Time future.

You will remain yourself,
though people will no longer recognise you.
You will travel back through time
as your future foreshortens.
You will see ghosts.
You will be stripped back to your core,
reshaped by loss.
You will leave behind nightmares
and set aside dreams.

There will be no more pretending,
no more posing, no more excuses,
no more frills.
You will come to know what you had
and recognise who you are.
You will watch the world speed up,
as it prepares to move on without you,
reaching out your hand.

Just you and your memories.
Holding firm.

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Much Ado About Nothing. Northern Broadsides/New Vic at the Stephen Joseph theatre.

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Isobel Middleton and Robin Simpson as Beatrice and Benedick. Production photograph by Nobby Stiles.

Much Ado About Nothing is a delightful play, mainly because of Beatrice and Benedick- two older sparring partners who clearly have a history of some kind together. Everybody knows that there is a spark between them and they should be together- finally- but they just haven’t seen it yet. “Will they or won’t they” is the oldest trick in the romantic comedy playbook and it has always worked. When set against Hero and Claudio, a second young, idealistic couple anxious to start a life together in the face of opposition you have a play that zips along, both funny and touching. It still works beautifully after 400 years and remains completely intelligible in the way that Shakespeare comedy sometimes doesn’t, time is no barrier to universal human feelings and dilemmas.

Northern Broadsides have done a good job in their current co-production with the New Vic. They have set the play at the end of the second world war when troops are returning and normal life is being resumed. Long separations are ending and the start of peace offers a tentative second chance as people find their way back into normal life. There is a feeling of lightness and joy that suits the play perfectly. Wrongs are being righted and we can relish watching this happen. Everything will be all right in the end.

Isobel Middleton and Robin Simpson are a fine Beatrice and Benedick. A land army girl and an RAF pilot who are used to the kind of banter and ribbing that gets you through hard times. I particularly liked their playing of the later scenes, there was a real sense of something serious being revealed that had been behind the word play. It mattered that they showed each other how they felt and admitted what they might have lost. Sarah Kameela-Impey and Linford Johnson are charming as Hero and Claudio- two lovely, open hearted young people who deserve to be together. This quartet are the heart of the play- get them right and you are home and dry. There is plenty of fun, dance and music from the period which the company relishes in typical Broadsides style, and some great gags. This is a full hearted and gutsy production which flies by.

The Hipster.

A carefully shaved head,
shining brown hair trimmed.
Beard and moustache immaculate.
The heavy sage green suit jacket-
four buttons at each cuff-
and matching waistcoat
are old school
like the spotless brown brogues.
His dark blue floral shirt,
turquoise blooms with sage green leaves
to match his suit is not.

Turquoise socks,
peeping out from under soft, dark blue moleskin
wink playfully at the past.
The flashy watch is just for show-
a mobile shouts the time unasked
while he stares down.
He is examining a world elsewhere.
A strange confection of old and new,
youth and age,
conformity and playfulness,
daring and reserve.

He picks up his soft leather briefcase
ready to leave the train
and I wonder who he is.

Leonardo Da Vinci: A Life in Drawing. Leeds Art Gallery. 22-02-19

Leonardo da Vinci, The bust of a man, c.1510. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Any original drawing is an emotive, intimate object direct from the artist’s own hand whether it is from a child at nursery school or the product of a finely honed mature talent. Finished drawings were highly valued in renaissance times and they were often given as private gifts to treasured friends. There is a directness about a drawing from a master that is lost in larger, finished works of art. You can feel a direct connection with the artist as you survey the pencil marks. The small collection of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings at Leeds Art gallery, a single room exhibition which forms part of the national celebration of the 500th anniversary of his death is an exquisite, carefully chosen, selection of his work, drawn from the royal collection, given to Charles I by Henry Howard who acquired them in 1620. The collection is the largest in the world- one of Britain’s great treasures- and we are extremely lucky that these drawings have been preserved for 500 years. They are very fragile and usually kept safe under controlled conditions at Windsor castle, only viewable by appointment. Leonardo himself never meant them for public display. They are working documents, recording and exploring scientific ideas and preparing for bigger works to come and through them we can see the mind of a genius at work.

The wonderful thing about them is that they are not dry, academic exercises. While they may have been produced as a means to an end the detail is fine and of photographic quality and they have been made with heart and feeling. The dissected musculature and bones in the anatomical drawings are those of a real body- the one that Leonardo saw in front of him- and the portrait of the small baby on the back wall is one who actually lived all those years ago, fragile and delicate. They are all about looking, exploring and thinking, a restless enquiring mind searching for meaning.

It was a privilege to be able to see these drawings and it brought back memories of the great exhibition of his notebooks at the V&A back in 2006- one of the most fascinating exhibitions I have ever seen.

Good Dog. Watford Palace Theatre at the SJT Scarborough.

Goodness gonna mow you down and swerve round them.

The boy in Arinzé Kene’s play Good Dog has been told by his now absent dad that all he has to do is be good, help his mum, work hard and stay out of trouble, and good things will come to him. He is holding onto that but life is hard and sometimes it seems a long wait. The play is the story of his awakening to the fact that being good is not always enough- sometimes you have to do what is right for you in order to keep your self respect and walk with your head held high. Along the way he describes for us a whole community. We hear their voices as he listens and get to know the shopkeepers, the what what girls and the smoking boys who surround him, and we come to know and like him. He is a decent young man who has a basic naive goodness and charm. When he finally snaps at the end of the first half we feel for him. It has been a long time coming.

Kwaku Mills graduated from RADA last year and he has a big job on to play the boy. He succeeds wonderfully. It is a long one man play- both technically and emotionally difficult- and a real tour de force. Anyone who sees this play on his CV will know that he has serious talent. The range needed is impressive. We believe in him absolutely as a young, well meaning, vulnerable teenager and when he appears, high up on the set at the start of the second half, it is immediately clear that he has been hardened by life and is now a man. He is now prepared to take action and stand up for himself in order to keep the self respect that life has tried so hard to take from him. While it is sad to see him drawn into direct action and violence we are carefully shown the reasons and it is clear that the bedrock of his character has not changed. Being good is complicated and there are more ways of being a decent person than he had understood as a young boy.

Technically the play is beautifully put together. The sound and lighting design is crucial and needs to be perfectly timed. The direction from Natalie Ibu keeps things moving well and adds variety and pace. There is a lot of good, well structured writing from Arinzé Kene but sometimes I did feel a bit of editing would have sharpened the points he was making. The set, by designer Amelia Jane Hankin, is impressive, a giant climbable cube made from weathered slats and it is used to full effect.

It was great to see a slice of London life in far away Scarborough. It isn’t the sort of play which will gather an audience easily here but when theatre is as good as this it needs to be seen so I am glad that the SJT invited it up. I don’t think this is the last I will hear of Kwaku Mills.

Me babbies! Me Bairns! The Grand Old Dame of York. York Theatre Royal pantomime 2019.

We’re all babbies. We’re all bairns.
Babbies and bairns we’ll always be.
We’re all the same- what’s in a name?
Babbies and bairns are we.

Like many British children my lifelong love of theatre began with pantomime. I grew up in a house where low culture (and it is still a culture remember) was everywhere. The only time that this intersected with theatre was once a year at Christmas. I was taken into York and allowed to sit in the Theatre Royal’s stunning auditorium to see a bit of sparkle and glamour. It was colourful, silly, nothing like real life and I believed in it absolutely. I could boo the villain, shout out “he’s behind you” and “oh no he isn’t” and pelt towards the stage to be first when children were allowed up there for the songsheet. I can still sing I Like Riding on a Choo Choo Train fifty or so years later. Once a year. It was starvation rations but it did make it special. So special that much later, even when I discovered that there were other kinds of theatre happening inside there, I never wanted to stop going. First love is very powerful.

40 years ago the pantomime audience in York struck lucky with the arrival of a warm, mischievous, anarchic presence called Berwick Kaler. A Geordie incomer who we took to our hearts and who loved us back and never went away. He grew into the best dame in the country (no caveats needed from a York local) and built a cast around him who knew exactly what we wanted and how to deliver it. He has the warmth and mischief of an old style dame, in a direct line from Dan Leno, George Robey and Arthur Askey. A bloke in a frock- which is just how it should be. This year, 2019, is his final year as dame. He is retiring from a genre which is exhausting and physical after being there as long as he could for us. Nobody could have asked for more. We have one last chance to see him walk to the front of the stage, hold out his arms and claim us as his babbies and bairns, see his dog on a stick, hear about Mrs Fitzackerly, hear him wail “what am I like?” and generally create organised chaos among those who share a stage with him. I wasn’t going to miss it. I was going to be waving goodbye to a little part of my life along with him.

So how was the goodbye? Well there was no plot- but as a plot is always famously absent in Berwick’s writing that was no worry to anybody. I remember baby sharks, little red riding hood, Dick Turpin, a maniacal dentist, flying aircraft, a hot air balloon, a pantomime horse, a twinkly fairy organising a bake off and a lot of song and dance from a very hard working supporting cast and it was all good. The best moment came when Berwick sang a sentimental song about friendship while sitting in his familiar rocking chair, becoming increasingly disconcerted as the set was removed around him. Pure theatre, more than that- pure music hall. All the regular team, Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper, were there on top form and the show delivered exactly the right mix of fun and poignancy which the occasion demanded. The audience loved it.

Was there a standing ovation at the end? After 40 years? Of course there was. We had to be told by Berwick to sit down again- we’d paid for our seats after all we might as well sit in them- but the most poignant moment for me came afterwards. It was the sigh of disappointment from the whole house as the hand which always waves to us from under the curtain when it finally comes down disappeared. He really had gone now.

Sylvia Pankhurst. Working Women. Scarborough Art Gallery.


Sylvia Pankhurst (1882- 1960) is better known as a suffragist than an artist. Her parents were founding members of the Labour party and she worked hard for the WSPU alongside her mother Emmeline and her sisters Christabel and Adela. She designed the WSPU Artwork and while she was perhaps less militant than some and eventually parted ways with the WSPU, wanting a broader social remit than just votes for women, it didn’t prevent her from being arrested eight times between February 1913 and July 1914. Each time she was repeatedly force fed. She was strongly opposed to the first world war and gave practical help to those who needed it wherever she could. This was a woman on a mission who had huge strength and determination. Although she had great talent, trained at Manchester School of Art and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art her strong social conscience and her dedication to improving the rights and the social conditions of women was the guiding principle of her life.

The small exhibition Sylvia Pankhurst working women, which I saw at Scarborough Art Gallery, brings to life both the lives of working women in the early part of the twentieth century and Sylvia herself. She travelled around, sketching the women while they worked, not afraid to say what she thought about the dangerous, thoughtless way that they were treated and even showing the early signs of lead poisoning herself, when she spent too much time on site. All the potteries, except for Wedgwood, used lead in their glazes. Glazes without lead could have been researched and developed but the manufacturers objected to the expense- in spite of the effects on their workers. The dust from powdered flint used in the manufacturing process entered the women’s lungs- it was hard, unforgiving work. In spite of this not one of the women in Sylvia’s pastels looks sad or downtrodden. She has given the women a quiet dignity, elegance and stoicism, portraying the soft interior light of the factories beautifully while stopping short of romanticising them. They are not resentful or miserable, they are just quietly doing what they have to do to get by. What else is there? Sylvia is showing those who saw them at the time, and us now, that it doesn’t have to be like this. They may be doing what they have to do, but it isn’t fair and it isn’t right.

Two portaits stood out for me. A lovely head and shoulders portrait sketch from 1910 of a smiling young woman dressed up in a pretty bonnet- the only smile in the room- and a full length portrait of an elderly woman who is sitting upright in a Windsor chair from 1907. The old woman’s face carries the burden of a long working life and quiet dignity in every line- this is what the beautiful young woman may become as life takes its toll.

I spent a long time looking at this small collection of portraits. They are vivid and immediate and bring the injustices of the past, and the women who bore them, into sharp focus exactly as Sylvia would have wished.