Friday, 28 December 2012

Friday Five: Christmas Fare

Festive Ice-Cream Terrine
For the Christmas period, I decided I wasn't really bothering with presents and decorations (apart from the book-tree of course) and all that malarkey, but I did make an effort with the food.

For Christmas dinner we had Tarragon-roasted chicken with pancetta and grapes accompanied by Maple-roasted veggies with orange and pine nut gremolata, which surprisingly didn't fit the overall theme. All the rest of the food followed a festive red and green/ red and white/ red, green and white colour scheme.

5 Colour-Schemed Christmas Dishes
  1. Chicken, pepperdew and green bean salad
  2. Green apple, ham and rosé risotto
  3. Roasted aubergine, mushroom and tomato pasta wih ricotta
  4. Beef, lentil and walnut salad
  5. Festive ice-cream terrine

Friday, 21 December 2012

Friday Five: York Minster

When I was back in England earlier this year I visited York for the first time. I've been intending to blog about it for a while, and I shall do soon, but meanwhile, here are some photos which I think are fitting for this time of year.

5 Photos of York Minster:

1. It's very grand outside, and we approached it through twisted cobbled streets, so it sort of leaped out at us - part of the city and there when you need it.

2. These are the Sempahore Saints by Terry Hammill - at the west end of the nave there are twelve headless saints spelling out 'Christ is here' with their haloes. These are the first six.

3. Loyalty in stone
4. The rose window in the south transept dates from about 1500 and commemorates the union of the royal houses of York and Lancaster. It combines the red and white roses and has a sunflower in the centre.
5. The choir screen features the kings of England from William the Conqueror to Henry VI. I'm not actually sure who these two are, but I love the grumpy expression of him on our right.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Canberra: An Ideal City?

Commonwealth of Australia Federal Capital Competition - Griffin winning entry
The restored pictures of Marion Mahoney Griffin's artwork for the design of Canberra are on display in the cafe at the National Archives and they make a fabulous backdrop to a chai latte. She and her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, won the design award for Australia's capital and it is thanks to them that Canberra looks largely the way it does.
"I have planned a city not like any other city in the world. I have planned an ideal city - a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future." - Walter Burley Griffin
View from Summit of Mt Ainslie by Marion Mahony Griffin, 1911
The information panels point out that Marion's renderings were infused with sepia and gold and captured the colours of Canberra's landscape. This is all the more remarkable as she had never been to Canberra and instead made the drawings at her home in Chicago in winter 1911. Doubtless she took into account Walter's effusive comments about the light.
"The morning and evening lights at Canberra are wonderful. The shadows of the clouds and the mists as they cross the mountains are very beautiful indeed."
City and Environs - the Griffin plan for Canberra, 1911
Marion Griffin was one of the first licensed female architects in the world and is considered an original member of the Prairie School (of whom Frank Lloyd Wright is the most famous proponent). She and Walter were also greatly influenced by the City Beautiful and Garden City movements. Lacking the cultural history, artefacts and monuments of Old World capitals, the Griffins’ Canberra showcased nature instead. They incorporated the local topography into their triangular design, using the feature hill - Kurrajong Hill (now called Capital Hill) - as a natural apex.

"I think in a new country like Australia, a beautiful architectural type adapted to the needs of the climate, and harmonising with the topography can be evolved. I believe in architecture that is the logical outgrowth of the environment." - Walter Burley Griffin
The Griffins complemented their landscape design with an architectural scheme for the city. Although they worked on the design together, and Marion provided all the artwork, the competition entry featured only Walter's name. Walter negotiated a three-year contract with the Australian government to remain in Australia and oversee the implementation of the plan. He felt, however, that it was compromised and he struggled with political and bureaucratic obstacles. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Griffin was under pressure to reduce the scope and scale of the plans due to the Government diverting funds towards the war effort.

Vision of Parliament House by Marion Mahony Griffin
The pace of building was slower than expected, partly because of a lack of funds and partly because of a dispute between Griffin and Federal government bureaucrats. The design also came under attack from other architects and the press. Rather than just adhering to the plans and the previously-made commitment, a Royal Commission determined that they had undermined Griffin's authority by supplying him with false data which he had used to carry out his work.

There was clearly a lot of rancour and Walter Burley Griffin resigned from the Canberra design project in December 1920. Many parts of his basic design were changed, and none of the buildings he designed for the capital were ever built.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Friday Five: Non-competitive pursuits

I think it's fair to say that I don't like reality TV. I have mentioned this before. One of my least favourite sub-genres is the competition variety. You know the type of thing, where people are pitted against each other to paint a room or build a wall and then someone wins and everyone at home thinks they could have done the same and the real decorators and stonemasons go out of business while general standards plummet.

Although I like the celebrity dancing ones (especially the ice-dancing one), I know I am no expert. This is not true of the people who routinely watch the singing shows and then feel free to critique performances about which they know nothing. It also means that we are left with chanteurs who think that to belt and warble is the epitome of 'singing' and we are left without subtlety, nuance or character. Bob Dylan or Florence Welch wouldn't make it through the first round.

With performance and artistic pursuits, a lot is left to personal preference - A might like sci-fi or farce; B might prefer romance or Jacobean drama; C might swoon at ballet and metaphysical poetry and so on. It doesn't mean any one is 'better' than the other - it just means they shouldn't be judged against each other. In 'pure' sport if you run fastest, jump highest or throw something furthest, you win. You are the best at that particular thing. Don't get me wrong, some things lend themselves to competition and this is a good thing (not keeping the score during football games because 'it's all about participation' is ridiculous!) but when subjectivity creeps in, nothing is so clear.

Acting, comedy and writing awards are often suspect. Yes, they are worth something when awarded by your peers, but often they are voted for by a partisan panel - the more friends you have in the audience; the more likely you are to win. These tributes might provide a feel-good factor, but they are relatively worthless. Entertainment is not a science; nor should it be a competition.

5 Things that should never be a competition:
  1. Cooking - as far as I am concerned you either cook because it is your job and you are paid, or because it is a way of expressing love and friendship to those around you. Eat with me and know you are welcome. Do not judge the temperature of the soup or the slicing of the vegetables. I have prepared this gift for you in my own way.
  2. Surgery - there will come a day when cameras go into operating theatres and viewers vote on who best wields the scalpel. I'm surprised it hasn't happened already. Health is personal, although you wouldn't know it from those shows which 'expose' physical deformities and laugh at fat people. Some things should be conducted behind the curtained cubicle - pull yourself together.
  3. Sex - it's personal and not up for discussion apart from between the relevant parties. According to late-night phone-ins (you hear a lot driving home from rehearsals) many people seem to be concerned about whether or not their sex-life is 'normal'. As long as you and your partner are happy with it, whatever you're doing, or not doing, is fine.
  4. Raising children - I hate the use of nouns as verbs, so have resisted the urge to call it parenting. I'm sure it's pretty difficult to raise a child to be a reasonable and responsible human being. Just do your job and stop comparing yourself and your child to others. In some respects they're all the same; in others they're all different - don't bother worrying or boasting, and if you must do either, do it to yourself as no one else cares. Really.
  5. Friendship/love - when I was little I used to refer to 'best friends'. Now I know that best is a superlative meaning 'of the most excellent or outstanding or desirable kind' there can only be one, by definition. I would now say I have many good or close friends - all of them special to me in individual ways and I love and admire them for their specific qualities. I would never try to rank one above the other. That's not how this love thing works.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Quote for Today: Fear

"We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Apart from pain. And maybe humiliation and obviously death. And failure. But apart from fear, pain and humiliation, failure and the unknown and death we have nothing to fear but fear itself." - Rimmer, Red Dwarf (Series X)

Friday, 7 December 2012

Friday Five: Strawberries

I made the discovery that our garden grows strawberries - it does it by itself, you understand, as I don't garden. If things thrive it's a lucky accident. This discovery has made me very happy, however, as they are my favourite fruit, and I have been thinking of ways to eat them.

5 Best Ways to Eat Strawberries:
  1. As they are, washed with maybe a dusting of icing sugar and a dollop of cream
  2. In summer pudding - the food of the gods and the ultimate dessert
  3. Rhubarb and strawberry fool - a delicious fruit compote whipped with cream to make the fluffliest pink confection
  4. Sorbet - the zing and tartness of the fruit with the ice-cold sweetness of the sorbet is the perfect blend
  5. With waffles - ideal breakfast
I have not yet made these strawberry santas, but I'm so looking forward to doing so!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Books read in April 2012

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in April 2012. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks (3.5)
This novel is based upon the true story of the first Native American to go to Harvard, told through the narrative of Bethia Mayhew, a missionary’s daughter. Growing up on Martha’s Vineyard, Bethia rides her pony around the island and spies upon the Wampanoag tribe, fascinated by their painted faces and strange dances. She befriends Cheeshahteaumauck, nephew of the most powerful and aggressive paw-paw or shaman of the tribe. He calls her Storm-Eyes; she calls him Caleb, and they learn each other’s language and customs.

Bethia’s father attempts to convert the tribe, little realising that Bethia has already made inroads. Much to the anger of the shaman, he takes Caleb to raise him with his own son, Makepeace, and teach him Latin and Greek, preparatory to entering Harvard. Although Bethia is far brighter than her brother, as a girl reared in a Puritan family, she is forbidden from learning, and cannot maintain the same friendship with Caleb. Her plight is to be indentured as the men’s housekeeper in payment for Makepeace’s attendance at school, where she remains in contact with Caleb and his friends, while also eavesdropping on his lessons in her unquenched thirst for knowledge.

Two threads run through Bethia’s narrative. One is the water, and the other is Caleb. Fortunately Brooks avoids the modern storyteller’s habit of enforcing an anachronistic love-story, but their tales are nevertheless interwoven.

The novel is written in the form of fragmented diaries, which only pick up the story at random passages, and give it a disjointed feel. Perhaps because it is true and Brooks felt restrained by the facts, or perhaps because the narrative voice of the Puritan doesn’t allow for colour, but the novel is strangely uninspiring from a usually vivid author.

Percy Jackson and the Sea Monsters – Rick Riordan (3.7)
The second instalment of Percy Jackson’s adventures in the land of myths and Greek gods continues where the previous one left off. Percy (son of Poseidon) is happily playing basketball in his New York school gym when he is attacked by a race of giant cannibals (Laistrygonians) who live in the far north, possibly Canada. He is soon back at Camp Half-Blood, the summer camp for demi-gods where all is not so friendly as before and, like later terms at Hogwarts, there is an air of danger.

Chariot races take the place of Quidditch. They are a sport the children love but which are extremely dangerous and would never be allowed in the sanitised education department in which we live today.

Percy is sent on quests by Hermes, a shifty character dressed as a courier, who delivers messages, provides him with travelling equipment, tells him stories and is surprised when Percy wants them to have a moral. “Goodness, you act like it’s a fable. It’s a true story. Does truth have a moral?”

Percy must sail through the Sea of Monsters, through which all heroes sail on their adventures. It used to be in the Mediterranean but now the power of Western Civilization has shifted to the United States (with Mount Olympus being above the Empire State Building, and Hades being under Los Angeles), the Sea of Monsters is off the east coast – the Bermuda Triangle, where weird things happen that mortals can’t explain. He battles many mythical beasts such as hydra in a Florida swamp, and the Gray sisters in a taxi. He encounters pirate ships manned by skeleton ghosts, Edward Teach (Blackbeard) who likes celery, Circe turning men into guinea pigs, Cyclops, sirens, Charybdis and Scylla, the Golden Fleece, and man-eating sheep.

Percy is again assisted by Annabeth (daughter of Athena), Tyson (Percy’s half-brother and actually a Cyclops) and Clarisse (daughter of Ares) in his attempts to find and release his friend Grover, the satyr. All the children are trying to win the admiration, or even simply the attention, of their God-like parents while the Gods have to act indirectly and cannot intervene every time their child is in trouble. With echoes of Tolstoy, Riordan writes, “Families are messy. Immortal families are eternally messy.”

The novel is fast-paced and narrated in a relaxed, humorous style, full of mythological references and throw-away lines. Mostly it is perfectly pitched to provide entertainment with a sprinkling of education and is a fine sequel. I’m still looking forward to reading the next one.

The Gathering – Anne Enright (3.9)
When Liam Hegarty’s body is found washed ashore at Brighton, it falls to his sister, Veronica, to break the news to their mother. She is one of seemingly endless children (I think there are nine) and the whole family congregates for the wake and funeral. Veronica was closest in age and sentiment to her alcoholic brother, and his loss throws her into a reverie in which she remembers her childhood and reflects how unhappy she is with her present domestic situation: estranged husband; two daughters.

Veronica reinvents her past and it is important to her that she tells her story well. She is obsessed with sex and how people’s bodies fit together, which strikes the reader as awkward – imagining one’s grandparents having sex (in graphic detail) is not comfortable. Themes of sex (as opposed to love), abuse, children and procreation, are thrust upon us throughout the novel.

The novel has that blindingly brilliant but increasingly irritating Irish literature style of recording every minor detail. There are random asides and semantic tangents that lead to cul-de-sacs, like Virginia Woolf or, yes, I’m afraid it must be said, James Joyce. Veronica allows herself to be easily distracted by wordplay, and, in trying to comment on all minutiae, she can run out of specifics and trails off into vagueness. Although she makes constant perceptive comments, you begin to wonder how discerning these are, or whether they are just another device to distract you from the fact that there isn’t actually a story.

Waiting for Sunrise – William Boyd (3.6)
Waiting for Sunrise begins in Vienna in 1913 with elements of psychology and seduction, but it soon becomes a First World War spy thriller along the lines of John Buchan or John Le Carré. The switches between the two genres can cause disorientation, but the plot twists are intriguing enough to keep the pages turning.

Lysander Rief is an actor, like his famous father before him. The novel commences as he walks into an appointment with a psychiatrist, Dr Bensimon, whom he (and presumably his fiancée, Blanche) hopes will be able to help him with his anorgasma (failure to reach climax during sex). Dr Bensimon suggests parallelism as a cure. His theory, which is discredited in a mocking cafe scene by Freud, posits that we can change our past by inventing new memories. “The world is in essence neutral – flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance. It’s us, our imaginations, that make it vivid, fill it with colour, feeling purpose and emotion. Once we understand this we can shape our world in any way we want. In theory.”

And therein lies the essence of the novel, as nothing is as it seems and pretence is everywhere. Vienna (and London as it transpires) is, “So nice and so pleasant, everybody smiling politely, nobody farting or picking their nose. But below the surface the river is flowing dark and strong. The river of sex.” Everything is a facade, created for maximum effect, from the poses of actors to the disguises of spies.

The war changes things beyond recognition. While it may appear unlikely that a mild-mannered actor can become embroiled in secret codes, torture and blackmail, these are interesting times. The “dislocation and sudden rupture” of war casts him in a new light, placing an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. The novel is extremely readable, offering personal insight alongside the thrilling tale.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Friday Five: Cricket

When I was a child, I couldn't see the point of cricket. Perhaps, even worse than that I resented it for the fact that it took up my parents' time; time which could have been far more profitably spent lavished on me.

My mother would have the television on with the sound off while every radio in the house was tuned to the commentary and if a six was hit or a wicket fell, she would hurry to the front room to watch the replay in pictures. My father enjoyed live cricket from Australia - usually atop a ladder in the middle of the night as he worked his way endlessly around the house painting the windows while wearing a headtorch.

I first started to realise its true value in the days before all-day Sunday drinking. Him Outdoors would take me to the local cricket club where we could lounge on a grassy bank all afternoon and decadently drink cider. This was the start of my conversion. It continued through local league, county cricket and international tests, culminating in the 2005 Ashes Series.

The roles were reversed as I watched live cricket from England through the wee hours of the New Zealand night biting my fingernails to the quick while watching some of the finest cricketers perform outstanding feats with bat and ball. And we won, which helped. I was hooked.

I am not a nerdy stat geek by any means. I remember moments and personalities rather than numbers and records. Of course there are now several variants on the game - the ODIs and the 20/20s - but it's still the tests that really excite me, and it's still the ones between England and Australia that I will willingly waste a whole week watching.

5 Things I Love About Cricket:
  1. It's an entirely legitimate waste of time. Tell someone you spent five days lying on a sofa and they will think you are an invalid or a sloth; tell someone you spent five days watching cricket and they will at worst think you are obsessive. I get it now, mum and dad; all is forgiven.
  2. Tradition - from the village green to the pitch at Lords, there is something comforting and familiar about all that history and all that sport being played to specific rules. I still don't understand at least half of said rules, but somehow this doesn't seem to hamper my enjoyment one jot!
  3. The commentary - those guys (and sadly, as yet, there are no women in the commentary box) know what they're talking about, and most of them say it very entertainingly. Even more amusing are the times when they get distracted by someone's haircut or a nice piece of fruit cake.
  4. The ebb and flow - when I was young and ignorant I used to be very frustrated by the fact that no one could definitively answer the question, 'who's winning?'. Now that I'm older (although I make no claim to be less ignorant) I love the fluidity of the game, revelling in the way the upper hand is often perceived rather than qualified. I don't even mind when it all ends in a draw.
  5. The sound - from the gentle applause that greets the crack of leather on willow, to the raucous chants of the Barmy Army and the strains of Jerusalem on the trumpet, it couldn't be anything but cricket.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Word of the week

Crapulent - yes, it's a real word! I know it sounds like something that Tilly from Miranda might say, but actually, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it means 'given to or suffering from effects of, resulting from, intemperance'. It is derived from the Latin crapulentus meaning 'very drunk' or possibly the Greek kraipale, meaning 'drunken headache'.

So, to use in a sentence: 'Unsurprisingly after drinking two bottles of red wine and a couple of whiskies last night, I am feeling somewhat crapulent this morning.'

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Chinese Village Theatre

Back in New Zealand, Arrowtown was celebrating its 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold. I had written some pieces of theatre which were performed as part of the celebrations, so I went over to see them in action.

My commission from Julie Hughes of the Arrowtown 150 Committee was to provide several vignettes of about five minutes each to be performed in the Chinese Village in Arrowtown. The idea was that actors would pop out of huts or be staged in open areas in groups of 1-3 to bring the people and the experiences of the Chinese miners to life. Originally I was also going to direct these, but as I moved to Australia, this was no longer possible. I recommended Tiffany Menzies to direct them, as I knew she would grasp the concept and do an excellent job.

Part of the brief was to make the pieces positive and not dwell on the negative aspects of the Chinese gold-miners' experiences. This was quite a tall order, as most of the information documents the abuse and discrimination they suffered. As this was largely because of the differences in their culture that many other miners (mainly from European backgrounds) had not previously encountered, I tried to explain some of that.

I also wanted to avoid the ghastly scenario of having non-Chinese actors portray Chinese miners as this would be insensitive and just plain wrong, especially as the Chinese Consulate General Madam Tan was attending. Accordingly I wrote some pieces for non-Chinese and female actors as well, as I knew there might be difficulties in finding sufficient Chinese actors to play the parts. I incorporated elements of humour, fact, fiction and many aspects of the local life that I gathered from extensive reasearch, while injecting as much colour as possible. The pieces are all under copyright and cannot be performed without my permission.

The Welsh Wordsmith was there, reading the Arrow Observer on the toilet - in situ, as it were. The stone outhouse is all that's left of Ah Wak's store in the Chinese Village. The store itself, which was made of wood, burned to the ground in 1905. This lavatory is one of only four Chinese Sites on the Historic Places Trust's Register for Otago. He was improvising so this was nothing to do with me. It was, in fact, all his own work.

These images are of Kay performing Fruit and Veg. This piece was inspired by anecdotal memories of Ah Lum: "He wore long flowing robes, and walked into Arrowtown on Saturday morning followed by several 'coolies' carrying baskets of ginger and other vegetables slung on carry/ bamboo poles to sell to the European folk." The vegeatables he grew, apparently, were cabbage, peas, potatoes, corn, gooseberries and strawberries.

The piece is about the difference in attitude towards health and medicine - using fruit and vegetables for their natural holistic properties. Also there is a connection between the physical aspect of the vegetable and its purported healing properties - for example, the cabbage looks and feels like a brain and supposedly sharpens the brain, calms the mind, and removes irritability. This is a tenet of Chinese medicine which was totally unfamiliar at the time.

Weighing In  was performed by Paul Halsted and David Oakley. It's written for two none-so-bright gold-miners in a sort of Pete & Dud/ Alas Smith & Jones style, as I suspected there would be a shortage of Chinese actors. It incorporates oral tales from the archive of the Lakes District Museum about searching for gold and trying to supplement income.
Paul Halsted performing in Weighing In
David Oakley performing in Weighing In
Zee performed the role of Ah Lum in Village Store. I wrote this piece as a fairly cheesy verse of rhyming couplets, describing a number of food and other items mentioned in anecdotal accounts of his store, including "Chinese teas, rice, pickled lemons, ginger, opium, gambling pieces, medicines, smoking accessories". Among the relics of tent dwellers, archeologists discovered sardine and jam tins, gin and brandy bottles, which are woven into the poem.

This was a fabulous spectacle, and much credit must go to Tiffany, all the actors, and the Arrowtown 150 Committee. Congratulations all!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Friday Five: I Don't Believe It!

Generally I try to be positive with the Friday Five. And it's not that I'm being negative exactly, but this is a short list of things that well-meaning people say that I would rather they wouldn't.
  1. 'It'll be different when they're your own' - no it won't, because I'm not having any, for any one of the 16,893 reasons that I've previously mentioned.
  2. 'Smile, it might never happen' - it probably already has; hence the reason for the glum expression. This is actually an extremely insensitive thing to say.
  3. 'You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it' - although I appreciate the sentiment behind this one, it's simply not true. Some achievements require money, circumstance, luck, natural talent and a number of other things that just may not line up. To promise a child (or even an adult) they can have anything through sheer will is cruel and misleading.
  4. 'It won't happen again' - you don't know that. You might try not to do it again, but there are no guarantees.
  5. 'It's more scared of you than you are of it' - I doubt that; it hasn't got boots but if it did, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be quaking in them.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Singin' in the Rain : A Smashing, Splashing Treat!

Singin’ in the Rain
The Palace Theatre, London
August, 2012

The Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue is festooned with gaily-coloured giant umbrellas to advertise its current show, Singin’ in the Rain. I got chatting to the elderly couple sitting next to me, whom it transpires come from Maidenhead. They both used to live and work in London and come to shows every week. Now they are retired and ‘only’ make it up once a month. When they heard that I’d never seen the show and didn’t know the story, they were delighted for me and, at the end, expressed joy that I should first have experienced it in ‘such an excellent version’. What lovely people!

The musical itself is joyful and exuberant, with a charming story – yes, it has one! In Hollywood in 1927 a moving picture studio is having a successful string of hits starring Don Lockwood (performed by the understudy Francis Haugen) and Lina Lamont (Katherine Kingsley). Apart from the fact that Lina is a little confused between fiction and reality, and thinks that Don is really in love with her, all is going well for Don and his best buddy Cosmo Brown (Daniel Crossley) – the best buddy role is actually very intriguing.

And then, on October 6, 1927, The Jazz Singer premiered, and the future of cinema was irrevocably altered. People wanted talking pictures. Unfortunately Lina Lamont has a ‘speaking voice that sounds like a wounded trumpet swan, and her singing voice is even worse’. No one knows what to do, despite Cosmo’s brilliant Make ’Em Laugh (ironically poor advice as the talkies ruined the careers of silent film comedians such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton), while the producer RF Simpson (Michael Brandon) and his assistant Roscoe Dexter (Peter Forbes) have to placate their increasingly irascible star.

Meanwhile, high on his own success, Don bumps into a girl on the street, Kathy Selden (Scarlett Strallen), who tells him that movies aren’t everything and he’s not as great as all that. Naturally he is smitten and sings almost a musical parody; You Stepped Out of a Dream. To celebrate their latest film success, a group of chorus girls leap out of a cake and perform a fabulous number; All I Do. Don recognises Kathy, whom he has been trying to track down since their earlier encounter, and attempts to intercept her during the routine.

Eventually he gets her a job at the studio on the chorus line (after a hilarious turn with the diction coach – David Lucas – and Cosmo; Moses Supposes), but she has to be hidden from Lina on set, due to a slight altercation at the party caused mainly by Kathy’s good looks and natural talent. Problems persist (not least due to Lina’s jealousy), but the couple – as they have become – are happy. With Cosmo ever-present, they form a perfect team (Good Morning is almost impossibly good-hearted) and their happiness is infectious. Not even the rain can dampen Don’s spirits, and you know what comes next...

The eponymous song is a triumph of singing, dancing and staging. One of the lighting rigs is fitted with water jets and the shallow depression in the centre of the stage fills up with water, forming a giant puddle in which Don kicks and splashes about like an over-excitable blackbird. I was pre-warned as I had seen this segment on The Royal Variety Show, and the man in the ticket office warned me not to sit in the front four rows. Those who did got a thorough soaking. It was half time, though, so they could all dry out in the interval.

It is agreed that Kathy will dub Lina’s scenes which leads to a clever piece of film/theatre work in which Kathy sings a duet with Don – Would You? – through a sort of ventriloquist arrangement. Lina discovers the deception and is wounded. Although she sings What’s Wrong With Me? for comic effect, there is a serious side to her anguish.

As the programme notes (a touch archly), ‘It is no coincidence that the character in Singin’ in the Rain who struggles with the transition to sound is a woman. There were far more actresses whose careers suffered than there were actors. It seems that even back then, audiences were more forgiving of the imperfections of male movie stars than their female counterparts.’

This is musical theatre, however, and complexity and sympathy are eschewed in favour of sweetness and pluck. Lina threatens Kathy who agrees to perform ad her back-up for one last time in a Wizard of Oz-esque man-behind-the-curtain scene. Don and Cosmo ensure there is a happy ending, but not before Kathy flees into the audience in distress. She stood a few steps away from me in the aisle and I saw ‘real tears’.

It’s a show about dancing (The Broadway Melody by Don and Company in which he sings about how he ‘gotta dance’ is an up-tempo highlight of the second act) and the finale is a smashing, splashing treat. When Don, Kathy and Cosmo emerge in bright yellow sou’westers, the audience roars with pleasure. Some parents send their children up to the front so that they can experience the puddle stomping up close and personal.

The entire cast joins in twirling umbrellas and kicking sprays of water from the stage, casting rainbows of glee as the droplets shimmer in the lights. I’m not the only one who, after two and half hours of unashamedly feel-good entertainment, leaves the theatre with a smile on my face.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Improbable Fiction, 'Unofficial Soundtrack'

Whenever I 'do' a play (act, direct, crew), I compile a soundtrack for it. This excludes musicals, obviously, which have kindly provided their own. 

Music is very closely linked to memory in my mind, so I find the 'soundtrack' a useful device and aide memoire. It picks up on certain lines or characters, and focuses my mind as I drive to rehearsals. It also manages to keep me awake as I drive home late and exhausted after rehearsals. I've not got to bed before midnight for over a week and we open on Friday so I need it.

For people unfamiliar with Alan Ayckbourn's Improbable Fiction, this playlist may seem a little odd. For those who do know the play, it may seem even more so. But these are the tracks that come to mind when I'm working on the play. "They're in order, but... well, you'll see..."
  1. Paperback Writer - The Beatles
  2. I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten - Dusty Springfield
  3. City Hobgoblins - The Fall
  4. Build Me Up Buttercup - The Foundations
  5. Writer's Block - Just Jack
  6. The Social Network Song (Oh Oh - Uh - Oh Oh) - Valentina Monetta
  7. I Write the Songs - Tom Jones
  8. Everyday I Write the Book - Elvis Costello
  9. Java Jive - The Ink Spots
  10. Oxford Comma - Vampire Weekend
  11. Invisible - Alison Moyet
  12. Thunder in the Mountains - Toyah
  13. Something Canged - Pulp
  14. Just an Illusion - Imagination
  15. Once in a Lifetime - Talking Heads
  16. We Are Detective - The Thompson Twins
  17. Hot Soup - Da Vinci's Notebook
  18. I've Committed Murder - Macy Gray
  19. Where's Your Head At? - Basement Jaxx
  20. Wasted Life - Stiff Little Fingers
  21. Spaceman - Babylon Zoo

Friday, 16 November 2012

Friday Five: Nicest Man in Britain

Last week I watched a couple of documentaries, one presented by David Attenborough and one by Michael Palin - both were excellent; both informing and entertaining. I know Michael Palin has frequently been described as 'the nicest man in Britain' but I think it must be a pretty close run thing between him and David.

I began to wonder what makes someone 'nice'. The Concise Oxford Dictionary has it that one must be 'pleasant in manner; good-natured; kind'. I remembered a conversation with my Dad once about 'kindness' as a quality in fiction. He contended that in real life one never admired someone's kind quality as one did in literature. I begged to differ, and I still do. I've never held with that theory that nice guys finish last.

Perhaps when we were young and foolish, we preferred the wild and reckless to the polite and generous, but try watching Casablanca now and I'll bet you've changed your mind about what you would do at the end if you were Ilsa Lund.

For my own stipulations, the nicest man in Britain must not only be nice, a man, and British (which discounts Rolf Harris, who might otherwise have been a contender), but also to have achieved some sort of fame in their chosen field (random friends and relations don't count).

5 Nicest Men in Britain:
  1. Michael Palin (CBE)
  2. Sir David Attenborough
  3. Sir Steve Redgrave
  4. Hugh Laurie (OBE)
  5. Jamie Oliver (MBE)
Other challengers for the compassionate crown include: Griff Rhys Jones; Trevor McDonald (OBE); Harold Dennis 'Dickie' Bird (OBE); Edward Michael 'Bear' Grylls; David Beckham (OBE); Martin Bell (OBE); Colin Jackson (CBE). Of course, that's just my opinion. What's yours?

Monday, 12 November 2012

British Museum: Overwhelming History

I arrived at the British Museum with only limited time to explore the building – and wow, what a building! The reading room in the centre of the great court has the second largest domed ceiling (after the Sistine Chapel) but it is being used for an exhibition and you can’t go in otherwise. There are plenty of other treasures to admire, however.

The Great Court in the British Museum
I only had time to look at the ground floor and I was overwhelmed by the sheer weight of history. The Assyrian gateways, black obelisks and colossal guardian lions are incredible. The Balwat Gates (858-824BC) are wooden gates covered with strips of bronze embossed with scenes from Shalmaneser’s campaigns. The statue of Amenhotep III (1350BC) from the Temple at Thebes is impressive, and the guardians of the city wall from Ashur (835BC) are immense. Even on the reliefs from doors and walls, there is simply so much history.

The Assyrian room and the Balwat Gates - photo by Nathan Meijer
Of course there was a massive crowd around the Rosetta Stone and I could barely get near it. Some may be trying to decipher the meaning of the ancient hieroglyphics, hoping to grasp the key and unlock the mysteries of Egyptian culture, but most are simply pointing their i-phones and gurning at the glass case – surely they would be better suited to buy a postcard?

The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum - fascinating folk for thousands of years!
The Egyptian sculpture rooms contain stone people and lions, limestone dyads of a man and wife (approx 1350BC) and a seated Salchmet (approx 1400BC) – a black granite leonine goddess, bringer of destruction to the enemies of sun-god Ra. There are red granite statues of kings, heads, and a sarcophagus (approx 2400BC). The black granite statues of King Sesotris III (approx 1850BC) have excellently worked faces with overlarge ears and neck jewellery carved into the torso.

Horus in Roman Military Costume
I am confronted by obelisks and sphinx; a grey granite papyrus-column (1500BC); a red granite arm from a colossal statue; the sarcophagus of Merymose (approx 1380BC); a limestone figure of Horus-falcon (600BC); a black schist sarcophagus and lid of Ankhnesneferibre; Horus in Roman military costume (AD 50-300); a red breccias figure of the goddess Taweret (664-343BC).

Panehsy (approx 1270BC) kneels, holding a shrine containing the gods Horus and Osiris, and the goddess Isis. A grandiorite figure of a Horus-falcon (600BC) has eyes of ivory and bitumen. Animals include eagles, ravens, rams and a colossal scarab beetle. Each one is amazing. All together they are overwhelming.

Venus (Surprised as She Bathes) by Lely
I moved through to the Greek and Roman sculpture, which was far more familiar to me and therefore, perhaps, less daunting. Lely’s Venus (Surprised as She Bathes) is a central statue, and is on loan from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. There are rooms of headless figures (Dr Who’s scary weeping angels have a lot to answer for) and a reconstruction of Olympia, and the Nereid Monument.

Everywhere are examples of horses’ heads, gods, men, centaurs and battles, and over all hangs the question of should they really be here or have we been stealing other peoples’ history? A pamphlet seeks to answer the question and, being distributed by the British Museum, obviously sides heavily with Lord Elgin and his successors. I must agree that it is fabulous these antiquities are free for all the view and admire.

The Nereid Monument at the British Museum