Thursday, 11 February 2016

Sondheim's Cain and Abel

Well, not quite - I don't think it's a spoiler if I say that no-one in Road Show gets killed, but there are slow deaths of the soul involved - quite quick ones, actually, done with the master's usual succinct virtuosity, since this is a (long) one-act distillation of what started life as Wise Guys in 1998, became Bounce in 2003 and ended up in its present form five years later. Don't know how I missed the UK premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011, and only heard of this Union Theatre staging in time thanks to a punter commenting on my Arts Desk review of Chabrier's L'Étoile at the Royal Opera (his gist was that the Union evening turned out wittier and all the more effective for being done imaginatively on a low budget, and he turned out to be right). All production photos here by Scott Rylander.

Anyway, the show smacks neatly of so many American myths - the Cain and Abel aspect of Steinbeck's East of Eden, the get-rich-quick side of Brecht and Weill's Mahagonny and the schizoid relationship of their two sisters journeying through America to make money in The Seven Deadly Sins, not to mention its feeling at times like the third in a chamberish trilogy by Sondheim himself (Pacific Overtures and the IMO much stronger Assassins being the first two instalments)Needless to say, the real-estate aspect is the most pertinent, as a clever final tableau at the Union underlines.

The two facets of the same personality are to be found in Sondheim's and John Weidman's portrayal of real-life Wilson and Addison Mizner, jumpers on the bandwagon of the new (20th) century. Wilson is the brilliant short-hauler, the doer whose plans never come to proper fruition (brilliantly captured in the ensemble number 'That was a year'). Addison has a run of bad luck to start with - comparable treatment in 'Addison's Trip', pictured above, encapsulating two years' of world wanderings - but builds on his mistakes. Quite literally, in his dubious success with serving up the rich villas in hotchpotch styles in Palm Beach. He, at least, doesn't pretend or falsify; but when Wilson comes back fatally into the picture to develop a Mahagonny at Boca Raton (that delightfully hooey fantasy sequence pictured below), it all goes decisively pear-shaped for the last time.

All this is economically staged, with slightly irritating invisible props, by Phil Willmott, whose Lear with Ursula Mohan at the Union I so admired, and the entire company struts its thoroughly professional stuff very well indeed in the tiny space. But what makes this an unforgettable evening is the superb casting of the four main roles. You can tell that huggable Howard Jenkins (pictured up top on the right with Andre Refig) is keeping his Broadway belt in check to suggest the sensitivity of gay Addy, and when he does explode towards the end, it's spine-tingling (I can't tell if the music is up to the mark here, but the performance absolutely is). Refig's Wilson might arguably be a mite more charming, but we do get to see his vulnerability.

Joshua LeClair (pictured above with Jenkins and Refig) is spirited as the poor little rich kid Hollis whose dreams of an artists' colony are doomed along with his reciprocated love for Addy. This is a first for Sondheim, a mutual gay declaration of [You're] 'The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened To Me' that doesn't make a fuss about itself - the relationship just is, even it's bound to be destroyed by Wilson. Cathryn Sherman's Mama Meisner is so good and true that I had to wonder why I didn't know this singer-actress.

Her 'Isn't He Something' is the nearest Road Show gets to deeply moving. But it's always effective, and the contrast between American dreams and the shoddy reality is typically strong. Even middle-range Sondheim is better, in the way the lyrics so effortlessly fit the tunes, than any musical by anyone else currently operating, at least that I've seen (the hit-and-miss Grey Gardens, for example). Fabulous musical underpinning, too, by MC/pianist Richard Baker, violinist Katt Robb and percussionist Richard Burden - and look, no miking (except behind the mirror). I'd like some company to perform all three (or four) versions of this experiment that Sondheim never lost faith in, but in the meantime catch the Union's Road Show if you can, and there are still tickets - not easy to come by in this lovably miniscule venue. It's on until 5 March. In the meantime, I've bought the Nonesuch recording, and perhaps I ought to invest in Bounce as well.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

In the footsteps of Mackerras

It was hard sitting on the news for so long: the six of us privileged to spend a long but rewarding day adjudicating the final for English National Opera's Mackerras Fellowship, which offers a promising conductor a chance to work in depth with the company for two years, more or less made up our minds at 6pm that evening. Details and approval needed thrashing out by Mark Wigglesworth and the trustees of the Fellowship, but my suggestion that since we couldn't agree between us on two, we should split it, was essentially adopted. Thus the two were chosen, still young by conducting standards - Toby Purser, enterprising founder of the Orion Orchestra,

and Matthew Waldren, whose conducting of Delibes's Lakmé at Opera Holland Park I'd already admired, with only a qualification about pace (photo by Fritz Curzon).

They're no spring chickens, and I suppose we might have hoped for a) younger talent and b) a woman or two, at least in earlier rounds, but you have to choose the best. I also had a soft spot for Christopher Stark, co-ordinator of the Multi-Story Orchestra which gives concerts in a Camberwell car park (I have yet to hear one). He spoke very eloquently and clearly - we could hear every word right at the back, from where we were sitting just behind the brass and alongside the percussion - and showed flashes of brilliance, especially for Tom's first aria in The Rake's Progress, which he's conducted.

The snag with the morning's three competitors was that they didn't really seem to take into account the singers, standing on a platform just to the conductor's left, and slightly behind him. This was the first time any of them had got their hands on the ENO Orchestra, sounding rich and lovely from the start, so it was perhaps understandable that most of the work went on orchestral detail. And I wondered if there had been more liaising with soprano Eleanor Dennis, mezzo Rachael Lloyd, tenor Rupert Charlesworth and baritone Matthew Durkin in the piano sessions the day before, but apparently not.

So it was hardly surprising that, when Waldren got Charlesworth to come and stand right in front of the orchestra, my vivacious fellow-outsider whom I already know and like a lot through a mutual friend, Phillip Thomas, and from our Brunch with Brünnhildes, that great Wagnerian soprano Susan Bullock, exclaimed 'thank you, God!' Sue and I were additions to a panel that already included ENO Head of Music Martin Fitzpatrick, Senior Artistic Advisor John McMurray, Head of Casting Sophie Joyce and of course Mark himself.

Waldren was the only one we witnessed to make true music-theatre with both singers and orchestra; the Dorabella-Guglielmo duet from Cosi really changed and developed as a result. Invidious to say too much about the other conductors, but here's the weirdest thing: the one who baffled us the most was the players' favourite, adduced from a questionnaire they'd been given. And yet from the minute he stood up in front of them, the orchestra suddenly lost all its tonal beauty and sounded a bit like a brass band. It may just be that this was in the dead spot of the day, mid-afternoon, but I remembered John Carewe's comment that the sound of an orchestra adapts to a conductor the minute he or she first raises the baton.

The main point is that, as I've already written in replies to comments on previous posts, I found it one of the most exhilarating if exhausting days of my professional life, and I learnt a huge amount (never noticed, to take one small example, that a harp softens the processional theme of the Mastersingers - two of the competitors drew attention to it). Discussions at lunchtime and afterwards were very lively, and I found the perspective of leader Janice Graham - she who played Leonora's theme in Act Two of The Force of Destiny so seraphically - especially fascinating. I must have been nuts to go on to the first of Dudamel's concerts with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela - by the time I reached the Festival Hall I just wanted to sleep. But there's no kipping through Stravinsky's Petrushka or The Rite of Spring, even in erratic performances.

This is perhaps the right moment to hail a by all accounts fabulous new Music Director for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, 29-year-old Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. I haven't caught Gražinytė-Tyla in action yet but Richard Bratby, who heard a specially scheduled CBSO concert with her in January, is someone whose opinion I trust completely. I asked him if he'd react on the morning of the announcement for The Arts Desk and he did so, beautifully. It's especially felicitous for another potentially great Balt to follow Latvian Andris Nelsons.

Bad times, not artistically but financially, for ENO just got worse with the Board's proposal to cut salaries for the chorus by 25 per cent. As last year's Mastersingers triumph showed most powerfully at a similarly vital time, they are a backbone of the company; I know Richard Jones especially adores them. If morale drops just at the time when Mark Wigglesworth is invigorating, by all accounts, everyone who works there, it could be the beginning of the end. I don't know the figures - I must find out - but bearing in mind something has to give, I wonder whether it shouldn't be in the very large administration. Why are the artists always the first to suffer? If you want to defend the company, you should sign both the petition set up by 'the Spirit of Lilian Baylis' and the one on Equity's site.

As with Mastersingers last year, one in the eye for the ludicrous Arts Council 'punishment' which had just been meted out, along came a first night yesterday of such brilliance that one could only wish to fight the proposed cuts with fiercest might (pictured above, ENO principal flautist Claire Wicks in the first of production photos by Robbie Jack). I hadn't much enjoyed Simon McBurney of Complicite's production of The Magic Flute the first time round; this revival was as different from the ENO premiere as day from night. Much of that must be ascribed to the electrification of Mark Wigglesworth and his players, raised up virtually to stage level as before so that the interaction between singers and orchestra could only be the stronger (and there was no problem at all hearing just about every word).

It's a truism that pace is everything in Mozart, but I hadn't really taken that on board until I heard Jonathan Cohen conducting a Glyndebourne on Tour Marriage of Figaro that just zinged; you thought, especially in the first two acts, 'how on earth does Mozart keep it up?'

Here you could only feel the cumulative effect at an incandescent lick, which is probably why I found myself weeping with sheer pleasure just into the Act One Quintet. But there was plenty of space for Tamino's and Pamina's great arias to breathe. And I doubt if I''ll ever see a better, and certainly never a more sympathetic, pair than Allan Clayton and Lucy Crowe.

Clayton (pictured above with the Three Ladies, Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Young and Rachael Lloyd, and also of course above that with Sarastro's brotherhood) has a flawless technique and a fearless sense of engagement; what joy to hear a real tenor in the role after all those choral-scholar ombre pallide.

I wept again at lovely Lucy's 'Ach, ich fühl's' and almost sobbed out loud at 'Tamino mein' - as one should. The buzz in the house at the end was palpable. I won't go into further detail - my colleague Alexandra Coghlan has said it all on The Arts Desk - except to give a special accolade to the Three Boys (Jayden Tejuoso, Fabian Tindale Greene and Louis Lodder), perfectly together with the orchestra throughout,

and to say that the production which had left me cold first time round now seemed near-perfect; I laughed a lot. So, a huge triumph again for ENO. And Wigglesworth has now proved his versatility with Shostakovich, Verdi and Mozart in the first half of the season.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

High lights in the West End

Highlights, too, of Lumiere London 2016 (reported over on The Arts Desk, but with photos by others), one of Cédric Le Borgne's Les Voyageurs flying high above St James's Square, and the jellyfish by Janet Echelman called 1.8 London floating over Oxford Circus.

The palm for the light spectacular, at least monumentally speaking, has to go to Patrice Warrener's The Light of the Spirit on the west front of Westminster Abbey.

With 31 installations shared between Mayfair, the West End and Kings Cross, the experience was bound to be hit and miss. Our own trail on the Friday night took some time to yield wonders - proceeding from Lumiere's VIP HQ, we hit the light fantastic at Keyframes figures climbing up a Regent Street facade. Good to see the thoroughfare closed to traffic, but was there enough going on here? 1.8 London looked nothing from a distance - I was to find out how wrong that impression proved on Sunday evening - and there were modest pickings around Carnaby Street. J told me Elephantastic worked better on a bridge in Durham than it did above the arch near the Regent Street curve.

Then, however, we hit Porté par le vent's barrage-balloon fish Les Luminéoles swimming above Piccadilly like some sort of phantasmagorical celebration of Chinese New Year. Kids gaped in wonderment and so did we - this time the pedestrianisation proved a triumph. Shame about the blaring Harry Potteresque music.

Having taken an unimpressed look at NOVAK's 195 Piccadilly, we followed the Voyageurs trail from St James Piccadilly

downwards to the Square I hardly ever walk through (not a member of the now-exorbitant London Library, you can tell). A cold, clear night with a half moon gave the figures a goal to reach

and I also wondered if the buildings were normally illuminated as well as this. Certainly the Theatre Royal Haymarket glowed in its rightful perspective from one of the Square's exits. Trafalgar Square was underwhelming, Centre Point's neon sign taken down and squatting in front of the National Gallery, but Leicester Square's garishness was well served, as I've already pointed out in an earlier blog entry, by TILT's Garden of Light.

No harm in reproducing the giant ?peony? blooms again, this time by flashlight.

That was our early evening stroll done before going up to supper in Primrose Hill. The couch potato would not acquire legs for a Sunday evening attempt to catch up on the rest, but I was glad I went, and phoned from Westminster Abbey to say he had to come and see this.

For the first time I looked properly at the 'martyrs' placed in the previously empty niches above the west door back in 1998.

They are, left to right, Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Janani Luwum, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Óscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi, and Wang Zhiming.

Nice, also, to bump into three people I knew, have the admiration compounded and be told what was worth seeing of the rest.

I took the Victoria Line up to Kings Cross, where a whole procession of lightshows was to be seen on the walkway up to Central St Martins, but there was such a static queue in the tube tunnel that I turned turtle and took the southbound train to Oxford Circus. Which turned out to be the right thing to do, since 1.8 London proved a wonder close up.

Green-jacketed stewards were yelling through megaphones that no-one should stop on the pavements - a reasonable enough request, as it turned out, since you could do what you liked in the roads and on the Circus itself.

I thought the Grosvenor Square zone would be less crowded than the rest. I was wrong, so I did a quick whizz around the neon birdboxes of Sarah Blood's Sanctuary and avoided the throng in the Square itself, which was fine since Ron Haselden's Brothers and Sisters could be seen perfectly well from the other side of the railings outside the American Embassy.

And in a last bout of mad indulgence, I let myself get hemmed in by the crowd pressing forward to see Aquarium in a phone box by Benedetto Bufaino and Benoit Deseille. Very good-natured it all was, with children refusing to believe there were real fish in the booth until they got closer, and one Scouser on his mobile phone saying 'I don't know exactly where I am, but I'm standing near a phone box with fish in it'.

So I squeezed along and got a close-up glimpse before taking the No. 10 bus home. And that's not quite the end of it, because there will be a Lumierisation of the Guildhall on Shakespeare's birthday.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Dam(s)e(l)s in distress?

A second viewing of the Maysles brothers' classic 1975 fly-on-wall documentary Grey Gardens after seeing the musical at the Southwark Playhouse makes me wonder whether Edith and 'Little' Edie Bouvier Beale were more than passingly in distress. These one-time socialites now seem more like independent-minded women doing their thing in the dilapidation and squalor of their bohemianised Long Island mansion. And what lovely eyes they both had.

In Charles Court Opera's pantomime Mirror Mirror at the King's Head, which came to an end just after the Christmas season, Snow White was a six foot four dame more than able to look after herself. There, I've tried to justify the links, or not, between two shows with accomplished singer-actors carrying material of varying qualities. My thanks to theartsdesk's resident photographer Bill Knight for the pantopics, and to the Southwark Playhouse photos of Scott Ryland.

If you hadn't heard - and a lot of my friends, unlike adorable Jinkx Monsoon on RuPaul's Drag Race, had never even come across the original - Grey Gardens got turned into a musical giving the Ediths more of what they'd always wanted - more song, more dance. It finally arrived at the Southwark Playhouse with two consummate showgals in the lead: Sheila Hancock - whom I well remember as Mrs Lovett to Dennis Quilley's demon barber in the London premiere of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd - as Edith senior in her old age (Ms Hancock is 80, and still croons rather beautifully), and a personal favourite, Jenna Russell, of whom one can usually only sigh 'lovely lady, lovely lady' as my favourite teacher Mr 'Tibby' Bircher used to do over Desdemona. Here she's only a little bit lovely, but very funny, in a double act as Edith in her prime and 'Little' Edie past hers.

The headscarved, self-styled revolutionary fashionista was a good deal more softly spoken in real life; Russell does a hilarious version which often veers into Australian. No matter; she gets the best number, the opener of Act Two, alongside which the rest tends to be either nostalgic pastiche or sub-Sondheim patter with some infelicitous rhymes and stresses. Composer Scott Frankel is pretty good, but Stevie he ain't (who could be when such geniuses only come along once in a lifetime?) and if Doug Wright's book along with Michael Korie's lyrics are aiming at the sophistication of The Philadelphia Story in Act One, they don't come close. As for the slice of life that is Grey Gardens the documentary, amazingly it's all on YouTube, though can't be embedded, so follow the link here. A still, in the meantime, will have to suffice.

Nevertheless the crazy-family set-up which gives some kind of context to the 'prologue' - a whole act - of 1941 is well enough portrayed in the clutter of Thom Sutherland's slick Southwark production, and though I didn't much care for the token camp bunged into the script, Jeremy Legat as George Gould Strong, Edith's resident musical genius, sure could play, act and sing. Not so certain about Young 'Little'/'Body Beautiful' Edie in the somewhat strident tones of Rachel Anne Rayham - surely nobody needed mikes in that place, stuck on their foreheads like unbecoming tikka marks - but she had a neat song-and-dance number, a bit reminiscent of Street Scene's 'Moon Faced, Starry Eyed', with the dashing Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr of Aaron Sidwell ('somewhere in Athens a plinth is missing its statue' got the measure of it).

Act Two needed better torchsong numbers, but Hancock did carry off 'Jerry [the boy who visits and does small kindnesses for the recluses, also played by Sidwell] likes my corn' . Didn't think much of 'Around the World' or 'Another Winter in a Summer Town', and the sentimental ending dragged; the real crux was 'Little' Edie's cri de coeur in the climactic argument - dialogue, regrettably - where Russell's ever-impressive truthfulness kicked in. Not the greatest of musicals, then, but a real treat at close quarters - and what a luxury to have such an excellent nine-piece band under Michael Bradley (can they make any money at the Southwark Playhouse?).

I love that part of town, Borough heading on towards the hopeless case of the Elephant and Castle, and I love Islington in the patches which aren't chain restaurants and cafes - to whit the King's Head Pub and Theatre where we used to go for supper and shows of high quality, and where we now try to catch everything put on by charismatic singer/impresario John Savournin and his Charles Court Opera. After his triumph as a 'Judge Judy' of sorts in an hysterically funny Trial by Jury,  Savournin gave us Snow White the Dame, mourning her late husband Barry and subsequently the murder of dwarf  Half Baked.

That naming's a result of one running gag - that Disney's copyright-crazed heirs don't like the original names to be used, so out went Dopey, for instance. All seven, being impersonated by Matthew Kellett, never appeared on stage at the same time until the curtain call.

Here's a joke I rather like, not that it featured in the panto: did you know that six out of seven dwarfs aren't Happy? (Audience groans).

As we know, this is a highly professional, energetic company of opera singers who do pretty good dance routines to boot; as J said, you can't fail to like them and laugh along. Lovely work, as always, from Amy J Payne as the Prince and Nichola Jolley as her Dandiniesque sidekick, destined for frogdom. All the ingredients of traditional panto were here. I imagine Savournin has studied the doyen(ne) of pantomime dames and script writers Eric Potts, who held his own alongside Dame Edna Everage in Wimbledon's superb Dick Whittington. There were the necessary couplets, the obligatory kitchen-chaos theme with audience participation, asked for or not,

and while I missed the evening performance not having any kids among us, I'm very grateful to the company for singing 'Happy Birthday' to Dancing Delice aka goddaughter Mirabel when she went with her little friends for a matinee before Christmas. Mother Edsy has seen the show four times, and I can see what appealed to the animal-dressing artist in the glove-puppet backing group for two numbers which made us roar with laughter. It's also all too easy to forget that the entire show is carried by five talented performers on a tiny stage and a master musician at the keyboard(s). Onwards, then, CCO, and may we see your Patience soon, pray.                          

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The remarkable Marquise

She's a real villain by any standards, a manipulatrix who seems to take active pleasure in ruining people's lives. And yet you have to be fascinated by the gameplayer, the actress in Choderlos de Laclos's Marquise de Merteuil. That I would be spellbound by the characterisation of Janet McTeer in Christopher Hampton's adaptation of that peerless, ultimately profound novel Les liaisons dangereuses at the Donmar was almost a foregone conclusion: this woman has consistently amazed, in the wonderful Sam Shepard play Simpatico, as the Duchess of Malfi, Mary Stuart, Petruchio at the Globe and above all Nora in A Doll's House, which I still count among the handful of most shattering performances I've ever seen. You can read my review of the latest triumph on The Arts Desk (production photos here and there by the excellent Johan Persson).

That I would find the novel even more extraordinary - where has it been all my life, or where have I been, unintentionally avoiding it? - took me more by surprise. It shoots to the top of my list alongside War and Peace and Don Quixote (I think I'm allowed three), books I could read any number of times with pleasure. And pleasure is still the word despite the appalling machinations of the Marquise and her not quite so sharp-witted accomplice the Vicomte de Valmont, who either tyrannises women or is enslaved by them (that was maybe why there was a touch of the bovine about Dominic West's performance. How I'd love to have seen the late, great Alan Rickman in the original cast, not to mention Juliet Stevenson).

In Laclos one finds the most devilish tricks wrapped up in the most elegant language (Helen Constantine's Penguin translation, I'm guessing, must be a good one; I only wish my French was good enough to read the book in French, though there's still time). What is the writer's declared aim? 'To unveil the strategies used by the immoral to corrupt the moral' through a series of letters in which the principals, loving enemies and co-conspirators, never meet. Hampton did a magnificent job in turning that in to drama where they do meet. But his achievement has to be a long way from the book itself, and above all its magnificent portrait of the self-contradictory anti-heroine, who is always cleverer than her male counterpart. She wants to play the goddess with human puppets on a string, spelling out a hubris which must be punished; and she says her aim is to wreak revenge upon men, but she seems to amuse herself just as much in destroying the women who are always the victims as she follows Gresset's maxim 'Fools are on earth to keep us all amused'.

The heart of the book, to explain if not condone the lack of heart, is Letter 81, where she analyses Valmont and sets herself apart.

Tremble, above all, for those women whose minds are active while their bodies are idle; you call them 'sensitive' women - who fall in love so easily and overpoweringly...They are imprudent creatures, for in their present lover they fail to perceive their future enemy.

But I, what have I in common with these empty-headed women? When have you ever seen me break the rules I have laid down for myself or betray my principles? I say my principles, and I use that word advisedly. For they are not, like those of other women, discovered by chance, accepted uncritically or followed out of habit. They are the fruit of my deepest reflections. I have created them, and I can say that I am what I have created.

The Marquise goes on to give Valmont and us her history, how she concealed beneath a society mask her thirst for a knowledge which, had she been politically powerful, could have been put to better use. There was no proper outlet for women like this. If only Merteuil had become queen and not Marie Antoinette, whose tragedy as a pleasure-loving mediocrity is ruthlessly outlined by Stefan Zweig in the biography I've just started.

Later Merteuil allies the past with a knowledge of fading beauty in the present, the only possible power that a middle-aged woman can hope for. There is some pity in this, and Laclos wrote several treatises on the education and (lack of) rights of women after finishing Les liaisons dangereuses. For this quotation from one of them I'm grateful to Constantine's introduction:

Wherever slavery exists, there can be no education. In all societies women are enslaved...It is the role of education to develop the faculties of the mind, the role of slavery to suppress them...Where there is no freedom there is no morality, and where there is no morality there is no education.

Interesting man! I must search out a biography. But in the meantime Zweig on Marie Antoinette must lead me sadly forward to the end in which she rose at last to some stature. 

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Winter blooms and summer nostalgia

The daffodils shaking their golden heads in front of Old St Peter, Stockbridge, in Hampshire shouldn't have been doing that on 29 December. It's almost as outlandish as the psychedelic garden of light sprung up in Leicester Square for this weekend only, courtesy of Lumiere in its first London incarnation* (we've loved the Durham takeover featuring many of the same installations, to be pictured in their West End locations in a future post).

I ought briefly to record a more natural winter scene above Stockbridge, where we walked around the Iron Age hill fort of Woolbury Ring with friends Alfredo and Oscar. The beeches which surround it looked splendid showing their shapely bare bones below a sky of scudding clouds.

So obviously the problem has been global weirding in cahoots with the El Nino effect. December was way too mild - not to mention destructively wet, though the south had none of the north's flooding problems this time - and only now have we resorted to overcoats and having the heating on for long. General trends would seem to include the early blooming of camellia 'Debbie' in the back yard, pipping last year's record by several weeks (4 December was the first unfurling this time, pictured on the 6th).

while the scented South African and Madeiran pelargoniums in one of the window boxes are still blooming (though in lieu of two frosty nights I brought them in on Thursday).

Our Christmas Day walk from home to Kensington Gardens to walk adored Teddie before heading back to Lancaster Gate for lunch with him and his family threw up some oddities on the way. Not least a bumble-bee nectar-quaffing at this plant in Bramham Gardens, an Earls Court square which could teach our dismal set-up here a thing or two. I seem to have missed the bee with each shot, but I can assure you it was there.

Strolling up to the park via the very desirable residences of Launceston Place, we found the jasmine out and smelling fragrant already (and this, of course, is not the winter-flowering, yellow variety).

The park made more seasonal sense, with its skeletal trees showing off their handsome structures, and plenty of mud for Ted to wallow in. Here he is having greeted us near the Round Pond, the little darling who's set off such a Sehnsucht in me for a cockapoo resembling to some degree my beloved childhood poodle Zsabo.

But I'm supposed to be on the subject of flora, not fauna. And that will do for the winter spate so far. An excursion to Kew this afternoon involved many more wonders, and frozen ponds, but we can wait for that.

What I can't wait for is to revisit a few so far unmentioned blissful summer scenes of 2015, the more so since most of these involve timely, profuse blooms and the pics have been sitting on my computer waiting selective exposure when they really need to be filed away on my external box. First comparison to segue back into the floral world is between the sea at St Leonards on Christmas Eve (a very successful visit to J's mum taking her to our new favourite spot, the marvellous Kinoteatr Cafe with its restored 1913 cinema and collection of 1950s Russian art) and a summer scene further north. While J collected Wyn from her dementia care home, I strolled along the front towards Hastings.

I could even have joined the solitary bather, it didn't looked that cold. But even in the height of summer it took me two days to find the opportunity to dip in a freezing North Sea on an expectedly delightful return visit to the East Neuk Festival. Here's the lovely Debra Boraston who accompanied me on the first walk along the beach at the bottom of Cambo House's glen.

and J, to whom I was showing Fife coastal delights for the first time, on the same beach close to midnight.

It was too cold to sit and drink wine on a rock, as I'd done with friends Julie and Andy at the same time last year. So we made a leisurely retreat past the seaside alders at the bottom of the valley.

Cambo House's walled garden is Eden, a substantial enough one to live in and one of the largest in Europe. John Luther Adams's hornfest for the festival's closing event could not quite outstrip the beauty of the location itself, and though the communal experience was wonderful, having the garden to one's self on a sunny morning was even more remarkable.

A river (more a rivulet) bisects it

and my favourite zone is a kind of meadow thick with poppies of various types.

Peonies were thriving here several weeks later than down south

and I need to suggest the humming of innumerable bees with a bumble on a thistle.

Plenty more of those on the coastpath from Cambo to Crail.

and poppies galore edging the fields near the sea at Cambo Barn, cleared annually of its potato crates to house top notch concerts in superb acoustics.

Cue another big walled garden, the one at Garsington you get to see if you take a vintage bus from the cricket pavilion. Ed(wi)na Ashton came with me to see Intermezzo and wondered alongside at the white display

and the multitudes of Papaverum orientalis

while Deborah van der Beek joined me for Death in Venice, the more successful of the two shows I saw there in 2015. While we missed the last bus to the walled garden owing to my bigger transport problems, Deborah still managed to enjoy the peonies in the re-creation of Ottoline Morrell's original Garsington jewel at the side of the excellent Wormsley Pavilion.

Not that they could possibly have exceeded her own, snapped while she and husband Andrew were staying at her late mother's home in Corsham while flood-damaged Cantax House, Lacock was being restored. The wisteria around a rather smaller pavilion is a delight too.

A similar complement over at Lacock

where the peonies frame some of Deborah's sculptures

and foreground her topiaried lady.

We went for an excursion to see the gardens of Bradford on Avon on open day, and though none of them quite compared to Cantax, the situations gave wonderful tiered views going up the hill from the river and the Saxon chapel alongside the church.

as well as glimpses of fine Georgian facades behind flower-covered walls

and a walk we took up another hill and out into the country for the last of the gardens. I've not done Bradford justice from three wonder-filled visits; but we'll be back. Meanwhile, deep sigh for the summer past, and hope with only a few months to wait now before the first flush of blooming. In the meantime we live for more cold, bright days like yesterday - when Kew was a miracle of sharpness - and head off to more Lumiere pockets in different parts of town.

*Just read that the lights had to be switched off last night (Saturday) because of overcrowding - victim of its own success, clearly. We intend to go to Kings Cross tonight. UPDATE: when I got to Kings Cross, the queues down the tube were so horrendous I turned back. But I did see the big miracle, the colouring of Westminster Abbey's West Front, and loved the atmosphere of the crowd around the aquarium phone box by Grosvenor Square. All this to be picture-chronicled anon.