Monthly Archives: May 2015

A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire – National Theatre

Well, what a tedious play. How do some playwrights manage to do this, take a great period of history and wring every inch of life out of it to leave a dry and unexciting husk, a pale shadow of what it could have been? A few years ago a play at the Globe had the same effect; it was about Chartists – the nineteenth-century radical group who called for political and educational reform – a really exciting group that fascinated me at school. Yet somehow it was the most mind-numbingly dull three hours I’d ever spent in a theatre and worse had been standing in the pit the whole time, thus I resolved never to stand at the Globe again (just in case). The play was so bad I clearly wiped almost every trace of it from my mind, including the title.

Fast forward a few years and the same thing has happened again in this National Theatre revival of A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Carol Churchill’s 1970s play about radical groups during the English Civil Wars (there were officially two wars with a lull in the middle). The critics have loved it and I have no idea what they’re thinking. I studied this period for A-Level – the extraordinary 15 year personal rule of Charles I, before being forced to recall Parliament in 1640 for money, leading to a couple of years of power play as the two sides wrangled over evil councillors, monarchical privileges, religion and even the attempted (and illegal) arrest of MPs. In 1642 war was declared between the King and his own Parliament, an event of extraordinary significance in British history, which resulted in new forms of warfare and, most divisively, the trial and execution of a divinely-appointed monarch by his own people.

So as you can see exciting stuff. Churchill’s play understandably shies away from the high-level story which has been rehashed many times to focus on the experience of the people who trade one kind of hierarchy for another, and the emergence of radical groups such as the Diggers and Levellers who wanted to create a more equal society based on purer religious lifestyles. There’s no plot exactly, more a series of monologues and debates that consider the rights and freedoms of the individual, all designed to emphasise the timeless disappointments of those who pit themselves against established society. But therein lies its major flaw, without even the slightest narrative drive or rounded characterisation, the endless talking just leaves you cold.

Now, the National’s other philosophical play, Man and Superman, was a joy to watch because there’s enough story to frame the discussions and the whole thing zips along which keeps you entertained throughout. But despite the great design, Churchill’s play fails to create any sense of drama or the danger and excitement of the era. It includes direct extracts from The Putney Debates in 1647 where the New Model Army, fresh from victory over the King, discussed the kind of society they wished to create. It’s a crucial event emphasising the power of the army at this time to determine the future (and the removal of the monarch was by no means inevitable at this stage) as well as the emergence of a more radical spirit among the men who had fought. Yet, the scene was underpowered and failed to convey the passionate beliefs of many of the speakers, the words were there but without feeling. These were men were uniquely positioned to shape Britain’s political and religious future, not the local WI sharing sponge recipes.

In the second act we get a comparative debate scene among some of the people now living freely on the common land who largely debate the possibility of the Second Coming and notions of individual communion with God. Religion was a hugely important element of the Civil Wars particularly Charles I Arminianist or high church views which many feared as a step towards returning to Catholicism, and the imposition of a new prayer book was an important trigger for war. Yet this debate also suffers from a meandering approach and while the mix of characters brought together (ex-soldiers, working men and vagrants) should have made for an interesting look at the consequences of war for the individual, it was as unengaging as the rest. Admittedly by this point I had all but lost the will to live and was cursing myself for not having left at the interval (which I never do) but I’ve rarely seen a show where I cared so little for what was being said or for any of the characters. It’s not really the actor’s fault, apart from the lack of drive they were all emoting and making lots of sincere gestures, but it just didn’t amount to anything.

I think the overall problem here is that the play itself has tried too hard to steer clear of the main political events of these years, but in doing so just doesn’t give enough context or story to sustain momentum for 2 hours. Even me, who knows a fair amount about this period, found it hard going so I can’t imagine how anyone with no idea of the chronology of the wars would get through this. Or perhaps having too much pre-knowledge makes it worse? I knew how exciting and interesting these events should be and could only be disappointed by how utterly tedious this was.

Admittedly the design is good and a lot of critics have praised Es Devlin’s approach – but there’s a case in point, few critics mention the design in their reviews if they’re too busy enthusing about the play and acting! The action takes place on a giant table where the ruling class, comprising the King, lords and clergy are busy feasting while others toil to put food in their mouths. Then, symbolically the table is pulled to pieces to reveal a field of soil and the new ruling class of Puritan scribes take their seats around the edge instead. Although the wage bill for non-speaking parts must be enormous and at times they look like the cast of Les Miserables, it effectively suggests the continuing poverty of the masses regardless of who’s in charge.

This is the sort of play the critics love, they label it ‘challenging’ and ‘undramatic’ to imply some higher form of theatre but actually it just means boring and poorly structured. This completely lacks atmosphere and a proper feeling for the exciting, dangerous and frighteningly uncertain times in which it was set, so I’d save your money. The one thing this play had over my previous bad experience at the Globe – I may have been bored, but at least this time I got to sit down!

A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is at the National Theatre until 22 June. Tickets start at £15.

Communicating Doors – Menier Chocolate Factory

No summer in London would be complete without at least one Ayckbourn play to lighten the mood, and this time the Menier Chocolate Factory has revived one of the more unusual ones. Communicating Doors is a sort-of supernatural / sci-fi comedy set in the same hotel room in the 1980s, 2000 and 2020 in which particular characters are able to journey into the past using a enchanted cupboard. It is about as bonkers as it sounds, but with Ayckbourn’s trademark gentle British humour and a dash of Blithe Spirit magic, it somehow pulls it off.

In 2020 dominatrix Poopay arrives at a hotel suite to find Reece a man incapacitated by illness who, rather than enjoying her services, really wants her to be an independent witness to a death-bed confession about how he conspired in the murder of both his wives by his associate Julian. Before long Julian himself appears and realises what’s been going on and Poopay escapes into a cupboard. When she emerges later that night she finds herself in the exact same hotel room, only 20 years earlier and it’s occupied by Reece’s second wife Ruella. Poopay must convince Ruella that her life is in danger and they must work together to not only save first wife Jessica but also to stop Julian before he stops them.

This isn’t your standard Ayckbourn fare and his staple middle class but lonely characters don’t really appear here. Instead we get a time-hopping not-quite murder mystery that you know what, actually works a treat. The premise is utterly ridiculous and given it’s 1994 creation may even seem a little tame in the sci-fi / fantasy extremes of the twenty-first century, but none of that matters as Ayckbourn’s distinctive ability to skewer a certain type of British behaviour shines through. It also has a genuine sense of danger for all three women as they battle against their destinies and the menacing Julian, before finally giving the audience a neat and redemptive ending all round.

Rachel Tucker drives the action brilliantly as the dominatrix turned time-traveling samaritan Poopay – her pseudonym which is meant to be poupee, or doll in French. In a classic Ayckbourn way she doesn’t seem at all cut out for the life she has chosen, far too nervous and meek than you’d expect someone from her profession to be. Tucker is great at pulling all these contradictions together while quite rightly playing the role absolutely straight to maintain the drama of her situation. Imogen Stubbs makes quite an entrance as the bossy but practical Ruella who hears and accepts the situation with remarkable ease. Stubbs brings a motherly quality to the role in her desire to protect both Poopay and Jessica, her predecessor as Reece’s wife, which means she’s as willing to be nurturing as she is to discipline and is marvellous in her first scene where she insists her nocturnal visitor sits down quietly and stops making such a fuss – traits I found to be somewhat familiar!

Perfectly complementing this unlikely trio is Lucy Briggs-Owen as the dappy Jessica who refuses to believe a word of it when Ruella travels back to the 1980s to interrupt her wedding night. Briggs-Owen is probably one of the most versatile actresses in London proving her comedy mettle here as well as her more dramatic skills in last year’s woeful Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic – in fact Briggs-Owen was its only saving grace in the absence of the unwell Iain Glenn. Her role here is rather smaller than the others but proves to be a crucial one and one of the highlights of the evening.

While this is very much a play about the underestimated resourcefulness of three very different women, they are ably supported by three fine actors. David Bamber, known to most as Pride & Prejudice’s Mr Collins, is a genuinely evil Julian, creditably wringing every bit of menace from the role, despite some extraordinary wigs allowing him to play himself in two eras. There’s a scene before the interval that will make you want to lock all your doors very carefully when you go home. Similarly Robert Portal gets to play Reece as an aged man and as an 80s newlywed. Despite being off stage for much of the play, in some ways the whole piece is about him and the women he encountered, so Portal gives just enough in both periods to help the audience find his success credible.

Finally Matthew Cottle pops up as long-standing security man Harold, a most Ayckbourn of creations, a helpful jobs-worth naturally disappointed by his own life. Appropriate that Cottle, an actor who frequently appears in Ayckbourn’s plays should take the most likely character. It’s a great role and fun for Cottle to play, as Harold goes from young man, who’s only staying a few years, to veteran. His reaction during an absolutely hilarious balcony scene in 2000 is priceless

Director Lindsay Posner and designer Richard Kent have created a staid but likely hotel room that doesn’t change its décor (or clearly its staff) in 40 years. It’s nice to have a cut-away wall showing the bathroom which adds a bit of variety from staging everything in the living room, and becomes a useful place to hide. They’ve gone for full on clunk with the titular ‘Communicating Door’ and I quite like that, the premise is a little bit silly so why not emphasise that instead of trying to make it look swish and modern. So what we get is a very self-aware but great revolving cupboard some swirly lights and ‘magic time travelling’ music – love it.

Communicating Doors is a genuinely fun night of escapist nonsense full of great performances and great writing. I’ve seen at least one Ayckbourn in London every summer for years and it’s a tradition I always look forward to, and still haven’t seen anywhere near all of them.  This one though is a little different to the rest, so it’s well worth popping over to London Bridge for this quirky little tale of ex-wives, prostitutes, guilty businessmen, hotel living, sinister men name Julian and a bit of time travel.

Communicating Doors is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 27 June, and tickets are from £32.50 with concessions available at £25.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – V&A


Image: Copyright V&A


Fierce and fantastical are the only way to describe this brilliant exhibition at the V&A and you can see why pretty much everyone in London is trying to get a ticket. If you’ve ever thought that fashion was a frivolous pastime with absolutely no artistic value then this McQueen show can absolutely change your mind, it is beautiful – both the clothes and the setting.  Wandering through the rooms is like being in some enchanted fairy-tale land, becoming more wide-eyed with astonishment as each new and distinct section unfolds around you.

It’s not that long ago that the Constable paintings filled these rooms and this exhibition presents McQueen’s clothes like high art to be admired and felt. Some have complained that there’s not enough biographical detail about McQueen himself and where his inspiration comes from, but in way that’s also a good thing because unlike paintings, clothes are often used to say far more about a person. The way you dress day-to-day is indicative of your personality and in some sense synonymous with the way you present yourself to the world. You may have books and art and objects in your home which reflect your taste or interests, but none of these are seen as frequently or as widely as your clothing. If you accept that, then you have to apply that idea to this exhibition – McQueen wasn’t making clothes he would wear but ones he hoped would appeal to a wide female audience. They may be his vision but there is something the viewer or wearer must bring to them as well, so in some sense this is about your interaction with the clothes. It’s like a Saatchi Gallery art exhibition in that sense, no real information just you and the stuff with no artist in the way, which I respect.

So the exhibition’s beginnings are surprisingly tame and modest, showcasing some early tailored items from McQueen’s student and early collections in London. Although these aren’t the showstoppers we’ll see later, actually this is quite a shrewd move because you instantly get a clear sense of his aesthetic and approach to designing without being distracted by the more dramatic outfits created later. You learn how McQueen designed for women from the side because it was easier to see the body shape and creatively disguise problem areas, as well as his interest for sharp lines and powerful shapes. There’s also a clear reference to Victorian styles so plenty of frock coats in various forms, some with human hair apparently sewn into the lining which I was pleased not to see at 8am.

Then things take on a more exciting pace as the next room is decorated with tarnished mirrors and gilt to present some of the slightly harder-edged collections themed here as Romantic Gothic. There’s something quite Phantom of the Opera about this room combining a highly ornate and elaborate staging with a sense of darkness and danger. Each dummy wears a leather face mask and is surrounded by mirrors underneath, behind and to each side giving a view of the outfits from every angle as well as a disquieting sense of distortion to underline the style of these pieces.  There is a grand theatricality about the outfits in this room and there’s certainly nothing romantic or wistful about them, but they also maintain McQueen’s sharp lines and powerful silhouettes.

The next section is a complete change again to focus on McQueen’s interest in natural history and animal life. The walls are corrugated with bones and each dress is couched into a recess that seems to have been gouged into the wall, all rather like a primitive cave dwelling. The clothes also reflect this tribal feel with earthy colours, animal fabrics like pony skin and strong shoulder-lines. Weirdly each mannequin has a curved plastic shape on its face that looks like a trunk or a tusk to emphasise that primeval feel. Sound and projection are used to good effect here to add atmosphere, as well as clearly distinguishing the tone of the section.

Up next was my favourite room, combining McQueen’s Scotland-inspired pieces from The Widows of Culloden (2006) with The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008). There’s a lot of competition but my favourite dress in the whole exhibition is a knee-length full skirted white tulle number with patterned red stones filling the bodice which nods paradoxically to the decadent purity of the eighteenth-century style, yes I could definitely wear this dress. It sits alongside a suite of similarly inspired outfits combining ruffles, feathers and elegant draping effects which are pure romanticism, striking an interesting contrast to the political statement of the Scottish pieces facing them where innovative technique in the cutting and use of fabric is clear.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is a completely new section for the London shows and is rather like reaching the centre of the maze. It is floor to ceiling stuff and everywhere you look there are countless examples of McQueen’s work; from clothes to Philip Treacy hats, to shoes and facial ornaments- including the beautiful butterfly headdress adoring some of the advertising material. All interspersed with fashion show footage. Luckily there are seats so you can sit down while trying to take it all in. In the penultimate rooms the focus is on romanticism and nature featuring outfits incorporating shells, feathers and antlers, plus ruffles and lots of floaty fabrics but still retaining that trademark structure. Most outstanding is a dress made entirely of 3-dimensional flowers which is crazy but also beautiful, while the final room has a futuristic feel with the last collection entitled Plato’s Atlantis.

As you wander out blinking into the shop, it’s pretty clear that this has been no ordinary V&A exhibition. In fact given the V&A’s poor form in its costume displays, with Hollywood Costumes, Ball gowns and Grace Kelly all being very badly curated, it’s clear that this is a touring show and, honestly, a relief. Tickets are still available and the museum is opening from 8am till late to facilitate extra time slots. I booked about 3 weeks in advance for an 8am entry (if you’re prepared to book a month ahead there are lots of tickets for any time) which I would highly recommend. At that time, the cumulative number of people is incredibly small so you can get close to each item and take your time, and you can just toddle off to work afterwards knowing you’ve had your culture fix before 10am. An 8am start also enhances the dreamlike quality of this wonderful exhibition. As I said at the beginning this is fashion at its most artistic, one of the best fashion shows I’ve seen, brilliantly designed and completely enchanting.

McQueen: Savage Beauty is at the V&A until 2 August. Tickets are £17.50 including booking fee and a range of reasonable concession prices are available for OAPs, students, disabled visitors and art fund members. Day tickets are also available from 10am and no photography is permitted in the exhibition.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends – National Portrait Gallery

Exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery have taken an interesting turn lately and while a show is dedicated to the life of one individual, you leave having learned a huge amount about the times in which they lived and the interaction of various different groups within the cultural world. Last year the Gallery successfully staged a major David Bailey retrospective that told us a lot about his origins in the East End, his travelogue years and the host of artistic figures with whom he spent his time. This year, it uses his portraits to shine a light into the world of painter John Singer Sargent.

Sargent is an artist I know best for his First World War paintings including the stunning Gassed which is on permanent view at the Imperial War Museum, although Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth have long been highlights of Tate Britain’s freely available gallery selection, both of which have made the journey up Whitehall to this exhibition. His Great War paintings are beautiful and complex, mixing seemingly opposed ideas such as the disaster of war with a hint of hope and safety, but this exhibition focuses on the years until 1914. The way he paints light and the seemingly glamorous sheen of his subjects mean he’s often unfavourably compared to seventeenth-century master Van Dyck, court artist to Charles I, but in painting friends and fellow artists Sargent’s skill at capturing personality and surroundings becomes clear.

The exhibition begins with Sargent living in France and Italy, containing four rooms of portraits he composed from 1874-1885. The signs next to the pictures only tell you the name of the person but all the information about them and their relationship with Sargent is contained in the detailed guide given either at the ticket desk or exhibition entrance. I really like this touch and it shows a gallery that’s in tune with its audience. So often now guides are only available via app and for those without smart phones (and given the age demographic of the people I saw there that’s going to be an awful lot of people who go to art exhibitions) we miss out on this information. And in a packed space it also reduces the queuing time to read it on the sign, this way you can look at the picture and then move away somewhere quieter to read the background without holding everyone else up.

Anyway back to the work in Paris, there are a lot of notable pictures here, not least the theatrical Dr Pozzi at Home, a well know gynaecologist seen here in a bright scarlet dressing gown which has shades of Philippe de Champaigne’s portrait of Cardinal Richlieu, and Sargent’s first work at the Royal Academy. As well as the central figure, Sargent also uses the background and light in his work to interesting effect to create atmosphere and tone; a perfect of example of which is Ramon Subercaseaux in a Gondola which is most interesting for the formal looking man against the beautiful reflective quality of the water.

For many the portraits of Rodin and Monet will be most fascinating, both of whom Sargent admired and tried to emulate, creating a strong impression of the world in which these artists lived and worked together. Yet, quite another picture catches the eye, one which has a style rather different to those around it and showing the rehearsal of the Cirque d’Hiver orchestra. I liked the mix of impressionistic style and the sense of dynamic movement the painting has, like you can feel them performing. It also felt more modern than those around it.

Leaving the continent behind in the mid-1880s, Sargent came to England where he painted what is for me his most beautiful non-war picture, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose inspired by a scene he witnessed from The Thames, combining all his skills for painting people with enchanting backgrounds and depiction of light. Especially lovely is the way the lanterns illuminate the children’s faces showing a particular moment of dusk-light as the sun sets, while the floral backdrop has an English country garden meets oriental effect. Monet’s painting outdoors influence is evident. Even better you can usually see this painting for free at Tate Britain any time you like. But it’s from this point that I realised that the really fascinating part of Sargent’s work is not the people necessarily but the context in which their painted, which becomes even more apparent in the next room.

The paintings of Boston and London all have one thing in common – the sitter is almost invariably shown against a dark or opaque background, and as you wander around these pictures you get a feeling of stifling nineteenth-century city life, in cluttered rooms, smoky cities and somewhat oppressive society – in fact these portraits look exactly how reading a Henry James novel feels (and James himself is one of those on show in this room). From the haughty looking dancer La Carmencita to the actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and fellow artist W. Graham Robertson, the backdrops are gloomy to make you focus on the personality of the sitter but also imply something of the nature of Victorian city-life. In a lovely contrast, this room also displays a few incredible charcoal sketches which are so skilful they look as though someone has drawn over a photograph – particularly the one of the poet Yeats and actress Mary Anderson.

In the final room, Sargent escapes the repressive atmosphere of the city and returns to light openness of countryside and seascapes in Southern Europe. His Group with Parasols shows intermingled friends contentedly asleep on the grass, while The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy is a similarly relaxed scene of a female artist at work as her husband snoozes beside her. These are a lovely end to the exhibition taking you up to 1914 and hinting at the some of the incredibly evocative work Sargent would produce of people and desolate landscapes in the Great War.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is a brilliant insight into the work of a skilled and varied artist, one whose talent was dismissed in the early part of the Twentieth-century. As with their previous shows, the key here is not just being able to see around 70 paintings but the way in which these chart both the life Sargent was living in terms of his location and progression as an artist, but also the nature of the world he inhabited – one full of artists, musicians, actors, dancers and patrons. This exhibition reminds us that not only could Sargent paint accurate portraits of any sitter but brought to them a sense of personality and multiple references to the lives they lived.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is at the National Portrait Gallery until 25 May. Tickets are £14.50, although the concession prices are not much less. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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