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An Honourable Man

We don’t get enough political plays these days, particularly given we’re in our third year of Divided Britain, so this one is very welcome. There are similarities with David Hare’s recent I’m Not Running, but it’s more focused, sharper and funnier – and in a theatre with a fraction of the seats for a fraction of the price!

Joe Newman is a long serving Teeside Labour MP who is deselected by Momentum, but stands and wins decisively as an independent. Even he is surprised by the support he gets from fellow MP’s and the public and this momentum results in the creation of a new party, defections from other parties and an unstoppable electoral march through bi-elections towards the general election. Along the way, surprising policies emerge to feed the populist hunger.

At first I thought it was implausible, then I remembered how Macron emerged in France, albeit from a different direction, and of course Trump, who used an existing party; these disaffected times can bring such surprises. Listening to the news as I write this further buries my thoughts of implausibility. Playwright Michael McManus’ strength is his deep knowledge of British politics, which gives the play a great authenticity, but it also risks being a weakness, as it sometimes feels like you’re inside the Westminster village (with some of its inhabitants making the short journey to be audience members in Kennington!), with the introspection that brings. That said, it’s a gripping tale with sparkling dialogue which I found both entertaining and thought provoking.

Even for the fringe, the production values make it a bit rough at the edges, though there’s an impressive selection of video and audio contributions from real people like Kenneth Clarke, James Naughtie, a whole load of journalists and Sue Pollard! Six excellent performances make up for it, led by Timothy Hacker as Newman. Above all, though, it’s the writing that shines.

Surely destined for life beyond Kennington?

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When I first heard about Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season – 20 of his one-act plays in seven groupings over six months – I thought it was laudable, brave and ambitious, but I’m not a Pinter fan (though Lloyd has recently lured me to a few revivals with fresh interpretations and exciting casting). I decided that it was all or nothing, and at West End prices, nothing won, but a spare evening and a great ticket deal lured me to this fourth, a pairing of plays 33 years apart, one I saw the first outing of and one I’ve never seen, and they couldn’t be more different.

In Moonlight, Andy is dying, lying in his bed with his wife Bel by his side. He reminices about events and people in his life. We also meet his estranged sons, though they don’t meet him, and two friends and a young girl also make an appearance. Lindsay Turner’s production has a dreamlike quality, but with scenes which are imagined or elsewhere played within the bedroom somewhat bewildering. I saw It at the Almeida in 1993 with a stellar cast that included Ian Holm, Anna Massey, Douglas Hodge & Michael Sheen and it seemed a very different play which this time round I didn’t find very interesting or satisfying.

Night School was a TV play and I’m not sure it’s been staged before. After the dullness of Moonlight, it seemed like a little comic gem and much more Pinteresque, or perhaps even Ortonesque. Wally returns from prison to find his family have let his room to a young teacher. He fails to get landlord Solto to loan him money to get back on his feet but he does persuade him to find out more about the new lodger, who turns out to have another occupation altogether. Brid Brennan (Bel in Moonlight) and Janine Dee are a terrific double-act as the aunts, Robert Glenister (Andy in the first play) is great as East End rogue Solto and Al Weaver (son Jake in Moonlight) excellent as Wally.

Very much an evening of two halves, only one of which I really liked.

Striking 12

This show by Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda & Rachel Sheinkin is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. It started as an album in 2002 and became an Off-Broadway show four years later. It appears to have lost half of it’s songs since the album (I’m not sure about the US show) and the big question about this UK premiere is Why?

It’s set on New Years Eve in New York City where Brendan is torn between staying at work and partying. The match girl is now a seller of electric lights. There are just three other actors who play a narrator, other characters and musical instruments like drums and violin, and there’s a pianist. With fourteen songs in seventy minutes there isn’t much time for story or character development and it felt more like a song cycle than a musical.

I liked Oliver Kaderbhai’s lively staging and Natalie Johnson’s design and there are good performances all round, led by Declan Bennett as Brendan and Bronte Barbe as The Match Girl, both in fine voice. I was particularly impressed by Kate Robson-Scott, who played a mean violin. Even though they had already played more than a handful of performances, they hadn’t got the sound balance right the night after the press night, which marred the performance. Using a drum kit necessitates the amplification of vocals in this small space. Despite this, lyrics were lost and acoustic instruments sometimes buried.

Though it’s an eclectic score with some good tunes, and the creatives and cast do their best, sound issues notwithstanding, it’s a slight piece which I’m not sure justifies the transatlantic journey.

I so much enjoyed island-hopping The Cyclades on an archaeology trip two years ago that I pounced at the chance of doing the same in The Dodecanese. This one also allowed for overnighters in Athens both ways, and also took in Samos, technically not part of this chain, but hey…..

Here’s a link to some photos, well a lot of photos, because that’s what it deserves ………… https://photos.app.goo.gl/eMwTcWA6FgB5A4ex9

You have to sympathise with the Greeks. Let down by their governments and the EU, no sign of ever paying off their debt and refugees still using their island coasts as their entry point to Europe. They deserve our support and I for one was happy to make another small contribution to their economy. The islands seem to be faring better than the mainland, as they get a much higher number of tourists per capita, and tourism is just about the only industry left. Athens is faring better too, as we found on the outward stopover, as the city is still a magnet for tourists around the world, and rightly so. Our visit was specifically to see the new(ish) Acropolis Museum, built next to the hill, housing the artefacts found there and affording views of it, the top floor the footprint of the Parthenon with whatever they have in situ. The entrance to the galleries is like that of the Parthenon; it’s a brilliant building with stunning contents; well worth a stopover.

Samos lies virtually parallel with Athens, just a few hundred metres off the coast of Turkey, an island of just 30,000 people. It’s famous for being the wedding venue of Anthony and Cleopatra, who I’d seen on stage just two weeks before! Amongst it’s surprises is a successful wine industry. It now seems to be favoured by German sun-worshipers, a relatively small number still there at the fag-end of the season. We stayed just outside the old capital, now renamed Pythagoreio after the local mathematician who went global with his theorem, on the south of the island, built on the Greco-Roman ruins whose walls were still visible, the finds in their outstanding archaeological museum. The recent refugee influx was evident in the present capital Vathy, a bigger town on the north coast, rising from the sea and climbing the mountains (we did it in reverse!), with a lovely harbour and another excellent archaeological museum. Near Pythagoreio we were able (me just!) to enter the 2500-year-old 1 km long tunnel which contained an aqueduct to bring spring water from the north of the island; an extraordinary achievement. Nearby the sanctuary of Hera, Zeus’ wife, showcased her cult with the ruins of a temple three times the size of the Parthenon, where 100 oxen were regularly slaughtered in their ceremonies. With a good archaeologist and more than a modicum of imagination, it came alive.

The ferry to Patmos, our second island, was delayed and mostly in the dark, so we could hardly see the islands of Aganothisi and Arki where we stopped, but as the latter had a population of 44, I suspect there wasn’t a lot to see anyway. The Aegean sunset was some recompense. This island has a population of just 3000 and the visit brought a change from archaeology to religious history. At the top of the hill overlooking the main town there was the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, and below this a cave church where St. John is believed to have had his revelation. A service was in progress when we visited, but we were welcomed and it enhanced the visit, even for a non-believer like me! A lovely wander through the hilltop Hora was the icing on the cake of a brief but unexpectedly delightful overnight visit before we continued our archaeological pilgrimage by ferry to Kos, with stops at Leros and Kalymnos.

A much busier island, though still only a population of 30,000, this came as a bit if a shock to the system. We spent the first full day in the town of Kos, built amongst the Greco-Roman ruins, not unlike Pythagoreio, but on a larger scale with Ottoman and 20th century Italian additions. The overgrown agora was hugely atmospheric and the Casa Romana a brilliantly reconstructed Roman home. One of the surprises of this trip has been the revelation (well, to me) that, in addition to Roman occupation, the Italians occupied these island in the 20th century, until after the Second World War in fact. The following day we explored the island, visiting another spectacular early Greek site at Asclepion, a healing centre dedicated to Apollo’s son of the same name. The setting was spectacular and the climb through three terraces gave you a real feeling for the place. At Kefalos a couple of small basilicas had a lovely beach setting with a picturesque off-shore island adding to the charm, and at Antimachia, a ginormous crusader fortress (the Knights of St. John) dominated all around. Our last morning was spent at yet another fine archaeological museum, looking at the finds from the sites we’d visited.

On to Rhodes with stops at Nisyros, Tilos and Chalki, an island I’ve wanted to visit for decades. A much bigger and busier island, pop. 115,000, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with the old walled town of Rhodes and its harbour, a lovely collection of buildings from many historical periods. Walking the entire dry moat – a few kms – was exhausting but satisfying, but not as exhausting as the climb to the LIndos acropolis, but I managed it! The views were more stunning than the ruins, but with a tightly packed white village at the foot of the hill too, visiting is a must, despite the surprisingly large off-season crowds.

When I was last in Athens in 2004, the National Archaeological Museum was closed, to be spruced up for the Olympics, and on my previous visit 24 years before that, I wasn’t so interested in archaeology, so I spent an extra two days there on the way home to see it, and also took in the Byzantine Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art and a return to the Benaki Museum. By the end I was all museumed out, but it had to be done; the National collection is one of the greatest in the world.

The sun shone, the sky was clear and the seas relatively calm. Add in excellent rustic food, a little too much wine and good company and it proved to be a fine trip indeed.

The Wipers Times

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to catch up with this, but I’m very glad I did so in its last week. Of all the excellent commemorations of the centenary of the First World War, this seems to me the most human and the most personal, a play based on a true story of some extraordinary men, which both entertained and moved me.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman uncovered the story of a satirical newspaper published in the trenches. Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson, when they are shown a working printer by one of their men, decide to produce something that would raise morale amongst the troops and provide some intellectual stimulation for them. They appear to have got away with it because at least one senior officer saw the potentially positive impact on morale, whilst others saw it as insubordinate, disruptive and potentially mutinous. Its satire targeted the officer class as well as the Germans, the French and the war itself. They managed to produce 23 issues over a two year period, despite moving location and losing the first printer, and news of it got back to blighty.

The story is framed by a post-war scene back in London, but the rest takes place in the trenches and nearby towns in an excellent evocative design by Dora Schweitzer, very well lit by James Smith, with an excellent soundscape by Steve Mayo . There are lots of short scenes, with the changes between them animated by songs of the war. It’s punctuated by comic cameos which pop up behind, and music hall turns stage front. I really liked this combination in Caroline Leslie’s fast-paced staging, which successfully blended the humour, the engaging story of the newspaper and the horrors of life in the trenches. I found myself both laughing out loud and welling up. It’s superbly performed by a cast of ten, three of whom each play three roles, led by James Dutton and George Kemp as Roberts and Pearson.

A very respectful tale of defiance and determination, which brings the story of these extraordinary men the posthumous public attention that is long overdue.

The Rest of November

Opera / Classical Music

My second Nash Ensemble War’s Embers concert at LSO St. Luke’s featured beautiful pieces from Bax and Butterworth with others by Rebecca Clarke and Patrick Hadley, neither of whom I’d ever heard of. I do enjoy these lunchtime treats.

BBC SO’s Total Immersion In Remembrance: World War I at the Barbican combined an excellent film about poet / composer Ivor Gurney, a concert by hugely talented GSMD students of pieces from composers who died during / because of the war, the first revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s brilliant opera The Silver Tassie, David Lang’s choral work Memorial Ground performed in the foyer (the wrong location!) with a couple of talks and even a Virtual Reality experience, culminating in a BBC Singers concert featuring new choral works by Bob Chilcott and Roderick Williams, the former conventional but beautiful and the latter stunningly re-inventing recitative with a new form of prose setting. Given the reason for this mini-festival, it was a melancholic experience, but a musically thrilling one nonetheless.

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele will be one of my operatic highlights of the year. A production that looked great, a chorus and orchestra that sounded great and a star was born – Lithuanian soprano Lina Dambrauskaite. Gorgeous.

The BBC SO pairing of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Ethyl Smyth’s Mass in D at the Barbican Hall seemed odd, apparently put together because the former said some nice, if patronising, things about the latter. As it turned out, though, both were treats, the first because young pianist Pavel Kolesnikov was sensational and the latter, which I’ve been wanting to see for some time, because the chorus and orchestra sang and played terrifically.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, their Symphony Orchestra thrilled again under visiting American conductor Robert Trevino with a superbly played Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunchtime.

I was attracted to a French song recital by Sarah Connolly & James Newby at Wigmore Hall as it featured two favourite composers, Ravel and Debussy, but their songs, which I didn’t really know, did not live up to their orchestral, chamber or operatic works, so despite the artistry I was a bit disappointed.

Back at Wigmore Hall, Mark Padmore & the Britten Sinfonia paired a Vaughn Williams song cycle with a premiere by Luke Styles and sadly the former overshadowed the other. The new piece was too challenging for me!

ENO staged Britten’s War Requiem, as it has done with other choral works before. I’m not sure the staging adds much, though there was some beautiful imagery, and the orchestral sound lost something in the pit, but the three soloists and chorus sounded terrific.

Dance

Layla & Majnun at Sadler’s Wells is the first Mark Morris show to disappoint me. Based on a Middle-Eastern / Central Asian Romeo & Juliet, with Azerbaijani music by the Silkroad Ensemble, it had little of his creative flair and the designs by favourite artist, now deceased, Howard Hodgkin disappointed. I liked the music initially, but it did wear me down long before the 75 minutes were up.

GoteborgsOperans dance company made their first visit to Sadler’s Wells with two of the most thrilling dances I’ve ever seen, both choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and designed by Anthony Gormley. Icon started with Gormley re-cycling some of the clay people in his 25-year-old work Field before tons of soft clay, thirteen dancers and five musicians playing mostly Japanese music became one mesmerising whole. In Noetic, nineteen dancers with a singer & percussionist and pliable metal strips which created a globe before your eyes were spellbinding too. Let’s hope they become regulars here.

Film

A catch-up month starting with A Star Is Born, which I enjoyed. Bradley Cooper and Lady Ga Ga were impressive, the former also as director in his debut.

Widows was a superbly unpredictable film, beautifully shot by Steve McQueen with musical theatre’s Cynthia Erivo proving she’s no one-trick pony.

First Man took a while to take off, but once it did I was captivated by the blend of personal story and actual history, which was gripping even though we all know the outcome!

I wasn’t a big fan of Queen, and I didn’t think they got Freddie Mercury right (teeth too pronounced and too camp), but I was surprised by how much Bohemian Rhapsody moved me and was very glad I went to see it.

Despite superb performances from Glenn Close & Jonathan Pryce, The Wife disappointed, largely because the emphasis on the endgame meant they brushed over the meat of the deceit.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was technically accomplished and well-acted but I didn’t really engage with the story, though it was good to see Hogwarts again, and to meet the young Dumbledore.

Art

Faux Pas of the year was visiting Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery thinking it was (Diego) Rivera! I’m afraid Ribera’s pictures of torture, and his particular penchant for flaying, were not to my taste! Fortunately, as a member it’s free, oh, and the brunch was great!

Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery is a fascinating idea well executed, work by artist in relationships shown together, with biographical information about the relationship. It’s a huge affair featuring some 45 couples, some well-known and others unknown (to me), but had much to like in it.

The Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters was a bit gimmicky, but again worth a visit, though I didn’t bother to queue for the highlight, Richard Wilson’s 20/50, as I’ve seen it quite a few times since its first outing at the tiny Matt’s Gallery 31 years ago.

At the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, Kiwi artist Francis Upritchard has created a ‘museum’, called Wetwang Slack, of item’s she’s made, from quirky models of people to hats, jewellery, urns and much more. It made me smile.

I think it’s extraordinary that a 20th Century weaver can get a huge retrospective at a major public gallery, but that’s what the late Anni Albers has at Tate Modern. In yet another connection with my Bauhaus trip, she trained with them. It was interesting, but probably more for real lovers of textiles and weaving than a generalist like me.

The Edward Burne-Jones retrospective at Tate Britain was brilliant – well, at least to this lover of the Pre-Raphaelites. I normally find studies and drawings exhibition fillers, but here they demonstrate his craftsmanship. The finished pictures and tapestries were stunning, though the stained glass less so for some reason. Upstairs the Turner Prize exhibition was all films, which I skimmed as life is too short to waste several hours on some pretentious shit masquerading as art.

Oceania at the Royal Academy is probably the best showcase of a culture and peoples I’ve ever seen. Art and objects from some of the 10,000 islands that make up the vast area of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia between them conveyed the real essence of this part of the world. Absolutely fascinating. Upstairs in the Sackler Galleries I was surprised at how much I liked Klimt / Schiele drawings from the Albertine Museum in Vienna. The outstanding skills of these two artists really came over in what were mostly portraits and nudes. Beautiful.

First, a link to an online photo album https://photos.app.goo.gl/1fUHwvLLBzMuZ4v1A There are lots, but it’s only a quarter of what I took. It’s a very photogenic city where interior photography is welcome!

When I first visited this city forty-two years ago we were amongst the first tourists to the then USSR. The plane was escorted from touchdown, security guards were at the gate and the state Intourist staff did everything in their power to get you on their escorted tours and keep you away from the real Soviet Union. We were in our early 20’s, with more interest in the excitement of being somewhere so different than we were in the heritage of the Tsars to be seen in palaces and museums. We somehow ‘escaped’ to visit the one department store, ride the metro, get cautioned for jaywalking and trade cigarettes for Red Army belts with soldiers. One of the few nods to culture was a visit to the Kirov for the ballet – a three hour depiction of the revolution, in dance!

It was of course then called Leningrad, as it had been for c.50 years. Brezhnev was in power and the cold war was in its 30th year. It’s now 27 years since the demise of the Soviet Union. The Russian Empire is reborn, with Putin as Tsar and all those oligarchs the new nobility. Other than a dubious democracy and an obsession with security, it’s like any other Western city, where money talks and the infrastructure, hotels, restaurants and shops very much the same. The palaces and museums have been renovated, the churches restored and religion no longer out in the cold, and even the opera house (now the Mariinsky) has a sparkling new bigger brother next door. It’s a totally different place to the one I visited before and unlike China, it links itself to the rest of the world with uncensored international TV news stations and social media like facebook and twitter. Relations with the UK may have been at a new low, but it didn’t really impact our visit. Putin came too, to continue courting the Austrians and to fire the city governor, but apart from the sort of heightened security you get with any such visit, life went on.

The chief reason for returning is that I am now interested in the empire’s heritage – the opulent palaces of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the Hermitage Museum (one of the world’s biggest and greatest, with some 16,500 paintings alone, as well as being the Winter Palace), the now pristine cathedrals and churches like St. Isaacs, St. Nicholas and the more modern but extraordinary Church on Spilled Blood, and world class opera and ballet. For a culture vulture like me, it’s a great big toyshop, and it didn’t disappoint, though we did occasionally have to contend with cruise ship visitors and the phenomenon of the onward global march of the Chinese tourists, but early entry to The Hermitage and other special arrangements helped a lot.

Central St. Petersburg is a relatively flat, low-rise city intersected by rivers and canals, though not to the extent of Venice or Amsterdam, on the Gulf of Finland. The whole central area is designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site. It’s very clean, virtually devoid of litter. With seemingly unrestricted parking, there are parked cars absolutely everywhere. Peter the Great founded it in 1703, bringing in the best of European architecture, art and design. His work was continued by subsequent tzars, most notably Catherine the Great later in the eighteenth century. Apart from its 65 years as Leningrad and ten years as Petrograd, it has retained this name for 240 years, 200 of them as the capital. It’s Russia’s 2nd city with a population of 5 million. The 1905 revolution began here and the storming of the city’s Winter Palace signalled the beginning of the 1917 revolution. The 2.5 year seige during World War II left a deep scar.

Amongst the highlights were the palaces – Winter Palace (The Hermitage), Shuvalov Palace (housing the new Faberge Museum), Menshikov Palace and Yuupov Palace in the city, Peterhof and Catherine & The Great Palace in Pushkin. Perhaps because they have all been renovated relatively recently, everything seems sparklingly new, with the gold leaf positively blinding. The same can be said of the cathedrals and churches, notably St Issac, across the road from our hotel, SS Peter & Paul, St Nicholas Naval Cathedral and the extraordinary Church on Spilled Blood, built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander. The Russian Museum is a brilliant display of 100 years of Russian Art, again in a former palace. I wasn’t sure I was going to like the bling of the Faberge Museum, but I admired the craftmanship and the palace and other contents made it a worthwhile visit. There’s not a lot you can say about the Hermitage except that it is overwhelming, but the palace rooms and the impressionist & post-impressionist collections in particular are unmissable. We got to a lovely ballet at the old Mariinsky and Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman at the new one, so there were arts fixes too. The accompanying photos tell the rest of the story.