Thursday, 29 January 2015

'My Night With Reg' at the Apollo Theatre

We went to see 'My Night With Reg' at the Apollo Theatre, the West End transfer of the revival of the play from the Donmar Warehouse. We saw it twice last summer and loved it so were due a top-up on the joy and frivolity and sadness. I first blogged about it last year and it won a 2014 Plastic Bag Award so it must be worth seeing.

The play has recently been noticed for the poster which was turned down by the Transport for London authorities for showing a bit of bum (see right). The poster that's been published uses 'Ziggy Stardust' to cover the bum entirely and most demurely except we all know he's naked behind that record sleeve. I've no idea why Kevin Elyot chose Ziggy to embody his characters but we get a fun version of 'Starman' during the play.

Anyway, you know the story, right? If not then read my previous blog. It's the same story and the same cast just played a bit bigger to fill the Apollo Theatre as opposed to the more bijou Donmar Warehouse.

We never meet Reg but he's referred to constantly. He's Daniel's lover and, seemingly, everyone's slept with him apart from Guy but Daniel doesn't know. The play opens in 1985 with Guy's flat-warming party when three gay friends from university fifteen years earlier get together again. We have Guy, a copywriter who's just bought his first flat, Daniel, a flamboyant art dealer and John who lives off family money but who Guy fell in love with at university but has never told him.

There's Eric who's finishing off painting the conservatory while listening to the Police on a walkman (how novel - I probably listened to my first walkman at about the same time). There's also Bernie and Benny, the mis-matched gay couple who frequent the pub Eric is a part-time barman at.

 Three acts introduce us to the characters and let us see what happens to them in the short-term.  All scenes take place in Guy's flat with its nice, big sofa and conservatory. The first act introduces us to the characters and the second takes place at the wake after Reg's death that Guy hosts and the tales about Reg start spreading. The third act takes place after Guy dies and leaves his flat to John. There's a lot of death in the play but it's really funny - even I laughed out loud a few times.

There's a difference between a Donmar theatre audience and a West End audience. The Donmar audience was middle-aged male dominated but the Apollo was more representative, particularly with some older couples who possibly saw the original production in the '90s. I liked the couple in their 70s in front of me laughing along to the rude jokes and the old folks discussing the 'gay plague' and people they knew at the end as we all left. The play brings people together. It's a shared history in some ways.

It was nice that we saw the same cast as at the Donmar. Jonathan Broadbent as Guy, everyone's friend but no-one's lover, Julian Ovenden as John the rich kid and Geoffrey Streatfield as Daniel, Reg's lover and art dealer with a jet-set lifestyle. Then we have Matt Bardock and Richard Cant as the mis-matched gay couple Benny and Bernie and, of course, Lewis Reeves from the poster as Eric, the painter, decorator and part-time barman.

It's a play of secrets and lies, of infidelity, of friendships, sexual mores and unknown consequences. What will happen to me?

I laughed on and off throughout the play, laughter alternating with moist eyes. The final scene between John and Daniel was particularly thought-provoking when Daniel said he had to leave because he was tired after a night of cruising on Hampstead Heath in the rain. John agrees that he can't sleep and that he's tired too but with yearning eyes that say there's more.  Is this John saying yes I'm tired so you can go so I can go to bed? or John saying I'm tired, join me in bed? Or John saying I'm tired, I think I've got it as well? I think it's the latter and that's sad. The 'plague' continues.

Perhaps Eric is the future? The young man who doesn't sleep around and won't let John seduce him. But he's also been seduced by Reg. So what happens next?

Go and see this play if you can - it's very thought provoking, particularly to anyone who lived through the 80s.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

'A Little Night Music' at the Palace Theatre

On Monday we went to the Palace Theatre to see a staged concert version of Sondheim's 'A Little Night Music' to celebrate the show's 40th anniversary in London. I've seen the show twice before and enjoyed it both times, firstly the revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2008 and then the same production on Broadway in 2010 with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and with Alexander Hanson playing Frederick in both shows.

This is possibly one of my favourite Sondheim's, not too challenging but quite delightful with great songs and roles for three generations of actors. It's nice and there's nothing wrong with nice. It's a tale of love, of ageing and still loving, of finding your true love and all of the characters find their lovers eventually (apart from Desiree's daughter, who has her life ahead of her). With some people it just takes a bit longer but it will come, don't worry...

There's a great score and some great songs - and not just 'Send In The Clowns' - with a lot of scope to make this show your own. I left this show wanting the concert cast to do a full on stage version - and a cast recording, obv - and I'd like it to open next weekend please. Can you arrange it?

It was the women who ruled this concert version, with Janie Dee as Desiree, Anne Reid as Mme Armfeldt (her mother), Joanna Riding as an incredibly deadpan Countess and Laura Pitt-Pulford as the earthy servant girl. They were all excellent and the sequence of Janie's 'Send In The Clowns', sitting at the front of the stage followed by Laura's feisty 'Millers Son' was marvellous. Anne Reid was great as the women who's seen it all and Joanna was great fun as the disillusioned wife of the count who's having an affair with Desiree - such great one-liners! And kudos to Bibi Jay as Desiree's young daughter, Fredrika.

In the final moments of the show during the reprise of 'Send in the Clowns' Janie seemed to forget the lines of the song. Is that possible? So the orchestra stopped and started again so she and David Birrell (as Fredrick) could start again. Did she really forget the lines or was it an opportunity for her to milk the applause when she sang 'was that a farce' - I'm in two minds!

It was a great evening, lovely to hear that music and songs again and to see those people on the stage. I'd say 'go if you can' but it was a one-off event. I hope there's another revival in the works since this is definitely a show worth seeing.

Monday, 26 January 2015

'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Garrick Theatre

I saw 'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Young Vic in 2013 and, after a bit of a gap, it transferred into the West End to the venerable and ornate Garrick late last year and it's got another month or so to run. I thoroughly enjoyed the first viewing and blogged about it at the time so wanted to see it again.

The production is the same and the cast is almost the same with a  few changes, like the inclusion of Brandon Victor Dixon as lead lad, Haywood, who originated the roll on Broadway in 2010. It's still staged within an old time minstrel format with Mr Tambo and Mr Bones, still has an imaginative use of chairs and the silent woman who eases her way into scenes and never speaks until the very end. It's the final Kander & Ebb musical and it does them proud, telling a little known story from the deep south, of injustice and unthinking racism because that's just the way it was. But it doesn't have to be that way.

It's the story of nine young black men and boys seeking work by heading north, full of enthusiasm and hope for a new life when the train pulls into Scottsboro in Alabama. Two white women are also riding the rails and they accuse the boys of raping them. No evidence is needed since white women wouldn't lie about such a thing.

That's the start of the real story of the Scottsboro Boys and their endless trials, always found guilty even when one of the women changes her story and admits that they weren't raped. But the south can't admit it got it wrong when black men are concerned. We follow the boys as they grow old and some are released, then others are, but Haywood dies in prison. They were all pardoned by the Governor of Alabama in 2013.

Despite the rather dour story the play zips along between comedy and tragedy at a nice pace so it keeps moving and we learn more about the leading characters. The white women are played by two of the boys with the addition of hats and shawls and Mr Tambo and Mr Bones play the sheriff and his deputy and various other white characters simply by saying they're white. They bring the comedy but, at the same time, the terror of a system that doesn't believe you have rights if you're not white. The only white man in the play is Julian Glover who plays the Interlocuter and the judge (and later, a bus driver), which is quite telling, wanting the lads to sing happy songs.

It's a song and dance spectacular and the staging is excellent. The props are minimal, a set of 12 chairs that are used with some planks of wood on top to depict the train rumbling through Alabama and are constructed to resemble their prison cell and as solitary confinement for Haywood. Some tambourines and a couple of clothing changes and that's it. Most of the play is set with the lads wearing a white prison uniform, every now and then re-assembling the chairs into a semi-circle to represent the court.

The main difference between this show and the one I saw back in 2013 - which is, otherwise, the same production - was that Brandon Victor Dixon took the lead role as Haywood Patterson, the lead lad of the Scottsboro Boys who wrote their tale in prison and died there. Brandon was excellent, a definite presence on stage and with a voice to match. He seemed to play it more angry and determined and pulled it off. He plays a formidable character who will not lie - even to get his own freedom - since he's suffered for the consequences of a tiny white lie for most of his life. It was a powerful performance.

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon played Bones and Tambo and James T Lane played one of the lads and also Ruby Bates, one of the white women (with a shawl and hat, of course). Dawn Hope played the mysterious lady who appeared now and then and finally had a speaking line at the end of the play when she said 'no' to moving seats on a bus.

It's a grand play and a great production. Pop along to the Garrick if you can and see something very unusual - a musical with a serious and powerful message. And these are the real Scottsboro boys:

Sunday, 25 January 2015

'Widowers' Houses' at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Last week Chris took me to see a George Bernard Shaw play I've never heard of (one of many I've never heard of) at the Orange Tree Theatre in deepest, darkest Richmond upon Thames. I've not only not heard of the play, I've not heard of the theatre either and that was part of the impetus for going - a rarely performed play in a theatre neither of us had been to before. So ok, let's go.

The theatre is only a few minutes from the station on the main road and it's partially painted orange so you can't really miss it. It's been there for donkeys years and seems to have been recently renovated but there's an awful lot of steps to get anywhere in the building. It also prides itself in putting on rarely performed plays, hence Mr Shaw. This play is from 1892 so relatively early in the Shaw cannon and it reeks of the late Victorian-ness that I always have a problem with.

The play opens with two English gentlemen on a tour down the Rhine, one of whom falls for a young heiress travelling with her father while the other gentleman is an unspeakable prig and snob and, for all that, great fun (in a kind of poking fun at and laughing at rather than with, if you see what I mean). They agree to marry and the father agrees subject to his beloved daughter being accepted by the posh gent's titled relatives. Only when they get back to London do they find out that the father's vast fortune that he'll settle on his daughter is based on being a slum landlord (he's the widower in the title). The righteous gentleman, who is a doctor and sees folks from the slums every day, can't accept this and takes it even worse when he finds out that his entire income is raised from the slum landlord's mortgage on the property that has been in his family for a long time.

The second half gets even murkier when it seems there's a new scam in London town as the municipal councils seek to build new roads and spruce the place up a bit by getting rid of the slums. The scam is to do up the slums and then claim huge compensation when they're pulled down. Will the good doctor resist this temptation? will he win back his love? will he ever hold his head high again? That's for me to know and for you to guess.

After my initial 'o no, what have I let myself in for' worries, I actually started to enjoy the play. It's performed in the round and I was sitting at the end of the row so I often had actors coming up behind me and starting to act as they approached the stage which made me jump a few times (particularly when the waiter rang a huge bell behind me to announce dinner) but it was good fun, a bit wordy in places but fun nonetheless. The only thing that drew attention away from the play were the oddly Dickensian poses of Simon Gregor as Lickcheese which were a bit over the top.

Stefan Adegbola was great fun as the camp snob Cokane who is only concerned with how things look and our young lovers were both good value with Alex Waldmann as Doctor Trench and Rebecca Collingwood as Blanche, the particularly violent and demure young lady. It was nice to see Rebecca in her first professional play since I saw her in the final year student's performance at the Guildhall last year when she played Flaemmchen in 'Grand Hotel'. I noted in that blog that she had the best voice on stage and, although this was a non-singing role, it was still nice to see her (and I went up to her afterwards to say 'well done').

The play is sold out for the rest of its run but I'm pleased I've seen it and visited the theatre. I suspect we'll be returning!

Two Lates - Rembrandt and Turner

I went to see two 'big' exhibitions in January - 'Late Rembrandt' at the National Gallery and 'Late Turner - Painting Set Free' at Tate Britain. The Turner exhibition closes this weekend so I popped along after work on Friday since Tate Britain is only 10 minutes from where I work - so why did it take me so long to go and leave it until the last few days?

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to a private members viewing of the 'Late Rembrandt' exhibition at the National Gallery. The Gallery had only opened it's membership scheme in the autumn last year and this was only it's second members evening and I was looking forward to going. But it didn't start well. Firstly, we were kept out in the cold in the street rather than being allowed into the foyer to buy a glass of wine while we waited. Secondly, the woman I handed my email ticket to didn't look at me or smile or act remotely welcoming while she crossed my name off the list and handed the ticket back to me, all without looking at me or speaking. Thirdly, the cloakroom staff were brusque in the extreme - 'move along move along'. The human element of the evening was a complete failure.

But then there's the art and that's what it's all about. The art, yes, the reason for being there in the first place. I've never been a big fan of Rembrandt and this was a great opportunity to be surrounded by his works and see what he's all about.

Sadly, this exhibition did nothing to change my mind about Rembrandt and it only reinforced my prejudices. Black on brown with another hint of brown and some deadly nightshade black with a hint of a white collar somewhere. Repeated again and again. Was colour illegal back then or something? Some finely marked faces with incredibly fine lines etched into them doesn't make a great painting for me when 90% of it is just swathes of black or brown.

I did like a few of the paintings, such as this one, 'Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaert' who was about aged 50 when this portrait was made despite looking like 70. I also liked the parrot on the left which doesn't show up at all in this picture (but it's there, honest). I also liked some of the drawings and etchings, like the lovely 'Recumbent Lion, facing right' in, I think, pen and ink - doesn't that mane just make you want to stroke it?

'Late Turner - Painting Set Free' has been the big exhibition at Tate Britain over the last few months and it's closing weekend was bound to be very busy so I popped along late on Friday afternoon. As with Rembrandt, I've never been a big fan of Turner and generally just glance at his paintings as I walk past them in galleries. As with the Rembrandt, it was an opportunity to be immersed in his works and see whether that would change my mind. And it did.

As expected, it was incredibly busy, especially the first couple of rooms, with people milling around, forgetting they're wearing back-packs and carrying big coats against the January weather (there was a huge queue at the cloakroom so I did the same and just carried my coat).

People listening to the audio guide and peering at the paintings, chatting quietly and gesturing at different paintings, and me just wandering round and glancing right and left like a magpie hunting for shiny things but nothing attracted my attention. And then a painting did, 'Dawn of Christianity' in an ornate frame. I'm not sure what attracted me to the painting but it was the first one I stopped at, waited for people to move on and then took a closer look, seeing the holy family on their trek into Egypt on the right bank and the serpent in the river to bottom left. I like the palm tree outlined against the clouds and the deep blue sky. There was something very harmonious and relaxing about the painting, with an element in intrigue as to what was going on.

Wandering deeper into the exhibition, and paying a bit more attention now, brought me to some grand panoramic scenes that made me yearn for some lightening flashes and wild glare from a John Martin 'end of the world' scene. No such drama from Mr Turner, but he brings his own kind of drama such as this lovely small watercolour (I think) titled 'Bamborough Castle' from 1837 (properly spelled Bamburgh).  The storm and the wild, mad waves with little boats bouncing around and the majestic castle on the headland… o yes, I want this one. It's made up of course, since the castle isn't that high above the sea and it's not based on any particular event but the drama and storytelling are marvellous.

Other paintings made me stop and look twice, like 'Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello' and 'Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas', a few paintings here and there. A painting I crossed a room to look at was another small watercolour 'Lake of Zug' from his travels in the Swiss Alps. The blue on blue and the sun peeping out behind the mountains, the misty depth and people in the foreground. I just had to take a look and wonder what was going on.

Being surrounded on all sides by an artists' works can change your mind about them and see things to appreciate that you haven't thought about before. And this exhibition did just that for me. I'm not a convert or a fan, but perhaps I just don't know how to look at Turner's paintings? And that's part of the problem of only seeing the exhibition on it's closing weekend. If I'd gone a couple of months ago and felt this way then I could've read a book or two and gone back to see if I'd learned how to look and see. Unfortunately I can't do that and that's my own fault. But I'll certainly look at any Turner painting differently and maybe, just maybe, I'll see them in a new light.

I learned something at this exhibition. Thank you Tate Britain and, of course, Mr Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

A Diary

For donkeys years I've had an electronic diary, firstly on my lovely Palm gizmo and then on my phone. I still use the phone diary (obv) but I've gone back to paper as well.

I have fond memories of leafing through my old filofax, the diary section and all the other sections that set the tone for our lives during the 1980s and '90s. And then came along digital stuff in the 2000s that relegated paper to the waste bin of technological change.

I loved my little pocket-sized Palm with a stylus to write on the screen, with addresses and photos and even music. So much more versatile than a paper diary. But the stylus was that transitional thing where I could still write on the screen as well as type stuff into it. And then phones started to emerge with internal diaries and address books and suchlike and it was probably when I got my iPhone that I said farewell to the Palm and had everything in one place.

That was all terribly convenient, having everything together with photos and music and a camera in a single gizmo that was also a phone, but over the years I yearned for pen and paper.

And then I discovered the joys of Moleskine notebooks and started carrying one round for odd notes, lists, random thoughts, gig set lists, odd quotes that tickled my fancy and whatever else seemed reasonable to write down. It's nice to see the difference in my handwriting and I can easily tell when I'm at home making a list or copying down a quote as opposed to when I was on a train in New York noting down my favourite paintings from MoMA with more jagged and jerky writing. The shape and condition of the writing says something as well as the content itself. I started a new green Moleskine notebook last year and I think this habit will continue.

Then, last year, I bought a red Moleskine diary, my first physical paper diary in lots of years. And I wrote in it. Theatre visits and gigs, days out, appointments, holidays, reminders, birthdays and anniversaries. O yes, all of these were also in my phone but it's nice to write them down as well, Writing with pen and ink on paper makes them real as opposed to tapping a screen and creating digital letters and times. Sometimes scrawled and sometimes carefully written, it all says something about me and when I made that particular entry.

I got another diary for this year, this time an orange one with a blue elasticated strap with cream paper from Paperchase, almost square - not a normal diary shape at all and that's why I like it. Apparently it was made in Italy. I haven't filled in the address section yet and probably won't - I've got addresses I might need while out and about in my phone and my green Moleskine notebook so why would I need them a third time?

But writing down my future appointments is important. It makes them real and means I must attend on time. That's what diaries are for. I don't know about you but I find it terribly easy to ignore what the 'machine' tells me to do (including my work phone/calendar).

Do you have a paper diary?

Bum Cleavage and TfL

I couldn't believe it when I was told today that Transport for London had banned a poster for the play  'My Night With Reg' for a bit of bum cleavage. Really? So I had to look it up and here's the offending image.

'My Night With Reg' has just opened at the Apollo Theatre and I'm seeing it next week (I saw it's run at the Donmar last year and am going back for more).  The poster is of Lewis Reeves who plays the painter-cum-barman in the play who Julian Ovenden tries to seduce in the later stages of the play (and we see a lot more of Mr Ovenden).

OK, there's some bum cleavage in the poster but we've all got a bum and we all know what bums look like so what's the problem? It's not as if it's sexualised in some way (unlike many posters of scantily clad and suggestive images of women). Apparently, the version of the poster that's been approved has the 'Ziggy Stardust' album cover slightly further back to cover the bum entirely. Does that make it a bit more suggestive?

At least it's nice to know that Transport for London appears to have no problem with male nudity by allowing these posters for Bulk Powders with the hashtag #revealyourself. The man in question is clearly naked but his crotch is pixelated and there's a man and a woman looking at him askance as he gets off the train. But is there any real difference between the two posters? Which one - if either - is more sexualised or suggestive?

I find the #revealyourself poster more irritating by imposing an image of 'male perfection' on tube travellers, the vast majority of whom share little with the model used in the poster (I speak from personal experience here). A hairless musculature that bears little resemblance to most men probably isn't a good look or a good message in overall health terms.

This Sunday also appears to be the annual 'take your trousers off on the tube' day which TfL does nothing to stop. If you take your trousers off then you're supposed to wear underpants of whatever sort you prefer so long as they're not too tight or revealing. It's odd what turns up when you search for a poster being used on the tube network. It's also odd to think about who makes decisions on images on the tube network.

Anyway I'm looking forward to seeing 'My Night With Reg' next week - it's what the term 'bittersweet' was invented for and will have special meaning to anyone who lived through the '80s. I did.