Archive for November 13th, 2007

Just had a hassle-free trip from Edinburgh to London and back on GNER.    Love them, or hate them, GNER have lost the franchise to run trains on the East Coast Main Line, and National express takes over in a few weeks time.

I wonder what it will all mean?    Higher fares above inflation have already been flagged as likely – probably to pay for the paint to cover up the GNER colour scheme on all the train sets.

The East Coast Main Line is busy and crowded, and when things go wrong, they really go wrong.   The old diesel 125s on the London-Aberdeen and London-Inverness routes are actually pretty reliable, but the electric 225s are prone to be affected by windspeeds which wobble the overhead cables, resulting in speed restrictions being applied.

I actually like GNER.   They train their staff really well, and I always get the impression that they are really trying to do their best for the passenger.    OK, so some days things don’t go well, but that will be the same for the new franchisee.    But careful investment in people is important.

I am just not sure that the passengers (remember them?) will benefit from this changeover.    Presumably GNER will have stalled on investment in the run-up to the franchise decision being made, so that will have to be made up by National Express.    Perhaps it will be the same people in new uniforms in repainted trains doing the same jobs – at least initially.

I just don’t happen to think GNER were doing a bad job.   Far from it, in fact.

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At school in the 1970s, I was involved in the stagecrew for an Ionesco double bill of “Exit the King” and “The Bald Prima Donna” – we were involved in rehearsals and all the performances, and I came to realise that Ionesco plays were indeed something very strange, different and absolutely intriguing.    We had fun things to do with a complicated set, and at one stage had to make the roof fall in, but in the end the plays really got under the skin.    Certainly very different from Shakespeare and Restoration Comedy which was the staple diet of many school productions then – nothing wrong with either genre of course – I remember that Ionesco perplexed many of the parents for sure, but delighted this particular young stage hand.

Ionesco interest was re-kindled after seeing a really memorable performance of The Chairs with Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan directed by Complicite’s Simon McBurney , with a translation also by Martin Crimp.

So, Rhinoceros at the Royal Court did not disappoint – we enjoyed every aspect of the play.   There simply wasn’t a weak link.

When a Rhinoceros charges near a town square on a sleepy Sunday morning, everyone except hung-over Berenger becomes very agitated.   But when the residents start turning into rhinoceroses, then there is something sinister going on.   Can Berenger resist the urge to join them?

All performances were great, but Benedict Cumberbatch as Berenger was quite outstanding.    Jasper Britton was wonderful too, turning into a rhinoceros before our very eyes.      Domenic Cooke’s production was witty, fast paced and really clever.    And Anthony Ward has designed a set which gradually falls to bits as the rhinos get used to urban living.

Translator Martin Crimp has come up trumps with a modern version of this satire on conformity making it just as relevant now as in the 1950s when it was written.   

Not many performances left.   Go see.    That faint rumble from the tube trains you get in some London Theatres will never be the same again.

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We went to the excellent Millais exhibition at Tate Britain.   It was Saturday morning, and really pretty busy to begin with, but crowds thinned out as we went on.   I did find taking the big print pamphlet for each room was very useful, as it saved having to get close enough to the wall read the captions for each picture.

The famous pictures were there, like Bubbles, which was used for Pear’s Soap, and Ophelia.    But the breadth and depth of his work was amazing, and the detail in some paintings breathtaking.     I learnt a lot, including that Millais was instrumental in setting up the Portrait Gallery in London, and he persuaded Henry Tate (of Tate and Lyall fame) to found the Tate Gallery.

I also had not appreciated the Scottish connection.   Millais used to rent property round Dunkeld every autumn and paint, as well as hunt and shoot.    The final room of the exhibition was of Perthshire landscapes – mostly round Dunkeld.   

The final picture of the show is called “Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind” – it is a bleak wintry scene near Perth.   In the foreground is a woman sitting on the ground cradling her baby wrapped against the cold.    Her bundle of clothes is beside her.     In the background, a man is walking away into the sleet, flat cap turned against the wind:   he has abandoned them.   In the middle, between the man and the woman, a collie dog points its muzzle to the sky and howls.    The rest of the quotation, which comes from “As You Like It” is  “Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude”.   It was one of my favourite paintings there, and is on loan from Auckland.

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Sweeney Todd

The latest production at Perth Theatre is a version of Sweeney Todd written, designed and directed by Graham McLaren.   

It starts off well enough with a fabulously thin tenament set, with Michael Marra‘s trio of musicians in the attic of the barbershop – itself above the pie shop.    And the script goes well at first too, but for a number of reasons, this production literally fizzles out.    For no good reason, halfway through we suddenly get lots of swearing, and then a bit of slapstick thrown in.    Graham McLaren cannot decide where to pitch this melodramatic tale – is it comic or gruesome?    It is not enough of either.

Kevin McMonagle as Todd and Gabriel Quigley as Mrs Lovett of the pie shop make a good fist of the material they have been given to work with.   The supporting cast do a reasonable job too.   But it just does not quite add up the way it should.

Best part of the night were the new Michael Marra songs to accompany the show, but even they needed the sound balance adjusted, as the clever words were a bit lost by the time they reached the audience.

The language is a tad strong for taking children along on the free ticket, I think.

I also think it is time for Graham McLaren to bring a team together to work on his productions.    I have now seen far too many poor efforts where he has done ‘everything’, and where a second or third brain would have possibly resulted in a more disciplined and focussed approach.

Verdict – wait for the Panto.     Sondheim did Sweeney Todd better, and there was a really good version with Alan Lydiard at Dundee Rep in the 1980s.     This is not a patch on either of those.

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