Monday, 30 May 2011

The Cherry Orchard.

Another trip to the National this time to see Howard Davies' production of The Cherry Orchard translated by Andrew Upton. In recent years this pairing has been responsible for some of the finest work to grace the Lyttelton stage. Philistines and The White Guard were moving, fascinating, lyrical shows, packed with superb performances and finely tuned nuance, so expectations were high for the move onto the Olivier stage for this, their latest, Russian outing.

The work is in the main beautiful and carefully constructed. Zoe Wanamaker gives us a cunning, knowing Ranyevskaya who almost succeeds in holding herself together. Her immaculate public mask only occasionally slipping to reveal he real understanding of the tragic predicament she and her family are in, whilst James Laurenson superbly captures the childishness of a man who has never had to grow up as her carefree brother Gayev. Most affecting is Conleth Hill's peasant made good, business man, Lopakhin. Painfully caught half way between opportunism and affection, if this version has a protagonist - and the brilliance of The Cherry Orchard is that at least three characters are able to stake that claim - then it is him who we follow most closely.

So enjoyable - yes. Sumptuous - yes. But there was something missing. Mark Bonnar's Trofimov, in some recent productions seen as a prophetic force, is, in his bedraggled state, and precious idealism, returned, as I suspect Chekhov intended, to the ranks of the ridiculous and as such the elegiac rigour of a play written on the precipice of Russia's revolution disappears to be replaced with a more gritty, realistic analysis of psychological foible. As if to enforce the point Bunny Christie's set turns the once opulent family home into a run down, under furnished, wooden shack, complete with bar saloon swing doors. In every way the skull is showing beneath the skin.

This is both a contemporary vision for the play and a denial of hindsight. I've always thought Chekhov's poetry lay in the tragi-comic creation of characters whose lives inevitably, given their circumstances, just fail to touch. Worlds where the weight of desire and sadness, rather than rational logic, dictate the action. This production eschews such a fatalistic conclusion, and leaves us grasping for another meaning.


Friday, 27 May 2011

Trip up North and News from Serbia.

Up to Cumbria University for my annual look round as external examiner. It's always fascinating to have a chance to see how a similar institution is working and to share some ideas with another team. In the three years I've been coming to Carlisle I've always been really impressed with the way the students respond to their programme and the commitment the staff have to rooting out professional opportunities for them to access. Not easy up here.

Carlisle itself is still recovering from Radio One's big weekend, which saw the town welcome, amongst others, Lady Gaga. Not since Edward Longshanks set forth to take on the Scottish marauders has the town hosted such royalty and the shops are filled with souvenirs and rapidly devaluing memorabilia from the event. Many of the students were involved, working alongside BBC programme makers to help promote local talent and guide them through whatever scene exists in the city.

I was met by Laura Baxter and we had a brief chat about the way the courses are evolving before heading off to look at some incredibly impressive costume work. The rest of the day was spent looking over portfolios and chatting to other members of the team. As an institution Cumbria has had it's fair share of financial problems over the last few years, but a new principal has restructured and there is, on the surface at least, a new sense of confidence that the worst is over and things are set fair to deal with the new challenges facing the sector over the twelve months. There will be troubles ahead for all of us, but Cumbria looks in fairly robust shape.

On arrival back in Euston I picked up an Evening Standard to read about the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the man responsible for the massacre at Srbrenica. It's taken a long time to track him down, but the thought that finally he will face a trial in The Hague will bring a form of solace to those brave widows in Bosnia, who, fifteen years on, sit waiting for the the world to turn again.


Tuesday, 24 May 2011

One Man, Two Guvnors.

To the National Theatre with Eleanor to see Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors - a reworking of Goldini's Master of Two Servants. It's a riot. The original 18th century Venetian romp is brilliantly relocated to early sixties Brighton where Frances Henshall, joyously played by James Cordon, manages to blag himself into two jobs simultaneously. One of his new bosses, Rachel, is an East End moll, in disguise as her dead gangland brother and the other is the man responsible for Rachel's brother's murder, her lover Stubbers, an upper class twit with a fine line in the gratuity of public school violence. Both are hiding in Brighton, unaware of each other's presence.

Once again director Nick Hytner proves his populist credentials drawing not just on the stock scenes of commedia del arte, but also on the anarchic British post-war tradition of variety entertainment. It's a ludic delight. A world somewhere between The Goons and That Was the Week That Was. Between skiffle and swing. It's a masterstroke.

Cordon is simply brilliant as the harlequinesque Henshall. His ravenous appetite drives the hysterical first half; his libido the second. It's these base needs that unite us all. There's more than genial charm however, this is an actor who instinctively understands his audience, and frequently bringing them into conversation and occasionally action. A private communion that enables us all to recognise the ridiculous nature of the theatrical set up and casts us in the role of sympathetic complicity.

There is wonderful support. Chris Oliver is superb as Stubbers. Tim Eddon, as an 86 year old waiter on his first day, totters about to great effect and Daniel Rigby as Alan Dangle, an angry young actor, in love with love, dressed in black polo neck sweater, flops his hair and strikes ridiculous pose after ridiculous pose. It was a truly great night at the theatre. A peculiarly British celebration of humour. The National have a surefire hit on their hands.


Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Ham Pilgrimage.

A long, but immensely rewarding day. We started early with a safety briefing meeting at Ham house - a final chance to make sure we'd got the stewards we needed, allocate roles, hand out radios and do a final walk of the route before heading off to The Royal Oak where the cast had already begun changing and setting up for The Friar's Tale. Craig, the landlord, in true Chaucerian spirit, laid on sandwiches. The band stood on the pavement welcoming the crowd and slowly but surely the pub began to fill.

Then we were off. The cast once again thoughtful in their staging and charming in their persuasion had negotiated to use the extension roof as a playing area which gave a perfect raised platform from where the crowd camped in the patio beer garden could see everything. The story ended with Michael's devil condemning the Summoner, played by Ella, to hell by pushing her through Craig's bathroom window. Emma B thanked the audience for coming and invited them onto The Brewery Tap for The Reeve's Tale.

The action really took off here. Jodie and Emma M, playing the randy students, moved seamlessly around the space, nicking crisps and grabbing a cheeky swig of beer here and there. The audience, now on their second pint, began to loosen up and suddenly the place was filled with laughter as the bed hoping and swiving reached it ridiculous conclusion.

On we went, a couple of hundred strong now, processing across, Ham Common trumpets playing, much to the amusement of the cricketers and the annoyance of the umpire, towards The Hand and Flower for The Merchant's Tale. It would be hard to imagine anything more quintessentially more English.

In the build up this pub had been the most sceptical about hosting a story, but in the end had agreed provided we didn't interfere with their lunchtime trade. They seemed a little surprised to see us invade the beer garden, but must have been happy enough with the custom. The story was sporadically interrupted by waitresses crossing the space carrying plates of meat and baskets of chips - but once again the cast rose wonderfully to the occasion. Even pausing to help one poor lost ploughman's lunch find its way to its hungry owner.

Ever onwards to The New Inn and The Nun's Priest's Tale, played perfectly in the space, drumming up yet more audience for the procession down the avenue to the back gates of the house itself for the first of the two evening shows.

The cast skillfully negotiated the family friendly version. Keeping all of the fun, winking at the adults whilst creating cartoon absurdity to keep the children laughing all the way through. Fantastic arrival at the benediction and flawless changeover ready for the final no holes barred bawdy push. A chance to blaze in full glory and celebrate both all the hard work that's gone into the last few months and the end of a marathon, but triumphant, day.

Finally, as the night set in, the company turned the corner and made their way to the front of the house. A deep breath, a prayer for all travellers still on the road and a final kyrie eleison. Controlled. Simple. Beautiful.


Friday, 20 May 2011

The Elders.

Sutton House have a regular elders group who meet every Friday for a couple of hours. Sometimes they chat and have coffee, sometimes guest speakers come in, sometimes activities are laid on. The aim from the Trust's point of view is to enable them feel that the house belongs to them and that they are welcome at any time. Some of the most active take a full role in Sutton's maintenance and restoration.

Today Drama St Mary's student Sophie ran the session introducing the group firstly to The Canterbury Tales and then leading them out into the courtyard to watch the four pub stories. It was a brilliant bit of programming - working both as a taster for the main show in the evening and giving our students a chance to run through the stories ready for tomorrow's marathon back in Ham.

Feedback was immediate and vocal. Summoners were booed, cuckolds were ridiculed, the virtuous cheered and the ruder the joke, the louder the laughter. This is how theatre can be, a direct conversation between stage and audience. The actors rolling with the interventions, whilst skillfully driving the story forward. Confident, playful and generous.

At times during our rehearsals the cast have, once they've negotiated the language, been startled at just how explicit Chaucer can be and we've asked lots of nervous questions about how families, children and seniors might deal with it. For the seniors - we needn't have worried. At the end I asked Ann, who was wiping the tears from her eyes, whether she'd found it too rude.

'Not rude enough!' she said 'you wasn't holding back on our account was you?'

We broke for an hour and retreated to a Turkish restaurant by the station for a boisterous meal before coming back to re set for the show proper.

Happy now and in the groove the company played beautifully. The transitions were smooth and the audience seemed to really enjoy themselves. Not a pork pie left in the house.


Thursday, 19 May 2011

Pork Pie Rescue.

Back to Hackney for the dress rehearsal. A chance to find out in real time whether our carousel experiment has worked and whether the company have the stamina and focus to repeat their stories back to back three times. We're giving out stickers to each member of the audience to put them into a red, blue or green team and, with a bit of additional rhyming text, which we hope Chaucer will forgive us for, the company lead each coloured team on their own journey through the stories. Tina took Red, Stu and Paul Green and myself Blue. Something very lovely about parting for a story and being reunited for a sing song before dividing again. A feel of wanting to share notes and recount our adventures.

The Wife of Bath's story always finishes first, and this gives us an eggy few minutes of awkward ad-lib in the courtyard before the musicians, who are incorporated into The Miller's story come back and play.

In the end we decided that we'd fill the gap by offering the audience refreshments at this point and so tomorrow we'll stop off at the Co-op and buy a load of red wine, crusty rolls and pork pies to give holy medieval sustenance to our weary pilgrims. We might also throw in some secular orange juice for any children in the audience. Over the three rounds of story telling it means everybody will get a chance of a drink and some food and as we've discovered repeatedly over the course of these community projects singing, eating and drinking together does tend to bring audience and performers together in a way that more formal theatre structures can't.

The runs themselves went really well, and despite the immense amount of hard work and readjusting the cast have had to do in the last few days everybody is in great spirits. Show time tomorrow.


Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Sutton Tech.

It's a very different show in Hackney. We're inside for one thing and the space is, of course, much more contained. With this new intimacy comes a need for a greater precision. The booming rhetoric of Ham is replaced by a softer tone and subtler delivery.

We took our time preparing each of the four rooms we're going to use in order. Sub-teams followed strict instructions on handling the house's furniture whilst Stu and Paul carefully rigged the lights on stands. Floors are particularly fragile here, and for a while the uneven surface of the cellar, where some of The Wife of Bath will be performed, looked to derail our staging. Tina though magically found away of carpeting sections with brick patterned canvass, which proved just about acceptable to the house's custodians.

In performance here the audience will be split into three groups and carousel round the stories in turn, returning to the courtyard in between times for the whole company work. Logistically it's problematic as The Wife of Bath is two minutes shorter than The Miller's Tale, which in turn is two minutes shorter than The Knight's Tale - but with some staged delays and confusions we're finding ways to approximately get the whole audience back into the courtyard simultaneously so that the show keeps moving.

For all the attention and care needed to make the piece work in such a precious environment, the company stayed light and playful, finding new exits and entrances, appearing from windows, side rooms and from under tables.

Van loaded we were out and on the Silverlink back to Richmond by 10.30pm.


Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Ushers and Underscores.

A second evening at Ham and the first full run. Whilst the company set up I had a final briefing with Gabe and Gary to ensure all the health, safety and public liability issues had been solved and to do a final walk through. We're still eight stewards down and will need to do some more recruiting in the gaps between now and Saturday. In all we need twenty five. On one level it's a tiny thing, but unfortunately it's potentially disastrous and could bring the whole process grinding to a halt. Some frantic, pleading texting from the company brought us another four by close of play, and a few more 'get back to yous' so we should be alright. Gabe is also looking into see if any National Trust volunteers might be up for it.

Most of the ushers were here tonight though, which gave them the chance to have a sneak preview and provide us with a first audience.

The run went wonderfully well; the company had really assimilated the notes form last night and seemed encouraged to play with much greater freedom. New laughs were found and familiar jokes given a new lease of life. Ben and his group of minstrels, quickly caught the spirit and layered in an underscored soundtrack of Wah wah wahs! farts and snatches of theme tune from famous movies.

This is a group of students very much on their mettle now and the joy with which they're tackling both the text and the site specific possibilities is infectious.

All done we tidied up the gardens, loaded the van, which has now become an exact and efficient ritual, before heading home. Ham is as ready as it could be - onto Sutton in the morning.


The Fading Light.

Monday 16th May.

The start of the big week in the push towards the show. The schedule is pretty tight. Tonight we've been teching in Ham house ready for a dress tomorrow. Then we'll pack everything up in the van and move over to Sutton on Wednesday to tech, ready for a dress on Thursday and the shows on Friday. Then get it all back to Ham for the early start on Saturday.

Both properties remain open during the day, which means we can't leave anything on site and our get in times are limited until after 5pm, which in turn means we have to set up very quickly and speed through the work to ensure we manage to get it all done by nightfall.

The company are beginning to work like a well oiled machine. Joe, Michael and Paul have embraced their white van man roles and the second they pull up with the set and costumes the rest of the team swarm, collect their props and rush to the four corners of the gardens to set.

Tonight was the only real chance we've had to do try out our voices in the space and we tried to use the time intelligently, fixing much of the blocking whilst also giving everybody a good vocal work out.

For the most part things went very smoothly. We're running The Prologue and The Knight's Tale in the wilderness before moving to the kitchen garden for The Miller's Tale, and coming round to the front of the house for The Wife of Bath and the Benediction. In all it takes about an hour and a fifteen minutes to run, but potentially we'll need a further fifteen minutes to move the audience.

The only concern was for the second show which starts at 8pm. By 9pm tonight things were pretty gloomy and the final scene ended up in near complete darkness. We played with the idea of bringing in a generator and some lights, but it's expensive, could be noisy and we just don't have the set up time. Gary overheard our conversation and solved the problem instantly by turning on Ham's own floods, which lit up the front of the house and will provide a stunning backdrop for the end of the pilgrimage.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Summer Ball.

There are key dates in the St Mary's student's calender that help to mark the passing of time and serve as a celebration for the University year gone. This Saturday was one such highlight, the Union's Summer Ball.

The rugby pitch is turned into a fairground, there is revelry, music making, toasts and tributes and those finalists lucky enough to have bagged tickets party hard until the early hours when a boat trip takes those who remain down the Thames in a bit of a stupor. It's a great student night.

Prior to the main event the Union host a dinner and the outgoing president inducts two members of the College community as honorary life members. I was really chuffed this year to be chosen by Siobhan and feel incredibly priviledge to be invited to join these ranks.

For all the beauty and convenience of the campus, for all the fascinating colleagues who I get to work alongside, it really is the students who make the place exciting and unique.

The community feel of the place isn't for everybody; students who want to keep their heads down or be a small cog in a big machine won't find their bliss with us, but those who are generous, hard working and have a good sense of humour seem to thrive at St Mary's. What the student body lack in urbane sophistication they more than make up for in openness, emotional intelligence and guileless curiosity. It's the least pretentious place I've ever worked.

After the dinner I headed to the Student Union for a quick drink and to watch some of the Drama students gig. Many of the first cohort of Malawi survivors were there back from Lilongwe now, swapping stories and showing off their sunburn. I stayed for an hour before slipping off home as the real merriment kicked in.

Thursday, 12 May 2011


After rehearsals we all went over to Richmond Theatre to see Shared Experience's touring version of Bronte. The show's been on the road for a while now, but I was keen for The Canterbury Tales crew to see how a different company handled adaption and in particular how the actors managed the transition from first person acting to third person narration and back. It also gave us a chance to support the company, after they had their arts council grant completely cut in the latest settlement.

In many ways I found the show rather slow. After the initial premise that fictional characters can impress themselves on their own author's behaviour, every bit as much as the author manipulates the character is understood the plot seemed to spiral rather than develop, especially as recurring physical motifs patterned our understanding the demise of the sisters and the slow lingering Yorkshire deaths to which they each inevitably succumbed. Behind the cleverness is a real sense of three young women trying to create themselves in a way that would both fulfil their emotional lives whilst avoiding confrontation with the patriarchal forces represented by their aging father and drunken brother. A strong basis for a play for sue but with the cards on the table early there were no alarms and few surprises to enrich the two and a half hours. In some ways the work harked back to a conceptual theatrical language that excited twenty years ago, but felt rather incongruous and even implausible in our more pragmatic times.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Into the Theatre.

Straight into rehearsals after the long flight back from Africa, which included the slightly surreal experience of watching the Man Utd v Chelsea game in a sweaty coffee bar in Nairobi airport. Huge numbers of passengers and airport staff gathered around the bank of TVs split into partisan groups. Although It was all very good humoured, the anticipation couldn't have been any greater or the debates more furious if we'd been watching in Salford or on the King's Road. Football is huge in Africa.

Things have held up well whilst I've been away and the show has obviously moved steadily forward. Certain elements like the Sir Topaz story have been completely re worked and looking much the better for it.

In essence we're looking at four different shows. One for Sutton House, one as a pub tour, as well as a child friendly version and bawdy version for Ham house. The job now is to keep running the different combinations so that everybody is adept and slick at switching from one play to another. It's beginning to look good, however.

Today we moved into the theatre which gave us the opportunity to bring together all the elements - technical, musical, performance. It also meant that Al and Paul had the chance to see the work in full and the performers a chance to work their voices and bodies. It began to feel like a show and we began to see some of the logistical issues that need addressing in terms of taking the work on the road. There's a growing sense of confidence with the material which in turn is generating a degree of excitement within the thirty strong company. Not long to go now.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Changing the Guard.

The weekend brings the mid-point of the visit and all manner of comings and goings. The first cohort of Drama St Mary's students leave with Claire by mini bus for a couple of days at Lake Malawi. Meanwhile back in town, Matt flies in, from a few days networking and making connections with Drama programmes in South African Universities and Eric, who'll supervise the students during this second week, returns from monitoring duties in Karonga. The day after, the students themselves stand hot, bleary eyed and bewildered in the baggage reclaim of Lilongwe International airport ready for their adventure. They're pitched almost immediately into an introductory workshop.

I'm heading back to the UK tomorrow, followed early next week by the lake bound students, but Patrick, Matt and I grab a chance to talk about how things are going and how we might sustain the partnership over the next few years.

In July Patrick returns to the UK to focus on fundraising for the company and is handing over operational management in Malawi to Linda Paton, who used to co-ordinate VSO activities in Vietnam. She comes in on Monday and Patrick will begin a three month hand over period. Matt will get a chance to met her and talk through the project.

Patrick's been delighted to host, although there is a sense that our guys are a little off the pace and are observing more than leading the work. The conversation, which will be ongoing, is how to make them more effective facilitators in the work.

On Monday, the only night when the whole group are together, Tfac staff and some of the participants we've met will get a viewing of Poison Into Medicine, the verbatim play, constructed by the St Mary's students from interviews carried out with East Londoners living with HIV/AIDS. I'll be back in rehearsals for The Canterbury Tales by then.


Easy as ABC.

A morning meeting with old friends of the ABC group of former sex workers who now run their own activities from a school building just north of the market. Since their inception three years ago they've gone from strength to strength, facilitating groups of their own, running risk prevention workshops, undertaking physical training as well as writing and performing their own forum plays. It was wonderful to see them looking so well, full of laughter, ideas and committed to developing new projects.

The group used to be women only but recently been two men, Johnny and Bo, have joined. They were reluctant to give too much away about their past, but were clearly relishing the vitality and opportunities that the work was giving them.

Grace and Gift led half the group in a planning session and we stayed with Rose who lead a vigorous warm up before inviting us to watch the new forum play that they're developing based on the testimonies of tobacco farmers.

Johnny took the role of the plays anti-hero, a tobacco dealer who against the promises made to his wife and children spends his money on beer and sex, only to find his wallet and clothes stolen. He returns home to his distraught wife, who, after a beating reluctantly forgives him. However, a few days later he starts to feel feverish and finds he has no energy to return to the market.

The performances were brilliant and although I rather missed the women playing their clients - they knew exactly how to produce a perfect parody - the arrival of men into the group has clearly brought a new dynamic and sense of possibility to the devising process. Next week the play is going to be performed on the trading floor at one of the major auction houses so this morning's exercise was an excellent road test.

There's real self motivation and momentum in the group now and although, Rhoda, who I first met three years ago, as a trainee is still around to offer Tfac support and advice, for the most part they are self-sufficient and working independently to develop their own work. It's a fantastic story in itself.

Radio Taga.

Thursday 5th May.

Ryan brought the cast of Tisinthe! to the house this morning to workshop the second episode of Mary's story with us. Firstly they played it through and then invited us to make touch tag interventions, which we joyfully did for an hour and a half.

Tfac's methodology around intervention differs slightly from Theatre of the Oppressed orthodoxy in that it encourages participants to replace antagonists as well as protagonists in the Drama and it wasn't long before Drama St Mary's students were playing the teacher, Mary's mother, the head teacher, an MP, a best friend, Mary's auntie and, of course, Mary herself in the Drama.

To me the most impressive part of the workshop was the smooth way in which the seven cast members swapped in and out of the Joker role. It was a seamless ensemble display of team facilitation. Each actor confident enough to both to lead the discussion and to defer to a colleague if it became apparent that their services were needed on stage. In their workshops Tfac use a focus ball to indicate who has the floor and to enable facilitators to ensure full participation from the group and I began to wonder whether in forum work like this that that consciously rehearsed approach to contributing and listening wasn't paying huge dividends - like having stabilisers on a bike. No focus ball was used during our session, but the actors were deft enough to collectively keep the momentum going.

The more we explore this form of radio inspired forum, the more possibilities it seems to open up. Tisinthe! is essentially a soap opera and I began daydreaming of a genuinely interactive Archers or in the not too distant future Eastenders or Coronation Street. The interventions never threaten the narrative drive of the work, but unlike the faux 'press your red button now' text in democracy of audience participation talent shows, do offer tangents, alternatives and most importantly suggest that we are active humane participants in life with decision making capability, responsibility and the power to change things for the better.


Wednesday 4th May.

Up early with the 6am call from the mosque on Wednesday morning. A quick coffee before the minibus bringing the St Mary's students rolled up at the Tfac house at seven.

Claire, who has been helping the students acclimatise ran the first hour. A light start to the day introducing some fun improvisations and some initial observations of how things had been going. We worked in the newly built summer house built from and with local resources and labour at a high point in the grounds of the house. It's a perfect circle performance and workshop space, shaded with a thatched roof, ideal for Tfac's small group interactions.

Two further facilitators Sarah and Evans arrived to introduce us to Tfac's most recent initiative the radio play Tisinthe! - which means lets change in Chichewa. The play has been devised by seven newly qualified teachers and focuses on the story of Mary, a 14 year old schoolgirl, who is sexually abused by her teacher. The BBC came to Lilongwe last Autumn to teach Tfac how to record and produce the work. The story is episodic in structure and has been created in four half hour sections which are being broadcast over a period of weeks by Zodiak Radio, a national broadcaster that's been estimating that nearly 4 million Malawians have tuned in. Radio is still the dominant media in Malawi.

The key element of the work has been it's interactive/ forum nature. Listening clubs have been created in schools and teacher training colleges all over the country and as soon as the episode has been broadcast the airways are handed over to them to propose alternative conversations or courses of action for Mary. In turn they improvise live on air with the actors giving a whole range of alternative ways of dealing with the teacher's inappropriate approaches. Sarah jokers the phone in from the studio. It's an inspiring addition to Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed arsenal.

In the afternoon we headed north to see some of Tfac's trainees facilitate workshops in a primary school. Fifty or so children gathered outside on the dry, mud caked playground and for an hour ran through a series of games, exercises and chants reinforcing their assertive right to say no to sex. The methods are direct and explicit, but within the class was plenty of room for laughter and curiosity. A brief meeting with the schools permenant staff all keen to understand the difference of approach to sex education in the UK before heading back to Lilongwe. A fascinating day.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Off to Lilongwe.

A busy day trying to remember what I might have forgotten before heading over to Heathrow for a late night flight down to Nairobi to pick up the Lilongwe connection. Things began in disturbing fashion. A young Kenyan man in handcuffs and three deportation officers at the back of the plane. He had no intention of going quietly and kicked up huge and distressing protests, fighting and biting the officers until a mini revolt by the rest of the passengers forced them to remove him from the plane.

Soon though we were off and away south over the channel, into the night. I stayed awake as we drifted across the Alps, down the leg of Italy and fell gently to sleep as we headed towards the African coast. I was lucky and managed to get a row of three seats and so could almost stretch out in full.

The lights flicked on again with little over an hour to go before landing, outside the sun rising over the bush land and mountains of Kenya. A beautiful descent into the airport for a brief stopover. A huge bank of television's giving news of Bin Laden's demise in every language. An almost obscene amount of exposure to Obama sitting in a situation room, watching the assault live, like some glorified video game. Strange watching it in East Africa - although in the international community of the departure lounge all eyes are on the screens but opinions are carefully concealed.

I spent the second leg of the journey in conversation with Suliman, a Ugandan, who works for the UN, looking after the security of their officials. He'd been in Afghanistan for three years and was finding the relative calm of Lilongwe fairly uninspiring.

We touched briefly on the changing situation in Malawi. The British High Commissioner was sent home last week after a cable criticising the increasing authoritarian stance of the government was leaked. Suliman sighed and hoped that the country, which has had a relatively peaceful post-colonial history, wasn't heading for a more repressive era.

A taxi from the airport and safe arrival at the Theatre for a Change house to be welcomed by an old friend Martha the housekeeper, before heading out in the early evening with Patrick to the Mabuya backpackers camp to meet up up with the students - who seemed happily settled in.

Their journey had been very complicated with the initial flight out of London cancelled. A reschedule the following morning leading to a miss of connection in Addis Ababa and a night in an Ethiopian hotel their before arriving in the same clothes, Sunday afternoon, 48 hours after checking in. Tfac have done a brilliantly job of settling them in and they already seemed very at home in unfamiliar surroundings. Today had been spent running workshops and listening to testimonies from Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo at a refugee camp on the edge of town. They were wide eyed and full of new stories and discoveries. It was great to hear their initial insights and experiences.