Monday, 30 November 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Thirty-Nine

The Nutcracker, Theatre Royal, Norwich, November 2015.

An extra mid-week matinee and some hours owing to me at work meant that I could catch this on a sneaky Wednesday afternoon and it was a lovely treat.

Ballet is an art form that has really grown on me recently and after successful trips to see Matthew Bourne ballets and the more recent outing to see Romeo and Juliet I was interested to see if a traditional ballet where I was unfamiliar with the story would hold my interest too.

I'm pleased to report that in the main it really did.  Act One was a visual and story telling treat, I loved the way the dancers told the story of over excited children at a Christmas party squabbling over new toys just as much as I loved the spectacle of the more adult party.  After the party when Clara returns to the room and is confronted by the naughty mice and the toy soldiers there was so much humour in the dancing that I felt like clapping my hands together with glee like the pre-school aged little girl next to me.

After the interval I did feel that the story stalled, don't get me wrong it was amazing to see the talent of the dancers and to hear the beautiful Tchaikovsky music, but it wasn't until the very final few minutes of the ballet that we came back to the 'story' in anyway.  I do wonder if this is also the first example of the "and it was all a dream" trope too!

I was wowed by the dancing and I loved the way that the familiar and 'real' people from the first half appeared as the amazing dancers in the second but for me the highlights were before the interval when we had dance and story. The live orchestra was a real bonus and from my front of stalls seats I could really see the emotion that the dancers were expressing and also the chemistry between the cast, which was wonderful.

This was a really nice way to spend an afternoon, my heart did sink when I saw how many children were in the auditorium but as ever the majority were impeccably behaved and enthralled throughout. The adults were not quite the same and I did hear people complaining that they couldn't follow the story as there were no words. I shall keep going to the ballet as I am spellbound by it - possibly all the more so as I have no sense of rhythm or balance and at least two left feet!

The Christmas and snow scenes did make me start to feel a little festive and I imagine that had I seen it in mid-December I would have come out wanting mulled wine and mince pies, perhaps next year I'll find a production that we can take my nephew to a little but closer to Christmas, I think he'd enjoy it...

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Thirty-Eight

Waste, Lyttleton Theatre at the National Theatre, London. November 2015.

After our recent trip to the disappointing The Winter's Tale I'm pretty sure that all three of us were a little nervous of seeing this play, two of us had no real idea of what it was about. I was drawn to it mostly because it is a play that was banned by the censor for many years and I always feel that if those "superior" to me think I shouldn't see/read something then I really probably should.

It is a very talky play, it reminded me a lot of Man and Superman from earlier in the year where there were so many ideas to get across that full attention had to be given at all times, luckily for this production the actors and the script made this easy to give.

The play is a political drama, but all about what goes on behind the scenes, it is also a personal drama and one that I found most affecting.  Time after time my assumptions were proved wrong and I found the ending to be a shocking surprise.

Some parts bothered me slightly - the play started with a very strong female-led scene and then this group of intelligent women vanished from the stage. It has since occurred to me that this is a play from 1907, before the main suffragette campaign was under way, and that of course women would be excluded from everywhere except the drawing room. Even those women who appeared to be powerful behind the scenes could not come to the fore as the political intrigue deepens.

The play was banned because it deals with abortion, a politician gets a lover pregnant and she dies getting rid of the child, however even this is not quite as it seems. The subsequent potential for scandal then is the catalyst for the second half of the play.  I am trying not to go into detail about the play as since I've seen it I have seen many reviews where all of the plot is given away and I think that seeing it unfold organically was the best way.

I found this a political play from over 100 years ago to still be scandalously relevant - decisions made by the old-boys' network behind closed doors making or breaking laws and lives.  The play hasn't been received well by all reviewers but I know that it will stay with me for quite a while and it gave me lots to think about.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Update to an earlier space blog

I am so pleased to find that there are people out there who don't be come quite so awestruck as me in the presence of space legends!

The second lecture that Jim Lovell gave on 1st November (that is the one we didn't attend) was recorded by an audience member and is online to view.  If you have 60 or so minutes to spare and are interested in why we travel to Pontefract for essentially just an hour's talk now you can see...

I hope I have this much energy and enthusiasm at 47 let alone 87...

To find out more about forthcoming Space Lecture events you can find them on twitter @space_lectures, on Facebook and at their dedicated webpage.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Thirty-Seven

The Winter's Tale, Garrick Theatre, London. November 2015.

I had such high hopes for this one, and I'd infected my two theatre companions as well.  Okay yes it was another high profile, celebrity, Shakespeare but unlike the ill-fated Hamlet the scrum for tickets hadn't been too bad, and we'd secured them for just £15.

The official reviews for this play had been pretty good, although online regular theatre-goers hadn't been so kind.  There had been lots of complaints about the seats and the view too, I wasn't expecting utter comfort as we'd paid so little but this was daft.

The Garrick theatre is a joke, there is no rake to the stalls at all, and to add insult to injury the seats are not off-set and so visibility was, erm....., poor to say the least.  In Act One I was lucky enough to have an empty seat in front of me and then a short person in front of that so I could see 70% of the action. My friends did not share this luck, and were too polite to duck from side-to-side so they could see. I think that they were the only people in the auditorium to consider the people behind.  In Act 2 the very tall gentleman who'd been sat in front of them moved in front of me, luckily I could move along two seats but then I was constantly swaying from left to right to see around the person in front.

You can already tell I am going to *love* this production can't you...

Shakespeare is not hugely consistent in quality with his last plays and this one is no exception, an example to this is how in one breath Hermione says she is the daughter of a Russian emperor and then in the next breath they are sending off to the Oracle in Delphi to solve their problems...

I loved Act One, the court scene and the emotions shown were wonderful (except Branagh who overacted like he was in a Victorian melodrama), the plot unfolded clearly until just before the interval and then my heart sank right down to my boots.

The Winter's Tale includes the infamous line "exit pursued by a bear" and in this production film of a giant bear roaring was projected on to the back of the stage. It looked so out of place.

It should have acted as a warning, in Act Two the action moves away from the court of Sicilia to the countryside of Bohemia and the distinction between the two was glaring. The stately pseudo-Victorian court had become a mock-Tudor county bumpkin farm and the accents echoed this.  On the plus side it was lively and full of music and dance so even if we couldn't see much it was an aural treat.

The denouement of the play all takes place off stage (as it does in the text, see what I mean about it being an uneven play?!) and then we return to the court. Through the power of magic all the unhappy endings from Act One are reversed and we should have a moving and surprising ending (I'm not going to say what, for when it is done right it is wonderful) but by this point we all had such cricks in our necks that we just wanted it to end.

Dame Judi Dench was fantastic to see and hear, she really does make Shakespeare's lines seem like natural modern dialogue, she had real presence and to be honest it was worth £15 just to see her perform. This coupled with my enjoyment of the first act lead me to enjoy our outing more than the others but it wasn't a roaring success.

The final insult to the day was that in the over-priced programme there was a huge feature on how much money they'd just spent on improving the theatre. I think that less gold leaf on the plaster work and better seats could have been a better investment,but hey - at least they've expanded the bar.

I think that I really should learn that I do only enjoy Shakespeare when performed by the Globe, and as they have a new artistic director for 2016 I am getting nervous!

Monday, 16 November 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Thirty-Six

Handbagged, Theatre Royal, Norwich. November 2015.

This was a last minute booking for me and a convenient matinee at the theatre opposite where I work meant I could take a gamble on this.  I wasn't sure that I needed to see another play about the relationship between the Queen and her Prime Minister - after all it wasn't that long since I'd seen the NT Live broadcast of The Audience.

The idea is the same in many ways, no one actually knows what went on when the Queen and Margaret Thatcher but Buffini uses real speeches and her imagination to make a believable play.

In some ways the story telling is quite conventional - we start the day after Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979 and finish when she resigned in 1990. That is where convention stops.  The play is very hard to explain without making it sound incomprehensible, pretentious and like a long Spitting Image episode and it really is none of those things.

Essentially we have the Queen and Margaret Thatcher in older age looking back on the story, while another two actresses play the Queen and Margaret Thatcher during the 11 years of her rule.  There are also two male characters who play a further 27 parts between them to move the plot along.  The older ladies interject and interact with their younger selves, and older Queen repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience...  see it sounds complicated and dreadful!

It wasn't at all, it was genuinely funny and at times shocking and moving.  I was a young teenager in 1990 when Thatcher resigned but I could remember 90% of the historical facts that were covered in the play, but those that I didn't recognise were explained in such a way that if it all became a bit 'Basil Exposition' then this was also referenced by the cast. Even in a big theatre like Norwich the nuance and expression came through and at times I did think I was watching the real people not actors - impressive seeing as there were two of them on stage at all times.

My discomfort with this play didn't come from the style or the acting but rather from the audience.  The writing of the play is non-judgemental and as I said earlier a lot of the actual lines come from real speeches just altered slightly to fit the stage representations.  Mrs Thatcher was a decisive figure in politics and very far to the right of where my own political belief is, the audience I shared this play with seemed to be, how shall we say..., more appreciative of her stance than I was.  Lines that I found shocking received laughter and applause and on the occasions when characters made comments more in line with my views the audience were stony silent or making their displeasure known.  It made for an interesting afternoon I suppose!

After the performance three of the cast held a q&a session and their insights in to the political mixes of the audiences in various locations was great fun to hear, as were there anecdotes about accidentally staying in role away from the stage!

I wasn't expecting much from my afternoon and I was pleasantly surprised that a play so similar to another recent hit could add to the story and engage and amuse me so thoroughly.  I may avoid weekday matinees for political plays in Norwich however!

Friday, 13 November 2015

Meeting another space legend and personal hero.

Capt. James Lovell lecture, Pontefract. October 2015.

Mr Norfolkbookworm and I made the cross country trip back to Pontefract recently as the chance to listen to astronaut Jim Lovell was far too good to miss.

Now 87 Captain Lovell spoke for an hour about his four space missions (two Gemini, two Apollo), then took part in a question and answer session and then signed an autograph for everyone in the audience.  Amazing stamina and proving he really is made of the Right Stuff.

Although famous for being the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission it was great to hear Lovell speak about all three of his missions with equal weight.  I often find that the Gemini missions are overlooked and they were in fact some of the most exciting and important missions carried out as it was during these that the techniques needed for getting to the moon, and back, were trialed and perfected.

I always intend to take notes at these talks so I can write them up more fully afterwards but each time I just become totally star struck in the theatre and fail to do so.  Lovell's anecdotes about one little bit of his Apollo 13 story stuck however:

Lovell had been to the moon before, in Apollo 8 when he was one of the first three humans to ever see the dark side of the moon - the beautiful Earthrise image comes from this mission, his colleagues on Apollo 13 had not.  This meant that despite all of the peril they were in at the time Haise and Sweigart did forget everything to gaze at  the moon and Earth and had to be reminded that if they didn't pay attention to the mission requirements they wouldn't get home to show off their photos.

After the talk and a live narration of some film footage of the Apollo 13 mission came the q&a. This was hosted by Professor Brian Cox and I confess to being a little sceptical about this, I did wonder if it would become either all about Cox, or dominated by Cox's own questions.  Neither happened and Cox skilfully managed to work equally start struck audience questions into simple forms for Lovell to answer and also insisted that the young people in the audience got to talk to Lovell too.  Afterwards when it came to the signing session he disappeared from sight and the event was totally about Lovell. I am cursing myself as it was only after the session that I thought of a question!

I am now really excited to hear that Cox will be back at the next event (April 2016 - Gene Cernan) to do the same - our tickets are already booked!

Also if anyone was wondering about the accuracy of the Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 apparently there are only minor liberties taken with true story and Lovell thinks it is a good film.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Not dribbling - giggling

The Road to Little Dribbling - Bill Bryson.

I can't believe that it is twenty years since the wonderful Notes from a Small Island was published, and by all accounts neither can Bryson as he haphazardly sets off to explore England, Wales and Scotland again.

From page one I was chuckling to this, and I found myself reading out many sentences to my poor travelling companion who kept giving me funny looks as I shook with suppressed laughter on a busy train.

After re-reading some of Bryson's earlier travel books a while back I was a little nervous about this one - there was a nasty strain of racism/xenophobia in a a couple - but this didn't disappoint. It is full of well aimed and well deserved quips about the British all dialled up to 11 for comic effect.

This will become a firm favourite and Mr Norfolkbookworm is now reading it, giggling a lot and reading favourite passages to me, all the sign of a good book. Bryson's mocking of poor grammar and punctuation in print journalism really made me smile. It won't be for everyone, it is firmly southern England-centric and at times less than kind to Norfolk but on the whole a great read.

Not everyone agrees and the Guardian's Digested Read does have more than a whiff of truth about it, but taken as a light, whimsical book it was perfect reading for the weekend that saw the clocks change and everything seeming that bit darker and more miserable.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Thirty-Five

Romeo and Juliet, The The Royal Opera House, London. October 2015.

Earlier in the year mum and I saw Romeo and Juliet at the Globe and I mentioned then that I'd been writing about the play for my MA.  One of the essays based on the play was actually about how it translated into ballet, the version I talked about was that choreographed by Kenneth Macmillan. When mum and I found out that this adaptation was to be on stage we treated ourselves to tickets and planned an overnight trip to London to see this.

I loved the DVD version that I watched and rewatched while writing my essay but really is no comparison to seeing a filmed version and the real thing.

From the moment the conductor appeared until the last curtain call I was swept away in the story and although our seats didn't give the same close up views that the DVD did I found it more involving.

Everyone always warns you when you go to your first ballet you will be surprised by the noise the dancers' feet make.  Having seen a few contemporary Mathew Bourne ballets I thought I was prepared for this but it was more pronounced in this and I think added something - you really could see how hard the dances were and how effortless the dancers made it seem.

Our Juliet, Roberta Marquez, was such a good actress as well as dancer that I felt she was the real star of the performance we saw.  Not that Romeo wasn't good - and the two had a believable chemistry - it was just that she was outstanding.  Her growth from childhood to womanhood was portrayed wonderfully and believably.

The crowd scenes were also fabulous, being in the theatre meant that I could look all over the stage, not just where the camera man decided I should look, really opened up the scenes and added menace and foreshadowing which helped move the plot along.

The whole evening was magical and I am a firm convert to the world of ballet, however the one thing that both mum and I noticed (and were a little sad about) was that at the end the principals all took a bow but the corps de ballet were not acknowledged at all.  I'll need to see more ballet in order to find out if this is standard practice or an aberration, despite the two bunches of flowers it wasn't Marquez's last night in the role...

There is even a Norfolk link to this outing as Kenneth Macmillan was born in Great Yarmouth!

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Shock horror a book review!

Fallen Glory by James Crawford.

I've been wanting to talk about this book for months and months. I read it way back in the summer when it was one of the books submitted for a project I was taking part in. I wasn't allowed to talk about it then but now the book has finally been released to the wide world I can do so.

I think that this may well be my favourite book of the year, fiction or non-fiction.

Crawford tells the history of the world in a new way, via the great buildings of various cultures. We visit, amongst others, the Tower of Babel, Troy, Mongolia, India, South America and then, right up to date, we get to the Twin Towers and September 11th 2001.

Of course it is only giving a snap shot of history but the buildings are cleverly linked and there are a surprising number of connections that I hadn't encountered before. Equally if a building/period of history isn't quite your thing then you can skip to the next location without disrupting the narrative.

Crawford is also good at explaining how myth interacts with reality and at no point did this book feel anything other than engaging, well written and informative. Not a hint of text book about it.

I don't think that the book was selected to feature on the radio as part of the project in the end but that shouldn't stop  you from giving it ago.

At least of the other books that I read and enjoyed did make the cut and details of the whole project can be found here and here.