28 February 2013

Shrewsbury is pretty

It was a long drive to North Wales for Sci-fi Weekender 2013 and I had to stop somewhere for lunch along the way and Shrewsbury had the right sort of ring to it, as well as being in the right location.

A chance discussion with a friend's sister confirmed that it was a pretty town and recommended a cafe.

More by luck than judgement I found a car park on the edge of the town centre and thanks to a maps app on my phone I was able to find my way to the cafe. To get there I had to pass a surprising number of Tudor style buildings, some original and some fake.

The Olde Towne (as it is almost certainly called in some quarters) is quite small and shares the centre with a typical ugly pedestrian zone from the bleak period in our not too distant past when we forgot everything we ever know about designing town centres.

As you would expect, the lanes are as twisted as some of the timbers, which was fine as I was not particularly trying to get anywhere once I had found the cafe and devoured a triple-decker toasted cheese sandwich (who invented those, and why?).

Shrewsbury sits on a little hill on a peninsular surrounded by the river Severn and a short walk brought me to it. I followed it around the town for a while watching the architecture change, each little spurt of growth adopting the style of the time.

Even the large and hideous Post Office/BT building right on the edge of the river was a symbol of its time. Sadly, a bad time.

Heading back in to town looking for the car park, I really should have thought that one through before wandering off, I hit a pretty Georgian quarter with neat brick buildings climbing wearily up the hill.

The houses at the top were clustered around a churchyard that had carelessly lost it's church. Part of the building remained, as did some grave stones, to ensure that its history was not forgotten.

Beyond the Georgian brick was more sixties concrete and more clone shop fronts and the historical illusion was shattered for a moment.

I had one last plunge in to the past when I got to the old market square. The square was filled at one end by a market house set on solid stone legs. This looked just like the modern pastiche in Poundbury.

At the other end of the square was the expected statue though I lacked the interest to see who it was of. Looking on to the square were a few more quaint buildings.

Shrewsbury impressed me as a small town, nicely located on a bend on a river, with pockets of pretty old buildings. I am glad that I chose to break my journey there.

27 February 2013

Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall

If Swan Lake is the definitive ballet then Carmen is the definitive opera. It has the story and the songs to justify that claim.

I have seen a few very different versions of Carmen in recent years, including two dance versions, and this was the chance to see it performed as a "normal" opera.

Well, not that normal. This was at the Royal Albert Hall and I expected, and saw, a performance that put a lot of emphasis on the staging to make a spectacular show. This is the first time I have seen people juggling fire in Carmen.

I had not given it much thought beforehand, perhaps I should, so it was a surprise to discover that it was sung in English and there were no sur-titles.

I was on the uppermost level, the cheap seats, which gave a good view of the stage at the expense of some difficulty in hearing some of the singers. There were no problems listening to Don José whose voice was loud, clear and beautiful. He was the star of the show.

Carmen herself was not bad either and she had the advantage of looking like a gypsy seductress with black shoulder length wavy hair and head-turning looks. 

The stage was set in the round, understandable given the shape of the Royal Albert Hall, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra filling a wedge to one side. They were superb too.

Perhaps it was the distraction of what was happening on the stage or I was just lucky to be sitting amongst educated people but the annoyances were less than usual. There was some whispering but that was all there was and these days that is remarkable. The lack of sweet wrappers was much appreciated.

The lack of sur-titles and the distance from the stage made some of the lines hard to follow (not with the impeccable Don José) so it was useful that I knew the story quite well. There were some minor liberties made with the story due to the restrictions of the staging, i.e. the difficulty of reconfiguring it to make different scenes, and they may also have caused me to lose the thread at times.

Carmen was at its best when it filled the stage with people and, literally, played to the crowd. It was less successful in the quieter moments when the distance was more of a problem but even then the delightful music from the orchestra shone through and the opera never seriously flagged.

I am not sure that I would rush back to the Royal Albert Hall to see another opera there as it takes an opera with the richness of Carmen to fill the large space, and there are not too many like that.

26 February 2013

Big Ideas on Macroeconomics

Working in Cardiff for a year and a half severely curtailed my London-based activities and while I was able to keep the theatre going simply by booking for weekends I was force to miss most events that had fixed dates.

One casualty of this was Big Ideas which meeting on the last Tuesday of the month and work kept me away for a whole year. A new project back in London meant that I could make February's meeting and I was desperate to attend despite not being that interested in the subject, macroeconomics.

The format, and my ritual, remained the same. I walked there from Victoria stopping at Govinda's on the way for a vegetarian curry. I got to the Wheatsheaf not long after 7pm giving me plenty of time for a leisurely pint before heading upstairs to claim a good seat for the discussion starting at 8pm.

Our guide for the evening was Ann Pettifor who is an economist of some renown. She spoke for about twenty minutes to introduce the subject that was then taken up by the rest of us in a group session with Ann responding to the questions raised.

What follows is my notes from the meeting, taken on my iPad for the first time. I was also able to use it for tweeting (#bigideas) thanks to the pub's wi-fi.

Ann Started working on sovereign debt of weakest countries, now a lot has been written off.

Debt is now a first world issue, both private and public borrowings have increased dramatically over the last twenty years or so.

It is wrong to try and use micro economic arguments to arrive at macro economic solutions, e.g. comparing public debt to a credit card. This metaphor is liked by politicians but the two situations are not the same.

Public debt as ratio to GDP, around 70%, is not the problem, we been there several times before and have always emerged strongly.The real problem is private debt that is running at over 400% of GDP.

Private debt is being completely ignored but we cannot have a recovery until it is fixed.

Allowing individuals to walk away from their debts (e.g. returning house keys to the mortgage provider) is a disorderly way to escape from debt. Rescheduling debt is orderly.

Or, we generate income so that the debt can be repaid. This is the best approach but the government is doing the opposite by making cuts.

Ann said that we cannot finance recovery through taxation but I do not agree. Income tax might not work but some form of wealth tax (imposed without notice) would. The 1,000 richest persons in the UK have increased their wealth by so much in the last 3 years, £155bn,  that they themselves alone could pay off the entire UK budget deficit. We could/should simply take that money.

We have the money, we found £16t to save the banks, mostly invented money.This is a great power so there are questions over how this power is used and controlled.

We should regulate the banks rather than nationalise them (why?). Not convinced by the argument that housing is a bubble - people have to live somewhere and houses are in short supply. House are useful assets unlike, say, art or tulips, so are less susceptible to bubbles.

The evil guys are the bankers, apparently. Nobody agreed with me on the problem being caused by customers demanding loans and also high savings rates. Banks are just meeting customer demand.

We should reintroduce Capital Controls to manage capital flows. Tobin tax is small in comparison - and it's trying to do something else. There is a political issue here as Capital Controls are associated with the old days and with totalitarian regimes. As a country we seem reluctant to give power to democratic bodies in Europe but are happy to be controlled by unelected market players.

I had a good evening and the ninety minutes flew by. I would have stayed on too for more chat, and more beer, if not for a pressing need to get home. I also felt that Ann and I were broadly on the same side so I was surprised to find myself disagreeing with so much of what she said. I think that some of this may have been down to the way that the arguments were put which I thought lacked rigour and flow.

A day or so later I listened to an RSA Podcast on The Inequality Crisis that I found more logical and more convincing.

25 February 2013

Actors and Writers London Showcase

Going to small theatres regularly means getting to meet a few actors and through one of them I stumbled upon Actors & Writers London (AWL) and found myself at one of their events.

This was held in the upper bar of the Polish Centre in Hammersmith which was another attraction for me. I had only been there once before, for a Slovak Ball (!), and was glad to have the chance to go back. The time before the AWL event was spent on potato pancakes with spinach and a bottle of Tyskie.

The event itself, of which I knew little beforehand, was a semi-stages semi-read performance of seven short plays. In each case the authors were looking for feedback and in some they were asking if it was worth completing a work in progress.

What Crisis? introduced us to two angry young men, that's angry in a football violence way. They migrate in to petty crime with a mix of aggression, poetry and humour. I liked it but thought that some of the humour was forced, and said so in the discussion afterwards.

Climbing gave us an interesting look in to the mind of a vengeful woman. It was a nice idea that was not obvious first bit once we had got it then the story sort of faded.

Some Enchanted Evening was a comedy that had me laughing out loud from the second line. A set of losers meet at a speed dating event where the man had a series of three silly questions that he asked each woman. The first woman was a stern German called Angela, when asked if that is like Merkle she replies that she is not as frivolous. There were many more laughs like that.

Garden Leave took us in to a gentlemen's club where an unemployed senior manager desperate to get back in to work has arranged to meet a friend of a friend of a friend in a position of power. He talks too much to learn that he is talking to the wrong person and that the man was there to meet his wife who is about to leave him. A solid if unspectacular story.

Mother of an Innocent took us back to the birth of Jesus where other mothers who had lost their children to Herod's purge were not that impressed that Jesus had survived. This was far too biblical for me.

China Price started off as a too obvious and too slow look at the impact our consumerism has on the life of workers in Chinese factories. The acting was good though and that maintained interest until the twists came and it became a ghost story, or did it?

Don't Cry for Me ... ended the evening with another ghost story and, like the previous one, it did not start out that way. We started with a clumsy couple on a date and I was expecting something on relationships. Then the man tells us that his mother sitting in the garden is dead and that he killed her. Gripping stuff.

The evening was all very amateurish and by that I mean that it was about enthusiasm and helping each other and professional jealousies were not to be seen.

It was also a lot of fun for me to see the creative process in the early stages and to hear some of the authors' thinking. I suspect that I'll be going back for more.

24 February 2013

Magic Flute at the Riverside

I do not know the Magic Flute that well and my memory of it was as a confusing story with controversial references to things masonic. This version complicated things further by making it the story about Mozart writing the Magic Flute.

This is a Mozart scared of failure and more scared of being poisoned; opera buffs will get the reference. He has three housemaids looking after him with more attention that his wife is happy with.

The maids provide a comedic and slightly erotic theme throughout the story, even when they change roles and become men.

Most of the cast have multiple roles so, for example, Mozart becomes Tamino in the opera and his wife, Constanza becomes Pamina, Tamino’s love. Confused? So was I.

A review I read (after seeing the opera) said that this version made a daft story dafter. I would not argue with that but I would not see that as a problem either. Daft can work.

What really makes it work is the singing and there was no weak member in the ensemble. I liked the three ladies a lot, which is just as well as they were on the stage a great deal. Even better than them was Daisy Brown as Constanza/Pamina who was the star of the show. Such a beautiful voice.

This was especially obvious in the scene where she sings about killing her self believing (falsely) that Tamino no longer loves her. Her despair was brutal and we felt her pain.

It helped being in the second row, with nobody in the front row, and Pamina sang at times just a couple of feet from me.

The music was ably provided by a small band of five, led by their pianist. The sound they produced was just right in terms of both the blend of sound and the volume. They worked well with the singers rather than competing with them for our attention.

Stripped to its basics this was pretty Mozart music played and sung beautifully. On top of that we had huge elements of comedy with the cast acting as much as singing. It was all very delightful.

Orchids at Kew Gardens (2013)

Kew Gardens are worth visiting at any time of the year as the seasons ebb and flow and there are few set events in the calendar.

The notable exception is the orchid event that runs through February each year. This fills the Princess of Wales Conservatory with exotic flowers and hordes of people taking photos of them. People like me.

The orchids are arranged in large bunches, in hanging baskets, in columns, in planters and in the beds. Some of this is clearly artificial, that is the orchids are not growing in their natural state. This may be unusual for Kew but is what you expect at, say, the Chelsea Flower Show.where planted and arranged flowers mingle beautifully.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory has no obvious path through it, unlike the other main greenhouses which are long and thin, so exploration involves a lot of decision making, a few repeated steps and the constant nagging fear that you have missed something and that what you missed was the best bit.

The richness of the flowers can be a little daunting. The constant bright colouring is such a contrast from the subdued woodlands that characterise most of Kew Gardens.

Orchids tend to favour white with touches of soft reds, such as pink and lilac. This brighter red and yellow example is unusual, which is why I chose to include it.

The large displays of flowers are impressive but the detail of the individual flowers is more so. That is why all my photos this time are of close ups whereas almost all of the photos in my other posts try to capture the sweep of the landscapes.

The density of the displays also makes it a slow journey around the greenhouse. Each step is a new opportunity to pause and take a photo.

This is in marked contrast to my normal visits where one of the aims is to get some brisk walking done.

I also usually try to keep away from the busier parts of the gardens and the busier paths between them but when the orchids are on display there is no alternative to mingling with the masses. This is inconvenient rather than unpleasant and it can take some time for the people to clear from that special view. In pictures of gardens people are just clutter.

I prefer wild natural Kew to formal arranged Kew but if it has to put on a display of flowers then a greenhouse full of orchids is the way to do it.

23 February 2013

Baddesley Clinton and the Heart of England Walk

It was a sudden decision to go to Baddesley Clinton, a place I had not even heard of until half an hour before I went there.

I was in Leamington Spa treating Son 2 in Pizza Express (not for the first time) and with an afternoon free the helpful National Trust app led us to Baddesley Clinton.

The main house looks cute from the outside but I lacked the interest to see what the insides looked like. Besides, that would have cost more.

The house is not that large and while it is neat it does not look that special. Apart from the moat. A moat is always special, even around a relatively small house. And this is a nice wide moat too, just the sort of moat that deters men in heavy armour and with murderous intent. Sadly the rather robust bridge to the front door makes it all rather pointless defensively though the decorative aspect is splendid.

The modest grounds have plenty of water too. There is a large pond behind the house which conditions have conspired to fill with silt so that it is as brown as the ground around it.

A sturdy path circles the gardens and the number of bridges in it lay testament to the profusion of water courses (mostly these are little more than ditches) that plague the area.

There are smaller ponds too. These once provided the house with fish.

There is a small formal garden to one side of the house but this is not the time of year to appreciate it and it requires something of a healthy imagination to picture it with flowers in bloom.

The garden path takes but a few minutes to complete and then it conveniently leads back to the converted barn which does a rather nice line in cakes.

Looking at the map revealed a longer route around the estate. This is part of the Heart of England Walk, at least I hope that it is just part of it rather than the whole of it as it is just a couple of kilometres long.

Baddesley Clinton is in the middle of nowhere so leaving the house and gardens takes you immediately in to the countryside and there are lots of sheep there to prove it.

The paths are much less obvious than those in the gardens and the little green markers that pepper posts along the route are needed to follow them.

Money has been spent here recently and new metal kissing gates have been put in everywhere. There and new wooden gates too for the farm vehicles.

Not all of the paths were easily passable and some were incredibly muddy. Like this one.

There is a frisky hedge on one side and a hard looking electric fence on the other, so wading through the mud was the only option.

Needless to say I was not dressed for that and I had to do some heavy work on my shoes and trousers when I got home to remove the dollops of mud that I took home with me.

Baddersley Clinton is just the sort of place that I joined the NT to go to. Being a member means that I can get in for free so it is possible to make short visits like this. It is also a spur to go an visit somewhere new and that is always a good idea. I'll almost certainly never go but this point is I have been and I liked it.

22 February 2013

Desolate Heaven at Theatre503

There are so many good small theatre in London (and the better theatres tend to be small, in my opinion at least) and there is so little time to go to them all that even when a new theatre impresses, like Theatre503 did last year, it can take me ridiculously long to get back there.

It would have been an even longer wait too if not for an email offer that alerted me to Desolate Heaven. The subject matter and review ratings suggested that it was worth a try, so I did.

The journey to darkest Battersea proved to be easy. I took a fast train to Clapham and rather than finish the journey by bus I walked the last kilometre or so through a couple of grassy parks.

I ate in the pub downstairs first, The Latchmere. That was more difficult that it should have been when the cheese and spinach burger I ordered arrived as a beef burger with a cheese and spinach topping. To be fair to the pub they swapped the burger for a veggie meal without a fuss. The beer was OK too and a couple of pints of Landlord were much appreciated.

I was one of the first in to the theatre and after a split-second's thought I took a seat in the front-row, as usual. The stage is slightly raised, to about knee height, so I was looking slightly up at the performers.

The stage was simply set with grey floor, a wall made from black planks and a chair as the sole prop.

We meet two schoolgirls on a beach. They are aged around 12 and 14, though played by women somewhat older than that, and they strike up a conversation. Through this we learn that they live close to each other and each looks after a parent.

The older girl is brash and confident as she talks about what she wants from life and the younger shier girl is swept along with this despite her initial reservations. Dreams become plans and they run away together.

They have several adventures on the road and are helped along the way by a series of women, all played by the same actress.

Each of these women tells them part of a fairly-tale at bedtime. It's a story based on Rumpelstiltskin but with a different ending.

The girls' lives bounce up and down between moments of girlish fun and times when they realise the bleakness of their situation.

Bringing the girls to life are two fine young actresses Carla Langley and Evelyn Lockley. They convince us that they are young school girls and, more importantly, make us care about what happens to them.

It's a play about growing up quickly in harsh circumstances, about the battle between hope and despair, the first false dawns of love and the difference between running away and running to. It is bleak and funny in equal measure and pulls other emotions along the way.

The oxymoronic Desolate Heaven lives up to its name as the girls are pulled between both extremes. In the middle is a lot of warmth, companionship, support and love. This positive mood makes the play very watchable despite the things that happen.

If every night at the theatre was as fulfilling as Desolate Heaven at Theatre503 then I would be very happy.

16 February 2013

Port at the National Theatre

I am not sure if it is the National Theatre's fault or mine that I do not go more often but somehow I associate it with safe and establishment and I prefer edgy and fringe.

I found myself back there through an unusual route. I was listening to the always excellent Robert Elms podcast and he interviewed Simon Stephens who wrote Port and who originated from Stockport where the play gets its name. What he said about the play was enough to convince me that I should go and see it, so I did.

Port tells the story of a girl, Racheal, growing up in difficult circumstances in a Stockport estate. We follow her, and her family, from the age of 11 to 24 through eight scenes.

The settings change from, for example, a hospital to a bus stop, smoothly with Racheal staying on the stage as it transforms smoothly around her. It is all very impressive and, more importantly, allows the story to move along without a break. This works very well even though, or perhaps because of, these smooth transitions in our real-time are leaps of several years for those on stage.

I do not want to give too much of the story away but it gives you some of the flavour of the play to know that a parent leaves, her younger brother gets caught up in petty criminality, a good friend dies, a marriage fails and another one is tested, and she moves away from Stockport for a while.

Through all the change the one constant is Racheal's resilient attitude that mixes street smarts with brash confidence. There are vulnerabilities in there too, she cares for her family and wants to be loved by somebody.

Kate O'Flynn plays Racheal and is utterly convincing as she ages 13 years before our eyes and moves through a heady mix of emotions. It's a wonderful performance and worth the entry fee alone.

The story is gritty, as it should be if it is meant to be taken as real life. It's something like Eastenders but set up north, with lots of swearing (it is meant to be taken as real life) and better acting. The grittiness persists throughout but so does Racheal's positive attitude and, despite everything, it is an uplifting story and a great pleasure to watch.

Exploring the National Theatre

I am pleased to say that Prince Charles and I disagree over lots of things, especially architecture. He created Poundbury which I find amusingly bad, it fits in with its area just like Disneyland Paris does, and he despises the National Theatre which I love.

I was back there recently to see a play, oddly enough, and arrived in good time to have a good rummage beforehand.

The reason that concrete was adopted widely and quickly is that it allowed architects to create interesting shapes and spaces that were beyond the constraints of traditional materials. I accept that all too often these freedoms were used to create dull tower blocks (not that all tower blocks are dull, far from it) so it is nice to be able to explore the National Theatre where the potential of concrete has been realised.

There are many things to like about to NT and I'll start with the way that it exploits it's location.

The frontage on to the river is a hierarchy of long windows with walkways in front so you can see and enjoy the river from inside the building and, when the English weather allows, you can enjoy the fresh air too.

The second great thing about the NT, inside and out, is that there are walkways, corridors and staircases everywhere and that makes the building very explorable, if somewhat confusing at times. Besides, confusing is a good thing because I like getting lost.

There are doors to the outside in several places on every level and these take you to new interesting spaces. Edging outside by the Olivier Theatre, and several levels up, I emerged in to an unexpected large space with plants and seats. From here the beauty of the NT is undeniable.

Moving around one of the many corners took me to a realm where the concrete clearly rules.

Here function rules and each block has its own secret purpose.

This is about as far away as you can get from the carpeted comfort of the inside and different paradigms are brought in to play. We are now in Gormenghast where long forgotten corridors lead to long forgotten rooms where long forgotten people used to live.

This place is just a few meters from the busy river and the bustling Waterloo Bridge yet it looks as though as nobody every comes here. Perhaps they don't.

Heading back toward the main block brought me to the business end of the theatre. Behind the windows on the right costumes are designed, cut, repaired, washed and ironed. But all is quiet on a Saturday afternoon and the quietness gives the impression that this is an abandoned city.

The National Theatre is an astonishing building that wears its age very well, possibly because it was built towards the end of the post-modernist period and after brutalism, and it is a real joy to explore its complicated and expansive spaces inside and out.

15 February 2013

The Stepmother at the Orange Tree Theatre

I am going to be curmudgeonly and start with a negative for a change.

I love the Orange Tree to bits, and go to everything that they do there, but it can be a bit predictable and this was a case in point.

This was the British Première of a play first written in 1924 by a (relatively) unknown playwright, Githa Sowerby, that is set in that period and deals with relationships and money. The Orange Tree keeps discovering plays like this and while they are usually good plays I would like to see a little more variety in their programme.

That said, while this may be the Orange Tree playing safely to its strengths in this case it plays to them brilliantly and the play is a triumph.

I took my usual seat on the front row on the opposite side to the entrance and started the evening by taking a photo of the set.

We soon meet the man of the house whose wealthy sister has just died. They did not get on well and so he did not expect to inherit any thing but he is surprised to learn that the person who did inherit it was the young girl who had been looking after her.

It was a simple step from there to marry her and to look after her finances for her. She also inherits his two daughters and becomes a stepmother.

The poster at the top shows the size of the cast, and all were very good so it is a bit curmudgeonly (again) to focus on just two of them but that is what the story does and I shall too.

Christopher Ravenscroft plays the husband, Eustace. He is involved in a multitude of dubious business schemes, none of which seem to work. He is secretive and manipulative and, when he has to, he can be downright nasty too. Christopher played the malevolence so well that he was booed by the audience at times. This was a bravado performance.

Against that Katie McGuinness played Lois the young wife as a timid woman (as she would be having been suddenly elevated in her situation) who trusts her husband completely and becomes a proper mother to the children.

I have been a fan of Kate since I first saw her at the Orange Tree in Nan six years ago and she was absolutely stunning in this, right from the very start when she entered shaking with anxiety having been summoned by the man of the house.

I'll say little more about the story because I want you to go and see it but things do not always go smoothly and all the other characters are in the play for a reason. A lot happens, good and bad, and there are plenty of surprises.

The Stepmother is a good play marvellously produced and brilliantly acted.

And the evening got even better when loitering with intent after the play I was able to grab a few treasured words with Kate in which I was able to tell her how much I enjoyed her performance and she told me how much she liked my (Liberty) shirt.

13 February 2013

Quartermaine's Terms at Wyndham's

This is going to be an easy review to write because there is so little so say.

I chose to go to the play because an offer came through work and, obviously, because it stars Rowan Atkinson.

He plays St. John Quartermaine, one of the dysfunctional teachers in a school in Cambridge teaching English to foreign teachers. He is lonely and has signs of dementia. Other teachers are living with her mother, married to a man who has a series of affairs, seriously accident-prone, recently left by his wife and children, and stuck in a drab love-less marriage.

The characters may be rather contrived, and its is annoyingly simplistic that we literally meet them one-by-one, but they do make a rich source of potential comedy and/or tragedy.

So it is a great shame that the play does neither.

We get a series of conversations between the staff through which we learn of romance, murder, failed novels, finding god, a caravan holiday in Norfolk, an incident in a French restaurant, and several other events none of which makes the slightest difference to the mood or the pace of the play.

I kept being reminded of Terry and June, the bland but very success full sitcom that was on TV when this was written in 1982. I suspect that Terry and June was much better.

Quartermaine's Terms was not let down by the actors and I think that they all made the best of the weak material that they had to deal with. Rowan Atkinson did what Rowan Atkinson does without stretching to achieve anything more. His is the thinnest character. My favourite was new-boy Derek, the accident-prone one, played by Will Keen. I also liked Louise Ford as Anita, the wife of the affair loving husband.

There were several moments of humour and the play was quite watchable. It was also lacking in story, lacking in emotion and lacking any variation in pace. At £25 for the ticket I felt a little cheated and I would have felt a lot worse if I had paid the £44 face value. Unless you are a big Rowan Atkinson fan then there is no point going to see this.

11 February 2013

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: February 2013

February's Committee Meeting turned out to be something of a surprise. We dealt with most matters easily enough and then got embroiled in one planning application the consequences of which are still rumbling on a week later.

Heritage Open Days

The HODs leaflet goes out with August newsletter, so it needs to be ready towards the end of July.

Seething Wells

We agreed to formally complain about sound system at the Development Control meeting that considered the Seething Wells application. People need to hear the debate to participate in it.

On the application itself we are waiting to see if it goes to appeal. The developer has six months to decide. In the meantime the site will continue to deteriorate.

Panorama of the Thames Project

We offered our supporting Panorama of the Thames Project. This plans to recreate in photographs the historical panorama published in 1829.

I went to see a copy of this in Richmond Museum last year and loved it. I think that keeping records of what we have and love should be part of what the Society does in order to celebrate our heritage.

Latchmere House Consultation

Matthew and George had attended the public meeting in Tiffin Girls' School and had come to similar conclusions, i.e. the Councils proposals for traffic (controversial), pedestrian access and open space etc. were all to be supported.

What we disagreed with was the proposal to building housing that matched the character of the area. This is very mixed and a lot of it is of a type not worth matching. Developments in nearby Parkleys and Ham Farm Road offered a better character to copy.

Development Control / Planning Applications

Student accommodation at disused petrol station in Kingston Vale is not liked by locals but officers are recommending approval. (See application number 12/14991)

There is a proposal for Willbros House, 62-68 Eden Street (next to Primark) for demolition of existing building and redevelopment of site to provide a 6 storey building comprising retail use on ground and first floors, and 30 residential units.

The main feature of this development is its height. It takes as its guideline the tower in Eden Walk opposite and that makes it substantially taller than Primark.

Despite the height and the cramped appearance of the units we decided that we had no reasons to object to the application and neither did it have sufficient merit to warrant our support. (13/12032)

Cllr. Patrick Codd had approved the Huf Houses in Ulswater Close on his casting vote, against his wishes, because of the risk of losing on appeal. The Society supported the development and were frustrated to see the Council use questionable reasons to refuse earlier versions of the application.

Regarding the Richmond Park Tavern site, we think we could support a taller building, i.e. in line with the block of flats next to it, but no application has been submitted yet and we will assess one on its merits when it is submitted.

Hospital proposal for maternity extension refused on grounds of parking, despite the good bus service.

On Penrhyn Road, more student accommodation was proposed. This was a resubmission and having objected to the previous plan we agreed that we would not object to this one because the changes resolved our earlier objections.

The fate of the Penny School Gallery proved to be the big discussion point of the evening, and it still is a week later.

The former Penny School is part of the Kingston College site on Richmond Road, it is the small white building on south of site (left of the main building) and is set back from the road. The space in front of it houses works of art by students of the college.

The intention is to demolish the Penny School, and the buildings to the south of it, and to build a large extension on to the college.

There were different feelings expressed about the quality of the building (the frontage is nice enough but unremarkable) and the need to protect the heritage of the Penny School.

In the end the heritage argument won and we agreed to oppose the application, which we otherwise liked, because of the loss of the Penny School. (13/12046)


Most of the Committee objected to the name Red Square for the redevelopment of the Red Lion in Tolworth, but I like it!

Mike D'Souza, Chairman of the Community Working Group of One Norbiton, to speak in May.

Mark Teasdale to speak in June re Market Place, we hope.

May do an outing in July/August. Suggested a walk around Westminster including the Supreme Court.

Want to do a marker for where the Coombe Conduit crosses the Thames.

9 February 2013

Metamorphosis at the Lyric Hammersmith

I have only been to the Lyric Hamersmith a couple of times (my fault) and it is growing on me.

On this trip I got there late afternoon for some coffee and cake, then watched the France v Wales Rugby Union International on my iPad using their wi-fi and then moved from the coffee bar to the restaurant area for a pizza before climbing several flights of stairs up to the front row of the Circle to see Metamorphosis.

I had heard of the book, of course, but not read it. What attracted me to the play was the Lyric's description of it which explained that it was being put on again because it had been so successful the first time. It also sounded odd, and I like odd.

Things start off well enough. We meet the struggling but happy enough Samsa family. The father is out of work, the mother looks after the house, the daughter Grete is still at school and the son Gregor keeps them all afloat through his job as a travelling salesman.

Things start to go wrong when Gregor fails to get up at 5am for breakfast and so has missed his train to work. The family is worried and Grete goes upstairs to chivvy him along.

Gregor has changed overnight.

We do not know what into because he is not wearing a costume but we can see him crawling on the walls of his room, which is on-end compared to the rest of the house, and while he can understand what is said to him when he speaks all the family can hear is shrieking that forces them to cover their ears.

We, in the audience, can hear him perfectly well.

These two devices, the tilted room and the changed voice, is all that is need to convey the metamorphosis and this simplicity is the core of the play. We know a major change has happened but it does not get between us and the story.

That story is about the changes that Gregor's metamorphosis brings to other people, in particular the way that they react to him and the changed circumstances caused by the loss of his salary.

The family vary between being shocked, appalled and sympathetic. He is part of the family after-all and they have no idea whether the change is permanent or not.

Other people appear briefly, such as somebody from Gregor's work checking up on him and, much later, a possible suitor for Grete who she knows from the shop she works in and who is looking for a spare room to rent. Their encounters with Gregor do not go well.

The play works on some many levels (no pun intended) and there is a lot in there to feast on, such as Grete's violin, the positive power of a uniform, the impact of austerity on dreams and, at its heart, the workings of a family.

Gregor may grab most of the attention by climbing walls and swinging from curtains but the rest of the family are played excellently too.

To add another touch of strangeness there is also a soundtrack of songs by Nick Cave (lyrical genius) and Warren Ellis (not the comics one).

Metamorphosis is a story like no other and this stage adaptation reflects that admirably. It is unusual, complex and rich without ever being intrusive  This is theatre with a difference and it is a difference that I love.

Leighton House Museum

I discovered the Leighton House Museum almost by accident.

What caused the accident was an evening theatre date in Hammersmith, a free afternoon and the Art Guide app.

The house that became a museum is just off Kensington High Street (a.k.a. A315) in Holland Park Road which runs parallel to the main road just to the east of Kensington Olympia.

This is an unusual part of Town with lots of mixed housing but little in the way of shops and cafes to support the locals. It is all quite bleak.

And Leighton House is not much to look at from the outside either.

Inside is a different matter. Turning left from the entrance takes you in to the Arab Hall (pictured) that took me right back to Turkey. No surprise that as it was a visit to Turkey in 1867 that Leighton started to collect the artifacts that would be used to build it ten years later.

The Arab Hall is stunning and I spent several minutes at the start and at the end of the tour admiring the construction and the decoration.

The rest of the house is fairly normal, if somewhat large for a single man. Leighton was an artist and the museum (as it now is) is full of his works, a few of which I actually liked.

Two other rooms lead off the downstairs hall; one is a muddy brown, the other a blood red and the hall is dark blue.

Upstairs, apart from the almost inconsequential bedroom, there is another large hall with one large room leading off it. These are all endowed with skylights and so felt bright and spacious, even on a dull February day.

The paintings are mostly portraits and the few landscapes and townscapes are mainly small sketches, which is a shame (for me) as I would much rather look at old buildings in Damascus than some unknown woman.

I guess that I am in a minority here (not unusual) as Leighton became President of the Royal Academy of Arts and rose to be Lord Leighton, Baron of Stretton. Queen Victoria visited his house and bought some of his early major paintings.

I may have only found the place by accident but other people seem to be better informed and there was a reasonable crowd passing through during the three quarters of an hour or so that I managed to stretch the six main rooms out for.

Leighton House Museum is too small to go far out of your way for but if you happen to be in the area, and there are enough other reasons to be around there, then it is certainly worth a look. The Arab Hall alone justifies a visit.

1 February 2013

Tatyana by Companion de Dança Deborah Colker at the Barbican

Tatyana is a dance by Companion de Dança Deborah Colker and I was taken to the Barbican to see it by some friends who share my wish to see more dance.

I do not go to the Barbican Theatre (the smaller of the two performance spaces) often enough to get used to it; in particular the way that there are separate entrances to each row in the circle and the doors to these all close automatically together when the show is about to start.

This is the view that I had from my seat looking across the stalls to the other wing of the circle. There are a further two levels above that but these are places that I have yet to explore.

Tatyana is based on Pushkin's novel Eugene Onegin, which was of no use to me as I have not read the book, seen the opera or the ballet set to the same Tchaikovsky music. Knowing the story may have helped a little to make sense of what followed though I was happy to focus on just the movement and music and not worry too much about what it was meant to be about.

As seems to be the case these days, the dance was in two very different half.

In the first half the stage had what seemed to be a tree on it with branches or roots running to the ground. These could rotate to create different set-ups.

The dancing that accompanied it was energetic and gymnastic with lots of leaping, climbing and swinging. It was all very dramatic and impressive but not actually that pretty. For example, the ladies' limbs had more prominent muscles than usual and they did not flow between poses with the grace that I like to see.

The second half was a different and a better story. The tree was gone and the dancing was on the flat stage. That alone allowed more elegance in to the movements. There were also some slow passages with just one of two dances. The best of these dances came from Deborah Colker herself who in one short scene proved that she was the better of all the dancers in the company.

If the first half was a little disappointing then the second half recovered the situation and the evening was at least satisfactory and at times was quite a lot of fun.