Wednesday, 28 March 2012


28/3/12, National (Lyttelton). A mix of verbatim theatre and dance by DV8 arguing that our liberal, multicultural society has failed to stand up to threat posed by murderous Islamic extremisms for fear of offence and accusations of racism. Performed by a ten strong cast of actor-dancers, themselves thoroughly multinational and multicultural, who spoke the words (with the aid of head mics) while moving, dancing, gyrating, sometimes repetitively, often distractingly, once or twice amusingly.

There were also moments of pure dance (or at any rate movement): I remember one scene in which half a dozen dancers ran to and fro diagonally across the stage, forming and reforming small groups who stared warily at one another before dashing off again. There were TV news reports (authentic pictures, commentary revoiced). And there was a soundtrack of recorded rants and observations, mostly revoiced though the most memorable was the audio from a Newsnight discussion chaired by Paxman between a spokesman for fundamentalist Islam (a man who'd like to bring the caliphate to Britain) and a lapsed extremist.

From time to dates, names and statistics would be chalked up graffiti-like. And there was an effective scene in which performers stood facing us intoning the names of moderate Muslims in Europe and Pakistan who'd been murdered for their views, each one marked by a photograph which the performer held in front of them, facing us, letting it fall to the floor with each name, so revealing the next victim.

Less effective were two attempts to break the fourth wall. One was at the very beginning, when a performer comes on and asks: "Who here feels morally superior to the Taliban?" and then shows why many more of us were wrong not to put our hands up by reciting a litany of outrageous Taliban acts (I felt it came too early, right at the start, when we we weren't sure of the rules of the game -- many of us sat, literally or metaphorically, on our hands because we weren't sure about the extent to which this was a real or a rhetorical question. Though maybe
that was the point). The other came two-thirds of the way through in a section devoted to Jasvinder Sanghera and her campaign against forced marriages, when a man near the front suddenly stood up, shouted "the is Islamophobic shit," threw some "turds" onto the stage and walked out.

Piling up the case histories like this is compelling: from Ray Honeyford, the Bradford head teacher hounded in the 1980s for suggesting that, in school at any rate, Asian children should be encouraged to integrate into British society (not least so they stood a better chance of succeeding in it); through Salman Rushdie (passing references only, so well known is the case); Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali; the Danish cartoons; Channel 4's Despatches expose of extremist preachers, Undercover Mosque, for which West Midlands Police initially tried to blame the programme (until Ofcom came to its rescue, cleared it of all blame, and the programme-makers won libel damages from the police); etc etc. There was one example I wasn't familiar with: Dr Usama Hasan, an imam and IT lecturer at Middlesex University, who wrote a piece arguing that Darwinian evolution is compatible with the Koran and was persecuted (and banned from preaching) after a Saudi sage declared he was wrong. Does this mean that all Muslim imams believe evolution is a fraud? Or that most have the good sense to keep quiet? Either way a disturbing discovery.

The piece explicitly posed the question of how a liberal, tolerant society devoted to freedom of speech should respond to illiberal intolerance, to people who who would destroy that society entirely and replace it with something utterly intolerant and who, in the meantime, demand a respect for their views which we don't accord to others' views (but then the "others" mostly don't threaten to kill us if we don't do what they want) and try to impose their values on the rest of us.

It also revealed why we so often accept a minority's arguably outrageous views: because we're afraid of being branded racist, one of the worst insults you can throw at a liberal.

I wasn't sure how staging the argument in this way helps, beyond concentrating the minds of those in the audience on a particular night. I'm also slightly wary, as always when faced with a powerful piece of polemic, about being swept up by it and losing sight of the subtelties and complexities of the situation. Nor did the piece suggest a solution, beyond standing up for what we believe and not letting the intolerant, extremist bullies win; which was at least what the cast and crew of this were doing.

Conceived and directed by Lloyd Newson, who I think is DV8's founder.

Only one scene prompted applause: the former Labour MP Anne Cryer talking about her campaign on behalf of her constituents against forced marriage. Was the applause for the sweet no-nonsense reasonableness of her arguments, delivered in a soft northern accent? Or the elegance with which she was twisted and turned by a male dancer, on whose head at one point she rested her teacup? I thought the former (it was the only moment at which I actually felt moved); A thought the latter.

Afterwards we bought a drink and talked about it animatedly (not something we're minded to do after everything we see, and one advantage of a piece that runs just 80 minutes). Many of the cast came round to the bar (it was the last night); A asked two of them if they'd received any threats and they said they hadn't, though they couldn't speak for the management, and suggested the event took place in a rarefied arts world of which few extremists would be likely to take much notice.

Reviews here. Left and right unite in applauding; but Billington in the Guardian is right to point out that claiming there is a conspiracy of silence not to criticise militant Islam is patently false, as both this piece and the many well-known cases cited demonstrate. The Whingers liken it to London Road with dance but without the hanging baskets, which is sport on in terms of form:

And here's a Guardian interview with Newson. "State multiculturalism has, Newson argues, inadvertently led to a cultural relativism, which leads to a toleration of intolerant positions on women's rights, gay rights and other liberal progressive issues":

Monday, 26 March 2012


26/5/12, Hampstead

100 minutes, no interval. Smoking alert (justified by the period). Harley Granville-Barker, actor, producer, director, is lecturing in America during World War One. He has been in France to write a book, and clearly doesn't want to go there to fight. His wife, we learn at one point, won't give him a divorce. He has no money. He is weary. "Everything I do," he says at one point, "I'm just waiting for it to be over. I have breakfast and wait for it to be over. I go for a walk and wonder when it will be finished. Its not a great step from there to wondering when the whole thing will be over."

He has pitched up in a small college town in Massachusetts in a boarding house run by an English widow, and a whole bunch of other expat English people: the widow's brother, a professor of English at the college; their cousin, a rather silly-arse schoolteacher, a bore and a lost soul; a man who tours a one man show about Dickens (reciting chapter after chapter of Pickwick or Tale of Two Cities); an ex-actress with three children having a fling with a college student, the president of the college Cap and Bells dramatic society who is playing Feste in a production of Twelfth Night.

At one point Granville Barker dreams of a theatre in which nothing much happens, but we observe the people and get to know them intimately, as people in the same room with whom we form a connection. This kind of play, in other words.

What does happen happens off-stage, and we are told about it in the manner of Greek tragedy. Granville Barker relays the news to the widow that her brother Henry has been publicly humiliated by his monstrous boss who belittles his Twelfth Night and discusses loudly enough for others to overhear false claims that he has been drunk at rehearsals and in lectures; Barker says the boss has a habit of sticking his tongue in his cheek after his most outrageous remarks, and makes a note if he ever directs Richard III to get the king to do the same. The Dickens man receives a telegram telling him his wife in New York has died but hides it from the rest of the household: the widow reveals that she has read the telegram, but even when he knows the others know none of them can find anything to say, in a very British way.

It was old-fashioned in other ways too. The women's roles weren't as strongly written: the widow's task mainly to listen, the ex-actress's to flirt and flutter giddily.

Most of the characters were escaping -- England, their spouses, the war. The Dickensian says they are treating America like some magical Shakespearean forest: a wonderful place to run away too, but in the real world nothing changes.

A very classy cast: Ben Chaplin as Granville Barker, Jemma Redgrave as the widow, Tara Fitzgerald as the ex-actress, Louis Hilyer as the prof, Jason Watkins (very strong) as the Dickens man, who has the best moments. Four scenes, the first and last in the garden; the middle two in the dining room, the design using the full depth of Hampstead's surprisingly large stage. The second scene (when they eat before going off to see the play, the light fades and the candles are lit, a scene which culminates with the telegram) was the strongest; scene three (after the play) necessarily downbeat, dominated as it is by the tale of Henry's humiliation and played in near-darkness; scene four a coda a few weeks later in which an old English mummers' play is briefly performed to the widow and the now-widowed Dickens man... and us.

Written by Richard Nelson, whose work I can't remember having seen before but who (according to A) is an American; directed by Roger Michell.

Dr T said it didn't quite have sufficient heft to live up to its ambition, which was right. There were moments of theatrical magic but they weren't especially magical; there was a case for theatre as a life-enhancing form in a disappointing world but I'm not sure it was made strongly enough. But worth it to see such a strong cast working together so well.

Reviews here. Billington thinks it's Chekhovian; the others concur that, despite the starry casting, it fails to take wing and is never quite the sum of its parts:

I've just discovered that Granville Barker himself wrote a play in 1916 called Farewell to the Theatre, which was done at the Rose in Kingston last year. Reviews here:

Sunday, 25 March 2012


25/3/12, Royal Academy

I was initially dubious. I'd seen the media coverage; I was worried Hockney's new Yorkshire landscapes would turn out to be brightly-coloured, meretricious crowd-pleasers, representational in a rather unsophisticated way. (Hark at me! How patronising I sound.)

The first room reinforced that impression: four huge pictures, each of nine panels, showing the same three trees through the seasons. Behind them a sketched-in landscape of hills; in the foreground a field. Bright and shiny, they looked as if they were painted in acrylics, though they were in fact oils.

The contrast was striking in the next gallery, a retrospective of Hockney landscapes going back 50 years, from gloomy student daubs of West Yorkshire through deconstructed Californian landscapes to the photo-collages and a vast image on several panels of the Grand Canyon. Here was the contemporary artist playing with perception and perspective and colour in the approved fashion, I thought. He's gone off since, I thought.

What made me think again was the fourth gallery, full of oil (and watercolour!) landscapes done in situ of fields and woods and roads and tracks and hedgerows and lines of trees. This being Hockney the showman they're all the same size and he fills whole walls with these identical panels. But the draughtsmanship is superb, the colours vivid but not exaggerated, the landscape in all its different moods captured brilliantly. They're not subtle but they have tremendous impact and allure. D said they reminded her of the landscapes we walk through -- indeed, of why we walk at all.

Having established his credentials as a (more or less) straightforward landscape painter in the English tradition, he then sets off on a series of formal exercises, variations on the theme. There's a room full of big, multi-panel pictures of the same small section of wood through the seasons, with all the differences in light and vegetation and colour, the repeated verticals of the trees the only constant. There's a room full of "tunnels" -- views along tracks between hedgerows and trees with the foliage arching over as the road recedes into the far distance (he does love receding roads, does Hockney, as a way to draw you into the picture and give it some sort of structure). There's a gallery of images of cut logs beside a tree stump, some more or less straightforwardly representational, others involving Fauvist experiments in colour, one a spectacular piece filling an entire wall in which the tree stump has become a gnarled face. Similarly a gallery devoted to images of hawthorn blossom includes one in which the hawthorn bushes have become grotesque shapes and the bunches of blossom look like seething maggots.

The biggest room of all contains two or three score images of the arrival of spring at different points in a large wood, done over three months and blown up from iPad sketches. The room is set off (as with the cut logs sequence) by a giant painting which pulls together many of the motifs, with spring glowers and bright green stylised "leaves" floating over the surface. The iPad turns out in Hockney's hands to be as good as a sketchbook and watercolour for capturing the changeable landscape.

In several rooms are charcoal sketches done in the field, and very good they are too. In another is a series of films he's made, shot with a nine-camera rig and projected onto nine or eighteen screens, the saturated colours of the real landscape and hedgerows a reminder that the colours in the paintings aren't so very far from the real thing.

More recently he's started to explore the sublime, and here he lost me. There's a gallery devoted to deconstructions of a Claude landscape, The Sermon on the Mount, and a giant reconstruction of it which just screamed "kitsch". And a gallery of big prints blown-up from iPad sketches of Yosemite: at that scale the iPad images lack impact and colour.

But we were won over. We liked it so much we bought the book.

We'd turned up at 18.00, having read that queues on a Saturday evening were shorter. The young man marshalling told us we'd have to wait two hours. We went away for an hour and a half to eat and came back to find the queue only marginally shorter. The marshal, by now a young woman, told us the wait would be 90 minutes. In the end it was an hour. Not too bad: we had books, the Academy's courtyard is well-enough lit to read after dark, it had been a remarkably warm (20 degs) and sunny day. Inside it was rammed, which is usually death to an exhibition. But here it added to the sense of occasion and, since most of the work was on the grand scale, it was possible to appreciate it despite the crowds.


24/3/12, Young Vic

70 minutes, no interval. Another immersive drama from Sound & Fury, the team who brought us the wonderful Kursk at this venue last year (the Young Vic's Clare studio). We entered in near-total darkness (they'd even persuaded the authorities to let them dispense with illuminated exit signs), though as your eyes adjusted you realised there were soft pools of light under each seat. Parts of the performance (one man, John Mackay) were in complete darkness as well, others in soft pools of understated light.

The man works as a planetarium lecturer. We see the stars on the ceiling, he talks about the Pole Star and how to find it, Sirius and why it scintillates, about the unimaginable vastness of the universe, about the distances from here to Andromeda, about the big bang, about entropy. He is a single parent with a six-year old son, Leo, who's mad on Thunderbirds. We hear recordings of Leo as he plays and he and his father talk: a real child with a child's phrase-making skills and capacity for imitating not just Thunderbirds dialogue but the solemn, sententious tones of voice that adults adopt.

We see the man at his hobby (photography, developing images in a bath), and at the hospital where they diagnose retinitis pigmentosa, progressive loss of eyesight, and on the phone to his parents. Gradually his sight diminishes. We see him tying on a blindfold to practice making his son's sandwiches for lunch with the ingredients from the fridge: a success, except it turns out he's given him a can of beer, not Coke.

Towards the end he records his presentation as a voice-over, haltingly because he can barely read the script, and then finds it was so bad they hired a professional voice-over artist to do it again; though blind he agrees to take questions from the audience, only to be terrified by hallucinations (the mind does this, the programme says, conjuring up vivid visual images to fill the hole left by the absence of sight: it's called Claude Bonnet Syndrome).

We never really establish whether he has managed to tell his son what's happening to him, or whether Leo has fully grasped it. Towards the end when, panicked by seeing his face dissolve and crumple in the shaving mirror, he shouts at Leo we hear no more from the boy, only the sound effects of those Thunderbirds toys. At that point I was touched.

And interspersed through all this the most wonderful sounds, often played thrillingly loud and unaccompanied by narrative in complete blackout: the terrifying and disorientating noise of heavy traffic, of a tube train; the noise of rain drops and a thunderstorm (which is what the piece starts with and ends with). As good a sense, I imagine, of what the world must feel like to a blind person as one can get while sighted.

Technically almost faultless, thanks largely to the sound (by Dan Jones) and a series of projections on walls, ceiling, sheets of paper, a "mirror" (by Dick Straker): the sky at night, photographs, the colours of the spectrum, an electric hob. In some cases I was frankly baffled as to how the effect was achieved.

I thought it was a play about going blind, though reading the programme afterwards it seems the makers thought it was about the cosmos and our place in it. Dr T was rather sniffy -- "not much drama" -- and A complained she couldn't see (hah!) because there were tall people in front of her. D and I liked it a lot.

Thursday, 15 March 2012


... or rather more.

Somewhere towards the end of 2010 the steam ran out of this blog. Lack of time probably had something to do with it (having to read a good many books for work was certainly a contributory factor), although there other reasons for giving up: disenchantment with the fact that nobody seemed remotely interested in it; ambiguity about just how it meshed with my other work as a journalist; the fact that I'd started tweeting regularly and (apart from the time-consuming distraction that represented) I wasn't clear how to combine the two activities, particularly when we'd been to a preview and tweeting/blogging views ahead of the official first night meant in effect breaking an embargo.

However, the reason for starting it in the first place (the fact that I wanted a purely personal aide memoire because so many of the productions we see subsequently fade dramatically in the memory) hadn't gone away. And over the past year I've often regretted not being able to look back at what we've seen and what I thought of it, and occasionally also regretted not having a forum to record a strongly-held opinion or a vivid impression.

So I'm starting again, or planning to. Probably at less length than in the past. No doubt erratically.

And we'll start with a few brief notes, month by month, on what we've seen during the break.


On 10/11/11 we were supposed to see Terrible Advice at the Menier. I didn't, presumably because I had to work. I'm not sure I missed that much. Here's Charles Spencer's review:

On 11/11/11 we saw Inadmissible Evidence at the Donmar. This is John Osborne's play about a middle-aged solicitor cracking up, with Douglas Hodge frenetic and desperate in the lead. Memory is now hazy but I do remember it, which is something. It resembled Simon Gray's Butley: a self-loathing male protagonist whose outrageous behaviour was probably seen as very funny on first outing (1971 in the case of Butley, 1964 in this case) but to our politically-correct, post-feminist eyes now looks just boorish and selfish, which means one has trouble maintaining the necessary sympathy with the man. A fine set (by Soutra Gilmour), as so often at the Donmar: Bill Maitland's chaotic office, his desk centre stage, the rest of the office glimpsed through transparent panels behind. The action I can catch glimpses of as through a glass darkly. Maitland is a drunk (they always are) and a lecher. His rebellious daughter, much talked about, comes to see him and their encounter does not go well. His secretary-mistress announces she's leaving her job and him. Likewise his put-upon partner. You really can't blame them. It is, we're told, a self-portrait and not long after he wrote it Osborne too cracked up. Makes one glad one never met him. Apparently it runs for over three hours uncut. This was trimmed, but Charlie Spencer in the Telegraph said: With judicious cuts the Donmar’s staging lasts a little over two and a half hours, but it still feels like a punishing marathon devoid of the faintest scrap of comfort or hope. The rest of his review, along with others, here:

On 14/11/11 we saw Castor & Pollux at ENO.

On 17/11/11 D saw Danny and the Deep at Southwark. I missed it: had to work.

On 18/11/11 we saw The Veil at the National.

On 21/11/11 we saw The Last of the Duchess at Hampstead. Now this I do remember.

On 29/11/11 we saw Kitchen Sink at the Bush. This also was memorable.


On 14/1/12 we saw Colchester Chamber Choir at St Teresa's, Colchester, because my old mate A is now a member of the choir. Ambitious programme: Gesualdo's Tenebrae (or some of them -- a candle on the altar extinguished after each one), Allegri's crowd-pleasing Miserere (for which they split, with the bulk of the choir remaining in front of the altar and a small detachment coming to the back of the church), some Lotti, some Palestrina. Not easy to sing, the Gesualdo especially, and they struggled here and there. But generally very satisfying. St Teresa's a 1950s structure, undistinguished outside, very handsome inside, though my efforts to discover the architect proved fruitless.

The flyer here:

On 19/1/12 we saw Lovesong at the Lyric Hammersmith. The girls liked this more than me. I couldn't fault the performances but the script seemed somehow unsatisfactory -- surprising, given that it was by Abi Morgan, whose recent credits include The Hour, The Iron Lady and the film adaptation of Birdsong. Produced by physical theatre specialists Frantic Assembly, whose pool hall Othello we much admired at this address. Two couples, one in childless old age, the other just starting out. It gradually becomes clear that they're the same couple, though Sam Cox as the older man and Edward Bennett (who played Laertes and often Hamlet in the David Tennant Hamlet), though both quirkily-featured, look nothing like one another; and nor really do Leanne Rowe and Sian Phillips. He's a dentist, she's a homemaker (as they say): they're English (or at any rate they speak with English accents) but for some reason they're in small town America. We see the relationship develop. They row over his decision to buy his own practice. There are (I think) problems with money. He takes (does he?) a lover. Their childlessness troubles them. Few props and no set. They move between living room and kitchen and garden by means of words and sound (Carolyn Downing). There is a bed. They climb in and out -- and sometimes spectacularly (a touch of the horror films about that). And they move, dance, intertwine, sometimes across the generations. So let's hear it especially for Sian Phillips, nearly 80 and amazingly supple. There was a moment when I felt moved (can't remember when or by what now), but otherwise one to admire coolly, with detachment.

On 21/1/12 we went to York to see the panto, York Family Robinson at York Theatre Royal. Berwick Kaler has been writing, directing and starring in the York panto for 33 years, which must be some kind of record. He is apparently a legend in Yorkshire... and beyond, which is how I'd heard of him. At the time I tweeted that he effortlessly steals every scene, which he does: as a dame he's right up there with the best, raucous, rude, with fine comic timing, a great ability to ad lib and an impressive command of slapstick. He has a regular stock company of supporting players, each of whom gets a spot, and none of whom come near him in skill. But that's really the best that can be said of it. He shouldn't really be writing and directing and starring, and certainly not after 33 years on the trot. It had all the elements of a proper panto, but the plot was absurdly complicated and it went on far too long, losing energy towards the end and then making sure to send everyone out looking bored by doing the birthday messages and such after the final curtain rather than halfway through.

And the following day, 22/1/12, we went to see an exhibition of paintings by William Etty at York Art Gallery.

On 25/1/12 I saw Ralph Fiennes' film of Coriolanus at the Mayfair Curzon. Set in some contemporary Balkan civil war and filmed with Serbian extras.

On 27/1/12 we saw Constellations at the Royal Court Upstairs.

At some point we saw Made in Dagenham on DVD at home. Feelgood nostalgia aiemd at the over 50s who can remember the 60s. The bosses are baddies. The union bosses are sexists with snouts in the trough (except for cuddly old Bob Hoskins). Miranda Richards' Barbara astle has a heart of gold and a terrifying way with hidebound civil servants, and bonds over borrowed Biba with our heroine (them were the days when Biba were the height of high street fashion). The Ford ladies are all much younger, better-coiffed and better-looking than their real-life counterparts in shockingly tight perms (not surprising, given they include current Essex girl lookers Andrea Risebrough and Jaime Winstone among their number, both given remarkably high billing for actors with relatively small parts). Sally Hawkins very good as Rita, harrassed, passionate, unconfident leader of the strikers. Daniel Mays as her goodhearted husband who's a duffer in the home when his wife neglects her domestic duties to become a campaigner. Geraldine James moving as the older shop steward, burdened with a husband suffering from wartime PTSD. The serious issue: should the men get more money ebcause they all have wives and kids to support and a woman's place is in the home? The precise casus belli: the "girls'" insistence that stitching together seat covers for Escorts from assorted precut shapes is at the very least "semi-skilled" work and entitles them to be paid as such. A sometimes saccharine treatment, manipulatively (and successfully) designed to bring a lump to the throat. The grey crowd packed it out in cinemas apparently, and you can see why: nostalgia for youth and an optimstic decade (the pristine 60s lovingly recreated), politics lite, sugar-coated recent history and a happy ending.


On 3/10/11 we went to Stephen Poliakoff's My City at the Almeida. I have no unprompted memory of this whatever.

Here's a review. It starred Tracey Ullman, apparently, but still the memory remains unjogged, from which one must conclude it failed:

On 7, 8 and 9/10/11 we were at Harwich Sea Shanty Festival. I have quite a few (happy) memories of this, which considering how much of the weekend was spent in Harwich's charming pubs is striking. Here's a few best bits. Two old boys in big white beards, boots and jerseys singing South Australia and the Rosabella and other standards on an old Thames wherry moored on the floating jetty from which the ferry across the estuary leaves. Taking the same wherry out under sail up past Parkstone Quay and back while listening to (a not very good) trio from Clacton or Frinton or somewhere. A German male-voice choir singing in Harwich's extraordinary circular fort, their voices echoing around the great round open air well inside: they weren't very good, their English was a bit galumphing and the youngest was about 65 but they were enjoying themselves. Paul Sirman, a singer-songwriter and a lovely man, performing solo in one of the pubs despite being unwell, apparently: you couldn't tell. Watching the gigantic container ships coming and going, loading and unloading, across the estuary at Felixstowe (nothing to do with the music, that, but memorable). Less good: the interminable evening concert in the overcrowded sailing club, marred by one particularly egregious man who evidently thought he was brilliant but wasn't, and wouldn't get off.

On 12/10/11 we went to The Marriage of Figaro at ENO.

On 17/10/11 we went to Bang Bang Bang at the Royal Court.

On 18/10/11 we went to a concert of Tudor Music at Austin Friars.

On 21/10/11 we saw The Flying Dutchman at Covent Garden.

On 22/10/11 we saw The Taming of the Shrew at Southwark.

On 24/10/11 we saw Fabulous Beast at Sadlers Wells.

On 25/10/11 we saw Edward Bond's Saved at the Lyric, Hammersmith. This was the only truly memorable thing we saw this month (apart from the Sea Shanties and Fabulous Beast).

On 31/10/11 we saw Jumpy at the Royal Court.

MARCH 2012

On 3/3/12 we saw In Basildon at the Royal Court. A tricked-up version of a conventional "after the funeral" family drama which sympathetically portrayed the white working class folk of Basildon but was overburdened by plot and ended with an unsatisfactory coda which purported to explain the cause of the rift between the two sisters, Maureen and Doreen (or Mor and Dor). By David Eldridge, whose Knot of the Heart we walked out of at the Almeida last year and who wrote the powerful stage adaptation of Festen. In the first scene Lennie lay dying, comatose, centre stage, attended by sister Maureen, who lived with him, by her son, by a mousy neighbour who kept offering everyone tea and by a jovial old friend, a widower and retired plumber. Doreen arrives: the two sisters communicate only through third parties. Her daughter turns up, a schoolteacher, with her posh banker's son boyfriend, also a teacher. The son's grasping wife arrives, very fat: they're trying unsuccessfully for a baby; they live in a council flat and plan their lives once they've moved into Lennie's house, the family's only asset. In the second scene Lennie is dead; a drunken vicar comes round to help plan the funeral, and at the end of the scene falls off his chair in a pratfall that belonged in a completely different play. Scene three is the nub of things: after the funeral the will is read out by the jovial friend, with the usual surprises and to general consternation (I forget the details). The posh boyfriend gets drunk and makes a tit of himself. Most of the others reveal their true colours. In the final scene we go back in time to see the younger Lennie, with a good job at Ford, dreaming of escape (a job with the firm in Belgium) and making promises to his sisters (again, I forget the details). It was strong and convincing on the family dynamics, on the power of attachment to place, on the attitudes of Basildon Man and on the contrast between those (the sisters) for whom life is always half-empty and those (the jovial friend) for whom it is always half-full. For reasons not entirely clear, Dominic Cooke for the Court had chosen to mount the piece as a traverse production with a naturalistic set: the stage was built out over the stalls and extra seating installed at the back. Not sure what the point was: some of the dialogue got lost, the actors were inevitably playing part of the time with their backs to the spectators. Linda Bassett was Doreen, Phil Cornwell (better known as an impressionist in Dead Ringers and Stella Street) was Lennie, Debbie Chazen was the daughter-in-law, Peter Wight (an actor new to me) was very strong as Ken, the jovial neighbour.

On 8/3/12 we saw Edward Bond's Bingo with Patrick Stewart at the Young Vic. A period piece that has lasted less well than Saved, which we saw last year. Shakespeare is living in retirement in Stratford, old and ill and "written out". His life has no savour. His wealth means he sides with the local bigwigs, represented by a particularly unsympathetic Justice of the Peace with a plan to enclose the local common land for the benefit of the big proprietors, turfing the smallholders off their land (it will, he says, increase food production through more efficient farming). There is a plot: the peasantry rebel, led by the sanctimonious Puritan son of Shakespeare's gardener, a simpleton with a long-suffering wife (she's the most sympathetic character) who lost his wits in the wars; there are night time alarums and excursions and arson. There is a young girl, a vagrant from outside the parish, who ends up hanged at the back of the stage for much of the first act: Shakespeare's humanity seems to have deserted him when it comes to protecting her, for that would involve clashing with the JP. Meanwhile Shakespeare's daughter is exasperated with her father's unwillingness or inability to engage and with his treatment of his wife, deserted for much of her married life, an offstage presence who seems to have taken to her bed and who we never see (though we do at one point hear her). It's a difficult play because the politics now seems dated (very 1960s Marxist), and because the central character does so little and even an actor of Stewart's calibre can't do much with the part: "Patrick Stewart as William Shakespeare," says the flyer, but this isn't a version of Shakespeare that's remotely rewarding to watch. There are two highlights. Act two starts with a meeting in the local pub with Ben Jonson, essentially a wonderful bravura monologue delivered by Shakespeare's greatest rival, impecunious, drunken, cynical: Richard McCabe seizes his chance with relish. The other is the ending: Shakespeare is now in bed, his door locked against his wife and daughter demanding entry, hysterically, violently; when the door is finally opened we see the varnish has been scratched off in the fury of the wife's rage. We sat upstairs; Dr T and S sat downstairs in the front row opposite and S dozed quietly through much of the proceedings.

Some reviews here. I'm with Charles Spencer:

On 10/3/12 we saw Purge at the Arcola. An adaptation of a book by a Finnish-Estonian novelist, Sofi Aksonen. Half the audience were Finnish (or Estonian). An old woman living alone c 1991 in the country is visited by a young girl on the run from a pair of brutal pimps (she's murdered their boss/her lover). The old woman hides her in the same cellar as she hid her brother-in-law for many years after World War Two, an Estonian partisan in the early years of Soviet control. His wife/her sister and their daughter has been shipped off to the gulag. We see all this in flashbacks, the old woman sitting mutely watching the story unfold. It transpires in due course that the old woman betrayed her sister, married the local communist party boss and eventually murdered the brother-in-law, for whom she'd nursed an unrequited passion. The young girl turns out to be sister's granddaughter, which is why (though hailing from Vladivostock) she can speak Estonian. Well-enough staged on a cramped, crammed set in the Arcola's studio, but probably a bit too ambitious: certainly a lot of plot in 2.5 hours. Illona Linthwaite played the old woman, on stage almost throughout, a luminous presence who becomes less synmpathetic the more we learn about her. It started with a video of a hooded woman being terrorised and tortued in "the town hall basement". Included a full-front male bath scene, a gunshot (when the more sympathetic of the two pimps, ex-KGB, shoots the less sympathetic one and runs off the with the young girl in a rather unconvincing twist) and smoking. Harrowing and thought-provoking stuff about nationalism, betrayal, sibling rivalry, police states, and the chaos that followed the collapse of communism.

Here's Dominic Cavendish's admiring review in the Telegraph:

On 11/3/12 we saw the annual Covent Garden Young Artists concert with Robert Lloyd at Channing in aid of Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute.

On 13/3/12 we saw Snookered at the Bush.


On 2/12/11 we saw Undance at Sadlers Wells.

On 9/12/11 we went to A and P's annual Christmas Concert in the church at Lamarsh.

On 12/12/11 we saw Westbridge at the Royal Court.

On 14/12/11 we saw Pippin at the Menier.

On 15/12/11 we saw Matilda at the Cambridge, and it was superb.

On 18/12/11 I went to Al Murray's Pub Quiz at the George IV in Chiswick.

On 19/12/11 we saw Haunted Child at the Royal Court.

On 21/12/11 we saw Eddie Redmayne as Richard II at the Donmar in Michael Grandage's farewell production.

On 30/12/11 we saw Lenny Henry in Comedy of Errors at the National (Olivier).

On 31/12/11 we saw James Corden in One Man, Two Guv'nors at the Apollo, and I haven't laughed so much in ages: unquestionably the funniest thing we saw this year.


On 27/2/12 we saw The Bee at the Soho. Japanese play about a respectable salaryman in the 1980s (presumably -- there are no mobile phones) who comes home one day to find that an escaped prisoner has seized his son and child at gunpoint. The police are surrounding his flat but seem incapable of resolving the situation. So he goes to the prisoner's home, seizes his wife and child, makes telephone contact with the police and, through them, with the prisoner and starts negotiating: "Let my family go or I'll cut off one of your son's finger". The prisoner retaliates, finger-for-finger, and the demands escalate. Meanwhile the salaryman has seduced the prisoner's wife, Stockholm-syndrome style: she waits on him, sleeps with him, offers up her child for mutilation. Very bleak; very Japanese. It takes a while for one's horror at what's happening to override one's initial sympathy for the salaryman, whose first reaction one is inclined to applaud. Interestingly, I can't remember how it ends, though by the conclusion the child is volunteering touchingly for mutilation. Played straight through without a break. Chiefly memorable for the performance of the astonishing Kathryn Hunter as the salaryman, opposite Hideki Noda (who also co-wrote and directed) playing the wife (Noda's a man). Glyn Pritchard and Clive Mendus played a succession of policemen and news reporters (and Pritchard plays the child, mute, in a baseball cap). Absurdist drama and disturbing, as victim and assailant end up morally equivalent. Clever rough-theatre staging, with lots of noodles (string in bowls), repetitive mime as hostage and hostage-taker go through a daily routine of visiting the bathroom, eating, sleeping together, the layout of the prisoner's apartment sketched in on an otherwise bare stage. Hunter sticks in the mind, as she usually does, and so do the parodies (rather acute) of newsmen at work; the other details have faded. Ed Vaizey the arts minister was in the row in front of us, a guest of the management: his face when he got up to leave was suitably inscrutable and I didn't dare ask him what he thought. But (I suspect) as a Tory minister he'd be delighted at all the awards this production's won in places like New York (where it travelled after its 2006 debut at the Soho: it's also going to or has been to Tokyo) but would struggle to justify spending public money on it to his constituents.

Here are some reviews. The Stage calls it "repellent and compelling", which is about right:

On 9/2/12 we were supposed to see Freedom at the Arcola but skipped it because the reviews were so bad.

On 13/2/12 we saw The Trial of Ubu at Hampstead, Simon Stephens' updating, if that's the word, of Alfred Jarry's play about an incontinent tyrant. It fell into three parts. Firstly, a retelling with Punch and Judy-type puppets of Jarry's original story of a greedy underling who seizes power from the king and runs a regime of slapstick slaughter and childish brutality; performed in a hole in an otherwise blank wall at the front of the stage. Second, Ubu's modern-day trial in some International Criminal Court, as seen through the eyes of two interpreters sitting side by side in their booth, taking turns to voice the words of lawyers and witnesses, their contrasting characters lightly sketched in, the impact of having to listen day after day to such disturbing testimony hinted at in their reactions, the passing of time suggested by heavy colds and by their comings and goings in different clothes with the passing of the seasons. Third, short scenes which take place to either side of the interpreters' booth, between Ubu and his jailer in his cell and between two lawyers in a smoking room outside the court. These last, it seemed to me, diluted the impact of the central section and I couldn't quite see why they were there, unless Stephens felt we needed to see the aged Ubu, who was indeed a compelling grotesque, a broken old man cadging cigarettes from his jailer but utterly without remorse, and then threw the lawyers in to make up the numbers. Ninety minutes played straight through. Nikki Amuka-Bird and Kate Duchene as the interpreters, Paul McCleary as Ubu, directed by Katie Mitchell (whose work I would always travel far to see and whose painstaking work on character I think was evident in those hints of the interpreters' off-stage lives and relationship, none of which seemed to be in the text), set by Lizzie Clachan.

Reviews here. Charles Spencer calls it "arty and tiresomely self-regarding" which is unfair, but I see why he says it:

On 16/2/12 we saw Tales of Hoffman at ENO.

On 18/2/12 we went to the new Turner Gallery on the seafront at Margate.

On 20/2/12 we saw Travelling Light at the Lyttelton (National Theatre).

On 24/2/12 we saw The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar.

On 27/2/12 we saw Murnau's Faust at the Royal Festival Hall with live accompaniment from the Philharmonia.

JULY 2011

On 9/7/11 we saw Rinaldo at Glyndebourne. No unprompted memory whatever. Consulting the website I see it was set (by Robert Carsen) in a school (which I do now recall) where the pupils and teachers took on the characters of the opera. There was some mime to the overture at the start, I think, and then the boys invaded the girls' classroom and the set broke apart. Good singing, as you'd expect, and appreciated rather too vociferously by the audience, one of whom insisted in bursting into applause before the singer had finished her big number, forcing everyone else to join in and drowning out the last few notes: I remember being very cross about that.

On 12/7/11 D saw Dr Faustus at Shakespeare's Globe. Which is why I can't remember anything about it. It was, apparently, very good.

On 14/7/11 we saw The Marriage of Figaro at Holland Park Opera. Some unprompted memories -- of a rather unsatisfactory staging on an immensely wide stage (that wide, I think, because it incorporates to garden terrace of the old Holland House), around a central staircase, and some unconvincingly symmetrical and choreographed moves, possibly with a 1920s motif. In other respects I recall it was perfectly well-sung.

On 20/7/11 we saw A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National. I can remember nothing about this, a production of the 1603 play by Thomas Heywood updated to the early 20th century by Katie Mitchell. The production photos on the National website look vaguely familiar. But did I actually see it?? Reading Billington's review (here I realise I did: it's the mention of the split stage, one house on one side, the other on the other, and the dreadful treatment meted out to the two women, one expected to marry against her will for her brother's financial benefit, the other thrown out of her house and forbidden to see her children for adultery. It was impressive; the updating worked well; and in general I think the performances were strong -- I remember being moved especially by the grief of the woman deprived of her kids. There was also a great deal of wonderful Mitchell choreography involving servants and doors and stairs and so on: the Holland Park Figaro could have benefitted from her attentions.

On 23/7/11 we saw Siegfried at Longborough. Pocket-sized Ring. Musically astonishingly good, despite the fact that the orchestra is by most Wagnerian standards tiny (though the pit does go back a long way under the stage). And well-sung and acted, especially by Alberich (??). Let down by the staging. Hard to do on a budget, one accepts, but there were some black-dressed mime-type women who seemed surplus to requirements.

On 25/7/11 D went to a Prom. I was in Bristol.

On 28/7/11 D saw The Village Bike at the Royal Court Upstairs. Also good, she says. Starred Romola Garai as a bored, pregnant country housewife whose husband is more interested in the baby manuals than sex. There was also a plumber. By Penelope Skinner, whose Fucked we saw and admired at Edinburgh and whose Eigengrau (the one with the blowjob) we saw at the Bush.

On 30/7/11 we went to a Prom.

On 31/7/11 we saw Peggy Seeger at Sidmouth Folk Festival. A feminist legend, still going strong in her late 70s or early 80s. Quiet delivery, dry humour but feisty. A look back at her life as much as a musical event. Really glad to have seen her.


On 3/9/11 we went to a Prom.

On 6/9/11 we went to a Prom.

On 7/9/11 D went to Richard III at the Old Vic. I was in Brussels.

on 14/9/11 D went to Road Show at the Menier. I had to work.

On 26/9/11 we went to Faith Machine at the Royal Court. No unprompted memory. Looking at the Court website I remember it opened on a Greek island where a young woman was visiting her father, a retired bishop, on the day a church emissary (Jude Akuwudike) comes to stay. There is an earnest debate between the two men, whose subject rang bells from covering the Lambeth Conference a few years ago, but which I can't now remember. Later in the play we see the bishop much declined into dementia. He was played (rather well) by Ian McDiarmid. The young woman had a boyfriend who worked in advertising in New York to subsidise his writing; by the end he's sold out totally. Looking at Billington's review I see how little I actually remember correctly!

On 28/9/11 D went to La La La Human Steps at Sadlers Wells. I was in Brighton. Don't think she enjoyed it much.

On 30/9/11 we went to Street Scene at the Young Vic.


On 1/8/11 we went to Sidmouth Folk Festival.

On 2/8/11 we saw Kate Rusby and Hannah James & Sam Sweeney at Sidmouth.

on 15/8/11 D went to a Prom. I was in Berlin.

On 23/8/11 we went to a Prom.

JUNE 2011

On 7/6/11 we saw London Road at the National (Cottesloe), perhaps the most original production of the year.

On 10/6/11 D saw Four Stages at the Arcola. I was in Bulgaria. She says they made lots of use of sheets. She doesn't think she slept.

On 14/6/11 we saw American Trade at Hampstead.

On 16/6/11 we saw Simon Boccanegra at ENO.

On 20/6/11 we saw Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare's Globe.

On 24/6/11 we saw Luisa Miller at the Donmar.

On 29/6/11 we saw Comedy of Errors at Hampstead.

MAY 2011

On 3/5/11 we saw Wastwater at the Royal Court.

On 6/5/11 we saw Chekhov in Hell at the Soho.

On 11/5/11 we saw A Delicate Balance at the Almeida.

On 12/5/11 we saw Damnation of Faust at ENO.


26/4/11, Hampstead


20/4/11, Comedy