Pigs Do Fly

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Pink Floyd have always had an enigmatic unknowable edge. As Guardian critic Alexis Petrides observes: “Few bands in rock history have ever been as creative in their attempts to distract attention from themselves”. I managed to see the group live on three occasions in the 1970s/80s on tours promoting their albums Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall. Not so much concerts as multimedia spectaculars, these performances were notable for their (then) innovative use of sound systems, light shows, pyrotechnics, video, inflatables and gigantic props. In The Wall concerts the group took alienation to extremes, hiding itself behind a gigantic wall for much of the second half of the show. Plenty of interesting fuel then for the retrospective exhibition Their Mortal Remains at the V & A Museum.

Museum going can be as dull as the proverbial ditchwater and leave you feeling that you have attended out of some sort of cultural duty. Not a bit of it with this extravaganza though. Carefully curated, fascinatingly presented, comprehensive and often moving, this exhibition is a feast for the senses and if you are of a certain age (as I am) it will undoubtedly bring back many memories of adolescence/young adulthood.

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Gateway to a mind blowing experience

You know you’re in for something a bit different when you start by entering through an oversized replica of the band’s tour van to find yourself firmly back in the mid 1960s – all Bridget Riley walls covered with trippy posters and flower power clothing; you can almost smell the joss sticks. Alice must have felt like this when she fell down that rabbit hole. The early days are dominated by the presence of Syd Barrett and there is a particularly sweet letter to a girlfriend of the time. But, of course, his personal troubles meant an early departure and David Gilmour’s recruitment to become part of the classic line up.

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The famous flying pig outside the V & A

From here the exhibition is largely chronological with some brief diversions into themed elements (film music, sound recording techniques, etc.) and this means that things get progressively grander and larger than life. At the midpoint of the exhibition (late 70s/early 80s) you find yourself in a room dominated by an enormous flying pig – as well as a flying fridge exploding with worms, a flying Spitfire and flying Gerald Scarfe designed characters from The Wall. This is Floyd and their collaborators at the height of their creativity (or their most ludicrous depending on your personal point of view). From here it is a slightly more genteel decline in bombast towards the new millennium but the spectacle and surprises are never far away. I was particularly taken with a full size reproduction of the album cover for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Constructed by resident Floyd designers Hipgnosis it features seven hundred hospital beds in a river formation stretching off into infinity. No Photoshop manipulation in those days – this was seven hundred actual beds; apparently the whole thing had to be reset the day after the original photoshoot as bad weather had ruined the picture!

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The final room of the exhibition is a tour de force and a reminder of what the band did best – playing music; obvious really but a timely reminder of why they got as big as they did. Footage of their first single Arnold Layne gives way to the band’s brief reunion at Live 8 in 2005, the whole immersive experience relayed through state of the art AMBEO 3D Audio Technology (me neither). More shivers down the spine! I don’t think I’ve ever before been to an exhibition which received a standing ovation from those attending but then that was just one more unique aspect to finish a unique experience.

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The “Wish You Were Here” room

One caveat – having spent two and a half hours (unquestionable value then) immersing myself in artistic achievement and rich memories, I could have done without the rank commercialism which presented itself in the form of a huge souvenir shop into which we were thrust on leaving. Haven’t the V & A ever listened to the lyrics to “Money”?

Although the whole kit and caboodle is apparently going on tour (how very rock and roll) there’s not long left to get yourself to Kensington; but if you don’t you’ll miss a huge treat. What a sensational event.

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What a site!

I went to the theatre last night. Nothing odd/interesting in that you may be thinking but this was a theatre in a different vein – an operating theatre. To be precise it was the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret near Guy’s Hospital. I was there to see a performance of a new play Rebel Angel (more of which below) which gave me pause to reflect on the rise of site specific theatre over the last ten years or so. As you are probably aware this is when a play is designed to be performed at a unique, specially adapted location other than a standard theatre. I can’t say I’ve seen that many productions in such a location and have always been slightly wary of it being a gimmick used to turn attention away from the fact that the production itself isn’t that good. However, there is no doubt that such locations lend a certain frisson – I loved the recent idea of setting Sweeney Todd in a pop up pie and mash shop for instance. And there is no doubt that the Old Operating Theatre certainly fitted what I was about to see. What follows is my review of the piece.

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2017-08-10_103814_rebelangelBeauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. So run the closing lines of John Keats’ Ode On A Grecian Urn. And it is with this, at the time, half formed realisation that the young poet is struggling during the course of Angus Graham-Campbell’s play Rebel Angel. The young Keats (though he never really lived long enough to be anything but young) is a promising medical student learning to be a surgeon in the days before hygiene was de rigueur and operations were performed without benefit of anaesthetic. But he is also an admirer of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and the other Romantic poets and longs to emulate his literary heroes. So he turns his back on the prospects of immediate success in medical science which he is beginning to find ugly and frustrating and places his faith in the shining possibilities of the arts and creativity. It is this dynamic which forms the tension at the heart of the play.

Appropriately the site specific setting of this piece of drama is still in a theatre but of the surgical variety being The Old Operating Theatre Museum (near London Bridge). Indeed the play begins with the traumatic amputation of a 14 year old’s leg and it is this that proves the beginning of the end for the promising young surgeon. The set for the recent BBC2 comedy Quacks was clearly based on this location and both before and after the show it is interesting to see the “chamber of horrors” in which contemporary surgical equipment is displayed. Do not expect comfortable seating but with the piece running to just 75 minutes that is not a major issue.

2979_1506069412The piece, although short, is quite wordy and dense (much like a Keats poem?). In this it betrays its origins as a radio play and although the arguments put forward are interesting there are few moments of real tension. After all, we already know the path Keats will eventually choose. Along the way, though, there are some interesting scenes. In an early flashback we see the even younger Keats with his mother already caught between the worlds of the imagination and practicality. In another the protagonist becomes Antonio in The Merchant of Venice about to suffer the ravages of Shylock’s surgery/butchery.

As John Keats, Jonny P Taylor dominates proceedings with an assured performance. He radiates a quiet intensity which gradually builds throughout the piece and clearly demonstrates the budding poet’s disillusion with the life he will lead if he chooses to continue as a medic. Avoiding the cliché of the pining poet, Taylor gives a steady account of the writer’s struggle with his own conscience and the stated wishes of others. That said I think, physically, this actor might have been better suited to playing Lord Byron; there was little suggestion of the consumption/TB that was to finish Keats off just a few years later.

2979_1506069428All the other characters were played by an ensemble of six actors. These included Keats’ fellow surgical students, his mother and his guardian, various friends, a pair of shady grave robbers and the great early 19th century actor Edmund Kean with whom Keats seems to have been a little obsessed. None of these roles are particularly showy and with a small cast playing multiple parts it is sometimes difficult to keep up with who is who. There was perhaps a need for more differentiation both in the script and in the production design; I felt particularly for Polly Edsell who takes on all the female roles.

Keats, of course, eventually chooses the aesthetic pleasures of poetry over the brutal reality of surgery. In doing so he is likened to the “rebel angel” in Milton’s Paradise Lost and the last moments of the play see him about to depart from London clutching a copy of this poem given to him as a parting gift from a friend. Keats has made his decision and turned his back on his old life to embrace literature and posthumous fame: Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n.*

So a site specific convert? Not quite but it did help this particular piece ring true and it did give an edge to exploring the different types of theatre (operating, dramatic and of the imagination) so pertinent to the central character’s life. Perhaps I’ll try and mount a site specific production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream set on a real cabin cruiser on an actual river. Should be interesting; just need to decide how to accommodate an audience!

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

The next big (Canadian) thing?

DMCA Torontonian relative of ours tells me that the coming man in Canadian dramatic circles is the playwright Jordan Tannahill…. and she’s an agent so I guess she’d know. Variously described in the press as ‘the future of Canadian theatre’ (NOW Magazine), ‘the hottest name in Canadian theatre’ (Montreal Gazette), and ‘the posterchild of a new generation for whom “interdisciplinary” is not a buzzword but a way of life’ (The Globe and Mail), Mr Tannahill looks set to reinvent the art form. For instance his piece Draw Me Close: A Memoir  has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival…but it isn’t actually a film. It combines live performance, virtual reality and animation and has been created in partnership with our own National Theatre. If the trailer is anything to go by it would seem to be an intriguingly bold piece and a step further in boundary pushing than even the RSC’s recent production of The Tempest.

For now though access in Britain to the playwright’s work takes a more conventional form in a production of his 2013 chamber piece Late Company. Here’s what I thought when I saw it last week.

LCFor the first few minutes of Jordan Tannahill’s highly recommended play Late Company at Trafalgar Studios 2 it seems that the title is going to refer to some tardy guests delayed appearance at an evening meal. However, it soon becomes apparent that it actually refers to the hosts’ son, Joel, who is never going to show up because he has died in tragic circumstances. Even so his mother Debora has pointedly still set a place for him at the dinner table and she and husband Michael are clearly having “grief issues”. It transpires that the Dermot family (mother Tamara, father Bill and son Curtis) have been invited round to pick over the bones of what has happened and particularly to examine the part that the latter has played in classmate Joel’s untimely death.

What starts off as a civilized attempt (at least outwardly) to confront issues and share grief soon degenerates into blame apportioning, mudslinging and recriminations. Tannahill takes a surgeon’s knife to the five characters suggesting that they all, in their own ways, have played a part in the tragedy; even Joel himself is not sanctimoniously portrayed as an out and out victim. Thus all are to blame while, at the same time, no one person is.

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The five actors in this short and pacy piece are universally good. As the two mothers Lucy Robinson and Lisa Stevenson are shown as the driving forces behind the meeting (though each has her own distinct agenda) and when it comes to it are prepared to defend their sons against all comers. Robinson is particularly heart breaking as the bereaved Debora whose early metallic exterior is emphasised by a clever choice of costume and the displayed (somewhat phallic) steel sculptures which she has created. As we suspect this is all a front and she is, in fact, the first to crack; the actress handles this superbly. Stevenson as Tamara is at first eager (over eager?) to please but reveals hidden depths as the piece progresses and is every bit as protective as her counterpart. In the less showy roles of the two fathers, Todd Boyce and Alex Lowe are able to explore some of the political and class conflicts examined in the play. Thus they reveal their own prejudices which led to Joel and Curtis being the young men that they are/were. As Curtis, David Leopold, has perhaps the most interesting journey to make. Starting as a somewhat stereotypical monosyllabic teen embarrassed by his parents and more interested in his mobile phone than anything else it would be easy to see him as a one dimensional bully. But the cleverness of the writing means that he is ultimately seen as the most tragic figure – both he and Joel are equal victims recalling the lines of one of Philip Larkin’s most famous poems.

Direction by Michael Yale is taut and fluid though (and this was probably just from my seat) there were one or two unfortunate blocking decisions which meant that a major speech became less effective as I gazed at another character’s back for far too long. I also felt the one (key) moment of physical violence failed to work. The cast had clearly done their homework in providing authentic Canadian (rather than generic North American) accents though perhaps words like “out” and “about” were a little over emphasised. These minor quibbles aside though I was kept engaged throughout as this dinner party from hell proceeded along inevitable lines. The set floor, cleverly extended into the audience, made those of us watching feel both part of the action and, at the same time, voyeurs into some uncomfortable moments of truth.

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The play raises many interesting questions about parenting, class, gender, sexuality, relationships and the Internet and if, in the end, there are no actual answers provided then this is how it should be. Tannahill has set out to raise issues not provide solutions and in doing so to hold a mirror up to his characters’ actions and mind sets. That said, I had a nagging feeling all through the evening that I’d seen this play before. Plotwise it most closely resembles Yazmina Reza’s God of Carnage where again two families meet up to discuss their offspring’s hostile reactions to each other in an ostensibly civilized manner before descending into recriminations. But ultimately I was reminded more of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls which concludes that while no one person is responsible for the suicide of another, all are partially and collectively culpable…. and perhaps that includes we silent onlookers too*.

So an interesting, if a somewhat more recognisably conventional, introduction to this new(ish) writer’s work. Unlike novels and poetry (cf Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen, for instance) I confess to finding it hard to name another Canadian playwright of note. Perhaps that’s all about to change, eh?

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

Mr Peake & Mr Pye

 

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So begins one of the quaintest and unusual short novels of the 20th century, Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye. Harold Pye boards the Guernsey to Sark ferry in St Peter Port and in mid August I found myself following in his footsteps. This was part of a brief hop to the Channel Islands and one I was looking forward to especially as the author of the said book had spent a not inconsiderable amount of time on Sark himself during which he planned out and wrote what I regard as one of the greatest sustained flights of imagination in literature – the Gormenghast trilogy (Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone).

Sark (left) and Brecqhou

During the 50  minute crossing to Sark (itself just 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide) I continued to remind myself of Pye’s pilgrimage as he brings a message of love, peace and mutual co-operation to the unsuspecting islanders such as his aggressive landlady Miss Dredger, the insecure artist Thorpe and the island’s resident sexpot Tintagieu. It’s not often that the chance to follow a novel in situ happens but this added an extra twist to my rereading as various other smaller islands such as Herm and Jethou slid by. Right next to Sark itself is Brecqhou which today is the home of the billionaire Barclay brothers and the source of much local controversy.

The local transport system

Soon we (along with Pye himself) were disembarking onto on island most probably renowned as a place where the car – or indeed any other motor vehicles with the exception of farming tractors, lawn mowers and mobility scooters – are prohibited. [For any US readers please think Mackinac Island in Michigan – ironically not all that far from Detroit the home of the American auto industry]. Harbour Hill is a steep climb and the easy way up is via the tractor bus, known locally as the “toast rack”. Once at the top it was time to have a quick wander and coffee before taking the round island tour provided by horse and cart. The shoreline views from Sark are highly picturesque and the tranquil pace at which one proceeds along the cart tracks (no paved roads here) is a reminder of how much simpler life can be without the constant roar and buzz of vehicles not to mention the consequent significant drop in pollution levels. The choice not to have street lighting apparently also makes it a perfect location from which to star gaze.

Highlight of the island scenery is the narrow (3 metres in width) causeway that joins Big Sark and Little Sark together and known as La Coupée. This high ridge 80 metres above the sea was reconstructed straight after World War 2 by German prisoners after the Channel Islands liberation and provides dizzying views. My main reason for wanting to see it was that the climax of Mr Pye takes place there; not that I had got that far yet in my rereading. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing what happens – please read the book and find out or if that’s too onerous take a look at the delightful Channel 4 serial from the mid 1980s which featured Derek Jacobi in the title role.

Self Portrait
Mervyn Peake self portrait

While our very friendly cart driver had given us lots of information about Sark, of Mervyn Peake there had been no mention. So I took the plunge and asked if she knew what house he had lived in while there. I was surprised that the information wasn’t readily available – obviously he wasn’t such a big noise on the island as I might have supposed. I mean I know he doesn’t have the international reputation of a J.K.Rowling or even a Jeffrey Archer but I had supposed that as a well known artistic figure in the area he might have come in for some “bigging up”. I’m assuming you, dear reader, are much more knowledgeable….but just in case you’re also going “Mervyn who?” you should know that he was a fiction writer, poet, playwright, war artist (he visited German death camps shortly after their liberation), painter and an exceptional illustrator – particularly of children’s books. His life was tragically cut short by Parkinson’s Disease but fortunately not before his crowning glory the Gormenghast trilogy was completed (actually he had it in his head to write a whole series of these novels before his rapid decline and demise).

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Me dealing with one of the judges on Masterchef

Gormenghast is quite simply unique in literature and if you’ve yet to discover it I urge you to read it. Fantasy fiction aficionados will love it (though it’s not really fantasy fiction); lovers of Dickens will relish the characterisation and use of language, fans of Gothic literature will recognise that genre’s influence. In 2013 I got to realise an ambition when I was cast in a stage adaptation of Gormenghast as the homicidally unhinged castle chef Abiatha Swelter.

 

 

Not the local conveniences but the Sark nick

Anyway, I digress*… really digress! Fortunately the very nice lady at the Sark Information Centre (next to the two person Sark prison!) could and did tell me more about Peake’s time there. Peake and his family actually came to Sark on more than one occasion and rented a large house quite near to the highest point of the island (the Old Windmill). It’s now a private residence so no going round it unfortunately; there wasn’t even any hint of a blue plaque….I can feel a campaign coming on! And so I had to make do with visiting what used to be the island gallery which had once displayed Peake’s work but was now one of several nick nack shops along The Avenue – the nearest thing Sark hads to a High Street. Amongst the usual (slightly disappointing) tourist paraphernalia there, at last, were copies of some of Peake’s books. So maybe there is a small section of the local community that can and does recognise Peake’s achievements.

Following a very tasty try of the local Sark scallops cooked in someone’s kitchen and served on their front lawn (and, OK, the obligatory Channel Islands ice cream) it was time to head back down to the harbour – unlike Mr Pye I was due to return to Guernsey. I buried myself in my book on the way back and with this in one hand and a tourist map in the other I was able to pinpoint where all the action of the novel was occurring and have very fresh memories of several of the places featured in the story. Fortunately the novel is quite short so with a concentrated effort I was able to get all the way through it on that same day. As I sat in bed that evening Mr Pye was headed for La Coupée in a desperate bid…..ah but hang on, I’m not telling you that bit, am I?

To finish here’s some of Mr Peakes’s fabulous art work –

Clockwise: Illustration from Mr Pye, Hitler, The Ancient Mariner, The Avenue on Sark, Long John Silver
*The writer of this blog would be happy to take this author as one of his specialist subjects should he ever find himself on TV’s Mastermind.

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. Sam Redford (Theseus) is set to appear in the second series of hit TV drama Dr. Foster. 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.

Ariel

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

Dream poster

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!