My London Your London

A cultural guide

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A jaundiced 12th-century view of London

About 1190 a monk in Winchester, Richard of Devizes, wrote in a story a warning about London.

  • Whatever of evil or perversity there is in any, whatever in all parts of the world, you will find in that city alone. Go not to the dances of panders, nor mix yourself up with the herds of the stews; avoid the talus and the dice, the theatre and the tavern. You will find more braggadocios there than in all France, while the number of flatterers is infinite. Stage-players, buffoons, those that have no hair on their bodies, Goramites, pick-thanks, catamites, effeminate sodomites, lewd musical girls, druggists, lustful persons, fortune-tellers, extortioners, nightly strollers, common beggars, tatterdemalions, the whole crew has filled every house. So it you do not wish to live with the shameful, you will not dwell in London.

(Quoted in David Rollinson’s A Commonwealth of the People: Popular Politics and England’s Long Social Revolution: 1066-1649, p. 60)

Gosh – what a town!

I had to look some of those up –  “pickthank” is a sycophant and “tatterdemalion” a person wearing tattered clothes, although I’m not quite sure about what was so wrong about being a “nightly stroller”.

There’s more to this list than the obvious however, Richard is putting these words into the mouth of a Jew in France who is training a Christian apprentice and encouraging him to try his luck in England. And in 1189, Londoners had killed local Jews, a few months before an even more atrocious slaughter in York.

Theatre Review: Frankland & Sons at the Camden People’s Theatre

First published on Blogcritics

by Natalie Bennett

Frankland & Sons is an intensely personal show, about an intensely personal family story. A genuine, real-life story.

That makes it tough to review. But here’s my honest view.

Tom and John, son and father (a retired drama teacher), put themselves, or certain a pretty exposing part of themselves and their joint relationship, on show for us. And an occasionally fascinating part of their family tree – as discovered through the medium of a suitcase of letters that reveals the relationship over two wars from the Twenties to the Forties of their ancestors – between what are, really, a pretty ordinary couple.

These reveal minorly interesting bits of cultural history – certainly that couples didn’t necessarily wait for marriage, or very long at all, before hopping into bed together, contrary to popular opinion, and that soppy if unimaginative love letters were apparently de rigeur in the Twenties – but nothing really about the two individuals concerned, despite the fact that he’s living through two world wars, both times serving in Palestine.

The billing lists Jamie Wood as director, and perhaps he produced some of the more “stagey” scenes, and perhaps the timeline format that ties it altogether. But really this is a story that cries out for a writer, not too performers so close to it.

And while Tom shows occasional flashes of the professional performer that he is, there’s an awful lot of village hall pantomime in this show – perhaps intentionally, but not in a good way. I could have done without the semi-strip-tease and dance.

There’s several rather half-hearted attempts at audience participation – though don’t worry, no audience member has to talk or get up from their seat – which are clearly efforts to broaden the story, and make it about more than one family’s history, but they don’t really work, beyond producing an uncomfortable, embarrassed shifting of buttocks in the audience.

In the second act there’s a surprising, interesting, though not awful twist, which reveals that, without deceit, there’s been a powerful lie at the heart of the story.

But given we still know little about the people not on stage, the degree of hold this has on the audience is limited.

I left thinking I’d really like to know more about Barbara, who’s at the centre of the tale and clearly led an interesting, active, creative life, including working as a single woman in Occupied Germany just after the war. But otherwise, sorry, I really just didn’t care about this bit of family history, which might have come out of almost any attic in the land.

 Frankland & Sons continues until January 28 at the Camden People’s Theatre.

Theatre Review (London): La Soiree at the Roundhouse, Camden

First published on Blogcritics
by Natalie Bennett

Theatre doesn’t really do it as a word to describe La Soiree, now playing at the Roundhouse, Camden.

“Edgy late-night adult cabaret circus” is about the best description I can manage. Certainly it sits perfectly in the tent-like, circular Roundhouse and “clown” Mario (one of the clear stars of the show) manages a joking reference to the railway origins of the structure while playing a juggling, unicycle-riding “reincarnation” of Freddie Mercury. With a 10pm start and regular exhortations to stroll over to the bar whenever you feel like it, this is certainly relaxed entertainment.

There’s clearly circus elements – the Canadians Hugo Desmarais and Katharine Arnold, “aerial artists” who stage a sultry duet that doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination in the “cage” swaying above the audience – whilst clearly being highly athletic and very good at what they do, certainly fit that model.

So do the equally physically good veterans “The Skating Willars” – although the politics of their staging, and presentation, leave a bit of a nasty taste in the mouth – not my favourites.

And the German acrobatic duo Chris and Iris – just as good as anything you’re likely to see at the Olympics, and a lot more creative.

But there’s a lot of comedy here that’s rather more cabaret. One of the standout acts was Nate Cooper, a Charlie Chaplin tap-dancing on the edge of disaster on roller-skates while juggling machetes.

And drawing lots of laughs on the night I was there, while taking audience participation to possibly new heights, was Mooky Cornish – who as a Canadian completes the international flavour.

If there was a weakness it was in the compering – there was a lack of pizzazz and sense that the man in the trilby was really enjoying this show and trying to draw us into it. But perhaps it will get better as the show beds in.

Just a word of warning – if you don’t fancy being the subject of some of that serious audience participation (only a few will be selected, but they’ll never forget the experience), don’t sit in the chairs arrayed around the central stage.

And also be aware that a range of acts circulate through the show, so if you go you may not see all the acts mentioned here – not surprising really, since the more physical acts certainly must have a pretty high injury/exhaustion rate!

La Soiree is at the Roundhouse until January 29, and is also starting at the Sydney Opera House on January 6. (One can only assume a very good stage magician is involved in that transition…)

Theatre Review: Rock of Ages at the Shaftesbury Theatre

First published on Blogcritics.
by Natalie Bennett

When the PR sent a classic email suggesting they loved my blog, and thought it was a perfect place for a review of the musical Rock of Ages, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve had similar emails before – they obviously teach them at “PR school”, and often have no relationship at all to your normal subject matter. But in this case I (and others) do review plays, just usually historic plays, modern avant-garde plays and children’s plays. Rock musicals aren’t usually in the mix – reflecting the fact perhaps that the team doesn’t exactly fit the normal demographic profile of “big musical” audiences.

But in a moment of frivolity I thought “why not have a change”? Which was how I came to find myself sitting in the Shaftesbury Theatre, its dressing as Sunset Boulevard 1987 looking incongruous against the 1911 plaster swirls.

Had I looked it up first I probably wouldn’t have gone. The reviews were mostly terrible – the Guardian hated it, giving the dreaded one star, as did the Telegraph, as did the Evening Standard, only the Independent was cautiously positive.

It’s perhaps telling, however, though that the readers’ views in the Standard in terms of star ratings are more than double that of the reviewer’s. And I have to say, rather to my surprise, that this was simply a fun evening. There’s nothing that could be called meaningful or significant, and the music is no one’s idea of brilliance, but in a pretty well packed theatre, amid some 1,000 audience members, I had a good time. And some of them clearly had a glorious time, leaving glowing with pleasure.
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Theatre Review: Tomboy Blues – The Theory of Disappointment at the Ovalhouse

by Natalie Bennett
(First published on Blogcritics)

You don’t have to have ever been a tomboy to have “a-ha” moments in Tomboy Blues – The Theory of Disappointment, which opened tonight at the Ovalhouse in south London. Although your laughter will probably be a bit more rueful if you were. All you need – male or female – is to have felt frustrated about being thrust into a narrow gender box, and told you have no alternative but to stay there.

Rachel Mars and nat tarrab have devised a show that’s hard to categorise – it moves from a glassblowing warehouse to a childhood back garden, from sketch to dance, symbolism to realism, humour to cod science. There’s a distinct Edinburgh feel to this production (unsurprisingly since that’s its origins) but it sits very comfortably in a more conventional theatre space.

It’s always highly personal – the programme declares that it was born when nat was “asked for the 94th time if she was in the right toilet, and Rachel re-found the Spiderman trainers of her youth” – but never indulgent.

This is a frequently lyrical show — “feel the fingertips of tears edging over your eyelids” — and it has an acute, aware physicality. But it’s also very funny – the “muscle-man” routine done with lacy thongs instead of rubber resistance bands will stick in my mind for some time.

But it’s also thoughtful – I ended the evening, provoked by the show, in a debate over whether socialisation into “femaleness” was worse than “malenessness” – my argument was that it is because accepting “femaleness” means accepting loss of power and control, the inferior place in the room.

So yes, I did identify with “the heaven of tearing taffeta” of the tomboy climbing trees in “girl’s clothes”, with the search for the “428 lost tomboys” who disappeared with adolescence, and the demand for a hysterectomy at the arrival of the first period. But you won’t have to to enjoy this show – the ownership of a preparedness to take an open-eyed look at the way our society is still rigidly divided along gender lines will do.

The production continues at the Ovalhouse until November 19. Booking online. This is part of the Lady-Led season, four productions by women, focusing on gender issues.

Film Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lynne Ramsay

by Sarah Cope

Much has been written recently about the resurgence in British films, though less has been said about the number of women directors who currently have a film showing in our cinemas. Staggeringly, women account for just 6% of film directors, so the current success of Tomboy (director Celine Sciamma), Sleeping Beauty (director Julia Leigh) and now We Need to Talk About Kevin (director Lynne Ramsay) must surely be something worth celebrating.

Lynne Ramsay hasn’t had a film out since 2002, which is a lengthy absence for any director. Her last film was the superb Morvern Callar, filmed in Scotland and staring Samantha Mortern as the taciturn titular protagonist. Having watched the film repeatedly since then on VHS – that shows how long ago it was released – I was excited to see what Lynne Ramsay would do next. Like Morvern Callar, which was adapted from the novel by Alan Warner, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a novel–to-screen transition, and it was difficult to see how such a multi-layered, controversial book could be easily adapted without either losing its power or become a stock “schlock” horror.

Detailing as it does a mother’s life in the aftermath of her son committing a terrible crime, the film is probably most rewarding for viewers who have already read the book. Indeed, I would say that, partly due to the non-linear way in which some of the action is filmed, reading the book before seeing the film is almost a pre-requisite.
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