London highlights for culture vultures

The leaves are yet to turn brown, but as the nights start to get shorter, it’s the season for rich cultural pickings in London. Andrew Kaye has discovered what’s on offer.

The Royal Academy is gearing up for a packed autumn programme with a major new exhibition of sculptor Anthony Gormley’s work set to get underway from late September. To spoil us even further, Lucian Freud’s self-portraits will be the subject of an exhibition in November; a world first, where all fifty will appear together at the same time.

Before then, the RA offers you a chance to experience a lesser known artist, but one who is revered in his homeland of Switzerland, Félix Valloton. Valloton started out his career as a member of the Fabi movement who wanted to change the way artists gave expression to the tumultuous events of late 19th century France.

The RA characterises him as a painter of disquiet, an artistic forebear perhaps, of moody 20th century artists like Edward Hopper. There are hints here of inspiration to come for Alfred Hitchcock. Valloton’s light-and-shade interiors sweep you into a world of exchanged glances and intimate embraces.

Across town, there were many exchanged glances in the press box after the curtain came up on playwright Lucy Prebble’s new play, A Very Expensive Poison. It boldly confronts how tragedy and absurd comedy collide when political events get out of control.

The focus is former FSB agent, Alexander Litvinenko’s, 2006 murder following his poisoning in a Mayfair hotel. Rather counter-intuitively, Prebble plays the story for laughs. Satire is certainly one way of retelling this sorry tale of Russian state-sponsored murder.

Watch out for the vaudeville high-jinks involving Jewish oligarch Boris Berezovsky, played by Peter Polycarpou in a hilarious piece of casting. Polycarpou once played Sharon’s ne’er do-well husband in 1990s sitcom Birds of a Feather and shows in cartoon fashion how Berezovsky fell-foul of his one-time friend, Vladimir Putin.

In his case, sadly, Berezovsky’s riches didn’t save him, and the play poses challenging questions about truth and justice. If you like your theatre a out-there, this is worth booking.

Not everything has to cost money. There is a marvellous free exhibition on the Secret Rivers of London at the Museum of London Docklands, close to Canary Wharf. Who ever knew under our capital city flow the Westbourne, the Fleet, the Tyburn and a river called the Neckinger? Well, clearly the excellent curators here did and it’s to the soundtrack of these and many other tributaries of the Thames, you find yourself submerged in this subterranean would.

Many of these rivers were effectively “buried” in the 1700s and 1800s. Some campaigners even want to “daylight” these rivers – to effectively bring them to the surface again. The Neckinger was perhaps the creepiest sounding river of the lot, next to the old cholera-cess pits and pools of Jacob’s Island, which Dickens drew on for inspiration in Oliver Twist. For now, we must content ourselves’ with this eerie exhibition, which shows how these miles-long rivers crawl under our streets and in the case of the Westbourne, through the pipes above the platforms of Sloane Square tube station.

The National Army Museum, close by to Sloane Square, marks the 80th anniversary of the invasion of Poland, and of course the outbreak of World War Two, with the colourful and well-curated exhibition of Abram Games’ war time posters, titled ‘The Art of Persuasion’. The son of Latvian and Polish Jewish refugees, Games took his socialist ideals and deployed them in the service of the War Office and the Ministry of Information.

It is fascinating to see his surrealist motifs, later used in the opening credits of James Bond movies. There are obvious traces of his work in the Transport for London posters used on the tube today. It is amazing that some of his designs were ever sanctioned, given their desire to shock and provoke civilians, as well as the army, into action. Indeed, some weren’t as they were so direct and unforgiving in demanding action.

Games was committed to the relief of Jews both during and after the War and the most moving posters are three posters you reach halfway round the exhibition, which were designed to assist the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad. They have a power even now, seventy-four years’ on, and are unmissable for a reminder how art can indeed collide with tragedy, but not to make us smile or laugh, but to make us angry; compassionate; simply to act.

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