Thursday, 29 December 2011

Winter Treasures.

With Christmas over, Eleanor and I are in Italy to catch up with friends Paola, Paolo and their growing family. The wonderful Margarita was born in April, a chubby, smiley little sister for Mario.

Milano is a lovely Winter city of thick fog, cobbled roads, trams, theatrical Christmas displays still sharp in the designer shops of the Quadrilatero and the smell of roasted chestnuts on every corner. I've been coming on and off here now for over twenty years and it always feels familiar and welcoming. Both of us have a fair amount of reading to do for the new year, so we've spent quite a bit of time in the city library, but in between times we've taken to bikes and freewheeled around the town from church to coffee shop and coffee shop to church.

We couldn't get a timed ticket for the Last Supper in Santa Maria Delle Grazie, but did spend some time exploring the Sant' Ambrogio basilica, which is just at the end of Paola's street.

St Ambrose is the patron saint of the city and his ghoulish remains lie, dressed in fine vestments in the crypt of the church. In life he was said to be so eloquent that bees used to fly into his mouth, which must have been terribly annoying, especially during sermons.

Perhaps the most interesting attraction in the complex is Sarcophagus of Stililcho sitting proudly under an ambo, off centre in the nave, from where it hasn't moved since it was carved in 385. It's a thing of beauty indeed with sculpted scenes from both the old and new testaments including naive representations of Christ handing St Peter the keys to heaven, teaching his apostles and holding the last last supper, offset with fabulous birds and beasts from myths and legends. In all my previous visits I'd never come across it before. A little treasure chest in the middle of the city.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christmas Carroll.

It's been a relaxing Christmas spent with family in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. Midnight mass in the lovely village church at Appleford and then a couple of days in Devizes and Salisbury catching up with some reading. Marking has been temporarily suspended and left in a pile back in London.

I've spent a few days trying to make sense of Lewis Carroll in preparation for the Alice project with Level 2 Applied Theatre students begin work on in January. We're not sure yet which direction the work will take. We could just work from one of the several theatrical adaptation of Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass already published. We could adapt ourselves or we could look at doing something a little different which might take us into Carroll's biography and philosophy?

In many ways I'm most attracted to the latter option. Re reading the original stories is fun, but the dialogue feels, predictably stifled and difficult to work with. I think there's something exciting to discover in Carroll's love of photography. He was one of the early pioneers and their is something in his love for capturing, framing and fixing an image that seems to me vital to understanding the Alice stories and in particular the romantic fear of the death of innocence that he perceived children experience as they grow up. Through the Looking Glass itself is a story premised on optical reversal. From the initial idea, Carroll introduces young readers into conundrum after conundrum reversing time, merging space and defying logic. All of these are philosophically linked to the time frozen click of the photograph and to the desire to be ever young.

How do children build memory? or nostalgia? Do adults experience a child's childhood differently to the child themselves? To whom does it belong? These are all fascinating questions that go beyond the simple rites of passage stories of a girl falling down a hole or stepping through a mirror. Can a community play encompass all this?


Tuesday, 20 December 2011


Off to the Cambridge to for a final theatre visit of 2011 and a chance to finally catch up with the RSC's acclaimed musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda.

Aided by Tim Minchin's brilliant songs and Dennis' unsentimental script the production is everything a West End musical should be. Funny, warm, witty, dynamic and most importantly full of wisdom and moral certainty. It's a rectifying tonic against the dumbed down juke box nostalgia that seems to have flooded London in the last decade or so.

The young cast relish the world that's been created for them. A wonderful playground of a set that turns the iron gates of Cruncham Hall into a climbing frame the bookshelves of the library into a never ending kingdom of mystery and exploration.

There are great performances throughout - including some of the best child acting I've ever seen. Paul Kaye is excellent as Matilda's money grabbing father Mr Wormwood, twisting his languid body and outrageous quiff in serpent like challenge to the upstanding brilliance of his well read daughter whilst Lauren Ward is perfect as the goddess of effective nurture Miss Honey.

It's Bertie Carvell's terrifying portrayal of that hideous, child hating, Miss Trunchbull that really steals the show, however. Our first encounter of her is at her desk where she sits facing a subversion proof bank of CCTV screens, choosing which 'maggot' to victimise next. Her hammer throwers shoulders hunched high as she looks for any threat to her pristine machine run world. Later her malevolent sadism is given full throttle when she stretches ears, launches unsuspecting pupils into space and tortuously forces young Bogtrotter to finish every crumb of an enormous chocolate cake.

There are always forces of evil to overcome in Dahl's stories and the joy for children is in seeing the perpetrators of misery crash and burn and so it is here when the revolution breaks out the whole audience unites to send the monstrous headmistress into unforgiving exile.

Demons banished and Schools out. Everybody headed home animated and laughing, grateful perhaps that no Wormwoods' or Trunchbulls' are around to ruin their Christmas.


Monday, 19 December 2011

First Round of Interviews.

Today was our first round of Drama St Mary's interviews, looking at applicants to join us in September 2012. It's still a little early to know exactly how the tuition fees are effecting prospective students, especially as after a slow start there's been a rush of applications in the last week. One theory suggests that school leavers are being really careful over their five UCAS choices and that this in turn has meant that forms are being submitted later, once the round of open day visits has come to an end.

What is true is that nearly all the students we saw today had very high predicted grades. This has been a steady trend over the past four years. A sign perhaps that our reputation is growing and that academically gifted students who want to marry a practical training with a University education are increasingly considering us alongside more traditional conservatoires.

Of course there's no guarantees that triple A grade students can act and ultimately we're looking for students who have a spark of something and want to learn how to perform. Still it's exciting to see that we're now seen as a credible alternative to the Drama Schools and that our constituency, at least in terms of applicants, is shifting. In the long run this can only help drive up standards. High flying students tend to make greater demands on lecturers, but in turn lecturers really enjoy working with motivated and talented students. It takes a bit of time to create a culture where expectations are high once achieved though, everybody benefits. With this in mind we've revalidated all our programmes for next year and have upped the practical component of the course to stay in stream with Central, Rose Bruford, E15 and the rest. Again we're strongly promoting employability. We want our graduates to leave, full of ideas, heads screwed on, ready and willing to work.

Auditions went well and we ended up making some firm offers. It'll be interesting to see how many take us up. This first cohort of auditionees are likely to be in high demand, but St Mary's really does have something unique to offer for those who are committed to the idea of becoming an actor.


Friday, 16 December 2011

War Horse.

Tonight a rare trip into the West End with Eleanor to see the transfer of War Horse at the New London Theatre. It's amazing that this show has been going for four years now. I first saw it in its initial Olivier run back in 2007 and was keen to see whether with a new cast and a successful Broadway transfer behind it, the wide eyed magic that marked those first performances still remained. It's easy for long runs to turn stale as actors and technical crew struggle to find the motivation to keep the work fresh and optimistic.

For the most part War Horse is still the show it was. John Tams beautiful folk ballads still haunt the work leading the expectant audience into the story and of course the dexterity of Handspring's exquisite puppets still take the breathe away. We watch and marvel at Joey's every move from wilful foal, to reluctant work horse, to captain's charge, journeying from Devonian village to the battlefields of France and back again.

This time round I was struck by how ambiguous the ending is with Albert riding his beloved mount wearily home. It's neither triumphant nor for all the earlier action sentimental, just the end of the war and a new chapter. Unusual in many ways for a children's story. No resolution or symbolic return. Just the reality of a devastated community.

The only downside to the commercial transfer is that the not so cheap, cheap seats at the New London really do restrict your opportunity to sense of the majestic Devonian landscape and the wonderful moment when Albert first rides Joey fast and loose across the Moor is lost to all but those who've paid top dollar.


Thursday, 15 December 2011


Off to Richmond Theatre tonight to enjoy their yearly offering of pantomime. Matcham's crimson chocolate box is the perfect playhouse and really comes into it's own every December when the frocks are dusted down, the backdrops hauled up on the flies and the cast settle in for the month and a half run. This year it's the turn of Cinderella. Lite on reality TV celebs and high on variety entertainers it was heart warmingly traditional and rather brilliantly played.

Gary Wilmott stars as the ever amiable, best of best friends, Buttons delighting in warming up the children as he confides in them of his love for Cinderella, charmingly played by Kellie Shirley. Hard not to feel a little heartbroken when she reveals that she loves him 'like a brother.' Still with the resilance of the playground he's quick to bounce back and is soon doing everything in his power to get her to the ball.

His show driving energy is well supported by Graham Hoadley and Paul Burnham as the ugly sisters Beatrice and Eugenie, who, like their royal namesakes work their way through an desperate amount of implausible costumes, each more outrageous than the last.

Together they form a devastating double act as cruel as they are ridiculous. They left the audience roaring in disapproval and delight.

There are local gags, Shetland ponies, camp choreography, a perfectly acted slosh scene and Jenny Eclair tottering around as a rather out of place fairy Godmother, all of which contributes to a blissful evening of high octane, joke filled, routine rich, joy.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Three Blind Mice.

Our friends from Cardboard Citizens brought their hostel tour onto campus this evening. This year's play Three Blind Mice written by Bola Agbaje was set in social housing flats and focused on the stories of three tenants, each of whom lived on a different floor. Bola had created a neat artistic conceit by turning the joker figure, played by veteran artistic associate Terry, into a mouse who moves between the three floors, looking for crumbs. The parallel between this precarious existence and the challenges of living in social housing were clearly drawn.

The rest of the company Shara, Helen, Jonathan and Andre, have all at one time or another found themselves homeless but thanks to the company they've skilled up, found work and are all looking confidently into the future. They've been on the road for a couple of months now and are clearly loving the play.

As in previous years the students watched the stories carefully, each one ending at a particular moment of crisis, they then took it in turns to swap in for the play's protagonist trying to build towards a better ending. The second half of these shows are always great fun as the actors relish creating believable antagonists and the audience try and deconstruct the complexities of the issue.

In contrast to last year tonight's show was a low key affair. We're into the last week of the semester and many students have half an eye on their final submissions and packing up for Christmas. Still there were some interesting interventions and for Applied Theatre students in particular, and the night did give us the chance to see the countries leading exponents of forum do their stuff right here in St Marys.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Heigh Ho the Holly

A really seasonal evening in the Great Hall of Ham House with a concert of sixteenth and century music played on period instruments by the wonderful City Musick ensemble who combine their research into the 'waits' - professional musicians employed by towns and cities to play at civic ceremonies and in exceptional circumstances to keep the hours - with gorgeous playing of sackbutts, cornetts and bagpipes.

The evening interspersed carol and wassailing with carefully chosen secular readings, mostly centred on music making, from Shakespeare to Hardy delivered with charm and wit by the treacle voiced actor Andrew Harvill and we in the audience snuggled up in the appropriately freezing hall for an hour of wonderfully evocative entertainment that really ushered in the festive season. Sounds and stories from the past reminding us that in the ever changing world of consumer must haves the spirit of Christmas has essentially stayed the same.

Afterwards we were taken through the upper rooms, through the gallery and past the substantial library to the orangery for mulled wine and hot mince pies. Outside the wind blew up and December rain began to fall. It mattered not a jot. The holidays are fast approaching.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Showing the Money.

There's some funny business going on with the Olympics. The budget for the opening and closing ceremonies has, overnight, leapt from an outrageously high £40 million to a potentially culture changing, if it wasn't all going on a couple of media friendly spectacles, £80 million. How the British Theatre could do with that kind of handout. What incredible investments it would be able to make for the future? How many local underfunded community initiatives could seed themselves on a fraction of this?

Earlier this year 154 arts organisations had their funding stopped as part of the Arts Council settlement which saw a real-term cut of 29.6% in the budget over the next five years. Many of the companies had track records dating back years if not decades and, although the new funding structure optimistically set about to freshen up the arts through the promotion of innovation, it strikes me as incredible that a two hour meeting in Whitehall can sign off this amount of money - which would fund the National Theatre for five years or the keep Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in business for 40. The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith had all of their £500,000 annual grant withdrawn this year. That's 1/160th of the money now going on the ceremonies.

In the main, with a few grumbles, British theatre accepted the cuts, perhaps recognising the need to contribute to the belt tightening exercises going on across government departments. How offensive is it just eight seven months later to have to bear witness to such a frivolous waste of money?

The rationale, of course, is very simple. The ceremonies are the showcase moments when the world watches us and the money spent is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of pounds of investment coming into the UK from the games. How much of this money finds its way back into the creative industries is never mentioned.

If it is really true that we need to sell an impression of Britain at the start of the games then why not do what innovative British industries have always done take a more eccentric less orthodox approach. Celebrate the legacy Britain has given to the world of sport which has been to make up the rules. Sure Sydney, Athens and Beijing threw millions of pounds on unrepeatable vacuous displays but I'm not sure monolithic grandeur and grandstanding is really a Great British characteristic. Even at our most imperial our Victorian ancestors scorned the building of huge monuments and instead invested in infrastructure and administration. It's no coincidence that Big Ben the most recognisable British landmark is a clock.

So this is my plan for an opening ceremony. Families across the UK are invited to apply for £10 grants with which they then host one of the 12,000 or so athletes, inviting them round for a cup of tea and a biscuit. How they entertain their guests will be up to each family. The athletes wouldn't have any choice where they were sent, but BBC and Sky outside broadcast teams could report back from all over the country, promoting all of Britain in the process. It'd certainly be a way of both making the games less London centric and wouldn't it be great to see Usain Bolt settle down to a brew and a custard cream in Rochdale or Dorking or Mertyr Tydfil?

In these professed days of austerity and localism I wish the organising committees of the games had the courage to save money, humanise the games and find a creative British solution. Sadly, however, energy, dynamism, kick arse youth and lots of firework glitz will no doubt flood our eyeballs when it all kicks off next summer.

I can't help but feel it's like burning money outside a soup kitchen.


Thursday, 8 December 2011


The Physical Theatre Level 3 students put on their final year production in the Drama St Mary's Theatre tonight. They'd adapted Jonathan Safran Foer's wonderful novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close into a fast paced and charming show eponymously named Oskar.

There were some terrific performances, particularly when the company kept things simple and allowed the story to tell itself rather than - as can be the case, early on in the training - pushing too much in order to make sure we get it.

Oskar lost his father during 9/11. He was one of the many workers who jumped to their deaths from the upper reaches of the World Trade Centre. In order to try and make sense of what has happened he projects a mythical status on a lost key in an envelope and hunts all over New York to find the owner and unlock the secret that he's sure his Dad has left him in order to cope.

The story itself twists towards the end and the expected happy ending, never occurs. The turns out to be just a key and although Oskar does reunite it with its relieved owner, the optimism he had invested in the key's meaning proves futile. Instead another story begins in the mind of our hero; a story in which could be reversed so that his Dad might fall from the ground upwards, flying high until he reaches the window ledge of his office before ducking inside to wait for the planes to retreat from the building, putting the fires out. The protective sanctuary of the imagination might not be able to turn back time, but it is ever creative at finding ways to make sense of the senseless.


Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Haunted Child.

To the Royal Court to see Joe Penhall's new play The Haunted Child which opens next week. It was great to see so many Drama St Mary's students there, having taken advantage of the Court's reduced student rates and the chance to grab a Saturday night preview.

The play itself was well worth the trouble. Young Thomas has his world torn apart when his absent father Douglas returns home to announce that he's abandoned his job as an engineer and has joined a religious cult whose main belief is the renunciation of worldly ties. Thomas' ever patient Mother, Julie, tries in a vain attempt to return to normality, to explain her partners increasingly erratic behaviour in terms that her son will understand, but the battlelines are drawn from the off and it's quickly apparent that Thomas is going to be asked to take a side.

There is a really Oedipal feel to the drama as Penhall explores the territory between idealism and responsibility. In one chilling moment Douglas, played brilliantly from calm to storm by Ben Daniels, tries to persuade Thomas that he is the reincarnation of his grandfather calling into question who, in the scene, is the child and who the man. It's a moment of sinister manipulation that subtly suggests that men struggle to make adequate room for the development of their offspring. In this respect the play is a study of masculinity in crisis.

Sophie Okenedo's Julie provides the ballast for the family and it's her desperate attempts to keep domestic stability in the face of a new order that wins the audiences hearts and minds. She is fairly flawless as the forgiving heroine of the piece that celebrates the security of structured normality.

Penhall's work is uneasy and tense, whilst asking serious questions about the nature of parenthood. It's made for a profound and thoughtful evening.