Fly By Night, Crossness Pumping Station, Thamesmead, London SE2

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Duke Riley’s Fly by Night is an art event happening over three midsummer evenings in Thamesmead. It is part of LIFT 2018, which seems to get better each year. The installation itself consists of releasing 1500, racing and homing, pigeons, which have been fitted with LED leg tags, over the Thames at sunset.

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The venue for this event is a little way out of Central London. Crossness Pumping Station is a Victorian sewage treatment plant in East Thamesmead and the viewing area is in the grounds of its beautiful Grade I listed building. Thoughtfully, the organisers have kept the building open late and a trip around the accompanying exhibition “The Big Stink” is a diverting start to the evening as we wait for the sun to set.

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The location itself is attractive, in an unconventional way, factories and wind turbines face us on the opposite shore. On a good summer evening, watching the sun slowly sink into the urban skyline over the river has beauty of its own, even if, it is not one of the first places you would think to come. The anticipation rises as the sun sinks and slowly the first pigeons rise from their hotel/loft into the sky. They circle the area in small flocks, rising and swooping in the dying light. Gradually, as the evening closes in, the pigeons begin to gather flickering lights as the LEDs start to win the battle over sunlight. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, over the course of the thirty minute flight, the pigeons fade into the night and all we see are the soaring and diving leg tags making patterns in the night sky.

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Beautiful and surprisingly thought provoking.

 

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A Very English Scandal, Television Series, BBC

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A Very English Scandal is a 3 part series, a fictionalised retelling of a political scandal that took place in the UK in the 1970s. Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberals for part of that time and he was a very well known politician throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s. He is alleged to have had an affair with a man named Norman Scott, this affair ended badly and Norman Scott threatened to tell all; to the police, the papers and Jeremy’s mother. When he began carrying out these threats, beginning with a detailed and graphic letter to the mother, Jeremy Thorpe is supposed to have hired a hitman to kill Scott. The hitman was incompetent, shot Scott’s dog instead and it all ended up in a well documented court case.

Lets just say that if you were to try and make up a salacious story to sell newspapers to the British public in the 1970s, you could hardly invent a story better than this. It had everything, its biggest difficulty would be convincing the readers that it was actually true. The court found them all not guilty, however from speaking to people who lived through the newspaper coverage, the accusations were believed by the general public and the feeling was that they were acquitted because of some biased summing up by the judge and the protection of “an old boys network” which was prevalent in political circles at the time.

Nevertheless, they were acquitted and this series is fiction because it assumes that they were all guilty as charged. It has Thorpe and Bissell plotting to kill Scott, something that Thorpe denied until his death, although Bissell gave evidence to the contrary.  Stephen Frears directed this, with great attention to detail, even without the story this is a beautiful period drama, the 1960s and 1970 are lovingly recreated in the clothes, the decoration, the speech, the attitudes. Russell T. Davies wrote the piece and he adds humour and wit to the dialogue, he peoples the back story with the eccentrics of the time, but basically sticks to the story as it was covered when it broke.  The narrative itself really didn’t need any embellishment, it was more a question of keeping it from being too outrageous.

Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, he is absolutely believable in the role of a suave, charismatic politician, with a defective moral compass, prepared to do anything to cling on to power.  Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott, is a tougher sell, part naïve ingenue, part worldly manipulator. He is alternately the hurt boy led astray and the vindictive gold digger who knows how much his silence is worth, this is a thin line to walk – but in the end, he carries it off well. There are some great performances throughout the series, Patricia Hodge is wonderful as Ursula Thorpe, Jeremy’s indomitable mother.

There are some lovely, funny cameo roles as British eccentrics, David Bamber has a role as the 8th Earl of Bamber, with badgers running around his country house. He does appear to be as eccentric as his role suggests – he introduced both the homosexual reform bill in the House of Lords and a bill for the protection of Badgers. When asked why he thought that the first passed and the second failed, he is reported to have said, “Well, there aren’t any Badgers in the House of Lords”

Overall this is a admirable treatment of an incredible story, I was aware of the people involved in the story before watching, without any great knowledge of the detail. It gives insight into the political and social attitudes of the time, for example, it was more damaging to a political career to be accused of homosexuality than to be accused of murder. It is well written, entertaining and funny, with some great acting. It is on BBC I-player now and likely to distributed around the world in the near future. If you have any interest in politics, the 1960s and ’70s, attitudes to LGBT rights, Britain and British eccentrics, I think that you will enjoy this. Actually, even if you have no interest in any of those things, I think that this series is funny enough to entertain you.

House, Restaurant & Bar, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1

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House is the name of the most upmarket restaurant in the National Theatre complex. It is open from 5pm to 11pm daily, and it does lunch on the afternoons when there is a matinee performance. The décor is modern and understated. The linen is crisp and white. The cutlery, china and glassware are high quality. The sound level is low, so conversation is clear. They give warning announcements when shows are about to start. All in all, the perfect place to meet for pre or post theatre dinner.

They offer a set menu as well as an a la carte. The set menu is good value but the choice can be limited, the only vegetarian option was asparagus for both starter and main course on the day we were there. The a la carte menu is relatively short too, but this is often a good thing, it keeps the quality of the food high. The goat’s cheese brulee starter was delicious, although it was not not particularly brulee. The trout was good too, the presentation of both was excellent.

The steak main course was good, rump cap is not the greatest cut but it was cooked nicely. The plaice was fine too. The nicest of the three mains was the smoked pork belly – the meat was succulent and full of flavour, it went very well with the cabbage, which had a hint of sweetness and a good crispiness.  Once again, care had gone into the presentation, they all looked very appetising as they arrived to the table.

We ordered desert too. Like the other courses, they looked fantastic, tasted good and the portion size was modest. The wine list has a good range but quite expensive for what they are. Service was impeccable, efficient and unobtrusive.

It is usually relatively easy to get a table except on opening nights or press nights. It was less than half full on the evening we were there, but this was after the show. It would be safest to book if you wish to eat just before curtain up.  Everything about House is good; the food, the service, the ambience, but the cynic in me says that they are aware that people will pay a premium for the convenience and this is reflected in their prices.

Translations, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1

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Translations is set in Donegal in the 1830s. Ireland is under British control, but most of the population do not speak English. It is at a time before the famine has set in, but people know of the blight and are aware of the damage that a potato crop failure can do to a  community. Ordinance Survey has sent teams of men to map the countryside and to standardise place names. Education had not been allowed for Catholics, so the practice of illegal hedge schools operated throughout Ireland. One of these schools is the precise setting of this play.

This is a play about language, the effect language can have on culture, how we can communicate with it and also about how we can communicate without it. This makes it quite an intimate piece and the Oliver Theatre, The National Theatre’s largest space and stage, does not appear to be a natural home for it. However, Rae Smith, the set designer has done an amazing job and used the space to great advantage. The hedge school is a small, low walled area right at the front of the stage and the rest of the area is peat bog stretching out into the distance, covered by the gently rolling mist that is prevailing climate of the region. Thus, we have the intimacy of the small school and the expanse of the area that is in the process of being mapped.

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Brian Friel was, he died in 2015, a wonderful playwright and Translations is a virtuoso display of his skills. The play itself may be about the power of words but the main love scene is between two people without a common language. It consists mostly of lists of place names, and is still a very moving piece of theatre. The director, Ian Rickson, has taken great care of the action, every entry and exit feels considered and the lines are all delivered deliberately, making you feel that each word has been carefully chosen.

The acting is of the highest calibre, Ciaran Hinds is as good as you would expect – and those expectations are high indeed. Colin Morgan is also very good, showing that he is aware that he is taking both sides, while denying it to all. Dermot Crowley, as Jimmy Jack Cassie, is a revelation, in a part as a humorous fantasist, who has to be credible to be funny. I also loved Michelle Fox, who managed to get us to feel a wide range of emotions even though her part has very few lines.

The thing that makes this production stand out for me, though, is the extraordinary way that Ian Rickson handles the final scene. The mechanism he employs, comes out of the blue and is gone in a flash, it adds a current reference to the play and suits it well. All in all, this is a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully presented and performed and I will consider myself to be very lucky if I see anything as good this year.

 

Phobiarama, LIFT 2018, West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross, London.

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LIFT 2018 is a festival of international performance, running at various venues around London from late May until early July. There is a wide choice of shows available and a huge variety of styles on show. There is a children’s show by renowned theatrical company Punchdrunk, where adults will not be granted admittance unless accompanied by a child. There is a South Korean Opera about the Trojan wars in Greece and there is even a piece of performance art that involves 1500 pigeons, with LED lit leg-rings, flying above the Thames.

Phobiarama is billed as an immersive theatre experience. This is certainly true, and I don’t wish to give too much away, as being unaware of what is about to happen adds to the thrill of the show. I would best describe it as a 21st century ghost ride with real actors, strobe lights and political overtones. Dries Verhoeven is a visual artist who has updated a 20th Century fairground ride into a paranoid, threatening 21st Century journey through political and popular culture. This show travels the world but each one is site specific, and this one has elements that apply particularly to London. I can say that it gives a feeling of drifting through a waking nightmare and I was reminded of film warnings that say “This show contains some scenes of mild horror”.

You are disorientated from entering the space in pitch blackness and the anxiety gradually racks up throughout the 45 minute performance, as shadows in the background slowly become more real, with television newsreels reminding you of events that have happened in London over the past years. I guess that some people do not like to feel frightened, however lightly, so this show will not be for everyone, but I enjoyed the feelings of mild paranoia that I was given and I found it interesting to think about why some of the scenes made me feel uncomfortable.

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The opportunity to experience running away backwards from an evil clown, while Nigel Farage rants on about the iniquity of our immigration system, is one that does not occur regularly – and although this was a memorable part of the show, it was by no means the most disquieting, so if you think that this is something you might enjoy, you need to take the chance now, while it is here.

I would suggest that you should not go if you find strobe lighting a risk or if you suffer from coulrophobia. I have to say that I thought that this was a really interesting experience.  I hope that Dries Verhoeven brings other events to London and if he does, I fully intend to visit them.

 

Macbeth, National Theatre, Southbank, London

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This is more Mad Mac than Macbeth. This play is so different to what we usually see put on as Macbeth, that it would not have been too much to change the title as well. At least then we would have had a little more idea of what to expect. I was not amazed at the number of people who did not return for the second act, because for many people, this will not have been the show that they came to see. It is certainly not Macbeth as we know it, the set, costumes and music fight to overwhelm one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays, but thanks to strong lead performances Macbeth just about wins through.

I admire Rufus Norris’ audacity here, he makes Macbeth into a gory, post apocalyptic, horror show – with zombies. The party is a grimy, drugged-up car park rave, ripped plastic bin bags are the height of home decoration and the future of clothes care clearly doesn’t involve any kind of washing. The world he presents is ugly, violent and harsh.  It begins with a particularly brutal beheading that warns you that this will be a difficult watch at times, and there are other moments in the production that transcend even the gore, slash/ horror genre that was in vogue in 1980s. It has a punk ethic that sets out to shock, and the visceral disgust of the moment when Lady MacDuff is presented with the bodies of her mutilated children in clear plastic bags is something that will not be soon forgotten.

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear are both good, despite all the eccentric distractions going on around them. The actors here have a hard job, it’s almost as though Rufus Norris has decided that the lines of the play are secondary to the action on stage, so often he has them doing strange things while delivering famous lines. Why is Porter giving this speech clinging on to a pole at the back of the stage, why is Macbeth removing his socks after killing Duncan? Even when Rory Kinnear is alone on stage, he has to contend with avoiding the furniture on a spinning set.  This vision has some wins and some losses, the point in the second act where all the dead characters are lurching around the stage in crazed zombie mode is a big contrast from the performances of Kevin Harvey and Steven Boxer in the first act as Banquo and Duncan. As Macduff, Patrick O’Kane’s reaction to the news of the murder of his family stood out, all the more, for being so restrained in the sea of lunacy surrounding him.

This is not a Macbeth that I would ever have envisioned, and it is not one of my favourite interpretations. I don’t believe that this production was made to be liked, it was made to alarm, astound and to be talked about – and if that is the case, it surely achieves what it set out to do. What is certainly true, is that this Macbeth is one that I will remember and, for that,  I am pleased not to have missed it.

Circolombia, Underbelly Festival, Southbank, London

 

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This photo is courtesy of @tcspr.

 

Let’s start with the Underbelly Festival itself. Over the past 10 years this has become a symbol of summer on the Southbank. Each year it seems to get bigger and last longer. It started as an event around a giant inflatable purple cow in a coach park on Belvedere Road and used to be called Udderbelly. Now the cow appears to have gone (surely I didn’t miss it?!) but it has two covered performance spaces, at least four bars, street food stalls, plenty of outdoor seating and it lasts half the year – from early April until late September.

The shows consist of comedy, circus, music and cabaret, usually with a couple of silent discos thrown in through the season. The content varies from full on family entertainment to risqué burlesque. The tickets are generally pretty cheap for central London although many of the shows get booked up very quickly. You can just go in to use the bars and seating for free though, so its a nice place to meet friends even if you are not seeing a show – think Box Park without the claustrophobia of the box!

Circolombia are a  fourteen strong circus/dance/music troupe from Colombia and the show they present is part concert, part circus. They sing, they dance, they rap and they display awesome tumbling skills and wonderful aerial work. It all works very well together and you can see why they have built a big international reputation from their global tours. The music enhances the atmosphere for the circus work and you can feel the tension rise when the place quietens for a particularly daring routine.

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The routines are jaw dropping. The tumbling skills are immense, from rolling under and over a see-saw as it rocks, to throwing a performer onto the shoulders of another person who is already balanced on the shoulders of a third. There is one where one performer does acrobatics inside a circular frame, while that frame is balanced on the forehead of a man below.

The aerial feats are equally amazing, varying from solo high rope tumbling to double acrobatics with both people suspended by just a rope around the neck of one of them. At one point a performer is lifted high into the air by a ribbon held in his teeth, the person lifting him is suspended by her legs and carrying that ribbon by her teeth. One cannot help but be moved by both their strength and their trust.

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The show is short, at only an hour long, and the quality is of the highest order, there is no filler here, there were audible gasps from the audience throughout the show. I hope the acts are not actually as risky as they make them appear, because there is a sense of jeopardy, watching them in such a small space, you are aware that these are real people, taking real risks and this adds to the intensity of the performance.

Circolombia at the Underbelly Festival is a fantastic, exciting evening out and they have a number of dates here before moving on to the Edinburgh Festival in August. If you are unable to catch them here – or there, I urge you to look out for them, in case they come to a venue near you.