Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock

Do not concern yourselves, dear readers, I do not (yet) live in a fear of an axe-wielding madman – even one with a cheap and chippy chopper – pursuing me through the streets of Southampton.  This risk may be real but I am already entertaining a range of other fears at my maximum capability and cannot spare the neurons needed to worry about a potential rendezvous with a big black block.  If I’m being honest, I generally believe that I share my flat with my killer: though whether he will finish me off directly with malice aforethought, kill me slowly with (apparently) benign neglect or take me out in an act of terminal clumsiness, I am less sure.

Even the casual viewer of the inanities that I attempt to pass-off as insight through this platform will be aware that I go out to see live culture “quite a bit”.  This has an impact on how I view live culture, as what passes for my brain habituates to the normal range of such experience.  This effect seems more marked for soi-disant high culture for reasons which I am unable to explain.  These days, when in the concert hall I find I want more than a nice Mozart Concert, Haydn Quartet or Beethoven Sonata: I’m looking for more challenging content to adorn the programme.  I will enjoy the more classic repertoire but to pick the “gig” and devote two hours of my evening to attending, I want to be taking a bit of a risk!  I’ve particularly noticed this effect in my theatre-going where I seem to be looking for an every more extreme experience.

When I started my proper, adult theatre-going a few years back, I was more than happy to devote significant time and money to going to see the classics performed in the flesh.  Slowly, I sprinkled in a range of new writing and often found myself enjoying this more and new writing came to largely supplant more familiar work in my choices when picking a play.  Over the last few years, I have seem some really amazing writing but the plays that stick in my mind were those that did something out of the ordinary: that spoke to me of different experiences or which expanded my idea of what could be done with theatre.  However, over the years these have become more difficult to find.  I also have the feeling that, as I age, my attention span is shortening: I see good review for a play that looks interesting and then see that it has a three hour run-time and find myself thinking (a) “No” and (b) “Couldn’t they afford an editor?”.  I also find myself more reluctant to travel to London for theatre, and endure the extra cost and later night, particularly when the NST here in Southampton offers such a varied programme: some nights they have three pieces of theatre on the go at the same time (which is frankly unfair on a man who has perfected neither cloning nor how to successfully combine the separate memories of the clones back to the template, me – or me, or me…).

Over the last couple of years, I have been to see quite a few LBGTQIA+ themed plays on the basis that they are, to an extent, forced to tell stories that have not been done-to-death in the long history of the medium.  This has proved a fairly successful strategy but I fear may be running out of steam.  I was watching Homos, or Everyone In America by Jordan Seavey at the Finborough in the summer.  This was staged in a version of my personal hell, viz a cross between a sandy beach and a branch of Lush – the combined prospect of sand worming its abrasive way where I’d prefer it didn’t and too much aroma in one place.  However, that was not really my issue – and it was certainly novel – and the play was well-acted and entertaining.  My issue arose about two-thirds of the way through when it struck me that plus-or-minus a few references to specific forms of oppression the gay-theming was slightly irrelevant and the themes of middle-class relationship angst with a bit of tragedy thrown in to heighten the emotional stakes were something I’d seen too often before.

I suppose this entirely as it should be: in most respects, in the still mostly-liberal West, a gay (or LBTQIA+) relationship should be very like any other and is likely to encounter most of the same, or very similar, issues that arise when two different human beings try to create and share a life together.  There still remains very real – and currently growing – threats to any one who alone, or as part of a relationship, can be perceived in some way as not “normal”: though having just read the excellent The Unexpected Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke the range of normal that even a very thin slice of nature can provide suggests we humans are still barely paddling on the shoreline of what the animal kingdom encompasses as normal.  For myself, I am a firm believer in giving more power to the elbows (or any other relevant body parts) to any group of consenting adults wishing to try any form of relationship that gives all involved pleasure, without harming others.  If they are willing to try something new, rather than continue with an existing slightly-hackneyed trope, all the better!

In a related area, I am often impressed by how much effort people are willing to put into expressing their authentic selves: I haven’t even glimpsed mine from a distance and am, frankly, running out of time – perhaps I don’t have one?

Anyway, I seem not so much to have wandered but to have strode confidently off-topic.  Whilst I do find myself needing an ever more powerful “hit” from a play – like some sort of addict – it does still happen.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, there are so many stories out there and only a tiny fraction have been told – often clustered around those relating to very small range of viewpoints.  I have been lucky enough to see some really exciting theatre recently and often without having to travel far from home.  I did go up to London to see The Jungle – booked by a friend (and so overcoming my natural inertia and the fact that it was longer than I’d normally pick) – which was a really amazing experience and with more laughs than you might expect: don’t get me wrong, I left properly harrowed by the experience.  The staging, the range of faces and accents rarely seen on “stage” and the power of the story-telling all set this apart – as to an extent did the hopelessness of any practical response I felt able to provide when it was over.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Chichester to see Cock by Mark Bartlett.  This had been recommended by a friend but I will admit that I may have made an extra effort to catch it given huge volume of (just barely) double entendre potential it offered for my Facebook feed.  Let’s just say that I have never enjoyed 90 minutes of cock so much!  It is hard (OK, I will stop now) to say why I enjoyed it so much but it provided the hit that I needed – despite minimal staging, very strict limitations on the actors and a middle-class relationships-based plot.  It was also quite exciting to see some diversity in a Chichester audience and a fair wedge of young people!

Closer to home, Medusa, the show put on by the associate artists at NST and starring the incredible Elf Lyons, was amazing – and how they did it on such a shoestring budget I cannot imagine.  I really hope this has a life beyond three nights at NST City.  I’ve also really enjoyed the shows they’ve brought to their new studio theatre: it’s been like having the Edinburgh Fringe coming to me (not that I ever begrudge a trip to Auld Reekie).  The Believers are but Brothers and Bullish stood out in a really excellent strand of programming covering a wide range of different voices and subjects.  NST just need to work out how to attract a larger audience to these shows…

Last week, I saw the latest show from 1927, The Children and Animals Took to the Streets, which was just a tour-de-force of art, animation, acting and music.  It managed to be clever and magical and enchanting and dystopian and so much more – and all with just three live actors.  It is the sort of thing you immediately want to see again to catch some of the subtle visual treats you missed the first time round.

With 500 words looming, I should probably try and bring this discursion to some sort of conclusion.  For the last few years, one of the most reliable ways to scratch my, ever harder to service, theatrical itch has been the work of the Nuffield Youth Theatre.  I’ll mention their work with a couple of plays by Evan Placey (but only because they came first to my mind) but all of their work with new writing has been so good.  Perhaps their most extraordinary achievement was a physical theatre rendering of the comic book Epileptic by David B: which is almost certainly like no comic book you may be imagining.  This may only have happened once and on a budget that probably wouldn’t have funded a single latte – but it is one of those theatrical experiences which has stuck with me.  As a result, I was really excited to discover that as part of Southampton Film Week, a series of short films produced and directed by its director, were being shown.  Each covers one of Shakespeare’s better known speeches but with a change of context to make sense within modern Southampton and starring various alumni of the NYT (the full suite can be found here).

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Introducing Price Hal…

These shorts were really good and the language stands up very well to a modern re-purposing – which I guess is the mark of a great writer.  The project also has the honour of being the first time that any production of any part of Hamlet has brought a tear to my eye ( and as the screening also offered an unexpected bonus of free tea and jaffa cakes, I think we can be reassured that this wasn’t just a response to some more basic biological need.)  I’ve seen very good performances of the play, but generally find myself wondering how the eponymous hero survives until almost the final reel – had I been in Elsinore, he would have had an unfortunate “accident” early doors to cut down on the self-obsessed moping!

Interestingly, Nuffield (the N of NST) have more current form in making old Will more palatable.  This year, another member of the team (as Curious Pheasant Theatre – no I haven’t asked him why and will admit I have been remiss in this) was involved in producing an LGBT take on Romeo and Juliet, which I saw an early version of and was among those contributing feedback.  It was then taken to Edinburgh and returned for Southampton Pride, trailing glory.  It worked really well and seemed to cover all the important plot, in a rather clever modern staging, and be done in 45 minutes: a lesson there for this blog, perhaps.  As I heard someone comment on leaving, (I shall paraphrase) “that was great and they cut out all the boring stuff”.  Certainly, a great writer does not have to be enjoyed in his (or her) full 3-4 hour authentic pomp to get a powerful message across.  As the auteur behind GofaDM is far from a great writer, I shall perhaps continue to eschew undue brevity for the time being: but it does offer a target to aim for in the future.  In pursuit of that aim, I’m back at Southampton Film Week tonight to see a series of BAFTA Shorts (which I believe are film-lets rather than kecks sponsored by a screen-related charity): let’s see if any good habits rub off on me…

What’s the Deal?

Audiences regularly baffle me.  Sometimes in terms of their composition, but more often in terms of their numbers.  I rather suspect this is because I extrapolate from myself and, despite attempts to correct for my musical (and other cultural) tastes (broad though they may be), I am clearly not coming up with a decent model for the general public.

Most of this post will be about the Southampton scene, but I thought I’d start in the nation’s capital.  On Saturday evening, I went to a folk gig in a London venue I assumed to be somewhat famous to see a pair of musicians I also assumed to be famous: I was anticipating a fairly packed 200 seater.  I think I may have been confusing the concepts of “known to me” and “famous”.  The music venue at The Harrison was a surprisingly small cellar with dangerously low ceilings (well for me, my mother would have had nothing to worry about).  While the cellar became moderately busy by the end of the gig, I think I was in a very small minority having booked ahead and I suspect the only person to have travelled even a fraction of my 70 odd miles.  It was a lovely gig and Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss (footwear sponsored by Adidas) do some amazing work with viola and melodeon (I am listening to Laguna as I write this post).  Even better, the boys finished in time for me to catch the 22:35 train home (albeit with some fast footwork across the Waterloo concourse): an important aspect of any night out in London!

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Moore & Moss: too formally attired?

I have been to some stunning theatre in Southampton, often very highly reviewed by professional critics (rather than random, self-obsessed bloggers like me), but very rarely in a mid-sized theatre even as much as half full.  This fact has proved quite handy for me as I can book very late once I know I will be at home, rather than over the Irish Sea, but can’t be ideal for the funding of the arts.  I also feel that lots of the folk of Southampton and its environs are missing out on some reasonably priced treats: I can generally go to the theatre half-a-dozen times locally for less than the cost of one trip to the west end (and this is very much what I do: there’s nothing wrong with thrift!).

However, the main thrust of this post will be about music and my totally inability to guess how busy a gig will be.  Part of this must be down to my rather sketchy musical knowledge: especially in regard to the popular music of my lifetimes.  There would appear to be large number of touring bands of yesteryear that visit Southampton, perhaps with some changes from the original line-up, of which my memory can deliver no recollection whatsoever.  I have, for instance, noticed that there were a lot more punk bands than I have any memory of and can also observe that the years have not treated the fans of these bands kindly.

I do have a feeling that a significant audience prefers to go (or only goes) to see musicians they fondly remember from a formative period of their youth.  Luckily, I don’t do this – or I’d never go out.  My youth seems to have been formative in non-standard ways, if at all…  Recently, in an unexpected (and now forgotten) context, I heard a JFK quote about not looking to “the safe mediocrity of the past“.  I’d been planning to use this in a savage indictment of the recent politics of both left and right – and perhaps typified by Brexit.  However, I shall instead – and perhaps more in keeping with the character of this blog – apply the principle to being culturally adventurous, with particular application to music.

I do wonder if there may be a certain lack of courage when it come too programming music – though, there may be some financial wisdom to this cowardice as I suspect audience caution robs them of experiences they would love.  Just this Sunday, I went to see the Armida Quartet playing at the Turner Sims.  My reading of the audience – including a few I chatted to over cake at half-time – was that the most enjoyed piece was the least safe choice in the Bach, Mozart and Beethoven: the third string quartet ‘Jagdquartett’ by Jörg Widmann.  It was the presence of this piece (well, that and the free half-time cake) that was my trigger to book the gig, but I suspect I was in a tiny minority (if not alone in this).  I was not disappointed: great music and visually exciting to watch as well – particular snaps to the acting skills of the cellist!

However, sometimes I am positively surprised.  Last Tuesday, I went to my Sofar gig – as part of Sofar Southampton.  These were traditionally held in people’s homes, with the venue announced only 24 hours ahead of time.  This has been an issue in the past, when I have been dependent on public transport or my bike.  They also have tended to require booking ahead of time, which has also been an issue with my rather variable availability midweek.  However, I now have a car and decided to take a punt.  As well as not knowing the venue, the artists performing are not announced at all: you find out who they are when you arrive at the gig.  So, no safety net: you are entirely relying on the skill and judgment of the local Sofar team (I will admit I do seem to know several of them).  I always feel slightly ambivalent about music taking place in unusual places: it is always great fun to see new places (I’m as nosy as the next man – more, if you’ve seen my face), but I feel I should be supporting established venues which have a hard enough time financially without the nation’s reception rooms filching their raison d’être.

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This is not the droid you’re looking for, it’s busy enjoying the music!

No cause for guilt last Tuesday as the ‘front room’ was upstairs at the Art House (a music venue I have often visited).  However, they maintained the usual Sofar vibe by having much of the audience (including me) sitting on cushions on the floor: I’m too old for this, I have come to realise and next time I’ll sit on a chair with the old codgers.  All four acts were great fun: Tom Pointer was originally from Southampton, Djuno are a local band and Ciircus Street had come from exotic Reading.  I enjoyed all of these, in each case sat underneath the neck of some sort of guitar, and would certainly seek them out again.  The headliner (or at least he was on last), Will Varley, claimed to have come all the way from Deal, however, post-gig conversation (as I was buying CDs) revealed he actually lives in Kingsdown (but he did have a range of Southampton gigging experiences, so I think we might still claim him as a son of the city).  I spent chunks of my youth in Walmer (I lived there for four years, as a blonde!  All natural!  Where did it all go wrong?) and regularly walked over Kingsdown with my grandparents and their dog.  Apparently, the area has changed somewhat and is now trendy and possessed of a vibrant music scene (in my day, I think the music scene was limited to the Royal Marines Band).  I now have a hankering to return to the places of my youth, walk the cliffs and prom and take in some live music: might wait for the weather to warm up a little first…  Nostalgia can be a cruel mistress!

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Will Varley with an almost JJ Abrams vibe, viewed from beneath.

Despite the uncertainty about location and musical fare, the gig was fully booked – and I believe this is not unusual.  Clearly there is an audience in the Southampton area with a sense of adventure, but where – I found myself asking (as I didn’t recognise most of them) – are they the other 29(ish) days of the month?  I’ve been to many gigs with three or four acts unknown (to me – and I suspect many others), often at lower cost than a Sofar gig, but been part of a sadly tiny throng: most of whom later turn out to be in (or related to) one of the bands on the bill.  What is Sofar‘s secret and how can we spread it more widely around the local music scene?

Every time I go to update (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide (as I did this morning) I find yet more music and other cultural treats in and around Southampton.  I think I might have to establish a new page to capture details of the potential audience so that we can (together) do suitable justice to our cultural riches!  It’s either that or some experiments of very dubious ethical standing to clone myself – and nobody wants that!

Is he a psychopath?

This blog, now into its eighth glorious(?) year, is entitled Glimpses of a Disturbed Mind.  Over the weekend, as I sat surrounded by organ keyboards and related assemblies and parts, it was pointed out to me that we have moved well beyond glimpses of the author’s mind: we are after all fast approaching the 800th post.  What passes for the author’s mind has surely been laid bare for all to see – or at least all with access to a sufficiently uncensored version of the internet and possessed of an interest in the author and with the considerable patience (and time) needed to wade through the 778 (at time of writing) back numbers.  I would maintain that there are whole areas of my psyche – and most of my hidden darkness – that have been kept successfully obscured from prying eyes: though a competent mental health professional may be less convinced by this line of reasoning.  However, I would have to accept the further criticism that whilst the eponymous mind may (or may not) be disturbed it is undeniably self-obsessed.

This combined with other recent bouts of self-reflection about my emotional responses to life have led me to ponder whether the author is a psychopath (in addition to having the disturbing habit of referring to himself in the third person).  At the risk of immediately diffusing any form of dramatic tension at this early stage in the post, I have assessed the author using a number of on-line tests for psychopathic tendencies and can be reasonable confident that he (and so I) am not a psychopath.  I have not had the time (or inclination) to read through the whole of DSM-5 in an attempt to characterise my mental pathology with any specific diagnosis, largely because I feel that way lies madness – probably all forms of madness and other psychological and neural disorders in that hefty tome (with the possible exception of housemaid’s knee).

Normally, I do not worry too much about my psychological make-up as I seem to smile and laugh far more than is reported as typical, so figure it can’t be too bad.  I have slight concerns about my psychological resilience given the oddly charmed life that has been my lot to date – though some of that may be down to me taking my life as lived and choosing to label it as ‘oddly charmed’; others may have taken the same life and feel themselves to have been cursed.  I am hoping that heavy caveat is sufficient to placate Fate and not draw her attention tither: unless she is using an alias, she does not appear to be a follower of GofaDM.

This recent pondering of my possible psychopathy arose after going to see the play Things I Know to be True last Friday.  This has received very good reviews and produced a very substantial emotional response in the audience sharing the Nuffield Theatre with me on Friday evening.  I found myself left oddly unmoved – which is odd, as I usually find myself weeping (or at least tearing-up) at the most trivial and banal of narrative elements on stage, screen or page.  The play was perfectly alright and there were many laugh-out loud moments, but the key emotional moments seemed too obviously telegraphed from rather early on.  Part of me was waiting for each predicted emotional maximum to arise which somehow robbed them of any real affect (and effect, for that matter).  Since many of life’s great tragedies or emotional peaks can also be forecast ahead of time (and often with more than the 60 minutes notice one might obtain from a play), I found myself wondering if I had become some sort of pitiless monster (or was ever thus).  I have often joked that I have ‘all the empathy of a well-aimed half-brick’ (a phrase I believe I borrowed from early Terry Pratchett) but had I been showing unwitting insight all these years?

These thoughts consumed me for a while, but were unable to survive exposure to the Bobonboboffs set at the Cricketer’s Arms a little later that same evening  There is something about vigorous ska – eventually delivered by a lead singer minus his slacks and a lead guitarist on a table (despite the limited headroom) that renders such maudlin self-regard difficult to sustain.  I’m not sure if they’ve ever explored the therapeutic element of their work, but it is always an option…

I was reminded of the childlike delight I had taken in elements of my first stumbling attempts at playing Cruella de Vil (by one Melville A level) on the piano earlier that week.  My first time doing some jazz-style things using my fingers was an incredible high and makes me determined to master the piece, despite its difficulty: and not just as a suitable theme to accompany my personality.  I was also forced to recall that my eyes have had to take an early bath during almost all of the other recent plays I have seen – with particular reference to The Busy World is Hushed and Quaint Honour at the Finborough Theatre – and the last time I went to the flicks – to see Call Me by Your Name.  Though this did lead me to wonder if I can only generate an emotional response where some form of romance exists: even if this existence is purely in my own head.  I think I’m using romance here with a relatively broad definition and not just as it relates to gland games.  Then again, given that I have not really competed in any gland games – even at an amateur level – it may be that my response reflects a lack of emotional maturity.  Perhaps, emotions that I have not had need to use in own life are spilling out given any remotely viable outlet to avoid some sort of over-pressure shut-down or, if left unvented, explosion.  Though, frankly that reads like cod psychology even to me – and who can guess the mental state of a demersal fish?

So, to sum up Your Honour, there is no psychological impediment to prevent my client acquiring that set of meat cleavers and I trust you will allow him to exit this courtroom without a stain on his character!

Maiden Aunt

Not alas, the sister of a parent who can keep a batsman firmly pinned to his (or her) crease – though surely such folk must exist – but instead a rumination on my role (or one of them) in life.

This blog has noted before that I would make someone (or ones) an excellent maiden aunt despite my total lack of ability at cricket and my possession of a volume of Y-chromosomes that would normally lead to instant disqualification.    For a start, I use far more allusions to the game of bridge in everyday conversation than is normal – especially as I haven’t played the game in more than a decade.  Of late, my inner aunt seems to have been moving ever closer to the surface and it can only be a short while before she is engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight with my inner child for mastery of my declining years.

In my cultural outings, I often find myself able to observe young people “up close” and often for substantial periods of time.  This is not just my inate voyeuristic tendencies, but the fact that they are often performing on a stage (or where one should imagine a stage, though technically one does not exist) directly in front of me and it seems rude not to watch.

As a brief digression, this brings me to another one of my ragtag collection of unusual and not wholly utilitarian super-powers.  I seem unable to attend any theatrical production without at least one member of the cast getting their top (and often more) off.  To answer the naysayers who may think the old fool has wandered into a gentleman’s club (a place where I suspect one is very unlikely to encounter a gentleman, or at least one meeting my definition thereof) while not wearing his glasses, I can assure you that these are excursions to the proper theatre and not to venues where dancing takes place on the sort of surfaces normally used to rest a tray or mobile computer.  It may be that theatre is hoping that torso-based nudity will bring the punters in or that I am subconsciously choosing productions where stripping is required, however, I am assuming that something about my prescence must be causal.  Perhaps fortunately, this power only rarely shows itself outside the theatre, for now at least…

This leads us neatly to the first aspect of my maiden aunthood: the young and theatrically inclined really need to be eating more.  Every man-Jack (or woman-Jill) of them, almost without exception, seems worryingly close to emaciation.  They make me look overweight, something which would only be medically viable if I lost around a foot in height (I’ve tried just eating or drinking more, but it doesn’t seem to work).  We are told there is an obesity crisis afflicting the young (and the not so young), but most of my test subjects give the lie to this idea.  My other sample of young people, who could probably be described as music/jazz geeks, share this tendency to a willowy lack of physical substance.  I had even less flesh when younger than I do now – training as a middle-aged gymnast has helped place some minimal meat on my bones (though I fear I’d still make more of a low-fat starter than a main) – but I don’t remember being this skinny, even in my famine poster-child days.  I find myself worrying that these youths may inadvertently snap a limb live on stage should they be struck by a falling leaf or flying athropod.  I’ve started to wonder if I should be bringing a good square meal or two with me to each gig: or would this be viewed as odd?

The second indicator of my changing status relates to the idea of “feeling the benefit”.  I first noticed this at the Joiners – a rather famous local music venue which I’ve started visiting in 2017.  I have even used the gents, despite strong warnings not to (they really aren’t that bad, I’ve seen much worse).  During the cold January evenings, I noticed young people in the audience – and indeed on stage – continuing to wear their full outdoor clothing long after they had transitioned into the relative warmth of the venue.  My inner aunt was very concerned that when the music ends and they are cast back out into the frosty external air they wouldn’t feel the benefit of their warm(ish) clothing – an issue likely to be exacerbated by their general lack of adipose insulation.  I have, to-date, resisted tendering any advice in this direction (but it’s not been easy).

The third indicator came at an open-mike might at the Talking Heads.  By some distance the best performer on the night was a young lad sporting several haircuts, what I would consider an unwise volume and distribution of tattoos and lobe deforming ear ornamentation.  You might have thought that one of these aspects of his appearance might have brought auntie Stuart to the fore, but no, (s)he was far more worried that he didn’t seem to be getting enough sleep.  As an insomniac myself, I fear there was little advice I could offer the chap but still feel I should perhaps have given him a quick talk on sleep hygiene (not that this knowledge has ever done me much good).

So far, I have manage to resist spitting on my hankie and scrubbing a smut or simlar mark off the face of a stranger, but I feel it can only be a matter of time.  Is there some sort of Aunts Anonymous with a 12-step programme that I can join?  Or am I doomed?

 

Dad 321

It had to happen eventually (it didn’t), I have finally experienced the joys of fatherhood (true, but misleading).  And now I shall just leave matters there, in an attempt to build some dramatic tension…

I spent last week in Edinburgh, at the famous Fringe and its much smaller cousin, the International Festival.  As usual, I attempted to fit way too much culture into a week, but as last year I attempted to manage my addiction by refusing to attend any show starting after 22:00.  I may have been massively over-stimulated, but at least I was tucked up in bed before midnight!  Effectively my ego was acting as a rather laissez-faire parent to my id, but did at least impose some boundaries (okay, one boundary – but you have to start somewhere).

As I headed north for my annual cultural overload, the weather was set fair – or so the Met Office claimed, erroneously as it transpired.  So damp and totally unlike the forecast was the actual weather that a lesser man might suspect the Met Office to be in the pay of an unscrupulous cabal of Scots mackintosh and umbrella vendors, attempting to lure gullible Sassenachs north with insufficient wet-weather gear.  Fortunately, years of childhood holidays in Wales mean that I am not so easily fooled.

As is traditional, my Fringe had an underlying bedrock of comedy, but this made up the smallest proportion of my gigs yet. Before going I had left myself a note to see a chap called Tom Ballard, though I no longer had any idea why.  Trusting in the judgment of past-me I dutifully went to see the youth – and was surprised to find he was Australian.  Despite this handicap, I had a great time at his gig and current-me can thoroughly recommend the lad: however, I still have absolutely no idea why past-me had made a note of his name.  Does this suggest that my work in temporal mechanics will shortly bear fruit and that I use the breakthrough to provide gig recommendations to my past selves?

In a further nod to tradition, several mornings were spend at the Queens Hall soaking up some classical music.  Mark Padmore made a vastly better fist of An die ferne Geliebte than I ever have – and I was watching him (and listening) very closely for tips.   Despite this hawk-like observation, I still cannot say how he filled the whole venue while also singing piano and even pianissimo.  Other musical highlights were the Dunedin Consort playing Handel, accompanied by the stunning voice of Louise Alder (where required, she sat out the concerti grossi) and a concert of piano, viola and clarinet centred around György Kurtág.  This is a very fine grouping of instruments and the works by Mark Simpson, Marco Stroppa and Robert Schumann have opened a whole new area of music to me, though I may need a little more time to fully embrace Mr Kurtág himself.

Circus also played a big part in my week, once again demonstrating that I have a long way to go before running away to the big top is a viable career plan.  Most of the circus seemed to originate from Australia, perhaps indicating greater legal protection for French-Canadians (who, like elephants, can no longer be exploited to thrill an audience), and was very good.  My two avourites were A Simple Space and Elixir which both combined amazing skills with a lot of fun – and, in the case of the latter, the first time I have seen a man actually steam.   In fact, every circus I saw was good and introduced some new physical feat or new way of approaching an old idea which suggests that there is life in the form for some time to come: which is good new for my long term career planning.

For the first time in Edinburgh, I branched out into dance and saw an amazing piece called Smother.  This claimed to be hip-hop dance, though given my limited (okay, non-existent) knowledge of the genre I wouldn’t have guessed, and the 55 minutes flew past.  It would seem that hip-hop embraces rather more than a rap-based musical style: you live and learn!  I am now more keen then ever to extend my limited gymnastic skills into  b-boying – though was distressed to discover that even in this apparently free form of dance, one is still expected to keep in time with the beat (or at least the young performers clearly acted as though this were required).  Do evening classes still exist, or are we supposed to leaen everything from YouTube videos now? Music-wise I also went to see the Melbourne Ska Orchestra which was a great experience, though unlike much of the audience I did resist the urge to dance (too early in the day for my blood-alcohol levels to have reached the threshold required for dancing), but I’ll admit it was a close-run thing and had the seating been a little less cramped I might have “cut a rug” (as I believe the young people say).  My other favourite musical piece is harder to describe, it was a combination of fairly thin spoken autobiography, a music lesson and some virtuoso piano playing by Will Pickvance (a chap I had heard on The Verb, purveyor of many good things).  This, in a place where animals were once dissected, was a thing of total joy and a complete contrast to everything else I saw.  It somehow seemed to recharge my cultural batteries.

I also looked at some art and discovered that 10am is rather to early to face the full onslaught of surrealism.  It also became clear that Bridget Riley’s work is not ideal for the sufferer of astigmatism: though staring at some of her works does function as a suprisingly effective legal high!  I can fully recommend Inspiring Impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery which opened my eyes to the the role of Daubigny in so much of the impressionist art – and indeed beyond – I have seen over the years.  The exhibition ends with a wonderful, if heart-breaking and very late, painting by Vincent Van Gogh: it would seem I now cry at paintings too.

The final category of fun was theatrical.  My favourite piece came from Belgium and had the unpromising start time of 10am and subject matter of the terrorist massacre at the high school in Beslan.  Despite this unholy trinity of issues, Us/Them was an amazing piece of work and made the whole week in Edinbugh worthwhile on its own.  In fact, Summerhall was awash with interesting Belgian theatre (mostly Flemish) – of which I had time to see far too little – so I think I may have to spend some quality time in Brussels.

Right, I suppose I’ve kept you waiting long enough, I should explain my recent fatherhood and introduce my new son (who has a bushy beard and probably out-weighs his father).  My second favourite piece of theatre was Every Brilliant Thing, which I wanted to see last year but was sold-out and so this year I got myself organised (just a little bit, to quote that sage of life planning, Gina G).  It was worth the wait, though I did blub a little (well, I was more involved than usual in the plot) having made it through Us/Them with (almost) dry eyes.  The play stars one half of Jonny and the Baptists (I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal it is not “the Baptists” and that one should never trust a swan) and, as it turns out, quite a lot of the audience.  Many people are handed a slip of paper to declaim at the appropriate moment: mine was numbered 321 (not, so far as I know, in tribute to the late Ted Rogers).  However, a few of us had larger roles and I had to play Jonny’s father (and to an extent Jonny).  This seemed a fairly modest obligation at first, safely discharged from my seat with only a minimum of speaking (just the one word, albeit delivered several times) or acting required (so very much pitched at my level of skill).  This contrasted with one member of the audience who had a lot more work to do while wearing only one shoe: and in my performance she was so good at her part I still wonder if she had been practising.  However, just when I thought it was safe to rest on my laurels (or cushion, no laurels were provided) I was dragged centre-stage and required to give an impromptu wedding speech as the father of the groom.  I’m sure my readers would not have been caught napping, but I had come woefully unprepared with not so much as a best man’s speech on me.  Luckily the discovery that Jonny (my son) was very much shorter than me provided an “in”(by way of reference to his tiny mother) and I managed to extremporise a small speech which went down suprisingly well.   It is rather nice being applauded by an entire theatre, if also a tad embarrassing, and I rather fear a monster has been created.  In future, I shall expect a round of applause for any impromptu declaration exceeding a couple of sentences.

Gosh, that was a long one – and such a range of references, if I were a better chap I’d provide footnotes.  Suffice to say, I had a splendid holiday but very little (if any) of a rest.

Bit’ a Schubert. [The] guy was a dude.

It is a little more than two years ago that I started going to the theatre regularly, some might say obsessively.  Over time, I have moved from classics and comedies and, indeed, the intersection of the two (I’ll leave readers to construct their own Venn diagram), into darker territory.  I do begin to wonder if I may (unbeknownst to myself) be a comic book hero, as they all seem to be heading in the same direction – with Batman very much in the vanguard.

The first theatrical experience I can remember was a somewhat terrifying pantomime in Canterbury – this wasn’t (so far as I can recall) a bunch of current pop hints linked together by someone off of Emmerdale as tends to be the current vogue – with a very angry (and frightening) Christmas pudding as the villain (or so I remember, but this may not be 100% accurate as it was a long time ago and I was a lot younger).  Despite this trauma, I have not developed any sort of phobia about plum duff in later life (though I suppose there is still time).

My first “adult” experiences of theatre were visiting the Oxford Playhouse when at university.   I can still remember a rather young Helena Bonham-Carter playing a somewhat unconvincing Ariel in a student version of the Tempest, a very funny melodrama entitled Black Eyed Susan and an amazing performance of Oklahoma! by the local operatic society (for the avoidance of doubt, caused by the limits of English punctuation, HB-C as Ariel appeared in only one of these performances).  On one of my visits back to my alma mater over the summer, I revisited the Playhouse to see Dunsinane – a sort of “what happened next?” for Macbeth.  The play was excellent, but the Playhouse interior was entirely unrecognisable from my student days (down, I think, to refurbishment rather than amnesia).

But, enough of the nostalgia already, yesterday I took the train up to London for an afternoon and evening of quite dark theatre (though not without its laughs), with both plays owing something to the topic of child abuse.  My first was in the West End: a place I usually avoid as a result of the high prices, poor sightlines and poor quality ice cream offerings.  However, Mojo was very well reviewed, boasted a stellar cast (half of which I had previously seen on stage) and a famous auteur.  The play was excellent, very funny at times and at others pitch black.  The cast were brilliant – and must be exhausted playing eight shows a week as it is fairly physical play and has a lot of words, often spoken very quickly and at volume (my voice wouldn’t survive a single performance in at least 4 of the 6 roles).  Daniel Mays, in particular, must have had quite the vocal training to survive his performance.  I am still amazed when I see actors that I have seen before – whether on stage or screen – how unlike their previous roles they are (well, except Sean Connery – but I’ve never seen him on the stage).  I realise this is a fairly critical part of the job, but it remains somehow magical to me.

As seems fairly common with my theatrical “picks”, we do see quite a lot of the cast and so I can say that stage acting does seem to keep the weight off quite effectively (at least for those in their 20s).  I wonder if Sport England or the Department for Health should be promoting Amateur Dramatics more assiduously to tackle the obesity crisis?

The play also provided a celebrity spotting moment, as at half-time I discovered the elderly head which very occasionally blocked my view of part of the stage, belonged to Peter Bowles.

After pit stops at Foyles and 10 Greek Street, I headed to the Finborough Theatre.  This is a place I’ve been planning to visit for ages, but somehow never managed to do until yesterday.  Their website warns you to allow plenty of time for your journey as latecomers are not admitted (and I could see why, as to reach my seat I had to cross the “stage”) and they were right – the Piccadilly line was jiggered and I had to find an alternative route to Earls Court (hiking at speed to Westminster followed by the District Line).  The Finborough is on the top (I think – I didn’t count the stairs and compare against the height of the building – pure laziness I’ll freely admit) floor of what was once a pub, but is now a wine bar, and is a very intimate venue – which I much prefer.  The whole theatre – stage and “auditorium” was little (if any) larger than my lounge – so you are definitely close to the action.

The play Unscorched was about a man who starts a job requiring him to view on-line child pornography as part of the effort to shut-down the websites, rescue the children and prosecute those involved.  It follows how this affects him over a three month period.  This sounds awful, but the play was incredible – funny at times, moving, thought-provoking and one of those that will stick with me.  The two main actors Ronan Raftery and John Hodgkinson were both excellent and there was great support from the rest of the cast.  I think it might be the best play I have seen yet – and I have seen quite a few, all good and many really excellent.  It was also less than one third of the price of Mojo: I really don’t know how they get the economics to work (and I do worry about such things).  The staging was also very clever which may have helped, requiring little more than some carpentry, some carpet tiles and a little ironmongery (hinges et al).  I caught the final performance, and I’m pretty sure held the door open on the way downstairs for the playwright – Luke Owen (who was irritatingly youthful).  It won a prize (judged I’m sure by those far more qualified than I) – the Papa Tango prize.  This is a fairly new prize for new writers and its first winner was Dominic Mitchell, who later wrote In the Flesh which has already been praised on this very blog.  I shall have to keep a very careful eye out for the winner in 2014 as the Papa Tango panel and I seem have some serious commonality in taste.

Choosing new, or newish, plays with edgier content but that are either well-reviewed or have potentially interesting content really seems to be paying off for me.  This is not something the me of even three years ago would ever have expected to say (or even type) – I’d always assumed that new plays were a form of penance for the audience (and perhaps some are and I’ve been lucky to miss them).

The day held only two disappointments: (i) Southwest Trains – of which more another time and (ii) the shortage of women – two plays, eleven actors and only one who could boast a pair of X chromosomes.

Oh, the title you ask: that is a direct quite from Unscorched and is almost the last line of the play.  Rarely has a truer phrase been spoken on stage!

A stage I’m going through…

As I set hands to keyboard, I see it is a good six weeks since I last posted.  Well, ‘good’ if you view the arrival of a new post from GofaDM in much the same way as a zebra greets the tender, watery embrace of a peckish crocodile.

This period of neglect follows a rather heavy period of work (something the regular reader will know that I usually try to avoid) which has left me with little time or energy to render my musings in electronic type.  Despite, or perhaps as a result of, this lack of new material visitors continue to come to my shop door and this has shamed me into returning to my laptop.  I also have whole heaps of plans for posts, s many that they are now keeping me awake at night and the only way to exorcise them is to send them out into the unfeeling world (or at least the only way I am currently going to try).

In a, probably vain, attempt to retain my somewhat tenuous grasp on sanity I have been turning to the Arts over these difficult early weeks of 2013.  Little do the philistines in charge of this country’s purse-strings realise what a vital role the Arts play in the continued economic viability of the UK (or at least in my part thereof).  Still, on the basis that most government policy is decided on the basis of anecdotes – at best (certainly evidence seems to be largely ignored)  – I hope this may have a salutary effect on future funding.  Whilst books, music, comedy, television and cinema are all important – the main plank of my strategy to keep the “men in white coats” (with their vans with such nicely tinted windows) from my door has been the theatre.  This would have astounded the me of little more than 18 months ago who had barely been in a theatre for more than a decade.  It would seem that the theatre is rather more addictive than is generally realised – maybe it’s the smell of the grease paint?

My theatre-going began with classics from ages past – and this continues.  Among these classics, I’ve seen two plays this year (both farces) by Arthur Wing Pinero, a character I had previously assumed was a fictional creation from the late night Radio 4 show Date with Fate hosted by the splendid voice of Charles Gray in the guise of AWP.  Turns out he (AWP not CG)  was also a real playwright of the late nineteenth century and despite choosing The Magistrate on the basis of a complete misunderstanding, it was a scream and on the strength of this example I went on to see Trelawney of the Wells at the Donmar Warehouse last week.  This was also good fun – though less farcical, but with more heart – and the interval ice cream whilst on the expensive side was rather larger than the usual theatre fare.  Interval snack mention: tick.

However, the most exciting theatre I’ve seen has been new (or at least recent) writing.  This often also has the benefit of being staged in smaller, more intimate venues.  I have come to realise that I am much more willing to take a chance on a play that may be outside my traditional “comfort zone” than I am with a film or a TV programme – rather an odd choice to make from a cost perspective as I’m taking chances with the most expensive option, but so far it has worked really well.  Most of my choices have proven to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.  Many I’ve chosen on the basis of proper, broadsheet reviews (which give me some idea of what I’m going to see) but some, as this past weekend, on much flimsier criteria.

My first was selected on the basis of a single actor (though it later transpired to include Meera Syal as well, so two actors).  The actor in question, Damian Molony, I think is quite excellent as Hal in Being Human and was also great in Travelling Light at the National last year.  However, more important than his acting chops was the fact that he is the man who introduced me, via the medium of Twitter, to 10 Greek Street – so I owed him one and the least I could go was go and see his latest play in partial recompense.  This play, if you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep has the longest title of anything I’ve seen and was the most overtly political.  It has received mixed reviews – the Torygraph particularly took against it – but I found it darkly entertaining, if occasionally uncomfortable, and the most thought-provoking thing I’ve seen yet.  Criticism seem to fall into two camps: either that it would not be suitable as an undergraduate economics course (though something that was suitable would have made very poor theatre in the absence of a truly remarkable lecturer) or that it lacked character development.  This later would have been tricky to fix with more than 20 characters played by 8 actors across a mere 75 minutes.  I’d say it was highly successful at achieving the author’s aims in a very buttock and bladder friendly period of time.  The acting was also first rate and, as it turned out, I recognised fully half of the cast.  So successful was it that I went out and bought a book (from a flesh-and-blood bookshop) on economics directly afterwards – not something I ever saw myself doing.  I should perhaps note the stirling work of Tim Harford on More or Less and John Kay on a Point of View (both on BBC Radio 4) in rehabilitating the whole field of economics for me in the period prior to Saturday’s play and book purchase.  Expect the standard of economic discourse on GofaDM to improve markedly in the weeks to come (well, I say ‘expect’ but perhaps that may be building expectations too high , only time will tell).

Saturday’s second play was in the basement of the Hampstead Theatre which meant I visited Swiss Cottage tube station which is quite lovely (I’d recommend a visit), largely as it appears rather less “improved” than many of its brethren.  Another play with a long title, I know how I feel about Eve, this time chosen on the basis of a tweet by the stand-up comic Rob Rouse.  By the way, I have been to new plays with shorter titles – the previous week I went to see Port at the National (nothing to do with the delicious drink from Iberia, bur rather a reference to Stockport) which was also very good.  ikhIfaE was excellent, despite a subject matter I probably wouldn’t have chosen with greater advanced information, and in shades of the first (and best, for my money) of the latest series of Black Mirror raised interesting questions about the nature of identity when trying to replace the dead.  Again, in and out in a very reasonable 70 minutes – I find I’m rather liking these tighter plays, even though you do miss out on the interval ice cream.

Whilst I now find myself starting to becoming twitchy if I haven’t been to the theatre for more than a few days, even at my current (accelerating?) rate of consumption I cannot keep new (and old) British theatre going alone.  So, can I urge all GofaDM readers to make the effort to visit the theatre – it need not be that expensive (oddly new theatre is often cheaper than old, despite the works being stubbornly within copyright) – and they could use the money (as to be honest can the Arts more generally).  Why not try something new or just different to your normal fare?  It has certainly worked for me!  If it affects you as it has me, we can form a new take on AA – Audience Anonymous – to try and manage our condition (something Hal would certainly understand).