy to follow and so delightful. It opens in Kenneth Grahame's attic with Alan Titchmarsh as Kenneth, the narrator, as he introduces us to his animal friends and the story kicks off.

We learn of the friendship of Mole and Ratty, of their friendship with the exuberant Mr Toad who decides he wants a gypsy caravan (pulled by a rocking horse) until he encounters his first motor car. Uh oh, children, that's a danger! Badger convenes a meeting to discuss what can be done to curb Toad's dangerous driving and Mole is saved from the stoats and weasels in the Wild Wood by Ratty. Mr Toad is arrested and put in prison, escapes and makes his way back to his friends only to find that Toad Hall has been taken over by the stoats and weasels. A battle ensues and Toad and his valiant friends win back Toad Hall, seeing off the nasty stoats and weasels. Phew!

Of course, there's a lot more going on than that. We see the changing of the seasons from lazy summer to bountiful autumn and chilly winter and the first half ends at Christmas with carol singers and snow descending from the ceiling onto the audience. There are lots of little messages in this production about friendship and loyalty, of 'Englishness', of life and living it to the full. In the half-time interval up in the bar the driver of the car ran in asking where his car was to be followed by police checking out leads and then, finally by Mr Toad in the stolen car. He was arrested a couple of feet from me and led away by the police. When the second half opened Mr Toad was in the dock in court being sentenced to 20 years in prison! O no!

I hope you don't mind me saying that I *loved* this production? It was fun, it was frivolous and it was magical by turns. The real surprise was seeing Alan Titchmarsh on stage for almost the whole time. I knew he was narrating but I'd assumed it would be a voice-over track, not that he'd be physically there on stage for almost the whole time. He was the only one who spoke during the whole production and even did some singing and dancing (well, sort of). Alan is a gardener who turned into a TV personality in the '90s and has been building on that since then and he was really excellent as the tweedy narrator. I hope his grandchildren (if he he has any) have seen him up there on that stage. Well done Alan!

If you're in London and have time for some magic in your lives then go along and see this lovely production. You won't be disappointed! O, and they also serve extra large glasses of Shiraz in the upstairs bar if that helps you decide...

Sunday, 14 December 2014

'A Christmas Carol' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

OK, so Christmas festivities started today with giving a Tree a home for Christmas and going to hear a reading of 'A Christmas Carol' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank. I also wore my thick, furry winter hat for the first time so it must be nearly Christmas.

Most years I read 'A Christmas Carol' in the run-up to Christmas and I never get tired of it. Dickens is a master story-teller and this is one of his best, the tale of how Mr Scrooge became the epitome of Christmas spirit. It's not easy but old Ebenezer does it.

We all know the story of Scrooge being visited by the spirits of Christmas past, present and future and how he grows to love Christmas, of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. All classic characters that tell a very touching tale of one man's journey into Christmas and humanity. Yes Ebenezer, that's you.

It's a stage reading - the same as I saw last year - with different actors taking on the characters and reading an abridged version of the story by Rosie Kellagher. Griff Rhys Jones was Dickens/the narrator and Bill Paterson played Scrooge (reprising their roles from last year). Ron Cook played Bob Cratchit and Tim McInnerny played a few roles. It was great fun and surprisingly dramatic given they're all dressed in suits and wotnot rather than costumes. The big screen at the back of the stage featured various period illustrations in black and white but I can't help feeling the atmosphere would've been enhanced with a Christmas Tree or two on stage. Or maybe just some candles?

In any case, it was a really good start to the real run-up to Christmas. The foyer had a small brass band playing carols and everyone was cheerful as we trooped into the hall to take our seats. I'd wandered along the Southbank beforehand, browsing in the Christmas market and the excitement of the colourful magic roundabout and found a huge tree outside the Royal Festival Hall for the Macmillan's cancer charity, a wish tree where you can write wishes and memories of people with cancer and some of them were very touching. This is, I think, the first time I've seen a Tree on the Southbank and it's most welcome.

Welcome to Christmas 2014!

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Human League at Hammersmith

Last weekend I had a date with The Human League at Hammersmith Apollo, the same venue as the now legendary Kate Bush gigs. I never miss a date with the League. I've seen them before at Hammersmith but never from the eighth row so I was very pleased indeed. I've loved the Human League for 35 years and it's always good to see them. They are the epitome of professionalism and always give good show, with fab lights, excellent sounds and, of course, songs that are most fab.

As ever, Phil strode across the stage while Susan and Joanne (aka The Girls) sang at their mic's, arms in the air and bums wiggling (as is The Law) with a three-piece band making some amazing electronic sounds. Can anything be better than that? And lights going off everywhere, atmospheric and exciting, and never knowing where to look next. They have more hits than you can shake a stick at and it's always interesting to see which songs they include as well as those they don't play on each tour.

They were in monochrome again. When the girls wore black Phil wore white and vice versa. I sort of like the idea that they plan their shows down to those details - it's all designed to give us a good time and they never fail to deliver.

They opened with 'Mirror Man' and went straight into 'The Sound of the Crowd', getting us off to a great start with two favourites. We had 'Sky' and 'Night People' from the last album but, other than those, we were given hit after hit and songs that everyone must know. The age profile of the audience suggested to me early on that here we have fans from way back having a Saturday night out.

We had 'Seconds' with the clock ticking on the giant video display, the always excellent 'The Lebanon', 'Life On Your Own' and 'Louise' and, of course, '(Keep Feeling) Fascination'. An instrumental 'Hard Times' gave them a break for a clothes change and they came back with 'Love Action' and 'Tell Me When'.

The final song was 'Don't You Want Me' (of course) with Susan holding out her mic so we can sing 'I still love you' (and we do!). What an amazing song to finish with, one of the biggest hits ever summing them up so perfectly.The Human League created a new way of being pop stars and having pop hits and that song says it all really.

But there was more…

The first encore was 'The Path of Least Resistance' from 'Reproduction' before the girls joined the League, a most unexpected song. The second was 'Human', another unexpected song that I don't think I've seen live before and finishing with the wonderful 'Together In Electric Dreams', Phil's hit with Georgio Moroder.

The Human League are always excellent and always worth seeing. I am very proud of them. They give us love and dancing and what more could we want?

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Diabeatnik or not?

I'm quite open about my medical stuff and have even blogged about a small jar of wee I had to take to the doctor's while still warm (I included a photo!). I've felt very gratified when people have left comments thanking me for sharing experiences that they're experiencing or about to experience. I blogged extensively when I discovered by accident that I was diabetic (or diabeatnik as I prefer) in 2006.

This year has been quite awful but I've kept quiet until I knew what was happening. For five months I lived under the cloud of possibly having a brain tumour and went along to the hospital for MRI scans and found out a few weeks ago that I don't have a tumour. Phew!

But today was rather momentous.

Because I live in a country with an excellent health service then I get six monthly consultations with my doctors about my diabetes. I get blood tests and they analyse them and adjust my medication accordingly. I went along this morning expecting to be told off for being bad as usual. That always happens and I brace myself for it. But it didn't happen today. O no.

My latest blood tests indicate that my blood glucose level is 39 in international parlance or 5.7 in UK measurement. The threshold for being diabetic is 6 - if you're 6 you're at risk and if you're 7 you're diabetic and I am 5.7. On that basis, I'm not a diabeatnik! As a result the doctor has reduced my medication which is a good thing.

Of course, the reality is that I am still diabetic - I'll probably need a few readings under 6 before I can really be considered as having controlled my diabetes but it's incredibly positive and shows that it can be done. I need to make sure that my next blood tests keep me under the 6 mark and that's going to be a challenge over Christmas and the winter but I'm going to try.

The message I take from this is that it's possible to control diabetes by diet and exercise and I seem to have done that, at least for this set of blood tests. I'm astonished, but it's happened to me so it might happen to you. Give it a go.