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).

A Space Odyssey

Today I was off to Mersea, which for those who have yet to visit is an “island” off Colchester, a ferry crossing to Mersea is only occasionally needed (and sadly unavailable), famed for its oyster beds (I prefer a duvet myself).

Given my antithesis to driving, I journeyed to Colchester by train – or I tried.  My train was nearly ten minutes late arriving, and even then only two-thirds of it actually arrived.  It took several minutes after arrival before any doors opened, and even then only 1 out of the 16 managed to part to allow ingress (or egress). After several more minutes a few more doors were persuaded to to open.  The driver was forced to admit that he was having a few problems – and took the very practical approach of turning the train off and back on again.  Sadly, his re-boot was not rewarded and a call to IT Support offered no further succour – but we limped on to Audley End and after a lot of coaxing doors opened.  Clearly things were not going well, and so at Bishop’s Stortford the train was retired hurt and we all disembarked (after the now traditional delay of a few minutes as metaphorical carrots and sticks were employed to encourage the doors to release us from our confinement).

There was then a wait for more functional trains to arrive and take us (packed in somewhat by now) the rest of the way to London – arriving a mere 48 minutes late (for a 60 minute journey).  Thereafter, my travel was blissfully trouble-free – and so need not further trouble this narrative.

Why, I can almost hear you cry, was the train so afflicted with problems?  Trust me, you’ll never guess!  All our problems could be explained by a fault in the train’s GPS unit, so it didn’t know where it was: poor lamb!  However, it was confident that it was not in a station and so its doors should under no circumstances be permitted to open.  It was also clearly very unwilling to believe that the human operator might know.  I did feel as though I was in a very low budget re-make of 2001 and found myself imagining the on-board computer telling our driver, in an infuriatingly soothing voice, “I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that” as he desperately tried to open the pod bay (sorry, train) doors.

This led me to muse as to why the train needed a GPS unit in the first place.  Outside of the truly dreadful, recent video adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, there are very few recorded incidents of trains being lost: I feel the rails do help here, with your average train having very little freedom of movement.  I had always assumed that rail operators knew where their active trains were – at least to the nearest signal block – but perhaps prior to SatNav, rolling stock was getting up to all manner of high jinks?  

Even if we admit that trains need GPS, why should the functioning of the doors be so irrevocably linked to its reliable operation?  I would readily own that a system to prevent the doors from opening when the train is moving has some value, but I am more than happy to trust the driver (or guard, if one exists) to make the decisions as to whether the train has come to rest in a station or elsewhere.  I’m already trusting them to transport me (with several hundred “chums”) at 90+ mph in a train weighing several hundred tonnes – so, it seems churlish not to let them control the doors.  Even if I were willing to accept that GPS should normally be allowed to control the doors, I’d like the driver to be able over-rule the computer when it is clearly off its trolley.  It would seem that Greater Anglia has very little faith in its employees: which can’t be terribly motivating.

If I were writing a Daily Mail editorial, I might be tempted to say that health and safety had parted company with traditional definitions of sanity.  Or maybe it was just the usual tendency of IT departments to try to run the rest of the company for their own convenience?  After all, it is well established fact that the user is always wrong.

The incident did remind of another occasion, several years ago, when a computer in charge of a train had a mad few minutes.  I was on a driver-less DLR train (they are all driver-less, there is no need to imagine some sort of alien abduction incident) heading towards Shadwell (inexplicably not in Wales) from the east.  As we approached the station we seemed to be going at quite a clip, and it was only as we entered the station that the computer seemed to suddenly remember that it was supposed to be stopping.  It hurriedly applied the brakes and we came to a graceful halt just the far side of Shadwell station.  Once again, the human operator was forced to re-boot the train (successfully on this occasion) and then manually reverse it back into the station.

I’m beginning to think that the machines have already achieved artificial intelligence, but are (mostly) successful in hiding it from we puny humans.  I for one would like to wish every success to our new silicon overlords.

Play Away!

Before I start on the meat, or perhaps I ought to say the tofu (as a, mainly, vegetarian), of this post I thought I should provide some content for those readers that view this blog as a soap opera.  Admittedly, it is rather shorter on sex and violence than the more popular soaps of today (and I have no plans to change this position) and does tend to focus on only one character – and as it is based on the truth, perhaps it is closer to the genre of reality programming – but on the plus side, it is free!

After some major re-writes on Friday, and some more tweaking yesterday, I have finally submitted my latest assignment (TMA03) to the OU for judgement.  I can’t say that either essay makes for a particularly gripping read (a fact with which subscribers to this blog will be all too familiar) but I think I have answered the questions in the appropriately dry academic style required.  TMA04 should be m0re fun: for a start I have 1200 words to play with, and I am able to choose the topic (from a list of two) – so goodbye Augustus Welby Pugin and hello dissent in the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (an artist whose work I very much admire).  The bad news is that I have to prepare an Essay Plan: anathema to we creatives who prefer the stream-of-consciousness approach.  I bet James Joyce didn’t have to prepare an essay plan for Ulysses (though, equally, he may not have acquired any sort of qualification from the OU).  Oh well…

My chores over with, I headed into town for my singing lesson.  It is a source of both joy and astonishment to me that I am now singing (however poorly) half of the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte by some cove called Beethoven.  It is a glorious experience and I am a very lucky chap to be enjoying it.  I do need to work on my facial expression though: I would seem to have almost no proprioception in this respect, and so have no idea what my face is doing while I sing.  I wonder if I ought to take some acting lessons, or just start spending more than the absolute minimum time in front of a mirror?  (The latter would certainly be cheaper, though probably less fun.)

Being too lazy to cycle home and then back into Cambridge later, I took my dinner in town.  As a result, I can thoroughly recommend the Oak Bistro – a slightly curious location for fine dining (though offering excellent views of one of Cambridge’s busiest road junctions) but offering excellent food and service.

However, it is time to put out more flags as I have finally reached the entry to this post’s much delayed theme.  My final activity for the day was to attend a Camerata Musica concert at the delightfully intimate (if rather too pink for my taste) theatre at Peterhouse.  This offered Arcangelo, conducted from the keyboard by Jonathan Cohen.  Now, I seem to recall that it was one Jonathan Cohen who used to act as the musical director for Play Away! – also from the keyboard.  I must say that he has aged very well, he looks younger now than he did in the seventies.  Or perhaps the title is an hereditary one, and has been handed down through the generations to reach the current incumbent.  Brian Cant was not on hand to sing, but was ably replaced (and comprehensively out-scored on the Scrabble board) by the American counter-tenor, Lawrence Zazzo.  He was also wearing a particularly fine pair of shoes (not something one sees very often on stage – or indeed, off it): I was tempted to ask at the stage door where he had obtained them, but felt this might mark me out as slightly odd.

The concert was stunning – and only the second time I’d seen a counter-tenor in action (the first had been in the Handel opera Agrippina where the head of the Roman navy was so portrayed to my significant surprise when he first opened his mouth).  As a bass, I do find the counter-tenor a truly miraculous thing – and somehow even more extraordinary now that I know a little about singing.  Among many highlights were the cantata La Gelosia by Nicola Porpora and a Lute concerto by Vivaldi (nice to hear the coolest of the Medieval stringed instruments – at least according to Hal from Being Human, and as a character he is old enough to remember the Medieval period) moving centre-stage.

Yesterday was truly a day to count my blessings: not only the joys described above, but I managed to spend significant chunks of the afternoon and evening outside without encountering more than the a couple of spots of precipitation, which might even count as a fully-fledged miracle.

Addiction

I like to imagine that I am lacking something, the imagination perhaps, to form a proper addiction.  After coming to it late, I did wonder if I was addicted to alcohol as I used to consume it on a relatively frequent basis.  However, a few years back I realised that I had inadvertently gone eight weeks without touching the demon drink, which I think rather precludes it being an addiction.

I have recently been somewhat addicted to the television series Being Human, and in particular its recent, triumphant fourth series.  However, I think this can probably be fairly readily explained by my strong association with the character of Hal.  I may not be a 500+ year old vampire with OCD (though some days I do wonder), but we do share a worrying number of other quirks and, in my book, any character that refuses to countenance living anywhere unless if can offer carpets, central heating and Radio 4 can’t be all bad.  I did worry about his listening to You and Yours to keep his blood lust in check: I think it would probably drive me to kill quite quickly but then I quite enjoy Quote, Unquote, so no-one’s perfect.

Still, I think we can put this down as a passing fancy – and there won’t be a new “fix” available until 2013 – so I don’t think readers need fear for any further impairment of my fragile sanity from that direction.

As the avid reader will be aware (assuming their avidity has not caused permanent psychological damage), I started going to the theatre de temps en temps last summer.  I started my theatre-going “career” at the Oxford Playhouse when at university and then used to go regularly to a variety of theatres for much of the 90s, but, like a careless monk, lost the habit over the first decade of this shiny, new millenium.

My return to theatre-going started well enough – managing five plays in 2011 spread across seven months.  I thought I was in control…  However, in 2012 I fear the habit is spiralling out of control.  I have been to six plays already this year, and have another eight booked before the end of July.  I tried to convince myself that I was introducing competitive theatre going as a sport: well, we need to find some way to fund the arts in these difficult times and men seem willing to compete in pretty much any sphere, so why not the artistic one?  Unfortunately, my recent actions suggest a darker explanation…

I went to the mis-named Donmar Warehouse, it used to be a brewery (perhaps calling it a warehouse avoids creating unwanted organisational pressure?), on Easter Saturday (when we celebrate Jesus having a well-deserved rest away from the limelight) to see The Recruiting Officer.  This was great fun, and the Donmar is a lovely venue – though legroom in the circle was very limited, but this can be forgiven as the tickets are astonishingly cheap (as Treasurer of an arts charity, I can only marvel as to how they make ends meet).  The cheapness of the tickets may also explain how hard they are to obtain, though I did manage to snaffle the last seat for the entire run of The Physicists in July while I was there (occasionally, being single is a boon!).

My next smell of the greasepaint was not to be for 17 days and I found that I was starting to get twitchy.  Had I not been laid low by a serious bout of man ‘flu (or the common cold, as I believe it is known to the lay reader), I might have felt forced to fill the gap by booking something theatrical.  Matters are growing worse, after the excellent Travelling Light on Tuesday, I found I was needing another “fix” by Thursday.  I’m sorry to say that yesterday evening I gave into the cravings, and will be off to the Royal Court Theatre on Tuesday to see Love, Love, Love.

Can one obtain a theatre “patch” that I could wear to help me master these cravings?  Is there a 12 step programme I could join?  (I’ve covered step 1, as with this post I am admitting that I have a problem!)  Or maybe it’s just a phase I’m going through and I’ll grow out of it?

I fear this blog my have given the impression that all my theatrical dollars are being spent in the capital, and that I am failing to support my local proscenium arch – so let me put your minds to rest on that count.  Earlier in the year, I enjoyed a  splendid production of Anne Boleyn at the Cambridge Arts Theatre which was surprisingly funny (especially given the fate of the eponymous heroine) and has made me rather more sympathetic towards both Ms B and James (V)I.  I also have a couple more trips planned in May – however, I do wonder if I am too plebeian to be a member of the CAT audience.  The backs of the tickets are promoting the benefits of Kleinwort Benson Wealth Management – which suggests that they are aiming at a much richer clientele or at least one that isn’t blowing all its free cash on theatre tickets!  Ah well, I’m used to going where I’m not really wanted: I’ll just dress-up a bit and hope they don’t ask for a bank statement…