31 May 2013

Meryl Tankard's The Oracle at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (exhilarating)

This was one of those events where the publicity blurb hinted at something sufficiently unusual that meant that I had to go.

At the core it was a dance set to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and what a strong core that was, added to which were elements of multi-media and an interpretation that added to the original controversy rather than playing the safe option and showing us how tame it was in today's terms.

I was unfamiliar with the music, despite owning the CD for decades, and I immediately loved the brashness of it though the loud thunderclaps seemed a little tame compared to the noise made earlier in the day when one of the units at the power station was taken off-line. I still jump when that happens.

The multimedia element came at the beginning and that did not work for me at all. Mirrors were used to make kaleidoscopic images from the dancer's body though there was not enough of the body visible to see if it was dancing or merely moving its arms. Luckily that section was quite short and was not repeated.

The solo dancer, Paul White, then appeared and performed three highly energetic movements made more dramatic by low lighting that split the stage in to light and dark.

The only prop used was a piece of cloth that ingeniously transformed from clothing to a separate figure that Paul embraced and danced with.

There was lots of leaping, rolling, spinning and cart-wheeling, yet it was definitely dance and never threatened to be mistaken for gymnastics. Somewhere along the way Paul lost his underpants, but I did not see the point of that either.

The minor gripes about the kaleidoscope and underpants aside, this was a breathtaking and exhilarating performance that left me in awe of the performance and bursting with pleasure.

Beanotown comes to Southbank

I was at the Southbank for something seriously arty and with an hour or so to fill before kick-off I went for a little wander and found myself in Beanotown.

I was in the Queen Elizabeth Hall and looking for a different way out I noticed an image of Dennis the Menace  at the bottom of some stairs and so down I went.

The stairs took me to an external door which I went though to be confronted by a collection of Beano related signs, including a street sign informing me that I was in Bash Street in the London Borough of Beanotown.

Turning round to face the QEH again I saw the entrance to the Beanotown exhibition underneath the concert hall.

Obviously I went in.

Making sure that you knew what you were in for, just inside the door was a large "Beano" sign with copies of all of the Beano Annuals behind it. You can carbon-date me by knowing that as a boy I had the annuals just above the "B", that is the one with the lollipop and those to the right of it.

Obviously that is not the last time that I read the Beano regularly. That was when I was at university and my main reason for stopping at that time was because of the amount to space taken up by a sizable comic that arrives every week.

The exhibition was carefully designed for families with games and drawing for small children, books to read for the older ones and a good collection of old strips for the parents. There was also a fair amount of commentary about them to explain something of their context and creators.

I read most of these but, conscious of the limited time before curtain-up, I had to skim through most of them and will have to go back for a proper look. Luckily the exhibition is open until 8 September so getting back will not be a problem.

It was interesting to note, as the commentary did, that the Bart Simpson blackboard lines may have been suggested by a Dennis the Menace story.

Memories came flooding back, as I am sure that they were meant to and it was wonderful to see the full range of Beano strips on display including my favourite adventure stories Billy the Cat, Q-Bikes, General Jumbo and The Iron Fish. I was not the only small boy who really wanted a flying fish with water cannons.

For the discerning collector there were original art samples, Beano toys and the opportunity to have your photo taken dressed as a Beano character. I am not sure how I can get through the Summer without giving that a try.

I loved Beanotown as a boy and now I can love it again.

29 May 2013

DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks: 29 May 2013

Superman breaking chains is hardly an original theme but there is always room for improvement, and this cover is it. Superman fills the frame, the chains are suitably large and Superman looks determined but not troubled.

The big event this week is the arrival of The Wake.

I've chosen both the cover and a double-page spread simply because I like them both.

The cover tells you that this is a science fiction story with a dark heart, rather than, say, a galaxy-hopping romp with lovable rogues. The splash page confirms this.

And there is not a costumed super-hero in sight.

I like the sharpness of the drawing style that heightens the other-worldliness of the setting. This may be Earth but it is not our Earth now.

The point of DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks is to tempt you to read some of the comics and with The Wake I might just do that.

Of course one of the big advantages of digital is that I can wait a month or two to see how the series pans out, comments on Twitter are always good for that, and then buy all the back issues.

The on-line store is always open and everything is always in stock. I love digital stores and digital comics.

26 May 2013

Falstaff at Glyndebourne

My second visit to Glyndebourne this year and the first in the festival was to see Verdi's Falstaff.

I went with some regular friends that made the logistics easy despite the best efforts of the traffic around the M25/M23 junction to delay me.

It was a nice day, with some breeze, so we opted to sit in the garden rather than on one of the picnic tables on the upper levels of the opera house.

Luck, and that careful planning, won us the prime location, the long bench on the large brick platform built over the boathouse last year.

The reason we wanted to be there was for this view.

Walking through the gardens is almost as important as the opera itself and the first visit of the year is when changes in the garden are discovered.

This year the garden is a little disappointing. The changes that have been made to many of the borders have left them looking rather empty. That will soon change as things grow but for the moment there is a little less to look at.

A new season means a new set of sculptures to look at. This year it is a set of male figures either slightly above life-sized or much smaller. I am afraid that they are not my cup of tea, I much prefer the grander Artemis from last year and the large horse head before that.

The art that I did like was on the safety screen in the opera house. Glyndebourne seems to have tightened up on the photography rules again having relaxed them to no photography during the performance they are now back at no photography in the house, as you can just about make out from the text above the screen.

The tapestry that the Brownies are working on is of Windsor Castle where Falstaff's story is based, not surprisingly as the opera is derived from Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor.

Falstaff is a bit footloose with the ladies and when three of them find out that he is chasing them all at the same time they plan their revenge.

This revenge comes in two separate acts where Falstaff is made a laughing stock. But the last laugh is shared and everybody is made a fool of by the Brownies tying their shoelaces together.

Along the way there is plenty of good if slight music (it is only a comic opera) and jolly singing. Falstaff is the centre of it all and he sings and acts beautifully while the ladies spin around him singing nicely too.

It is all very pleasant but that's all it is. Perhaps I have got too familiar with Glyndebourne and I now need something special to get a buzz, which this was not. Of course a Glyndebourne "average" is still good and Falstaff was a lot of fun.

24 May 2013

The Great Gatsby Musical at The Riverside (delightful)

My selection process for going to see The Great Gatsby Musical at The Riverside was simple.

I was working away from home for a few days and was travelling back on the Friday night so I was looking for somewhere to go that evening on the way home. The Riverside was the first place that I looked as I have to travel through Hammersmith anyway and their programme never fails to interest me.

I knew nothing of The Great Gatsby having skilfully avoided the book and both films and I still treat musicals with some unease (despite some good experiences) so this was something of a leap of faith relying on the Riverside to impress me again. It did.

Studio 3 was set more fully than usual and while I usually prefer bare stages this one won me over. The reason it did that was because the comfortable sitting room became several other locations, including a beach and a garage, without changing a stick. It's the flexibility of bare stages that I like so using a busy one flexibly is likeable too.

A largeish cast poured on to the stage and we soon met the coquettish leading lady, her brusque husband and several bubbly friends and family.

Gatsby we did not meet until much later, but you probably knew that.

At one side of the stage was a small group of musicians supported, at times, by members of the cast.

It was my sort of musical with the balance between words and songs firmly on the side of words but with enough songs for them to be more than incidental distractions. The songs were very good too and there was quite a lot of bouncing along in the audience, especially when some of the themes repeated.

One of my favourite songs had the cast and musicians spread out across the whole width of the stage. I like little details like that as they show that some serious thought has gone in to the staging.

Eventually we met the much heralded Gatsby and he was every inch the shy, ex-soldier who had made a fortune. He dominated the stage by moving through it slowly and speaking gently.Contrasting brashness came from the husband and his then current floosie.

The story had me gripped. The darkness was never far away (the husband saw to that) and that presaged an unhappy ending but there was also a great deal of humour plus those good songs. That is why I found it delightful.

This was a play with songs and that meant we had actors who could sing rather than singers who could act and that meant that some of the voices were a little weak but that was easily solved by sitting in the second row. Also the acting was the important part and all of the actors were good, or better.

I never expected to pay much attention to The Great Gatsby in my life and I certainly did not expect a musical version of it. All that proves is that the unexpected can also be excellent. And this was excellent.

22 May 2013

DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks: 22 May 2013

This page has been selected for the obvious reason that it is very black and also very dark. The final panel with all the dead bodies is a wonderful punchline.

More violence, death and destruction. The thing I like about this is the red hue and the contrasting white teeth.

The cover of Talon suggests horror tinged violence but all to often the inside does not lead up to high expectations like these.

The inside of Talon is the exception that proves the rule and the inside matches the cover. The couple of story pages leading to this built the tension and menace nicely and then the big monster appears.

The Unwritten featured here a month ago, and for the same reasons. The composition is unusual, the endless spiral staircase speaks of mystery and the desperate hug tells of danger.

20 May 2013

Sylvie Guillem's 6000 Miles Away at Sadler's Wells (amazing)

I was extremely fortunate to see Sylvie Guillem dance a few times at the Royal Opera House around twenty five years ago when I was rich, i.e. childless. Then I went to the Royal Ballet fairly regularly, and the English National Ballet too.

She is now 48 years old and still dances beautifully and surprisingly energetically.

For me it was always the arms. Other people's arms move like they have muscles and bones in that restrict the fluidity of movement but Sylvie's arms just glide smoothly from one pose to the next, even when that pose is angular and exaggerated. Her arms still move like that and it is spellbinding to watch.

Last time I saw Sylvie dance at Sadler's Wells it was a part role in one piece in a programme of mixed works, and I expected something similar this time, and would have been very happy with that.There were three pieces and Sylvie danced in two of them, one as half of a duet and the other on her own.

The first two pieces were aggressively modern and the old ladies behind me did not like the discordant music one bit. I did though and I liked the energetic dancing that went with it. In the second piece, with Sylvie dancing, the mood of the relationship between the two dancers changed as they played off each other with passion and violence.

Then came the short break followed by what the evening was all about, Sylvie dancing solo to a piece by Mats Ek (a star) set to a very approachable Beethoven piano sonata. It was beautiful.

Ek pushed Syvlie in to some unusual positions making good use of her famous flexibility, but even standing on her head with her legs at odd angles she looked, and was, totally in control, elegant and poetic.

I would gladly have sat there and watched it all over again.

19 May 2013

Ham Open Gardens 2013

Ham Open Gardens comes along every other year and is one of the highlights of the local social scene, especially if you like gardens and being nosey.

This year there were fewer major gardens than previously and also a double booking with a theatre meant that I had less time to go round them all. I decided just to do those on or around Ham Common and managed to see nine gardens in two hours.

Bench House in Ham Street was one of the new gardens and I went there first. The garden was a fairly typical walled garden with a lawn and borders around the edge. That was pretty enough but not as pretty as the wisteria on the side of the house.

Next door was Stokes House, which I had been to a few times before. It was still worth another visit because of the mix of borders, beds and hedges that divided up a large garden.

Forbes House on Ham Common was the one that I was most interested in as the house itself is a genuine mansion. Photography was forbidden and I took just the one picture before the rules were politely pointed out to me. Just in case I, or others, fancied breaking the rules there were a couple of burly men with earpieces patrolling the gardens.

The garden was formal with lots of typical ornaments such as the brick paths and the planters sitting on them, Elsewhere there was a pond with fountain, several shaded benches and a wealth of flowers.

Cassel Hospital is not in use at the moment and the future of the site must be in question with expensive housing being the obvious choice. This picture of just part of the garden gives some idea of how much space there is.

On the corner of Ham Common and Upper Ham Road was the small but very picturesque Gate House Garden that is maintained by the Ham Amenities Group. It is in a high profile corner and so many people see it as the walk, cycle or drive past.

The entrance to 19 Sudbrook Gardens was via Ham Gate Avenue, which confused me at first. This was another neat and tidy walled garden and a welcome addition to the Open Gardens circuit.

Stafford Cottages on the north side of Ham Common attracts much attention because it is highly visible because of the bright white walls and prominent position next to the New Inn. It is a very proud garden and shows all that it has to offer to any casual passer-by. And I often pass by just to see it.

The Gatehouse is one of a pair that marks the start of the avenue that leads in a straight line from Ham Common to Ham House. This was another garden that I seen before and wanted to see it again. It was a fairly simple garden made all the more interesting by the objects in it, objects like flower pots and this statue of an angel.

The final stop on this whirlwind tour was another new garden, Fortune House on the corner of New Road and Craig Road. With not much space to play with the owners had been very creative in building interesting spaces within the garden and filling them with colourful and unusual objects.

David Bowie is ... in the best selling show ...

... and it's easy to see why.

Bowie has been a prominent figure in British cultural life for over forty years and the V&A has pulled all the stops out in collecting and curating material relating to his life in music and on stage.

I bought my tickets months ago and even then I had to settle for a 10am slot on a Sunday morning.

TfL did not help by cancelling trains west of Earls Court that day and I had to risk the rail replacement bus service. I was relieved to get to the V&A only a few minutes late for my timed slot.

The V&A seemed to have learnt some lessons from the also-sold-out Hollywood Costumes exhibition which was, at times, too packed to enjoy easily. Perhaps being in the first slot of the day helped.

Another change was the technology. This time we all got clever audio guides that did not have the usual numbers to call up the voice, it used proximity instead so you only had to walk up to one of the exhibits and the headset automatically spoke or sang to you. This was a little spooky at times and I found myself looking around for the video that was lip-synced to what I was listening too.

Costumes featured heavily and there were outfits on display from many of the album covers and major tours. No prizes for spotting the Pin-Ups suit here.

I found myself strangely entranced by the costumes, when I had not expected to. I especially liked the Alexander McQueen frock-coats from the Earthling album and tour. And that hints at one of the exhibition's strengths, it drew on the full range of Bowie's career and did not play safe and just draw on the big periods like Ziggy. There was even some Tin Machine stuff in there.

Other things on display included song lyrics, album covers, stage designs and interviews, such as one with a hopeless Russell Harty who referred to the new single as "Golden Tears" before asking Bowie to introduce it himself.

Of course there were lots of video clips too and I caught more than one person singing out loud. A highlight was the final large room (above) which had several large screens and lots of seats too. There I watched a number of songs from live performances and at one point there were two versions of Heroes playing and which one you heard depended on where you were in the room. It was magic and I'd probably still be in there if it was allowed.

The V&A are seriously good at curation and when they combine those skills with a popular subject then they know that they have got another big hit on their hands. I absolutely loved it and I think that all the people grabbing the merchandise in the shop on the way out did too.

18 May 2013

Nutloaf back at The Albion

Given the choice between staying in and watching the Eurovision Song Contest or going to a pub in town to see Nutloaf play then I am always going to pick the later.

Sadly some people picked the former and it was a quiet night in the pub. Not that that stopped me and a few of the regulars from having fun listening to the band.

Anna also did some dancing, but then she always does. I didn't, but then I never do.

The Albion suits the band because the bay window gives them a natural stage and the bar is wide enough and high enough for the music to escape properly.

On the night I thought that the rhythm section sounded better than I had heard them before, the richness of the sound gave a solid bedrock for the melody and vocals.

As always with Nutloaf, they played a few songs that I either do not like very much or just do not know at all but they play those well enough for me not to get too upset. They also play a few songs that I really to like, I have to mention Crazy Horses and In A Broken Dream again here.

It was certainly far better than staying in to watch Eurovision. Of that there can be no doubt.

Packwood House, Warwickshire

Another trip to Warwickshire meant another opportunity to visit one of the National Trust properties there.

Last time I went to Baddesley Clinton and Packwood House is just a mile or so further down the country road.

And as last time, I was far more interested in the garden than the house, though the house itself did have a fair dollop of charm.

Next to the house was a large square lawn with border and, alongside that, a tidy sunken garden with pond and classical statue. All very lovely.

Beyond that was the formal part of the garden's largest feature, a promenade of conical hedges.

The brick steps at the end led to a path that spiralled up a small rise offering elevated views back to the house and across the rest of the garden.

In that garden was a large pond (or a small lake) with a path around it and a jetty jutting in to it suggesting that boats once slipped gently across the surface either for leisure or to capture fish.

The house was not tall and it soon disappeared emphasising the natural feel of this part of the garden, though the feeling never went away that this was all carefully designed and built to look natural.

One reason for moving away from the house and garden was to get some views looking back towards them and from the path by the pond/lake the true nature of the hedges was revealed.

They looked fairly orderly when walking on the main route through them but this proved to be an illusion and the hedges were actually a pick-n-mix of shapes and sizes. I heartily approved.

On the other side of the road leading to the house was the Welly Walk. This was designed for children, as the jolly map provided made clear, but I like walking and I do not mind mud so I gave it a go.

It lived up to its name and a pair of Wellington Boots would not have come amiss.

Luckily the National Trust appreciated that not everybody brings their wellies with them and so they build stepping logs through the muddiest parts.

The jolly map made simple for children obviously had a serious design flaw and I missed the main path back to the house and I took a scenic detour through fields of sheep. This may have been part of the Heart of England Walk and some effort, and money, had been spent on signs, gates and new trees.

One of the highlights of the walk was the swathes of Bluebells that crowded round the trees in the quiet areas. The images of these was the more striking for the lack of colour elsewhere.

Packwood House is a modest house with a modest garden, in size terms, and rises above this modesty through the unusual hedges and the mix of formal and informal gardens.

17 May 2013

The Breadwinner at the Orange Tree (dull)

The Breadwinner and I should have got on famously but we didn't.

Normally any play from this period (1930) that the Orange Tree does is fine entertainment and this one came with the added bonus of having been penned by W. Somerset Maugham who I had not only heard of but had bought one of his collections of short stories and had read them and had liked them.

That gave me a level of expectation that was never achieved.

The theatre was already busy by the time that I got in and I was forced to take my second choice seat, still in the front row but just to the left of the entrance steps rather than directly opposite.

The play tried to do four things and for me it did not do either of them very well.

The play concerns two nuclear families of rich city men, women who lunch and two children (one boy and one girl) in their student years. That the two families were identical struck me as lacking in imagination.

Because of this set up there is quite a lot of playing around with the generation gap. An example of this was early on when one of the boys suggested that people should be forced to retire at 40 and to give their money to their children so that they could make their impressions on the world.

Both couples had been married a long while, almost twenty years, becoming a little bored with each other along the way.

The adults had lived through the war and kept mentioning it whereas it meant little to the children who felt that it was time that their parents changed the subject.

One of the men, the breadwinner, responded to all this with a Rising Damp solution and proposes to leave his wife and family and to go and live somewhere else and to start a completely new life there.

The main character did not convince me. He was making a momentous life-changing decision and seemed to be making it on a playful whim, as if a job, wife and family are things that you can walk away from like a worn out t-shirt.

The references to the War added little and got nowhere. Indeed, at times they got in the way. There was  one bizarre scene in the second act where an important discussion started about the breadwinner's impending departure when the topic moved on to the War instead.

Similarly the boredom in marriage line never really developed. It provided some moments of humour for the Orange Tree audience, most of whom had been married for much longer than the breadwinner but that is all it did.

The generation gap also proved to be little more than a vehicle for some rather obvious jokes. The humour was welcome, it always is, but the play never tried to be a serious comedy, not could it be given the main story line.

Most of the characters were dull and simplistic; the young things just wanted to have fun, as did the women and the men were just concerned with work.

The construction of the play did not help. There was no physical action, apart from people entering and leaving the one room, so everything was in the dialogue. That is fine on the radio but works not so well on the stage.

As if to compensate for this the direction had the cast move around the room in a way that looked most unnatural. For example, in the middle of one conversation one of the women went across and put the cards away and then later on one of the girls took them out again. All silly and pointless.

Even the staging conspired against entertainment. The room was laid out with all of the furniture squarely around the edge of the stage forming a physical barrier between the cast and the audience.

None of these faults were disastrous, it is just that the combination of a weak plot, thin characterisation and bland direction produced something that amused at times but never excited. It also set a record for the most people that I have seen asleep at the Orange Tree at the same time, six for certain and maybe eight.

The brightest spot in a dull evening was a scene between the breadwinner and the woman in red (not his wife) towards the end of the play. Having done little but pout all evening the woman in red suddenly developed passion and I developed interest. Soon after her daughter did the same. It was as if they had both been hiding throughout the play and only decided to take it seriously at the end.

Apart from the two short scenes at the end the play limped along slowly and without obvious direction. There was nothing to get angry about but then there was nothing to get excited about either. It felt like a missed opportunity and left me with a huge sense of disappointment.

15 May 2013

DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks: 15 May 2013

It is something of a dark week this week, either that or it is my preference for the dark, Gothic and fantastic that has drawn me to these covers, starting with Batgirl. I love the unusual composition, the slightly colourful foreground against the monochrome background and the strong sense of menace instilled by the expressions and the blood.

The Nightwing cover (Nightwing is the grown-up Robin, just in case you did not know) has several similarities to Batgirl with the villain in the shadows and the threat to the hero. The difference is the light sparking of the energy weapons that give the image a second focal point, their target is the other.

Wonder Woman has gone for the opposite approach with the menace in colour and the heroine in black and white. I love this one for its simplicity of design and execution. The hands have no detail and their main function is to frame the central image and the page.

It has a touch of the basic style used in mid-twentieth century propaganda with the strong Russian (other patriotic countries are available) peasant woman fighting off the hordes of bourgeois capitalism (other vile enemies are available).