Thursday, 30 April 2009


Last night was the hustings for next year's student union president. There are two candidates form the Drama department standing: Adam Barley and Danielle Sykes and both had five minutes to put their case - along with the further four candidates - to the student body.

It was a fascinating evening. Firstly the popular Athletics Union president, Jason, whose always given great support to Drama students and their work, withdrew his candidature in an emotional speech in which he tried to reassure the electorate that he hadn't dissuaded anybody else from standing. Jason cried, his opponents cried, everybody cried. It felt like an American soap. I suspected mafia style dirty tricks somewhere, especially as Jason insinuated that some people had tried to ruin his reputation, but in the absence of direct allegation and baseball bats - it was hard to get a clear picture of what was really going on.

After that the Presidential candidates got to go. It's a better field this year, although all of them seemed keen to 'borrow' from each others manifestos. A couple of fresh ideas - turning the Dolche coffee shop into a wine bar in the evening. A more pro-active approach to searching out student opinion and reporting back to senior management and a genuinely independent student newspaper seemed to be highlights. There were some tired uncosted promises about running discounted club nights in Central London - but the main message was a focus on trying to raise revenue for clubs and societies through by bringing more life back to the SU itself.

There are problems for the Union - the men Brad, Ben, Adam and Matt were all listenned to in silence - the crowd hushed by their partisan followers; whereas the two women Danielle and Tania had to struggle above chatter (despite the fact that they both had well prepared speeches.) This covert sexism slightly shocked me, especially as the contest in every other way is being fought in an open and friendly manner. It'll be interesting to see whether the alleigence of a specific sport club or society carries the day or splits the vote. The system is done on transferable votes so the hope for our two drama candidates is to pick up enough first choices from students in Drama, Media and Education in the first round and come through, picking up sport votes on the 2nd or 3rd ballot.

Voting is all day Friday!

Monday, 27 April 2009

The Dead Ride Fast

The third years performance of The Dead Ride Fast, adapted from Howard Barker's The Possibilities and The Last Supper opened this evening underneath the main stage of the theatre down in the depths of the old storage basement striped, for this occasion, of a generation's lost property and dramatically turned into a highly claustrophobic cell.

The work felt a little uneven but some strong performances from Aristos as the Emperor's groom, Ny and Anthony as reunited lovers and Alain as a Tango dancing Polish torturer, kept things moving along, whilst the installation feel of the shared space helped create a visceral reality for the audience.

Barker's a tough cookie and the philosophical tautness of the characters' thought, language and counter intuitive action at times seems to fox the cast - but with more show confidence and continued attention on articulating the complexity of the arguments the work is bound to grow.

For me the most coherent scene was of a family of weavers, trenched in close confinement during the shelling of their city, barely able to risk putting their heads above the parapet, let alone make a run for the basic commodities of wool and water that will enable them to survive the barbarism. Being underground with them, the blast of war in our ears and debris and dust falling around us created an unnerving experience. A moment where the architecture of the space complimented absolutely the relentlessness of the action.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Open Day at Ham

Drama in the Community went over to Ham yesterday to support their open day and advertise The Shrinking World of Kalku. It was good to catch up with our National Trust friends Gary and Jorge and we had a relaxing day, most of the team face painting the children whilst Dan, Matt and Amir taught some of the braver ones how to twizzle Poi sticks around without getting smacked in the face.

The house is at it's most magical at this time of year, with the kitchen garden in full bloom and layers of wisteria falling in folds over the walls. I defy anybody to pass by without stopping to take in a huge top up of fragrant air. Whenever I'm in the grounds I find myself filled with new energies, ideas and plans and yesterday was no exception. It's a place for dreams not consolidation.

Before leaving I made sure to fix a meeting to discuss plans for next year. I'm beginning to wonder if St.Mary's could provide a year long resident company of actors interested in exploring through public performance, living history, and happenings heritage, tourism, architecture and re imagination. It's good to get out.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Wednesday Night at the SU.

Drama in the community organised a really successful night at the Student Union to fund raise for the Chiswick House Project or The Shrinking World of Kalku as it is now called. It was a really good exercise in keeping things simple.

Most of the team had called in favours to keep costs down and they all took responsibility for hosting the event. About two hundred students turned up and were entertained with two live bands, some dodgy belly dancing and Dan's fantastic, if a bit scary, fire juggling. We also raised some additional money by Sonu offering henna tattoos and Simona and Amir hosting Shisha pipes, brought back recently by Emma H from Egypt.

Usually on a Wednesday night the Union offer cheap transport take students off to McKlusky's night club in Kingston and we'd been expecting a bit of a exodus to proceedings when the buses rolled up, but lots of people stayed and the party went on until the early hours. Best of all the students supplemented the production budget by over £500.

There's been an active debate this year about how best to use the Union building. With many students preferring to head for the brighter lights, drinks promotions and relative anonymity of the established clubs down the road, its place as a centre for student activity is sometimes questioned, but last night did show that there is a strong community of students on campus, who might enjoy the local, if it were more imaginatively run.

Monday, 20 April 2009

...Always Should Be Someone

A few years ago Nicholas Hytner announced his populist intentions at the National by choosing Blur's hedonistic Girls and Boys as the play out track to Mark Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House. It was used again last night at the end of the normally playful Improbable Theatre's new show Panic at the Barbican and once again '...always should be someone you really love' is the take home message after an evening spent exploring desire and neurosis. Fidelity always seems a pre-occupation of theatre artists who often live in a world of intense experience, followed by fallow fallout.

Panic is a play about Pan, or rather Improbable director Phelim McDermott's relationship with this God of animal lust. Cue a huge phallus, three nymphs - who back in real life Phelim may or may not have slept with: an actress he trained with in the eighties, the PA who fills out his tax returns and struggles to express her emotions and a gat toothed aerialist (they don't half get around) who believes that she heals everybody she sleeps with - so has sex to spread goodness, and a frightening collection of his self-help books - all designed to distract from the uncomfortable truth that occasionally you could just do with a shag.

I'm not sure much happened in the piece other than confession both from Pan and the nymphs who, without naming names, reveal into a microphone how they felt at once euphoric and cheap to be seduced. But this, as a device, feels dated and rather dull, so you're left watching Julian Crouch's ever inventive design. The brown paper bags carrying the self help books brilliantly become masks onto which the nymphs faces are projected.

It's all a bit boysy really and in all truth feels like both a mid-life crisis and a precocious show.
Some nights at the theatre you leave spirits lifted, some nights you feel angry at the huge injustices of the world. Tonight I just felt like sinking a bottle of wine and staring lasciviously at the other late commuters on Waterloo station.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

In the Loop

Making the most of the sunny weekend. It's probably the last free one we'll get before the end of semester. Things are cranking up and the focus for the next few weeks will be firmly on ensuring that all the students are on track with dissertations, projects and of course the Chiswick House show.

Did a big round walk today up to Richmond, back to Teddington, over to the Ham lands to see a disappointing Victorian fun fair and then onto Kingston to see Armando Iannucci's political satire In the Loop at the Odeon.

The film is all too brilliant in its comic exposure of cynical spin, pragmatic politicking, cut throat threat and counter threat in the corridors of power both in London and Washington. It's a world where a moment of doubt, carelessness or misplaced humour can throw a whole career out the window.

At the end of a week where factions of our own government have revealed their dark underbelly, shameless need for surveillance and utter nastiness through the email scandal, the film couldn't be more on the money. What's potentially more sinister is the way we seem to now shruggingly accept the sleeze even as we condemn it. The star of In the Loop is undoubtedly Peter Capaldi as the Alistair Campbell inspired filth monger Malcolm Tucker but he's ably supported by Tom Hollander's excellent semi detached Minster for International Development, Simon Foster.

Sadly, for most of the hawkish interns and policy wonks staying on message is the only thing that matters, even when the message warps away from logic, sanity or reality. If you can jack in your principles, and fix your focus, the world is your oyster. The cleverness of the film is to authentically expose the lack of sentiment, philosophical imperative or morality at the heart of message making. As the hopeless Simon palpably demonstrates, it's hard to be heard in the noise of the machine.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Mrs Affleck

A strange afternoon at the National. Everybody seemed bored, disinterested, not really wanting to there, fidgety and half asleep ... and the audience weren't much better!!!

Mrs Affleck isn't terrible, but it seems to have been doomed from early on in its run by poor reviews and indifferent box office and now, down to its dregs, it feels like the show is just serving time; it's casts' bags are packed in the hall and they are waiting to return to more lucrative TV deals or happy ensembles on the larger National stages.

Maybe a sunny Saturday afternoon in Spring is not the ideal time to meditate on our dark self truths and inability to love where we should; but this was the unhappy, but inescapable, situation that both cast and audience found themselves caught in.

So the play. Samuel Adamson has adapted Henrick Ibsen's Little Eyolf written in the 1890s, and re set it on the North Kent coast in 1955. The transportation only really serves to demonstrate his cleverness as a researcher and a beachcomber of parallels. Disabled Oliver's friend, George, has recently arrived on Windrush. Claire Skinner's Rita Affleck demonstrates all the frustration of a woman waiting for the sexual liberation of the sixties. Whilst she's a decade early her haunted husband Alfred, played with admirable angst by Angus Wight, unable to shake off the nightmare images of Belsen cannot escape the past. His fear underscored by the threatening, alluring Flea (who replaces the rat wife of the original play) dressed as a leather clad rocker in an Elvis quiff. An all too obvious cliche for the shock of the new.

The real problem is that Little Eyolf is a much bigger play - dealing with guilt, recrimination and the possibility for redemption and resurrection in the face of a seemingly malevolent God. A rainy afternoon on the shingle at Herne Bay, with the Goon Show playing tinnily in the background, just doesn't support the crashing avalanches of the original.

Friday, 17 April 2009

The Simplicity of Suspension.

To the Lyric Hammersmith this evening for the press night of Theatre Rites and Ockham's Razor's new show Hang On - a beautifully tender and well crafted piece of work for children and adults who have not lost their sense of wonder.

Occam's razor is a philosophical principle stating that the explanation of any phenomenon should eliminate all assumptions not deemed necessary. In short it's a homage to simplicity, economy and means seeing everything with fresh eyes.

And that's what this show does, mixing the practical exploration of scientific principles with a simple acceptance of human emotion and relationships.

Three aerialists physically play with the possibilities for climbing, balancing and hanging on a huge mobile made up of gigantic coat hangers suspended from the roof. Meanwhile anxiety riddled Eric rushes around the stage stressing out that the structure hasn't been tested and that imminent disaster will occur if the climbers don't return to earth. Stephano, a juggler, falls for Tina, swinging high above his head, but, unsure of her response, can't find the courage to talk to her. Suspension is breathtaking, scary and fun; both a physical and emotional reality. Our own Tina's designs sit absolutely within the ethos of the work, bringing clarity and colour to the narrative.

Kindness permeates everything and gentle permission is offered at every turn. Permission to explore, to play, to climb, to worry, to care. It's one of the most heart warming, child centred pieces of work I've seen this year.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Upper Thames

When I moved to Twickenham three years ago, and found myself living on the Thames for the first time since my childhood, I made a promise to walk from source to sea. My first attempt the summer before last was marred by floods and it's taken from then to now to find the time to begin the journey, but on Monday, accompanied by Matt and Aida, I finally set off , catching the Paddington train out to Swindon, changing for the branch line off to Kemble and then, after a further half hour walk through the fields arriving under the sacred ash tree which marks, on rainier days than this, the first bubbles of spring 188 miles away from the barrier and the sea.

To begin with the only sign that this is a river is straight line of trees that lead ahead in the distance, hugging the banks of the subterranean trickle, a line of darker grass appears and then puddles which begin to join up eventually graduating to a flow and then a stream covered in forget me nots, pansies, daisies, oxslips and water-crow flowers. Tiny fish begin to dart in and out of the matted weeds and before we hit Ewen, the next village, the first ducks.

We walked on and had a late lunch picnic in a field below Somerford Keynes before finding a sheltering pint in the Horse and Jockey in beautiful Ashton Keynes. The river is so clear here that you can see the threateningly striped Perch develop their muscles by holding their ground swimming against the resistance of the current. As the sun was setting we decided to march on to Cricklade and seek accommodation there, unfortunately with our goal almost in sight, we made our only wrong turn of the day, confirmed by a local farmer in his landrover, and ended up two miles further north in Cherny Wick.

We ate Wiltshire trout in The Crown there whilst Colin, the friendly landlord, kindly found us rooms in The Eliot Arms, two miles further north in South Cherny. Meal done and a quick cab to the land of comfortable beds, sachet coffee and complimentary shower gel.

This morning we caught the bus down to Cricklade and began again - a casual walk across the fields, past the occasional swan's nest, to Castle Eaton where we had lunch and then set off away from the river on the path to Lechlade. It's a tricky part of the journey, less river, more bridleway and finally a disturbing final mile or so dropping towards Inglesham church on the lethal A361.

The church itself is amazingly beautiful. There is a Saxon preaching cross in the graveyard and Byzantine feel to the 11th century nave. For centuries the cleansing power of the river must have been used in ritual and worship here. Quiet, secluded and hiding upstream from Lechlade, it is peace itself.

So our first leg ended in late afternoon sunshine lounging by the river in Lechlade itself.

'Are you travelling far' asked Danny a local who'd been teaching his nephew how to feed the swans without getting nipped.

'We've walked from the source to here' said Aida, 'but we're heading back to London tonight. We'll do the rest on another day.'

'Oh Well,' said Danny gesturing back upstream from where we'd started. 'There's not much that way except for vegetation and weeds. It'll be more interesting from here on in. This is where the real river starts...'

Friday, 10 April 2009

Brief Encounter

To the Richmond Theatre to finally catch Kneehigh's critically acclaimed Brief Encounter which played at inflated ticket prices in town last year.

It was well worth the hype! A terrific show filled with imaginative choices, verve and the soft charm that I think makes this company unique in the UK. Film used theatrically rather than, as happens sometimes in multi media events, as a disjunction or even a dominating visual force. As a company I always imagine Kneehigh sitting round a big kitchen table, eating homemade soup in a rural farmhouse scratching their heads and wondering why anybody would want to live in a city, especially that there London. Their aesthetic comes from the wisdom of those not worried about appearances or social cache.

The production is also a lesson in reclamation and contemporising, in the same tradition and as smart as Stephen Daldry's early nineties production of An Inspector Calls, and surely the only way to stop writers like Priestly, Coward, Rattigan - dare I even say Shaw- becoming dated museum curios. It opens the door for more playful discoveries and a realigning of the importance of the plays written before the 1956 Look Back in Anger revolution.

Emma Rice is a superb director every glance, gesture, and inflection performed by actors who relish the open chance to play with each other and the audience. The connection is simple, flowing, completely lacking in guile and all the more refreshing for it.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Once Upon a Time in The North.

A while ago over coffee Carolina, Rosie, Vandu and myself all made claims (factual as it turned out) that our ancestors were the ancient kings of Scotland, Ireland, Portugal and Wales respectively- Gruffydd ap Llywelyn killed most of his family but ruled the whole of Wales just prior to the Norman conquests, don't you know!

Our collective nobility combined with the fact that the volunteer passes we were awarded from the National Trust for the work we did at Ham last Spring are about to run out meant an inevitable road trip to begin the reclamation of our thrones... so last Saturday we set off on the Scottish leg of the quest to reclaim Carolina's rightful heritage as a direct descendant of Malcolm I!

Things started very well as rookie punter C managed, despite our incredulity and ridicule and purely on the disinterested basis that she liked the name, to back Mon Mome as winner of the Grand National at 125-1 in a Carlisle bookies. V and R's choices came second and third. My picks chosen after length study, during a coffee break at Stafford services, of form, weight, jockey's history and Aintree conditions all fell over before Beechers.

The royal coffers buoyed, we crossed into Galloway and looking for accommodation accidentally fell upon the beautiful ruins of Sweetheart Abbey just south of Dumfries. It was founded by Devorgilla Balliol in 1273 to remember her deceased husband John. She commemorated his name further by founding the famous Oxford college and in a rather morbid act of devotion carrying his embalmed heart around in a box until, on her own death, it and she were reunited with him in a grave in front of the alter.

Sunday after camping a little further down the coast we headed North West up to the cliff hugging splendour of Culzean Castle, full of flintlock pistols and awesome views over the sea towards Arran and the Mull of Kintyre. Lunch in Ayr, a rapid tour of Glasgow and onwards into the Trossachs for a base camp on Loch Lomond.

Monday was mental - my fault. We got up fairly early and headed North for Fort William and the Nevis range, coffee and a brief look round here and on to Loch Ness. We stopped again in Drumnadrocit to take in the Nessie experience, but the myth and the tourism has seen better days and although there are still a million cuddly monsters in tamoshanters sitting on the shelves of the shops the 'life size' fibreglass statue designed for kids to clamber all over is cracked and faded. The town couldn't half do with another sighting.

Late lunch in Inverness and then the madness kicked in. It was only 4pm, I figured. It'd be very cool to drive right up to John O'Groats, I figured. It couldn't be that far, I figured. So off we went. The first road sign said 130 miles... surely a mistake, I figured. Kings of the road laugh in the face of such ridiculous road signs, I figured. Ha Ha Ha, I figured!

Two hours later with the mist rolling in, the car beginning to make funny noises and the other royals beginning to grunt in a cabin fevered disgruntled kind of a way, that the horror of what I'd done hit me. We were clinging to tight mountain bends and the beautiful highland scenery had been replaced by the unattractive flat scrub land of Sutherland and Caithness. A rational - or dare I say smarter - man would have in all humility have turned back, but by now full of foolish determination and all the pride of a twenty first century dozy Cnute (I think that's how you spell it) I dug in and ploughed on. Finally at 7.30pm we turned down a country track and rode into the deserted car park at the end of the country, two hours after all the attractions (a coffee shop, shop and souvenir photographer) had closed for the night. There was nothing to do except for throw the Northern most sulk in Britain, so we did. Even the loos were locked (although we did find a man in a tent who had a key!)

The two hundred and thirty miles back in darkness along the coast, the lochs, and through Glencoe were a further living hell. We got back to camp at 1.30am. John O'Groats is certainly a once in a lifetime experience - I hope it is anyway!

On Tuesday things settled down and we drove across to Perth and then South over the Forth and into Edinburgh, strange and quiet out of festival. We walked the Mile and then onto the extraordinary Rosslyn Chapel (see image) ten miles south.

The Chapel is a jewel and includes the amazing Apprentice's Column, so beautifully carved that it sent the master stone mason into a jealous and murderous rage, killing his brilliant protege. At the far end of the knave are three worn stone bosses of the mason, the apprentice, complete with fatal wound above his left eye, and most movingly the apprentice's grieving mother.

Another carving depicted William the Seemly, who accompanied Carolina's ancestor Queen Margaret to Scotland and was given the baronetcy of Rosslyn as a reward by Malcolm.

We left for England and managed to get to York in time (seconds to spare) to see the Oxford game. A thrilling 0-0 draw! To celebrate our final night on the road we booked into a hotel and had a proper sleep.

...and so the royal progress came to an end with a smashing day in York up and down the medieval streets, taking tea in posh Betty's, a walk along the sandstone city walls above daffodill strewn grassy banks, a look round the Minster and the gorgeous Theatre Royal before finally turning for the M1 and an early evening drive back to London. Tired but very happy.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Death and the King's Horseman

Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman directed by rising star Rufus Norris opens at the National next week. I went along to see a preview last night and came away with mixed opinions.

To use a Kasia phrase: 'It wasn't stupid' but I couldn't help feeling disengaged and rather unmoved by the political and emotional battle fought out in front of me.

Elesin, the dead King's horseman, has had a wonderful life of privilege and favour and now as tribal tradition dictates he is expected to commit ritual suicide in order to accompany his former master into the afterlife. However, his own unwillingness to leave such a marvellous life and the clumsy interventions of Pilkings, a colonial administrator, who views the whole ritual as barbaric, lead to the act remaining delayed, disrupting the cosmology of Yoruba universe and bringing shame and misery on the tribe.

Norris is nothing if not a populist storyteller, who simplifies and activates the play with rigour and broad sweeps of a brush well suited for the vast Olivier. In this aspect, he is with Marianne Elliott, one of the few directors who embrace the unplayability of this stage and reward the audience with exuberance and attack. Along with Javier de Frutos, whose stylish choreography, provides a stimulating taut dynamism to the evening, he's found a language that opens up the play and allows us full access to the demonstrable tensions at it's heart.

The problem is, as with his bold production of David Eldridge's Market Boy three years ago, the play remains sociological at the expense of examining the complicated subtext. It leaves open to analysis the reasons behind the failure of the suicide and the colonial distaste for 'barbarism,' without recognising the basic humanity of either Elesin or Pilkings position.

In some ways this is another crude examination of Englishness (the black cast 'white' up to play the English) and it's interesting that it is playing in rep at the Olivier with England People Very Nice. But the approach comes unstuck in the second act when the essential philosophical debate between the two men becomes lost in the visual imagery and signifiers of colonialism. I think Soyinka wrote a subtler play than the one we're offered here and it made me wonder what Bijan Sheibani, who beautifully directed Tarrell Alvin McCraney's Yoruba influenced The Brothers Size last Autumn, would have made of this work. I suspect he'd have begun by insisting on a more intimate space for the story.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Times of the Tidal Thames

As Spring approaches the Thames plays an ever more important role in the down time between each frenetic day at University. We're very lucky to have it on our doorstep, just two minutes across Cross Deep takes you into the willow tree lined Radnor Gardens, where you can sit, chat, revise and watch the slow progress of the river as it heads into town . The Thames isn't just the life line that keeps London going, at stressful moments it can provide a welcome place of calm.

Sunday was the boat race and a big party. The weather was perfect so I walked with Carolina from Twickenham, past Richmond , Kew, Chiswick and on into Barnes, where the view opens up and makes you feel as if you're by the seaside.

We met up with Paul, our theatre technician, and some of his friends in The Sun. It was a great day - expectation, sweep stakes, barbecue, news of the early stages of the race on a fuzzy transistor radio and then legging up to the river side to catch the crews power by on the final leg. Oxford well in front to my great delight. Afterwards celebration and dancing.

Last night a very different river. By the Doggetts pub on the South Bank are some old stone steps that lead down to the water. You used to be able to take your drink down them, sit in secrecy, letting the water lap your feet. A few years ago they put a big metal barred gate up to stop this dangerous activity. As my friend Emma and I walked along towards London Bridge we passed the gate and pushed it in protest, sure it would be tightly chained. To my surprise somebody had forgotten or couldn't be bothered to lock it and it swung open.

It was low tide so we clambered down onto the clay, shingle and debris of the unmasked river bed and walked for about a mile passing underneath the high concrete defences of Bankside under Blackfriars, Millennium and Southwark Bridges. Past the Tate and The Globe. It's a darker, forgotten world down amongst the mudlarks, remnants of old Victorian jetties, landing stages, the foundations of storehouses and custom posts, a history that reveals itself twice a day as the tide pulls out but only to those brave or stupid enough to risk the slippery stones and unknown revelations. It was a magical, surreal walk through a hidden past. We finally surfaced by climbing a ladder set into the wall at The Anchor.