Monday, 22 March 2010

The Buffer Day

I sleep soundly till about 6 but am in no hurry to get up since I’ve reserved today as a sort of buffer against travel delays and to acclimatise to the heat and humidity of which there’s clearly plenty even this early in the morning. It’s nice also to take time over breakfast, in the hotel’s lovely courtyard and my first bowlful of truly ripe, truly tropical fruits – I calculate it would have cost about a tenner from Marks & Spencer, but the jewelled blocks of mango, papaya, pineapple, watermelon and banana are just a picture.

Since breakfast is a la carte I have no idea what else to order as everything on the menu is eggs – but they also bring doorsteps of wholemeal toast, with guava jam which is pretty nice. When the bill comes it runs to five figures of colones and I realise I have no idea of the conversion rate. I’m later relieved to discover there are over 800 to the pound.

It’s too hot to sit in the sun and there’s no shade on the roof terrace which is equipped with two boiling Jacuzzis instead of a cool pool, so I later opt for a trip into town. It’s hard to find something nice to say about San Jose ... any description ends up an endless litany of what it’s not – neither beautiful, architecturally interesting, clean or modern it seems to consist of unremarkable buildings from the Spanish colonial era interspersed with a lot of sixties brutalism, none of which has been keenly restored or preserved.

There’s a central market building with typical ordered displays of fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, but nothing so out of the ordinary as to merit multiple photographs. Nor are the people much to look at: even though I work my way through the commercial and political centre, passing courts, theatres, banks and municipal buildings, I don’t see anyone smartly or fashionably dressed, the typical uniform being trackpants and a baggy vest. Men and women.

The prevalence of American retail brands is almost alarming, there’s so little in San Jose to betray its once-proud Spanish heritage – of course you expect KFC and Macdonalds, but all the hotel, bank, chain store and petrol station brands are from the US and it feels like a poor and dirty county town from Iowa or Indiana.

I make contact with my facebook friend Jose Reyes who was once a lawyer with the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague but has returned to practice in his native Costa Rica and since my hotel is alleged to have the best restaurant in town I make us a reservation for dinner.

Jose has other plans, and instead drives me to a rustic finca high on the hills of Escazu and overlooking the whole of San Jose in the valley. From this distance with the stars above and the city lights below it looks almost attractive. The restaurant is interesting with large groups of people sharing some of the tables, I think at first it might be a tourist trap, but these are all locals or from neighbouring Nicaragua or Guatemala come for the food and the genuine folkloric dancing.

I throw myself into the spirit of the place and eat highly spiced beef, frijoles, plantain, yucca and pico di gallo which I spit out because it’s laced too heavily with the dreaded coriander ... whilst Jose chooses grilled chicken and plain boiled vegetables, it’s an odd exchange of our native cuisines.

The dancing seems good and is wildly applauded by the customers, although there’s not a lot of variety. For the girls, the routine seems based on lifting your skirts to your ears, and shrieking a lot. If that’s all it is, I know a goodly number of chorus boys who could join the Costa Rican national ballet.

We have an entertaining evening but by 10 I’m shattered and whilst I sense Jose might like to take things a bit further, he’s a perfect gent and escorts me back to the hotel where we say goodnight.

Do I know the way to San Jose ?

I won’t bore you with the details of the journey except to say that flying Continental was less traumatic than anticipated, and despite it not having lie-flat BA seats, the food was particularly good, the movie selection Oscars-fresh and the service attentive so, since airmiles beggars can’t be choosers, I’m not complaining.

I changed at Houston where the unfathomable island that is the United States insists you clear customs and immigration despite the fact you have only one hour and 25 minutes to spend in the airport let alone the country, they seem unable to process airside international-to-international passengers, although my luggage goes straight to Costa Rica and does not pass ‘GO’.

It was perhaps unfortunate my flight from London coincided with the arrival of the Emirates service from Dubai, a sixteen hour nonstop which decants 250 tired and anxious beard and burqa wearers into the ignorant hands of monolingual Texas redneck border officials with resultant misunderstandings, intolerance and delays to we less ‘profiled’ passengers waiting behind. Appropriately enough, the airport is named after George Bush.

On the connecting flight to San Jose I am seated in front of a pair of loud mouthed good ole boys on their way to visit their sport fishing boats and imported Brazilian girlfriends, an indication that a lot of the migrant population into Costa Rica consists of American retirees eking out their pensions. The overheard conversation runs to discussion of finances until the free liquor slugs them to sleep, but not before I learn the cost of living is rising to beat them and they must consider a further, cheaper, destination for their remaining days, possibly Nicaragua.

I’m always quite pleased with myself to arrive in a third world country, particularly late at night, and successfully negotiate sufficient currency and directions to get myself to my first hotel although it’s surprisingly uncomplicated as there’s a fixed-price airport taxi service and I’m soon on my way. The driver has other ideas, though, carefully questioning me about my accommodation before telling me the hotel’s full and he’d be able to find me another one. It takes a certain amount of firmness to insist we go where I know I have a prepaid reservation and he eventually dumps me at the rather elegant Hotel Grano d’Oro, an extended and boutique-ified colonial mansion in an area which seems otherwise reserved for plastic surgery clinics. Perhaps they’re expecting me.

It doesn’t take long to check out the small but charming room with its polished floorboards, iron bedstead, heavy French armoire and ceiling fan – the windows are open but its surprisingly bug-free and I chance it without insect repellent for the first urban night, since after taking a shower I realise it’s now 11pm Costa Rican time and therefore 22 hours since I left home so I am more than ready for bed.

As I drift off, I am aware of the most beautiful birdsong. And we’re not talking squawks and chattering, this is pure uplifted melody from the trees in the garden below my window, I believe from the national bird of Costa Rica, the clay-coloured robin which sings like a louder nightingale, and all night long.

Listen here

Saturday, 6 March 2010


Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber is not a well man. His operation for prostate cancer before Christmas led to complications and Love Never Dies may be his last composition, since he’s now producing Wizard of Oz rather than developing new material. I hope not, because the author of Sunset Boulevard and Evita deserves a better epitaph than the load of old rope currently on full-price £65-a-seat preview at the Adelphi Theatre.

We are in Coney Island, and if Lloyd Webber’s claim that the events are set ten years after Phantom of the Opera is accurate, it’s about 1891. The Phantom has become a sideshow illusionist, bringing with him Madame and Meg Giry, and three henchpersons called something like Felch, Squelch and Gargle whose sole purpose is to strut about in Cirque de Soleil costumes. In a barely comprehensible plot, he invites now-famous Christine Daae to sing in his theatre and she arrives aboard the Lusitania with Oscar Hammerstein (who would have been four years old at the time), Nancy Astor (eleven) and Cornelius Vanderbilt (born 1898). Improbable or what?

Christine’s son turns out to be fathered by the Phantom who entertains the ten-year-old in what looks like Michael Jackson’s bedroom, complete with Bubbles the ape maniacally playing a pipe organ. Other elements of scenery are like an Art Nouveau explosion in a resin factory, interspersed with trapeze and rope twirling from a provincial circus.

ALW’s form is distinctly variable: whilst Cats and Evita pushed the envelope of musical theatre his recent appearances on low-rent television stunts like ‘Any Dream Will Do’ have diminished his profile which was equally dented by penning the dire Eurovision entry 'It's My Time' which I have previously suggested took him precisely three idle minutes to write, including standing up, flushing and washing his hands afterwards.

It now seems outrageous that he should be the recipient of a peerage for his contribution to the nation’s musical heritage, an honour not accorded Purcell, Delius or Elgar.

He does, however, deserve some sort of national award for recycling.

The lead-up to Christine’s performance of the theme song is interminable and gives you time to reflect it’s not a new tune. Setting aside the internet gossip which invites comparison between ALW’s composition and the theme from 1960’s Shirley MacLaine movie ‘The Apartment’, ‘Love Never Dies’ is itself a re-hash of ‘Our Kind of Love’ cut from his musical ‘The Beautiful Game’, stripped of its meaningful lyrics, jacked up an octave and given ludicrous operatic pretensions and drowningly lush orchestration.

Whilst Serena Boggess looks stately – the pink crystal-studded frock is simply gawjus – and sings right to the top of her soprano range until you wonder whether bats will fall from the rafters with their wings over their ears, it’s a soulless performance made even less engaging because it’s so difficult to care about any of these characters.

It’s tantalizing to wonder what might have happened if Christine had been made fully three dimensional, and the piece sung in a normal register with emotion by Hannah Waddingham – as she did on Parkinson some years ago - then this could have been the most electrifying sequel.

The pretence that this is somehow an opera score trips ALW up time after time – Ramin Karimloo’s voice seems to have only one setting: ‘stentorian’, and all his interactions with Christine are overblown and overloud. The recitative sounds directly snatched from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and is endlessly repetitive, whereas a few lines of spoken dialogue and a couple of jokes would have been more than welcome.

The counterpoint popular numbers like Summer Strallen’s Miss Adelaide style vaudeville routine, a fatuous rock anthem, and a chronically forgettable ‘beach’ ensemble seem jarring, as if they belong in three different musicals.

In the bare-stage climax (hm, seen any Bizet, Andrew?) and for no apparent reason, Strallen’s character shoots Christine and a blood capsule explodes in her bra. She dies in the Phantom’s arms as they kiss one last time.

It takes her six minutes, during which she reprises four different tunes before the orchestra wells to the sort of climax normally reserved for the last night of the season at Verona as Tosca chucks herself off the battlements.

Lloyd Webber probably thinks he’s written Carmen.

I think car-crash.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Sex and a Different City

Production photo by Nobby Clark

Can she or can't she? Most of the first-night audience were secretly betting Kim Cattrall wouldn't be able to shake off the shadow of 'Samantha Jones' from 'Sex and the City' and turn herself into Noel Coward's wittiest and most romantic heroine.

In assailing the best-constructed comedy in the English Language as well as the first to openly portray sexual attraction, Cattrall sets herself the highest of bars: Private Lives has pin-sharp dialogue which falls flat if a syllable is mistimed, her predecessors in the role include Maggie Smith, Greta Scacchi, and Lindsay Duncan, and the whole play balances on the essential chemistry between the co-stars, reunited divorcees on their respective honeymoons who are supposed to be fatally attracted “like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle”.

This version is more like the YouTube experiment wherein Cattrall is the Diet Coke - fizzy, colourful, sweet but ultimately not ‘the real thing’, and harmless until Matthew MacFadyen provides the Mentos which make the explosive effervescence.

Eschewing the archness with which Elyot is normally played, MacFadyen opts for an earthier, butcher foil to Amanda’s shrillness and once you accept the famous Coward epigrams won’t be delivered with camp theatrical flourishes, his conversational delivery adds depth and credibility to the character, and makes it more magnetic.

Despite looking the part and staring down any discussion of their age differences, Cattrall doesn’t quite match him - hers is a performance with circus skills: when Elyot shoves her she bounces on to the sofa in an acrobatic parabola. She also walks the tight-rope of English diction: never actually falling but the strain is visible. It might have made for a more laconic and nuanced Amanda if she’d played it in her natural American accent.

Casting the new partners, Sybil and Victor, is notoriously difficult: the parts are written as ciphers, but Simon Paisley-Day gave Victor a chocks-away Squadron Leader background Coward clearly hadn’t envisaged, and in the third-act face-off with MacFadyen provided one of the best comic moments.

There are some issues with the set - in the first act on adjoining hotel balconies, the cast had to fight their way through muslin curtains or round tightly-placed wrought-iron furniture, and in the second act Amanda’s Paris apartment looked cheap and gimmicky instead of coolly art deco and stylish. In Coward, style really is everything.

A Load of Cobblers'


A sparking well-paced revival brings fresh life to a family drama with feminist overtones in Thom Southerland’s revival of Hobson’s Choice at the cosy but comfortable Broadway Studio in Catford.

The piece follows three daughters of a bullying shopkeeper struggling to achieve independence and identity against a background of male supremacy, alcoholism and Victorian mill-town poverty.

And it’s very funny.

Its author Harold Brighouse might have been inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters when he was at Manchester Grammar, but deserves credit for pioneering the ‘Northern Drama’ twenty years before his contemporary J. B. Priestley. What’s interesting is how modern audiences react differently to the ‘issues’ in the play: it would have been considered completely normal at the time for a master to thrash his apprentices with a belt, and highly comical that a young woman should have the temerity to set up in business in competition with her father.

We identify strongly with the self-improving Maggie, played with conviction by Tegwen Tucker and delivering some of the best comic lines - although she could extend the range of her emotions and gestures without losing the controlled determination of the character, and it’s harder to feel compassion for the ‘abuser’ as we’d probably call him today, despite Anthony Wise‘s fine interpretation of Henry Horatio Hobson which is as authentic and vulnerable as possible within the confines of the script.

As Maggie’s gawkily reluctant fiancée Will Mossop, Sean Pol McGreevy makes an excellent start and his body language is perfect, but as the character grows in confidence his accent takes a trip across the Pennines finishing somewhere in the suburbs of Newcastle, canny lad. Otherwise, the Salford inflections hold up well throughout the faultless supporting cast, defying any potential to slip into Victoria Wood parody.

The mauve silk dresses with tight bodices and bustles sported by the Hobson sisters seemed more appropriate for the Wild West than the North West, but the play is set in 1880, the same year as Southerland favourite Annie Get Your Gun which is also about a strong woman making her way in a man's world, and makes you wonder whether there’s a wonderfully surreal combination show to be cobbled together from the two …

… until then, this is a real and refreshing slice of Lancashire life well worth the journey to Catford.