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.