Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sunshine Break

I'm off to Lanzarote for a few days to catch up on my reading:

Peter Hall's Diaries 1972-80 edited by John Goodwin. A fascinating read, about the period when the ex-RSC supremo took over the newly-built National Theare. He dictated half an hour every morning and the results were edited down to one sixth of the total .

Bernard Schinke's The Reader. I couldn't resist starting this after enjoying the film so much, and the style is superb.

Fred Vargas's The Three Evangelists. This Paris-based crime thriller was recommended by my oldest friend, who's French herself. 'Fred' is really a woman author and the story's about a disappearing opera singer and Mathhew, Mark, and Luke who find her - I think .

Bamboo Hirst's Vado a Shangai per Comprarmi un Capello. Written by a classmate who's half Chinese and half Italian, it's a eulogy to her native city.

I think I'll have to carry them under my arm as my suitcase is titchy so it can be cabin-luggage.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Relatively Speaking

I'm very fond of amateur drama, so was well pleased when R happened to see the notice for this amateur production at one of his bridge sessions. We had the pleasure of seeing two Aykbourn plays in one week, this time in the elegant, vaguely tea-dance setting of the Beckenham Public Hall, with chandeliers overhead and Impressionist prints gracing the walls. There was a warmth and friendliness of reception which you just don't get in the West End.

In 1970 I trod the boards here myself, playing Miss Phoebe in 'Quality Street' in an under-rehearsed production best forgotten. I belonged to a group based in neighbouring Penge, with Anerley Town Hall as our usual stage venue.

Beckenham Amateur Dramatic Society made an excellent choice of Alan Aykbourn's fool-proof four-hander, 'Relatively Speaking' for their entry in the Bromley Theatre Guild's Full Length Play Festival. It was a great opportunity to show-case acting and directing talents.

This play is one of Ayckbourn's frothiest, albeit with familiar dark undertones of middle-class marital angst. Like 'Woman in Mind' now playing in the West End, most of the action takes place in a quintessential English garden, but instead of losing her marbles middle-aged Sheila, played with superb amused tolerance by Diane Hollidge, puts up with her erring husband's 'business' trips but hints at indiscretions of her own.

The comic plot involves a visiting twenty-something couple. Ginny travels into the Kent countryside to tell her boss Philip, who happens to be Sheila's husband, to stop pestering her. She's decided to settle for nerdy but nice Greg, played by a thoroughly likeable James Mercer. Having told Greg she's going to see her parents, she leaves him behind. The puzzled Greg follows her and the resulting dialogue is a feast of dramatic irony as each one of the quartet speaks what seems to be nonsense to the others as misunderstandings proliferate.

Catalyst-for-trouble Ginney, in a sparkling performance from Sarah Mann, is well balanced by an exasperated David Whiting as Philip, who paces the stage shouting 'Where's the hoe?' or wriggles on tenterhooks at the dinner table where one false word could be his undoing. Here too, as with 'Woman in Mind' the garden is a metaphor for troubled marriage.

Apart from the initial scene in a London bedsit where the space seemed too shallow for even two occupants, the direction, the lighting and the pace of the garden encounters, with characters coming and going gave the sense of a world offstage that's always a prominent feature of an Aykbourn play.
Although I haven't seen any of the other entries for the Bromley Theatre Guild Festival (so far) I would say there's a good chance this will carry off a prize.

About the author and the play:

Bromley Theatre Guild Festival:

Beckenham Amateur Dramatic Society:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

La Bohème at the London Coliseum

My first experience of live opera was directing Gilbert and Sullivan for secondary school productions, which hardly counts as they're 'operettas'. My colleague and musical director assured me, though, that they contained all the musical elements of serious opera. Since then, apart from some amateur productions, I've mainly listened to arias on CD or watched operas taped from TV.

Recently I saw a film of 'La Bohème' with Pavarotti as a most unconvincing poet, despite his long scarf and Dylan-style hat. So I was really looking forward to this live professional performance, lured into parting with £19 by a tax rebate and the name of the director, Jonathan Miller. I'd seen his startling 'Mikado' on film.

Last night's exerience was quite different. For a start, the Coliseum's lift, complete with liveried attendant, whisked me back in memory to the old P&O hotel in Penang. At least she just had to press a button, not crank a handle.
There was a lot of excitement in the crowd and the auditorium was as kitsch as you could wish for, with the name Coliseum emblazoned in gold on dark velvet swags flanked by gilded fairground steeds galloping straight for the dress circle. The balcony seats were just about do-able for a couple of hours with an interval, only about twice as wide as those upholstered banquettes you get to lean against on commuter trains, but the rake is steep so there's a good view. The acoustics were fine and I thought that I heard as much as anyone in the stalls.

'This is the life that I treasure,
Writing poems for pleasure ...'

is a sentiment that must make this a writers' favourite opera,with its theme of destitute young artists, troubled romance and tragic death.

There were lots of times when the English lines seemed awkwardly stretched to fit the allocated notes, distorting the intonation. Given the excellent surtitles -none of those nonsensical side-titles you sometimes get with Chinese opera- it seems a shame not to have the original language.

Alfie Boe as Rodolfo sounded a bit weak to me and reminded me of Joseph Locke , but the other principals were fine, with piercing high notes from Mimi and Musetta that easily soared above the full-on conducting of Martin Fitzpatrick. Mimi was sung by substitute Michelle Walton instead of Melody Moore, and received well-deserved strong applause for her performance. Roland Wood's Marcello, the painter in love with skittish Musetta, was solidly dependable. I suspect this role is as important as Mercutio's in 'Romeo and Juliet'.

I loved Jonathan Miller's recreation of a film-inspired 1930s Paris resembling Cartier-Bresson photos, and the set designed by Isabella Bywater. This allowed for a garret, the Momus cafe and even sidestreets with easy adjustment of walls on turntables. The snowy street scene in the sombre second half came off particularly well. I haven't seen enough of other versions to miss the colourful cafe gaiety that some critics say the production lacks. Besides, the music supplies all the emotion.

R thought I was optimistic to set out with only £5 to cover the cost of a programme, but at £4.50 it was not only under budget but full of excellent articles. As well as the expected synopsis and cast biographies I found out the opera originated as set of magazine short stories in 1845, 'Scènes de la vie de boheme' by Henri Murger. It also featured Puccini's struggles to bring the work to fruition, histories of 'bohemian' lifestyles and some great black and white photos of Parisians in the 1930s.

How odd to watch scenes of destitution in such opulent surroundings. But I guess that happens a lot with live opera.
La Bohème:
The Coliseum:

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Woman in Mind by Alan Aykbourn

Shakespeare's excellent for lines and plots, but for comedy, women's roles and sheer theatricality I think you can't beat Alan Aykbourn.

'The trivial round, the common task,
Should furnish all we ought to ask'

So middle-aged Susan's vicar husband reminds her, in their suburban garden. So why does Susan hallucinate about an ideal family whose members drop by to console, advise and protect her? Is it caused by a blow to the head after stepping on the garden rake? Is she suffering from a combination of empty-nest syndrome and sexual deprivation? Can her husband really have been working on a history of the parish since 1387?

Her sister-in-law's disastrous cooking doesn't help, of course.

Janie Dee is superb and the support acting is good in this darkly funny play by Alan Aykbourn, directed by the playwright himself.

A Guardian Review:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rodchenko & Popova : Defining Constructivism at Tate Modern

'In the room, the women come and go,
Talking of Michelangelo'

(T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 1915)

So different from Tate Modern on a Sunday afternoon.

I don't know what the the artists whose work is on display would make of the post-industrial chic of the 'Turbine Hall' , or the escalators reminiscent of the the 1920s film 'Metropolis'

Art, gallery art in particular, is generally produced for the rich and powerful, and often presents a narrow, individualistic perspective that's hard to relate to. What's rare is to see artists inspired by social ideals . That's what so exhilarating about this big exhibition at the Tate Modern. It's a glimpse of how artists might have been involved in building a more equal society.

It takes up twelve rooms of great paintings, posters, films and even a complete room installation, based on Rodchenko's design for the 1925 International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry in Paris. Called a 'Workers' Club', it's : 'a collective space in which bourgeois comfort was replaced by geometric functionalism'

I tried sitting in one of the so-called 'geometric chairs' . Come back DFS, all is forgiven.

A Times review:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Plague Over England
This gloomy, underlit drama, re-opened at the Duchess Theatre, is a reminder of how recently the gay community was scape-goated by society. Magistrates, policemen, politicians and doctors express opinions so outlandish it seems they must be sending themselves up. But no, they really are voicing what they think, or thought, at the time. The title is a reference to homosexuality by an eminent judge. A roll-call of bigoted establishment attitudes, from the 1950s to the 70s, surrounds the case of Sir John Gielgud, arrested for importuning in a public lavatory in 1953.

Distractingly short scenes in the first half establish a mood of prejudice and ignorance through situations and characters, from ex public school youths to 'rough trade' rent boys. To these are added eminent politicians and recognised showbiz names of the time .

This soundly researched play has two major weaknesses, - it lacks suspense, and it fails to engage sympathy for the main character, except at an intellectual level.
Since the outcome is known -Sir John's career was not ruined by this case of deliberate police 'enticement', one source of drama is arguably weakened, However, the audience could have been surprised when the identity of the decoy was revealed, instead of being told in a previous scene what was going to happen. Again, by way of park benches, a private gay club, theatre dressing rooms, and the aforementioned urinal we become familiar with the world Sir John inhabits, but not his emotions.

It seems to me this is a failure of the writing by author Nicolas de Jongh, rather than of the actors or direction, although it may relate to the 'distant' persona of the deceased actor. Michael Feast makes the best of his underwritten part as the disgraced thesp, with great support from a cast that is all male except for Celia Imrie, equally convincing as Sybil Thorndike and as a flapper-dressed bar owner worried about her licence. David Burt gives sterling and versatile performances as a urinal attendant with a side line in reminiscence, a camp waiter, a newsvendor and a stage door keeper.

The script has its lighter moments, as when a customer tells the bar owner he picked up his apparently under age escort 'in the queue for returns' and in the final scene offstage sounds of a gay parade strike a celebratory note . Sir John regains his confidence and the public applaud him in his new play. The law has been changed. Sadly, these touches of triumph are overshadowed by the appallingly sincere and profoundly ignorant opinions delivered by the great and the good of their day.
Further details:

Friday, February 13, 2009

Opera and Film

I'm going to my first professional live opera next week. So a free illustrated talk last Thursday was very timely. Good thing I'm on the mailing list for this place.

Gresham College was founded in the sixteenth century by Sir Thomas Greville, the son of a London Mayor . Barnard's Inn, was the model Inn of Chancery for Dickens when he wrote 'Great Expectations'. It's certainly a lovely space, and the right size to feel comfortable, with an unusual ceiling that reminded me of the medieval banqueting hall at Eltham Palace, although not so vast. The audience filled about 100 seats. The 'folded linen ' oak panelling I've also seen in some National Trust properties.

The talk was one of the best I've heard. Gresham topics tend to be scientific, although Divinity is included, so I don't go very often. With subjects like 'Film and Music' and 'Psychology of Theatrical performance' on this year's programme I've made a few entries in my diary. There's also a series of talks on American Presidents by a visiting American Professor.

I'm glad this talk was prompted by the fact that so many people now watch opera on DVD, but others in the series cover different kinds of film music. I'm looking forward to 'Brief Encounter'.

Professor Roger Parker really knows how to entertain a (mainly elderly) audience His illustrations of filmed opera, from early silents where the singers just acted to an accompaniment, to the latest DVD versions, were a revelation. Imagine Sophia Loren blacked up and lip-synching 'Aida', or Placido Domingo obscured by a dust cloud in Francesco Rosi's 'Der Rosenkavalier'.

The information about how film interacts with opera music performance will add to my enjoyment of the opera recordings I own - mainly taped from TV. My only concern now is that 'La Boheme' next week will be a bit of an anticlimax. The Coloseum will have to be good to beat Barnard's Inn.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mingling with Flying Canapés

On London’s wettest day of the year, I stepped out of a downpour into the glamorous venue chosen for Dimsum’s Chinese New Year Party. The volunteer-run website, owned by Editor Sarah Yeh, recently won first prize at the Pearl Awards for Services to the UK Chinese Community. The event was sponsored by CMC Marketing.

Awana Malaysian Restaurant is in Sloane Avenue and the name apparently means ‘In the Clouds’. I learned this from reading a Michael Winner Sunday Times review that was framed on one of the walls inside.

I’m not very keen on ‘mingling with flying canapés’ because sometimes you need a rugby tackle to get any food. It’s called ‘networking’ and you get to meet people with similar interests and come away with a handful of follow-up business cards. When I’d shed my umbrella and coat, collected my name label and a Tiger beer I was all set.

The average age of the mainly Chinese attendees mingling in the romantic lighting of the restaurant space was about 25. I chatted to Michelle Zhang, editor of a Chinese newspaper based in Milton Keynes and agreed about that city’s lack of history. Then Directing President of a Hong Kong film group described a style of independent films called ‘mocumentaries’ as ‘like Borak’. I also talked to an Education Associate for the London-based Yellow Earth theatre group.

Early on, when trays were presented with a bow, it was easy to help oneself to delicious snacks such as peanuts and the tiny crispy fish called ikan bilis that taste like bacon, small squares of pancake with a spicy dip or tiny pastry cups with a savoury filling. Later, I could only admire the trays of satay and other delights as they flew past.

I enjoyed the musical interlude provided by Amanda Wong, who sang a couple of soulful Chinese ballads, although she struggled to be heard above the chatter.

Travelling home on the tube I heard passengers told not to alight at Victoria as the eastbound platform was flooded. They’d have to get off at St James’s Park and head back westbound. I had to leap across streams on Lewisham Hill, but was glad I’d braved the weather.

The ‘goody bag’ I’d been given on leaving had a voucher for a two-course lunch for £12.50 including a glass of wine. If it stays fine I might well take advantage.

Yellow Earth Theatre:

Monday, February 09, 2009

How to Blog
Practice is the best way to improve my writing, I've found, but I do love 'how to write' books. I never thought there were 'how to blog' books, though, until I came across 'The Weblog Handbook' in the library. It's one I wish I'd read a couple of years back.
I already have a good book called 'Writing for the Web'. It was useful for writing general webpage copy but it doesn' specifically cover blogging. This one does and its a well set-out accessible read by an expert.

Rebecca Blood was in on the ground floor with the original bloggers who practically all knew one another.

She defines a blog as 'a coffeehouse conversation in text, with references as required'

The book goes into reasons to blog and how to choose a 'host' as well as topics like choosing a name; setting a realistic schedule; getting (and keeping) an audience; observing web etiquette; guarding privacy.

I totally agree with what she says about how blogging improves writing:
'If you have something to say, taking the time every day to write it down until it says exactly what you mean will make you a better writer.'

I don't post every day, but I think about how events can be put into words (and pictures) for my next post. Hopefully, with practice, I will improve.

Rebecca Blood's book:

Writing for the Web:

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Treasures from Shanghai at the British Museum

It's not what I'd call 'treasures' - a few Neolithic jade axe-heads and some ungainly bronze cooking pots. Not that they've been used for cooking- they're connected with obscure ceremonial rites. Admittedly, they're highly decorated, too, but the carved or raised patterns are so stylised so you have to scrutinise them to make out animals and birds. Shame, because I've been to the Shanghai art gallery and museum and it really does have some 'treasures'.

I might attend one or two of the talks to improve my appreciation level.

The exhibition's free, and all in one room, at the end of the 'Grenville Shop'. Now that has some real treasures: 'exhibition watches' at £85, a 'Gilgamesh resin relief' at £150 and 'cuneiform scarves' at £60 each. As Arthur Dailey would say, it's a right little goldmine.

Details of the Exhibition

Friday, February 06, 2009

Chinese New Year Lunch

Singapore food was the best I'd ever tasted and the chance to work there changed my life. With a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and British cultures, there seemed to be a festival every other week. When not shopping or eating, Singaporeans spent their spare time at the cinema.

In 1989, with Thatcherism raging, R had taken early retirement. I stuck a pin in the foreign jobs pages of the Times Ed and in 1990 signed a three year contract to teach for the Singapore government.

I was posted to Maris Stella, a Chinese High School for boys. My students' grandparents came from South China and spoke a variety of dialects but Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew declared English and Mandarin as the official languages

For me the biggest surprise was the school ethos. All the fighting and swearing in London classrooms hadn't prepared me for a culture where homework was done on time and the worst form of misbehaviour was falling asleep in the back row. Singapore is 60 miles from the equator so it's not surprising they succumbed to the heat. Unlike banks and businesses, there was no air-conditioning in government schools, only overhead fans. Lucky I was standing up, otherwise I'd have been asleep myself.

Back in London, I was keen to learn more about a culture that had such respect for learning. I signed up for evening classes in Mandarin. at my old alma mater, Goldsmiths College. My first teacher was an infinitely patient and encouraging Taiwanese lady.

Over the next 15 years I wrestled with this fiendishly difficult language at Morley College, Westminster University and SOAS. Currently I attend a twice weekly class at a community college in Soho.

In 2003, with Blairism raging, I even took a job in northern China for a year to try to speed up the learning process. This time I was an editor with an educational publisher and was even more impressed with the dedication of the Chinese teachers I met. R joined me aftr six months and enjoyed it more than Singapore, despite the -20 degrees centigrade of Winter months.

I've met a lot of fascinating characters and marvellous teachers over the years, and I'm as enthusiatic about Chinese culture as ever.

I miss the excellence of Singapore food, but I can recommend the 'Top of the Town', where my classmates and I enjoyed a Chinese New Year lunch .

Monday, February 02, 2009

A Pleasure Deferred

It's all very well the radio saying don't go out unless your journey is really necessary, but I'd been looking forward to 'La Boheme' for weeks. I've only been to about three live operas before, all amateur productions, so this will be a treat. I loved the film of 'La Boheme' with Pavarotti, but you couldn't take him seriously as an artist starving in an attic.

I could take the DLR from Lewisham, change at Canary Wharf onto the Jubilee Line, then walk from Waterloo.

Besides, if not so many people can make it to the Coliseum I can probably turn it to my advantage and change to a better seat in the interval. 'It's bound to be cancelled', says R, who knows his bridge game won't happen, but what about 'the show must go on' and all that, I'm thinking.

He tells me it's going to be broadcast live on Sky Arts but I know the the dish can can play up when it snows, so I'll need reassuring. We watch a very interesting programme about Gaudi in Barcelona, but sure enough, as the flakes fall faster outside, so the picture begins to crackle and freeze, just like the weather. So I can't rely on it for this evening. It'll be a pity to get there and find it's cancelled, but even worse to miss it.

Suddenly, the problem's solved- an email from ENO tells me the show is cancelled, and I can swap my ticket for a another date later in the week. Most civilised. So I'm set for a double helping of Coronation Street and the opera still to look forward to. All being well.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Going to the Pictures

I remember when cinemas had signs outside saying 'No Babes in Arms'. I'm sure my parents ignored them because it seems I saw every war film, every western, weepy and musical in the late forties and fifties. No wonder I took to Film Studies so readily, when it was invented.

In those days, cinemas had only one auditorium but the programmes changed twice a week. There were two neighbourhood picture palaces and my parents took me on Tuesdays and Fridays. I went again on Saturdays with my sisters for the childrens' matinee. This was in pre-TV days.

R's father was actually in the film industry - in the distribution arm. That's to say he put together the elaborate cardboard foyer displays, and changed the 'stills in the glass cabinets outside. The mention of his father's name at the Camberwell Odeon was an open sesame for R to get in free.

Some of my friends will pay to watch the odd costume drama or literary adaptation, if there's not too much sex or violence. R, like me, just likes sitting in the warm darkess for a couple of hours. It's a kind of addiction, or folie a deux, without too many dangerous side-effects. Even the financial burden is softened by our Unlimited Cineworld tickets.

In my case, it's the mix as before, because we take it in turns to pick the films and our tastes are very different. With ten-screen venues, there's a lot of room for horse-trading and a lot of hammering out the merits, or even the meanings, afterwards.

Just recently the films have been top-notch. I've had a surfeit of Kate Winslet, though, and I couldn't understand most of 'Valkyrie'. What can you do when all the characters are in the same uniform with identical haircuts and set-in-cement expressions, so their superiors won't guess they're out to blow up Hitler ? Still, it was good to learn that there was a lot of opposition in the ranks, which I hadn't known about before.
The film I enjoyed most was 'Slumdog Millionaire' because everything about it was excellent. 'The Reader' was the most controversial and I think Kate Winslet deserves an Oscar for that one, not 'Revolutionary Road'. I thought Sean Penn as Harvey Milk was wonderful, but then so was Mickey Rourke in 'The Wrestler'.

Sometimes, when we've been several days on the trot, I say something like 'Mmm, maybe we need time to process these films, you know. Like sleep helps you process what you've been through during the day.'

He looks at me as if I'm crazy, and I know he's right. We're hopelessly addicted.