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.

14 July 2017

Hir at Bush Theatre was phenomenal

I wanted to see Hir because it sounded quirky in an interesting way, it was at Bush Theatre which is one of my regulars and it had Arthur Darvill, recently of Dr. Who in it. All good reasons and so I paid my £20 for seat A10.

As usual with Bush Theatre I was not quite sure what to expect on the day. I had hoped for a veggie wrap or sandwich but their limited range was devoid of veggie options when I got there so I had to find a cafe instead. Dough & So Bakery did the job very nicely.

I returned to Bush in good time to get a pint of Camden Pale Ale to take in with me.

For Hir the seating was arranged in a more familiar pattern than it had been on my last visit with the stage in the middle and the seating on either side. The slight difference this time was that there was an additional row of seating, row AA, next to the stage and sunk quite low. I was right to have avoided this, despite its proximity, and gone for row A instead.

That stage was a mess. It was an open plan room with the kitchen at one end and a sofa at the other but the main feature was the mess, particularly the clothes strewn about the floor. In the room was a middle aged woman and a similarly aged man, She was happily doing things while he was slumped in a chair. He was also wearing a women's night gown and a rainbow wig. In to this scene arrived their son Isaac (Arthur Darvill) returning from serving in the Marines in a war zone for the last three years.

We met the fourth member of the family, Max, a little later. Max used to be called Maxine.

The title of the play suggests that it was about Max/Maxine but that was just one of the strong themes and the harsh spotlight featured all four family members at various times. A phenomenal amount went on and a lot of it was verging on grotesque, though there were several lighter moments too and I loved the line, "What is the kitchen table doing in the kitchen?".

The impact of the play can be explained by a young woman in the front row almost directly opposite me. She loved the play too (I asked her afterwards) and sat through it with an almost constant look of horror on her face and she brought her hands up to her face several times. We were watching people say and do almost unbelievable things to each other. Making your husband wear a dress was only the start of it.

Hir walked many fine lines brilliantly. It was never voyeuristic in a Jeremy Kyle sort of way or exaggerated in a absurdist sort of way. This was a family on the edge, or several edges, but these were real edges lived on by real people.

And those real people were portrayed magnificently by Ashley McGuire as the mother at heart of the family, Andy Williams as the father deposed from his previous authoritarian role, Griffyn Gilligan as the young man confident in his new role,  and Arthur Darvill as the prodigal son trying to make sense of it all. They all got a lot of applause and cheers at the end and it was all thoroughly deserved.

I like modern edgy theatre and have seen many plays that could be roughly compared to Hir but Hir stood out among them all. It was phenomenal.

12 July 2017

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

The monthly British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) "Get to Know You" socials continue to come around with remarkable speed. They are scheduled for the second Wednesday of each month but it never seems like a month has passed before I am back at the Czech and Slovak Bar and Restaurant in West Hampstead for more beer, more food and more conversations.

Now that I work out of the same office (in Teddington) all of the time that travel has become an easy ritual too. I leave the office around 5:40, well before most people, and walk to Strawberry Hill Station. Teddington Station is a lot closer but I like the walk and I am under no time pressure. I catch a train to Richmond just before 6pm and from there take the Overground to West Hampstead. I get to the club a few minutes before the start time of 7pm.

Richard is normally already there and has rearranged the tables and put the sign on the door. His final preparatory act is to buy me a Pilsner Urquell.


After that people drift in and the conversations start. Somewhere around 8pm we realise that we are hungry and order food. I always have smazeny syr and try to compose a different photo of it.

In July we talked about Brexit again but this time with some hope (for some of us) that it might not actually happen, the perils of budget airlines, the delights of Munich, the progress of Czech and Slovak players at Wimbledon, and the history of women jockeys.

Somebody also sang the Jeremy Corbyn song at some point. It was probably me.

11 July 2017

Lonely Planet at Tabard Theatre was a celebration of humanity


Tabard Theatre is one of the theatres that I need more of a reason not to go than to go due to both its very convenient location (next to a tube station and above a pub) and so I booked to see Lonely Planet. The synopsis sounded a little unusual, I like unusual, and the writer came with some recommendation from his work in America.

And so I duly paid my £20. The booking experience was a little surprising in that Tabard had introduced allocated seating since my previous visit. I chose A7.

The pub came first and that had changed a little too. I was expecting to have my usual veggie fish and chips but the menu had been changed. There was a still a halloumi dish and I went for that. The corn bread made it very filling and a bit chewy so I'll probably go for something else next time. There will be a next time because its still a good pub with a good range of beers.

Lonely Planet was set in a small and untidy map shop. Proprietor Jody (Alexander McMorran) lived there and was regularly visited by Carl (Aaron Vodovoz) who had several jobs most, if not all, of which were fantasies.

Carl kept bringing Jody chairs which were piling up in the storeroom at the back where Jody slept.

Jody and Carl talked about things a lot of which was small talk between friends, some of which was Jody explaining to Carl how map projections work and a some of which was about AIDS and the impact it was having on their group of friends many of whom had died. They talked in the way that normal people talk and the mood and the pace of the play changed with the subject matter. It was as light hearted as it was sad.

Carl kept bringing chairs and spoke about his chair at home with fondness.

The ending was bit of a tear jerker. It was unexpected but, with hindsight, should not have been. But it was not the sadness of the moment that stood out, it was the reality of it. This was a play about two close friends living awkward lives in difficult times. It was a celebration of humanity and that made it an engaging and rewarding play.

7 July 2017

Mumburger at Old Red Lion Theatre entertained in an intelligent way

I discovered Old Red Lion in Islington via a Philip Ridley play and had kept an eye on its programme since then. I managed to get back there only once subsequently but that was more because of the my inability to see everything that I want to due to a lack of time (and if I stopped working to make time then the lack f money).

Mumburger appealed because it sounded weird but weird alone is not enough. It took me a while but what clinched it was the realisation that Rosie Wyatt was in it. I had seen her act several times before and was keen to keep up the tradition. To be fair to Red Lion Theatre their publicity material did say she was in it but to be fair to me they wrote everything in capital letters which made it hard to read.

Having discovered my error in time I forked out a miserly £16.50 for a ticket on a Friday night.

It is always interesting to go to theatres like Old Red Lion (White Bear and Union are similar in this regard) in that you do not know how the stage will be arranged until you climb up the steep stairs and enter the room.

This time the stage was arranged as an right-angles triangle with the base about half the length of the height. The seating was along the base and vertical and the back of the stage was a grey curtain draped along the hypotenuse. The stage was sparsely set as living room with a boxed seat (useful for storing props) and a coffee table.

The play started with film projected on the grey curtain. This was a fast collage of events including a TED Talk and a serious car crash. The Mum of the play died in that crash. It was a bold and effective start to the story.

Trying to come to terms with the Mum's sudden unexpected death were her husband and daughter (Rosie). The daughter was more in control of the situation initially and had created a shared Google document for them to track activities like notifying people and finding a funeral director. The father/husband was lost in grief.

The relationship between the two was the focus and purpose of the play. That relationship had its expected ups and downs as they both went through the violent stages of grief, shared their memories of Mum (which did not always coincide) and tried to come to terms with her final wish, an emotional act of sharing.

Mumburger went all over the place, in a good way, with moments of humour, anger, sadness, absurdity and tenderness.It was something like a fast version of, er, The Fast Show, with the same two characters. A few of the scenes did not work for me and at times it felt like the script needed a bit of an edit but in saying that it feels now like I am looking to criticise it when serious criticism is unjustified. The play worked well and being a little rough and ready at times did nothing to hamper my enjoyment of it.

I went to see Rosie and she was good, as expected. Andrew Frame was just as good as her father and the two of them gelled well. I could believe that they were father and daughter and that mattered. I liked the simple staging too.

Mumburger entertained in an intelligent way and any theatre that does that is fine with me.