Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Up the Students

I was on the train on the day of the first student protests, sitting next to two police officers discussing the embarrassment of being outclassed by a bunch of kids, and I think we all saw how they managed to get their own back over the last few weeks.

My kids are now at university studying hard sciences, having been supported through their A levels by EMA, and in earlier years by Tax Credits that meant that I, as a single mum, was able to work a bit less and be able to be there for them when they needed moral and practical support.

The appalling undercutting of all of this good work in the deficit panic is making me very angry. Not just because of the gob-smackingly large sums that students will owe, but mainly because of the attitude that it is only the individual students that benefit from further and higher education so making them pay for it all out of their own pockets. Can it be right that the state withdraws completely from supporting a whole tranche of education? It certainly seems shameful to me.

This has already happened to adult education, which has now become a mainly middle class hobby apart from in some cushioned islands (usually funded by charities or far thinking local authorities - and therefore likely to sink in the current wave of cuts). Our society is richer culturally as well as economically by having people study English literature and history and other ‘soft’ subjects and the attitude that somehow these are second class topics I think diminishes us all. I can predict the Daily Mail outrage in a few years time when history is no longer being taught in schools as there aren't any history graduates.

Yes, there is plenty of scope for restructuring higher education, especially the occupationally relevant topics, but this is just madness.

Of course, there are even worse things going on, not least the demonization of benefit claimants, but somehow this for me just highlights how nasty and narrow things are going to get.

Rant off.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Power of Yes

Well I had already seen and enjoyed Enron, so I thought I would balance things up and do a bit of pre-election revision by heading off to see David Hare's take on the financial crisis.

Not really a play, this was more of an illustrated lecture, and some of the people who had clearly paid the full £44 for their seats at a new David Hare play, were understandably a bit miffed! I did wonder if that was why there was no interval - so that they could be sure to have a full house until the end. Leaving that aside, this was a clear explanation of how it came to be that banks got away with such audacious risk taking with our money. It was well done enough that it made me angry in a way that Enron didn't, particularly through highlighting how little has changed.

I thought this was a worthwhile couple of hours. At least it means that my shouting at the telly during the pre-election period is a little more articulate and well informed than usual.

The White Guard

This was recommended to me on the basis that although it is Russian, is isn't Chekov.

Based on the play by Mikhail Bulgakov, this was a fast moving look at the Russian Revolution played as farce from the perpective of a bourgeois family living in Ukraine. Brilliant set and great ensemble performances, it was much more My Familythan Dr Zhivago, with some nicely paced set pieces. My favourites were the farcical turning points as the characters wave their guns at each other in succession, like something out of Dad's Army as everyone changes sides again and again. Chronicling the shifts of loyalties as various factions take charge then run away in the confusion, it brought to vivid life how difficult it must be to get on with 'normality' in such times, when a failure to pay attention for one moment may lead to being on the wrong side of a gun barrel.

It also had some brilliant explosions - the National Theatre with its permanent armourer has the best explosions in the theatre anyway, but these were good enough to make the whole audience leap in unison and then giggle at themselves. I love it when that happens.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Little Dog Laughed

The play is a revival of a Broadway production, with pretty impressive (to me at least) American accents used throughout by the all English cast. This is the story of a gay actor being persuaded that to secure his dream role in a Hollywood movie, the closet of a fake fairytale marriage is a better career choice than a loving gay relationship.

Rupert Friend and Harry Lloyd play the star crossed lovers, Gemma Atherton has the fairly thankless role of the token girlfriend, but all were acted off the stage by Tamsin Greig who appeared to be an unstoppable but persuasive force of nature in the role of devious agent Diane. Like an Iago drawing us into her schemes, she managed to make us admire her daring and manipulations and love her style, even as she ripped the lives of the other characters to shreds to suit the movie industry ideal.

I saw the play in the week that Colin Firth won an Oscar for playing a gay man, but with little sign of a gay man winning an prize for playing a straight leading role, this raises the nasty question of whether Hollywood really does behave like this. Unbelievable, but also scarily believable. I suppose we won't know how accurate this is, unless and until we get a big star brave enough to step up and out.

Vicious, caustic and cynical in the best way, but very, very funny, this was a surprise hit for me. My lasting feeling, apart from a renewed crush on Tamsin Greig and aching ribs from the laughing, was sadness. So, a good job well done I think.


It was a bit of a struggle to get discount tickets at the Noel Coward Theatre, so I finally ended up with side balcony tickets for me and the kids. Great view as long as you didn't mind leaning forward to see anything!

The play was a witty dash through the events that led to the Enron collapse, and showing how the seeds of the later global crash were set. With music, dancing and dinosaurs to help us through the story, it certainly kept us paying attention, and it was the clearest explanation I have yet seen on how we got into our current financial mess.
The whole cast was excellent, with Sam West and Tim Piggot-Smith playing the architects of the disaster but with Tom Goodman-Hill stealing the show with his portrayal of Andy Fastow, complete with his barely controlled 'Raptors'.

I had an American sitting next to me and it was interesting to hear his take on the show, as well as his explanations of where all the characters were now. Although overall, I would have preferred him to limit his comments to the interval rather than whispering to me throughout the second half......

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A New Jerusalem containing Welshmen, Pacific Islanders and National Treasures

A bit of a gap since my last post, and I seem to be missing it much more than I thought I would. Self indulgent rambling seems to be quite addictive – who knew?

So, I have decided to pull up my socks, gird my loins, get into gear, pull myself together and get a grip, along with any other metaphorical whip cracking I can think of. More suggestions for clichéd motivational phrases very welcome.

Theatre trips over the last month or so have been a bit sparse, but with some brilliant moments so I thought I would use this post to bring us all up to speed.

This National Theatre production, adapted from the Terry Pratchett novel, was quite light, and a bit clichéd, but very enjoyable as a holiday treat. We had arranged an informal tour of the theatres beforehand, an experience which was strangely disorientating, although we absolutely loved standing on the middle of the stage and working out where we were sitting that night. Eating in the staff restaurant was also a bit weird – I’m not sure I can cope with my disbelief being suspended so far as to see the ‘islanders’ knocking back a burger and chips with double tomato sauce beforehand. It was also a bit strange seeing bits of the set, props and costumes being repaired before going on to stage later that evening, but I was both amazed and impressed to see the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep the magic in place at the front of the stage.

The Habit of Art
This latest Alan Bennett play, also at the National, was multi-layered, and excellent in all respects. Frances De La Tour was just perfect, as were Richard Griffith and the rest of the cast, teetering confidently on the edge between comedy and the bleak tragedy underneath. Although I didn’t fall in love with it as I did with The History Boys, I have found it lingering, in that I keep going back over bits of it, seeing it from new angles. It seemed to be an underlining of past work as far as Bennett is concerned, and suggests that perhaps he might be a bit tired of his previous incarnations. The references to The Tempest and Death in Venice certainly make me feel that he is consciously in ‘late works’ mode, and as a result (and perhaps a bit paradoxically) it has made me really interested to see what comes next for our slightly unwilling ‘national treasure’.

Rhod Gilbert and the cat that looked like Nicholas Lyndhurst
This has been touring since Edinburgh last year, so I am a bit late to the party on this one, but the new face of Wales finally arrived at The Anvil in Basingstoke last week. Rhod Gilbert is a master in apparently incoherent rage and this was the best comedy I have seen for some time. Seemingly unstructured angry ramblings, interspersed with confessional discussions with the audience, leading to a masterful dénouement which linked everything together so beautifully I laughed for joy at the neatness of it all.


Saving the best to last, I finally caught Jez Butterworth’s much praised play this week. With Mark Rylance in the lead role, I was upset to have missed it at the Royal Court last summer, so this West End transfer felt long overdue. This was all I could have wished for. A clever and angry but stormingly funny play, which puts all sorts of Englishness together in a jar, gives them all a good shake and then pulls them all out for minute inspection. We saw bits of Shakespeare and Shakespearian characters, green men and giants, morris dancing, unruly youths, colonels, publicans, prejudice, small mindedness, violence, heroism and bolshy bloodymindedness, all brought together to show the English ambivalence to their own history and sense of national identity.

The play is focused on Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, a charismatic, self-mythologising, drug dealing outsider, living in a scruffy caravan in countryside beside a new estate in a Wiltshire village. I wonder how much Jez Butterworth had this particular actor in mind when writing this play though, and whether it will survive new leading men.

Regular readers will probably already know how much I adore Mark Rylance, and this is perhaps his best performance ever, in a role which allowed him to bring aspects of his own back catalogue to add further depth to the character which toys with a range of stories about Englishness. Mark Rylance is regularly referred to as our greatest living theatrical actor and, although that is a huge claim, on this performance I think it is well deserved. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Bye to the Tennanth Doctor

Well, rather than continuing to ramble on other people's blogs I thought I may as well add my thoughts here about The End of T(ennant)ime Pts 1 and 2. Alongside Hamlet and Outnumbered, it was one of the big events over the holiday that we all sat down as a family to watch.

Although this probably won’t be the top of many favourite episode charts, there were some great moments, enough for me to feel pretty satisfied overall. The best bit was the undercutting of the big build-up to the ‘He Will Knock Four Times’ scary prophesy. Well, he did knock four times, and it was BRILLIANT, taking it all back down to a human scale again.

Overall, there were huge plot holes, completely un-patched and leaking irritating questions all over the place, and the long goodbyes were indeed indulgent, but I didn’t care one tiny bit. This was a big fat sentimental goodbye to this Doctor, his companions and also to Russell T Davies’ version of Who, and it was exemplary in giving us all that was brilliant as well as a bit flaky and irritating about this incarnation.

Finally, I loved the fact that the Ood seemed to be referencing Hamlet, offering to sing him to his sleep (ok, they may not be flights of angels, but it worked for me!).

I will certainly miss David Tennant as the Doctor, and hope he hurries to find something that will keep him popping up on our tv screens, or, even better, gets himself to a theatre near me very quickly.

As for the next Doctor, time will tell whether Matt Smith is a Tom or a Colin Baker, but I’m optimistic….

Friday, 1 January 2010

Darker Shores

Watching the first preview night of Darker Shores at Hampstead Theatre was a slightly nail-biting experience. The first night had been delayed as Tom Goodman-Hill had taken over his role from Mark Gatiss just a couple of days earlier, and I was beginning to wonder if all my visits to this theatre were going to be jinxed.

Despite this, all appeared word perfect and, if the pace slipped on occasions and some scenes meandered about a bit, overall this was a very creditable performance. Tom Goodman-Hill did an excellent job playing Professor Gabriel Stokes, a Victorian widower consulting an American spiritualist/potential huckster after a supernatural experience and recruiting him to investigate further in the best tradition of ghost stories. Julian Rhind-Tutt played Tom Beauregard, the American ex-civil war soldier turned ghost-finder, battling his own demons in a performance nicely balanced between bravura showman and troubled war veteran and throwing in a few magic tricks for good measure! The rest of the cast did a brilliant, understated job in holding the whole thing together, leaving the men to get on with the melodrama.

On second viewing, I had a much better seat and the pace had picked up considerably so that the plot whipped along quite nicely. There are fantastic special effects throughout, best appreciated from the stalls, and the final reveal, when we find out what all this is about, was a real treat, particularly as I hadn’t seen it very clearly on the first visit. Despite following the tradition of plays like Women in Black, there is a secular sensibility underwriting it all, giving Gabriel Stokes in particular some great (and funny) lines which mean that for most of the play I was never quite clear whether we are supposed to take it all seriously or not. The slightly uncertain chuckles from the audience seemed to suggest to me that they felt the same way!

The one thing that was missing was the final chiller moment – I think it is there in embryo, but it seemed to get lost in the final scene on both occasions I saw this, and I would love to see it built up a bit more. I’m going again in January, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.