Wednesday, 31 January 2018

'Annie' at the Piccadilly Theatre

'Annie' is one of those shows that most people probably know something about if only because it's an old story, it was a very successful film and it has some famous songs that are regularly covered. It is, however, a story I don't know because I've never seen the show or the film. I do know the famous songs, though. The reason I went to see it was really to see Meera Syal who took over the role of Miss Hannigan last year. Meera is an excellent actress and comedian so I wanted to see her song and dance steps.

We all know the story of 11 year old Annie in the orphanage run by Miss Hannigan during the depression. Oliver Warbucks, one of the richest men in the world, wants an orphan for Christmas and Annie is chosen by his secretary. She charms him and he wants to adopt her but, first, she wants to find her real parents. Hannigan's crooked brother turns up with a scheme to pretend to be Annie's father to swindle Warlocks out of money but the plot fails, the Hannigans get their comeuppance and all ends well for Annie, Daddy Warlocks and, it seems, his secretary. 

The show is, of course, liberally sprinkled with song and dance numbers by the stompy, energetic orphans leaping around the stage, by the down and outs of Hooverville, the dancers from the big screen film Annie sees and the staff of Warbucks' Mansion. I couldn't help feeling that not all of these musical interludes helped take the show forward or were strictly necessary but, on the other hand, what's not to like?

The story moved along at a fast rate, livened up every now and then by Amber the pooch - the real star of the show - scampering across the stage. Amber, who plays Sandy, always got a reaction from the audience. The sets changed quickly, everything seemingly on wheels, with the cast flooding on and off, one dance number after another with the cast of kids popping up every now and then to remind us about the orphanage. It was fun.

And Meera? She gave a solid, professional performance and yes, she can both sing and dance. She has a very good singing voice and should do more. She also does good drunk. Well done Meera, it was great fun to see you, just such a shame those pesky kids got in the way of your gin consumption!

Thursday, 25 January 2018

'Charles I: King and Collector' at the Royal Academy

The new blockbuster exhibition in London is all about Charles I's collection of paintings and other art works at the Royal Academy. And it is a BIG exhibition. It's full of room after room of great paintings with hardly a dull note and some works by artists I've never come across before. There are four tapestries designed by Raphael and nine enormous canvases my Mantegna showing a triumphal procession in ancient Rome, loads of portraits of Charles and the royal family by van Dyck, self-portraits by Rubens and van Dyck, Charles on horses, a room of miniatures and lots more besides. This really is an exhibition to linger over and there's something here for everyone.

I found myself mulling over how this exhibition came together and imagined the curators having a cuppa in the cafe one day and chatting about their dream exhibitions - if only we could get X Y Z together - and here they are. Charles I's collection was spread far and wide after his execution and, while many were subsequently bought back, many still reside in collections around Europe. This exhibition brings many of them together again.

One of my favourite paintings was 'Portrait of a Woman in Green' by Agnolo Bronzino. If you ignore those enormous green sleeves for a moment, you could easily see that woman on a bus or train going about her business today.

She is so fresh and 'real' with her patient face waiting to get on the next train because this one is too crowded. She looks kindly with a bit of backbone when needed, easily the manager of a busy office. That bright green dress against the rich, deep red background makes the painting really noticeable - how often do you see that rich green in old paintings? The painting was really noticeable and I'd love to know who she was and what happened to her. Maybe that's covered in the catalogue?

Another painting that caught my eye was a large one by Rubens, 'Minerva Protects Pax from Mars'. The titular characters are in the background while a great deal of frolic goes on in the foreground, presumably showing the benefits of a peaceful life and nation. I particularly liked the little group of children at the bottom-right of the painting - just look at those faces. I've no idea what that satyr is up to. And look at Minerva's arm pushing against Mars' shield - we don't quite see muscles and tendons pushing against her skin but that demonstrates her power against the god of war.

I also really liked the 'Adoration of the Shepherds' by Jacopo Bassano. The Virgin and Child are centre-stage in the brightest part of the painting while Joseph sits on the ground with his dog curled up beside him (I don't remember a dog being in the story but he looks cosy down there).

It's called 'adoration' but I didn't get that feeling from the shepherds, rather there's a suggestion that they're a bit agitated and don't really know what to do because they've never worshipped a baby before so they've brought a sheep as a gift. Well, what do you bring a baby that angels seem to know? Luckily, all is right with the world because the donkey and ox are there for consistency.

It was a surprise to see Jan Gossaert's curly-haired 'Adam and Eve', partly because of all the flesh on display - with a few exceptions, most of the paintings have fully clothed people in them. Of course, trees were really handy in Biblical times because they always seemed to sprout a branch at crotch height to avoid any embarrassment. Bit unfortunate if you walked into the branch though, especially if it had thorns. I'll leave that thought there.

Another painting I liked was of the royal kids by van Dyck with their enormous dog (and a tiny pooch). I stood there pondering dressing kids as little adults but then focused on the dog - if I was them I'd want to ride round on his back! He looks docile enough but has a striking musculature. It's also a bit of a show-off painting with all that beautiful fabric and lace on show, almost like van Dyck was saying, 'just look what I can do and how good I am - I'm certainly worth every penny you're paying me'.  And, indeed he was.

There were lots of paintings of Charles himself, mainly large, always regal and calm, sometimes outdoors on horseback and sometimes in a more courtly setting. His flamboyant clothes were always gorgeous and it's easy to imagine artists being very careful to ensure he's shown off to best effect. One of my favourites was a simple line drawing by van Dyck towards the end of the exhibition.

I've recently taken up drawing so it was fascinating to see this lesson from a real master, bringing the likeness to life without over-doing it and without filling the page with chalk. There's no shading or detail on the hat or clothes, it's all about the face. Very minimal with the lines but still brings the drawing to life. I bought the postcard of this drawing to keep with my drawing stuff as a reminder and a lesson. It really is quite marvellous in its simplicity. Thank you Mr van Dyck.

This really is an exceptional exhibition and I'll certainly want to visit again when the crowds of the first few weeks start to thin out a bit (at least I hope they will).

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Sand-shoes to Trainers

When I was young we only had plimsolls, or, where I grew up, they were called sand-shoes. Now, I'm sure you can find histories of sand-shoes and trainers on Wikipedia and specialist websites, but this is my history.

Sand-shoes were white although some people managed to find black ones (I don't know where from). I seem to remember they had a thin sole which is all that you needed when you walked on sand on your annual holiday or you played at school in the sports hall. Life was simple back then.

I seem to remember "trainers" arriving in the mid-1970s, new-fangled things that seemed to use up a lot of material and built in a heel and all sorts. The most popular ones had three blue stripes on the side and went by the name of 'Adidas'. Why were these things needed? I stuck to sand-shoes, thank you.

Possibly later in the '70s or maybe early-'80s I started to notice other "trainers" emerging that had a big white tick on them and went by the name of 'Nike'. There were also a few others, such as something called 'Reebok', and I started to get confused. Why do we need so many of these shoes?

By the mid-'80s I'd adopted Adidas since that was the first sort of 'trainer' I was familiar with and the design was nice and simple. White with blue stripes. By the late-'80s I tried out some Nike 'deck shoes' (as I think they were called). They were very comfortable and I bought more pairs in successive years.

In the mid-'90s I started going to the gym so I returned to 'proper' trainers and got some white ones with three blue stripes and they were ideal for what I was doing and protected and comforted my feet. I replaced those trainers several times.

Last year I started going to the gym again and hunted out my three stripe trainers. They're a bit battered and worn, hardly trendy, but they do the job. Then I decided I really ought to have some new ones so I went shopping. I couldn't believe my eyes. I remember a time before 'trainers' and suddenly, there are hundreds and hundreds of trainers lining the walls of sports shops. How many varieties do we really need? It's all terribly confusing.

So i thought back and decided that I needed some white trainers with three blue stripes and that's what I bought. I'm sure there are lots of technical differences between the trainers of the '80s and those of today but, to me, the difference was really that instead of white laces we're given blue laces to match the stripes. And they are *so* comfortable. Thank you Adidas.

Soutine, Modigliani and Cezanne - Portraits Exhibitions

It seems to be portraits season in London at the moment, with three major portraits exhibitions open at the same time: Soutine at the Courtauld, Modigliani at Tate Modern and Cezanne at the National Portrait Gallery. I've no idea why this is the year of the portrait (apparently) but it's nice to see the very different treatments of the portrait by three different artists who didn't live so far apart.

The Soutine exhibition is, as ever, rather bijou, using the usual two rooms at the top of the Courtauld Gallery. The price of entry to the exhibition is included in the general entry ticket so, as well as looking at the Soutines, you can see the rather impressive Courtauld collection as well (and don't forget the early Renaissance works on the ground floor that too many people seem to walk past - there are three Fra Angelico panels in there).

My abiding impression of the Soutine portraits is gorgeous colours and distorted bodies and faces. The portraits are of hotel and restaurant workers and, probably, some in domestic service, all the opposite of the type of people who usually have their portraits painted. Some seem to be humble whereas others swagger and you probably wouldn't want to meet them in a dark alley. One of my favourites was the narrow-faced and big eared pastry chef in his acres of uniform umpteen times too big for him, shrinking away from the artist and slightly concerned. Of course, all that white isn't necessarily white as you see all different colours smeared into the overalls. There are a few other pastry chef paintings, seemingly of different sitters but I liked this one.

Another painting I liked was this one of a hotel worker described as having different jobs (Soutine, apparently, rarely titled his paintings so dealers gave different names to them). There are actually four different painting of this bloke, two with hands on hips, one with hands lying flat on his thighs and one close-up. In each the facial features are distorted but he wears the same uniform. Apparently he was't a good sitter and got bored very quickly and started fidgeting. I like knowing things like that about portrait sitters - it helps to bring them alive. From the pose and expression I can well understand it in his case, too.

A much bigger exhibition is the series of portraits by Madiglioni at Tate Modern on the other side of the river from the Courtauld and a bit further downstream.

It was a very busy exhibition when I visited so I really need to go back again to get a closer look at the paintings. My overall impression was of a lack of eyes in any of the portraits - eyes left blank or painted in black but few depictions of eyes. There was a quote somewhere from Modigliani to the effect that he'd paint in the sitters eyes when he had seen his or her soul. That's an interesting supposition but I wonder whether he just found them difficult to portray in a non-mannered way so avoided the problem. I'd be tempted to do that.

There's a nice selection of paintings in a big exhibition, nudes and society women, workmen to gentlemen. A bit of this and a bit of that. There's even an opportunity to try out a virtual reality headset but I didn't bother because of the queue, maybe next time.

The extended and simplified shapes of bodies and features was a bit odd but eventually drew me in. What was missing - although I may have passed them due to the crowds - were early works before he developed his style that demonstrated that he actually was an excellent draughtsman and knew how to draw and paint 'properly', that would help us understand how he developed his own style. Or did he just launch his 'style' and start selling paintings that encouraged his to keep using the style.

In an odd way it's both a bit repelling and attractive at the same time, the elongated figures, faces and features, no real sense of proportion in many of the paintings and no clear rationale for what he chose to do. Does that matter? The further into the exhibition I went the more compelled I felt to look and appreciate, to wonder and to start making up stories about the sitters. It's worth taking a close look at the paintings, all with a high finish, but wonder why he chose an elongated nose and tiny eyes here or an exaggerated pose there?

I certainly want a second viewing and intend to go back when, hopefully it is less busy. I'll leave you with a self-portrait of the man himself with blacked out eyes.

An exhibition that I'd already seen in Paris was the Cezanne portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I first saw it at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris back in September, before it travelled to London. It heads off to Washington after London.

When I say i'd already seen this exhibition, that's not entirely true. What I should say is that I'd *most* of this exhibition before since it's not exactly the same - some of the paintings on show in Paris aren't on show here, and some are shown here that weren't on show in Paris. The most obvious are some rather cold paintings of the artists's son that I hadn't seen before.

The central paintings are, of course, here, including the boy in the red waistcoat that is, again, the poster for the exhibition. I have to say that, much as I love the D'Orsay, I preferred the layout of the paintings in the National Portrait Gallery which gave them more space and seemed less crowded despite being just as busy. On the other hand, the shop in the D'Orsay had more themed merchandise and cards than the National Portrait Gallery ( I notice such things).

Having done a painting course inbetweenseeing the exhibition for the first and second times, I looked at the paintings with a different eye, looking at the obvious brush strokes in some paintings and wondering what sort of brush he used and wondered why some brush-strokes go *that* way while others go *this* way. If you're interested in painting then this is an excellent exhibition to visit to get some ideas on technique as well as style.

If I could only go to one of these exhibitions then I'd definitely choose Cezanne - without him then the other two painters probably wouldn't have developed their distinctive styles. Well done Mt Cezanne and, especially, your long-suffering wife whom you kept on painting.

Friday, 19 January 2018

'Song of the Earth/La Sylphide' - the English National Ballet at the London Coliseum

Last week we went to see the English National Ballet dance a double bill of 'Song of the Earth' and 'La Sulphide' at the Coliseum. I hadn't seen either ballet before and knew nothing about them but, in hindsight, it was a rather odd pairing. 'Song of the Earth' is almost pure dance whereas 'La Sulphide is full of storytelling. I enjoyed both but I suspect there are better pairings.

'Song of the Earth' is a single act ballet by Kenneth MacMillan set to music by Mahler. It's full of dance and is very elegant, with simple staging and costumes helping to make the emphasis the movements of the dancers. It's split into a number of different movements with different combinations of dancers and dancing. On the evening that I saw it one of the dancers was blatantly out of sync with the others in the first movement and that was rather jarring. It also affected how I saw the rest of the movements, waiting for that dancer to come on and make similar mistakes but, thankfully, he didn't. I enjoyed the dancing but would like to see it again, done properly, and probably with a different ballet to follow on from it.

'La Sylphide' is a very different portion of haggis, with lots of story-telling and characterisation and it was really in the second act that the dancing took off. It's set in a Scottish manor house (cue kilts for everyone) where the laird is due to get married but falls in love with an ethereal fairy - you know it's her because she's the only one in a frothy frock rather than a kilt. For some reason there's an old witch involved and she wants to ruin the laird's life (not sure why) so she casts a spell to make the laird kill his love. This happens when he's in some fairyland glen surrounded by other fairies coming and going.

In a sense, it's a rather daft plot and there wasn't a single bagpipe in the orchestra, but I really liked it. Despite the gloomy ending it's actually great fun. Bright red and yellow kilts added lots of colour to the gloomy manor house set and the fairies flitted about nicely in the magical glen. It's a sad ending - and I still don't understand the witch's role - but I'm pleased I've seen it. A hour of whimsy after the more serious 'Song of the Earth'.

'Barnum' at the Menier Chocolate Factory

'Barnum' is a big show so how will it play at a more bijou theatre like the Choccy Factory? The dreary days of January are the perfect time to find out, grey outside and full of colour inside. It's also full of circus acts, singing, energetic dancing, giant elephants, tight-rope walking, invisible lions, flame eating and everything else you'd expect from the greatest show on earth - except that we don't see 'the greatest show on earth', we see everything that leads up to it.

I'd never seen 'Barnum' before so the story was new to me. It tells the tale of PT Barnum, a showman living off humbug and blarney married to his young wife with their children. We see his career grow as he gradually finds his role, always yearning for the colour and magic of performance and, seemingly, getting it. His wife is his stalwart critic and supporter and it's her that sends him to Europe to hire a famous singer to bring back to America. He brings the singer and then has an affair with her, leaving his wife to run the family business. He ultimately goes back to his wife, tries to settle down, gets into politics and then his wife dies. He then meets Mr Bailey who seeks his advice on setting up a new circus and the show ends when he agrees to join Bailey to produce the greatest show on earth.

It's a fast-moving monster of a show that somehow fits into the Choccy factory. I don't know how, but it does. For the first time in its history, the Choccy has transformed the bar/box office area to create a circus atmosphere with the walls covered in canvas with adverts for the various acts, signs on doors to warn of dangerous animals (the lion lived behind one of those doors) and the theatre space is now a circus ring. I heartily approve.

I loved it and have decided that I will run away and join a circus when I grow up. Some of the cast seem to have had some circus training to perform their acts, there are singers and dancers aplenty and a special shout out to Danny Collins who played a couple of roles. I thought Marcus Brigstocke (Barnum) and Laura Pitt-Pulford (Mrs Barnum) had a great on-stage presence together, nicely playing off each other. I found it hard to hear Marcus Brigstocke singing (a problem with the mic?) but that's my only criticism of the show. It's great fun! Such great fun, in fact, that I've already got tickets to see it again!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Oscar Wilde's 'De Profundis' at the Vaudeville Theatre

Part of the year long season of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand is a short series of performances of the long letter Oscar wrote to Bosie from Reading Gaol. It's performed by Simon Callow lasts around 1:40 hours. How Simon remembers all those words, those endless, numerous words while on stage alone is really quite astonishing. Or at least it was until I noticed the two screens attached to the front of the dress circle, presumably there 'just in case'.

A bare stage with just a chair and a light shining above Simon's head, this is all about the words and the emotion behind them, the sheer exasperation of Oscar with Bosie's behaviour at times, the feeling that he in thrall to the younger man who uses Oscar and he just can't break away from him, even when he flees to Paris to put some distance between them. The letter tells us of their friendship and relationship over the years, recounting specific incidents and how Oscar reacts and interprets them. Of course, we only hear Oscar's side of the story but Lord Alfred Douglas sounds like a nasty little shit who was only interested in using Oscar for his position and money and then loses interest. The awful thing is that Oscar seems to see this quite plainly but keeps forgiving the little shit and keeps giving him more money and attention.

I've seen Simon Callow on stage before in plays, but this was just him along on stage with only a chair as a prop and to sit on. He does move around, gets down on his knees. stands, leans on the back of the chair, sits on an arm, but that's it. He's caught in a small space with his memories, just like Oscar was when in jail. It was an impressive performance.

'De Profundis' was adapted for the stage by Frank McGuinness and performed by Simon Callow.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Plastic Bag Awards 2017

It's that time of year again when awards are awarded, winners are overjoyed and losers try to smile through their tears but let's not get sentimental since there can be only one winner (no tied votes here). Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Plastic Bag Awards for 2017, in other words, the Baggies!

Best Theatre - Shakespeare

This has been a poor year for Shakespeare in the Plastic Bag and there are only two nominees in this category. Both are worthy to be nominated but neither were perfect productions.

'Hamlet' at the Almeida Theatre
'The Tempest' at the Barbican Theatre

I liked the new production of 'Hamlet' with Andrew Scott right up until the made-up ending scene and I liked Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and I loved the fluidity of the electronic flying Ariel but it wasn't really all that smooth. So, neither ticked all the boxes, but the Baggie goes to 'Hamlet'.

Best Theatre - Drama

There were some very powerful productions on stage in 2017 and the list of nominees could easily have been expanded but it's limited to five:

'The Glass Menagerie' at the Duke of York's Theatre
'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' at the Harold Pinter Theatre
'The Ferryman' at the Gielgud Theatre
'Angels in America' (both parts) at the National Theatre
'Young Marx' at the Bridge Theatre

Imelda Staunton and Paddy Considine both gave astonishing performances in 'Who's Afraid' and 'Ferryman' respectively and 'Angels' was a great ensemble performance across both parts of the play. 'Menagerie' and 'Marx' both had their great moments in very different types of play. The award must go to 'The Ferryman' for the excellent writing and poetry in the lines, the great performances and the shocks and twists and turns when least expected.

Best Theatre - Musical

The West End still seems to be full of musicals that have been on forever or jukebox musicals but there are still some gems with revivals and even new musicals being written and produced. The nominees are:

'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill' at Wyndham's Theatre
'The Life' at Southwark Playhouse
'Follies' at the National Theatre
'42nd Street' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
'Everybody's Talking About Jamie' at the Apollo Theatre

If there was an award for new musical it would go to 'Jamie' and new one full of life and love and and joy but it's up against stiff competition this year. It was great, as always, to see Sharon D Clarke in 'The Life' and be introduced to new talent T'Sham Williams, and Audra McDonald was astonishing in 'Lady Day. However, the winner has to be the great production of 'Follies' at the National Theatre and the excellent performances by Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee.

Best Entertainment

An 'entertainment' is a performance that doesn't really fit into any of the other categories, such as one-man/woman shows, readings and cabaret. There are only three nominations this year:

'Miss Hope Springs' at the Wigmore Halls
'Bent' at the National Theatre
'A Poem for Every Day of the Year' at the National Theatre

The winner was easy to pick for the harrowing and powerful performance of a staged reading of 'Bent' at the National Theatre, a production I won't soon forget.

Best Gig

There was a time when I'd go to a gig a couple of times a month (or more) but these days it's a much rarer thing. There are only three nominations:

Suzanne Vega at the London Palladium
Bananarama at Hammersmith
The Unthanks at the Royal Festival Hall

It is always a joy to see Suzanne Vega play live and last year was the anniversary shows for 'Solitude Standing' and '99.9C' in which she played both albums all the way through. The Unthanks gave a veery moving performance with an orchestra as backing band and there were some astonishing arrangements of their songs. But the Baggie must go to those three mad girls in Bananarama who brought joy to Hammersmith and made us all young again. Keep it up girls!

Best Dance

I saw a lot of dance in 2017, with lots of triple bills of ballets as well as full length performances. Two Wayne McGregor's ('Woolf' and 'Codes') and both were excellent and innovative. Two one-act ballets from separate triple bills at the Royal Opera House really stood out as well as an innovative production of the story of 'Alice'.

'Woolf Works' at the Royal Opera House
'Tree of Codes' at Sadler's Wells
'Rubies' as part of the 'Jewels' triple bill at the Royal Opera House
'Flight Pattern' as part of a triple bill at the Royal Opera House
'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' at the Royal Opera House

The judging panel found this to be a very difficult decision but they were kept locked away until they could hand over an envelope with one title in it. That title was 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' for the astonishing performances, the innovative designs and the sheer wonder and fun of the thing. Well done Royal Ballet!

Best Exhibition

This category was a difficult one to narrow down the nominees from the large number of really good exhibitions visited this year, but here are the final nominations:

'Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932' at the Royal Academy
'Michelangelo & Sebastiano' at the National Gallery
'Raphael: The Drawings' at the Ashmolean Museum
'Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home In Antiquity' at Leighton House Museum
'C├ęzanne Portraits' at Musee D'Orsay and the National Portrait Gallery

It was great to see artists whose works I;m very familiar with next to those of artists I've never heard of before and wondering why not? Seeing classics from the High Renaissance and revolutionary works from the last century and then seeing painting after painting by an artist who hasn't had his own exhibition in over 30 years. So much to see and wonder at. However, the Baggie goes Mr Cezanne and his portraits of family and friends that I saw both at Musee D'Orsay and at the National Portrait Gallery.

Best Film

Given the many different film genres it's probably unfair to try to compare films showing wild leaps of imagination next to documentaries but there's only one category for film I'm afraid. The nominees are:

'La La Land'
'Wonder Woman'
'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2'
'Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits'
'Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World'

'La La Land' was a joy and a sadness, 'Wonder Woman' was an inspiration and 'Guardians' was just daft fun. 'The Slits' told a story I was partially familiar with but from a different perspective and 'Rumble' told a story I wasn't familiar with at all and I learned so much from it. The winner has to be 'Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits' because I go back so many years with those women. Well done!

And there you have it, the Baggies for 2017! I wonder what 2018 will be like?