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Peace In Our Time, The Union Theatre - ★★★★ - Until April 4, 2020

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This is a Noël Coward you are probably not familiar with. After WW II, he wrote this more serious play based on the premise that the Nazis had won the Battle of Britain and had occupied the country. There are flashes of Coward's usual humour but the overall tone is quite serious. There is an almost Orwellian tone to the work as we see the new regime bombard Londoners with propaganda about how they have been liberated and the country is now back in business again. Coward, who was a committed patriot, based the play on his experience of occupied France. We are shown how a variety of people respond to what in France's case we now term the German occupation, but which at the time could easily have been a new, permanent reality. The present production beautifully creates the eerie quality of this life with its half-lit set and candles that suggest the fragile light of hope in this place. Situated in a pub near Sloane Square, the regulars run the gamut in terms of how they deal wit…

On Blueberry Hill, Trafalgar Studios - ★★★★★ - Until May 2, 2020

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"Though we're apart, you're part of me still" goes the song. Separation cannot break some bonds. Parent and child are indivisibly linked in Sebastian Barry's play, but can one reconcile with someone who has tried to break that bond? Two men in physical and mental prisons look at where life and death have brought them. Social impositions of self-loathing and vengeance are challenged by the recognition of a common humanity but can they find it? It is hard not to see this very thoughtful, and often humorous, piece as a metaphor for the challenges that Ireland has faced in its recent cruel and divisive history; however, it always remains a fascinating insight into two flawed, yet surprisingly sympathetic, characters. The story may be dark but its eloquent script makes it riveting. Sebastian Barry's mastery of the language is positively Shakespearean. The two prisoners' rich and comic recounting of their lives keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as t…

Titian: Love Desire Death, The National Gallery - ★★★★★ - Until June 14, 2020

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Know as the poesie, Titian's epic series of paintings has not been together since the sixteenth century. This ground-breaking exhibition brings them together and adds a seventh, The Death of Actaeon, which was conceived as part of the series but executed later and never delivered to Titian's patron, King Philip II of Spain. The works all treat stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses but the emphasis is on the female nude in a series of beguiling poses. They are testaments to Titian's skills as a painter and as a storyteller. Behind their obvious erotic component, however, there is often a darker point. The Renaissance was a period that celebrated rationality but Titian's works here focus on the irrational nature of desire and the often cruel and capricious reality the humans are faced with. Zeus, the king of the gods, follows his desires where they lead him regardless of consequences, whether that is the rape of Europa or the assault on Danaë. They have no say in their f…

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, Victoria & Albert Museum - ★★★★ - Until June 21, 2020

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For many the word "kimono" may long have been simply a synonym for housecoat or dressing gown. This fascinating exhibition first looks at the history and importance of this most versatile of garments in its Japanese home and then considers its impact after being introduced into Europe. Some stunningly beautiful examples of traditional kimonos from Japan's Edo period through the Meiji restoration are on display. These are sumptuous garments that reflect the growing fashion interest of a rising merchant class and offer lovely examples from both the geisha and kabuki theatre cultures. Indeed, the history of Japan is woven into the story of  the materials and techniques employed to create these wearable works of art. The post-war period saw the kimono's use relegated to cultural and ceremonial occasions, but there are some delightful examples of its resurgence in Japan's contemporary youth culture.  Since its introduction in the west, there have been a variety of use…

The Time Machine, The London Library - ★★★★ - Until April 5, 2020

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Science fiction is notoriously difficult to present theatrically; this immersive version of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine succeeds where many have failed. In groups of twenty, we were whizzed through the glorious galleries and bookshelves of the London Library. It is difficult to describe unless you can imagine travelling through 'The Crystal Maze' in the company of Doctor Who on steroids! This new dramatic version, written by Jonathan Holloway in November 2019, is loosely based on the novel's premise. The Traveller gives a lecture to his weekly dinner guests suggesting that time is simply a fourth dimension and he then demonstrates his invention. It was rather bewildering at the beginning because the narrative has been updated and jiggled about, but as we went with the flow, the anachronisms, ambience and theatricality of it all became enjoyable and, unexpectedly, spookily realistic. The idea that when we visit the future sections of the population have been infected …

Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things, National Portrait Gallery - ★★★★ - Until June 7, 2020

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In many ways Cecil Beaton and his images created the world of the 'Bright Young Things' that existed between the two world wars. His pictures of young artists, socialites and aristocrats were about reflecting his own social aspirations and aesthetic values. Beaton wanted to escape what he considered his dull middle-class background and to enter his imagined playground of high society and celebrity. The people in these pictures are frequently posed in costumes and are invariably striking an attitude. The subjects' demeanour is frequently an aloof detachment and the settings are consciously theatrical. These photographs are about surfaces, and while there is a striking lack of vitality in the sitters and in their 'fun,' the work is not a conscious commentary on the vapidity of it all. In his diary, Beaton wrote "I don't want people to know me as I really am, but as I'm pretending to be." These pictures bear the same relationship to their reality as…

Andy Warhol, Tate Modern - ★★★★★ - Until September 6, 2020

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Andy Warhol's fame has certainly extended long past the proverbial fifteen minutes. He probably is one of the most recognised artists on the planet, but there is more to his work than the Campbell soup cans and pictures of Marilyn Monroe. This show focuses on three main aspects of Warhol's identity and sources for his work. His parents' immigrant experience, his own sense of being a sexual outsider and the influence of religion and death are all explored. The exhibition largely develops these themes in a chronological overview of Warhol's life, highlighting the Pop Art period, moving through the Factory, then his 'retirement' from painting, the shooting, his return to work and finally his concern with mortality. We are given a look behind the persona that Warhol so carefully cultivated (wig and all) and see how his obsession with Americana and celebrity culture come from a place that is far more complex than simply satirical humour. His fixation with the Statue…

Not Quite Jerusalem, Finborough Theatre - ★★★★ - Until March 28, 2020

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What happens when some young British volunteers take up residence in a kibbutz outside of Jerusalem in 1979? This is a story which explores a clash of cultures and some complex personal growth stories. Perhaps even more, it uses these young people's experience in a society built on sharing and equality to reflect upon the class and social realities of Britain. Paul Kember's script almost feels like pages ripped from a diary chronicling the oddly assorted, idealistic and directionless people who showed up on kibbutzes and who then had to face the hard and practical realities of that life while coming to terms with their own issues. The first act seemed to take a long time to establish the characters, but a stronger second act took the narrative to more interesting places as we got a deeper look into the forces that had formed these young people and brought them to their present undertaking. Ryan Whittle did a fine job as Mike but the character of the moody, university dropout n…

Relatively Speaking, The Mill at Sonning - ★★★★★ - Until April 18, 2020

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The words "Alan Ayckbourn" usually summon up fun and this production is no exception. It is a delight in every way. As soon as we see Michael Holt's clever set with all those doors we are anticipating a good time. It's not long before the characters are popping in and out of them and the laughs begin rolling in. Thanks to director, Robin Herford's perfect pacing of this piece the audience is completely taken into Ayckbourn's world and never given a pause to question the delightful absurdity of it all. The wonderfully silly plot twists and hilarious cases of mistaken identity all work beautifully. The entire cast get it just right with performances that make their unbelievably credulous characters entirely credible. James Simmons as the philandering husband on the verge of exposure is suitably self-serving and lecherous, and Rachel Fielding as his wife strikes just the right tone of gullible and knowing. The other woman, Lianne Harvey's Ginny, radiates the…

Nuclear War, Buried, and Graceland - Old Red Lion Theatre - ★★★★★ - Until March 21, 2020

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“Oh death, where is thy sting?” could well be a subtitle for Alexander Knott's enthralling triptych comprising Buried, Graceland and Nuclear War. The first of these, Buried, is brilliantly performed by James Demaine as a man temporarily entombed in a collapsed building. His entire life flashes through his mind in a torrent of words and actions. His first drink, his first sexual experience, military service, boxing are all presented with tremendous physicality. In Graceland, Anthony Cozens plays an endearingly dysfunctional teacher who is pilloried by his class. By using the audience as his class, Cozens gains a terrific and often hilarious rapport. Kids can be both perceptive and cruel so when they discover that he is being cuckolded a different side of the teacher emerges. Using combustion as a metaphor for life we enjoyed this ingenious play and the performance enormously. Nuclear War comes as a shock when we meet two women, played by Zöe Grain and Freya Sharp, who portray two s…

Can I Help You? - Omnibus Theatre - ★★★★★ - Until March 21, 2020

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Jim Pope's transcendental production of Philip Osment's Can I Help You? deals with issues of suicide and mental health, digging deep into the hearts and minds of the actors and audience alike. Gabriel Vick as the suicidal policeman, Francis, gives probably the best individual performance we have seen from an actor in a long time. As he contemplates ending his life, a motherly woman appears carrying a bag and her cat in a box. Is she real or a figment of his imagination? Her grief over her stillborn son is devastating and the lullaby she sings certainly brings tears to our eyes. The wonderful Susan Aderin as Fifi matches Vick's bravura performance. Her instantaneous switches from a delusional Ghanaian woman to an East End mum are startlingly realistic. The play constantly flies between reality and fantasy helped enormously by the light and soundscapes produced by Ian Scott and Max Pappenheim. The audience experiences the waves crashing around Sue Mayes' evocative cliff-…

Spy Plays, Above The Stag Theatre - ★★★★ - Until March 29, 2020

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The two plays, London/Budapest and Kompromat, are set at very different times in European and gay history. The former is set in the Cold War, with a backstory in World War II, and deals with the death of man-about-town, and possible spy, Adam de Hegedus. The latter is about the murder of GCHQ employee, Gareth Williams, in 2010. Both works are drawn from real life cases and are short, dark, almost Orwellian looks into the world of espionage. These are taut little thrillers with well-drawn characters. Max Rinehart is suitably menacing as Reg/Zac and does a fine job of distinguishing two characters who might have blended into each other. Guy Warren-Thomas captures the spirit of erudite and urbane Adam and is equally believable as the näive, introverted Tom. While Adam is the stronger individual, believing he has some agency in his world, both he and Tom are vulnerable and marginalised figures because of their backgrounds and sexuality. They both appear to be prey to their apparently powe…

The Last Five Years, Southwark Playhouse - ★★★★★ - Until March 28, 2020

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The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown is a song cycle tracing the relationship of actress, Cathy (Molly Lynch) and writer, Jamie (Oli Higginson). The unusual aspect is that from his perspective we see the love affair develop in its chronological sequence while from hers we see it from when it has ended and we work back to its inception. The two characters separately meditate on the highs and lows of what has happened and only actual come together at the midpoint when they marry in anticipation of a life together. This unusual structure might be confusing and it does require some concentration to remember who is at which point at any given time, but the effort is well-rewarded. How we go into relationships and how we exit them are poignantly juxtaposed, and we see that what might seem like small challenges at the beginning become serious problems in the duration. The issues are the usual ones - different values, careers which are on different arcs and infidelity - but they are beau…

Langlands & Bell: Degrees of Truth, Sir John Soane's Museum - FREE - ★★★★ - Until May 31, 2020

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John Soane's house is the environment of an architect whose own work was to create interesting space that was inhabited by others. This exhibition of pieces by artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell sets up a dialogue with Soane's space and collection of artefacts that is thoroughly fascinating. Two of the over thirty works in the exhibition were created especially for it: Grand Tour and Globe Table. They both look at the interconnected world that we inhabit and monuments of today while contrasting them to Soane's world view and his valued architectural influences. Like all Langlands & Bell's work they focus on relationships, personal and spatial, thus echoing Soane's own preoccupations. For us, one of the most striking pieces was not created for the exhibition but was a fitting introduction to it. The House of Osama bin Laden (2003), an interactive computer animation/data projection, with its stark, simplified perspective provides a brilliant contrast to the del…

Aubrey Beardsley, Tate Britain - ★★★★★ - Until May 25, 2020

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Considering his influence on the world of art, it is hard to believe that Aubrey Beardsley's career lasted less than seven years before he died at age twenty-five. His sinuous line and sensuous subjects define the British fin de siècle. He was instantly recognised by his contemporaries as the premier artist of the British Decadent movement, and unlike many shooting stars his light has not been dimmed by time. This is an artist whose brilliant draughtsmanship creates a stunning sense of elegance which is cunningly and surprisingly complemented by a subversive humour and erotic playfulness. In this exhibition of just over two hundred and forty works, the focus is on Beardsley's inspirations, from Edward Burne-Jones, through his Japanese period and on to his interest in rococo and then the French poster art of his time. Beardsley was able to assimilate all these influences and make them his own. His work is never imitative, although he himself comes often to be imitated. The incl…

Kunene And The King, Ambassadors Theatre - ★★★★★ - Until March 28, 2020

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Kunene And The King contemplates notions of death and legacies – whether of individuals or of regimes. In this play the dying actor, Jack Morris (Antony Sher), dreams of playing King Lear while he is being cared for by nurse, Lunga Kunene (John Kani). Their relationship confronts us with the complex, ongoing influences that art, politics and our own choices have both on our lives and on history. We are shaped by where we come from, and in turn, we shape what will be the future. Whether we are Shakespeare, Nelson Mandela or a black nurse dealing with an irascible old white man, we are products of our influences and cultures, and we are also responsible for the parts we play in the continuum of time. While this work thoughtfully deals with some rather weighty subjects, its refreshing humour, plus the charm of its two principle characters, ensure that it is always entertaining. John Kani's script is insightful and delightful. This is a production which is also a masterclass in acting…

Message In A Bottle, Sadler's Wells at The Peacock Theatre - ★★★★★ - Until March 21, 2020

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Message In A Bottle uses the music of Sting to tell the story of a family displaced from their country by war. Forced to become refugees they face the perils of a sea journey and incarceration before they can take up a new life. The narrative which follows the lives of the parents and their three children is both poignant and riveting. All of this is set to some wonderfully familiar and emotive music. Over twenty of Sting's songs are incorporated into the story. Sometimes this works beautifully and sometimes it feels a little forced, but the extraordinary dancing leaves no time to dwell on this detail. Kate Prince's choreography brings the absolute best out of her dancers with some wonderfully innovative movement that seamlessly flows through a variety of dance forms. Ben Stones' set, Andrzej Goulding's video design and Natasha Chivers' lighting create a wonderfully evocative atmosphere without ever overwhelming the dancing. Lukas McFarlane as Leto, Tommy Franzen a…

Steve McQueen, Tate Modern - ★★★★ - Until May 11, 2020

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Steve McQueen is probably best known for 12 Years a Slave (2013) and his other feature films. In this exhibition fourteen works expose McQueen, the artist, exploring his experimental use of the camera and powerful social messaging. Most of the pieces are from the period after 1999 when he won the Turner prize. There are works which take us out of ourselves like Once Upon A Time (2002) presenting the images that NASA has sent into space as representing earth's civilisation or Static (2009) which invites us to contemplate American reality after the 9/11 attacks. There are also intimate works like Cold Breath (1999) which explores the sense of touch and Charlotte (2004) which contemplates our vision and how it adjusts to environmental stimuli. These are pieces that situate us uneasily in the macrocosm or focus us uncomfortably on the microcosm. Both ends of this spectrum seek to challenge us with the perspective they are bringing to the human condition. Between these two poles are …

David Hockney: Drawing from Life, National Portrait Gallery - ★★★★ - Until June 28, 2020

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This major exhibition of David Hockney's drawings invites us to share the artist's fascination with the passage of time while contemplating his personal and artistic development. Along with seeing Hockney age and grow through a variety of self-portraits, we enter his world and share the changing realities of those who have inspired him over the years: his friend Celia Birtwell; his mother, Laura Hockney; his curator and business manager, Gregory Evans, and master printer, Maurice Payne. These four individuals who formed the pillars of Hockney's emotional and artistic world are on display as evolving characters and the relationships are fascinatingly traced through Hockney's explorations of various techniques and approaches. For us, it was the series of portraits of Birtwell that were a particular highlight. Hockney's presentations of her beautifully expose her developing character and their ever deepening and more comfortable intimacy. It is a quite stunning revela…

The Prince of Egypt, Dominion Theatre - ★★★★★ - Until October 31, 2020

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The Prince of Egypt is not simply the animated movie translated to the stage. The score has been completely reworked and new songs have been added. This production takes elements of the original and reimagines the Biblical tale with an emphasis on the human side of the characters. The relationship of Moses and Ramses is at the core of the piece and the rivalry and affection of the brothers is brought to the fore. The issues of duty and destiny are explored within the context of a relationship between two siblings who deeply care for each other but must live up to a calling that is thrust upon them. Luke Brady is a strong and charismatic Moses while Liam Tamne creates a vulnerable and sympathetic Ramses. Alexia Khadime as Miriam and Christine Allado as Tzipporah deliver a show-stopping moment with their rendition of "When You Believe" which along with Gary Wilmot's (Jethro) "Through Heaven's Eyes" were highlights for us. Tanisha Spring brought real depth to …

London Living Large

The City Life Magazine. Reviews and Ratings.