Sunday, 27 May 2007

Mag Hag

COMING SOON: My experience with Dame Maggie Smith at Lady from Dubuque

Friday, 18 May 2007

Phantom Menace

I went to Phantom of the Opera on Monday. I'd never seen it before.

Has this thing really been running for 21 years? Why?

Unlike many Phantom audience members who plan and save and look forward to their visits like a state occasion, I was still mooching around the new Primark in Oxford Street at 7.25 thinking the curtain was at 8, so despite a swift cab to the Haymarket I missed the opening moments.

This did give me an opportunity to stand at the back of the Circle for a couple of minutes and survey the two to three full rows of empty seats, giving the lie to the claim on Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group website that "In London there has never been a seat unsold" ... well there were at least a hundred empty on Monday 14 May 2007, Andrew.

Watching the drama unfold, and seeing the stilted performances, you start wondering why it just isn't the hottest ticket in the West End any more.

I looked up the original cast - Michael Crawford and the queenly Sarah Brightman (who I can't stand anyway) of course, but also the almost as queenly Michael Ball, superb David Firth and pre-Fred Elliott John Savident heading an impressively well-experienced ensemble.

Contrast this with the current collection of just-out-of-drama-school hopefuls and regional-theatre-veteran-understudies and you begin to see the flaws.

The creaking you can hear isn't just the 21-year-old stage machinery (although that's noticeable enough) it's the cramping of budgets to the point at which the production is as undercast as it is underlit.

Some of the performances are so two-dimensional that in their bejewelled costumes and powdered wigs, you're reminded of a pack of playing cards: especially Wendy Ferguson, subtle as a heifer in her role as fading diva Carlotta Guidicelli, and Heather Jackson who plays Madame Giry the ballet mistress more stiffly than if she were an exceptionally arthritic Mrs Danvers in Rebecca during an unseasonably wet Cornish winter. You'd just want to burn the house down with her inside, the wood in her performance could only add to the blaze.

Not that the leading men are outstanding: Earl Carpenter has been playing the Phantom for nearly 1,000 performances. If his mannerisms were any more arch, he'd need scaffolding. Michael Xavier is a tuneful but unwashed Raoul, more Che in Evita than a suave French Vicomte, and his darting stage moves in odd directions unrelated to the motives of his character made me wonder if he had Attention Deficit Disorder.

I certainly did in the second half when most of the tunes are re-hashes of the stuff you heard before the interval, and the plot descends firstly into the bowels of the opera house and then into ... well, bowels really covers it.

This was the first night of the “new Christine”, although I couldn’t tell you which one I saw except to say she was shrewish and dark. The role is now being shared equally four performances a week between Leila Benn Harris and Robyn North. This is ostensibly to make audiences feel they are not getting the “alternate Christine” on any given night or matinee.

Since both performers are modestly experienced for West End headliners – Ms Benn Harris having understudied the one-number Mistress in Evita, Ms North most recently 'touring with Shane Richie', you could say it’s Alternate Christine EVERY night.

Who thought I’d ever pine for Sarah Brightman.

Monday, 14 May 2007

The Good Juice

I am a man of little ambition.

I wrote that to see if it looked any more true on the screen than it did in my head.

Any plateau of achievement to which I ever ascended was done not with the crampons and pick of study and struggle but if not exactly in a taxi, at least by stepping on the nearest convenient escalator without bothering too much where it was headed.

But that doesn't mean I didn't care about getting there. My educational path was more or less chosen by my parents and dictated by A-Level results and I'm now grateful - at least financially - they resisted my teenage efforts to "go on the stage" and forced me instead through the BA (Hons) sausage factory of Lancaster University.

From then on, I think they took the stablisers off my bike, but my choice of career was pretty much a lottery.

Having had "vocational guidance" from the employment service when I returned early from my not-so-successful get-away-from-home teaching job in Switzerland, I opted for a sort of internship in the Architect's Department of Southampton University for the twin and dubious reasons of (1) that was the only job anyone offered me at the time and (2) a man cruised me whilst I was browsing in an estate agent's window the night before my interview. The cruising led to nothing, which isn't a bad metaphor.

Fast forward five years through the claustrophpobia of office life in the carbon-paper seventies, and the motive that catapulted me to London and into the more glamorous world of architecture and design was not a burning ambition to put my stamp on the interior world, but the chance to live with a boyfriend in Chiswick.

By one of those serendipitous accidents that occasionally makes me think there may be Guardian Angels, and actually from an advertisement in the Guardian on one of the very few occasion where I opened the paper, I got a job in a "top architectural practice" as something called "Furniture and Furnishings Specifier" for which I applied on the basis that I knew what two out of the three big words meant. And served there man and boy for 12 years before the company took the unwise step of a stock exchange flotation and promptly went tits up within eighteen months.

I scuttled around the fringes of the design business for four more years being quite ashamed of myself for selling carpets until an ex-colleague invited me to help him write a proposal for an airport design in the former Soviet Union. We really were Kitchen Table Architects plc and the sort of design jam in a team sandwich scraped together, from similar adventurous small firms, by British Aerospace.

We later suspected it was a front to supply armaments and fighter planes to the Uzbek regime, but none of that stopped me being "Design Director, Tashkent Airport" for two years ... until the project plug was pulled, or maybe the Uzbeks didn't want to buy the Hawk and Tornado fighter jets with buy-one-get-one-free gonad-zapping taser guns, and it all stopped before we'd built anything.

I could rattle on, and catalogue my "Barclays years" but my design career continued to a point at which I became bored with the repetition. People think interior design ought to be creative and fun and absorbing, but it's more about budgets, and programming and wrangling with building contractors and furniture manufacturers.

So thanks to a little good luck in the property market, I now seem to have reached a ledge on which to rest and where work isn't quite as important as it used to be, and I rather like the view from up here.

What I don't really like is my lack of motivation to do much else. I can't seem to find a charitable or worthwhile project to grab my interest, and my resistance to the mosh pit of the construction industry has just allowed me to turn down a massively well paid job on the Russian Front (it would have meant working in Moscow) for a venture capital firm fitting out offices in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Angola, and Nigeria.

Apart from the fact that those are places to go and get killed rather than choose wallpaper, I'm too old to spend my evenings with lonely room service in distant Hiltons and/or getting pissed with quantity surveyors.

So I return to my lack of acquisitiveness. There really is no "thing" that I covet, not a car or a boat or a boys' toy like a private plane or a supermodel, and the only differentiation I seem to make in my routine between when I'm feeling flush and working, and when I'm not, is that I like to send my sheets to the laundry and tend to buy the freshly-squeezed orange juice in the supermarket, instead of the cartons.

I think if all I crave, at this time of my life, is the Good Juice, that represents some kind of contentment.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Monopoly Money

I'm standing outside B&Q in the Old Kent Road where two school-age chav truants are trying to light a spliff, a dishevelled amputee is waving his arm stump in my face and a black crack whore is begging for small change. The crack whore is wholly unsuccessful in her mission, the sizeable clump of South London's walking wounded at the bus stop clearly has its own problems and shrugs her off - she wails genuine tears of anguish which merge with some lip-corner spittle and a light drizzle to bathe her face in a sheer patina of despair.

I almost want to hug her.

Most of the walking wounded have come from the adjacent Asda, and overflowing from their flimsy carriers I see the stark red and black labelling of its "Smart Price" range which might as well be branded "Poor People's Food" featuring as it does the 8p strawberry "flavour" yoghurt and the 38p jar of coffee-flavour granules. This de-specifying of nutrition and value from food destined for people on low incomes upsets me almost more than the crack whore, because it's so commercially institutionalised.

I feel invisible. Not belonging, not even suspiciously regarded by the other people waiting for different buses, and yet also in a way as if I have the third eye and can see what's "wrong" with the big picture. I get this a lot, I hope it's not arrogance.

I also feel grotesquely rich, even though I am waiting for an off-peak bus in the Old Kent Road and the driver will probably wave me through thinking I'm a pensioner. I'm on the bus because I have the decorators in at my flat by Tower Bridge, barely a mile away and currently for sale (see below) at an amount of money which could set up this entire bus queue in comfort for its collective retirement, and I've been despatched to get some more paint. I don't have the car because the decorator needed my parking space.

I don't feel too smug about it either, as if my relative affluence has somehow been achieved at their expense, which it hasn't except in the Newton's Law sense that all actions have an equal and opposite reaction therefore if I am comparatively well off, someone must have suffered financially as a consequence.

I am concerned that this massive population of disadvantaged and disenfranchised people lives literally on my doorstep, and feel helpless to do anything political or practical to effect any improvement. In the harsh fluorescent of the bus, they look so defenceless and defeated, until two black women start a vicious, screaming, gynaecologically-expletive cat-fight over the last remaining seat, and everyone perks up and looks suddenly cheerful.

The irony that this scene is being played out in Old Kent Road is not lost on me. I guess I first learned about property trading as a 12-year old playing ferocious tournaments with my Monopoly-mad next-door neighbours in another Kent Road, in Harrogate. Even then, I always wanted to own Bond Street.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Flat Spin



AGENT click here

Desperate Housewife

I'm not happy about my cleaning lady.

That sounds SO Bree van de Kamp that I have to apologise and explain. I'm not complaining about her work, Rahat is an exemplary cleaner.

She's neat and pleasant, turns up on time, doesn't take phone or toilet breaks during the three hours that she's busy, and apart from a bit of wistful sighing which she seems capable of making audible even over the vacuum cleaner, you almost wouldn't know she's here.

I've had worse, too.

Including Robin the Prozac-cheerful gay dwarf who used to spend more time gossiping and smoking on my balcony than actually dusting. And Genghis the plump Mongolian boy who used to clean all my floors and windows vigorously until I returned unexpectedly early from a business trip one wet Sunday after midnight to find him stark naked on my sofa with the TV on and his clothes in my washing machine. Apparently his wife had thrown him out, with police assistance.

What upsets me about Rahat is her situation. She's from rural Kyrgyzstan, a central Asian state so troubled and politically corrupt it's beyond even the satire of Borat. I'm guessing she's not yet 30, but she's divorced from an arranged marriage and has two children aged 5 and 8 left in the care of a grandmother whilst she comes to Britain for English language lessons and to clean ten flats a week in London's docklands.

This is the bargain so many non-European migrants have to make in order to enter the UK and work. Only student visas are available to them, so they must enrol in expensive language schools and offset the cost against their potential earnings, which are supposed to be restricted to 16 hours a week, but usually aren't.

She - and I guess about forty workers in similar situations - are managed by a perfectly nice man called Jacob who used to be head porter in our apartment complex, but is I suppose technically their gangmaster. He seems so readily able to provide instant replacements when one of his cleaners is ill or absent, that I used to joke he kept them in a container on the dockside. But I'm feeling less and less flippant about the whole operation.

Rahat's depressed.

Understandably she misses her children, but she lives in a shared house in Charlton (one of London's poorest neighbourhoods) with about seven or eight other women who speak Latvian or Lithuanian. Kyrgyz people speak either dialect Russian or Turkish, so she's even more isolated. She's going home in August, after almost a year in England, and must return after just three weeks with her family ...

How could you do that, with small fatherless children to care for? It's unthinkable, and yet middle class Londoners are thinking - and postrationalising - this sort of situation on a daily basis.

I don't pay her unfairly, more than the local going rate or the national minimum wage, I don't beat her, and I try to give her some extra at Christmas or holiday times. So why do I feel such a shit for employing her, and how could it improve the situation for either party if I didn't?

With London flooded with Poles and other northern or eastern Europeans who have acquired working rights through entry to the EU, these poorer emigres from the former Soviet states are picking up the work even the Poles won't touch, and in some circumstances at wage rates which don't allow any discretionary income once housing and air fares and language schools have been deducted.

On my way to work on a Middle Eastern building project in the mid-80's I once saw a bundle, and there's no other word for it, of Sri Lankan women at Bahrain airport, they were changing flights for destinations in Saudi Arabia. Each one wore an identical pink polyester sari, and carried a brown manilla folder with her personal details. Some were barefoot. They were almost tagged with luggage labels. Clearly they were being shipped by an agency to work as maids in Saudi households, and it looked smelt and felt to me like 20th century slavery.

So what's different in 21st century London?