Archive for May, 2010

June 2010 Theater calendar

May 30, 2010

I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with my blogging with all of the travelling I’ve been doing, and June is also going to suffer from an excess of going away and a lack of going out. Still, I’ve got some good things coming up, and the typical summer swing toward dance.

2nd (Wednesday) – Royal Ballet Triple Bill, the big star is MacGregor’s Chroma, my favorite ballet of its decade. The White Stripes! Crazy new movement vocabulary! Rock!

3rd (Thursday) – The Pixies. I’ve got tickets to see the Pixies! I know it’s not a theater event, but, whatever, this is about me and not you.

4th (Friday) – New Works at the Linbury – a great chance to see emerging dance talent in an intimate space.

5th (Saturday) – Kabuki play “Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees” at Sadlers’ Wells. Really hoping for return seats as I want to sit in the stalls. I’ve been a Kabuki fan since going to the Kabuki-za in 2000 and I’m very excited I have another chance to enjoy this art form.

7th (Monday) – “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Young Vic. There are some great deals for this show and, as an August Wilson fan, this is a must see.

8th (Tuesday): The Mousetrap. Haven’t been to see it before – but shouldn’t I try once? Going with a group of friends so this should be fun.

10th (Thursday): Michael Clark’s “come, been and gone” at the Barbican. His 1st go at modern dance to Bowie and Reed was not a complete success but I’m unable to resist the combo so I’m off to see how he did with his new set of songs.

15th (Tuesday): I’m hoping to see the new production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” though I haven’t bought tickets yet. It’s kind of expensive so I’m shooting for cheapies from TKTS on the day of – hopefully since this is early in the run and I want to go on a Tuesday I can get them.

18th (Friday): “Dangerous,” the all-male, modern day retelling of Dangerous Liaisons, set in London and Brighton, at the Above the Stag pub/theater. This is a Friday, it’s part of my birthday week celebrations, there will be drinking. And there will be nudity, but I’m really hoping this will all be on stage.

20th (Sunday): “Day Before Spring,” the latest offering from Lost Musicals. I really liked the first thing I saw by them, Cole Porter’s “Paris,” and have high hopes for the “classic American songbook in a stripped down staging” that is the Lost Musicals “thing.” And hey, it’s Lerner & Loewe!

22nd (Tuesday): “Calamity Jane” at the Gatehouse Theater. I don’t know anything about this show, but I’ve been invited by a friend, and I like the American West, so why not go?

Overall with only 11 shows planned, this looks like a bit of a thin month, though I’m hoping to add in a trip to the Pearl Fishers at ENO and, well, probably another thing or two depending on timing and finances. “Out of the Piano,” 24 new “theatrical” songs, on June 20th, looks like a possibility, as it’s pay what you can and I can squeeze it in after Lost Musicals … but we’ll just see how the month goes. Maybe I’ve already got enough going, but I can’t help but want more!

Garden review – 2010 Chelsea Flower Show (a newbie’s perspective)

May 30, 2010

Friday afternoon I went to the Chelsea Flower and Garden show. Key vocab item for day: Fairy Toad Flax.Fairy Toad Flax It is an incredibly cute flower that looks good in big piles, very wildflower-y. It was a part of the garden the Leeds team put up. Not sure why Leeds wanted to have a garden at a London flower show, but there you have it.

Anyway the flower show is about a ten minute walk from the Sloane Square tube stop. This neighborhood always seems posher than posh, a place where the moms’ diaper bags look more expensive than my (former) car. I joined the stream of people walking to the Chelsea Barracks. I don’t know much about the grounds, only that the “Chelsea Pensioners,” which as near as I know are soldiers above a certain age with no living children or spouses, live. They were a red uniform, and as I walked into the gravel path leading to the grounds, they were out collecting donations, wisely enough.

There was a line of people waiting to get in (I think for the third entry period that day), but no line to pick up tickets (though there were touts outside trying to sell them – I hear they were going for 200 pounds a pop – as it was sold out). I went and got mine and discovered, though I hadn’t been able to remember the correct entry time for my “afternoon” entry, in fact I’d shown up just 15 minutes after the entry time (3:30), so I went in right away.

Victorian Butterfly PavillionThe grounds of the festival were HUGE and the volumes of people unspeakable. To see any of the actual gardens you had to kind of bounce along like a stick in a stream, waiting for an opening so that you could get up to the front and have a peek – even worse than the Seattle Flower & Garden show I went to for years and years, although this was nicer because so many of the gardens were outside – and it wasn’t raining. I think people who went yesterday did not have my kind of luck.

However, the festival seemed very little about the gardens – I don’t know what I was thinking – and much more about the selling of garden junk. Clippers, trellises, garden design, gloves, flowers, memberships in various societies, it went on and on. The initial entryway, the gravel walkway, turned into a giant wall of vendors on each side. To be honest, the press of people was making me not feel good and at one point it all got a little sideways and then LARGE AND CIRCULAR and woo woo and I remembered that it was really just a bit late for me to have not had any lunch yet.

And just where were the actual gardens? Well, off on these side paths from the main one were little nooks that had been turned into display gardens. Some of them were clearly ideas for back yards, some more sculptural displays, some really about showing off the plants. It was a lot less about blooming flowers than the Seattle show usually is. I particularly enjoyed the Victorian Aviary garden (see picture above) with its cast-iron trellis and peacock stone inlay, made better by the inclusion of tiny terra-cotta bird tiles within the main design. Pretty much it was exactly what I’d like my back yard to look like. Another nice garden had a focus on bronze flowers, a nice change from previous trends of black and variegated foliage.Bronze iris

These gardens were a transition area between the main path and a giant, covered pavilion, the purpose of which was somewhat of a mystery to me. I only allowed myself about 45 minutes inside, as it was packed to the gills and I had to be somewhere on a pretty hard deadline after I left and couldn’t really dawdle. The pavilion – about the size of two football fields – seemed to be mostly about garden designers and plant sellers showing what they had or what they could do. There was also a display of the “plant of the year,” which I had a look at but can’t describe now as it’s left my brain. The Thai exhibit was quite exciting, just cascades of orchids and all of these exotic statues Thai floral sculpture made of flower petals that looked like entrants in the Rose Parade in Pasadena. It made me want to go to Thailand – probably exactly the effect they were shooting for.

Not surprisingly for me, the various companies displaying tulips – while impressing me that they’d manage to get them to bloom about two months later than the flowers wanted to (I still have about six in my backyard right now but tulip season was over, way over) – failed to wow me with the varieties they had on display. So many of these cultivars are just common, common – though it’s only fair to say that they displayed way more creativity than the Seattle ones, which were Golden Appledoorn and Red Appledoorn everywhere as if red and yellow were the only acceptable tulip types. So I saw Shirleys and I saw Zorels but I was not wowed at all – though I was pleased to see a display from Dobbies, which had done such a nice job of kitting me out this year. But the big highlight for me was seeing the David Austin exhibit – so many of his gorgeous, gorgeous roses, all blooming at the same time, ready for me to admire and sniff. I did notice they almost all tended to look a bit floppy, as if the blooms were just too big for the stems to support. It was exciting, though, to see the new varieties for this year – but of course you really can have too many rosebushes, especially when you only have a tiny little yard like I do. I also got to see in some other garden a Himalayan blue poppy, which was exciting because they are so very forbidden to grow in the US. Himalayan blue poppy

Probably the best part about this show is the fact that there’s a giant bandstand on the grounds (on the other side of the Row Of Vendors Of Doom) where the Chelsea Pensioners play music in a very brass-heavy way. I heard them play “I Am What I Am,” some other showtunes I can’t recall now, and at one point “The Mexican Hat Dance.” There were all sorts of seats set up to sit in and enjoy the show, and lots of stands selling ice cream and (even better) glasses of Pimms. I was desperate for a chance to decompress after all of the crowds, and while this was still crowded, there was a bit more room (thank goodness). I think this is probably what is at the heart of the flower show mentally as well as physically – a chance to enjoy a lovely spring day with some music and a little bit of something nice to drink. There were a few more gardens on the far side of the grounds, near the exit, but these were pretty unimpressive compared to the larger gardens and generally forgettable.

So my thoughts: too crowded, too expensive, but a really good way to load up on all of the gardening tat you could want if you think it’s a good idea to pay to go somewhere to go shopping. If you could go without the crowds maybe it would be fun, but frankly I think I would have done better going out to a proper garden somewhere and just seeing it in person.

£10 and £15 tickets for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Young Vic

May 28, 2010

The good deal going this week has got to be for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Young Vic, by American dramatist August Wilson. The Young Vic’s really wanting to get people in at the start of the run, because for the first two weeks, all tickets are £15. Even better, there is a Metro deal until Wednesday June 2nd, tickets for only £10 – use “Celebrate” when booking at the Young Vic online or call the box office (020 7922 2922) and quote it to get the deal. I love August Wilson, and I’ll be seeing you there.

Review – Paradise Found – Menier Chocolate Factory

May 23, 2010

As I sat in the bar of the Menier Chocolate Factory on an extraordinarily sunny Sunday afternoon, it was hard to describe the atmosphere amongst my 10 or so theater loving friends. Was it glum? Was it funereal? It was certainly creative, as we struggled to put into words the experience we had just lived through.

“The singing. The performers had good voices.”
“And their professionalism. They weren’t holding back. There was no sense of unwillingness or self-consciousness in their performances. They were really giving it their best.”
“The costumes were good, weren’t they? And many of the roles for older women were really good.”
“Oh yes, it was great seeing Nancy Opel on stage again.”
(long pause)
“You know what’s weird about this conversation? It’s like listening to people talk about a Thanksgiving dinner where you’ve burnt the turkey, and everyone’s, ‘Ooh, the pie was really good, I loved the pie’ or ‘Gosh you did a nice job with the salad …’ ”
“All while we’re all staring at the big burnt turkey in the middle of the table?”

Yep, that’s exactly what it was: a gigantic, horking, charred and smoking turkey carcass, and not an accidental turkey you blundered into while slumming in some pub theater (or at the National), but some well-financed, “we’re taking it on a trial run before it goes to Broadway” (I shit you not, it says so right here) with BIG names (Hal Prince, Susan Stroman, Mandy Patinkin) behind it, all of whom should have at some point stood up and said, “My God! We are all making tremendous fools of ourselves! This thing stinks!” (So badly, in fact, I fear the smell may creep upstairs and scare of patrons of the Menier’s cafe.)

It is hard, hard I tell you, to figure out where to start a level discussion about a play which I can say so little on the positive side of the ledger other than that everyone sang on key and I adored the costumes (kudos Judy Dolan, it was nice to see that money well-spent and from my second row seat I got an eyeful). The plot was some bizarre flip of Mayerling (fin de siecle Vienna, only everyone’s a happy hedonist) and Measure for Measure sprinkled with a hefty dose of The King and I; following a Muslim emperor and his eunuch (both claimed to be from Persia but were clearly both from Panto-land, where everyone is white and the women all wear belly-dancing costumes) as they try to get the emperor’s libido working again and the eunuch (Mandy Patinkin) learns about love by going to whore houses and sex clubs. We got to hear songs about love, about masturbation, about love, about pleasure, all sort of set to some waltzes …

but I stopped listening. The words came in my ears and then went flat, the songs failed to illuminate the characters in any sort of interesting way. I enjoyed the fun and raciness of the scene in “Club Bat,” where the Viennese were running in and out of rooms having little sexual encounters behind the curtains while lovely girls danced around in front …

but I’d long ago lost my interest in what the eunuch was going to do, or how he was going to interact with these people. Instead it was one scene change after another, clumsy throwaway dialogue, absolutely nothing of interest happening with our so-called lead character (other than him mopping his head repeatedly – I’m pleased to say there is AC in the Menier and it was working, so it won’t be so painful if you’re in the audience). It all winds up building to some weak switched identity thing …

which led to intermission, which I came back from …

… and then it got even worse and I wondered, my God, could they really take the male non-lead of act one and suddenly turn him into Pierrot Lunaire/Paul (from Die Tote Stadt), only we’re really supposed to believe he got a job at as an actor and he’s going to try to kill himself but then suddenly …

I’d say I’d worry about giving too much away, but instead I’ll relate this quote from our post-show recap:

“Wow, how about that last scene in the dressing room?”
“I don’t know, what did you think?”
“It was just so amazing, I was hoping it would never end?”
“What?”
“No, I’m kidding.”
“God, you had me fooled there for a minute. You’ve got a great delivery!”

I find myself relieved that this show came to The Menier Chocolate Factory before anywhere else, because I’m convinced that this massive pile of talent has the opportunity to something so much better – in fact, almost anything better – and with the money they saved by discovering what a horror they’ve given birth to BEFORE they blow a wad taking it to the Great White Way, there’s that much more hope for them getting their acts together and doing something worthy before Hal Prince kicks it. Gene Kelley never got another chance after Xanadu: Hal may still have hope.

Based on this show, I have coined this new name for the venue. The Menier: where dreams go to die. I mean, hey, I only had 30 quid and 2 1/2 hours invested in this; things could have been so much worse.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Sunday, May 23rd, 2010. Please don’t encourage them to continue this horror by going to see it and let it die a peaceful death at home with its loved ones, thereby freeing everyone involved with it to get on with their lives elsewhere.)

Review – Ingredient X – Royal Court

May 21, 2010

Last night was the opening night of the new show at the Royal Court, Ingredient X. The play was billed thus:

“I’ve always said I’ll stop just as soon as The X Factor stops. The X Factor stops I stop that’s the deal.”

It’s Saturday night and the judges are gathering for their prime-time slot, feeding the nation their weekly fix. Except the harshest critics are sitting on your sofa and the mute button doesn’t seem to work. A tough new comedy about addiction.


Okay, I admit, I must not have been paying attention. See, what I thought this play was about was TV addiction, a topic I’ve been fascinated by for years, ever since I walked away from the boob tube in my teens. Picture me, in my college years, with my “Just Say No … to Television” shirt, and then the me of today, living in a TV free household (no matter how little the licensing authorities want to believe it). Yet I am surrounded by a society that oozes television out of every pore. This is especially frustrating to me as a theater goer, because all of the time I hear about some “new talent” who’s actually a TV “star,” which to me is about as meaningful as hearing that they won the blue ribbon for watermelon pickles at the Johnson County Fair. People are obsessed with television, they organize their life around television, they think the people on it are somehow important and that what happens on a TV series matter.

I find this madness comes to a height with the so-called talent reality shows. After reading Ben Elton’s “Chart Throb,” I now believe they only exist to wind people up enough to actually want to make a paid phone call to influence the outcome of the serie, thus leading to buckets of cash being delivered to the series’ producers. Does Britain Got Talent? Sure, but what the TV shows have is grabby hands going for people’s opened wallets. How can the TV viewing public not see how horribly they’re being scammed? And they keep going back for more, year after year! This, I thought, was the addiction Ingredient X was going to tackle head-on – the numbing deadness caused by excessive viewing of reality television.

If it’s not already clear, I was totally wrong. This show is about bog-standard substance type addiction, cocaine, booze, what have you. It’s set in what felt like (but was too fancy to be) a council flat somewhere north of London, where Frank (James Lance) and Katie (Indira Varma, too beautiful for the role) are hosting an X-Factor party for Katie’s friends Rosanna (Lesley Sharp) and Deanne (Lisa Palfrey). All of them seem fairly poor, with at least two kids each, and a lifetime of bad relations with men behind (or in front of) them.

Rosanna, harsh and angry throughout most of the play, is the most lively of the characters, but after about twenty minutes, listening to her hassle everyone and be cruel lost its charm. Deanne comes off as ditzy, but almost entirely forgettable except for her one big speech about alcoholism. I felt like I was trapped at a party with people I really wanted to get away from, and was unable to engage my “suspension of disbelief” enough to actually imagine why Katie let these cretins in her house to abuse her and badmouth her boyfriend. I was briefly excited at the beginning of act two when Frank looked like he was going to take Rosanna off and actually kick her out of the flat; but no. We were stuck with all four of them for another full hour.

Despite the realistic nature of the dialogue of this play, I found it pointless (perhaps preaching was its point, but that’s not why I go to the theater), lacking in dramatic tension while full of unpleasantness. It seemed to be a set-up for each of the characters to monologue about their own addiction issues, but not in a way I found particularly compelling. In fact, when Frank was talking about “walking down that path with my dad,” I completely checked out and had a “I am watching actors reading lines” moment. It’s a bad sign. It wasn’t quite bad enough to walk out on, but it was absolutely and positively not worth watching, unless you enjoy watching small people make each other look smaller, only not in a particularly witty or interesting way. Or perhaps you want to take someone to a show to help them understand just what it is that makes an alcoholic and what a much better person they’d be if they went to meetings.

I expect this show will reappear in cut up form as character studies for actors, and might be performed for groups who want to present plays about addiction, but as a play for a person who wants an evening to enjoy art, it’s eminently missable. Ah well, Royal Court, we shall meet again, because I do really support the creation of new play, and I’m sure we’ll return to the “win some” side of the balance sheet soon enough.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 20th, 2010. Ingredient X continues through June 19th at the Royal Court, though if I were you I’d try to get tickets for Sucker Punch instead.)

Review – La Venexiana – 2010 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

May 18, 2010

Note: this concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7pm 1 June. Don’t miss it!

For the last two years I’ve been excited to attend the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music in London’s St. John’s Smith Square. In Seattle, I used to see a Baroque (or Renaissance, or Medieval) concert about 10 times a year, and after nearly two years of no early music, I was excited to find a banquet at which I could fill my plate over and over again, if only for two weeks’ time. I chose five concerts from this year’s offering (twelve concerts in total) – buying them in February – then settled down to wait.

The festival started in spectacular style with La Venexiana, whom I’m pretty sure I’ve seen before. They performed Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610,” a lovely collection of liturgical music written apparently over several years. The texts of the Vespers felt like a very Renaissance mix of sacred and secular: several psalms, “Ave maris stella,” but also some florid selections from the Song of Solomon that sounded very much like love songs (“While the king lay upon his bed, my perfume gave off an odor of sweetness”) and not particularly religious.

The evening opened with an incredible wall of sound: eleven singers and seventeen musicians with crystal-clear projection and tonal perfection nearly blew me out of my chair. Whew! This was some church music! I felt very much in the hands of a master! This feeling was further emphasized by the intense conducting style of Claudio Cavina, who seemed like nothing so much as a puppet master pulling every single singer’s string in a way I found kind of creepy (visions of abusive rehearsals and people debasing themselves to get in his favor kept bubbling up in my head). But there was no denying the results; each singer was perfection. In fact, one of the men singing tenor had this incredible breathy kind of breaks in his solos that reminded me of some movies I’ve seen set in this era – in some ways just over the top, but really done to perfection and incredibly well matched to the music. It may have been a “style” but it sounded great. I’ve got notes in my program for “Laudate pueri” and “Due Seraphim” noting how good the tenors were (quote: “goosebumps”); and they did just hit it again and again. “Nigra sum sed formosa” (I am black but beautiful) was heartbreakingly beautiful. If this is what having a control freak does to a choral group, I’m afraid to say I probably approve, though it seems a bit like saying yes to veal or foie gras.

I could probably add to this many notes on what an amazing composer Monteverdi is, how his “Audi coelum” was filled with longing, his “Pulchra es” passionate, his “Dixit dominus” captured the babbling brook in “de torrente.” But this is no surprise. Monteverdi is great, and his choral music exquisite; I feel lucky to have attended this show.

Next: Friday the 14th’s show of La Risonanza and Paolo Pandolfo – but as I’ve seen another concert tonight clearly I must get this published or I will get too, too far behind!

(This review is for a show that took place on Thursday, May 13th, 2010. The 2010 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music continues through May 22nd.)

Review – Royal Ballet Triple Bill (Asphodel Meadows, Carmen +1) – Royal Opera House

May 16, 2010

On Saturday I did something I’d never done at the ballet before: I deliberately skipped seeing a piece. In fact, I came late so that I could skip said piece. In fact, I changed my tickets from the matinee to the evening show so that I could completely and utterly miss a work I didn’t care for. The object of my disdain? Chris Wheeldon’s “Electric Counterpoint,” which I reviewed when it was new and thought would never be revived again. My dislike of video being used with dance has only increased since then, and there was no way I was going to sit through this torture again. An hour late arrival it was.

What did manage to drag me out of my torpor? The promise of a new ballet (not that I haven’t been burned before, but you gotta support it), but by Liam Scarlett, who’d really impressed me in last year’s outing for New Works at the Linbury. The Royal Ballet had decided to give him the big hall treatment? Excellent! In addition there was a ballet version of Carmen, which though not new was new to me, and as Carmen is my favorite opera and one I thought would hold up well dramatically as a ballet, I was excited about the possibilities.

Scooching into my amphitheater seats (row M, kind of far off to the side but 11 quid was about all I could manage), I wondered what “Asphodel Meadows” would hold. We were shown three main couples, dressed in grey, brown, and rust (or so it seemed), with some five to seven corps couples in a beige so pale they looked washed out. Hmm. The movement was good, to me lacking the complexity of Balanchine but showing an ease at considering how bodies should be balanced in space and time, with some unusual arm movements and a confident use of “the pause” – moments when there was no dancing, and sometimes even no music. I was very much feeling like Scarlett was ready for this move up, though I, unfortunately, as an audience member and writer was not entirely ready for him – I’d forgotten to bring paper to write on. I don’t think I would have had much to say, though – it was good but not amazing, though I’m glad I got to see it – and I think it was worth reviving, far more so than the Wheeldon.

I think it may also be true that my ability to recall this show well was hindered by the evening’s finale, Mats Ek’s Carmen. The whole thing was so over the top that it went into the realm of the hysterically awful I refer to as “the baddicle,” right there with de Fruto’s infamous spectacle at the Sadler’s Wells’ Diaghilev show last fall. I might have been able to make some love in my heart for dancers in metallic fake-flamenco ruffles, but put them in front of a giant, polka-dotted, open-crotched panty set (with some crotch spilling out of it thanks to the lighting design), then drop the dancers on their butts to writhe with their legs spread open … I could buy the Carmen, but I found the dancing comical. Laughter kept breaking out up in the gods, and when at one point one of the nauseating ward of snifflers and coughers keeping us company blew his nose in time to a roll of castanets, I, too, couldn’t help but laugh. And after that it was all just a sad comedy of histrionic dancing (though seriously, Tamara Rojo should learn how to flip a “bata de cola” – I saw five days of flamenco in which not a single person had to use their hands to turn their skirts, and it just looked amateurish). I heard from the Tyro Theatre Critic that this ballet is very popular among some people, and that’s why they keep reviving it: for me, I leapt over the other five people to run for the staircase and the fresh outdoor air before the curtain calls started, because while I couldn’t really blame it on the dancers, I did really, really want to get away from it. The Baddicle comes but once a year, but when you’ve had a visit you always want it to end as soon as possible.

(This review is for the final performance of this set of dances, which took place Saturday, May 15th, at 7 PM. I didn’t show up until 7:55 and yet I felt I got my money’s worth out of the evening. Thank you to the Royal Ballet for making your shows affordable to people at all income levels.)

“Peter Pan” at Barbican for £6; Mick Sergeant at Soho Theater for £5

May 11, 2010

Twitter’s serving up the hot deals today. First, National Theatre of Scotland’s “Peter Pan” can apparently be had for £6. Here’s the tweet:

BarbicanCentre: See J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan for just £6! See the Barbican Theatre Facebook fanpage for more details http://bit.ly/9CYQBA

Looking at the FB link, I see this (which I’m reproducing for you because FB is blocked at work for me): For more info visit http://www.barbican.org.uk/theatre/event-detail.asp?ID=10533, choose your seats for 12, 13, 14 or 15 May (evening performances only) and enter the promotional code 10510.
This offer is… limited & subject to availability. Bookable online only.

Next up: Mick Sergeant, Soho Theatre, £5. The tweet says:

sohotheatre: A limited number of tickets for the hilarious Mick Sergeant are a steal at only £5! http://bit.ly/akB9OW Call 02074780100 & quote ‘£5 offer’

The link takes you directly to the show info (he’s a stand up comedian and it’s a solo show).

If nothing else, this once again proves the value of Twitter to the committed theater addict – it’s a perfect way of communicating last minute deals like this to us. If you’re not on it, time to join now!

Review – Wakefield and North of England Tulip Show – Primrose Hall, Horbury

May 10, 2010

posterOn Saturday, May eighth, I went to the renown Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society’s 175th annual Tulip Show. I had originally heard of it, or, rather, of the society, from reading the Old Home Garden’s bulb catalog; they’d mentioned “florist’s bulbs” but I had no idea just what they were talking about. However, I looked up the society they had mentioned (some time around January of this year) and got the date for their tulip show (May 8th) and decided I was going to go.

Well! It all turned out to be a bit of an adventure. Wakefield is not on the list of major tourist stops, and is a branch line from a branch line and a little difficult to get to; and after I’d made arrangements to be in a nearby town (Bradford) the night before, I discovered the show itself was going to be held, not in Wakefield as I expected, but in the even smaller town of Horbury! This seemed quite confusing (not to mention difficult to get to) but as I’d booked train tickets to Bradford, I figured I’d just get it all sorted on the day.

hallI’m pleased to say that despite being really confused about where all of these towns were and not having a car or even much of a map, I did manage to make to the show and had a fabulous time. The folks at the Bradford travel center got me nicely sorted with bus maps and schedules (Bradford to Wakefield, then Wakefield to Horbury) and a 8 quid family travel pass (good for me and my friend). I caught the 425 (or 427) bus out of Bradford at around noon on Saturday, and arrived one hour later in Wakefield; five minutes more and I was on the 126 (or 127) to Horbury. Twenty or so minutes passed and I disembarked on the main street near “Queen Street,” where Google had seen fit to point out (at #32) the Cottage Tea Rooms; as I hoped (it being a Saturday), they were open, and lunch was sorted. My traveling companion Amy’s pie was excellent; my roast beef was dry, but at less than 5 quid a plate we felt we had little to complain about, and the tea was very pleasant as were the sweets (brownie and coconut slice) we bought for later nibbling.

Florist tulip naming conventionsRefreshed, we walked up the High Street and made it in short order to Primrose Hall, nicely visible from the road and very close to a bus stop. We walked in the door (no charge!) and found … a room full of mostly silver-haired folks, with two sets of tables running the length of a very long room, one covered with beer bottles with amazing broken tulips in it; the other covered with vases packed full of more traditional long-stemmed Darwin hybrid, fringed, parrot, and other beauties (including two or three species, Clusiana one of them – referred to as “Dutch” tulips by the attendees, if I’m not mistaken).judged tulips feathered flamed All of the flowers had been judged, and the beer bottles (each labeled with the flower type) were broken into categories, such as “novice three breeders” and “one each breeder, flamed, feathered” or “three feathered, each different,” et cetera. They’d been awarded firsts, seconds, and thirds; the names of the winners were visible on the cards announcing their awards, and the flowers that composed their sets (if the category was for more than one flower) were arranged in rows behind the card.Row of tulips The effect was strange; the brown bottles were so very humble, but the flowers poking out of them were the birds of paradise of the tulip world. Stubby-stemmed and plainly displayed, they shamed the leggy lovelies across the aisle from them: the graceful neck of fifteen Queen of the Nights simply can’t hold a candle to the spangled spectacle of a “feathered” “bizarre” tulip, all gold and red and otherworldly. And I was in a whole ROOM full of people that shared that feeling with me. It was heaven!

flame roseThe show itself felt rather like an American county fair. The sense of the people in the room knowing each other well was very strong, which was not surprising, as in a society with a geographical boundary in its name, one would expect a great deal of familiarity! It also had that underlying rumble of very friendly competition between peers, not to mention the air of rivalries going back decades. But I also felt something different from the pickling barn at an American fair – a sense of strong pride among the participants, for their effort and knowledge and, I think in a way, craftsmanship as florists. I got the feeling that getting these tulips to split in a desirable way is very much an art, and coaxing them to come together so as to be just the right size and shape to match each other and be ribbon worthy – that requires coaxing, and fussing, and tons of care, not just for one season, but over years.flamed bizarre tulip And yet the man I spoke to who had won first prize for a set of three flamed tulips, and spoken to me so knowledgeably of the flowers in the show and how the types were defined, was not just modest but practically embarrassed when I asked him what made his flowers stand out – a far cry from the pride I would have expected from an American in the same situation! Another difference is that for members of this society, there is much sharing that goes on, not just of techniques but literally of the flowers themselves, as members receive bulbs (and give them when they have enough). feathered bybloemenThat community building is very different from what one would see in America, where a prize cake recipe would be a tightly kept secret. I also think the people in this society know they are the last of their breed, as theirs is the last society of its kind in the UK, and for all that they may compete amongst themselves, they also, I think, feel a special bond and a real sense of pride in what they’ve accomplished together.

There was also a raffle table and a wonderful corner where you could get a cup of tea and a slice of cake (heavenly!). In an upper level at the back of the hall there was a display of paintings from Margery Walkington of York (I believe), as well an educational display brought from the Hortus Bulborum. Another table near the entrance held the prizes – cups and silver plates and crystal vases galore, probably about thirty things; and finally there was a table with a cash box, and a few men selling memberships to the club.

I slowly edged along the main table, taking in the lovely blooms and trying to figure out what was what. Breeders were clearly non-broken flowers, but I couldn’t figure out what the difference was between flamed and feathered, or “bizarre,” “bybloemen” and “rose.” I tapped a gentleman wearing a name tag flagging hiim as a “fellow” and asked for some explanation of what was going on. He showed me the difference between “flamed” and “feathered,” using a pencil to open the flower up and point the color inside the flower; how the “bizarre” had gold at the bottom and the “rose” and “bybloemen” white (exteriors pink and purple/brown respectively); then showed how for a “feathered” flower the white or gold base color went up from the base to the center of the petal, with red or purple stains on the edges of the petals (very much delicately drawn like with a feather’s tip); for the flame, the darker color of the flower was a streak up the middle of the petal, and the gold or white was on the edge of the petal, blending and snaking in toward the middle like a painter’s mad mistake. I found them all fascinating, and couldn’t decide which I liked more, flamed or feathered, or bizarre, bybloemen, or rose – all I did know was that, beside them, the poor “breeder” bulbs looked like sad little Billy No-Mates. I never did quite figure out how the breeders figured into the whole business; I heard it said that you had to keep these bulbs separated from the other lest the “infection” that causes the breaking spread from the clean flowers to the dirty. And my tulip history recalls to me that the infected bulbs don’t grow and divide like normal, good tulip bulbs will; instead, over the course of the years, they will wither and die. Also, seeds grown from the broken/infected bulbs -seeds which take seven years to grow to blooming maturity – won’t keep the breaking pattern. Since I joined the society while I was there (only 5 quid for a year, such a deal!), I should hopefully have all of these details worked out before too long. I also got copies of the previous two year’s annual reports, so perhaps within them are my own seeds of knowledge.

After my long visit with Mr. Keith Eyre (for it was he who taught me these things), I then went to chat with Lesley Leijenhorst of Hortus Bulborum (their volunteer webmaster) about their work with old tulips. He had come over from the Netherlands to see the show, but, while enjoying these tulips, he also shared my passion for the old varieties that Hortus Bulborum preserves, and suggested Peter.c.nijssen (www.pcnijssen.nl) as a source for smaller quantities of their bulbs (since I can no longer buy from Old House Gardens). He had been a fan of the Perfecta but had recently started to “sponsor” the Insulinda. He also showed me the contents of this year’s E100 sampler – and mentioned that for a truly rich selection I want might to get the E50 box as well, which contains more recent (1900-1930) varieties. It was really a great chat and left me feeling very excited about planning for next year’s garden.

Tulip Texas FlameI then spent probably an hour poking around, admiring the flowers (notes: bronze tulips Bruine Wimpel and James Wild both nice; Sam Barlow with the curly stamen interesting; fringed peach/yellow Lambada quite attractive; Texas Flame and Shirley both attractive in vases; didn’t write down the spiky petalled one despite taking numerous pictures of it), buying a few raffle tickets, looking at the paintings, reading the display, and finally having a cup of tea and a slice of banana nut bread while the prize winners were announced. I wasn’t able to hear them all, they were read so quickly, but I did catch that Judy Baker of Stonemarsh(?) had won both the Jubilee Cup and Cochrane Vase.Some kind of tulip For the rest of us, our chance to win came with the raffle, which followed immediately; and Amy won a tulip-print apron (which she immediately gave to me). We headed out shortly thereafter, having spent about an hour and a half at the show; it was going to be open again the next day, a special event being done in honor of their 175th anniversary; but I felt we had done very well for our trip and in fact was surprised at how well it had turned out and how hospitable everyone had been. I can’t wait to see what treasures the fall will bring, but in the meantime I must continue my research to understand how I, too, may become worthy of the title of “florist” by producing my own lovely broken tulips.

Great deal on Royal Ballet triple bill (Chroma, Tryst, Symphony in C)

May 6, 2010

To my surprise, LastMinute.com has a fab deal posted for the last Royal Ballet triple bill of the year, featuring Wanye MacGregor’s “Chroma,” the most exciting work of ballet I’ve seen in four years (score by the White Stripes, RAWK), and Balanchine’s “Symphony in C,” a touchstone of 20th century ballet. Prices are £35 for orchestra stalls (were £55) and £15 and £12 for stalls seats normally priced at £30 and £12. The deal is only good on May 22 and 23, but, seriously, at this price you must go. For me, at this price I can now afford to go twice and watch it close up.

Later: OOH, if you use the link on Travelzoo.com, if you pick tickets for the Saturday or Sunday 22/23rd shows, you’ll get the same deal, only you’ll only see it once you select a seat – the price will show up as the third option when you’re picking which seat to put in your basket.