Front of House: An Usher

With apologies to Edgar Allan ‘iddle-I’ Poe.

Last Monday I was at the Nuffield Theatre for their regular Experiment night where four incomplete theatrical fragments are given a run-out in front of a live audience in the hope of constructive feedback.  I find this does place quite a lot of pressure on me, as an audience member, trying to come up with something vaguely insightful to write.  As so often, there was a clear winner – this time St Jowan’s Tide by Felix Legge – which I really want to see made into a full play.

This Monday (or ‘tonight’ to its friends) will offer a somewhat different experience as I am off to the Soho Theatre in London to see Andy Zaltzman’s Satirist for Hire: the combination of the news I (eventually) awoke to this morning (frankly an open goal for Zaltor the Magnificent) and the fact that Southwest Trains is offering discount tickets to London again made it an irresistible prospect.  I think I should only be expected to laugh: a feat of which I am quite capable, even in the absence of yoga (though, experiments yesterday afternoon suggest that I still find myself doing yoga terribly funny).

After the theatre had finished and I had scribed such feedback as my limited critical faculties could muster, I found myself chatting to one of the Nuffield team.  It emerged that they were short of ushers for Saturday and in a fit of public-spirited engagement, I volunteered my very unskilled services (still, at least no stapling was required).  So, at 0930 on Saturday morning I found myself reporting to the theatre clad neck-to-ankle in black: as close as my wardrobe could approximate to the usher ‘uniform’.

Pleasingly, I was issued with my own little torch and a hi-viz waistcoat (or vest for any American readers) for use in emergencies.  I tried to contain my disappointment during the fire drill training when it became apparent that there was no role for Inspector Sands: the poor chap seems to be out of work, austerity-based cutbacks are clearly biting deep.  For any interested parties, I would note that it is still considered de trop to scream the word FIRE at full volume into the auditorium.  I was not entrusted with the ice cream tray – but that was mostly down to the lack of an interval rather than any concerns about my ability to keep my hands (and tongue) off the stock.

The play in question, which I ushered through two performances at 1030 and 1330, was What The Ladybird Heard by Julia Donaldson and was aimed at a younger audience and I’d guess that most of its non-parental members were aged 0-6 (years).  This was my first exposure to theatre aimed at such a youthful demographic (except the odd pantomime four decades back and an excerpt at Monday’s Experiment) and they seemed to enjoy it.  For the parents and ushers, I’d suggest it could have been a great deal worse – and I did find new ‘stuff’ to enjoy in my second viewing.  I would note that in addition to her important aphid-eating duties (unmentioned in the play), the ladybird proved unexpectedly capable at foiling a planned robbery.  Her method, in terms of its complexity, had more in common with the Hooded Claw or a Bond villain than you might anticipate.  Apparently, there is a sequel: I’m hoping that the ladybird continues with her crime-fighting exploits and once again thwarts the ne’erdowells by involving her farm friends in a suitably labyrinthine scheme.

Despite some strong lobbying by nearby parents during the 1330 performance, I was not required to play the part of Lanky Len: I like to assume this was a comment on my athletic build rather than their view on my innate criminality.  I left the audience participation to the paying audience, being unwilling to sacrifice what limited air of authority I possessed.  Still, all seem to go well and no-one died on my watch – which I believe is the gold-standard for ushering.  I may even volunteer my services again, one day…

The genie is out of the bottle

The worms have – very much – left the can.  And, as we all know, entropy – or the arrow of time – prevents freed worms being returned to the same can.  Perhaps I should explain the title: see I can hear your plaintive, beseeching cries.

I have spent three of the last four nights at the Nuffield Theatre – though none in quite the usual way.  On Sunday night I went to see a Q&A with Tom Hiddleston who spoke about his career, theatre and film.  This was very interesting and drew an overwhelmingly female audience, some from as far away as Canada and the Far East.  I fear my own public speaking or Q&A sessions have not drawn such a broad audience (and have occasioned far less whooping) – and such audience as I can draw usually has their travel funded by their employers.

On Monday night, I went to see Experiment – a night of new writing laid on by the Nuffield Laboratory.  This contained two fragments which may one day develop into full plays, the beginnings of a spoken word piece and an almost indescribable (but fun) audience participation piece.  The night was enormously entertaining – far more than can usually be achieved for £4 – and I still find myself wondering what will happen (or had already happened) to the characters in the two play fragments and musing on the ideas from the spoken word piece.

Tonight I went on a Playdate – something I normally leave to my nephew.  On these occasions (for adults…  and me) a small group read a play and chat about it.  Our play tonight was Loveplay by Moira Buffini – first performed by the RSC on my 35th birthday.  This has a whole series of brief scenes (or vignettes), set in time periods from 79AD to 2001, each looking at an aspect of “love”.  During the evening I played: a Roman soldier, a Saxon rapist, a 14th century playwright, a Victorian adulterer and a virgin schoolboy (typecasting, I know) from the 1930s.  What a range!  This was an indecent amount of fun (and was free) and I loved acting: I wanted to play all the parts and found myself just waiting for my next line.   The play is somewhat comic, so I was also trying to milk my lines for laughs – where appropriate.  If given the chance, I would also have done the foley work and given life to the stage directions.

At the end, the organiser asked if I was an actor – and an actual actor remarked on my confidence at a first reading.  I am clearly wasted on PowerPoint presentations, the time has come for me to begin my stage career.  Well, I believe it is in my blood (I think my grandparents participated in am-dram) and now it has finally been released.  A star (and/or monster) is born!  You have been warned!  If you start running now, you may just avoid the consequences of tonight’s activities – but I wouldn’t bet on it!

Adventures in organic chemistry

Fear not, this will not involve adding colourless, odourless chemical A to colourless, odourless chemical B (via pipette) to produce colourless, odourless chemical C.  Or at least, that is my main recollection of organic chemistry at school – with only the blackboard to convince you that C had indeed been produced after the long minutes of titration.  Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, we did once make an ester which was not odourless.  I fear even this limited excitement may be denied students of chemistry today – part of my last OU Day School took place in a chemistry classroom and not a Bunsen burner or chemical was in sight, just a rather small (and empty) fume cupboard.  Where will the next Andrea Sella come from, if this is the way the young experience chemistry?

Oh no, my experiments took place in the moderately well-equipped laboratory that is the kitchen of Fish Towers.  Sadly, no Bunsen burner; a ceramic hob just isn’t the same.  Some of you may cavil that my works are mere cookery, and not organic chemistry at all – but I would respond by asking what is cookery other than applied organic chemistry with a (hopefully) delicious result?

The first took advantage of the sudden, miraculous appearance of summer, to make a semi-freddo – something I’d been meaning to do for several years.  This process used every bowl I own and every whisking device at my disposal – and I quickly decided this would be my one and only venturing into the world of the half-frozen.  Well, that was until I came to eat the fruits of my labour after it had spent some hours languishing in the freezer.  Sadly, it was seriously delicious – and so it should be, using as it did a pint of double cream, four eggs as well as a vanilla pod and a little sugar.  Given its very low sugar and almost non-existent salt content, from a certain perspective it could even be considered a healthy option.  I think halving the ingredients would make its future manufacture a more practical option (assuming further summer is delivered to South Cambs) – but perhaps I should also investigate the related concept of the parfait.  I’m not sure this is much lower in fat, but its construction does seem possible with a lower whisk and bowl count.

My other culinary experiment of this last week was the roll.  I’ll admit it may seem rather prosaic, but I’d never made them before – and I was looking for a home-made bread product that would allow the slow consumption of the still fresh article over an extended period.  I have made loaves, halved them and then frozen one half  – but dividing a load any further (without a specialised slicing machine) does not seem a very viable option: any middle portions of the load tend to lose too much structural integrity.  So, I turned to the humble roll   – the bread maker forms the dough and I then divide it into unevenly sized rolls, prove and then bake them.  A slightly more interventionist process than the basic loaf, but a more flexible end product.  At this stage, I am using recipes provided by Mr (or Mrs) Panasonic as I was breaking new ground – but greater customisation may be introduced in subsequent batches.  Once again, a highly successful and tasty experiment – and with very modest workload for the dishwasher in this case.  I may also have gained important insight into the proving process which may yield dividends in future bun making -it all comes down to air (or such is my current theory).

For those disappointed by my rather limited experimental palette, I can recommend the blog-work of James Devine: a very tall chap with an engineering bent who has the great good fortune to work for CERN (and had the less good fortune of meeting me when I visited 18 months ago).  He performs proper experiments for fun (not just work) of a form I have only dreamt about – and only occasionally do these exploit the fact that he has rather more access to particle accelerators than do I.  I am somewhat jealous of his perspicacity – though try and comfort myself with the fact that his essays on the art of Benin are probably less well reviewed than mine.  His latest work is on the subject of cooking – though he has gone for sous-vide whereas I usually balk at a the hassle of a mere bain-marie.  Once again I find I must try harder: should I be studying engineering rather than the Arts?  I suspect I have significantly more chance of becoming an engineer than I an artist – though who knows what hidden talents I may have…