Hershey Felder, Our Great Tchaikovsky, The Other Palace, Victoria, London

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Hershey Felder has spent the last two decades recreating, on stage, the lives of great composers, while playing their music to highlight salient moments from those lives. Tchaikovsky is the sixth in this series. The genre is part biography, part piano recital.

The stage is set to resemble a room in his dacha in Klin, with rugs, cabinets and a baby grand piano. There is a large portrait over a writing table, whose likeness changes to whoever he is speaking about. The backdrop to the set also has illustrations which change to reflect different periods of his life.

Felder begins the show by coming on to the stage with a letter he has received from the Russian Government inviting him to bring his story of the life their greatest composer to be performed in his home country. He asks the audience whether he should do this.  This is a rhetorical question, as the difference between his account of Tchaikovsky’s life and the official Russian version is vast, and it seems unlikely that Hershey Felder’s telling of events would prove popular there.

Tchaikovsky’s story is told by picking out individual snippets of his life, mostly in chronological order, and combining them with music that he was writing or performing at the time. The effect is like an entertaining lesson combined with a piano recitation by an inventive and musically talented professor; imagine one of the best university lectures that you have attended and you won’t be far wrong.

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Hershey Felder has chosen which events to recreate, so we are given the narrative from his point of view, and he makes us aware that others may look upon his life differently. For me, who liked Tchaikovsky’s music, but who knew hardly anything about his life, it was a perfect combination. I was given an insight into the man while listening to an accomplished pianist playing his greatest hits.review

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Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

Girl from the North Country, Old Vic Theatre, London

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Girl from the North Country contains three or four intertwining stories. These are slight, almost sketches really, but are beautifully told so that we care about the people we see on stage. It contains about twenty songs from Dylan’s back catalogue. These are used, in  an abstract way, to accentuate the drama rather than to move the narrative forward. It would be misleading to call this a musical, it is more a play with musical accompaniment.

The prose and the songs complement each other very well. Given the quality of the cast, the strength of the acting is no surprise. The singing, orchestration and choreography are the revelation. There are some amazing voices in the ensemble. Shirley Henderson and Jack Shalloo, in particular, shock when they sing, but every song is delivered well. The impact of a downtrodden, beaten character suddenly opening their vocal cords is not to be underestimated. Even the songs that I already knew, appeared to be given new life in the context of the play.

The reception of the audience was good, it is not too often that the whole audience stands at the end. I enjoyed this show, Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan are a combination that go together very well.

Robots, The Science Museum, South Kensington, London

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Robots is an exhibition within the Science Museum. The Science Museum itself is wonderful. The building is beautiful, it has lots of fascinating things on display, and general admission is free. So it is certainly worth a visit even if are not considering a chargeable exhibition.DSC_2241

Robots begins with a brief history. It counts clocks, orreries and anatomical models as robots, which may not be in tune with how we would define a robot today.  It soon moves on to items we are more likely to think of as robots, with famous examples from old film and TV; it has the one from the 1920s film metropolis. This section was surprisingly nostalgic and it was nice to see the development of the idea of a robot from the early 20th Century.Asimo

Finally we come to the newest, most interesting, and sometimes creepiest part of the show – the current, cutting edge, design in robots. The variation in looks, ability and use is amazing. There are robots here whose purpose is to play music, to act, to do repetitive tasks, to calm, to teach, and to learn.  Some of these are quite cute, but there are others that are downright strange, and prove the point that there can be something particularly sinister about machines made in the human image. There are about a dozen of these new innovative robots on display and all are compelling in their own way. Some are interesting because the way that they interact and others because of the cleverness of their design.realistic robot

Tickets are £13.50 for an adult and £40.50 for a family of four. This is without donation, I think it is cheeky to add a donation on automatically when charging for entry, either add it onto the price or leave the donation to our conscience. I enjoyed this exhibition, it took me about an hour to go through.  Any longer than an hour and my attention begins to wander, so it was the perfect length.

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This was a real dream that I had last night.

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I realise this post is off topic, but last night, I had an odd dream and I feel compelled to share.
Tessa Jowell’s autobiography arrived in the post. I was surprised as I had no interest in her or her policies. The book had a very nice cover; it was bright yellow with embossed gold fleur-de-lis.
I opened the book and inside the dust cover was a matching dress, the pattern was a bit more garish in a dress than on a book, but nevertheless, I decided to put it on – in order to understand her mindset better. The dress was restrictive, uncomfortable and made me unhappy. However, even worse, the zip was in the middle of the back and I could not get it off. I had to ask friends to help me remove it.
Kerryjane, said “it’s just like the plot of a Disney move”. I asked which one, Catty said “Beauty and the Beast, of course, that’s Emma Watson playing Tessa Jowell. Justine told me that she was writing an aria for the soundtrack and said “It has to have a heavenly choir and Dick on harmonica” Jayne said that Black Radish was supplying the globe artichokes. Kelly said that she had brought me some underwear in case I wasn’t wearing anything underneath. She said “They belong to Olly, but I’m sure he won’t mind, if you really need them – you don’t have to give them back” I assured her that I was fine, I had put the dress on over my normal clothes.
Just then, Fiona arrived carrying a gigantic pair of shiny blue scissors and cut the dress off, much to the relief of everybody involved.
Apologies to anyone who made it to the end, I know how dull other peoples dreams are, but just writing it down was very cathartic!

Khoo Kongsi, Georgetown, Penang

There are many beautiful Chinese clanhouses in Penang, but for me, if you were to choose only one, it would have to be Khoo Kongsi.
It is the most impressive on approach, set in its own square, and once inside, the ornamentation and artwork are exceptional. The detail in the carvings and wall drawings are impressive and unusual.
Not for nothing is this part of Georgetown a UNESCO world heritage centre   
    
    
 

Dusky Leaf Monkeys in the Botanical Gardens, Penang.

These gardens are a short taxi ride out of Georgetown or they are at the bottom of Penang Hill if you descend by road. They are free to enter and have many lovely trees and flowers. There is a train (paid) that will carry you round the gardens if the heat is too much for walking; it does get very hot in the afternoons. For me, the highlight of the gardens was the Dusky Leaf Monkeys eating the topiary trees near the entrance. They are beautiful and seem quite at ease around people. They are also less cheeky and noisome then the Macaques up the hill, near the top of the park.

Worth the trip for the Dusky Leaf Monkeys alone.