Author Archives: donbrown

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.

Tow 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.

maria-de-lima

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

Hallie Rubenhold’s “The Five”

the-fiveShould you want a wee bit of titillation, there is a ‘Jack the Ripper tour’ just about every day of the year. In fact, so popular is this murder tourism, that some summer evenings the streets of Spitalfields are crowded with groups of people enjoying tales of violence and brutality against women.

The ‘Ripper Industry’ is big business – tens of thousands of tourists, hundreds of books, millions of words. ‘Ripperologists’ (“you’ve got an ‘ology, you’re a scientist”) indulge in fatuous speculation on the identity of  the murderer, safe in the knowledge that a) the wilder the conjecture, the more attention it will receive, and b) no one will ever know the real identity of the killer.

Go on a tour though, or read the latest spurious analysis of ‘the evidence’ and you’re unlikely to hear much about the victims, other than some hideous details of the butchery inflicted on them. You might be told their names; you’ll probably hear that they were all prostitutes, but their actual lives, their suffering, how they ended up in Whitechapel in the summer/autumn of 1888 is regarded as incidental. They are the set-dressing to a fog-shrouded melodrama. Continue reading

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist

 

lammassu-1-1The fourth plinth in Trafalgar square was meant to have an equestrian statue of William IV, but funding could not be raised (this was in 1841, just four years after his death). Over the next 150 years, various proposals for permanent statues on the plinth came and went (and the space might still be used for HMQ when she eventually turns up her royal toes), then in 1998 the RSA commissioned three temporary sculptures (including a witty Rachel Whiteread cast of the plinth itself) and from 2005 there have been a succession of commissions.

These included Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (now outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich*), Hans Haake’s “Gift Horse”, and Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant”. There was also a wonderful Anthony Gormley project where, over 100 days, 2400 members of the public were each given an hour each on the plinth to do what they liked.

For the past two years (and due to be replaced early in 2020) the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz has been displaying a piece from his project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”. This is an attempt by Rakowitz to recreate some of the more than 7,000 objects from Iraqi culture which have been lost forever:  some were looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003, others were destroyed at archaeological sites across the country during the Iraq War, still more were destroyed during the period of the Islamic State.

The Trafalgar Square piece is a lammassu, a protective spirit of ancient Assyria, a winged bull, with the head of a man. Rakowitz’s reconstructions are made from recycled packaging from Middle Eastern foodstuffs and this artwork is made from 10,500 empty date syrup cans: a once-renowned Iraqi industry now decimated by war. On the side of the Lamassu is an inscription in Cuneiform which reads: “Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, had the inner and outer wall of Ninevah built anew and raised as high as mountains.

lammassu-1In the British Museum you can walk between other lammassu, built as guardians to entrances to Assyrian palaces, including the biggest objects in the museum, the giant ‘Winged bulls’ from the palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (close to modern day Mosul, ironically the ‘capital’ of the Isis ‘caliphate’).

 

 *Poor William IV. He eventually got a statue, near the top of the old London Bridge, which was moved to the National Maritime Museum in 1935. This is now completely upstaged by Shonibare’s work.

London Calling

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I came late to London Calling, the Clash album being celebrated with a mini exhibition at the Museum of London. When it came out I was 17 and more into heavy metal than punk, but I still remember the effect the album had on me when I finally bought it in around 1982 (still have it, gatefold cover, vinyl); from the first thuds of the first, title, track – a march, a wail of rage, a dystopic vision of a dying city. Remember that in the 70s London was dying, it’s population falling. No one wanted to live here, it was grey, cold, oppressive, violent, and closed on Sundays.)

For those brought up on streaming or even CDs, London Calling  is a double vinyl album – two records, four sides. I still contend that record one (“London Calling” “Brand New Cadillac” “Jimmy Jazz” “Hateful” “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “Spanish Bombs” “The Right Profile” “Lost in the Supermarket” “Clampdown” “The Guns of Brixton”) is just about the greatest 40 minutes of rock ‘n’ roll committed to vinyl, at least in the 70s. In fact, so fantastic did I find this record that it was literally years before I played the second half of the album. Continue reading

Number One London

 

800px-apsley_house_1You’re likely to have been past this place several hundred times, because Apsley House is the big, honey-coloured building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner, facing into the traffic with its back to the park.

Formerly the home of the Duke of Wellington, victor over Napoleon in Spain, Portugal and at Waterloo, Prime Minister under George IV and William IV, the house is still occupied by the current, 9th, Duke.

That particular corner of the Park is awash with Wellington monuments (it was once called Wellington Place). The Wellington Arch (through which the Household Cavalry ride each morning, and under which the cycle path runs) is in the centre of the glorified traffic island, and close by, facing the house, is a mounted statue (by Joseph Boehm) of the Duke himself, flanked by a grenadier, a Scottish highlander, an Irish Dragoon and a Welsh Guard. And in the Park, just behind the house is the actual ‘Wellington Monument’, a statue of Achilles by sculptor Richard Westmacott, cast in bronze from cannons capture at Waterloo and erected in 1822. Achilles was the subject of some controversy when it was unveiled as it is a nude (except for a fig leaf), and so felt by some to be an outrage to public decency.

The house was bought by the Duke (from his own brother, who needed the cash) with some of the £700,000 given to him by the state after the final defeat of Napoleon. That’s an amount of money worth about £90 million in today’s prices. The original house was by Robert Adam and was considerably smaller; Wellington commissioned Benjamin Dean Wyatt to extend and radically remodel the place – and had the classic client/architect relationship, in that Wellington fell our with Wyatt about time and cost overruns to the extent that he refused to speak to him. Continue reading