Let me admit, first off, that I like theatre but I’m not a big fan of musicals. Some people may not see how it is possible to say that one likes theatre that does not include the singing and dancing kind. It certainly restricts the theatrical offerings, probably knocking out about ninety per cent of the plays on offer in London and New York.

Despite my extended bout with the flu bug, I have not been entirely comatose during our stay here. We were fortunate to have arrived in time for the London Mime Festival, which encompasses a diverse range of theatrical expression, from pantomime and circus-oriented acts to brilliant expressions of visual imagination. It is worth braving the wintry weather of January to sample the work of artists from all over Europe.

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I had purchased tickets to a reprise of a play at the National Theatre while a friend was visiting, but our friend was under the weather and my wife had came down with the flu before passing it on to me. “Port” was a wonderful play, covering thirteen years in the lives of two troubled siblings, whose mother abandons them to flee her abusive husband and the bleak prospects of life in Stockport, a city in the Midlands. The text and performances were excellent and the scene changes seemed magical, one of the perks of having the National Theatre at one’s disposal.

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Our next theatrical night out was another reprise, this time the 25th anniversary staging of “Our Country’s Good,” based on the true story of the production by convicts in New South Wales of George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer.” Timerlake Wertenbaker’s play, based on the Thomas Keneally book, was a hit when it first came out and continues to be widely performed.

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This particular production is stunning, from the arrival of the convicts in Australia to the opening night of the play. You are THERE, grappling with the emotional fireworks triggered by prisoners and officers who are psychically and sometimes physically shackled together, playing out their designated roles in this strange and hostile land. The staging of the play represents an escape from their roles as prisoners but it is threatening to their guards.

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We first came across the work of Robert Lepage when we were living in Montreal. “Les Aiguilles et l’opium” (Needles and Opium) melds an experience from his own life (a failed love affair) with the entangled love lives and drug addictions of French surrealist author Jean Cocteau and American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Lepage played all three characters with captivating visual theatrics, including his suspension between 2 propellers, simulating a flight between Paris and New York. It was a brilliant piece of theatre. That hooked us. Two years ago we saw another production of his here in London– the Blue Dragon.

You can see a clip of it here–http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=o0E_Y5eXRKc

In the Blue Dragon, the theatrical invention was there, but the text was less interesting than Needles and Opium. That alone could not have prepared us for “Playing Cards 1: Spades,” a truly dreadful play. The Boy Wonder theatrical alchemist who has succeeded on a global scale in theatre and opera has somehow failed to distinguish gold from garbage. None of the characters is real enough to make us care about his fate, and the elaborate staging in the round reminded me of a hokey circus or a video game. The play is set in Las Vegas, which says it all.

My visits to London’s Art Museums have been similarly hit and miss. I have been to four photographic exhibits and a half dozen other art shows. My last show, at the Tate Modern, was a retrospective of Lichtenstein. I came to the conclusion after wading through room after room that it was too bad he was so successful so early in his career. He never needed to explore much beyond Benday dots. The last room in the exhibit held a small selection of paintings that were done at the very beginning and end of his career, before and after his phenomenal success. Oil on canvas, brush strokes, vibrant and alive.

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The Manet show at the Royal Academy is the one I would consider unmissable. It is the first major exhibition of this work in the UK, the first to focus on his practice as a portrait painter. “His elegant awkwardness of style, absolute honesty of vision, and persistent inovation and risk-taking established Edouard Manet the father of modern art.” This show was five years in the making and well worth all all the effort. For that alone, I am grateful to be in London.

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