Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The Slow Drag

Curtain almost up!!! Light some of the lights!!!

Technical difficulties caused some hilarity at La Cage aux Folles, relocated temporarily to the suitably French-sounding Menier Chocolate Factory, on the Rive Gauche beside the Pont de Londres ... but somehow the joie de vivre and ooh-la-la were left at the bottom of the costume skip which had clearly been scoured to the limits to furnish almost enough bugle beads and rhinestones to light up this low-wattage production.

Deferred opening and rumours of a diplomatic illness preventing Mr Douglas Hodge from performing added a frisson of excitement to what au fond (that's yer actual French) was a pretty workmanlike revival of a - I'm sad to realise - 25-year old musical.
It becomes painfully apparent that the Harvey Fierstein "book" is pretty thin, and the dialogues which further the plot feel like pedestrian filler or front-cloth scenes covering the finale scene change.

For that's what this production is, a panto - there's no third dimension to any of the characterisations, the plot and the family dynamic momentarily surprising but ultimately superficial, the sentiment is glucose and obvious even to a ten-year-old, but the dame's frocks are glittery and everyone sings and dances together at the happy end.

Talking of dames, stand-in Spencer Stafford made more than a fist of his role as drag queen Albin/Zaza and his singing is probably better than Hodge's would have been, but he's under-confident and the performance lacks star quality. His comparative youth makes the relationship with "husband" Georges seem unequal.

Talking of unequal, what on earth is a three-times Olivier winner like Philip Quast - for my money the finest ever Javert in a long line of Les Mis performers - doing hamming his way through such a low-rent piece in a very cheap evening suit?

There's some bizarre casting too. Filling in as a scene-shifter until it's time to play Madame Dindon in the final scene, Una Stubbs (audience chorus whisper of "I thought she was dead") is avian and urgently neurotic as though she were still gesticulating film titles on "Give Us A Clue", and Jason Pennycooke as the butler/maid Jacob lurches between a wig-slipping Sammy-Davis-in-drag impersonation and crudely executed pratfalls.

Menier Chocolate Factory has steadily sneaked its prices up to £25, which for bench seating in a small basement is dangerously close to real seats in the West End, and audiences may feel increasingly reluctant to apply the allowances usually made for fringe venues.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Into Victoria's Wood

It’s 21 years since I saw Into The Woods break new ground by bringing English pantomime to Broadway and twisting its neck, and this is the first production since that comes close.

Director Will Tuckett has lost none of the values in paring the show down to its bones for Covent Garden’s elegant but compact Linbury Studio, and the mirror-surrounded set and manually shifted scenery frame the stories as effectively as the 16-piece orchestra supports the clarity of diction and expression which make this production soar above its predecessors.

Flattening the characters’ vowels to an indeterminate “Northern” brings a Victoria Wood/Alan Bennett quality to their speech patterns which both Anglicises and endears them to a broad spectrum audience, many of whom clearly didn’t know the show of old.

Suzanne Toase stands out as a pert and plump Red Riding Hood whose bluff Yorkshire attitude suited the part in a way Sondheim probably didn't envisage, and Gillian Kirkpatrick’s enjoyably pivotal Cinderella reminded me of the mental posturing and facial expressions of Miranda Richardson’s Queen from Blackadder.

Singing Sondheim is difficult-to-impossible at the best of times, but in Into The Woods actors have the added frustration that the numbers are so often fragmented or truncated by the action. Singing is undeniably patchy: from the otherwise wonderful Anne Reid who struggles to make Jack’s Mother as lyrical as she is funny, to the blithe precision of Anna Francolini’s Baker’s Wife.

When given their head, though, it’s a treat to hear Clive Rowe add weight and resonance to “No One Is Alone” or Beverley Klein wring every emotion from a powerful but beautifully-shaded “Stay With Me”.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Road to Damascus

Coming soon ... story of my trip to Syria

It's certainly not the Axis of Evil as defined by the Bush/Blair propaganda machine.

Mind you, it's not the Axis of Clean Toilets either ;-))

Friday, 1 June 2007

Drowsy Chap

I couldn't go with my gang of friends to The Drowsy Chaperone on the outing last week, so had to catch up yesterday. Everyone I know who saw it on Broadway raved about it, and the London crew were no less enthusiastic.

Well, on Thursday either it had an off night, or I did. I'd had a bottle of wine and a pretty generous Mojito immediately before the show, but that ought to have put me into a receptive mood for some light comic pastiche of tinkly twinkly twenties musicals. Shouldn't it?

I quickly "got" the narrative schtick of co-author Bob Martin as "Man in Chair" and enjoyed his asides and three-dimensional persona much more than the Pantomime characters paraded across the stage performing the musical numbers.

Summer Strallen (and some so are not) was dental-drillingly shrill as Janet the bride, and so obviously school-of-Italia-Conti that it reminded me her aunt is actually Bonnie Langford. Her cheesy bridegroom was so annoying I've happily blanked him out. There was a tap-dancing best man who was like a toe-curling Tory MP in a House of Commons Christmas review, and a big broad black aviatrix whose only purpose in the show seemed to be for rhyming a finale number and testing the tensile strength of sequinned lycra.

The ridiculous brokers' men routine of the gangsters-disguised-as-bakers bored me rigid, and their corny puns were feeble - was it ever explained WHY they are disguised as bakers, or what the nature of their gangsterhood is? If there was a plot, this is the point at which I lost it to a momentary doze.

And who or what is the Drowsy Chaperone herself? Why, for example, is she "chaperoning" a bride on her wedding day, but not in any way preventing her from seeing the groom? Why is she "drowsy" - roughly interpreted as a narcoleptic alcoholic - and why doesn't she have a name or a personality?

Of course, this is a vehicle (even tumbrils are vehicles) for Elaine Paige, in my humble opinion one of the most self-indulgent actresses on the London stage, and this part certainly ain't a stretch for the short one.

No amount of vertical feathers or cantilevered millinery gives her the stature a commanding central role requires. Not that she was ever a subtle interpreter of female characters; now in fact square of jaw, bejewelled of gown, curled of wig and smooth-trowelled of complexion she has finally mutated into a sort of Danny La Rue mini-me.

The songs are universally forgettable, except perhaps Strallen's thumping "I Don't Wanna Show Off No More", a motto which Ms Paige really should have woven into a sampler and tacked to the wall of her dressing room. She needs better material and better direction to make use of her mature vocal talents: in this tosh, she's just coasting.

What really annoyed me about this production was how unfavourably it compared with Curtains, which ran parallel to it on Broadway in the same genre of pastiche musical, but penned by Kander and Ebb and with the impeccable David Hyde Pierce in the central role as a stage-struck detective who solves a murder in an out-of-town theatre but also manages to "fix" the musical show at the same time.

I think what's wrong with Drowsy Chaperone is that it's a spoof of a spoof. Trading so heavily on Salad Days , Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Boy Friend it's trying to parody a group of musicals which were already themselves pastiches of an earlier age.

It's not much of a consolation, but it was a delight to witness the exhumation of Anne Rogers, a musical comedy star of great magnitude in her heyday, looking trim and singing competently as a dotty older lady.

I'd last seen her on stage in No, No, Nanette at Drury Lane in the early 1970s wiping the floor with Anna Neagle, and she must have been forty even then: it's good to see her still stealing scenes.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Mag Hag

COMING SOON: My experience with Dame Maggie Smith at Lady from Dubuque

Friday, 18 May 2007

Phantom Menace

I went to Phantom of the Opera on Monday. I'd never seen it before.

Has this thing really been running for 21 years? Why?

Unlike many Phantom audience members who plan and save and look forward to their visits like a state occasion, I was still mooching around the new Primark in Oxford Street at 7.25 thinking the curtain was at 8, so despite a swift cab to the Haymarket I missed the opening moments.

This did give me an opportunity to stand at the back of the Circle for a couple of minutes and survey the two to three full rows of empty seats, giving the lie to the claim on Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group website that "In London there has never been a seat unsold" ... well there were at least a hundred empty on Monday 14 May 2007, Andrew.

Watching the drama unfold, and seeing the stilted performances, you start wondering why it just isn't the hottest ticket in the West End any more.

I looked up the original cast - Michael Crawford and the queenly Sarah Brightman (who I can't stand anyway) of course, but also the almost as queenly Michael Ball, superb David Firth and pre-Fred Elliott John Savident heading an impressively well-experienced ensemble.

Contrast this with the current collection of just-out-of-drama-school hopefuls and regional-theatre-veteran-understudies and you begin to see the flaws.

The creaking you can hear isn't just the 21-year-old stage machinery (although that's noticeable enough) it's the cramping of budgets to the point at which the production is as undercast as it is underlit.

Some of the performances are so two-dimensional that in their bejewelled costumes and powdered wigs, you're reminded of a pack of playing cards: especially Wendy Ferguson, subtle as a heifer in her role as fading diva Carlotta Guidicelli, and Heather Jackson who plays Madame Giry the ballet mistress more stiffly than if she were an exceptionally arthritic Mrs Danvers in Rebecca during an unseasonably wet Cornish winter. You'd just want to burn the house down with her inside, the wood in her performance could only add to the blaze.

Not that the leading men are outstanding: Earl Carpenter has been playing the Phantom for nearly 1,000 performances. If his mannerisms were any more arch, he'd need scaffolding. Michael Xavier is a tuneful but unwashed Raoul, more Che in Evita than a suave French Vicomte, and his darting stage moves in odd directions unrelated to the motives of his character made me wonder if he had Attention Deficit Disorder.

I certainly did in the second half when most of the tunes are re-hashes of the stuff you heard before the interval, and the plot descends firstly into the bowels of the opera house and then into ... well, bowels really covers it.

This was the first night of the “new Christine”, although I couldn’t tell you which one I saw except to say she was shrewish and dark. The role is now being shared equally four performances a week between Leila Benn Harris and Robyn North. This is ostensibly to make audiences feel they are not getting the “alternate Christine” on any given night or matinee.

Since both performers are modestly experienced for West End headliners – Ms Benn Harris having understudied the one-number Mistress in Evita, Ms North most recently 'touring with Shane Richie', you could say it’s Alternate Christine EVERY night.

Who thought I’d ever pine for Sarah Brightman.

Monday, 14 May 2007

The Good Juice

I am a man of little ambition.

I wrote that to see if it looked any more true on the screen than it did in my head.

Any plateau of achievement to which I ever ascended was done not with the crampons and pick of study and struggle but if not exactly in a taxi, at least by stepping on the nearest convenient escalator without bothering too much where it was headed.

But that doesn't mean I didn't care about getting there. My educational path was more or less chosen by my parents and dictated by A-Level results and I'm now grateful - at least financially - they resisted my teenage efforts to "go on the stage" and forced me instead through the BA (Hons) sausage factory of Lancaster University.

From then on, I think they took the stablisers off my bike, but my choice of career was pretty much a lottery.

Having had "vocational guidance" from the employment service when I returned early from my not-so-successful get-away-from-home teaching job in Switzerland, I opted for a sort of internship in the Architect's Department of Southampton University for the twin and dubious reasons of (1) that was the only job anyone offered me at the time and (2) a man cruised me whilst I was browsing in an estate agent's window the night before my interview. The cruising led to nothing, which isn't a bad metaphor.

Fast forward five years through the claustrophpobia of office life in the carbon-paper seventies, and the motive that catapulted me to London and into the more glamorous world of architecture and design was not a burning ambition to put my stamp on the interior world, but the chance to live with a boyfriend in Chiswick.

By one of those serendipitous accidents that occasionally makes me think there may be Guardian Angels, and actually from an advertisement in the Guardian on one of the very few occasion where I opened the paper, I got a job in a "top architectural practice" as something called "Furniture and Furnishings Specifier" for which I applied on the basis that I knew what two out of the three big words meant. And served there man and boy for 12 years before the company took the unwise step of a stock exchange flotation and promptly went tits up within eighteen months.

I scuttled around the fringes of the design business for four more years being quite ashamed of myself for selling carpets until an ex-colleague invited me to help him write a proposal for an airport design in the former Soviet Union. We really were Kitchen Table Architects plc and the sort of design jam in a team sandwich scraped together, from similar adventurous small firms, by British Aerospace.

We later suspected it was a front to supply armaments and fighter planes to the Uzbek regime, but none of that stopped me being "Design Director, Tashkent Airport" for two years ... until the project plug was pulled, or maybe the Uzbeks didn't want to buy the Hawk and Tornado fighter jets with buy-one-get-one-free gonad-zapping taser guns, and it all stopped before we'd built anything.

I could rattle on, and catalogue my "Barclays years" but my design career continued to a point at which I became bored with the repetition. People think interior design ought to be creative and fun and absorbing, but it's more about budgets, and programming and wrangling with building contractors and furniture manufacturers.

So thanks to a little good luck in the property market, I now seem to have reached a ledge on which to rest and where work isn't quite as important as it used to be, and I rather like the view from up here.

What I don't really like is my lack of motivation to do much else. I can't seem to find a charitable or worthwhile project to grab my interest, and my resistance to the mosh pit of the construction industry has just allowed me to turn down a massively well paid job on the Russian Front (it would have meant working in Moscow) for a venture capital firm fitting out offices in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Angola, and Nigeria.

Apart from the fact that those are places to go and get killed rather than choose wallpaper, I'm too old to spend my evenings with lonely room service in distant Hiltons and/or getting pissed with quantity surveyors.

So I return to my lack of acquisitiveness. There really is no "thing" that I covet, not a car or a boat or a boys' toy like a private plane or a supermodel, and the only differentiation I seem to make in my routine between when I'm feeling flush and working, and when I'm not, is that I like to send my sheets to the laundry and tend to buy the freshly-squeezed orange juice in the supermarket, instead of the cartons.

I think if all I crave, at this time of my life, is the Good Juice, that represents some kind of contentment.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Monopoly Money

I'm standing outside B&Q in the Old Kent Road where two school-age chav truants are trying to light a spliff, a dishevelled amputee is waving his arm stump in my face and a black crack whore is begging for small change. The crack whore is wholly unsuccessful in her mission, the sizeable clump of South London's walking wounded at the bus stop clearly has its own problems and shrugs her off - she wails genuine tears of anguish which merge with some lip-corner spittle and a light drizzle to bathe her face in a sheer patina of despair.

I almost want to hug her.

Most of the walking wounded have come from the adjacent Asda, and overflowing from their flimsy carriers I see the stark red and black labelling of its "Smart Price" range which might as well be branded "Poor People's Food" featuring as it does the 8p strawberry "flavour" yoghurt and the 38p jar of coffee-flavour granules. This de-specifying of nutrition and value from food destined for people on low incomes upsets me almost more than the crack whore, because it's so commercially institutionalised.

I feel invisible. Not belonging, not even suspiciously regarded by the other people waiting for different buses, and yet also in a way as if I have the third eye and can see what's "wrong" with the big picture. I get this a lot, I hope it's not arrogance.

I also feel grotesquely rich, even though I am waiting for an off-peak bus in the Old Kent Road and the driver will probably wave me through thinking I'm a pensioner. I'm on the bus because I have the decorators in at my flat by Tower Bridge, barely a mile away and currently for sale (see below) at an amount of money which could set up this entire bus queue in comfort for its collective retirement, and I've been despatched to get some more paint. I don't have the car because the decorator needed my parking space.

I don't feel too smug about it either, as if my relative affluence has somehow been achieved at their expense, which it hasn't except in the Newton's Law sense that all actions have an equal and opposite reaction therefore if I am comparatively well off, someone must have suffered financially as a consequence.

I am concerned that this massive population of disadvantaged and disenfranchised people lives literally on my doorstep, and feel helpless to do anything political or practical to effect any improvement. In the harsh fluorescent of the bus, they look so defenceless and defeated, until two black women start a vicious, screaming, gynaecologically-expletive cat-fight over the last remaining seat, and everyone perks up and looks suddenly cheerful.

The irony that this scene is being played out in Old Kent Road is not lost on me. I guess I first learned about property trading as a 12-year old playing ferocious tournaments with my Monopoly-mad next-door neighbours in another Kent Road, in Harrogate. Even then, I always wanted to own Bond Street.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Flat Spin



AGENT click here

Desperate Housewife

I'm not happy about my cleaning lady.

That sounds SO Bree van de Kamp that I have to apologise and explain. I'm not complaining about her work, Rahat is an exemplary cleaner.

She's neat and pleasant, turns up on time, doesn't take phone or toilet breaks during the three hours that she's busy, and apart from a bit of wistful sighing which she seems capable of making audible even over the vacuum cleaner, you almost wouldn't know she's here.

I've had worse, too.

Including Robin the Prozac-cheerful gay dwarf who used to spend more time gossiping and smoking on my balcony than actually dusting. And Genghis the plump Mongolian boy who used to clean all my floors and windows vigorously until I returned unexpectedly early from a business trip one wet Sunday after midnight to find him stark naked on my sofa with the TV on and his clothes in my washing machine. Apparently his wife had thrown him out, with police assistance.

What upsets me about Rahat is her situation. She's from rural Kyrgyzstan, a central Asian state so troubled and politically corrupt it's beyond even the satire of Borat. I'm guessing she's not yet 30, but she's divorced from an arranged marriage and has two children aged 5 and 8 left in the care of a grandmother whilst she comes to Britain for English language lessons and to clean ten flats a week in London's docklands.

This is the bargain so many non-European migrants have to make in order to enter the UK and work. Only student visas are available to them, so they must enrol in expensive language schools and offset the cost against their potential earnings, which are supposed to be restricted to 16 hours a week, but usually aren't.

She - and I guess about forty workers in similar situations - are managed by a perfectly nice man called Jacob who used to be head porter in our apartment complex, but is I suppose technically their gangmaster. He seems so readily able to provide instant replacements when one of his cleaners is ill or absent, that I used to joke he kept them in a container on the dockside. But I'm feeling less and less flippant about the whole operation.

Rahat's depressed.

Understandably she misses her children, but she lives in a shared house in Charlton (one of London's poorest neighbourhoods) with about seven or eight other women who speak Latvian or Lithuanian. Kyrgyz people speak either dialect Russian or Turkish, so she's even more isolated. She's going home in August, after almost a year in England, and must return after just three weeks with her family ...

How could you do that, with small fatherless children to care for? It's unthinkable, and yet middle class Londoners are thinking - and postrationalising - this sort of situation on a daily basis.

I don't pay her unfairly, more than the local going rate or the national minimum wage, I don't beat her, and I try to give her some extra at Christmas or holiday times. So why do I feel such a shit for employing her, and how could it improve the situation for either party if I didn't?

With London flooded with Poles and other northern or eastern Europeans who have acquired working rights through entry to the EU, these poorer emigres from the former Soviet states are picking up the work even the Poles won't touch, and in some circumstances at wage rates which don't allow any discretionary income once housing and air fares and language schools have been deducted.

On my way to work on a Middle Eastern building project in the mid-80's I once saw a bundle, and there's no other word for it, of Sri Lankan women at Bahrain airport, they were changing flights for destinations in Saudi Arabia. Each one wore an identical pink polyester sari, and carried a brown manilla folder with her personal details. Some were barefoot. They were almost tagged with luggage labels. Clearly they were being shipped by an agency to work as maids in Saudi households, and it looked smelt and felt to me like 20th century slavery.

So what's different in 21st century London?

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Tour-ettes Syndrome

I'm doing some work with a film company who are making a pilot for a new TV travel show and as part of the research I've been to a couple of "tourist attractions" like the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and the Imperial War Museum in London. It's caused me to reflect on the nature of tourism, having seen so many visitors to Britain stumbling blindly from one set piece to the next.

I begin to wonder, is tourism what we do to fill the gaps between lunch and tea? Are all those carefully preserved and restored National Trust houses merely tea-shops with a little predigested history attached? For every earnest cardiganed mature lady studying the guide book and peering at the artefacts, there's a whole swathe of disinterested folk gazing into the middle distance wondering when it's next time for a chocolate muffin and a cappuccino.

Am I guilty of this myself? I know that I sustain myself through all "country walks" with thought of what cake to have at the end of it, but do I also do this in visiting galleries, or museums or palaces abroad?

Did I shuffle round the Louvre or the Uffizi or the Hermitage just ticking off the highlights but all the while thinking of the choices for dinner?

I think the answer is "sometimes". Maybe not the Hermitage, since dinner in pre-privatised Leningrad hostelries was universally dire.

I remember being vastly annoyed with the talkative Australians who had to be shushed all the time by the guardians in the Sistine Chapel last September, but the guardians were noisy by Italianate standards also. I would have loved to sit and study the ceiling in silence, and also without a couple of thousand people in dripping outerwear (it was the wettest September Rome had seen in a hundred years). I'm not a highbrow, but I'm not a philistine either, and I wonder just what is the "appropriate" way to enjoy and assimilate museum culture.

I seem to be going through a Nazi phase, too. Well, not in my personal life although there was a strangulation moment in a recent bout of passion when piano wire could have been handy - but because I've seen a couple of Second World War exhibits which resonated strongly.

The first was the War Tunnels and Underground Hospital in Jersey (Channel Islands, not across the Hudson) where the reconstruction of the occupation is strikingly presented, and the shame of Churchill's abandonment of the Islanders brought sharply into focus.

And then the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum which is damning in its dispassionate and factual accounting of the numbers and the processes of the concentration camp system.

I met some people recently who had been to Krakow in Poland for a pleasant weekend, and visited Auschwitz on an excursion. I think this may be a thought drawn from a recent BBC documentary on the subject, but you have to wonder ... is there a gift shop? Do they sell souvenir chocolate, or tea towels? Or soap? And where do you eat your sandwiches?

Monday, 9 April 2007

Murky Waters

I know you think this blog just twitters about musical theatre and my Manchester childhood, but I do think about other things too, and one topic which is currently filling my horizon is the Iran sailor/hostage situation which has blown up like a Channel squall, and seemingly subsided as quickly.

Although I love a good conspiracy theory, my declared record on them so far doesn't extend much past guessing accurately who's really the father of Jason's baby in Corrie, but this one is so blindingly obvious (to me) that I want to set it down in a dated record so perhaps I can be proved right, or hopefully wrong, when war breaks out.

It stinks to me of a propaganda exercise.

I believe the "fifteen sailors" are from a specially-trained unit, who perhaps volunteered for what they knew to be a dangerous mission. Their excursion into Iranian-patrolled waters looks to me like a provocative act on the part of the British Navy and whomever controls or advises it, designed to get the group apprehended and in the hope of needling Iran into parading them for public humiliation.

I'm sure if they had actually been tortured or abused, there would have been an SAS/Raid on Entebbe style of rescue mission which would have gained the West even more television coverage, and painted Iran in a dreadful light.

But perhaps the Iranian military managers, ironically largely trained by the British, are smarter than the Pentagon gives them credit for and have outmanoeuvred the Western propaganda machine by treating the sailors well with new clothes and tacky gifts, and releasing them unharmed.

I suspect this is why the Navy has taken the unprecedented (and ludicrous) step of allowing them to sell their "stories" to the media, in the hope that further exaggerated accounts of how uneasy they felt in Iranian hands will fan the flames of anti-Islamic sentiment without actually appearing to be scripted by the Admiralty.

It's laughable to watch the UK tabloids trying to make a hero out of the frankly unpreposessing fag-toting Faye Turney - or "Leading Seaman Turney" as she's constantly referred to, which reminds me of a character in the farcial radio comedy "The Navy Lark" from the 60's.

And farcical seems about the right note for this charade behind which I see the clumsy but heavy hand of the Bush administration. Is Blair again conspiring with America in a desperate attempt to look like a statesman so the country will beg him to delay his departure from office?

At least he learned something from Thatcher's Falklands experience.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007


Guy's and trolls

Star Turns 2

Fast forward to Friday. During the afternoon, I had an appointment at the London Palladium to negotiate its hire for the London Gay Men's Chorus Christmas show and it was more than exciting to be on that stage, especially as it was maintenance day for Sound of Music and the mountain was rotating on its mechanical axis whilst we discussed the percentage commission on merchandise and whether we could let just any old queens use the Royal Box.

Perhaps my smartest piece of negotiation was to ask if I could buy the house seats for the evening performance, and was thrilled to be able to pick up two superb stalls seats at face value, since they're touted for so much more on the street.

By staggering coincidence, it was Connie Fisher's first day back after illness and Lesley Garrett's first after holiday so whilst the previous evening's audience had to accept four major understudies, we were dealt almost a full deck. As it turns out, Garrett's leaving the cast and Fisher has been given more time off to rest her vocal cords and we may have seen their last performance together.

I've seen Sound of Music before. And not just the film, although I was taken as an impressionable twelve year old in new shoes which blistered my feet and by my grandmother's neighbour Alice Oldfield - she who used to tittup across the cobbles on a Thursday with the Heywood Advertiser and say "Hello, Hilda. I'll tell you who they've buried ..." - on her twentieth visit to the Theatre Royal, Bury, to see Julie Andrews yodel her technicolour socks off.

No, the stage version I saw was at the Apollo Victoria in the early 80's, I think, when Petula Clark had a crack at it. Presumably she felt being a tax exile in Switzerland gave her a unique alpine insight into the character of Maria von Trapp.

It didn't really give her much of an insight into anything else because she was as painted and wooden as the scenery and any spirited resilience she brought to the part came across as pugnacious defiance that she was, even then, twenty years too old for it.

At 23, Connie Fisher has no such problem. She convinced me entirely as a replica of Julie Andrews' interpretation of the role, and since no stage or screen representation ever attempts to portray the real frumpy, dumpy and grumpy matriarch that was the original Maria Augusta Kutschera von Trapp, who cares if sugary tunefulness is the stock in trade when it's done as well as this?

What really pleased me about this evening was the audience. It was full of people who had saved money to bring family or friends to this show as a treat. Not the usual jaded, half-empty, half-bored West End audience, but out-of-towners who'd made an occasion of it, and the friendliness and enthusiasm of people in the bars and foyers was a genuine delight.

Star Turns 1

It's been quite a week in the West End. On Tuesday, my best-mate James, who works for Cameron Mackintosh the theatre mogul, phoned to say he had a spare ticket for the first night of Equus starring Daniel Radcliffe, and the majestic Richard Griffiths who, it only occurred to me much later, had played his Uncle Vernon in the first couple of films.

Fearing Peter Shaffer's dusty old tract might have been re-worked for commercial consumption as 'Harry Potter and the Blinding of Nags' I hesitated just long enough to speculate that this was the hottest ticket in the West End, and ran to the dry cleaners for my suit trousers.

It was electric. Radcliffe is astonishing in that as a film actor he has the stage technique to speak clearly and unmiked in a 1500-seat three-tier West End theatre, and either he has natural stage talent or took Thea Shorrock's direction intravenously because he's wholly convincing as Alan Strang and in the masturbatory climax to the first act, or in the ballet in which he blinds the horses he simply owned the stage.

A lot of reviewers took a swipe at the producers by asking why a paean to Laing's psychiatric theorising is really deserving of a revival, but as a vehicle to exorcise the ghost of Harry Potter from the corpus delicti of Daniel Radcliffe, I can't think of a better excuse for dragging it down from the shelf for 16 weeks. And I bet it goes to Broadway too.

R D Laing. He's out of favour now, but he did a lot to demystify mental illness and drag it in public perception out of the strait jacket and electric shock era.

Laing was an off-road explorer in a time when Freud was the only cartographer and Peter Shaffer was giving his pathfinder views a sympathetic airing about the same time Tennessee Williams was still in grand guignol mode railing against giving his heroines lobotomies.

I do think all Laing's stuff about the insane having mystical insights into the nature of life that the wholly rational are missing is a bit over-selective. I think all sorts of people have incisive insights into the futility of mundane diurnal existence. It's just a coincidence that we're actually mad too.

You can't leave this arena without a comment on the physical actor. He's lean and highly toned, in a way simply not visible under the Hogwarts robes and whilst the nudity is entirely natural and within the context of the play, you are entitled to a Mrs Henderson moment in which you ponder - who knew Harry Potter was Jewish ??

I think I was more shocked to see him smoking, than with his cock out.

Actually, and I had to look this up, Daniel Jacob Radcliffe is a child of mixed religious background, but clearly his mother had the final say when it came to the snip.

The bars were heaving during the intervals, and not entirely with celebrity, although I did spot Bob Geldof but up where we were sitting the best on offer was Cilla Black, who I think was smiling - surgery seems to have triangulated her features, and Gail from Coronation Street who is as attractive and elegant as her character is frumpy and naff.

There was a lot of free champagne and I have to confess that Fiona Phillips from GMTV, a woman I have often derided as a total moron, kindly picked me up when I fell over someone's umbrella. It won't make me watch her crap show, but she was rather nice.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Melancholy Baby

My late friend John Forde says my blog is 'tinged with melancholy'. I'm not tingeing deliberately, although it does seem to be developing into a piecemeal autobiography of memories triggered by incidents from today. I flatter myself that's Proustian rather than requiring urgent prescription medication, but it tempts me to ask, preferably with a blinking cursor on a full screen like Carrie Bradshaw:

... in order to embrace the present, must we fall out of love with the past?

My past, particularly my childhood, does seem to me a sunlit upland but one to which I know I cannot retreat. Isn't childhood always the undiscovered country to whose bourne no traveller returns? I'm paraphrasing Hamlet but also the final toast to "The family, that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor in our innermost hearts never quite wish to" in Dodie Smith's Dear Octopus, the play in which I first appeared in a real theatre (Harrogate Opera House, October 1965) and this in itself is exemplary of the trigger mechanism, but you get the point. Nostalgia is a lovely place, but if it were a destination, EasyJet would be selling it for £9.99 plus tax.

I'm delighting in my present at the moment partly because of a young man called Sam who has entered my life and challenges me regularly with questions about my past experiences as part of our getting-to-know-you process. Talking to him seems to release a slew of anecdotes and half-remembered stories that I've not told to anyone else in years, if at all.

It's cathartic, but with his collegiate gift for generalisation he sees patterns I don't acknowledge, and maybe he's right. Perhaps by resurrecting the dusty trivia from my emotional attic, I'm also getting them out of my system.

Who knows, maybe move on?

Phone Saga

After months of dithering and overpaying the wretched T-mobile people, I finally took the plunge into a new cellphone contract. Tons of minutes and a thousand texts for half what I used to pay. And I went everywhere on and off-line to check it was the best deal, including some spivvy mauve-shirted lads in Phones4U who told me my preferred provider was run entirely from call centres in India, innit, and I'd have the devil's own job if it ever went wrong. I took this to be peevish commercial rivalry and swanned out of the shop to sign up online.

Rather plasticky handset arrived, but it lit up OK when plugged in and I made a few calls and sent and received some texts. Then I tried to call the handset from my own landline and got the weird message "this phone cannot accept your call please try later". So did my friends when I emailed them to call it from their phones, neither landline nor mobile seemed able to get through to my new number.

I spent several hours berating the call centre in Bangalore, each time being escalated to "the higher technical team" and a number of patient but useless managers one of whom actually phoned me back when I was in Sainsbury's and was treated to 20 vituperative minutes during which passing shoppers were giving me the thumbs-up for sticking it to them good and strong about "customer service means nothing to you people" and "managers are supposed to manage, not read bland scripted responses off a screen".

This morning I discovered I'd just written the number down wrong.

I feel such an utter twat. But now I want to do like Margo Leadbetter in "The Good Life" when Jerry comes home and points out something which means the wigging she's given the garage about the car was totally undeserved ... she gently takes her hand off the receiver and says pleasantly "Good day to you" and puts the phone down!

Got better sleep last night apart from my typical "holy hour" awake at 5. If I go to bed with the central heating on, sometimes I wake up bathed in sweat like I'm working the graveyard shift in "Four Floors of Whores" in Singapore. There really was a knocking shop called that.

I was listening to Radio 4 the other day and it said something like "most pensioners just control their central heating with the thermostat" because they can't figure out computerised programming.

Time to phone for the Saga catalogue and book a holiday.

Thursday, 25 January 2007


Sometimes it's nice to be reminded why I live here ... here's Thames Barrier Park seen from the balcony unsullied and undogged at about 7 on Tuesday morning

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Teachers 2

I can't move on from this subject without recording the debt I owe Joan Webber, my kindergarten teacher. I went to school when I was only 3, my mother being driven insane by my early ability to read the Radio Times and incessant questions about "what does this mean". Evidently I came home from school one day and said "Mummy, what's 'phenomenal'? Mrs Webber says I'm phenomenal."

It was later explained to me that Mrs Webber used to impress prospective parents at Whitelake by making me stand up and then saying to them "listen to this little boy read, and he's only five ...". She was mortified when I turned six and her viral marketing scheme collapsed.

But boy, did I love her and would jump through any hoop to win her approval or an extra large red tick in my exercise book. I was so tick-hungry that I even asked for homework which wasn't given out in kindergarten. With the help of therapy I have ultimately forgiven her for, when doling out the instruments from the box which contained the tools of our 'Percussion Band', she never, EVER, gave me the cymbals - something I was itching to play and at the time insufficiently assertive to request.

Her amplitude was always covered in some floral yardage probably sourced on Urmston market, and in looking at old school photographs she seemed only to own one dress pattern as in each successive year she appears in a different version of the same style.

But look at this picture, taken one dappled afternoon in about 1958

It's another planet. The Clarks' sandals, the girls' gingham summer dresses and hair ribbons (although Jean Tate clung defiantly to her barathea gymslip even when the sun was melting the tarmac on Flixton Road) and the ties and socks from Horne Brothers in Manchester all define a simpler and a gentler time, and my innocence.

It's an idyll.

Below, I'd credited Mr Buttery with inspiring me to the drama. But I'd forgotten a production of "The Wind and the Sun" staged in the front garden of Whitelake School and directed by the aforementioned Mrs Webber and her young sidekick Miss Kershaw into whose tender cardigan-shouldered care I graduated aged six. Whether for my latent acting ability, or because I was her favourite, I was The Wind. In a dark blue velvet cloak made from the old dining room curtains and as I remember still with the rufflette tape and some hooks attached.

There's got to be a line about Gone With "The Wind", but I'd struggle to frame it.

I can actually identify more than half of the children, including Susan Stephenson, the tallest one and daughter of my mother's best friend - we were paraded in parallel prams - and my first girl-friend Terry Barlow to whom I was engaged when we were six. I had good taste, though. Michael Billington who is the only member of my class to be in touch through Friends Reunited says she was the prettiest.

Feel free to try and spot me: there's only nine boys, so you've 11/1 odds.

Teachers 1

Chatting to a friend and fellow bloggist about writing styles, I stumbled across the fact that two of my erstwhile University lecturers went on to be major biographers. Norman Sherry who was Professor of English at Lancaster and a fussy little man I really didn’t like had modelled himself personally on Joseph Conrad – a fussy little author I wasn’t very fond of, either – but became Graham Greene’s official biographer taking thirty years to research and produce a three-volume memoir. And John Russell Brown, examiner for the Theatre Studies part of my degree, is the most prolific dissector and biographer of William Shakespeare as well as Editor of the Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre.

Whilst their influence and tutelage was undoubtedly significant, it didn’t have the direct intensity of teachers from primary and secondary school who actually fostered my interest in their subjects, and genuinely inspired my life. Two spring to mind, the first being my English teacher from prep school, my mentor from ages seven to ten.

Mrs Britton, it took me years to find out her first name was Winifred, whom I idolised even though she looked remarkably like Vera Lynn. I can remember as a precocious eight year-old complimenting her on a celadon-green belted two piece she wore to assembly one morning, and being fascinated by the contour effect of the horizontally ribbed fabric which corrugated her bosom as surely as if she’d been upholstered by Maples.

She signed my autograph book when I left school (at 10) with the words “victor qui laborat” – he who works, conquers. And she was bloody right although what she didn’t know was one of the reasons I’d come top in the 11+ exams was that I’d been practising using a teachers’ reference book to the tests (with answers) that I’d bought in W H Smiths, and the examining body was daft enough to repeat a lot of the questions from previous years.

Darrell Buttery, in his first teaching job, was my inspiration in so many ways as my first form master at public school. Naturally at 11 I fell hopelessly in love with him and used to try and force myself to dream about him at bedtime. Even now, some of the guys I fancy have some affinity with “DGB”.

He used to come into class with “good morning girls” which in 1964 was beyond provocative but I don’t think I knew even by rumour that he might actually be gay until twenty years later when my mother met him in town and speculated about why he never married.

But he directed me in my first school play – female lead Rosaura Balanzoni in Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell arte The Liar – and sowed a seed under my powdered wig and crinoline that I shall never ever regret.

Google's a wonderful tool. He's left teaching and is now Chair of York Civic Trust and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Never glad confident morning again

Such a dismal day. Here's a brighter dawn seen from my balcony when I was sleepless in September ...

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Long dark teatime

"When the light fails on winter evenings,
and the river behind the house is silent but for its cold flowing ..."

I wish I knew exactly where that came from, because apart from anything else a pretty calculated "verse speaking" of it won me Victor Ludorum for the highest individual score in the Harrogate Music Festival when I was about 14 - but it runs through my head regularly at this fourfivesixoclock time of day between November and March.

It sometimes also brings to mind Herbert Kretzmer's altogether shallower lament as Fantine lays dying in Les Mis and sings to daughter Cosette:

You've played the day away
And soon it will be night.

The poetry and the poorer lyric somehow combine in me at this time of the late winter afternoon to remind me how little I've done with the day apart from to tinker on the computer, speak to friends on the phone and fail to keep two not particularly urgent appointments I could have done today.

Deferral. Procrastination. Inert. It's how I just am, some days. I haven't opened the post for a week, either. Some of it's squatting on a ledge at the edge of my eyeline in a Tesco carrier bag, but I won't let it win. It can stay a mystery.

I don't know if I love or am a little scared by this time of day. When abroad in unfamiliar places I become inexplicably sad at the point at which the light withers from the winter landscape, and almost uneasy when it's not replaced with street lighting or the glow of a town skyline. One of the reasons I bought the flat here in the Docklands was because at night it felt "surrounded by light" with the boats on the river, the hooded and haloed mercury vapour lamps in the park, the amber sodium flood lights, appropriately enough, on the Barrier and of course Manhattan-on-Thames out the kitchen window.

It's funny how light, or its absence, affects my indelible impression of place. India is forever conjured for me by the image of a single unshaded fluorescent tube swaying from a tree above a roadside stall. For me it illuminates an entire sub-continent with its brave and inaccurate belief in its own efficacy. Proust may have had the madeleines, I resonate to a fluorescent-lit dead dog resting beside a crazed highway ...

Saturday, 13 January 2007

53 - 19 ?

It's not the Rugby score!

I can't write this at the moment, but I want to keep the placeholder and date.

Friday, 12 January 2007


The Last Time I saw Paris, my heart was young and gay ... Yes well, that was then, this is now. I should be in Paris right this very minute actually except I never got my arse to Waterloo for the 12.09 Eurostar today.

I had planned a trip with three purposes - to see my friend Sue who does important things for top bananes at L'Oreal, and is presumably handsomely remunerated Because She's Worth It - to see my sometime ex Meki and very possibly have yet another hour long row with him at the top of my voice which does wonders for my French vocabulary but sod all for my temper - and to meet "un type" with whom I had been corresponding on and off.

Despite reminding me for the three years or so that she's lived in Paris that I owe her a visit, Sue trumped my invitation to cocktails and dinner ce soir with the arrival of visitors from Australia. Meki maintains (or is maintained, possibly, I think he's a bit of a courtesan) a home in Italy and had to fly there this morning to take care of some urgent business with his bank, which left me with the prospect of three days with the type and it occurred to me when chatting him on MSN last night that he bore an alarming resemblance to John Profumo as portrayed by Ian McKellen in "Scandal" which made it a bit of a double no-no for me. Not to mention I don't have big enough chairs to pose as Christine Keeler. So I bottled out.

I think my reluctance has something to do with not liking Paris as a city very much, my new-found morality, the pluviose weather forecast, and the influence of a couple of slightly nicer chaps I've met in the UK recently.


I wonder if blogs are like new diaries, or New Year resolutions - to be buffed and polished and pored over for the first days of the year, and then left to gather dust.

The major question I'm expecting from Gentle Reader (oh and I so wonder what you're like) is Why? and Why Now?

Why Now? is comparatively easy because it's answered by time on my hands ... as it's now been about a calendar year since I escaped from full-time employment, I should really be "getting round" to things like sorting out my spare bedroom and, eventually, my life. One thing at a time. The spare bedroom's now comparatively tidy but the content of the twenty or so boxes bags and bin-liners I shoved in its cupboards are probably metaphors for my mental baggage.

Two new year's resolutions already achieved - 1. I have successfully sold stuff on eBay and 2. For the first time in a fairly busy adult life, I've been to the clinic. Yes, that clinic. And everything was fine thank you for asking, although it was a bit like "Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been 33 years since my last confession."

And ironically enough the nurse did have to continue her notes on the back side of the paper.