11 August 2017

Sumptuous evening at Tête à Tête Festival 2017


Tête à Tête took a gap year last year and there was no festival in 2016 so I was keen to get back in the groove with Tête à Tête Festival 2017.

This year the Festival was based around RADA Studios (the former Drill Hall) near Goodge Street which would have been ideal if I were still working at Kings Cross but I had changed jobs and was in distant Teddington with a train service disrupted by major works at Waterloo. All that is my thin justification for not getting to the Festival until the final week. Still, better late than never.

The first performance that I saw was Albatross.

This was a work in development that was exploring the mystery and majesty of the albatross using The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as the guide and pulling on other voices, such as Herman Melville.

This was a sparse piece with just two actors, the mariner and the albatross, one other voice off stage and an accordion providing all the music. The accordion also provided some pretty impressive wind noises in a way that I did not know that it was capable of.

One of the creatives behind the piece introduced it by saying that movement was a key part of what they wanted to achieve and this was obvious from the beginning. This worked particularly well when the two actors used two white rods each to summon images of a wild sea.

We were presented with a series of scenes, i.e. the ones they had managed to write and rehearse, that were sequenced in the way that made best sense.

It could have been clunky but was nothing of the sort. While pushing the boundaries of what opera is (one of the things Tête à Tête does) with only a couple of what could be called songs it easily managed to be poetic, musical and engaging. I enjoyed it a lot.

An excellent start to the evening.

The second performance that I saw was The Winter’s Tale, an interpretation of Shakespeare's play. The picture gives a good idea of what it looked like.

This was a fully formed piece lasting about an hour. There was a substantial cast with the musicians stepping into roles when not playing their instruments.

The music was composed by the man who also wrote Albatros and had the same short sharp sounds, more like sound effects than tunes, though that is an oversimplification. The singing was in the same mode with sounds rather than words. The story was told in spoken word.

If I had to classify it I would say that this was a play with a musical accompaniment. That music was constant and was important in describing the mood of the story. As was the movement.

It was a nice version of the story and even though I knew it I was caught in the mood of it as if hearing it for the first time.

Again I would have been pushed to call The Winter’s Tale an opera but it was a fine piece of something and I would happily see it again.

I ended the evening with ‘i’. To be honest, I was at the Festival that day anyway and it was the only thing on at that time so I booked to see it too.

I love it when accidents like that happen. "i" was my highlight of the evening.

"i" was very different again. It was much more like a traditional opera than the other two works and it was a lot weirder and a less structured story too.

It had plenty of songs which sounded like "normal" songs, with a clearly modern twist. The lyrics were heavily repetitive, for example the princess said "I" many many times before she completed the sentence "I am not happy". Musically and lyrically it was an excellent opera.

Making the good something special were the costumes and the touches of humour. The costumes were extraordinary and then some. The story teller who opened the opera by singing on her back is only a clue as to what they wore. Note the makeup too.

"i" was delightful in every way and for every minute and it was all the more pleasing because it was such a surprise.

Adding to the pleasure of the evening were the opportunities to mix with some of the Tête à Tête crew and friends in the breaks. That's why they call it a festival.

9 August 2017

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (August 2017)

The second Wednesday in August 2017 was ridiculously wet in south-east London but a few hardy souls still made it to West Hampstead for an evening of talking, drinking and eating at the regular BCSA "Get to Know You" Social.

There were a few new, or rare, faces there which helped the conversations take a different tack this time. There was no mention of politics and it was nice to have a long chat with Jana about dance at Saddler's Wells instead.



Other things were much the same; I started the evening on Pilsner Urquell, topped it off with a bottle of Zlaty Bazant on last orders and had some smazeny syr somewhere in the middle.

Another excellent evening and only five weeks to the next one.

8 August 2017

The Hired Man at Union Theatre was beautiful

The Hired Man was one of those easy choices. I had seen three Howard Goodall musicals at Union Theatre a couple of years ago and loved them all and that was more than enough to get me back there for a fourth helping.

Having the story based on a book by Melvyn Bragg only made it more attractive.

A bargain at £22.50.

Normally a trip to a theatre in that area (there are four that I go to fairly regularly) means eating at Culture Grub first but they were closed for refurbishment so that meant looking for a Plan B. That was an easy too and I stayed in the theatre cafe and had a halloumi wrap with some interesting accompaniments and, er, chips.

My usual good planning got me a top ten ticket which got me in the first batch of people let into the theatre and that got me a middle seat in the front row in what proved to be a full house, they even brought a couple of chairs through from the bar.

The Hired Man told us the story of a casual agricultural worker, his two brothers and their friends and lovers in the early part of the twentieth century. They were people at the bottom of the economic tree, the sort of people Thomas Hardy also wrote about, and their lives were never settled, never comfortable. There were plenty of moments of happiness, times spent with lovers, time at the races and drinks with friends in the pub but there was also the discomfort and danger of working in the pits and the even worse discomfort and danger of the trenches in the Great War.

It was a grim story that was, somehow, never bleak.

Holding everything together was the music which did everything that I hoped it would do from my previous experiences of Goodall's work. The mood and the structure kept changing with soloists, diets, trios and choruses providing different soundscapes while some themes were repeated to make new tunes sound familiar. There was clearly a Goodall approach at work here and I felt he could write musicals in the way that other people write episodes of The Archers and they would all be good.

Sitting in the front row proved to be a good choice and I felt totally immersed in the story. That story gripped me because I did not know it, it was not obvious where it was going and there was always something interesting going on.

There was a lot of activity too with the large cast dancing quite a bit and generally moving around a lot. It was an ensemble performance and everybody played their part well.

With story by Melvyn Bragg and music by Howard Goodall my exceptions were clearly set and The Hired Man sounded exactly like that. It was beautiful (and grim!).

4 August 2017

Yerma at Young Vic was a powerful story


I am not sure why I skipped Yerma when hit first appeared at Young Vic last year but it got plenty of good reviews then, and won some prestigious awards, so I was in the queue early when it returned. That alertness secured me seat A36) in the stalls for an unbelievable £10. At that price it did not matter what view I had or even if the play was not particularly good.

Young Vic seems to delight in extreme productions and this was no exception. The stage was arranged as a rectangle with seating on the two long sides, it was raised about 1.5m, had glass walls and the actors communicated with the audience through speakers. None of this had anything to do with the story and all seemed rather pointless and gimmicky.

That was a shame because Yerma was a really good play and the cast did a great job with it. Of course Billie Piper as the mother trying to get pregnant was the star, and many people seemed to have come just to see her, but there were equally strong performances from her husband, sister and mother.

Yerma started with a raunchy conversation about sex between the couple. I am not sure if it was done to shock us at the very start or as a way of raising the issue to childlessness early but the conversation started with bum sex (as they called it). No other conversations in the play were as crude.

There were many other strong conversations though as the story developed. Possibly the most shocking was the sister talking about her baby in angry terms. The complaint about exploding nappies rang a bell! It was always a tense story and while there were many light touches, particularly from the mother, it was an emotionally draining story to hear and a happy ending never looked likely.

There was no interval and that was as it should be. This was not a story to drop and pick-up again.

Despite the nature of the story I loved it for its realism, grittiness and pace. It dragged you along brutally pausing for breath occasionally.

I love dark challenging theatre and so Yerma suited me well. I liked it a lot and was only prevented from loving it by the somewhat ridiculous staging.

27 July 2017

Datong - The Chinese Utopia at Richmond Theatre was melodic and interesting



A Chinese themed and styled opera at my local theatre was an obvious attraction even though the odd performance times meant that I had to take an afternoon off work to see it. The pricing was friendly enough though and sitting in my preferred area, Dress Circle  Row A  Seat 21, cost me a mere £20, though some of that may have been down to my ATG Card (I cannot remember).

The opera told the tale of "modern China's first major utopian philosopher and earliest constitutional reformer, Kang Youwei and his pioneering daughter, Kang Tongbi." Needless to say I had not heard of either of these people before and knew nothing of their story. It was a story of flight from China, a period in the USA, a death in India and a return to and another death in China.

Apart of the location changes (one for each of the three acts) there was little physical action and little narrative. Instead the space was filled with philosophical and political discussions. Our understanding of these were helped with translations given at each side of the stage in both Chinese (the traditional form, I believe) and English.

The story covered some sixty years starting early in the last century with each act set at a different time. Kang Tongbi was the one constant in all three acts which, made her the star of the show, a billing she lived up to. All of the singing was good and hers was delightful.

I liked the music too. It was in the western tradition, it even incorporated some well-known tunes (e.g. The Beatles' Let it Be), and was given an oriental flavour in both the scoring and the instrumentation. The evocative and mournful sounds familiar from films like House of Flying Daggers came from a huqin (thanks Google) and there was lots of percussion too.

Datong was everything that I hoped it would be, enough of a western opera to be understood with enough Chinese influence to make it different. 

26 July 2017

La clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne

Visit four of six to Gyldebourne Festival 2017 was to see La clemenza di Tito.

The seats we got in the ballot were Red Upper Circle G31-34 for £125. That is, technically, the very back row in the opera house but they were good seats because of their central positioning. Every seat in that zone is a good one which is why we almost always sit there.

We had some Glyndebourne first-timers with us, my boss and his wife!, which was a good excuse, if one was needed, to walk through the whole of the garden. A little drizzle did nothing to put us off either; that's what umbrellas are for.

The opera was very much in two halves. Before the dinner break we met a host of characters and their complicated relationships. All this led to a plot to overthrow Emperor Tito. In the second half he forgave them. Of course there was a lot more to the opera than that. The limited action was there to build the emotion and the emotion was expounded upon at great length in the words and music.

The music was Mozart and the singing was Glyndebourne. That is a winning combination.

21 July 2017

HAG talk: Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck

I had never heard of Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck, and I am not that interested in history but I am interested in the place that I live and I always find HAG talks interesting and informative so I booked a place at this one. I also did the poster.

Mary Adelaide lived 1833 to 1897, a period when the royal families married each other with great regularity. As a result she was both granddaughter of George III and grandmother of Edward VIII and George VI.

While she was never in the centre of the Royal Family she was close enough to benefit from it, she was paid under the Civil List (or that period's equivalent) and was given grace and favour houses.

She lived for several years in Cambridge Cottage on Kew Green, which is now part of Kew Gardens where it is a popular venue for weddings. She also lived in White Lodge in Richmond Park for a while so she had strong connections to Richmond. One of the many things she did locally was open the Terrace Gardens next to the river.

She became known as the People's Princess because of the things she did and she was helped in this in Victoria's almost complete absence from public life due to her mourning for Albert. Mary Adelaide was one of the most active royals at that time and was popular because of this.

She is commemorated by a monument just outside Richmond Gate, somewhere between the busy road and the brambles. This site was originally chosen after a full sized model, in wood, of the monument was tried in various locations in Richmond. Plans are being developed to restore the monument and to remodel the setting so that it can be appreciated by people passing through the gate.

18 July 2017

Sheep at White Bear Theatre was nicely strange

The new White Bear Theatre is an attractive place in a convenient location for me so it is towards the top of my places to look when free evenings come up, as one did this Tuesday, and a humble £15 secured a ticket for Sheep. It sounded like an odd play, it was about somebody who had not slept for days and who had strange visitors, and I love odd plays.

It was also written by David Cantor who had Two Pints ... amongst his credits (admittedly it was Series 9) which was always going to appeal to me.

My route there was a simple one, train from Teddington to Vauxhall then a short walk of about fifteen minutes. For reasons I never understood, the play started at 7pm, despite being 90 minutes straight through, so my even feast was a pastie procured at Vauxhall Station. Not for the first time.

The theatre was set up with seating on two sides of a square and I took a seat in the middle of one side while everybody else piled into the other side. I felt like nobby-no-mates for a while but a few people came and sat on my side eventually. In the end the house was pretty full on what was its first night.

The stage was set as the living room in a flat and that is where everything happened. This was Dexy's flat and he was the one who could not sleep. He was visited by two friends. First an outrageous bon vivant who spent his nights clubbing with the rich and famous and then a sedate bus driver keen on board games. The fourth character was unseen out of the window, she was clearly a prostitute but Dexy tried to read something positive into her loitering and then going off in cars.

Then things got a little weird.

It could have been it-was-all-a-dream but that is an unlikely guess. Gradually we heard things about Dexy and his life that contradicted what we had heard before. A gangster was prominent. Dexy was as confused as the rest of us until and ending was reached, and that did not give too much away either.

The strength of the entertaining story came from the strong characters.

The woman, who came into the room later, was wearing a bright red dress and I hope that was a reference to, or at least a homage to, The Matrix. It certainly suited the uncertainty and artificiality of what we were seeing.

There were plenty of nice moments along the way and some of these carried the Two Pints ... house style of unexpected two liners. It was also a funny play.

Sheep was both odd and funny, as I hoped it would be. Job done.