Monday, 31 January 2011


31/1/11, National (Lyttelton)

(For the first time I'm planning to link to this blog from Twitter, making it a deliberately rather than accidentally public document. Interesting the way that changes it, knowing it's no longer purely a personal aide-memoire)

Superfluous smoking alert.
2 hrs no interval. Final preview. Disappointing multi-author climate change play (Moira Buffini was the only name I recognised), with an interesting drama about the Copenhagen climate change summit struggling to get out from an unsatisfactory mish-mash of interwoven playlets and sketches. Marred by some baffling directorial decisions.

Early on there was some shadow-boxing with climate change sceptics, especially in an early scene where a student in a supermarket rows with her parents about giving up her PGCE to become an activist ("Ipswich might be under water"). They cannot comprehend: while her mother urges her not to junk her career and waste her degree her father quotes climate sceptics' "proof" that it's all nonsense. But the idea isn't developed dramatically and the scene is undermined because the girl is suspended (why, for god's sake?) in mid-air from a supermarket trolley. Maybe Richard Bean's The Heretic at the Royal Court will be more robust.

Otherwise this is preaching to the converted, among whom I am happy to count myself. At one point a scientist displays the hockey-stick graph of global temperatures suddenly soaring from the early 19thC onwards which convinced me the earth was warming (and, in conjunction with a similar graph of CO2 emissions, that man and the Industrial Revolution were responsible).

There are five parallel strands. One features the student and her subsequent career as an activist: the career is unsatisfactory, given that the Welsh hunk she falls for ditches her for a rival (perhaps he was really a policeman). In another two women address the audience about the difficulty one of them has in living up to her ideals: she goes to Starbucks once a week (no, says her friend, it's every day); she was a vegan for two months (but, says her friend, she still ate cheese). Perhaps this was supposed to be funny, but it wasn't really, even though one of the women is played by the amazing Amanda Lawrence. In a third strand a scientist who spends his summers alone in the arctic spotting and tagging guillemots talks to his younger self, a bright working-class lad from Walthamstow we first meet being interviewed by a snotty don for a place to read geography at Cambridge. At one point they're threatened by a rather impressive polar bear which provoked gales of (intentional?) laughter; at another point in one of the cleverer pieces of staging cast members' flapping hands stand in for the birds as they're tagged.

A fourth strand featured an irritating young man in a shell suit spouting cod psychology with the rest of the cast lined up alongside him on Deal or No Deal: for the life of me I couldn't see what this had to do with anything else, unless it was the foolishness of putting all your eggs in one basket (or hoping for a "one box answer" to your problems).

The fifth strand had the most potential. Young female assistant to Ed Miliband (in his days as environment secretary) tracks down a climate scientist whose latest model predicts utter catastrophe, hoping to use it as ammunition in Copenhagen. We see the conference convening, meet the delegates from Mali (the world's third-poorest country), see news footage, hear accounts of Obama's descent on the event. The assistant and the scientist climb into bed together. They talk about the future (or lack of it -- is it wise to have children?), about politics, while a conference organiser (Lawrence again) tells us why it all went wrong. There are some good jokes. I wanted more of this: character, drama, wit, an informative narrative.

The staging by Bijan Sheibani was unhelpful. The action occupied the entire Lyttelton stage, stripped bare of scenery, right to the back wall and the illuminated exit signs. Which meant the cast had to be miked because the acoustics were so bad. There were occasional bursts of Enron-style song and dance. And at the end, unclear how to finish, the lights dimmed, the cast walked slowly forward and two huge fans blew the paper shreds which had fallen as snow during the arctic scenes and the papers from the Copenhagen summit into the audience and that back wall opened to reveal a massive sun. A rip-off of Slava's Snowshow but not as stunning.

Perhaps a smaller venue would have helped. Or a single author. Or a focus on Copehagen, Full marks for tackling an important contemporary issue, but otherwise a disappointment.

Sunday, 30 January 2011


29/1/11, Arcola

2 hrs. Rebecca Lenkiewicz play about the artist Turner, starring Toby Jones, the inaugural production at the Arcola's new base hard by the splendid new Dalston Junction station. An iffy evening, with top-notch performances marred by a play and a performance space that were both problematic.

The space is impressive, even cavernous, without losing intimacy. We sat on scaffolding seating round three sides in what we're told is an old paint factory dating from 1766 where Turner might well have bought his colours, with a Donmar-style brick wall at the back of the playing area. But it was freezing. We sat in coats and scarves and woolly mittens: the actors must have been numb with cold. Worse, unlike the old Arcola (which was up a quiet side-street and where the main apparently windowless performance space was buried at the back, with extensive front of house helping to muffle extraneous sounds) this new one is on a corner with nothing between the auditorium and the outside world but a brick wall, wooden doorways and boarded-up windows. The street noise was near-constant, intrusive and distracting. Although this is a side street the building across the road between the theatre and Dalston High Road has been demolished so the Saturday evening sirens were clearly audible; next door to the theatre is a busy bar (we're in cultural quartier regeneration territory here) whose patrons spilled onto the pavement and laughed and talked noisily, especially during one of the climactic scenes. They badly need to do something about sound insulation, though it's not clear what what they can do. They also need a bigger foyer: at present the entrance is little more than a long dogleg corridor with a bar, and when we arrived most of the space was filled by the queue for the unreserved seating.

The play was unsatisfactory too: a series of short impressionistic sketches (appropriate, I suppose, for an artist) which only developed slowly into a narrative, directed by the Arcola's founder Mehmet Ergen. The action spanned a year or three in the middle of Turner's life, when he is successful, newly-elected to a fellowship at the Royal Academy, planning to open a new gallery to show his works in Harley Street, but hopeless with women. The widow next door seduces him but cannot break through his self-absorption. He has a more satisfactory relationship (though not sexual) with a prostitute whose private parts he draws and whose young son he befriends. His mad mother is committed to Bedlam (she never loved him, it seems: when his eight-year old sister was dying, she tells him, she prayed God to take the 11-year old Turner instead). His stoical manservant (who turns out to be his father) is a mild-mannered paragon of good sense and calm. He lectures to the Academy. He has a prickly relationship with buyers. The one thing he doesn't do (at least not where we can see him) is any painting.

There were some good lines. Turner is hurt by a review which says, patronisingly, that he feels the need always to be extraordinary. What's the point of painting, he asks rhetorically, if it's not extraordinary? There were some exchanges towards the end with the widow and the prostitute and his father which might have been moving if it hadn't been for the distracting noise from outside and (unforgiveably) the brief but piercing ring of the building's landline phone which someone had obviously forgotten to switch off or to silent. I suspect it helped if you came to the play with some prior knowledge: A complained that she knew nothing about him and was completely at sea.

But the performances were flawless, especially Toby Jones as Turner and Jim Bywater as his dad. Niamh Cusack was the widow and Denise Gough was the prostitute (with what I was going to claim was a dodgy Irish accent until I discovered she is Irish). The other positive was the design and (especially) the lighting by Emma Chapman. Some of the wonderfully painterly lighting effects could have been by Wright of Derby or Benjamin Haydon; she achieved an instantaneous transition from Turner's studio to lecture theatre with strong yellow light from directly above or just behind him. The studio was beautifully set: a writing table downstage right cluttered with pens and paper; a bench along the back wall with a sink and sheaves of paper and albums; an easel in front of it; a handful of chairs. As convincing a picture of an artist's workplace as in the Donmar's Red (which is high praise).


26/1/11, Ben Uri Gallery

Paintings (oils and a handful of watercolours) of Jerusalem and Palestine/Israel from the 1920s to the 1960s by a Jewish artist who emigrated from Brno in Czechoslovakia in 1923. We chose the exhibition (a shopfront upstairs-downstairs gallery of Jewish art in St John's Wood) as location for an interview with Simon Sebag-Montefiore about his (truly excellent) new history of Jerusalem (watch here:

I'd never heard of Blum, though he's well-known and admired in Israel; described somewhere as a leading member of the German Expressionistic school in Israeli painting, though there's little that's expressionistic in these rather conventional landscapes that capture the dust and light of the region and the often chaotic architecture (he did portraits too, apparently).

He lived in Jerusalem and seems to have painted it from every conceivable angle. One of the biggest canvases was a panorama of the Old City from a vantage point somewhere near the Jaffa Gate at the Western edge looking towards the Dome of the Rock in the centre with the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the left of frame and the dome of the Hurva (Jerusalem's big 19th century synagogue later destroyed by the Arabs in 1948 and only just rebuilt) to the right. The Hurva dome is golden, the Dome of the Rock dark, and the Hurva looks higher when in reality it's not: the caption suggests Blum (a convinced Zionist) deliberately sought out this view as the only one from which the Hurva might just appear to be the taller building.

There's also a much darker view of the Old City from the Mount of Olives to the East painted in 1949 which he must have done from photographs since by then the Mount was in Arab hands and inaccessible to Israelis.

A painting of the Romanesque facade of the Holy Sanctuary failed to pass muster with Sebag who said the real thing didn't look like that at all.

Downstairs paintings of "modern" Israel -- the seafront at Tel Aviv, a kibbutz -- jostled with more conventional Orientalist subjects: camels, desert rocks, Arab street traders. The Ben Uri blurb suggests these modern paintings are less well known despite their evident Zionist political message: presumably Blum's Israeli buyers preferred picturesque Orientalism to depictions of the everyday, whatever their political zympathies.

Saturday, 29 January 2011


24/1/11, Hampstead

3 hrs. Best thing we've seen so far this year. By Nina Raine, whose Tribes we saw just the other week at the Royal Court, and who is clearly planning on being as prolific as her dad Craig.

A slice of life in today's NHS, set among the junior doctors and consultants in A&E and a range of other specialisms in some big London hospital. Lots of short scenes played with tremendous energy, book-ended with vigorously mimed scenes of emergency room life familiar from the likes of ER and Casualty. Strongly-drawn characters, especially the women, including a dedicated newbie (Ruth Everett) falling out of love with her boyfriend (Pip Carter), another doctor (who relaxes after a taxing nightshift with a can of beer and an episode of Doctors at 9am) and a mid-career British Asian surgeon (Thusitha Jayasundera -- from Holby City!) who has sacrificed family and personal life for career, and bullies and snaps at her juniors. Some good jokes as well as moving moments. A big cast (I counted 14 including ASMs with the odd line) made to seem bigger still by effective doubling. Played on a traverse stage lined with that blue lino they have in hospitals, curtained areas and nurses' stations at either end of the traverse; much of the action involving hospital beds, wheelchairs, surgical trolleys wheeled on and off with elan. Raine herself directed, presiding over some fine naturalistic TV-style acting and one misplaced performance by Nicolas Tennant as a senior surgeon: he's a good actor but his approach in this play was far too mannered.
At the heart of the play lay the question of how far doctors should care. The newbie cares too much, desperately trying to resuscitate a young women brought in with a heart attack; the more experienced members of the team are used to the idea that patients sometimes die, but she is not yet inured. The surgeon cares about her work and career and standards but not, you feel, about the patients, who are merely so much meat -- until, that is, her aunt is brought in for a routine operation which goes wrong thanks to the incompetence of the consultant on whom she is dependant for her own promotion. At the end of the play we see her breaking the news to an elderly cancer patient (an actor in a hospital soap!) that his condition is incurable; she leaves weeping.
Much of the subject matter was predictable: overworked, exhausted juniors; the doctor diagnosed with cancer ("heal thyself"); the arrogant professional. But some of it was surprising. Like the sexism, not just among the old hands but among the young men. Can that be right? Dr T said it was -- and generally gave the play a thumbs up for verisimilitude though with reservations about detail. In particular she said the old problem of exhausted junior doctors making stupid, perhaps lethal errors after too many hours on call had been replaced by a new one: everyone works sensible hours, so they go home at the end of their shifts, handing over to a new team, which means the doctors are fresher but (unless the handovers are very good indeed) there's often no continuity in a patient's treatment, with each new batch of nurses and doctors coming on with no clear idea of the case history and having to start afresh each day, with sometimes predictably unfortunate consequences.
Michael Billington in The Guardian lamented that the play wasn't "political" enough: that it didn't focus sufficiently on the dire state of the NHS. I think he was wrong. Firstly because Raine didn't set out to write that kind of play, but rather an ensemble, slice-of-life piece that touched on many issues. And secondly because there was quite a lot of politics: the play talked about rationing treatment, about the difficulty of getting properly trained staff, and about the way in which the NHS is kept afloat by the "voluntary overtime" of doctors. Indeed a rant on that subject towards the end prompted a spontaneous round of applause from the audience: clearly there were a lot of hospital doctors in the audience.
One false note: an elderly woman is brought in with a stroke, unable to say anything except "Yes" and "No". A little later she has recovered her speech but not her wits and wanders through the hospital looking at the audience and asking "who are all these people?" It was an unnecessary breach of the fourth wall (or whatever the traverse equivalent is).


20/1/11, Freud's (screening room)

A lovingly-filmed hagiography by two Spanish documentarists of the great architect Lord (Norman) Foster, narrated by Deyan Sudjic who tells me it was produced by Foster's wife.

The visuals were spectacular, though accompanied by an exceptionally intrusive and irritating music score. The Millau Viaduct is stupendous; the Hong-Kong and Shanghai Bank building staggering; the Willis Faber building brilliant; the Sainsbury Centre at Norwich ground-breaking; the Stansted terminal a complete rethinking of the airport terminal, etc etc. And Foster himself is a man of quite awesome drive. I knew he'd been ill, but I didn't realise he'd had both cancer and a heart attack, that at one stage he was given just three months to live and that within six months of being pronounced cured he was taking part in a gruelling cross-country skiing marathon (the doctors said he'd never do it -- but we saw him, and bloody hard work it looked too).

Perhaps that's why his practice, which started small and produced a handful of utterly original buildings is now one of the world's biggest, producing not just the Gherkin and the Great Court at the British Museum but mediocre stuff like London's City Hall or the ITN/ITV HQ in Gray's Inn Road, and succumbing to sheer gigantism in some of the buildings it designs, like the terminal at Beijing airport, which the film claims is the world's biggest building. Did something get losty along the way? You could argue that late Foster is less innovative than early Foster, though some of the later designs (Millau, the Reichstag, the Sage Gateshead) are as unusual and original as anything he did earlier, and the film featured a stumpy skyscraper in New York built for Hearst which is certainly striking.

He's also designing an eco-city called Masdar in one of the Gulf states which is breathtakingly ambitious.

Not an especially good film, then, and Foster himself is not an especially sympathetic character, but there's no questioning his achievement, especially given his humble origins in working class Manchester to which the film showed him returning.

The title refers to a question one of his heroes, Buckminster Fuller, asked him when Foster gave him a guided tour of the Sainsbury Centre. Foster of course couldn't tell him. But typically went away later and worked it out.

Freud's screened the film in the wrong aspect ratio, which didn't help.


19/1/11, Riverside

The legendary revue which ran for years in the early 1950s and has been periodically revived since, but which I had never seen. It should not work, but does, though I am baffled as to why.

Two young people, newly-graduated from university, marry secretly and take delivery of a magic piano from a man they meet in the park. The piano makes everyone who hears it start dancing. Steps are taken by the authorities to ban it. A satisfactory conclusion is reached when the husband's uncle descends in a flying saucer to sort matters out. Despite drowning in whimsy and an impossibly camp sensibility the thing has an energy and charm which is infectious and even at one point, goddamit, quite affecting. There are some delightful tunes (played by a four-piece at one end of the traverse staging), some fine ensemble work and a lot of rather dodgy early 50s RP accents.

To start with I seriously doubted that coming was a good idea. Things looked up the moment the piano appeared and people started dancing (while singing "I'm Dancing" -- sophisticated this show isn't). It was utterly unexpected, entirely charming and everyone beamed (well, I did anyway).

Some of it is wonderfully dated. We first meet our two graduates at their degree ceremony; in the next scene they're on the station platform waiting for the train back to London. His "people" are on at him to get a job... hers on at her to get married (despite her expensively acquired degree). Much gentle satire comes at the expense of his family's efforts to find him employment with one of his numerous uncles (all of whom we meet at one stage or another) and her mother's efforts to get her a husband by means of a big party.

Bits of it aren't dated, like the post-graduate home from uni and resistant to suggestions that he should get a job.

The company, Tete a Tete, normally do opera and the best thing about this show was that everyone could sing, even if some of them weren't quite so good at dancing. Best of all was Katie Moore in the ingenue role as Jane who was making her professional debut and has, I should say, a glittering future ahead of her. She sings beautifully, she looks good, she can act, she has good timing, she can dance... and she has that indefinable charisma. Simply super!

The Westend Whingers simply loved it:


13/1/11, RSC at the Roundhouse

Superfluous smoking alert (though it wasn't actually lit)
3 hrs. Michael Boyd directing once again in the demountable "travelling Courtyard" theatre which performed so well in this space during his productions of the Histories two years ago. This wasn't quite up to the same standard, with the notable exception of Katy Stephens as Rosalind, who is quite simply one of the best Shakespearean actresses I've seen. She manages to mime and telegraph reactions throughout without appearing to overdo it: she is engaging, mischievous and (at the start) immensely frustrated. An independent woman unjustly sidelined in a male-dominated world, who relishes her chance to play the guy and does it with wonderful wit and swagger.

Three weeks on and in no particular order here's some of what I remember. Arden is no Eden: it's cold and dangerous and the men go armed with greatcoats and sporting rifles and skin rabbits (real ones) on stage. The back wall and the floor alike are full of panels which open for entrances and exits. There is formal dancing at the court which manages (as they progress downstage straight towards the audience) to be really quite menacing. Orlando has an Irish accent which is strangely more unsettling than the fact that Rosalind's father is black. The comedy is broad even by the standards of a play whose comedy is frequently extremely broad: Audrey turns up for her wedding in Essex girl white high heels and very short skirt; Touchstone misfires rather as a lanky cove with a distant air, and tries unsuccessfully to entertain the audience with mooncalf clowning as we return from the interval (during which the whole auditorium is plastered with great placards carrying Orlando's poetry). Jacques (Forbes Masson) plays the guitar and sings I thought like a lugubrious Bill Bailey though everyone else says Tim Minchin (wouldn't know... never seen him). The wrestling (fights by Terry King, of course) is highly convincing and there is much blood -- so convincing indeed that when the wrestler Charles came back as a courtier with an Elastoplast on his forehead some of our party thought he'd really been injured. The costumes, in classic RSC style, start off in 16th century period but then lurch into the 20th century with the shift to Arden.

Not a production to make you think this a great play. The plotting is all over the place and afterwards I started trying to compare it unfavourably with Shakespeare's other comedies... only to realise that their plotting is all over the place as well.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


7/1/11, Menier

Smoking alert (but not superfluous)
Fun if rather silly...


30/12/10, Tate Britain

A partial rehang of the Tate's Turners to show them off alongside the works of his contemporaries: Constable, Blake and others. Forgot to write it up at the time and have limited memory. The overwhelming impression: how far Turner at his best was ahead of even his most talented contemporaries. Or (in the words of the Telegraph review) the rehang "accentuates the singularity of his vision":