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Category archive: Theatre

Thursday November 30 2017

GodDaughter One’s Mum and Dad are members of a theatre-going gang, who take it in turns to organise for them all to go to the theatrical performance, about every month or so.  Tonight it was Antony and Cleopatra by the RSC, at the Barbican.  But GodDaughter One’s Mum was otherwise engaged, helping out with a jewellery show done by GodDaughter One’s Sister, so I went to the Barbican instead.

As so often, when I really pay attention to a Shakespeare play (and if you are seeing it in a theatre there is not a lot else to be doing), I learned a great deal about it.

I did not catch every word.  Much of the support acting, especially by the young men playing various Roman soldiers and messengers, was decidedly school-play-ish, to my old eyes and old ears.  These brand-X guys simply did not fill the auditorium properly.  Since we were at the back, we suffered.  Nor did it help that I for one could not see their faces properly, from that far away.  But Antony and Cleopatra were both pretty good, as was Enobarbus.  But honestly, only the music came over loud and clear.

I will be investigating this play further on the screen.  YouTube offers this, which looks like it could be pretty good.  I quite like north American accents in Shakespeare, given that it probably sounded more like this originally than it sounded like modern Posh English.

As for DVDs, this and this both look promising.  Also: cheap.

Back in the Barbican, Josette Simon as Cleopatra yanked the verse around a lot, but that all added to the impression of her being a force of nature.  Antony, played by Peter Byrne, was a very prosaic figure by comparison.  I especially like the line in this Guardian review about how “Simon is excellent in the closing passages suggesting that Cleopatra is living out a fantasy of an idealised Antony”.  Yes.  So, best of all might well be a DVD of this RSC production.

Sunday November 19 2017

I once was once briefly acquainted with a quite close relative of Robert Mugabe, and that person was truly remarkable in being utterly incapable of understanding how anyone could possibly disagree with the truth that he saw so very clearly.  This person also looked exactly - spookily - like Robert Mugabe. (It was asking about this resemblance that got me the information that he was a close relative of Mugabe.) I have never known a more deeply stubborn person, ever.  But it was not a stubbornness made merely of the desire or the determination not to change his mind.  No.  He was simply unable to change his mind.  The idea of him every having been wrong, about anything, was simply impossible for him to grasp.

If Robert Mugabe is anything like this relative of his, and everything I know about Robert Mugabe tells me that Mugabe is, in this respect, exactly like him, Mugabe may find himself sacked, imprisoned, or even executed, but he will never resign, or ever change his mind about the wisdom of anything he ever said or did.  That he has not yet resigned has, according to the Guardian headline linked to there, has “stunned” Zimbabwe.  I was not stunned.

They’ll have to force him out, like King Richard II was forced out by King Henry IV.  But if Mugabe is forced out, there will be no scenes like the closing scenes of Shakespeare’s version of Richard II, where the deposed Richard comes to see the world and its ways differently, and to understand things more deeply.  Simply, Mugabe is right, has always been right and will always be right, and if everyone else disagrees with him, it can only be that everyone else is, was, and will be, hopelesslyl wrong.  Mugabe is literally incapable of understanding matters in any other way.

Mugabe is indeed now a rather confused old man.  But his confusion concerns only how it is possible for so many people to be so completely mistaken.

Sunday November 12 2017

A few weeks ago, I watched and recorded a Shakespeare documentary series, in one episode of which Jeremy Irons talked about, and talked with others about, the two Henry IV plays.  And that got me watching two recorded DVDs that I had already made of these plays, the BBC “Hollow Crown” versions, with Irons as King Henry and Tom Hiddleston as the King’s son, Prince Hal.  While watching these, I realised how little I really knew these wonderful plays, and how much I was enjoying correcting that a little.

More recently, partly spurred on by what Trevor Nunn in that same documentary series had to say about it, I have been doing the same with The Tempest, this time making use of a DVD that I long ago purchased for next to nothing in a charity shop but had failed ever to watch.

By accident, when this DVD of The Tempest began, there were subtitles to be seen, and I realised that these written lines, far from getting in the way, only added to my enjoyment, so I left them on.  And, if subtitles were helping, why not the entire text?  Maybe I possess a copy of The Tempest, but if so I could not find it, so instead, I tried the internet, which quickly obliged.  My eyesight not being the best, I beefed up the magnification of the text until it was nearly as big as those subtitles.  So, I watched, I read subtitles, and I was able to see who was saying what, and what they were about to say.  And very gratifying it all was:

image

On the telly, on the left, David Dixon as Ariel and, on the right, Michael Hordern as Prospero, both very impressive.

And here, should you be curious, is the text they were enacting at that particular moment, as shown on the right of the above photo, but now blown up and photoshop-cloned into greater legibility:

image

I think the reason I found this redundancy-packed way of watching The Tempest so very satisfying is that with Shakespeare, the mere matter of what is going on is secondary to the far more significant matter of exactly what is being said, this latter often consisting of phrases and sentences which have bounced about in our culture for several centuries.  As ever more people have felt the need to recycle these snatches or chunks of verbiage, for their own sake, and because they illuminate so much else that has happened and is happening in the world, so these words have gathered ever more force and charismatic power.  As the apocryphal old lady said when leaving a performance of Hamlet: “Lovely.  So full of quotations.”

The thing is, Shakespeare’s characters don’t just do the things that they do, and say only what needs to be said to keep the plot rolling along.  They seek to find the universal meaning of their experiences, and being theatrical characters, they are able, having found the right words to describe these experiences, to pass on this knowledge to their audiences.  This is especially true of Hamlet, because central to Hamlet’s character is that he is constantly trying to pin down the meaning of life, in a series of what we would now call tweets, and consequently to be remembered after his death.

Prospero in The Tempest is not quite so desperate to be remembered, any more, we are told, than Shakespeare himself was.  In Prospero, as Trevor Nunn explained in his documentary about The Tempest, many hear Shakespeare saying goodbye to his career as a theatrical magician and returning to his provincial life of Middle English normality. But Shakespeare was Shakespeare.  He couldn’t help creating these supremely eloquent central characters.  Even when all they are doing is ordering room service, or in the case of Prospero doing something like passing on his latest instructions to Ariel, they all end up speaking Shakespeare, with words and phrases that beg to be remembered for ever.  These famous Shakespeare bits are rather like those favourite bits that we classical music fans all hear in the great works of the Western musical cannon.

So, a way of watching these plays that enables these great word-clusters to hang around for a while is just what you want.  (Especially if, like Prospero, you are getting old, and your short-term memory is not what it was.) It also helps being able to press the pause button from time to time, to enable you to savour these moments, to absorb their context, better than you could if just watching the one unpausable performance in front of you.  Although I agree, having a pause symbol on the furrowed brow of Prospero, as in my telly-photo above, is not ideal.

I am now browsing through my Shakespeare DVD collection, wondering which one to wallow in next.

Thursday November 09 2017

I have started reading Music & Monarchy, by David Starkey and Katie Greening.  What the division of labour is between these two (Starkey is in larger letters thatn Greening on the front cover) I do not know, but it certainly starts very promisingly.  I have already encountered two passages worthy of prolonged recycling here, the one that starts the book (see below), and the bit that follows, about England’s profound medieval musicality.

So, to begin where Starkey and Greening begin, here is how the introduction of this book launches itself (pages 1-2):

Music or Words? Poetry and Drama? Or Anthems, Opera and Oratorio? Which, to personalise and particularise, is the more important in British history and to the British monarchy: the anniversary of Shakespeare or the centenary of Handel? The question almost seems absurd. Nowadays there is no doubt that Shakespeare wins every time. Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays, famously described by another maker of history, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, as ‘the only history I ever read’, still shapes the popular understanding of English history and its murderous dynastic rivalries; while in their nobler moments the plays (re-)invent the idea of England herself before going on to adumbrate a larger, mistier vision of Britain:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this sea of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-Paradise ...
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea ...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings ...
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land.

Who could resist that? George III (1760-1820) for one, who confided to Fanny Burney: ‘Was there ever such stuff as a great part of Shakespeare? Only one must not say so!’ The eighteenth century more or less agreed with its longest reigning king. The bicentenary of Shakespeare, celebrated five years late in 1769, was a provincial pageant, which, despite the best efforts of the actor-manager David Garrick, made little impact outside the Bard’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon and, thanks to torrential rain, was literally a washout even there. On the other hand, the centenary of Handel’s birth (celebrated a year early by mistake in 1784) was a grand national event the like of which had never been seen before: not for the greatest general, politician or king, let alone for a mere musician.  Fashionable London fought (and queued) for tickets; Westminster Abbey was crammed and ladies were instructed not to wear excessive hoops in their dresses while hats were absolutely forbidden. Even then, demand was unsatisfied and two of the events had to be rerun.

Monday October 23 2017

GodDaughter 2 has fixed for me and her to go to a dress rehearsal of Rodelinda, at the ENO, tomorrow evening, for free!

So, what is Rodelinda about?

Rodelinda is a dramatic tale of power, anguish and love. When Grimoaldo takes Bertarido’s throne, Bertarido flees abroad, leaving behind his grieving wife Rodelinda. The usurper tries to force Rodelinda to love him, but when the exiled king returns in disguise, everyone is put to the test.

One of Handel’s finest operas, Rodelinda is filled with intense drama told through ravishingly beautiful music. ...

Good, good.

But then, this:

Award-winning director Richard Jones brings his distinctive theatrical imagination to this production, which sets Handel’s bitter political drama in Fascist Italy.

Well, maybe it’ll be okay.  Not all such productions are ridiculous.  And when it comes to Handel operas, my impression is that they are mostly pretty ridiculous to start with, wherever you set them.  This particular opera is ...:

… based on the history of Perctarit, king of the Lombards in the 7th century.

Those Lombards are:

Not to be confused with the modern inhabitants of the region of Lombardy, Italy.

The Lombards were:

… a Germanic people who ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from 568 to 774.

Blog and learn.  Or in this case, blog and go to the opera, and learn.

My worry is that although Rodelinda will be sung “in English”, it will be sung in standard operatic fashion, i.e. the words might as well be in Swahili for all the sense they will make.  But, because all this indecypherable gibberish will be “in English”, there will be no big signs, foreign movie style, to tell me what the hell they are singing about, like there are at the Royal Opera House, where they sing operas mostly in such languages as Italian or German, or they do if you’re lucky.

In short, my fear is that I will get what I pay for, although here’s hoping I get more.

GD2 will definitely get more, because she is studying to do this kind of thing for a living.  Insofar as it’s good she’ll learn about how to do it.  If it’s not good she’ll learn about how not to do it.  Win win.

Tuesday July 04 2017

Yesterday I attended a Royal Opera House Covent Garden dress rehearsal, of Puccini’s Turandot.  Never having seen Turandot on stage before, I learned a lot.  The singing was pretty good, especially the choral singing, but maybe I say “especially” about that because I generally prefer choral singing to “operatic” solo singing.  The staging looked appropriately splendid and exotic.

But the best fun of all was, afterwards, finding this bizarre piece of writing by Michael Tanner, for the Spectator.  What is bizarre is that Tanner disapproves of the characters and he disapproves of the “happy ending” at the end of Turandot, like some myopic Victorian moralist objecting to King Lear because of what sort of people they are and because of what happens at the end of that.

Turandot is obviously a very wicked and tyrannical ice-queen type of a woman.  But Calaf earns Tanner’s special condemnation.  This is because Calaf, being from Asia in olden times rather than the Home Counties of England now, prefers conquest, sexual and political, to the love of a good woman.  He is going to subjugate Turandot, sexually and politically, or die trying, and damn the consequences.  But in Michael Tanner’s world tenors are not supposed to think and behave like that.  Their job is to embody virtue, not watch while the slave girl who has been in love with Calaf throughout the opera is tortured and then commits suicide to spare herself more torture. After which Calaf carries right on with subjugating Turandot.  But the fact that Calaf is not the sort of person whom Tanner would want marrying his sister is rather beside the point.  Or to put the same point a quite other way, it is exactly the point.  It isn’t just the setting of Turandot that is exotic.  These are profoundly different sorts of people to those that Michael Tanner, or for that matter I, approve of.

This is like denouncing the Ring Cycle because Wotan is a god rather than a geography teacher, or because the dragons in the Ring Cycle do not behave like hedgehogs.

Calaf was also criticised by Tanner for standing still and just singing, instead of doing lots of “acting” in the modern style.  But Calaf’s whole character is that of a would-be ultra-masculine tyrant.  And tyrants instinctively exude power and strength, for instance by standing still in a very masculine chest-out pose, and singing very sonorously, rather than by doing lots of fidgety acting.  It is their underlings and victims who do all the acting, by re-acting to people like Calaf.

However, it often happens that critics who denounce works of art in rather ridiculous ways nevertheless understand them very well, and often a lot better than the people who say that they like them.  They absolutely get what the artist was doing.  It’s just that they don’t happen to like it.  I recommend Tanner’s piece as a way of understand how very different Calaf and Turandot are from their equivalents in, say, La Boheme.

Thursday May 25 2017

I don’t remember how I recently found my way back this piece in the Telegraph, but I do remember noticing it when it was first published in 2014, because I remember the graphic in it about preserving various public views of St Paul’s.

However, I don’t think I actually read it right through in 2014.  In particular, I don’t remember reading this:

It’s no secret why developers want to build towers as tall as possible. The higher an apartment block is, the more money it makes. A rule of thumb is that each floor adds at least 1.5 per cent onto the value of an apartment.

“The fact is someone will pay more to be on the 29th floor than they will to be on the 27th floor,” says Mark Dorman, head of London residential development at Strutt and Parker. They are marketing the two new towers at Nine Elms (56-storey City Tower and 45-storey River Tower, ready in 2017).

“Surprisingly, too, as has been discovered in New York, you will get as much money for a high-rise apartment facing another high-rise block as you will for an apartment facing the river.

“The same rule applies in London; you’ll get more for an apartment with a view of The Shard or the Gherkin than you will for one with a view of the Thames. People in high-rises like to look at other high-rises.”

The piece then goes on to note that others, notably the Price of Wales, don’t like high rise buildings.

So, the people who like living in high-rise apartments are willing to pay for them.  Some of those not willing to pay for them don’t like them.  Guess who wins.

Plus, there are lots of people, like me, who are not willing to pay for high rise apartments, but who do like them, because they (we) like how London is and how London looks because of all these other people living in London, making all manner of interesting business and pleasure ventures viable, and making the entire place more interesting to live in and look at, and in my case a lot more interesting to take photos of.

Here is how the Telegraph piece ends:

As for those people who worry that it’s all foreigners who are coming over here and taking our high-rises, they shouldn’t get upset, says Challis. …

Challis being “head of residential research at Jones Lang Lasalle”.

… That battle is already lost.

“The fact is, one-third of the population of London was not born here,” he says.

“Take me – I’m Canadian. When it comes to internationalisation, I have to say that this is not a new phenomenon. This city is founded on its contribution to the globe.

“It’s time everyone woke up and realised what has happened. There’s no doubt in my mind that London is now the de facto capital of the world.”

All of which was written before Brexit happened.

And I’m guessing that Brexit won’t make much of a dent in any of this.  Some voted Brexit, I am sure, to put a stop to all this, or at least to slow it down.  I voted Brexit for other reasons, and also because I didn’t think Brexit would make much of a difference to the cosmopolitan nature of London.

In the longer run, I think and hope, Brexit will make London even more the “de facto” capital of the world.  In other words (see also “fundamentally”, “essentially") not really the capital of the world at all, but you know what he’s (and I’m) getting at.

Long before London became the “de facto capital of the world”, it was also the “de facto”, as well as actual, capital of England, in the sense that it has always been a Mecca for non-Londoners.  William Shakespeare for example.  He too was, by the standards of his time, an immigrant into London.  (Who went back home to die, as most immigrants don’t, but that’s a different story.)

Thursday March 16 2017

It went on for a really long time, though.  The show kicked off at 4.30pm, and only ended at 10pm.  There were two intervals, each of just over half and hour.  I was careful to drink very sparingly beforehand.

During the overture, before the curtain went up, I also fretted that there might not be titles in English of what was about to be sung, which would mean me spending the best part of an entire working day of time trapped in a seat and bored out of my skull, with nothing to do except listen to not-my-favourite Wagner, with constant interruptions from singers, of a sort that I typically don’t much like the sound of.  And I further fretted that if there were such titles then we might not be able to read them, what with us being stuck right next to the roof about a quarter of a mile away from the action.  But all was well.  There were titles, and they were clearly readable.

A distressing effect of us sitting up at the back and the top, was that, what with the house being pretty much full and spring having got properly started during the last day or two, it became very hot for us.  I heard one middle aged lady complaining vehemently about the heat to some hapless programme girl during the second interval, and from then on it just got hotter and hotter.

Another drawback of sitting at the top and at the back, for me and my faltering eyesight, was that I couldn’t see properly who was who on the stage.  It was just too far away.  The titles told me the meaning of what was being sung, but omitted the rather crucial detail of which character was actually singing it.  In part one this was a real problem, because the stage was mostly full of similarly dressed and similar sounding bassy-baritony blokes of a certain age, the Mastersingers of the title.  It helped that, as the night wore on, there tended to be fewer people on the stage, and I thus found it easier to deduce who was singing than it had been in part one

But oh boy, Wagner certainly takes his time with this one.  It’s supposed to be a comedy, and occasionally it was.  But one of Wagner’s favourite jokes is that he signals that something is about to happen, but then whichever dithering bass-baritone is supposed to be getting on with it then takes another five minutes actually to do it, or to sing it, or whatever he is supposed to do.  This device peaked in the final act, when Mastersinger Sixtus Beckmesser takes an age to start his butchered version of the prize song, which he has stolen from the tenor.

Leading the caste was the noted (Sir) Bryn Terfel, as Hans Sachs - philosopher, poet, Mastersinger and cobbler.  I was disappointed by him.  Terfel’s voice in no way stood out during part one, with all its other bass-baritones, and one of the other bass-baritones, Mastersinger Pogner I think it was, sounded much better to me.  This was, I believe, this guy.

The tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, regularly complimented throughout the show on his beauty, was a fat middle-aged bloke who made a point of dressing down, rather than overdressing in the properly pompous Mastersinger style, at any rate in this production.  He looked, from my distant vantage point, more like a nightclub bouncer than a romantic lead.  But, and this is the only thing that really matters in opera, he sang brilliantly.  His voice was amazingly secure.  “Secure” sounds like damning with faint praise, but what I mean is that his voice combined the best qualities of a voice and a really well played musical instrument.  In this respect if in few others, yesterday was exactly like my earlier ROH experience, when tenor Joseph Calleja was also by far the best thing to be heard.  Hughes Jones’s performance of the prize song, right at the end, after Beckmesser’s mangling of it, was, as it should be, the musical highlight of the evening.

As with that earlier Verdi show, everyone else in this Meistersinger cast (apart from Pogner) made the usual operatic singing noises in the usual operatic ways, these usual operatic ways being the basic reason I mostly prefer classical music without singing, and as a rule avoid opera houses.  It isn’t just the crippling cost of the tickets.

There are two ways to sing opera badly.  You can sing with quite nice tone, but with far too much and far too slow and wobbly vibrato, to the point where neither pitch nor meaning are clear, even if you know the language.  Or, you can have less vibrato but a tone that sounds more like an industrial sawing process than a nice voice.  Last night, the singing wasn’t ever bad enough to be seriously off-putting to me, but there was more than a whiff of both styles on offer.  As often happens, the women were the worst wobblers.  And Bryn Terfel was the worst offender, to my ear, in the industrial sawing department, although perhaps the effect was made worse by me having been hoping for something better from him.  He did seem to get better as the evening wore on, although that could just be because both the music and the drama got better.  It got better very slowly, but it got better.

Die Meistersinger is a kind of pilgrimage, from old geezer fustiness to youthful brilliance as exemplified by the prize song, from light opera to heavy opera, from dreary pre-Wagnerian operatic frivolity, which Wagner could do only moderately well, to full-on Wagner, at which Wagner was, as you would expect, the supreme master. 

This production, especially in part one, was a bit off.  It was supposed to start in a church, but instead we were in a posh gentleman’s club, containing Mastersingers who looked more like affluent Victorian eccentrics than the real late-Middle-Ages deal.  Also, the ending was a bit un-Wagnerian, in that the lead soprano, Eva, wasn’t happy about the way the tenor was persuaded to join the Mastersingers, the way she surely was in Wagner’s mind when he wrote it.  But it was never freakishly stupid, like a Samuel Beckett play, and on the whole it didn’t just sound reasonably good, it looked very fine too.  Although Wagner takes an age to tell his story, there is at least a story to the thing that you care about.  Well, I did.  By the end.

Time to bust open the DVD of this opera that I have long possessed, having bought it for a tenner about a decade ago.  The early staging already looks much more convincing.

But, crucially, the tenor doesn’t sound, to me, nearly as good as the one I heard yesterday.  He really was something.

Tuesday February 07 2017

Photoed by me late last month (just before I attended this (already mentioned here in passing (she is a friend (and it went brilliantly)))):

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Yet more evidence of how digital photography has encouraged temporary art, by making it digitally preservable.  What we see is videoing, I think.  But we can be sure that a straight up still photo of the final result will be included in the photography process.

Note the silver paint, on top of what was there before.  If the previous occupant of this spot (in the Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel) didn’t have what he had done photoed, he has only himself to blame.

Don’t ask me what the graffiti means.

Thursday January 26 2017

Just heard an announcer on London Live TV pronounce Persephone as “Percy Phone”.  It should be Per Seffany, in case you also are not sure.  Y(oung) P(eople) T(hese) D(ays).  They just don’t have the Classics.

This was in connection with a show at the Vault Festival, at which a friend of mine is also performing, tonight.

Wednesday October 26 2016

I’ve been photoing the Pavlova Statue outside Victoria Station for a long time.  On the left here is how she was looking, on a particularly sunny day ten years ago:

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But look at the state of her now, as shown on the right.  I got quite a shock, I can tell you, when I came upon her about a fortnight ago, looking like this.

The Victoria Palace Theatre is being refurbished.

Monday October 24 2016

Or should that be smart batphone?:

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He is also holding a weapon, a knifey thingy. somewhat like this.

Photoed by me in Trafalgar Square last Friday.

Keeping things nice and face-recognition-hostile.

Monday October 10 2016

I’ve spent all my blogging time today trying to write a couple of things for Samizdata, so once again it’s quota photo time, this time in the form of a photo of Tom Cruise that I photoed recently, just a few minutes before I took this footbridge photo.  To be more exact, it is a photo of a photo, of Tom Cruise:

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That photo that you see in my photo is to be seen outside the Duchess Theatre in the West End, where the play being shown Goes Wrong, every night, without, although this may not be quite the way to describe things, fail.

I assume that you can only exhibit a picture of Tom Cruise like that if Tom Cruise gives his permission.  If that’s right, Tom Cruise proves himself to be a good sport.  Or, perhaps, a greedy bastard.  But for now, I’m going with good sport, if only because if he got greedy, they couldn’t afford it.

Sunday October 02 2016

Is there another such in London?:

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Well, probably yes, quite a few such.  But, there is definitely that one.  It’s the top of the restored guess version of the Globe Theatre.

As seen, of course, from the top of the Tate Modern Extension.  It’s right next to Tate Modern (the thing on the left of the picture), and you need to get right to the back of the viewing gallery, or you don’t see it.

I reckon it’s already starting to look a bit threadbare.

Thursday July 14 2016

Indeed:

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The Park in question is Finsbury, the Park Theatre being near to Finsbury Park, and more to the point from my point of view, Finsbury Park tube station.  I was there last night to see a friend perform at the Park Theatre, which she did very well.

That LIFE sign thing is just outside the smaller theatre space, where my friend was performing, at the top of the rest of the theatre.  I do not know why it is there.  Could it be that they hope that people will photo it, and then mention the Park Theatre on the internet?

I suppose the creator of this sign could also have been thinking of that old Blur tune.  But that, I believe, concerns a different park.