Thursday, September 29, 2011

Concrete Evidence: a visit to 2, Willow Road, NW3

Living in London, I'm very conscious of architecture, including the domestic kind; as I live in a small flat I was keen to see what a modernist designer made of a restricted living space.

Raised in a northern terrace, I find TV house-hunting programmes like Location, Location, Location a bit bizarre. Maybe I've seen too many Hong Kong movies, where people seem to live in cupboards, but for me, a home's a launchpad by day and a shelter at night. So Le Corbusier's description of a house as 'a machine for living' is spot on. It's a shame he's associated with the high-rise blocks of the 1950s onwards. He didn't anticipate cheap materials and the lack of infrastructure that characterise British council estates built on his principles.

I have no problem with small - a tiny living space is a reminder of one's status in the grand order of things and even, these days, a statement about scarce resources. I feel sympathetic to squatters in empty mansions- it's a shame the places they occupy are such 'folies de grandeur', with all the attendant problems. No wonder the owners leave them empty.

A scene from the film Educating Rita is a reminder of the 'knock-through' craze of the 1970s; terrace dwellers suddenly wanted the sense of space that the middle and upper classes took for granted. The eponymous heroine takes a sledgehammer to a dividing wall in the terraced house she shares with her husband and the comic collapse in a cloud of dust identifues it as a 'supporting wall'.

Erno Goldfinger solved the problem of how to provide space without internal supporting walls, in Willow Road, Hampstead. Unfortunately, as far as fellow Hampstead dwellers in their Victorian stone villas were concerned, it involved concrete; very non-traditional. There was a lot of opposition from the likes of novelist Ian Fleming. He was so incensed he named one of his most famous villains after the architect.

For me it's an example of a house that serves its purpose, as a place to live in, not a showcase for the owner's possessions costing a fortune to heat in an English winter. Having said that, Goldfinger knew some leading artists and examples of their work are dotted about the rooms. I'd recommend a visit to this interesting house, a short walk from Hampstead tube and now a National Trust property.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bring on the Dancing Girls: Crazy for You by George and Ira Gershwin at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre and Donizetti's The Elixir of Love at The Coliseum, St Martin's Lane

My parents hooked me up to American film musicals in the 1950s. I can understand why Jonathan Miller set his 2010 production of The Elixir of Love , now in revival at The Coliseum, in that era. There's a nostalgic connection for elderly opera-goers, and even younger audience members would know of Marilyn Monroe, if only from Andy Warhol. The female lead, Sarah Tynan, was a Marilyn look-alike.

When I pay £19 for a seat in the balcony, I expect a great production, and ENO doesn't let you down. We're talking London's biggest theatre, apart from the O2, and I didn't want a repeat of last year's Carmen, when I couldn't tell who was singing. So I took my binoculars.

The set works well - a revolving wedge-shaped diner in a desert landscape, with a petrol pump outside. There's even room for a pink and white cadillac to be driven onstage when the snake-oil salesman hits town with his cure for unrequited love. Baritone Andrew Shore is outstanding in the part.

Garrison Keillor, of Lake Woebegone fame, is cited by the programme notes as an influence. You can see why: there's down-home feeling, reinforced when when the despairing male lead thinks of joining the army. It contrasts with the overlay of glamour represented by the costumes and the Elvis-style cavorting in front of the diner's stage mic.

The words of the libretto appear above the stage on a kind of autocue, directed at the audience. I haven't heard this opera sung in Italian but the translation, given an American tang, raised a laugh and the opera is billed as a comic one. I'd say the lyrics were weakest part of the production , although they didn't interfere with the famous tenor aria 'La Furtiva Lacrima' in the second act, the news that 'Uncle Joe had kicked the bucket' strikes a crude note that's fairly typical.

I'd had high hopes since I saw Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado, and before that La Boheme. But The Elixir was Gilbert and Sullivan without Gilbert

Crazy for You had no such problems, being a genuine example although set much earlier, in 1930. The storyline deals with a stage-struck young man whose mother wants him to be a banker. When his job is to foreclose a theatre in Nevada showbusiness takes precedent and it becomes a 'let put the show on here' affair.

The dancing girls and the male chorus were excellent and the principals are competent, with Bobby Childs, as the male lead, sparking off Claire Foster as feisty Polly. Within the walls of the diner in The Elixir the best that can be managed is a kind of hippy-hippy shake.

The failure of The Elixir to convince as a musical is partly because the opera score doesn't allow for dance routines.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed both productions. I even like the bit at the Open Air Theatre when the sweepers come on with towels to dry the stage after a shower. Since the Coliseum would be dancing-girl friendly, it's a shame the show there didn't have any. I wonder if there's an opera that does have dancing girls....

Monday, September 12, 2011

An Everyday Story of Bindle Stiffs: Of Mice and Men at the Brockley Jack Studio.

As a teenager, I read Steinbeck's 1939 American novel, The Grapes of Wrath , for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, with astonishment. Steinbeck's empathy with an 'underclass' was almost unknown in English novels, where working class characters were used for comic relief or appeared as villains. There were plenty of servants, of course, since most novels were set in middle or upper-class households.

George Orwell was about the nearest English equivalent to Steinbeck, but there was something inauthentic about an old Etonian pretending to be down and out. In novels empathy with workers was almost nonexistent; failure to make it up the class ladder was generally ascribed to personal moral decrepitude. It's a view that's recently become popular again, but it only began to be challenged in English novels in the late 1950s.

The story of the Joad family's epic journey across the American dust-bowl derives from an era when few authors dared suggest that human institutions might be faulty. The recognition, let alone celebration, of humanity among ordinary working people was a literary novelty in England in the 1950s, although DH Lawrence's 1913 autobiographical 'Sons and Lovers' and some of his short stories had come close.

Of Mice and Men, as the title suggests, works on a smaller scale. Seemingly a portrait of two men locked into a toxic co-dependency, the theme of the sustaining power of dreams and their fragility is reflected in the setting: a rural workplace.It's a far cry from The Archers.

I enjoyed this production at The Brockley Jack Studio. It seemed superior to the 1939 film classic starring Lon Chaney and the 1992 Gary Sinese-directed version with John Malkovitch.

I appreciated the ten minute drive to the Brockley Jack and the easy on-road parking. What I didn't like was not hearing the starting bell or any announcement in the bar, which extends to a room round the back. As a result my companion and I crept into into the back row of the crowded 50-seater theatre after stumbling up creaky steps. I've never been so glad of an interval to stretch my legs.

The play continues until September 24th and my review appears on the Remotegoat website.