Review – Venice Preserved, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 30th May 2019

Venice PreservedSo it’s Thomas Otway who wrote Venice Preserved, not John Otway. My mistake. He’s the guy from Aylesbury who wrote Cor Baby That’s Really Free. Very easy to get the two confused. Actually, it makes you wonder what kind of person was writing plays in 1682 that weren’t Restoration Comedies. Thomas Otway must have had a hard life. Indeed, although he was apparently the talk of the town after the success of Venice Preserved, three years later he died in penury, allegedly choking to death on a bun which he purchased after someone gave him a guinea in the street when they discovered who he was. It shouldn’t happen to a playwright.

CompanyVenice Preserved is, I think it’s fair to say, rather an unpleasant play. Whilst it was perennially popular for its first 150 years or so, its attraction died away with the Victorian era; too dark and comfortless for those snowflakes, I suspect. This is the first British major production of the play for 35 years; and Prasanna Puwanarajah’s production pulls no punches when it comes to shedding light on some of the darker parts of human existence.

Stephen Fewell and Michael Grady-HallWhen we consider how people are today brainwashed into fighting for a cause like Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups, we’ve a tendency to believe that this kind of radicalisation is something new. However, Venice Preserved shows us that it’s a concept as old as the hills. History tells us, from Roman times to the present day, that charismatic leaders with ulterior motives can bluff their way into the public’s affections and then lead them all on to mass destruction. Otway presents us with another version of that simple truth.

Michael Grady-HallThe mild – if slightly eccentric – Jaffeir is convinced by his soldier friend Pierre to join the revolution against the failed city state of Venice. Pierre’s motivation is driven by personal animosity against the corrupt Senator Antonio, who has sexual gallivanting sessions with Pierre’s own mistress, Aquilina. Jaffeir, however, is simply swept away by Pierre’s charisma. When Jaffeir offers his beloved wife Belvidera as a hostage, to prove his commitment to the cause, it’s pretty obvious things have got out of hand. True, he comes to his senses when she narrowly escapes rape by the mercenary Renault, and the pair of them attack and kill her prison guard to set her free. But he cuts a very pathetic figure when trying to explain to her that he did it all because of “his friend”. Clearly there was need for a Restoration version of the Prevent programme.

Natalie DewAlongside all the political intrigue, two other plots delve into the characters of the story. The enmity continues to grow between Priuli, a senator and Belvidera’s father, and his son-in-law Jaffeir, who he insists “stole” her from him, even though Jaffeir saved her from drowning. His is the resentment and selfishness of the lone parent who refuses to accept that their children are growing up. And there’s the ludicrous relationship of senator Antonio, Otway’s satire on the character of the real-life Earl of Shaftesbury, with the courtesan Aquilina. He prefers it when she’s in a charge, getting his kicks in fetish gear and pleading to be spat on and kicked in the groin. Whilst on the face of it these scenes are the equivalent of Carry On Restoration, there’s something incredibly awkward and distasteful – even though it may appear strangely delicious – about seeing the sexual peccadilloes of the high and mighty revealed so graphically. Antonio is like a restoration comedy character transplanted into a sea of tragedy; I’m not surprised that Bowdlerized versions of the play in the 19th century completely removed the character of Antonio, and that Aquilina was only mentioned in passing.

Stephen Fewell and companyAt the end of the day, people like Jaffeir and Pierre are mere puppets. Promised safety if they grass on the names of all the conspirators, they’re still sent to their deaths and Belvidera is left to die in mental torment. In a touching scene, just before he dies, Jaffeir gives the priest Belvidera’s love token, that he’s been carrying around all the time, asking him to make sure she receives it. But once he’s dead the priest simply nicks Pierre’s ring, chucks the token in the gutter, and wanders off. Used and abused; there’s no trust in Venice. The City State may be preserved, but unless you have status, you’re nothing.

Steve NicolsonPrasanna Puwanarajah attributes his noir style for this production to his early interest in cyberpunk films and cartoons of the 1980s. This initially put me off; as I have very little interest or knowledge of such works, I assumed that this production somehow wouldn’t be for me. However, if that genre does influence this production, it didn’t impact on me. For me this was a classic presentation of a centuries-old drama, essentially tragic with a few light moments to break up the darkness.

Kevin N GoldingDesigner James Cotterill’s set suggests a courtyard with just a manhole in the centre from where bedraggled fugitives can emerge, drenched from the sewer; by contrast there’s an elaborate decorated screen above onto which are projected maps of Venice, Pierre’s execution wheel and Aquilina’s social media page. Blue lasers flood down from the ceiling to represent Belvidera’s cell, bringing a little fantasy magic to the stage. Costumes range from the lavish ermine of the Duke, the sharp business suits of the senators, and Pierre’s splendid military uniform to Jaffeir’s stuck-in-the-seventies look and Aquilina’s moderately dominatrix garb.

Jodie McNeeThere’s a star turn from Jodie McNee as Belvidera, full of emotion and sorrow, showing strength and vulnerability at the same time, which is some feat; an ordinary character who shows true heroism when called for. She’s matched by Michael Grady-Hall’s Jaffeir, a classic underachiever, easily influenced; an innocent abroad who takes what’s precious to him for granted and falls prey to wiser powers. It was unfortunate that there was a sightline issue with the jailer’s death towards the end of the first act; I would imagine that a good third of the house would not have been able to work out exactly how Jaffeir and Belvidera did him in – I felt like that was a visual milestone of the play that I was sorry to miss.

Stephen FewellAnother superb performance comes from Stephen Fewell as Pierre, cutting a dashing military figure, a fascinating blend of the manipulative and the trusting but for whom nobility comes first. Les Dennis’ Priuli comes across as a petulant actuary but it’s a very effective characterisation; Steve Nicolson is a lowlife rogue of a Renault; Kevin N Golding makes for a suitably authoritarian Duke, and there’s solid support from Alison Halstead as the hearty Spanish ambassador and Carl Prekopp as the conspirator Eliot. And Natalie Dew conveys Aquilina’s passionate nature and embittered fury with appropriate fervour.

John HodgkinsonBut the scene-stealing performance comes from the ever-reliable John Hodgkinson as Antonio, pompously respectable on the outside and a right little raver on the inside, visibly turned on by the merest threat of discipline. He’s the source of any guffaws or audible cringes that the audience can’t hold back.

Michael Grady-Hall and Jodie McNeeAt almost two-and-three-quarter hours long, this does at time feel a little ploddy and a little repetitive. The text has been cut in part but I think it could do with further pruning. It’s a play that illuminates and informs, but, in my mind, not at all a likeable play. But it’s a fascinating opportunity to see something rarely seen today but which was never out of the West End two hundred years ago!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2019

Romeo + JulietHas there ever been an original work that has inspired more variations than Romeo and Juliet? From the Russian ballet of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, to West Side Story and a whole lot of other works, those star-cross’d lovers have influenced so many creative souls. And in language too – how many times have you heard that someone was “a bit of a Romeo”? I’m yet to meet “a bit of a Juliet”, although, considering Matthew Bourne’s new version, that might not altogether be a bad thing….

R+J in loveFollowing their successful Lord of the Flies, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company has continued its groundbreaking work with young dancers. Not only have some of that class of 2014 gone on to carve dance careers for themselves, but for more than a year now the company has worked with six young, local dancers in each of the locations where Romeo + Juliet will be staged, integrating them seamlessly into the professional cast. It wasn’t until the final curtain call that I worked out who were the local young dancers in our production – each and everyone of them gave a first-class performance and I have great hopes for what they will go on to achieve.

Set in the not too distant future, the Verona Institute is one of those vaguely intimidating establishments that may have originally been set up for the good of its patients (or its inmates, or its captives, you decide) but has gone distinctly off-message with the cruelty of its security staff and the strictness of its mentors. Think Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in cahoots with Hamidou the prison guard in Midnight’s Express and you get the picture. Only the kindly Rev. Bernadette Laurence, who happily encourages music, dancing and – let’s not deny it – sexual intimacy between members of her imprisoned flock, goes against the grain – albeit to no benefit to herself.

R+J Glitterball sceneSome adaptations are close to the original; others are not. This, being Matthew Bourne’s conception, takes the original Romeo and Juliet as a mere hint of a serving suggestion. There’s no sense of warring Montagues and Capulets, no prior love intrigue between Romeo and Rosaline, no apothecary and no poison. Tybalt, rather than channelling his violence towards massacring Montagues, concentrates on physical and sexual abuse towards Juliet, traditionally his cousin. Mercutio and Balthasar have a gay relationship; and Juliet kills Romeo, which, having thought long and hard about it in the hours since I saw the show, is a concept with which I still have a lot of problems.

R&JAll the hallmarks of a top-quality Matthew Bourne production are there. Lez Brotherston’s set is so evocative of a municipal/school swimming pool with its white shiny bricks, and its separate Boys and Girls entrances (to which no one pays any attention), that you can almost smell the chlorine. What makes it different is the prison-style barred doorways and gates that step up the sense of the young patients being shut off and incarcerated. Outside there’s probably an exercise yard. Why anyone would voluntarily check in, like Romeo’s parents appear to do with him, beats me. Remind me not to book into the Verona Institute; it isn’t anything like as appealing as it looks in the promotional brochure.

Brett Morris’ fantastic orchestra play those sumptuous Prokofiev melodies with power and eloquence. The score has been re-orchestrated for this production, choosing a different combination of instruments, in an attempt to modernise it, create an acoustic sound-world (so says the programme) and make it generally more relevant. It works very well; the music is stunning throughout and accompanies the dancing perfectly.

R+J togetherThe dancers are all on excellent form, with some beautiful pas de deux from Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite as the eponymous couple, the powerfully menacing movement and presence of Dan Wright as the fearsome Tybalt, and a characterful and cheeky coupling of Reece Causton as Mercutio and Jackson Fisch as Balthasar. Daisy May Kemp brings humour to the role of the Reverend Bernadette, and there’s some superb and eye-catching work from Callum Bowman’s Sebastian, Hannah Mason’s Frenchie and Bryony Harrison’s Dorcas.

However, despite all these excellent ingredients, apart from Balthasar’s decline into zombie level distress after the death of Mercutio, I found it all strangely unmoving. The dance begins, Blood Brothers-like, with a melodramatic tableau of the dead Romeo and Juliet on their slab, so you already know it’s imbued with fatalism and isn’t going to end well. The dancing and choreography are spectacular to watch, the visual effects are very powerful (wardrobe must curse all that blood on those nice white clothes), and there are some amusing and horrific vignette moments that keep you thoroughly entertained. But at the end of the day, I feel this is too far away from the original Romeo and Juliet story to bathe in its reflected tragedy. Of course, as a Matthew Bourne creation, it naturally still towers over many other modern dance productions, simply by dint of its expansiveness, its inventive choreography and its overall vision.

R&J in glitterThe tour continues to Plymouth, the Lowry, Cardiff, Sadler’s Wells, Norwich, Birmingham, Canterbury, Southampton, Nottingham and winds up in Newcastle in mid-October. Bourne aficionados will want to see it as a matter of course, and will doubtless love its sheer spectacle; why wouldn’t you? Romeo and Juliet fans might be slightly more disappointed. It goes without saying that the terrific performances carry it through; but, knowing how astounding Sir Matthew’s dance works can be, something in me kinda wanted more.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Lehman Trilogy, Piccadilly Theatre, 25th May 2019

The Lehman TrilogyI wonder if I was the only person in the Piccadilly Theatre last Saturday afternoon who kept expecting a moment towards the end of The Lehman Trilogy when someone would announce that they’ve just hired an up-an-coming young executive by the name of Nick Leeson and a few years later, the bank would disintegrate. Ah, no, that was Barings Bank. Wrong bank, wrong collapse. Easy mistake.

with the numbers flyingLehman Bank, on the other hand, was a different story. In 1844, Hayum Lehman left Germany for the wilds of Alabama to make his fortune. They couldn’t understand his accent so Hayum became Henry, and he opened a general store. During the next six years, his brothers Emanuel and Mayer emigrated to join him. The general store became Lehman Brothers, trading in raw cotton as well as running the shop; and despite Henry’s early death in 1855, and against all the odds of fires, the American Civil War and financial crashes, the company thrived to become Lehman Bank. Their investments and trading spread wide, through the railways, the coffee exchange, and, come the 20th century, airlines, cinema and cigarettes. You’d have thought them unbreakable.

Simon Russell BealeBut, as they say, the only constant is change, and, amazingly, all it took was the subprime mortgage crisis to snuff them out, after 164 years of trading. There’s a photo in the programme just of the backs of the staff members at Lehman Brothers offices in Canary Wharf taken through the back window on 11th September 2008 – and that’s the tableau on which these three and a half hours of terrific drama finishes. To get to that climax, there’s a painstakingly riveting and inventively staged journey, starting with Henry’s first awestruck glimpses of America, through the brothers’ creative plans, their various wives and girlfriends, their talented progeny, and finally the latter days of the company where excess followed excess, whirling them into oblivion.

Cast 2Es Devlin’s stunning, revolving set provides us with a sophisticated modern office suite, with panoramic views of the surrounding cityscape – wherever that particular city happens to be. Evocative video projections recreate the cotton fields of Alabama, the skyscrapers of New York, or the hurly-burly of a stock exchange. Stacking office packing cases – the ones you use to archive old files, etc – are constantly and cleverly moved around the office by the cast to represent podiums, pianos, chairs, and so on, each time transporting us into a different scene. That contrast between the high-tech staging and the simplicity of the packing cases adds texture to the structure of the play. As does the live music – performed, from the auditorium, by pianist Candida Caldicot, in part suggesting the era of the silent movies, at other times simply providing mood music to accompany the drama. It’s been decades since I’ve seen a live pianist at a play, and the onstage action and the keyboard performance integrate beautifully.

Statue of LibertyIt’s called The Lehman Trilogy – so, as you might expect, it’s structured as a three-act play (or three one-act plays, take your choice). Just three actors portray the three brothers – and then they go on to play all the other characters too; coquettish girlfriends, grumpy fathers-in-law, spoilt brat children, as well as the three main latter-day Lehmans – Philip (son of Emanuel), Herbert (son of Mayer) and Bobbie (son of Philip). Once they’ve died out, it’s left to the non-family successors to take the company onwards, but not necessarily upwards. Although the actors never change costume – always looking like respectable 19th century American businessmen – their characterisations are so varied and entertaining that you’re never remotely confused as to who’s speaking.

Boxes for PodiumsThere aren’t many safer pairs of hands on the stage at the moment than Simon Russell Beale’s – and his performance is just fantastic. His wide-eyed faltering wonder as Henry first arrives on American shores; his eye-fluttery portrayal of the demure pianist Babette; his oft-divorced Ruth, gradually growing bored of her husband; his quietly arrogant smart-arse Philip, channelling a Jay Gatsby-type of personal programme of self-improvement, choosing a wife by scoring her on various qualities, much as one would choose one’s preferred Eurovision entry. His voices, his bearing, and his sheer bravado constitute the thread that joins the entire play together – he’s outstanding.

Adam Godley 1Adam Godley is also brilliant as Mayer Lehman, the smooth potato of the bunch (you have to see it to understand that reference) who acts as a conduit of compromise between his two fierier brothers. Among his other notable moments are his portrayals of Emanuel’s object of affections, Pauline Sondheim, the range of Philip’s possible love interests, and the showbizzy eclectic Bobbie, maniacally running to make as much money as possible. Ben Miles completes the triumvirate as the hot-headed Emanuel, the public-spirited Herbert and many others. All the performances are a complete tour-de-force throughout, both in their creativity and their technical mastery of their roles.

Ben MilesOn the face of it, you might think that 164 years of business could be a dry and dusty subject for such a long play – but not a bit of it. This is exciting, character-driven drama that leaves you fascinated by so much human achievement and in awe of the brilliance of the performers. Fully deserving its standing ovation, the short season has just been extended and it continues to play at the Piccadilly until the end of August. Highly recommended!

Production photos by Stephanie Berger

Review – Richard III, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th May 2019

Richard IIIIt was five years ago that we saw that disastrous production of Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios, starring Martin Freeman. I say disastrous; it was from the angle of our seats, which were the (relatively expensive) ones on stage “to get closer to the action” – but in fact our view of the action was so totally interrupted by the set that we may as well have been listening to a radio play. Never again will I fall for the “get a seat on the set” gimmick – it’s way too risky.

So nebulous was our memory of that show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I went into this production of Richard III thinking it was the first time I’d ever seen it – and, to all intents and purposes, it was. Its not a play with which I’m particularly familiar, but that’s definitely been my loss all these years. Richard III (the character) combines the ambition of Lady Macbeth with the ruthlessness of Iago and the bloodlust of Titus Andronicus. He’s the archetypal nasty piece of work but what a joy it is to watch him scheme and slime his way around a stage.

Although Richard III only ruled from 1483-85, he certainly left his mark on the annals of history. I’m no expert, but I believe he wasn’t quite as bad a chap as popular culture would have us believe. Shakespeare offers us the Princes in the Tower episode as just one incident in a life of murderous manipulation, and the play is, basically, an observation of the motives and modus operandi of a Machiavellian maniac. That’s what makes it so enjoyable! We cower at his evil but giggle at how he overshares his total lack of shame.

John Haidar’s production for Headlong, in association with the Bristol Old Vic, Alexandra Palace, Oxford Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate, has just finished its tour last week in Northampton, and – no buts about it – it was an absolute triumph. Plantagenet though the king may be, there is a distinct modern feel to the production, with smart suits and jackets/turtle necks combos the order of the day; Richard himself sports a set of callipers which I doubt would have been available at the end of the fifteenth century. Rather than get bogged down in its language – apparently, uncut, it’s the longest Shakespeare play apart from Hamlet – the production concentrated on vivid characterisation, striking visual and sound effects, and creative use of a row of mirror doors surrounding the back of the stage. Feydeau would have been fuming with envy. The cuts and re-arrangements of the play (don’t expect it to start with Now is the Winter of our Discontent) work incredibly well to give it a fast pace and a clear vision.

The cast was superb throughout, but I have to mention three particular performances that stood out for me. There’s a gloriously elegant performance by Stefan Adegbola as Buckingham; immaculately presented as the courtier supreme, politely attending on the whim of his masters – loyal of course, but always with an ear out for chances of preferment. When he realises his chance to impress Richard by assisting his plans – even giving him ideas for villainy – his star rises; but once reason starts to kick in, and he doesn’t instantly support Richard’s plan to kill the princes in the tower, his fate is sealed; and that self-assured elegance becomes confused and furious rebelliousness. It’s a magnificent performance.

I was also very impressed with the physical stage presence of Heledd Gwynn in her roles as the sensible Hastings – far too sensible to survive under Richard – and henchman Ratcliff, but also as the chillingly slick murderer sent to despatch Clarence. You almost believe she’s listening and responding to his pleas for mercy; then she shocks us by proving herself a most worthy murderer. There are also great performances from Leila Mimmack as the hopeless Anne and Eileen Nicholas as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother who – let’s just say – is very, very disappointed in him.

But it’s Tom Mothersdale’s performance as Richard that absolutely takes your breath away. Contorting himself in the most awkward of poses to suggest Richard’s deformity, he doth bestride that stage like a Colossus. Revelling in a wonderful range of facial reactions from pretend horror to faux modesty, from amused self-realisation to blinding fury, you cannot take your eyes of him for one moment. His soliloquies are never just him talking to himself; he’s always talking to us, the audience, proudly letting us into his filthy world so that we detest him – but we love him too, resentfully, as he makes us complicit in his wretchedness.

Our emotional reactions to Richard’s situation are very complex; when the spirits of all his victims arrive to taunt him – each blowing silver corpse dust into his face so that he is lost in a sea of ghostly talc – we’re completely supportive of the spirits wanting to seek revenge but also strangely sorry for Richard’s plight. And when they appear and disappear at him from behind their magic mirrors, the fear this engenders is terrifyingly real and dark. It’s a memorable image that remains with you long after the show.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mrs C start a standing ovation before, but this was a no-brainer. A sensational production brought alive by some truly outstanding performances. It would be a true Shakespearean tragedy if this was never to be seen on a stage again – someone really should snap it up! Gripping, terrifying, and funny too. First-class!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

India – Amritsar

Hyatt AmritsarIt’s about 140 miles from Chandigarh to Amritsar, driving through the heart of Punjab state. It was a fairly unremarkable journey, but slow, and tiring, and, by the time we got to Amritsar, too late to do any sightseeing. So we checked in to our hotel, the Hyatt. It’s very well located, but lacks the friendly sophistication of an Oberoi or a Taj. The décor is rooted firmly in the 1970s – all the colours of the rainbow are there, provided you like brown. The room was large and well appointed, although, over our couple of days there we noted that housekeeping was unpredictably erratic. Where the hotel excelled was in the restaurant; great food at a reasonable price.

Alpha OneNext door to our hotel was the Alpha One Shopping Mall, and, despite all our visits to India, we’d never actually taken a turn around one of their more opulent shopping malls. So to kill a couple of hours before dinner, we thought we’d go for a wander. There’s no doubt that it attracts the wealthy shopper; indeed, the tourist shopper too, being so close to the Hyatt and in a city which has plenty to attract tourists. Many international brands are represented; I bought a very smart pair of Levi Jeans – in a sort of khaki green – for half the price they would be in the UK. They are made in India; to a very high specification.

Love WinsAmong the quirkier things you can do in India, if you find the right place, is go to a bar. There are a couple in the Mall, and they look like the kind of place you wouldn’t take your granny. However, we ventured into one – the Fuelstop. I think they’ve modernised it a little from when we went there – which is definitely going to improve things. They were surprised to see an English couple walk in, but they were very welcoming. I had a pint of Kingfisher – you can’t go wrong with that, and it was fine. Mrs C had a gin and tonic – but the trouble was the tonic was warm, and positively disgusting, so we didn’t stay for a second round. Amusingly, they had a “Love Wins” poster on the wall – as you can see in the photo – and I couldn’t help but wonder if they realised what all their signs actually meant.

SmogThe next morning we threw open the blinds to reveal an enormous smog engulfing the city. Amritsar suffers badly from pollution; it’s one of those places where an acrid taste lingers at the back of your throat all day. We met our guide for the day, a softly spoken gentleman with the traditional Indian name of… John. We were to take a short drive into the city centre where we would get out and then walk the rest of the way. Only a few weeks before our arrival (this was in October 2017)Maharaja Ranjit Singh the city bigwigs had decided to pedestrianise a large area of the city centre, much to the fury of the motorists and the delight of the rest of us. For an Indian cityscape, the buildings were surprisingly clean and attractive. There’s a grand statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that dominates the main street; he was Emperor of the Sikh Empire from 1801 to 1839 and his monument is 100% glory.

McDonalds AmritsarAs you walk towards the Golden Temple, the buildings become more and more rose-pink; you might well think you had accidentally got off in Jaipur instead. As this is a holy city, certain standards and practices are enforced; for example, this is the only place in the world (I believe) to have a McDonalds Restaurant that is fully vegetarian.

Jallianwala BaghBefore heading directly for the Golden Temple, we first stopped off at a location that was pivotal in the Indian struggle for independence from Britain – the Jallianwala Bagh. This is a public garden, founded in 1951, notable for many reasons, certainly one of them being the numbers of local people who throng here to enjoy the views, absorb its history and enjoy picnics. But the Jallianwala Bagh has a very murky tale to tell. Jallianwala Bagh MemorialIt was here that in 1919 Brigadier General Dyer famously opened fire on a peaceful gathering of Sikhs celebrating the Festival of Baisakhi. They’ll never know quite how many people were shot but estimates are in the region of 1,000 dead and 1,500 injured. When you enter the Jallianwala Bagh, you use the same alleyway that Dyer used to lead his men into the grounds; and the thought of it chills you to the bone.

Bullet holesThere are several buildings that still bear the gunshot holes to the outside walls; there’s a gallery that displays pictures of the massacre; there’s another exhibition about Udham Singh, a survivor from that day, who went to London to assassinate General O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, who had approved Dyer’s actions. In the gardens, topiary gun-wielding soldiers form a strangely spooky sight. Inside there is a very tall monument – Topiary soldiersThe Flame of Liberty – constructed in 1961; outside, a very beautiful memorial to the fallen, with the faces of men, women and children forever immortalised within a white flame. It’s a very moving sight; and as a Britisher you feel thoroughly ashamed – but what had the greatest impact for me was seeing how groups of families and friends were using the gardens for enjoyable, recreational purposes.

Golden Temple at a distanceContinuing along the road towards the Golden Temple, the crowds begin to get thicker and more animated. Eventually the front wall of the complex looms up like a ghostly cake made of icing sugar. Crossing the marble entrance square, John went to secure our tickets whilst we removed our shoes and made sure our heads were covered with the complimentary orange scarves. He announced that there were probably going to be more than 200,000 visitors Golden Temple entrancethere that day and that we would be unlikely to be able to get inside the Golden Temple itself, as the queue was just astronomical. We agreed that we wouldn’t attempt to join the queue. The Temple never closes because there is always a crowd of people wanting to get in. As an indication of how busy it was, our driver, Mr Singh, joined the queue to get into the temple at 11.45pm later that night. It took him 45 minutes to queue, even at that late hour.

Golden Temple red carpetOnce you cross the purifying water channel, you find yourself in an enormous square, with a red-carpet walkway going all the way round, as if you were just about to join some Broadway premiere. The walk takes you all around the central lake, and if you take the clockwise direction you soon come to one of the city’s highlights – the astonishing refectory and kitchens, that never close, and permanently Golden Temple welcome visitors of all faiths and all nations. The local people all devote some of their time to staffing the kitchens – cooking, serving, washing-up, and so on, and it’s a magnificent to see so many people working tirelessly, voluntarily, for the benefit of others. It’s extremely humbling.

ChapatisThe kitchens are at the farthest end of the complex away from the Golden Temple but you still have a superb view of this amazing sight. It literally shimmers in the sunlight, and with its extraordinarily colourful reflection in the water to complement it, it really takes your breath away. Nevertheless, turn away from it and enter the kitchens complex. You’ll find vast halls where people sit on the floor, eating and talking, sharing nourishment and each other’s company. On the way in, a man stood proudly before his oven of chapatis – Lentilsthere must have been literally thousands of them. A boy was helping to serve them out. Huge vats of spices and vast cauldrons of vegetables all simmer away, making what was already a hot environment even hotter. One man stirs the biggest dish of lentils you have ever seen in your life. Back in the main hall, women make and cook the chapatis on a large Clearing upheated platform. Rows of men are found bringing back metal trays and plates that have now been finished with. There’s no sense that any of the jobs are more demeaning than any other – they all play an important part in providing the food for the pilgrims. It’s a great leveller.

go for a dipBack on the walk around the lake, you’ll find men and boys strip down to take a dip in the holy water surrounding the temple; ladies don’t tend to. Family units play together; groups of young people take selfies and ask for photos with us. There’s an office where you can make a donation – above the door it proudly announces, “Please take a receipt of Holy Communion from here”. You skirt the other end of the lake where you cannot help but get physically caught up in the crowds queueing to get into the temple. queue to get inYou can admire the tree that still stands, where, apparently, Baba Budha camped as he was digging the holy tank and construction work way back in the 1500s. Above all, you get an insight into the lives of the huge crowds who live and work nearby and for whom this is part of their daily existence. The sights, the sounds, the colours, the smells; the air of excitement, and the sense of privilege, for it is indeed a privilege to be there. It’s an incredible sight.

Wagah borderAfter a short rest at the hotel we had one more major appointment – not in Amritsar itself, but 18 miles due west at the border with Pakistan. Ever since I first heard about the daily pomp and pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at the Wagah Border, I knew I just had to see it for myself. It’s a long procedure, with endless security measures and a lot of waiting around. But it’s worth it. Interestingly, as you’re perceived to be wealthy foreign tourists, you’re given a much better vantage point to view the ceremony from than if you were a local Indian resident. Also, there is no charge, which feels a little surprising when you see the administrative nightmare that this daily event causes.

Crowds startYour car, driver and guide can only go so far towards the border; there comes a time when you have to get out and join the masses walking towards the gate that symbolises the Indian border (it’s not quite at the border, but it’s pretty close.) Your only instruction: keep left. You go through passport check after passport check. One wonders how many times they think you might somehow change your passport details every fifty yards or so. the borderBut you have to accept the high security, it’s to everyone’s advantage. Eventually you get to the border – and you really are right on the edge of the country. Take your seat and watch what happens. In front of you and to your left, you see all the people on the Indian side amassing, their Indian flags painted on their faces; whistle-happy Indian soldiers trying to marshal people into position and then make them stay there; loud, unintelligible public announcements on the public address system; bigger crowdsand continued jeering to the people on your right, who are the crowd similarly amassing on the Pakistani side of the border, trying to outdo the Indians with their louder music blaring through speakers. There was a moment when a group of Pakistanis broke rank from where they were sitting and grabbed all the posh seats at the front of the terrace, women join in only to be shouted away by angry sounding officials, to riotous laughter of ridicule from those on the Indian side. Mrs C was sitting on my left and so I was fractionally closer to Pakistan – and accordingly my iPhone decided to change time to Pakistani time, which confused me quite a bit – I went back in time by 30 minutes and she didn’t!

startingThere’s no obvious starting point to the ceremony; groups of Indian women, with children, break onto the parade ground in front of us and start dancing and teasing with the Indian soldiers on guard, much to the delight of the man in the white suit who bellows at us all the time to cheer for India (hurrah!) They rush at the soldiers with their big Indian flags and do Bollywood-style dances, march to the borderwhilst the soldiers (lamely) fend them off and invite them back to their seats. It’s all part of the ceremony though; if anyone did anything really out of order, I’m sure they’d know about it. Next, Indian women soldiers start to march towards the border, to the enormous cheers of the crowd, and no Pakistani women soldiers to greet them.

big gunsThen out come the big guns, the Indian soldiers in their extraordinary puffed-up uniforms and extravagant headdresses, parading and posing as they go, rushing the border then performing a Ministry of Silly Walks routine at the gate with Pakistan, as Pakistani soldiers do precisely the same back to them. The marching is extremely fast and with extremely high kicks, as they assume ultra-heroic macho stances againstheaddresses each other. There’s some general thumbing of noses towards their opposition and then the flags are lowered, quite quickly as there’s neither time nor desire for solemnity during this operation. The Indian flag is folded up and taken into the office. There are a few more silly walks and then the Indian soldiers beat a retreat and the Pakistanis do the same.

everyone goes homeIt ends more with a whimper than a bang as everything just stops and everyone gets up. But it’s a fascinating experience; a mixture of pantomime with aggression, and plenty of balletic military pas de deux. If you get the chance to do it, I’d really recommend it!

Review – Rob Auton: The Talk Show, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 17th May 2019

Rob AutonI guess when a show declares itself under the category of comedy/theatre/spoken word, you ought to realise you’re not in for an evening of typical stand-up comedy. And, indeed, Rob Auton doesn’t give you a typical evening of stand-up comedy. But don’t be alarmed, gentle reader, there are good things to follow…

He starts the show as his own warm-up act, getting to know the front row a little, talking about his previous shows, sharing with us some of his more dubious reviews, reading poetical gems from his books, and generally relaxing himself into the rest of the evening. After an interval he wanders back on to the stage; there’s no “welcome back ladies and gentlemen, did you have a good interval” type of showbiz introduction, rather it’s straight into his themes for the Talk Show – it even took a few moments to realise he’d started, as people were still checking their phones.

The Talk ShowHe talks a lot about his parents, with affection and understanding of their funny little ways; but, primarily, he talks about talking. He gets us to talk to strangers, and when we pluck up the courage to chat with our neighbours, he celebrates it as a great achievement.

Unusually, he stands in front of us with what I presume is a detailed script in his hand, that he tipped out of his Sainsbury’s bag earlier on, even though you never for once think he’s going to lose his place or not know what to say next. Perhaps it is his comfort blanket. Projecting a very engaging personality, but also exuding an air of great vulnerability, you sense that quite a lot of this material is joint therapy for both the audience and the performer; and that it’s all from personal experience. There’s humour at every turn; whether you choose to laugh at it or wryly recognise that it’s what makes the world go round, is up to you. And by that I don’t mean that it isn’t a show full of laughs – quite the opposite, he frequently had us all in hysterics. But there is meaning and pathos behind each laughter moment.

There are passages of great sensitivity and stillness, where he holds us in the palm of his hand waiting for his next word. The emotions are so strong that at one stage I thought he, or I, was going burst into tears. Neither of us did, but you could see the wetness in his eyes. There’s nothing forced or false in this show. His main message seems to be to make sure that those you love and care about know this fact. That can be a hard lesson to learn, but once learned, you don’t forget it. There will sadly come a time when you can’t tell them you love them anymore.

Rob Auton has a compelling style of delivery; measured, careful, each word chosen for its suitability. As a result, you have complete confidence in his mastery of his own material. He’s been taking shows up to Edinburgh for ages, so I’m very surprised not to have come across his work before – but I’m very glad I have. He’s still touring with the Talk Show, and also work-in-progressing this year’s Edinburgh show. Catch him if you can for an intelligent, thoughtful and emotional hour’s comedy.

Review – Seasons in our World/Peter and the Wolf, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th May 2019

Seasons in our World/Peter and the WolfIt’s been a couple of years since the Birmingham Royal Ballet danced their way onto the Derngate stage – and many years before that since we last saw them at the Birmingham Hippodrome. So it’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to enjoy some first-rate dance and a quality live music performance from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. For our performance, the company’s principal dancers were resting so it was an interesting chance to see some of the younger performers have their time to shine.

Seasons in our WorldThe first piece, Seasons in our World, was inspired by a poem by David Laing, Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, no less, and balletomane to boot. Its rather complex birth was a result of several discussions and workshops between its three young choreographers, Laura Day, Lachlan Monaghan and Kit Holder, who are all members of the company. Ms Day wanted to create the Spring section of the work. Mr Monaghan, who is Australian, wanted to incorporate the dangers of a too-hot Antipodean climate into the Summer section, whilst Mr Holder choreographed Winter. They also collaborated with award-winning composer Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian in creation of the accompanying music.

Karla DoorbarThe result is a very enjoyable, if difficult to follow, thirty-five minutes of elegant, delicate, even fragile choreography, performed with great skill and grace by the company. It’s a feast for the eyes, with shimmery, sensual costumes, stunning lighting, and clever interaction between the dancers and the see-through scenery panels. Dancers perform in threes, and in couples, and with some excellent solo work by Haoliang Feng (I believe). The Winter section offers a little more humour than the rest of the dance, with sequences where the dancers huddle together like freezing penguins; although their close work together reminded me more of the background characters in Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances (which is no bad thing). The music is very suggestive and full of mini-melodies that you think are going to take off but then they stop and move on to another theme; very evocative to listen to, but also very disconcerting, and with some surprisingly harsh percussion, no doubt there to reflect the potential harshness of climate.

Haolieng FengI enjoyed it, and I liked very much how Winter turned into next year’s Spring; but I couldn’t help but think it lacked a certain something. Maybe having three choreographers equals too many cooks? Certainly you wouldn’t say that the piece as a whole had one vision; but then, I guess, that wasn’t the idea in the first place. No question as to the quality of the dance though, it was elegant and beautiful throughout.

Peter and the WolfI still have the Music for Pleasure recording of Peter and the Wolf performed by the Little Symphony of London and narrated by Paul Daneman – I must have been about nine when I got it. I loved it – and as a result would pompously announce that Prokofiev was my favourite composer; and, the best part of fifty years later, he’s still very high up there in my affections and respect. Peter and the Wolf is awash with brilliant tunes, lush orchestrations, and creative recreations of animal interaction as portrayed by an orchestra. The slinky movement of the cat on the clarinet, the awkward grumpiness of the duck on the oboe, the featherweight frippery of the bird on the flute, the sinister stealth of the wolf are all beautifully realised; plus, of course, Peter’s youthful self-confidence on the strings and the swagger of the triumphal march at the end.

Gus PayneNaturally, it lends itself perfectly to the medium of dance, as the inventive choreographer Ruth Brill, also a member of the company – this evening’s entertainment is nothing if not in-house – expertly proves. Updated from its original pro-Soviet propaganda background of 1936, this production sets it in some municipal backyard, with a dirty old dumped armchair, a broken supermarket trolley, bin stores and some construction scaffolding. At first, I couldn’t see how that would work at all, but you very quickly realise that it fits like a dream. And the cast of characters bridge both this urban setting and the imaginary meadow setting of the original perfectly.

Alys SheeKarla Doorbar’s Peter (yes, a female Peter because the character is “defiant, goal-driven, carefree, moving on instinct” according to Ruth Brill) is a trendy, Sporty-Spice kind of girl, clearly able to take charge of any situation. Gus Payne’s bird is dressed in blue with a flapping yellow jacket, which again represents both the animal and the trendy young urbanite. Alexander Yap’s wolf is in a grey hoodie, Alys Shee’s duck is welded to her headphones, Eilis Small is in black boots, Max Maslen’s Grandfather in comfortable loungewear and the hunters are all girls about town.

Alexander YapIt’s a very effective set of characterisations, and the choreography uses all the available space, on and off the construction site, with great inventiveness. Being really picky, there were a couple of moments though where the choreography just didn’t tie in with the narration. For example, Hollie McNish’s enjoyable and conspiratorial voice tells us “Peter, sitting in the tree, said “Don’t shoot!”” But she wasn’t sitting in the tree, she was down near where we imagine the pond to be. Koen Kessels’ orchestra did a magnificent job with Prokofiev’s score, and, quite apart from being a thoroughly enjoyable dance to watch, it was a true treat for the ears too. But the dancers were all on absolute top form and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Eilis SmallIt has to be said; this is quite an odd combination of pieces, as Seasons in our World is rather difficult to follow as a narration, whereas nothing could be more straightforward in the story-telling department than Peter and the Wolf. And for a show that would naturally attract many children to the audience, I would imagine the first dance would perplex a number of youngsters, who would get fidgety as a result. For a young-at-heart adult like myself, the programme was an enjoyable mix of the challenging and the reassuring. After its couple of nights in Northampton, the tour continues to Shrewsbury, Malvern and Wolverhampton. Recommended!

Production and dancer photos from the Birmingham Royal Ballet website