Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1

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London is blessed with a large selection of excellent museums and galleries. The majority of these are free. The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth is a good example of this. It is one of five Imperial War Museum locations in the UK, three of which are in London. Set up in the 1920s to commemorate the effort and sacrifice of Britain in First World War, it is now dedicated to the understanding of modern war, and confines itself to those conflicts in which Britain or the Commonwealth had some involvement.

The building is impressive, surrounded by the green lawns of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, it is about a five minute walk from Lambeth North tube station. It has ionic columns at its entrance and an impressive dome. It also has its own interesting history, in the 19th Century it was the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital, the psychiatric facility that allowed visitors to watch the inmates as public entertainment. It is this building that became the origin of the word bedlam.

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The museum is arranged over five floors. The top floor is the Lord Ashcroft gallery which has a large collection of medals awarded for bravery and the stories of many people who have been presented with them. It is an interesting investigation into the definition of courage and what inspires heroic acts.

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The fourth floor is dedicated to the holocaust and the rise of Nazism in the mid twentieth century. This contains a surprisingly in depth analysis of the political climate that led to the spreading of the ideology and a comprehensive presentation of its results. There is a scale model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which really gives perspective to the magnitude of the crimes. This floor needs to be approached with care, the display is moving and distressing.

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The Third floor has an exhibit called Curiosities of War, which is a collection of unusual war related items. This is quirky and  comparatively light. The second floor is split between conflicts after WWII and a display about espionage. The recent conflicts exhibition is thought provoking, it brings current events sharply into focus. The spy section seems lightweight, I guess it is tough to say much about state secrets without giving those secrets away. This floor also holds a real size model of an atomic bomb, it is shocking how small it is.

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The two lowest floors hold the largest items, tanks, ambulances, rockets, large guns and planes….the remains of a vehicle that was once a car bomb. The descriptions of the items and the uses to which they were put is almost more interesting than viewing the items themselves.

The Hall of Remembrance, is a gallery that was proposed to be built containing artwork commissioned as a memorial to the war dead of WWI. The project ran out of money in the 1920s and was never completed. The Imperial War Museum holds all the artwork that was due to be shown in this gallery and has put it on their website in the form of a virtual gallery. This is a beautiful testimonial and well worth a visit, I have put a link here . 

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War is not entertainment and this will not be your jolliest day out in London. However, The Imperial War Museum is something that you really should visit when you come to the UK. It is wonderful that this city has such high quality resources and amazing that it offers them for free. The building has step free access and there is  parking for Blue Badge holders, but it needs to be booked. Recommended.

 

 

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Stories, National Theatre, South Bank London SE1

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About a year ago. I saw Nina Raine’s last play, Consent, also at the Dorfman Theatre here at the National.  It was the strength of the writing in that production that drew me to see Stories. This is a play about Anna, a woman approaching 40, who is desperate to have a baby. She does not have a partner and she is investigating the options available to her as a would be single mother.

The Dorfman theatre is an intimate venue when laid out in the round, suited to the living room settings of this play. The show consists of multiple short scenes and the automated set changes where the sections of the floor rise to make a table or slide in to form a bed are very cleverly done. They contribute well to the maintaining the pace of the drama, through the constant scene changes. The clean IKEA lines also felt nicely contemporary.

Anna is played by Claudie Blakely with a controlled desperation, knowing that if she shows it too much, that she will frighten baby fathers off. Sam Troughton plays all the prospective sperm donors and he is almost too good at this, in that his changing performances are very funny and at times this becomes the focus of the play,  distracting your attention from the main storyline. Anna is the only person in the entire play that is one person playing one part and this diminishes the clarity of the piece somewhat.

Brian Vernel is excellent as Anna’s younger brother and Stephen Boxer is fantastic as her Dad. They have great lines and the spiky but caring relationship the three of them have is beautifully conveyed. The rest of the characters are less fully rounded and although they have some very funny lines, they are sometimes two dimensional ciphers. I found this particularly true of Natasha and Girl. I did realise, eventually, that they are meant to represent Anna’s inner child and inner parent, but I am not sure what they added to the story.

I think there might be brilliant play in here, but the story is not presented clearly enough to follow easily. Nina Raine is a fantastic author, there are probably few writers who can capture current bar and dinner table conversations as well or as wittily. This is not the ground breaking piece that she will one day write, but I enjoyed it well enough and I will continue to look out for shows that she writes in the future.

 

Gillray’s Steakhouse & Bar, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1

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This restaurant is inside the Marriott County Hall hotel. If you arrive by car the entrance is from Westminster Bridge Road through the hotel. The most attractive entrance though, is from Queens Walk, beside the river Thames. A sweep of steps leads you up from the walkway into a bright relaxed bar area and the restaurant entrance is a few steps to the right inside the door.

The room is sunlit and airy, light wood walls with large windows along one side overlooking the river. The view is lovely on a summer evening; people walking beside the river, the London Eye to the right and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament across the Thames to the left. We were here quite early, a pre-theatre dinner before a show at the National, which is a couple of hundred metres away along the South Bank. They have a pre and post theatre offer, it has a wider choice than many set menus and it is good value too.

There is a starter of chicken and mushroom roll, this is pleasantly spicy, a nice combination of flavours. We also tried the crusted pan fried mackerel, which was really a Caesar salad with mackerel, also good – the crusted fish taking the place of croutons. There is a choice of six mains, three steaks, a lamb, a fish dish and a vegetarian choice. The rib eye was nice, a little undersealed to be perfect but a good flavour. The lamb yorkie pie is a lamb casserole inside a large Yorkshire pudding, a clever serving idea. The lamb was nice, although the Yorkshire was more like a carvery pudding which is made in advance and kept warm.

I felt that the drinks were a little overpriced, the beer especially. The happy hour offer of a house gin and tonic for a fiver is not necessarily so wise, as this makes one aware of how much one might be paying for a branded gin at other times. The service was good, the staff were attentive and available whenever we needed them.

Overall, we had an enjoyable dinner in very pleasant surroundings, so if you have a show on the Southbank, Gillray’s Steakhouse and Bar is certainly worth considering.

Sea Wall, Old Vic, London, SE1

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Sea Wall was written by Simon Stephens specifically for Andrew Scott. He first performed it ten years ago at the Bush theatre in Hammersmith. Since that time, both of them have become regarded as leaders in their sphere. Simon Stephens was already very well regarded, being involved with young writers at The Royal Court, but his hugely successful adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” has taken his career to a new level. Andrew Scott has been involved in the big hit TV series, Sherlock, where he plays Moriarty, and his stage performance of Hamlet was one of last years stand out performances. https://reviewdonkey.wordpress.com/?s=hamlet

This particular play has developed something of a cult following, it has been performed in the UK and Ireland and there is filmed version of it available online. I have to say that it is a truly remarkable piece, beautifully written. It plays to all of Andrew Scott’s  considerable strengths. He interacts directly with the audience, his naturalistic style of acting fits perfectly with the writing and one cannot help but be moved by his telling of the story. It was surely imagined for performance in a much smaller space than the Old Vic but Andrew Scott has even this larger audience in the palm of his hand.

The piece is short, only half an hour long, and the tightwad in me, initially felt a little short changed that The Old Vic is charging pretty nearly full price for a thirty minute one man show with no set. However, with perspective, Sea Wall is a very high quality, dense piece and I’m not sure that Andrew Scott, or the audience for that matter, could have kept up that level of intensity for any longer.

This show really enhances the reputations of both the actor and the writer. From Andrew Scott we really do get a masterclass in captivating an audience. He managed to make a thousand seat auditorium feel like a private conversation. I think that after he has finished the run here, there is life in the show yet and, I suspect that it is likely to be performed at other venues in the future. If not, I believe that you can watch the show on film at  http://www.seawallandrewscott.com/ I haven’t watched it yet, but if it is half as good as it is live then you are in for a treat!

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.

 

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.