A stage I’m going through…

As I set hands to keyboard, I see it is a good six weeks since I last posted.  Well, ‘good’ if you view the arrival of a new post from GofaDM in much the same way as a zebra greets the tender, watery embrace of a peckish crocodile.

This period of neglect follows a rather heavy period of work (something the regular reader will know that I usually try to avoid) which has left me with little time or energy to render my musings in electronic type.  Despite, or perhaps as a result of, this lack of new material visitors continue to come to my shop door and this has shamed me into returning to my laptop.  I also have whole heaps of plans for posts, s many that they are now keeping me awake at night and the only way to exorcise them is to send them out into the unfeeling world (or at least the only way I am currently going to try).

In a, probably vain, attempt to retain my somewhat tenuous grasp on sanity I have been turning to the Arts over these difficult early weeks of 2013.  Little do the philistines in charge of this country’s purse-strings realise what a vital role the Arts play in the continued economic viability of the UK (or at least in my part thereof).  Still, on the basis that most government policy is decided on the basis of anecdotes – at best (certainly evidence seems to be largely ignored)  – I hope this may have a salutary effect on future funding.  Whilst books, music, comedy, television and cinema are all important – the main plank of my strategy to keep the “men in white coats” (with their vans with such nicely tinted windows) from my door has been the theatre.  This would have astounded the me of little more than 18 months ago who had barely been in a theatre for more than a decade.  It would seem that the theatre is rather more addictive than is generally realised – maybe it’s the smell of the grease paint?

My theatre-going began with classics from ages past – and this continues.  Among these classics, I’ve seen two plays this year (both farces) by Arthur Wing Pinero, a character I had previously assumed was a fictional creation from the late night Radio 4 show Date with Fate hosted by the splendid voice of Charles Gray in the guise of AWP.  Turns out he (AWP not CG)  was also a real playwright of the late nineteenth century and despite choosing The Magistrate on the basis of a complete misunderstanding, it was a scream and on the strength of this example I went on to see Trelawney of the Wells at the Donmar Warehouse last week.  This was also good fun – though less farcical, but with more heart – and the interval ice cream whilst on the expensive side was rather larger than the usual theatre fare.  Interval snack mention: tick.

However, the most exciting theatre I’ve seen has been new (or at least recent) writing.  This often also has the benefit of being staged in smaller, more intimate venues.  I have come to realise that I am much more willing to take a chance on a play that may be outside my traditional “comfort zone” than I am with a film or a TV programme – rather an odd choice to make from a cost perspective as I’m taking chances with the most expensive option, but so far it has worked really well.  Most of my choices have proven to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.  Many I’ve chosen on the basis of proper, broadsheet reviews (which give me some idea of what I’m going to see) but some, as this past weekend, on much flimsier criteria.

My first was selected on the basis of a single actor (though it later transpired to include Meera Syal as well, so two actors).  The actor in question, Damian Molony, I think is quite excellent as Hal in Being Human and was also great in Travelling Light at the National last year.  However, more important than his acting chops was the fact that he is the man who introduced me, via the medium of Twitter, to 10 Greek Street – so I owed him one and the least I could go was go and see his latest play in partial recompense.  This play, if you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep has the longest title of anything I’ve seen and was the most overtly political.  It has received mixed reviews – the Torygraph particularly took against it – but I found it darkly entertaining, if occasionally uncomfortable, and the most thought-provoking thing I’ve seen yet.  Criticism seem to fall into two camps: either that it would not be suitable as an undergraduate economics course (though something that was suitable would have made very poor theatre in the absence of a truly remarkable lecturer) or that it lacked character development.  This later would have been tricky to fix with more than 20 characters played by 8 actors across a mere 75 minutes.  I’d say it was highly successful at achieving the author’s aims in a very buttock and bladder friendly period of time.  The acting was also first rate and, as it turned out, I recognised fully half of the cast.  So successful was it that I went out and bought a book (from a flesh-and-blood bookshop) on economics directly afterwards – not something I ever saw myself doing.  I should perhaps note the stirling work of Tim Harford on More or Less and John Kay on a Point of View (both on BBC Radio 4) in rehabilitating the whole field of economics for me in the period prior to Saturday’s play and book purchase.  Expect the standard of economic discourse on GofaDM to improve markedly in the weeks to come (well, I say ‘expect’ but perhaps that may be building expectations too high , only time will tell).

Saturday’s second play was in the basement of the Hampstead Theatre which meant I visited Swiss Cottage tube station which is quite lovely (I’d recommend a visit), largely as it appears rather less “improved” than many of its brethren.  Another play with a long title, I know how I feel about Eve, this time chosen on the basis of a tweet by the stand-up comic Rob Rouse.  By the way, I have been to new plays with shorter titles – the previous week I went to see Port at the National (nothing to do with the delicious drink from Iberia, bur rather a reference to Stockport) which was also very good.  ikhIfaE was excellent, despite a subject matter I probably wouldn’t have chosen with greater advanced information, and in shades of the first (and best, for my money) of the latest series of Black Mirror raised interesting questions about the nature of identity when trying to replace the dead.  Again, in and out in a very reasonable 70 minutes – I find I’m rather liking these tighter plays, even though you do miss out on the interval ice cream.

Whilst I now find myself starting to becoming twitchy if I haven’t been to the theatre for more than a few days, even at my current (accelerating?) rate of consumption I cannot keep new (and old) British theatre going alone.  So, can I urge all GofaDM readers to make the effort to visit the theatre – it need not be that expensive (oddly new theatre is often cheaper than old, despite the works being stubbornly within copyright) – and they could use the money (as to be honest can the Arts more generally).  Why not try something new or just different to your normal fare?  It has certainly worked for me!  If it affects you as it has me, we can form a new take on AA – Audience Anonymous – to try and manage our condition (something Hal would certainly understand).

Stalking

Or should that be buttering?  It’s so hard to tell the difference.  NB: Anyone under the age of around 35, should ask a parent or grandparent to explain that last quip.  Perhaps I should try to write more material which could be understood (if not actually enjoyed) by a slightly younger demographic?

Anyway, I’m probably exaggerating to say I spent yesterday stalking the cast of Being Human (or at least two of them), it was more a case of a themed (or high-concept) day out – rather like the themed evenings so popular with the controllers of even-numbered TV channels in these Isles.  Whilst the day was constructed backwards to achieve its thematic ends, for the sake of narrative clarity I shall describe the day using the arrow of time pointing in its traditional direction: i.e. you should expect to see overall entropy increasing as this account progresses.

The meat of the day started at the National, with my second viewing of Travelling Light.  This was an experiment as I have never seen the same play (or more accurately, production) twice before – though have often re-read a book or seen a film or TV programme more than once – an experiment made more than possible by lastminute.com (other discount theatre ticket sites are available, and may well be better).  I don’t use this very often, but occasionally it offers a serious bargain – and as I was going to be in London anyway, the cost of my experiment was very low (only 20% of the cost of the first attendance and in an even better seat).  The production certainly rewards a second viewing, and I did catch things that I missed the first time – curiously, I also found it a rather sadder story this time: it would seem that familiarity breeds melancholia (in me at least).

Despite the excellent prune and almond slice in the interval (a fine recommendation by a member of NT staff), after play #1 it was time for an early dinner before play #2.  Working with the day’s leitmotif, I went with a restaurant recommendation tweeted by the star of both TL and BH the previous week (lest you think I am letting adherence to the theme overcome my critical faculties, I did check his view against more established critics of fine dining first).  I may have to buy Damien Molony a pint (or several): not only has he provided me entertainment through his acting, he has introduced me to what is now my favourite place to eat in London.  10 Greek Street offers excellent food, friendly staff and unexpectedly low prices for central London – it is even conveniently sited in Soho (so easy to go to before, after or between cultural activities).  The only potential downside is that it seems pretty popular (even before being introduced to the massive worldwide audience of GofaDM) and does not allow reservations – but, I prefer (and usually need) to eat early and, even on a Saturday, arrival at 17:30 means that obtaining a seat is no problem.

From Soho, I had to make my way to Dalston for my second play of the day – in fact, East London (I place I have rarely visited before) was a secondary theme for the day, as my trains into town were diverted offering me a magical, mystery (and rather slow) tour of Stratford.  The journey to E8 involved the #38 bus, and this was an early example of Boris’ exciting new take on the Routemaster concept.  Whilst these do look to have involved a “designer” and do have the trademark open platform at the back – with a sort of conductor to ensure people dismount safely – I fear they do rather betray the fact that the Mayor has never actually used a bus (and probably isn’t too sure what they are for).  The bus has three sets of double doors – one at the front, one in the middle and the open platform at the back – and two staircases – on at the front and one at the back.  All these features which allow easy passenger flow both on and off the vehicle do come at rather a high price: the bus has an only slightly higher passenger carrying capacity than my Toyota IQ.  Still, I was lucky enough to rest my weary limbs on one of the few seats ‘up top’ (a space with very low ceilings).  I also noticed a complete absence of opening windows; there was the sound of a fan, so the bus may have had aircon (not terribly wise for a space constantly open to the outside) but it was not very successful, leading to a rather warm and humid trip east.  Still, a brave attempt at design by someone who had obviously never seen or used a bus – and, he can only improve with his subsequent efforts (fortunately, as a citizen of Sawston, I am not paying for his training through my Council Tax).

I was in Dalston to visit the Arcola theatre – which seemed to be in a once industrial space (you can still see the joists and girders) and offered an even more intimate experience than a small Elizabethan theatre.  I must admit I rather like this fact as I’m not a fan of huge performance spaces to the extent that I generally refuse to see stuff in the relatively modest environs of the Cambridge Corn Exchange as it is too large and impersonal.  The play was from East Germany (though, fortunately translated into English as my German is largely limited to words relating to power stations): The Conquest of the South Pole by Manfred Karge.  Despite my broadening theatrical horizons, this was quite unlike anything I’d seen before, for example, it contained poetry and characters talking about what they were saying to each other, rather than saying it.  It had an amazing energy to it and was very entertaining and funny at times (laying to rest at least one rather tired stereotype), though I wouldn’t like to claim I fully understood it (the line between reality and fantasy did become rather blurred to me: so, much like real life in that respect).  So, if anyone could explain who Frankieboy was, I’d be terribly grateful.  I’m not sure what the 11 year old lass sitting a couple of seats from me made of it, but she didn’t seem to be unduly traumatised.  I’m seeing another German play in a few weeks, so I think I better start training my intellectual muscles now – perhaps its time to tackle some Brecht?

As is now well established, my attention can wander at the best of times.  Towards the end of the play, I did find myself worrying about Andrew Gower’s cholesterol level – he is required to eat rather a lot of less than healthy fare during the production and over a month’s run this is going to take its toll on his figure.  However, the largest source of potential  distraction, in every way, was the back of the man’s head in front and to the left of me.  It wasn’t in the way much at all, but it was absolutely massive: I have never seen such a vast head.  His body seemed fairly normally proportioned, so  I’m still amazed that he was able to hold all that weight upright for the full 90 minutes.  He must have some serious neck muscles or a very light brain.

I think I shall return to the Arcola: East London is not as remote as I’ve always believed, tickets are cheap, the demographic was a lot younger than most of my cultural activities and the place had a lovely feel to it.  I shall also have to try more, randomly themed days-out: it seems to encourage the trying of new things, which is always good for the middle-aged stick-in-the-mud!