Sunday, 31 May 2015

'The Merchant of Venice' at Shakespeare's Globe

The summer season at the Globe is really good this year. I've already seen an excellent production of 'Romeo & Juliet' and Friday night was the turn of 'The Merchant of Venice', another Shakespeare play I hadn't seen performed.  It had been raining on and off all day and was getting a bit chilly as we took our seats in the open air theatre but I was looking forward to seeing it for the first time. And then on came musicians and actors dressed for a masked ball to set the scene in old Venice.

There's a lot of storytelling going on in this play and the stories merge and become one as the play progresses. We've all heard of Shylock but it's not solely about Shylock. There's Bassanio who wants to marry Portia and Lorenzo who elopes with Jessica, Shylock's daughter who takes some of her father's riches as a dowery. In order to pursue his suit of Portia, Bassanio needs to borrow 3,000 ducats and he approaches his good older friend, the merchant Antonio who is short of cash but says Bassanio can use his name as surety for any loan he can find. And that's where Shylock comes in as the money-lender who agrees to a pound of flesh as the bond if the loan is not repaid. But he is pressured into this by Antonio's sneers about usury and charging interest on loans so Shylock waives interest in favour of a straight forward deal.

Through all the twists and turns of the play we get to know the characters, their strengths and weaknesses. As the plot goes forward it'sever winding and developing and taking new turns. Clearly, Bassanio must win Portia's hand but who would guess that he wouldn't recognise her later when she appears as the young male doctor of law in the court scene (I suspect that young Bassanio needs glasses). Jessica's eloping with Lorenzo doubles Shylock's determination to stick to the letter of the law and claim his pound of flesh when Antonio fails to deliver the cash on time, despite being offers more ducats by Bassanio. And who would guess that it's Portia, as the young doctor, who finds the solution to Antonio's dilemma and saves him at the last minute by a legal twist just as Shylock is about to extract his pound of flesh. There's a lot going on...

There's also a lot of very subtle and some not so subtle scenes of anti-semitism, something the play is famous for and this production brings out very powerfully. We have the good Antonio that everyone loves because such a nice and generous gentleman and yet as soon as he sees Shylock his demeanour totally changes into cold hate with vitriolic language and he even physically attacks Shylock by grabbing his throat. Why Shylock still agrees to loan Bassanio the money is a puzzlement after this treatment. Even the lovely lady Portia can't help but treat Jessica as a lowly person by handing her a wineglass to hold like a servant and slightly hesitates before including her in her kind words to Lorenzo. It's an oddity of the play really, since there were - according to the historical notes in the programme - only about 300 Jews in the country in Elizabethan times so the vast majority of the audience is unlikely to have met any Jews.

The court scene at the end of the play keeps you on the edge of your seat - obviously Antonio won't die or give up a pound of his flesh but how do we get there through the wtisting and turning arguments? This was performed very well indeed and you can almost see the inspiration strike as Portia hits upon the solution to save Antonio. And then the cruelty comes in by pushing and pushing against Shylock so he loses all the money but then also loses all his private wealth and house, to be left with nothing. Antonio declines his share of Shylock's wealth in favour of Shylock signing it over to Lorenzo and Jessica and provided Shylock converts to Christianity. What chance has Shylock?

The very final scene of resoltion with all the lovers present and the farce of the missing rings ends with Lorenzo and Jessica hearing of their bounty by inheriting wealth from Jessica's father, Shylock, and that should be end of the performance with their future secured. But this production goes one step further with Jessica on her knees wailing at the edge of the stage at the news of her father having to convert and a procession of churchmen in white robes coming on stage with Shylock to baptise him while chanting in Latin. There was a stillness and silence about this scene, with Shylock quietly moaning, almost as if in pain, with each cup of water covering his head as betrays his faith to keep his life. Powerful and shocking.

The staging is quite simple but very effective with a grille backdrop boxing in the centre of the stage for most of the play to represent Venice with sections opening as doors and windows. This changes with the addition of a gauzy silken curtain coming out from the sides to represent Portia's home in Belmont. Bits of furniture are carried out for some scenes, such as tables with elaborate boxes for Portia's suitors to choose (only one casket holds her portrait) and chairs for the final court scene.

The cast were excellent and, as you'd expect, Jonathan Pryce was a powerful Shylock with his real life daughter, Phoebe Pryce, playing his daughter Jessica in the play. She had a nice presence, wild and rebellious with her father and sweetly romantic with Lorenzo, her lover. David Sturzaker was great fun as Gratiano with his one-liners and comic gestures, just like any young man who thinks too much of himself. I also liked Rachel Pickup at Portia going through a whole range of emotions when dealing with her suitors and quietly confident playing the young doctor of law, especially that moment of inspiration when she announces that Shylock may have his his pound of flesh, but only the flesh. Dorothea Myer-Bennett was also great as Nerissa, Portia's hand-maiden with some great comic timing and sardonic looks. I'd also single out Stefan Adegbola as the daft servant Launcelot - can this be the same actor I saw in 'Widower's Houses' earlier this year? He was great fun and full of devil may care energy!

This play is a masterpiece of storytelling with some great set piece speeches ('The quality of mercy...') and this production is excellent. If you're in London (and it's not raining) then you could do a lot worse than head on down to the Globe to see it.

An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at Hackney Empire

On Thursday evening we made the trek over to Hackney to see Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman do a show to promote the edition of the 'New Statesman' magazine on the theme of 'saying the unsayable' that they guest-edited. The event was hosted by the 'New Statesman' and, just in case anyone forgot there were big banner adverts reminding us.

The stage was set like an elaborate morning room with a grand piano, a chez longs and a gold embossed chair along with various props including a giant gramaphone. And lots of trailing wires for microphones - I worried about Amanda wandering around with ample opportunity to trip up (she didn't). Both Neil and Amanda were dressed in black and Amanda's pregnancy 'bump' was very prominent - the proud mother-to-be showing off.

The show followed the pattern of the 'Evening with…' shows they toured in America a few years ago and released as a CD, a mix of chat, recitals and songs. Neil opened the show with his poem about freedom of speech, 'Credo', which is printed in the 'Statesman. He read a story about hosting a table at a literary awards ceremony and another about animals vanishing so mankind started experimenting on and eating babies (Amanda crawled under a throw for comfort at this point).  They talked and interviewed each other about having to censor themselves on Twitter and occasions when they hadn't censored themselves and the consequences. There were some interesting tales.

There weren't many songs - Amanda said she didn't know there was going to be a piano - but the first one was 'The Killing Type' and later we had 'Brick' (a Ben Folds song) and a bit of 'Oasis', all with Amanda on piano. She also accompanied Neil singing the song they wrote together, 'I Google You. Amanda also played the touching 'Bigger on the Inside' on ukelele.

And they had guests, some of whom they'd invited to write articles for their edition of the 'Statesman'.  Mitch Benn was loud and played a song, Hayley Campbell read her tale of the end of Twitter, Andrew O'Neill was deliberately shocking in his jokes (well, not that shocking really) and Roz Kaveney read a story. All came together for a general discussion at the end and were very gabby.

The show ended with Amanda playing the marvellous 'Ukelele Anthem' a song I first heard when she played it at her small show at the British Library a few years ago, with Neil crouching beside her and holding up the lyric sheets because it was so new and she hadn't learned it yet. She had to stop half-way through for water to help clear her throat and then started up again. Then it was clap clap clap and the show was over. They were on stage for about 2.5 hours so that's not bad at all!

It was lovely to see Amanda again, after nearly two years. The last time I saw her was at the Roundhouse with the Grand Theft Orchestra when she was touring 'Theatre Is Evil'. That seems so long ago given her previous touring habits. It's 10 years since I first saw her play as part of Patti Smith's Meltdown festival in 2005 and that was also the first time I met her when she signed my copy of 'The Dresden Dolls' album. I'm seeing her again in just over a week at Union Chapel for her own show - I'm looking forward to that!

PS: thanks to whoever took the photos of the pair on the stage I found on the Internet!

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Bowel Cancer Screening

This morning I headed towards St George's Hospital to be screened for bowel cancer. I don't have any symptoms - and I don't have cancer - but it's something that happens under the National Health Service when you turn 55. You get a letter explaining what happens, then an appointment and, a couple of weeks before the appointment, you're sent an enema kit. You don't have to turn up, of course, you can decline the invitation but why do that? Especially since my mother had bowel cancer in the late '60s.

The day started with giving myself an enema. You need to do it an hour before leaving home for the hospital so you have time to clean out the bowel. Lie on your side and insert the thin tube into your bum as far up as possible and then squeeze as much as of the liquid into your bowel, hold it in for a few minutes and then head to the toilet to flush it out. Hey presto, clean bowel!

When you get to the hospital and it's your turn to be seen, the nurse sits you down to explain what's going to happen, sign the consent form and then leave you to get changed into a backless gown, some 'modesty' shorts (with a flap in the right place for ease of access) and some non-slip socks. All your clothes go into a plastic bag to take with you. The consultant came in to introduce himself and make sure I knew what was going to happen. He explained that he'd pump some air into my bowel to help open it up and if I needed to pass wind to feel free to do so with no need to be embarrassed. Then I just sat and waited my turn.

A nurse came to pick me up and walk me to the consulting room to be greeted by two more nurses or doctors - I missed what was said in the hubbub of meet and greet, get me onto the trolley on my side and have my bum exposed discreetly. And more talk to check I am who I am, show me the monitor I can watch to see what happens and then I feel a hand slathering on some lube and I'm prodded. Ooo er, it's happening. I suspect a lot of the talk is to distract the patient.

The camera is inserted at the end of a flexible tube, easing deeper into me and I can watch it on the monitor. My bowel is very pink and shiny and the camera pushes gently deeper through the folds of flesh and muscle and I can see inside myself. It slowly eases out so the consultant can check the walls of my bowel for polyps, little growths that might signal possible cancer. If you have any small polyps another function of the camera tube is to cut them off and that's what would be sent for testing to see if they were cancerous. Luckily, I have no polyps and my bowel looks entirely healthy.

The whole thing was over in around five minutes and I was wheeled out into a recovery room to get changed again, get papers from the nurse and then find my way out through the maze of corridors. Since I've been given a clean bill of health then that's it until I turn 60 when I'll be sent a do-it-yourself screening kit to check for any signs of blood. And that was that. It would've been different if they'd found any polyps or even cancerous growths - if they'd found any sign of cancer I would have been sent to the cancer department straight away but that wasn't necessary.

I was surprised by the response to my blog about the operation I had five years or so ago for a para-umbilical hernia, with people wanting to hear about it from someone who's had it done so I thought I'd share this experience in the same spirit. It didn't hurt at all - it was uncomfortable but not painful. It's also remarkable how the natural embarrassment of being in a room with four clothed people while you've got a camera up your bum displaying the inside on a telly seems to vanish. 

So there we are, another little gem from the National Health Service. Prevention and early intervention makes so much sense in terms of my health as well as to the budget of the NHS and aren't we all lucky in this country that such services exist? I'm terribly grateful.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Meera Syal at the Royal Festival Hall

Last week I went to hear Meera Syal at the Royal Festival Hall - the event was supposed to be at the Queen Elizabeth Hall but was moved on the day to a space on the sixth floor of the Royal Festival Hall. The talk was to celebrate the publication of Meera's third novel, 'The House of Hidden Mothers' and was part reading, part interview with Maya Jaggi and part Q&A with the audience.

After a rather long introduction from the RFH curator of the Alchemy Festival and then from Maya (an award-winning journalist but, to me, any reown comes from being Madhur Jaffrey's neice), we finally heard from Meera. She read one of the opening pieces from the novel about two friends sitting in a cafe talking about surrogacy in India and how one of the friends is desperate to have a baby. That segment had all the wit, intelligence and naturalism you'd expect from Meera and the book sounds like it's going to be a good read.

After the reading Maya led off with questions about the themes of the book, about ageing, surrogacy in India, friendship, ambition and family. Meera was, as ever, thoughtful and intelligent in her responses, sprinkling in some humour to lighten the mood as she talked about the book and the background to it. There was a really interesting discussion about changes in India, the modernisation on the one hand and the continual poverty on the other, the shocks that some British Indians can face when they go 'home'. At one point Meera was asked whether she felt India or Britian was her 'home' and she chose Britain - she's a Wolverhampton lass after all.

There was the inevitable question about whether it was becoming easier to get non-stereotypical acting roles these days to when she began.  She said she longed for the day when that question was irrelevant and commented that Madhur and Saeed Jaffrey should have played Cleopatra and Lear but they helped pave the way for her generation. Maya mentioned that Meera had played Beatrice in 'Much Ado', a great production that I saw her in in the Olympic summer of 2012.

The new book is published in June but was available to buy after the session and Meera stayed around to sign it. There was a long queue for the signing and a few words but I got my copy signed. I couldn't help but mention that I'd seen her as Beatrice and had seen Zoe Wanamaker in the role a few years earlier but that I thought Meera played the role better (I said so at the time too). Chris asked if she'd ever thought about playing Cleopatra herself but she hadn't - now, I think Meera would be a great Cleopatra! Let's hope someone has the entirely sensible idea of offering her the role one day soon!

I'm looking forward to reading the book and doesn't it have a fab cover! The paperback of 'Ha ha Hee Hee' has been re-printed with a new cover in the same style and I think it would suit 'Anita and Me' as well. Good marketing but also helps create an individual style for Meera. Happy reading!

Saturday, 23 May 2015

'Woolf Works' at the Royal Opera House

'Woolf Works' is the latest production from the Royal Ballet being staged at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. That's a lot of 'royals' in one sentence. I'm not a big fan of ballet but, following on from the exhibition about Virginia Woold last year at the National Portrait Gallery, I wanted to see what they would do with a Woolf-themed ballet. And they did wonderfully well!

A lot of money has obviously been spent on the Royal Opera House. It has great access, thick carpets, great lighting and stairs, an incredibly light and airy champagne bar with an arched glass roof and, from my experience last night, some excellent staff (well done to whoever deals with customer care). It was a delight to be there (and I don't say that of every theatre I go to!). The main theatre space is equally impressive with seats with lots of leg room and, at least where I was sitting, great sight lines to the stage. Gosh, this is fun, I thought as I waited for the show to begin, having absolutely no idea what to expect other than there were three ballets and two half times. And that was part of the joy, the not knowing.

The lights went down and a voice starts talking about words, about how the English language is old and all the words have been out and about and used so often… and that was Virginia Woolf speaking, a recording from a radio broadcast she made in the 1930s. For there she was. Virginia was with us. Her handwriting was projected onto the stage that then coalesced into the classic portrait of the young Virginia Stephen in the National Portrait Gallery. This was replaced by old photos of London, starting with the street sign for Dean's Yard and moving up Whitehall and we were into 'Mrs Dalloway'. What a stunning and imaginative way to start.

The first performance was 'I Now, I Then' about 'Mrs Dalloway' with a bare stage with three giant wooden squares slowly, ever so slowly, rotating on their own axes. And on comes the 50 year old Clarissa waiting for her party and joined by her younger self, dancing together and apart. We meet Peter Walsh, again an older and younger version and, of course, Septimus and Rezia all taking turns centre stage, dancing in-between the turning buildings with lots of walking and moving around London as in the book. And what a joy to have Sally Seton bound onto the stage to interrupt Clarissa's dance with her younger self, the elfin free-spirit that is Sally. We don't see the mature Sally, the mother of five 'strapping boys', she is always the girl who stole a kiss and created possibilities.

Round and round they go, the clock ticking and the music carrying them forward. Septimus dances with Rezia but then his old army comrade appears, his dead comrade that only he can see, and the tone changes. Sweeping on and off stage, keeping the tale moving, going on towards a party because there is a party y'know. Old and young Peter taking their turn, with older Peter wearing a jacket so he has a pocket to keep his pen-knife in. And still the giant wooden squares turn and the clock ticks and London life continues as it always does.

And the lights went out and the curtain came down and I clapped and clapped, waiting for those magical creatures on the stage to come out for their rightful applause. The curtain stayed down so we headed to the big bar (obv).

Half an hour later we were back in our seats for 'Becomings' or the tale of 'Orlando'. Orlando is a young man who turns into a woman against an Elizabethan backdrop of courtly intrigue and opulence, frost fairs on the Thames and Russian aristocrats dropping pearls like lice. Orlando wakes up as a woman and travels through the centuries, immortal and eternal. Most of the dancing is in male/female pairs, showing the duality of nature, sometimes energetic and wild and other times slow and stately.

The music was excellent in this section, mixing classical and electronic with one movement building to a crescendo that I could feel in my stomach and made me look around expecting the plaster to start dropping from the ceiling and walls. It didn't. But as the play progressed the dancers wore less and less, moving from the gold Elizabethan costumes to wearing grey body suits.

Time passes and there are star bursts on the stage with high spotlights shining down from the stars through which the dancers leap and pose in a  wild frenzy, quicker and quicker as you try to take it all in and utterly fail. It was most spectacular and a great way to send us out for another 30 minute interval while the stage was reset for the final ballet.

'Tuesday' was the final section and was from 'The Waves', a bare stage with a big image of waves crashing onto the shore above the stage. The constant movement of this section, along with the music, imitating the movement of waves crashing and lolling about, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, doing as they please and as the tide dictates. Dancers slowly emerging from the darkened back of the stage, dancing and interacting before moving back and disappearing into the dark. At one point the stage was full of children playing in the sand and surf and then they move on to be replaced again by waves.

It was the shortest of the three ballets but possibly the most affecting due to the constant wave-like movement that sticks in the mind. The dancers running out in a raggedy line and the slowly moving backwards a few steps, just like waves, as the tide gradually recedes and the dancers move two steps forward and three steps backwards, gradually disappearing in the gloom at the back of the stage. It was mesmerising. And then it was over and time to clap clap clap as we were finally allowed to pay tribute.

Wow. I was stunned. I was drawn in in a way that doesn't often happen in the theatre but these folks did it. I was thinking this morning on the way to work, to the mundane after the magic of last night, what is ballet? It's dancing, obviously, but it's so much more. It's the entire experience of being in that theatre at that time with all those people both on and off the stage. It's the scenery and staging, it's the costumes that illustrate the story, it's the lighting and music that help to transport you… and the dancers.  It's everything put together in the right measures and that is Art.

I loved the whole thing. The first thing I did on getting home was to go online to see if there were tickets for future performances and sadly (for me) there aren't. It's sold out. But I'm pleased to be able to see that I saw the sixth ever public performance of 'Woolf Works' by the Royal Ballet - yes, the programme is that detailed. It was choreographed and directed by Wayne McGregor and the excellent music was by Max Richter and I will be watching out for them in future. Thank you.

I saw magic in that there Royal Opera House and I will return.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Joey Ramone's Records

Louder Than War has reported that Joey Ramone's record collection is up for sale. I saw that and thought 'what?'. Then I thought I'd click and take a peak. Then I thought 'WHAT?'

Joey is a great hero who left us too soon so it's interesting to see what records he collected and played. And what an odd collection - so typical! He had records by David Essex, Marvin Gaye, Pat Boone, Led Zep, Herman's Hermits, The Kinks, The Marvellettes, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Sweet, T.Rex, and Toots & The Maytals amongst a host of others.

And two records from an up and coming beat combo called SLADE! 'SLADE Alive!' and 'SLADE in Flame' feature in the list of Joey's  records that are available for sale. I, of course, already have the original vinyl (and CDs) of both records. I'm quite pleased he had 'SLADE in Flame'.

It would've been fun to sit down with a cuppa and talk records with Joey.

Monday, 18 May 2015

'What The World Needs Now...' is more PiL

Public Image Limited has announced a new album and tour in the autumn. Totally out of the blue. John Lydon has been travelling round promoting his new book ('Anger Is An Energy') so when he's had the time to write and record a new album is anyone's guess but it's scheduled for release on 4 September with a single due on 21 August. Excited? I should co-co! Full details are here.

Here To Be Heard - The Story of The Slits Kickstarter

I could so easily have missed this Kickstarter but luckily (and thanks to Amanda Palmer) I didn't. A documentary about The Slits is almost finished but needs funding to support editing and post-production - watch the video to see what this is about!

We see Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt and Palmolive of The Slits, Steve Cook of the Sex Pistols, Dennis Bovell, hear Don Letts, oh, they're all in that teeny clip. We even see Budgie and what a lot of hair he still has! Imagine what the full documentary will be full of! This will be required viewing after reading Viv Albertine's book!

What are you waiting for - click here and back it! It's important to keep this story alive for the future.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery

I went back to see the Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday evening to find it pleasantly busy but not overly so. I saw the exhibition of his portraits of friends and artists when it opened so it was nice to go back again and relive some of those paintings. This time I was in a slighty more lyrical mood and wanted to know more about the sitters. Most of which I just made up as I wandered round.

The poster boy is, of course, Dr Pozzi, relaxin at home in his full length scarlet dressing gown. The nadsome man saying, 'Who? me?' with his lace ruffles and carefully combed hair and beard and his hands placed just *so*. His dressing gown is so much redder than in this picture, it leaches the blood out of you to enhance his vitality. I also like the one slipper we see under the dressing gown. O yes, doctor, you know who you are.

Another painting full of back-story is 'La Carmencita', a portrait of a Spanish dancer. Full-sized and hung above head height, her eyes look down on you and you just know she is saying, 'adore me'. What is your function in life other than to adore me? She's noted in the guidebook as being a demanding and restless sitter and you can tell that. She's not going to remain still for long, not in that sparkly frock. She must be thinking that there must be men out there somewhere for her to seduce rather than standing for this portrait and they won't be able to help themselves. I've no doubt she was an expert at slapping too! Adore me, she demands. And I do!

Of course, the exhibition isn't just about portraits, it's also about Sargent's friends, some of whom he went on painting trips with. After a room of dark, formal portraits in the late 1800s there'sa room of light and airy paintings set outdoors and there are some lovely paintings in this room. One of my favourites is 'The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy', which is also used on the cover of the catalogue for the exhibition.

It's a marvellous painting and the lady painter's dress and coat just radiate out of the painting - I walked to the far side of the room to see if it had the same effect and it did. The woman (Jane deGlehn) carefully painting something we can't see while her husband Wilfred watches. His languid pose is perfect for this painting since they're on holiday and he's relaxing. The brush strokes are marvellous and the paint mounts up to emphasise the white on white of her coat and skirt as she paints while the garden and fountain does its stuff around her. Her satchell is at her feet and she rests on a stool beside her easel. I'd love to see what she's painting but there's no hint here. I wonder if she got crotchety when the breeze changed and the fountain sprayed across her canvas or whether she thought nature was enhancing her art? I suspect the latter.

Another painting I loved was 'Group With Parasols' which shows a group of Sargent's friends snoozing in the sun in an Alpine meadow. I'm not sure what it is about this painting that attracts me but I love the entangled limbs and careless sleepiness of the four friends. Lazy times indeed.

The exhibition is only on for another couple of weeks so, if you haven't already seen it, make your way across London to glory in these paintings.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

'Bomber's Moon' at Trafalgar Studios

We went to see a new play, 'Bomber's Moon' in the rather bijoux Studio 2 at the Trafalgar Studios on Whitehall. Why? Why not. New plays have to get off the ground somehow and this one has James Bolam in it, a Geordie lad and a Likely Lad who I've never seen on stage before so why not?

There are only two roles in this play - a cantankerous old man in sheltered housing who was a bomber in the Second World War and still has vivid dreams about his experiences and his daily carer who comes in to make sure he takes his tablets, eats and exercises. James Bolam is (of course) the old man and Steve John Shepherd plays the novice and nervous carer. This play gives James the perfect opportunity to let his (not so) inner grumpy old man out along with some rather graphic language that had the audience laughing our socks off - was it hearing fcuk and cnut on stage or it coming out of his mouth that was so amusing? Whatever, James's comic timing hasn't been hurt by the years at all. He's a rude old man!

It's a small play with big themes of war and love and of men of different generations learning about each other and the pressures they face. What makes them tick and how do they respond to changing circumstances? Death closes in on the old bomber while the impact of divorce hurts the carer. There are, of course, some twists and turns in the play but it's a good laugh-out-loud play with some more serious themes.

Monday, 11 May 2015

'Closer To Heaven' at Union Theatre

On a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon what better way to spend a few hours than go into a small, dark theatre with lots of flashing lights, synth-beats and dancers wearing very little clothing. Yes, we went to see the revival of the Pet Shop Boys' 'Closer To Heaven' at Union Theatre.

The show sold out really quickly - before I'd even seen the tickets had gone on sale - but they released a limited number of extra tickets so I nabbed them straight away and ended up smack bang in the centre of the front row. There are only about five rows of seats so it's very small and sitting in the front row means you have to keep your feet under your chair so you don't trip up any of the actors. Yes, it's *that* small.

It's the tale of the denizens working in a gay nightclub set in 2000 (although it could be any time from the 80s onwards) with lots of flashing lights and stompy music, more drugs than you can shake a stick at and sex all over the shop including in the mens' toilets. We even get a glimpse into a gay sauna at one point. O yes, it's all in there somewhere. With lots of flesh on display in skimpy costumes and gyrating bodies being decadent in big black, clumpy boots (yes, there's a few cliches).

The gay club owner's daughter Shell turns up to see her dad for the first time in 15 years and meets Straight Danny who's started as a barman but wants to be a dancer, Mile End Lee the local drug dealer and Billie, the former 60s wild child who is now the hostess of the club. Shell starts going out with Straight Danny and she arranges for him to meet the hottest manager who's responsible for all the big boy and girl groups so he can become a singer. Cue sexual shenanigans and obvious jokes and a plot that's paper thin. So thin there are already holes worn in it. Straight Danny turns out to be, well, not straight at all, Shell's dad isn't off drugs and she starts using, Mile End Lee dies from his own drugs and all sorts, but at least Billie is consistent and remains a wild child. The story is a bit thin and predictable but the music keeps it pumping along.

There were some good performances and they tended to be by the older actors for the older characters. Katie Meller was great as the drugged up Billie Tricks, the club hostess who has, possibly, the most fully rounded character. Craig Berry was good as Vic, the club owning gay dad who lets rip and sings a great version of 'Vampire' in his vest. I also really liked Ben Kavanagh as the camp Flynn in his turquoise make-up - he could so easily have gone over the top but he kept it cool and under control. Amy Matthews also did a good job as Shell who made the most of her songs. There were some nice voices in the show but a very under-used one was Connor Brabyn as Mile End Lee who only sings a few lines but had a really good voice. He was rather wasted - I preferred his voice to most and it would be good to hear him in a bigger singing role.

Neil Tennant was in the audience sitting near the door - I wonder what he thought about it?

Saturday, 9 May 2015

'Sculpture Victorious' at Tate Britain

On Friday afternoon I left work early to go to see the 'Sculpture Victorious' exhibition at Tate Britain. As you can probably guess from the title it's about Victorian sculpture and the poster for the exhibition features a glorious elephant of the Raj with a blanket on his back. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when I walked through the doors but was pleasantly surprised.

It's quite a small exhibition - only 6 rooms - but the exhibits are nicely spaced out with lots of explanatory notes and, even better for me, it wasn't terribly busy late on a Friday afternoon. That meant I could mooch around as much as I wanted. I was a bit puzzled by the choice of an elephant on the exhibition poster - what's that trying to say? - but when I saw him in all his glory I decided that I'd love a shirt made to the same pattern as the blanket over his back. It would become my favourite.

The first room is full of Queen Victoria - Victoria as a young lady with her shoulders bare and Victoria as an old matron with lots of coverings and s sterner face. Not just busts of her, but medallions and other 3D representations. The next room was mainly medieval with a carved image of Eleanor of Aquitaine that was restored by the Victorians and partially sparked their interest in looking back. We also get a full sized knight and a rather odd statue of Elizabeth I. A far more entertaining depiction of Elizabeth is her seated and playing chess with Philip II of Spain, with ships as the chess pieces. It's very noticeable that Elizabeth is sitting proud and tall while Philip is more like a supplicant and his head is below hers. Appropriately, it's called 'A Royal Game' by William Reynolds-Stephens

Another room contained a lovely statue of 'Pandora' by Harry Bates and shows a young Pandora with her gazing at her box, probably wondering what's inside it and whether she should open it. Mankinds' plagues have not yet been released and she is young and innocent, in the first flush of womanhood with her life before her, crouching and holding this box that she seems to have just picked up. For a relatively large statue it has a delicate quality about it, a gentle image that doesn't hint at the dread that will happen if that small box is opened. The statue looks very smooth and the light glistens on the marble in little sparkles. A slip of the fingers and the world will change - be careful Pandora.

I think my favourite piece was a life-sized bronze statue of 'An Athlete Wrestling with a Python' and the look of concentration and determination in his face says that there's no way that python will win the contest.  The pose is very realistic with one foot clearly anchoring the wrestler - let's call him Fred - to the ground while the other foot is slightly raised, making Fred more mobile and able to twist and turn as the python wraps its coils around him. One arm holds the coils away from his torso and the vital organs protected under his ribs and Fred's other hand holds the python's head, thumb pressing into its throat. It's a very striking image, created by Lord Frederic Leighton, whose house in Kensington is now Leighton House Museum that I visited for the first time earlier this year. I didn't know he did bronzes so that's something I've learned.

It's a nice little exhibition with a good variety of exhibits, including the first, small model for the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. There are a couple of very different statues of young men with bows, including this one. There's also a full sized reproduction outside the exhibition that is perfectly positioned for visitors to take photographs so I did. It's a very dramatic pose but I disapprove of the subject - it's called 'The Eagle Slayer' by John Bell. Obviously, that would be a bad thing.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

'Romeo & Juliet' at Shakespeare's Globe

If I'm smiling within a couple of minutes of a play starting then that must be a good sign. Is it the 500 year old language or the venue, or the packed theatre open to the elements with a chilly breeze, or the anticipation and need to see a play I've never seen performed? I don't know, but I was smiling and wanting this new production to be good - and it was!

This is one of the first productions in the Globe's 2015 season with the theme of 'Justice and Mercy' (last year focused on Shakespeare's Roman plays).  I'm seeing a few more productions over the summer including 'The Oresteia' by the up and coming playwright Aeschylus. No idea if he'll do well or not, but we'll see.

It's on tour around the country at the moment and the Globe is it's London stop. It's designed to fit almost anywhere and it was perfect for the Globe stage. The set was, essentially, a climbing frame to provide some height and a balcony (you've got to have a balcony for *that* scene) and the costumes were minimal, with (almost) everyone coming on in cream/white trousers and shirt and occasionally donning a coat or hat to show they were different characters. A small cast playing all the roles can be confusing sometimes and one of the cast played three different noblemen as well as a servant bumpkin!

This play is storytelling of a most superior kind. At one point during the play I wondered what this would be like with the magnificent poetry of 'Julius Caesar', and yes, there is some wonderful lyrical verse in this play, but to me, it's the story that draws you in with 'Romeo & Juliet' not the poetry. It's the plotting and construction of the play, the drip feed of elements of the tale as it progresses, the twists and turns that keep you rapt even though we all know how it ends. And this production did just that - it built the story slowly, it grew the characters, it took us on a journey that ends in heartbreak and death. It was touching and wonderful and deserved the great applause at the end.

The play is set in a mere four days in Verona and opens with a fight between the houses of Capulet and Montague and, later, a masked ball at the Capulet's palace that Romeo and his friends gatecrash. It's there that he sees Juliet and falls in love and sneaks back later to woo her. They fall in love at first sight and are secretly married the following day. Later that day there's another quarrel between the houses and Tybalt kills Mercutio, a close friend of Romeo's so Romeo must fight and kill Tybalt, who is Juliet's favourite cousin. Uh oh, I hear you say. It gets more complicated from there on with Romeo banished and Juliet assigned to marry a Capulet ally. What can our lovers do?

I thought the cast were great, particularly Samuel Valentine (is that his real name?) as Romeo and Cassie Layton as Juliet, along with Steffan Donnelly as the rather camp and aggressive Mercutio (and other roles).  Samuel and Cassie worked well together as our star-crossed lovers with only one night of love before death. They were very believable as young people in love, exuberant and touching at the same time - a lot of that is in the play but the actors need to bring it out. They will remain my Romeo and Juliet until I see a better production - and it'll need to be pretty damn startling to overtake this production.

The whole cast worked really well together as an ensemble but I don't understand why they all had various levels of tattoo on their bodies (and a lot of upper body was exposed on the men for some reason in the first half - must've been chilly in the cold and rain!). Some of the quick changes got a bit complicated with an actor walking off stage, changing coats and appearing as a different character but, ultimately, it worked. It was also quite nice to have a small cast and see them change character and style so quickly. My one complaint was making the illiterate Capulet servant a Geordie (I shall have words!).

If you get the chance to see this production, either at The Globe or on tour then I'd urge you to go and marvel at the tale of our young lovers And shed a tear.

Errol Brown

I was sad to hear that Errol Brown passed away today. Errol was the lead singer and writer with Hot Chocolate and everyone knows 'You Sexy Thing'. Hot Chocolate was usually referred to as a multi-racial band but it was Errol out front doing his stuff. I remember all those other hits in the early and mid-70s and Hot Chocolate being regulars on 'Top of the Pops'.

I first remember 'Emma', a love song, and 'Brother Louie' about inter-racial marriage before they went for more mainstream dance songs that were guaranteed to get your feet twitching. Before that, of course, they did a rather strange, reggae version of John & Yoko's 'Give Peace A Chance' on Apple records. They even had a Christmas single in which Errol sings about the need for a new Christmas. I love the soft funk of 'You Could've Been A Lady' with it's heavy bass line and brass. They knew how to construct killer tunes did those Hot Chocolate lads.

The abiding image of Errol is striding round the stage on 'Top of the Pops' in tight gold glitter trousers strutting his stuff and getting our feet moving. And they keep moving today.

Farewell Errol!

Saturday, 2 May 2015

'Ah Wilderness!' at The Young Vic

Last week we went to see 'Ah Wilderness!' by Eugene O'Neill at The Young Vic. I have a mixed relationship with the Young Vic theatre and it's productions - it seems to have a love/hate effect on me. The last things I saw there were 'Happy Days' with Juliet Stevenson and, before that, the great production of 'The Scottsboro Boys' so I went with an open mind (far more open than any of the Tennessee Williams plays in the last few years). I still have the horrors at the thought of that version of 'Hamlet' with Michael Sheen… So here we are, Eugene O'Neill in a sandpit, what more could one ask for?

Yes, a sandpit. Why? I don't know. We have the wooden boards of a dilapidated house setting the boundaries of a house that is full of sand and sandbanks. But this is a terribly bourgeoise house where the father is a newspaper owner and the sons go to university so what's with the sand? It proved to be a real distraction for me since I kept returning to the sand every time someone walked back and forth over it, particularly Janie Dee as the mother who seemed to totter around it on very unsteady feet. Why on earth have an uneven sandpit in the middle of the house? I'm perplexed. I kept returning to the sandpit at the expense of the play. Form over substance I suspect.

It's a coming of age play with the son being an overly-dramatic young poet wanting to follow his predecessors (played my George MacKay who was Bromley in the film 'Pride') and his parents worry and care for him, realising that their son is growing up. Set on the fourth of July celebrations that go wrong with the drunken uncle spoiling dinner and the son going off to the local dive and staying out all night but then everything comes right in the end (as it must) on the next day.

Despite worrying about who might be the first to trip and fall down the stupid sand-banks, I quite enjoyed the play. I liked Janie Dee as the somewhat hesitant mother and Martin Marquez as the laid-back father. Dominic Rowan was a bit over the top as the drunken uncle but he was fun all the same and risked life and limb getting up on that table to rant a bit. George MacKay was great as the son and it'll be good to see him as something other than an idealistic young man.

 Well done people. It took a while to get going but I enjoyed he play. But please - ditch the sand dunes?

'Light Shining In Buckinghamshire' at the National Theatre

I saw 'Light Shining In Buckinghamshire' at the National Theatre nearly two weeks ago and I've put off blogging about it since I really don't know what to say about it. I didn't enjoy it but I must be able to find something to say about it. Shouldn't I?

It's set in the England of the 1640s during the Civil War and some of it is based on actual texts of debates at the time so the language is sometimes a bit odd. We're introduced to some of the political factions that emerged during the Civil War as well as Oliver Cromwell, the diggers and the levellers. Nothing is really explained and it seems to be assumed that we're all pretty good with our Civil War history (I'm not).

All too often it seemed like actors came on stage, made a speech to the audience and left and a new scene started. There didn't seem to be much interaction between the characters on the stage at all. There was a long scene about the 'Putney Debates' in the first half that had lots of interaction and a similar scene in the second half with the diggers talking about God and love (and sex) and how God is in everything. I yawned during that scene in the first half and wanted to like the scene in the second half but I didn't. I *so* wanted to like it.

I think part of the problem was the elaborate staging of the production and the sheer size of the cast. There must've been 40-odd people on that stage in a play originally written for a cast of six. That's over-whelming. The staging was also over the top. Almost the whole of the stage was taken up by a great wooden table that, in the first half was mainly set as a banquet for royalists and then puritans and then, in the second half, the diggers gradually lifted the planks of wood to expose soil underneath. Every so often more planks were levered up and carried off and I just wanted to shout out - ok, I get it now! It became so irritating after the umpteenth plank was carried off - was it meant to be irritating or is that just me?  I found it all terribly distracting.

So there you are. That's enough, I think. I won't be going back for second helpings.