April 28, 2012

Broad daylight

We are now so much in the habit of going to the theatre, we even do it in broad daylight!

In fact, our visit to the Watermill at Newbury this afternoon was - I think I am right in saying - our third this month. Our friend, Shanti, organises trips to nearly every new thing they put on there, and it just so happened that three came together.

In complete contrast to the previous two - both Shakespeare - today's offering was an extremely lightweight romantic comedy called Love on the Tracks, based on short stories by Checkov.

We were in Row B, which is quite something when you are already in one of the smallest and definitely the most intimate theatre in the country. As I said to Julie, "We're nearly in it!"

In fact, there were only three people in it - two men and one woman - who each played about six characters each, over a series of linked sketches. All this meant that we saw and breathed every breath with them, so were willing them to put on a good show, especially as one of the actors was also the writer.

If anything, by the interval I found myself trying too hard to like it, and not sure if I really was, but somewhere during the second act, I was thoroughly enjoying both the play and the performances, and was quite disappointed when the end came. As far as I can recall, it was only the second time I'd ever attended a matinee for a show not specifically written for children. Something about matinees has always put me off before, like the actors aren't going to put all their hearts into it, which is silly, especially given the quality of the acting today.

One of the things I really like about going to the theatre, indeed, is you are always assured of a very high standard from professional actors. In my long experience of going to the theatre, including the years when I used to review a lot for the paper, it has been clear that almost nobody makes a career of any kind on the stage unless they have a wealth of natural ability, complete professionalism and at least some measure of stage presence, sometimes tending to genuine charisma.

A major advantage of a matinee is you can make a bit more of a day of it, and, going to Newbury, that means we get to call in at one of our favourite places: Hungerford, which is half-way.

It's junk/antique heaven, and today we were on a bit of a mission to find some decorative tiles, which we indirectly achieved, finding some new ones in a gift shop. We never did expect to be able to afford the antique ones on sale.

It's been a full day because after returning home, we also popped out to the Swiss Chalet tonight to see my drum teacher Paul's band, The Monkey Dolls, which is always a treat and an eye-opener. We had to leave early as Julie was feeling under the weather, but not before we realised it was the second Saturday night in succession that we have gone to the pub; last week it was the excellent Rat Trap.

Life is slowly returning to how it was in those far-off days before we became parents, more than 20 years ago, and we're becoming a right couple of gaddabouts.

April 22, 2012

In the year 25

A first for today: I have now attended a mad hatter's tea party.

The occasion was the silver wedding celebration of Julie's former colleague and ongoing friend, Mel, and her husband Adrian.

As they have a bit of a thing about taking afternoon tea, they decided to have a tea party - and at one of their favourite places for doing it: Charingworth Manor, which is in the deepest Cotswolds, beyond Moreton-in-Marsh.

Some guests, including Mel and Ade themselves (pictured), extended the theme so it became the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, which explains the flamingo on Mel's head (if you remember the Queen of Hearts used them as croquet mallets) and Adrian's taste in hats.

We therefore felt underdressed, even though we got out our posh gear for the event. A tea party is not something that we would have thought to do, especially me, but it was a really nice afternoon.

Actually, we are trying to decide how to celebrate our own silver anniversary, which is coming up in August. A Boston tea party would be nice - in Boston, ideally - although a chimps' tea party is more likely.

Congratulations, Mel and Ade - and thanks again!

April 19, 2012

Exit, pursued by bear

More or less the only thing I knew about The Winter's Tale, before tonight, was it contains the most famous Shakespearean stage direction, "Exit, pursued by bear."

I guess few people, compared with many of his other plays, could tell you the plot, any famous lines or the name of any of the characters (Hermione, the heroine, is much better known for giving her name to Harry Potter's girlfriend). All this suggested we were in for a heavy evening at the Watermill Theatre, but by the interval we were quite captivated by the whole thing, not to mention amazed again by Propellor, the company putting it on.

We've now seen several of their productions, so the individual actors have become quite familiar to us. Indeed, it is only six days since we saw them do Henry V. Imagine that. I find it difficult to comprehend the memorising of one Shakespeare play, so to have two on the go in your head at once is quite miraculous.

If the second half had been as good as the first, it would have been an even more impressive production than Henry V, but the problem with The Winter's Tale - and surely the reason it is not Premier League Shakespeare - is it loses its way after the interval, descending into comedy after the powerful psychological drama before. Far be it for me to criticise The Bard, but I think you may have lost the plot a bit there, didn't you, Will?

The temptation to use contemporary references to solve this became just too much for Propellor to resist, but it didn't spoil the evening as there were still plenty of things to enjoy.

Tonight was another lesson in not taking it too seriously and accepting that of all the things Shakespeare's plays are, the last thing they are meant to be is real life.

April 15, 2012

Home again

Just a short entry to say that Sean is home after a really successful tour with his punk band, The Cold Harbour.

It was supposed to be a five-country tour, but the Swedish gig was cancelled so they only played in Germany, Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic. Otherwise, everything else went to plan, apparently, and they got an "amazing" reception wherever they went.

We saw a bit of video, taken from the wings of one stage, where they were playing to a packed and excited house, including band members throwing themselves into the audience in a way our parents would disapprove of.

Me? I think it's great. It's a priceless experience for a 20-year-old - and it's rock 'n' roll. Not just sitting at home and watching Top of the Pops, like we did, or The Old Grey Whistle Test, if you were really radical, but going off and doing what The Beatles did before they were famous. Real rock 'n'roll.

So good luck to him/them. And if the tour wasn't impressive enough, the money they made on tour - they sold about 160 T-shirts, for a start - will be ploughed back into the band, not frittered away. They often spend it on recording or printing new T-shirts, but this time they are probably going to buy a van.

April 12, 2012

Boom town

It's 6.20pm. I am watching Eggheads and considering the loudness of CJ's shirt. Then there is a sudden thump on the window, also loud, which makes me jump as I'm sat right by it.

I look through the window expecting somebody to be there, but there's no one. I go to the door and open it anyway, to see what I can see, but there's nothing. Very strange.

In the meantime, Holly comes downstairs to find out what the noise was, wondering whether it was a large bird or something else flying into the back patio door.

When I later arrive at band practice I am informed there is talk on Facebook of an explosion, somewhere in Swindon, and the radio station are investigating. Thus do rumours begin.

When I get home I find the noise was actually a sonic boom produced by a Typhoon jet that was scrambled in response to an accidentally broadcast alarm signal from a helicopter pilot, and the noise was heard right across the Midlands. This is probably the most exciting and certainly the most talked about thing to happen in Swindon this week, which I find really reassuring. We are lucky to live in a place where explosions are only imagined.

I should add that this is the second time in my life that I've heard a sonic boom, and the second time in the last year. The previous one was the last Shuttle returning to the Kennedy Space Center and even though we were 30 or 40 miles away at the time, it woke us up.

Here is my friend Baldrick who has written a poem on the subject, seen in this video after his recital of another - and even better - poem. As Basil Brush would say...

April 11, 2012

V good

Henry V is a long and intense play, and far be it from me to tell him, but, Mr Shakespeare, the closing scene, especially, could do with a bit of trimming.

Otherwise, however, our regular trip down the M4 to the Watermill at Newbury was excellent.

This version came courtesy of all-male (just like in Will's day) troupe Propellor, who we have seen before and really like, even if there is an unwanted edge from the fact that you are never quite sure they aren't about to kiss each other. Propellor act every single word, wring every little bit of humour out of the text, and have all kinds of little tricks and treats up their sleeves. There is never a dull moment, and for them to keep our attention for so long is a triumph, especially when the story is all a bit pointless.

Henry V is full of stirring lines and is supposed to make you feel patriotic, but even though we beat the French at Agincourt, I was struggling to care who won and who survived. The story is really only about one nutty king fighting another (foreign) nutty king, with only Henry, who gets the girl (in this case a bloke dressed as a girl), actually gaining anything.

Even better than the play was the interval, when all the lads in the cast piled into the bar to perform three folk songs - one unidentified, Sloop John B and The Wild Rover - theoretically for charity, but mainly because they clearly love it.

Moreover, they have a great knack for making this rub off on their audiences.

April 9, 2012

Louisiana Hayride

When Elvis Presley was making his name as a singer, before he was famous, he played in a show called The Louisiana Hayride. It doesn't quite have the pedigree of the Grand Ol' Opry (which he also played in), but I've always liked the sound of the name.

The Louisiana Hayride is a long way from the Louisiana pub in Bristol, but maybe not so far tonight, because it was where we were celebrating live music and rock 'n' roll in general, and the music of my late nephew, Trevor, in particular.

When he died just over a year ago, aged only 37, he had managed to pack a lot of honest music into his life, as tonight's event underlined. Somebody had the brilliant idea of getting virtually all the bands he had played in to perform on the same bill, including some that reformed especially for the event, which was called the Trevor Carter Memorial Gig. This included Trev's younger brother, Richard, who came out of rock star retirement to front a surprisingly good band called Blueprint. Several people played in several of the bands.

I've never been to a gig before where they needed a playlist to list all the bands. Trev's elder brother, Stuart, by the way, was the enigmatic MC, and his widow Conny also took part, singing backing vocals with the last band on, Your Robot Overlords/The Familiar Sound.

So a good night was had by all friends and family who packed into the upstairs room of the pub, and although some of the older members of the audience weren't quite sure what to expect nor whether they would like the style of music, I did, especially those who played or veered towards old-fashioned (1970s) punk.

It was certainly easy to be impressed by the general enthusiasm and musical ability of a lot of the players, particularly (for me) the drummers. I, Julie and Holly all went, but not Sean, who is still on tour with his band in Europe - the best reason anybody had for not being there, and definitely one that Trev would have approved of.

April 8, 2012

Happy Easter

The mammoth task of tiling our (albeit relatively small) bathroom took centre stage before normal service was resumed for Easter. It has turned out to be a much more complex project than anticipated, and my hitherto feeling that I actually like tiling has been challenged severely at times. The modern trend towards big tiles - the ones I am putting up are virtually A3 and nearly as thick as my little finger - seems like it should make the job easier, but makes it harder as you have to cut every tile that touches floor, ceiling or obstacles such as bath, sink and toilet. So, of the first 64 tiles I put up, only six were whole. I was counting.

Just to complicate things, there is a band of odd tiles running round the whole room at waist level - introduced to offset the plainness of the main tiles, and this was originally going to be made up of multi-coloured mosaic tiles, but for technical reasons - which I will not go into as it really isn't very interesting unless you happen to be a tiling enthusiast - the mosaic idea has had to be ditched. Instead, I'm going for a radical solution that involves trying to buy a lot of random tiles, which gave me the excuse necessitated going to not one but two car boot sales today, which is always interesting. More on our tiling adventures at a later date.

Easter wouldn't be Easter without getting together with Julie's family at her brother Steve and Lynne's Berkshire house, complete with the oldies chilling out and chatting, the youngsters making and/or reviewing home-made films, and then everybody rendezvousing in the kitchen to enjoy the traditional eye-popping spread of food put on by Lynne.

Despite there being three people missing - Sean, who is on tour (in Germany/Vienna) plus poorly Uncle Fred and Auntie Jean - we thoroughly enjoyed getting together while we await two happy family events: the arrival of Steve and Lynne's first grandchild (and our first great niece/nephew on the Freeman side), plus Katie and Matthew's wedding; probably, but not definitely, in that order.

April 4, 2012

Tourist class

We are one person short in our house for the next 12 days as Sean has gone off on tour with his band, The Cold Harbour, which we think is a pretty cool thing to do.

Sean plays guitar in the band, but also writes most of the music and had a big hand in organising the trip, which this time takes in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Sweden and the Czech Republic, starting with a long drive to Berlin, where they transfer to the tour bus.

They've even organised 'merch' (which is what young people now call merchandise, apparently) including posters (above), T-shirts and stickers - all of which they are expecting to sell out.

It's the third time they've done a tour like this, which makes us pretty proud parents, I can tell you.

Scenic route

There was an unexpected theatrical treat for us today, thanks to An Inspector Calls.

It wasn't entirely unexpected as it's not as if we didn't know we were going or anything, but it was unexpectedly good. Very good, in fact.

It was at the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon - not a place associated with a wealth of great drama usually, and it was a bit of an extra-curricular event for us as we are regulars at the Watermill, Newbury. What's more, in the last few years I had read the play because Sean was studying it, so not only knew the plot but the twist at the end, which I rather thought would spoil it.

It didn't - not much, anyway - as the good acting and very imaginative staging easily made up for it. In fact, I am struggling to remember if I've ever seen a better set outside the West End or a touring version of a big musical. Rather than a predictable dining room scene, with the action taking place around a table, we got to see the outside of the house as well as the inside, and most of the action takes place on a kind of balcony and the street. They even had rain on stage.

The play, which is by JB Priestley, seems as if it is going to be a whodunnit, but actually it's a clever moralistic thriller - and a very good one too.

April 3, 2012

Glazed expressions

If anybody is wondering why there has been no entry on this blog just lately, it's because my time is being eaten up by tiling. I have taken on a massive job in re-tiling the whole of our bathroom, using much larger tiles than ever before. You would think this would make it quicker, except the vast majority of them have to be cut into intricate shapes, especially as I started with the most difficult wall, featuring a window, sink and toilet.

The worst of it is all the cutting has to be done outdoors as the cutting machine sprays water everywhere, including over the operator (giving the impression he has seriously wet himself), so this requires an average of 25-30 trips up and down the stairs per day. Tiling can be very hard on your feet!

After that, there isn't much left to do but soak in the bath, survey the tiles you've just stuck on, think about the next batch that need cutting and consider that the tiles are slowly taking over your life.

So I haven't been able to take in much of what's been happening in the world. I did, however, get to hear a radio interview with Damien Hirst and see part of a programme about his new (but I believe mostly retrospective) exhibition at Tate Modern, which was very interesting. I didn't really know much about him before, except for his ability to cause outrage in people, and probably the most interesting thing I discovered is he left school with exactly the same qualification as me in art - grade E at A Level.

Our artistic careers have taken slightly different paths since then, however, as he had an auction of his stuff at Sotherby's in 2008 which raised £111million - and I didn't.

I know a lot of people think he's some kind of conman, just because he has a knack (or probably a plan) of making everything he touches turn to gold. For some reason, artists are not allowed to do this, but if they made the same kind of money from making crappy films or rap music, or even banking, they would probably be applauded for being enterprising and creative.

From the coverage I've seen of his exhibition, I can only admire him. The thing that people never get about art or modern art is the clever artists are not necessarily the ones who are the best drawers or painters, but the ones who do things first. Some of Hirst's stuff is genuinely innovative, and he manages to do what lesser people never do - which is to be completely original. Try it. It's nearly impossible.

His trademark embalmed animals were original enough for people to still be fascinated or offended by them, and I love his diamond-encrusted skull for three reasons: it's amazing to look at and I love the name he gave it (For the Love of God). I'm not sure what it means, but I don't see why ‘modern art' has to mean anything. People always complain that they don't "get it", as if purely figurative art has some kind of special meaning or quality. Unless I'm missing something, it usually doesn't. The third thing I like about the skull is - as the programme I watched explained - although it cost him £14million to make, they reckon it was worth £50million before it was finished. Now that's cool.

Some people consider you a good artist if a few people look at your work and say, "That's a nice picture." But millions of words have been written about Hirst - and still we're talking about him - which is surely the measure of a truly great artist. There is no doubt that - despite us both only getting grade E - one of us has taken art to places no man has taken it before.