Saturday, 22 May 2010

Cream on top?

I used to think that whether you spread your scones with jam then cream or cream then jam was a North/South divide thing. According to this Guardian article, it's actually a Cornwall/Devon thing. It turns out, I am a Devon devotee - it's got to be cream then jam for me.

A Kiwi friend pointed out that in New Zealand it is always jam then cream, because they don't have clotted cream (even double cream is hard to find), and if you just use whipped single cream, the jam will slide off if you put that on top.

This is why Devonshire teas should be trademarked. It's a divisive issue, but one of great importnace!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Levelling the playing field

Today I went for a run along the Kelvin Heights Track. I used to love this track; with its dips and twists and tricky terrain it gave me something on which to focus (other than tired legs and burning lungs). When I rode my mountain bike along it, there were three points where I had to dismount – I knew when I was getting fitter and my technical ability was improving when I could negotiate the steps, rocks and narrow hairpins with more ease.

Admittedly I once took a corner too fast and went flying over the handlebars, chipping my front teeth as I fell. It’s actually a good job I did (come off that is) as the bike itself ended up in the lake. That was part of it – it was exciting and exhilarating and you had to concentrate on what you were doing.

Now the track is practically unrecognisable. It has been widened and levelled and smoothed out. There are no more rocks, steps, streams or light corners to negotiate. Toddlers on tricycles, parents with pushchairs and women in stilettos can amble along it. They scenery is still as stunning as ever, but you might as well stick it on a video and run on a treadmill. It’s boring. I suppose the only good thing about it is that it is now accessible to people in wheelchairs. It is accessible to everyone. And that’s the problem.

These days it seems that to avoid the charge of being elitist (apparently a heinous crime), we have to make everything available to everyone. Which brings me to tertiary education. There was a time in Britain when the top 2% of students went to university. Those wanting something slightly less academic and more vocational went to polytechnic (this was approximately the next 5%). If they passed all their exams and fulfilled their course requirements, they got degrees.

There were no fees involved because the government could afford to subsidise the brightest (by which I mean most academic in this instance) 7% of the populace. Now anyone can go as long as they can afford it – no one fails but most get hefty debts with which to begin their adult life. Of course the government can no longer afford to pay everyone’s fees but never mind – it keeps folk off the unemployment figures for a few more years.

Where there used to be diplomas, certificates and apprenticeships for those wanting to pursue a career in the trades, now there are wall-to-wall degrees. We want everyone to have one because it ‘proves’ we are becoming more educated. So, you can get a degree in golf management, pet psychology, food and drink design, e-bay, and Klingon. I’m not kidding. A degree used to carry some weight; now it’s not worth the piece of paper it’s written on.

By banning elitism, we are encouraging mediocrity, and it starts at school-level, both in the classroom and in the playground. Everyone who enters the race gets a certificate and spot prizes are more valued than performance – it really is the participation and not the winning that counts. This is all well and good, but don’t expect honour and glory, or medals and awards.

In allowing everyone to achieve, have we not simply lowered the standard of achievement?

Monday, 17 May 2010

Oliver! It's a fine show

After the glut of (admittedly well-deserved) self congratulation that surrounded last year’s bombastic production of Les Misérables, Showbiz Queenstown have triumphed with their bright and breezy interpretation of Oliver!

Director Stephen Robertson is a stickler for detail, which is evident in the overall look of the show. Costumes, set and lighting combine to create the effect of a Bruegel painting in which splashes of colour illuminate a highly-styled background. Colourful silk handkerchiefs are judiciously used for everything from set-dressing, dancing props and the pickpocket scene.

The music (under the direction of Cheryl Collie) is befittingly bold as brass. It is a delight to hear the bassoon, although the French horn occasionally drowns the singers and there are a few technical issues with the balance of sound. Choreography is handled expertly (also by Stephen Robertson) with strong moves that engage the children and fill the stage. Both the workhouse 'boys' and Fagin's gang are charmingly proficient.

The adult company assist in the slick scene changes that allow few pauses for breath, and their ensemble numbers are vibrant highlights. Who Will Buy can be a difficult and messy number but this is a huge success – the soloists add a piquant edge to the forthright professionalism of the morning’s traders. Often standing at convergent angles and with sweeping side-to-side movements familiar from the Ascot Gavotte, the company bring the bright shiny morning bustlingly to life.

The Artful Dodger (Caleb Dawson-Swale) is full of nervous energy and rapid gestures like an out-of-control tic-tac bookie – I would definitely want to be in his gang. Energy bursts off the stage as he leads the company in the remarkable Consider Yourself, enhancing the Wurlitzer fairground attraction atmosphere. The dance itself is three parts Lambeth Walk to two parts Macarena and has everyone in the audience tapping their feet. The reprise also makes a fantastic ending, my only quibble being that this should come after the bows, leaving an overwhelming impression of music and company rather than figures shuffling off the stage in the half-light.

Most satisfying of all in this production are the solid outbreaks of acting, seldom seen in amateur musicals. Fagin (Marty McLay) praises Nancy’s acting but he is obviously the consummate performer here, always trying to ‘win friends and influence people’ by whatever means possible. Desperate to please or persuade, he acts many roles with rolling eyes and waggling fingers but never crosses the line into pantomime.

McLay eschews the stereotypes to make his Fagin uniquely human. He uses the street urchins for private gain, unconcerned with their welfare, and his attitude to Nancy is despicable. He is pleasant when he can afford to be but ultimately selfish and greedy, caring for no one but himself; John Key would be so proud.

Nancy (Fiona Stephenson) is also excellent. She brings extra vigour and authenticity, a natural compassion for the children, and a sense of fun. Earthy and gruff, she sings guttural songs which suit her gutter origins and has natural interjections, although some are a little modern (‘Listen up?’).

The compact stage works in the show’s favour making the action up close and personal. Empathy with the characters is encouraged so there is an intimacy often absent from musical theatre. When Nancy briefly regrets her errant lifestyle ‘Not for me the happy home, happy husband, happy wife’ it is profoundly touching.

There is no honour among these thieves; they may play games and be jovial but they won’t stand up for each other. A nice subplot hints at Dodger’s affection for Nancy, but he won’t take on Bill Sikes (a brutish and menacing David Oakley). They are all afraid of being alone and friendless – Fagin keeps a caged bird for company, and Dodger admits with a touch of sadness, that he “ain’t got no ‘hintimate’ friends.”

Oliver (Angus Reid) avoids the mawkish sentiment that mars many orphan Olivers, as he is presented with a succession of patently unsuitable parent substitutes. At the workhouse he suffers the wonderfully manipulative Widow Corney (Kathleen Brentwood) and the suitably pompous and disturbingly lecherous Mr Bumble (Mark Ferguson).

After causing a disturbance (committing the heinous crime of asking for more gruel) he is sold to the Sowerberrys (Nick Hughes and Amy Taylor) with their sneering disdain and unfoundedly high opinion of themselves. Their duet, That’s Your Funeral, cuts and thrusts with barbed comments, making Mr Bumble’s well delivered, ‘I don’t think this song is funny’ all the more entertaining.

Oliver fits most suitably with Mr Brownlow (David John) and Mrs Bedwin (Jane Robertson whose calm understanding contrasts delightfully with Nancy’s fiercer instincts). The cameo roles are all generally strong, although a couple of the males are teetering on the cusp of caricature – if they plunge over that precipice as the season persists it will be to the detriment of the show.

The ending is always problematic in this musical as all the loose ends are hastily tied up and the implausible explanations offered, but the cheeky Cockney character (and yes, it does help if you have the accent) shines through. Whereas some productions are epic and grandiose, this one is cheerfully engaging – consider yourself well in, indeed.