A night at the opera in Prague

I am in Prague briefly. With no expecatations, as it’s a Sunday night, I call by the ticket office at the National Theatre. I am in luck, there are still tickets left for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly tonight, even if they are stories up in the balconies.

I ransack my bag back at my room, for something suitable to wear. The grandeur of the building is impressive when I return. I spend time on the roof deck taking pictures of the twin horse and chariot statues which dominate the skyline of the building.

The orchestra is already warming up when I arrive at my seat. Some of the chorus, in character, are enacting scenes from the Japanese geisha life, as the audience is still filing in.

From the giddy heights of the balcony, there is a great vantage point to appreciate the sophisticated staging. There is a real water filled bath-pool covering a quarter of the stage, which is lit from underneath. It is used several ways throughout the evening, even the principal cast wade through it.

And so the tragedy unravels. Cio Cio-San (Butterfly)  is exquisitely performed by Christina Vasileva and the cad, Pinkerton, is played suitably callously by Peter Berger.

The cast are all standout and the choreography interesting ranging from huge fan dances to the stark stillness of silent witnesses on the stage.

The Czech Republic has a proud history of opera. I would encourage anyone visiting Prague to sample an opera. Mozart premiered his work at the Estates Theatre to appreciative audiences that he lacked in his home city.

A French man next to me strikes up a conversation as I am solo. We riff on the opera and also mention our own century-old connections to this country. He, with Brno, myself with Plzen.

I could linger longer but I have been up since 5 AM today for my London flight to Prague. I cut it short to be able to take my early train to my home village where people are waiting for me, to help me find out more on my family’s past.

Stephen Merchant and Carol King

These are two identities that have interested me as I have gorged on West End shows here in London.

Stephen Merchant is starring in ‘The Mentalists’ at Wyndham’s Theatre. I do a walk-in with a friend right on the 7.30 PM bell and bag some great seats. We are so close to the stage, we inhale second hand smoke from cigarettes chugged on by the two-hand team throughout the play.

I am a little unsettled though by Stephen’s character being shirtless and in boxers during a lot of the play.  Sporting his gawky  ‘Hello Ladies’ physique, I rather wish he kept his clothes on or took out a gym membership.

The show is great however, with Stephen and fellow actor Steffan Rhondri, creating comic and increasingly dark moments as things unravel in a Finsbury hotel room.

Carol King is the subject of the award winning stage show, ‘Beautiful.’ As with the Dusty show, I am solo seeing this one, as noone in my circle here in London shares my retro fondness for 60’s hit makers.

The show entertainingly unpacks Carol’s history from the first sale of a song at 16 to her Carnegy Hall triumph post the Grammy winning album ‘Tapestry.’

Its astonishing how many popular songs of the late fifties and sixties era were penned by her and husband of the time, Gerry Goffin. They wrote ‘The Loco-motion’ for their baby sitter and The Monkeys’ ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday.’ There is a list of dozens more too.

Its not just the music that carries you along, it’s Carol’s character, played by Katie Brayben. She arcs from a self-effacing song writer rarely fronting her own music, until two children and a divorce later, blooming in to a brilliant solo artist. We leave her on the LA move with 20 albums and a few more husbands ahead of her.

The support cast are all stand out in the show too. Little wonder they took out a load of Olivier awards this year. Get to the Aldwych Theatre and you will find out why.



‘Dusty’ Stage Show Charing Cross Theatre

I once did a road trip with a friend set to a Dusty Springfield ‘best of’ album as our travelling sound track. By the end of it we could practically lip synch to every song. Whilst Dusty was ahead of my time, I did know of her talent and a bit of her personal back story, including a brave stand on apartheid whilst in South Africa.

The show’s narrative is post her death, as told through her best friend to a doco maker.

She was born Mary O’Brien from Ealing. She joined her brother’s musical folk trio The Springfields, changing her name to Dusty Springfield in the metamorphosis. They were very successful and her solo career was forged out of it.

But its not just the bio notes we are there for and we dont have to wait long for the hits to be belted out. The show is a mix of live songs by ‘Show Dusty’ interspersed with grainy black and white footage of, well, dead Dusty.  But it works.

I never saw her on TV and its amusing to see her on the AV sporting a towering blonde beehive and panda eyes, twirling her hands elegantly, whilst wearing a cocktail dress as though she is going out to dinner after the performance.

The stage show moves on to her increasing interest in African American music and a fellow singer. After a punishing schedule commuting across for shows, she eventually quits the UK at the top of her game and makes the ground breaking ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ track in her new home. Cue a hologram of her original performance of it now in technicolour.

The show ends with a wrap of her best hits, performed by a hugely talented ‘live’ cast, who dont seem to mind being back up to a posthumous pop icon. We finish on our feet for a well deserved standing ovation for them.