Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Children and Animals Took to the Streets.

To the BAC to see The Children and Animals Took to the Streets by the innovative 1927 theatre company. Mixing live performance, a spooky discordant score and wonderful animations the company draw on the traditions of early cinematography, the Berlin cabaret and Rodchenko style constructivism to craft a sumptuous contemporary parable that is as secure in aesthetic feel as it is in subversive content.

It's savage stuff - set in Bayou Mansions, a slum cockroach ridden tenement inhabited by Wayne the racist, girl gang Zelda and the Pirates and a string of tight faced residents who stare vacantly at the impoverished surroundings. Into this world comes Agnes Eaves, a optimist of Mary Poppins proportions, who believes that encouragement and collage may be all that is required for cultural renaissance.

The three performers relish every second of their dysfunctional fairy tale and despite audience protestation refuse to endorse a happy ending to their story choosing instead to pack a final bleak punch that leaves us shivering in the dark with the reminder that it takes more than a positive attitude or theatrical twist to lift the poor out of deprivation. Chilling and brilliant work.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Sleeping Beauty.

Off with Patsy to a reception at Richmond Theatre and a chance to catch an early view of Sleeping Beauty. Most of the staff were on schmoozing duty with the mayor, councillors and VIPs, but it was good to have a brief catch up.

The show itself was ridiculous silly fun and I loved every minute. Top of the bill was shotgun speed gag meister Tim Vine who kept the show moving with great charisma and skill. He was ably supported by Anita Dobson as the wicked fairy queen complete with hologram dragon and a fine range of bashed out old Queen hits. It was kitsch, it was cringe, it ultimately left a lot of people going home with smiles on their faces.

At one point five kids were brought on stage and handed goodie bags. Tim then interviewed them.

'Now by the magic of theatre you can ask for what ever you like up here on stage', he said, winking at the parents, 'and you'll get it. Now what would you like?'

'Can't think!' said the first.

'Anything at all,' said Tim. 'What about a pony?'

'Already got one.'

'Oh yes, I forgot for a minute we're not playing Sunderland are we?'

The happy ending prompted the best gag of the night when confronted by the perfect nuptials Anita moaned - 'will nobody marry me?' To which Tim replied 'Brian may.'

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

New Trust & A Flea in Her Ear.

A really good meeting yesterday evening at the National Trust's Queen Anne's Gate headquarters with Gary and Ruth. We're looking to create a Drama and the National Trust module to roll out for Level 2 Applied Theatre students from September next year which will hopefully both provide an ongoing theme for the sixty or so students enrolled on the course, enable the Trust to commission work form us and give us a further opportunity to explore and further our research into the ways heritage sites can provide the stimulus for community engagement and expression. There's quite a bit to iron out, but we're all onside and very excited about further strengthening our ties.

Tonight off to the Old Vic to see an all star cast take on Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear. It's great to see such secure farce playing and it's clear that the actors all really relished the the freedom to demonstrate their virtuosity. In a theatre dominated by psychological realism or spectacular staging effects it must be so liberating to spend a couple of hours playing in this way. As a member of the audience it's certainly wonderful to be able to sit back and simply marvel at plot and device.

Tom Hollander is superb shifting seamlessly across the dual roles of buffoon porter Poche and the bourgeois respectable Chandebise. He's ably supported by Freddie Fox as Chandebise's speech impaired young nephew, Tim McMullan as the pompous butler and John Marques as a fiery Spanish lover. Sometimes there are clunks but it's very early in the play's run and given the calibre of the actors and the clear joy they're already getting from spinning the plates, things will no doubt bed down sooner rather than later.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Mottisfont Abbey

We heard back from Nymans last week saying that although they'd like to take Canterbury Tales another touring company had got in first and they wouldn't book a second version. So in search of another venue I drove down the M3 this morning to have a reckie of Mottisfont Abbey where Gary suggests we might have a favourable welcome.

The grounds are gorgeous and the layout makes a promenade performance really enticing. The river Test borders one side and large lawns lead up to the house itself. Underneath are the evocative remains of the 13th century Augustinian priory which would be a perfect place to end the pilgrimage.

The most exciting space though seemed to be the walled rose gardens - barren now - but they house the national collection of old-fashioned roses and in the Spring and early summer would no doubt prove to be a riot of colour and perfume. Certainly a space of romance and chivalry. The Knight's Tale here, perhaps?

So a follow up email needs to be sent to see if the house manager will be game - but I can see a fantastic tour beginning at Sutton House, before moving to Ham and then out into the countryside being a fantastic way to explore and celebrate Chaucer's stories.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Pilgrimages & Riots.

An excellent session yesterday planning some schools workshops with Applied Theatre Level 2 in preparation for the outreach work that'll accompany The Canterbury Tales in the new year.

Working with Danielle the team had devised their own pilgrimage around the St Mary's campus, with stops at key sights, converted into taverns with wonderful pub signs. Earlier in the week each of us had been assigned a twentieth century job - weather girl, professional footballer, international DJ, plastic surgeon etc. and at each stop a few of us were selected to tell a story or sing a song in our pre-cast role. It was jovial, great good fun and, as we'd all taken time trouble to prepare, healthily competitive. Occasionally we met other students and asked them for stories, or songs. By the time we arrived to give thanks at our final destination, outside the chapel, we'd collected dozens. The work has wonderful potential and we're going to try and develop it in Hackney Schools with the Sutton House team. In two sessions we can tailor make and export a pilgrimage anywhere.

Meanwhile there was more trouble in central London where students and lecturers were picketing outside the Houses of Parliament in anticipation of the vote on tuition fees. For a couple of hours once again the streets were filled with violent clashes between police and protesters. The issue has certainly woken up the current generation of students to the possibility of taking direct action and for all the outcry and dismay there is a certain inevitability to the violence and criminal damage. London has periodically fallen to the mob and riots, particularly when those who perceive themselves to have little are threatened by those born into privilege and opportunity. These class struggles are very much a part of the capital's heritage.

As if to reinforce the point there was some amazing images of Prince Charles and Camilla under siege in their car as they made their way to the Royal variety performance. Perfumed, preened and corpulent they looked for all the world as if they'd stepped out of Hogarth lampoon. It felt as if we were momentarily back in the eighteenth century.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Beauty Abounds.

A full day. Patsy and I went over to Khadambi Asalache's house in Wandsworth Road which he bequeathed to the National Trust on his death four years ago. Asalache was a Kenyan exile who spent twenty years carving and creating an exquisite fretwork fantasy interior. Gary has recently added the property to his portfolio and is currently working out exactly how to open up, what is essentially a small family home, to visitors.

We were given a tour by the wonderful Ruth Clarke, the trust's community learning officer and Khadambi's widow Susie, who talked about her fear of academics coming in and 'theorising' over Khadambi's influences or motives. The reality, as she sees it, is that the house evolved organically rather than to design and she's keen to avoid trapping Khadambi in a biographical narrative. What's of more interest to her is finding a way to allow the house to inspire visitors to re create their own sense of utopia. This, of course, presents an interesting dilemma for the team, who know that most properties are visited because they hold the ghosts of former inhabitants or are the site of significant events.

Ruth explained that in discussion groups men, in particular, had expressed how moving they found a visit to the house and occasionally had even broken down when trying to explain the effect that the rooms had on them. She wondered why?

'Well,' said Susie 'Khadambi didn't have a cliched bone in his body.'

And perhaps that's the key. The sight of these rooms remind us that we often settle for spaces that compromise our own sense of desire and artistry. They throw down a challenge to us to try and live as we would wish.

Onwards to the National to see Katie Mitchell's fast paced and clever production of Beauty and the Beast in the Cottesloe with Eleanor.

There was much to enjoy particularly a simple, but beautifully executed, shadow puppet sequence and a brilliantly designed tormented beast, a crazy mix of rat, wolf and tyrannosaurus Rex. Overall though the piece didn't seem to trust the story's innate sentimentality and kept interrupting itself with an entertaining, but overplayed, music hall fore curtain where a naughty fairy MC introduced us to mind reading machines and insect orchestras. To begin with this Victorian cruelty and menace excited and provoked the audience, providing a welcome and playful subversion to a more conventional rendering of the tale; but ultimately it undermined the wonder and enchantment of the ending. A salutary lesson into the childishness of love rather than a celebration of its miracle? It left the audience impressed rather than awestruck.

Thursday, 2 December 2010


Off through the snow to the Tristan Bates in Seven Dials to see the launch of the Foxtrot Foundation, run by Drama St Mary's lecturer Chris White with the aim of progressing the way Samuel Beckett is taught in HE and FE institutions.

Chris and his co-director Julio Martino had brought over Michael Laurence's award winning off Broadway show Krapp, 39 to mark the event and celebrate. Despite the difficult travel conditions a good crowd turned up.

I'm unsure of Beckett, which of course is partly the point. His verbal games leave me in a bit of a void and although the incomprehensibility of the universe carries an awesome prospect I often struggle to find the theatricality. I suppose I'm not sure philosophy and theatre mix terribly well. I think play is essentially non intellectual and theatre is at its best when it's a bit stupid. I get the impression Beckett felt the same way about life. I hope Chris' work might help me see something else.

Tonight's work details Michael's experiment as a 39 year old Beckettian actor, in deciding to create his own derivative of Beckett's famous monologue by recording a tape in preparation for a second production on his 69th birthday in 2038. On one level the self reflection and introvertism makes for a slightly indulgent evening on another level the playful examination of reality, fiction, time and memory allows the audience to take a warping journey that questions the value of summation and posterity.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Catch Up!

Time is speeding by now in the build up to Christmas and there barely seems to be a moment to take stock. On Thursday Patsy, Ben and I went with the Applied Theatre students over to Rich Mix in Bethnal Green to see Tongue Fu, another packed evening of performance poetry and rap. The event had less variation than the previous gig back in September, but there were some class acts including the rather brilliant A F Harrold.

Friday was full on in preparation for the A Political Cabaret in the evening, which went really well - the Dolche full to bursting. Afterwards I crossed over to the theatre to catch Level 3 Theatre Arts production of Love and Money by Dennis Kelly (see above). Just as with The Blue Room a couple of weeks ago the work really demonstrated the huge strides that has been made this year.

On Monday night I headed down to Heathside School in Weybridge to work with their year 13, developing ideas for their exam verbatim theatre piece which explores the role of letter writing. We had a really good session using mobiles and headphones to record and playback stories about significant letters and correspondences to each other. Interestingly a couple of them had never handwritten a letter and those who had, had only ever done so to grandparents. Inevitably it's a dying art and this began to frame some of the discussions. Are typed or texted missives less valuable or romantic than those that come from the flow of a pen and if so why? Is it because they're less spontaneous, easier to edit, less sure in authorship? Why is signature so fascinating?I'm going back in in a couple of weeks to see how the work has developed.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Working on the Cabaret.

Had a smashing day working with the Applied Theatre Level 2 on the second A Political Cabaret. It's amazing how quickly the group have grown in confidence - partly I'm sure as a result of their initial success - and how much material they're now producing. We looked at 36 sketches this morning and began to make some cuts and edits with some stuff being kept in reserve for the final gig right at the end of term. In the end we slimmed the programme down to 25 sections, some short and snappy, some more developed and had begun by the end of the afternoon to put together a running order.

There was lots of stuff on the Royal Wedding, some more poignant reflections on the tenth anniversary of troops being in Afghanistan, a couple of clever pieces on the Pope, some excellent poetry and a neat sketch in which George W Bush water boards Laura to find out where she's hidden the remote control. Overall the material seemed to have more quality to it this time round and I'm hoping that this will be mirrored in the way they play on Friday night.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Filtered Shakespeare.

Down to the Rose to see Filter's striped down version of Twelfth Night which has been doing the rounds for a few years now. Like Blasted it was originally directed by Sean Holmes, but in tone it couldn't have been more different. This was anarchic, playful and tremendous good fun; completely in the spirit of the kind of misrule which is so joyfully championed in the play.

I can't ever remember the revelling being so inclusive and boisterous as tequila and pizzas were handed out amongst us and the music got louder and louder. In this context Malvolio's intervention came as the most personal of affronts and there was never any doubt from that moment on that we were all responsible for putting him in his place. It was childish, but so rewarding.

As you might expect from such an enjoyably petulant attack, much of the poetry and lyricism of the play was lost - but I don't think for a moment that the production aimed to catch all and the subversion and silliness seemed very welcome on a cold winter's evening in Kingston.

I was really pleased I finally caught it.

Monday, 15 November 2010


To the Lyric to see Sarah Kane's Blasted, which Stef has been assisting Sean Holmes to direct. When it was first produced at the Royal Court in the mid nineties it caused a huge storm and seemed to mark a watershed, a return to a more direct, visceral form of writing. Quickly the critics announced a new movement proclaiming playwrights as diverse as Sarah, Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson, David Eldridge, Philip Ridley, Joe Penhall and Rebecca Prichard as belonging to the new stable of In-Yer-Face theatre. Why suggest when you could tell and why tell when you could show?

In-Yer-Face certainly fitted a mood and a time - the fag end of both Major's government and the millennium itself and in it's own terms kind of tried to shock itself with it's own depravity, of which Sarah was the queen. It was partly an effort to wake everybody up in a time of slumber and partly just an explosion of talent unafraid to write fast, loose and for small intimate spaces. It felt vital then.

Fifteen years on I was shocked by how quickly dated this play has become. Its vanguard power gone, all that seemed to be left was a bitter attempt to reveal cruelty and evil in its purest form. Nothing is redeemed, nothing is ambiguous and ultimately for those reasons nothing ultimately hit home. Despite some really good work from the actors and a meticulous production it was a strangely dislocated hour and a half.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Demos and Democrats..

It's been a quiet afternoon in Drama St Mary's as many of the students headed up to town to take part in the demonstration over the proposed trebling of student fees. I was really pleased to find out so many had gone. It's the first time since the march in protest over the invasion of Iraq that there's been a momentum to take part in some form of mass public protest and perhaps the first time this generation of students have been exposed to the immediacy of direct action. As the afternoon wore on it became apparent that some sections of the march had broken away and tried to break into Tory headquarters at Millbank, overrunning the ridiculously small amount of police on duty.

On the TV it began to look like a return to the eighties; lots of condemnation for the aggression from student leaders and politicians alike, but the story stayed top of the news agenda all day. Late this evening Siobhan sent a message to say that none of the SMUC students had been directly involved.

Meanwhile back on campus Margaret Ritchie, the new leader of Northern Ireland's SDLP, gave a fascinating lecture on the problems of being a moderate in the province. Since power sharing her party have been slightly marginalised as the traditional republican vote has solidified behind Sinn Fein. She talked about the threat of maintaining an entrenched position with regards a united Ireland and instead positioned her party firmly within a social democratic tradition of progressive change. The most fascinating thought was that more and more protestants are now joining her party, raising the hope that in some distant future the political debate might move away from purely sectarian concerns and begin to advance towards strategic issues over governance and representation. It was an optimistic view, but one based on a real belief that communities can and want to live and work together.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Hackney Central.

Early morning trip up to Hackney with Tina, Paul and the Level 2 Applied Theatre students for their first look round Sutton House. Naomi met us and again gave a lot of time to explore and look round. It's going to be an interesting challenge trying to put the show in here and already logistics are become the primary concern.

There are two spaces large enough to house full company and audience. The charming central courtyard which is overlooked by every room of the house an provides a trapped oasis of calm away from the busy traffic on Homerton High Street and the fairly soulless Wenlock Barn, purpose built for performances - but the only place in the house to which the students didn't warm. Other spaces are perfect for intimate storytelling and shared experience but need careful management to enable accessibility and flow. An early plan might be to divide the stories, the space and the audience into three and then carousel round on a twenty minute cycle with business written to manage crossovers back in on of the larger spaces. It would mean everybody saw everything, but not necessarily in the same order. We could then just focus on three stories. The Knight's, the Miller's and The Wife of Bath's? Timing would be vital and we'd have to be great at improvising to fill in the inevitable gaps - but I can see a rough shape.

The students seemed very enthusiastic about the place and got on brilliantly with the National Trust staff. I can feel a really productive relationship building.

Afterwards we wandered down Mare Street to visit Artburst - a business set up by Amy, Tina's niece, which has one a hatful of awards for providing innovative arts and drama based projects in the East End and beyond. Amy and her colleague Penny have grafted for five years to make the company economically viable and generously spent the best part of an hour talking to the team about how to make a small business work. It was inspiring and invaluable advice.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Went with Orode to the National last night to see the first preview of FELA!, the Broadway musical based on the life of Nigerian Afro beat pioneer and anti-corruption activist Fela Kuti. It's a great messy, joyous show that feels oddly situated in the Olivier, where there is hardly space to stand let alone dance between the lavender coloured rows - but is sure to be a great rolling hit over the next few months.

Set in 1978 at Fela's final concert at the infamous Shrine club in Lagos, the piece really celebrates Kuti as showman and draws attention to the political content of the music, telling a rough version of Nigeria's post-colonial history in the process.

There are some issues. Fela's personal life, his polygamy, his homophobia and eventual AIDS induced death are nodded at, rather than questioned and there is a clear sense that the Shrine we're presented with is somewhat sanitised for a New York audience, a kind of clumsy fusion of Yoruba attitude and Manhattan chic. More cocktails and polite applause than weed and whooped affirmation.

The high life horns and funky beats are infectious and irresistible, however, and the energy from the cast, particularly Sahr Ngaujah who brilliantly captures the charm and anger of Fela in a showstopping performance, makes you want the evening to go on forever. If the jukebox musical needed a shake up this show, which reminds us of a time when music formed the soundtrack for popular movements and uprisings, might just have the formula with which to do it.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A Political Cabaret.

The end of the week and Applied Theatre Level 2 students put on the first in what we hope will be a series of topical political cabarets in the Dolche Vita coffee shop. About sixty people came along to see what it was about.

Partly in response to the changing culture of Higher education, partly in an attempt to bring some immediacy to the way students produce work and partly to contradict the tired cliche that they just aren't engaged in the big picture any more - the evening had a number of a range of targets to aim at and for a first shot it seemed to hit most of them.

The material was inevitably mixed, but the pace, energy and commitment of the ensemble company meant that it was never long before a fresh gag or point was nailed and the investment allowed for moments of edginess and risk. There is no time for censorship if the joke's already been said. There was some stand out sketches. A smart cookery programme featuring Cameron and Clegg making a coalition curry, with Clegg struggling to get the cap off most the ingredients, before force feeding it to Vince Cable. A rap attacking the hike in tuition fees, a poem about the danger of occupying the centre ground, a Chilean Miners version of Big Brother and a piece juxtaposing suffragettes with 'McSlutskies' ladettes.

One of the real positives from the evening was that the audience seemed drawn from across the University community. Perhaps in future the material might be local as well as national and international? It could have some impact.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Blue Room

A really cracking production of David Hare's The Blue Room by Level 3 Theatre Arts students last night, setting a very high benchmark for what we hope is going to be an exhilarating year of student work.

The philosophy of Drama St Mary's work is that students move from dependence on staff led input in Level 1, through interdependence in Level 2, to creative independence in Level 3. If tonight's work is a sign of things to come, this is one part of the curriculum and planning we've got spot on.

Fluidly directed by Sarah Marr there simply wasn't a weak performance and it was clear that each moment, line, instant had been explored and made sense of. The particular challenge of the piece for young actors comes in representing the specific intimacy of each scene, finding for their characters the thin line between anxiety and joy that each of the forbidden encounters provokes. That this was achieved with such a sense of conviction and ease is testimony to the company's developing craft and the trust that they must have put in Sarah.

There were a couple of stand out performances. Claire Austin, built on the excellent Hermia she delivered in Spring, to bring an unstated nuanced sense of inevitability to the drug fuelled teenage model. Natalie Standing, who played the actress, found moments of real complexity and truth in her work and Jack Fisher, was pretty much on the money as he explored the tentative, but ultimately empowering journey of a young student liberated by sex, firstly with the family au pair and then an older married woman, ably played by Bianca Barrett and Courtney Conlon respectively.

Really good work.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Grants and Feedback.

A very good morning. Level 1 Applied Theatre Drama St Mary's students, spent last week in rehearsals for The Orange Tree's schools version of The Tempest, which will go on the road later this month, and came back buzzing from the experience. Later in the day Henry, who's directing the show, dropped me a line to say how great it'd been to have them about. It's invaluable to be able to get into rehearsal rooms and see what goes on, especially when the opportunity extends itself. By all accounts they became the initial audience shaping some of the work with their responses and participation. After Christmas they'll start their own schools based project - I hope the work on The Tempest will get them thinking ahead.

By lunchtime we'd heard that our grant bid to SHOCC, the University's fundraising charity, had been successful. It's another £2,500 towards the Community Theatre Centre in Lilongwe. We're also sending a letter out to our colleagues to ask them to donate a small percentage of their monthly salary to the cause. This might bring us another £2,500 over the next twelve months. There is still a big possibility that a further large grant may come from the Freddie Mercury Foundation. So things are moving forward and we might make the £40,000 that we need to secure the building in time for our visit next May.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Have I Got News For You.

Yesterday evening I went with Gary, Faye and Patsy to the London Studios to see a recording of Have I Got News for You, which will goes out this evening. It was fascinating to see how contrived the whole thing was and how important the edit is in turning two and a half hours of semi-scripted chat into a slick half an hour show. Of course everything is done to allow the panelists a chance to deliver their material, but I was still slightly taken aback by how much needs to be done post-production to make populist telly.

The guest host was John Bishop, who struggled over and over to get the timing of the lines right and to pick up the rhythm of the gags given to him on the autocue. After a while the audience and guests gentle patience began to wear thin putting ever more pressure on him to get it right. Paul Merton was at first supportive, but became slightly more acerbic as we moved past 10pm.

I was also surprised, although I shouldn't have been, at how long it took to find the gags for each reply. What seems instantaneous on TV often takes two or three minutes of studied thought before a line is offered and without the quick wit and rapid response there really isn't that much there to watch. The philosophy is to record uninterrupted and then make the cuts afterwards - which can make for dull viewing. We very rarely went back on anything, but often meandered into drawn out conversations. A form of verbal water treading whilst waiting for the next joke.

Still it was good fun. The guests Miles Jupp and Andy Hamilton were sharp whilst Paul Merton and Ian Hislop slipped easily into well rehearsed banter when the topical stuff dried up. It'll be interesting to see how they shape it up for broadcast.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

No Wealth but Life.

Tuesday 26th October.

The rains came today, but it didn't much matter as we drove down to Coniston to catch the steam ship Gondola across the lake to John Ruskin's house at Brantwood for an early afternoon snoop about. The mist and drizzle made for a really evocative scene as the boat plied its way low in the water, billowing exhaust steam for all the world like the tug boat in Turner's The Fighting Temeraire. The twenty first century seemed very far away.

The boat is a labour of love for the local enthusiasts who maintain and run it. In high season up to eighty people a voyage make their way across the lake. Today, on one of the last trips of the year, it was just us, which gave the chance to get warm by the engine and talk to Paul, the stoker. He explained that essentially the boat runs like a steam train with the pistons working on a vertical to drive the propeller rather than a horizontal to turn the wheels. It's a glorious noisy, smelly thing and of course, as it belongs to the National Trust, we began to make lots of plans for future shows set on board.

Brantwood itself was also enchanting, tucked into the hillside with Grizedale forest to its back. Eleanor, for whom Ruskin is a bit of a king pin in Victorian thought, bounced happily from room to room only concerned that we didn't have enough time before the boat home. I was slower trying to move beyond his championing of the rather laboured Pre-Raphaelites, whose work does little for me, to learn some more about his ideas on social reform, education and the importance of living well. He just seemed unshackled, involved and invested in everything around him.

My favourite story was of him dressing as a Magpie to deliver a lecture questioning Darwinism. He made his anti-evolutionary point by singing 'O for the wings of a Dove' at full volume to a stunned crowd of Oxford undergraduates - including Oscar Wilde who, for once, must have felt completely upstaged.

We had ten minutes to whizz round the garden before Gondola emerged again on its last tour of the lake and to pick us up and begin the late night journey back to London. It's good to get away.

Into Lakeland.

Monday 25th October.

It was a gorgeous start, sharp and fresh. After breakfast Eleanor and I set off into Lakeland proper; firstly hugging the south side of Ennerdale water, perfectly still in the early light. Like yesterday we were pretty much on our own, only occasionally overtaking fellow travellers and again the morning miles scrolled by easily.

Eventually the lake ended and we turned onto a forest road, running parallel to the fast flowing river Liza, following it for a few miles at the foot of some impressive fells: Pillar to the South, High Stile, High Crag and Wainwright's favourite Haystacks to the North, until we arrived at the Black Sail youth hostel, a reclaimed shepherd's hut, sheltered underneath Great Gable. Everybody checks out by 9.30am and the place was deserted by the time we arrived - but still an open door led into a beamed room with long tables, board games, maps and a little kitchen with a microwave and a serious silver kettle for the stove. It's lonely, romantic and takes an effort to reach. In summer light I imagined, twenty three miles as we were from St.Bees, it might make a triumphant and very welcome first base. Tea and dominoes before bed.

We turned towards the mountains and made our first proper climb of the journey up Loft Beck to a breathtaking plateau with views back down the Ennerdale valley and over towards Buttermere. We rewarded ourselves by sharing a bar of Dairy Milk, the only food on us, and looked back towards the coast now far out of sight. Reset, we headed off along a cairn marked path towards the old tramway which in turn guided us towards Honister and a very welcome cafe. Suddenly the fell was filled with a procession of people all heading for a warm cup of tea and chunky sandwich. It felt strange after twenty five miles of solitude to suddenly be in a queue of day trippers, kitted out in Millets finest gear, Nordic sticks at the ready and I was pleased when we refound the quietness of the old toll road that took us on to Seatoller. Chilled out and contemplative, it wouldn't take much to become a curmudgeon. From here we followed the meandering course of the Derwent through a beautiful dappled wood arriving, as the sun sank, at our Borrowdale destination and a welcome pint in the impossibly picturesque Rosthwaite, the first part of our adventure successfully completed.

Best Made Plans.

Sunday 24th October.

During a pub conversation in the middle of the Tender Souls project Eleanor and I made a promise to follow in the footsteps of Alfred Wainwright and do the Coast to Coast walk from St.Bees on the Cumbrian shore to Robin Hood's Bay in North Yorkshire. It seemed a good plan to make at the time - but then a lot of flaky things are said in pubs. The deal was fixed when she bought me AW's guidebook for my birthday.

Three months on and with both of us able to take a couple of days off the adventure started this weekend. We drove up to St. Bees on Saturday afternoon in time for last orders at The Albert, where we quickly realised we were the only guests. The rooms were great especially the bathroom filled with donated soaps, gels, creams and sprays from previous walkers. It was clearly a place to leave a donation rather than pilfer the shampoo.

After a good night's sleep and a warming breakfast chat with landlady Carol, who reckoned we were the last walkers of the season, we set off up to the headland and the first few miles of the 190 needed to get to the other side. It was a beautiful morning and we were quickly up on the cliffs with the Irish sea sparkling below and the humped silhouette outline of the Isle of Man seeming close enough to touch. Flocks of seabirds, cormorants, guillemots and gulls swirled in and out of the cliffs as we cleared field after field in our approach to Whitehaven before turning inland down a country lane towards the hills. We occasionally got lost, mostly when caught up in conversation, but always seemed to sense the way back onto the path as we headed through farms, across brooks and burns, along neglected tracks and newly completed cycle paths, through unstated villages and planted forest until finally in late afternoon we climbed Dent fell - a mini challenge - and looking back to the sea, beginning to seem a way in the distance, caught our breath.

The last part of the day was glorious. We scrambled down the hill into Nannycatch, a tiny ravine, under the impressive rocks of Raven Crag with a gurgling beck running through which led us unswervingly in the failing light towards our overnight stop at The Shepherds Arms Hotel in Ennerdale. A truly wonderful day.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Guests, Training and Strawberry Hill.

Well the first part of the year seems to have been successfully negotiated and we're heading off into reading week with a sense of so far so good. Ric and Beth from Viterbo, our partner University in Wisconsin have been over for a visit bringing news of Vicky Johnson and Mairead Brew - who are over in the States on a semester exchange. Both seem to have settled in well (although some of the Applied Theatre students have noticed that Mairead now says 'awesome' on a regular basis when they hook up on Skype.)

It's very good to touch base with them and evaluate a little how the partnership is evolving. Certainly there's quite a lot to learn from each other in how we deliver the courses and through the experience of the both sets of students we're really getting some fascinating insights into where we can improve the provision this side of the Atlantic.

On Wednesday Patsy and I ran some inset training for the Student Union hopefully encouraging the Programme Board reps to take on a more pro-active role both in terms of the contribution they make in evaluating the courses and in playing an advisory role to Siobhan and the Union exec. With Level 2 students Joe, Katie, Becky and Andy we played out a disastrous meeting and then invited contributions from the floor to advise the participants. With the Drama students staying stroppily in role a bit of verbal banter soon ensued, which quickly brought out some excellent discussion points. It was all good fun.

On Friday afternoon I headed over to the Walpole House to see the third year company stationed over there host their first storytelling session of the year for twenty primary school children. They converted the downstairs tower room into a gypsy camp and played snap, sang songs, made masks and bracelets for the best part of an hour before sitting their audience on blankets for the story itself. Simple and effective work. A really good pilot for something more expansive in the future perhaps?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Pact House at the Young Vic.

Off to the Young Vic to see a wonderfully inventive Faust by Vesturport, the Icelandic aerial anarchists who've spent the last few years making hay with fresh and exhilarating adaptations of classic plays.

As with their previous touring work Woyzeck, Romeo and Juliet and Metamorphosis there's a non apologetic approach to the production as the creative team rip through the treasured layers of cultural meaning to arrive at an immediate, accessible and arresting modern version.

Set in an old people's home on Christmas eve an old actor with a crush on his young nurse tries to charm her into staying with him over the festive period with his poetic reading of Faust, only to be thwarted by the charmless reprimand of her boyfriend co-worker. Rather than face the humiliation of aged solitude he attempts to take his life only to be saved by the sadistic, unsentimental, but ultimately plain dealing Mefisto.

From then on a carnival of devious demons bouncing around on the trapeze net above the audience's head ensues, supported by a range of rejuvenating and life affirming effects including a fantastic bonfire of the wheelchairs, and a full scale rock out to Wham's Last Christmas.

This isn't a show for purists and certainly doesn't engage with the complicated moral questions of what it means to be human in any genuinely reflective way. What it does do is offer a series of breathtaking, and quite frankly sexy theatrical moments that make the evening as irresistible and seductive as a dance with the devil himself.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Men Should Weep.

The first preview of Men Should Weep at the National tonight. A fascinating play written by Ena Lamont Stewart in 1947 but set in the Glasgow tenements of the 1930s. The play tells the claustropobic story of three generations of the Morrison family as they fight to hold body, soul and dignity together in the face of wretched poverty and the unrelenting interference of their neighbours.

What struck me most about the play is how contemporary it felt, how authentically drawn the charaters seemed to be and how sympathetic it was to the struggles and dilemmas of the working class and yet it pre-dates the acknowledged watershed of social realistic playwriting - Look Back in Anger - by nine years. The original production was well reviewed by the time it transferred from the Unity Theatre in Glasgow to London - but it subsequently disappeared off the radar for thirty five years, by which time the angry young men had revolutionised the Royal Court and Joan Littlewood had redefined the notion of populist theatre making at Stratford East. Both movements, in different ways may owe a debt to Men Should Weep.

The new production is beautifully designed, the forth wall of a tenement block removed enabling us to see the cramped conditions and suggest the numerous lives witihn the building, and intelligently played by a strong ensemble.

Beyond it being a good night out this timely revival may also offer us a chance to reassess the London centric narrative of theatre writing in the middle of the last century and give some credit to the regional work that captured the spirit, cadance and rhythm of communities long before Jimmy Porter picked up the Sunday Papers.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Browne, Badgers, Blackberries and Bosnia.

It's been good to get to the end of a busy week at University. On Tuesday the long awaited Browne report was published making proposals for the future of student finance. For all the scare headlines it's actually quite a modest proposal which will effect institutions - who will have to be spot on in their marketing to ensure that places are filled - far more than it will the students themselves, who, will owe sightly more but will pay it back at a similar rate to now and not have to put anything up front. The big problem is that the document is full of doom laded statements about the future of Britain's business performance unless we educate our workforce.

The pretence is that consumer choice will provide the market in which we sort this out - but already the protected subjects (anything that isn't a humanity it seems) mean that a command economy of sorts is being constructed and the actual effect of the plans seem much more orientated to break the equilibrium between the arts and sciences at University level than it does to genuinely equip future generations with the vision and imagination to realign society as a whole. It's an economist's rather than an educationalist's dream.

On Friday I had a brief conversation with President Siobhan about the Student Union's response to the proposals. A big demo is being organised in London for November 10th in opposition to the raised fees, but she seemed a little despondent at the level of apathy amongst those students she'd talked to. I wonder whether it's to do the infrastructure of the Union itself, which has always served the needs of the clubs and societies, raised money for charity and organised social events - but has little record of political engagement. Maybe with the wide ranging changes on the horizon - including a need for Universities to co-author student charters - it's an opportune moment to call on St Mary's students as a whole to up their game.

Saturday back in the Ham Lands - glorious as New England in a blaze of colour. A long walk, crunchy leaves, the bushes laden with blackberries and a wonderful meeting with a badger - who seemed as surprised to see me in the clearing as I was to see him. This is a beautiful place to live.

Today I headed over to The Oval House for a first read through of the Bosnia play with a mixed cast of St Mary's students and members of the theatre's youth arts group. It ran for an hour and went really well. Afterwards a cracking discussion which reassured me that more was right than wrong and gave me a couple of pointers for the next move.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Big Fellah.

To the Lyric to see Richard Bean's The Big Fellah. Richard is pretty unique as a contemporary playwright in that he always prefers a broad historical sweep rather than keeping a unity of time and most of his plays take the audience on a journey over years and sometimes centuries. His early Royal Court work Under the Whaleback about the three generations of trawler men in Hull and Harvest which followed a North Yorkshire farming family over a century were moving, heartfelt and protective of communities that he understood and respected.

More recently he's broadened his scope and arguably lost some of his touch. England People Very Nice which told the story of Brick Lane over the last five hundred years had some moments, but ultimately seemed to parody the efforts of the community to integrate immigrants rather than offer any of the empathy so apparent in his earlier work.

For The Big Fellah he's turned his attention to the Irish American community in New York, to provide a prism through which to explore the history of republicanism and, by neat but dodgy implication, terrorism itself, from Bloody Sunday to 9/11. Michael Doyle, a fireman, decides to honour his Irish heritage and is recruited by Costello, 'the big fellah' - in charge of the big apple's IRA cell. His flat is quickly turned into a safe house for a killer on the run and the action then unfolds through the ups and downs of atrocity and agreement.

Overall for all the cleverness the play seems naive. The humour not angry enough to carry a judgement. The analysis not clear enough take your breath away and so what your left with is a few bon mots, a fairly decent plot and a slight sense that for all the detailed referencing of culture and history that Bean's on a flight of fancy rather than offering an explanation of the Irish American relationship.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Hay Fever.

Off to The Rose to see a bitty production of Hay Fever by Noel Coward which unfortunately just didn't seem to hang together. The Rose, three years on, is still searching for a clear identity and has the mood of a place that doesn't much care whether it finds one or not. It's a shame because the theatre itself is wonderful but the programming remains uninspired, the audiences remain grudging and it all feels like a bit of a sulk. Perhaps it's the layout which requires you to slip rather surreptitiously round the side of the auditorium before you arrive at the de stressed urban chic bar? Perhaps its the staff who give you the impression that you're lucky to be allowed in? Perhaps its lonely and simply needs more friends? Whatever the reason I've yet to have a really good night out there.

Hay Fever had some good performances Adrian Lukis pitch perfect as Richard Greatham and Josh McGuire full of attack and energy as spoilt brat Simon Bliss. If anything it was the more established actors Celia Imrie, Stephen Boxer, Alexander Galbraith who seemed to be off the beat and overall it felt as though for all their talent and tricks that this was a company pulling the piece in different directions.

It's an odd play though - a substandard Oscar Wilde - with none of the rapier wit and saved only by some clever moments of muck about. I'm not sure it needed a revival. The design, a carefully reconstructed country house, full of clutter and detail, looked wonderful, but filled the wide epic stage rather than setting a tight parameter for the action. It made the verbal word play difficult to focus and encouraged ponderous blocking. We were criminally nearly always ahead of the gag. The whole thing just took a long time to not do very much.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Estate Walls.

Off to Oval House this evening to see Arinze Kene's lyrical new play Estate Walls which Stef has produced. It was strong work - a pseudo Romeo and Juliet set in a Hackney endz tightly directed by Che Walker with some memorable performances throughout. The Oval was packed, young and lively. I liked the mix. Many in the audience talked and commented throughout which both gave the event a secondary text and the actors immediate feedback. Instead of spoiling things this engagement gave a fresh edge to the work bringing a territorial opposition forcing it to stand up for itself. In the end the play won - but a weaker or less immediate production might have been buried.

Afterwards in the bar Stef and I chatted a bit about the Bosnia play, now on its second draft and heading towards a first reading. I'm having some really good discussions about its future development and am now in a position of justifying the work as it stands, rather than inventing new material. Some of it I'm very happy with, but there are still problems with the dramatic content and some of the structuring. I think hearing it spoken might reveal the unacceptable clunks.

Stef's currently working with Sean Holmes - who was also in tonight - on the Lyric's production of Blasted, which opens the week after next. She got the job partly as a result of the trip to Sarajevo. The play is really Sarah Kane's provocation at our apathetic response to the Balkan war.

It's clear she's enjoying the process, learning lots, but struggling with the sedentary nature of assisting. As a director Stef is never still and only ever uses a chair to perch on before launching back into the space to encourage her actors but for some small frustration at the intellectualism of approach she seems impressed with Sean's attention to detail and his layering of the text - amazed by what can be mined. Great to watch her push on.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Sutton House.

Spent the afternoon being shown round the amazing Sutton House in Hackney - where we're hoping to bring The Canterbury Tales next Spring as part of our tour of National Trust properties. Sutton has recently fallen into Gary's management portfolio and he couldn't have been more chuffed to receive us. Naomi, who manages day to day gave us a tour and explained how rather than trying to restore it to its sixteenth century glory they're using the house's many rooms to tell the story of the its numerous residents over time and by extension explore the migrant history of Hackney itself. Originally, when all this was fields, it was the manor of the influential Tudor statesman Sir Richard Sadlier - a maverick strategist with a dark profiteering hand in the dissolution of the monasteries. Later it was a refuge to huguenot silk weavers, merchant sailors, a school, a home for the Wenlock players who presented patriotic historical pageants during the first world war, a fire warden centre in the second and finally in the 1980's a squat for an anarchist collective. Each of these periods in turn is honoured. Adjoining is a scrap of waste ground which Naomi and Gary have big plans to turn into a community garden.

We met some of the staff: Nichola and Chris who were very positive and Ann, one of the many lively elders who volunteer and seem in many ways to run the place. She kept offering to make us tea and couldn't have been more enthusiatic and welcoming.

The show here will be quite different to anything we plan for Ham. The spaces are intimate and each story will have to be performed to only a handful of people at a time as they make their way through the property - although the barn and courtyard may offer the opportunity to bring the audience back together at the end. It's very exciting.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Soggy Saturday at the Theatre.

A rainy day ducking in and out of the theatre. Firstly back to Richmond with Eleanor, Jennie and Patsy to see the touring production of Lucy Prebble's Enron and then onwards in the evening to Bethnal Green to catch Frantic's and The National Theatre of Scotland's Edinburgh festival hit Beautiful Burnout in the atmospheric York Hall.

Enron, now in its third incarnation was smashing. Fast moving and constantly engaging the production uses stories, visual metaphors, snatches of music and choreographed set pieces to reassert the role of the theatre as a forum which we go to to make sense of confusing times. It's a modern morality play, accessible in style and culminating in a suitably prophetic ending. The marvel of the work is that it tackles the most contemporary of issues by borrowing on the earliest forms of theatrical structure. It turns the banking crisis into a brilliant and unambiguously clear pageant.

Beautiful Burnout was equally impressive. Charting the progress of the young hopefuls in a Glaswegian boxing gym the piece mixes Frantic's irresistible physical style with a banging Underworld sound track and a neat story scripted by Bryony Lavery. The actors all spent six months in full time training to enable them to box convincingly and their captivating high octane performances absolutely capture the commitment and adrenalin of the ring. There's even a rather wonderful sequence in which the snake like moves of the all seeing referees are celebrated. For the most part the slick moves are supported by an intelligent script and although the central metaphor of 'seeing stars' feels clunky there's enough in the writing to follow with interest the highs and lows of each boxers as they head for professional contracts, disappointments and the potential escape of a large pay day. It's a cracking hour an a half of exhilarating work.

Thursday, 30 September 2010


Tonight was the first preview of the National's production of Hamlet with Rory Kinnear following David Tennant, Jude Law and John Simm in what is a rich time for thirty something actors playing the Dane. There were high expectations and the audience were jittery willing it to go well. On balance this probably isn't a redefining interpretation of a great play but it's certainly full of good stuff.

Nick Hytner has form in placing Shakespeare's plays within a contemporary context. His Winter's Tale hinted at the loveless marriages and wayward teenage behaviours of our current royal family and his Henry V took us straight into the Iraq war.

This time the parallel takes us back in time. Elsinore is clearly a media aware, surveillance state, carefully constructed and controlled by Claudius and beyond the white palace walls and frosted windows the seeds of rebellious uprising bubble throughout continually put down by the military police. Having upset the Court, the poor players are unceremoniously marched off to their deaths without any protection from their patron and Laertes guerrilla followers are dispatched with equal efficiency once their leader pledges his own loyalty to the new King. Later Ophelia's suicide is assisted by Osric, who graduates from Shakespearean fool to a menacing head of the secret service. The stakes are high, the casualties numerous, the storm approaches. If we're anywhere it's Ceausescu's Romania at the end of the eighties.

The highlight of the evening is Kinnear himself who, despite all the secular trickery of the production, manages to summon an element of metaphysical wonder as he explores the unfathomable supernatural forces surrounding his bereaved state. His father's ghost is real - not imagined or dreamt and whilst the state totters around him he maintains both clarity and a brutal sense of strategy in order to play out his revenge mission. He is ruthless, driven and untouchable, neither asking for nor receiving much sympathy for the intensity of his cause. Even though his journey through the play sometimes loses coherence as he tries to make sense of verse and concept simultaneously, the familiar lines are treated with weight and examined with fresh intelligence. Hamlet knows he can't make sense of the fragmented universe in which he finds himself and I often think the tragedy is his refusal to sit tight and wait for an acceptable compromise to emerge. For the most part Kinnear's unapologetic prince brilliantly shows that resolutions cannot be found by blazing through the pure world of ideas, especially when faced by those who prefer power to truth - reconciliation and renewal take a less direct route.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Plans for Spring.

It's been a good week for looking forward. On Monday I had some really good discussions with Chris from Spiral, whose over here for a few days to meet with the organisers of a big community project in Rutland next Spring. There is every possibility of us getting involved with it. This was followed up by a long chat with Yell looking at ways in which we could be part of the International Youth Festival in Kingston next July.

Today I was back in Ham House putting together some ideas for Christmas, looking at maybe preparing a larger bid to give our work some sustainability over the next three years and exploring potential venues for The Canterbury Tales in May. It was a really productive meeting and I'm beginning to see how the project might shape up with shows in Sutton House, Hackney, in Ham itself and then out somewhere in Kent - either Nymans or Bodiam Castle (see above) would be ideal. There's also the possibility for all three years on the Applied Theatre course to be involved with Level 3 producing, Level 2 performing the work and Level 1 putting together an accompanying programme of workshop and educational projects.

In many ways it's the kind of project that we envisaged being able to create three years ago when we first laid out the Applied Theatre programme and it's exciting to think that we're only a few months away from bringing it to life.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Or You Could Kiss Me.

To the National to see Or You Could Kiss Me the new collaboration between Neil Bartlett and Handspring - the puppet maestros who brought us War Horse.

This time the company have gone for a more intimate story. Set in the imagined South Africa of 2036 two old men, lovers for over fifty years search for the right way to say goodbye to each other. The premise is promising, particularly as the play moves backwards and forwards across their lives, focusing on the forbidden nature of their initial affair and exploring how the loss of memory affects the way they perceive the romanticism of this shared history, but I found myself strangely detatched from the emotional heart of the work and ended up focused more on the tehnical dexterity of the puppetry.

It made me wonder whether the logistics of this Cottesloe production, played in the round actually compete with the simple and moving truths of trying to retain a remembered past. Perhaps the visible fragmentation of constituent parts is the point, but the mechanics of the process don't carry enough emotional weight to really justify the alienation from the fierce humanity of the piece, that actors could bring. Each puppet takes four operators to bring it to life and the swift yet meticulous way in which these mini teams work together does provide a physical metaphor for the way in which nursed care should work, but very often the dislocation of language from body and the basic presentation of facts - various definitions of dementia are read out by a nurse on an unnecessary microphone - distracted from what could have been a brave and noble story.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Pillowman.

The drama society hit the ground running this evening with a slick and accomplished production of Martin McDonagh's dark comedy The Pillowman. The work was tight, focused and although occasionally lacking in pace felt assured and confident. A lot has been learnt in a year.

There were good performances all round. Sarah Marr is excellent as the detached Tupolski, ably supported by Gaz Wilson, as the brutish Ariel. Together they form a tight double act as interrogating police officers. Whilst Danny Gubba as the play's story telling protagonist Katurian and Michael O'Neill as his abused younger brother Michel find some touching moments of subtly in their sibling relationship. There's also a brilliant show stopping pillowman knocked up by Chatal Koning and Marion Huard.

If there is any criticism - and I did only see the first act - it's that the students didn't quite find the play's dark heart and worked mainly in a form of deadpan TV pseudo-naturalism rather than exploiting the more theatrical moments of Jacobean cruelty that are revealed through Katurin's short stories. There's more texture in the text and the true horror of the situation that the brothers find themselves in only really surfaces when you realise that both have been trapped in a circle of violence where each attempt to escape is read as a provocation for a further act of abuse. To be implicated in the real moral dilemma the writer proposes we need to see physically and mentally what Michel has become and feel protective of him - even as we learn how despicable his crimes have been.

The humour is there but so are the deeper questions of influence, responsibility and the limits of innocence. To really explore these themes required a braver approach to playing the principal characters.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Insurgent Fraticide.

After the long summer break, during which memories of the frantic general election faded and the coalition government settled itself in, the Labour Party elected its new leader yesterday. The battle has been highly dramatic, particularly in the latter stages, when it became apparent that the only credible candidates were the Miliband brothers - suave David and slightly geeky Ed.

For most of the campaign and in all probability their entire adult lives - David was ahead. Off he set solidly picking up nominations and good reviews, whilst Ed kept out of the limelight working on persuading colleagues, CLPs and the Unions, slowly, almost unnoticed, coming up on the rails, timing his run and calculations to perfection. He pipped his seemingly unassailable elder sibling at the post, once the second preference votes of the other three candidates had been re allocated.

Whether the Labour Party have made an intelligent choice remains to be seen - but the personal elements of the story will keep it moving forward and, inevitably it's that that makes the situation so theatrical. It's staged hugs, careful words and the need to maintain nobility in defeat. In a Shakespeare play we'd somewhere towards the end of the second act. Licking our lips in expectation of the battles to come.

But perhaps this is more of a Greek Drama rolled out by the Gods to assure us of our fallibility. For David, seemingly immune to hubris, the effect of losing out on a position that he's coveted for twenty years by such a small margin to the brother whom he loves so deeply and against whom he cannot contemplate revenge must tempt him towards madness. It might take a playwright, working sometime in the future, to uncover the truth of the next few days. I would be surprised if Peter Morgan isn't already eyeing it up.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Freshen Up!!!

The end of freshers week and a decent crowd in to watch the stand up in the theatre. I thought it was a better show than last year and it was particularly exciting to see Jennie and Emma Boz, who were bursary beneficiaries from last years box office takings doing five confident minutes each. Emma's been gigging a bit, since her debut in Camden earlier this year, but for Jennie is was the first time back on the horse after several months. They both did great and hope other students will follow their pioneering spirit and take up places on the training courses that The Comedy School offers this year.

The bulk of the night was taken up by two great acts - one from the Hannah George (above) who went down really well and seemed to relish every moment followed by a brilliant Felix Dexter set. He twisted and turned, sensed the mood of the audience and tailored his material on the spot to keep everybody in hysterics - including a wonderful edgy five minutes on the dangers of having the Pope as your support act. In the intimate environment of the theatre it was a real lesson in knowing your stuff and adapting your set to keep the connection fresh and vital.

I'm hoping we can really develop a regular comedy night at the University - although I think it's time to move into producing the work in partnership with the Student's Union, rather than keeping it within the narrower confines of Drama St. Mary's. Siobhan was in the audience tonight and seems keen to start that process.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Tongue Fu.

Off to East London Thursday with Patsy to see Tongue Fu a wonderful evening of remarkable performance poetry at Rich Mix, a lounge bar just off Brick Lane. It's a bi-monthly slam organised by Chris Redmond and features some real talent.

The premise is simple - a three piece band improvise a background soundtrack and the poets do their stuff. The bill was brilliantly varied from the stressed street intensity of Kate Tempest and the more soulful deconstructions of Indigo Williams to the wry humour from Simon Mole and a hysterical improvised on the spot set from the unlikely looking Irish rap duo Abandoman (who we're going to try and bring in to run some workshops.)

Apart from it being hugely entertaining I loved the commitment of the poets to their words, to their rhythms, to being heard. At times they were ludic, at times profound but nothing was thrown and nothing was wasted as trancelike they went deeper and deeper into their own work, only to pull it back at the last minute with a self deprecating comment or line of pathos.

In the slimmed down times to come I can't help thinking that we should encourage our students to write more original material. Apart from the sheer pleasure of being able to play with words it's the cheapest way to develop ideas, to find a way through and to create new work. As the cuts bite in it's the smart graduates who'll survive to make a living and those who can carry us away with them on a new train of thought have a better chance than most.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Through the Stages.

The final part of the Richmond 110th project tonight with Through the Stages, the exhibition curated by community volunteers officially opening at Richmond Museum.

It's a really rewarding way for the theatre to end its year long programme and the team have done a brilliant job, not only in collecting and sorting the material into a coherent chronological narrative, but also in way they've installed the work giving both a busy feel of backstage clutter and a sense of nostalgia. Every spare inch of wall is taken up with some forgotten treasure or faded photograph, with a few carefully chosen artifacts to break up the wall displays and add a more visceral sense of the theatre's history. It's also lit it really well, the panels and cabinets spotted with sharp focused birdies to give a sense of drama to the space.

The place was packed and nearly everybody stayed for the full two hour reception, which I think is testimony to the sheer amount of interesting stuff to see, read and play with. They should be very proud of themselves.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Curse of Olivia Nightingale and Welcome Back.

Things are moving very fast from one thing to another with little breathing space in between. Sunday was the open day at Richmond Theatre followed by a promenade performance of The Curse of Olivia Nightingale which Carolina and Jennie have directed, using some of the initial workshop participants from Tender Souls.

The girls got great performances from the young cast, but the main focus of the piece was to experiment with form and create a mini-Punchdrunk interactive adventure in and around the foyer and auditorium. As with nearly all experiments there were problems, particularly with some of the improvised sections but it was clear that the cast had had a rewarding experience and that the work was well received.

Straight into the thick of it today on the post-Pope campus, with all the undergraduates piling back in full of summer stories, and ambitious ideas for the next year. We're hastily arranging a stand up gig for the end of Freshers week on Friday night with Felix Dexter, Hannah George and Alex Maple all bringing their Edinburgh gigs in. I'm hoping Jennie and Emma Boz will do five minutes each of the sets they worked on at The Comedy School earlier in the year.

Matt and I had a very positive session this afternoon with the Applied Theatre level 3 laying out a their programme for the next twelve months with Third year Companies, the new Prison Theatre module and our cumulative trip to Malawi next May, to plan and work towards. I was exhausted by the evening.

The first day back proper is always a little bit of a disorientating shock, particularly in the immediate pick up in pace - but it's good to see returning students and start a new journey.

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Big Assembly.

An exhausting, but ultimately incredibly rewarding day for the University as it hosted the Pope for the morning. Most local residents were woken early by the hovering helicopters that made their first appearance of the day at six. I turned on the radio to hear our outgoing principal Arthur Naylor do the first of several interviews before heading over to Patsy's for live coverage on the BBC news channel.

It was the weirdest experience. A split screen of the Papal Nuncio in Wimbledon and our running track where thousands of children had gathered and were being warmed up by a charismatic choir leader and a Blue Peter presenter. Meanwhile an alternative view of events came via a regular exchange of texts with Trevor, sitting behind School's Minister Michael Gove in the VIP section.

Predictably it all ran a bit later than planned, but slightly before eleven his holiness arrived on campus and stepped out onto the piazza. It was absolutely extraordinary to watch as he slowly walked round blessing some of the children, shook hands with Arthur, David Leen and Father Gerry, who ushered him into the chapel for a short service and the presentation to St Mary's of a painting of the Virgin.

And then off to the big assembly and a rapturous reception from the kids, who'd been in situ for hours. Siobhan welcomed him. There was singing, a live link up with a school in Gambia and prayers, before finally Benedict delivered a short sermon in which he called on the young people to be the Saints of the 21st century. God, he suggested, is central to living a good life

His words were a simplified form of the key message of the visit, which seems to be to warn the United Kingdom that it's slipping into a dangerous and aggressive atheism. Although I disagree with the premise that religion guarantees you a moral compass and sense of empathy; I'm pleased at the coverage he's being given. The suggestion that faith is central to social cohesion and that fulfilment can't be found without belief is difficult to swallow, but at least his pre-emptive words will offer a chance to debate the value of secularism.

Another short trip in the Papal carrier round to the Waldegrave Drawing Room and an exchange of greetings with leaders of other faith groups, before he slipped out of the back and headed for home, for a brief nap before his big speech in Westminster this evening.

It took a couple further hours before non accredited staff could get back to work, but when I returned late this afternoon, the get out in full flow, the relief that all had gone well was palpable. Beams and handshakes all round. Barry, head of security, was delighted that operations had gone so smoothly. I offered congratulations.

'Nobody even spotted the sniper teams!' he said glowing with pride.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Final Touches.

With thirty six hours until Benedict arrives St. Mary's has begun to go into a bit of a shut down. Normal routes through the campus are suddenly blocked off, common rooms locked and the whole site is being swept. The initial police reckie teams have been replaced by TV executives and production managers planning camera angles and running orders. There's still quite a bit of painting going on - which must stop soon if it's to have any chance of drying by Friday - and an ornate new throne has been installed in the chapel (I know more than one academic whose nipped in to have a sit!)

By lunchtime tomorrow most of us will be on a day and a half of leave; although Sue and Matt have volunteered for stewarding duties and Trevor gets to attend The Big Assembly. Patsy and I are going to get some crisps in and watch it on her plasma screen TV across the river in Ham. It's going to be very strange - kind of an ultimate form of surveillance. They've built a Pope moblie parking space outside my office window.

With all the excitement of the visit plans for the new term have been bitty, although a couple of decent meetings, one on the Robben Island play, which Matt has done some terrific work on and is close to being ready for workshop and a quick chat this evening with Henry at The Orange Tree, who's happy to let some of our students sit in on his rehearsals for the theatre's schools tour of The Tempest in October. Meanwhile Eleanor's printed out lots of information related to applying for Heritage Lottery Grants, which I'd like to go for in order to provide proper funding for The Canterbury Tales. With work about to go into suspended animation I'm also going to try and finish the second draft of the Sarajevo play. There won't be so much time to think about it from Monday when the students arrive.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Brooming Horses.

One of the plans for the coming year is to put together a fun packed portable production of The Canterbury Tales in partnership with the National Trust that we'd tour to properties between here and Canterbury next Spring. Again we'd look to be hosted at Ham House, but there are several possible outlets for the final work, including a promenade around Strawberry Hill, the Kingston International Youth Festival, we could even take it down to Spain.

We need some decent funding to enable the tour to really work, which we'll look into over the next couple of weeks and I need to talk to Patsy about some of the music and choral work that I'd like her to work in. Today though I had a first chat with Tina as we tried to find a way to create horses for the pilgrims. I really like the silliness of hobby horses and we spent some time experimenting with creating our own out of broomsticks, working out different lengths of rein so that actors have some control, but have to work hard to maintain it.

The broomsticks of course give us lots of playful possibilities for other creations, structures, buildings, de marked spaces and providing we're imaginative and thoughtful could give us the basis for a whole design. The main priority of the production will be to take away any fear that our students have about working directly with an outdoor audience. They're going to need to be bold, fearless and charismatic. Post War Horse, it's the only way we'll get away with it.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Blood and Gifts.

The first preview of J T Rogers Blood and Gifts at The National yesterday evening. It began life last year in a shorter version, commissioned as part of The Great Game The Tricycle's season of plays about Afghanistan and has now been developed into a full scale work - interestingly it'll play New York at the end of its London run.

Set in the eighties the piece explores the American and British role in counter insurgency operations against the Soviet invasion and traces the West's relationship with the pre-Taliban Mujaheddin fighters, tasked with defending the mountainous Pakistani border from the Russian advance. Inevitably the play provides a history lesson and is heavy on exposition in its early stages, but quickly settles into a fast paced thriller that explores the knife edge calculations carried out at the sharp end of international diplomacy where no decision is perfect and often the choice is about doing the least damaging thing. The best scene was set in CIA headquarters where Jim Warnock, the American operative, played straight by Lloyd Owen, and his boss, the forthright Walter Barnes, impressively nuanced by Simon Kunz, openly debate the consequences of action or in action in somebody elses conflict. Suddenly the play felt contemporary.

In someways the scope is overambitious and many of the characters are presented as cultural or national ciphers rather than as fully developed protagonists in their own right. The sub plot, involving the struggles of distance parenting, felt a rather obvious and unnecessary device to bring some humanity into the political positioning. If anything the play is a morality tale of Shavian proportion and the complicated dilemma over the need and right to intervene in a foreign war didn't, in this instance, need the padding distraction of a personal metaphor.

So are there links between the arming of the anti-Soviet freedom fighters by the West thirty years ago, and the subsequent emergence of the reviled Taliban? Maybe. But for all its striving this isn't the play to seal that thesis. Instead Rogers reminds us of the pragmatic nature of allegiance albeit dressed up as an analysis of the evolution of a specific conflict.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Fresh Paint.

Back at work and St Mary's has gone into overdrive to try and get spic and span for the Papal visit on the 17th. It felt a bit ironic just three days after visiting the Michelangelo and Raphael glories adorning the chambers of the Vatican to watch the coffee shop being tarted up with a lick of emulsion.

Of course the visit is a big deal and huge honour for the University and everywhere there are signs of the accompanying make over. From my office I watched as in double quick time the pathway that will lead his holiness from the outdoor sermon to a private meeting with other faith leaders was tarmacked and the surrounding ground re turfed. Meanwhile toilets are being stripped, furniture upholstered, brasses polished and paving made flat; whilst security men and event organisers pace nervously, carry clipboards, talk into radios and stare into the middle distance as they imagine possible approaches, exits and evacuations. Nothing is spared and everything is moved in preparation. Staff who have volunteered to take part on the day rush from briefing meeting to briefing meeting. From the outside it's all slightly surreal.

Slowly we're beginning to make plans for the new semester. A few creaky meetings trying to establish where we'd left off before the Summer in sharp contrast to the hub of activity surrounding the campus. Still it's good to see everybody again and begin to look ahead.