Not serious theatre

I am rather fond of the Finborough theatre, it has introduced me to a number of exciting, challenging, new plays over the last 18 months – Unscorched and Silent Planet particularly stand-out in my mind as I write.  They do also stage revivals, typically of neglected works.  Its location can be a challenge, particularly on the day of a Chelsea home game when one has to share the streets of Earls Court and the Finborough Arms (which acts as the foyer to the theatre) with boisterous football aficionados, but is not really that remote from Waterloo (where I am – on a good day – delivered by Southwest Trains).

Often on a Sunday, they stage two different plays – a matinée and an evening performance – which does boost the benefit side of the trip-to-London equation.  The downside is the risk of engineering work and the fact the last train home goes at 22:54 (it would seem that Stagecoach do not expect the denizens of Southampton to stay out late on a Sunday, unlike the lotus eaters of nearby Portsmouth who have services until 00:50).  Still, yesterday I decide to brave the outbound replacement bus service as far as Eastleigh and keep my fingers crossed for the 22:54 home.  As a result, I spent the afternoon and evening indulging in Victorian fun (for the avoidance of doubt, no laudanum was consumed by your reporter).

The matinee was of the rarely performed Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, Princess Ida.  Given the diminutive size of the Finborough, this was akin to having G&S with a pretty full cast performed in your living room (if you had also invited 39 friends to join you).  The orchestra, for obvious reasons, had to be reduced (by transcription) to two pianists and the audience were a little cramped – but the whole thing was quite an experience , especially when the full cast (a baker’s dozen) are on stage singing and acting at once.  I’m pretty sure I have never seen Ida performed before, but I did know one of the songs – as a man with tiefe stimme, I had explored a little of Lord Gama’s output as part of my attempts to become a singer (one generally does have to play the elderly in G&S, a role continue to transition into).  I have to say the performance delivered all that one could have wished for: young lovers, a wicked guardian and lots of silliness (and, I must admit, some slightly dodgy gender politics).  The staging was as thrifty and clever as I have come to expect at the Finborough and only an audience member with the the hardest of hearts could have failed to have a wonderful time (even if corrective knee and buttock surgery may have been advisable afterwards).

Between the afternoon and evening performances I found myself wandering the streets of Earls Court in search of victuals.  As I was doing this, someone coming towards me seemed oddly familiar – not an unusual occurrence as I am more than capable of recognising complete strangers and also because I was not wearing my specs.  I tend not to wear my glasses when just ambling about as I have realised (as Hollywood did many years before me) that most of the world looks better in slightly relaxed focus – and it also makes catching glimpses of myself in reflective surfaces substantially less traumatic.  However, the impression remained as we grew closer together and I finally realised that it was Prince Hilarion (once and future husband to Princess Ida) in mufti and riding a skateboard.  Now I do realise that these people are just actors and he is not really a Hungarian prince, but it was still oddly jarring to see him in this mode – despite the fact that I had already seen him dressed as both a prince and a classically-attired woman during the course of the afternoon.  The lad had a fine voice, and I suspect some Teutonic heritage which means that while he was unlikely to have had to change his name on joining Equity (surely there was not already a Zac Wancke?) he may well have been horribly bullied at school.

Refuelled, I returned to the theatre foyer and enjoyed some of the liquid refreshment on offer as part of a mid-west beer festival being staged(!) there – well, it covered Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Shropshire (for some reason) and how else might one describe that group of counties? – before further Victorian fun in the form of Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor.  This play is (in)famous as being the one Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated.  I had always assumed that this would be some serious work of art inspired by Melpomene, but as it transpires it owes far more to her sister Thalia, i.e. it was broad comedy, verging on farce.  Luckily, I survived the fateful line – when John Wilkes Booth (playing the eponymous hero) carried out the wicked (and decidedly unheroic) deed under the cover of a reliable laugh – and so remain unassassinated (for now) and saw the denouement.  Oddly, I am unaware of any other murder committed under similar cover – but perhaps MI5 should be recruiting more comedians (or Brian Rix) rather than sitting around reading our email.  The current James Bond franchise could also benefit from being a tad less po-faced.   The play still made me (and many of my fellow audience members) laugh despite being 150+ years old (the play, I am barely a third of that) and having gone unperformed in the capital for more than a century – or perhaps my sense of humour is just rather Victorian.  I couldn’t help wondering what the Americans of the 1860s would have made of it and their portrayal therein – but according to the programme it was a huge success (other than depleting North America to the tune of one president – and we can’t blame the playwright for that).

Victorian values have a terribly poor press – but I think this may be because people espousing them usually make very poor choices from the menu on offer – but they can offer a very entertaining day out and still deliver you to Waterloo in time for the train home.  I can thoroughly recommend it, but would note that this opinion may not necessarily generalise to other activities hailing from the same regnal period.

The summer of sport

I believe this summer is a bumper one for the sports enthusiast – in that, added to the usual roster of annual, summer sporting events we have both the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games.  My interest in all sports is limited at best – a few I can watch for 10-15 minutes and be mildly diverted, but then my attention drifts and I feel the need to wander off and do something more interesting.  This is much like my view of spending time on a beach, unless combing or twitching.  I fear I have a rather specialised form of ADHD which only affects me when involved in activities that can absorb many others for long periods.

I am not wholly uninterested in sport – there is definitely some interesting ethnography, anthropology and sociology to be done in the sphere.  I’ve also enjoyed playing tennis and 5-a-side football (both badly) over the years and have had great fun at both Worcester cricket ground and Portman Road where the sport was accompanied by some corporate hostility (I don’t see much hospitality, so I make an effort to enjoy it when I do).  Looking back on it, all of these examples of enjoyment might be traceable back to the pleasant company as much as to the sport or any associated alcohol.  Perhaps I should try watching sport in a more communal setting?

Any way, I seem to have wandered from my point – yes, there was one.  The reader might think that with our television schedules chockablock with events of little interest to yours truly, I would be bemoaning the tyranny of the majority (or at least, the more substantial majority) – but no, I say bring it on!  It is all too easy to vegetate and allow the haunted goldfish bowl to provide my entertainment – but this summer, I have a positive incentive to go out and do something less boring instead (to paraphrase the title of a somewhat suicidal kid’s TV show of my youth).

This all sounds a great – if somewhat middle class – plan for self improvement, or at least some potential for future blog fodder.  However, it doesn’t seem to be working out quite as intended.  I do rather seem to be filling the void in the TV schedules with the siren call of Netflix and its novel content – all available at my beck and call.

Readers will already know of my White Collar habit, though I believe this is under control. I’ve also watched all the available episodes of Grimm – which is quite entertaining.  Oddly, the hero is rather less appealing (for some reason) than the supporting cast who are much more fun.  It has also driven home the importance of Health and Safety when dealing with the occult.  Twice now our hero has knowingly tackled villains who can hurl poison into the eyes, but despite access to an impressive array of medieval weaponry and potions he has yet to invest in a simple pair of safety glasses.   I’ve lost count of the number of characters in action-based series and films who could have had a much easier ride if they had taken even basic precautions – or frankly, mastered their vanity long enough to wear a pair of specs rather than contacts.  My putative superhero (who as we know is already short, gay and ginger to shake up the genre norms) will also be myopic and will sport a stylish pair of glasses.  I will admit this will place him at a brief disadvantage when entering warm buildings during the winter months, but this is a small price to pay for the eye protection (and will often save him from buying the first round in the pub!).  When time permits, he will also work on at least a basic risk assessment before going into bat against his fiendish foes.

After Grimm, I have progressed onto Hemlock Grove – which is very strange but I rather liked (and the Telegraph didn’t – which is often a good sign).  It has a very strange dynamic and not an entirely satisfactory end, but does have what I imagine are rather more realistic 17 year olds than most US drama.  As it was made by and for Netflix, the teenagers are allowed to swear, smoke, drink and do all the other things which I’m pretty sure they do in the real world, but you never see on television.  This does rather add to the realism, which probably helps to ground the supernatural elements.  Also, I think Famke Janssen may be the natural successor to Carolyn Jones: Ms Jones, for those who have forgotten, played Morticia Addams in the black and white TV series of the Addams Family – and for me is still the yardstick against which all other femmes fatales are measured (well, her and Lauren Bacall).  Actually, seeing photos of Morticia as part of the research for this post, I’ve realised that Victoria Coren-Mitchell has something of the same look facially – which might explain quite a lot (and save me several months of therapy).  I wonder if VCM could be tempted into a similar black frock?

Any way, before this post becomes any more revealing, perhaps I should move on (to spare my blushes, if no-one else’s).  I will also blame my book habit for some of the “lost” time – and I can certainly recommend The Humans by Matt Haig (so good that I rationed the chapters to prolong my pleasure) and the Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (very odd and not at all what I was expecting – which is a very good thing).  Both of these were acquired from real bookshops on the off-chance – I think both had staff recommendation attached, which are so much more effective than the automated nonsense perpetrated by the on-line booksellers of the world.

So, I’m rather enjoying this summer of sport so far – though probably not in the way I am supposed to!  Vague guilt does suggest I really ought to do something of a little more moment or import – not just abuse Netflix and my library (and the UK’s physical bookshops).  Still, while it remains vague I shall probably continue to ignore it – and I do have the explosion of “going out” that is Edinburgh looming large on the horizon which will provide a truly prodigious amount of alternative culture.  So, I shall assuage these tendrils of guilt with the argument that my current activities are providing some vital pre-emptive balance to my life.  (As you can see, I was a sore loss to the Jesuits!)

In search of depth

This blog has often been criticised for its relentless focus on the trivial and superficial (OK, given the current emphasis on transparency, I will admit that this is not the case at all, it is merely a rhetorical device to introduce this latest twaddle – but bear with me, it might get better) and so I have felt it incumbent on me to go in search of a little depth.

In the course of this hunt, I have now seen three films projected in 3D (which I think makes 9D) – two of these within the last week.  This projection uses the miracle of plane-polarised light and so, to obtain the 3D-effect, one has to wear a pair of glasses with orthogonally-polarised lenses over one’s normal ‘seeing’ glasses.  At the cinema, one is seated amid the encircling gloom (to quote from my old headmaster’s favourite hymn, which we always used to perform appallingly badly to his great distress.  For some reason, this particular hymn, “Lead kindly light,” has always brought the Wild West and cowboys sitting around a campfire to my mind – though it was apparently written whilst becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio, which lie between France and Italy, by an Englishman) and so my six-eyed shame is thankfully shrouded from all, bar any cats, owls or snipers (though only the first two are mentioned by Lear as having eloped in a pea green boat) who happen to be in the auditorium.

Ah, I seem to have mistaken excessive use of parentheses for depth – if only WordPress offered footnotes and a bibliography life would be so much easier.

6D of these films were animated while the remaining 3D used real people and props moving around in at least partially real sets (the animations obviously relied on wholly imaginary sets – very much sets found on the y-axis of an Argand diagram).  The depth effect seems to work much better, or at least be less confusing and/or irritating in the animated features than when applied to the “real” world.  I’m not sure if this is because the 3D effect is in some way subtly wrong, and this is more apparent when viewing a simulacrum of the real world or, if the relative simplicity of the images from animation are easier for the brain to interpret.

Mostly, I find that I am unaware of the 3D-effect, though in rapid real-life action sections I find it very hard to process the visual information and everything becomes very confused (well, I say everything – but really I mean me).  Occasionally it works really well, but at other times it reminds me of the black and white, stereoscopic photos my grandparents took many, many years ago with the image broken into a series of vertical planes at various apparent distances into the screen.

On the whole, I fear 3D offers little more than novelty in its current form.  For a start, it is pretty rare event that I find myself unable to decide which objects are nearer or farther from the viewer, even when watching a merely two-dimensional moving image.  The human brain is remarkably cunning at deriving depth from a host of little clues – indeed, in a number of famous optical illusions it over-rides the depth information provided by stereoscopic vision.

Still (or should that be Movie), the studios seem to love 3D, despite disapproval from far better critics than I, and hugely over-use it.  In the early days of wordprocessing and printing, people would use as many fonts as possible on a single page.  When colour screens first became common, web pages would be a confused riot of colour and movement.  Now with 3D, there is an obsession with using depth – if a screen has three lines of text then they must all lie in a different vertical plane.  If 3D is here to stay, one can only hope they can move beyond this foolishness and calm down a little.

The three films (Toy Story 3, Hugo and Arthur Christmas) are all well worth a watch: in any D, though I think they may be quite hard to follow in 1D (certainly, you would see a decidedly linear narrative).  Joyously, Arthur Christmas seemed to have product placement from The Co-operative Food – the only film in which I have seen this and it was the only plug I spotted (other than a brief glimpse of Shaun the Sheep).  Good old Aardman!   I presume the film was partially funded from their divi – and rather hope the premiere was held in Rochdale in honour of the Pioneers!

I may not have found much depth, but just feel those allusions!

Vision On

Each time I complete a post, WordPress makes a series of automated suggestions for the subject matter for my next post.  Previously, I have ignored this advice and ploughed my own lonely furrow – but it’s not easy to come up with entertaining subjects for a post (as I’m sure has become obvious to any regular reader) so I have decided to use one of the proffered suggestions.  Today, these included “Who has most influenced your view of the world?” – or something similar, I may be paraphrasing – among others, and so I have decided to build a post using this question (and the fecund possibilities contained therein) as my source material.  Perhaps we will all come away from this experience a little wiser…

So, who is it?  How has influenced my unique vision?  Could they be tried for crimes against humanity?  Calm down, dear!  If you’re all sitting comfortably, I’ll tell you:

My optician.

Yes, let’s have a shout-out (I could have been a DJ, you know) for Vision Express in the Grand Arcade in Cambridge and their friendly and helpful staff.  With their assistance, the world has been brought into sharp focus and parallel lines are truly parallel – well, these things are true when I’m wearing my glasses, otherwise, we are in a soft-focus world of non-Euclidean geometry.

Now, I think we have all learned a valuable lesson – let’s never mention it again.


I fear that after wearing a hat (which I do de temps en temps to protect myself from the blazing Cambridgeshire sun), my earlier use of the milliner’s art is obvious for quite some time.  This is not as a result of any disruption to the styling of my barnet (though this can happen), but down to the impression of the brim which remains etched into my forehead. Certainly, the mark left by the liner of my cycle shorts where they grip my sturdy thews can remain visible for well over an hour.  My belief is that this is caused by the declining elasticity of my ageing skin – though it’s possible that even in the first flush of my youth such marks might have endured for similar periods (sadly, our current understanding of temporal mechanics precludes the testing of this particular hypothesis).

I have also reached the stage where it is far more pleasing to shave without wearing my glasses – so many more illusions can remain un-shattered with the slightly softer focus that my uncorrected vision offers.

Whilst my vanity does run to dyeing my hair and a bit of exercise, I’m not letting members of the medical profession (and by extension, any other profession – it would be odd to forbid a surgeon but happily allow a milkman) near my body with a knife unless it is absolutely surgically necessary (and I will be demanding quite a high standard of proof).  As a result, the surgical facelift is not for me – so my face will slowly succumb to the ravages of time.

However, I think I may have found a short-term, non-surgical option.  As I have alluded to before, I enjoy (perhaps in a slightly masochistic sense) a massage on a semi-regular basis – and today my back was getting the “treatment”.  This involves the subject (me) lying face down on a padded bench, with my face resting above a small hole in the bench which permits breathing.  The hole is quite small and holds the edges of my face fairly fixed, while the weight of the head (plus any pressure being applied to the body by the masseur) presses down over the course of an hour.  This tautens the skin of the face very effectively – or so it feels – and this effect seems to endure for a while after release from durance vile.  Surely, a portable version could be developed for use before a close-up or other occasions when a wrinkle-free visage would be a boon?

Talking of wrinkles, during the week I read of research into the wrinkling which our fingers undergo when left immersed in water for an extended period.  Apparently, a scientist is proposing that this is an evolutionary adaptation to improve our grip in the wet (rather like the tread on a tyre).  The really interesting fact though, was that if the nerves to a finger are severed then it does not come to resemble a prune, however long it is left in the bath.  I’ve been trying to find a way to shoehorn this fact into a post for a while, but somehow just when I think I have a hold on it, it eludes my grasp.  Perhaps I just need a long soak in a hot tub…

The Great Black and White

Antipodean scientists have reported that our friends from superorder Selachimorpha (Linnean reference – check!) are probably colour-blind. Certainly most of the sharks I’ve seen (on wildlife documentaries, rather than swimming up the River Cam) do seem to utilise a somewhat monochrome livery.

I did wonder if knowledge that our cartilaginous friends would fail an Ishihara test could be of any assistance in case of an attack. I suppose I could initiate a discussion about snooker – a game poorly suited to the colour-blind – and hope to bore my assailant into submission. However, this would pre-suppose quite a slow attack, access to a hydrophone and some knowledge of snooker on my part – so probably only good in a somewhat limited number of cases.

On the plus side, sharks would enjoy a cheap TV licence – though there is limited shark-centric programming on Freeview (but given the plethora of channels, I’m sure Sky could offer something).

I also wonder how shark opticians would work. Mine (by which I mean, my human optician, I rarely fear being eaten during an ophthalmic examination) tends to keep asking whether the green or red circles are clearer (and now… and now… and now) – but this will be no help for a shark. Perhaps this explains why I have never seen a shark in glasses (the lack of external ears may also be an issue). Either that or they wear contacts – and, let’s face it, they certainly aren’t short of a supply of saline solution!