Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Tale of The New Year Fox

Reynard padded along a street in South West London. When he was born his parents named him Scrounger in the hopes that he'd be good at finding food but he'd adopted the old family name of Reynard from when his family ran across the Surrey Downs in the long, long ago. He knew his part of London really well, that the family at No 10 usually had lots of leftovers at the weekend and the people in the flats at No 2 tried to recycle but weren't very good at it and often put out treats by mistake. Reynard was good at sniffing them out and, in the quiet night, could usually feast to his heart's content.

He had to be careful, of course, since sometimes there were big dogs around or young humans that threw stones. Stupid humans. They were too slow and had rubbish aim so Reynard tended to sneer at them while being cautious of them.

On this particular evening he'd already seen Mr Squirrel in his tree and the snobbish cat at No 27 and it was a quiet, cold night. The pickings were good because the Big Day had been a couple of days earlier and the lights were still shining in the gardens. They'd shine for another few days yet, Reynard knew, and then the good times would be over until the Spring. He was a sensible fox and understood the changing times of the year.

He padded down a little-trod road and found an unexpected feast and then curled up under a car parked outside a big house, wrapping his bushy tail around him to keep him warm. He nodded off to dreams of running wild across fields and through woods, of yelping at the moon and sleeping in the briars. He didn't know what a briar was but knew he'd recognise one when he saw one.

Half asleep Reynard started sniffing the breeze - what was that smell, he wondered? It smelled of... green. He was off his usual patch and had never been on this road at this time so this was a new thing. Shaking himself awake he took a deep sniff and it smelled good. What is it? He scampered out into the road and started to follow his nose - he wanted to know what the smell was.

He padded down the road, took a few shortcuts through gardens and ended up at a road. Reynard understood roads so sat under a hedge until the humans' cars stopped and he could trot over the road safely. And then he sat down with a bump. Green was everywhere. He knew about gardens but this garden went on forever with so many trees that he couldn't count them. They were bare of leaves but must've been glorious in summer. And the grass went on and on, with wonderful smells and places to explore. How had he never been there before? This was just like his dreams...

He padded onwards and he heard honking. As he got closer he saw a golden goose honking at an annoying dog and his stupid owner. When the dog moved on Reynard bound up to the brave goose and said 'hello' and the two creatures cautiously started a conversation. Dad Goose told Reynard all about his rascally children and Mum came up to look him deeply in the eyes and then relaxed and started grazing on the grass beside the lake. Reynard decided he liked these geese and that they should be friends. Reynard found a thick bush to doze under while the Common became busy with humans and dogs and then scampered over to Dad to say he'd be back in a couple of days as he headed back to his patch for dinner.

A few days later Reynard was woken from his sleep by humans singing as they walked home. Ah yes, it was the Big Day after the Big Day and the humans would walk wonkily. He remembered his new friend and thought he'd pay him a visit so he headed off to find the big green, wait for the traffic to stop so he could cross the road and headed towards the lake. It was surprisingly quiet on the big green and then Reynard heard a bark and knew that there was a dog somewhere near. Then he heard honking.

Dad Goose was honking loudly, warning the citizens of the lake that the big black dog was near, the nasty dog that had been treated badly by his humans and knew no better. Dad was standing there with wings outstretched to protect Mum who was obviously heavy with eggs. She moved slowly towards the lake to float away without attracting attention. But the dog got closer and Dad stood his ground. Then Dad flew at the dog, feet first, slamming into the dog's face. The dog yowled and then barked angrily. Reynard watched his brave friend and then yelped at the moon and ran forward to stand beside his friend, baring his teeth.

No-one had ever confronted the black dog before and he growled louder, threatening to leap on his adversaries. Then the swan who had been watching the fox with puzzlement swam to the shore and waddled out, spreading his large wings wide and stood beside Dad Goose as the coots with their sharp beaks for pecking started making a racket with the ducks at the water's edge. The black dog was confused and didn't know what to do.

Reynard stepped forward and sat on the ground between Dad Goose and the black dog, his bushy tale gently waving in the night air and he started to sing to the moon. He sang of summer days and nights, of running without end across fields and woods and smelling the deep green and the blue water. And the black dog slowly joined in the song, sharing their ancient memories of the times before concrete and brick. As the song closed the black dog bowed his head towards Reynard and to Dad Goose, turned and padded off into the darkness of the night as the bells in the tower at the end of the big green started to ring out for midnight.

The coots and the ducks and the swan drifted off, just leaving Reynard and the geese at the side of the lake and Reynard lay down beside them talking quietly about how he was looking forward to being an uncle to the baby goslings when they arrived, how he'd play with them everyday to give Mum and Dad a break and how he'd look after them. Mum rested her beak on the fox's neck while Dad told stories of other goslings from previous years who were scamps and troublemakers, one and all. They nestled down together to keep each other warm.

So, if you see a fox late at night don't shout at him, try talking. And if he sings to the moon listen carefully to see if you can understand the song. He might be on his way to see his friends or to babysit. You never know.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells

A firm Christmas tradition for many years is a visit to Sadler's Wells to see the Matthew Bourne and New Adventures dance spectacular and this year it was the return of 'Swan Lake'. The posters for the show proudly proclaim 'The Legend Returns' and that's exactly what it is, a legend in dance. I've seen it before and it always a delight to see the dance which is a testament to Matthew Bourne's story-telling.

This is a re-telling of the classic 'Swan Lake' story as only Matthew Bourne could and there's a lot more to this than changing the swans from female to male. In the context of this story that seems so natural.  This production has been updated for the 21st Century - no major changes, it's mainly the details that are updated, like the hissing of the swans. It all worked perfectly for me.

It takes a while to meet the swans in their feathery trousers since we start off with the Prince and his mother the Queen launching ships and opening art galleries, a lovely comic ballet performance (a dance within the dance), and the Prince going to a sleazy nightclub before he finds his way to the lake. And there he meets the Swan and his flock. This is a delightful sequence of dances during which the Swan and the Prince slowly synchronise their dancing and movements, moving as one across the stage, such a beautiful sight.

The second half opens with the grand ball at the Palace with the Swan in human form as the Stranger in black leather who dominates the dance floor. A very dramatic way to take the story forward and it was great to see the female dancers dancing in ridiculously high high-heels. Positively dangerous I thought.

But then we move on to the final scene when the swans invade the Prince's bedroom to take their revenge for changing their leader.  Such a dramatic scene that pulls you into it with the spiky, jerky movements of the swans as they peck and bite and fight the Swan and the Prince. And... I'll leave it there. You need to see this production to feel the emotional weight of the thing created by Matthew Bourne.

I loved it. I always do. It was the first Matthew Bourne show that I ever saw and it remains my favourite. Max Westwell was a great Swan/Stranger and Liam Mower as the Prince, they made a great lead duo. I also really liked Freya Field as the Girlfriend, really playing up to us as the audience with her gaffs of dropping her handbag and her mobile phone going off - great characterisation. Well done to the whole troupe and a great way to welcome in the Christmas season!

'Les Patineurs'/'Winter Dreams'/'The Concert' at the Royal Opera House

A lovely pre-Christmas treat was to see a triple bill by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House: a delightful and fun 'Les Patineurs', the serious 'Winter Dreams', and the cheeky and funny 'The Concert'. I wonder who gets to decide on which ballets to include in triple bills? I like them because you get to see different ballets and styles of dancing and you might see something you'd never knowingly buy a ticket to see. This particular triple bill was definitely worth seeing.

'Les Patineurs' is about ice-skaters and is set on an iced over pond in the woods with skaters appearing and disappearing among the trees. There's no particular story to it, just loads of dancing and occasionally falling on their bums (which happens when skating). There was some lovely dancing, sometimes in groups and other times duets or solos, with lots to enjoy. There was a lot of energy and fun to see, with the dancers feigning slipping and falling as you would on ice. I loved the consistency of the dancers and their skating movements which they kept going throughout, even when they came forward for bows after particularly fancy movements.

The second ballet was longer and far more serious since 'Winter Dreams' is based on Chekov's 'Three Sisters'. It looked far more technical and precise than the first ballet, slower and more intricate as the dancers held poses and slow transitions. For me, this was more about appreciating the performance rather than loving it and getting carried away with it. Lucky for me it featured two of my favourite dancers in the effortlessly graceful Itziar Mendizabal and Sarah Lamb, both of whom are always worth seeing.

The third ballet was 'The Concert' which was out and out fun! A comedy ballet (if there is such a thing) with the dancers demonstrating the comic side of the art form. The dancers are the audience at a piano recital and come on stage in ones and twos carrying their fold-out chairs to place themselves around the stage. Then one starts dancing and encourages the others out of their chairs and we're off and running with the pianist still playing (as well as the orchestra in the pit).

I particularly liked the section where the ballerinas were carried on by the male dancers as if they were shop dummies in various poses and end up lumped together in a pile in the centre of the stage from which they spring to life in perfect formation. Or do they? At least one of the dancers was always out of synch with the others - if they moved left then she moved right, until she noticed her error and moved back. Such a simple device but it was incredibly funny and had even me chuckling out loud. It struck me that this is what must happen on occasion in early rehearsals and it had that smack of authenticity to it, but is here played for laughs. Well done lasses!

It was a great triple bill that worked very well: the delightful whimsy of the ice-skaters, the change of pace and tone for the serious 'Winter Dreams' and then the sheer fun or 'The Concert'. Well done Royal Ballet, a lovely pre-Christmas treat!

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

'Caroline, or Change' at The Playhouse

I saw 'Caroline, or Change' at Hampstead Theatre at the start of the year and, when it was announced that there'd be a short run at The Playhouse with largely the same cast, I quickly nabbed tickets. The play is set in Louisiana in 1963 and Caroline is a maid stuck forever in the basement doing the family washing. Her job and her family are her entire life, no other joy other than a daily cigarette and no apparent hope for the future. We meet Caroline's friend, also a maid but who goes to night school to better herself, and her daughter who is a follower of Martin Luther King and burning for a better future. But Caroline is stuck in her own rut.

This is a really powerful play with some great performances, with the first surprise coming when the washing machine comes to life and sings and dances and the radio is a '60s girl group with matching frocks and choreography. I knew this was going to happen but it was still an 'oh, what's happening' moment when they emerge from behind the scenes. It's great fun despite the seriousness of the play. The radio trio, of course, have lots of costume changes every time they come own stage and that's part of the fun. Caroline stays in her white uniform throughout, other than for one scene when she's going to church with her children and that's when she finally lets rip with all her pent-up emotion and frustrations and Sharon aims that directly at the audience. Wow!

I've seen Sharon in a few things over the years but this was a magnificent performance and that show-stopper really blew the roof off, the acting, her voice, the sheer emotion of the scene when she lets go and it all pours out was spectacular. Sharon has an amazing voice and she know how to use it. That performance ought to be recorded and shown at drama schools around the country.

'The Nutcracker' at the Royal Opera House

A perennial Christmas favourite, the Royal Ballet seems to dance 'The Nutcracker' every year as it's Christmas show and what a wonder and joy it is. The toy-maker Drosselmeyer's nephew has somehow been turned into a nutcracker and, at a party on Christmas Eve, he gives his god-daughter Clara a nutcracker soldier as a present. After everyone's gone to bed Clara goes downstairs to reclaim her present and that's when the magic starts to happen, as she shrinks and faces the Mouse King's army so that the Nutcracker has to lead the tin soldiers to defend her.

Luckily, Clara is a modern girl who takes off her ballet slipper and clobbers the Mouse King over the head and wins the war. The pair then travel to the Land of Sweets and the court of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince for exotic dance entertainments before returning to the real world in time for dawn when, miraculously, the Nutcracker transforms into Hans-Peter again. A paper-thin plot but who cares, it's the dancing and the spectacle that matters.

With 'The Nutcracker' it's the full package that makes it work - the music by Mr Tchaikovsky, Peter Wright's choreography, the gorgeous sets and costumes, all making it a Christmas treat. Big praise to Yasmine Naghdi as our Fairy and Ryoichi Hirano as the Prince, turning in great performances in the second half of the show. It's a grand spectacle and everyone should it at least once at Christmas.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

'The Unknown Soldier', 'Infra' & 'Symphony in C' at the Royal Opera House

The Royal Ballet prepared a triple bill of one-act ballets to commemorate the centenary of the ending of the First World War, including a ballet especially produced for the event, 'The Unknown Soldier'. That was the first ballet to be performed, followed by Wayne MacGregor's 'Infra' and then Balanchine's 'Symphony in C'. Essentially, we had an evening of a narrative ballet, an abstract ballet and a traditional ballet. I really like the Royal Ballet's triple bill evenings because there's always something to fall in love with  as well as appreciating the skills and athleticism of those dancers across the range of pieces. It also gives us the opportunity to see a broad range of dancers.

'The Unknown Soldier' was commissioned especially for eh centenary of the First World War and included narration through video sequences by Florence Billington, who told her story of falling for a British soldier marching off to war, and of Wally Patch, the last surviving British soldier from that war. We also get various video sequences projected onto the stage as the dancers do their thing.

There were some lovely sequences in this ballet as our protagonists meet and fall in love before war intervenes and we learn that they'll marry when the war is over at Christmas. Of course, that's not what happens and tragedy intervenes in so many lives. While I really enjoyed the dancing I think I was more affected by the testimony of the video contributions than by the young people on the stage before me. The dance didn't really live up to the power of the stories of the old folks.

The second ballet was Wayne MacGregor's 'Infra', a far more abstract piece  with eh dancers on stage reflected above by animated characters walking back and forth, always busy.  There were small groups of dancers and couples performing while the endless trudging of the animated characters continued, over and over again, until the stage was almost invaded by hordes of dancers walking across the stage, flooding the place like a rush hour train station.

It was very different to the first ballet but seemed linked somehow, with individual stories playing out against a background of the mass of humanity. It was a different experience to the first narrative ballet but felt in place rather than different for the sake of it.

The third ballet was, for me, the glory of the evening. Balanchine's 'Symphony in C' was what I think of as a traditional ballet, with the ballerinas up on tippy in white tutus and the lads in black doublets and white tights, forming groups and separating to do their own thing before coming back to together again. I loved it. And their were hundreds of them on stage - or at least that's how it seemed as more ballerinas joined those on stage to create complex patterns of synchronised dancing. How do they do it? How on earth can they stay in place and position while everything around them is changing? I was most impressed and loved this performance.

The three ballets fitted together very well, I thought, building on each other and taking us in slightly different directions and experiencing different emotions. My favourite was 'Symphony in C' which just crystallised the ballet experience for me and I'd happily see it again.

Just for the sake of completeness, 'The Unknown Soldier' was the second ever performance by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, 'Infra' was the 18th performance and 'Symphony in C' was the  61st performance. Don't you just love the detail in the Royal Opera House's cast lists?

'War Horse' at the National Theatre

'War Horse' is back at the National Theatre so I had to go back to see brave Joey. I first met Joey in, I think, 2008 on the Olivier stage at the National and, on this visit, they played on the Lyttelton stage. That instantly makes it a bit different and there have been some small changes over the years as it adapted to being a touring production but it's still 'War Horse' and it still has the power to make you gasp and shed a tear for our hero. It's particularly poignant in the anniversary year of the end of that cruel war.

We first meet Joey as a pony learning to run and gambol and being sold at auction to a drunken farmer.The farmer's son Albert trains Joey and is distraught when he's sold to the army to be an officers horse. We also meet Joey's rival and friend Topthorn, another officer's horse. We follow Joey to France and the trenches of the First World War and so does an underage Albert, seeking his friend. We follow their adventures as the war progresses until Albert is temporarily blinded by mustard gas and is convalescing when an injured horse is brought into the same camp who has been rescued from the barbed wire protecting the trenches.

It's a testament to the piece that I wasn't really bothered about the human participants in the play, it's all about Joey. He's a horse, not a puppet, which is a tribute to his handlers with all the little movements that bring him to life and give him his character. The same with Topthorn really who Joey helps adapt to life behind the German lines but who, ultimately, can't handle the change from proud charger to work-horse.

There is, of course, another hero in the play, and that is Mr Goose who lives on the same farm as Joey and Albert. One day he *will* make it inside that farmhouse. It's inevitable, really. It's a great credit to the Handspring puppeteers that they can imbue their creations with so much character and make the audience love them. Just as Joey really is a horse, Mr Goose really is a goose with his own agenda and ambitions to fulfil and, one day ... O yes, one day...

Does anyone go to see 'War Horse' to see the actors and the human story or do we go to see the story of a horse? I think it's the latter and I didn't really bother about the humans. I didn't really think that any of the actors were that great or managed to take the shine off the horses and goose. Thomas Dennis played Albert and Jo Castletown play his careworn mother but, really, so what? They were simple reflections of Joey's glory. We also had Peter Becker as the German officer who tries to save Joey and Topthorn. They're not terribly strong roles and just add some light and shade to the story of Joey, the War Horse.

It was lovely to see Joey, Topthorn and Mr Goose again, particularly in this anniversary year, and, I suspect, 'War Horse' gets more tears than many of the other commemorations of the war to end all wars.

The Dresden Dolls at the Troxy, London

Sometimes magic can happen. Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione are the Dresden Dolls. I discovered the Dresden Dolls in 2005 shortly before i started this blog. I saw them play live twice in 2005 and twice in 2006 and that was the last time they played in the UK until 30 October at the Troxy when I saw them again. It's been a long 12 years without them but they were a delight to see again.

The queue to get in was huge and it seemed like everyone had turned up early to make sure they got in in good time. The strange thing was the absence of weirdos - where were the costumes and make-up? When I saw the stage it seemed so familiar - an empty stage apart from two risers, one with Brian's drums and one with Amanda's keyboards. And taped to the front of Amanda's keyboards were flowers, as is right and proper.

The first song was 'Girl Anachronism', a signature song from their first album, followed by 'Good Day', I was particularly pleased by 'Good Day' since it was the first Dolls song I heard them play at a free gig in the Clore Ballroom  in the Royal Festival Hall after they'd appeared in a revue show as part of Patti Smith's Meltdown festival in London in 2005. That's when I bought their first album and met Amanda for the first time when she signed the record.

They went on to play classics like 'Sex Changes', 'Backstabber'. 'Mrs O', 'Pirate Jenny', 'Mandy Goes To Med School' as well as a couple of new songs with the hint of a new record to come. I'll buy it! Towards the end of the set we also had 'Coin Operated Boy' - of course. It was great to see Amanda swigging from a bottle of beer again during 'Amsterdam' and the final encore was 'Sing' from 'Yes Virginia. I have fond memories of this song from the last night at their Roundhouse gigs in 2006 - you can catch that performance on the DVD and YouTube if you look.

Thank you for the benediction of the punk cabaret Amanda and Brian - don't leave it so long next time!

PS: photos nicked from the internet.

Monday, 3 December 2018

'Loved' at The Department Store, Brixton

'Loved' is an exhibition by illustrator Charlie Hunter and sound designer Mike Wyeld that's touched down at The Department Store exhibition space in Brixton for its London stop.

According to the blurb:

LOVED documents and explores the global phenomenon of the Bear Community, using it as a lens on the LGBTQ+ world – finding global and local incarnations and edges. 

While myths of beauty and ideas around body shape, fitness, even obesity are hotly debated in mainstream culture, some people – including ‘Bears’ – have found acceptance in new movements and set in motion new ideas – they are LOVED. 

It's a collection of three quarter length portraits of men mainly with their kit off (although some are more modest than others).  They're basically large line drawings with colour washes and I think it's that that creates some of the interest. Apparently they're drawn on an iPad rather than paper or canvas which must be a handy way to carry them round and print off when needed. The exhibition also included two large screens with changing quotes about their lives and experiences from the models.

I know that the exhibition is billed as an exploration of 'bear culture' but it made me think of something else, and that's how shy we are of naked men. Even the publicity for this exhibition covers up the mens' bits. Why is it still considered shocking to see a naked man? It reminded me of the Burne-Jones exhibition a couple of miles up the road at Tate Britain and how he got into trouble for daring to show a naked man, genitals and all. When I do life drawing, more often than not the model is female and it's quite rare to get a male model. None of these works are 'rude' at all and we all know what a naked man looks like, so what's the problem? These works aren't of the standard idealised body, these are real men you could see on a bus or train anywhere.

Anyway, it's well worth a visit if you're in the area and The Department Store is just a few minutes walk from Brixton tube station. The show is on until 9 December and admission is free.