Author Archives: donbrown

Richmond’s Blue Plaques

After last month’s stroll past some of the more prominent plaques in Putney, another piece, this time on the residents of Richmond upon Thames. This should appear in April’s The Richmond Magazine.

richmond-2Given its size and history, the town of Richmond has surprisingly few ‘official’ English Heritage blue plaques, those roundels that commemorate where a famous person once lived or worked. And there isn’t a body – such as the Wandsworth or Putney societies – that puts up is own memorials, so the town seems a little bashful about its historic residents.

But perhaps what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. In Paradise Road, for example, a plaque shows where Leonard and Virginia Woolf founded the Hogarth Press. Mainly associated with Bloomsbury, the Woolfs lived in Richmond between 1917 and 1924 and while there Virginia published various stories and her novel ‘Jacob’s Room’. Not too far away on Richmond Hill a plaque marks where the actor Celia Johnson – star of Brief Encounter among many other 1940s and 50s films – was born. Continue reading

Scientists’ Corner, Westminster Abbey

isaac newton westminster abbeyYou’ve almost certainly heard of Poets’ Corner, the spot within Westminster Abbey given over to the commemoration of the nations’ authors, poets and playwrights. Amongst dozens of others you’ll find Chaucer’s tomb, plaques to Edward Lear, Wordsworth, D H Lawrence and the Bronte sisters, the graves of Dickens and Browning, a statue of Shakespeare and the bust of Longfellow, windows to the memory of Marlowe, Oscar Wilde and Mrs Gaskell.

But it’s not the only such grouping within the Abbey. There’s ‘musicians’ aisle’, the ‘statesmen’s aisle’ and, in front of the choir screen that divides the nave, ‘scientists’ corner’.

This is the group of graves and memorials centred on the grave and commemorative statue to Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the eminent scientist of the period. Responsible for advances in mathematics, optics, physics, astronomy; deviser of calculus, laws of motion and gravitational theory, he is one of the towering figures of science. “Hic depositum est, quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newtoni” says the epitaph on the grey marble slab that covers him: “here lies what was mortal of Isaac Newton”. The English translation is repeated on the nearby memorial stone to Stephen Hawking, a successor to Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Hawking’s ashes were interred in the Abbey in 2018. Continue reading

The King of Corsica

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St Anne’s churchyard is a small patch of open ground at the Shaftesbury Avenue end of Wardour Street, Soho.

Once the hang out of druggies and al-fresco drinkers, it’s now a pleasant enough quiet spot in a crowded part of the city, and even on the grey, chilly March day I wandered in there, there were plenty of people sat eating their lunches.

The essayist William Hazlitt is buried in the churchyard (he died in Frith Street – his old home now a very expensive hotel) as is Theodore I of Corsica, who has an epitaph on a plaque on the tower wall, written by Horace Walpole: Continue reading

Farm Street Church

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The Victorians loved the medieval. The ‘gothic revival’ actually started earlier – in the late 1700s/early 1800s as a reaction to classicism – but it was mid-century that saw it flourish.

For many, this architectural style is far too ‘fussy’ – there is just too much detail, colour, decoration, too much of everything. But despite the best efforts of many architects, planners and developers in the mid-20th century, much of the Victorian Gothic survives. Think of the work of George Gilbert Scott – the Midland Hotel at St Pancras; St Mary Abbot’s, Kensington; the Albert Memorial – or Street’s Royal Courts of Justice, or the elaborate detailing outside and inside the House of Parliament. Continue reading

London’s Green Parakeets

parakeet-1Perhaps 15 years ago, I was sat by the river in East Molesey, just past Hampton Court. Across the water the trees on the opposite bank were full of bright green parrots, the first time I had seen these now ubiquitous London birds.

Two or three years later they started appearing in Richmond Park; less than ten years ago the first colonists put in an appearance on Tooting and Clapham Commons. They now cover the city, west to east, south to north, their characteristic squawk being heard in all of London’s green spaces, as literal flocks of them cross the skies. It’s estimated that there are now anything up to 30,000 of them, with the population growing rapidly. Continue reading

Review – Matthew Bourne’s ‘The Red Shoes’

This review appeared on the Essential Surrey website in February 2020.

I’m in serious danger of becoming a fanboy for Matthew Bourne’s ‘New Adventures’ company. Their ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was a beautifully realised, beautifully danced reimagining of the classic ballet, and their ‘Swan Lake’, with its all-male ensemble of swans, is rightly famous. The company now gives us their take on Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film ‘The Red Shoes’, which is considered one of the greatest-ever British movies.

Young ballerina Victoria Page joins Boris Lermontov’s company at the same time as aspiring composer Julian Craster. They both succeed and she becomes principal ballerina in Craster’s ballet ‘The Red Shoes’, their artistic triumph mirrored by their falling in love. Continue reading

The Matchbox

This review from Essentially Surrey is from September 2019 and the production at Clapham Omnibus.

Angela Marray gives a bravura performance in Frank McGuiness’s emotionally charged study of pain and loss. Don Brown sees The Match Box at Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre.

Sal is living on a small island off the coast of Kerry. She is physically isolated – she’s left her English home and friends to live in the place from where her Irish parents emigrated. She endures (or has constructed) emotional isolation, removed from the lives of her cousins, aunts and uncles.

Over the 100 minutes of the play, we unpick the layers of Sal’s secret, as the story turns through loss, grief, absence and revenge to a catharsis of sorts, as Sal acknowledges her deep emotional pain caused by the shocking death of her 12-year-old daughter.

Compulsively lighting matches, Sal reflects on how we don’t know how long each match will burn. Each has “its own time to flare… its own span of life”, and in the first half of the play, this seems an obvious metaphor for the life of her child. But as Sal’s story progresses this burning hints at something altogether less metaphorical: “ I’m the smell of sulphur or brimstone…come near me and I will burn you.”

Frank McGuiness’s play is a gruelling study of how we deal with extreme grief and loss, of a woman who has “a hole where my heart was”. It’s a one-woman show, with Sal (Angela Marray) talking directly to the audience throughout, occasionally inhabiting other characters in Sal’s life – her mother, father, friends and acquaintances.

Marray captures the emotions of Sal wonderfully, with an expressive face and physicality, taking us further into Sal’s suffering. Occasionally the words that are spoken don’t seem to belong to Sal, but I think this is an issue with the play itself – at times it seems more like a short story to be read rather than a play to be performed.

Blood Wedding

This review is from Essentially Surrey in September 2018 and is about the Clapham Omnibus production.

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Lorca’s 1932 tragedy has been reimagined in an exceptional new production at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham. The original’s themes of fated love, vendetta and passion have been overlaid with the concerns of contemporary London – the experience of immigrant communities, of maintaining one’s cultural identity in a foreign city, and the ways in which wealth and poverty exist side by side in the 21st century capital.

This staging also brings in elements of physical theatre and music, particularly at the start of the second half, when the conventional characters are replaced by sundry ‘Greek choruses’ of street sweepers, a bag lady and the moon – the ever-present but unnoticed of the city, who see all.

The tragedy is prefigured from the opening dialogue between the Mother (Maria de Lima – an incredible performance throughout) and Son (Federico Trujillo). The mother saw her husband murdered and, decades later, is still consumed with grief, keeping herself apart and forever cleaning her house, as if she could wash away the memory of the murder.

The son is anglicised, born in London to Spanish immigrant parents, running a successful restaurant and engaged to the daughter of a shopkeeper. Her former lover is Leo (who is from the same family as the murderer of the Son’s father), who married on the rebound and now feels trapped by his marriage and his shortness of money.

The unresolved passion between the fiancée (Rachael Ofori) and Leo (Ash Rizi), is what destroys the wedding day and brings the play to its tragic conclusion. But although the story is one of death and pain, the play is shot through with humour and there are great performances from a universally excellent cast.

The Seagull

This review was originally published on the Essentially Surrey website in November 2018.

Konstantin wants to be a writer, but his work is ridiculed by his mother Irina, a famous actress. Irina (Lesley Sharp) is in love with Boris (Nicholas Gleaves, Sharp’s real-life husband), who is a famous and successful writer, who becomes infatuated with Nina, a local girl who wants to be a famous actress; Irina is jealous of both that relationship and Nina’s youth. Konstantin is in love with Nina, so is jealous of Boris. Running parallel to this, Pauline, the wife of the estate manager, is having an affair with Hugo, the local doctor, while Pauline’s daughter Marcia loves Konstantin, but marries Simeon, a schoolteacher, as she knows Konstantin will never love her.

It sounds like the plot of a farce, but Chekhov’s play is a tragicomedy, following these destructive relationships through the seasons, from the optimism and promise of spring to winter’s cold and bitter conclusion – suicide, betrayal, adultery, madness and failure. As we follow the characters on this journey we hear them meditate on the nature of art and of theatre, and on modern concerns of fame and celebrity. Continue reading

Putney, SW15

A short piece I did for Essential Surrey on Putney’s history, and some of the famous people associated with the area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow a thriving, popular and leafy suburb of London, Putney is recorded – as ‘Putenhie’ or ‘Putelei’ – in the Domesday Book as a ferry and a fishery, and for much of its history was a small village well outside the orbit of the capital. Despite this, it has produced or been the home of a number of people who had a significant impact on the country.

This includes Thomas Cromwell, the ‘enforcer’ to Henry VIII who rose from being the son of a Putney blacksmith to the King’s Chief Minister. It was Cromwell who pushed through the break with the Catholic Church and the dissolution of the monasteries, and Cromwell who was the moving force behind the executions of Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. He met the same fate himself in 1540, when Henry had him beheaded on Tower Hill, after Cromwell had arranged Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, and Anne proved to be less attractive than her portrait (Henry is said to have called her ‘The Flanders Mare’.)

Cromwell is the anti-hero of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ (the third in the trilogy is due out this year), and Mantel unveiled the Putney Society’s plaque to Cromwell at Brewhouse Lane in 2013. However, all the historical evidence indicates that the home of his father was almost a mile away, on the fringes of Putney Heath, possibly on the present site of the Green Man pub, so why the Society chose the spot it did is something of a mystery. Continue reading