Friday, 29 August 2008

Afterlife: also featuring acrobats, the Queen, Radiohead and rhyming couplets

The rainclouds have been presiding over something of a theatrical drought for me this summer, with real life constantly getting in the way.

So, when I had a free evening yesterday I decided to go along to whatever was available at the National Theatre. I ended up with a front row seat at Afterlife . Praise be to Travelex and last minute tickets.

Beforehand, I had a wander around the Press Photographers Year exhibition, which I highly recommend if you can get there by Saturday. Some particular images that stood out for me included the Queen standing glumly under a 1970s style clear plastic umbrella which was clearly specifically chosen to match the royal frock; a photo of Radiohead taking their own photo; a surprisingly hairy Daniel Radcliffe without any clothes; a startling image of a car in the summer floods; and Gordon Brown looking stressed on his way to breakfast.

Afterlife is a biography of Max Reinhardt told through the Everyman plays he instigated at the Salzburg Festival before the Nazis arrived. Nicely staged and well acted, I didn't particularly object to the rhyming couplets that the critics hated so much. Roger Allam did a sterling job as usual, and I thoroughly enjoyed David Schofield's performance as Muller/Death. Poor old Selina Griffiths though, typecast again as Gusti Adler, Reinhardt's PA. She played a similar character in The Smoking Room, and reminds me of Joyce Grenfell as Miss Gossage. But maybe that's just me.

Being in the front row has its advantages, but also brings its own problems: squeaky floorboards on the stage; being able to see the fire exit sign below stage as Reinhardt descends after death; and having to guess what the Nazis were doing when they all pulled a very strange face in unison. I guess that there was a lighting effect to produce scary death heads or something, but it was completely lost on me...

The set was well done, with grand marble steps leading right down to our feet in the front row. It illustrated the grandeur of Reinhardt's productions and lifestyle, and his attempts to break through the fourth wall very well. Whether intentionally or not though, the attempts to reach across the void were all a bit awkward. Comments to the audience, such as 'Madam, your wig is crooked' were greeted with embarrassed laughter and a tiny hint of a groan. This could all be taken as a comment on Reinhardt's style and ultimate failures, but I personally think not. The highlight though was Reinhardt's direction of servants and eventually the whole cast in a perfectly choreographed mime of a dinner being served. Wonderful.

Overall, the play didn't add up to as much as it thought it did, but it was still a perfectly enjoyable night out and I don't really think the critical venom was justified. So, it's worth a look if you can get a discounted seat, as I notice top price seats have now gone up to £41 .... Ouch!

Oh, and on the way in to the theatre I stopped to watch a great dance/acrobatic display in the outdoor performance space. I love the South Bank.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Edewkation, eddication, educashun

I have been meaning to write something about the TV programme Can’t Read, Can’t Write, which finished a few weeks ago but I can’t seem to get my thoughts down in less than 3.000 words, so I thought it would probably be better not to put you through that particular ordeal.

However, my sons get their GCSE results tomorrow, so I thought I would have my say about exams before I know how they have done.

There are bound to be the usual comments about exams getting easier, but the questions looked pretty similar, and occasionally harder than mine, even if they were put into slightly more accessible language. Teaching is now focused on the test and there is no pussy-footing around with anything much that doesn’t help with exams; so it seems to me that grades are bound to improve on that basis.

Whether it means our children are getting a better education is a completely different question though. I went to a pretty poor comprehensive, a feeder school for the Ford factory down the road. Although I loved my time there, learnt a lot, and did pass my exams, I certainly didn’t get the shiny grades that are expected nowadays. But then exams weren’t necessarily the point in those dim and distant days. I also didn’t get the breadth of knowledge that I wanted – I couldn’t learn Latin or the classics, for example (although my lifespan in the school grounds would probably have been very limited if I had). What is interesting though, is that one of my sons said last week that even with its problems my education had been much broader than his. Overall, I agree with him. That is a bit of a worry really, if a pretty dodgy comprehensive in London in the 1970s produced a more rounded education than that of a highly rated comprehensive in the leafy and wealthy home counties in the 2000s.

My kids will have better grades, and a better knowledge in the narrow range of areas they have studied than I did, but who got a better education is still a difficult question to answer, and a much more interesting one than whether exams are getting easier.

Friday, 8 August 2008

My Day Out

So, the plan was, head into London by lunchtime, pick up a boat at Westminster pier to take us through and around the Thames Barrier on the water, then on to the Thames Barrier pier, so we could spend an afternoon at the visitor centre learning about a huge great machine that looks like a series of buildings and also have a cup of tea and blueberry muffin in the cafĂ©. I checked the boat timetable online, and all looked good. After I printed it out I noticed a tiny note at the bottom which said ‘These boats cruise to/from the Thames Barrier, but only stop at Barrier Gardens Pier for pre-booked groups’. Hmmm, surely not? So I rang them, and yes, it is true. If you want to visit the Thames Barrier you cannot visit by boat unless there are 15 of you wanting to do the same thing at the same time. You have to go by car, or have a fiddly and time consuming journey by bus or train. The time involved means that you can’t get up close to the barrier on the water, and visit the visitor centre in the same afternoon (or at least not without scrapping the cup of tea and piece of cake). When I rang the Thames Barrier Visitor Centre they didn’t seem remotely perturbed by this.

We went to the Imperial War Museum instead. Lovely tea and cake.