Apologia, Trafalgar Studios, London

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I went to the first night of the previews. I really enjoyed it. The action takes place over an evening birthday party and the morning after. It was a little slow to get started but after that, the first act is good; the script is funny, arch and sharp. It appears to be a play about nostalgia for the idealism of the 1960s and children with abandonment issues. However, the second act is transformative, I love how it turns your perspective on its head, we get to know the characters better and see their motivation differently. The play is really about women’s place in society, whether this has changed over the past 50 years and about the price people are willing to pay for attempting to bring about change.

The direction is simple, Jamie Lloyd lets the words speak for themselves. The set is clever, the stage is framed like a picture or perhaps the old photograph given as a birthday gift.  The whole cast is good, but this play is really about the women, Laura Carmichael and Freema Agyeman are both outstanding and Stockard Channing is amazing.

The writing is great and I will be looking out for other plays by Alexi Kaye Campbell. I guess there will be a few tweaks before the general opening, but it got a full standing ovation on the night I went. I hope the critics like it as much as I did and that Apologia is a huge success.

Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre, London,

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Hamlet is a play that has been done so many times in London over the last few years, it seems to be the role that every major star wants to do, to prove their worth. Well, this version, directed by Robert Icke and starring Andrew Scott is, without doubt, the best of them.  The direction is wonderful, it makes the play feel current and relevant to today. I love the use of technology; the ramparts on video cameras, the war coverage on a 24hour news station,  the paparazzi at the wedding.

Andrew Scott is a fantastic Hamlet, hurt, sarcastic and sardonic, he speaks every line as though he is having difficulty putting the depth of his feelings into words. The words are 17th century but his delivery of them is 21st century psychoanalytical. The modern setting brings out humour, in his lines, that was previously hidden and it makes his cruelty towards Ophelia and his mother, all the more harsh.

Derbhle Crotty plays Gertrude, as a worried caring mother, a bit frivolous and taken in by the attentions of her late husbands brother. I liked the chime in accent between her and Hamlet, it emphasised their bond and highlighted his reason for feeling betrayed by her.  Angus Wright is wonderful as Claudius. In this production he is a modern Machiavelli, concerned with approval ratings and how the public would feel if he prosecuted Hamlet for the death of Polonius. He is the ultimate politician king, bland and reasonable while plotting death. It makes one realise how little politics has changed through the centuries.

Peter Wight is great as Polonius, usually played for laughs, but here he is a family man, desperately trying to enhance the lives of his children by means of his diplomacy. The affection between Laertes, Polonius and Ophelia is underlined in this production, and the sense of loss is deeper because of it. David Icke is not afraid to take risks, I am not sure about the Bob Dylan songs, bringing 1960s music into such an up to the minute setting jarred a little, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern work very well as a romantically involved couple and why wouldn’t one of them be female. I am looking forward to the Tom Stoppard update.

The finale is deliberate, each character allowed their own time. Horatio is solicited to tell the tale, but it has all been recorded on video, so it will be available for the news channels to package and present, from all points of view, for years to come….

This is a fantastic production, it has a month left to play, London theatre at its very best.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Duke of York’s Theatre

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Six catholic schoolgirls in uniform arrive on stage to sing a hymn, Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes”. They have angelic voices, it is beautiful. After the song they begin to talk, the language is sinful and the subjects are carnal. The juxtaposition is funny and moving.

This play is the story of their day trip to Edinburgh to sing in a choir competition. Over the course of this twenty four hours they meet various characters from the places they visit. These characters are played by the girls themselves and this combined with the strong accents and dialect made following the action hard work in places. However, the script is witty and coarse and the singing is fantastic, especially the classical pieces and hymns. Many of the rock songs are Electric Light Orchestra covers.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is a well observed play. It is insightful, in that it makes us aware of the difference between the world that their convent schooling is preparing them for and the actual world that they will inhabit when they leave. This play makes you question how qualified ecclesiastic schools are at preparing children for a life in a secular society.

An entertaining and thought provoking show, with a very talented cast. I am sure we shall hear of many of these actors again.

Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961

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Victim is a classic movie in so many different ways. It is a great representative of the black and white, crime thriller, genre of the early 1960s. The storyline is good, it is well told and the suspense will keep you interested right until the finale.  It is a fantastic British movie, made in the Pinewood studios with high production values. It has all the hallmarks of British film making at the time. The dialogue is clipped and the characters are bristling with repressed emotion.

It has a wonderful setting with splendid views of London just before the start of the swinging ’60s. St Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court are still recognisable, with Oliver! playing at what is now the Noel Coward Theatre. There are also nice shots of Millbank, Soho and the Thames. The pub scenes were filmed in a real pub, The Salisbury, on the corner of St Martins Lane, which was a gay pub until the 1980s. The pub is still there today and still has the Victorian fixtures and fittings seen in the film.

 

Victim has a courageous and dashing performance by Dirk Bogarde who risked his matinee idol status by taking on such a controversial role. He was a male romantic lead, so playing a man with homosexual tendencies, constrained though they may have been, would have put this career in jeopardy. He is excellent in the role and apparently he added the line “I wanted him!” which almost had the film banned. Sylvia Syms puts in a good performance as his unfulfilled wife, wavering between hurt and compassion. The whole cast is excellent and there are recognisable faces throughout the film.

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This was a shocking film when it came out in 1961 and it almost did not get past either the British or American censors at the time. It was the first film to use the word homosexual and it was the first mainstream movie to allude to it in a non negative manner.  It was this, that made it a danger to public morals and gave it the X rating that it received when it was released. Homosexuality is not the direct subject matter, but a blackmail ring that was targeting the frequenters of a gay pub. This was a common occurrence at the time as homosexual relations were an offence that could land one in jail and would certainly ruin a career.

While this film, itself, did not advocate gay rights, its sympathetic portrayal of some gay characters allowed the conversation to begin and this will have helped to bring about the change in the law six years later. Victim often appears in lists of all time greatest films, and it was certainly a brave and groundbreaking piece of film making.  Whether you are interested in the history of cinema, or the history of gay rights then you should see this movie. It is being shown currently at the BFI on the south bank as part of the gross indecency season, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, but it very often included in retrospective seasons of gay film, British film, or classic crime thrillers.

Of course, most importantly of all, it is a very enjoyable film to watch!

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.

Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, London

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Apsley House is the smart, columned building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner. It has been the home of the Wellington family since the 18th Century, and it is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday during the summer months. It is a stunning Grade 1 listed building, and many of the interiors are kept in the style of decoration that they would have had at the time they were built. It is unlikely that there is a better maintained aristocratic home in Central London.

The decoration is interesting, there is some of Roberts Adam’s 18th century classical interior design remaining. It was renovated in the early 19th Century when Wellington was living in Downing Street as Prime Minister. The Waterloo Gallery was added at this time to commemorate his victory over Napoleon, and to this day, there is a banquet held annually on 18th June to celebrate this.

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There is also an amazing art collection, made up of gifts from grateful war allies, or items acquired as the spoils of war during the defeat of Napoleon. There are paintings by Titian, Van Dyke, Rubens, Goya and Velazquez and many others. You can even see the original painting that contained the image of Wellington, that was used on our old five pound note.

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The are many other items of historical interest. It holds the oldest grand piano in England. There are two beautiful porcelain dinner services on display; The Waterloo Meissen Banquet service, painted with scenes of his greatest victories, and the Josephine Egyptian dessert service given by Napoleon to his wife as a divorce gift.  Another highlight is the wonderful 3.5metre nude statue of “Napoleon as Mars the God of Peace” by Canova.

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The property is run by English Heritage, so it is free to enter if you are a member, but chargeable otherwise. The entry fee includes a touchscreen audio tour, this is very informative and there are seats in some of the rooms, where you can sit and listen to descriptions of the paintings and decoration. The no photographs rule is disappointing. The pictures here are from the tiled passageways under Hyde Park Corner.  The building is nice and cool on a warm summer day. It is also surprisingly quiet given its position, right in the centre of London.

If you are looking for a break from the more crowded tourist attractions in central London, Apsley House is well worth a visit.

Park Room and Library, Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane, London

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We were looking for somewhere to celebrate our wedding anniversary and the Park Room and Library sounded like a good deal, so four of us came for the bottomless champagne afternoon tea. The room is beautiful. It is light and airy; full of windows which look across Park Lane into Hyde Park. The traffic is muted by the flower displays between you and the pavement. The room is decorated in pale summery colours with a pretty butterfly motif throughout. It will appeal to overseas visitors; the formal dress of the staff and the height of the ceilings gives the room a light, old colonial feel.

The afternoon tea itself was very good, limitless finger sandwiches, as many scones as we liked and a wide array of pastries served on pretty cake stands. We were even given a selection box of these to take when we left! There was a big choice of both savoury and sweet options and the waiter enquired about any dietary requirements before he took our orders. The service was fantastic, out waiter was generous with the champagne and our glasses were topped up constantly during our two hour meal. There was a big variety of teas from which to choose, all served on a bone china tea service.

Its position at the top of Park Lane near to Marble Arch is very central. If you are visiting London and looking for a venue to have a British Afternoon Tea, especially if you are partial to a glass of Champagne, this would be a very nice place to enjoy it. We booked about a week in advance and it was busy, so I think you would need to be very lucky to just walk in without booking. I guess at £40 it is not the cheapest afternoon tea in London, but with unlimited food and Champagne, I think it represents pretty good value.