Keeping Up With The Dreamers

One of the ongoing joys of being part of last year’s Dream2016 players is keeping up with the subsequent appearances of the various professionals from the show. Thus only the other day while channel hopping I came across Ayesha (Titania) as part of the regular Holby City team. I know from reading recent reviews that Chu (Oberon) is still with the RSC playing the Duke of Marlborough in Queen Anne and Jack (Lysander) has found himself in one of the hits of the moment Ink which is scheduled to transfer to the West End in the autumn. It’s also been fun going to see some of the most supportive people I’ve ever met in action. Thus I’ve enjoyed Alex (our Bottom understudy) in Made In Dagenham, Mari (Peaseblossom) in a touring production of Pride and Prejudice and Lucy (Puck) twice in her solo outing in Grounded and as part of the company in Arturo Ui at the Donmar.

 

Most recently, though, I attended a performance of a new play Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion fringe theatre, Islington where I was delighted to see Peter Hamilton Dyer (our Egeus) in the lead role of the celebrated author. Here’s my thoughts on this production:

It is late 1949 and renowned author George Orwell is lying in his own personal Room 101; for him “the worst thing in the world” is that he may not be able to continue to write. For he is in a hospital bed suffering from recurrent tuberculosis which has left him weak and forbidden to work even though he feels he has at least three more novels in him. Salvation, of sorts, arrives in the form of Sonia Brownell, an assistant magazine editor sixteen years his junior, to whom Orwell proposes a platonic marriage. Despite finding a degree of happiness Orwell survives only another three months leaving Sonia a widow and the fearsome protector of his literary estate.

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The beating heart of Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell is the relationship between Orwell and Sonia. What were the latter’s motives – genuine affection, mercenary money grabbing, pity? What did Orwell really hope to get out of it (“a mistress, housekeeper, nurse, literary executor and mother for Richard”?) We are never really told and this makes the piece all that more intriguing. Proud Haddock’s production of this new play at The Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington proves to be a strong one with two excellent central performances.

Despite being called Mrs Orwell the play’s key figure is undoubtedly the writer himself. As played by uncanny look alike Peter Hamilton Dyer, Orwell starts as an irascible curmudgeon with very fixed views on, among other things, how to make the perfect cup of tea; he is also fiercely defensive of his literary work. Hamilton Dyer’s performance is captivating and rewarding making us care for this deeply principled yet inflexible man who sees a last chance for inner peace. As Orwell’s health briefly improves at the start of Act 2, so Hamilton Dyer’s performance grows in stature as the writer plans a return to his beloved Isle of Jura and reflects on his past experiences in the Burma police and the Spanish Civil War. Cressida Bonas gives an assured performance as Sonia. She is both enigmatic and haughty and conveys a clear sense of inner turmoil as she struggles to do the right thing by herself and her dying friend.

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Peter Hamilton Dyer as George Orwell and Cressida Bonas as Sonia

A suitably and believably louche performance by Edmund Digby Jones as artist Lucian Freud adds a note of conflict to proceedings and a solid turn by Robert Stocks as publisher Fred Warburg helps to place the Orwells’ dilemmas in a wider context… though the potted history of Orwell’s career by the latter seems to come far too late in proceedings to make much difference and might have been better confined to the programme.

Director Jimmy Walters keeps a tight hand on proceedings and ensures that the action flows seamlessly across the play’s episodic structure. The set, by designer Rebecca Brower, is little short of a miracle given the amount of space at the production’s disposal. It even includes a soulless corridor (reminiscent of one of the Ministries in 1984) where much of the secretive conversations between Orwell’s visitors take place. I’m not sure if miking these scenes is an absolute necessity but I have to say I found this somewhat distracting for what were supposed to be whispered exchanges.

However, this is a minor gripe and in the end it did not detract from the overall strong nature of the production. The play gives a fascinating glimpse into the last days of a great author and I hope it will continue to have a life beyond the fringe. It would make an excellent TV drama on BBC 4 but wherever it ends up it should certainly take Hamilton Dyer and Bonas with it. To quote Orwell himself the production is definitely plusgood.*

So that’s my latest foray into the world of the ex-Dreamers. And what’s on the horizon? Well our wonderful assistant director Kim Sykes is tackling Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage at Stratford upon Avon and our very own Ben Goffe (Mustardseed) is in the cast. Chris Nayak (Demetrius) is just about to appear in the cast of King Lear at the Globe. And for those of you not in town Tarek Merchant, our talented MD and mastermind of so many Dream warm up sessions, is in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. I’m sure there’s plenty of the others up to stuff so please forgive me if I’ve not mentioned them – without becoming a full time stalker it’s hard to keep up with such a talented bunch.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

Shakespeare…from last to first

I admit that I am probably rather biased when it comes to productions mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. After spending 18 months working with them on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation I think it would be strange if I could view their work entirely dispassionately but in the interests of a truthful blog that’s what I intend to try and do. Although I had been to see their production of Cymbeline some months ago, that was more in the interests of completion (see below) than anything else so it had been some while since I had seen any of their work. I was, therefore, looking forward to the two productions I saw more recently with a sense of expectation.

TempestFirst up was The Tempest at the Barbican. This was a rerun of the much anticipated production which premiered in Stratford upon Avon in 2016 and brought to an end the year long celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Not only had the RSC secured Simon Russell Beale as Prospero but they had decided to push technological boundaries by working with Intel and the Imaginarium Studios to create never before seen on stage special effects. Rather as the RSC had chosen Dream specifically to work to incorporate amateur actors, so this play was the clear choice to produce a stage picture which owed much to the masques of the Jacobean era with their use of visual spectacle and “magic.” The play opened with a huge storm at sea and some interesting projection made the carcass of the ship (the production’s setting) sway from side to side. Food appeared and as suddenly disappeared on a banqueting table. Highly coloured moving backdrops gave depth to the song of the goddesses. Central to all this visual splendour was the character of Ariel portrayed this time by an actor (Mark Quartley) working in a motion capture suit and then having the images projected onto the stage – the same technique used to create Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings films. Thus Ariel could be seen to fly, appear in multiple locations very rapidly, turn into a winged harpy and genuinely float unseen among other unaware characters.

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So did it all work? Well yes and no. The visual effects were, as advertised, different and arresting. The first time Ariel appeared and the actor’s image was projected there was a definite moment of tingle but I’m afraid after that I found it somewhat distracting. I was never quite certain whether to watch the image or Quartley (often at different points on the stage) and found myself focusing on the latter from where the words were clearly issuing. I thought some of the projections (e.g. Prospero’s “hounds” which chase Caliban and his co-conspirators) worked rather better. It had struck me by the interval that what we were essentially watching was quite a traditional take on the play overlaid with innovative technology and I think it was the rather more basic take on the play which I felt let things down. That and the fact that over the years I’ve probably seen The Tempest more often than any other Shakespeare play which lent it an air of over familiarity – it was often on the A Level syllabus and so there were plenty of school outings. The worst was Vanessa Redgrave mangling it as Prospero at The Globe and the best being another RSC production back in 1983 directed by a then relatively unknown Sam Mendes with Alec McCowan as Prospero and a much younger Simon Russell Beale as Ariel (yes, you didn’t misread that!)

Talking of SRB, how was he in the central role? As mesmerising as ever with a fine sense of character and such clear diction – he could read the proverbial telephone directory and make it sound interesting in my view. Would that some of the rest of the cast had come up to his extremely high standard rather than, seemingly, going through the motions – Jenny Rainsford as Miranda an honourable exception. The comic characters I found tedious and the various lords uninteresting; actually there’s nothing new there because basically they are uninteresting.

So I left the Barbican with mixed feelings. I was glad to have caught up with the production to see what technological marvels could be achieved onstage nowadays but if I don’t see another Tempest for a while I don’t think I’ll be sorry.

The Tempest is often cited as Shakespeare’s final play – at least the one that is solely by his hand – and contains his great farewell to the stage. My second RSC visit in a week was to one of his first Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the early ones) are notoriously hard to date but let’s go with the RSC’s own timeline which has it as number 5. This time I found myself back in Stratford upon Avon for the first time in a year (my last blog post explains the context for this) and sitting in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

TAFrankly I wasn’t expecting that much of this production; early Shakespeare/a random plot/clunky poetry/lots of blood and gore – but how wrong I was. The play was thoroughly gripping with very clear direction (Blanche McIntyre) and some excellent performances. David Troughton as Titus himself was superb and all the other actors were equally engaging. A special mention goes to Patrick Drury as Titus’ brother Marcus who really invested his character with a high degree of believability in one of the less showy parts (though to be fair he does get one of the best speeches in the play). Saturninus, played by Martin Hutson was reminiscent of far too many conniving figures in modern day media based politics and Nia Gwynne excelled as a slinky Tamora, the Goth Queen.

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What bloody man is that? (Wrong play!)

And so to the blood. Yes there was plenty of it as limbs, heads and a tongue are hacked off, stabbings and shootings take place and Tamora’s sons are ritually butchered – even an ill-fated fly meets a grisly end. But there was a macabre tone of black humour underpinning it all which kept most of the audience rapt, though two members of my party confessed to watching the most graphic bits through one eye behind their fingers! I’ve heard more than one critic say that this is Shakespeare doing a Tarantino and indeed the bloodshed and playfulness with language was entirely reminiscent of said film director: the closing banquet scene and mass killing were straight out of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Given that Shakespeare predates Tarantino by several millennia though, perhaps the influences are rather more the other way round.

The thing that was really telling was the element of surprise. Even though I had an idea of the story outline this is one of the few Shakespeare’s I have never seen on stage before so it had the power to keep me hooked simply because I didn’t know what was coming next – unlike The Tempest. Whatever else, that Shakespeare bloke certainly knew how to tell a compelling story. Anyway that’s one more of Shakespeare’s plays ticked off the list. I’m not doing badly though it’s taken a number of years and I now have just five more plays of his left unseen on stage. Anyone care to take a guess which ones? Please post guesses below. (One clue: I’ve seen all the comedies)

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Happy Dreamerversary

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Just about a year ago a huge army of people (including our little Tower Theatre team) from all around the country were involved with one of the most innovative theatre projects ever let loose on an unsuspecting audience, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. I seem to recall writing a little account of it at the time; you may even remember it (if not, click here). Now as a footnote to all that it’s time to see what’s happening one year on.

It’s actually quite difficult to believe that a whole year has elapsed since we found ourselves appearing on the stage of both the Barbican in London and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon as, at the time, it was so all consuming. But it would have been remiss of us to let such a momentous anniversary pass uncommemorated so we duly set about doing some commemoratering (?)

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“Now, this is the way we did it at the RSC….”

In May we were unable to directly mark the equivalent week of our London run as people who should have known better had cast me as Dogberry in Tower’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. Playing what was essentially Nick Bottom’s second cousin exactly one year on from Dream2016 was, I thought, a nice way to commemorate the event even if the venue and audiences were both somewhat smaller. If I am being honest, it gave me something to focus on rather than get maudlin about the highs which the RSC project had provided but it was also fun in its own right and provided a sense of camaraderie and achievement. Absolutely no disrespect intended to my Dream colleagues but “setting sail” with a new band of players provided a shot in the arm and an uplifting experience. Though Bottom certainly has a lot more to say for himself, getting to grips with the well meaning but often incomprehensible dialogue which Shakespeare gives Dogberry proved a different type of challenge; it was somewhat of a relief that he only appears from Act 3 onwards. What was certain is that skills I had learned through the Dream project came in very handy during the rehearsal process and I was pretty pleased with the end result.

All this meant that celebration had to wait until the following week. The team gathered together in the Barbican, there to meet with our producer at the time Leanne and relive some old memories of what, for a week, became our home from home. This was followed by a meal at director David’s house and a viewing of the Best Bottoms In The Land TV programme which recorded (some) of our exploits. It was particularly poignant watching this especially as it was not something we had managed to do at the time as a group. It also led to several moments of “did I really say that?” but overall the programme provided a very nice memento of our adventure.

The evening finished with us tweeting  a short video to our very own and very fondly remembered Puck (Lucy Ellinson). Lucy being Lucy soon tweeted a reply video from backstage at the Donmar Warehouse where she was appearing alongside Lenny Henry in Brecht’s Arturo Ui. As the character of Puck closes A Midsummer Night’s Dream this was a fitting ending to our reunion…but of course we weren’t finished yet.

TASeveral weeks later in mid July we reconvened yet again, this time in Stratford upon Avon the scene of our second short run and where the play had finally closed for good the previous mid July. Actually we were a week out again. Adam’s fault this time as he was busy working at the Wimbledon championships (at least that’s his story). The centrepiece of our day out was a performance at the RST of Titus Andronicus. Somewhat different in nature to Dream, it has to be said, and not an immediately obvious choice for a light hearted outing. However, it turned out to be a superb production and reminded us of why our time working with the RSC had been so fabulous. It was also a treat to gaze in fond remembrance at the auditorium which had meant so much to us during our brief stay there and to see the audience’s obvious enjoyment of Shakespeare’s work. (For a fuller review of the play please click here)

 

 

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“Isn’t it nice of  Adam to take our photo?…But why do you think he wanted us to stand just here?”

There was only one place to go post show – the Dirty Duck across the road from the theatre. As we walked there Greg Doran (RSC supremo) shot out of the main door to The Swan auditorium. “Hi Greg” we called cheerily; although he returned the greeting with a wave I wasn’t convinced that he remembered us (can’t think why not, after all there were only about 100 of us amateurs involved in the project). The Duck was less busy than we recalled – perhaps for some reason the Titus audience members didn’t fancy the beef and ale pie so strongly recommended on the menu! Anyway – all the more room for us and space for more reminiscing; both David S and Nicky from the Dream’s local Stratford team (The Bear Pit) turned up and it was particularly cheering to see Lindsey who had been our ASM and was now working on a new production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. More tales of onstage bloodshed ensued; we asked Lindsey if the Wilde and Shakespeare productions shared severed heads.

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We happy few

Sitting on the train on the way back gave me time to check that I hadn’t (as I often thought) imagined it all. Sure enough there we still were preserved for posterity on the RSC website (click here), the Dream2016 website (click here) and, of course, in the full blog (click here) which still receives regular visitors from around the globe: there’s even a mention on that most reliable of sources Wikipedia (click here).

And so, with last year’s adventure having been well and truly commemoratered (?), it was time for us to go our separate ways. Unlike other am dram “families” which come together for a brief period and then go off to pastures new and probably never meet up again, I think (hope) that this particular group will continue to enjoy and share the life experience which was RSCDream2016.

 What have they been up to?

David (Director) is currently part of a team looking to purchase a new permanent home for the Tower Theatre company. He hopes to do some more directing next year.

Maria (Quince) has been gigging with the band Dutch Courage and is currently in rehearsal to play the lead in Gypsy at the Minack in Cornwall.

Al (Snout) took part in another Shakespearean biggie when he got to perform in the “lost play” Cardenio on the banks of the Thames in Richmond.

Adam (Flute) is busy with preparations for his wedding next year but has not been too busy to appear in Sherlock Holmes and The Accrington Pals and has just started rehearsals as the lead in The Thirty Nine Steps.

Tom (Starveling) has – so far – held good on his promise to retire from the stage but he continues to be a fount of theatrical knowledge and wisdom for us younger folk (ahem!)

Peta (Snug) has taken a well earned break after all that roaring but still made lots of noise playing percussion in The Return Of The Marionettes.

And me? Well, I directed Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce back in February and then, as mentioned above, appeared as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. Hopefully there’ll be something new in the pipeline very soon so watch this space.

 

 

A bit of a farce

(As with the previous post this one was begun some time go but I never quite got round to finishing it – hopefully patience is now rewarded)

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When I finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation last summer it was some time before I could contemplate doing anything else in the dramatic line. The process had been so all consuming and, of course, so fulfilling that any other contemplated project seemed dull in comparison. But in time the pleasant memories remained and engendered a desire to create something new once more. At just the right moment Tower Theatre’s, then, artistic director Eddie Coleman asked me if I would like to take up the challenge of directing a show in the 2017 spring season. It had been some time since I had donned my director’s hat but the RSC experience had left me with a raft of new directing ideas and techniques that I wanted to try out so I agreed.

Eddie had heard that I was a great devotee of Ayckbourn and suggested I might want to think about A Chorus of Disapproval. Though this is undoubtedly a great play I did have one or two misgivings. Firstly, I generally prefer to work with small casts, if possible staying in single figures. I always (semi) joke that one of the best directing jobs I had was working on Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine. Unlike the film the play is a one actress extended monologue – this guaranteed full cast attendance at every rehearsal! Unlike this piece,  Chorus has over a dozen named parts (plus extras) so from that point of view I didn’t think it would be ideal. Secondly, the play is multi location and I thought for a first Tower show I’d quite like to keep to one set. Thirdly it is a play with music (the Pendon Players are rehearsing/performing The Beggar’s Opera). Again I  felt this might be a complication too far this first time out.

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Annie & Jonathan as Delia & Ernest

So, the challenge was to come up with another play by the same author. One glance at my directing CV will reveal that it is Ayckbourn heavy, this would make the tenth of his plays so far. I didn’t particularly want to revisit any previous ideas and the two front runners for a time were later plays such as Neighbourhood Watch and Arrivals and Departures. I particularly favoured the latter with its timely look at preventing terrorism but, alas, the performing licence for the play was not available at the time when decisions had to be made. I then begin to think about some of the more “classic” Ayckbourn pieces and it occurred to me that I’d never had a crack at Bedroom Farce one of the National Theatre’s early hits in the mid 1970s. The more I thought about it the more it appealed. Even the setting, three bedrooms side by side would suit the configuration of the venue, Theatro Technis in Camden. And so the choice was made.

Tower give a long lead in time, thankfully, so much of the autumn was spent in planning, preparing and gathering a team of creatives together. In this I was very fortunate and “twice blessed” to gather together the team I did – especially as they were taking a punt on a (to the company) untried director. Before I knew where I was it was time for auditions. Now, through most of my am dram career I have never had to run such an entity; usually it was simply a matter of selecting who one thought best for the role and approaching them individually so it was with a little trepidation that I readied myself for a far more democratic approach.

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Hattie & Ryan as Jan & Nick

All I hoped was that someone would turn up and at the very first audition that was precisely what happened – someONE turned up; that was a short evening and no mistake. The second audition brought a rather more substantial number of people forward but there were a couple of key roles to fill that I didn’t feel I could cast from the existing pool – talented though they were undoubtedly were. So a hastily convened third audition was arranged and even though it was a Saturday evening a good turn out occurred. Finally the pieces slotted into place; indeed 50% of the cast came from this third try out. Ayckbourn has said the biggest single element of a director’s job is in getting the casting right and I was pleased (and not a little relieved) to feel that this had been achieved. Little did I know that I was to be blessed in another significant way. It is one of the constant bugbears of am dram that busy people cannot always make rehearsal and in an ensemble piece like Bedroom Farce this could easily have proved fatal. However matters were able to be so arranged that there wasn’t one rehearsal where someone needed couldn’t or didn’t appear. I’m sure other am dram directors may look at this with a disbelieving eye but it really happened (it probably never will again) and I think the benefits showed clearly in the final results.

They really did turn out to be a crack cast, sympathetic to Ayckbourn’s vision and constantly striving to get to the heart of the text and make the characters really live. The decision was taken very early on to keep the play in its original time setting – 1975. Modernising would not have worked if only because a major plot thread relied on there being no such thing as mobile phones. Besides which we could then have some fun with costumes, hair styles and the settings (plenty of orange and brown!) It dawned on me quite quickly that the majority of the cast were not even born when the play was first put on and so there was a good deal to convey about social etiquette of the time – one intense half hour was all about how to use a land line phone with a dial (how quaint!)

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Martin & Hatty as Malcolm & Kate

At first we rehearsed the play crossways, concentrating on events in each bedroom in turn. This gave continuity to action and character and ensured there was a through line in each location. After a two week scheduled lay off for Christmas (and, to be honest, while I went to Cuba) it was time to put everything together. I was extremely gratified to find that the cast were pretty much on top of their words and that they enjoyed seeing the bits of the play that they weren’t in and where they weren’t privy to the work that had gone on. One aspect of rehearsal that I will recall fondly is the sheer amount of laughter that was generated – that and the site of adults deflating the airbeds we were using in rehearsal like kids on a bouncy castle. I even began to worry that rehearsals were progressing too smoothly and that we were in for a major crash anytime soon. However this didn’t happen and I was even able to cancel two of the later rehearsals as I  didn’t want the cast to go off the boil by peaking too early.

Early February saw us at our production venue and here things progressed unnervingly smoothly too. A last minute cancellation of a proposed tube strike helped the general mood and as I saw the magnificent set taking shape I could sense we were on to a winner. And so it proved.  It is not for me to review my own production. I’ll leave that in the capable hands of others – particularly as they have been so positive and generous, suffice to say that I thought the production captured the tragedy as well as the comedy of the protagonists’ situation and that these were real people caught up in real situations. A far cry from the “farce” indicated (ironically) in the title.

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Richard & Rachel as Trevor & Susannah

Despite early misgivings and concern that it wouldn’t live up to my dramatic odyssey of 2016, I’m glad I bit the bullet and created something new. Thanks to everyone who helped me to realise my vision – the cast who performed superbly, the creative and technical team who supported the whole enterprise and to the audience for coming along and enjoying the evening rather than opting for an early night.

(A full archive of the show including cast details, production pictures and reviews can be found here)

Wonderful 208

(This blog post was actually begun about six weeks ago, but what with one thing and another it never got finished….until now. Your patience is appreciated)

downloadThe number 208 may seem fairly random and innocuous and yet to someone of my generation there is a certain mystique about it. It was the medium wave frequency number of the legendary Radio Luxembourg. Long before the BBC ramraided the pirate radio stations and launched the good ship Radio 1 in 1967, Fab(ulous) 208 was broadcasting pop music from the centre of the continent and if you wanted to hear the latest hits that was what you tuned into….and retuned…and retuned yet again. The signal was fairly dire but at it was better than nothing – and nothing was definitley the alternative.  Even when Radio 1  did get going it only retained its separate identity during daytime and in the evening merged with the rather more staid Radio 2; so, not much use to those of us who were at school. Hence everyone I knew continued to tune into Luxembourg to listen to some of the biggest DJ names of the times – Kenny Everett being particularly notable….plus several others who have since become houehold names.

All this preamble is by way of introducing a recent swift three day visit to the radio station’s country of origin. An interesting hybrid of German/French/Belgian and Dutch influences, Luxembourg is both a country and a city while at the same time retaining the sense that it is like none of these much bigger nations. The Luxembourgeois (think that’s right) even have their own language – Luxemburgish – though I can’t say I heard it spoken…or if I did, I didn’t recognise the fact.

One big advantage is that the country is only a short hop by plane from London City Airport so no tedious flogging out to Heathrow or Gatwick and then only just over an hour later LuxAir (they are big enough to have their own airline) lands you in Luxembourg City.

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The Grund from above

The topography of the capital is somewhat strange. There is the main town built on either side of the bluffs and in between this, nestling at the bottom of a very steep gorge is the older “lower town” or “Grund”. This is not to be confused with the “old town” proper which is actually part of the main town and certainly not to be confused with the modern centre on the Kirchberg Plateau where we were staying. One tip for the intending visitor is to make sure you have all this fixed in your head before you attempt to walk anywhere…unless you particularly like behaving like the Grand Old Duke of York. A conventional 2D map isn’t that much help either. To be fair there are some spectacular views to be had in the city and you certainly get a feel for the olde worlde nature of the winding cobbled streets and the architecture of the private and public buildings. In the end nothing is really that far from anything else and with a highly efficient bus system plus public (free) lifts to transport you vertically it is difficult to go really wrong.

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Vikander in rush hour – note the Disneyesque castle above and the Hotel Victor Hugo below (apparently the author exiled himself here to escape Napoleon’s wrath)

Talking of the transport system, for the princely sum of €4, an all day travel card can be had. This not only gets you around the city but, amazingly, anywhere in the whole country by train/bus. Alright admittedly it’s a very small country but could you imagine going anywhere and everywhere all day in an area  the size of the Yorkshire Dales (roughly) for a shade over three quid? The second day was spent doing exactly this on some rail and bus journeys from almost the southern to almost the northern end of the country and back again. In between a couple of stops at picturesque Vianden (very German in a Grimms’ fairytale type way) and Clervaux (very Belgian in a chocolately/Ardennes pate kind of way) revealed a slow pace of life and a wonderful paucity of tourists. Mind you it was mid February so that might have had somethig to do with it. The northern reaches of Luxembourg were heavily affected by the World War 2 campaigns in the Ardennes which stretch across the Belgian border into northern Luxembourg so a good area for history buffs to see. Ettlebruck even has a statue to the American liberator General Patton.

As with the general culture the food in Luxembourg is an eclectic mix. Heavily influenced by French finesse coupled with German portion sizes (so the best of both worlds then) I was amazed to discover that they have more Michelin starred restaurants per head of population there than anywhere else in the world. Perhaps needless to say there was a plentitude of smoked, cured meats, sausages and pates. Öennenzop (onion soup) was ubiquitous and tasty, leberknödel (liver dumplings) with sauerkraut was perhaps less appealing. The national dish (which also went untried) is bouchée à la Reine – chicken and mushrooms in a large puff pastry case, so basically an XL portioned vol-au-vent; like the radio station, another hangover from the 70s. Dessertwise they are very into ice cream cakes plus they love their cheese: Kaempff-Kohler’s is the place to go if you’re in town.

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Of the fondly remembered radio station there was not a trace, though I gather at one stage that it was relaunched as an internet broadcaster…but subsequently seems to have disappeared again. Perhaps that is as it should be. Although in many ways quite a modern city there are definitely bits of Luxembourg that are stuck in a time warp..but that, of course, is part of its charm.

Our Man In Havana (and elsewhere in Cuba)

What a singularly strange place Cuba is to be sure. Caribbean – but not really, American – only superficially, Communist friendly – increasingly less so, a haven for Canadians – definitely.

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Much Cuban architecture has a Mediterranean feel to it

The first thing that struck me about Havana was the sheer lack of global brands – nada de Coca Cola, nada de Starbucks, nada de Macdonalds and nada every other big franchise one can think of. Why even Beijing has a KFC but not Havana. Ever since the Bay of Pigs “falling out” in the early 60s American capitalist products have been debarred from Cuban shelves. Even now Americans are not generally allowed to holiday there. Only visits to family members or trips for an educational purpose are permitted and even though the American embassy was reopened in 2015 it is still regarded with a degree of suspicion. Will the thaw continue now that Fidel has died? Possibly. Or, now that Donald J. has been inaugurated, possibly not!

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As a pink Cadillac was not in evidence a powder blue Chevvy had to do

So America is a no – no (hence all those Canadians??) One notable exception are the Chevys, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, etc which fill the streets. All from pre the 1960s, lovingly restored and carefully tended with judicious use of Cuban Chrome (a type of foil duct tape) these blasts from the past act as family vehicles as well as the more obvious tourist trap taxis. They are there because Cuba imported them in abundance during the 40s and 50s but then came the trade sanctions so suddenly there were no more repair parts. The flood of  imported vehicles also dried up and a cottage/cabana industry grew up to preserve the largest collection of vintage vehicles you are likely to see outside the Brighton rally. And yes we did take a ride in one  – an open top 1943 Chevy. This took us all round the sights of Havana. Around Cuban Chinatown, out by Plaza de la Revolución with its huge murals of Fidel and Che, all along the Malecón (sea front and harbour). Perhaps the most unexpected sight was the statue of John Lennon sitting on a park bench (“they say you want a revolution!”). Designed with removable granny glasses there is now a lady attendant who looks after these and pops them on the statue for the tourist photos – apparently the original ones kept getting stolen.

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Imagine!

The only bit of Havana you can’t really see from a car is the old town – the expected mish mash of narrow cobbled winding strets and alleyways with cafes every few yards. Here also is the ancient cathedral and some very Spanish looking squares. There are many tourist shops and “regular” shops. The latter are often run by the state and featured queues of locals outside trying to get their hands on the latest delivery of fruit or toiletries. There are clear shortages of basics still and even if one is temped to buy something (cheap rip-off cigars, anyone?) there is still the notorious double currency to negotiate. Both local pesos and tourist money exists –  a cup of Cuban coffee might therefore cost 2 or 200 depending on the denominations you’re working in. And of course you can’t take currency in or out – neither are the airports particularly keen on resupplying your own currency when you leave. We had to make do with Euros rather than stirling before flying out – have these people never heard of Brexit?

Hotels are pretty acceptable though restaurants are less inspiring; Christmas dinner was half a chicken – the bottom half! But then, of course, the Cubans don’t really do Christmas. On December 25th it appeared to be just a normal day though it was in fact a public holiday. Markets were bustling, people were hustling. There is clear evidence of poverty in many quarxxxters but everyone seems remarkably happy and friendly. The apparently ceaseless sound of the song “Guantanamera” floated constantly above the crowds (although a love song it hails from the Cuban region of Guantanamo Bay and therefore now has distinctly unfortunate overtones to Western ears). Still, nudging 25 degrees in the middle of
December can’t be bad and reading Graham Greene’s famous novel set in the city gained a new resonance as the tale of Mr Wormald the vacuum cleaner salseman and reluctant double agent became all too believeable following visits to the places that are mentioned in the book.

After three days in the capital it was off to Varadero some 80 miles from Havana and a beach resort purportedly built by Russian oligarchs. This was a bit more recognisable as a standard Caribbean resort featuring miles of white sand, all inclusive hotels, and a laid back attitude for those seeking some holiday down time. It soon became evident that the vast majority of the peninsula was owned by just a handful of international chains notably the Spanish Iberostar which has links to the Nadal family (he of tennis fame). No room for poverty here – quite the reverse. Opulence, luxury and excess abounded. The hotel shop even had Coca Cola (though admittedly imported via Mexico and therefore quite expensive).SONY DSC

The beach area and hotel grounds was a haven for wildlife with many species of gecko and birds such as the tri coloured trogon, the national bird whose red, white and blue colouring is echoed in the national flag (and definitley nothing to do with the same hues on the stars and stripes!) There was also the bee hummingbird, at only 5 cm the smallest of the species and far too quick for me to capture on camera – though this guy seems to have managed it

. Most prevalent were the pelicans flying along the shoreline and dive bombing for fish; spectacular both at dawn and dusk.

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Like Christmas, New Year was relatively muted though there was a knees up for the internationals around the pool at midnight. There was intriguingly some little mounds of what I can only assume was talcum powder in the lavabos that evening – must have been a local custom!

It was rather a shock to come back to cold grey leaden skies and the freezing temperatures of London. Even more of a “shock” was the obvious enfranchisement (literally) of the streets by Costa Coffee et al. Ah well, I suppose there’s no avoiding it!

Every Inch A King?

Sometimes there seem to be theatrical trends which cut across various productions. Surely it was more than a coincidence that these were amply demonstrated across two Shakespeare productions which I went to in the last few days.

First it was off to the Old Vic for the much sought after production of King Lear with Glenda Jackson taking on the demanding central role after many years absence playing  a long running part in the soap opera cum farce taking place in a large auditorium in Westminster. It is pleasing to report that she has not lost her commanding presence on stage though my only point of comparison is seeing her in the late 70s in a play called Rose penned by Andrew Davis – now more famous for his television screenpays of classic novels (e.g. Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace).

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Jackson looked like she’d never been away, finding the full range of Lear’s character and was highly effective being particularly strong in the storm scene  – the one setting/design element I thought worked very well. She led a strong company: Jane Horrocks and Celia Imrie playing the wicked daughters (though the latter, it has to be said, played Celia Imrie), an anarchic Fool in Rhys Ifans, the ever dependable Karl Johnson as Gloucester and Harry Potter alumnus Harry Melling (cousin Dudley) as a hyperactive Edgar/Poor Tom.

Deborah Warner’s  production itself I found wearing even at times gimmicky (did Glouceter’s eyeball really have to be thrown into the audience?) The set was modern(istic) and costume non-existent. Some of the actors were dressed as though they’d turned up for a rehearsal and hadn’t bothered to change. Before the start and during the interval the actors (as opposed to the characters) roamed the stage chatting to each other before the work itself began. And I suppose that was the point. It was all “designed” to point out that this was a play – not reality. Most annoying of all was the seeming necessity to project act and scene numbers throughout the action. Why in the name of all that’s holy? Distracting and ultimately unnecessary. So far, so Bertolt Brecht!

But to return to the main event – it was undoutedly Jackson’s evening and probably the strongest account of the role I have seen. Not flashy/showy but by turns, virulent, pathetic (in the best sense of the word), superbly paced and vocally assured. There was no hint here of the gender being altered – the masculine pronouns were intact throughout – and the question of whether this was King Lear or Queen Lear simply never arose…which is just as it should be.

Less than a week later in was off to another 3½ hour Shakespeare in the  RSC’s Cymbeline. This was the first time I’d been to the Barbican since appearing there in A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in May so there were some nostalgic twinges on entering the auditorium – this time looking at the stage rather than out from it. It was also the first time I’d seen this particular play and I can’t say that I found it overwhelming though from a completist point of view it was satisfying to have placed a tick against it. Frankly it’s a bit of a mishmash – shades of Othello, Winter’s Tale, Lear and even As You Like It were evident and I swear blind I heard a line directly borrowed from Macbeth (Shakespeare doing his late career “Greatest Hits” album?). The plot was fantastical but not necessarily in a good way and shifted about between Ancient Briton, Rome and, rather more prosaically, Milford Haven. I couldn’t really engage with the heroine Imogen on Innogen or whatever we’re going to call her, the interesting villain Iachimo basically disappeared about a third of the way through and both the exposition and the final revelations were tedious and contrived.

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However it was, once again, some of the production choices that really grated. A dance number to introduce the Roman setting (why?). Cloten and his cronies doing a boy band routine to serenade the heroine (amusing but intrusive). Mute onlookers (once again to remind us we were watching a play perhaps). And, here we go again, sections of the text translated into Italian for the relevant actors to speak but then the text being projected onto the stage in English so the audience could follow it. I think we’ve all learned to accept that in a play actors playing foreigners won’t actually be speaking in “foreign” – besides by the time the second half rolled round all the “Italians” seemed to have mastered perfect English having apparently taking a crash Berlitz course prior to invading.

As with the production of Lear there was also some “gender bending” though, not that I could see, to any great benefit. King Cymbeline became Queen Cymbeline and this time the gender was definitely changed with all references to “him” being altered to “her” and so forth. It’s not even as if the title role is a particularly rewarding one. Changing Cymbeline’s gender meant that the monach’s consort had to be changed from the Queen to the Duke and as this is the possibly more interesting role it meant that (in my eyes at least) the male actor got the better deal which perhaps defeats the object of the regendering. Other traditonally male roles went to actresses but here they were females playing males so that lent an air of confusion to proceedings. I don’t have a particularly strong feeling about how males and females should be cast (as far as I’m concerned the best person should play the role) but if there is going to be tinkering – at least keep it consistent thoughout the production.

So have we found ourselves now in the midst of an era of concept theatre where everything is up for grabs and alterable according to suit the director’s/designer’s vision? Maybe … and maybe there will be the inevitable backlash (cf. what’s happened with Emma Rice and the Globe theatre). Although I’m not a traditionalist (after all I’d been in Dream which was updated to the 1940s with an androgynous Puck and assorted males and females playing the mechanicals and fairies) I begin to carp when the production tries to take over from the author’s intentions. Let’s remember “the play’s the thing”!

 

A theatrical “meal” with the prolific Sir Alan Ayckbourn

When you  have written so many pieces for the stage and reached your late seventies you’d think it would be time to slow down…wouldn’t you? Not a bit of it in Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s case. As I have done many times in the past it was off to Scarborough and the Stephen Joseph Theatre last weekend to see his latest productions, two of which were born this year.scar

Scarborough always seems such a long way away – even when you get to York it’s still another good hour to the Yorkshire coast. So perhaps approaching it via the Humber Bridge would be easier (??) Nope! Still a long way. But as seaside towns go it’s welcoming and manages not to be too garish and, of course, it has possibly the most famous theatre in the round in the world. Going to the theatre there is always a pleasure and I’ve been lucky enough to see a number of premieres at the venue including Wildest Dreams (my very first visit to the (old) SJT back in 1991), By Jeeves (the musical written in collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber and the first show at the current SJT), House and Garden (the two interlinked plays performed simultaneously in two different auditoria) and Impossible Fiction (in which I feature briefly as an offstage character – long story behind that one) to name but a few. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have attended summer schools run by the theatre and featuring the great man himself sharing his secrets about writing, directing and his very perceptive thoughts on the human condition.

So I’m definitely no stranger to the environs of this particular seaside town which has all the usual fish and chip emporia, seafood stalls, trips round the bay, donkeys (sadly not in evidence), rock manufacturers and bucket and spade shops. These latter seem to have been somewhat eclipsed by the new breed of PoundStore/Land/World/Whatever shops ubiquitous in most towns these days and which added to the air of faded grandeur. I was particuarly surprised to see the state of disrepair into which the Futurist Theatre on the South Bay seafront had fallen. Once home to premiers acts it is now permanently shut and faces the threat of the bulldozers.

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But of course I was here to attend another theatre entirely; one housed in the former art deco Odeon cinema and pleasingly dominated by the plays of the Amazing Mr A. This time round I was here for something called The Ayckbourn Triple – an all day event featuring his three most current productions. Reflecting on it afterwards, it felt like attending a substantial three course meal where tastebuds were tickled, surprised and ultimately satiated.

cpLate morning saw the hor d’oeuvre served up. This was Consuming Passions, two half hour pieces entitled Premonitions and Repercussions originally performed separately in the theatre Bistro at lunchtimes but now played sequentially in the McCarthy auditorium. Officially recognised as Ayckbourn’s 80th full length play, the storyline revolves round a murder plot which may or may not happen and may or may not be fantasy. The writer has taken to some cheeky self referencing of late so it was fun to see the setting of the Calvinu restaurant (from Time Of Our Lives) again with two of its many waiters – still being played by the same actor of course. The plot was straight out of Hitchcock so heavily referenced in both Communicating Doors and The Revengers’ Comedies and the central figure was definitely reminiscent of Susan in Woman In Mind.

After lunch at the traditional Scarborough haunt of Bonets and a wander round the town centre shops (identical in most resects to the shops in town centres almost anywhere else) it was time to return to the SJT. This was for a revival of the 1987 play Henceforward… ; it was definitley the most substantial of the three offerings. Set in the future (or is that now the present…or the past?) it paints a bleak yet very funny picture of life somewhere on the remote reaches of the Northern Line and features androids, synthsised music, roaming street gangs (the Daughters of Darkness and the Sons of Bitches, since you ask) and some pertinent ideas about the responsibilities of the artist. The play brought back some happy memories of my own production of the piece and the fun we had filming the video content; this meant I could both direct and appear in the production as one of the video only characters. It’s good to see that the play has (mostly) stood the test of time. The central part of Jerome is, I think a hard ask. Onstage throughout but often quite morose and taciturn I recall that it seemed to elude Ian McKellen when it was played in London. Hats off then to Bill Chamipon in this production who provided a solid centre to the piece and who even managed to elicit some sympathy for his hurt regarding his rarely seen daughter.

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Bill Champion and Jacqueline King as Jerome and Nan

So that was the theatrical main course, meaning it must be time for real dinner (following this?) This was at the highly recommendable Café Fish. Not noted for its cuisine in former years, Scarborough is certanly looking up gastronomy wise.

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The Karoke Theatre Company with mystery guest

Then back to the SJT for the theatrical dessert (too many food references!) a live semi-improvised entertainment  called The Karaoke Theatre Company. I didn’t quite know what to expect from this piece and I’m glad it came last as it was light fare which required less concentration. Part Whose Line Is It Anyway?, part Generation Game,  essentially it was a series of playlets (farce, regency drama, Scandi noir thriller etc.) with varying levels of audience participation. Well, having (dis)graced the RSC and Barbican stages this year I couldn’t resist the temptation to appear at my favourite small venue. So I found myself voluntering to be one of the narrators in the gothic horror piece and being encouraged to release “my inner Brian Blessed” – can’t think why they came up with that particular ACTORRRR! I felt thankful that I’ve had plenty of practice at sight reading over the years as there were some tricky phrases to get the tongue round. And I found myself losing the thread of the storyline as I concentrated on what I had to say next…so, not really “in the moment” there then. Anyway it was a good piece of fun and an ambition fulfilled so I enjoyed myself – even if nobody else did.

So there we have it, a meal for the mind and the soul in North Yorkshire. Sorry if the title of this piece was a little misleading. I didn’t actually have a regular meal with Alan Ayckbourn….. though I did once have afternoon tea with him…but that’s another story.

2012/2016

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With the Olympics kicking off in Rio I thought it was about time I paid a proper visit to the former Olympic Park – now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – in Stratford (not, for once, the one upon Avon). I’d paid one or two fleeting visits in the past but never penetrated far past the original stadium and had certainly never got to the northern extremities. There are some official trails to follow but I soon abandoned these in favour of a more random and probably more rewarding approach. First though it was necessary to run the gauntlet of the “Westfield Shopping Experience” but I’d boxed clever and arrived early – before the stores were open – so I got through unscathed.

I refelcted as I arrived that the London Olympics opening ceremony had coincided with my first appearance in a Tower Theatre show when I was fortunate to be cast as Mr Micawber in their production of David Copperfield. As anyone who knows me will attest I’m a huge fan of Dickens so winning this part was, at the time, the proverbial dream come true. Little did I know then that this was to mark the start of my journey towards an even grander Dream – playing Bottom with the RSC. Anyway, I digress…as usual.

The most notable feature initially was the new façade of the main stadium bearing the legend “West Ham United”. The club’s move to its new venue has, of course, been the subject of some controversy which I don’t propose to rehash here. All I will say is that the present ground’s surroundings are much more conducive to a nice day out than those near the old Boleyn ground which I used to attend when I was a young shaver – it being within walking distance from my (then) home.

Next I went to the Orbit, the sculpure/tower created by Anish Kapoor and described by Boris Johnson as “a giant hubble bubble pipe” and by the Daily Mail as a “catastrophic collision between two cranes” – take your pick. Having been in plenty of tall buildings in East London over the years and seen the views I wasn’t about to stump up the required £12 entry fee; neither was I tempted by the prospect of the newly installed slide which I imagine would be quite claustrophobic. Instead I preferred to admire the structure (and I think I do amire it) from the outside. I remember being similarly impressed by Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago (otherwise known as the Chicago Bean).

From there it was following the towpath nothwards past the various gardens looking quite spectacular (that’s the gardens – not me). You could really imagine yourself way out in the country – if it hadn’t been for the ever present noise of drills and lorries in the distance where construction is still in progress. My path led me past the Copper Box arena, Here East (the old broadcast/media centre), the Velopark and through to Hackney Marshes. It’s good to see the River Lea really being regenerated and not, for once, by a vast shopping mall. Instead it has become an area for rest, relaxation and a gentler approach to life. Various water based activities were taking place including paddleboarding – fortunately there was no sign of Orlando Bloom!

 

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I retraced my steps down the other side of the River Lea as far as the area called the Wetland Bowl/Wet Woodlands. They have done a fine job of this piece of the park and although there was little animal wildlife in evidence the gloriously sunny day and the display of wild flowers induced some lingering.

Studiously avoiding the temporary gaudy funfair/beach area I next headed for the Aquatic Centre – not for the watersports but to have a look at the display detailing the next phases of development in the area. The most exciting bit of this was the plans for the so called Stratford Waterfront cultural centre which will feature, among others, outposts of the V & A and Sadler’s Wells …if it ever actually comes to pass.

My longish ramble over I wandered back to the main gardens. The crowds had ramped up considerably but I found a quiet nook under a tree and idled away some time recalling more happy dramatic memories from 2012. Going with David Copperfield to the truly awesome Minack in Cornwall (a first – both the theatre and Cornwall itself) and finding myself in front of capacity crowds (750) for each performance. Then being rapidly cast in Joe Orton’s Loot (another ambition fulfilled) and the musical version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood had made me feel I’d hit the ground running with my new company. And by the close of the year I’d also already been cast as the homicidal chef in SEDOS’s stage version of Gormenghast – probably my favourite book ever. Yes 2012 had certainly been a year to remember; 2016 was too. Now roll on 2020!

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