Previews: highlights of what we’ve booked for the next half year, and why

We’ve just booked a number of tickets for the coming months.  Let us know if you are thinking of going to any of these – we would be delighted to see you for a drink in the bar at half time.

Kitchen Sink @ The Bush Theatre, Tuesday 29 November. Funny, tender play by Tom Wells, The Bush’s Associate playwright, who we’ve liked before, and with Ryan Sampson in it, who we’ve also liked before.

Reasons to Be Pretty @ The Almeida, Saturday matinee, 3 December. This is the play that has changed people’s minds about what Neil LaBute is capable of; this is not the nasty LaBute you might be familiar with, but a mature and empathetic LaBute, according to a lot of critics who are clearly walking out of this really very pleasantly surprised by the writing and also highly appreciative of the acting.  I’m really curious about this.

Audience @ Soho Theatre, Friday 9 December.  The theatre company behind this production – Ontroerend Goed – specialise in edgy, personally confronting interactive theatre, and we loved A Game of You at the BAC 1-2-1 festival last year.  But Audience upset a lot of people in Edinburgh. They’ve reworked it so we’ll see what they have done to soften but retain the edges.

Sunday Sermon by Susan Greenfield @ the School of Life, Sunday 11 December.  High-profile neuroscientist delivering the 11am secular “sermon”, complete with “hymns” (pop songs related to the theme that the whole “congretation” sings together), on storytelling and neuroscience.  I had coffee with her last year and can vouch for the fact that she will be entertaining and provocative.

Noises Off @ Old Vic, Thursday 22 December – the Michael Frayn 1982 classic.  Never sure about such ‘classics’ as humour can date so easily, but (a) it has won a lot of awards and we’ve never seen it, so at the very least it should be part of our theatrical education; (b) 1982 doesn’t feel that long ago. To me.

Tim Key @ Soho Theatre, Friday 23 December – Edinburgh comedy award winner in 2009, plus another successful run this last year. Plus the show is called Masterslut, which has got to at least pique one’s interest a little.

The Table @ Soho Theatre, Friday 20 January.  The people behind this production, Blind Summit, were also involved in staging Simon McBurney’s extraordinary A Dog’s Heart at Sadler’s Wells which we saw a couple of years ago.  It was a half puppet show-half ballet that was slightly unhinged but one of the most unusual and affecting things I’ve seen.  This looks like it’s on a more intimate scale but promises similar pleasures.

Secret Cinema @ Venue TBD, Saturday 21 January.  Interactive movie screening where you are invited to dress up in line with the setting of the film being shown, and wander around a facsimile of the film set like extras for a couple of hours before the screening starts.  The catch is that you don’t know what the film is until the opening credits roll.  The first run of tickets sold out, but we seized tickets for the extended run in January 10 minutes after they were released.  Buy quickly if you are keen.

Sunday Sermon by Alain de Botton @ the School of Life, Sunday 22 January.  Based on his new work, Religion for Atheists, so it will be right up our street. I went to hear him deliver a compelling speech on his last book in Brussels, and then shared a Eurostar journey with him where I learned that he is a lovely man who manages both to be conscious of his extraordinary talent and humble in his demeanour.  He set up the School of Life to bring philosophy into everyday life, so it’s nice to see him taking to the podium himself.  (See above for format – same as for Susan Greenfield.)

Lovesong @ the Lyric Hammersmith, Saturday matinee, 28 January. The company behind this, Frantic Assembly, were also responsible for the gritty, balletic marvel that was Beautiful Burnout.  And more than a passing nod to the concept behind the novel One Day. So, worth a look.

Travelling Light @ the National Theatre, Wednesday 8 February. Nicholas Hytner is directing, which is enough of a draw on its own to justify a booking. He runs the National, you know.

She Stoops to Conquer @ the National Theatre, Wednesday 15 February.  Features actor Harry Hadden-Paton who we loved in Flare Path.

The Story’ conference @ Conway Hall, Friday 17 February.  All day event on storytelling.  Tickets get released in tranches and sell out in minutes each time. Last chance tickets get released on 28 November (yes, that’s soon!).

Night Shift @ the Roundhouse, Friday 24 February.  Different setting this time, not on the South Bank but in an altogether more contemporary setting – an interesting place to hear classical music, an interesting way to hear it.  There’s a review on our last trip somewhere else on this blog.

Two Door Cinema Club + Metronomy @ the Brixton Academy, Saturday 25 February. Down with the kids.

In Basildon @ the Royal Court, Friday 9 March. Dominic Cooke directing, which like Nicholas Hytner makes it worth watching. If you have any reason to doubt this, I have two words for you: Clybourne Park.

Snookered @ the Bush Theatre, Saturday 10 March. We love the new Bush Theatre space – which is probably obvious given we did the overnight 66 Books there, and went to the ‘Where’s My Seat’ co-design event for the new building. So, we’re back there again, for this interesting piece on young Muslim men in Britain.

The Master and Margarita @ the Barbican, Saturday 17 March. Adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel. Another Simon McBurney/Complicite production, again involving the Blind Summit puppeteers. We loved their production of a Disappearing Number, being suckers for math(s) and science and such.  This promises less of that techie stuff, more about political oppression in the Soviet Union.  But we’re flexible.

Can We Talk About This? @ the National Theatre, Saturday 24 March. Excited to see this collaboration between NT and DV8, the physical theatre group. It’s toured internationally and now arrives in London, finally.  Like London Road, it uses snippets of real conversations and interviews to bring the subject to life, the subject being the practicalities of multiculturalism.

Einstein on the Beach @ the Barbican, Saturday 12 May.  The Philip Glass opera.  It takes 5 hours so it’s going to be a long day, but fascinating – the audience is usually free to come and go when they choose as there is no scheduled interval.  Less of a crush at the bar for G&Ts, then – how clever of them.

Love Love Love @ the Royal Court, Friday 18 May. This is by Mike Bartlett, who most recently had a bit of a triumph with 13, which the other C loved. It won a Best Play award earlier this year and the Royal Court has a habit of doing interesting things, so we are going.

Birthday @ the Royal Court, Friday 6 July. This is written by Joe Penhall.  I loved the original 2000 production of his earlier play, Blue/Orange – lucky me, it had Bill Nighy, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Egg from This Life… sorry I mean Andrew Lincoln.  The other C saw it in a later run, and liked it just as much, so this seemed like a fine night out.

Play Without Words @ Sadler’s Wells, Saturday 14 July. First out in 2002, but I missed this acclaimed Matthew Bourne dance piece the first time around.  It won Olivier Awards and I remember being a bit annoyed with myself for blanking it – or rather, seeing it in Time Out and doing nothing about it.  Revived for just 4 weeks, am delighted we’re getting to see it 10 years later.  Live jazz score, Swinging Sixties satirical social commentary. That will either appeal, or it won’t.


There are a few more treats to go in the diary – we’re chasing tickets at the Donmar for a couple of things, and we’ll likely book up some more dance/experiential/random activities as the winter unfolds.  But perhaps something on here already catches your eye.  Let us know if so, and – after the fact – if you liked it.  (And for those of you particularly keen on theatre, do subscribe to our sister site,, to get personalised recommendations and early information on new shows as they come out.)  Have fun out there!

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Review: One Man, Two Guvnors

Misleadingly serious National Theatre flyer

In some ways this is the least necessary review you’ll read on this blog, given that ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ has already proved itself a star of the 2011 scene.  It gathered a clutch of 5-star reviews for its extended run at the National Theatre, trotted off for a successful regional tour, and has punched its way into the mainstream with a recent opening at the West End’s Adelphi Theatre.  Now it might be that you don’t like farce, or you’re not English, and you think it’s therefore not quite your cup of tea (though that’s probably not how you’d put it, if both of the above were true).  But I don’t like farce, and I’m not all that English, so I just wanted to take a moment to encourage you to treat yourself and get some tickets if you possibly can.  Either here in London, or when it transfers to Broadway, which it will.

And now, this is what mainstream success looks like

I suspect you know this, but here’s the premise: there’s one man, and he has two guvnors. That is, two bosses.  Fired from his skiffle band, he evolves from being mostly indolent to being mildly busy and confused, a bit like most of us when we graduated from college.  The confusion comes from juggling two bosses who know nothing of each other’s existence, as well as a handful of other ‘mistaken identity’ devices. I know it’s borderline heresy to say it, but I find mistaken identity about the most irritating of all possible plot turns – it gets me mumbling grumpily about certain operas and Shakespeare plays – so why on earth was I gasping and giggling for most of the evening?

One Man, for it is he

The answer lies quite substantially in James Corden.  He picked up some rather petty critical sniping for some less successful TV experiments in recent years, but you have to remember that he was a star amongst several other stars-to-be in the National’s smash-hit History Boys.  There’s no way that the bitter-sweet sitcom ‘Gavin and Stacey’ would have hit the sublime notes it did without his sharp writing and nuanced performance as Smithy.  And you see the best of both of those career highs here: his hypnotic physical presence, his emotional grasp of the audience, his relaxed yet wickedly timed humour, his warm humanising of an otherwise unappealing character.  It’s an extraordinary performance.

A second charm arrives unexpectedly in the middle of the evening.  The play was written by Richard Bean based on The Servant of Two Masters, a piece by Carlo Goldoni from 1743. The Goldoni template was in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition – namely, it had a fairly simple plot, familiarly drawn characters, a smattering of physical comedy, as well as a good deal of improvised dialogue.  And this modern-yet-traditional interpretation honours all of those, including the improvisational feel.  Half way through the play – boom, the fourth wall drops, and Corden is riffing with the audience.  No point me saying anything more on this, for obvious reasons.

The Craze

Surprising delight number three: it’s a play with songs. The reason that James Corden’s loveable rogue (I apologise for the cliche, but that’s what he is) is on the fiddle in the first place is because of losing his footing on the bottom rungs of a musical career.  Cue engaging/surreal musical interludes that somehow mark the mood perfectly, delivered by a really very good skiffle band called The Craze.  One of the later songs is a highlight of the show, and it involves an instrument you will not have seen before.  (No, it’s not as lewd as that – shame on you. But I applaud your spirit.)

Oliver Chris as the posh, dim chap

And lastly, the wider cast is a draw in itself.  It’s easy to see this as a one-man show – ho ho – but somewhere between the inspired casting and Nicholas Hytner’s directing, the ensemble has become a beautifully integrated set of talents.  Oliver Chris in particular stands out as the posh, dim chap.  It’s hard for me to accept that I liked a play whose two main characters could be described as ‘loveable rogue’ and ‘posh, dim chap’, but there you are.  And lucky for us, this original cast has transferred intact to the Adelphi.
I did think it would be possibly too idiosyncratic a beast to stray too far beyond the UK, but my American sister-in-law and fiance are visiting us in London this week and they loved it, despite having seats so bad that they should have been paid by the Adephi to sit in them. I conclude that wild international success is assured.  If you can get tickets, prepare to laugh not entirely wisely – but almost certainly well.


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Old Fashioned at Conrad Hotel, Hong Kong

OK, you’re probably not going there anytime soon.  But it was such a surprisingly poor offering in such a fine hotel that I’m driven to mention it.  Let me first give you an example of their splendid customer service.  I’d been working in Hong Kong for several days and was melodramatically tired, slumped in a sofa next to a sleeping colleague.  Thinking very slowly indeed, I decided to put my iPad to charge in one of the hotel lobby’s floor sockets – I realise it’s obvious to you, dear reader, that this was a silly idea – and then walked clean away, all goldfish-memory-like.  As I returned hours later, a woman rushed at me enthusiastically from some distance, holding the iPad towards me in outstretched arms.  I had already checked out of the hotel, so she must have been looking out for me to reappear, and must have gone to some effort to try to work out whose it was. Nice, don’t you think?

Two floors up and two days earlier, the Old Fashioned wasn’t on the bar list.  Though given that it’s the kind of grand hotel that can serve up Don Draper on a plate if needed, I thought I’d nod in the direction of the lovely C still at home in London by ordering one (for he surely would have had he been with me).  However, I have to say that the drink was essentially unspecified whisky with some soda and a strip of orange peel.  Barely any sweetness, plenty of bitters.  Not even obviously bourbon.  I sipped a bit in the bar, to be sociable, then quietly bore it off to my room to see if the change of scene improved it any.  It didn’t – its main function for the night was to make my hotel bathroom smell like a bar spillage.

So, I conclude two things.
1. It’s not always cool to order drinks off the list, even if it impresses your drinking buddies.
2. Might as well drink local.  Ordering Old Fashioneds doesn’t beat homesickness.  *Sigh*


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Preview: Translunar Paradise, Barbican, 17-21 Jan 2012

Even by our standards, our trip to the Edinburgh festival was a little ridiculous.  We arrived on Friday afternoon, and by Sunday afternoon had seen 19 of the 22 shows we had booked.  (We would have seen 21 of them, but for unfortunate queue and bouncer malfunctions.)  And out of that lively mass of artistic effort, Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ‘Translunar Paradise’ still stood out enough to be the clear favourite for both Cs. Billed as a story about ‘life, death, and enduring love’, it was a truly unusual and moving piece of theatre done through the medium of mime, movement and music.  Within a few minutes I had forgotten that there were no words.  I have never seen so much personality and emotion conveyed through so little – a shrug, a glance, a mask, a push from the accordion. I don’t say this lightly: it was beautiful.

Perhaps you’re now shaking your head and saying “you crazy experimental kids, that’s not for me I’m afraid”.  But we’re not the only ones who thought it special.  It has won six awards in its travels around Europe and regional theatres. It sold out in Edinburgh, and this very new theatre company has managed to secure a 5-day run for the show at the Barbican early next year (17-21 January 2012). It’s about time that London caught up; do go if you can.

Booking opens on the Barbican website on 14 November:
In the meantime you can find out more about the show at:

‘An extraordinary performance. Translunar Paradise so moved me (and plenty of others in the oft-sniffling audience) because of its uniquely devastating method, prompting thoughts about bereavement, never cheapening its subject by attempting to describe the indescribable’.  Observer

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Review: ‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett

In some of the 1980s and some of the 90s, whenever anyone asked me what my favourite book was, I’d tell them it was Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  And we’d often then get into a conversation about how the first 100 pages were a bit slow, but how it was worth it.  Ann Patchett’s new(ish) novel reminded me of this, because when I first picked it up – full of anticipation after reading her earlier novel ‘Bel Canto’ years ago – I felt myself carried along rather more sedately than I’d expected, at the broad and stately pace of the river at the heart of the book. Patchett had woven Bel Canto around a hostage situation in an embassy, and explored the various unexpectedly complex dynamics between terrorists and hostages.  State of Wonder just isn’t as flashy as that.  It’s about the pharmaceutical industry at the sharp end of discovery, in the field.  Given that the field is the Amazon, the setting is interesting, but not sensational. But if you are thinking of reading State of Wonder, I want to tell you that it IS worth the gentle, even meandering start.

Side note: I rarely write book reviews as I personally hate anything that spoils the joy of discovering the unfolding narrative as freshly as possible.  In scanning the ‘Books’ pages, I’ll often do the visual equivalent of fingers-in-ears ‘la la la i can’t hear you’ by reading only the first couple of sentences and last couple of sentences of reviews and nervously skipping over the text in between.  Sometimes I hide the body of the review with my hands to make sure I don’t read it.  You’d be right to imagine this is a bit fraught/neurotic/bonkers as a technique, so I usually get my reading list from an accumulation of friends’ suggestions (and I had at least two for this book).

But in case it piques your interest to know anything more about the book, I will just say three things.  One, that the main characters are three of the least unlikely lead characters of any mainstream novel.  Two, that Patchett seems to have rounded them out into interesting, complicated people with remarkably little effort or filler. Not since I read a couple of Franzens last year has the spirit of a novel’s central character stayed with me like this, like a wine with good length. Three, I find myself believing that the story in this book is real. Rationally, I know it isn’t, but actually, I think it is. So the book’s not without flaws – I suspect the start could have been less meandering – but I can’t stop imagining and assuming that it’s somewhere carrying on without my participation as a reader, and I feel as if my world has been a little bit expanded by reading it.  Noel Tichy once said “the best way to get people to venture into unknown terrain is to make it desirable by taking them there in their imaginations.” Not sure I’ll be venturing to Manaus anytime soon, but I am wondering what the weather’s like there right now.

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Review: The 10 Cases, Endell Street, WC2

The kind of payment in kind I like

When I speak at conferences for the day job, I am often sent a post-hoc bouquet of flowers for my trouble. But sometimes the budgets are bigger, and the gifts more elaborate. Once I got handed a briefcase in an alarming colour. Another time, a stylish diamante keyring sadly too heavy for me to use.  It lives hopefully in its box; I take it out from time to time, weigh it in my hand, sigh, and lay it gently back in its reinforced steel cradle.  Not to sound ungrateful, but what I actually always hope for from conference organisers is wine. This puffed up expectation comes from being spoilt early on in my public speaking career, when  I was on a panel chaired by the BBC’s chief political correspondent, the very witty and wise Nick Robinson.  In the days that followed, I was already having the time of my life being able to say that last sentence to myself, and then a week later, and quite unexpectedly, a case of wine arrived for me. A CASE OF WINE. I thought to myself – this is not a bad hourly rate, not at all. Maybe I will do some more public speaking. Little did I realise that I had Britney-peaked too soon, and that years later this would remain the only case of wine I had ever been given.  But it does mean that a case of wine is ennobled in my mind as a very fine thing indeed.

Yes, a bicycle may be all you can drive after dinner here

So when a restaurant calls itself The 10 Cases, and the cases refer to cases of wine, my instinctive reaction is to think that this is ten times a fine thing. And however wonky (I prefer ‘non-linear’) that logic, The 10 Cases is, truly, a very fine thing. It’s styled as a ‘bistro à vin’, at the unpretentious end of the bistro light spectrum – simple chairs and tables, chalk boards, classic harlequin floor.  I read elsewhere that there are 32 covers but it’s hard to believe. The restaurant feels like your mate’s kitchen, before he did a refurb and it lost all its haphazard character. And that’s not just because of the small size of the space, but because of the warm, wide smiles of the staff. As in companies, so in restaurants – the happy culture of the place flows from sane and appreciative management, in this case from the owners Will Palmer and Ian Campbell. I was struck by their tolerance and friendliness as I lurched irritatingly around the busiest square foot of the restaurant (just outside the kitchen and by the till). I was also struck by their surprisingly lush Heseltine hair and the distinct impression that they were enjoying themselves.

Excited by the arrival of a new wine on the menu, customers abandon their tables and rush to the bar

Given the press buzz about the place, you may well already know that the ’10 cases’ in question refers to the fact that they buy only 10 cases each of 10 reds and 10 whites. Like that really great jacket you passed in the window of Zara last week, WIGIG – when it’s gone, it’s gone – and new wines will be brought onto the list. So there is a hand-written wine list and a constant sense of experimentation. Wine is between 4 quid and a tenner a glass, between about £20 and £40 a bottle.  The most expensive wine on the list on my visit was a 2008 Gevrey Chambertin for £36. If you’re thinking you’ve misread that, it’s because the mark-ups are much smaller than the 300% that is typical in London restaurants. I had a glass of Gigondas, the other C had a glass of South African Cabernet Franc – each a great example of their type. So this is ‘fast fashion’ Jaeger style, not Zara style.

Some critics have written sniffily about the food. I think they are missing the point.  The menu is simple, and an effective foil for the wine. Take my mustardy bit of rabbit. True, served without ceremony, on a small, simple white plate – but moist, piquant, delicious. A bowl of sautéed gobstopper potatoes on the side.  It’s what good French cooking is like when it’s done without fanfare or pomp. If you want a ceremonial dinner, this is not that. If you want a tasty bit of meat or fish or risotto cooked well, a bit of pear tart, some crunchy radishes to nibble on whilst passing the time and drinking delicious wine, this is that.

So, anyone want to buy a briefcase or a keyring for £36?

The 10 Cases is at 16 Endell Street, London WC2H 9BD, 020 7836 6801.

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Review: The Pitmen Painters, Duchess Theatre, 25 October 2011

You know that moment in a gallery where you stare at a splashy daub on a canvas and you think to yourself the more generous version of ‘I could do that’?  That is: ‘maybe I could have a go at painting?’  Well, the Pitmen Painters speaks to that part of us that fancies having a go, and wonders whether we might even produce something acceptable (with a bit of effort and some good lighting).  And it would be easy to imagine the play as an extension of this kind of fantasy, but of course it’s based on the true artistic exploits of a group of miners just before the Second World War.

Writer Lee Hall gives a great sense of the warm claustrophobia of the miners’ world, an orbit tightly centred on the small northern English mining town of Ashington in 1934.  It’s a challenge, honestly, to put ourselves in their shoes: on all but one day of the week, these men were in the dark and danger of the colliery, putting in 10 hours of extraordinarily hard physical labour.  They had left school at 11, and their opportunity for self-improvement was limited in a way that we now associate with developing countries.  Their utter lack of access to books was coupled with a stymieing attitude – that for the working class, ‘culture’ was denied.  It was Other.  And Other meant anyone rich, anyone from the south.  In fact, anyone from anywhere else – including Newcastle, the nearest city.

Yes, it's a whippet. But is it art?

And somehow, despite this, and the physical exhaustion they must have felt, a small group of miners had an appetite to push their minds as hard as their bodies.  Having completed a course in evolutionary biology at the local Workers’ Education Authority, they somehow had the vision to take an even bolder step – to organise an evening class in ‘art appreciation’.  When the teacher arrives, they half-bark and half-plead: “we want to see what you see when you look at a painting.”  The teacher’s normal theoretical approach is worthless – it assumes too much implicit knowledge that these men simply have had no chance to assimilate.  But the teacher has the spark of insight to get them painting for themselves, and to get them to learn by doing. And so unfolds the story of the Ashington group.  They became famous for their paintings of the working-class life they saw around themselves, and continued to work at the mine whilst being collected and exhibited.

This country needs... more highly artistic miners

The play has travelled from Newcastle to the National Theatre and Broadway before this run, and you can see why.  It’s a wonderful, compelling story.  It embraces serious politics, tender human interest and chuckly humour.  And after the first half, I was gaspingly enthusiastic.  The unfolding discourse on the meaning of art included some sublimely thought-provoking lines, yet the actors managed to deliver them lightly.  As the audience giggled at the men arguing over a ‘blob’ painting, there was spreading awareness of real depth in the exchange – when is a blob just a blob, and when is it art?  Through all of this carefully written dialogue, there was a strong if simply drawn sense of the characters.  One was overacted – the pompous union official’s lines could have been spoken soberly and tightly to far greater effect. But other moments of drama were well handled, such as the climactic visit to the Royal Academy and Tate.  The men beautifully convey their amazed reactions to the experience, taking turns to speak fragmented lines of building intensity.

If I had left at the interval, I would have given this 4 or 4.5 stars with a happy smile – like most of the professional reviewers, in fact.  Sadly the second half, for me, felt overblown.  The seeds of overacting and simplistic characterisation started to sprout.  There was one powerful monologue, but a lot of unnuanced shouting for no apparent reason.  It felt more and more as if people desperately wanted to make a point, and that the best way to get that across was to speak with more volume and urgency.  And it might well be that this is what was going on.  In the curtain call, the actors seemed unusually euphoric and the most prominent of the miners held up a fist and mouthed ‘Keep the Faith’ at the audience.  The left-leaning voter in me was charmed by this, but I’m not sure it was good for the acting.  So by the end, I was down to 3.5 stars.

On balance I would say you should go, to enjoy the story and to think about art and poisonous class divides.  And either let yourself be carried along without too much judgment in the second half, or consider leaving at the interval to go and do something artistic.  Like putting up that picture you’ve been meaning to hang for a while.

Check out a summary of all reviews of The Pitmen Painters at:

To find out more about the Ashington Group’s 86 paintings, visit the website at  Most of the pictures can be seen in a specially designed gallery at Woodhorn Colliery Museum, Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington, Northumberland NE63 9YF.

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