Friday, 28 November 2014

Concert: Dvorak Explored

There I was, planning to have a quiet night in last night; and what happens? I get a ShowFilmFirst email, with offers of free tickets to all of three concerts! Well, two were on last night, and one next Wednesday, when I've already booked to go to the Hope and Homes for Children's carol concert in St Mary Abbot's Church (assuming they get around to sending the ticket). So it was going to be one of last night's ones, and I chose Dvorak Explored, in King's Place. It was actually the first in a three-day festival.

The only time I've been here before was also with a ShowFilmFirst ticket. Not hard to get to, but one of these places that takes a little time: Tube to King's Cross, then first left onto York Way and it's on your right - the office building (they do have offices upstairs). I did better than the last time - this time, I noticed the exit for York Way and took that (this being one of those stations with multiple exits). And I was soon there - very early for the concert, but ShowFilmFirst do like you to get there half an hour early to pick up your ticket.

The two people ahead of me were also ShowFilmFirst customers. We made our way downstairs - the hall wasn't open yet, so I sat nearby and waited. Shortly, there was in unintelligible announcement. Nobody moved. The usher came over to me a few minutes later and explained that the hall was now open, if I wanted to go in.. figuring I'd have a more comfortable seat inside, I did.

Good seat, eh? I was first in. Seats are comfy, but - as I found out during the concert - creak loudly if you move, having wooden frames. The lady who'd been ahead of me in the queue turned out to have the seat beside me. There were two free seats on my other side, and when the concert started I moved over one, so she'd have room for her things on what had been my seat. She moved to the row behind after the interval, where she'd have room on both sides. Was very polite about it, apologising so I didn't think it was my fault.

The hall was about two-thirds full, but I have to wonder how many of us came on a free ticket. The concert was broadly divisible into three sections. Common to all three was the chap who seems to be in charge of this Dvorak festival, and whose picture is displayed on its web page - who played the piano throughout. He was accompanied thoughout by a rather fed-up-looking page-turner, who sat at his side and looked glum, mostly. And yawned a couple of times. It occurred to me to wonder why they haven't just inevnted an app for that. Page-turning, not yawning. It should be straightforward enough - a large enough screen-reader, propped on the piano (or integrated with it), that scrolls the music across the screen at an adjustable speed.

Come to that, how come only pianists have page-turners? Tradition, I'll bet. Anyhoo, for the first section, this pair were joined by a duo of ladies, one on the violin, one on the cello. The music, having gypsy origins, was as vigorous as you might expect, and I fully expected the violinist's hairslide to fly off as she bounced up and down on her seat. But I guess she's used to wearing one in this situation, and it didn't. Every now and again, the pianist leaned forward to smile encouragingly at the ladies. There was a brief pause between movements to let some latecomers take their seats. And there's another thing - there were several different pieces in this first part, but I guess they were all part of a larger opus (as usual, I didn't bother with a programme), because there was no applause right until the end. Sometimes I can understand this, but here, the pieces were quite distinct; I didn't feel a flow between them, and I don't see why we were obliged not to clap. Ah well.

The second section saw the string section leave, and be replaced by a very tall gentleman, who sang us some gypsy songs. Dunno, I never care for these myself in a classical context. Anyway, when he was done, the third section saw the string section return, now with a third member. The music throughout was lovely, and I enjoyed it. The singer didn't return to take his bow at the end, which I thought curious..

Right then, it's off to Ireland with me for the weekend. For Monday, as I studiously avoid dreary plays about misery, I'd like to go to the City Christmas Fair, but for some reason the website isn't working. So the current front-runner is a play called Her Naked Skin, about suffragism, running in the Guildhall School beside the Barbican..

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Opera: La Boheme

As Helen remarked today, "You should go to more operas - you're not going to enough!" She was joking, of course - I've booked an inordinate amount lately. Well, what can I say - they're coming up, and I'm going to them! La Boheme is always likely to get me in the door if I haven't seen it in a while - it's absolutely and without contest my favourite opera.

Mind you, the Time Out article on this production included exactly one review - from an audience member, who gave it one star (the minimum) and pronounced it, "Very poor"! Gee, not very specific - I said I'd risk it. Cheapest tickets, yet again, on the ENO website - beware Time Out tickets; they charge a markup. I was delighted, for this production, to see that the cheapest tickets I could get without restricted view were both in the balcony and - joy! - the Upper Circle. Fewer steps, closer to the stage. No contest - I booked one there. Of course, the website was still having trouble accepting my password and I had to reset it again. Never mind, I hardly have to remember any of them - it'll just require me to constantly reset it anyway!

And so I headed into town, to the Coliseum, for the second night in a row. I took the stairs this time - so many fewer than to the balcony! It's not so much "Are we there yet?" as "Are we there already?!" My seat was close to the wall, so I had the luxury of the railing that runs along the wall, as I climbed down the stairs to my row. I had the second seat from the end - it's amazing, the one right at the end of that row is right behind a huge pillar! I really don't know how they have the nerve to sell it.

But my seat in Row F was the closest I've been to the stage here, and I was delighted! Legroom was a little snug, but I did have that seat at the end - which remained unoccupied - to swing into. And after the interval, the guy in the seat on my other side - who looked a bit cramped - moved to sit with his friends in the row behind, so I had space on both sides. This far forward at this level, you can see a fair bit of the ornate building detail, and of course, there is no railing to obscure the view, unlike in the level above! Seats are more comfortable down at this level, too.

I knew the production was set in the 1930s, and in English (still with surtitles, of course) - I just hoped they hadn't meddled any further with the show. I needn't have worried - the plot, and those gorgeous melodies, remain intact, and I was just swept away with it, snug in my corner of the Coliseum, cosy beside the pillar. And again, I thought to myself - I love this town! This wasn't the best production of La Boheme that I've seen, but I loved it, and considered it quite acceptable. Certainly, "Very poor" was a tad harsh. Five more performances remain, running until Saturday of next week. If you love this opera - or think you might - go see!

Just today, I got not one, but two emails from ShowFilmFirst, advertising free tickets to music events. Two take place tomorrow night, at the same time - the third is next Wednesday, when I'm going to a carol concert up the road, in Kensington, in aid of Hope and Homes for Children. So that was out, and I was down to two. I chose Dvorak Explored, in King's Place. And then it's back to Ireland for the weekend..

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Opera: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

When I heard about The Gospel According to the Other Mary, I was intrigued, but wary - the last opera I saw that I wasn't familiar with beforehand was Wozzeck, and that didn't turn out well. But they have a trailer on the ENO website, I watched it - and I was hooked. The music was gorgeous. So I booked a £10 seat on the ENO website - cheapest I could get.

Made my way into town quite early, for once. When I got to the Coliseum, I needed to go to the toilet, and was told the nearest ones were downstairs. When I was done, I was conscious that this meant I had even more stairs to climb to the balcony. Plus I couldn't find my way back to the lobby. And I'd passed the lift.. Sod it, I took the lift for once! Turns out to be quite small, with its own operator. But oh, the joy of arrival at the balcony without being oxygen-deprived!

I headed for my seat, in the third row from the back - that's not too far to negotiate those horrible stairs! Actually, I mused as I took my seat - you wouldn't want to be much further forward; certainly, from Row C forward, the balcony rail severely impedes the view. Anyway, my view was fine - but the guy beside me made his excuses just before curtain-up and moved a few rows down, and looking around, it was obvious that there were plenty of empty seats. So I followed suit - except I didn't want to move down, because of the steps and the rail. Instead, I moved more centrally in my row - much more centrally. Into the seats in the next price bracket up. :-) Well, why not?

The show began with a stage that was pretty bare, and remained so. This opening scene was supposed to represent a prison cell, for reasons I never understood. And then the music started. Uh-oh.. where was the music from the trailer?! I suddenly understood why so little of the trailer - which was short anyway - was given over to the music. The music I liked so much is there - just not much of it. Instead, you have music that instead reminded me more of - you know 2001: A Space Odyssey? The bit at the end where he passes through a black hole and everything goes weird? That music.

Then there's the story. Well, the gospel reimagined. Fine, I'm always up for that. Interesting how every time Jesus comes into it, there are three of him, dressed in camouflage jackets. Maybe they're representing the Holy Trinity - three people in one God? I knew I was going to leave early - but I didn't beat the girls sitting forward from me, who left after half an hour. By that stage, I'd have joined them, but they'd got into the story of Lazarus, and I wanted to see what they'd do with it in this avant-garde production.

It took them another half hour to get through that, but I was glad I'd stayed. So, there's a lot of wailing before Lazarus is buried, and they're berating Jesus for not coming fast enough to save his life. They "bury" him in a shroud in a cardboard box. What happens next is cool - this guy in a skintight outfit comes crawling along the stage, under a transparent cover they have over it. He shimmys up to the corpse in the shroud and lies beside it, and gradually it lifts itself and makes its way over to the grieving relatives. I guess this was meant to be the soul returning to the body.

Well, Lazarus joins the others for a meal. I couldn't help remembering the excellent play, The Testament of Mary, that I saw a while ago. This is a play by Colm Tóibín, about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her perspective on events. She had something to say about the resurrection of Lazarus. She wondered whether he actually wanted to be resurrected - nobody had asked him! And afterwards, he seemed strangely quiet, and didn't have much of an appetite. And he smelled funny.

Well, here, Lazarus is having a fine old time, feasting with his chums. Except.. when Martha goes to welcome him back to the land of the living, she throws her arms around someone completely different. Doesn't look like him at all. And then a third fellow jumps up and starts breakdancing, which is quite cool. Is he supposed to be Lazarus as well? Do we now have three persons in one Lazarus?

Ach. When they changed scenes, I left them to their weirdness, and their jangly music. Runs until Friday of next week, if you fancy it. I only hope La Boheme is better tomorrow night; it's my favourite opera, but this is a 1930s production, and has one bad - but non-specific - review. At least I'm a level further down..

Play: Our Town

It's a bit of a trek, getting to the Almeida. Mind you, I could shave off a bit of time by taking the Tube across town, and then it wouldn't be that much longer than just going to the centre. But the Overground is cheaper, so the Overground it always is. Anyhoo, despite the length of the journey, my ears prick up when I hear of something on there - they have so much good stuff, and so many West End transfers. So it happened that I came across their new production of Our Town, and seeing it was booking heavily, I booked a seat for last night.

Knowing the busyness of the 6.40 Overground, I decided to leave straight from the office, which meant I could catch the 5.55 one. Following my normal practice of getting on at the back didn't work this time - it was too packed. But I managed to squeeze in at the second-last door. And the next stop was Shepherd's Bush, where lots of people always get off - either because that's their destination, or to change to the Underground. So now there was room to move. And the next stop after that was Willesden Junction, where lots more people get off - so now I had a (welcome) seat the rest of the way.

I picked up a copy of both free papers - the Metro and the Standard - on my way out of Highbury & Islington station. Which were to be handy while waiting for the play, during both intervals, and on the long trip home. And thus began a long walk to the theatre. It's simple enough - just turn right out of the station and keep going until you come to Almeida Street. The theatre is just right, down this street. Thing is, by the time you get there, you're sure you've passed it! Tip: once you see the petrol station on the other side of the road, you're nearly there; it's just past that petrol station. So don't lose hope..

The advantage of being there early was that there was no queue to pick up my ticket. Then I thought I might grab a bite to eat - they have a small cafe. Unfortunately, cafe and lobby were completely packed. Still, I managed to get a stand-up table where I could eat the very large, very filling, and very chocolatey brownie that I bought in the cafe. Well, I was entitled - that was dinner! By the time I ploughed my way through that, the doors were open and I took my seat.

I hadn't noticed before - it's generally dark when I enter this theatre - but this time the lights were on, and I saw that the edge of the balcony is quite intricately carved. Quite nice. On ground level, a couple of tables were set up in the centre, stage area, with chairs around, and the stage itself was level with the floor. I had a front row seat, technically in the front, but the view was as good from the sides. So, with the stage level with the floor, I had as much legroom as I wanted! You just have to watch that the actors don't trip over you. Seating here is on double tip-up seats, and it turned out that the other occupant of mine never showed, despite that seat having been sold. So lovely! I could spread out along this seat as well.

The play was mostly performed with full lights on, and the aforementioned tables and chairs were the only props. Everything that needed an extra prop was mimed. This Pulitzer-winning play was written in 1938, and takes place between 1901 and 1913, in the sleepy town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. Nothing much happens here. The first act shows nothing more exciting than breakfast being prepared and homework being done in the evening. It's narrated by a stage manager, to the side. Indeed, it's not for everyone, and the guy to my right didn't return after the first of the two intervals.

But it's the sheer ordinariness of life that's the stuff of this play, and it's brilliantly overwhelming by the end. A number of plays are currently showing in London that I'm actively avoiding. Call me a prude, but I don't get a buzz out of going to see a play whose main characters are deadbeats, and whose plot is about the horribleness of their lives. Why depress myself with those? Unless there's something innovative about them, haven't we seen all that before? Sure, this play was humdrum. But it was funny, and there was a  warmth to it, and the characters were engaging - and the plot developments had me in floods of tears by the end. Which is quite embarassing, when the house lights are fully lit.

Very highly recommended. Unless you're actively allergic to slow-moving stories with no swearing. Runs until Saturday - booking recommended.

Getting the Overground back to West Brompton after 9.30 means you have to take a Richmond train and change at Willesden Junction, which is a drag, because there's often a 15-minute wait there, and it was freezing cold again. And my journey was somewhat enlivened by the young lad in a hoodie who sat opposite me, listening to something on his phone (presumably music) and twiching continually in time to it. Looked as though someone was applying constant electric shocks. It was unnerving, frankly, and I was relieved when he got off.

However, I was to be glad that I had to change and wait. The poor folks heading on the Richmond branch - usually so well served by the Overground - had a raw deal last night - there was some kind of freight train congestion in Acton, the train I was on was delayed for 15 minutes at Willesden Junction and thereafter diverted to Shepherds Bush, and the next Richmond train was cancelled! Poor things would have had a complicated trip, given that all trains were being diverted off the Richmond line.. Anyway, it was a late night - hence the delay in the blog.

Well, it's all about opera tonight and tomorrow night, and all about the Coliseum too. I should move in! For tonight, I saw advertised an opera I hadn't heard of - The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Anyway, there was a trailer, so I watched it - and was blown away by the music. Indeed, the Standard contained a review that said the score is absolutely beautiful! So I booked. Cheapest tickets available on the official website - I got one for £10 (+£1.75 booking fee).

Tomorrow night, I'm off to La Boheme, also in the Coliseum. Now, this is a 1930s version, and there's all of one review of it on Time Out, which says nothing more than "Very poor." Well, it is my favourite opera, so I'm giving it a shot. Again, cheapest tickets on the official website - at all costs, avoid getting them on Time Out, which includes a markup! This time, the cheapest tickets were the same price as ones I could get in the Upper Circle - the level below the Balcony, where I usually am. So I'll be in the Upper Circle for a change, which at least means fewer stairs to climb.

Good thing about booking with the ENO website is that they have a print-at-home option for tickets, which means you don't have to bother with the box office. Bad thing about booking with the ENO website is they never seem to remember my password. They always tell me I've got it wrong, and I always end up having to get them to send me a new one.. at least that one works!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ideal Home Show Christmas & Film: The Imitation Game

Yes, I dutifully went to both things I had a free ticket for, today! Good for me.

After a late night blogging, I was up quite late. And I hadn't showered either, so did before I left - which made me quite late for the Ideal Home Show Christmas. Fortunately, it was on at Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, which is under 10 minutes walk away. Sad really - it'll probably be the last show I see there, they're planning on turning it into flats at the end of the year. Not that I'll be able to afford one, of course..

I made it with just under an hour to go before it closed. Less time than I'd have liked, really. My first port of call is usually to get a goody bag - they give away a bag-full of free stuff. Not usually anything useful, but you know how people do like to get something for free. Well, this year, for once, I was spared going through the bag to see what I'd got; the front desk was unoccupied, and further in, I found the stall where you could collect your freebies. And then I realised that the enormous queue, which I'd thought was for food, was instead for goody bags. Gee, that was that then - if I'd joined the end of the queue, I wouldn't have seen anything!

At least I didn't have to carry a bag-full of brochures then, as I meandered through the stands. It soon became apparent, however, that I wasn't going to have much to carry at all - this year's affair was a bit of a damp squib. I didn't want homewares or decorations. I saw plenty of candle stalls, but I didn't want any of those either. There were a few decent jewellery stands, but I didn't see anything I fancied - nor among the clothes stands. There were no fudge stands, or hot chocolate stands, as in previous years!

There were some of the usual suspects, whose wares I already have enough of. There was one really interesting chocolate stand, where they had chocolate novelty items, in the shape of.. tools. Now, that's really interesting, but unless you happen to know someone who's both a chocolate fanatic and keen on DIY.. The Cats Protection League tried to grab my attention, but I already donate to the Battersea Cats & Dogs Home, and I think that'll do for now. My attention was also craved by a guy who wanted to clean my glasses. Eh, no thanks. Indeed, not buying very much at all, I zipped through the exhibition in no time, and was out of there by 5.45. Glad the ticket was free..

My other mission of the day was to use my remaining Sweet Sundays cinema voucher. Now, these were available with sweet packets - max two per email address - and entitle the user to a free ticket with a named cinema chain - Cineworld or Odeon. Cineworld is handier for me, so that's what I chose. Unfortunately, I've been a bit busy, and before today had only used one of them. Anyway, they have to be used before Dec 7, and since they can only be used on a Sunday, and I'm in Ireland the next two weekends, this was my last chance!

So I had a look at what was on in Cineworld. Luckily, this is a great time of the year for good films, and the choice was decent - top of the list, having shot up the IMDB ratings, was The Imitation Game. There was a showing of that in my local Cineworld at 8.50, which gave me some downtime before I had to head out again. It was bitterly cold by the time I did, mind - I'm back in thermals for the first time this year.

No need to look up directions - it's been a while, but I remembered. And again, it's close enough to walk - so this was a cheap day's entertainment! I was glad to arrive and get in from the cold. Given that I had to hand in a voucher, I was worried that, as so often here, there wouldn't be anyone at a desk for me to ask - but it was the evening showing, and there was. Indeed, the person in front of me had one of the same vouchers, and asked for the same film, I think.

I ended up with a seat in a row that was quite high up - but the stairs here, although not complete with railing, are helpful to someone with a stairs phobia - they're graduated; every second step is a long one, which really helps steady me. The cinema was decently full, despite the film having been out for a while. And after a few ads, we were into the film..

This is a biopic of Alan Turing, the English mathematician who cracked the German Enigma code during the Second World War, but was later convicted for homosexuality. He's played by Benedict Cumberbatch, with Keira Knightley as his fiancée, Matthew Goode as his commanding officer, and Charles Dance as Commander Denniston, the head of the codebreaking school, who employed him. Mark Strong plays the head of MI6.

You'd have to say that Alan Turing comes across as an unlikeable character - geeky, introverted, unsympathetic. Displays a distinct lack of empathy with others. So it's immensely to Benedict Cumberbatch's credit that we find him so sympathetic, and find ourselves rooting for him so much! You know, you could get tired of Benedict Cumberbatch - he's everywhere. But it's a film like this that shows what a really fine actor he is. This is truly an Oscar-winning performance, and fans of Benedict Cumberbatch would be advised to see this film for him alone - as would everyone, really!

People don't like Keira Knightley, and I think it must be down to the jaw. She has a really pronounced jawline. But you know, we really shouldn't discriminate against her for that - and she does a fine job here, as do they all. Kudos to the film-makers for making cryptography interesting; this is a maths film - albeit with an interesting application - that grips its audience from start to finish. I rarely find a film where my attention never wanders, but this was one such. Highly recommended.

Tomorrow, back to the office, and back to normal, I guess! I've booked to see Our Town, in the Almeida, tomorrow evening. Pity it's such a long way away - the Almeida is known for staging great productions, that tend to make it to the West End later..

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Pub: Somers Town Coffee House. And Oxford.

Wow, how busy am I these days. And I thought I was before!

So, the exam went great yesterday, and afterwards we arranged to have farewell drinks in Somers Town Coffee House, a short distance from the training centre. Would have been shorter still, had we found the shortcut that wasn't marked on Google Maps. Anyhoo, we made our way there in due course. With a wooden-framed glass frontage, it has the look of an 18th century coach house, which is probably where it gets its name.

Inside, it wasn't that busy yet - but we were early; it was only about 4 o' clock. However, every table in the place was marked as reserved from a certain time. We finally picked one that wouldn't be required until after 6, and sat down for a convivial drink or two. I have to say, the service was excellent, and unfailingly friendly, and they have a good list, not only of wines, but also of hot chocolates! Recommended - but make sure to reserve on a Friday night.

I was tired after a week of earlier-than-usual starts, but managed to drag myself out of it today to catch a train to Oxford, where I was to meet Helen for a day out. Trains go from Paddington, and I can get a direct Tube there in 15 minutes. So, naturally, I was rushing as usual. Fortunately, I just made my Tube, and had enough time in Paddington to collect my prebooked ticket (always try to prebook online - tickets are sometimes cheaper and there is never half the queue at the ticket collection machines that there is at the ticket buying outlets), find my platform, dash for the train, find a non-reserved seat and get my coat off and get settled, before the train departed.

Finding a non-reserved seat wasn't easy, mind - certainly in the front three coaches, almost every seat was reserved from London. Weekends can be like that, and more particularly, there was a light festival in Oxford today, which brought everyone out. During the hour-long trip, there was something of an altercation in the row in front of me, where the four-seat sections with the fixed tables were. A family seemed to be spread over both sections - on my side, a young couple with a toddler: on the other, a teenage girl opposite two younger girls. Looked like her younger sister and the sister's pal. Anyway, at Reading, I think it was, an elderly man got on - 50s or 60s - came up to the girls, scowled at the teenager and said, "You're in my seat." She tried to explain that she was there because there was, I think, a large bag in her seat - packed with the toddler's things, I guess. He repeated, "You're in my seat". The father of the toddler moved the bag and offered him that seat. He barked - still glaring at the teenager - "I will sit in MY seat, and if you do not move, I shall call the guard". She bolted over to the other seat, and he took his window seat without a word.

Now, that was really horrid. There wasn't a single insolent thing about the teenager's response, and she was really upset by his reaction. Fair enough, he'd booked that seat and he was entitled to it. Maybe he particularly wanted the window seat. But there was no need to take that tone. Some people, eh? Ironically, he proceeded to leave his large bag on the seat beside him - which was also reserved. I idly wondered what would happen if someone appeared and asked for that seat, which they had reserved.. but maybe this guy reserved it for his bag, just so he wouldn't have to sit next to anyone.

Something like two thirds of the train disembarked in Oxford, to persistent rain. Yuck. It was supposed to clear later. Helen's train hadn't arrived yet, and I made for the toilet, which had a long queue - I had just got to the cubicle when she texted to say she'd arrived. Tip: there are two hand dryers in the ladies' toilet in Oxford station - one automatic, one which you have to push a button to start. The automatic one is stronger.

Shortly afterwards, we were making our way into town - about half a mile. The rain wasn't too bad during daylight hours - photos here. Straight away, the lovely, warm sandstone of which most of the older buildings in Oxford are constructed becomes apparent. We had a bit of time before lunch - which we'd booked, conscious that Oxford would be busy today. Mind you, I left all the organisation to Helen, who has a real talent for it - I was run off my feet this week, and happy just to tag along today and take photos.

We started in the Ashmolean Museum, which is huge - so we just concentrated on the section on Ancient Egypt. Several fascinating exhibits, but none more so than the physical representation - on sheets of glass - of a 3D scan of the mummy of a two-year-old boy (see photos).

It was with some reluctance that we left for lunch - but I, at least, was starving. It wasn't a long walk to the Red Lion, which had been rated highly on Tripadvisor - once we'd crossed the road with its never-ending line of cars and buses, all going nowhere fast. After a long walk around the building, we found the door - conveniently indicated by the smoker standing outside. We waited to be seated, and were shown to a table for two in the raised area of the ground floor. Service was unfailingly friendly - and brisk, at first. And we admired the décor - a mixture of old and new, with inventive stair rails apparently made from heavy iron chains!

There's a fixed-price menu, but only on weekdays. I was starving, as mentioned, so was determined to go for three courses. I started with the soup, which was honey and parsnip, and was served in an intimidatingly large bowl! It was very viscous, and I doubted I'd be able to finish it - but I did manage, in the end, and the bread served with it was very tasty (despite not coming with butter, as advertised). I made sure to eat some at regular intervals, to counteract the peppery flavour of the soup. For main course, I had the "sticky chicken" with fries - Helen started with brie, and had the pork with scallops for main. My meal was very tasty, and I did it justice - the sauce wasn't as nice as some, but was good. Helen was defeated by hers, and couldn't quite finish it.

So I was on my own in ordering dessert. In the meantime, a large party had joined us on the upper level, occupying a large table to the side, and a number of tables pushed together. We were so besieged, in the midst of what appeared to be a family reunion, that the person that seemed to be the maitre d' asked us whether we'd rather move somewhere else, but we were ok - particularly once the large party finally took their seats and our conversation was no longer drowned out by theirs. However, the waiting staff were obviously run off their feet tending to this group; matters weren't helped when the hapless maitre d', carrying a tray with two extremely tall glasses of some drink or other, spilled the contents of nearly half of one all over one of the young ladies in the party. Frankly, he could hardly have done worse, except by hitting her with the glass as well!

So we can attribute to this group the fact that once our mains had been served, we were forgotten about. We finally grabbed the arm of one of the waitresses, and asked her for a dessert menu. She looked at us blankly. We finally got through to her, and she gave us a couple of the menus she was holding. And we duly ordered - from the maitre d' - an Americano for Helen, a chocolate pot for me. Well, it was always going to be something chocolatey!

And then we waited. And waited. And waited, as they finally brought starters for the large group, who'd been there for hours at this stage. And then the girl who'd given us menus asked whether we'd ordered, and we said yes, and told her what we'd ordered. And waited. And waited. Eventually, as I recall, we had to give our order a third time. And.. we waited. After the third attempt, at least they brought dessert spoons. And then we.. waited some more. Finally.. drum roll! She brought.. the coffee. No sign of my dessert yet.

(sigh) So I said, if Helen had finished her coffee and my dessert still hadn't arrived, we'd leave. She started to drink. And.. I waited. The maitre d' arrived while she was drinking. With.. another coffee. Oops! She duly finished her coffee. We'd been there for hours now. We wanted to get sightseeing. She said she'd run to the loo, and if it hadn't come by the time she came back, we'd go. Guess what? After another short wait, it arrived while she was in the toilet. I must say, it was worth the wait - a delectably dense chocolate dessert, literally in a tiny pot - a teeny saucepan on the plate, filled with a rich chocolate dessert, topped with cream and candied lemon. The plate also held three biscuits, which were nice and warm from the warmed plate. And there was a strawberry, which I donated to Helen (when she returned), who pronounced it good.

So, the food was good. Very good, even. But don't order dessert if you want to do anything else that day! Hey, at least they forgot to charge us for it! ;-)

We meandered around the streets of Oxford for the rest of the afternoon, taking lots of photos of a very photogenic town. Our first stop was Blackwell's, the famous bookshop. This, the main branch, covers several floors, and we moseyed up to the second floor and the history section. I didn't buy anything, but it's a fascinating place to browse. A book-lover's Mecca, you can pretty much find anything here. I had particular fun in the translations section, where you can find versions of Harry Potter in both Latin and Ancient Greek..!

We passed outside many historic colleges, but they all seem to have an entry fee. It's only £2, but we weren't that pushed, and carried on. As the day darkened - and it darkened considerably, with an ominous cloud hanging overhead - the lanterns around the college buildings came on, lending even more atmosphere. It really is a gorgeous place. We passed a theatre where a classical concert seemed to be going on all afternoon. And then.. the heavens opened. Soaked, we made our way to the covered market.

After some time among the shops there, the basic plan was to go on a ghost walk. Unless the weather continued to be that bad! With time to kill, we asked in a local store, and were told that a good place to while away some time with a cuppa was Turl Street Kitchen, just around the corner. They have a spectacular list of teas - I had a hot chocolate though. It's an old building, with seating at the bar on the ground floor, at tables downstairs, and on sofas upstairs. Studenty vibe. However, seating was not to be had.. they'd closed off one section for dinner, and the rest was crowded. People on laptops mainly - but nowhere was there free seating for two. We begged and pleaded, and the reservations were checked, and they let us sit at a table in the restaurant area for a limited time.

The only toilets visible were marked as for staff, but nobody seemed to care, and we used them and then made our way to the walk. Or, well, tried to. Oxford isn't that big, but until you're used to it, the various alleyways are mystifying. By the time we found the entrance to the castle - where the walk convenes - he'd already started. But we hadn't missed much, and as there's a second starting place on the main road, we had an opportunity to pay. (Nuts!) In Victorian costume (and carrying a bell), he led us through the streets, telling tales as he went, and mixing the odd ghost story with magic tricks! And a great deal of humour. Of course, the great thing about these walks - whatever their theme - is the chance to see the city by night, and also to see back streets you normally wouldn't. A very entertaining time was had.

As we passed along, we came across many people dressed in what you might describe as a unusual manner. But maybe it's an Oxford tradition to dress in mediaeval clothing! I guess the young men scooting along in tuxedos were going to a different function.. Whatever, after a long day, we were relieved to get back to the station and take a seat while waiting for our respective trains. Which were much emptier, at this time of night.. and when I got back to Paddington, I rounded off the night by finally locating the statue of Paddington bear, recently erected!

Right then. Tomorrow, I need to use my second Sweet Sundays voucher. Valid only on Sundays, and only for Cineworld tickets, this'll be my last chance to use it before it expires! Top of the list at the moment is The Imitation Game, which has shot up in IMDB ratings. It stars the omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who cracked the German Enigma code during the Second World War, but was later arrested for homosexuality. Keira Knightly plays the woman to whom he was briefly engaged. Also stars Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, and Mark Strong. And it's on in my local Cineworld, so I can walk.

Another thing I can walk to tomorrow is Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, where the Ideal Home Christmas show is running.. and I just popped into the shop last Wednesday and the shopkeeper gave me a free ticket. How Christmassy! :-) Sadly, it'll probably be the last time it's staged here - they're planning to close down this exhibition centre at the end of the year and turn it into flats.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Concert: London Philharmonic

Heh. The last time I was in the Royal Festival Hall, I had a terrible seat, at the side of the stage, that blocked off a substantial portion of the stage, despite that row not being marked as "Restricted View". But I could see there were plenty of better seats facing the stage, so wasn't worried about going again. As long as I was facing the stage!

So, when the London Philharmonic was advertised as playing there last night, I was happy to book. I chose a cheap seat in the rear stalls. I was a bit concerned that I'd have been at a training course earlier - and up early for it - and wouldn't have been up to a concert as well. In the event, I managed to stay awake (just about!). There was a drinks and nibbles reception that evening in the training centre, which nicely left me with plenty of time - but not too much - to make my concert. I could take the Northern Line straight to Charing Cross and walk from there.

The view from the bridge was as spectacular as ever. As I came to the south end, I could see the lights of the Southbank Christmas Market! I didn't know they were open this early, and given that I had time, I had a look around. Sadly, it seems woefully depleted from last year, with - on the basis of last night's evidence - less than half the number of stalls, and those mostly food. Therefore, not worth a special trip this year (unless there are more to come) but worth swinging by if you're headed to something in the area.

After about five minutes checking them out, and not seeing anything, I made my way to the Festival Hall and got my ticket. She didn't direct me to the door this time, so it's a good thing I've been before. Which direction you go in depends on the colour marked on your ticket - green or blue, left or right as you enter. Once you've figured that out, it becomes pretty easy - stairs or lift, clearly signposted. I was in the very back row of the stalls, which meant climbing a lot of stairs, but I was soon seated. With an excellent view, I might add, for less than I paid for that dreadful seat the last time.

The seats are comfy enough, but just a tiny bit cramped after a whole concert. Still, it was a lovely evening of Brahms and Strauss, and Schubert's Unfinished Symphony - the only one I recognised. As I say, I was tired, and just managed to stay awake. And so home, and to bed early, and too late to blog.

And now farewell, I must study for tomorrow's exam! Tomorrow evening, we're talking about drinks in the Somerstown Coffee House, near the training centre. On Saturday, I'm off on a daytrip to Oxford - I've never been, and Helen has something of an itinerary planned for us! And on Sunday, I have a busy day ahead; I got a couple of Sweet Sundays vouchers a while ago, for Cineworld tickets on a Sunday, and I do believe the remaining one expires before I'll be in London on a Sunday again! So that's a plan for Sunday. Not only that, but I popped into the local shop this evening and the shopkeeper gave me a free ticket to the Christmas Ideal Homes Show, taking place locally - he wasn't using it. Sunday is probably the only day that'll be convenient for me to go - so that'll be a busy day indeed. Excellent luck though, I wanted to go to that anyway, but hadn't yet bought a ticket!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Concert: York 2

I spent most of today on a training course, but got home earlier than normal. And the York 2 concert in the Wimbledon International Music Festival wasn't on until 7.45, so I figured I'd have time to eat beforehand.

While my dinner was cooking, I looked up directions to St. John's Church on Google Maps. In another of their ill-advised "improvements", they've removed the advance journey planner, y'know. So now you can only look up details for a journey departing immediately. Which is fine, as long as (a) you're not trying to look up details in the middle of the night, say, when the Tube isn't running, and Google Maps now doesn't include that as a travel option in that case!: or (b) the journey won't differ in some other way from when you look it up. Ah yes, the perpetual disimprovement of Google Maps. If it ain't broke, break it!

Anyway, at least you can still get walking details from it. From which I gleaned that the whole thing would take me just over half an hour, including a walk of 12 minutes from Wimbledon Station. Well, I know I can beat their walking time estimates if I need to - which was good, since I did leave a bit later than I'd have liked. I raced to West Brompton, and to the Westbound platform, and imagine my relief when a train pulled in just as I arrived! I jumped on and sat down. And as it pulled out, the announcer said it was going to.. Parson's Green. It was terminating five stops from Wimbledon.


So we all disembarked there, and waited for the train that the driver promised was coming behind us and going the rest of the way. And the platform indicator promised it was 3 minutes away.. then 2.. then 1. It was 1 minute away for a very long time, along with another train that was supposed to arrive simultaneously with it - but eventually disappeared from the board. One did finally arrive, and chugged its relaxed way into Wimbledon. They're always quite easygoing about getting to the end of the line, you know..

It was nearly 7.45 when we were let off and I nearly gave myself a coronary running for the concert. Note: there are Oyster card readers at Wimbledon station, that say "touch for entry and exit". This is completely untrue. You only touch if changing from, or to, a mainline train there. Thing is though, you can't see the exit barriers by the time you come to these readers, so it's impossible to tell, and I did touch out on one of those. Luckily, TFL seems finally to have dealt with the problem, and when I touched again at the barrier to get out, the barrier let me out without a quibble.

I remembered my directions, complicated as they were. Right from the station. First left. First right. First left. Third right, along Spencer Hill. (No, there isn't an easier way, I checked.) As I wheezed along - for the sake of it now, I knew I'd be late - I did wonder whether Spencer Hill was named for a reason. When I turned onto it, I could confirm that yes, it is a hill, and I had to climb up it. The church eventually materialised on the left - I could hear the strains of the concert before I could see it.

I did consider just listening from the outside - it was milder tonight. I moseyed over to the door, where a sign instructed latecomers to head round the side and await a suitable break. But, d'you know, whatever it was they were playing, I didn't like it, and I couldn't be bothered. After a short while, I called it a night and made my way back to the station.

Where all the information boards apologised, but said they couldn't give us any information. So I waited in the middle, where I could see all four possible platforms that I would depart from - and I got on the first train that appeared. When another appeared on the adjacent platform, our driver was good enough to tell us that that one would leave first, so we all changed. Not that it was a speedy journey home - we had a couple of unscheduled stops, and the driver kept apologising about a signal failure earlier. Indeed, I hear delays on the District Line were severe tonight..

Let's hope for better luck tomorrow night, when I'm headed to hear the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall. I'll go straight from my course, this time. And I think I'll stay in on Thursday, and cram for Friday's exam..

Monday, 17 November 2014

Ballet: Ceremony of Innocence / The Age of Anxiety / Aeternum

The age of ballet continues! Tonight, I went to see a trilogy of contemporary ballet at the Opera House: Ceremony of Innocence / The Age of Anxiety / Aeternum. Back in the Auditorium again, I chose a nice seat, dead centre of a row, not right at the back - although as long as you're central, the view is great from any level here.

There must be a new policy of only running Eastbound trains to Edgeware Road through West Brompton in the evenings - this is the second time recently that Edgeware Road was the only destination displayed! Fair enough - I wanted to change to the Piccadilly Line at the next station anyway. Covent Garden station was unusually uncrowded, and I got to the Opera House, and to my seat, with time to spare. Mind you, I did pause to wonder, as I hurried along the corridor to my section, why the sofa along the wall was completely occupied with people that seemed in no hurry to get anywhere!

I was early enough not to have to push past anyone in my row, which was still almost empty. Being dead centre of the row meant I didn't have to let anyone past me, either. The entire row did fill up by curtain up, though. To my left were a group of friends - they tended to interchange seats, so that after each of the two intervals, I had a different person sitting beside me. And by the end of the night, my legs were complaining about the ever-so-slightly snug legroom up there. But it was ok.

I hadn't bought a programme, nor even seen any of the free fliers to bring with me - which I could have done with, because I hadn't a clue what was going on. But I must say, each of the ballets looked absolutely incredible. The technique was superb, the choreography gorgeous, the sets inventive, and the visual effects stunning! Really, they were a joy to watch - despite their subject matter, all war-related. The first, Ceremony of Innocence, with music by Benjamin Britten, dealt with a man remembering his lost innocence, brought to life by dancers performing behind him. The second, The Age of Anxiety, followed the story of four strangers who meet in wartime in a New York bar and attempt to find some meaning in things. Finally, Aeternum, winner of an Olivier award and again with music by Benjamin Britten, dealt with the fallen of war, with images reminiscent of a battlefield and a stark stage. Stunning stuff. Unfortunately, this was the last night - keep an eye out for the next performances of these ballets - they're memorable.

I took the stairs all the way down, having taken the escalator part of the way up. Stairs all the way really helps you to realise how high up you've been! And outside, I was glad I was in Covent Garden last week and took photos of the Christmas lights - I'd have hated to miss them, and I didn't have a camera on me tonight; my phone was at home, charging. The cold night air made me glad to get underground in the warm - these are the days to start dressing more warmly! On my walk back home from the station, I spotted a fare-dodger jumping the fence. Full credit to his athleticism..

Well, I'm on a training course for the rest of the week. Early starts, and on the other side of town. Lovely! Indeed, I should have been in bed long ago. What the hey. I'm being optimistic about my energy levels, and have booked classical concerts for the next two nights. Tomorrow night is York 2 in St. John's Church, as part of the Wimbledon International Music Festival. It's a husband and wife duet, four hands sounding as one player. And on Wednesday, I'm back in the Royal Festival Hall, for a concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Rear stalls this time, and hopefully a better view! Couldn't be much worse than the last time I was there..

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Play: Fully Committed

It's a drag, getting to the Menier Chocolate Factory from where I am. But Fully Committed sounded good, and had the advantage of being just over an hour long - so I could get home at a decent time, considering I'm in Guildford today. So I booked, given that availability seems limited.

At least it doesn't start until 8. Not a single train passing through West Brompton when I arrived there was scheduled to go to town, so change at Earl's Court it was. Anyway, a train to town arrived at the adjacent platform shortly after we disembarked. Google Maps' journey time estimate was nonsense, as usual - although that probably had something to do with the persistent delays on the District Line. Changing to the Jubilee Line was a relief - it tends to go faster, and in three stops I was at London Bridge.

Now, London Bridge station has always been a wee mystery to me. I have always ended up exiting at the London Bridge exit. This is fine if I'm going to the Scoop or Tower Bridge - not so fine for where I was going yesterday, which is in the other direction. I knew there was another exit, closer - I could see it on the maps, and as I made my way down the road, I passed it; indeed, I have always returned through that entrance! Somehow though, I could never figure out how to get to it from inside the station, when coming out.

Well gee, I figured it out last night. :-) I think the problem was that I always just followed the crowd - and the crowd was always headed to the London Bridge exit. Left and up the escalator. However, last night, the crowd wasn't so bad - and I looked to my right for once. O gee, a sign that pointed left for the London Bridge exit and right for the Borough Market exit. Hang on - didn't Google Maps say I had to take that exit? I moseyed in that direction. O look, that's where they put all the maps and direction signs! which I never saw before. Sure enough, when I made my way to the exit, it was the one I've seen so often, halfway down the road towards the Menier Chocolate Factory. Thus cutting my walk in half, and meaning that, for once, without even getting out of breath, I was NOT the last person into the theatre, but entered with the main body of the audience. Result!

Seating here is on upholstered benches - comfy enough, especially for a short show, but a bit too snug for what looked like a full house. I found my row - Row B, second from the stage, and facing it. Good seat. Except.. I couldn't see my spot. I asked the ladies at the end of the row. "What number are you?" "22". "Oh, you're this three inches here." The gent to my left suggested I not breathe.

So yes, that was cosier than was ideal. But the show was short, as I say.. What a lot they packed into it though! Or I should say, "he" packed into it - it's a one-man show. Kevin Bishop, a comedian I've never heard of, but he gives a tour-de-force here. He plays a harrassed employee in the reservations office of a really popular restaurant in what seems like New York. Poor fellow finds himself all alone on this day, coming up to Christmas. He should have two colleagues to help, but one, it turns out, has family problems, and Lord know what the other one is up to. Our hapless hero has to man three phones-full of irate customers (including the VIPs, who get special treatment), as well as fielding calls on the special, red phone that connects him to the chef. And let's not forget the intercom, which he has to keep running to, to communicate with the kitchen and front-of-house.

He does all the voices, by the way, which starts off a bit weird but you shortly get used to it. That poor man does a huge amount of running around the stage. Even the red telephone suffers - the little flashing light fell off it last night, in the frenzy. But the real awe-inducing element of this performance is the rapid-fire script, which barely lets up the entire time. Oh, and he changes voices, facial expressions.. and on a couple of occasions, bursts into song. So you get a mini-musical too.

For a Brit, he does a decent American accent, I think. But he got a spontaneous round of applause for his impression of Michael Caine, ringing for a reservation. We had trouble enough keeping up with the plot - but he, who had to remember a tremendous amount of dialogue, never faltered. Good singer, too. And he looked happy at the end - as he might, with the well-deserved standing ovation he got. O yes, I can see why Time Out recommended this, and so do I. Heartily. Only runs until Saturday - limited availability. Booking advised. Go see.

And again, it was too late to blog last night..

So, I'm taking tonight off. Back to Ireland tomorrow for the weekend, and back to the Opera House on Monday for a trilogy of contemporary ballets about the First World War. From my usual vantage point of the Auditorium.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Ballet: Frederick Ashton Mixed Programme

It's interesting, how much dance has been coming up lately in Time Out. None for ages, and then.. well, it makes a lovely change. So when the Frederick Ashton Mixed Programme came up in the Royal Opera House (the home of the Royal Ballet), I was keen. Apparently, he was their founder choreographer. But the only tickets that the official box office had left were standing or restricted view. Hunting around, I discovered stalls tickets on LoveTheatre - a small markup, but I considered it worth the price, and booked. Ooh, stalls at the Opera House.. a first for me!

The Tube got me there in time, despite a long, and unexplained, delay at Hyde Park Corner. It's handy now they have finished the repair work at Covent Garden Station - it's quicker to get out and there's not nearly as much congestion. Turning right for the Piazza, I was delighted to see they've set up their Christmas lights! (Pictures here.)

I do love how LoveTheatre just sends your ticket to the box office, and you collect it as normal. That sorted, I made my way into the lobby. And for the very first time ever, instead of heading for the escalator or stairs - or lift - I just turned left, to the ornate wooden doors to the stalls. Turns out you still have to climb some stairs (there is also wheelchair access).

Anyhoo, I soon made my way to my seat, decently far forward and to the side. Comfortable as you'd expect, with plenty of legroom. What was surprising was the view of the upper galleries - I'm usually in the Auditorium, top of the house. I mean, when you're up there, you realise there are several lower levels, but in the stalls you can see them all..!

It was terrific to be so close. Not an experience I'll have very often here - so I made sure to enjoy every minute. The programme comprised four separate productions, with an interval between each pair, for set changes - although the pause between the first two was only five minutes, and we were asked not to leave our seats for that. I didn't see the need for a programme, but they print free fliers that you can get from the programme stand, which give the basic information - the title of the piece, cast, details of the intervals.

Most didn't really have a plot. Of course, it's nice just to see dance for its own sake. The first, Scenes de Ballet, had dancers in costumes that were cartoonishly coloured - and was gorgeous to watch. The second, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, saw a lass in a flowing dress fling herself (elegantly) about the stage, a la Ms Duncan, accompanied by a pianist (also on stage). They both got bouquets at the end, which was nice.

After the next interval, we saw a bare stage house six dancers in white for Symphonic Variations. Interesting about their costumes was that the men had silver headpieces similar to the ladies' tiaras. Curiously, they decided to bring the safety curtain down for the interval after that - they hadn't bothered for the previous interval, despite it being only five minutes shorter. And finally, the only piece that had something of a plot - A Month in the Country, set in a drawing room on a Russian country estate in the 19th Century, where the lady of the house takes something of a shine to her son's tutor.

A beautiful evening, in a beautiful setting. And the reopening of Covent Garden station entrance was much appreciated, given that this is a rainy week. A long programme, with two long intervals, meant that it was too late, once again, to blog when I got home. So here we are.

Tonight, I'm off to the Menier Chocolate Factory, for a comedy play called Fully Committed. Well, I'm glad it's not starting until 8 - it's something of a saga, getting there. Tube to London Bridge and a walk of about 10 minutes.. It'll be a sandwich for dinner again as it is! Anyway, it's a short show, which is good, as I have an early start tomorrow to go to Guildford. And I don't doubt I'll be too tired to go to anything tomorrow night. Then I'm back in Ireland for the weekend. On Monday, I'll be back in my normal level (just under the roof) in the Opera House, for yet another mixed ballet programme, this time based around the First World War - Ceremony of Innocence / The Age of Anxiety / Aeternum. But my seat is dead centre, and a central seat in the Opera House always has a good view!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Film: Interstellar

Jump to the ** for the short version..!

Interstellar was right at the top of the film list, no competition. And right up until yesterday, I was sure I'd be going to a film. But then Time Out decided to inundate me with gig listings, and I had a decision to make.

..and then Aneta, who left the company a while back, dropped by and drinks were mooted, so by the time we'd finished there.. film was the only thing I could make, and I made my excuses and left at 8.37, for the 8.35 show at the Vue Fulham, my local cinema. The Odeon Kensington is closer to where we were, but the last showing there was at 8. Besides, the Vue is cheaper! (There have been lots of Odeon deals - including one I actually bought and let expire - but none are current right now.) I could have held out for a later show at the Vue, but heavens, I had to come in for work today.. and the film (+ ads) runs to over three hours!

I knew my best chance was to catch a bus outside West Kensington station - so I dashed there, and after a few minutes one appeared. And after a few minutes more, it deposited me on Fulham Broadway. Unfortunately, it took me some minutes more to make my way to the cinema - but I was there by 8.50, and I knew they run 20 minutes of ads. Got a ticket - and voucher for next time - and panted my way into Screen 1 - it's currently showing in three screens there.

There were only about half a dozen of us - well, it is showing in three screens, and this was a weeknight, and a late-ish showing. And one of the nights with no special deals. I actually made it in time for the trailers, and watched an interesting, extended one for The Drop, a thriller with the late James Gandolfini, Tom Hardy, and Noomi Rapace. Goodness, that's two films I've now seen with James Gandolfini, since he died. Ah well.

And so we settled in for the marathon that is Interstellar. Despite having stellar reviews (pun intended, sorry!), you have to wonder what you're in for with an epic that runs for nearly three hours (not counting the ads).

Well, you're in for a Christopher Nolan epic, is what you're in for! He directed this, and co-wrote it with his brother, Jonathan. Now, when the Nolans are involved, you're in for something different - and with Christopher, you're in for a roller-coaster ride! Half of Hollywood seems to agree, because half of Hollywood signed up for it.

Let's see: where do I start? For a film that begins at the end, let's start at the beginning. Matthew McConaughey is a farmer in a post-apocalyptic Earth, where farming is considered much more important than science (the apocalypse that got them here isn't explained, but seems to be environmental, and the inference is that science was somehow responsible). His wife has died, and he lives with his father-in-law (John Lithgow), son and daughter on a dusty farm, far from anywhere.

Anyhoo, one day - doubtless out of boredom: he likes farming, but he used to be a test pilot, as we later discover - he embarks on a voyage of exploration and comes across the renmants of NASA. I might point out that the method by which he finds this place is somewhat less believeable than what happened to Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But never mind.

So, hanging out in this place, trying to solve the mysteries of the universe, are an elderly professor of his acquaintance (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway, sporting an unflattering, short, asymetric hairstyle, doubtless to look more scientific). And they decide that he's just the fellow they need to pilot their exploratory mission to find a new planet for humanity to live on. 'Coz this one is - not to put too fine a point on it - fecked.

And this is where the story properly kicks off. Apparently, there was a consultant physicist on set, and it shows - your basic theme in this film is Unified Field Theory. Not that it's called that in the film, mind - but there is a lot of talk about gravity, and the need to "solve" gravity. Leading to the impression that if they could just do whatever it is they're trying to do, they could just float the whole human race off the planet to wherever they needed to get to. But what the hey, that'll do as a working solution!

Well now, there's an awful lot of talk about relativity theory in this, and I'm not sure they understood all of it. But they do some clever playing around with relative timeframes, so while our intrepid astronauts are off discovering new worlds, Matthew McConaughey's kids have grown up, into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain. And that's not the end of the time slips - but I can't give away too much of the plot. Jessica Chastain, by the way, eventually ages to become Ellen Burstyn.

Bill Irwin voices one of the robots - and may I take this opportunity to congratulate them for a hugely innovative robot design! Most versatile. Wes Bentley goes along for the ride. Oh, and I was wondering what had happened to Matt Damon! He is on the cast list, but doesn't appear for ages.. and then pops up as one of the scientists of the first wave of exploratory missions, who set up camp on one of these candidate replacement worlds. He makes a brief, but memorable, appearance.

Well, that's the basic plot. But what is it like?

** This film is epic in every sense. Now, once we enter a black hole (not much of a spoiler, there's always one, isn't there?) things go seriously wacky. It's all very imaginative, but just a bit daft. And that's why, like IMDB, I give it about 9/10. But UP TO the black hole, this is a serious contender for best sci-fi film of all time. It really does have a bit of everything. The action sequences are edge-of-the-seat stuff. The alien worlds are imaginative, yet quite believeable, with different and fascinating characteristics. The soundtrack! Man, if you happen to forget to be excited, this soundtrack is here to help. I came out humming it - how often does that happen for a sci-fi film? (We have Hans Zimmer to thank for that, BTW.)

Fantastic film. Really and truly. And has to be long, given that we're talking about the very meaning of life, and the nature of the universe. Which looks fantastic, may I add, with shots worthy of Gravity. Epic in scale, visionary in outlook. This is destined to be one of the films that become a household name for the entire world.

I was surprised, mind, to check my watch at the end and discover it was 11.50! That means there were probably 10 mins extra of ads at that showing. Anyway, a 15-minute walk got me home - detouring slightly so as not to get in the way of our local fox! And then it was too late to blog - hence the lateness of this report.

Tonight is Scenes de Ballet - a mixed programme at the Opera House. The only availability they had for tonight was standing or restricted view - this was 9 days ago. The only other site that had tickets was LoveTheatre, which had stalls tickets for a small markup - I got one of those. Well, it'll probably be my only time in the stalls at the Opera House! so I'm looking forward to that. I see tomorrow night - the last night - is sold out, on the official website at least. And I got an email yesterday - I'm signed up for TFL updates - to the effect that Covent Garden Station lifts are fixed now, so the station should be operating normally again, and I can get the Tube back from there. That'll be handy.

For tomorrow night, I've booked to see a play called Fully Committed - a comedy about a busy restaurant taking bookings - at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Ends Saturday - quite limited availability. And then I'm back to Ireland again (!) for the weekend. Well, y'see, I'm supposed to be on a training course next week, and didn't want to be rushing from there to the airport that weekend..

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Standup: Dara Ó' Briain

Ah, Dara Ó' Briain. A very, very funny man - with a brain, too. I actually met him when we were in the same class for General Relativity in University College, Dublin. After graduation, he dropped all that pretty quickly (I dropped it pretty quickly myself, too!) and he went down the showbiz route, also moving gradually into standup. He'd been a champion debater in his college days.. it stood to him, you could say. I've seen him perform several times now, and he's hilarious.

So, as I was to be back in Ireland this coming weekend anyway, I was happy to come back a couple of days early and catch this show. Good job I booked my ticket long ago - the show sold out, predictably. I took an end seat in the fourth row from the stage. I didn't book one for my mother - not her thing!

To describe this day as "wet" would not do justice to the sheer volume of water that fell. I had nervous thoughts, remembering the horrendous floods that preceded the Arctic winters of a few years ago. Earlier this afternoon, my mother and I had a trip to the Abbey Tavern for a meal - luckily, we got a parking space near the door. On a Thursday evening, it was pretty deserted. I decided to go for the steak sandwich for a change - and let me tell you, that was an extremely tasty choice, well presented! Worth a go, definitely. May I also compliment them on their new "food's ready!" alert system - a bell and a bright blue, flashing light that shows both at the entrance to the kitchen, and at the bar. Now we'll all know when the food is cooked..

Dropping my mother home, the car clock said 6.40. I knew it was a bit fast, so reckoned the time at about 6.30 - just right. I dropped her at the door and headed straight into Limerick, splashing through floods the whole way there. As I was stopped in traffic in town, on my way to the university, I checked my watch. O gosh, had it stopped?! It was an hour earlier than the car clock. And then I remembered that the car clock is still on summertime (it's very hard to adjust). Duh. Ah well, this was the earliest I've ever been to an event!

So I got a parking space quite near the door of the concert hall. Mooched around in the car for a while, played solitaire on my phone, then went in. Paid a visit to the toilet, then collected my ticket, got a glass of wine and headed for the cafe to sit, drink, and people-watch (not that the fashions would be so extravagant at this!). Unfortunately, they've reduced the number of sofas there, and what they had were occupied, so I picked the table overlooking the stairs. I also noticed that the bar in the cafe area was open, unusually. I should've expected that, with a sold-out show..

When the doors to the auditorium opened, I drank up and headed for my seat. It took the place a while to fill up, but fill up it did. They weren't joking - in this case (unlike, for example, rock concerts), "sold-out" really did mean sold-out! Balcony too, which isn't always opened. They hadn't made the choir seats (behind the stage) available - but then, Dara isn't in the habit of doing shows in the round. Instead, a curtain covered the rear of the stage. Dearie me, that curtain needs replacing - for goodness' sake, it was patched with masking tape in a couple of places! One hole that was covered looked quite large..

The show started 10 minutes late - there was no support, just Dara, for about two hours. When he came on, he explained that they decided to give people a little extra time to get there, and get dry, what with the "ludicrous" weather. Yes, well you do get unused to it, living in London as we both now do - and which is much dryer.

I timed it - it took him 15 minutes to reduce me to tears. You do need comfortable seats for one of his shows - it helps, for when you're reduced to quivering jelly. Someone remarked, when I mentioned that I was going to this, that he'd been to a couple of his shows, and he had to say, they were completely different from each other. One of his main tricks, you see, is to engage people in the front row - ask them what they do, for instance. He mines them for material - it's the debater in him. Not necessarily restricted to the front row, mind - Lordy, that poor woman, two rows behind me, who had fallen asleep, and he saw her and said "Ah now, shush, don't wake her!" At which point the hapless lady woke and wondered why he was staring at her, whereupon he welcomed her heartily to the show.

I was a lot closer on this occasion than the last time I saw him - and being close, you can really see how he works an audience. He's so sharp - never lets anything pass, notices everything. Much of the material was very topical - down to his making a point of the glass of water that had been left onstage for him, and how we must think he's flaunting it in front of us. So he made a point of splashing it about, to show how extravagant he was, what with the country protesting about the introduction of water charges.

As I watched, it occurred to me that the last time I saw him play in UL was in the Stables bar on campus! (Standing room only.) Ah gosh, that was a long, long time ago. Sure, he even had hair, back then. How things have changed..

Terrific show. You know, it's funny because it's true. Like the poor lift engineer, sat in the front row, whom Dara picked on all night because he found so many interesting things to ask him. Like, can you make them go sideways? And - how about, with all the numbered buttons for the different floors, you add a button that just has "?" on it..

Ah. Well, that's all I have planned for the weekend. Monday is looking like a film, unusually these days. I haven't had time to go through the listings yet, but I'd be quite surprised if I didn't end up going to Interstellar, which has a terrifically high rating. Directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan, starring Matthew McConaughey, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow.. Jeez, everyone wants to be in this year's Gravity, huh?! Well, we'll see.

On Tuesday, I'm going to a set of ballets at the Opera House - which, as you'll recall, is the home of the Royal Ballet. Hey, maybe I'll manage a photo, for once! Certainly, this'll be my first time in the stalls there - the official website had nothing left but standing and restricted view, and the only other website I found with availability was LoveTheatre - which only had stalls seats. Not cheap, but hopefully, worth it!