18 September 2017

Revisiting Thebes Land at Arcola Theatre because it is still exceptional


I do not often go back and see a repeat performance of a show but Thebes Land made such a good and strong impression on me the first time around that I had to see it again when it was revived for a second run. Quick booking got me 1 Full Price ticket (Ground Floor: A19 (Aisle Seats, Arcola Best Seats)) for £22, a snip. Last year it was only £19 and that was a ridiculous steal.

Usually when I see a play I have little or no idea of what to expect but with Thebes the situation was different. Not only had I seen the same production less than a year previously I also read my blog post of that to remind myself of what I thought at that time. Despite that I was still surprised at just how brilliant Thebes Land was. I was expecting something exceptional and it was better than that.

A second watching just brought home to me just how much was going on in the play and I noticed things that I had not spotted the first time. Some examples.

One short scene about the prisoner's rosary beads was presented four times. First we saw it as it happened with the prisoner and the playwright. Then we saw an almost exact copy with the actor and the playwright. Then the playwright added a Whitney Huston CD to the scene. Then, finally, the actor built on that to produce the final version of the scene. It was fascinating to watch and also opened the question of how many other versions of this scene had been tried before these four were selected for the play.

Throughout the play the question was asked, what is the time?, and the answer was always 5pm until the final time when it was 1 minute past. It was only a little touch, but a nice one.

The tempo of the play varied more than I remembered and I particularly liked the slow scenes where the action actually stopped for long moments.

Thebes Land was stupidly rich with great ideas and I loved even more the second time because of that.

I was extremely lucky to grab a few quick words with Trevor White (the playwright in the play) afterwards. These were mostly me struggling to find the way to say how much I loved the play but there were some nuggets of content in which I was surprised to learn that this version of the play was slightly shorter than last year's, through cutting some scenes, and was pleased to learn that I was right about the greater emphasis on tempo.

15 September 2017

Prism at Hampstead Theatre was wonderful theatre



The main reason that I wanted to see Prism is in the picture, Robert Lindsay, and there was plenty else to recommend it, not least my previous experiences at Hampstead.

Not sure what happened with the booking but somehow seat Q6, in the back row cost me an unbelievably low £25. Not sure what happened on the evening either as i was given the slightly better seat of P7. I only notice that now when writing this up.

Hampstead Theatre sits almost on top of Swiss Cottage underground station but going that way means going via Waterloo and that always seems wrong. Besides, there is no much walking that way so I went via the Overground and West Hampstead instead. The tube map is immensely unhelpful in that part of London as it does not follow the geography closely at all and it is only through walking around there that I have learned alternative routes.

There is not much in the immediate area of the theatre so I rely on the cafe there for food and drink. Sadly they closed the kitchens a while ago so hot food is no longer an option. Luckily I was able to find a fancy open sandwich. It was pricey but tasty and did the job. The bottle of Camden Pale helped too.

In Prism we see a former film maker, Jack, with dementia. His son, Mason, is trying to get him to write the book of his life while he can still remember it. To help he has just hired a carer to look after him and his much younger wife is there too. The action takes place in the large garage of Jack's house which has been filled with all sorts of memorabilia to try and stir Jack's memory.

Two things become apparent quickly; the extent of Jack's dementia and his love for and understanding of the art of taking a picture. The prism in the title was the innovation that allowed film to be made in good quality colour. While Jack can explain in detail how the prism worked inside the camera he could not differentiate a Vermeer from one of his own paintings.

I was a little uncomfortable at first as I do not find dementia anything to laugh at and other people were laughing at Jack's confusion (e.g. he could not find his local pub) and his constant repetition of questions. That quickly ended as we got more immersed in Jack's life, present and past.

The story was compelling and interlaced the present and the past brilliantly (rarely was an interval break better used). All of the characters were interesting, solid and presented skilfully. Robert Lindsay was fantastic as Jack but he did not steal the show as the other three were also excellent. The set did clever things that helped the story and the direction was crisp and imaginative. This was an exhibition in total theatre craft and I was extremely delighted to have witnessed it.

Prism was damn near perfect.

13 September 2017

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


This Wednesday was a particularly blustery day and I was a little surprised to see so many people jostle with the weather and the resultant travel difficulties to get to West Hampstead for the BCSA  "Get to Know You" Social. We had to add an extra table to the group to accommodate every one and even then there were a few people standing, though I believe that was more out of preference than for a lack of chairs.

I had left work early to get to the social early but my travel difficulties meant an unexpected detour via Waterloo and the Jubilee Line rather than taking the direct London Overground. Plan B worked well and while I was not as early as I had hoped I was still early. Other people were too.

The evening went much as usual and much as expected with many interesting conversations, a few beers to drink and some smazeny syr to eat. Two of those are featured in the photo above.

There were several new people there and I made a point to talk to them. The opening gambits in these conversations was me asking them where they came from with Czechoslovakia (as it was) and them asking me if I spoke any Czech or Slovak (I do not). Pleasantries exchanged, the conversations then took on their own lives as good conversations do.

11 September 2017

Pleasingly disturbed by Doubt, A Parable at Southwark Playhouse

I often include part of a play's promotional blurb when explaining why I have gone to see it, this time I give the full text:
John Patrick Shanley’s masterpiece is one of the most acclaimed plays in recent memory. Winning 4 Tony Awards including Best Play, named Best Play by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Best New Play (Drama Desk Awards) and Outstanding Play (Lucille Lortel Awards). Doubt, A Parable won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
I was not going to miss that if I could avoid it. Luckily Southward Playhouse has performances on Mondays when many theatres do not so I went on a Monday. I went for a seat in the front row, as usual, and seat A20 in The Large was a more and reasonable £20. Incidentally, you have to admire a theatre that calls its two spaces The Little and The Large.

Despite having booked it only a few days before, I had no idea what the play was going to be about. I turned out to be on the somewhat challenging subject of abuse of children within the Catholic Church.

The priest under suspicion certainly had reasons for being under suspicion but was the sister being overzealous in her accusations? There was reasonable doubt both ways and that is what the play was all about.

Caught up in the dispute were a young teacher and the possible victim's mother.

These were four strong roles played strongly from the very start. The power of the play came from these four characters with their deep motivations and beliefs as they clashed and collided with each other. There was a lot of shouting.

As the play progressed we learned more about the possible abuse but never enough to erase the doubt. We were asked to choose which of the two, the priest or the sister, we believed and which should be punished. The system favoured the priest but that did not making him guilty.

It was a powerful production and it was easy to see why it won so many awards. If I have to be petty, the movement was a little unnatural as the players tried to satisfy all of the audience which sat on all sides. That was a small price to pay for being allowed to be so close to the action.

Stella Gonet as Sister Aloysius was at the centre of the play and was simply magnificent.

Doubt, A Parable was disturbing drama and that is why I loved it.

8 September 2017

The March on Russia at Orange Tree Theatre was listless and pointless

While my interest in Orange Tree Theatre has cooled in recent years, as I have discovered more theatres that I find more stimulating, I still go there regularly and am prepared to give it any benefit of the doubt when considering whether to see a play there. This is a step down from seeing everything there automatically but it means that I still go there a lot.

The March on Russia seemed like my sort of thing so I reached for my credit card to pay an almost insignificant £15 for set A1, possibly my first time there.

The play was an almost voyeuristic look at a family. A couple were celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary and were joined for this by their three children, oddly with no partners or grandchildren.

As they talked about the past, when they the children were small and before that, skeletons stumbled out of the closet in droves.

Somehow, despite that, the play never got anywhere. Many of the stories told by the couple must have been heard many times before and so caused no reaction. And when reaction did come it was unnaturally muted. There were arguments between people who seemingly had never had an argument before and had no idea that they were meant to shout and throw things.

Dark hints were dropped but not picked up. One of the children looked as though they were carrying the bleakest secret all evening but it remained a secret. Throwaway comments were made about extreme behaviours that were not followed up. It was all deeply unsatisfying. There were so many directions the play could have taken but it took none of them, choosing instead to end as if nothing had happened.

The following evening I was in my local pub and one of the regulars there got involved in an inter-generational family dispute and was far more passionate and enthralling than this one.

The set did nothing to help either. I am happy to imagine that there are walls between rooms that I cannot see but a little imagination would have made a lot of difference.

It was almost boring at times and I saw a few closed eyes in the audience. Keeping it alive were the performances from Ian Gelder in particular and also Sue Wallace as the elderly couple. That was a small reward for an evening in the theatre.

2 September 2017

A fantastic evening with Nursery Cryme at The Oak


I do not often write about bands that I see in pubs because that would be a lot of writing and usually there is nothing new to say; one rock covers band is pretty much like another. The sheer brilliance of Nursery Cryme last night has forced me to change my habit.

I had seen the band a few times before so knew what to expect, as did the other people who filled out The Oak and who sang along to far more of the songs than I did. If anything the set was less commercial than previously in that they did not play some of the more obvious early Genesis songs, like I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe). What they did play was a lot of longer more complex songs, like In the Cage. This was symphonic rock at its very best and I absolutely loved it.

Loot at Park Theatre was farcical and intelligent


While I have been an admirer of Park Theatre for some time and was aware of Joe Orton what really got me to see Loot was a chance encounter with Julie at a Sparks concert and Julie comes from Leicester, as did Orton. A convenient date was agreed and I bought the tickets, A18-20 in the middle of the front row, for a reasonable £26.5.

Apart from the promise of a 'dark comedy" I had little idea of what to expect. I had heard a couple of Orton short pieces on the radio recently and while they had some light touches I would be stretching a point if I said that I found them funny.

Loot was funny. Very funny. Laugh out loud funny.

Without giving too much away I can admit that it featured a dead woman, a nurse whose seven husbands all died quickly, a bank robbery and a policeman determined to solve several crimes all related to the few people in the room. Loot was a farce and a bloody good one too.

Trying to hide dead bodies is good farcical fare but there was more to Loot than just being a farce. The dialogue delivered clever funny lines at such a quick rate that it was hard to digest them all. Without the farcical elements of the plot it would still have been a funny play. A favourite, almost picked at random from the many, was when the coffin was being taken from the room the nurse put a copy of the Ten Commandments on it saying of the deceased, "She was a big fan, of some of them".

Some deep themes were covered too. There was a lot of religion, especially Catholicism, some politics and plenty of ethics. It was not a light play despite the heaps of comedy.

I found Loot to be hilarious from unusual beginning to unexpected end.

1 September 2017

Dissecting ethics charmingly with Windows at Finborough Theatre

I had been aware of Finborough Theatre for some time but there are lots of small theatres in London and I never had a compelling reason to go before. Then I saw Windows advertised in another theatre's email and the lure of John Galsworthy was enough and I willingly parted with my £18.

Finborough Theatre is conveniently located in West London alongside Brompton Cemetery. I took the tube to West Brompton and then a short-cut through the Cemetery. That part of the plan did not work well as there were no side gates and I had to walk all the way through then back up along the road outside. It was a pleasant walk if an unnecessary one.

The pub was a welcoming place and I had a difficult choice of beers to make. I'm still not sure what I had as there was no clip on the pump but the staff recommended it and it was a good choice. Their food came from the pizzeria next door and that also worked well.

The theatre was upstairs and we were allowed in a good thirty minutes before the show started. Not knowing the theatre I went up early to get a good seat. That was easy as there were seats on three sides of the stage and I took one on one of the central benches. Having claimed my seat I went back downstairs to get a coffee and came back with a beer, thwarted by the lack of paper cups I made the only sensible decision.

We joined Windows in the dining room of an upper middle class household, they had servants, soon after the Great War in which the son of the house had served. The father was a writer and the mother ran the house and family. Her immediate responsibility was to find a new parlour maid but the odd job man, who had come into the room to clean the windows, had a suggestion to make, his daughter. The only problem was she had just spent some time in prison, for murder.

What followed was a skillful dissection of ethics, politics and class as the opinions of the diverse group collided; as anyone you has read, watched or listen to The Forsyte Saga would expect.. Humour was one an obvious result of the collisions but there serious things to think about too. The play was a success because of the range of credible characters and the ability of the cast to bring those characters alive. It was an ensemble performance and they all deserved praise they got from the sold out house for the part they played. Carolyn Backhouse as the mother, Joan March, gets a mention because I loved the character and she had more work to do with it than the others.

Windows was a welcome discovery of a good play, a fine theatre and a decent pub. I expect the pub and theatre to have my custom again soon.