The Handmaiden, Curzon Bloomsbury, 30 April 2017

So many people told us that we should see The Handmaiden, we eventually put our reservations to one side and made a reservation to see it.

We had previously pencilled in Sunday 30 April for Sense of an Ending, but having taken in a showing along with a Julian Barnes Q&A the week before, it made sense to see The Handmaiden that day.

The Handmaiden is explained, trailed and  emblazoned with cool photos on IMDb – well worth a click-through. Then you needn’t bother to sit through nearly 3 hours of film.

The Handmaiden is everything we were told it would be, hence our reservations about it. Beautifully shot with exquisite settings, absolutely no problem with that aspect.

But the film is extremely long for the relatively straightforward thriller plot (just a few twists and turns) and fairly predictable ending.

The female leads are both very beautiful and the soft pornish love scenes between the two of them are all in the best possible taste, as a well-known arbiter of such matters used to put it.

The torture scene towards the end, which we knew to expect, simply had me looking away from the screen for a few minutes.

We both found the whole experience a bit disappointing, but at least we can now tell people that we’ve seen it, which makes them stop lecturing us on how we would definitely love that movie.

On leaving the movie theatre, I checked the cricket score and it looked as though Middlesex had bowled themselves into a position where they were likely to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against Gloucestershire.

So we diverted to Lord’s on the way home and watched the last 90 minutes of the match from the President’s Box (temporary Middlesex Room), witnessing Middlesex then snatch defeat from the jaws of the victory that had early looked like the jaws of defeat.

Here’s the scorecard.

So that was two cringe-making torture scenes in one afternoon; the second of which panned out far more slowly than the first and it would have been a bit peculiar to have looked away from the field of play for the whole of the last hour.

We ran into Brian and Judy as we were leaving, so at least we had a pleasant chat with friends before departing the day’s second torture scene.

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, Royal Court Theatre, 29 April 2017

This visit to the Royal Court Theatre was the third of my “three courts in one day” – click here to read about the other two.

There’s been a lot of press chat about The Ferryman, now that Jez Butterworth is seen as such a hot property playwright and with Sam Mendes returning to the theatre to direct again, now that he is a hotshot movie director. Apparently this Royal Court run sold out before the previews even started, while the West End transfer is already taking bookings.

We saw one of the last of the previews.

Here is a link to the Royal Court on-line resource on this play/production.

I don’t recall Jez Butterworth’s plays being long previously, so we were a bit daunted when we learnt that this play runs to more than three hours. Especially daunted in my case, with all that court time in my mind, legs and backside, I feared for my ability to concentrate throughout the piece and wondered if I’d be able to move at the end of the show.

As it happens, the play/production is sufficiently pacy, stylish and interesting to hold the attention almost throughout. My body didn’t let me down either…just about. Janie and I both felt that the final act was perhaps a little too long, but twixt previews and press night there might be some tweaks to put that aspect right.

The cast was superb. The design and directing top notch. Sam Mendes knows what he is doing. The Royal Court almost certainly has a big hit on its hands.

Janie remarked that this was a quintessentially Irish play (or words to that effect), which she tends to prefer in theory more than in practice. She loved The Weir, for example, but often finds Irish plays a bit samey and she usually struggles to understand the accents at times.

This play reminded me of Brian Friel’s hit Dancing at Lughnasa, except that The Ferryman is set in rural Northern Ireland (County Armagh) in the early 1980’s rather than Friel’s play from County Donegal in the 1930’s.

Indeed, the thing that distinguishes The Ferryman from most traditional Irish rural plays is that The Troubles are right at the heart of the story, rather than on the periphery. The older generation talk of friends and family caught up in the 1916 Easter Rising and listen to Maggie Thatcher on the radio talking about the 1981 hunger strikes, while the younger ones talk of attending Bobby Sands funeral.

If this all sounds a bit “tell rather than show”, then I am doing the play/production an injustice. It is very show. There’s singing, dancing, several species of livestock and spirits, both of the supernatural kind and indeed a great deal of Bushmills drinking. Yes, everything you’d expect from a good rural Irish play.

Why The Ferryman? Well, towards the end of the play one of the oldsters, Uncle Pat, quotes Virgil (The Aeneid Book Six, since you asked), in which Aeneas learns that Charon The Ferryman is not permitted to carry the unburied, lost souls across the River Styx until they have roamed the shores for a thousand years.

What relevance does that tale from The Aeneid have to the play? Well I’d probably spoil the play by trying to link those tales and might not hit the spot with my attempt. Suffice it to say that the West End transfer has used the strap line:

“You can’t bury the past”.

A very Ogblog strap line, for a play/production that is very much worth seeing.

The image is another link to that Royal Court resource

Three Courts In One Day, 29 April 2017

I was a slightly reluctant conscript to represent the MCC against Middlesex University Real Tennis Club (MURTC) today.

Much as I love playing real tennis, my weekend routine is to play modern tennis with Daisy in the morning and we had theatre tickets booked for the evening.

But this match was the reverse fixture of a match I played back in the autumn, mentioned en passant in this piece – click here

…and it was after all just down the road in Hendon on a long weekend…so I told the skipper that I would play only if needed.

I got the “yes, you are needed” message a couple of weeks before the match.

Still, I was selected to play the last (doubles) rubber, mid afternoon, so I thought there was no need to dispense with the traditional Boston Manor modern tennis fixture with Janie first thing.

Lawners at Boston Manor – court one of three

I played a cracking good game of lawners, though I say so myself. Janie later claimed that she let me win by a large margin to help build my confidence for the big match. I don’t think so.

Went home, showered, switched from pyjamas to whites and off to Middlesex University for lunch and the match. By the time I got there the MCC were one rubber down and while I was eating lunch we went 2-0 down with two rubbers to go.

Then we watched a very exciting game of doubles, which looked as though it would go MURTC’s way but ended up going MCC’s way.

“No pressure, but it’s all down to you two”, said one of my team mates, helpfully, as my partner and I went on court for the deciding rubber. Court two of three.

We’d never played with each other before and I have only played a handful of doubles at real tennis, so asked my partner to do the calling. He seemed reluctant to do that at first, but when I called a couple of times, reminding him that I really wasn’t sure whether to go for the ball on not, he said he’d call himself, which he started doing and I started to work out quite quickly what he wanted to play or leave.

The handicapping system did us some favours, as my limited doubles experience means that my doubles handicap lags behind that of my singles. On the other hand, the MURTC court is very different from that at Lord’s – much bouncier, it reminded me a bit of the one I tried in Manchester last autumn – click here, adding to the novelty of the situation. Yet, that extra bounce sometimes gives the player just a smidgen of extra time to adjust and hit a better shot – at my stage of real tennis, I rather like the extra bounce.

Anyway, the upshot of all that, I’m delighted to report, is that we won our rubber and thus the match was drawn. My partner and I were metaphorically carried aloft with garlands in our hair, before everyone said fond goodbyes and went their separate ways.

These real tennis matches are very enjoyable, friendly affairs. A good way of getting to know some of the MCC players better. Also a good way to meet some really interesting and pleasant people from other clubs, in this case MURTC.

No photos from our match but here is a little promo video from MURTC that they made only a few weeks ago, which gives a pretty good idea about the place, not least its friendly and welcoming atmosphere. You can even see a couple of the people I met in the still below – the professional and the male student (left of picture).

“Three courts in one day…so what about the third court?” I hear you cry. Well, that was The Ferryman at The Royal Court, which I have written up separately – click here.

Letters From Baghdad Followed By Panel Discussion, Curzon Soho, 27 April 2017

Janie and I were particularly keen to see the movie Letters From Baghdad – click here for IMDb listing – and were motivated to put this Thursday evening aside as there was to be a panel discussion, organised by the producers Bird’s Eye View,  after the film’s showing at the Curzon Soho.

18:25 in Soho is a bit early for us mid-week and seemingly was a bit early for everyone else – while we made it on time there seemed to be no rush to start the showing on time.

Still, what that did mean was that we did have time for a drink before the show and ended up chatting with one of the panellists, Joan Porter MacIver, who heads the British Institute For The Study of Iraq, aka The Gertrude Bell Memorial. In truth, by far the most interesting aspect of the panel discussion for us was the chat we had with Joan before the showing.

The film itself was fascinating. Gertrude Bell was a most unusual woman for her era and was hugely influential in early 20th century Arabia as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and The Great War settlement came into play. The movie is basically dramatised letters and archive papers by and about Gertrude Bell.

The panel discussion was a bit of an anti-climax. Mia Bays from Bird’s Eye View hosted the discussion. The other panellists were Joan Porter MacIver (which made perfect sense) and Paul Hilder, for reasons which seemed hard to fathom at the time and in retrospect…seem equally hard to fathom. Hilder seems to be a self-appointed doyen of “new politics” and did, in 2005, co-author a paper on the Iraqi liberation, although this last fact was not mentioned during the discussion.

Each panellist asked a very open question about the film’s topic and the audience were asked to comment or ask supplementary questions of the panellists. I remember very little of what was said, other than the very obvious points about the male-dominated society in which Gertrude Bell operated more or less omitting her from the historical record for decades after she died.

Still, we were pleased to have seen the fascinating film and would have wondered about the panel discussion had we not attended that night. But we won’t be rushing to panel discussions in future unless we know the panellists and/or the nature of the proposed discussion ahead of time.

Janie (no Gertrude Bell), trying to endear herself to the locals in Palmyra, 1997.

A Tragedy Of Epicurean Proportions, Saying Goodbye To Tavola, 25 April 2017

Goodbye, Tavola

When I popped in to Tavola on Westbourne Grove a few days ago, I expected simply to buy a few provisions.

I did not expect Al to exclaim, “ah, here’s someone else we need to tell” and announce to me that they would be shutting up shop and emigrating en famille to Sydney, Australia.

“Oh dear”, I said, “when should I start panic buying?”

“I wouldn’t leave it any later than Wednesday,” said Al, “Friday will be our last day”.

Given my timetable the following week, Tuesday was my only slot for panic buying so Tuesday it had to be for the final few purchases (a bit of freezer stocking) and fond goodbyes.

I shall miss the place of course. It must be…sorry, it must have been one of the finest delicatessen’s ever anywhere. It is very rare for a top, top chef (in this case, Alastair Little) to decide to run a deli rather than a restaurant. Here is a scratch or three from the now defunct Tavola website:

But more, I shall miss the Tavola people. Al and I became friends. We’d chat about food and cuisine. Al’s great strength is Italian cuisine and I found that, strangely, he could pick my brains for a tip or two on Chinese and South-East Asian cuisine. We also share a love for cricket, so we’d often chat about that too.

Alastair (in the guise of Big Al DeLarge) became one of the people/characters I write about in my occasional pieces for King Cricket. Much of the story of Al, me and cricket can be traced through the King Cricket pieces that mention him:

Last but most certainly not least, is King Cricket’s own wonderful match report from 2016, in which Alastair finally did get to Lord’s with me and got to meet King Cricket himself and got to try The Lord’s Throdkin.

But returning to Tavola, I shall miss the whole Tavola team. Sharon (Al’s lovely wife), Sue (the perennial member of staff) and the friendly young folk who served in the shop from time to time. Also I shall miss the sense of community in that shop; the regular customers and that local vibe.

Of course, it is becoming nigh-on impossible for a place like Tavola to exist commercially in a street like Westbourne Grove any more. I understand it but I don’t like what that means for our community. I also realise that Alastair and Sharon’s reasons for taking their young family to Australia go beyond commerce; I wish them all well and respect the decision…

…although why anyone would go half way round the world to be a stone’s throw from the Sydney Cricket Ground when they are already merely a stone’s throw from Lord’s is a mystery to me.

So farewell then, Tavola

Aspects Of Darkness And Light, Joshua Redman And Freinds, Wigmore Hall, 24 April 2014

We were excited about Joshua Redman taking up residency at the Wigmore hall and thought this concert might be right up our street.

In truth, I don’t think the Patrick Zimmerli music on show that night was quite to our taste.

It was an interesting idea blending a string quartet with a jazz trio, but it didn’t quite work for us with this music.

We liked bits of it and were glad we’d been to the concert.

Here is a link to the Wigmore hall stub for this concert.

The Sense Of An Ending, Movie Showing And Julian Barnes Discussion, Tricycle, 23 April 2017

We’d provisionally planned to go and see The Sense Of An Ending movie the following weekend, but on Tuesday I received an e-mail from The Tricycle promoting this film and discussion Sunday afternoon event.

“What do you think?”, I texted Daisy. “Go for it”, she texted back.

I had read The Sense Of An Ending soon after it came out – my signed hardcover merely boasting that it had been shortlisted for the Man Booker. Indeed Janie recalls me reading it on holiday in Vietnam – February 2012.

I thought I owed it to myself and to Julian to read the book again before Sunday. Indeed, I found it such an easy read second time around I was done by Wednesday morning.

Available in all good bookshops as well as clicking through to Amazon on the above image

Come Sunday, after tennis and a quick snack lunch, off we went to Kilburn to the Tricycle.

First up, the film – see IMDb details on the movie here.

Both of us really liked the film. I’d heard so much about the film being different from the book, I was actually surprised at how close the film stuck to the main story. Yes, there were some film-specific subplots such as the Webster daughter having a baby and some business around Tony Webster having a little camera shop like a 20-teenies version of my dad’s emporium:

Dad’s shop – a bit bigger, a bit more old-fashioned

Anyway, after the film there was a short break to set up for the discussion. Daisy and I popped to the bar to get a glass-of to share and ran into Julian Barnes himself chatting with the interviewer. It all felt rather local/folksy/book-festivalish.

The audience seemed a well-informed bunch on the whole and most of the questions were pretty sensible. I got mine in early – about the significance of the Severn Bore imagery in the book and how Julian felt about its absence from the film. He answered both parts of the question masterfully.

One rather silly woman said she didn’t think she’d read the book but on seeing the film thought the book ought to be titled The Sense Of A Beginning instead of The Sense Of An Ending. Julian Barnes patiently explained one or two of the differences between the film and the book, then gently stated that he thought the title of the book was ideal.

Janie and I both felt that Julian Barnes came across very nicely, speaking with great eloquence and insight about the book/film. It was a great opportunity for us to see a movie and hear Julian Barnes talk about it at such a convenient time and location.

How lucky we are to be able to take advantage of such opportunities.

Nuclear War by Simon Stephens, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 22 April 2017

“I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but still I rather liked that”, was Janie’s unusual verdict. The first phrase would usually precede a phrase such as “what a load of rubbish” or similar.

But in many ways I could see Daisy-do’s point.

Actually, about five minutes into this short (45 minutes in total) piece, I thought I was really going to hate it.

I didn’t have a clue what was going on, it was cold, it felt soulless and some ghastly member of the audience was coughing and spluttering so much I couldn’t concentrate on trying to penetrate the impenetrable. It certainly wasn’t about nuclear war.

But once I realised that Simon Stephens and Imogen Knight had no intention of giving us a clue as to what was going on, I relaxed and went with the flow. The flow was mostly astonishing dance and some poetic words.

I sensed that the central character was bereaved and/or seriously mentally ill. I sensed that the chorus were her inner tormentors/comforters.

In the end, I did, like Daisy, rather like the piece.

I wondered what our friend Michael Billington would make of it all. We ran into him as we entered the Royal Court and had a quick chat with him, realising that we hadn’t seen him for ages.

We also chatted, in the queue, with a nice man who clearly goes to theatre a great deal and whose late partner was a cricketer as well as theatre-lover – a point that came out as I checked the Middlesex v Essex cricket score for the umpteenth time.

Anyway, turns out our friend Michael Billington (as I suspected) didn’t like it at all – a rare two stars, “baffling and obscure”. Other critics agreed with the obscure tag but were kinder on the piece:

We enjoyed a veritable smörgåsbord of nibbles when we got home, for a change.

My First Live Cricket Of the Year, Middlesex v Essex Day One At Lord’s, 21 April 2017

At last, the new season proper, i.e. a day of live cricket at Lord’s with Charley “The Gent” Malloy.

I made something close to our traditional picnic, with Alaskan salmon bagels, plus some variations on a theme, using Brunswick ham and some soft cheese with chives for a slightly more smokey-flavoured afternoon roll.

A bottle of Gewurtztraminer to help the salmon go down – I might have gone Gewurtz rather than Riesling before, but tend to go Riesling for Chas (who likes that stuff) but thought that today was the day to broaden his horizons just a tad. Thanks to Edwardian over on King Cricket for recently tweaking my memory on that idea.

The white wine aspect worked for sure; Chas was so convinced that Mrs Malloy would like the Gewurtztraminer, he even photographed the label so he could hunt down the wine.

Chas’s desire to please his good lady was a charming and endearing theme, until his ulterior motive was revealed. This Monday is Mrs Malloy’s birthday and also day four of this Lord’s match. Chas was hoping (I think more than expecting) that Mrs Malloy might enjoy part of her birthday treat being a visit to Lord’s. Given the match position, the weather forecast and Mrs Malloy’s predisposition towards the shorter forms of the game, I’d offer long odds on seeing the Malloys at Lord’s this Monday.

Then again, Chas is a master of persuasion, as previously reported on King Cricket in the matter of the Aggers book signing – click here.

We sat in our traditional, back-breaking death row seats (front row of the pavilion terrace) for the first session and quite deep into the second; unable to move until Sam Robson had secured his hundred.

A charming brand new Middlesex member, named Barry (not Father Barry I hasten to add), joined us on death row for a while, towards the end of the morning session – he really seemed to be delighting in the benefits of his new membership.

When Chas and I finally moved, we went for the further reaches of the Grandstand, to which we had to walk the long way round while workmen are putting the finishing touches on the new Warner Stand. We found a nice quiet spot at the front of the Grandstand, wonderfully close to the action, as the pitch in use for this match is well to the north of the square.

Shortly after tea, play was suspended for bad light. I was hopeful that some slightly better looking light might be on its way but only the umpires returned periodically to test the light and shake their heads.

While waiting in vain, Chas and I chatted for a while with a nice couple who turned out to be visiting West Midlands folk, just taking advantage of being in London on a match day to see a day of cricket at Lord’s. Chas and I shared some Edgbaston stories with them and I showed them some of the pictures Chas had taken at close quarters in the Eric Hollies stand, the day that he and Nigel “Father Barry” White made their bucket-list visit to the dark side.

This is a picture from the Eric Hollies Stand in 2008, you understand, not the charming couple we met in the Lord’s Grandstand in 2017. Thanks to Charles for the picture.

It started to get quite cold, but Chas and I naturally braved it until the umpires bowed to the inevitable.

In the meantime, we made some more headway into the delicious bottle of Rioja Chas had brought. This was ideal for the Brunswick ham and soft cheese rolls; it also warmed us up as the afternoon got cooler.

I was being a little careful with my wine intake – my limits are lowering as the years go on – but Chas was keen neither to waste any nor take any of the red home with him, so he polished off the Rioja before we went our separate ways home.

As Chas said in his e-mail to me the next day:

I must have seen the Red off too quickly as I was a little wobbly on the way home!!

Filthy Business by Ryan Craig, Hampstead Theatre, 15 April 2017

Another visit to the Hampstead (upstairs this time), another Ed Hall triumph.

This is a very interesting play with a superb cast, very cleverly staged and directed. All the main papers have given it rave reviews; deservedly so.

You can read all about it here on the Hampstead site, click here, including links to those excellent reviews, sparing me the trouble.

The central story, a Jewish family business dominated by a matriarch who has brought a lot of attitude with her from the old country, naturally resonated with me. Not that the Harris family was at war with itself in the manner of the tragi-comic Solomon family of this play, thank goodness.

Dad’s shop – a relatively tranquil place

Sara Kestelman as the matriarch, Yetta Solomon, was simply superb. We have seen her several times before; I especially remember her in Copenhagen at the RNT years ago and more recently in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide at the Hampstead – click here, but this Yetta role might have been written for her.

As the play went on and the depths of Yetta’s schemes and subterfuges come to light, her character reminded me increasingly of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Perhaps this was Ryan Craig’s intention, as Yetta confides in the audience in very “Dick the Shit” style towards the end of the play.

The ghastliness of the Solomon family and the extent of the machinations at times errs towards caricature, yet Ryan Craig (perhaps combined with Ed Hall’s skilled direction) kept us caring enough about the characters and willing to go with the flow of the plot, even at its extremes. The funny bits are mostly very funny; the confrontational bits thrilling and shocking.

The Yetta Solomon character sees keeping the family together (and in the family business) to be so important as to override pretty much all other practical and moral imperatives. This is Yetta’s flaw, her tragedy.

I recognised some of the characteristics from my own family – the story Yetta tells from her childhood in the shtetl – of chasing Cossack trouble-makers away with a stick – was almost word for word a story I remember my Grandma Ann telling me.

But I don’t believe Grandma Ann used divide and rule to try to keep the Harris family together and she was certainly willing for (indeed she encouraged) her boys to branch out into other businesses – e.g. my father’s and Uncle Alec’s photographic businesses.

Grandma Ann: Harris family business matriarch, yes, machinations, no.

But Filthy Business makes you think well beyond the family and its business. It is a play about the immigrant experience, about London in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, about inter-generational change.

I had been impressed by Ryan Craig’s plays before – we saw The Glass Room at the Hampstead 10+ years ago and more recently The Holy Rosenbergs at the RNt – both of which will find their way to Ogblog in the fullness of time.

To my (and Janie’s) taste, Filthy Business is Ryan Craig’s best play yet and we look forward to more good stuff from him.

As for our grub after the show, we had over-catered so successfully for lunch with Kim and Micky the day before – click here – we had plenty of food for a grazing supper…or three. We chatted through the many interesting issues and great performances we’d just seen as we grazed.