John Latham at the Serpentine Gallery review ****


John Latham: A World View

Serpentine Gallery, 17th March 2017

in recent years I have had a growing fascination with the “pure” Conceptual Art (only capitals will do here) of the 1960’s and 1970s and the way it appears to have come to influence chunks of today’s artistic discourse. This is from the perspective of an amateur observer/consumer so I have no idea about the theories that lie behind it, how it is taught in art schools and who owns or buys this stuff, but I have sought out opportunities to see some of it and feel compelled to investigate further.

It makes sense to me to distil art down to the concept that lies behind it and I am strongly drawn to minimalist artistic out put (in music as well as “art”). I am not a maximalist which I think is why most of the Western art canon from the C17, C18 and C19 leaves me cold. I just can’t be doing with acres of flesh and frocks and gods and classicism and rich folk. I like the straightforward where looking doesn’t give me a headache. If I walk through a “national” collection I will pay close attention to the Flemish, Dutch and Italian “primitive”, the Dutch Golden Age portraits and still lifes, then ignore everything until some of the Impressionists and post Impressionists appear, then again be selective about the C20 until the really minimalist stuff appears. Oh and then most contemporary stuff also leaves me cold.

Now I gather that the UK and US fellas (usually blokes) who first came up with the Conceptual wheeze (Sol LeWitt, this bloke Latham, Art & Language, Fluxus, John Cage and so on) were not entirely enamoured of the kind of minimalism represented by the likes of Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Elsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Carl Andre and so on so I must be careful not to get by -isms in a pickle. But there is something for me in this Conceptualism I think.

The Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 exhibition last year at the Tate Britain turned out to be a cracking insight into what I found interesting and in some cases less interesting about Conceptual Art of this era. The bit where the theorising disappears up its own a***hole, and I fear there are a lot of these, are hard to handle. The pointless simplicity or hopeless naivety of some of the “concepts” can also be frustrating. It is all well and good preaching that artistic endeavour should seek to criticise its own ecosystem (though to me a bit pointless as it is axiomatic that a) artists go to art school and b) that artists only exist when public or private patrons are there to “own” the art), as well as explore the relationship between art and society/culture, but if the best you can come up with is a neon light sculpture saying bash the rich then in my book you need to try harder.

And there are also an awful lot of wry, one note visual jokes in Conceptual Art. Oh and a lot of junk scattered on the floor or glued on the wall.

Then I see something where the idea and the making process is interesting and thought provoking and multi layered and where the result has some sort of aesthetic beauty (for me). And that really. really works for me. Not in the way that peering at a van Eyck does but still a comparable rush.

And this exhibition of John Latham’s output has all of this for me with very little of the “tough to bear” stuff that this simpleton can’t fathom. I confess the theory stuff, “least” events and “flat time” was well beyond me but the works, the one second spray paintings, the burnt books, the roller blind paintings, the land art, were all fascinating. And the way in which his ideas have gone on to influence a current generation, communication and language in art, the interaction of art with science and philosophy, the role of chance, intervention and the role of the artist in government, was an eye opener.

So no need to swallow all the potentially pretentious, brain aching stuff and nothing ugly to look at just a very condensed introduction to a fascinating character in a lovely space. And some thoughts to take away. Take a look if you are in the vicinity. It’s on until 21st May. It’s free. Oh and wander along to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery next door. There are four artists whose work is directly informed by John Latham. I wasn’t sure about 3 of them but the video of Tania Bruguera describing what she is up to in Cuba both artistically and politically is inspiring.


Some ideas for the culturally inclined in London

So here is a brief list of what is on in London or coming up … and is of interest to me and maybe to you


This is just an update of the following post … with a few new ideas that have cropped up recently

Some forthcoming theatre ideas

Current best picks – what’s on and booking

  • Obsession – Barbican – booking and opening shortly – should be a cracker based on Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s track record
  • INK – Almeida – booking now
  • Against – Almeida – booking from May
  • Othello – Wilton’s Music Hall – booking now
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Harold Pinter Theatre – on now – reviews say it is unmissable but fancy West End prices have to be stomached

National Theatre

These I have already mentioned …

  • Follies – Summer 2017
  • Network – Nov 2017
  • Mosquitoes – July 2017
  • Macbeth – not until Spring 2018
  • Amadeus is coming back in 2018

These are the newly announced

  • Beginning – Oct 2017 – new romantic comedy by David Eldridge – “the morning after a party two couples…blah blah … changes their lives etc” – I don’t know his work but it is directed by Polly Findlay who is terrific director – the words romantic and comedy should normally give cause for concern but the NT has backed this writer before so I think worth a punt though don’t think it will fly off the shelf
  • The Great Wave – Spring 2018 – set in Japan and Korea – that’s all there is on the website but co-production with Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn (which is tip top and currently being refurbished) and directed by Indhu Rubasingham who is the director of the Tricycle

On now or booking … I thave alked about these before

  • Twelfth Night – I haven’t seen it yet shortly but reviews are great
  • Angels in America – sold out – decide if you want to see it in the cinema but I would understand if you don’t …
  • Consent
  • Salome
  • Common

Barbican Theatres

Just saw Roman Tragedies by Toneelgrope Amsterdam – it was utterly brilliant – so when this bunch come back next year and put on a classic you should go – no excuses

Barbican will announce new season shortly which willI guess will include RSC transfers from Stratford of Titus Andronicus and the three Roman plays, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, that is the three plays that make up Roman Tragedies above – happy days ….

As a reminder this is the forthcoming list which I discussed in the previous post

  • The Winters Tale – Cheek by Jowl production
  • Obsession – this is the Toneelgrope Amsterdam production I am most interested in with that lovely Jude Law
  • The Tempest –the RSC transfer

Young Vic

Nothing new to report so I still am most interested in the following

  • Life of Galileo – Brecht classic
  • Wings – Juliet Stevenson is the lead
  • The Suppliant Women – transfer of classic Greek tragedy

Royal Court Theatre

Again no recent additions so more details in previous post

  • The Ferryman – sold out but the West End transfer is still available
  • The Kid Stays in the Picture – has opened but no reviews I can see yet yet
  • Anatomy of a Suicide
  • Road
  • Killology
  • Bodies
  • Victory Condition

Almeida Theatre

So a re-cap first about Against as I think this will be a rapid seller and it will pay to get in early I reckon

The new play by Christopher Shinn (Other People, Dying City, Now or Later, Teddy Ferrara) who is a massive luvvies favourite has been announced – it is called Against and will be directed by Ian Rickson and will have the lovely Ben Wishaw in the lead – if you have never seen Wishaw on stage then with all due respect you are a numpty – he is brilliant though I have a crush on him I admit – anyway here’s the blurb from the website

Silicon Valley. The future. A rocket launches.

Luke is an aerospace billionaire who can talk to anyone. But God is talking to him. He sets out to change the world. Only violence stands in his way.

Now to me that sound bloody fantastic so I will stab a guess this will sell fast – booking opens in May for performances in second half August and through Sep – so let me know I interested and I will get some dates planned – I am a member so happy to book for you

The Hamlet with Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock) is just brilliant – certainly the best Hamlet I have seen and up there with the best Shakespeare – but I can’t see a cinema performance yet

I still highly recommend INK by James Graham who wrote This House, which is about Parliamentary politics in the 1970s and is a brilliant play – this new play is about Murdoch setting up The Sun and should be a very funny satire – directed by Rupert Goold

Donmar Warehouse

Limehouse and the The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui both sold out – reviews for Limehouse are so-so

I will keep my eyes peeled for the new season when announced – they have a new ticketing system but this is usually a bun fight

Old Vic Theatre

Woyzeck, Girl from the North Country and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – (where reviews are strong) all booking

Hampstead Theatre

Filthy Business (reviews are very good as might have been expected), Occupational Hazards, and Gloria – these are the main stage productions I have already covered – there are a couple in the downstairs stage but they don’t grab me

Fringe Theatres

A couple of new things at Southwark Playhouse, Lyric Hammersmith and Wilton’s Music Hall which I have highlighted

Orange Tree Theatre – The Lottery of Love and An Octeroon

Southwark Playhouse – The Cardinal and now The Island which is a modern classic by SA playwright Athol Fugard about two inmates on Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned – you can do worse than a bench on a school night at Southwark Playhouse which is consistently good 

Park Theatre, Finsbury Park –Madame Rubinstein, Twitstorm, A Clockwork Orange as before

Gate Theatre, Notting Hill – Grounded – I loved it but nearly over and not compulsory

Grounded at the Gate Theatre review ****

Finborough Theatre, Earls Court –You’re Human Like the Rest of Them and Incident at Vichy – both revivals of neglected or early works which is the theatre’s forte (as it is for the Orange Tree)

Arcola Theatre in Dalston – there is a Cherry Orchard by Chekhov coming up I am going to – initial reviews are mixed but the boy Chekhov normally rises above directors and performers to deliver a worthwhile couple of hours – the new season is open – Marlowe’s Tamburlaine by a British East Asian women’s company, a version of Camus’ The Plague and a Richard III with Greg Hicks, a veteran Shakespearean

“Outer” and Other Theatres

Rose Theatre KingstonMy Brilliant Friend Parts 1 and 2 – reviews in the sensible papers are good and I agree but not sure I would insist you schlep out this far if you are not a local

My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****

Lyric Hammersmith – can be relied upon for properly controversial revivals (and excellent stuff for kids) – City of Glass (based on the Paul Auster novels) looks interesting – the reviews from Manchester where it is currently playing suggest the staging is interesting even if the story is a bit slippery – adapted by Duncan MacMillan who has been involved one way or another in most of the innovative theatre in London over the last few years – maybe one for your correspondent alone – also coming up is Terror a German courtroom drama about a pilot’s decision to shoot down a hijacked plane where the audience gets to decide the outcome – and a new Seagull (adapted by a favourite playwright of mine Simon Stephens who adapted Curious Incident …) where Chekhov basically sets out all the themes/characters he would bang on about in later plays – yes there is a gun, lots of voddie, pompous schoolteacher, unrecognized writing genius, ageing but still sexy matriarch, shrewish wife, some serfs watching on – all in all I think these three plays all look interesting and the Lyric is very good value

Wilton’s Music Hall – A new shout here – the Othello coming up at Wilton’s Music Hall – for those who have never been the venue is a real treat – super shabby in a Victorian ghost story sort of way it is often used for period TV pieces – anyway this Othello comes from Bristol Tobacco Factory and has cracking reviews – again cheap as chips here if a bit uncomfortable

West End Theatres

Nothing new vs last time so just a recap

Philanthropist at the Trafalgar Studios

Apollo TheatreTravesties – an awful lot to take in but well worth it if you put the effort in

Travesties at the Apollo Theatre review ****

Wyndhams TheatreDon Juan in Soho

Harold Pinter Theatre – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – the reviews suggest this is a must see

Theatre Royal Haymarket – The Goat or Who is Sylvia

Duke of Yorks – The Glass Menagerie – seen it and loved it but it is very Tennessee Williams

Art Galleries and Museums

Don’t miss

  • Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery – from Oct 2017
  • America After the Fall – Royal Academy – reviews outstanding
  • Revolution: Russia Art 1917-1932 – I thoroughly enjoyed this and a great foil for the American one above

Same as for theatre above – just a checklist really

Tate Britain

  • David Hockney – to 29th May
  • Impressionists in London (from Nov 2017),
  • Rachel Whiteread (from Sep 2017)
  • Queer British Art

Tate Modern

  • Robert Rauschenberg until 2nd April – have seen it and now know why the smart people bang on about him – he just seemed like an all round top optimistic bloke which came through in the art
  • The Radical Eye photography until 7th May
  • Wolfgang Tillmans – I saw this and liked it – a prolific photographer with all sorts of thought-provoking ideas – but not an essential unless you are in the Tate
  • Coming up Alberto Giacometti, Modigliani and Red Star Over Russia

Victoria and Albert Museum

From May there is the Pink Floyd exhibition

National Gallery

  • Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites from Oct
  • Monochrome: Paintings in Black and White – from Oct

National Portrait Gallery

  • Cezanne Portraits from Oct 2017 – compulsory
  • Howard Hodgkin – about to open – UK’s greatest colourist and made more poignant by his very recent death

Royal Academy of Arts

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 to 17th April – this was a real eye opener into Soviet Art for me and the relationship between State and artists and there was plenty of new stuff to get my teeth into – highly recommended

Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****

America After the Fall – I recommend seeing both of these back to back ….

Other galleries

Other exhibitions that catch my eye

  • John Latham at the Serpentine Gallery – so the daddy of British conceptual art – I went and it just bolstered my fascination but would not be offended if you though it was complete b*******s
  • Whitechapel Gallery – Eduardo Paolozzi to 14th May
  • Dulwich Picture Gallery – Vanessa Bell to 4th June
  • The Japanese House at the Barbican from 23rd Mar
  • At the British Museum is the American Dream exhibition of prints
  • Robots exhibition at the Science Museum


I only deal with a bit of C20 opera (notably Britten), some contemporary opera, some Mozart and some Baroque … so basically most of the canon is off limits for me which is of precious little use to you I realise. Sorry.

Royal Opera House

The Exterminating Angel – Thomas Ades  – this will be a fabulous score I am sure – based on the surrealist Bunuel film – this is seriously pretentious but I have very high hopes

Mitridate, re di Ponto – this was written by Mozart aged 15 – a classical theme so closer to Baroque structure than the mature operas – a revival which had top reviews previously -booking opens 28th Mar for us mortals

Elsewhere Hackney Empire puts on a lot of Baroque opera by English Touring Opera – I have seen some Monteverdi there which was jolly – I like the sound of the Julius Caesar by Handel in two parts in Oct – for those who like the noise Handel makes this should be a treat though Baroque opera often involves dodgy sets and “park and bark” singers who don’t do much acting so beware


Loved Elle – I could watch Isabelle Huppert read the telephone directory (do they still exist) but this was perfect for her brand of hauteur and facial tics but be warned it is provocation after provocation to us liberal types like most of director Verhoeven’s stuff so read reviews carefully

On the to see list now is Lady Macbeth and that Personal Shopper as well as Get Out

The End

Michael Andrews and Richard Serra at the Gagosian Galleries London review *****

Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water *****

Gagosian Gallery, Grosvenor Hill London, 2nd February 2017

Richard Serra: NJ-2, Rounds:Equal Weight, Unequal Measure, Rotate *****

Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street London, 21st October 2016

Just a very late shout out for two of the most interesting gallery exhibitions currently on in London in my view. Mind you the Michael Andrews closes on March 25th but if you are anywhere near the gallery (on Grosvenor Hill just off Grosvenor Square) this week I very strongly recommend you take a look. The Richard Serra exhibition at the other gallery on Britannia Street just round the corner from Kings Cross has been extended to April 13th is also definitely worth a visit if you find yourself close by.

I knew nothing about Michael Andrews but he was a contemporary of the big lights in his early days in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain (Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and so on). Apparently post 1970 he focussed on landscapes and by heavens it is as well for us that he did. The Proper reviews can walk you through the important stuff. I will just say I found these works extraordinarily beautiful. I mean just aesthetically some of the most wonderful things I have see in a long time. The key lies in the spray painting technique he employed apparently. This means big swathes of acrylic paint to build up landscapes (of Australia in one room and Scotland/the Thames in another) with a further room dominated by a recurrent theme of an air balloon above the landscape (the Lights series). And the room full of paintings of fish is just stunning – I know that sounds a bit daft but it really is.

Anyway please just take a look. You will not regret it.


The Richard Serra is equally stunning. Three recent sculptures, with NJ-2 the standout, created on a monumental scale. I just kept walking in and out of it – couldn’t help myself. All you need in terms of form and volume but playful and the colour of the weathered steel is breathtaking. The colour of the other two pieces is similarly draw dropping as the weathering on the Rounds pieces is like some sort of reptile skin. Anyway the clever people will tell you more but do go and have wander through NJ-2 and you will see that I am not wrong. It might just be hunks of metal at the end of the day but some of the best hunks of metal I imagine I will ever seen.



Some forthcoming classical music concert ideas (with a bit of nostalgia thrown in)


Some recommendations – but read the caveats below

So in this post I have tried to draw out some highlights (for me) of the forthcoming classical music seasons at the major London venues.

Remember this blog is for the curious – all you experts out there are permitted to snigger at the below – but we all have to start somewhere. If you are a youngster there are generally lots of ways I gather to blag cheaper tickets. For most venues a bit of forward planning generally helps but is not an essential to get to see what you want to see. Stuff does sell out but rarely immediately (at least the stuff I want to see) in contrast to the best of London’s (non-West End) theatre.

If you are not a massive cognoscenti, like to take a punt on things you don’t know too well, not possessed of perfect hearing or a cheapskate, or, like me, all of the above, then opting for the cheap seats at most of these views turns up what I consider to be an extraordinary bargain. For a tenner or so, and certainly less than a pony (Cockney not equine) you can see and hear two hours of, for example, a world class orchestra, with a world class conductor performing a world class piece of art. Same price as the cinema which is just a shed with a digital print rolling around endlessly. Oh and with all your hard earned cash going to the performers, shareholders and assorted hangers-on, so they can dick about in frocks at the Oscars and expand their already monstrous egos. In the classical music world the performers take way less, the state chips in a bit, there are some rich philanthropists generally subsidising a bit of your visit and there are generally no grasping shareholder types. Who’d have thought … poncey, classical music as a redistributive challenge to the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy.

Right now to the musical caveats. The key thing to bear in mind is that  I cannot abide any of that Romantic, self-indulgent overwrought slush. For me Western classical music stopped around 1830 after your man Beethoven died and then started again in the C20 when Stravinsky pumped up the rhythm. I need to hear a pulse or beat and not get drowned in too much lyricism, melody and expression.

This probably reflects my starting point. When I was a nipper and started listening to music in the mid 1970s our starting point was heavy and progressive rock. Think Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, Supertramp, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple. There might be some enterprising twists and turns, West Coast rock, Marley, Krautrock, Kraftwerk for example but these were rare. And there was a lot that we considered off limits including to my eternal shame, the likes of Bowie, all soul and disco music, the Velvet Underground and similar ilk. Obviously I eventually saw the error of my ways and have been on a self imposed course of cultural re-education for many years to correct these flaws notably in the case of Bowie. However the heavy/progressive rock DNA cannot be eradicated.

BUT fortunately Punk came to the rescue. Now it took a bit of time to wend its way down to Devon and I can’t deny that shoulder length hair and velvet flares was the look I favoured to attract the ladies until the very end of the 1970s but our music tastes changed substantially for the better. So the golden period for shaping my musical tastes was 1978 to 1985. That is not to say the old order was entirely overthrown (Led Zeppelin at Knebworth in 1979, Pink Floyd The Wall in 1980 were the most obvious aberrations) but a near religious devotion to the NME and especially John Peel for the first few years of that golden age saw a firm shift to the likes of Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Talking Heads and the like. I confess that the appreciation of the Fall, Wire and the Wedding Present, now firm favourites, was rather more retrospective and the Smiths too took a bit of time. Anyway hopefully you get the picture. After that life caught up and my appreciation of pop/rock/indie was a more haphazard/measured affair until the last few years. (PS I do realise I just how cliched my musical taste is but unfortunately it probably won’t stop me expanding further on some of these likes in a misty eyed way in future blogs)

The same trajectory applied to my appreciation of classical music. The middle/late 1980s saw the first forays following a bunch of free concerts (oh to be young) which was fairly eclectic but ended up largely centred on Britten, Shostakovich and Beethoven and very little else. And then the ramp up in the past few years. This has meant an expansion into minimalist music (previously it was pretty much Arvo Part and not much else), the beginnings of an understanding of Stravinsky, a reversal from Beethoven into Haydn (but not Mozart), a major Baroque expansion (largely Vivaldi and now other Italians with a bit of Bach) and finally an understanding of the joys of Early Music. I reckon that is enough to keep me going until my time is up.

So those are the parameters around which the recommendations below are made. No doubt some musicologist can make sense of all of this but I will stick with “I know what I like”.

Oh and the final caveat – it’s only going to work if you are based in London. Sorry.

Anyway “hear” you go (ha ha).

  • Barbican Hall – 1st May 2017 7.30pm – Music in 12 Parts by Philip Glass – yep his hallmark piece over the thick end of 4 hours played by a crew of superb musicians – not the easiest way into vintage Glass but maybe the best – looks like some tckets still up for grabs but this will sell out I reckon
  • Barbican Hall – 6th June 2017 7.30pm – a Gerald Barry piece, Chevaux de Frise which I don’t know but sound like a blast, and Beethoven Symphony no 3 – Britten Sinfonia – conductor Thomas Ades – Beethoven 3 is the big shift out of the Classical period – Thomas Ades loves Beethoven and is one of our greatest current composers – as does/is Gerald Barry – they both write contemporary operas people actually want to see  – and the Britten Sinfonia are the top bananas at interpreting contemporary music so sound different to the big orchestras – still loads of tickets here
  • Cadogan Hall – 16th June 2017 7.30pmDebussy’s Prelude, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich 5th Symphony – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – two of my favourites here and the Debussy is bearable – but a nice, straightforward programme with a bit of showy stuff – again lots of tickets going here given the plain vanilla nature of the evening
  • Barbican Hall – 23rd June 2017 7.30pmMonteverdi’s Vespers – Academy of Ancient Music – vocal masterpiece of early Baroque – just extraordinary even now – written as a way to drum up business by Monteverdi – I defy you not to lik ethis
  • Wigmore Hall – 29th June 2017 7.30pm – Alte Musik Academie Berlin – Isabelle Faust on the violin – Bach suites and concertos – generally we Brits (sorry for not being sufficiently European) are the period music experts but this bunch are one of the best in the world
  • Barbican Hall – 21st September 7pm and 24th September  2017 6pm so not too late on a Sunday evening – Stravinsky Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – London Symphony Orchestra – conducted by Simon Rattle – so here you get all 3 of the classic Stravinsky ballet scores in one evening, conducted by Rattle who is coming home to lead the LSO – and I like his Stravinsky interpretations – this is set to be extraordinary – this will sell out so get your skates on as this is a real highlight
  • Kings Place – 16th December 7.30pm – Tenebrae and Oliver Coates cello – a whole bunch of different composer works, songs, hymns and carols for voices and cello – lovely Christmassy stuff
  • Barbican Hall – 29th March 2018 7.30pm – Evgeny Kissin – Chopin Mazurkas and Etudes selection and Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata – now I normally avoid the showy pianists like the plague and Kissin definitely fits the bill – but if you want to see a piano recital just like you imagine it to be – think extravagant diva Russian type with bushy hair banging the keys like there is no tomorrow and then hunched gently with the merest of taps on the keys – then he is your man
  • Barbican Hall – 4th May 2018 7.30pm – Los Angeles Philharmonic and London Symphony Chorus– Beethoven Symphony no 9 Choral and Bernstein Chichester Psalms – conducted by Gustavo Dudamel (another curly, long haired fellow) – so this is the pick I think of the visiting orchestras in the 17/18 London season – with the wunderkind Venezuelan Dudamel conducting – he made his name with the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar Orchestra which all the luvvies adore – anyway who knows how this will sound but it is the Choral Symphony and the Bernstein piece is a belter as well – mind you they are charging 30 quid even up in the back of the circle
  • Queen Elizabeth Hall – 11th May 2018 7.30pm – mostly Ligeti chamber music – right this is proper contemporary stuff – no tunes here – but Ligeti was a master – so give it a whirl – YouTube the Trio for Horn. Violin and Piano to see what you think
  • Barbican Hall – 31st May 2018 7.30pm– Academy of Ancient Music – soloist Nicola Benedetti – Telemann and Vivaldi concertos – nice easy way into the masters of Baroque strings with a period instrument band and a soloist who is not however too bound to the period performance tropes

There you have it.

My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****


My Brilliant Friend Parts 1 and 2

Rose Theatre Kingston, 27th February and 17th March 2017

I had not read the quartet of Elena Ferrante novels coming in to this (though I mean to put this right now). However, as this is a Guardian readers’ and various novelists’ favourite and with the SO having partially read them and given them a qualified thumbs up (she sets the bar pretty high), and with it being the Rose so on the doorstep, we were destined to go. And so we did.

First decision was to split the two parts. For choice I normally wouldn’t do that preferring to take the pain of setting through multi part theatre on the chin, (or more exactly bum), by doing it all in a day where possible. This was a reminder of why that remains the preferred strategy. What you get out of a theatre performance depends in part on what you put in, so different days means different moods and therefore different levels of enjoyment. With these plays, festooned with multiple characters, (and doubling/trebling of parts), an awful lot of sharp, staccato scenes to get through in the 5 or so hours, (to do justice to the novels I gather), and multiple themes to explore, (where I think the adaption was clearly a winner), one sitting would definitely have worked better for me.

A particular attraction was the director Melly Still. I really, really liked her Cymbeline for the RSC. A tricky play but she was unafraid to chuck ideas in, (gender changes for characters, topical issues of national identity, nature vs nurture and so on), which definitely made sense to me in a play where it is very easy to get lost. So a plus there. I had not seen Catherine McCormack (Lila) or, to my eternal shame, Niamh Cusack (Elena/Lenu) on stage before, but felt they were both perfectly cast. In Part 1 Catherine McCormack was outstanding capturing the strength and unpredictability  of Lila, (don’t shout at me I am just using a word to describe a whole gamut of traits), with her movement as well as her speech. In Part 2 Niamh Cusack took centre stage, (and left. right up and down – there was a lot of movement in the production), as her character developed with a determination and a different, egotistical strength.

So I think two cracking complementary performances, a lot of smart stagecraft, the use of set, sound and lighting in a way that the Rose rarely sees, an obviously brilliant story/stories, and breathtaking pace and energy. In fact the pace and energy may just be a little too breathtaking. I gather there is a lot to pack in and this is what the adaption does. This is then multiplied by the character, place and time shifts. So it is all a bit of a whirlwind. No other way to do it and meet the needs of the faithful I suspect but even so there were times when I wanted a bit of air in proceedings (when this did happen, largely in the Lila/Lenu exchanges, I got more meaning I think).

As I said I haven’t read the books which I am guessing is an advantage in seeing this, so no risk of what is in the head clashing with what is on the stage. But overall whilst I thoroughly enjoyed what I was seeing and hearing, and how I was seeing and hearing it, there may just have been a bit too much to take in (compounded I think by my gender – there is a lot of experience for a privileged, white male to take in here given that all the men are – rightly – portrayed as utter c**ks).

I see some reviews of this that are whinging about scenes lost or themes in the novels which don’t come out on stage. Whilst I suspect that the pace of the production did mean some “thinning out” I would, with all due respect, say to these punters that there is a book, and now there is a play (and I believe there will be a TV adaptation). It’s theatre. it’s different, that is the whole point. Let the book take care of interior monologue, invocation of time and place and the clash of ideas. Let the play focus on the character and the drama in a shared experience. Don’t go if you are just going to moan about what isn’t there. Judge what is there. Right rant over. Sorry.

Oh and finally I would come down on the side of those who think there is only really one character here – that make most sense to me. It’s a memory play which to me explores the power of words to shape the past and the experience of women in a grimly patriarchal society (amongst loads of other things). So I only really saw one character through multiple possible experiences.

P.S. I just saw a “review” in Mail Online – yet another reason why I detest everything about that shabby organisation.



Grounded at the Gate Theatre review ****



Gate Theatre, Notting Hill Gate, 15th March 2017

Given that Grounded is now into its third run at the Gate and that is has had critical acclaim heaped upon it the last thing it needs is this chump adding to the sound and fury. But it seems I am something of a completist when it comes to recording my cultural journey so so no let off for you I am afraid.

And it is good. I mean really good. There was a bit of me that was a bit dubious going in to this. Potentially obvious target with an an obvious outcome (I swear no irony intended in this). But it is some much more than it appears on the surface. To check this I whizzed through the script. Do that and compare to what you have just seen and I think what the writer George Brant has created and, in particular, what Lucy Ellinson, conjures up alone on stage is just really, really good theatre. Makes you care and makes you think without overtly moralising (well maybe right at the end).

The Pilot at the outset is exactly what you might expect of an F-16 fighter pilot. Then love, husband and child take over and the Pilot ends up flying a drone from a base in the Nevada desert. That is when the dilemmas and the twists (of a sort) kick in. The pace of the monologue is rapid but full of imagery (sky, desert, Vegas, family life, being boxed in amongst many others) and Lucy Ellinson completely inhabits the character. In some ways the journey the pilot takes and where she ends up is, in retrospect, predictable but the insight into being a woman in this world, into balancing home and this sort of work (including its drudgery and social interaction as well as its obvious purpose), into the psychological stress of killing from afar, into the morality of this sort of war, are all revealed in a smart way.

Now it is possible that this worked for me because I am a liberal type who knows f**k all about what it is to be the person who is tasked with killing but Brant certainly got me thinking about all of that.

Anyway see for yourself whilst it is still on. Or make a mental reminder should in pop up elsewhere in future.

Oh and a reminder that the best way to see theatre is not in some poxy, neo-classical Edwardian fol-de-rol but above a pub on a bench (though I confess the Gate’s benches are back-breaking – just as well most everything I have seen there has captivated).




Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****


Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932

Royal Academy of Arts of Arts, 15th March 2017

Right short and sweet I think here. This was fascinating. But maybe less for the art itself and more for the insight into Soviet history. I only had a vague sense of the events that marked the Revolution, the civil war, the ascent of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and the dictatorship of Stalin. And even less of an idea of how art developed in the period beyond the vague shift away from the avant-garde towards a state approved Socialist Realism. Thanks to this fascinating exhibition I now know a lot more.

So what struck me most was the diversity of artistic movements jostling side by side under Lenin and how the early optimism led the artists of the period to try to support the aims of the Revolution and Bolshevism. We see how the state tried to accommodate the various strands of avant-garde art notably its arguably most important figure Malevich. But it also becomes quickly apparent that the communist regime cannot accommodate this diversity and that the attempts of artists across all forms to criticise the regime as it all starts to go wrong are brutally extinguished. Then we are left with artists either being co-opted entirely by the propaganda of the state or offering a critique in the most elliptical fashion possible. (My only previous exposure to this is through the life and music of Shostakovich so a real eye opener to see this going on elsewhere).

So I highly recommend you take a whizz around this exhibition. Optimism turns to despair and then suffering or deception. Better still contrast with the America After After the Fall exhibition also at the RA as I am sure the curators intend you to. I saw this in Paris (how lah di dah is that) and will run along again to see it shortly (it is that good) but from memory this also shows how art reveals the darker undercurrents in a society racked by economic collapse in the 1930s albeit with a veneer of optimism about the future.

In no particular order the highlights for me of the Russian Art exhibition were ….

  • Just how quickly the cult of Lenin took hold – the crowds turning out for his arrival in St Petersburg and the scale of the mourning at his death
  • Kliment Redko – Insurrection 1925 – this is in the first room I think – looking back critically on the Revolution and aftermath and a very powerful work
  • The real beauty of some of the photographs and paintings in room 2 which capture the industrial advance and the heroic worker
  • The early optimism of some of the artists as they embraced Lenin’s attempt to turn art into propaganda and perhaps how easily they were co-opted
  • The paintings of Pavel Filonov in room 3 – made up of small fragments building into beautiful images
  • Just how quickly the optimism was broken and how brutal was the repression as there were killed – there is a row of photographs of key artists in I think room 3 which conveys this eloquently
  • I don’t really get on with Malevich’s suprematist paintings but the casts of the buildings in room 4 were very interesting
  • The disastrous impact of collectivisation on rural Russia is well conveyed as is the links back to the pre-Revolutionary past – I loved the two Chagalls which have been sneaked in as part of these rooms
  • The various food coupons in I think room 7
  • The model of Tatlin’s glider is a real stand-out and a thing of beauty
  • The room devoted to Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin – never heard of him before but the still lifes in particular are really fascinating in terms of colour, perspective and content – the one with the herring is beautiful and very sad
  • The last room contrasts the daft socialist realist Stalinist sport paintings – and the complete stamping out of any Modernist art –  with a moving memorial

Sorry not so short in the end. Go take a look.