Summer and Smoke, Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2

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Summer and Smoke had a successful run at the Almeida theatre earlier in the year. The reviews at the time were ecstatic but tickets were impossible to get, so it was great news to hear that it had been given a West End transfer. When it was first produced, in 1948, it was the follow up to “A Streetcar Named Desire” but it did not match that play’s success. There have been revivals in the intervening years, but the only successful one has been the off Broadway version, with Geraldine Page as Alma, that was eventually made into the film with Laurence Harvey as John. Geraldine Page received an Oscar nomination for that part.

The set is a bare brick wall with seven pianos set in a semi circle facing it. These are played at the start, finish and at dramatic moments through the play. The rest of the stage is basically empty, save a few chairs brought on and removed as they are needed. The setting is the American deep south in the early 20th Century, classic Tennessee Williams territory. The story is too, a tale of unrequited love struggling against unbridled lust, set in a small American town in the sweltering heat of summer’s sultry climate.

Director, Rebecca Frecknall, has taken the decision to make this production revolve totally around Alma Winemiller. She is almost always on stage and on the rare occasions when she is not central, we are thinking about how this will affect her state of mind. This is a bold directing decision, but perfectly vindicated by Patsy Ferran’s performance as Alma. She is phenomenal, it is a career defining role and she drags us through every high and low. One of the toughest things for an actor to do is bring the audience with them when they have a life changing epiphany which totally reverses their world view, Patsy Ferran does this remarkably well, and if she does not win awards for her acting in this play, then I cannot wait to see the performance that beats it.

The rest of the cast are excellent too and provide brilliant support. There are a couple of moments where music is used to heighten the drama. Both of these are chillingly good. Anjana Vasan has a beautiful blues voice, when she sings in the casino. The slow motion sequence during the shooting, which I think used a Portishead track, has an ethereal, poetic quality that raises the production to a more abstract, surreal vision than we are used to seeing in a Tennessee Williams play, and this worked very well.

I enjoyed this production, it was brave enough to approach Tennessee Williams in a more lyrical manner than usual, the added musical dimension, although lightly used was very effective and it will endure in the memory for the amazing performance of Patsy Ferran in the leading role.

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Macbeth, National Youth Theatre, Garrick Theatre, London WC2

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This is the third of the National Youth Theatre’s West End season that I have seen, after Consensual and Victoria’s Knickers, which were on last month at the Soho Theatre. I am pleased to say that Macbeth maintains the high standard set by the first two.

This is a contemporary and stylish version of the play. It was interesting to see Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Duncan, all as women, it was good to see how little it changed the dynamic of the piece. Of course, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are both ambitious, determined characters and this setup underlines that each has their own portion of the guilt to bear. Isabel Adomakoh Young as Lady Macbeth does a fantastic job of displaying her ambition when strengthening her partner’s resolve at the start, and then showing her despair when she feels it has gone too far. Olivia Dowd as Macbeth makes us see  how difficult it is to carry out the first undefended murder and then shows us that each successive one becomes more easy, until by the end she doesn’t care how many lives it costs as long as she keeps her power.

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The witches in this Macbeth are fantastic. They look both dramatic and other worldly. Their movement and utterances are chilling, perhaps the best realisation of the witches I have seen, in a perfect combination of costume and delivery. The direction with regard to the apparitions is masterful too, they appear as though spawned by an archfiend that the witches have conjured up. This is a Macbeth where the effects of the supernatural world are strongly felt.

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Back in Scotland, Jay Mailer is good as Ross, Oseloka Obi is a strong and sturdy Macduff and Jamie Ankrah is great as a soldierly Banquo. This is a very accessible Macbeth, Natasha Nixon as director has been clever in managing to convey the horror of the tale while minimising the blood and the gore. I really enjoyed this stripped down, stylized telling of the Scottish play. Its on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons at the Garrick Theatre until the 7th December.

It has been most enjoyable to see 3 of the NYT West End shows this winter, the standard of acting has been very high and I am looking forward to seeing many of the actors on stage or screen again in the near future. If you are in town when the next year’s season is announced, it is worth looking up – the tickets are such good value for a west end show and the productions are excellent quality.  I have to say that, for me, The National Youth Theatre Rep Company’s West End seasons are a highlight of the theatre year.

Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 1. Victoria Revealed & Diana, her fashion story.

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Kensington Palace has been a place of residence of the British Royal family since 1689. It was bought as a completed building by William and Mary when they ascended to the throne and it has been expended and improved since, by both Christopher Wren and by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Part of the palace is still used as living accommodation by the Dukes and Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex.

Those parts not being lived in are open to the public. Currently they contain four exhibitions, one ticket allows entry to all four. Entrance to the Palace gardens, including the attractive sunken gardens is free and these are certainly worth the time it takes to walk round them on days when the weather is clement.

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Victoria Revealed is an exhibition about the life of Queen Victoria. She was born in Kensington Palace and lived here until she became monarch in 1837. It consists of eight rooms detailing her life in, mainly chronological, order. It does contain some interesting personal items such as the dolls with which she played as a child. The portrait of her at the time of her coronation, shows why she was considered a beauty in her youth.

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It has the uniform that her husband Albert wore on their wedding day. This has embroidered messages, such as “dearly loved” and “Oh my Angel Albert”, on the cuffs collar and pockets. It also has a garter, tied visibly, just below the left knee. It also has the gilt bassinet which held many of her nine children, as babies.

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The rooms are relatively sparsely decorated, but have some nice busts and a few interesting paintings, including a couple of the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace, in which it took place. The Great Exhibition was opened in in 1851 by Queen Victoria herself. In the gardens of the palace, stands “The Queen Victoria Statue” designed, in marble, by her own daughter Louise, who was a celebrated artist of the time.

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The presentation contains a moving memorial to Albert. Victoria was strongly affected by his death, she wore mourning clothes and withdrew from public life for many years after.  Victoria Revealed is a fascinating show, the items on display are sympathetically exhibited and give a nice insight into her personal life.

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Also on the first floor is “Diana, her fashion story”. This is a collection of Princess Diana’s most famous suits and dresses. There are about 20 of her outfits on show here, along with notes about the designers and details of the occasions on which she wore them. They are interesting in that they mark the fashions of the time as well as well as being beautifully designed. It is surprising how many of them are recognizable, it seems that time has proven that Diana really was a fashion icon of the 1980s and 90s.

Hogarth’s Progress Part 2, The Taste of the Town, Rose Theatre, Kingston

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Nick Dear’s second part of Hogarth’s Progress is set thirty years on from part 1 which is reviewed here: Hogarth’s Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston. This second play is also a fictional story based around real events in the life of William Hogarth.  By this time he has enjoyed success, and he is serjeant painter to King George III. He has taken a house in the countryside, in Chiswick.

This story also takes place on a drunken day, although by now William Hogarth is something of a reformed character and one has the impression that days such as these are less frequent than in the past. Although the day itself is a fictional day, the characters in the play are real, and the people and events that they discuss are fact. Hogarth is worried that, although he is relatively rich and famous, his art is not given the gravitas it deserves. The play then, although it is a light comedy in style, has an underlying discussion about what exactly it is that constitutes success. It is a cleverly written piece and it works well on both levels.

The dialogue is crisp and funny. The characters have depth, we see their flaws and like them nevertheless. Mark Umbers is very good as David Garrick, the multi faced actor. He is smooth, accomplished and very aware that the whole world is a stage. The role of Horace Walpole is beautifully written and it is beautifully played Ian Hallard. His lines are witty, barbed, and perfectly delivered. He rips Hogarth to shreds so sweetly that the artist leaves his house almost believing that he has made a new best friend.

The acting throughout is superb. Sylvestra Le Touzel is wonderful as Lady Thornhill, arch and harsh, but knowing where her best interests lie. Jasmine Jones shines again, this time as Bridget. It is interesting to see the cast playing different parts in each play and I enjoyed the links between the two shows, although each is an independent narrative and works without any knowledge of the other.

Both of these shows are interesting and both are worth seeing. If you can only see one, the first is frenetic and explicit, the second is calmer and sharper but each one is funny in its own way, so it depends on how you like your comedy. If I had to choose, I think I would probably pick the second, simply for the wonderful characters Walpole and Garrick.

 

Hogarth’s Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston

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The Art of Success was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1986. it was written by Nick Dear, he has now written a companion piece, set 30 years later and they are being presented as a double bill at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, under the title “Hogarth’s Progress”. The first play depicts Hogarth’s life at the time just before the copyright act came into force when he had just done “A Harlot’s Progress” and before he started “A Rake’s Progress”. The second will depict him in later life. They are meant to complement each other and still work as stand alone plays.

Set in London in the 1730s, “The Art of Success” is a ribald and raucous story, telling of the partying antics of many of the renowned people of the day. These include Hogarth himself, the satirist Henry Fielding, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, brothel keeper Elizabeth Needham and even George II’s wife Queen Caroline. Many scenes are salacious and slanderous, reflecting the satirical plays of the time that led to the passing of the Theatrical Licensing Act. Hogarth was instrumental in causing the engraving copyright act to be passed and there is a subtext to this play about the ownership of art and about how art develops in times of social change, which chimes with the present day challenges for art in the different forms of social media.

Having said all that, the main thrust of the play is a bawdy farce about an epic night on the town and is meant to be enjoyed as just that. In this respect it works well.  It has funny jokes, although it occasionally veers into Carry-on territory. It is merciless in lampooning the aristocracy and it has enjoyable characters. The cast is spectacular, every performance is good.  Jasmine Jones is excellent as Sarah Sprackling, she manages to get a great balance between comedy and pathos. Jack Derges as Henry Fielding is both funny and loathsome. Bryan Dick does a fantastic job of holding it all together as runs about the town in various stages of disrepair.

The set is ingenious, I liked how contemporary it manged to be while still displaying the 18th Century. I cannot imagine that they had the ability to use the effects on display here when it was first produced 32 years ago, and I enjoyed the little nods to modern technology in the direction. “The Art of Success” is a play that you continue to appreciate after you have left the theatre and I am looking forward to seeing part 2 “The Taste of the Town” when it opens next week.

 

Now The Hero, Swansea International Festival.

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Swansea International Festival runs from the 22nd September to the 7th October this year. It has many interesting events, among them a stand up performance by Rob Bryden and a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”.

The centrepiece of the Festival is a Welsh Commission for 14-18NOW called “Now The Hero” 14-18NOW have collaborated with various artists to make some very compelling pieces over the past few years, related to the centenary of the First World War. A particularly thought provoking event earlier this year was “Fly by Night” where thousands of pigeons with LED lights were released over the Thames at sunset.

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“Now The Hero” is their final piece and it looks like another winner. It is an immersive musical/theatrical parade, starting in Swansea Bay and finishing with a choir recital in Brangwyn Hall in the city. It tells the story of three Welsh warriors from different time periods. There is an ancient Celtic soldier, a First World War conscript and a contemporary service man. There is also a voice for peace, with Eddie Ladd voicing quotes from protestors at Greenham Common’s women’s camp.

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The music is a choral requiem written by Owen Morgan Roberts and Owen Sheers. It is based on a traditional old Welsh poem “Y Gododdin” and will be performed by Cambridge choir, Polyphony. Brangwyn Hall where the event finishes contains “The British Empire Panels” a work originally commissioned to be hung in the House of Lords but rejected by them as too colourful.  It was notoriously described at the time by Lord Crawford as “all tits and bananas”, however almost a hundred years later it is regarded as a powerful commemoration of Welsh participation in the First World War.

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This event will transform Swansea over the course of five days  on 25th to 29th September and it looks as though it will be a spectacular highlight of the Swansea International Festival.

Other performances at the Festival are The BBC National Orchestra with Karl Jenkins and The Welsh National Opera doing “Rhondda Rips it Up” with Lesley Garrett and Madeline Shaw. So if you are looking for some art and culture at the end of September, Swansea is the place to be!

Taster Classes at the City Lit, Keeley Street WC2.

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The City Lit is an adult education college situated in the heart of London’s West End. It has a huge number and variety of classes. Twice a year, usually in April and September, they have open days, where prospective students can visit the college, to see what it is like and to discover whether City Lit has anything to offer them.

During these open days they also host over 100 different Taster classes, so one can see what the course is like. Some of these are free, the rest cost either £5 or £10. Examples of taster lessons are: History, Discover Spanish, Adult Ballet, Stand Up Comedy, WordPress, An Introduction to Art and Architecture in Persia, Piano for Absolute Beginners, Screen Printing….. They even have a number of magical mystery courses where the student is not told what they will study until after they arrive in the classroom.

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Over the course of past two sets of Open Days, I have attended four of the Taster classes and have enjoyed them immensely. This was really my introduction to the phenomenon of education as entertainment. The four classes that I took were: Introduction to Arabic, WordPress, a brief overview, Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey and Curious – blue which is one of the mystery lessons.

The Arabic gave a basic overview of how the language works, we did not really get any insight into the alphabet or written Arabic, and by the end of the lesson we were all able to introduce ourselves, say where we were from and make the general opening conversation pleasantries. This is certainly enough for one to be able to know whether taking the full term class is something that would be of interest.

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WordPress was much more practical and the classroom had many very up-to-date PCs. By the end of the lesson everyone in the class has set up their own WordPress account,  made a webpage with text, pictures, video and sound. The computer courses are often single unit workshops to work on a specific programme or platform. The taster would be enough to inform you whether the medium would be constructive in your business or life.

Homer was a much more relaxed affair. An informative discourse, telling the story of his epic poems, the time in which they were written and a chat about why they have remained of interest for such a long period of time. City Lit has a large selection of humanities and social science classes and this would be a good test of whether this kind of course might be what would be of interest.

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The Curious Blue course, the mystery course, was the busiest of all the classes that I tried. It surprised me that for so many people that it was not important what class they attended, it was more about the enjoyment of taking part. It turned out that the course was an introduction to Latin. The class was fun and very informative, we learned almost as much about English and language structure in general as we did about Latin.

There is a great deal of camaraderie in learning and I interacted with many people over the series of lectures – all of them in a positive way. Everybody I spoke to was having an enjoyable time and many were learning about themselves as well as their chosen subjects. One person I chatted to had taken the “Piano for Absolute Beginners” taster course and was amazed at his ability to play the chorus of “Ode to Joy” by the time the class was over. A lady I spoke to in the Latin class had signed up for the “Stand Up Comedy” course because she had taken the taster course and enjoyed it so much.

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City Lit’s open days were, for me, a truly eye opening adventure. I enjoyed them thoroughly. I had forgotten that learning was such a positive experience, the building was buzzing with excited chatter. I recommend them heartily and I know that I will be looking out for the dates of their open days and taster classes in the coming years!