Tag Archives: London 2021

A Cold Night of Theatre

Patrick Brennan as Phil; Photo credit David_Monteith-Hodge

Pawn’s first visit to Arcola Theatre, Ashwin Street in Dalston, was back in 2008, for The Living Unknown Soldier. At the time I was impressed not just by the play, and the performances, which were brilliant, but also by the resourcefulness of the theatre and company. As I wrote then:

A side note, the theatre, Arcola, is a green space, and this show is the first presented, probably in the world, with a zero carbon footprint. The theatre is equipped with a biomass heating system, a fuel-cell power plant and mostly low power LED based theatrical fixtures. It all worked quite well, and I think this is the shape of things to come.

Since then Arcola moved to a new location, nearby, with two performance spaces, a large bar, and a greater impact within the community.

When the pandemic struck, it was illustrative that two of the London theatres quickest to respond were those with the deepest experience with festival settings, Arcola (Grimborn) and Pleasance (Edinburgh). Arcola have built an outdoor venue, in a formerly empty lot just down the street from their main building, erecting a tent with proper stage, lighting, improvised seating. Shipping containers converted into a bar, production suites (lights, sound, etc.), and backstage areas. Proper tech is supported, even including hearing loop technology.

Last night was my first visit to Arcola Outdoor, for Broken Lad, and I can report that for the most part it works and works well. But boy was it cold!

The show, by Robin Hooper, focuses on an aging, fading, comedian, Phil (Patrick Brennan), attempting a comeback in an Islington pub. His longtime fan and devoted enabler, Ned (Adrian McLoughlin), is on hand to buy him beers, talk him up (and, on occasion, down), and keep things moving. Son Josh (Dave Perry), who idolized his dad, despite having been largely abandoned as a boy, and his girlfriend (on and off again), Ria (the brilliant Yasmin Paige), round out the cast. Late in the show, they are joined by Phil’s ex, Josh’s mum, Liz (Carolyn Backhouse).

Yasmin Paige as Ria; Photo credit David Monteith-Hodge

This more than able cast deliver smooth performances despite the occasional bleating of sirens, squeal of tires, or encroachment of myriad other sounds one might expect of a Friday evening in Dalston. This is extraordinary, and likely lost on many in attendance. It’s easy to forget how hard it must be to keep moving, delivering dialogue, when such disturbances are ongoing. But this cast never missed a beat. Easily the smoothest and best acted production I’ve seen on this visit.

The action centres on Phil’s impending return to the stage to try to win back an audience, and a reason for being. He’s pretty much lost it all; his wife & marriage, his career, hist audience, his self respect. He’s got this one shot, fashioned out of the love and support mostly of his family, to try to win it back. Meanwhile he’s demolishing his relationship with his son, hiding incipient health issues, and fighting off his own irrelevance.

Photo Credit David Monteith-Hodge

Brennan turns in a top notch performance in the lead, as does Paige as the son’s girlfriend. Ria is the most interesting character to me, given her many layered involvements with various story lines and other characters. Paige plays the part with a mix of ambivalence and concern, always with agency. But her most fraught moments are bound up with a lack of agency, once upon a time, which carries great regret.

This was a very good night of theatre under the most difficult of circumstances, and a rousing success. But I was frozen by the time it was over! Not planning to spend a couple hours sitting outside on a cold night, I hadn’t packed warm enough clothing. What I wore was certainly the warmest I did pack, for which I’m glad, but it was a trial. This is not Arcola’s fault but solely mine. Arcola have outdone themselves, with a great venue. The bar was a welcome treat, the stage much better than one could have hoped for, and the production first class.

Free for the taking

Another day another visit to Bookarts Bookshop, just north of Old Street tube, in Hoxton. Upon completing my second successful raid in less than a week, I was strolling along the broad pedestrian plaza across from the station, when approached by people who looked like they were giving away free samples. I rebuffed the first such approach, but then something caught my eye, and I actually sought out the next person. They were handing out “Lateral Flow” COVID antigen tests. These are the DIY take at home and get results in 15 minutes tests to which the UK has pivoted in an effort to beat back the recent surge here.

Handing them out for free, on the street. I took one, or should I say seven, since there’s a week’s worth in this box. “Don’t you want a second? I’ve got more here in my sack.” No, I replied, not necessary; I’m already scheduled for a PCR test next Friday.

Free medical testing during a pandemic, who’d have thunk…

Should be illegal

Okay, so I’ve already told you about Pophams, the patisserie downstairs from my flat, where J and I meet for coffee before strolling the canals. Well, I haven’t revealed, until now, just how wicked evil they are. Here’s what I had yesterday; While J had a quotidian almond croissant, I had the “bacon & maple”:

Pophams’ Bacon & Maple pastry

Yes, feast your eyes. That’s croissant dough, spun in a spiral, with bacon slices baked into the roll, and a light drizzle of maple syrup. It’s served warm, as if fresh from the oven.

It. Is. To. Die. For. (or from, perhaps). One cannot imagine a more delightful pastry than this. Shouldn’t be legal I tell you. Shouldn’t.

So that’s how the day started. For the end, as a night cap after theatre, I saw that Saponara, a fine little pizzeria just a couple doors down from Pophams, was open for the first time since last Saturday. I swept in and ordered a Saponara special: Tomato, Mozzarella, Mild Italian Sausages, Scamorza Affumicata Cheese, Mushrooms. It was ready in five minutes, when I rushed it upstairs and wolfed half of it down. Yum!

Joe and Ken

The signs on the wall imply that the Old Red Lion pub (or Lyon, depending upon era) has been on this site in Islington since 1405, or something like that. It’s held up pretty well, as has the Old Red Lion Theatre, which occupies the small but serviceable theatre space on the upper level. Last night’s performance was of Joe and Ken, by John Dunne, which concerns the rise and fall of actor & playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell. This two handed play, in two acts, starts with our dissolute stars playing themselves in the pinnacle of self-referential theatre, from shortly after they met at RADA, in the 1950s, and then settled in an Islington flat for as long as Ken’s dad would pay the bill.

Joe Orton

It’s an odd duck, this show. The two characters are mostly talking to themselves, until they’re not; they start to talk to us. They perform scenes from their own lives, but constantly squabble over who must play what role, how each is to be presented, etc. Joe (Craig Myles) is the bon vivant of the two, outgoing and brash. A kidder. Ken (Tino Orsini) is quieter, withdrawn. Joe will go anywhere to chase a fuck, Ken will stay home and wait to hear about it later. Together they dissect library books to add irreverent collages, or tear out blank pages from the back on which they type up bogus blurbs, inserted into the front. This is a crime which ultimately lands them both in jail.

Ken Halliwell

By the time we get to Act II, the two are in Tangiers, bedding the same series of boys and young men, complaining about them, and the “thieving” maid. All the time are the rapid fire jokes, asides, snarky commentary, foreboding intimations.

Not much more can be said about the plot, without giving too much away. The performances are fairly good, with the occasional stumble over dialogue or dialect. The lighting is basic, given how small the space. This is very much actor’s theatre, but with a script so freighted with theatrical conceit that it’s an awful burden to carry.

A nice night at theatre, but nothing to write home about…

Art from Battersea to Serpentine

For the first time in two years, following the now typical pandemic interruption, Affordable Art Fair is back in Battersea Park. With a VIP invitation from the good folk at Degree Art, Pawn has returned to these climbs to check out the latest on offer.

What is on is much the same as what was on the last time I made this journey to Battersea, back in 2018. There is a lot of metal — as a surface, applique, accent — and lots of bright colours. Lots of cheeky self-referential humour, lots of glamorous characters, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, joined by Amy Winehouse, for example, or the near ubiquitous David Bowie.

Pawn’s favourite Sophie Derrick is well represented in Degree’s own booth, including the large, truly impressive, and already sold, Freed Feint, made in cut-out:

Freed Feint – Sophie Derrick, 2021

Pawn is proud to have several of Sophie’s pieces in his collection, but frankly cannot afford her any longer. 🙁

Outside of Degree’s offerings, very little truly inspires on this visit, but there is this one piece, found in a far precinct of the fair, The Lemonade Stand, by “Mr Everybody”

The Lemonade Stand – Mr Everybody

AFF have thoughtfully provided a shuttle bus for the fair, running from Sloane Square to the fair tent. I take this back to Sloane, and stalk up from there to Hyde Park and the Serpentine Galleries. The North Gallery hosts James Barnor: Accra/London, a retrospective. Barnor is a Ghana-born photographer whose six decade career included long stints in London, as well as his native Accra. Both are treated in this expansive show.

COVID protocols are in force throughout the Serpentine’s galleries, and here good use is made of the natural circular traffic flows of the space. Fashion as well as editorial pieces fill the space. Here’s a couple of faves:

A decidedly more outre exhibit awaits at the South Gallery, in Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch Of The Mind. Télémaque works in whatever media suits him, or so it seems. Sculpture, assemblage, painting, you name it. Some of it is quite in-your-face, and never restrained. Here’s a couple of snaps:

Canal, hidden river, new river

Normally, Pawn would arrive London midday, done some grocery shopping, topped up his Oyster card, maybe seen a show, and to bed by 10. This trip, however, is different. Arrived at 10, napped, shopped, went on a visit, attended an opening, and, despite being knackered, ended up awake until late. Nothing’s normal.

Arrival was Saturday, and now it’s Tuesday. After a morning spent at the keyboard it’s a delight to receive a text from J. Meet for coffee? Of course! Pophams is a small patiserie just downstairs from the flat, and after much discussion, we meet there about 2pm. They have the best at Pophams. I order the warm falafal with golden raisins and tomato relish, J goes for the fig & walnut croissant. Both are perfect.

Following our snack, J leads the way down from Pophams to the Regent’s Canal, which traverses the city, and passes just south of here. Pawn has spent many hours walking the canal, which offers a Central Park like isolation from the surrounding city. But to go with someone else, especially someone who treks it often, is a very different experience. Not far from where we enter, past Canalside, under the Packington bridge, we start westward. Wenlock Basin to the left, we approach a locks. A man and boy are tightening the lock doors on the high side, to staunch the rush of water through into the pool. Upstream another man and boy in a small launch are puttering around. Lessons, both.

We continue westward, the conversation totally disconnected from the surroundings, both of us absorbed nearly equally in the chat and the views.

Roughly 100 metres from the lock, the canal narrows, and then, 200 metres further, goes through the Islington tunnel and continues underground for nearly a kilometre across the top of London. We don’t follow the hidden canal, instead opting for a hidden river, Colebrooke. Along that path we encounter this odd old tree fighting with a stone long ago left leaning against it. The complex root system straining against the asphalt pavings:

Note the roots pressing up against the paving highlighted by the moss overgrowth. Here’s a snap showing the rock laid across the base of the tree:

We leave the Colebrooke Row and head to the top of Islington via Astey’s Row, and finally to the New River path, actually not a river at all, but a Victorian-era attempt at providing more sources of water for the neighbourhood. The ducks sure seem to appreciate it.

At last we seem suddenly to find ourselves in front of J’s flat, having circled a large part of Islington in the process. She goes in to teach a class (via Zoom) and I return to mine.

No shows this evening, just a quiet night in, and some reading.


Grace Saif (left) and Millicent Wong (right, above) are Mary Wallace and “Athena,” respectively, a pair of high schoolers practicing fencing in preparation for Nationals. Following a bruising match won by Athena, she proposes to Mary Wallace that they commit to regular practice together. Thus begins this taut 80 minute romp through fencing and teenage girlhood.

The show was born in Brooklyn, but has been refined and adapted for presentation here in England, as part of an NT Women of Tomorrow Directors Award series. The action still set in New York, but the script by Gracie Gardner has seen work. Grace Gummer, directing, makes up the third Grace of this production.

Some have described this as a comedy, but I think that does a disservice. There are many light and funny moments in the show, but it mainly explores the inner lives of these two 17 year old women as they struggle against family expectations, peer pressure, social anxiety, and all the rest of the lot which befall young women today. Their fencing, and their growing reliance on each other, is the part of their world over which they exercise near total control. It is there that we find them, oddly enough, with their guard down.

Pawn is no fencing expert, but it sure looks like these folks have done their homework. The practice routines are tight and refined, the pre- and post-match stretches and exercises convincing. At the end of the piece is a match, and for 20 minutes or so we are held rapt with some of the smoothest and most convincing fight choreography to be found in theatre. If nothing else this show gets the Best Fencing Match On Stage award for 2021.

But it deserves more, too. The stage, designed by Ingrid Hu, is clean and spartan, beautifully complimented by Marty Langthorne’s lights. The fine movement and fight work falls to Yami Lofvenberg & Claire Llewellyn, respectively. But it is ultimately the hard work and careful reading of Saif and Wong which carry the day here. Two thumbs up!

Fully Booked

You must see the Paula Rego at Tate Britain, I heard again and again. Okay, okay; I’ll go.

One problem, they’re fully booked through Sunday, when it closes.

With membership card in hand, off I go anyway down to Pimlico. Sure enough, upon entering I see this:

I told the nice guy at the membership counter that I had come all the way from America just to see it. Wink wink, nudge nudge. Okay, he let me in. Membership has its privileges!

The very first piece in the show just grabs me. I have seen my share of Paula Rego before this (more on that later) but I have certainly never seen this piece. Forgot to get the name of it, but here’s the image:

This is an expansive late-career retrospective, featuring more than 100 works spanning 60 years and 11 galleries. It’s the largest ever shown in the UK. I shan’t do it justice here with amateur snaps and critique. I liked the show, even as I bristled at some of the imagery, and simply didn’t get others. The piece above remains my favourite of the lot, but I have a soft spot for the Pillow Man triptych (centre panal here):

The full triptych was featured a few years ago in a show I saw on the influences — of and by — Francis Bacon. A pleasure to see it here, again.

Diving in with Glass

Whenever Pawn comes to London, theatre, dance, music and art are a big part of the undertaking. Life under COVID makes this a somewhat more fraught exercise, but vaxxed and masked, we jump right in. The first show of the visit is the Philip Glass opera, Satyagraha, presented here by English National Opera (ENO), and produced in cooperation with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. This production is a collaboration not just with the Met, but also with Improbable, a British company who are, in their own words, “Pioneering improvisers, theatre makers and conversation facilitators.”

Pawn and X first encountered Improbable’s fine work in 2012’s The Devil and Mr Punch, a collaboration with Julian Crouch and Basil Twist. That was a small performance in the Pit, the Barbican’s smallest venue. This event couldn’t be further from that; a humongous performance in London’s largest (>2300 seats) theatre, the Coliseum. While not a frequent attendee of opera, Pawn does appreciate the bombasity, sheer size, spectacle, and audacity of well done opera. Aside from some Pucini, back home in Milwaukee, the last big show I’d seen was Benvenuto Cellini, an ENO production conceived & directed by Terry Gilliam, at a performance in Amsterdam. Or William Kentrige’s take on Lulu, here in London.

So how was Satyagraha? Sung in sanskrit, sans surtitles, one was left only to imagine precise action. While there was a synopsis provided, in the form of a one page handout, it is somewhat non-traditional. But this didn’t really matter. The score is propulsive where the action demands it, and contemplative where it doesn’t. The staging, as one expects of these things, was truly spectacular. Improbable’s impact was most surely felt in the many instances of puppetry, as shown in the scene above, or here:

The story follows the full arc of Gandhi’s life and works, from his youthful engagement with Tolstoy (The Tolstoy Farm) all the way through to Martin Luther King, Jr., as shown in this scene from King (Act III):

It is that final act with King which yields perhaps the most moving tableau of the piece, and it is deeply emotional. It is in this emotion, however, where Glass’s score risks leaving us wanting. The swirling, repetitive, patterns which characterize Glass’s compositions risk becoming tedious over the span of three hours and ten minutes (including intervals). But it is in these final scenes, with King, that these same repetitions bring force to Gandhi’s imploring, almost chant-like final aria.

I came to this show primarily on the basis of Improbable’s involvement, and was not disappointed in any way. The show was beautiful and stunning. The performances strong, the staging expansive. This is no small feat.

Old Friends

Day one and already out and about. J is happy to see me, and welcomes me into her home & studio. We haven’t seen each other in almost exactly two years, she being one of my last visits from my autumn 2019 stay. We catch up in her kitchen, tour her busy & messy studio, and then, following an intractable hunt for keys, are off to dinner at the De Beauvoir Arms, J’s local. I have lamb chops over an absolutely perfect mojadra, with celery and spinach, while J opts for the mackerel escabeche. Both meals very good.

Not the mackerel escabeche

Two of Pawn’s favourite places in London are Hundred Years Gallery and Bookarts Bookshop. The former in Hoxton, the latter by Old Street, not very far apart. Leaving with J from the pub, Pawn goes south towards the Kingsland Road and Hoxton whilst J has errands to run.

Hundred Years Gallery was open, as hoped, and empty, aside from G, the proprietor. Their current show is Nouns for Gabriel by Mary Lemley. This is a delightful series of large format sketches of objects the artist Mary Lemley has made for her autistic son, a suite of hand-made flash cards to help teach him vocabulary.

In the prints bin I quickly find several I cannot do without, and out comes the charge card. That didn’t take long. A bit more of a visit with G, and I’m out the door and winding my way down towards Old Street and Bookarts.

Bookarts Bookshop is a true gem. I’ve written before of its incomparable selection and broad reach. It’s a very tiny storefront on the corner of Pitfield Street and Charles Square, just north of Old Street tube stop. T, the proprietress and shopkeep, is likewise a gem. I had barely started to peruse the window display she had prepared for that day’s opening & book release party commemorating Thieri Foulc and the Oupeinpo movement, when, seeing me through the window, T waved her arms and beckoned me come in. In the small shop, perhaps three metres sqaure, she had erected a small table covered with books she felt I might like. T & I have similar tastes when it comes to artists books, hers being broader and more studied, to be sure.

Quickly my hands alit on A Book for Spiders, by Tom Alexander. This is a beautifully hand bound, octagonal volume, with brown covers, roughly 7cm across, with a small white loop of thread piercing the top cover. Lifting this opens the book, which is a helix, called Missing Limbs, written in Vox Arachnae, for spiders to enjoy. A translation key is included within the craftily constructed outer wrap.

Mine is #2 of and edition of 10. T was beside herself when I grabbed this; the shop had received only two copies, and she had bought the other one herself. She was certain I’d want one. Other volumes making the cut were a Blow Up Press edition. I’ll be back for more shopping. This being an opening, there were soon several people in the small shop, and I had to step out to make way for them. In these COVD times, one doesn’t want to crowd into a small space with maskless folk, no matter how well read they may be.

And that concludes the evening. Back at the flat Pawn relaxed for the first two episodes of Ridley Road, the BBC four-part series on the Jewish opposition to English nationalism cum fascism of the early 1960s. My family left here in August 1963, while these events were still playing out. My father was a teenager in the East End (Tower Hamlets) during the events which came to be known as the Battle of Cable Street, years prior. One wonders how much the return of Fascists to London’s political life had an effect on my relocation to America. Had the fascists kept to themselves, may this entire trip not have been necessary?