Saturday, 18 January 2020

Ian McKellen

Back in March of last year, at the start of his epic tour of 80 theatres to celebrate his 80th birthday, I went to see Sir Ian McKellen in Bristol, and then after he finished his tour, he added extra dates and did 80+ performances at the Harold Pinter Theatre, and on an impulse, last autumn when the dates were announced, I booked a ticket for the very last show, on 5th January.

photo of hanging sign advertising Ian McKellen's show and including photo of him

Because why not, if you get the chance to see Ian McKellen, why wouldn't you?

I went up with time to spare, and walked from the station, which took me via Marble Arch, where, it appears, a rather large herd of baby elephants has appeared, since I was last there.

photo of a sculpture of a large realistic elephant in a sitting position, and 10-12 baby elephants. background of photo shows office buildigns and london buses

The sculptures  are raising awareness of orphaned elephants (The Sheldrake Trust). 

There is also a beautiful sculpture of a horse's head, which I did enjoy.
photo of a sculpture of a horse's head, drinking, with red london buses in the background of the picture

My seat was in the second row of the stalls, so I had an excellent view.

The show was similar to how it was when I saw it last March, although not exactly the same - it still covered him talking about his life history in the first half, including talking about his childhood, his opposition to s.28 and his coming out, being awarded his knighthood, (he wasn't a fan of the Queen's choice of dress on the day) and some of his roles, including his role as Widow Twanky in pantomime - which was hugely entertaining even if, like me, you are not a fan of pantomime! (His reprise of the role involved him throwing first sweets, then oranges, and finally a couple of bananas and a cucumber, into the audience)

This demonstrated that he has excellent aim - he managed to get sweets and oranges into the circle, and even the balcony! The lady sitting to my right got an orange.   

Among other things, he gave us 'Gus the Theatre Cat's song from Cats,(prefaced by some plate-licking, which I think is a reference to the new film)

The second half was primarily Shakespearean, with Sir Ian getting the audience to try to name all of Shakespeare's plays (first folio only), with his comments on them and some excerpts.

Sir Ian as a stroppy teenage Juliet was particularly entertaining, and his Rogue and peasant slave speech from Hamlet, and fear no more the heat of the sun from Cymbeline. We also got Aufidius' speech welcoming Martius Coriolanus. 

Oh, and a skit on the speech from Henry V , naming the French dead at Agincourt, but replacing their names with various wines - imagine, if you will, Sir Ian intoning 'Chateuneuf de pape' mournfully, as befits a death...

At the very end of the   evening, he gave us Sir Thomas More's The Strangers Case speech (the only speech we have written in Shakespeare's own hand, and one which Sir Ian was the first actor to perform, as the lay was banned in Shakespeare's own day. 

He had us perform the art of the crowd, caring for the strangers to be expelled, and then delivered the impassioned defence of strangers and refugees, which Shakespeare  gave to More.

Because this was the final night, after the show came to an end, there were speeches, from Ian, and his director and stage manager, with thanks and jokes all round.

It was all a great deal of fun.  And afterwards, Sir Ian came out to the foyer to collect cash from us as  we left (asking for a 'silent collection' - paper money only!

The tour has been an astonishing achievement - over 160 performances at 80 theatres, and raising over £3M for various theatre-related charities.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Christopher Eccleston at Toppings

I am lucky to live near Bath, which has two independent bookshops, both of which do regular author events. The most recent one which I attended was when Topping's invited Christopher Eccleston to speak about his autobiography, I love the bones of you.

Its a very personal book, focusing on his relationship with his father,and as taking about his own history, his mental health and struggles with anorexia, - I haven't yet read it in full, but he spoke about all of those things, very frankly, and with a lot of humour.

He was warm and friendly, especially during the Q and A section of the evening when people were sharing information about their own experiences of a family member with dementia - it was both moving and, at times, surprisingly funny.

He also talked a lot about his family and his choice to become an actor having a lot to do with  not wanting to follow his father into a factory job!

I am  looking forward to reading the book!

Sunday, 15 December 2019

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I was both excited and wary when I heard that the National Theatre would be doing a production based on Neil Gaiman's novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane excited because I love Neil's work, and Ocean is a book which speaks to me particularly deeply, and wary because it isn't a book which lends itself easily to being adapted.

I am seeing the play with friends next week, but also booked to see the first preview, as I feel that you get a different experience when you go to the theatre alone, and  can focus solely on the production, then you do when you are also enjoying a social experience. Plus, I thought that if the adaptation was good, I might well want to see it more than once!

I was not disappointed. Going into the Dorfman foyer, there is a projection (complete with lightning) of the Boy in the storm, then going into the theatre there is the set, with a great arched backdrop of thorns and brambles.

In the opening scene we see the adult 'boy', standing at the grave of his father, and we are off!

I was really impressed with the production - despite my concerned, it really, really works, both as a stand alone piece of theatre and as an adaptation of the book. 

The production uses puppetry, with visible puppeteers, to bring the Skarthach and the Hunger Birds to life, and they do so magnificently - the Skarthach is huge, a spider-like creature of rags and rubbish, and the huger birds are terrifying creatures - more frightening than the Skarthach itself.

Samuel Blenkin and Marli Siu, as the boy, and Lettie Hempstock respectively, are both excellent, and Pippa Nixon makes a superb, scary Ursula Monkton.
Set (during the interval) - thorns and
part of the Hempstock's kitchen  

There are some changes to the novel - the Boy's father is a widower, and he is a little older, but in general it's very faithful to it's source, and the changes are mainly, I think to pare it down to fit a 2 hours play.

It's very good - heartbreaking and magical and frightening in all the right ways. The set and staging are very good - from the nostalgic warmth of the Hempstock's kitchen, to the frightening ubiquity of Ursula as she moves impossibly fast from door to door. 

I can't wait to see it again.  

The play i on at the National Theatre until 25th January. I believe it is almost sold out but there are a few tickets still on some days, and day tickets and returns are available - if you can, do go! 

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Playing in The Dark - Neil Gaiman and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

I like Neil Gaiman, and I like music, so when I saw that Neil was going to be reading from some of his works, with accompanying music from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, of course I needed to get a ticket, and to add to the enjoyment, I got to hang out with some friends before the show.

We met up for  some delicious Chinese food and lots of conversation, then we had a brisk (and partially unplanned - thanks, London Underground!) walk to the Barbican, where we split up (as we had not booked at the same time, so had separate seats)

I had a mild panic, as just after I sat down another woman with a ticket for the same seat also  showed up, but happily the Barbican staff were able to sort it out (it turned out that the other lady had a different seat allocated to her in their system than the one on her e-mail confirmation, so no-one missed out. 

The format of the evening was Neil reading from his works, and  introducing pieces of music, mostly with a brief explanation or comment about what the music meant to him, or why he chose it.

BBC Symphony Orchestra (before Neil came on)
The  readings and  pieces of music were, in order;

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Dukas)

April (from 'A Calendar of Tales'

Walking the Dog (Gershwin)

The Ocean at the end of the Lane (extract)

The Nightmare Song (Gilbert &Sullivan) Sung by Simon Butteriss

The Mushroom Hunters (read by Amanda Palmer)

(accompanied by an arrangement by Jherek Bischoff)

 There is a link here to a recording of her reading it to the music, on a different occasion  

Vampire Sestine

Valse Triste (Sibelius)

October (from 'A Calendar of Tales) 

Oriental March, Belshazzer's Feast (Sibelius)


The Ride of the Valkyries (Wagner)

Norse Mythology (Fenris Wolf)

Fahrenheit 451 - Prelude (Hermann)
The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury

Dies Irae,Sinfnia da Requiem   (Britten)

A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square (Sherwin, arr. Jherek Bishoff)
Sung by Amanda Palmer

Then,  just when we thought the show was over, Neil returned to introduce a special guest to give a reading from Good Omens, everyone's favourite less-than-wholly-evil demon, Mr David Tennant.
David Tennant reading from Good Omens
He read from the scene where Aziraphale and Crowley are drinking in Aziraphale's bookshop, and he was glorious! The narration was in his own (Scottish) voice, but the dialogue he did in his Crowley voice, and in a superb Michael Sheen as Aziraphale . 

We didn't get to hear hear the extra verses of Nanny Crowley's lullaby, which I had thought might be a possibility, when I hears that he was appearing, but one can't have everything, and we did get a lot! 

If I knew who came up with these captions I would credit them, but I don't,
so I can't
And people have been having fun with the photos of Neil and David doing their respective readings, as you can see above!

We also got to hear the Good Omens  theme played by the full orchestra, which was wonderful! And both for that, and for David'd reading, the stage was lit, half red, and half golden white, 

All of this took far, far longer than the advertised run time, which  is probably why the broadcast which goes out on Christmas Day will, I think, be edited and won't include David's reading, but I may be wrong (or the BBC may change their mind!)

Because I am very fortunate in my friends, I got to go to a party afterwards, and while that and the over-running show meant I missed the last train home, and had to find a hotel at very short notice, it was such a fun evening that it was worth it all!

The broadcast is on from 7.30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on 23rd December, and will be available worldwide via BBC Sounds for 30 days after that..

Monday, 25 November 2019

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe - Bridge Theatre

photo of mural showing a rainbow coloured lion against a background of a snowy forest

After seeing Lungs I spent the evening at the Bridge Theatre, to see their new production of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The play was originally staged 2 years ago in Leeds, and the 'Aslan' puppet from that production hangs in the foyer at the Bridge, having been replaced by  a bigger version for the show.

The Narnia books meant a lot to me growing up, and I remain attached to them despite their flaws, so I was a little apprehensive about whether the show would do them justice.

photo of a puppet of a lion's head with green eyes, suspended from the ceiling and surrounded by lights

However, I felt, on the whole, that it works pretty well, although not everything is to my personal taste - I could happily have lost most of the musical numbers and felt the initial sequence (of  the Pevensie children being evacuated) while very clever, goes on too long. Given that this is a show aimed at children, and already goes on for almost 3 hours, I did feel that it could be a little shorter and tighter. In fairness, I did go to the first preview so it may move along a little faster once it beds in.

The set is relatively simple, the stage mimics cracking ice, and other effects include parachute silk billowing across the stage as snow, gauze drapes to show those characters who have been turned to stone, and a live, on-stage band. 

The White Witch owes more to Tilda Swinton's portrayal than to the illustrations in the book, and  Laura Elphinstone manages to portray her as frightening without being too 'pantomime villain. (production image here Wil Johnson as Aslan is as very impressive, although I can't help but feel that having the Lion puppet absent during some of his time on stage doesn't quite work for me, it doesn't seem quite in keeping with the spirit of the books! 

However, despite these minor niggles, it is good fun, and very clever,with lots of humour, and some very clever staging. Definitely a fun christmas show, which children will enjoy.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Lungs - The Old Vic

I haven't previously  seen either Matt Smith or Claire Foy live on stage, although I am of course familiar with both of their works on screen, so I was interested to see Lungs, which is  short, two-person play, about a couple dealing with the practical and ethical issues of whether to have a child, in particular the ecological impact of doing so.

It's often funny, but ultimately pretty bleak.It shows the couple making compromises - with their principals, with their ambitions and even their relationship, and trying, if not always succeeding, to  do the right thing while also trying to keep the things they want from life.

Both actors give excellent performances, although neither character is entirely likeable - and while they remain a couple I was left with the nagging feeling that they might both have been happier apart. I also felt that the play started to falter a little towards the end, when we jumped forwards decades.

However, despite having somewhat mixed feelings about the play itself,  it was an opportunity to see two excellent actors, and to see them in a production where the lack of other performers, or props, or anything but the most minimal set, meant that  the focus was very much on the actors, and they rose to the challenge

The performance I saw was the last matinee, but had the run not already ended I would be suggesting that you see it, if you could! 

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Orpheus in the Underworld

I am not a big opera fan, generally, but decided to give 'Orpheus in the Underworld' a go - partly as it is directed by Emma Rice, whose work in the theatre I have enjoyed, party because it was described as being both light and satirical, plus it is of course the source of the CanCan music, so got to be worth a try!

And it was ...interesting, but a bit patchy, I thought . It started with the death of a baby, triggering Orpheus and Eurydice's separation, which did start things off on a rather depressing note, and it took a while for the lighter side of the opera to kick in.

But it  was  entertaining once it did - the chorus, wearing tutus made of balloons, and dancing with a greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm, were a particular high point!

And Willard White, as a world-weary, lecherous Jupiter, was  wonderful to hear. 

Mary Bevan was a strong, angry Eurydice, full of rage in the 'Can Can' song.

Curtain Call (Photos explicitly encouraged by the theatre)

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Bristol Old Vic - Members Open Day

I currently have membership at Bristol Old Vic theatre, and they recently held a members open day, which involved several short presentations, and the chance to watch a little of a technical rehearsal.

It was interesting - the presentations included one by one of the producers, talking a little about her role, and the Old Vic's role as a regional theatre, which often collaborates with other theatres .

The second was a short play writing workshop, which was very interesting (and applied pretty well to other kids of writing, I think)

After a break for lunch we were then allowed into the auditorium to watch part of a technical rehearsal - The timing wasn't ideal, as we went in at a fairly slow point in the rehearsal, but nevertheless, I found it really interesting, not least to see, the afternoon before the play opened, what was still being worked out! 

Tom Morris, the director, popped up to say hello and explain briefly what was happening.

I wasn't able to stay for the final session, which was about youth engagement.

This was the first open day the theatre has held, and there were a few things which I think they may be able to improve for next time, but I enjoyed it, and was glad I went. And had some interesting conversations with other attendees, too.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

The David Parr House - Cambridge

Back in about March, I hard about the David Parr House, in Cambridge, and in September, I visited. I had to wait so long because access is very limited, due to the house's size, so it is necessary to pre-book - it looks as though you can currently book slots in July and August 2020.

David Parr was an artisan who was born in 1854,and in 1871 he became an apprentice with a firm, F.R.Leach, which carried out decorative work, for various churches, colleges and homes in Cambridge and beyond, including carrying out work as subcontractors for William Morris and others. 

In 1886,  David Parr bought a small, terraced house, at 186 Gwydir Street, near Cambridge Station, and moved in there  with his wife and eldest child.

Over the next 40 years, Parr decorated the house using the same skills and styles he employed in his work. The walls are hand painted,  using 'pouncing' (marking out the pattern using charcoal, through pricked holes in tracing paper) but no stencils or wall paper!

In two of the rooms, there are also beautifully hand-lettered quotes - from Shakespeare and from hymns (Parr was a devout Christian)

As well as the walls (and ceiling) Parr also worked on the doors - the doorknobs and finger-plates were probably either samples or left over from properties he worked on, as they are all different (often on the same door), and used paint techniques to make the woodwork look like better quality woodwork .

He was also pretty forward thinking, and installed a magnificent indoor toilet!

David Parr and his wife raised their children in the house, then, following Parr's death in 1927, his widow remained living there, with their granddaughter Elsie, who was 12 at the time.

Elsie remained living in the house for the rest of her life. She married and she and her husband brought their children up in the house, preserving her grandfather's decor. There were some changes -  the house suffers from damp, and Elsie and her husband had to paint over part of the drawing room wall (It has now been restored),after it became damaged by damp,  and the upper part of the hall walls  were painted white as the original decor made it very dark.

The house is also furnished with Elsie's furniture . She died in 2013, at the age of 98. It was then that the house was bought, and a trust set up to restore it. It's beautiful,  fascinating, and I think perhaps unique, both for an artisan to have decorated his own home in this kind of style and for it to have survived.

(They don't allow you to take photographs inside, sadly, but the Guardian has a gallery here, it's well worth taking a look)

If you are interested in going, You can book on the house's website.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Jesus Christ, Superstar and other events

It's a very late post, but in August, some friends and I went to see Jesus Christ Superstar at the Barbican - because sometimes one just wants to relive one's youth and the fun of seeing a musical!

And it was fun - Jesus and Judas were both excellent, and Pilate was a lot of fun as well.   I am not sure that glitter in place of blood, in the '49 strokes' scene would have bee my choice, but it was oddly effective! 

The same day, some of us went to Mere for dinner, and had a wonderful meal, preceded by some very pretty, and tasty, cocktails.

Glorious Lemon Verbena dessert
Then in September, I met up with a couple of friends, to go to  see ZoĆ« Keating at  King's Place in London . It's the 3rd time I have seen her live, and it was just as good as the last two times.I strongly recommend her work to any one of my friends who don't already know her work.

Then, at the end of the month, I went to Chichester, in order to see John Simm and Dervla Kirwan, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Before the show, I went to look around the Cathedral , which is small, as cathedrals go, but rather nice. 

Then the show itself.

There is a glass stage, over the 'blasted heath', and the witches enter from beneath it. There is also a glass backdrop.

I really enjoyed Simm's performance, particularly in the second half of the play,  as Macbeth starts to unravel.  However, the play did move slowly at times, and I did feel that the sound and stage design did, at times, overwhelm the play at times 

I'm really glad I got to see John Simm (especially as I missed his Hamlet)

It's on until 28th October

Monday, 29 July 2019

Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938 : Vanessa Redgrave at the Ustinov

I was intrigued when I saw that Vanessa Redgrave would  be appearing at the Ustinov Studio in Bath, in her own production, Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938

I wasn't sure what to expect, What we got, was a bit of a mixed bag - the production is based on period 1934-38, and some of issues around  the rise of the Nazis and  Socialist resisters in Vienna.  It includes encounters with Stephen Spender , Muriel Gardiner, and of course Michael and Corin Redgrave..

The story is narrated by Redgrave, in a very conversational way, which includes her passing her late uncle's journal (kept by him, per regulations, when he was  a Midshipman, in the 1930s)  to the front rows of the audience to look through during the first act. 

In between, the small cast - Robert Boulter , Paul Hilton and Lucy Doyle, are all very good, and all perform several roles, often narrating their character's thoughts rather than interacting with one another, as the action moves from Austria to England, and finishes with a long and impassioned extract from Thomas Mann's speech attacking appeasement.

I was left somewhat disappointed as there was such as strong cast, and fascinating material, but it never quite came together in a coherent narrative - it's more a series of anecdotes and history.

It is interesting, and the performers,  and in particular Redgrave herself, are good enough that the content grips you, but I felt that it could perhaps have done with  more input from an editor or director, to help bring the disparate threads together more.

I am not sure if it is touring, but if it is, it is definitely worth seeing (it would be worth seeing for Vanessa Redgrave alone)

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Present Laughter - Old Vic

I always enjoy seeing Andrew Scott, so seeing him in 'Present Laughter'  seemed like a good idea, and seeing it with a friend, better still.

We went on Saturday evening, which was very early in the run, and it was excellent.

The production switches the genders of some characters to great effect - Joanna is now Joe, and Henry is Helen, which brings things up to date and, given that the play is clearly to some degree a self-parody by Coward, probably also more accurate! 

Andrew Scott is marvellous as Garry Essendine,  the  successful, needy actor who is coping (badly) with impending middle age. He clearly has great fun with the role, which involves lots of deliberate histrionics, but he also beautifully  portrays Garry's underlying loneliness and uncertainty, ensuring that he is a character, not merely a caricature.

The production is fantastic - very, very funny , but with enough depth to make it  more than just a farce. 

Sophie Thompson, as Garry's long-suffering secretary, is a joy to watch, and  Indira Varma, as his cynical-but-protective (estranged) wife, whom he  purports to be uninterested in, and dismissive of, but who he clearly still needs and relies upon.

A special mention is due also to Luke Thallon, as Roland Maule, the gauche young playwright who gatecrashes at all the most awkward moments, who starts by being critical of Garry's populist choices as a performer and rapidly becomes embarrassingly infatuated with him...

The whole thing is beautifully done, highly entertaining and makes for a great evening out.

It is on at the Old Vic until 10th August, and for those not able to get to London, is going to be broadcast as a NTLIve broadcast  - tickets are currently on sale for a screening on 28th November with international screenings to follow.