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March 28, 2014

Why I'm not watching F1 in 2014

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/formula1/26666624

I’ve always been a big motorsport fan. For years, I have watched every qualifying session and race of every F1 season (until the BBC stopped showing all races a couple of years ago – had to make do with the highlights since then for 50% of the races). Even the predictable dominance of he who needs his index fingers clipping off over the last four years hasn’t managed to turn me off. But the technical regulation changes, in particular those pertaining to powertrains, of 2014 have finally turned me off the sport.

Engines are a key factor in motor sport – the clue is in the name, after all. For me, engines are the most exciting and enthralling things I come into contact with in my day to day life. The bigger, the louder, the better. My choice of weekend car was influenced by a number of things – appearance, history, the fact that it’s British – but first and foremost I chose it because it has a 5 litre V8 engine. When I fire it up, animals flee and my garage reverberates as its foundations are shaken. It’s fabulous, and it never fails to make me grin like a 5 year old child and accelerate my heart beat by a good 20 beats a minute. It’s having a similar effect on me now just thinking about it.

You see, when it comes to engines, the old saying goes that “there ain’t no replacement for displacement”. The bigger the swept volume, the more air the engine breathes per cycle and the more fuel you can burn (and therefore you get more power out). More air and fuel making bigger explosions also results in fabulously loud and exciting noises. Engines are my thing, and the most endearing thing about them is the noise that they make. It’s in our biology that loud noises get our blood pumping – listen to rock music at quiet volumes and then again at loud ones and there is a great difference in how much you get into the track. I find the notes of a great engine spell-binding – for example in my Griff, the deep and assured burble of the exhausts while cruising which give way to a growl, a bellow and then an almighty roar as you floor it and the revs build. The noise of a Ferrari 412T2 – the last V12 engine in F1 – is spine-tinglingly awesome even through my stereo speakers, let alone in real life.

Of course, all of this old-school noise and speed is seen as downright anti-social today, more than it ever has been. Maybe that’s part of the appeal – the two fingers to a society trying to tell others what they can and can’t do in their own free time. The motor industry is caving into pressures to be more sensitive and fuel efficient at all levels of their products. Now, for the car I might drive to work on a weekday or pop to the shops in, I can completely understand this push. These are utiltiarian vehicles, and being sensible with the earth’s resources is in general a reasonable aim. For performance cars though, cars which don’t do mega miles but exist purely for the love of cars and driving, I’m much less convinced.

Technologically, it’s very impressive that engineers can make such improvements in fuel efficiency whilst maintaining performance. This is primarily achieved in engines by turbo-charging, which uses exhaust gas to force more air in to a smaller engine,so when you want to burn more fuel you have the air to do so, without the penalty of the big capacity engine the rest of the time. Modern turbocharged technologies are very impressive when done right – you get high torque from low rpm’s and performance everywhere in the rev band. Ultra-high end cars like the McLaren P1 are taking this even further, using electric motors to overcome one of the shortcomings of turbocharging – delayed throttle response (a technique McLaren refer to as “torque fill” – you draw the power curve you want the engine to have, and program the electric motors to fill the bits where the engine can’t quite deliver).

This is all very clever, but it has several problems for car enthusiasts like myself:

  • The downsizing of engines almost always means less cylinders. This generally has a very negative impact on noise. For luxury cars, moving to 4 cylinder engines is also terrible from a refinement perspective (go look up primary and secondary force balance before you disagree with me)
  • The turbo in the exhaust takes a lot of the force out of the exhaust gases, and robs engines of a decent exhaust note
  • For engines that don’t have the electrical bits, the throttle response and turbo lag does make for a less enjoyable experience. For all of these high-torque-everywhere type engines, the driving experience is strangely dulled by having so much performance without having to work for it – as odd as that may sound to some
  • Electric motors and batteries add a lot of weight, which needs very expensive engineering to minimise and mask. Weight is the primary enemy of an enjoyable driving experience
  • The electric power add-ons in particular add enormously to price and to complexity, which makes ownership much less attainable. More systems and bits can also only be bad for affordable maintainability, and adds yet more barriers to the car enthusiast who also likes to work on their own vehicles (not that any of this type are even remotely in price brackets that those who do their own spanner work would contemplate)

Even the multi-million pound budgets of F1 teams can’t sort out all of these issues, as the row over engine noise goes to show. In the article I’ve linked to, Andrew Benson – a well known and respected commentator – questions whether the engine note is really such a step back. He argues that the previous generation V8’s weren’t a great noise like the classic V12’s – no argument from me there. But the screaming sound of a V8 at 20,000 RPM (before they were limited) approaching a corner at close to 200MPH is a very happy memory that I can still flip back to. And as for asking if the noise is “that big a deal” – well for me, yes it is, as I think I have already made clear. In terms of your senses, you get a much better view of what is going on in a race by watching it on TV. The sounds and the smells are what you get by attending a track which you don’t get sat at home (I don’t subscribe to this whole crowd atmosphere thing, the spectacle is on the track not sat next to it). Some people are fascinated that some people, myself included, would spend hundreds of pounds attending a race just to hear the noise, just as I am happy to spend a day out and a fair wad of cash just to hear loud aeroplanes at airshows. Everyone has their own reasons for attending, and as one of our primary senses noise must surely be a big factor in the enjoyment of motorsport for many. I am surprised that so many people find this surprising, including those such as Andrew Benson who have spent their life following the sport.

In moving to ERS powertrains then, F1 is following the zeitgeist of engine downsizing for political reasons, amid claims that they are “more relevant” to the cars of today. I would contest that whilst they might have relevance to the playthings of millionaires whose supercars are now coming loaded with this sort of technology, for under an RRP of £100k you won’t find cars that have this sort of technology in. And no matter how much money you throw at a car, in moving to increasingly high-tech power trains the charm and character of a real sports car from yesteryear is sadly being eroded. For me then, it’s a farewell to following motorsport (as not much else is properly televised) and a retreat to my garage to play with real cars more instead. I only hope for future generations that access to real cars is well preserved.

October 30, 2013

The great energy debate, and Hinkley C

Unless you are living on Mars, you will have noticed a great deal of news coverage and political froth on energy supply recently. I thought I would set out the lay of the land as I see it in an attempt to try and cut through some of what has been reported.

Energy prices have increased significantly above inflation since 2007, when we all started to become poorer as a result of the credit crunch and hence have been sensitive to cost of living increases. Those cost increases are down to a number of pressures:

  1. The cost of fuel is increasing. This is in turn driven by a number of factors which include increased demand from emerging economies, finite reserves depleting making extraction more expensive, and fuel being traded internationally when the pound has significantly weakened. Roughly speaking, the wholesale cost of energy makes up around 45% of a domestic bill, and has been responsible for about 60% of the cost increases to the consumer.
  2. The transmission costs for the UK networks are increasing above the rate of inflation. This is because of the need to create a lot of new infrastructure for gas storage and connection of renewables to the grid. Transmission costs make up about 20% of a domestic bill, and are responsible for around 15% of the cost increases.
  3. There are a range of environmental subsidies which are all paid for through levies on domestic bills. You have probably noticed the large numbers of solar panels springing up on rooftops and in fields, or the construction of lots of new wind turbines. All of these are subsidised through feed-in tariffs, which come out of bills. Then there are smart meters and energy efficiency measures like “free” loft insulation. This is “free” at the point of use, but your energy supplier does this at zero cost to themselves – it’s all paid for through these levies. Additionally, a carbon price has come into force. This makes up around 5% of the gas pricel and 30% of the electricity price, and starting from a zero base a few years ago this is entirely a cost inflationary aspect.
  4. Following privatisation and subsequent botched market reforms, the price of energy collapsed around the turn of the millennium. We were therefore starting from a very low base, where energy was cheaper than it sustainably could have been. The energy companies were essentially all broke (sob sob I hear you cry…) and as a result of this and a lack of a clear long term direction for the sector set by policy there has been no driver to invest in new plant. We are now at the point where old stations that were build during the state industry days need replacing or are being forced to close due to new regulations. In order to invest in plant, energy companies need to raise the cash and demonstrate a reasonable rate of return to investors.

You will notice that none of these drivers are “trying to make a quick buck”. The headlines you read about profit margins are often misleading, to say the least. The energy market is volatile so it is only to be expected that year on year sometimes profits will jump up and sometimes they will fall back. In 2012, the company I work for (EDF Energy) saw profits fall by about 6%. A lot of our profits are also going into building new stations, covering investment in our existing plant (for example, post-Fukushima upgrades to our nuclear fleet) and covering other costs such as pension deficit repairs. The actual bottom line figure is much lower than the headlines suggest. Companies have to make a reasonable profit in order to be sustainable for the long term, otherwise you get market instability and a lack of investment. Healthy companies mean stable employment for a large sector of the UK workforce, and good returns for investors. A large chunk of institutional investors are actually pension funds of the UK workforce, so I suspect it’s in many of our interests that a reasonable return is given to them otherwise our retirement suffers.

To be fair, the coverage I have read on the BBC is largely quite balanced and communicates the above information in a balanced way, if you care to look for it. Newspapers have their own agendas and will tend to follow the direction of the political parties they support, and in any case love to stir up a story of public outrage. Whilst this is disappointing, there’s not much that can be done about it. What irks me though is that politicians who must surely be in the know about all these facts have decided to play political football with energy prices as we all seem to have moved on from blaming banks for our present troubles. A great example of this is Ed Miliband’s price freeze policy.

Whilst the price freeze may gain a lot of popular support from hard-up voters who aren’t all that well informed or interested in the nuances of the energy markets and only see rising bills and the finger being pointed at “the big six”, it presents a completely false picture of what is happening in the market. We are at a crunch point where we need to spend well over £100bn in the coming years on new energy infrastructure, and the government is looking to the private sector to fund this. The bill is much larger due to the environmental pressures being exerted on the industry – by the politicians. And into this delicate climate where we are being asked to spend vast sums on new plant (with a rather unstable outlook), in wade the politicians with all guns blazing for a few cheap headlines. You couldn’t make it up. If you want to freeze your energy prices for 20 months, you can already do so anyway without the need to go to the ballot box – just switch to a long term price fix contract, which are available for up to 3.5 years in length. John Major with his support for a windfall tax is no better – what sort of message is that sending? Please invest all these billions of pounds in projects that take decades to pay back, but don’t you dare make any money out of it or we’ll just shift the goal-posts and tax you at a moment’s notice. Or maybe all these environmental obligations we’ve been working on for years, perhaps we’ll just scrap them and upset the apple cart on all your investment planning.

With this kind of unstable climate, all that you will do is scare off investors and we won’t have any new infrastructure. As a result, we will see long term prices continue to rise whilst becoming increasingly unstable and the threat of a capacity shortfall will increase. That’s good for no-one. What is needed is a sensible and grown up approach, the outlook for which until the 2015 election does not look hopeful.

This brings me neatly on to the new nuclear deal at Hinkley C. The coverage centred on the strike price, and rightly so. The price agreed is lower than existing costs for all other low carbon technologies, so it should be a good deal for consumers. As I understand it, the price is also what will be paid when the plants come on line – i.e. you need to view the figure in the context of the value of money in 2023, not 2013. Add 10 years of inflation to the current wholesale price and £92.50/MWh looks a lot more palatable. Also, unlike feed-in tariffs, if the wholesale cost is above this level then the government gets the difference back. With all the inflationary pressures on wholesale prices, there is therefore a good chance that the consumer will effectively make money out of the plant. All good stuff.

What I am most pleased about however is that in all the coverage, despite the incident in Fukushima in 2011, the focus has been entirely on the price agreed. That no-one has (to my knowledge) questioned the safety and integrity of UK operators and regulators when new nuclear power plants are in the news is both right and something that makes me proud to be in that industry.

August 15, 2013

Why, as a motorist, I have a problem with cyclists

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23694438

The BBC news is today running an article entitled “Is there any such thing as Road Tax?”. The article actually explores the tension between motorists and cyclists, looking at the often-made claim by motorists that since cyclists don’t pay road tax, they shouldn’t be getting in their way.

I’d like to start this article by a couple of points about my own circumstances. I am a motorist, and I have a round-trip commute of 80 miles each day. I do occassionally cycle on the roads, although cycling is definitely not something I would choose to do as a past-time. When my commute is shorter, I hope to commute by bike every day. And my wife already commutes by bike every day. So, although I am a motorist who doesn’t currently use a bike very much, I don’t have a problem with cyclists as reasonable and responsible road users. When I see a cyclist, I will always endeavour to give them plenty of space on the road when overtaking, and I wouldn’t dream of using my car aggressively to intimidate one.

One of the issues this article touches on which some might find surprising is that VED (to give road tax its technical name) doesn’t actually get spent directly on the roads, it goes straight to the treasury. This is really a separate topic, but it’s definitely something that all motorists should be challenging more strongly. What are we paying the duty for if it doesn’t get spent on the roads? Government should be primarily funded by taxes evenly spread across tax-payers. We all pay our share of income tax, every time we buy something we pay a flat percentage of VAT, etc. Other taxes, such as council tax, are there to fund particular services – fine. There are other taxes aimed at changing our behaviours, such as on cigarettes. In this regard, motorists already pay a tax precisely linked to the environmental damage that vehicles do – which is of course fuel duty. So what is VED for, if not for the maintenance of our road network? There should either be a direct link between the two which all road users should pay, or it should be scrapped altogether because it’s not an even and fair tax on the UK population as a whole.

The main thrust though, is that motorists don’t like cyclists because they don’t pay to use the roads. I don’t think this is really true. Certainly it’s a well used phrase – I even use it myself from time to time – but really, that cyclists don’t have to pay to use the roads is not what irritates motorists. There are two issues around cyclists really that bother me:

1. Cyclists pick and choose the traffic laws they abide by. The most common example is jumping or ignoring lights. The problem here I think is that unlike the motorist, the cyclist can do this without fear of losing their ability to use their bike. There are no fines that I know of, nor is there a points system to dissuade them from law-breaking. Were I to observe in the dead of night that it was perfectly safe to run a light and be caught, I’d be £60 poorer and 1/4 of the way to losing my licence. Cyclists can do this without consequence. I’m not saying that motorists don’t break rules – of course they do (and there are plenty of bad examples of driving I could list that make me equally irate) but there are consequences for the motorist should they be caught. Unlike with cyclists, this keeps some semblance of order about things. This disparity of consequences is a real bone of contention for me. I think that this is an issue that needs some form of legislation to address, with fines and black marks against bad cycling just as for bad driving.

2. Cyclists hold motorists up – unnecessarily. I don’t usually mind encountering slow traffic or short delays where necessary – sometimes it is unavoidable for road users to get in each other’s way. Examples would be cyclists on narrow country lanes, or slow moving vehicles such as tractors and trucks that don’t have much of a choice about getting in the way or not. But when I encounter cyclists riding 2 or 3 abreast and leaving me unable to overtake, or riding in the middle of the road a long distance from junctions, or using the road in the way when there’s a cycle path also – well I consider that pretty unreasonable, and delays are bound to wind up motorists quicker than anything else. If I chose to dawdle along as a pedestrian on a cycle path and not get out of a cyclist’s way, I would (quite rightly) expect to be told in no uncertain terms to change my ways. Why should cyclists expect any different from motorists? This irritation isn’t solely reserved for cyclists – another great example would be middle-lane hogs on the motorway, who cause no end of delays and frustrations by not realising there’s a lane to the left.

So, in conclusion – don’t break the rules and don’t get in the way, and everyone will get along just great.

March 13, 2012

The House of Bernarda Alba, Almeida Theatre

3 stars

I would say that it’s quite unusual for a play to be transferred to an entirely new context and to work almost as well as its original. However, this is the case with Bijan Sheibani’s ingenious setting of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba at the Almeida Theatre in which mid-twentieth century Andalusia becomes rural twenty-first century Iran. With few changes in the new translation by Emily Mann, aside from the character names that have morphed from Spanish to being in the territory of Farsi, it seems to do so almost effortlessly.

We practically feel the heat and we see the cultural oppression – not just in the mourning outfits that the Alba daughters are wearing, but also in the way that a knock on the front door prompts the women to all cover their heads before they answer it. This even extends to Bernarda Alba, the tyrannical matriarch, who Lorca presents as demanding absolute authority over her household. A clever twist in Sheibani’s production is that even she must obey the strict codes of cultural conduct and it is only in her home that she is in control.

Shohreh Aghdashloo stars as the tyrannical matriarch, who is insisting that her grown-up daughters obey the period of mourning for their late father, by staying inside for eight years. With only the eldest daughter, Asieh (a superb Pandora Colin) being engaged to a man – ultimately because of her money and in spite of her unfortunate appearance – the rest of the daughters pine for love and sexual fulfilment.

Aghdashloo brings to the role a statuesque poise and an unwavering detachment from the other characters and her daughters. When shocking news is broken to her, or gossip shared, there is something blasé in her reaction that makes Bernarda all the more frightening. She barely blinks as a young woman is tormented in the street for abandoning her fatherless baby. She cracks a vague smile when she hears about a village woman who has been abducted and raped by the local men. Rather than a tyrant continually feeling the need to reinforce her hold on the family and situation through aggressive gestures and tirades, this Bernarda seems supremely confident that nothing could shake her authority within the household.

At times, Aghdashloo’s presence feels a little too much on the relaxed side and she perhaps could have benefitted from slightly more variation in her acting. And it’s a flaw of the production that, in spite of the context and the set-up being optimum, you never truly see the family reach a boiling point. Tensions bob to the surface, but then disperse, and you never fully see the extent to which sexual frustration and jealousy drives the daughters to behave like enraged caged animals. Combined with the fact that some of Lorca’s poetic writing inevitably can’t be conveyed so successfully in translation, the piece at times feels rather prosaic and ticks along at points like they’re all waiting for Godot.

I am pleased to see this powerful play being revived in such an imaginative way and, ratcheted up a few notches, it would be an even more disturbing and electrifying piece of theatre.


March 12, 2012

Les Miserables, HMP Erlestoke, Pimlico Opera

Les Mis

5 stars

(Image: right) Cast members meet Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, on her visit to the show

It seems that Pimlico Opera’s productions are truly going from strength to strength. 2012’s project is a production of Les Miserables in HMP Erlestoke, a Category C prison, housing just under 500 convicted male adult prisoners. Once again, this production was conceived by Wasfi Kani, and falls under the expert direction of Michael Moody and musical direction of Toby Purser. It’s a shining example of true integration between the professional and prisoner casts.

This is partly a feature of Moody’s brilliant vision, but also owes itself to the (mostly previously untapped) natural talent of so many of the inmate performers. Most notable perhaps is MARIUS, who describes himself in the programme as “a cheeky chap from Peckham”, and has a beautifully pure singing voice, and an earnest, intense stage presence, which makes him ideal for the role. His voice blends perfectly with COSETTE’s in their duets, and he has such a confident grasp of the often challenging music that you marvel at the fact that he is not a professional.

Also worthy of a special mention in the principal roles is RAM-trained Anthony Flaum as JEAN VALJEAN, who in many ways seems born to play this part despite his young years; Grange Park regular Caryl Hughes as a sweetly voiced and poised Cosette; and THERNARDIER, the seedy innkeeper who, in this version, is a dry East Ender on the fiddle, bedecked in gold chains and a gaudy leopard-print coat by the end. His cool rendering of ‘Master of the House’, which at the end evolves into the Maccerena, leaves the audience shouting for more. THERNARDIER, incidentally, claims to have signed up to the project on the understanding that he was to be a stage hand, and had never before seen or heard an opera.

But to single out principals doesn’t do justice to the spirit of this production where talent and commitment run right through the ranks, in keeping with the message of the show. Moody has clearly got to know his company thoroughly because he has cast exceptionally to their strengths. GAVROCHE, for instance, is excellent, making up for his small stature in heaps of attitude and charm; ENJOLRAS is stirring as the motivated leader of the revolution; and there are some stunning vocals from two very talented signers, LEON and GRANTAIRE, in ‘Drink With Me’ – here ingeniously re-imagined as a campfire song and hauntingly accompanied by a guitar, making it one of the highlights of the night.

They say a show is as good as its weakest chorus member, and the chorus here are difficult to fault. Ensemble numbers are tightly choreographed and executed, the singing is impassioned, and individual characters are given a prominence and distinctive identity, which can so often be missed in professional productions, which tend to present the chorus simply as a depersonalised ‘mob’. From the chapel to the brothel to the barricades, you watch relationships and events unfold on so many levels, and you witness new characters and new talent rise to the surface at different points in this committed and versatile ensemble.

The quality of the on-stage performances is enhanced further by a great band, a dramatic and sombre set with a bridge that’s used to great dramatic effect, and some striking stage effects, including swivelling lights, which, at the end, rotate from focusing on the cast to illuminating the audience. It seems to represent the importance of the audience and supporters of Pimlico Opera, which is entirely funded by individuals and charities, receiving no government funding. One cast member comments about his involvement in the show: “I am really enjoying it. Now I feel a different person and very normal.” It’s our responsibility to ensure this opportunity is given to more people in his position over the coming years.

To support and find out more about Pimlico Opera’s work, visit: http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk/about-us/pimlico-opera/support-pimlico-opera-in-prison

Singin' in the Rain, Palace Theatre

3 stars

Chichester Festival Theatre seems to be on a roll at the moment with glowing reviews and a plethora of London transfers. It is a credit to their Artistic Director, Jonathan Church, that this regional theatre is now in such a healthy state when many are struggling to pull in the audiences that are needed to keep the businesses afloat.

And it’s not hard to see why this production of Singin’ in the Rain has been hailed as such an unqualified triumph. Not only is its arrival timely with the Oscar-soaked film The Artist, which takes as its theme silent movies versus the Talkies, but it stays close to its screen buddy by not fully recognising itself as a stage show. It does exactly what the 1952 film of Singin’ in the Rain did, but cleverly makes it a bit more modern by being a little more in-yer-face. And, in many ways, it needs to because – in spite of some cracking numbers – the show, for want of a better word, can at times be a little bit wet.

Adam Cooper is undeniably a joy to watch as Don Lockwood, the famous silent movie star, and his classical ballet training brings a strength, grace and control to his dance sequences that (dare I say it) surpass even the sprightly Gene Kelly. The rain is funny, the front rows get very wet, and the classic numbers (‘Make ‘Em Laugh’, ‘Moses Supposes’ and ‘Good Morning’) are all very enjoyable.

But, that said, the production suffers from two things. Firstly, from its relative lack of imagination and reluctance to depart from what the film did so well. (I was alarmed that even potentially inoffensive departures hadn’t been embraced, such as the decision to make Lina Lamont’s voice coach a clone of the film’s, or not to have Lina be a fiery redhead, for instance, rather than the same peroxide blonde that we saw in the movie.) Because the production hasn’t carved out its own dramatic identity, replicas of sequences we know from the film can only really be inferior: real-life Cosmo sadly can’t run up the walls and ceiling, so he has to topple through a paper wall instead; the live ‘fit as a fiddle’ boy violinists by definition have to be a little less agile on the stage and so the virtuosic gymnastics never happen; and the rain, by nature, has to be operated by a machine, caught in a trough, and then drained out and mopped up.

Secondly, I felt that some of the show’s charm is cancelled out here by a tendency for over-acting. Lina Lamont (Katherine Kingsley)’s dialogue is often very drawn out and her voice doesn’t seem genetically bad enough to make it funny. Cathy Seldon (Scarlett Strallen) ups her game to keep up with her exaggerated fellow-principal to become rather shrill and neurotic herself, so at times you feel sorry for the sandwiched Don.

Nevertheless, there is no lack of gusto in this production, and the show signs off with a stylish sequence of the cast as Don Lockwood-lookalikes, sporting silver umbrellas with multi-coloured undersides, splashing in unanimous enthusiasm in the second shower of rain.

This show is ideal if you want a trip down memory lane but have seen enough of the film. Don’t go expecting anything wildly different or inventive, however, as you will be disappointed.

Patience, Union Theatre

5 stars

Patience cast

I’m rather glad that I hadn’t been studious enough to read the (not-so) small print on the advert for Sasha Regan’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience at the Union Theatre. You can imagine my surprise then when twenty lovesick maidens came on in tea dresses with hairy legs, chests, shadows of facial hair, and some noticeable bald patches. After getting over my initial shock, I realised quite soon that – in more ways than the obvious – this production was something special.

The young men, mostly in their twenties, were comfortably singing the soprano line of the score as they wafted about the stage, often in sync, emotionally wound up, but physically wilting on account of their mutual love for the Aesthetic poet, Reginald Bunthorne (a comic and obstinate Dominic Brewer). Soon, Bunthorne and his sublimely prosaic poetry are ditched in favour of a newcomer in the ladies’ midst – the narcissistic beauty Archiblad Grosvenor. The milkmaid, Patience (Edward Charles Bernstone) – new to love and all that accompanies it – understands that the act of love must be one of self-sacrifice and so, with both men adoring her equally, she must choose the least desirable one (though this proves more complex than anticipated).

Bernstone as Patience is wholly engaging. With a sweep of thick blonde hair, piercing, enquiring eyes, and tanned, sculpted limbs, he captures the unintentional tease about this milkmaid, who – in trying to be self-sacrificial – becomes entirely self-obsessed. Bernstone perfectly mimics the verbal inflections of the era with exclamations such as, “Oh, horror!” containing both a clipped formality and a sadness that seems to hang over her as a woman and therefore with relatively little free will.

There is a bold and brilliant performance from Sean Quigley as Lady Gray, who pursues Bunthorne relentlessly, but cannot deny that she is losing her figure and her youthful looks. Once again, this actor seems to capture both the superficial humour of the character’s bitchiness, but also portrays a more deep-seated tragedy about this woman in grey calf-length socks and a shapeless frock who is desperate to love and be loved.

What I responded to so acutely in Sasha Regan’s production was the fact that it was not a piss-take. While extremely funny, it was never self-consciously so, and every principal and chorus member had found a truth in their character. There are some simple but stunning directorial touches, such as the maidens all hanging bunting in preparation for the husband raffle; the synchronised, almost other-worldly tea-drinking ritual as they sing their romantic troubles into their china; and an imaginative dance sequence that the (intentionally) clumsy dragoons execute.

The Union’s space is small, but presents no barriers for this production, though a glimpse of the ‘maidens’ after the show, trying to get changed while plastered up against the back of the set, brought home the realities of working as a large cast in this confined a space. The decision to pare the orchestra down to a single onstage piano, played adeptly by Richard Bates (who, I only observed after the curtain call, slunk off stage also in a skirt, not looking entirely comfortable about the fact) does not damage the music in the least, and the singing is sublime throughout.

I take my bonnet off to Sasha Regan who has committed to a startlingly bold vision for a lesser-known operetta that many people may consider to be dated. The result? Brilliant, clear, original and classy. Let’s hope this production has a life beyond the Union.

January 21, 2012

Legal challenge to UK energy legislation

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16646405

This week, green campaigners have launched a legal challenge to some aspects of legislation in an attempt to block new nuclear stations. There are two main areas of attack – governments limiting liability of the generators, and the introduction of a carbon floor price (the latter currently specific to the UK). Their challenge of course completely mis-represents the reasons why this legislation is in place. For example, on the subject of a carbon floor price Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton and Hove, claims:

“The introduction of a carbon price floor is likely to result in huge windfall handouts of around £50m a year to existing nuclear generators”

I haven’t gone into the details of her claim, but I do know the history behind why the introduction of a floor price is critical to new nuclear investment, and it has nothing to do with handouts of £50m a year to generators (which, incidentally, is not a great sum in the first place. It would represent the change in revenues of existing nuclear generators if the wholesale price of electricity were to change by 0.1p per kWh, about a 2% change in the current base-load price of around 4.5p per kWh).

A little bit of history for those who aren’t familiar with the highlights of events affecting the UK energy market during the last 30 years. Electricty generation was largely a state-owned system, with the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) owning and operating the power stations. In 1991, Margaret Thatcher concluded the sale of the CEGB to private investors, creating two companies – National Power and Powergen. However, during the sale process it was discovered that the existing nuclear fleet, containing a lot of old generation Magnox stations which were expensive to run and didn’t have a lot of life left in them, made the deal commercially untenable, and so all the nuclear stations were kept in public ownership under a new organisation, Nuclear Electric. This commercial PR disaster along with Chernobyl is what killed off the UK’s new nuclear build programme at the time, and why we only have one PWR today, Sizewell B.

Nuclear Electic was part-privatised in 1996, the newer design AGR and PWR stations sold off as a private company, British Energy, and the old Magnox stations retained under Magnox Electric and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. However, the government reformed the electricity market in 2001 with a piece of legislation called the new electricity trading arrangements. This, combined with a big dip in wholesale gas prices due to oversupply, led to a crash in the electricity price, and in 2002 British Energy essentially went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the UK government (there were other factors, such as stations being offline, renegotiation of fuel costs and problematic business deals, but the wholesale price crash is the main trigger). The wholesale cost went down to 2p/kWh and lower, below the cost of generation. It should be pointed out that other generators also suffered from the price crash – Drax (the UK’s largest, newest and most efficient coal plant) came close to closure in 2003 because it wasn’t profitable at the time, and only a long-sighted view by investors kept it open (the plant is now very profitable).

British Energy survived with government help and was sold to EDF Energy in 2009. Now, a new build programme is looking to replace the existing nuclear fleet which is due to be largely decommissioned in the coming decade or so. However, building power plants is very expensive, in particular modern nuclear plants with advanced safety features. Therefore, investors are unwilling to commit to such a long-term project as a power station (which is expected to provide returns over a period of 60 years or more) with such high up-front costs unless they can see that their investments are secure, because it becomes too risky for the rates of return. As such, the prospect of a price crash such as that of 2001 repeating and wiping out their investment is untenable, and so long as that remains it’s unlikely that a new nuclear build programme will happen. This is the real purpose of the carbon floor price – not to give generators a £50m/year bonus (which as I’ve already stated, is small beer in the grand scheme of the industry), but to give investors the confidence to give long term commitments to new generating capacity in the UK. Without this, the industry will continue to suffer from under-investment in new capacity and we will be left with a short-term approach to new power stations, most likely further increases in the numbers of combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plant. There are two problems with this approach – firstly, it makes the market much more volatile to carbon fuel prices, which are unstable both in price and increasingly supply as declines in world production and increased dependence are used more and more as a political tool. Secondly, it doesn’t sort out our carbon emissions without the additional retro-fitting of carbon capture and storage technologies, which add further to the cost and fuel use and are as yet unproven on a large scale.

Faced with these realities, politicians have sensibly opted to provide the market with an instrument that guarantees a minimum carbon price, thereby making investment in nuclear and other low carbon technologies a commercial reality without otherwise subsidising them. Whether this amounts to a subsidy in name I’m not sure; it seems a bit of a grey area and I don’t have the technical knowledge to answer that question. What I do know is it seems like a credible way of delivering long term investment in low-carbon generating capacity, which can only be a good thing for the UK’s future and the environment. Few people complain about the direct subsidy of other renewable technologies including on-shore wind (except when they are taken away) which are in any case far larger in pence per kWh than any subsidisation of the nuclear industry. The fair alternative would be to remove all forms of subsidy for all forms of power generation, and apply a great deal of upward pressure politically on the carbon price. However, without the long term security of a floor price I still question the risk of such a strategy in securing the investment required.

November 04, 2011

Parade, Southwark Playhouse

5 stars

Cast of Parade

Seeing Parade for what is now the third time, I firmly believe that this 1998 musical is set to be a classic. In 100 years’ time, I am confident that Jason Robert Brown’s musical will be performed across the globe and will still hold the inescapable power that it does now. With one of the finest scores in musical theatre, thoughtfully written roles, and a true story that simultaneously throws up issues about the society of the time, our timeless capacity to judge others, and the power and powerlessness of love, it is conventionally everything a good musical should be – but with an element that’s harder to diagnose: the power to make grown men weep at its closure.

Thom Southerland’s exquisite production at the Southwark Playhouse is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen and, more specifically, one of the best examples of top-notch direction. While Parade was originally conceived as a large-scale show, Southerland proves here that the small-mindedness of Atlanta, Georgia is best encapsulated in the dingy enclosures of a railway arch where a brilliant small ensemble come together to clinch the fate of Leo Frank, the Jewish man wrongly accused of murdering a child.

Every moment in this production has been thought-through and makes for a production with no excess flesh. A table that needs to be carried off beautifully morphs into a coffin; the galleries at each end of the long space are used for civic scenes with speeches and to drape proud but grimy Star Spangled Banners from, and consequently scenes shift seamlessly from floor to gallery with no interruption. The ensemble is clearly a hundred per cent committed to their director’s vision, executing each scene crisply and with enormous passion. The chorus singing makes your ears glow red and the experience of being a part of this patriotic yet poignantly misguided – and at times grotesque – society is both thrilling and unbearable.

Alastair Brookshaw and Laura Pitt-Pulford are exceptional in the lead roles of Leo and Lucille Frank. Brookshaw brilliantly captures the obsessive side to Leo’s personality – his need for routine, for order, for control – which means that, even pre-prison, Leo is like a glass ornament in the midst of an erupting volcano. Pitt-Pulford as his young, but downtrodden wife brings out Lucille’s sense of humour and unconditional love for her husband, in spite of his flaws and prudishness. Her vocals are superbly controlled and she achieves a magical combination of desperation and dignity in both her singing and admirably subtle acting. One of the most powerful moments in the production is Lucille’s observation of her flailing husband being tried as she stands in the balcony of the courtroom, simultaneously a ghost, who can enforce no change, and an angel of goodness, promising her husband moral support through her determined gaze.

There is excellent support in the production in particular from Terry Doe, Samuel J. Weir, Mark Inscoe and Samantha Seager, and a small, but strident band that fit the space beautifully.

I will be watching Thom Southerland’s career with interest. Here is a director who, at a young age, has a superb eye for detail, commits himself wholeheartedly to a conception, and brings out the best in his actors and musicians. His production here is stylish, coherent and adventurous – yet, crucially, entirely in keeping with the show’s essence. For those who have seen this production, Southerland’s decision about how to stage the climax was one of the most original, tasteful and heart-wrenching moments I’ve seen on stage. Let’s hope that London’s fringe scene continues this brilliant example that he has set.
Lucille and Leo Frank

November 03, 2011

Inadmissible Evidence, Donmar Warehouse

1 star

Inadmissible Evidence at the Donmar Warehouse has met with unanimously positive reviews from the national press. Certainly, credit should be given to the Donmar, this little powerhouse of excellent theatre, for tackling yet another lesser-known and intriguing play – one of John Osborne’s last and most profoundly autobiographical. Yet I emerged from the theatre feeling unmoved, bored and rather baffled.

Osborne’s play, while linguistically virtuosic and funny, as his writing always tends to be, is also baggy, bombastic and stylistically muddled. And it isn’t made any clearer in Jamie Lloyd’s rather unadventurous and seemingly misguided production with Douglas Hodge in the main seat playing middle-aged lawyer Bill Maitland.

From the outset, you know that you’re in for a gruelling night. Hodge is at the forefront of the stage, twitching, shouting, and physically pulsating with the sort of nervous energy that only people who have breakdowns in drama school possess. We know we are in the territory of a chronic mental haemorrhage, but also feel that Hodge may have shot his bolt rather. How much more deranged can one person (still married, still employed in the law, still seducing multiple women, and still with over two hours of stage time ahead of them) become? This is like a production of King Lear in which the director decides that Lear will rip his clothes off on the heath in the very first scene.

What may have helped us understand this initial set up, and indeed the rest of the play, would have been a clearer sense of the interiority of Maitland’s breakdown, but there is nothing in Jamie Lloyd’s production at all to suggest that we are inside the mind of this man. Instead, the setting and approach throughout are starkly realistic. During this opening scene, a judge and solicitor lounge languidly in upstage armchairs, watching Hodge unravel before their eyes, with expressions similar to those if they were watching breakfast TV. The scene takes place in the office that forms the set for the rest of the play, which is brightly lit, leaving us with a sense of confusion as to where we are and what this is supposed to be. Perhaps if Lloyd had been a little more daring with staging, lighting and sound (distorted voice-overs for the other characters perhaps?) then we might have understood this scene to be a private insight into Maitland’s tormented mind – part of the surrealist dream scape of this play that the programme alludes to.

While Hodge’s deeply irritating unexplained ticks and hyper vocal activity slowly wear you down throughout the production, the rest of the characters suffer from being rather sketchily and unrealistically drawn by their author, and rather half-heartedly tackled by the actors. The second act is weighed down by a sequence of ponderous monologues –by two characters in whom the audience have no real interest, but which take up a disproportionate amount of time, and the other from Maitland. It features some of the most rancid dialogue you will hear in the theatre, yet when shock upon shock is piled on in order to try and climax what is an already climaxed play in the first scene, you soon find yourself rolling your eyes at Osborne taking up our precious time for such inane dialogue. I also have to say I was puzzled by Lloyd’s decision to have the only characters who are doubled up be two minor characters in the second act. Did his budget run out as they waded through this beast of a play?

Ultimately, this is a work which has an overwhelmingly sour heart. It is deeply unpleasant at best and is stretched out to such a degree that you almost become immune to its unpleasantness. In order to salvage something from it, I would like to see a younger actor like Sam West in the role of Bill Maitland, convincingly provoking some sexual arousal in his female companions and bringing out the superficial veneer of authority, charisma and control that I’m sure Osborne wanted Maitland to possess some of. As it stands, it is like having a drunken jelly on stage throughout. Furthermore, it would be good to have an editor with a red pen and a ruthless eye, and a director that is prepared to throw aside naturalism and tear at the play’s fabric to see what can be done with it. Only then can we stand a chance of appreciating, if not liking, this piece.

Inadmissable Evidence, Donmar Warehouse

Douglas Hodge: a drunken jelly

April 26, 2011

Woody Sez, Arts Theatre

5 stars


If it hadn’t been for a friend’s recommendation, I probably wouldn’t have been to see Woody Sez, a musical about the American folk singer of the mid-twentieth century, Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken. Luckily, my ignorance is not typical and nor did it stop me going, and Woody Guthrie has a loyal following of all ages, most of whom had flocked excitedly to this show. Guthrie, it transpires, was an important folk singer who bravely confronted his country’s politics, and irked the government, through his songs. With hindsight I wouldn’t have missed this show for the world and, far from being a nostalgic tribute work, the piece pointed out the uncanny relevance that Guthrie’s lyrics and sentiments have to our society today, with songs such as ‘Jolly Banker’ and ‘So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’ striking chords in our financially stricken era both here and across the pond.

David M. Lutken’s ingenious show is one of the most original around. Playing Woody Guthrie with a mellow gravitas and sense of humour that is like a razor wrapped in cotton wool, he narrates Woody’s life in the first person earnestly and directly. He is supported by a super-talented cast of actor/musicians, who can not only all act, sing and play an instrument, but can play a myriad of different instruments, switching between them effortlessly. There is no tuning up, warming up or lining up sheet music – the instruments are plucked from the wings and played with a spontaneous abandon that is infectious. Each musical number, therefore, has a unique timbre, from the haunting beauty of Ruth Clarke-Irons accompanying herself on fiddle as she sings snippets of ‘The Ballad of Tom Joad’ throughout the show, to the exhilarating bluegrass sound of something like ‘This Train is Bound for Glory’.

Each actor takes on several cameo roles of people that featured in Guthrie’s life from his unstable, pyromaniac mother (played sensitively by Helen Jean Russell, who gives an exquisite rendition of ‘Curly Headed Baby’) to his eccentric fiddle-playing uncle (played by William Wolfe Hogan, who gives a manically virtuosic rendition of ‘Talkin’ Dust Bowl’) to his young daughter (played by Ruth Clarke-Irons, who drives forward the hilarious and poignant ‘Riding in the Car’ song).

It’s an inspiring example of ensemble theatre and sensitive musical ensemble all in one. The performers accompany each other just as well as they take the limelight. There are passages of mouth-watering harmony and some songs so rousing that the audience are singing along more loudly than the performers. The direction and musical direction are impressively slick meaning that each musical number has effective contour lines and moments of choreographic brilliance.

There is an appealing simplicity and innocence to this show that musicals rarely have the confidence to parade these days. But it’s not prim or old-fashioned in the least and pokes fun at its own individuality (Lutken jokes that they’re going to do a medley for the finale, like in Mamma Mia). The simplicity is effectively achieved through the performers remaining in one costume throughout, the scenery staying the same (projections of Guthrie, a plough in a field, and the deathly dust storm that is recollected), the performers not being mic-ed, as well as the direct, first-person narration that propels the story forward. Similarly, Guthrie’s life is poignant, significant and has political repercussions, but in other ways is unremarkable. It takes artistic confidence and vision to pull off something like this, but David M. Lutken and his talented team obviously have such qualities in wagonfuls.

A View from the Bridge, Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City

5 stars

I had the rare and precious treat of not knowing A View from the Bridge prior to this performance. Having read, studied or seen most of Miller’s work, all of which I consider to be nothing short of masterful, for one reason or another this one was, up until recently, something of a mystery to me.

I now think A View from the Bridge is truly one of Miller’s best plays, largely because he does what Miller does exceptionally well, but in a strikingly powerful way: he presents us with a misguided and morally dubious protagonist, Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman, plays out his wrongdoings and downfall in front of our eyes, and then makes us weep for him. As the fascinatingly pivotal character of Alfieri the lawyer says at the end about Eddie Carbone, “And so I mourn him – I admit it – with a certain . . . alarm”.

Eddie lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Beatrice, and his niece from Beatrice’s side, 18-year-old Catherine, who he has brought up as a daughter. As the play develops, Eddie’s attachment to Catherine increases, his attention to his wife diminishes, and the arrival of Beatrice’s Italian immigrant brother and friend, Marco and Rodolpho, provokes a battle over Catherine as she becomes a pawn in a power struggle which throws up questions of masculinity, familial loyalty, immigration, and personal choice.

Director Jack Wood has created a stonking production of this play at Welwyn Garden City’s tiny Barn Theatre. With the stage being the size of one room in a doll’s house, the actors are practically on top of one another, creating the ever-growing feeling of overcrowding that builds in the play as more people enter Eddie Carbone’s household, exacerbating his own need to cling onto Catherine singularly.

Eddie is played expertly by Patrick Sunners, whose helplessness in the face of uncontrollable and unmentionable desire for his niece comes across beautifully. He has a swagger and a bear-like demeanour, often indulging in displays of Italian animation, staking his claim petulantly and vocally to his home, his niece, and something less tangible that he can’t put his finger on. “I want my respect, Beatrice, and you know what I’m talkin’ about”. Beatrice doesn’t know what he’s talking about, however, and, more to the point, nor does Eddie. Like a toddler who hasn’t yet got the capacity to formulate words, Eddie flounders around trying to articulate what it is that he wants and what exactly his problem is with the young Rodolpho. “He ain’t right, Beatrice”, Eddie says of Rodolpho (Elliot Brown), who has quickly become Catherine’s young suitor, but who Eddie has noted has red hair, cooks, sings and makes dresses. Eddie’s inability to name and confront the hostility he feels towards Rodolpho, and the feeling he himself harbours for Catherine, is his undoing, and the action kaleidoscopes chaotically around him, to the tune of Eddie’s orders, leading to his eventual ruin.

Jan Palmer Sayer is excellent as Eddie’s wife – strident yet sensitive, sure yet sympathetic, and with a slightly gruff edge. Sayer masters the difficult job of showing true tenderness towards her niece, while also revealing the jealousy that she feels for the attention that Catherine receives from Eddie. The young Jennifer Macchia plays Catherine with a sweetness and ease, which makes Beatrice’s sympathy towards her believable. She has a gentle keen-to-please expression while in Eddie’s company, but an innocence which clears her of any sense of compliance in his attraction. Her eventual tirade against Eddie, when she describes him as a “rat”, is made all the more powerful because of Macchia’s sweet poise in the rest of the play. There is also a notably strong performance from Clive Weatherley as Alfieri, suitably detached from the rest of the Italian immigrant community. Occupying the lower part of the stage (an interesting touch by the director, which subverts the notion of this character as a god-like figure),there is a stiffness and angularity to Weatherley’s body language, which highlight how his thoughts and decisions are dictated by logic and rationality, rather than by impulse, as Eddie’s all are. Alfieri’s powerful speech at the end of the play as he acknowledges the attachment that he feels to this flawed human being, Eddie Carbone, and his pointless existence, is made all the more moving by the actor’s rather rigid and professional persona throughout.

This is an altogether powerful production in which the only slight drawback is the limited peripheral space which the neighbourhood locals have to crowd into. I can now add A View from the Bridge to my collection of Miller masterpieces. It is especially powerful when Miller shows us how wrong can grow out of good intentions. “A man works hard, he brings up a child, sometimes it’s a niece, sometimes even a daughter, and he never realizes it, but through the years – there is too much love for the daughter, there is too much love for the niece” Alfieri explains to Eddie. Eddie loved Catherine, provided for her, brought her up, and then somehow missed the point at which he was supposed to let go.


Patrick Sunners as Eddie Carbone and Jan Palmer Sayer as Eddie’s wife, Beatrice.

March 20, 2011

Season's Greetings, National Theatre

4 stars

This is yet another feat of the force that is the National Theatre. It is the first time Alan Ayckbourn has been staged at the NT in eleven years – and what a homecoming it is. Unlike the last play of Ayckbourn’s staged here (House and Garden in 2000), Season’s Greetings is a lot less fixated on structural tricks and gimmicks and, to some degree, puts the farce techniques often associated with Ayckbourn to one side in favour of a fuller and more independently drawn characters.

This Christmas for controlling wife Belinda (Catherine Tate) and her frustratingly incapable husband Neville (Neil Stuke), Santa brings presents, food and friends – and all the other problems associated with the festive season, not least the stuffy Uncle Bernard’s stuffy Christmas puppet show. When supposedly prolific author Clive (played by Oliver Chris) enters their midst, he seems to draw out the sexual frustration that has accumulated in Belinda as a result of her less-than-attentive husband. Alongside the jealous rivalry that develops between Belinda and Rachel (Nicola Walker), the latter who had initiated Clive’s visit in the first place, the person most disturbed by this unprepossessing newcomer is Harvey (an excellent David Troughton). His bullish nature, bloody-mindedness and army training all lead to him observing Clive with the utmost attention and suspicion.

The beauty of this Ayckbourn play is the many interactions and fraught dynamics that orbit the main action at any one time. And in Marianne Elliott’s masterly production, each character has been observed with such care and sensitivity that you get a whole cross-section of human pain and suffering – whether that’s through the heavily pregnant Pattie (a beautifully pitched performance by Katherine Parkinson) whose placid nature has made her a doormat for everyone, the unstable Phyllis (Jenna Russell on top form) or the please-just-leave-me-alone Eddie who, deep down, would like to shun all adult responsibilities and immerse himself in the pub and gadgets.

At any time on the stage, something is happening in different pockets of the house. The excellent direction in this production means that the accompanying action is at a perfect level to balance the main melody of drama, and the size of the Lyttelton stage means that – as a viewer – you never feel you are watching something cluttered. Rather, you can switch in and out of scenarios as if skipping through television channels.

What is perhaps the trickiest scene – Uncle Bernard’s dreary puppet show of The Three Little Pigs – is a demonstration of the mastery of this production. It’s got to be dull for the characters because that’s the point, but it can’t bore the audience. Elliott’s sensitivity to detail and her ability to perfectly counterpoint several levels of action, as well as the sincerity in Mark Gattis’s interpretation of Bernard, means that this is a tense and engrossing accumulation of all that is painful and hurtful in this household. Bernard swats thoughtlessly at Pattie’s incompetence with the props, Harvey doesn’t watch or listen, but nevertheless commentates, Phyllis totally misses the point, mistaking a person’s finger for a puppet caterpillar, and eventually the house comes tumbling down.

Ayckbourn’s play, as with so many of his works, is a deeply serious comment about how a lack of communication, understanding and empathy can destroy a household and a human heart in the same way as the puppet show collapses. We wince as characters repeatedly, and often unknowingly, bruise one another’s souls and fail to diagnose their own shortcomings. At the end, Bernard – a doctor – pronounces Clive dead, only to then witness his patient come around. “I can’t even get that right!” Bernard despairs, but this speaks volumes for all the characters, none of whom are capable of understanding other people or interpreting situations.


The Magic Flute, Royal Opera House

4 stars

The Magic Flute

It could be said that it’s difficult to go wrong with Mozart’s sublime 1791 piece that is The Magic Flute. While this may be true, it is wonderful and uplifting to encounter a production with as much flair, beauty and raw talent as in Lee Blakeley’s revival of David McVicar’s glorious incarnation at the Opera House.

Brilliantly cast with a gleaming trio of soloists at its heart (Christopher Maltman as Papageno, Joseph Kaiser as Tamino, and Kate Royal as Pamina), every aria is as enchanting as it ought to be. Kaiser and Royal both bring a purity of voice to their roles, but also demonstrate extraordinary versatility, in particular in their dynamic variation. Impressively, Maltman never lets the humour or bumpkin nature of his characterisation of Papageno upstage his singing, and his voice is rich and powerful throughout. Kaiser has perhaps the most delicious voice out of the cast in my opinion, the ring of his higher register like nothing else in the show.

Supporting these three outstanding singers are two other topnotch threesomes – namely a wonderful trio of ladies of the night with impeccable ensemble, and the exquisitely angelic sounding choir boys (here presented as three rather ragged school boys), flying in what looks like a homemade go-cart with wings that they operate.

This production does not hold back on the spectacle and what a treat that is. There are puppets and masks, a dancer on stilts, a great glowing disk of a sun that is rolled on, an ice-like gigantic moon, an eccentric study room with chalk writing all the way up to the top of the stage, and a dramatic revolving replica of the solar system. There are also very cute children galore who, though they don’t essentially ‘do’ anything, are the finishing touch in this utopian community.

The orchestra, for this performance under the baton of David Syrus, is outstanding, achieving a stunning sense of ensemble. There is some particularly gorgeous playing from the first flute (Sarah Brooke).

In such a large-scale and ambitious production, there are bound to be a few weak spots. On our night, the Queen of the Night (Jessica Pratt) was ill and so another singer bravely stood in, but unfortunately made a hash of her much-awaited aria. Franz-Josef Selig as Sarastro has one of the best-sounding voices in the cast no doubt, but is rather erratic rhythmically. And Alasdair Elliott makes for a strange casting choice as Monostatos, never really stirring up the faintest nerve amongst the audience. Also, while this production has obviously aimed for the large-cast, big spectacle approach, the only chorus choreography as such is dancers as animals jumping rather aimlessly about the stage, and some slightly cringe-worthy physical theatre during the trials of fire and water.

However, these are minor complaints in what is a stellar production with some singers that no doubt will be remembered for their roles (in particular, watch out for Kate Royal who clearly has what it takes to make it…). It’s refreshing, too, to see a Flute that isn’t too pantomime-focused, and hearing it in its original language only confirms one’s sense of this being exactly what Mozart intended for his opera.

Sugar, HMP Send

5 stars

Following the jubilant performance of "Sugar", the Stone, Styne and Merrill musical based on "Some Like It Hot", the audience were left cheering, laughing through tears, and shouting for more. However, there were no autograph signings from the cast, no stage door appearances, and no cast drinks afterwards. Instead, the company were escorted straight back to their cells, only after which the audience could leave the auditorium. "Sugar", performed in HMP Send, a closed female training prison with 282 inmates, is the latest venture of Pimlico Opera, under the inspiring leadership of Wasfi Kani OBE.

It is without doubt a vital and brilliant cause, as is clear from the sheer number and stature of the patrons listed in the programme and the fact that the Prisons Minister, Crispin Blunt, called the production "utterly marvellous and inspiring". While Kani heads Pimlico Opera with a steeliness and ambition that would wow most City workers, not very far beneath the supposedly ruthless surface is a heart that is moved year upon year and at every performance by the prisoners' plights and the impact of their involvement with Pimlico. Tears rolling from under her glasses, Wasfi tells us how she is struck by the uncertainty of the future for these women and the realities they will face when life goes back to normal and Pimlico Opera leaves the prison. "It could have been you", she says, astonished and moved at the sheer stroke of fortune that the life of one of these women didn't fall to her.

At a pre-show tour of the prison a week earlier, we had the privilege of speaking with the woman who is making all of the costumes for the production. At 67, she is serving a life sentence, but speaks with a soft-spoken delight and pride at having this opportunity. Her days now consist of hand sewing in her cell before breakfast and after dinner, and using a sewing maching in the prison's craft workshop throughout the days. Practically single-handedly, she is kitting out the entire cast. Sitting next to this wardrobe mistress is a woman making cards who couldn't be in the show, but who signed her sister up instead. A dry Geordie, she is far from sentimental, but confesses that she and the other prisoners absolutely cannot wait to see the show. "I'm not going to believe it when I see my sister come on stage!" she laughs.

In the rehearsal room, as a handful of professional performers and creative team work alongside the cast and crew of about 30 prisoners, it is clear what a professional set-up Pimlico Opera is. The highest standard is expected of everyone. No exceptions are made for people who haven't learnt their songs or dances, and scenes are rehearsed mercilessly by director Michael Moody. The prisoners are drilled with the same rigour as the professional performers and, as a result, the concentration in the room is tangible. There are a range of ages of women from their early twenties to their sixties, and the perimeter of the room bustles with prisoners involved backstage doing hair, make-up, costumes, scenery, lighting and props.

For the fortnight of the show, a vast marquee has been erected in the prison grounds with an elaborate set and elongated stage with audience on either side. At one end is a beach scene; at the other a line of sleeper train compartments. A fantastic brass-heavy professional band have been brought in under musical director Toby Purser's baton and, as the music starts, the women rush on in fabulous costumes, successfully performing the demanding choreography and direction, and owning the stage.

Every cast member has a named part that generally falls into the camp of slick Chicago gangster or likeable, lively airhead. The professional principals, Rob Gildon, Duncan Patrick, Deryck Hamon and Victoria Ward, propel the hilarious and farcical action forward skilfully, and the rest of the cast follow suit with some rousing chorus numbers, delightful cameo roles, and an overwhelming energy and enthusiasm that no audience member can resist. This show is alive and kicking, and it boasts an impressive attention to detail. 

Not only do the people involved, who don't necessarily have a background in theatre, experience the pleasure of working on something top-quality, but the other prisoners have the opportunity to watch their peers in a show that is nothing short of brilliant.

The individual cast programme biogs say it all really, and I'm already looking forward to next year's project.

"I have seen through participating in this the confidence it has given the women including myself.” (Follow spot)

“I didn’t know I could sing or dance. I feel like a different person.” (Trigger Mickey)

“I feel this is beneficial for prisoners as they don’t alienate you, but they make you feel a valuable part of the production instead of just a prisoner.” (Backstage assistant)

“This production is the first time women in this prison have been allowed to express their deepest emotions through acting and this is something that should be encouraged. The discipline of coming to work and doing a full day’s work engaged in something challenging is the perfect way to channel emotions which would minimise being disruptive” (Train Conductor)

“My sons Alexander and Christopher and partner, plus my sister are coming to watch the show. Something for us to tell my lovely granddaughters and baby boy.” (Baby Face Nelson)

“During my time in prison this opera is the first thing I have enjoyed.” (Cirly Girl)

“I have found confidence in things I never thought I would and it has opened my eyes to new ideas for my future.” (Backing Singer)

“Pimlico...recognise that prison should be about engaging individuals as opposed to traumatising which makes prison unbearable.” (Olga)

Clybourne Park, Wyndham's Theatre

4 stars

Clybourne Park

It is deeply exciting to be living at a time when new plays are aplenty and talented, often young, writers seem to be growing like wild flowers. While there may be a resulting fetish for the new and a hunger to pull the next Polly Stenham or Anya Reiss from the masses, a greater preoccupation should really be with which of these playwrights will still be having their work performed and studied thirty, forty, fifty years from now. Watching Dominic Cooke’s production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, which has transferred from the Royal Court, makes you realise that this is a play that will surely come back again and again because of what it says about society’s attitudes and the inescapability of one’s past.

Set in Chicago in 1959 and 2009 respectively, Norris’s play is cleverly structured in two halves that roughly mirror each other. It takes as its central focus racial bigotry and the personal prejudices that lie within us all, on many levels. Act I is based on Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, bringing characters to life that are only alluded to in Hansberry’s play – the white household nervously awaiting the arrival of a black family into their neighbourhood. As the neighbours gather in the household of Russ and Bev, who are selling their home, to discuss their new neighbours’ imminent arrival, their deep concerns about the effect it will have on house prices, as well as their more general racist attitudes, are brought to light.

Stuart McQuarrie is excellent as the more liberal-minded but moral coward Russ, his brooding, private presence building beautifully to a more emotional climax at the end of the act. And Sophie Thompson, while on the cusp of irritating, captures truthfully the bored, naive, but nevertheless caring housewife whose strained positivity towards black people is more endearing than insulting. Sam Spruell, Stephen Campbell Moore and Sarah Goldberg are all first-class as the meddling neighbours, their joviality filling the house with a superficial, sunny American buoyancy, but their views and concerns scattering an invisible poison throughout the home. And Lorna Brown is excellent as the dignified, poised black maid Francine who, along with her black husband (the slightly bumbling Albert, played excellently by Lucian Msamati) is forced to listen to the white folk tiptoe around – and sometimes stamp straight on – issues concerning the black folk.

The highlight of the act is Karl (Campbell Moore) overstepping an already overstepped mark in his racial outlook, prompting Russ to order him out of his home. Campbell Moore stands, flabbergasted, giggling with embarrassment and shock at the ultimatum, and refusing to budge. It’s one of the best representations of human awkwardness and incomprehension in the face of ignorance that I’ve seen on stage, and it leaves one feeling deeply uncomfortable about these characters.

What is brilliant about Norris’s portraits is that there is no moral leader – no character that spearheads the plight for equality of race. Some are more discreet and more sensitive to the assembled company, but the white people here all fundamentally share common views. Yet, amazingly, we don’t despise any of them. They are showing symptoms of their time and society, and their procrastinating is just an illustration of the warped views of the era. In a bizarre way, too, these characters are genuinely trying to do what they believe is right for their neighbourhood.

Norris’s humour is bold and cutting, yet so cleanly executed that it’s hilarious though often deeply uncomfortable. There is something morbidly funny and absurd about a black man having to listen to outright racial abuse, having just been invited enthusiastically into the home, while a deaf, pregnant woman (Betsy, played by Goldberg) shouts incoherent and intermittent opinions, at the same time as a do-good vicar tries to soften the caustic insults flying around the room.

The second act is framed by a dilapidated version of the first act’s set, with soiled floors, brown-stained walls and empty window panes. It is fifty years later and a group of people have come together to discuss the plans of Lindsey and Steve (Goldberg and Campbell Moore) to buy this same property, flatten the house and rebuild from scratch in what is now an all-black neighbourhood. While all the characters in this setting have take-out Starbucks cups, juggle the meeting with personal calls on their cell phones, and clearly have managed a family-work life effortlessly, the shocking thing about the situation is that the attitudes are just the same as those displayed in the first act, though in different guises. Beneath the gushingly empathetic surfaces, these characters are experiencing tensions and differences so rife that there is clearly no possibility of conciliation, not just between different races, but between men and women as well.

Norris’s particular skill in writing this act is that nothing has been tipped on its head or neatly turned inside out. Rather the tectonic plates of the action have all subtly shifted around so the slightly camp vicar in the first half (Spruell) is now an out-of-the-closet gay, the lawyer (previously Bev) is the daughter of the first act’s Karl and Betsy, and Lena (Brown) is the great niece of Francine, the maid. As you can see, it makes for a rather crooked family tree, but consequently the power dynamics are deeply engaging.

Goldberg and Campbell Moore are outstanding as the all-American young couple – beautiful, articulate, and expecting child, but deeply unhappy and tense underneath it all. Steve’s condescending comforting of his wife and her highly strung state is fabulously played out in dialogue that is so true to life as to leave you incredulous. The planning permission meeting is deliberately meandering and frustratingly tangential, but every exchange reveals so much about each character and the tensions that exist between them. Lena, essentially chairing the meeting, resides with a quiet dignity at the centre of it all, approaching the issues professionally and admirably. Yet the escalating hostility in the meeting leads to even her being stripped of all formality and revealing her prejudiced attitudes towards white people.

The importance and inescapability of history in our lives and society is symbolised by the huge trunk that Bev and Russ have been trying to move out of their home in the first act. We are led to believe it is full of the letters and memories of their now-deceased son. It is unmovable in the first act and ends up stolidly wedged on the staircase. In the second act, it is brought in by Dan the builder (McQuarrie) and sits, idly but obviously, in the centre of the stage, covered in dust, with no attempt from anyone to shift it or even to question what exactly it’s doing there. The attitudes, too, weigh heavily on these people and Norris leaves us wondering whether personal prejudice – the most dangerous, hidden kind – can ever really be conquered.

January 31, 2011

The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic

2 stars

Glass Menagerie

I find it fascinating that Tennessee Williams’s reaction to one of the most traumatic events of his life – his beloved sister undergoing a lobotomy – was to write only days later one of his most reflective, poised and consciously theatrical plays. Tom Wingfield, the central character often allied with Williams himself, introduces the piece as a ‘memory’ play, thereby excusing any exaggeration, untruths, omissions or leaps in time. What we then see enacted is a sequence of past events from Tom’s perspective, as he reflects on his guilt at abandoning his ‘crippled’ sister, Laura, to join the army.

What I consider to be the play’s true stroke of genius is that the central symbol of the play (a glass unicorn, Laura’s favourite item of her precious menagerie and a symbol of Laura herself) comes to an ambiguous end. Does the fact that his horn accidentally gets broken off mean that Laura is liberated from the mental constraints of her physical disability? Or does it mean that, through losing the horn, Laura has lost the very thing that made her unique and special? At the end of the play, Laura’s future is thus uncertain, and we are left simultaneously wanting to weep and to cheer.

With exceptions in some of the acting and several powerful moments, I was overall rather disappointed with Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production, currently showing at the Young Vic. Leo Bill plays Tom Wingfield as if he were a heroin addict suffering severe withdrawal symptoms. He lurches about the stage, shaking and shouting in fury, the noise of his stamping a big distraction. The poisonous power of some of Tom’s most cutting lines (he calls his mother “a babbling old witch”, really cutting the jugular) is obscured by a general tumult of shouting and Leo Bill even has adopted the clichéd habit of rotating his wrists in an effort to appear ‘disturbed’. There is no denying that Tom’s mother Amanda annoys the hell out of him. But she is his mother and, therefore, he doesn’t hate her. In a moment of particular tenderness when Amanda joins Tom on the terrace to wish on the moon, Leo Bill shoots daggers at Amanda and stiffens up completely when she hugs him. If it’s so bad, he would have left home already. There is something holding Tom back though and it’s firstly a love and loyalty to his sister, but it’s secondly – and not insignificantly – a concern and care for his stifling mother.

Leo Bill makes Tom’s experience in the Wingfield household seem more like a temporary Big Brother one – an environment into which he’s been parachuted – and what doesn’t come across is how mundane his existence there is. Tom has never left home in twenty years. Amanda’s nagging is annoying, but it’s normal, and Tom needs to be in a place where he bristles at these things, but isn’t apoplectic.

If you haven’t already got earache from Bill’s general bearing, then you will be helped along by Deborah Findlay’s incessant barking as Amanda. In many respects, it’s a fine performance from Findlay who captures Amanda’s fundamental warmth and good nature underlying the chatter and hysteria. Her smile is a beaming example of Southern charm and her intermittent bursts of girlish laughter are infectious. Yet Findlay (suffering from a hoarse throat during our performance) pumps out her words as if she’s on a football terrace – and Amanda has a lot of words. What’s missing is the singsong elegance that should kick in when her jonquil-tinted past is recounted – a lightness that makes her allergic to all things modern. After all, her one trip out in the play she returns from in tears.

Sinead Matthews makes for a beautiful Laura with a sweetness that is never too sickly and a remarkable inner strength. Matthews’s understanding of her character is superior, and her gentle support of, and sympathetic compliance with, her mother really comes across. ‘Let her tell it’, she chides Tom, knowing that to recall her past is essentially what makes her mother happy. The sequence in which Amanda forces Laura to answer the door to the Gentleman Caller is particularly poignant as we see Laura’s desperate and pathological resistance mount to an unbearable level. But even Matthews was having problems with her voice on the night we were in, meaning that many of her lines came out as an unexpected squeak, much like a choir boy whose voice keeps breaking. Kyle Soller as Jim, the Gentleman Caller and old high school crush of Laura’s, gives a strong performance, buoyant with a lingering American school boy arrogance, and his scene with Laura, as he coaxes her to him as you would do a timid bird with crumbs in your hand, is moving.

The whole concept is a great use of space and the Young Vic auditiorium – with its slightly dingy interior and vast space – provides the perfect setting for a play like this which presents a diseased America, masked only by jazz, dancing and sex. The levels of the stage are effectively employed with tiered fire escapes and a dramatic portrait of a handsome and beaming Father Wingfield looming ominously over the action. Simon Allen and Eliza McCarthy provide an exquisite musical score to the action on the piano and glass bells. In truth, I think these two musicians, working so intimately together, give the most sensitive performances of the night.

But, sadly, director Joe Hill-Gibbons has missed the ‘glass’ aspect of Williams’s play, one which the playwright describes as a ‘quiet’ piece. We, the audience, should be reluctant to breathe or laugh, should we shatter the menagerie of characters on stage. And in this context should come a few moments of razor-sharp pain when a character causes another one to break (eg. when Amanda accuses Tom of being selfish, Tom calls Amanda a witch, and Jim tells Laura that he is engaged). I don’t deny that this is a difficult play to put across and it’s important that directors and actors should be encouraged to constantly reinterpret it. But I feel this director has done away with the ethereal beauty of the play and replaced it with a loud, dysfunctional, and far less nuanced, American family, thrashing out their problems.

December 10, 2010

Higher education funding

So the vote is through the commons, and it’s likely that future students of higher education will have to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees. Student bodies have of course opposed this, with predominantly their own self interests at heart. Yet no-one really seems to have an alternative. So what really is the protest about?

Let’s look at the problem. Higher education is expensive, and needs to be paid for somehow. Traditionally, this funding (for UK students at least) has predominantly come from the government. In past times where student numbers were low, this was a sustainable model – the brightest and best went to university whilst everyone else got by with O-Levels, A-Levels, HND’s etc. Then it all started to go wrong with the drive to increase student numbers. In an attempt to fund the previous government’s frankly ridiculous target of sending 50% of people to univesity, in came tuition fees to much protest. Initially around £1,000 and then raised to the current £3,000 a year cap, much has been made of this fairly modest contribution by students to their education.

Now, the party is over and the public money has run out. The UK, like many western economies, has built up a massive debt and deficit, which must be curbed in order to avoid economic catastrophe. Most areas of public spending must come down in order to achieve this, and higher education must do its bit. What previously was seen as a right to free education for all now looks like a luxury that we can’t afford. With the numbers of people now attending universities, the lines must be redrawn.

So, the question really is, why is it everyone’s right to free university education? Free education up to the age of 18, few would argue with. But by the age of 18, young people are perfectly well equipped to go forth and start work, learn a trade or a profession. University has traditionally been the route for those who wish to take on the most challenging careers in law, medicine, science or academia. These career paths demand abilities and skills that require academic learning beyond the A-Level stage. The principle beneficiaries of these educated people are the students themselves, who go on to command higher than average wages, and the instituions that employ them.

Aha, you are probably thinking at this point, but not everyone who goes to university does benefit financially. Well no, I wouldn’t dispute that. That’s because many people who go to university now don’t actually need their degrees to go on and perform the jobs they take on in society. But as the number of graduates exceeds the demand, employers can be picky and selective, giving preference to or even making a requirement that applicants have degrees that they don’t really need for their jobs. What we have is an over-qualified workforce.

Some of you will still be thinking that my arguments exclude those whose chosen profession really does need a degree, but leads to low paid work, for example in social work. My own opinion is that in a lot of cases, we should be exploring alternatives to the degree for such work – such as a system of work-based learning and part time study at further education college, which if well designed could lead us to have even better suited people in these professions than the academic degree route. The fundamental point is though, that any profession that requires a degree but isn’t offering the wages to pay for the tuition fees is receiving a public subsidy by the government, because they are not paying out for the level of education they need in their staff.

The current system is such that all professions essentially receive this subsidy. By increasing the fees charged to students, the true cost of higher education is being made more visible to students and their eventual employers. For many, their profession values their qualification as it should and it is only fair that as a well paid professional they should have to pay for the benefit of the education that they received, which is now providing them with a quantifiable financial benefit, and their employer is paying for the cost through their higher than average wages. If this is not the case, then that profession is receiving a subsidy and this should be achieved through alternate means, either by the government increasing wages for low paid public sector professionals who are in genuine need of a degree, or by directly subsidising the fees of students who take up these courses with a commitment to public sector work upon graduation. By having to pay what it actually costs, students will also re-evaluate whether they really need a degree to do their chosen profession, and in time student numbers will probably naturally come down a little from their current levels. This is the nature of supply and demand; to argue against this is to argue for the state to subsidise an over-qualified and under-paid workforce, which is a nonsence.

Many of you reading this will find my justification for tuition fees as abhorrent as the fees themselves. But what are the alternatives? Well, I see three main alternatives:

  1. Carry on as we are, keep fees at current levels or even reduce and abolish them. State subsidy for higher education will increase, the workforce will continue to be over-qualified for the jobs that they do, the government finances take the hit and other areas of public spending have to take a bigger hit to compensate for the spending. Not an ideal option in my opinion.
  2. Reduce student numbers and make higher education more academically exclusive, limiting to say the top 25% of achievers. I’d support this as an alternative, but many wouldn’t – not least the NUS would have a seizure. It also doesn’t have the neat supply/demand and visible true cost of education benefits that fees do, and the government still has to pick up the tab for those who go.
  3. Have a graduate tax. This isn’t actually any different to tuition fees loans for most people, except that you’d have to pay tax for your whole career instead of just paying back what you borrowed for your education. Thus, the best paid professions would be subsidising the least well paid professions. This option is attractive to liberal types, presumably because they see it as a great way of bashing corporate high fliers to subsidise a utopian dream of university eduaction free for all. The reality of this system is little different for all but the highest paid, who are effectively being actively encouraged to pay for their education elsewhere before returning to the UK for work, thus neatly avoiding having to pay the tax in the first place. Has little merit over fees in my opinion, whilst adding some flaws.

Of these options, clearly my view is that higher fees are likely to become a permanent feature of higher education, and rightly so. The idea that poor students will be deterred by going to university because of the debts shows either a fundamental misunderstanding of the terms of the loans – paid off by the state after 30 years, only paid back when earning over a very comfortable threshold, not a commercial loan in the strictest sense – or a liberal belligerence that refuses to accept that good quality higher education costs serious amounts of cash, and it’s not on for the government to indefinitely fork out for their benefit.

October 26, 2010

Ivan and the Dogs Soho Theatre

5 stars

It is a great thrill to see a great actor perform a well-known role that is much anticipated. But no one can prepare you for the excitement of watching a lesser-known actor giving an exquisite performance in a strong piece of new writing. Hattie Naylor’s Ivan and the Dogs is currently showing at the Soho Theatre, having started life originally as a play on Radio 4. A cast of one, the character of Ivan reflects back on his time sleeping rough on the streets of Moscow as a young child during Russia’s political and economic crisis of the 1990s. Based on a true story, four-year-old Ivan Mishukov escaped his turbulent home life to live on the streets where he was adopted by a pack of wild dogs.

It is a poignant tale told with an endearing childish simplicity enhanced by the fact that the character of Ivan has not grown up or lived long enough to become detached from his experience or to lose his intuition, but he has matured enough that he can be gently self-mocking about his four-year-old self. The narrative has a raw quality to it – an ache and an exhilaration – as if, for the first time, Ivan is opening his heart to a person he has come to trust.

In Ellen McDougall’s hauntingly beautiful production, Ivan is played by Polish actor Rad Kaim whose profound understanding of his character’s emotions and worldview are a rare thing to watch. Sat, crouched or cowering throughout in a bright white box on stilts, Ivan retells his experience, often in hushed tones, with an immediacy and vulnerability that draws you in and holds you spellbound throughout. What comes across powerfully is the character’s superior instinctiveness which, at four years old, ensures his survival against the odds. He has a hatred for his violent alcoholic stepfather, who has “monster’s breath”, he mistrusts the street “bombzi”, who want something bad from him, and is wary of the young glue-sniffers who have “nothing in their eyes”. By contrast, his love and respect for Belka, the large white dog that first befriends him, is marked by his immediate recognition of her “big, hungry, sad eyes”.

There is a quiet intelligence about Ivan, as he listens almost serenely to the fierce arguments between his mother and step-father and calmly narrates gangster shootings in the apartment next door. But there is also a buoyant resilience and vivacity which come to fruition as he recalls his encounters with the wild dogs and their victories on the streets together as they pilfer food from rubbish bins, run rings around the militia men (police), and make the bully-boy cry. Ivan’s robust nature is infectious as he enthuses about the crisps he remembered to bring from home, the two bits of carpet he uses to sleep between, and the first potato that Belka takes from his hand. With sparing and beautifully judged use of visual perspective, Ivan crouches sideways in his box as he offers the food to Belka for the first time. It is an exquisite moment as his mouth is locked in trembling awe and his arm is outstretched, as his fingers slowly and coaxingly rub together.

There is an intense beauty in Ivan’s recollection of the dogs in the chirpy accounts of their names and personalities; in the sense of breathless exhilaration as he runs and barks with them as part of their pack; and in his incredulity that – at every occasion – the dogs come to his defence. At these moments, Kaim breaks into a beaming smile, which make for some of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking moments in theatre.

Naylor’s writing is nicely restrained and naturally poetic, structured around the childlike narrative device of ‘and then’. At no point is it sentimental or twee, and Ivan’s murderous feelings towards his step-father are captured in a passage which is boldly brutal as Ivan hisses hatefully through gathering tears. And, without force, the piece goes beyond being a child’s first-hand account to a meditation on human nature and people’s ability (and tendency) to lie. Dogs don’t lie; they just are. With just the right amount of emotive high and low points throughout the hour-long piece, an effective use of narrative symmetry, coupled with imaginative yet unobtrusive direction and Kaim’s intuitive sense of pacing, the piece becomes exquisite.

Subtle lighting changes, an evocative and varied soundscape alongside simple, ghostly projections of the dogs across the back of the white box provide all you need to feel the icy cold and loneliness of night time Moscow, the claustrophobic heat of the glue-den, and the panoramic peace of the countryside surrounding the city.

This is theatre at its simplest and best. I’m excited to see what actor Rad Kaim does next.

Ivan and the Dogs

July 21, 2010

After the Dance, National Theatre

5 stars

It’s a rare and beautiful thing to come across a production as beautifully realised as Thea Sharrock’s After the Dance, now in its final leg at the National. A lesson both in acting and direction, this is a humbling example of the extraordinary power that theatre, when it’s done well, can have.

Terrence Rattigan’s play looks at the dangers of not being true to oneself and not saying all that we should for the sake of what others may think and for fear of being perceived as a “bore” – a word that preoccupies all of the play’s characters. “He’s gone dreary on us”, complains the frivolous Julia Browne (Pandora Colin) as she laments an old friend setting up his own window cleaning business in Manchester. These condemnatory characters live an idle, supercilious existence of gossip and banter, fuelled by an excess of narcotics.

David Scott-Fowler is the greatest advocate of this both jovial and debauched lifestyle, and is here played by an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, who evolves from a hedonistic, selfish man being waited on, drinking heavily and enjoying a fun but detached existence from his wife to, at the end, a glazed and deeply thoughtful “bore”, contemplating seriously what it’s like to really need someone. The still young Cumberbatch gives his character a convincing middle-age gravitas, which invites the affections of the sweetly scheming twenty year-old Helen (a bright-eyed performance by Faye Castelow), and the silent, ashamed love of the vivacious socialite that is his wife, Joan (a fantastically sexy and brave-faced performance by Nancy Carroll).

When Helen and David suddenly announce their passionate love and imminent plans to marry, Helen’s fiancé and cousin to David, Peter (a poignantly cheerful and good-hearted John Heffernan) quietly crumples and Joan breaks down in a rare moment of weakness and honest emotion. She has loved her husband all along, but even after twelve years of marriage has never felt able to tell him so for fear of seeming a bore. It is this tragic and destructive lack of communication that makes this play such a sorry one.

In a production where every casting is absolutely right and each directorial decision is wholly appropriate, there is one performance which must be singled out as one of the best I’ve seen. Adrian Scarborough plays John Reid, the resident friend whose bed and board is funded by what he considers to be his entertainment value. Initially, John seems to be the play’s fop, permanently installed with feet up on the sofa and issuing witticisms, loathe to do any work, and with a penchant for pocketing household items. What soon emerges, however, is an incredibly perceptive and wise man whose sanity and sound judgement prevent (or almost prevent) several messy situations in the play. Like Lear’s Fool, John is David’s closest ally as they jest together, wind each other up, and merrily and moodily rub along side by side. Fundamentally, David hears from John the truth, superficially rejects it, and then accepts it. Lear’s question to the Fool, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” to which the Fool answers, “Lear’s shadow” would not be out of place in the play, which essentially tracks David’s plight to find himself in a society where disguising oneself is the default. Scarborough, with his stout and calmly watchful presence is pitch-perfect in this role and the production’s greatest asset.

The National at the moment seems to be having a field day with deliciously extravagant set designs and this production is no different. An elegant 1930s style apartment in Mayfair, with a grand piano and a long balcony running its length immediately capture the grandeur and excess of this era. Yet, during the second act’s stylish and decadent party, the balcony curtains are drawn back to reveal a woman knelt in front of a trouserless man on the balcony. It is also from this balcony that the tragic turning-point of the plot happens. This inseparable mix of superficial romance and deep-rooted sordidness makes Rattigan’s play so particularly potent, and is beautifully encapsulated in Sharrock’s production.

Full credit to every member of this cast and creative team for their involvement in what is undoubtedly the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.

After the Dance

February 28, 2010

3D TV at the Bristol Sound & Vision Show

I don’t know how many people have been following the hype about 3D television going on in the home cinema world recently, but curious myself I decided to check out the Bristol Sound and Vision Show to see the available demos for myself. Usefully, both polarised (LG) and shutter glass (Samsung) sets were available to try.

From what I can gather, the format agreed sends both the left and right image from the source to the TV at the same time, and the display then does whatever it needs to with the data to make the image 3D. In the case of the polarised LG, the left and right images are interlaced and simultaneously projected through a polarised layer; the glasses then have the corresponding polarisation over each eye to filter out either the left or right image only. In shutter glass screens, the screen alternately displays left and right images 120 times a second, and liquid crystal shutter glasses alternately shut out the left and right eye in synchronisation with the TV refresh rate to give the 3D image. The glasses for the shutter-type displays are much more expensive (about £100 a pair), which is one of the reasons why if you’ve been to the cinema recently you’ll have been watching 3D generated using the polarised effect.

The demos were sadly limited, with the special demo room giving only about 3-4 mins worth of 3D imagery on the LG TV’s, and the Samsung displaying some animated 3D content on a stand outside. As the conditions were completely different (as well as the content) and the viewing experience so small, forming an authoritive and detailed opinion would be nigh-on impossible. In general, however, I felt that the improvements given by 3D over standard HD were nowhere near as great as the flaws introduced into the viewing experience.

The LG image I generally found to be exceptionally distorted, suffering from serious ghosting of the image around the 3D objects. I noticed this to a much lesser extent when watching Avatar at the cinema, so I don’t know how much of this flaw is due to the particular hardware and how much is down to the limitations of the technique. The ghosting was bad enough to make the image very uncomfortable to watch. There was also generally significantly less resolution to the image, as a result of both the left and right images being interlaced at once. I was sat in the front row of the demo room, maybe 7 feet away from a 47” screen, so maybe viewing from further back may have alleviated some of these issues, or perhaps it was related to the content. As I said, I can’t be sure because of the limited exposure to the hardware.

The Samsung shutter glass screen I generally found to be a much more positive viewing. I’ve always had a hunch that the shutter glass approach is a superior technology to polarisation, and generally I felt that the demo experience bore this out. The content showing was very different, but was very watchable without glasses, with only a noticeable lack of definition to edges to give the 3D of the image away – but certainly nothing to make it unwatchable. With the glasses on, the refresh rate of the screen was quite visible – I believe currently the standard is to refresh at 120Hz, and the experience was similar to viewing with an old CRT screen with a refresh rate set too low – it was quite strenuous on the eyes. The image was much sharper than the LG however, and had good levels of brightness – although lower than without the glasses on. I’m not sure how much higher the refresh rate can go on the LC glasses, or even if this would solve the issue of image flicker. Overall though, I much preferred the Samsung as a viewing experience, although I still think that the negatives outweigh watching content in normal HD.

Perhaps with Panasonic’s products later this year (with all the ex-Kuro engineers assisting), the image quality will begin to accelerate a notch or two. My advice for the time being though is for would-be early adopters to hold fire with their cash.

On a related note, the demonstration of the 9.2 Onkyo receiver, also at the What Hifi stand, demonstrated what a difference extra surround speakers make. In particular, the addition of front at-height speakers really added to the viewing of a scene from 2012. I’m not sure as to all the ins and outs of this; what extra information is required on disc, and if other manufacturers are planning to bring similar products to market soon. Definitely worth a demo in the meantime though, even if it means having to have an over-lively Onkyo in your system!

February 21, 2010

Sweet Charity, Menier Chocolate Factory

Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket for the sake of Charity

5 stars

sweet charity

Sweet Charity, which originally burst onto the Broadway stage in 1966, running for 600 performances, tells the quirky and poignant tale of a resilient spirit. The show, written by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields, with original choreography by Bob Fosse, depicts a young woman – a dance hall hostess – in her quest for love and to be loved. Charity Hope Valentine is the flaneur of the title, wandering through transient love affairs and, at each stage, ending up disappointed, but never downhearted. She is initially pushed into a lake and robbed by her fiancé number one, Charlie, and then later let down by fiancé number two, Oscar, who is so prudish that he decides he cannot deal with Charity’s sexual past. Yet the more this Jack in the Box is pushed down, the more heartily she pops up.

Matthew White’s production of Sweet Charity at the Menier Chocolate Factory is absolutely top-notch. If you are tempted to roll your eyes at the fact that East Enders star Tamzin Outhwaite has been brought in to play the title role, then don’t bother. She is terrific and carries the show with oodles of panache, a smile as broad as a letter box, and an infectious zest for life, even in the face of Charity’s bitter disappointment. With her Doris Day freshness, sassy top hat and cane dance moves, and slightly smoky voice, Outhwaite carries the show with a vital drive and confidence that surely few leading ladies could offer.

She is supported by an ensemble so committed and energetic, doubling up roles with true originality and executing Stephen Mears’s challenging choreography with startling precision and class. Highlights of the show include “The Rich Man’s Frug” in which the Fosse influence is at its most pronounced and eccentric, and “Rhythm of Life” as a group of drugged-up hippies are led by “Daddy” in an alternative sermon under the Manhattan Bridge.

A special mention for character should go to Mark Umbers who plays all of Charity’s love interests with impressive variation, switching swiftly from the sinister Charlie to the suave Italian film star, Vittorio Vidal, who regards Charity with an affectionate bafflement, to the goofy Oscar, whose sincerity and shyness are heart-breaking.

An equally integral part of the show, of course, is the powerful nine-piece band, under the direction of Nigel Lilley, which produce a thrillingly fat jazz sound that pumps the whole Menier auditorium with life – not least because four of the band are spread across the back of the stage and so create an exciting surround sound.

It’s a treat to see a musical in a space as intimate as the Menier and, as always, the creative team have overcome its spatial limits. Simple moveable raked steps act as a fairground ride, the Manhattan Bridge, and the fire escape steps outside the seedy Fan-Dango Ballroom, over which the hostess girls nonchalantly drape themselves . The costumes provide the necessary colour, as well as a painted proscenium arch, and – more importantly – a stellar cast and band, who appear to relish every moment of this simultaneously wacky and heart-wrenching show. It is brilliant news that this Sweet Charity has a life in the West End after the Menier.

February 14, 2010

Serenading Louie, Donmar Warehouse

2 stars


Admittedly, not many people in the UK have heard of Lanford Wilson, the American playwright whose 1970 play, Serenading Louie, is currently being shown at the Donmar. Based on the evidence of last night, it’s not absolutely clear why we should have heard of him either. Serenading Louie is a meandering presentation of two decade-long marriages, both of which are going down the toilet. According to Alex, it’s because his somewhat unstable wife Gabby is sex-mad apparently, so much so that he feels “castrated by his own wife”. For Carl it’s because his wife, Mary, is having an affair with her husband’s company’s accountant and – it seems – also with Alex, but, unlike in his youth, Carl can’t even summon up the energy to care. Over the course of the two-hour play, we see the couples on their own, not communicating, one trying desperately to facilitate some contact, the other resolutely avoiding their spouse, and both taking refuge in other aspects of their lives to distract from their marriages. In the second half, the couples get together for drinks at Mary and Carl’s, and muse about the past, their rosy high-school days, and when they first got together. As Mary rather astutely says in one of the rare moments of insight in the play, “I didn’t love Carl then but I love Carl then now”. The play abounds with anti-feminist attitudes, male “business” talk, and rather crude glimpses into the secrets that these couples have.

In a plethora of American plays about disintegrating marriages in the face of unattainable aims, and the disillusion that comes with this, Lanford Wilson’s work does nothing to carve out new territory and has, frankly, very little to recommend it even in isolation. For the majority of the play, you feel that you are sitting in on a very dull dinner party of drunk, brash Americans, who are reminiscing about people you don’t know and aren’t really worth reminiscing about anyway, and occasionally indulging their nostalgia by breaking into old college songs (hence the play’s title). It is like Edward Albee on Calpol, and the play becomes an aimless extended dialogue between the four characters about where it all went wrong.

Which is all the more unfortunate when you consider the brilliant acting talent on show here. Indeed, it’s rare to see such four such polished performances. Jason Butler Harner makes an excellent Alex, weasel-like in his deceitfulness, scarily emphatic in his criticisms of his wife, and turning into a chaotic, hair-tugging mess at the end as his affair with a seventeen-year-old is discovered. Charlotte Emmerson as his trusting and somewhat juvenile wife gives this difficult part a husky charm, coping especially well with the rather random cluster of subjects she has to cover in a monologue at the start, and Geraldine Somerville plays Mary as a steely, controlling woman with an ice-like presence and poised assuredness. The rapport between the four actors is inspiring and most convincing. I felt sorry for them being lumbered with such a lethargic and clichéd script.

Simon Curtis’s direction is mostly good, although I feel his overall spatial concept doesn’t quite work. Peter McKintosh’s ‘70s living room set is very appealing and acts as the home for both couples, with their separate existences drawing closer and closer towards the end so that the space becomes almost without walls. With this superficially realistic set, however, the occasional moments when characters have to step out of the situation and address the audience directly for a fleeting line only jar. “You’ll probably remember this” Carl has to suddenly say to an audience member in the middle of an otherwise wholly realistic scene. Whether we are supposed to be participants in this drama or onlookers I’m not sure, and this only leads to the overall sense of this play having very little clarity. Maybe Curtis could have experimented with a more minimalist set and experimented with lighting and other more abstract effects to make this play feel less of a schizophrenic drawing-room drama and more of a study of time and space. The characters stepping out of character maybe only three times in the play – and only for a line at a time – felt as peculiar and alienating to me as if Willy Loman had come out at the end of Death of a Salesman to throw sweets to the audience.

The Americans, we know, like their epic drama. We have only to look at the fantastic success that was August: Osage County last year, along with older American works that Kevin Spacey has been staging at the Old Vic, to appreciate that. But unfortunately, Lanford Wilson’s play is an epic without an epicentre, and consequently, this lends itself to a very tedious evening.

January 27, 2010

The Caretaker, Trafalgar Studios

3 stars


It sometimes can be detrimental to your appreciation of a play to see a particularly great performance of a role. This is the case with the wonderful Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Pinter’s cantankerous caretaker back in 2001, which is one I will never forget. Like a dishevelled, mumbling mammoth, he was reminiscent of Sad Sack in the Raggy Dolls, for those who remember.

As a result, it took some getting used to Jonathan Pryce’s more vigorous, sprightly interpretation of Pinter’s caretaker in Christopher Morahan’s production. With an accent that resembles a muddled mixture of Liverpudlian, Welsh, Irish, and Geordie – and can also slip effortlessly into RP – this caretaker becomes somewhat more of a social anomaly and his rantings about “foreigners” become all the more ironic, when he himself epitomises the misplaced outsider. With his fresh-face and duckling-fluff hair, Pryce’s Davies maintains a hyper energy throughout the play, running through snippets of old comedy routines he’s learnt, trying out silly voices, constantly distracting even himself, and role-playing (even playing the poor tramp that needs a few coppers govnah). His eyes are lively and his tongue frequently flicks out of the side of his mouth in affected joviality, but he can switch to raging anger within seconds.

By stark contrast, Peter McDonald’s Aston is focused and intent only on one thing – fixing his plug and then moving onto erecting his shed. With his narrowed eyes and tongue that works its way around his mouth in agonised concentration, there is a intense serenity about him, which – it transpires – is actually the result of a traumatic lobotomy. Lastly, Sam Spruell plays Mick as a jittery young man, restlessly moving around, perching momentarily on any available item of furniture to continue his ongoing interrogation of Davies. Slim and pasty-faced, he is not an obvious villain, but his sharp changes of moods make him genuinely unsettling.

While I felt neither of the actors playing the brothers brought anything radically new to their characters, playing them somewhat safe which could have stemmed from the actors’ lack of inquisitiveness into their strange, extended speeches, nevertheless the ever-shifting power dynamics were explored well in the play. Physically or verbally, Davies sidled up to the brothers alternately, at one point lying uncomfortably close to Mick in a desperate attempt to win his affection and so stay in his newfound lodging.

This is a fine production of a great play, brought to a lovely climax as Mick opens the window that Davies had so petulantly insisted on leaving closed. As the hum of traffic and a bitter chill sweeps through the room, Pryce’s head drops into his hands in a moment of harsh realisation and resignation as he prepares to face a life of homelessness once again.

November 30, 2009

Endgame, Duchess Theatre

Left Rather Empty At The End

3 stars

In Beckett’s Endgame, things have an uncanny capacity to run out. We get a sense of life lasting for an allocated time, of resources being non-renewable, and of characters encountering multiple ‘ends’ – the sugar plums have finished, bicycles are simply no more, and the pain killer bottle is totally empty. What Beckett creates here – unlike in Waiting for Godot where life goes on because of unending self-perpetuation – is a sense of a floor which keeps slipping suddenly from under you: every step you tread may be that fatal step on the disused land mine.

Endgame is a deeply philosophical and psychological play, which means – as with most of Beckett’s works – it’s notoriously difficult to pull off, especially in a large West End theatre where audiences tend to have a less trained ear than those that migrate to the Fringe theatres. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan managed it marvellously in the recent Godot, but this is owing to their mighty experience and unusually strong acting ability.

Mark Rylance and Simon McBurney, by contrast, struggle to wholly grasp their roles. Rylance plays Hamm as a sarcastic, attention-seeking retired actor, although he barely looks old enough to be at this point of nostalgic self-reflection. He is sardonic to the extreme that he mocks Beckett’s very writing and his character’s affectation, which makes us think that Hamm doesn’t take himself, or life, that seriously. Limp-legged in his grand wheelchair, Rylance plays Hamm as nevertheless very mobile from the waist up, contorting in his chair like a stubborn weed that is trying to grow around annoyingly heavy rocks. His extreme fluctuation in vocal projection feels at times too abrupt and obstructs the music and potency of Beckett’s dialogue. Simon McBurney as Clov, on the other hand, gets off to a rip-roaring start with a hilariously executed physical sequence, made funnier by his character’s apparent forgetfulness, which leads to multiple painstaking repetitions. Repeatedly climbing a ladder while accommodating a gammy leg in order to see out of the high windows, McBurney (who also directs this production) immediately captures the futility of Clov’s now fading existence. Popping out of two dustbins are Hamm’s parents: Tom Hickey as Nagg and Miriam Margolis as Nell, the latter who is like a dopey fly, very occasionally buzzing, but essentially preparing itself for death. By contrast, Ned fizzes with angry life, rotating furiously in his bin like a toy that has been wound up too tight and barking in frustration at Hamm.

All of the play’s characters have mobility issues, which lead to a powerlessness and dependence on others. As Clov says, he can’t sit down and Hamm can’t stand up. Interestingly though, it is only Clov who has no real dependence on the other characters – he brings biscuits for the bin folk and attends to the blind Hamm as a carer. He also provides the only commentary on the outside world from his ladder vantage point, and so slants the perception of the other characters. Therefore, the only dependence that Clov suffers from is psychological and, as a result, the most puzzling, as he himself acknowledges: why does he continue to obey Hamm? Clov gives no answer.

With this in mind, I felt the psychological complexity is absent from McBurney’s performance, though he is undoubtedly endearing and, at times, breaks into tantrums of frustration. Why do people stay if they don’t have to? Most of Beckett’s characters suffer from this phenomenon; the others are physically stuck in situations and simply cannot go.

This is a well-attempted production, in which the cavernous stage of the Duchess Theatre is effectively used to capture the absurd cesspit in which son keeps father and mother in dustbins, while he pisses himself in his chair, tells anecdotes about his past, and begs for his painkillers. But the two main actors need to stop over-acting and have a deeper investigation into what Beckett is actually doing in this notoriously difficult play. That way, we may come a little closer to understanding it.