Saturday, 31 October 2015

the great mystery of musical theatre

Last Saturday I went to see Xanadu at the Southwark Playhouse. For a theatre audience, the high proportion of men was striking. And, although I did not do a survey, and am no expert, I'd venture to say that it was clear that a significant majority of those men were gay.

Why are musical theatre and opera so popular among gay men? This is a genuine question, but not one to which you often see any serious answers given. It's a cliche, certainly, but one that is borne out in my own theatregoing experience, from opera, through G&S, to musicals.

I think it may be true to a lesser extent about theatregoing in general, which does relate to one general view is that the theatrical world has always been more accepting of, and therefore a refuge or haunt of, those with what are nowadays called alternative lifestyles.

People might also say that gay people are proportionally more likely to be artistic or theatrical in general. If this is so, and it may be (though I don't have any statistics to hand), why should it be so? Further, people may say that things like the heightened emotionality and flamboyance (or some other traits) of musical theatre reflects the gay male character - or shall we say a certain gay male character type. Again, that may or may not be so; but on the one hand, I'm not sure all musical theatre is emotional and flamboyant (or whatever), and on the other, why should emotionality and flamboyance (or whatever) be any more characteristic of a gay man than a heterosexual man?

It's a question which exercises me in particular because, of course, I like quite a lot of things which are thought to be typical of what gay men like - in particular theatre, musical or otherwise. I certainly don't feel that I'm in touch with 'my gay side' in liking these things; to me they're just things that to me any ordinary, right-thinking person would, could, should like; there's nothing distinctively 'gay' about them.

It would clearly be implausible to suggest that there's any genetic predisposition to a love of musical theatre among gay men. Perhaps if I'd finished that sentence 'in the gay community' that might have suggested one avenue of possibility, more along the nurture than nature lines - that a certain type of gay man likes it because that's the kind of thing a certain kind of gay man's community likes, and is drawn into because that's what his friends like and that's what he's expected to like (and indeed one would grow to love it more the more one was exposed to it, even if one didn't like it much to start with). (Would a Christian equivalent be awful Christian music?) A self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating cycle, perhaps with its roots in that original 'accepting theatrical world' hypothesis and having extended on from that. It's not a wholly satisfactory hypothesis, but will have to stand as a partial explanation for now.

It's something which I continue to find perplexing, and will continue to reflect on.

[Later: coincidentally, the day after I wrote this I listened to the Kermode/Mayo film review podcast, hosted on this occasion by Bhaskar/King, and they were reviewing Do I Sound Gay?, a documentary on a similar theme: as Wikipedia puts it, it 'explores the existence and accuracy of stereotypes about the speech patterns of gay men, and the ways in which one's degree of conformity to the stereotype can contribute to internalized homophobia'. So, unsurprisingly, I'm not the only person who thinks about these things.]

the martian

On Saturday 17 October we all went to an afternoon showing of The Martian at the Genesis Cinema on Mile End Road. It was surprisingly quiet, given it had only been out a couple of weeks. We all enjoyed it. On the Mayo/Kermode film review show Simon Mayo said his son thought it was the best book he'd ever read, and from the interview with Ridley Scott it's clearly one of those 'hard' scifi books which rigorously hypothesises the science to reach a situation and within that situation.

The pleasure in the film, and presumably the book, is hardly at all 'will he survive and be rescued?' but much more about the details of how someone in that situation (being marooned on Mars with limited provisions and resources) could survive and be rescued. So if one was after action and excitement one might be disappointed, but happily we weren't.

One odd thing was that I found myself imagining who'd have been cast in various roles if the film had been made ten or twenty or thirty years ago - mostly because someone briefly made me think 'is that so and so' and then realised no, that's what so and so looked like long ago. Mackenzie Davis was playing Wynona Rider's part. Kristen Wiig was playing Jennifer Aniston's part. My second seeing of Benedict Wong in a couple of weeks - also in Prometheus, another Ridley Scott. I always like seeing him, knowing him first from 15 Storeys High, in which he was great. I saw him in a Hamlet, the Michael Sheen one.

One nice bit was that when someone brings a rescue plan to Nasa, they call it Project Elrond, and Sean Bean's in the room when they talk about why they've called it this. Surprisingly, this was actually in the book, not introduced as an in-joke for the film.

Friday, 30 October 2015

spectre

On Wednesday 28 October we all went, in the afternoon (half-term, but still cheap daytime prices, £4 each), to see Spectre at the Genesis Cinema. I think the younger we were, the more we liked it.

I certainly was more interested in James Bond films when I was younger, on the telly, rather than in the cinema. Post-80s they became less casual about sex (a mixture of Aids and addressing sexism), post-Bourne they became more 'realistic' in their violence. Recently they've become more concerned with psychology and back story, rather like Doctor Who (but much less so). I do prefer having a bit more proper plot and dialogue rather than relentless action sequences, but it still didn't bear too much close analysis.

I did think about all the innocent people who must have died in the Bond-caused explosion-collapse of two buildings in the opening sequence, and I thought his two sexual conquests were still surprisingly casual and due to implausible irresistible charm and the aphrodisiac power of the nearness of death. And I'd have to say that I'd be on the side of the baddies with the view that security and espionage is more effectively done through surveillance than individual agents whose main role and skill is violence and assassination. I'm not sure it prompted me to any much further or deeper thoughts than that; one might say that action films shouldn't need to, but I do prefer my films to be thoughtful even if they are action films (which, perhaps accordingly, I'm not very keen on in general).

Thursday, 29 October 2015

xanadu

On Saturday 24 October I saw Xanadu at the Southwark Playhouse. I was by myself for the weekend, but it was a last-minute thing to think about going out in the evening; I checked this, because of course I like ELO and I like musicals, but I had thought it was sold out, so was surprised to see it wasn't. I got a ticket, although I must confess I was almost put off by the things I was reading about it - not reviews, but Twitter comments - in which the overwhelming theme (of praise) was how it was the campest thing anybody had ever seen, but I decided to go for it all the same. (The fact that it's about ten minutes' walk away was also a factor in choosing it rather than other possibilities.)

I think perhaps campness - in performance/theatrical terms - is one of those 'can't define it but you know it when you see it' things. I'm at ease with a bit of over-the-topness, and cheese and ham can work on stage as well as on a sandwich, and arch is fine up to quite a high point, but there can be a degree of 'enjoying something because it's so bad it's good', and I really can't bear 'so bad it's good'. Nothing is so bad it's good. Wikipedia has a rather long article on 'camp (style)' which I may read one day.

And of course 'camp' may also be a not-very-coded way of saying 'Gay men: this is aimed at you!', which makes it not aimed at me. But perhaps more of that in another blogpost. This one will be about the show rather than the audience.

I enjoyed it. I was worried at the start because I thought it started out a bit so-bad-good over-the-top in the first number, but I felt it settled down. The singing and dancing throughout were good, the acting was on the whole pretty good, and the script was well put together and was properly funny (including the self-referential and movie-referential material), as were most of the performances. The rollerskating ability was variable, but any ability at all is impressive to me, especially while singing and acting. There were a couple of aspects which had fairly clearly been tailored with the gay male audience in mind, but on the whole the raw material and the production was pretty all-inclusive.

In my view the Jeff Lynne songs were on the whole much better than the John Farrar songs, which were more 'unremarkable musical' songs to me, but that's me. The female lead, who was essentially playing a version of Olivia Newton-John, had that very typical stage musical style of female voice which I'm not keen on (I think it has a pinched, nasal quality) but which is both popular and successful, so again what do I know. Nothing more subjective than liking someone's voice or not.

My favourite performance of the night was probably Lizzy Connolly, who played the younger of the two baddy goddesses, Calliope; she was very funny in expression as well as delivery. Looking at the programme initially, and seeing the cast in action, I didn't think I'd seen any of them before, but I realised later that I had seen Lizzy Connolly before, as Jolene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. We were sitting in the back row, more or less, so I couldn't have picked her out on the street even then (I was in the front row of the stage left section for this one); I watched a couple of Youtube clips to remind myself of the DRS number, and what she looked like, and I did remember it as an enjoyable section of the show. She looked completely different in this of course; in fact in this she reminded me of my late former colleague Sarah Mayers, which was rather bitter-sweet. I'm sure the same happened in something else I saw within the last year, though I can't remember what; it must be a generic similarity - something about the shape of the face and the curly dark hair - rather than a close similarity. Of course, the photo of Lizzy in the programme, in which she is blonde, looks nothing like Sarah did.

(Since I saw it, I have seen Spectre, which I knew Nigel Barber was in, though I forgot until I saw him, for a split-second, as one of the national representatives at a conference.)

I have noted previously that most people I see in fringe productions are on Twitter, and it transpired that every cast member (not to mention crew, which I didn't look into deliberately but saw some) was on Twitter. It was this that prompted me to start making a Twitter list of stage tweeters who I've seen.

I don't think I could say this production of Xanadu prompted any particular reflections (apart from about the audience) or provided any particular insights, but I don't think it intended to, and that's fine. It was a good production which I'd recommend to someone who liked musicals, but not necessarily generally recommend, and I certainly wouldn't feel the need to see it again (as a significant number of Tweeters seemed to intend to do).

Some reviews - not many in the first couple of pages (almost entirely earlier articles about the production coming up). Webcowgirl. and Partially Obstructed View were actually the only two that came up in the first two pages, and even when I restricted the search to the last month. Unusually, the theatre and the company haven't been tweeting links to good reviews, which suggests it's not that I'm missing them but that they're not there (good or bad). Which surprises me, as I'd expect there to be more blog reviews at least, if not professional press. Maybe if I look in a couple of weeks there will be some more.

Monday, 26 October 2015

the red lion

On Monday 10 August Bethan and I went to the National Theatre, to their redone smallest theatre (now called the Dorfman) for the first time, to see The Red Lion, Patrick Marber's football play. We enjoyed it. It was a three-hander (young future hope, manager, old coach), acted well and well written, though some of the plot and character developments seemed if not quite implausible then at least underexplained (the player's religious opposition to cheating doesn't last long). It was a nice space, and we could see pretty well though we were sitting in the sideways facing seats in the first half (usher suggested at half-time that we could sit in a couple of empty seats in the central stalls, and we took her up on that). (It was quite a last-minute purchase, and I was surprised I was still able to get tickets.

(Calvin Demba (player) was new. Daniel Mays (manager) has a distinctive face and I'm sure I've seen him before, though not sure what in. (I see from Wikipedia that we certainly saw him in Mike Leigh's All Or Nothing, and Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang, and I may have seen him in the first episode of Plus One but I baled out of that series. And I see from his Twitter account that we're going to see him as Private Walker in the new Dads Army film.) Peter Wight (coach) looked familiar, but possibly generic (from Wikipedia, certainly seen him in Mike Leigh films and Hot Fuzz.)

First couple of pages of reviews. Guardian. Observer. Telegraph. What's On Stage. Spectator (not very positive, his criticisms are fair). Independent interview (with some interesting background, including his involvement with Lewes FC). Daily Mail. Variety. Hollywood Reporter. BritishTheatre. Time Out. West Ham Till I Die (definitely the first time I've linked to a review from there - long and interesting, and 182 comments, which I haven't read; reminded me that the air was full of the smell of Deep Heat). The Arts Desk. Financial Times. Evening Standard interview. Evening Standard. Rev Stan blog. The Stage. LondonTheatre. Mostly positive, a couple quite critical. Surprising how much of the plot some of them give away (I've certainly found in the past that reviews give different things away, so as soon as you read more than one you're getting too much information, if you read them before you go).

Sunday, 25 October 2015

morris and ceri james

On Tuesday 13 October, at our normal rehearsal time, Morris Folk Choir recorded (while being videoed doing so) a song with Ceri James (here's his website) - first a version to a prerecorded band recording, as a fall back to have in the bag, I guess - and then live with the band there. He'd asked us because he'd been on the same (day-long) bill with the choir one Sunday earlier this year in New Cross.

I, and a few others I think, felt underprepared (and a bit distracted from learning our own repertoire), but we relaxed into it and enjoyed it.

One of the good things about the choir is that, while never pushing ourselves forward and putting ourselves about to pursue 'opportunities', which would not only be hard work but also a bit intense and pressurising, all kinds of interesting opportunities and projects do come our way.


orthodoxy

On Tuesday 20 October I finished Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton.

GK Chesterton and CS Lewis are probably the two most-quoted people in books or articles I've read making/defending the case for God, meaning and morality in general and Christianity in particular (apologetics, that would be) - or, at least, the two most-quoted whose quotes resonate with me.

I've read pretty much everything non-academic of CS Lewis's, but I hadn't read any of GK Chesterton's non-fiction. I thought it was about time I did, and I got off Amazon (to top up a book order of something else, for free postage) what turned out to be a print-on-demand edition (as you can get for many out of copyright things), but none the worse for that, of Orthodoxy, his most notable work of apologetics.

(CS Lewis is widely known and praised, of course; fewer direct you to GK Chesterton's original works, though I have friends like Danica who recommend him highly (and of course CSL did himself), and his apologetics works are not come by so easily. I've read The Man Who Was Thursday, which was very good apart from its disappointing ending; The Club Of Queer Trades, which was pretty good; a couple of essays in collections; and a Father Brown collection (for which he is most famous, though I found them preposterous when I read them long ago and didn't go back to a second volume; perhaps I would feel differently now).)

It was just around a hundred pages but was the kind of book that you read two pages at a time - not because it's heavy going, but because it's densely packed with things to think about. He's a great phrasemaker, especially expressing apparently paradoxical ideas, or at least expressing ideas in apparently paradoxical ways. That's why he gets quoted so much, I guess. The writing, and the thinking it expresses, is beautifully crafted.

I found it helpful, and it appealed to me a great deal. There were bits - mostly in one early chapter in particular - where I wasn't sure what he was on about, not because it was unclear, but because I didn't really get what the problem or issue was that he was addressing. I guess for some people the whole book might be like that, or different bits from the bits which didn't resonate with me (perhaps if I read it again in the future the bits I didn't get would be addressing something live for me at that time) - just writing about issues which don't trouble them, or in a way which leaves them cold.

(Partly it may also depend on how prepared you are to read something written from another time and culture, bits of which may be jarring to your own time and culture, without thinking that invalidates its relevance or ability to speak into your time and culture. That's always something I've been prepared to do, in fiction or non-fiction. I'm not one for the arrogance of chronology, or the definitive superiority of the modern; conversely, I'm firmly of the view that people, and their thoughts and feelings etc, aren't as different as differences in time and culture might lead us to believe.)

There's a giant page of GK Chesterton quotes on Wikiquote, and that's with separate substantial pages for several of his works, including Orthodoxy.

Of the sections I noted while reading it, this was probably my favourite, especially the last eight words: 'this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. .... I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it.'

I also appreciated the section (too long to reproduce here) where he wrote about the ways in which different people objected to or complained about different aspects of Christianity in ways which were polar opposites to each other, and the church's great balancing act (in the 'paradoxes of Christianity' chapter).

And finally, a couple of quotes from the 'romance of orthodoxy' chapter:
- 'In actual modern Europe, a free-thinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions'
- 'But in truth this notion that [the New Theology] is "free" to deny miracles has nothing to do with the evidence for or against them. It is a lifeless verbal prejudice of which the original life and beginning was not in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma of materialism. The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it.'

I'm sure it won't be long before I read some more GK Chesterton.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

prometheus

This morning I finished watching Prometheus, the Alien prequel. I remember it had disappointing, and disappointed, reviews, and that seems fair enough. It was okay, visually impressive (with a lot of forward-referencing), but it didn't seem to stand well as a film by itself. It was a bit hard to follow what was meant to be the unfolding situation, and when people did give a point of explanation it was hard to work out how they'd worked that out. Kind of film you want to go online afterwards to see what the story actually was. Like Alien itself, a key message was don't trust robots or corporations.

Friday, 23 October 2015

st john passion

The oldest draft post I've got here is one which notes that on Monday 7 April 2014 we went to Cadogan Hall to hear the Barts Choir do Bach's St John Passion. It was fine!

(Hmm, turns out it wasn't the latest, just the 100th; there were 21 on the next page... At some point in 2014 I resolved to try to note all the things I did on the blog. As you can see, there's quite a backlog.)

one hundred years of solitude

I marked the day of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's death, Friday 18 April 2014, by abandoning his most notable work, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, after about eighty pages. It was just a bit dull. I was reading it because it's one a couple of those 'greatest books ever' lists that I've got, and although I find it hard to give up on a book before finishing it, I'd given it a go for some time, and I'm getting old, with a finite amount of time to read an infinite number of books, so I'm increasingly inclined to force myself to stop reading a book I'm not enjoying.

I really haven't got much more to say about it than that it was tedious and heavy going, and just felt like soap opera for people who liked literature and wouldn't be seen dead watching soap opera. It was hard to keep track of who was who, and I realised I just wasn't interested enough to care and to make the effort. One of those books of which I thought, I really don't get what the big deal is, this is wholly unremarkable. (One might wonder if it's the translation, but presumably most of the people whose opinion is communicated in English read it in this translation.)

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

three one-act irish classics

On Saturday 15 August Bethan and I went to Pentameters (our first time there) to see what was billed as Three One-Act Irish Classics, by Synge (Riders To The Sea), Yeats (The Pot Of Broth) and Lady Gregory (The Travelling Man). It was okay; both the plays and the performances were a bit variable, but we were glad we went. It wasn't very long (they played them back to back without an interval), and it was an interesting little theatre above a pub. The lady who had set it up, Leonie Scott-Matthews, spoke before and after the performances, very informal and communal (she asked who hadn't been before; most had); there were about a dozen in the audience, I think. When I arrived there was a locksmith opening it up as they'd been accidentally locked out. Of the cast of four, Clare McGrath and Victoria Otter I'd not be surprised to see again. The first play was the best, and reminded me of the kind of play I used to see at home done by amateur companies, with its very Hebridean theme of loss of sons/brothers at sea.

Not many reviews, unsurprisingly. I did find one from the Camden Review, one on a theatre blog Notes of an Idealist, and a little one on a personal theatre blog, Loitering In The Theatre, who all enjoyed the triple bill, perhaps slightly more than we did.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

stonemouth

On Thursday 2 June I finished Stonemouth by Iain Banks. It was okay, but I felt like it was going over familiar ground. I don't have many books of his left to read, sadly.

is hell for real

On Sunday 12 July I finished Is Hell For Real, a Zondervan collection of essays on the subject edited by Morgan & Paterson. It was okay, but didn't really scratch where I was itching, as they say, which was something less on the fact that the Bible (and Jesus in particular) teaches unambiguously about it, and more on why it is fair and necessary, and its nature.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

he saw us

On Wednesday 4 March I went to see Anna Rebmann and Danica Smith doing He Saw Us at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. It was a series of monologues written by Anna of women who had met Jesus, but as contemporary equivalents rather than of the historic period, interspersed with Danica playing Sacred Harp tunes on the fiddle, and finishing with them both singing a setting of the Magnificat by Libby Roberts, which was an unexpected pleasure.

We were a small crowd, mostly friends from church. I enjoyed it, and it was more impressive when you realised that Anna had written them herself. It's a high-risk strategy getting Danica to accompany you, because she's so good, but Anna held her own. It's a pleasure seeing two friends performing together.

There are events pages for it on Anna's website and Facebook.

in the loop

On Monday 27 July Bethan and I watched In The Loop, which had been on the digibox for ages. It was quite good, but not nearly as good as The Thick Of It.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

the pundit's folly

On Sunday 9 August I finished The Pundit's Folly by Sinclair Ferguson. Originally a set of conference talks on Ecclesiastes, I think; it was okay, probably a bit disappointed that it wasn't better. But then, I've read a lot on Ecclesiastes.

The cover is, I think, an unusually bold design for a Banner of Truth book, with no text at all on the cover (you can see the spine, pink capitals and publisher logo in white boxes), just a striking, partly-coloured image which looks like the kind of line drawing or engraving of the kind one would think of as pre-20th-century, and which suits well a book on Ecclesiastes. There is, inevitably, no indication of whether this is an old or new image, or who made it.

Monday, 12 October 2015

bye bye birdie

On Friday 4 September we all - with Hei Mun (who organised it, of course), Laura and Margaret - went to the Old Rose & Crown in Walthamstow (my first time in this pub theatre) to see Bye Bye Birdie. It was very good. I enjoyed it at least five times more than Miss Saigon, which I'd seen the day before; the younger generation, conversely, preferred Miss Saigon; when I asked tonight why she didn't like this one so much, she said that nothing happened in it.

A stage musical from the early 60s, made into a film which I've never seen. Funny script, proper songs, very good performances, lots of harmony/ensemble singing, and good dancing. They took a risk playing good songs from the period before the start and at the interval, but the show's music bore the comparison.

The small band was at the back of the performing area (audience seated on two edges of the 'stage', front and left). One of the most striking things, which actually made the show more enjoyable, was how much the drummer in particular seemed to be enjoying not only playing but also watching the show; she was very cheery; and indeed I tracked her down on Twitter to thank her for this enhancement of the theatregoing experience...

I didn't know any of the songs, except the short 'We love you Conrad, we do' song, which passed into popular culture, perhaps via 'We love you Beatles', as a football terrace song, as in 'We love you Arsenal, we do'.

Once again an excellent fringe production worthy of a much bigger theatre, and performers as good as any on a west end stage, whether living out a career in the London fringe or a bright hope for the future. We'd seen Zac Hamilton (Conrad Birdie) before, in Princess Ida at the Finborough (he has a memorable face; a couple of others may have been in things we've seen, but I didn't remember them). The standout performances were Ryan Ford Iosco as the manager Albert Peterson, Liberty Buckland as his assistant/fiancee Rose Alvarez, Abigail Matthews as fan club president Kim Macafee and Harry Hart as her dad Harry Macafee.

(One of the most interesting things in the programme is that most of the cast listed their Twitter account in their bio. I've noticed more and more that people in fringe/offWE things I see are active on Twitter, which must be useful professionally.)

All Star Productions do things regularly there, I think, perhaps usually musical, and Bethan went there with Hei Mun earlier in the year to see something.

Some reviews. BritishTheatre. A Younger Theatre (a surprisingly poor review, which suggests I should ignore Lucy Streeten's reviews in future because we obviously see things very differently). LondonTheatre. MusicalTheatreReview. Voice Studio (someone's reviews on their work site). IndieLondon. Remote Goat. Civilian Theatre (a review blog, new to me). Unsurprisingly, not so many reviews on the first couple of results pages, and all online-only reviewers.

miss saigon

On Thursday 3 September - the second-last day of the school holidays - the younger generation and I went to a matinee of Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre. My parents saw it many years ago in its full run, when it featured Jonathan Pryce and, I presume, a more extravagantly-staged helicopter scene, since it was often mentioned and didn't seem particularly fancy in this one (a shorter, revival run).

The two main roles, the Engineer and Kim, were played by two different people, but there didn't seem to be any indication which was performing at our performance, which I take to mean that it was the primary person - Jon Jon Briones (it was definitely him) and Eva Noblezada respectively. (The programme did come with an insert that indicated that Ellen was being played by a new cast member, Carolyn Maitland, rather than Siobhan Dillon.)

So much of the setting and plot was pretty sordid. I wasn't at all impressed with the songs, either music or lyrics, although they were sung (and danced) perfectly well. The use of recitative (is that the right word? Through-sung?) I don't like in musicals, where I think it's an attempted indicator that this is higher art than 'ordinary' musicals and more like the opera form to which it aspires in artistic status (and in which I don't like recitative either). It's also miserable, which also perhaps reflects its seeking after high art status, since obviously nothing cheery can be high art. The number I enjoyed most was the unaccompanied male chorus song at the start of the second half, although the song itself was unremarkable, and it also served as a reminder of how most of the musical (like many other musicals and operas) was just a sequence of solo performances.

And while I'm not keen on tragedies in general, it was my least favourite kind of tragedy, the infuriating kind in which tragedy could be averted by one simple conversation; a bit more communication and a bit less acting on jumped-to conclusions: that's not tragedy, that's stupidity.

I really didn't like it. The younger generation did like it: I'm not sure why, in particular, other than getting to see a big, non-family musical. She had been listening regularly to a CD of the songs which happened to be in the holiday home we'd been staying in not long before.

Yet again I feel sorry for, and rather mystified by, people whose annual or holiday theatre trip is to a big West End musical. They have consistently provided my least satisfying theatre experiences, and I continue to be surprised that they're so popular. Spectacle? Undemanding entertainment? It's just what's expected of you to do? I have to say it's often a sense of obligation that takes me to these, the idea that I really should see what all the fuss is about, especially when they've run a long time. I never saw Cats, in the end. I do intend to see Phantom of the Opera, eventually...

Some reviews of this revival production (mostly from May 2014, when it opened; it runs into next year, when it goes on overseas tour) from the first two pages of Google results (interestingly, more ticket-selling sites manage to get their pages in among the reviews than in my usual review searches). Telegraph (I see instantly it was a different actor playing Chris, the main US GI character, then). Guardian. London Theatreland (suspect this more a ticket-selling site than a reviewing site). LondonTheatre. Evening Standard. LondonTheatreDirect (another ticket-selling site, another glowing review...). Daily Mail. Independent. What's On Stage. Time Out. Financial Times. BritishTheatre. A mixed bag, but very much tending to the positive.

the secret life of walter mitty

On Thursday 27 August we all watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the Ben Stiller version), which we all enjoyed; it was better than I'd expected. That's it.

dominion; morris performance

Today (that is, Sunday - I see this has published a minute after midnight, so it'll show as Monday) I finished Dominion by CJ Sansom, an alternate history thriller set in a 1952 in which Britain surrendered after Dunkirk. I enjoyed it quite a lot, though more for the alternate history than the thriller. In general, whether on page or screen, I'm averse to stress, danger and tension in fiction, so I'm not a great one for thrillers or certain kinds of crime stories, for example. Even in a comedy or a children's programme, if someone is doing something as simple as looking for something in someone else's room, I don't like it. So I wasn't big on the specific plot, but I liked very much the carefully thought-through alternate world in which it happened.

There was quite a bit at the end of the book by CJ Sansom about how he wrote it, and the thinking behind it. He mentioned that Robert Harris's Fatherland was, in his view, the best novel of this kind, and I think I had read that somewhere else around the time I picked up Dominion, because I picked up Fatherland somewhere subsequently and will give it a go too.

Perhaps the thing I'll remember most for longest is how in that post-novel section he speaks very strongly against Scottish nationalism in particular (the book was published in 2012, when the 2014 Scottish independence referendum run-up was already under way), in the context of the dangers of the rise of European nationalism in modern times and the lessons we need to learn from 20th century history of the dangers of nationalism. In the novel, as in the afterword, he identifies the SNP as being appeasing of and insufficiently opposed to Nazism.

I had previously picked up one of his Shardlake historical detective novels set in London, so I'll certainly read that in due course.

I had a big final push on Dominion this weekend courtesy of long bus journeys to and from Croydon yesterday, where Morris Folk Choir were singing at a musical benefit evening in memory of Marian's brother Jim, at Ruskin House. We were a smaller choir than usual on the night, and for some the music was a background to their socialising, but those who were paying attention seemed to appreciate it.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

nell gwynn

On Saturday 19 September, at the last minute (we'd just eaten across the road and went in to pick up a leaflet), the younger generation and I went to the Globe to see Nell Gwynn, a new play by Jessica Swale (the first night, as it happened) - Bethan didn't fancy it and went home. I was glad to go, as I hadn't been this year.

We got £15 seats in the lowest seats, in the very left-hand section but in the back row so there was a wall behind us to lean on, which makes it the best row. If I'd been by myself I'd have got a £5 standing ticket, but it would have been too long for us both to stand. She did want to give standing a go, though, so we stood for the first half, mostly at the left-hand side of the stage. (The man who sold us the tickets said that we would be able to walk down into the ground from where we were sitting, when he saw that we were thinking about it. I'd also asked him about age suitability, and he said they didn't have an age suggestion, and there was some language but nothing else that he was aware of (and he was right; I thought it was worth checking, as it could have been quite adult given the story).) It was nice to be able to go to our seats for the second half; there were people sitting in our seats during the first half, which we didn't mind, but they weren't there for the second half; a few others were absent too, I guess either because they'd gone for better seats they'd seen empty, or they'd decided to stand. The seats were a fairly similar view to what we'd had standing - often behind the actors, sometimes with a big pillar between us and them - with the drawback that you couldn't move about to allow for where things were happening to get a better view.

We thought it was a pretty good play, and enjoyed it. We have a lot to be thankful to Horrible Histories for, in getting children familiar with history. As with Julius Caesar, when we went last year, we missed some of the dialogue because of where we were standing/sitting, but nothing too major. I liked the approach they'd taken, using the theatrical company as the way in to the story and the focus of much of the action, rather than the court. (The programme was a good one too, historically informative.) It was well done, well acted, pretty funny and some good songs (I guess original).

Some of the faces were familiar, mostly from the Globe. Amanda Lawrence, as Nancy, Nell's dresser, got a lot of the laughs, sometimes for business we couldn't see, especially the scene where she is called upon to be an actress, and I'd guess she'd do well in reviews. When I saw that Graham Butler, who was playing Dryden, had been in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, I then recognised him as the lead from that when we saw it, from some of his mannerisms. The programme told me that Gugu Mbatha-Raw was in a Donmar Hamlet; Wikipedia indicates that she was Ophelia to Jude Law's Hamlet; I remember very little about that production (not sure I blogged it) except feeling very sleepy and Jude in front of a wall in the snow, so without reading some reviews to possibly remind me, I don't remember anything about her performance in that (I certainly didn't recognise her from it); but she was certainly good in this.

Some reviews from the first couple of pages of a Google search. Guardian. Financial Times (agree with it that the theatre scenes are the best). Telegraph. Culture Whisper (new to me, I think). The Stage. Evening Standard. An Independent interview with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessica Swale (in which the interviewer asks about casting a non-white actress as Nell, which I realise made no impression on me at the time at all, so used am I to what they call 'colour-blind casting' in plays (particularly in plays set or written in pre-20th-century Britain)). The Arts Desk. Sunday Express. The Hollywood Reporter (first appearance in my blog, I think. A good line: 'Mindful that the story of a poor girl who screws her way to the top isn't exactly what today's audiences would consider an empowering narrative, Swale's play takes pains to paint Nell as a proto-feminist class warrior whose innate honesty and instincts about what makes people tick keep her afloat'. Also: 'Oddly, given the play is about a woman whose sexuality, perceived and actual, was so much a part of her success, the show is peculiarly lacking in body contact between the actors beyond a few chaste kisses' - which I was very happy about, I have to say). What's On Stage. BritishTheatre.com. Time Out. South London Press. A Younger Theatre. TheatreCat. Several reviews refer to Gugu as a rising Hollywood star. The reviews are almost uniformly positive (The Arts Desk's probably the least positive; negative comments in general relate to lack of depth/analysis and broadness/crowdpleasingness/Blackadderishness of humour, neither of which bothered me).

Friday, 9 October 2015

this boy

On holiday in Harris I read This Boy by Alan Johnson, finishing on Friday 28 August. I enjoyed it quite a lot. I'd heard it was good, and it was certainly full of good review quotes at the start of the book, but a couple said things like 'much more than a misery memoir', which made me wary, as I really can't abide misery memoirs (and I did know his childhood wasn't idyllic).

But the quotes were accurate; it was certainly the story of his childhood, but one which rather than taking the world around it as simply the backdrop for a me, me, me story, set the story in the context of the world of the time and used the story as a way to tell you what the world was like then. And by 'the world' I mean Britain and London in the 50s and 60s. Well written, and interesting.

private eye cartoon

A cartoon from Private Eye of 24 July.

The familiar Miss Havisham scene: dusty/cobwebby room, seated lady in wedding dress, wedding cake on table, boy. The boy, however, has his back to her and is cutting a piece out of the cake, saying,

'Yeah, yeah - tragic tale, Miss Havisham. So I take it this cake's up for grabs then?'

Well, it tickled me.

ringed plovers on driftwood

I'm not a regular buyer of 'art' - Bethan does much more, mainly ceramics, though still not that much, we're not made of money you know - but I did buy something on our holiday in Harris this summer. A painting on driftwood of three ringed plovers, by Meriel Ensom; I bought it for £80 at the Finsbay Gallery (which we were staying close enough to walk to - not as close as the Mission House Studio, where Bethan bought a ceramic bowl off Nickolai Globe).

Paintings of creatures on driftwood is her thing; others of them didn't look as natural as this one, though; I liked the way the grain of the wood looked like ripples in the water in which they were standing (their feet weren't painted in, adding to the impression).

The lady in the gallery said she sometimes sent bits of driftwood in the post to Meriel to use; she didn't try to imply that my bit of wood was a Harris bit. Nor did she try to hide the fact that Meriel is not local but actually based on the East Sussex coast. I don't mind that my souvenir from my Harris holiday actually travelled from further south to get there than I did.

It's up in our sitting room, and I'm pleased with it.

a sense of an ending

On Monday 28 September I finished reading A Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes. I enjoyed it, as I've enjoyed most of his that I've read (though I haven't read anything of his for quite a while), but it seemed insubstantial; perhaps it felt a bit overfamiliar also. I didn't find it as thought-provoking as perhaps I was meant to find it about memory and perspectives, or how you might have got things wrong, or not have the full story, or have your understanding of events and relationships change over time. Well-written, but perhaps a little disappointing; I'd have expected more.

morris folk club - april to september

We held the April folk club in the St Barnabas church hall, which transformed surprisingly well into a suitable space, with fewer lights on. I sang I Once Loved A Lass and The Ark.

I was away for May folk club, which was in the St Barnabas hall again.

In June we had a picnic with a little singing in a park, and then went to see the Stag's Head in Hoxton as a possible new venue; it looked good.

In July we had our first folk club at the Stag's Head, and it went quite well. Danica and I sang Who's Going To Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet together; I sang The Old Maid in the Garret; and Ginny and I sang The Slave's Lament (which we had difficulty getting off the ground, with the harmony we'd devised, just getting the starting notes was tricky, and that made us self-conscious throughout; we hadn't practiced enough, really; Michelle said we should give it another go).

There was no folk club in August.

In September we were back at the Stag's Head, and it went well again. I MCed it, which went okay, and I also sang A Calling-On Song and Gartan Mother's Lullaby. It's a small room with a stage and good acoustics. At the April folk club Rosie had recorded a couple of things, including me singing The Ark; it was as unpleasant to listen to as listening to yourself singing always is, but the main thing I learnt from it was that I sounded like I was singing far too loudly, and unnecessarily so. I made a conscious effort to sing less loudly this evening, and I think it was the better for it.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

private eye cartoon

A cartoon from the 18 September issue of Private Eye.

A man in an electric chair, a warder about to pull the switch, two women through the viewing window.

Man, holding out leaflet, to warder: 'Would you like to change your electricity supplier?'
Woman to woman: 'That's my Hank - a salesman to the last.'

Thursday, 1 October 2015

streets of london

I was thinking at the weekend about Ralph McTell's song Streets Of London, with all those verses of sad London lives and the chorus, 'So how can you tell me you're lonely, and say for you that the sun don't shine? Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London: I'll show you something that'll make you change your mind.'

That wouldn't work for any normal person. We are all aware of individuals or groups of people, near or far, worse off than we are, but it doesn't stop us feeling lonely or sad. If anything, thinking about them will make us even sadder. Oh Ralph, I fear your labours were in vain.