Category Archives: Bits and pieces

Venetian Snares @snares

I’m just back to civilization (i.e. London) and find he’s on at the Scala tomorrow and there are advance tickets for £12!!! Sadly the show is from 10 pm – 4 am, he’s probably not on until gone midnight and I’d be asleep before he started. Oh well – I’ll just have to listen to the CDs again. If you’ve  never heard of him, he makes beautiful music like this and extreme but brilliant music like this and even this. Like Aphex Twin only more so – wouldn’t it be great to be young again?


March Madness – cheap theatre tickets

I’m not reviewing everything at the moment: there are lots of shows ending and what’s point of reviewing the last performance? However, this does mean there are some terrific offers out there. Theatre People have just launched March Madness with some really good deals but it’s worth registering for Showsavers to see all the offers around. I’d particularly recommend grabbing From Here to Eternity and Emil and the Detectives while they’re still on as they are both terrific. There are also some tired old musicals I have no intention of paying any money but Billy Elliot is still fabulous and I might go again if it was just a bit cheaper.

Big theatre, little theatre

Some people may think it is odd that I can rate a travelling company such as Vienna Festival Ballet more highly than the obviously much more skilled Royal Ballet. As I can’t go out much at the moment, I decided to look at the very different experience of big and small theatres and venues.

Skill levels. Obviously the big companies can draw on more highly skilled actors and dancers than the little ones but sometimes the very best actors love working in small theatres (e.g. Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in “All That Fall” last year) and some small theatres can draw the very best actors, such as the Orange Tree in Richmond. It also takes a different sort of skill to work on a big stage in a big theatre – OperaUpClose can get extremely good singers who may not have the power to fill the Coliseum or ROH.

Musical scale. Most of the best concerts I have been to have been in small venues such as the JACK Quartet playing Xenakis’s astonishing Tetras Quartet at the Wigmore Hall or the amazing Japanese band Nissennenmondai at Upset the Rhythm. You can never see that level of virtuosity in a symphony orchestra or in a stadium, unless it is on the video screens.

Practice makes perfect. Travelling companies will recruit for a specific production and then play it night after night, raising their performances to levels they would not initially be able to achieve. Oddly, the use of pre-recorded music can help too as it is absolutely the same every night. I love the use of a full orchestra by the Royal Ballet or English National Ballet but the tightest performance by the ENB I have seen was their collaboration with Flawless in “Against Time,” a touring production danced to a recorded backing.

Friendliness. Small theatres and venues offer a far more intimate experience than the bigger venues and sharing the experience with a few dozen people can make you feel a part of something very special whereas larger places can become very impersonal.


English National Ballet open day

I have been a Friend of the ENB for a couple of years (really good value if you are over 60) but only just got round to attending one of their open days. I should have done so earlier: it is an astonishing experience to be part of a small group (limited to ten) sitting in the rehearsal studio at Markova House while they practise. I was lucky enough to see a number of principals in duets from Sleeping Beauty, followed by Shiori Kase rehearsing for her performance in Diana and Acteon at the Emerging Dancer awards. To have dancers so close that you find yourself moving your feet out of the way (probably unnecessarily) is a very different experience to seeing them on stage (especially if you sit as far away as I usually do). Despite my comments on the importance of the music in ballet, it hardly matters in these circumstances that there is just a piano to accompany them. I also thoroughly recommend going to small theatres to see opera and plays. OperaUpClose, usually at the King’s Head but also touring gave an excellent, very involving performance of Britten’s Turn of the Screw a year or two back, whilst I’ve already said how much I enjoy plays at the Orange Tree and Pentameters.

Howard Goodall is wrong

It was Mozart who wrecked music, not Schoenberg. I heard Goodall attacking Schoenberg on Start the Week a while ago as making music inaccessible to people like me with no musical education. However, he speaks as someone with such an education and has no idea what music sounds like to us. I grew up thinking classical music was boring but gradually came across music that had some of the excitement of pop music, such as Mahler’s symphonies and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Then in the sixth form we watched a series by Peter Maxwell Davies on modern music. His ensemble, Fires of London, played Schoeberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and I was knocked out. I later discovered that there was some wonderful music before classicism too after a friend took me to see Monteverdi’s Orfeo and I’m really looking forward to Charpentier’s Medea from the ENO on Friday.

I was thinking about this after noticing that tonight’s Ashton mixed bill by the Royal Ballet includes ballets by both the wonderful Satie and his antithesis Liszt – will the latter send me to sleep like the Chopin nearly did? Satie was one of the first to break out of classical formality, abandoning keys and time signatures for much of his music. He made sure every note mattered whilst Liszt never made do with a single note when he could squeeze in five. Goodall’s list of ten great pieces of music includes Liszt but not Satie. To give him credit, he does include Stravinsky’s wonderful “les Noces” which I saw last year and went back to watch again the following evening.

Welcome to the free seats

The Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music hold many free concerts, mostly at lunchtime or early evening and there are also free concerts at lunchtimes in churches, such as St Martin in the Fields. Check the length as many concerts are short, so not worth travelling to unless you’ve are shopping or work nearby. I’ve mentioned the drama schools’ free plays (see the new LAMDA season) but commercial theatres also give away seats via audience filling or ‘papering’ schemes. Most productions are in fringe theatres but larger productions do come up, mostly at very short notice, for previews and press nights. These schemes often cost money to join and there’s a booking fee of around £3 for a seat. I am a member of two of these: one was advertised on my work intranet and is free to join; the other has an annual fee. As part of their conditions, I will not name either, not will I ever mention that I have been to a play or concert in this way. If you work in the NHS or other public services you might well find such a scheme available to you. Otherwise, these schemes are open to all (in alphabetic order): Audience Club, Play by Play, Showsavers Plus and Theatre Club. All limit the number of members and I am not sure which are open right now.

Cheap seats but expensive food

I’ve posted about how cheap tickets to Covent Garden can be and a little on how to see plays or concerts cheaply or even for free (more on this in a future post).  Unfortunately, food and drink are not cheap at the ROH, “cheese sandwich and a glass of house wine? That’ll be £16.50, please,” and even a cheap meal nearby will double the cost of a night out. Operas are long: the Minotaur was three hours including the interval and Robert le Diable was over four; add in three hours of travelling to get there and back and I’m out for six or seven hours. The easiest solution it is to go to a matinee but for some reason opera doesn’t seem to do matinees.

However, a Horizon programme has convinced me of the value of fasting occasionally so I’m now killing two birds with one stone. I only go to the opera or ballet in the evening a couple of times a month and I’ve found that fasting on those days is surprisingly easy to handle – I’m feeling hungrier today after a decent lunch than I was at this point yesterday. I suspect there might be dangers to fasting too much so I’m sticking to a maximum of one day a week.


I’m seeing Skyfall this afternoon. I haven’t seen a Bond movie on the big screen for over 40 years but I still remember the plot they all had. Bond is in bed with a beautiful woman, makes bad puns, sabotages something, goes back to bed with the same woman or a different one (sometimes kills her and makes a bad pun as she turns out to be on the other side). Then we have great opening credits (usually the best bit) and music. Bond goes to HQ, flirts with M’s secretary and makes bad puns. M offers mission to defeat a Villain who wants to destroy or take over the World. It will involve lots of smoking, drinking, driving an Aston Martin and sleeping with beautiful women, should he accept it. He accepts it, gets some gadgets from Q including a car with special gimmicks. He smokes, drinks, goes to bed with beautiful women, drives the car for ten minutes and crashes it. The Villain captures him and tortures him. Rather than killing him, the Villain leaves him to be killed by lasers or fish. He escapes with the help of a gadget, a beautiful woman or a paper clip. He kills the Villain’s henchmen and foils the plot to blow up the world but the Villain escapes. Bond goes to bed with a beautiful woman and makes a bad pun. Good end credits (but not as good as the opening credits). The End.

Should be different this time – it’s directed by Sam Mendes. I loved his version of Cabaret with  Alan Cummings.