Saturday, 27 July 2019

'The Bridges of Madison County' at the Menier Chocolate Factory

'The Bridges of Madison County' is the latest musical at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I knew nothing about it - I've never read the book or watched the film so I didn't know the story at all, I booked to see it for Jenna Russell in the lead role. I've seen Jenna in lots of things since seeing her in 'Guys and Dolls' in 2005 and then in the Menier's production of 'Sunday In The Park With George' (which I saw with Jenna at Studio 54 on Broadway in New York) back in 2007 and in loads of things since then.

It's the tale of Francesca, a Second World War bride from Naples who marries an American GI and moves to a farm in Iowa when her own love doesn't return from the front. Twenty years later, in the mid-60s, she has two teenage children and a settled life with Bud on his farm. The family goes off to the state fair but Francesca stays at home.

Out of the blue a photographer drives up to the house to ask for directions to one of the covered bridges the area is famous for and she offers to show him. Then, as an Italian lady, she can't send Robert off to a hotel without feeding him and so it begins. Meeting someone new who had recently been to her home town of Napoli opens up yearning and dreams in Francesca. A couple of days later and they are in love, the connections are all there but she has a husband and children. The children win and she bids him farewell. But that's not the end of the play, o no. I won't spoil the surprise for those of you new to the story.

Yes, it's a love story but it's not all that soppy, and there are lots of little moments of joy with our lovers simply enjoying being together, eating out together as lovers in a nearby city and picnicking. There's a lovely tender moment when Robert gives Francesca a copy of the National Geographic with his photos of Napoli that stirs her memories and yearnings at the sight of familiar places and areas rebuilt after the war. We are kept reminded that Francesca has another life by her husband and children calling her on the phone and her nosy neighbours notice Roberts car behind the house.

I really liked the set which was basically an empty, open space with wooden floor and walls, like an empty barn, which then opened up to allow a kitchen to appear and swing out onto the stage, or a bedroom or the state fair with its singing and dancing. At one point, we even get part of one of the famous bridges appearing when Robert is waiting for the light to be right for his photographs. Different scenes are projected onto the bare walls at times to open up the stage. I thought it was really clever and the only downside was seeing a couple of stagehands behind the scenes from where I was sitting.

I thought Jenna was excellent as Francesca, playing her with a slight Italian accent that seemed to get stronger when she spoke or sang of her home and family in Naples, lending a more exotic edge to the songs. She brings a nice vulnerability and care to the part, a brave women who travelled alone to Iowa and her husband after the war and made a go of it, raising two children and working on the farm. Jenna seems to be seeing this as her swan song as a romantic lead as she moves more into character acting but I think she's got a while to go yet.

I also liked Edward Baker-Duly as the photographer Robert, played with an openness and honesty of someone ready to fall in love. We see a lot of the couple together on stage, and with others as Francesca recounts tales of family and friends, and they worked well together with some very convincing chemistry. Dale Rapley was great as Bud, Francesca's husband, as a hard working farmer doing his best to keep his family fed and happy even though he can't quite handle the moods of his teenage children. I also really liked Gillian Kirkpatrick as Marge, the nosy neighbour peering across their respective land with her binoculars but who comes to Francesca's aid when the family get back from the state fair. There's an almost hesitant tenderness in her approach because she can see that her friend has found that elusive thing, love.

Full credit to Jason Robert Brown for the songs and Marsha Norman for the book and together they've crafted a really good show. It was directed by Trevor Nunn and the set was designed by Jon Bauson. I loved it and have already booked to go back and see it again, this time in different seats. Well done everyone.

Friday, 26 July 2019

'While The Sun Shines' at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Terence Rattigan's war-time comedy of manners, 'While The Sun Shines' is on at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, cue problems with the District Line while we're trying to get out to Richmond. It always seems to happen when we visit the Orange Tree. I've seen quite a few Rattigan plays in the last decade or so and, while they're very old fashioned and often dated, I quite like them so this was a good opportunity to add another one to my list of his plays I've seen.

It's the tale of Bobby, a young sailor in the Second World War who's managed to get leave so he can marry his fiancé. Remember, of course, that this is Rattigan so Bobby isn't just any old sailor, he's an earl, the Earl of Harpenden to be precise, worth two million pounds and with three country estates.

Bobby's going to marry Lady Elizabeth who's come down from her WAF posting in Scotland. Bobby has rescued a drunken American soldier, Joe, from the street and offers him his plush apartment for his stay in London and arranges for him to hook up with a lady of Bobby's acquaintance, Mabel Crum. Lady Elizabeth turns up unexpectedly and Joe mistakes her for Mabel which makes Elizabeth wonder whether she's ready for marriage. All sorts of wrangles and mistakes follow which stretches out the day into the small hours of the wedding day, but what on earth can happen?

It's great fun and got laughs in all the right places from the largely older audience who easily got the jokes about spam (people told jokes about spam well before Monty Python). The play is set entirely in Bobby's apartment where everyone seems to end up, including Elizabeth's father (a duke and a general), a French lieutenant who fell for Elizabeth on the train journey form Scotland and, of course, the wonderful Mabel Crum.

Mabel is the best character in the play and gets most of the best lines. She's a secretary at the war ministry but is also man-hungry and delights in going out and enjoying herself, and that is how she's known Bobby for ages. She calls herself a trollop but in the best possible way. She has a heart of gold and a very modern view of love and relationships. She also has her own morals. Everyone should have a best friend in a Mabel Crum for some straight talking over a drink or two. Dorothea Myer-Bennett had the good fortune to be cast in the role and she milked it for all it was worth. Well done!

I must also give Michael Lumsden a mention since as soon as he came on I recognised him without knowing quite who he was. I've seen him at the Orange Tree before but it's his voice I recognised - he plays Alistair in 'The Archers'! That's how I knew the voice especially since he's been having a more high profile time in the series recently. He's got pompous old ass down to perfection in this play who gets deliciously conned by the clever Mabel at the end. Serves you right! I also quite liked Philip Labey as Bobby and John Hudson as Bobby's manservant.

Sadly, I left it late in the run to get tickets and the play ends tomorrow so I can't see it again. I think there are still a few tickets left for Saturday so if you haven't seen it and you fancy a laugh in Richmond, head on down to the Orange Tree.

Monday, 22 July 2019

'Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life' at Tate Modern

Ever since I saw 'The Weather Project' (aka The Big Sun) at the Tate Modern in 2003 I've been interested in Olafur Eliasson. The Big Sun was an astonishing installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern and I still recall walking into the building on a cold winters day and immediately feeling hot from the intensity of the sun. I saw his fountain installation 'Model for a Timeless Garden' at the Hayward Gallery in 2013 and his 'Ice Watch' in the Place du Pantheon in Paris in 2014. More recently, I saw his collaboration with Wayne McGregor's ballet 'Tree of Codes' at Sadler's Wells and his 'Room for One Colour' at the National Gallery's 'Monochrome' exhibition in 2017. Eliasson is worth watching out for and now he has a full retrospective at Tate Modern called 'In Real Life'.

Part of the joy of Eliasson's work is the fun element alongside the serious message so I'll try not to spoil the fun for anyone going to the exhibition. I've already been to see it three times in the last 12 days and I've found something new to look at and experience on each visit. I don't recall seeing so many people actively enjoying an art exhibition in a long time, possibly ever, and that's a good thing - those people are more likely to try out another exhibition of art in future.

Something that saddened me a bit was that Mr Eliasson doesn't quite understand his role as alchemist and wizard and doesn't really know the names of his own creations. Clearly, the installation called 'Beauty' should really be called 'The Magical Moving Rainbow Room', 'Your Blind Passenger' should be called 'The Mystical Room of Shifting Mists' and 'In Real Life' is actually the 'Goth Glitter Ball' and covers the walls and ceiling of the gallery room in colours. I'd be more than happy to offer my services to Mr Eliasson for naming future projects.

Of course, there is a serious side to Eliasson's work, with 'Your Blind Passenger' really being about the migrant crisis and those brave people risking their lives for an unknown future is reflected in us walking through a room where our vision is clouded by coloured mists. Enjoy the exhibition (and I did) but don't forget the serious messages underneath many of the works.

It's an astonishing exhibition that takes up virtually the whole of the second floor of the new building at Tate Modern. Even the lift hallway is covered in a series of orange lights to make it plain to everyone that something special is happening on that floor.  Something very special indeed.

You get a leaflet on entering the exhibition that shows a suggested route for wandering round the weird and the wonderful exhibits. Whether it's a water pipe dripping water onto a long window or a single lit candle standing on the floor on it's own, there's something to wonder at all over the place. A wall of Norwegian moss? Why yes, why not? A massive kaleidoscope to walk through and see yourself in a million directions at the same time? Yes, bring it on. A small fountain in a blacked out room with a strobe light above it? Why not?

It started me thinking and wondering, not so much about how some of the installations worked, but how and why Eliasson wanted to create them in the first place. Why would you want to create a rainbow in water mist in a dark room in a gallery? What was the thought process behind it? Or did he simply wake up one morning and thought, 'I want an indoor rainbow' and set about creating one? I think I need to sit down with Mr Eliasson with a cup of tea and cake to grill him on some of these questions. I'm happy to pay for refreshments if that helps.

In the final room you can contribute to a larger creation but slotting together a form of Lego, lots of sticks in different sizes and colours, the kind of thing that mad scientists use to demonstrate the form of germs or other tiny things. It'll be interesting to see how large this becomes.

 If you get the chance, go and see this exhibition - it is great fun but with some serious messages. It was a delight to see other visitors to the exhibition wide eyed and laughing with wonder as they experienced this exhibits. I'll be going back again!

Sunday, 21 July 2019

The Tale of the Merry Friar of Tynemouth

Last week I had the joy of visiting Tynemouth Priory in glorious sunshine and blue sky. The Priory was built on a promontory overlooking the cold North Sea at the mouth of the River Tyne and has been in ruins for centuries (courtesy of that Henry VIII). I had a good wander around the ruined church and living quarters and, when I was standing in the refectory I remembered the tale of the merry friar and his love of fish and chips.


Many, many years ago when the world was still wild and stout hearted men carried swords to protect themselves and their families and women wielded strange powers to protect their menfolk and families, the black friars built a mighty church to the glory of god. They built a great castle and dug a moat to protect their priory on one side with all other sides protected by the harsh seas. A small town grew up near the Priory to trade with the friars and their visitors. The friars used to visit the town and other towns and villages and carried out their good works.

Some friars enjoyed their visits to the towns more than others and often rested in local taverns and inns sampling the various brews and meads, including mead from Lindisfarne further up the coast. Friar Bernard was one of those who enjoyed a brew, especially in front of a roaring fire on a winter's night. He enjoyed several brews. He was a popular friar and made friends with the local birdlife, trying to emulate the famous Francis who preached to birds. Many seagulls would sit and listen to Friar Bernard in the hopes that he might have a spare bit of fish in his pocket.

Friar Bernard was partial to eating fish and chips for his Friday dinner (occasionally with mushy peas on the side) and he looked forward to a pint of beer to wash his fish and chips down with. One Friday, however, there was a great storm that flooded the larder and all the food was washed away into the raging sea. Friar Bernard immediately knew what to do and he took off his shoes and bound up his robes as he set off to swim across the moat to go to the local tavern that had recently started selling fish and chip luncheons. He collected several portions of the best fish and chips and, holding them above the water, he swam back across the moat to the priory, telling the seagulls to stay away as they hovered, ever hopeful.

When Friar Bernard got back to the refectory he was lauded and given the seat of honour near the fire where he stripped off his robes and hung them up to dry while he indulged in his favourite meal. To save him from catching a cold his brothers gave him more beer and some medicinal mead and let him doze by the fire all afternoon.

The tavern owner, ever with an eye to turning a profit, changed the name of his tavern to the Black Friar and painted a new sign of a merry friar with rosy cheeks and spread the tale of Friar Bernard far and wide to get more business. He succeeded and opened more taverns using the Black Friar name. In thanks, he always gave Friar Bernard a free pint of his best unwatered beer for luck. Friar Bernard was quite happy with this arrangement until he decided to go off on pilgrimage to sunnier, southern places. We lose track of his movements except for rumours that he ended up in the court of the King of Aragon in Spain.


It's a strange tale, a bit garbled as it's been passed down through the centuries but it's undoubtedly true. I often visit Blackfriars station in London so it must be true.

'Present Laughter' at The Old Vic

I'm told I saw 'Present Laughter' at the National Theatre 11 years ago but, you know what? I can't remember it at all, so seeing the play at the Old Vic last week was like seeing it for the first time. It's a star vehicle for Andrew Scott and he ably proved himself worthy of the honour - he has the best part and the best lines, of course, but he pulled it off to perfection. Who knew he was so good at comedy? He was, however, matched line for line by Sophie Thompson as his secretary whenever she was on stage - they made a great double act and it would be fun to see them on stage together in another play one day.

It's a Noel Coward play so you expect it to be witty, charming, upper class, lots of word play and a bit risqué. It's the tale of Garry Essendine, a famous actor, and his little coterie of friends who are also his managers and advisers and who've known each other forever. His swanky apartment is also his office where his secretary of 17 years works along with his manservant and maid. There's also his ex-wife, a current one-night stand and a young playwright who seems to be in love with him.

There is also the husband of one of his managers, an outsider who's wormed his way into the coterie and this was where it got interesting since the simple trick of adding an 'e' to Jo changed the character from female to male who wants an affair with Garry. The play is played 'straight' (so to speak) with no reference being made to the genders of the lovers so two men having an affair is nothing remarkable. The gasps that went up from some parts of the audience at the first kiss between the lovers were a comedy moment in themselves.

The play takes place over the few days before Garry is due to sail off to do a tour in Africa before his next play in the West End. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything really, and that's where the fun begins with the play opening with Garry's latest one-night stand waking up in the middle of the living room madly in love with the older actor who she met for the first time last night at a fancy dress party and him not even remembering her at first.

It's a very funny play and this was a great production with a largely great cast. I was very impressed by Andrew Scott who deserves all the praise he's getting for this production, ably showing his versatility and ability to carry the production. I loved Sophie Thompson as Monica, his secretary, with her delicious Scottish accent and swanning around in her wide trousers for much of the play. She has a sharp tongue when she wants and, towards the end, there was just a hint of a long-hidden love for her boss, a really delicate performance after all the ribald comedy and fast talking.

I also liked Indira Varma as Liz Essendine, Garry's ex-wife who is still part of the scene as an adviser and protector. I've seen her in a couple of Shakespeare plays in the past (including playing the mighty Tamora, Queen of the Goths in 'Titus') and liked her performances so it was good to see her in a modern play doing out and out comedy. She was great fun. I'll also give a shout out to Joshua Hill as Fred, the manservant, who gave a great performance in a small but important part, a wide-boy who's fiercely loyal to his boss. Garry can't be that self-centred if he inspires such loyalty.

This production is thoroughly recommended - get yourself a ticket and relax into it. Oh, and remember to say 'darling' a lot.

'Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking' at Dulwich Picture Gallery

The latest exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is 'Cutting Edge' that focuses on the works of former students at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London in the 1930s and their exploration of the potential of linocut printmaking, hence the title of the exhibition. I've seen some of their works on greetings cards in the past and bought them so visiting the exhibition was an obvious next step. The tutor at the Grosvenor, Claude Flight, apparently championed the art of linocuts since he saw it as an egalitarian form of art and method of printmaking that anyone could practice. I've never done linocut printing but I'm tempted to have a go now (and the Gallery shop sells linocut kits).

One of the things that attracted me to the prints was their simplicity and colourfulness. For an ostensibly simple form of print-making they are, actually, quite complex, using different linocuts for each colour. They are, clearly, decorative but they're not just pretty pictures, these are works of art. This print by Ethel Spowers ('The Gust of Wind') really caught my attention. One of the signs in the exhibition, if memory serves. noted that the prints were so popular their cost soon outstripped the pockets of the 'ordinary people' who Flight had originally thought would benefit from the art form.

That's a bit sad, really, since this is an egalitarian form of art, as opposed to the giant canvases other artists were producing at the time and ever since. Most of these prints were around A4 size and suitable for any wall, not just for the rich or corporate collector.

One of the joys of the exhibition was seeing such a wide variety of approaches to printing, sometimes single images like a painting and other times multiple repetitions of the image. It also seemed to generate new approaches to depicting the figure to fit multiple figures into a small space and that clearly suggests that thees artists were accomplished in their art and were experimenting and pushing forward the accepted boundaries. Look at 'Hyde Park' by Sybil Andrews from 1931 where the bodies suggest leaves and the heads and hats are flowers or fruits. How effective is that and how appropriate for Hyde Park?

This is something that continues throughout the exhibition, the simplification of forms, not only to fit the area to be printed but for the sake of it. How simple can they make it and still make sure it's recognisable in whatever format it's reproduced?

Another Sybil Andrews print I was taken with was her 'Fall of the Leaf' in which everything is curved, the tree tops, the trunks, the land around the trees. That isn't how the English countryside looks but she unifies it to make it work. Another simplification of the form but still recognisably as trees in a farming landscape.

The artists tried their skills in familiar picture-making, making the picture fit the format. Cyril Power's 'Monseigneur St Thomas' from 1931 fits the bill with it's simplified shapes and colourful repetitions. Is there a straight line in this print? The arms curve into the swords that attack the saint while his body shrinks into curves to protect himself. The colours are also very clever, with the yellow background and the orange tunics of the murderous soldiers. There's also a lot of detail in this print, like the shape of the helmets (with nose-guards, of course), the belts to break up the orange of the tunics and the brown shields, each soldier dressed identically but in different positions. It's small but effective.
I think that's one of the things that really made it's mark on me, that small and simplified shapes can still be powerful irrespective of the topic of the work.    

There was a  series of prints about sports and motion that were really very effective with the use of repetition and restricted colour palette. Cyril Power's 'Skaters' from 1932 and his 'The Eight' rowers from 1930. Again, the repetitions of shape and colour giving the impression of speed and movement, the restricted colours and the simplification of shapes while still being recognisable, all of this is very effective. The other members of the group also created sporting prints including Lill Tschudi and Sybil Andrews.

I was very taken with a series of prints by Cyril Power focusing on movement and transport using London buses and tube trains, scenes of tube stations and commuters into small spaces to get to work.  His 'The Escalator' from 1929-30 is a great example and reminds me of one of the escalators at Oxford Circus tube station today (without the colour, of course). The glorious oranges and reds speed you to the far away surface and work or home, almost the reverse of the descent into hell with a single passenger on a desperate journey into who knows what might be at the top.

The drudgery of modern mass transport is shown in 'The Tube Train' from 1934 with passengers sitting in rows, all with their newspapers to avoid having to look at or interact with other passengers, almost the same as today except most of today's passengers would be looking at their mobile phones. Things change but stay the same. The print has a claustrophobic feel to it, so many people crammed into a small space as they move onwards in a dark tunnel. I particularly like the detail of the straps hanging down for those unfortunate enough to have to stand and the passengers' feet not quite touching.

Another great print by Power is 'Whence and Wither?' from 1930 with the unknown hordes going down on an escalator, standing on the right, walking down on the left while no-one uses the stairs beside the escalator. How true.

A final print I'll show you is more cheerful and very still, 'Corner of the Garden' by Dorrit Black from 1936. All sorts of subjects and themes can be tackled using linocut techniques and I like the stillness and charm of this print, no rushing round like a mad thing, just the simplicity of a well tended garden.

It's a lovely exhibition and I'd recommend a visit. Because the prints are relatively small then there are a lot on show with a wide variety of subjects. The colours are quite often more vibrant than my photos suggest and the curators have arranged them very well to show them off properly. Well done Dulwich Picture Gallery on a really enjoyable exhibition. 

'Edvard Munch: Love and Angst' at the British Museum

The exhibition about Edvard Munch's prints is about to close at the British Museum but I managed to squeeze in a viewing so as not to miss this rare opportunity to see his prints rather than his paintings. Munch is famous for one painting, really, 'The Scream' and he also produced a print of it in black and white which is in the exhibition. That painting sort of says a lot about Munch and his works, rather psychological and depressing, but I also think of his paintings of his garden that I saw at the Royal Academy a few years ago, bright and colourful paintings. That gave me hope that there might be some moments of joy in this exhibition since the title includes the word 'love' as well as the expected 'angst'.

One of the first exhibits was a couple of prints in different colours printed from the same block. What made them really interesting was that the wooden block they were printed from was also on show in a glass case beneath them. It was great to see a concrete example in front of you of how he worked, how he started to create his prints. Apparently, instead of using different blocks for different colours he sometimes used different colours on the same block. It worked, but I wonder why he decided to try it out?

As with turning 'The Scream' into a print, Munch used others of his paintings as the basis for prints. He did several paintings of a couple beside a window, embracing or kissing, and he turned this into a print but decided that the couple should be naked in front of the window, oblivious to the world, lost in their own moment of passion.

Their faces appear to be joined, melted together in their passion and love, so close that nothing can come between them. It's a lovely print with some simple lines used in showing the contours of the body. It's simple, it's small and it's in black and white and it's very effective, catching the eye from across the room. If nothing else, this shows that Munch can really draw.

Another print that caught the eye was 'Madonna', but this isn't the kind of picture of a Madonna that you might expect. This is a sensuous woman, naked and exposed. In the border of the print is a stream of swimming sperm in a blood red background and a crouching foetus. What's that about? One of my initial reactions was surprise that people knew what sperm looked like way back then.

It's a very arresting image with the woman almost appearing to be swaying, mesmerising the viewer, while the border seems to suggest that procreation and pregnancy (wanted or unwanted) isn't just the job of the woman, but the man has an essential role as well. Apparently, around this time Munch was questioning his previous championing of free love and, perhaps, considering the implications of free love.

One of the most striking prints was descriptively called 'Woman with Red Hair and Green Eyes: Sin' from 1902. An impossible mass of red hair tumbling over her shoulders and breasts with those strange staring eyes - what's she looking at?

As a famous painter in his day, I didn't realise that Munch was also invited to design sets for plays and even design theatre programmes. Of course he would be, lots of artists have done that before and after him, but I suppose I get caught up in the whole 'Scream' thing where something so psychologically charged couldn't possibly be linked to popular theatre. There were a few examples of his designs and I quite liked this set design for Ibsen's 'Ghosts', a production in Berlin to commemorate Ibsen's death.

I like Munch's experimentation with the form of the print and also the British Museum's attempts to explain these sometimes complicated processes. A favourite print was 'The Girls on the Bridge' from 1918 which was, again, based on an earlier painting of the subject. This print is, apparently, made from a wood block as the base coloured blue printed with a 'zincograph' on top, i.e. three plates in yellow, red and green. I haven't seen the painting but I like the print.

About this far into the exhibition I gave up on my hopes for moments of joy in the prints. Impressive as they may be, Munch is not an artist for joy unless he's painting his garden. His view of love seems to be that it's doomed from the start so don't get hung up on it. I don't know that much about Mr Munch but he doesn't seem to have had a terribly happy life. He lived through two world wars which must have coloured his view of humanity, but he does seem to be an archetypal artist of pain and depression. This exhibition does nothing to dispel this impression. It did, however, make me wonder what he'd be doing now if he was alive. Would he have found any hope in the modern world?

One thing is clear, though, in that he would have continued to experiment with his art forms and this is demonstrated by a series of three large prints in the final room of the exhibition. The three prints of 'Towards the Forest' were completed between 1897-1915 and show lovers in front of a forest. He seems to have cut up the print blocks to get different effects in the prints. There may not be 'joyous' prints but maybe this is the joy of Munch prints, the perpetual experimentation and striving to create something new? Maybe the joy is that he never gave up despite everything the world threw at him?